“You always wanted to fly. Well, now’s your chance,” were the words of encouragement that Bob Middleton preached to himself as he enlisted to fight in the Second World War.
Fresh out of Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute, in June 1942, Middleton left a new job to sign up for the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was 19 years old.
Centennial College’s Story Arts Centre hosted a Remembrance Day service last Friday, where students, faculty, and community members alike came together to listen to the testimonies of two Second World War veterans and one current sub-lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy, currently in his 23rd year of active service.
As he was interviewed on stage by various journalism students, Middleton explained that he attributes his willingness to serve his country to his unfaltering patriotism – something he admired in those around him at the time.
“You know how the Americans love the flag? They just love their country. They sing the songs, and we used to have that,” Middleton said. “Now we’ve lost that and we’ve [got to] get back.”
With the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the U.S., Middleton commented on these growing tensions, and how some spew hatred under the guise of patriotism.
“I don’t think there’s any such thing as true patriotism being a form of anything but love of your country,” Middleton said in an interview.
“That’s what it’s for. That’s what it’s meant to be.”
Middleton had a way of turning even the worst wartime circumstances into memorable ones. He explained his stance on the war as being something that gave him the opportunity to fly.
“So I had a great grand time… I wound up as a navigator and that happened for the best. As a navigator, I survived.”
Throughout all the stories which Middleton told, he never dwelled on the difficult moments of his time in the Royal Canadian Air Force. According to him, the hardest part of the war was “not finding a pub.”
Sub-Lt. Rodney Carew, a healthcare administration officer in the Royal Canadian Navy was another figure on stage. His lapel was similarly decorated with various medals and a poppy as he shared his experiences serving in the navy, and what that entails in this day and age.
His answer to the same question, “What was your most difficult experience while serving?” was much different than Middleton’s.
“One of my best friends passed away after we got home from our first tour. So, my hardest day in uniform was probably going to his funeral,” said Carew, referring to on Michael Laidlaw who died in 2004 while serving at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Whidbey Island, in the state of Washington.
“I keep this thing from his funeral in my hat, so I don’t forget.”
Speaking on patriotism, and how that translates into his life, Carew explained the differences he sees between veterans and the culture surrounding the military in 2019.
“There are stories from the Second World War where people literally killed themselves because they couldn’t go [to war], because they felt such a calling. It’s not as prevalent now.” Carew said. “When I wear my uniform out in Toronto, I get some stares because people aren’t used to it.”
Men like Middleton excitedly tell stories of the war, regarding those years as unforgettable experiences. But military efforts didn’t end when the war did, and Middleton has a lesson to teach those, like Carew, who are currently serving.
“Do your best to work hard. You do what’s right. If you’ve got people underneath you, like, you’re in charge of, treat them like a human being. Because they all are,” Middleton said. “You do more with sugar than you can with vinegar.”