I have a cherished black-and-white photo of my Gramp, Victor Adams, before he enlisted in the army. It’s a hazy summer day, circa 1936. He poses with his brother in front of a simple house. He’s wearing a beautifully outsized zoot suit as they smoke enormous cigarettes. They look content and happy. I can almost hear jazz on the phonograph as they relax in the sun.

The picture barely hints at the daily stress he lived under. The late 1930s weren’t a great time to be a fisherman raising a young family. Yarmouth hadn’t gotten word the Depression was over and, like his working-class friends and neighbours, he always worried about making ends meet.

When the Second World War started and the Canadian Army called for volunteers, he saw an opportunity to earn a steady pay cheque, a pension, and life insurance.

The next picture I have of him is from October 1939. At age 32, he’s older than most of his fellow recruits. He looks stiff and self-conscious in his uniform. He told me later than he had hoped to be home in a year or two. He spent the next six years in the army, first as an anti-aircraft gunner and then an infantryman, lugging a Bren gun through Italian mountains and Dutch swamps.

He was a soldier of no great acclaim. He killed when he had to and was injured a few times. His war stories weren’t about storming bunkers or leaping onto marauding tanks. He talked about his friends, the food, the civilians caught up in war’s horrors. He served simply and pragmatically. It was a job to get through: he was providing for his family.

He returned to fishing when he came home. My grandmother said he was a little quieter, a little moodier. He sometimes drank too much. He never stopped thinking about the friends he lost. He was proud of his service but spoke of it rarely.

Gramp died in 2005 at age 97. He was just starting to share some of his experiences with me in the last year or two before he passed away. He’s the reason military history so fascinates me. I love every visit to the Army Museum at the Halifax Citadel. I’m not interested in the strutting generals or the technical specs of a Tiger tank. It’s the ordinary people doing their jobs in extraordinary circumstances that fascinate me.

In the rough old uniforms, misty photos, and battered and well-worn artifacts, I see countless links to my Gramp and the millions of people like him. My chance to talk with Gramp about his experiences is gone. Soon, no one from his generation will remain. But the Army Museum gives us a chance to have some ethereal sense of what they experienced.

Good military museums aren’t about glory. They’re about people. Curator Ken Hynes believes this. It’s evident in the carefully balanced exhibits, historically accurate, fair in their storytelling, proud but not jingoistic. One example: the Army Museum has embraced a program of art by and about soldiers. 

“It creates a connection for people today,” Hynes says. “It shows not just what these soldiers saw, but what they felt. There’s something there you can’t get in a photo.”

As the museum reopened for the season last month, it showed off its artist-in-residence program. Through the summer, artist Richard Rudnicki is at the museum working on incredibly detailed murals. When I visited, he was depicting the No. 2 Construction Battalion, an all-black unit from Nova Scotia that served valiantly in the First World War. I’ve heard their history, but I can’t say I ever thought much about what they thought and felt. Until I saw that mural coming together, heard the artist talking about the care he put into doing them justice.

Drop by to meet the artist and see his work. In the next issue of Halifax Magazine, photographer Tammy Fancy shares photos of the work in progress.   

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