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Spirit Story

The compassion of strangers

By Jay P. Olson

I grew up hearing stories of my Uncle Barry, his childhood in British Columbia’s West Kootenays, his love of flying, his young life lost in the Second World War — though the details of his death were unknown to me.

What we did know is that on June 25, 1944, Fl. Lt. Barrington Farr Cleeton did not return from his mission flying a Spitfire over Normandy. A second pilot flying beside Barry said there was German anti-aircraft fire in the region at the time. Barry, 21, was classified as missing.

Eventually, the family was informed that Barry had been killed. His airplane crashed in a field on the border of the coastal townships of Omonville and Herqueville, France. Barry may have taken flak through the plane’s windshield. Someone buried him next to his plane, marking the grave with a small wooden cross. His body was later moved to the military cemetery in Bayeux, France.

In the early 1950s, brothers Eugene and Joseph Lenepveu were plowing that same field when a shiny object caught their attention. They uncovered a lighter inscribed with the initials “B.F.C.” Eugene took it home to his wife, Thérèse, who cleaned it up and stored it in a small box. She believed it must have belonged to the deceased pilot, but she didn’t know his name. She held it in safekeeping in the hope that it would one day bring comfort to his family.

Then in June 2014, the story was made complete. Mickaël Simon, a historian researching downed flyers in that region, and Sébastien Houillier, a friend conducting similar research, made the link between the lighter and Barry. Simon contacted my sister with the incredible news.

Our family began making arrangements. Barry’s two sisters (my mother and my aunt) were physically unable to travel to France, but my two sisters and I packed our bags.

When we arrived at the home of Thérèse (Eugene has died; Joseph lives nearby), we all looked at each other, smiled widely and wept with amazement. She presented us with a little plastic box. Inside was the lighter with the inscription “B.F.C.” Holding it in my hand was like holding a piece of my family’s heart, a piece that would heal my mother’s and my aunt’s lifelong sorrow.

Our trip coincided with the 70th anniversary of Barry’s death. In the village square, the people of Herqueville gathered to unveil a monument to Barry. It frames his picture and, for me, his life.

I remember asking Joseph why they would honour this one man, a young Canadian, when the French people themselves had suffered so much. Through his grandson, he responded without hesitation: “We were occupied, and then we were liberated. We don’t forget that.”

As a United Church minister, I see empathy at work all the time. But this was different. These French villagers had no idea who we were, yet they held on to this one piece of memorabilia, hoping one day to help a family in grief.

There are no words to describe such extraordinary compassion — only mended hearts.

Rev. Jay P. Olson is an interim minister serving South Burnaby (B.C.) United.

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