Highway of Heroes commemorated in grassroots song

Nov 17, 2009 | news

Related: www.highwayofheroessong.com
Listen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWwB9NwDpq0

Uniquely Canadian Highway of Heroes phenomenon commemorated in grassroots song
By Sunny Freeman (CP)

TORONTO — For Jo-Anne McLaren, who lost her son in Afghanistan, it was a godsend on the worst day of her life. To Capt. Wayne Johnston, who helped bring her son home, it is a uniquely Canadian display of caring. And for thousands of Canadians, the Highway of Heroes is a place of reverence, sorrow and pride.

Canadians gather along the 172-kilometre stretch of Highway 401 between Trenton and Toronto every time a convoy carrying the body of a dead soldier travels that final homecoming route.

The outpouring of Canadians who saluted Cpl. Mark McLaren from overpasses along the Highway of Heroes lifted his stepmother’s heavy heart on the voyage she dreaded most.

McLaren was injured in a friendly fire incident during his first tour. He was killed when his armoured vehicle hit an roadside bomb Dec. 5 during his second tour.

On the day of his repatriation, bridges were swathed in Canadian flags and flooded with mourners holding mittened hands to hearts on one of the coldest days of the year, says Jo-Anne.

“You think about it, but you don’t really know until you’re in that ride and you see all the people,” she said. “That’s what hit home. People. Everyday people. And coming up to that first overpass, we were just taken, it took our breath away.”

Bob Reid, a Toronto communications specialist and amateur musician, is one of the ordinary Canadians who has lined that stretch. The grassroots tribute moved him to write a song commemorating the Highway of Heroes.

“I was just struck by the amazing quiet patriotism that underlies that phenomenon,” Reid said in an interview in the basement of his Toronto bungalow, where he penned the tribute song. “By how wonderful it is that so many people make sure that they are there to show their respect and their gratitude.”

The lyrics are inspired by his experiences and stories of Canadians who participate in the tradition of mourning and came together quickly. After a process that took just over a year, his first studio song was released last week.

A rough demo aired on a Toronto radio station last year and listeners flooded the phone lines with positive reviews, requests and heartfelt thanks.

“It seems I’ve been able to capture that emotion and that sentiment that surrounds the Highway of Heroes phenomenon that brings people out of their homes, sometimes in terrible weather, to stand in the cold and the rain for a long time, just to be there when that procession passes.”

Reid brought the demo into a songwriting workshop run by Rik Emmett, a virtuoso guitarist and former member of Canadian hard rock band Triumph, and veteran producer Blair Packham, who helped him out.

Emmett agreed to record a guitar solo on the track because he admired Reid’s genuineness. “It seemed like it was a sweet kind of nice thing… This wasn’t a slick kind of commercial effort,” Emmett said. “I don’t think he had a hokey bone in his body, it just struck me that he was doing something that he felt was real.”

The song has over 900 Facebook fans and has sold out in some HMV outlets. Reid says a major record label is interested in distributing the song more widely.

Reid adds he has no illusions that the song might propel him to rock stardom and emphasizes the song’s subject matter is what has touched Canadians.

Half of the song’s proceeds will go to Capt. Wayne Johnston’s Wounded Warriors fund, which raises money for injured soldiers.

Johnston was inspired to found the charity three years ago after a 20-year-old soldier he recruited was severely wounded in a suicide bombing near Kandahar. Johnston says the benevolence of ordinary Canadians, from former vets who write $10 cheques to children who collect donations in jars, has helped raise almost $700,000.

As the casualty administration officer for the Canadian Forces, Johnston, 51, is in charge of organizing the final homecoming of troops who die in Afghanistan. Johnston says he remembers every soldier he brings home, including Jo-Anne’s stepson Mark.

He says the outpouring of support along the Highway of Heroes is a uniquely Canadian tradition that shows the nation’s fabric of caring.

“It warms me to see, but I think for the parents, it brings them solace to see that the nation cares,” he said. “I think that’s what defines us as a nation, that’s what sets us apart from our allies.”

Still, Johnston, who lives in Brooklin, Ont., just off Highway 401, won’t follow the route on his way home from repatriation ceremonies. He says he believes that the highway belongs to the families of the dead soldiers. But, he also says he doesn’t want to be reminded that his son could be next.

Johnston’s son Kieran, 20, is a light armoured vehicle driver scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan in 2011.

“God forbid it was my son, and it could be,” he said. “I don’t want a dress rehearsal.”

Johnston says Reid’s song brings tears to the eyes and captures a feeling that is difficult to articulate.

Reid says he will be gratified if people like Jo-Anne McLaren find the song a worthy tribute to her son and other Canadian heroes.

On the web: http://bit.ly/1dgbGv

Toronto songwriter Bob Reid has penned a tribute to the Highway of Heroes, the 172-kilometre stretch of Highway 401 that serves as a repatriation route for soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Here are the lyrics:

Any time another falls, we will gather here
In any kind of weather, any time of year
Watching for the headlights down the 401
Respect and dedication for our bravest ones

Hearts fill with sorrow and with pride
As the fallen pass below, on the final ride
Along the Highway of Heroes we stand
In a show of gratitude from right across the land

Standing on the bridges faithfully
Because you keep our true north strong and free
Soccer moms, firefighters, legion members too
School kids and teachers, folks like me and you

Standing at attention with the Maple Leaf held high
A grassroots benediction for the ones who died
You’re all our daughters, all our sons
And you make us proud Canadians


Along the Highway of Heroes we stand
Here to show the gratitude from right across the land
Up here on the bridges we will be
Because you keep our true north strong and free

Now it’s our turn to stand
It’s our turn to stand
It’s our turn to stand on guard for thee

Copyright © 2009 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.