The veterans of the Second World War are diminishing in numbers, are are those who remember the day the war ended. When victory in Europe was officially declared in May of 1945, Toronto went wild. The end of the war had been anticipated for several months, and when it finally arrived, the pent-up emotions of Torontonians burst across the city. Every neighbourhood and street became the site for a spontaneous party, but the downtown area was the centre of the activities as workers poured out of the shops and offices to celebrate.
I was only eight year of age at the time, but I can recall the event vividly. When writing the first book of the Toronto Trilogy, “Arse Over Teakettle,” I drew upon my memories of the day. The main character of the story, Tom Hudson, is sitting in is grade one classroom in D. B. Hood Public School, when the principal delivers the victory news to his teacher.
The following excerpt is from the novel “Arse Over Teakettle,” and describes the event, as viewed through the eyes of the fictional character.
While downtown Toronto went wild, I was quietly sitting at my desk in my grade one classroom. The room was silent as we worked on arithmetic in our exercise books, subtracting three-digit numbers. Accenting the quietness, the wall clock above the front blackboards clicked loudly. The teacher was circulating among the rows of desks, assisting pupils and marking our work with her red pencil, the educators’ symbol of ultimate authority. Shortly before the noon hour, there was a loud rap on the door and Mr. Macdonald, the school principal, appeared and motioned Miss Magnus to step outside the classroom. Mr. Macdonald was a tall, portly man who walked like a soldier and was always dressed in a dignified, navy blue pinstripe suit. His brown hair was thinning and greying at the temples. His appearance was the epitome of a school principal—“dignified and stately.”
Though Miss Magnus and Mr. Macdonald had stepped into the hallway to converse, silence still reigned in the classroom. However, we were curious, as it was rare that interruptions occurred—educators considered learning hours sacred. This is a rather quaint idea today! When Miss Magnus returned, she instructed us to place our pencils down and sit up straight. “Sitting tall” was a prerequisite for everything from cootie inspection to silent reading. The teacher’s smile alerted us that she was to announce some good news. Perhaps the school was to close early for the summer holidays. “The war is over,” she said in an emotional voice. There was stunned silence. We were unsure how to react. I felt that a rousing cheer would be appropriate, but I would never dare engage in such a brazen act in the classroom. Fortunately, my dilemma was solved when the noon-hour bell rang, and we were promptly dismissed for lunch.
I was immediately swept up in the exuberant behaviour in the schoolyard. Children raced around everywhere, shouting and screaming like banshees. The older students had powerful voices and became leaders of the celebration. Their shouts were deafening. When I reached the southeast corner of the yard, I passed the School Store at Northcliffe Boulevard and Key West Avenues. “Stinky” was in the doorway, waving his old hat as he shouted to people passing on the street. His treasure of penny candy was unguarded inside the store. The vaults of Fort Knox were wide open. It was a testament to the momentous occasion, to have inspired such forgetful behaviour.
On the east side was a steep hill, referred to as the School Store Hill. I quickly descended it and walked east on Allenvale Avenue. Arriving at Lauder Avenue, I noticed that people were shouting boisterously and laughing, while others were banging pots and pans. Some were making the V-for-victory sign with their fingers. Huge posters had been hastily placed across verandahs with the word Victory painted in bold letters. People shook noisemakers and blew whistles with the enthusiasm of unruly children. They had strung streamers, rolls of crepe paper, toilet paper, and bunting around the support poles and railings of the verandahs.
I thought, Has the end of the war caused everyone to go crazy?
When I arrived home, I noticed several peanut butter sandwiches and two glasses of milk on the kitchen table, but my mother was nowhere in sight. Then I heard voices and realized that she was in the dining room listening to the radio. There were tears in her eyes. I did not fully comprehend the importance of the words armistice, cease-fire, or peace treaty. However, the emotional impact of the event gripped me. I sensed this was a day that I would remember forever. My mother informed me that my dad would likely arrive home early from work and that the following day would likely be a holiday from school. There was no remaining doubt that it was a notable occasion, perhaps as important as the snowfall of 1944, which had been a two-day-off-school event.
I returned to school in the afternoon. Miss Magnus read a story and allowed us to draw pictures. About 2:30 p.m., Mr. Macdonald appeared at the classroom door. He sounded like a radio announcer as he said, “School will be dismissed a three o’clock.”
Despite his professional demeanour, I swear to this day that he almost danced out of the room. I thought Miss Magnus was going to do a jig out the door behind him. However, dignity prevailed as we exited the school not long after.
Some of the older students “borrowed” pieces of white chalk from the blackboard ledges as they departed the classrooms. In the schoolyard, they drew huge V-for-victory signs on the asphalt. As I walked along Lauder Avenue, I noticed that they were covering large areas of the sidewalk and roadway with chalk drawings. Any exposed brick walls they similarly adorned. The adults ignored the graffiti artists, and some encouraged them. In a few places appeared the familiar cartoon of a human head with the long nose hanging over a wall and the words, “Kilroy Was Here.” During the late-afternoon, as workers returned from their places of employment, the number of people on the street increased. Adults seemed to tolerate any behaviour that they viewed as celebratory.
Finally, it was time to return inside the house for the evening meal. After supper, my brother and I rushed outside to view the celebrations, which had been building while we had been at the dinner table. By now, the street was noisy with people blowing horns and banging garbage can lids. A group of young boys marched like soldiers, their young leader holding high a broom handle with a ragged cloth tied to its top, which flew in the breeze as proudly as any national flag. Another boy pounded on a garbage can as skilfully as a drummer in a regimental band. A small lad at the rear wore a pair of his mother’s underpants wrapped around his head. Encouraged by an older boy, he had retrieved them from the backyard clothesline. As the young troopers tramped along, they loudly sang their own words to the melody from the popular Walt Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, “Whistle While you Work.”
Whistle while you work,
Hitler is a jerk,
Mussolini has no wienie,
Whistle while you work.
I had never witnessed such an outpouring of emotion. Our street had been transformed into a giant party scene. When the streetlights came on, I reluctantly returned to the house, a rule strictly enforced by my parents. However, as the following day was a holiday, my mother allowed Ken and me to remain up later than usual. We sat on the verandah steps and watched the action on the street. A few firecrackers split the night sky. They appeared to be originating from backyards on Northcliffe Boulevard.
By delaying and pleading, we managed to extend staying up until almost ten o’clock. This was indeed a rare event for us. After we retired to our bedroom, our mother came up to ensure that we were actually in bed. After she descended downstairs, we crept from our beds and went to the front bedroom, which belonged to our parents. Its windows overlooked the street, and there we watched the unfolding scene. This was a risky deed, as my dad had installed carpet on the stairs, and we were unable to hear our mom should she climb the stairs to check on us. We watched as neighbours yelled from verandah to verandah, while others danced under the penumbra of the streetlights. Some were passing around bottles and sharing the contents. I had a feeling that it was not ginger ale. By 10:30 p.m., our eyes became heavy, and we were stifling deep yawns. Shortly after, we went down the hallway and tumbled into bed.
All was not quiet elsewhere in the city. During the evening, people had been gravitating to the parks, and by the time darkness descended, over a quarter of a million had gathered. Community celebrations spontaneously sprung to life, with mass singing, concerts, and speeches. After dark, fireworks splashed across the skies. At Sunnyside, seventy-five thousand people crammed the boardwalk and observed the largest fireworks display in the city. Those unable to attend the rallies in the parks gathered in groups on the streets near their homes. People ignited bonfires in the middle of the roadways and sang patriotic songs as they huddled around the dancing flames.
In some of the parks, the enormous fires were fuelled by anything the crowds were able to locate. One elderly woman declared, “I threw me husband’s old, unwashed work pants and underwear on the flames.”
Her husband retaliated by saying, “I wanted to throw me wife’s girdle onto the fire, but she was wearing it at the time.” Everyone laughed.
On the level area of land below D. B. Hood and to the north of Fairbank Park, the bonfire reached over twenty feet in height. Neighbours informed my parents about the fire, but they declined to attend, as we were already in bed.