He didn’t tell war stories.

My grandfather was the best storyteller, ask anyone, but he didn’t tell war stories. No harrowing descriptions of the Battle of the Atlantic, of 20-foot swells, of what it sounds like when the guns breathe fire on the deck. No stories of the unbearable fear of your body sinking to the bottom of the black ocean, never to be found, drifting down into the cold away from everything you were ever going to be, away from your wife, your children. No stories about the stomach lurch of thinking you are caught dead to rights.

Instead, his life in the Navy was fodder for jokes and good humor, and I loved him for it. The fish soup he ordered somewhere in the East and the eyeball that floated to the surface when the bowl was set in front of him. The sign that hung in the main bathroom: “I’m the captain and what I say goes! And the first thing I say is listen to my wife — she’s the admiral.” The one about the lifeboat exercise: “Lifeboat #9, do you require assistance?” “Captain, we don’t have a Lifeboat #9.” “Really? Lifeboat #6, do you require assistance?” My grandmother and the children going for a dinner on the ship when he came to port and my uncle complaining, “How come Dad is so rich and we’re so poor?”

“Red sun at night, sailor’s delight. Red sun at morning, sailor take warning.” I can hear him say those words.

I don’t know what Papa did with his war stories. Maybe he felt it was inappropriate to share them with grandchildren. Maybe they seeped out in moments I wasn’t around. Maybe he exchanged them with other veterans. Or maybe he just kept them to himself. What I tell myself is that the war stories were the fuel that fed the bright, shining life that he seemingly willed into existence every day. He had seen firsthand the worst of humanity but had also been a part of its best, and he had chosen to live out his life trying to tip these crude scales.

Maybe not. But those memories were in him somewhere, and whether they were a source of pride or sadness or guilt or more likely an incomprehensible mixture of sensations and emotions that changed with the seasons, they would not have been immune from the disease that ate away at his mind. I often wonder if the war stories went early on, or if perhaps they stayed with him, ragged and riddled, until the very end.


The medals are in the top drawer of my dresser in a lacquered wood box. The box is lined with green felt, and someone has pinned a poppy to the underside of the lid, so the flattened poppy rises like a red sun when you open the box. “Red sun at night, sailor’s delight. Red sun at morning, sailor take warning.” I can hear him say those words. Beneath the medals is a small green envelope, and on the back of this envelope is a list written in my grandmother’s careful hand:

— 1939–1945 Star

— Atlantic Star

— Africa Star

— Burma Star

— Defense Medal

— Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and Clasp

— The War Medal 1939–1945

— Korea Medal

— U.N. Service Medal (Korea)

— Canadian Centennial Medal 1967

— Canadian Forces Decoration and Clasps

The medals are very heavy, and the ribbons are chevroned in garish colors that strike me as celebratory rather than solemn. I take them out sometimes and feel the cold metal in my palms. He wore these. He earned these. He deserved these.

I think the medals are a kind of promise about not being forgotten.

The medals mostly confuse me. I’m not sure what to do with them or how they should make me feel. The medals mean that he served. The medals mean that his service was remembered at a particular moment in time. More than that, I think the medals are a kind of promise about not being forgotten, but if that’s true, I’m not sure what I’m doing to that promise if the medals sit in a box in my dresser.

More than anything, the medals mean that he was willing to sacrifice everything, and I try to take the measure of that, to really think about it. When I hold the medals, I feel myself shrinking a little bit because I know I lack whatever element or faculty is required to get me to that place where he once existed: willing to sacrifice everything. Like something is missing in my chest or gut. That’s a selfish way to think about the medals, but there it is.


He won the war. That’s how I think about it, about him. Not that he helped to win it. He won the whole goddamned thing because he didn’t let it ruin him.


Papa hummed and hummed. All the time. It was like there was a melody somewhere deep in his blood playing constantly, and it would sometimes thrum in his chest and break out through his lips. The hums would morph into a kind of warbling. Mostly low notes, but the notes all ran together, up and down, turning and twisting in the back of his throat, hems and haws and trills, and no two songs were ever quite the same. It was an absent-minded sort of reflex, something he did without noticing that he was doing it. Puttering around the garage. Playing cards. Riding up the chair lift at the ski hill. Taking out the garbage.

My dad hums too. So do I.

Papa had a raspy laugh, a dry wheeze at the back of his throat that stole his breath when he really got worked up and turned his face red. He would laugh so hard at his own jokes that tears would come to his eyes. Things were funny because Papa found them funny — you laughed because you wanted to participate in his simple, absolute delight. I remember being in other rooms — even downstairs — and hearing him laughing to himself as he read the paper, and I would run up to see which comic had got him this time, and the joy of sharing it with someone else would set him to wheezing all over again. I loved the comics as much as he did, and sometime around junior high, we started clipping out the funniest ones (usually “Herman” or “The Far Side”) and mailing them to each other. Even after I went to university, we still did this. He usually clipped from the newspaper, but there were a few comics I got in cards and letters that were on a heavier paper stock, so I think toward the end he was cutting them right out of his collected editions. The comics are easier to understand than the medals because I know the hole they fill. The comics are both a hole he left behind and the piece that fills the hole.


As much as his life in the Navy is central to how I remember him, it’s also strange to think of my happy grandfather having been a sailor at war. Of course, I can claim that I remember him as a sailor or an officer, but I really can’t. The remembering is really an imagining. The medals tell a kind of story, I suppose. There’s a history there, a chronology. I find myself most fascinated by the medals from the Korean War. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps because I know relatively little about it, and it seems the most exotic, the most faraway. It’s also the war we tend to forget, and I think about that too. (What would he think, I wonder, to know that he fought in what might soon be Korean War I? The First Korean War?).

I can claim that I remember him as a sailor or an officer, but I really can’t. The remembering is really an imagining.

I’ve done a bit of reading. I know he was a lieutenant on the HMCS Haida and that his ship did two tours in the Korean theater between 1952 and 1954. He would have been a younger man than I am today, which seems impossible. I’ve looked at maps and the names of places: Wonsan. Hamhung. Tanch’on. Songjin. Ch’ongjin. I don’t quite know how to shape the words, which feel strange in my mouth as I whisper them to myself.

The books and maps help to sketch a scene, dramatize certain moments, record the names of ships: Athabaskan. Nootka. Iroquois. Haida. Crusader. The books and maps help to reconstruct, roughly, the movements and activities of the ships. Haida was a member of the Trainbusters Club, a group of Canadian and American destroyers that targeted supply routes along the Taebaek mountain range. Membership in the club was not secured by Haida until May 26, 1953. One book describes it like this:

At 2320 a train was spotted. Mindful that the engine must be knocked completely out of action, one of the guns was trained with the accuracy of a sniping rifle directly on it. Carefully, the gun was swung to lead the engine as a seasoned duck hunter leads the bird. The gun captain pressed the red firing button, the gun roared forth, the seconds were counted and the shells found their mark. the engine, hit dead centre, exploded and toppled onto its side. The trailing cars spilled along the track. Haida had joined the club. For the next three hours Haida’s guns picked clean the bones of their victim. Then the happy crew took their ship into the Northern patrol zone.

The “happy crew.”

The books and maps create as many empty spaces for me as they might fill. The books and maps put my grandfather in that place at that time, but he’s not really there at all. Not for me. May 26, 1953, in the waters somewhere near Tanch’on, my grandfather lived a momentous day in his life that is now gone. Just gone. I write that not as a lament, but to locate the limits of memory — his, mine, ours.

The truth is, I don’t know what Lt. Joseph Morrison Paul felt when that train exploded along the coast of North Korea, and I never will. He didn’t tell me. Maybe he didn’t tell anyone. Did he feel grim satisfaction? Did he whoop and cheer? Turn away? Was he happy? The truth is, whatever happened out there only ever belonged to him. And now it’s in oblivion.


I think I got more than just his name. I tell myself I have some of his wit, maybe even a fair share of his patience. On my better days I think I’ve got some of his generosity and his appreciation for simple pleasures. When I catch myself humming, I immediately think of him, and it’s as if the space and time between us collapses just enough to feel him close.

When I remember him humming, sometimes I hear him whistling past the graveyard. Wearing a smile and carrying a happy tune as he dropped pennies into the growing void.

And, because that’s true, the humming also scares the hell out of me. What is hard to ignore is that the worse he got, the more he hummed. Toward the very end, he seemed to be humming constantly, and it was no longer sonorous or rhythmical but rather shading into something like grunting. I wonder when the Alzheimer’s started, if you can even pinpoint an origin for something like that. I wonder if the humming was a sign or an effect, or completely unrelated. When I remember him humming, sometimes I hear him whistling past the graveyard. Wearing a smile and carrying a happy tune as he dropped pennies into the growing void.


When he was drafted to Haida, he put everything he needed in a single trunk. So the trunk was there, near Tanch’on, on May 26, 1953.

The trunk now sits in our kitchen. I sometimes think about where it traveled. Usually, though, I think about how heavy it must have been.

We have filled the trunk with board games. Things that make us happy. Things that make us laugh.


My grandfather moved in regular, predictable patterns. The rhythms of his daily routines wore grooves in the green carpet upstairs as he shuffled from kitchen to living room; grooves in his high-backed chair where he slowly devoured the newspaper and an endless stack of books and National Geographic; grooves in the bar of shaving soap he brushed into a silky lather during a morning ritual that utterly fascinated me; grooves in the earth as he pushed the lawnmower up the steep green hill; grooves behind the wheel of his green Caprice Classic, fishing for a powdered hard candy from the metal tin beneath his seat before he set out up the steep driveway; grooves along the well-traveled streets — to the library to replenish his stack, to the grocery store for the day’s schedule fare, to the pool, to the golf course, back home again; grooves in the handle of his teacup, pinky finger extended “like the queen” in a silly affectation that he always announced with a grin; grooves on the stairs to the basement after dinner to watch the evening news before rising to “take her down for the night” almost as soon as Nolten Nash had signed off.

When he told a story, I came to understand that the past was gone but never quite gone. It lived within him and when he conjured it; the history of his life — his sense of life — was in the room with you, all around you, just out of reach.

He had the fullest life and he had the purest vision. I think I knew this even as a child. Cynicism, pettiness, frustration: These were not part of his day-to-day existence. He remains the most genuinely happy person I’ve ever met.

He deserved it, all of it — the golfing, the swimming, the skiing, the laughing, the glass of wine before dinner, the days of quiet bustle, and the seemingly limitless peace and satisfaction and leisure. He deserved all of it because of the medals he earned and all that they represented. Even as a child I had a strong sense that he deserved all of it. Even as a child I envied his utter contentment. I still do.


Papa’s hair went white at a very young age. Sometime in his twenties, I think. It was hard to find a picture of him without white hair, which only added to the mythological grandeur of him in my mind. It seemed dashing, even romantic, for his hair to turn so white so soon, something that could only happen to a young hero marked by some divine lottery in the long ago.

I can picture a wedding photo in my mind. His hair isn’t white in that photo, but it’s hard to tell what color it is because the photo is awash in the soft, murky glow of sepia.

I have also seen a photo of him standing beside a large trunk, waiting for the train that would take him to war. His hair is dark in this picture. He’s squinting up into the camera, and one of his brothers is standing nearby. But I’m not convinced this photo exists. I might have imagined it.

I don’t think his hair was white when he went to war, but it was white when he came back. That’s what I think. It might not be true.


There was a plaque in my grandparents’ basement. Cut in the shape of a heraldic shield it had a miniature cutlass pinned to it, between the words, “follow me.” I’m sure it has some naval provenance, but I never asked about it, and I’ve never bothered to look it up. As a child and as a young man I would catch myself looking at it all the time. Even though I knew it wasn’t true, I thought Papa put it there just for me. “I will,” I would think. “I promise.”

Now it hangs in my office, and I see it every day. So what wasn’t true becomes the truth.


I have a photo of the two of us. The family had come together for a wedding in Kelowna, where my grandparents lived. The wedding was at the local golf course, where they were members. There is still a spark in his eye — until the very end the spark was there, though its glimmer came infrequently and seemed to fade into some inner distance he carried with him. It was the first time I had seen him in a long while, and the damage of Alzheimer’s was difficult for me see up close. I would see him sitting and staring for long stretches of time — perfectly content it seemed but staring at nothing in particular. Sitting. Staring. Humming. He looked old and tired, and it was strange to think of him in these terms. His personality burst to the surface every now and again, but I mostly remember that disturbing vacancy. It was as if some vital essence had dried up and been hollowed out of him.

Even if I didn’t have the photo, I wouldn’t forget that moment, the two of us standing together overlooking the golf course we had walked together so many times before when I would be his caddy for the day, following in his footsteps for 18 holes. I was a few weeks away from driving away from home for good, hot in pursuit of my future wife and about to enter graduate school. I was jittery with excitement. The world felt so open to me, though not as open as his once was. Wonsan. Hamhung. Tanch’on. Songjin. Ch’onjin. I felt young and alive as I mingled with my family, telling well-worn stories, laughing, sipping cold beer. Papa and my grandmother were also preparing to move, downsizing to someplace smaller, someplace closer to family. Like me, they were heading toward Vancouver, and we would end up living less than an hour away from each other — the closest I’d ever been to them. This gave me a sense of reassurance I didn’t fully appreciate at the time.

There we were, the three of us, the happy crew, each one a Joseph Paul.

The sunshine was brilliant, and we found ourselves alone in the midst of the crowd. We looked out over the verdant fairways, backed by a rock wall ribboned with deep furrows running skyward. We talked about the beauty of the scene and the good company that surrounded us. Everything moving in slow time. I remember two exchanges in particular. An airplane roared overhead; silver bright against the blue sky. It was pitched at a steep angle as it left the local airport, pushing hard, engines booming. “Boy, look at that,” Papa said, grabbing my arm and squeezing. “Watch. Watch. Now they’ll really pour the coal to it.” It took me a moment to puzzle out what he meant. Then I understood that he was describing acceleration in a bygone way. I smiled. Where had this antiquated description come from? Did he always carry it with him or was it some remnant, long buried, rising to the surface of his mind only because layers of memory had drifted away? The young man with the trunk, riding the train east to his unknowable future. The young father and husband destroying trains running along the coast near Tanch’on.

Staring at a golfer teeing off, Papa said, “Where does the time go? Why can’t I go out for a round of golf with you?” I didn’t know how to respond. Was it a rhetorical question, or was he reaching out for answers? “That’s ok,” I said. There was a brief silence, and then he said, “Next time we’ll have to go out together.” “Yeah, for sure,” I said. “Next time.” The lie came so easily. The kind of lie you tell a child, knowing they will never figure it out, never call you on it. I felt like crying and laughing and holding him all at the same time.

When I left the next evening, I wasn’t sure how to say goodbye to him. We hugged, and I held him a little longer than usual. He held me by my elbows, looked directly into my eyes and said, “So good to see you, son. So very good to see you. It really was. So very good to see you.” I knew in that instant that my grandfather was still there, all alone and drowning inside some horrible oily blackness where I could never reach him but still there, calling out to me. I knew I couldn’t help him, but I knew that he remembered.


He didn’t deserve it. The unbearable cruelty of losing your memories — even the ones you might not want to keep. Wonsan. Hamhung. Tanch’on. Songjin. Ch’onjin.


One of my last memories of Papa is visiting him in the nursing home with my father, his son. We were led to his room, which was painfully small. Everything he needed was there in this little box of a room. He insisted that he didn’t belong in that place. He didn’t seem to understand where he was or that the room was his, and I was embarrassed by this. We ended up in a sitting area out back. The three of us sat at a table and played a few games of crib. I remember leaves on the ground, a few tumbling in the air, oranges and yellows. But sometimes I think this is a trick of memory’s autumnal light. It might have been summer.

There we were, the three of us, the happy crew, each one a Joseph Paul. Everything seemed very fragile, but it was nice. Beautiful, even.

If he remembered my name, he didn’t use it.


When the train dies, the flash of light comes first, an orange blossom that sharpens the edges of the nameless mountains in the distance and the metal rivets of the cold metal railing in his hand. The thunderous boom comes later, fills his ears as he is blinking away the glimmers. He had felt sick when they sighted a train back in December, near Songjin. He wanted to vomit then, but he didn’t. That was the train they missed — poured forth shot after shot but missed it every time. Tonight, he doesn’t feel sick. Just cold. The dead train burns and burns, but there is only light, no heat. His dark collar has been mottled by the salty bite of the Sea of Japan.

He thinks about the firecrackers he set off when he was 10, the way they dazzled and smoked in the frozen ditch. He thinks about Audrey, and the time she fell when they were skating on the frozen pond. When he went to help her up, there was a snowflake in her eyelash. He thinks about the Bible in the bottom of his trunk with the waxy leather cover and the water-grimed pages. He never reads it, but he likes to know it’s there. Sometimes he picks it up at night and holds it in the darkness. Runs his thumb along the crumbling gilt of the pages. Hums a little song.

That’s one way it might have gone.


My son hums too. He has since he was very young. When he first got mobile, you could follow him sightlessly around the house, collecting with your ears or heart the pieces of the broken little song he left in his wake. His humming fills up my head and chest in a strange way, not by filling up an otherwise empty space or by giving me something that is missing but by activating or enlivening something that is always there, something always there that I had forgotten about.

My son’s name is Joseph Paul.

He hums and hums. Sometimes I hear the joyous, haunting cadence of promises unspoken.