If being born on a moving train was any indication of the direction Art Lefever’s life would take, then it would be no stretch of the imagination to say he was on track for a fast-paced adventure.
Spending just over 20 years with the Canadian Armed Forces, Lefever has served in locales across the globe, including Korea, Germany, Egypt and China.
But it all began on a train headed from Red Lake to Temiscaming, Que., on May 7, 1935.
Lefever’s mother was returning from a visit with her sister when she went into labour passing through Worthington, and was moved to the caboose to give birth. Lefever is one of 18 children and grew up on the Kipawa reserve in Temiscaming. Once known as Joe Bean, he would later change his name.
“Every time a child was born, if the priest was English, we were baptized as Bean, if we were taken to a French priest, it was Lefever, which was French for ‘the bean’,” Lefever said.
Lefever left home at 16 and headed west to Swift Current, Sask., to work on the harvests. In 1952, he went looking for work in Winnipeg.
“I joined the Armed Forces because there were no jobs,” he said. “When you’re 17 years old and full of piss and vinegar, you want to get into a fight. You didn’t care, you were looking for your three square meals a day and adventure.”
Following basic training, Lefever was sent to North Korea in 1953. Shortly before disembarking, Lefever met up with his older brother Gerry, who had been wounded by shrapnel in his left arm while serving on a special intelligence unit in South Korea, and was on his way home. Six months into patrols in Korea, Lefever was shipped off to China for six months, and then back to Korea for another half year of service.
“There was an uprising between China and Formosa (Taiwan), and they had some observers that came to do peace talking and I went there as a guard/escort,” Lefever recalled. “They treated us well, we stayed at the quarters of the embassy. Anytime the VIPs went out, we went out as bodyguards.”
The job, while providing the adventure many of the young men sought, was not to be taken lightly.
“Every day was a risk – you never knew where a sniper would blow your head off,” he said. “If you’re walking through the bush, there they are hiding in the trees and the next thing you know – bang.
“In the first couple of days, you get over that fear.”
Although there are few stories Lefever will tell about his experiences overseas, he vividly recalls one time when he and his crew stumbled onto a Korean camp, which opened fire. Shortly after retreating, Lefever knew something wasn’t right when his radio stopped working.
“I took my radio off and I could feel something running down my back – I had picked up a bullet in my back, but it was surface, it went through the radio and by the time it got to me, it just broke the skin and was sitting there,” he said.
Following Korea, Lefever was posted to Victoria, B.C., then Egypt, and in 1956, he signed up to join Canadian troops occupying Germany.
Other points in Lefever’s military career include attending the Front de liberation du Quebec uprising, guarding the Dukabors in B.C., and fighting floods and fires in Norway. He retired from the armed forces in 1973, and spent the next 20 years as a civil engineer for the City of Calgary.
Lefever and his wife moved to Nanaimo in 2003.
Now 77, Lefever and brothers Gerry and Larry, who joined the armed forces in 1965, are featured on the Temiscaming Wall of Heroes. Lefever is also the president of the Korea Veterans Association of Canada – Nanaimo Branch and Sergeant at Arms for the Canadian Aboriginal Veterans association.
Looking back, Lefever said he has no regrets.
“If I had to do it again, I would go to war for our country. It’s the thing to do,” he said.
But like many of his fellow veterans, Lefever has had to cope over the years with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“They trained us to kill, and for 21 years, every year I had to qualify how to kill a person,” he said. “And you wonder why some of these guys [today] get out and they’re shell shocked.”
In his retirement, Lefever has been helping heal the wounds by advocating for fellow veterans and revisiting the sites he patrolled as a youth. He has returned to Korea and just last month, he spent a week in Germany and Holland.