Wednesday December 10: leper (free half day)
Today would be another opportunity to have a brief respite from the WWl story in the afternoon. However there were the Menin Gate commemorations to be done first and this year we had eight soldiers on this memorial. We set up the group behind the memorial next to the Ross Bastiaan plaque and those doing commemorations formed a semi circle while holding both the Australian and Ngarrindjeri flags. It was yet another cold day and the sky was very bleak. However the spirit of each of the commemorations was once again inspiring. We are nearing the end of our group of 100 soldiers and it has taken a lot out of everyone over the three weeks. Belinda and Cathy spoke of Rufus Rigney's older brother Cyril who enlisted first and was the catalyst for the young Rufus to follow like so many other brothers at the time. Tiffany left her best commemoration to last and delivered a sincere and well prepared delivery; well done Tiff. And, of course Jarrad, he has continued to impress as his confidence has grown. Finally, Flo's relative Andrew McLaughlin was the final straw for our young leader. Time after time she has sung her songs under emotionally pressured situations and has carried it off every single time. However, today she struggled as the toll of the last few weeks was showing. Her commemoration was deeply felt as she related the story of the newly found photo of this man and how it had a hole in it piercing through the forehead of the image. Flo spoke with reverence about the place this old photograph had in the family and then the tears she had suppressed all those times during her singing came through. Everyone was emotionally exhausted as our tour was drawing to a close.
From there the group moved in silence to the walls of the Menin Gate to find each of the names of the men they had just spoken of. Once again in silence individual photographs were taken in an atmosphere of reverence and respect. The impact of the beautiful memorial is palpable. ( Webmasters note: Nearly 6 weeks later as I go through the photos taken on this day to pick those that will be on the website my eyes flood with tears as the emotions come back again. Words cannot describe the powerful impact that this experience has on everybody involved.)
Our original intention was to walk around the ramparts with Anny.
However, time was our enemy and it was off to the 'In Flanders Fields' museum instead. Had a brief meeting with the researcher we met in 2004. Then, for me, it was back to the hotel to get the website blog up to date. The remainder of the day after the museum was for the kids to shop, relax and purchase their chocolates for home. The final act for Wednesday would be the hardest of all; saying goodbye to the people of this region who have become our lifelong friends.
The dinner was to be our last in Ieper and a special surprise awaited the group. When I planned the itinerary last year, a visit by 'Shrapnel Charlie' (Ivan) was scheduled on the Sunday after the Harelbeke service. This unique man, who makes little lead soldiers from the shrapnel of the fields of WWl, is a real hero in my eyes. He has given over 25,000 small lead men to friends across the globe to ‘take home their spirits’. Ivan's plan has been to produce 55,000 lead soldiers to represent the names on the Menin Gate and send them to the corners of the world; (read the chapter in our 2006 book on 'Shrapnel Charlie). However of late he has been seriously sick with bouts of hospitalisation with illnesses. His friends believe are related to his ongoing working with lead. Ivan uses no protection when melting down the lead balls. This has been the case for years, much to the frustration of his loving wife Marie Claire. However Ivan makes clear, strong and individual choices to continue working the way he does. As he was so unwell in the last few weeks I told the group that unfortunately they would not meet this beautiful person. I was wrong; in he came in the wheelchair pushed by Marie- Claire accompanied by 32 lead men to be given to our group. He did not want to let us down. I felt overwhelmed as I had accepted that sickness would deny us of a meeting. I had not taken into account the fortitude of Ivan and his stubborn desire to 'do his work'. What a treat as everyone filed into the dining area for one last time. 32 lead men were placed at each table setting and the kids' faces said it all. Our other dear friends Johan and Hilde arrived in their CS tops joining the European wasp set. Not to be outdone, Anny wore a knitted jumper with a huge image of vegemite on it with the words "I am a happy little vegemite" surrounding the iconic image. Only Anny could get away with wearing such a jumper! The rest of us would look like something straight from the set of 'Kath and Kim'; gorgeous stuff. Donna completed the group and our last meal together was a time of laughter and friendship; then the hard bit. I had presents for all of our Ieper family as well as our beloved 'bus driver man', Richard, who had also become part of our group unlike any other in previous trips. Speeches were made, tears flowed, again and then it was the time we could no longer avoid. This just gets harder and harder to say the goodbyes to these people. All of them have given my groups SO much over the years. Parents and friends back home will never know or fully understand the strength of these bonds. The contribution people like Anny and Johan make to my planning of the trip is unequalled as the phone calls to local authorities, arranging the many tiny things to make it all work is well beyond the reach of a normal travel agent. I am so privileged to count Anny De Decker, Johan and Hilde Durnez and Ivan and Marie Claire as friends. My students are the beneficiaries of this intensely close network.
Earlier in the week Johan had promised Hamish a shell "fragment" as Hamish had searched in vain around Polygon Wood. True to his word as ever, he arrived with a weighty back pack, filled with most of a large shell that weighed 8kg. It took some doing but after travelling to Paris, Turkey, Holland and Singapore, the shell arrived back in Meningie where it will be a talking point for many years to come.
The end of the night saw them all leave: it would be a year until I would meet with these extraordinary people again when my husband Paul and I come here for a holiday. The year would take forever. The practicalities of the trip took over as it was time to get everyone to bed as the morning would be an early start. It was time to leave Ieper and to conclude this amazing journey.
11 Jarrad looks at Noel Sears name Look at his eyes and tell me he hasnt been touched by what he has seen