I was eight-years of age when the Second World War ended. The first Remembrance Day service that I am able to recall was in 1946. In that year, the war was fresh in the minds of Canadians and the veterans who had recently returned from the battlefields overseas were young men. Our teachers at school reminded us that Remembrance Day was a time to give thanks for the end of the war, and to honour those who had paid the supreme sacrifice. The service was on 10 November, as on 11 November the schools were closed.
I attended D. B. Hood Public School, at Dufferin Street and Eglinton Avenue. The week prior to 11 November, preparations commenced for the special service. My grade-four teacher, Miss Simpson, read to us the poem “In Flanders Field” by John McCrae, born in Guelph, Ontario. We recited the words in unison. In art class, we cut paper poppies from red construction paper and glued small black dots in the centre of the flowers. The glue we employed was mint-flavoured, and some kids ate it or licked it from their fingers. Miss Simpson displayed the pictures that we painted during art classes on a large bulletin board, the top of which she draped with a ribbon of black crepe paper.
In music, we learned the song “O Valiant Hearts.” I noticed that the teacher’s voice choked with emotion as she read aloud the words of the hymn. I understood the depth of her feelings, and yet, realized that I did not truly understand. My parents had not served in the war, so I had been insulated from the suffering that others families had endured. We had not lost a loved-one. The rationing and food shortages had not affected me, as my mom had shouldered the responsibility of providing the food that appeared on our table.
However, the Remembrance Day service of 1946 was to become a major step in my journey along the road to comprehending the terrible consequences of war. There was no auditorium or gymnasium in the school, so we had no physical education program or a proper place to gather for an assembly. The only large space available was the school’s basement, where they placed many long rows of wooden benches to accommodate the classes.
On 10 November at 10:30 in the morning, we marched quietly, class by class, and sat, row by row, for the Remembrance Day service. Our teachers warned, “Remain quiet and respectful. No talking whatsoever.” We knew that the rule would be quietly but firmly enforced. The service was to be a new experience for me. I knew about the thousands of deaths and the horrors of battle, as I had heard the details on the radio and viewed war films at our local movie house, the Grant Theatre. I had often listened when my dad had read aloud newspaper articles about the conflict. However, these did not prepare me for the depth of emotion that I was to experience on this day.
The service commenced with a brief introduction by the school principal, Mr. Macdonald, who reminded us again that no talking was allowed and that we were expected us to “sit tall” on the benches. We stood and sang the hymn “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past.” My grandmother often hummed this song, and I had heard it sung at services at our church. My thoughts were interrupted when the minister from the local Anglican Church stood to pray and read from the Bible. Next, one of the teachers read John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields.” I had previously recited the poem in the classroom, but now it seemed to possess new meaning. The impact of the line “Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow” struck my young heart. The words were fully within my realm of understanding. In early morn, from beneath the window blind in my bedroom, I had felt the warmth of the sun as it edged upward in a summer sky. I had seen the glow of sunset as the ball of fire fell behind the houses across the road from our house. I had felt its warmth caress my face. What would it be like to lose it? Was this similar to the way kids felt when they lost their dads in battle?
The teacher who had read “In Flanders Field” again interrupted my thoughts when he commenced quoting the words of Lawrence Binyon.
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
We shall remember them.
The words, “At the going down of the sun” struck me. Again, there was a reference to the loss of light. I was certain this was a part of death. I thought of my uncle Bill, who had died in 1944, and remembered the “going down” of the casket lid, the light forever shut from his face. Understanding that had been previously denied me was now slowly dawning. Binyon’s words were true! My Uncle Bill would never grow old, as in my mind he would always appear as the smiling man at the bottom of the stairs on Christmas Eve.
Next, Mr. Scott, a grade seven teacher, stepped to the podium. He was tall, well over six foot, with the broad shoulders of a football player. Though prematurely bald, his face was young. In a voice husky with emotion, he read the Honour Roll, containing the names of those who had “paid the supreme sacrifice.” Nothing in my life had prepared me for the reactions that I now witnessed. Tears ran down Mr. Scott’s cheeks, and I heard muffled sobs among several of the teachers. I had never before seen teachers cry. After Mr. Scott read the final name, he paused and gazed at us.
He said, “Several teachers from our school went overseas.” Then, he paused again and added, “Some of my boyhood friends were killed, and one teacher at our school lost a brother. Former students, only teenagers when they enlisted in the armed forces, answered the call and were shipped overseas. Some never returned. The streets of our neighbourhood will never again hear them call out to friends. Their young voices will never join in a hymn in a church, cheer at a ballpark, or laugh at Abbott and Costello in a movie theatre. They are gone forever. However, in reality, they are not gone. On an occasion such as this, we remember that they were once a part of our lives. Their blood is our blood. They will be forever mourned in our hearts. We will never forget them. Resurrection morn is not restricted to heavenly realms. It is here—today. The fallen have been reborn in our memories.”
There was complete silence as he sat down. I didn’t fully understand his final words, but I sensed their importance.
In the row ahead of me, twin sisters cried quietly. Their dad had been a caretaker at the school, and their two older brothers had attended D .B. Hood. They had all enlisted in the navy. I had heard their names among those read aloud by Mr. Scott. Their names were no longer simply names. I could picture their faces. They were real people. Once, they had walked the streets of my neighbourhood.
At 11:00 a.m., we solemnly stood for the “The Last Post,” followed by two minutes silence. Some teachers cried, their sobbing audible in the quiet of the moment. Then, they played “Reveille.” I saw Miss Simpson’s frail body shake with grief. I felt her pain and wondered whom she had lost. Observing the people around me, I began to understand that war was not as they portrayed it in movies, where it was a gloriously exciting adventure. Soldiers died. Families were torn apart by war. I thought about my uncle Bill and how my grandmother had suffered. The teachers and pupils around me were experiencing the same devastation.
The minister delivered a short sermon. I only remember a few of his words. He began by quoting a verse that I recognized from Sunday services, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Then, he continued in a solemn voice, “When you are in the schoolyard or playing on the streets in your neighbourhood, sometimes a bully threatens one of your friends.” I thought about Kramer, our local bully. “If this happens,” he said, “you will likely defend your pal. This is the right thing to do. Defending a friend is an important part of friendship. However, would you risk being injured to protect a stranger? This is a more difficult course of action, as you are not fighting to protect a friend, but simply because it is the correct path to follow. Think of the soldiers who died in the war. They gave their lives not only for their friends and families, but for everyone in Canada. They paid the sacrifice for us all, even though they did not know us. This was indeed a noble sacrifice and is the reason that we gather here today. Could you give up your life for a stranger?”
At this point in the sermon, my mind wandered. He spoke for about five or six minutes more, but I do not recall his other words. I thought about his idea of sacrificing for friends. Could a man really give up his life, just because it was the right thing to do?
The above passage is from the book “Arse Over Teakettle,” a novel about a Toronto family enduring the hardships of the Second World War and its aftermath. It is an emotional story, that at times is humorous because of the antics of the young lad who narrates the story. Though the book is fictional, the memories of my childhood, growing up in Toronto, formed the basis for many of the incidents. The book contains over 70 archival photographs of Toronto during the 1940s and 1950s, as well as much of the history of the city in this era.
For further information on this book:https://tayloronhistory.com/arse-over-teakettle/
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