Remembering Eldon Comfort
Self-described "reluctant soldier" turned pacifist became a pillar of Toronto's peace and social justice movements
(A memorial service for Eldon Comfort will be held Saturday, July 4, 11 am at Cummer Avenue United Church (53 Cummer Avenue) in North York. All are welcome.)
by Matthew Behrens
June 14, 2015
Eldon Comfort training photo taken before he was deployed overseas to fight in the Second World War.
When veterans of a certain age pass on, the Harper government tends to pull out of reserve boilerplate statements combining prayers for loved ones with rallying cries for militarism.
One former World War II soldier unlikely to wind up receiving Conservative government mention, however, is Eldon Comfort, who passed away June 3 in North York at 102 years of age.
A self-described “reluctant soldier” who served as a lieutenant in the Canadian Signal Corps from 1942-45, Comfort found himself a pacifist by war’s end after witnessing the sheer size of war graveyards in France and meeting captured German soldiers after VE Day in 1945.
He recalled the moment he became a pacifist for Historica Canada's The Memory Project: “Our unit was stationed up in Wilhelmshaven. The Germans had been disarmed and a lot of them were still in prison enclosures. To see those young men, boys really, behind barbed wire, dispirited, bedraggled, hungry, disorganized, of course, and I thought to myself, 'Surely, these guys aren’t my enemy.' I was a reluctant soldier in the beginning myself and I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those youngsters had been reluctant soldiers themselves…When I talked to high school students when I came home, I used to tell them, the question they should be asking is not, ‘Who is my enemy, but who is my brother and sister?’”
Anyone involved in Toronto’s peace and social justice movements over the past half century would have run into Eldon. He was a mainstay at the Homeless Memorial vigils at Holy Trinity Church, weekly interfaith observances at Queen’s Park during the Harris years, loading up Tools for Peace educational supplies bound for Nicaragua during the 1980s U.S. embargo, and anti-war demonstrations with Veterans Against Nuclear Arms. He would enliven interminable lefty meetings with his quick wit and on-the-spot limericks. A mischievous glint in his eye spoke to his finding little moments of joy amid the pain he witnessed and resisted.
A former science and physical education teacher, who became high school principal at both Danforth Tech and Downsview Collegiate in Toronto, his focused vocal delivery recalled Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath. Comfort also had the distinction of being a member of the United Church since its founding in 1925 (he met his wife Betty in a church choir, and they would have three children). In the early 1970s, he answered a call to go overseas and train teachers in Tanzania.
I first met Eldon 30 years ago. He’d just returned from a Witness for Peace delegation, whose members – many of them fellow-veterans – went unarmed into the conflict zones of northern Nicaragua to try and prevent the contras (a notorious band of U.S.-funded mercenaries) from carrying out attacks against civilians involved in medical care, literacy, and agricultural reform.
On Martin Luther King Day in 1991, as U.S. and Canadian bombers rained down explosives on the Iraqi people, Eldon joined his first-ever civil disobedience action, a blockade of the External Affairs building from which Joe Clark had been issuing diplomatic cover for war. The 77-year-old Comfort had been the first to arise in the morning at a church where hundreds had slept on the floor and, adorned with his veteran’s medals, led a march of some 400 people who surrounded the Pearson building in Ottawa. He never complained about the bitter cold as he helped blockade the building for some 5 hours, nor when an angry bureaucrat put his head down and ran right into Comfort. Knocked back, but not over, the ever-athletic Eldon made some comment about there being “better ways to tackle someone,” and continued refusing to move.
One February morning in 1998, as the Chretien Liberals geared up for yet another bombing campaign against Iraq, he joined a group from Homes Not Bombs inside then Defence Minister Art Eggleton’s constituency office. When the former mayor of Toronto, who had once declared his city a nuclear-free zone, refused to talk with us, a spontaneous sit-in began and, being the elder statesman in the group, Comfort was asked by a gaggle of media what his plans were.
“I’m going to take off my pants,” he replied, at which point all the camera lights went full glare to watch the 84-year-old remove his snow pants to reveal his slacks underneath.
The group stayed some 36 hours in the office, one of a series of nationwide protests that forced the Liberals to back down.
Again in 2003, as the world resisted plans for Iraq war, Comfort was on the anti-war movement’s front lines, delivering peace zucchinis to then defence Minister John McCallum (on the understanding that it would be better to drop phallic-shaped zucchinis than phallic-shaped missiles). He was consistent and insistent when he would declare: “Wars don’t end wars.”
Throughout most of his 90s, Comfort’s personal slogan was “I’m going to live to be 100 if it kills me.” He was a bit slower, and also sadder, because in 2006, he lost the love of his life. “Betty had Alzheimer’s so was quite a care for a time – a requirement that I was pleased to meet as she tended to me for 63+ years,” he wrote to me shortly thereafter. “After such an ideal marriage, I find living alone is for the birds. Despite the memories of good times, I guess I will always feel grievously bereft.”
Comfort did not share that pain publicly, though. He continued on, writing letters, pushing petitions, churning out limericks, attending vigils, supporting a refugee in church sanctuary, and winning a “Resident of the Year” award from the Ontario Retirement Communities Association. His limericks continued to reflect his consuming interest in current events:
"Canada signed the Geneva Convention/About torture and illegal detention/But then, Maher Arar/And now, Khadr, Omar/Just what is the Canadian intention?"
Despite missing Betty and his frustration at not being able to do everything he’d like, he wrote to me: “I actually still have much to be thankful for so should stop feeling sorry for myself. Knowing that stalwarts, like yourself and many others, are hanging in there for peace with justice is worth a lot, too. So keep up the good work and treasure those you love.”
Amen. Eldon drew his last breath an hour before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission delivered its report in Ottawa. One imagines that his gentle spirit immediately transported itself to the moving ceremony that appeared to inspire the very quality that motivated Comfort throughout his life: hope.
Matthew Behrens is co-founder of Homes Not Bombs. A memorial service for Eldon Comfort will be held Saturday, July 4, 11 am at Cummer Avenue United Church (53 Cummer Avenue) in North York. All are welcome.
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Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net. Go to http://baltimorenonviolencecenter.blogspot.com/
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs