‘Still full speed ahead’: Second World War flyer, 95, keeps on serving as volunteer at veterans hospital

TORONTO — Albert Wallace is talking about luck and the nature of longevity. The old Air Force gunner explains that his good luck began when the Germans couldn’t find a way to kill him during the Second World War and continued after the war ended since life, like the Germans, hasn’t been able to kill him either.

“I quit smoking in 1962, and I was never much of a boozer,” says Wallace, who is 95, “going on 96.”

He eats a banana most days, a fruit craving he developed after being shot down and subsequently fruit- (and meat and heat) deprived in a German prisoner of war camp. Nowadays, Wallace gets plenty to eat, bananas included, and ample rest. But when he is awake he is typically on the go, zipping about in a blue Nissan. When on foot, he walks with a sense of purpose not to mention the pace of a much younger man who is in a hurry. And on a Wednesday morning in early November, Wallace was keen to walk.

Allen Agostino for NPAllen Agostino for NPAlbert Wallace, 95 holds a photo of himself from 1942.

He volunteered to fight for his country almost 75 years ago and he is still volunteering now, and has been once a week for the past 25 years at the Sunnybrook Centre, a long-term care home for about 475 Second World War and Korean War .

“I just think I still owe a bit to the country, and what I did (during the war), I can’t do much more now,” Wallace says. “But I lost many friends in the war, and so there’s nowhere else I’d rather volunteer.”

George Polak, a Vietnam veteran, quarterbacks the volunteer operation at Sunnybrook. He hands Wallace a slip of paper with a name and a room number on it. His mission? Get to that room, collect the veteran waiting there, and then push him in his wheelchair wherever he needs to go, be it an art therapy class or a medical appointment or a workout at the gym.

Wallace’s uniform once consisted of a bomber’s jacket, a parachute and an inflatable life jacket that Air Force fliers referred to as “Mae Wests.” His volunteer duds feature a blue Sunnybrook vest with a name tag on it that says “Al”, plus a gold pin recognizing his decades of service at the hospital and a sturdy pair of brown loafers, with thick socks, that keep his feet comfortable as he power-walks his charges from place to place.

“I tell you, Al is in pretty good shape,” says Don Warlow, an 87-year-old Korean War veteran. Wallace passes a guy with a cane, another with a walker and a third in a wheelchair on the way to Warlow’s 11:30 a.m. workout at the gym.

But Wallace isn’t all business during his volunteer shift. He enjoys talking shop with his fellow volunteers, a group that includes an ever-dwindling number of veterans of a similar vintage, including Bill Talbot, an ex-paratrooper who fought in D-Day; Janet Watt, from the women’s naval service; and Jack Reid, an old navy man. Between assignments, Wallace scans for familiar faces in the hospital halls. Poking his head into the lunchroom, he spies one.

Allen Agostino for National PostAllen Agostino for National PostAlbert Wallace, 95, at Sunnybrook Veterans Centre, to which he drives once a week to volunteer.

Jim Eddy is skinny as a matchstick and bent. He uses a walker to get around and has just finished a plate of wieners and beans, which is a pretty damn fine meal, if you ask Eddy. For dessert, Eddy is carting around a Styrofoam cup full of cherry tomatoes. Like Wallace, he is a former PoW. The pair met after the war at a reunion in England for their squadron — the 419. The squadron’s symbol was a moose, its motto: “Beware of the moose.”

Eddy and Wallace used to get together weekly for lunch with about 20 other veterans from their old unit. Now they are the only two left — both are 95 — and they rib each other mercilessly.

“We both got shot down,” Eddy says, eyeing his pal. “Only he got killed. But Al is a real pain in the ass, you know.” Eddy then turns serious: “Al is phenomenal, he is still going, and I’ve been a resident here for about five years and I couldn’t stand the, what do you call it, Al?

“The pressure?”

“That’s right, Al, the pressure,” Eddy says. “I couldn’t stand the pressure of having to do [what you do].”

Allen Agostino for National PostAllen Agostino for National PostAlbert Wallace, 95, pushes war buddy Donald Warlow in Sunnybrook Veterans Centre.

Of having to get up every week and climb into his blue Nissan in Richmond Hill and drive down to the hospital so that he can push men, many younger than he is, around in their wheelchairs. Wallace always bends in close to chitchat with the veterans. Asking them what unit they were in, and what they did in the war — and how isn’t it just amazing that they all came back alive and here they are now, together, in the twilight of this life, in a hospital built just for them.

“I just like the atmosphere here,” Wallace says. “I like visiting the guys, and I am going to keep it going until I can’t keep it up anymore. And, at the moment, I am still full speed ahead.”

National Post

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