A sip from a cold, crisp bottle of O’Keefe’s beer.
That’s the first thing Al Armstrong did when he returned to Canada.
Armstrong, a veteran of the armoured corps in the Second World War, fought in the Allied invasion at Normandy and took part in offensives throughout France, Belgium and Holland.
“I enlisted because it was the thing to do. Everybody did,” said Armstrong, sitting at a local coffee shop earlier this month. “They couldn’t conscript until you were 19 so I went in when I was 18.”
Armstrong joined lifetime friend Roger Foote because he “couldn’t let him go alone. We were always together.”
He continued a family tradition of military service. Along with four of his brothers serving around the same time, his father, Albert Sydney Armstrong, served in the First World War, taking part in the famous Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge.
Armstrong has been back to Europe three times but doubts he’ll return again. Seeing the old cemeteries and memorials is too emotional for him.
“Remembrance Day is a bad day for me,” Armstrong said. “I don’t need it. I don’t want to see the flags flying, hear the bugles.”
Armstrong can recall one particular Remembrance Day though. It was during the Second War and his unit was in a street fight in Belgium.
“They’d rush us, we’d beat them back; we’d charge them, they’d beat us back. We were fighting through a café and out in front, there’s a World War I monument.
“I stopped firing at 11 o’clock. The sergeant-at-arms gave me a boot in the rear and said ‘What are you stopping for?’ He gave me a hell of a look and told me to keep going.”
With Canadian troops in Afghanistan and hotspots across the globe, the threat of war continues to exist even today, but according to Armstrong, it doesn’t need to happen.
“Education is the key against war,” he said. “There may come a time when [war] will happen, when they will ask you to go.
“Know why you’re going. Get educated, ask questions and hold your politicians responsible.”
Armstrong spends a lot of his spare time as a part of Living History, a program through the Royal Canadian Legion that gives veterans a chance to tell their stories to today’s youth.
“Military history is not being taught in our schools. Some kids know absolutely nothing about Canadian military history,” Armstrong said.
One particular class talk stands out for Armstrong. During the question and answer period, a student stood and wanted to ask a question for his friend.
“I asked him, ‘Why doesn’t your friend ask the question?’ and he said ‘It’s because he’s German.’ ”
Armstrong told the kid to stand up and ask his question. The question was what he thought of the average German solider.
“I told the kid he was an excellent solider, a good soldier,” Armstrong said. “The kid was amazed. He thought I’d hate him. I don’t hate. That all stopped 60 years ago. That stuff’s done with.”
But the generation that sacrificed so much is slowly disappearing.
“When we started [Living History], we had 33 members. Now we’re down to eight active members. The rest are gone, in hospitals or can’t drive,” Armstrong said. “We haven’t done bad though. We’ve covered a lot of ground and spoken to a lot of kids.”
Remembrance Day may have passed, but the Living History program will go on.
“People don’t realize we do this 10 months of the year. We do it all through the school term. But they only want to see it once a year,” Armstrong said.
Veterans from the Second World War are disappearing fast, but his work is helping to keep their memories alive.
Armstrong points out a plaque that stands at the end of a bridge in Arnhem, Holland, part of a key Allied offensive in the Second War and a place where many Canadians fell.
Remember us. We gave up our tomorrows so you could have your todays.