My brother and I were the unwanted children of reasonably successful journalists who hated each other by the time I was 5 in 1950. Neither was particularly interested in us, though my father was sympathetic to our plight. But being able to escape Mother for the joys of the Montreal Men's Press Club, he was largely indifferent to her drunken rages that befell us while he held court among his hard-drinking friends in far more convivial surroundings. My mother, stuck with two rambunctious boys, was more sympathetic to her own plight and freely slapped us when we were annoying, which we frequently were.
Don't get me wrong. Kids were beaten in Canada in those days, and while our treatment was more vicious and capricious than most, it was not out of line with what boys suffered back then. I was surprised to learn that parents were far more lenient in the States, but not surprised to learn discipline was more severe in England. As usual, Canada was halfway between the two. When my father was occasionally forced to take a hairbrush to my bare bum, he did so with half-hearted reluctance and appeared as glad as I was to have it done with.
Offences ranged from putting a can of tomato soup on the stove, lighting the burner and waiting for it to explode to theft from purses and wallets to tracking in snow from the street. I was thoroughly beaten for taking my father's Beretta 25 to school to shoot a teacher if, after a fair warning, he chose to raise a hand to beat me, as he had promised to do the day before. Had he struck a blow, I would have pulled the trigger. It never came to that and the gun was taken home. But my friend Andy Roman told on me, and my father lacked no enthusiasm for the beating he administered on that occasion. He even took a break and resumed striking me with his belt for another ten minutes. But he said that the beating would be redoubled if he ever learned I had further association with Andy Roman. An informer was to be loathed above all things. We were Irish, after all.
That was my father's shtick, though. I was quite enamoured of being British, not in any competitive sense. It was my day-to-day background going to a Protestant school. My father had gone to a Catholic school, which instilled hostility to Britain in a pro-American way. But the British connection was stressed by our teachers. The Union Jack flew everywhere, and we said the Lord's Prayer (Jews, who formed a quarter of the class, had to stand) and "pledged allegiance to the flag and the Dominion for which it stands." My mother, while liking Irish writers, was definitely American, prizing her U.S. passport above all things.
I was a very poor student, though I had every mark of intelligence. Adults never tired of telling me how “bright" I was. But I had a great deal of trouble learning what was being taught. I spoke properly, avoiding such mispronunciations as "pitcher" for “picture” or "dese, dem and dose," which were common in the schoolyard. Yet I could never wrap my head around formal rules of grammar, despite a reputation for writing and speaking without breaking them. Math was a horror, though I had a good sense of proportion. I also had a slight stammer, which I think was related to what would later be called a learning disability, that contributed to all my scholastic faults. In two subjects I excelled effortlessly—history and geography. Having read memoirs of Montgomery, Churchill and Eisenhower when I was 14 and 15, I raced ahead of the class in the textbooks. One time I won the school prize in history and geography while failing the whole year overall.
So school was a horror from start to finish, and my only real family from the age of 13 was the cadet corps of Black Watch, a Montreal militia regiment, which I think became a home for many a lost boy. And after three summer-long camps with the army, I had my heart set on becoming a soldier with one of the regular battalions of the Black Watch. I was utterly crushed when the army's 4th Personnel Depot rejected me because of my admittedly poor eyesight.
An ex-colonel of the regiment managed to get me a job as a messenger for a printing firm, which I abandoned when I heard that my step-brother (my mother had divorced and remarried) was giving up his copyboy job at the morning daily, the Gazette, to work as an assistant at the Roxboro Public Library, which he ended up running 20 years later.
As a messenger I might move up into the trades at the print shop, but as a copyboy one might advance to be a reporter, an editor and even—dream of dreams—a war correspondent. At last I felt I had a future. The Gazette wasn't a job, it was a passion.