Final Lessons from My Dad

I could never imagine what it would be like to lose a parent.  My friend Karen and I would talk about it and become so panicked we'd have to re-direct our thoughts and conversation to something mundane like shopping.

Now I know what it's like.  Five days before Christmas; five days before my birthday.  Christmas, birthdays, everything is changed forever.  I've lived long enough and experienced enough to know life is change and with change often comes heartache but also new rituals, new traditions and new beginnings.

I know a lot of new things now.  I know how very important family is.  What would I do without my sisters, their families and my incredible Mom.  I know how comforting true friends are and how little things like a hand-written poem, can mean so much.  I know what a rock and source of strength and love my husband Dave is.  I know how a monumental family crisis brings out the best and the most incredible wisdom in our little ones; the maturity in our youth.  I know what it's like to be comforted in the arms of my son.

There is something else I now know... about our soldiers.  I already knew how they lay their lives on the line for us on the battlefield. My Dad, American-born,  was a World War II veteran who served in Italy and North Africa with the U.S. Army and post war, training young soldiers in unarmed combat as an officer with Royal Hamilton Light Infantry.  My Mom and sisters and I were not a part of that aspect of my Dad's life, other than the occasional parade, visit to the Armouries on James St., or the Royal Hamilton Military Institute where Major Robert Prahm Smith (ret.) was a Past President.

I knew that when we were little, my Dad would make sure senior members of the regiment, like Jimmy Marsh, the photographer at my parents wedding, would be able to attend Mess Dinners.  He would pick them up and drive them back home.  In my Dad's later years, John Tinsley did the same for him:  a wonderful legacy I know the Riley's will continue.

These past several years, I accompanied my Dad to the annual War of 1812 Memorial Services at Smith's Knoll in Stoney Creek, organized by the American Legion Post 18.  My Dad was one of the founding members along with the late Ralph Sazio.  I remember my Dad's photo in the Spectator bending down beside U.S. Civil War hero William Winer Cooke's headstone, discovered during a Decoration Day in Hamilton Cemetery back in the 60's.  Post 18 honoured by Dad two years ago for 50 years of service.  Right up until this past year, I read a poem at the service and took my Dad back to the Legion Hall for lunch afterward.

As a journalist, I often looked to my Dad for story ideas and insights.  In civilian life he was one of Ontario’s most respected marine surveyors, right up until this past spring. The folks at the waterfront nicknamed him “Skipper” and gave him an orange flotation vest in case he fell in. He never did.

Bob Smith found his way into many of my news reports for CHCH-TV, including the Royal Hamilton Military Institute cannon heist.  The antique cannon disappeared when a demo crew torn down the old "Officers Club" at Park and Robinson St. in Hamilton and my Dad led the charge to get it back.  They did and it now resides in its new home on the waterfront at HMCs Star.
So these were the things I knew about my Dad and his military affiliations. 

What I didn't know was how his military community would lift us up and carry us through the difficult journey of my Dad's passing and his final salute.  From RHLI Padre Rev. Kristine Swire to Hon. Col. Tim Hogarth, "Bobby's"  Riley compadres and RHLI Band bugler Matt Minnick who played the Last Post,  to American Legion Chaplain Bruce Lacillade, Chuck Webber, Jerry Plumbley and the legionnaires who presented my Mom with the American flag and formed an honour guard as we exited the chapel...your words, your show of respect and love for my Dad and our family has been the greatest gift of all this Christmas season.

Hamilton's musical treasure and friend to veterans Sarena Paton sang told me she was sorry she never got to sing for my Dad but she did sing for him, at his funeral service, "We'll Meet Again".  And while we don't know where, don't know when, I now know it will happen some sunny day just as I now know that the special bond between our soldiers and their community in times of gentle need is as strong and mighty as in any theatre of war.  Thank you.

(read a story about Maj. Robert P. "Bobby" Smith in "The Fighting Rileys, 150 Years of Service to Canada" by Shelagh Whitaker,  page 402.)