Monday, April 10, 2017

Pete Goes to Vimy Ridge

FOR THE LOVE OF PETE MacFarlane a hero I like to think I was named after
Yesterday afternoon, my older-by-29-months brother Eddie showed up on my front porch at 5:05 and by 5:15, we were clinking beer bottles and laughing like stoned teenagers.

We were talking about Vimy Ridge.  

The thing is, before Ed arrived, I had been reading poems by my late great uncle Walter Scott MacFarlane. Walter was my maternal grandmother’s brother and one of  my mom's favourite uncles.

In the house Eddie and I grew up in, Walter was a real hero. The irony is, he wasn't a hero because he fought and got wounded at Vimy, which he did. In the Carter family solar system, Walter Scott was a star because he was a poet.

Google him and not only will you find a mention of the book I was reading, “Songs of the Valley,” you’ll  also learn that Walter’s grandsons--brothers Scott and Kris MacFarlane--are prominent Nova Scotia musicians. Scott played in the bands Crush, Sandbox and Kilt, Kris drummed with Lennie Gallant, Great Big Sea, and Paperboys.

I’ve never met Kris or Scott but a few years ago, I contacted Kris and asked him if he was influenced by his poet grandpa. He told me Walter’s artistry persuaded him to pursue a creative career. (Me too.)

I only ever met Walter twice, at his home in Inverness, Nova Scotia, and the last time I was about 10 so I don’t remember much.  I do recall seeing him on his front porch with a glass of something in his hand (sorta like Eddie, on my porch, yesterday) and I thought, “THAT’S the famous Uncle Walter? I thought he’d be way bigger!”

He certainly had a huge presence in our growing up. In our Sudbury home, where books were as important as food, Uncle Walter was revered like a saint or some ancient philosopher. Whatever he did for a living didn’t matter, what counted was, he wrote.


And songs.


My mom and her brothers and sisters used to quote Uncle Walter the way some people cite Shakespeare or the Bible.

One of my favourite Uncle Walterisms?

“There are days that haven’t been touched.”

Songs, too.

If you had dropped by my place yesterday, you would have heard me belt out—for Eddie’s benefit—two verses of a song called “They Had Neither Pole Nor Paddle,” a Walter Scott creation  that I’ve known the chorus of since I was a little kid. 

Until yesterday though, I was under the impression “They Had Neither Pole Nor Paddle” was about some epic military journey or something like that but then I actually read the lyrics and found out it’s about three of Walter’s yahoo buddies getting their car stuck in the mud on their way to a party. I like it way more now.

He wrote in both English and, as it says in the introduction of the book, “the Gaelic.”

If you’re wondering why Eddie and I were laughing, it’s because Walter--same as Ed--had a kid brother named Peter. When my great uncle Peter was all of 19, he and his older brother Walter shipped off to Europe and both found themselves in the battle of Vimy Ridge.

Both boys were shot and wounded there. Peter actually got hit, again, in another battle at a place called Paaschendaele.  And get this--Peter went back for a third time, for more, in World War Two. (There’s at least one poem about Peter’s adventures, on page 40 of “Songs of the Valley.”)

I know it must have been horrific. But I really love the thought of brothers Walter and Peter over in Europe, so far from home and in the middle of the chaos, trying to make each other laugh to take their mind off the ugliness that was unfolding all around them.

I like imagining young Walter, in  the middle of  the blood the mud and the pain, thinking, “This is worse than hell. I better find a pencil, sharpen it, and write a poem.” (Seems like a natural reaction to me.)
PETE, ALEX & EDDIE: Portraits in courage

And then he might yell “Hey Pete! Heads up! Incoming! But more importantly, what rhymes with Themis?” (Themis is a Greek Goddess of Law and Order. She appears regularly in Walter’s poetry. And I had to Google the name to learn that.)

My late brother Pat told me that Walter penned one poem that I’ve never seen about Peter standing up on the edge of a trench dancing a jig between battles.

So that's what Eddie and I started talking about as soon as he arrived yesterday. 

As I said to Eddie, “I don’t even know those guys and I love them.”

Me to Eddie, laughing: “Imagine you and me at Vimy Ridge”

Eddie: “We’d make Monty Python look lame. I’d be like, ‘Hey Pete! I found a place we can hide 'til the fighting’s over.”

All of Canada should be grateful that the country’s fate was in the hands of truly brave guys like Walter and Peter instead of seasoned runner-away’ers like Eddie and me. Or for that matter, any of my siblings. Here’s our older brother Alex, who has also written a poem or two, on the matter: “Brave men run in our family.” Eddie and I toasted the fact that he and I are probably members of the first generation of men in the history of generations to not have to worry about going to war.

I'm very proud to come from a peace-loving family that prizes poets. And forever in the debt of men like Walter and Peter who made it possible. 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I also am a relative of Walter MacFarlane and I also knew Uncle Peter as he stayed at our house in Halifax before he died. I never thought about how brave these men (just out of their teens)were. God bless all of them and thanks for doing what you did so that we have a safe country to grow up in Janet MacLellan, Edmonton

    1. Janet, what a pleasant surprise. We would love to hear from you more often

    2. Hey! How cool is it to see Janet's comment! Thanks so much Janet. I'm glad to see at least one of you girls knows how to use "the email." (I love teasing Rose about that.)

    3. I was going to say something nice, but never mind

  3. When I was about 16 I visited Uncle Walter at his home. He gifted me with a hand written poem but alas... I enjoyed this read Peter, it brought back good memories. Thanks M