With some people I know, there are delicious rituals enjoyed when we meet after not seeing each other for a while. For some it’s a real bear hug or a genuine slap on the back. With others it’s a heart-felt handshake. Then, there is one friend with whom I’ve established a unique greeting, in this case an exchange on the telephone. Depending upon who’s calling whom, our phone conversations always began the same way.
“Is this the famous Ted Barris?” he would ask.
To which I’d respond, “Is this the famous Howard Walker?”
Of course, a loud guffaw would follow on both ends of the phone line as Howard and I realized how corny our greetings were. In fact, for me the best part of our patented greeting exchange was listening to Howard’s laughter after we’d delivered our lines. His chortle always sounded like Mr. Magoo.
But when our chuckling ended, Howard and I always got down to business… the business of honouring, remembering and educating. You see, for the past 15 years, Howard Walker and I have regularly met each Nov. 11, to share our respect and passion to keep Remembrance Day tangible among young people.
In fact, the first time I telephoned Howard, back in 1999, it was on a hunch. During that first autumn I taught journalism at Centennial College I was informed the only specific reference to Remembrance Day on our East York campus would be a moment’s silence. I was stunned that a major Toronto post-secondary institution with about 600 students had no planned acknowledgment of Canadians’ service and sacrifice in the world wars, peacekeeping or NATO operations. Picking one of the Legion branches in our area – the Dambusters Legion Branch 617 – I phoned. At that time, Howard Walker was the sergeant-at-arms for his branch’s Nov. 11 observances. I asked if the branch might provide some pictures or flags for our modest campus observance.
“Better than that,” Howard said. “We can bring you poppies, a memorial wreath and a full colour party to the college.”
“Bring?” I asked.
“Sure. We can have some of our veterans there to carry the Canadian and Legion flags and, if you like, our vets can even meet your students.”
It was a brilliant notion. And Howard and I ran with it. I suggested, in addition to the customary playing of “The Last Post,” two minutes of silence and “Reveille,” maybe I could interview some of his veteran comrades in front of the assembly. That way our students – ranging in age from 17 to 35 and from every culture on the planet – could recognize what they were supposed to be remembering on Nov. 11.
Thus began a tradition of annual visits from Howard Walker and his comrades from the Dambusters Legion (and from elsewhere) to speak one-on-one with students about the meaning of service, the essence of loss and the need for remembrance. Indeed, either the first or second year, I interviewed Howard (in front of the assembly) about his service in the RCAF during the Second World War. He insisted that he hadn’t faced danger. He hadn’t gone overseas. He’d been an aero-engine mechanic at a repair depot in New Brunswick throughout the war.
“So, don’t try to paint me as a hero,” he said.
And I remembered one of the air force ground crew mottos of commitment during those war years when the aircraft of Coastal Command and Training Command in Canada very much depended on the skills of fitters and riggers such as Howard.
“Didn’t you guys always say: ‘You bend ’em. We mend ’em’?”
And he laughed that wonderful Mr. Magoo laugh. Howard admitted that without the round-the-clock attention he and others on the ground had committed during the war, such things as North Atlantic fighter escort, anti-submarine patrols, and flights to rescue downed airmen at sea, could never have succeeded.
And if Howard wasn’t prepared to point that out, his wife Joyce sure did. Because, you see, we didn’t just get Howard and the Legionnaires at our Remembrance Day observances. Joyce came along to every one too. Joyce and Howard were as much a part of our Nov. 11 ceremony as the Legion vets parading the colours. In recent years, the tradition of involving the Walker family expanded to include their son Bill and their grandsons Matthew and Luke. And despite Joyce’s passing in 2012, Howard continued to attend our Centennial ceremony without fail.
However, this Nov. 11, we’ll have to do it without him. Howard Walker died suddenly on Saturday at age 90. Now, we’ll have to remember the poppies and wreath without him. We’ll have to show students the meaning of service, the need for remembrance and the essence of loss, without him. And I’ll have to do without our phone exchanges about being “famous” and have to try to teach my students on my own.
It won’t be easy. Like Remembrance, it will hurt for some time yet.