Profiles in Courage

Written by Sarah MacMaster

They were separated by seas and cultures, and they fought on opposing sides in World War 2, but my grandfathers shared all those things that really count.

My Grandpa, Alexander Keith MacMaster (no relation to that east coast hops and barley guy) was born in Glengarry, joined the Royal Canadian Army as a volunteer in the Fort Garry Horse, an armoured regiment. He was the gunner in a Sherman tank and landed on D-Day in occupied France. Five days later in the little town of Rots, his tank was hit by a shell from a German panzer and blew up. His tank commander had been shot through the lungs, and Grandpa (5' 4" and 132 lbs) with a shattered hip, pushed the badly wounded sergeant (6'1” and 200 lbs) up and out of the tank turret before crawling out himself. He was machine-gunned as he escaped from the burning tank and crawled almost a mile back to his lines with a broken femur, shrapnel wounds and heavy blood loss. He spent 5 months in hospital and convalescence, and even though he was offered repatriation and a position as a gunnery instructor, he refused – rejoining his regiment and fighting through Holland, finishing the war in Oldenburg, Germany. I think of him every time a co-worker books off 'sick' with a tummy-ache.

My Opa, Karl Eugene Pfitzer, was born in Frankfurt and joined the German Army in 1942. Because of his upbringing and strong Christian principles, Opa refused to bear arms against his fellow human beings.During the early years in Nazi Germany, true conscientious objectors like my Opa had the option of entering work battalions instead of fighting units. But as the war progressed the demand for manpower in the German Army meant that even these true humanitarians were conscripted into combat divisions. Opa was a very shrewd man and knew that his young life could be put to better use than wasting away in a concentration camp, so he became an unarmed messenger, and endured 2 years of fire on the Russian front in the hopes that he could help alleviate the suffering of wounded soldiers. His devotion to helping his fellow man did not go unnoticed. He was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery – a rare award for non-combatants! His voice-box was shattered by shrapnel during the German Army's retreat through the Baltic States and he was left speechless (in the most literal sense) until his vocal cords were reconstructed in New York City ten years later by another true humanitarian: a Jewish doctor who had had family members exterminated by the Nazis.

My grandfathers were so different on the surface, but inside they shared the same values and carried with them to their graves: commitment, honesty, and courage. And that included the courage to stand up to what was wrong.

When a neighbour complained (anonymously) to the by-law department that the stunted pine that my Opa had 'trimmed' into his own version of bonsai detracted from the aesthetics of the neighbourhood, Opa responded by (a) putting the run on the dinky bureaucrat and, (b) contorting another, larger tree in the same fashion.

And when a young fellow from the government told my Grandpa that he would have to start wearing a hard-hat if he wanted to continue selling logs and firewood, Grandpa told him that if he didn't wear a $#@^&* helmet back in the days when the Germans were shooting at him, he sure as hell wasn't going to start wearing one when they weren't.

By today's mediocre standards, my grandfathers would be exceptional men. Yet woe to the person who suggested to either man that they had done some extraordinary things; they would dismiss that nonsense immediately, pointing out (correctly) that they had simply done what millions of other young men of their times had done. The point they made diminishes them not in the least. But it sadly points out that the fact that values that were universal 60 years ago are in much shorter supply today. I can only imagine how Grandpa or Opa would have dealt with a municipal tyrant that tried to stop their children from setting up lemonade stands or playing street hockey.

I miss my grandfathers terribly. I miss the feeling of comfort and safety I had when I was with them. I miss the connection to a generation that has so much more substance than my own. And I can say it now because they aren't around to hush me, ¬ they were the true heroes, they were real men.

Every now and then I get those feelings back – like when I'm out with the Landowners, taking a stand like Opa and Grandpa did, to show other people that sometimes you have to speak out against wrongs... to end up with rights.

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