Thursday, June 08, 2006


Here is my brush with History.
I kept the medals of John McCrae, the Canadian soldier /poet who wrote In Flanders Fields in 1915, in a shoebox for several years.

Long story short:

I received the medals quite innocently (none of us had any idea how valuable they were) from my ex Mother in Law who found them while cleaning out a closet sometime in the 80s.
My ex Father in Law had brought them home for safekeeping during a relocation of his law firm in 1959.

His father received them when McCrae's sister, Geills Kilgour, passed away in 1933 and did not have any children therefore there was apparently no indication of any other next of kin to forward them to .

After visiting several coin collectors I sold them for a couple hundred bucks in 1997. Apparently I was misinformed about their true value.

The next several months were followed by a mini national scandal as I was in interrogated and cleared by the Police and relatives of McCrae one of which was the wife of a member of Parliament and a lawyer who was exceptionally understanding. Another relative was the wife of former Prime Minister John Turner.

The medals, which included McCrae's father's collection, sold at auction for $530,000.
The purchaser dutifully donated the collection to the McCrae Museum in Guelph, Ontario.

I had still had three medals in my possession which I returned to my Father in Law to have them properly dealt with and to get the hell out of the firestorm.

My grandfather emigrated from Belgium in the 30's so I had a connection to Flanders. He left because of the lingering effects of WW1.

My mother visited the McCrae Museum and retold the story to the curator and passed on some of my pictures of me holding the medals. I'm very glad that Mr. Lee gave them to the museum for everyone to see.

In Flanders Fields is probably the most beautiful and famous tribute to fallen soldiers in history. I still find it hard to believe that I inadvertently had a part in starting the whole thing.

Indeed 1997 was my Annus Horribulus, but it seems to have all worked out in the end. I probably would have just given the medals to the family had I known, it's a very personal thing.

My grandfather left because of the so-called Great War and let's face it I would have probably been in court for years had I received a half million dollars for the collection.

I have a personal connection to history now from meddling with medals and it has elements of both Flanders Fields of Belgium and Canada. That's weird eh?

To quote Joni Mitchell, "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."


  1. Interesting story. It makes me think of the events in my past... History is much more alive and entertaining when it has to do with real people and not some obscure figures as it is being presented in most schoolbooks.

  2. pretty historic post ;-)


  3. //"Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."//

    The rules of the universe I sucks!

  4. sh,
    We instant gratification types over here in the Western New World tend to forget that his/herstory is important. I wish that they started teaching it in Nursery School...without all of the myth and hyperbole of course.

    Now it is part of MYstory. I thought that it was PRETTY interesting.

    I am quite content to have accidently started the ball rolling. The collection is now on display for everyone to enjoy instead of in a shoebox in my attic.

  5. My selfish, and perhaps, non-patriotic heart immediately thinks that it would be a hell of a lot nicer to have a fat savings account. This might just the booze talking though... :) ( written from my classroom, 10:41am )

  6. brian,
    You deserve a medal for being so forthright.I may have a couple left in the shoebox?

  7. How we are unaware of our own history!Your post made it acute for me! Here I go and find out more!

    If one day I end up writing poetry on that, you are to be blamed!

  8. It's wonderful that the medals are on display for all to see, rather than hidden away.

    I applaud you for your honesty. Not many would have done the same thing you did. It's nice to *know* someone who values integrity over cashflow.

  9. I ditto Pamela... it was very honorable of you indeed! My most valued possession is a tibetan sandalwood rosary that used to belong to the Dalai Lama... no monetary value to that alas! ;-)

    Very interesting facts and story indeed!

  10. An amazing story. I once found a Civil War medal among my father's belongings and realized that I had no idea to whom it belonged. It got me wondering about the "junk" that one throws away from another person's life. Without the context, or provenance as the collectors would say, it's just a bit of metal and ribbon experiencing the effects of entropy while sitting in a drawer.

    If you want a good, unembellished account of life as a WWI soldier, I recommend "Toward the Flame", by Hervey Allen. It paints a grim but spell-binding picture of life and the human psyche in that time and place. My copy came from the estate of a WWI vetran, and my next-door neighbor when I was growing up. Some of the connections and cross-connections we make in life are truly amazing, aren't they?

  11. Great story. It's one of those poems you learn in school and never forget.

  12. gautami,
    I would be honered to be responsible for one of your poems.
    Please let me know if and when such an event comes to pass so that I can blog about it.

    Never in my life had I needed money more than in the that horrible year however I just had a hunch that in the long run I would pay dearly for momentary gain.
    I have never regretted it but it better not happen again!

    miz bohemia,
    It is cool to touch a piece of history and wonder if a transfer of energy is possible through an iconic representation. I often wonder why a history buff like me was given that little snippet of the past out of all of the possible receivers available...I think that I have a fairly good idea now, but while it was happening I thought that it was some sort of curse instead of a blessing

    I guess that we Canucks can probably relate a little more because of the poems' prevelence in our national identity. That year one of my daughters read the poem at her high school assembly and I think that the whole incident added a touch of gravitas to her oration.

  13. Have you considered the bottle???

  14. Sounds like you would have done the right thing in any case once you realized their historical value. Selling a few of them for a couple hundred bucks is lousy though!

  15. Wow! This is a very interesting story indeed. I agree with SH ... "History is much more alive and entertaining when it has to do with real people" ...
    I couldn't have said it better.

    HE you are an amazing person. Choosing history over money, well in my situation I would have had to think about it a little longer. Still, I think you did a grand thing.

  16. Joni Mitchell was certainly right about not knowing what you've got until it's gone.

    But you also don't know what you've got sometimes until you find it, and you've found it.

    You are a gentle, caring soul. And while 1997 was Annus Horribulus, 2007 will be your Annus Terrificus.

  17. breakerslion,
    oops, such are the hazards of answering the mail @ 4 am!
    You are right to the untrained eye and without a family member to attach these awards to they are for the most part tossed aside every day.
    The informative texts that I have read on WW1 are so depressing. What an incredible slaughter and waste of life. The introduction of gas and fighting in and from the air really exposed our darkest side.

    I have not only considered it but actively endorse the medicinal effects of it's miraculous healing powers.

    Thanks, good things come to those who do their homework! In any case they were not mine to auction off.

    Loosers weapers! History is a lot more relevent when you realise that it is created by real people. I still think that I had very few options and I was terribly upset by all of the probing by the media.

    I believe in my heart of hearts that they weren't after the money and that they just wanted to see the medals in the museum so Mr Lee is the real hero.

    My Annus (should be Anno) as in pain in the Anus, Horribuli, is almost a decade in the past. Time heals a lot of things but you my friend have been a rock for me. I wouldn't have rediscovered myself without your guidance. For that I can never repay you.

    1. Anonymous3:26 p.m.

      sorry hero seekers but this shoebox story is a lie . the medals were found at a city dump by a pipherer.In 1996 he put them in a militia aution in winnipeg and was defrauded.


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