The memories of global war may be distant for many, but across Canada, the landscape is dotted with tiny memorabilia shops where customers can reminisce about those turbulent days.
One such establishment is the Spitfire Emporium located on the outskirts of Kitchener, Ont. Customers have no trouble finding it because of the replica Spitfire fighter plane perched on top of the roof. Inside, the sound of a Spitfire engine signals the sign-on of the store's computer.
Owner Ray Whittemore, who started the shop 10 years ago beside his surplus-goods store, says he has always been fascinated with the aircraft of the Second World War. Whittemore, in his 60s, was too young to have fought in the war, but he grew up with talk of it still fresh. In 1986, he joined the Harvard Aircraft Association and met war veterans like fighter pilot Charley Fox, and a new world opened up.
It was on a trip to England in 1994 that Whittemore first spotted replicas of various aircraft in museums. He contacted a manufacturer and ordered two planes — one a Spitfire, which sits on the store roof, and the other a Hurricane that he donated to a heritage organization in Hamilton. He put the call letters of Fox's plane on the Spitfire. Soon after, a bylaw enforcement officer showed up insisting he get a permit to display it. (He acquired one.)
Whittemore didn't need a permit for the Russian tank parked in his lot. As customers in vans jockey for parking spots, the tank sits there rain or shine. "It's a Russian tank produced just after World War II," Whittemore explains. "Syria used it in the Six Day War with Israel and it was captured by the Israelis. Somehow it got over to the United States. These days, kids are always climbing on it."
With a plane on the roof of his surplus goods store and a tank in the parking lot, it was only a matter of time before the Spitfire Emporium was born.
"It wasn't started as a business venture," Whittemore says. "It's more of a hobby put into a business."
The store has every bit of air-force paraphernalia you can imagine, from reproductions of flying goggles and aviator jackets to models and pilots' notes for aircraft of days gone by. Pilots and their families often show up with wartime memorabilia. One pilot brought in flying pants, flying helmets, dress caps and a Russian high-altitude inflatable suit. Whittemore says a Nazi dagger from 1935 showed up one day, and he's hung on to it since.
"There are a lot of those types of memorabilia around, but it's usually veterans from the armed forces who have them. They used to grab flags and other things," he says.
Among customers, the most popular model planes are the Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster, aircraft in which Canadians flew. Americans love the Mustang.
Whittemore also has old navigational instruments from bombers. He marvels at how basic the navigational equipment was. "It was very old-fashioned, but they usually got back alright," he says.
The store stocks prints of planes by artists like top aviation painter Robert Taylor. Many of the prints have been signed by Second World War pilots, making them even more valuable. As well, the shop sells a host of wartime DVDs ranging from classics like The Blue Max to The Dambusters and 12 O'Clock High. There are even CDs of airplane sounds, complete with the hum of the engine starting up from the cockpit, and including recordings of aircraft doing passes and going overhead, for die-hard airplane lovers.
For Whittemore, the appeal of pilots and their aircraft is powerful.
"These fighter pilots were almost like knights of the air. They had a code of honour that included respecting the enemy. If they shot up a plane and a fellow parachuted out, they didn't try to shoot him in the parachute. Often they would just salute and fly away," he says. (The Geneva Conventions now ban attacks on pilots parachuting from distressed aircraft.)
Over the years, collectors, former pilots from the Second World War, Snowbirds and even some astronauts have visited the store. Those visits have made for some great stories.
"As veterans get older, they're more inclined to talk about the war," says illustrator Lance Russwurm, who works at the store. "They're more interested in leaving a legacy. A lot of them, who wouldn't have talked 30 years ago, will talk now.
"We also get a lot of sons and daughters of vets coming in here. Sometimes their father has just passed away and they want to find out more about him. Somehow they're more interested in hearing those war stories now, even though they've heard them a hundred times."
Russwurm says former pilots talk about both the adventure and the horror of war. "It depends on the war they had. Some guys who flew airplanes didn't see their opponent up close, although one day we had a man in here who had flown Spitfires. When I remarked that it must have been an interesting war, he told me he didn't want to talk about it.
"Later on, he apologized for snapping at me and explained he was shot down in the Pacific and spent most of the war in a Japanese prisoner of war camp."
For most of the pilots, Whittemore says, it's about the friends they made. "Most of them don't want to talk about the horrors of war, but rather the camaraderie."
That camaraderie is still alive and well, as are the memories inside his tiny shop. Those memories will burn even brighter on Remembrance Day.