I remember sitting on the floor in a forest of trouser legs, nylon stockings and high heels plick-placking on hardwood floor, as the drinking at my brother’s christening party gathered steam when I was not quite 4 years old. Bits of cigarette ash flicked and floated down to the gray carpet as I wondered whether any party eats would be left over—or just that horrible Imperial Cheese, with its bitter taste and handsome red box. Would a few devilled eggs survive?
Ice tinkled in glasses and giggles became shrill, guffaws heartier, as the booze went down and the volume went up. In one corner was the bassinette with women cooing and peering, as my mother reminded them repeatedly that she “wasn’t cut out for the mother business” and that Joel was an “ugly brute.” It was all done in that ever-so-clever way that sickened me even then. I felt left out on the floor with my gray short pants and shirt and tie, which I had to put on for the occasion.
I remember my father on the balcony overlooking the forest that rose behind the streak of apartment buildings lining Ridgewood Avenue in Montreal. He, like most Montrealers, was complete only with a drink in hand. He was joined by Walter Turner, his city editor, who had a large, shiny black Packard outside that kids were not allowed to touch. As usual, other newspapermen and women who had come to the party were talking to each other. One turned on the radio, a prized possession, but after battling with the static, they gave up.
There are photos of me shortly after my birth. It’s Christmas 1944 and I’m at the press club with my sozzled mother and bespectacled father, drinks of course in hand. There are the obligatory smiles, but neither looks happy about the burden thrust upon them. I stare bewildered into the camera.
When I was 21, my mother brought out the front page of The New York Times from the day of my birth, thirteen days after D-Day: “25,000 Nazis Trapped at Cherbourg as Allies Smash from the Coast,” ran the double-deck cross-the-top banner – most unlike the usually tombstoned New York Times. More typically and lower down on the page was a three-deck one-column head announcing, “Helsinki Falls to Russians.” Sadly, the Nazis didn’t stay trapped, as my future regiment was about to discover at the Failaise Gap, and Finland took many years to bid farewell to its Russians.
I remember nothing of the war, of course. But its drumbeat was loud in those years and a serious presence into the 1960s. My birth in 1944 marks me as a War Baby, just as my brother’s birth, only nearly four years later, marks him as a Baby Boomer (1946-64). The difference, though slight in time, is profound, marked by different attitudes to most of the events that followed.
I find that those born from 1939 to 1945 share much the same outlook, while those born after are a different group, often with sharply differing experiences. War babies came from a harsher world. Boomers briefly experienced the last gasp of school savagery, which took on the renewed strength of a death rattle in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but it quickly died off, giving way to a more permissive outlook that remains a force today.
My father and I shared poor vision. His prevented him from joining the regular army, though he held a commission in Le Regiment de Chateauguay, which was on permanent reserve. As he could not go to the front, he was asked to go to Ottawa to work for the military propaganda machine but declined. “I would rather serve my country sorting through the crap than producing it.” I remember getting my glasses when I was 10 and noting that I could see the words Tupper Street on the street sign with unbelievable clarity. And when I was 15, being flatly rejected for Soldier Apprentice Plan because of my eyesight. Having hoped to join that kinder, gentler organization called the Canadian Army, I was once again returned to the brutality of Westmount High School.
Memories are filled with colourful magazines from the States, and with our apartment’s basement locker packed with wartime memorabilia—an SS helmet, a Nazi dagger, a German belt buckle and the 1928 Golden Gloves Cup from my late Uncle Frank’s estate. There were also several bound volumes of Boys Own’ and Chums magazines Uncle Jack had left behind. I loved them, with their picture stories of Bulldog Drummond in Borneo and exciting accounts of derring-do in the British Empire, of which Canada was still very much a part.
I spent hours in the basement wearing the Nazi helmet and reading Chums or Boys’ Own and a goodly collection of comic books I had amassed. But it was most fun daydreaming about being one of the pirates in Borneo chasing the headhunters as one of Bulldog’s men. After that, I took special care with apartment lockers everywhere we moved and organised things so that I had a safe house well stocked for a long stay. That was one of the reasons I never spoke of going there but fitted each out for sleeping, stocking them with food and can openers and water and finding nearby drains to piss in.
I was already military-minded, but so many of us were in those days. My favorite radio show was Horatio Hornblower, with tales of battleships, the roar of guns, the clang of steel and the crash of musketry, as well as the creaking of ships’ timbers under sail, heading out to station or westering home. It all came alive on radio. I was more navy than army. This was encouraged when my father read me the first chapters of Treasure Island. But nothing could beat the radio aboard HMS Renown and other ships of the line, in which first Mr. Midshipman Hornblower and eventually Captain Hornblower served, fighting France and Spain and piratical tyrants on the high seas.
In those days, my father was helpful in explaining things but would inevitably chide me for not showing as much interest in school. Indeed, I did apply myself to things naval with a passion and knew about bow chasers, stern chasers, broadsides, coming about, yawing, tacking, the drills of marines and naval battles and tactics in a way that amazed adults. It was fun shining at those rare moments. “He’s so bright,” my mother said in exasperation.
Outside, street life was idyllic between the ages of 5 and 8. Ridgewood Avenue snaked its way up the backside of Westmount. It was geographically “Westmount,” the mountain, but socially a district called Cote des Neiges, the “snow side” that faced the prevailing northwesterlies in winter, and for the same reason was blessed by cooling breezes in summer. After a mile-long stretch of cemetery, and a further northern expanse of residential neighbourhoods, followed by a tract of light industry, followed by a scattering of mountain villages off the island of Montreal, there was nothing but trees till Moscow. Not a whiff of pollution in a time when most garbage was burnt in apartment building incinerators and garbage cans were known as ash cans because ashes were what they were filled with. These ashes were often used on snowy roads to give traction to cars, which drove about with tires clasped in chain netting. The sound of chains rattling around like a million Jacob Marleys was one of those unforgettable memories of my early winters.
Westmount, one of 27 municipalities that make up Montreal, began at the top of our forested Cote des Neiges, and descended in geographical and social altitude from appropriately named Summit Circle southward for 20 blocks, each house socially inferior to the house north of it. No Jew was permitted to buy property north of Mount Rose Avenue, through strict WASP/Catholic property owner agreements.
Grand houses became less grand when the land leveled out into the “Flat,” which described the terrain and much of the housing there. Finally came the Slump, from the edge of the Flat at Dorchester Boulevard down another hill until Westmount ended at St. Antoine Street, named after St Anthony, the patron saint of lost things. From there, the land continued as a gently sloping coastal plain in my father’s old French district of St. Henry.
This was properly the lower town, which ran for a mile down to the waterfront. As the lower plain extended east of Atwater and St. Antoine, it became known as the West End, or later Little Burgundy. This was peopled by famine Irish, Canadian Pacific Railway blacks, who maintained the West End Sports Club in defiance, and sundry others right down to the waterfront along the Lachine Canal and the river. The southernmost street was fittingly called Workman Street, and my mother feared we would end up there, just as she hoped we might one day strike it rich and move to Summit Circle.
A world away socially, yet less than a hundred yards from our domain, lay the great gulf between Summit Circle and our forested lair. We had little contact with the grand houses on top of the Hill, and found only houses, driveways and closed garage doors when we ventured there. There was St. Joseph’s Oratory, a huge non-church still in the building stage, next to us on the reverse slope of Westmount. It had been under construction for decades and would be for decades more. Its back door at the very top was within snowball range of the first of the grand houses. The Oratory had an enormous dome and a large altar for great ecclesiastical celebrations, to which we hell-bound Prods (which included Jews and Greek Orthodox) were definitely not invited.
At the bottom of the steep slope was our school, its rear stuck into the forest. In the woods on the east side of the school boundary there was a foundry, with a blacksmith’s shop and stable. The church used horses for haulage, and the blacksmith shop and foundry also included a sculptors’ workshop to fashion huge statues of saints and Virgin Mary to ornament the rising masonry. Miracles were supposed to have happened there, and a chapel stood nearby where the miraculously cured left their crutches behind. There were a hundred steps up from the bottom and many of the devout knelt to pray at each one to seek God’s help. We were told they kept the heart of the Oratory’s founder Brother Andre in a bottle, adding to the pressure to canonize him.
It was all Catholic weirdness to us Protestants. What few Catholics we knew got huffy and strangely magical about these things when we brought them up. But Catholic or not, we loved the foundry and the blacksmith shop in its forested hideaway. On the way home from school, we stopped in to watch the work. The blacksmith and ironmonger, both jovial French Canadians who spoke English, welcomed us in. They made railings and decorative ironwork to go with the Oratory’s ever-ascending walls and stairs swirling up in flights towards the dome. It is the biggest church building I have ever seen. The monumental shrine was the first sight that greeted visitors flying or driving into the city.
At the smithy, we watched the red-hot irons plunge into the water. As we gained the trust of the two smiths, we were given fetch and carry chores. Sometimes, they let us hit the angry red iron with the hammer, roaring at us to strike harder. We tried to smash that metal to smithereens. They let us clasp the searing metal bars and horseshoes with the tongs and submerge them into the water trough with all its hissing and splashing.
The forest was a joy, as I imagine it still is for kids, though it has been reduced by new construction. We ran through the woods, crossing open meadows to and from school without seeing a car. But we usually walked along Cote des Neiges Road at the foot of Ridgewood to catch friends and sometimes grabbed the back bumpers of streetcars to slide along behind on the snow-packed road. The trick was never to hold on too tightly; always be ready to let go—a patch of pavement could appear at any second, flipping us on our faces. The same caution was needed in grabbing onto the backs of trucks from a bicycle.
Ridgewood did not go up as far as it does today. Apartment buildings were rising all the time. The one that stands above the Shell station was built when we were there. Foundations were laid by blasting out the rock with dynamite under great burlap nets to keep shattered stones from flying. A steam whistle blew, and an expanse of earth heaved up with sudden drama, a wondrous sight from our window. We also, on dares, climbed up and jumped off the cliffs into the snow accumulating on the gas station roof ten feet below, and jumped off the roof itself into drifts piled up against the walls by snowplows 20 feet below. I note the cliffs have since been encased in chain-link fencing, closing off one of our favourite ledges.
Beside Ridgewood, to the east, was the straight up and down street of Forest Hill, which despite its English name was a new French settlement. We twice engaged the Frenchies in rock fights across the fence separating our domains. The fights were largely ceremonial. No one was really interested in advancing a front. I got another swatting from my father when I returned home with blood streaming down my face, thinking he would be proud of my role in the action. After a French rock struck home, I got up and fired off a couple more. Papa spoke French bravely, and believed in their good nature.
There had been talk of sending me to a French school, but the school’s disinclination to have me—or any non-French non-Catholic—and prayer taking up so much of its curriculum put an end to that idea. It was always hoped I would “pick up” French as my father did on the street, forgetting that no one spoke French on Ridgewood, and we were at war with the Frenchies on Forest Hill. Throwing rocks at the “Frenchies,” a word that would immediately earn a cuff if used, did not contribute to the bonhomie he saw developing. They were hostile to the English and I believed in reciprocity.
But the French dimension played little role in the life of the boys in our street. Our English enclave that ran the half-mile between Ridgewood and school was a forested battleground, and our weapons were cap guns and stick rifles. One boy had a brother in the Korean War with the Canadian Army and we all stood at his house on Remembrance Day for two long minutes. The atmosphere was serious, and I then knew war was more than fun stories. In those days, cars pulled over at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month and we wore poppies. Teachers recited “In Flanders Fields” and took pains to tell us about the throwing of the torch and “the larks bravely singing fly scarce heard amid the guns below.” Later, study of Rupert Brooke’s poem, “there is a plot in a foreign field that is forever England,” kept the theme going for years.
It became clearer that my mother and father were breaking up when we moved to Tupper Street—in hallowed Westmount, but barely. I passed grades 1, 2 and 3 by the “skin of my teeth,” as my mother was fond of saying, with repeated failures in English, French and math, but this performance would no longer be tolerated at my new school, Queen’s, on Olivier Avenue. My mother’s angry cries over poor school reports sounded completely ridiculous when she said: “If you don’t do well in school, you will never get into McGill!” To my mind McGill University was more school. So if I did not do well at something I hated, I would be deprived of an opportunity to do more of what I hated. Couldn’t she see it didn’t make sense?
After the idyllic forests of Ridgewood, the gritty back lanes of Tupper Street were a comedown. We were in Westmount, of course, but less than a snowball’s throw to the border of downtown Montreal. We were on the worst edge of the Flat, and only a block from the Slump that descended into lower town.
I rated Cote des Neiges School bad, but it wasn’t a patch on evil emanating from Queen’s. Here the brutality came not only from teachers, but pupils, too. From the occasional strapping and the odd swat in class at Cote des Neiges, Queen’s added yardsticks on the bum, running shoes on the bum and real blows to the back of the head, hair pulling, ear twisting from the principal and teachers.
We boys frequently carried knives, most favouring the Jim Bowie knife with its sharpened upper side blade made popular because of the Davy Crocket craze. I managed to receive proper training in knife fighting from an expert, and a nifty British commando knife, which I slung with a series of neckties under my Harris Tweed jacket like a shoulder holster for a pistol. Mostly, though, it was fists and baseball bats. Knives rarely flashed. I remember one kid getting cut, but it was all hushed up and ascribed to something else when the ambulance came. I took a stab that missed at a kid in the Unity Boy’s Club on Greene Avenue during a Zorro movie when he kept kicking me and calling me “four-eyes” because of my new glasses.
As before, classes began with the Lord’s Prayer, God Save the Queen and O Canada. There were constant visits to the office for strappings, and occasionally Mr. Pitcairn, the principal, wearing gray flannels, shiny black shoes and a blue blazer with the Royal Canadian Air Force crest, made menacing sorties into our classroom to threaten us with more. Between that hard place of school and home, there were also the “hard rock” kids, like Sullivan, Callaghan and Jimmy Prince. Jimmy Prince looked thoroughly cool in his black leather motorcycle jacket and like the rest of the hard rocks favoured flight boots with zippers undone to display the sheepskin lining. I couldn’t imagine watching Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy movies and siding with the bad guys. But they did. It seemed so odd. There were also the ad hoc bullying gangs from Weredale House (a local orphanage), who would gather resentfully together and occasionally make attacks on people they didn’t like. My dress was conventional, but un-kidlike. I wore a shirt and tie with a sports jacket and trousers at my mother’s insistence. It was about the only thing the teachers liked about me, but it was also a source of resentment for the local toughs.
Terror from my mother, the school staff and the hard rocks became part of the terrain, and so my terror management system became more sophisticated and complex. Mostly, it was avoidance and knowledge of routes and secondary routes and even tertiary routes out of trouble from every possible point in the trip from home to school. There was also home to worry about. The ancient Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu’s precepts were mine long before I read him as an adult and felt I was reading the work of a gifted colleague. Von Clausewitz did not strike me the same way, though at least one of Old Cloudy’s ideas was absorbed with profit: that soldiers become spectacularly better at things they repeat. Perhaps it is a glimpse into the obvious, but it is the enormous extent to which it is true that makes the point observant and worthwhile.
Perhaps not paying attention to Old Cloudy, much less Sun Tzu, as I should have done, I was sloppy and suddenly found myself engaged with bullies and in a moment was felled by a baseball bat across the shins. I managed to get home only with the help of my friends George and Dennis, who fled the action but returned to get me as I lay writhing under the steel fire escape after school.
Another time, I knew there would be trouble because they had been promising it all day. Nor would my knife be any use against a baseball bat and two knife wielders. Having seen them lying in wait in the lane beside the boys’ yard, and the school nearly kid-free, I went through the girls’ yard on the other side of the building and then into the back lane that connected to another lane leading to Olivier Avenue where the school faced but was separated by 50 yards of terraced housing. Two of them were not in line of sight, but one was stationed in the lane slightly in front of the school, commanding a view of my intended traverse.
This was the tricky bit. Crossing at 50 yards, I had to assume I would be spotted as I crossed the street, though if I could see a group of two or three people crossing about the same time, I could join them and they might miss me entirely. Risk diminished slightly when I entered the seemingly dead-end lane, because they had to see me through two sets of frost fencing at 80 to 100 yards, and I had removed my tweed jacket to reveal a white shirt, which would help throw Callaghan off the scent. But the street was deserted other than Callaghan. I knew Sullivan and Jimmy Prince were just around the corner out of sight.
I crossed Oliver briskly but not at a run. The apparently dead-end lane ran east along the northern side of the schoolyard fence and was seemingly blocked by a garage at the other. Either they had to miss seeing me as I squeezed through between the garage wall and made a getaway, or I had to draw them after me. I could not allow them to watch me from their present position, because after I got through or even as I was getting through, they could go around the other side of the schoolyard, or worse still, divide their forces and send one or two in pursuit with a baseball bat, while the other met me on the other side with knives.
Having figured out distances and timing, I had worked out a plan that involved them committing their whole force to catching me in what they—and everyone else—thought was a dead end. Callaghan was the first to bite and alerted the others, but Jimmy Prince looked like he was deciding what to do, as if he thought it strange I would run into a dead end. But Sullivan and Callaghan were in pursuit and Jimmy Prince joined them at a trot. In the end, I made it look as if I were trapped. I ran around desperately, supposedly looking for an escape slot, as they came roaring down at me at 25 yards. I waited until Prince started to run and turned the corner as Callaghan and Sullivan were closing at 10 to 15 yards. Then I scraped though the rat gap and jammed the hockey stick in the frost fencing and into the buttress beam, which made the fence too tight to allow them through. I left them struggling and went off through the Steinberg’s parking lot and into the lanes for home. As much as I was pleased—and proud—that my scheme worked, I was also aware that it could never be used again, and I started working on a Plan B for the next week, because this was a Friday. Fridays were good because so much happened to these guys over a weekend, they completely forgot about whatever happened two or three days before.
Ironically, the best birthday present I ever received came every year from Queen’s School. On June 19, they let us all out for the summer. So on my 10th birthday, there were only the home fires to deal with. Of course, they would get pretty hot when my parents received my report card, which I had not given them, saying I had failed the year and would have to repeat it. That would be another beating. But not if I kept the report card and put it into the mailbox the day I left for summer camp. What rages occurred would occur in my absence, and a beating deferred was often a beating denied. Either way, I would be heading into Grade 4 again the next year.