More than seven years ago, Murray McCann was driving through the mountains in Georgia before Memorial Day when he noticed a small cluster of crosses along the side of the road.
Initially, McCann thought a collision had claimed three lives and someone had erected a small makeshift memorial to honour the victims. But as he rounded the corner, he saw rows upon rows of crosses, each inscribed with a person’s name, the name of a war, and an age, and realized he’d come across a memorial for fallen soldiers.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” said the Calgary businessman. “I have, in the past, always bought a poppy but that’s about all I did … It overwhelmed me. I sat there, I bet you, for 10 minutes just crying. I’d never given realization the way I did then.”
Then McCann thought to himself: if a small municipality in Georgia could put on such an awe-inspiring tribute for its soldiers, why couldn’t Calgary do something similar?
After consulting with his friend, the late George Bittman and former head of the Calgary Poppy Fund, as well as legion representatives and city officials, the Field of Crosses Memorial Project was born.
Every year, thousands of white crosses honouring fallen soldiers from southern Alberta are erected along Memorial Drive between Centre Street and 3rd Street N.W. Every day, from Nov. 1 to 11, the flag is raised at sunrise and lowered at sunset, with accompanying ceremonies taking place.
Numerous Calgarians, from school groups to seniors, will walk through the field, read the inscriptions on the crosses — including the name, age, rank and regiment of soldiers who died in the two world wars, in the Korean War, Afghanistan, and in peacekeeping missions — and reflect.
And on Saturday, volunteers were hard at work getting ready for this year’s field, unloading 3,200 crosses from a truck and setting them on the stakes that were installed last weekend.
Volunteers like Kayla White and Mike Grant help put up crosses on October 24, 2015, at the Field of Crosses memorial project, which started in 2009 in Calgary.
Volunteers like Kayla White and Mike Grant help put up crosses on October 24, 2015, in Calgary at the Field of Crosses memorial project, which started in 2009. Christina Ryan / Calgary Herald
McCann, whose McCann Family Foundation funds the project, said the location of the field, right across from the city skyline, is a good reminder for Calgarians to see that “you can be anything you want to be and you have every opportunity, and then you see the price that others paid.”
He credited the more than 200 volunteers, particularly the members of the Canadian Army Veterans or CAV motorcycle unit for the laborious task of drilling the stakes into the ground ahead of time.
Jim Welsh, president of the Ypres 3rd CAV Calgary unit, said each stake has to be double-drilled and pounded into the ground with a dead blow sledge hammer, to get through the layer of river rock and shale below the grass.
“It’s a labour of love for us,” said Welsh, whose road name is Iron. “We absolutely love doing this, but it’s a lot of work.”
Welsh served in the navy in the 1970s but, for the longest time, didn’t talk about his service. However, eight or nine years ago, he met the CAV at a motorcycle show, and “it ignited something” inside of him, inspiring him to help out with veterans’ and military events.
“When you join the Canadian Armed Forces, you sign a blank cheque to the people of Canada up to and including the value of your life,” he said. “These people gave the ultimate sacrifice, they paid the bill. Those of us that served and didn’t have to do that are in awe of that sacrifice.”
Not all volunteers are former military members. McCall Holbrook, 11, and her friend Jennifer Kane, 13, were some of the youngest helpers at the scene, braving the frosty air.
Holbrook, whose great uncle is a veteran, said she donated her time because it’s almost Remembrance Day and, “it’s better to know your community and maybe help out a bit.”
Kane said she was saddened to read the inscriptions on the crosses, but added: “I’m really grateful for them. They make a difference everyday to everyone in this country.”
Volunteers like Max Smith help put up crosses on October 24, 2015, at the Field of Crosses memorial project, which started in 2009.
Volunteers like Max Smith help put up crosses on October 24, 2015, in Calgary at the Field of Crosses memorial project, which started in 2009. Christina Ryan / Calgary Herald
Dave Howard, who is part of the board that puts on the annual memorial and serves as president of the Canadian Legacy Project, which organizes donation drives for the Veterans’ Food Bank, said the field of crosses is not only an important tribute to soldiers who paid the ultimate price.
It also raises awareness and recognition of surviving veterans, including some who are struggling with poverty. And with the economic downturn, the number of veterans accessing the Veterans’ Food Bank is growing, Howard added.
“I started the Canadian Legacy project because I had family members involved in the military and some were suffering,” he said. “Truly, I don’t think there’s an excuse for our veterans who put their lives on the line to go hungry.”
This year, Howard said the goal is to raise $100,000 for the Veteran’s Food Bank.
While it’s no small feat to put up the field of crosses year after year, McCann said it’s important to keep the project alive.
“My family is here, my family lives such a wonderful life, they have opportunities that you don’t get in other places, because of the contributions of those who made the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. “We can never forget. We can take for granted sometimes, but we can never forget.”