Interviewing a 93-year-old who survived the Second World War really puts life into perspective.
Cyril Holbrow’s story begins in 1942, when he embarked on a journey that would change his life forever.
The sound of bombs whistled by overhead.
They crashed down nearby and rumbled the ground where he stood.
Holbrow served as a wireless operator during the invasion of Normandy and part of the occupation force in Germany, transmitting 22 words a minute using Morse code.
“We knew what was going on all the time and we had to decipher what the German’s were saying and pass it on,” says Holbrow. “We knew what they were planning.”
Apart from his time overseas, Holbrow has lived in the small town of Clayburn Village, just outside of Abbotsford, since boyhood. He sits with me on the couch of the home that he built himself, surrounded by photos of war and family, medals and antiques. Outside of his living room window stretches the familiar farmland.
“When I came back after being away, I found everything had changed and it was very difficult to adapt to civilian life; one way I got around it was to be very active, both physically and mentally, to take my mind off the war,” he says. “I had a lot of close calls, you can talk about it but you have to be there to visualize it, to smell it, to know how bad it was. It was terrible.”
Holbrow’s father lived until he was 94-years-old and so he credits genetics for his long life, but also remembers his family’s farm, where they raised dairy cows and poultry, and grew their own food without the use of pesticides. His life as a young boy was active and eventful, with long days full of walks, hiking, sports and fishing.
“I remember all the colorful trout in the pond and the birds singing from the trees as I played outside,” he says. “The rivers are empty now, and the trees are much quieter than before. There is very little birdsong in the mornings.”
And yet, when I asked what has been one of the most profound memories of his life, he said it was the kindness of a stranger.
“When I was a young boy I was standing outside of a soda shop digging in my pocket to find a nickel to buy an ice cream float. The owner saw me through the window, called me inside and gave me and all my friends floats for free.”
He remembers walking home along the gravel road, laughing with his friends and eating his ice cream on a sunny day.
A man who has lived nearly 100 years and saw the brutality of war remembered simple kindness as a profound moment in his life.