Stephen Campbell - Life Member, Class of 1972 from Vaudreuil-Dorion, QC
I sat down today and jotted own some memories from my past about Christmas. You said on Facebook that you would appreciate stories in lieu of comments...so this happened. Merry Christmas to you Angus. I know hat your journey is going to be down the road. There is a lot of cancer in my family and a lot of success stories. Yours will definitely be a huge success. Do whatever you have to do to survive. You are a Bright Light and a beacon in these dark time. Like those precious Lighthouses that I am so fond of you will illuminate a path where only darkness resides right now. God Bless you and your entire family.
Privileges of Christmases Past
This is not a Dickensonian commentary but the memories of Christmas that come to me in my sixth decade of this particular life. I mentioned privilege in the title because I feel that it is a privilege to still be here when I have seen too many people my age pass away unexpectedly. When we were young we never considered where our journey would take us, how long that journey would be or that the journey would ever end. We were relentless Souls who were going to take advantage of all of the knowledge that preceded our own and we were going to extract the small, priceless gens that were embedded in the ore of everything that we or anybody else knew. We were going to do things better than any other generation and we were going to do things faster and more efficiently than our ancestors because we were the generation that was truly going to change the world forever. All of the barriers that had stood in the path of the relentless progress of our predecessors were not going to stand in our way and we were anxious to go out and prove that to the world as quickly as we possibly could.
I was born on October 18, 1954 to a loving family in Verdun, Quebec. The community that lay just outside the front door was a basically blue collar and working class individual that for the first time in their recent history was experiencing prosperity. The Second World War had ended and The Allies had claimed victory and the spoils of war were rewarding North America in Particular. “The Boys” had come home and reclaimed their positions at the controls of the heavy machinery that had established North America as an industrial and military power. The casualties of that war were not just the many Souls who lost their lives in defence of their beliefs. When the war machine was engaged in its highest gear women had filled the roles that men had occupied before they volunteered to go overseas and defend their positions. Women proved that there was a viable place for their talents outside of the home and other than just bearing and rearing children. Unfortunately the rights of women would take another two decades before their talents would be recognized and embraced by a society that was going to break all of the rules that we had become comfortable living with.
The generation that was born and reared by these new variable trends was My Generation. I never knew what it was like to go hungry or what it was like to experience poverty. My Father was never worried about losing his job and My Mother never worried about paying the bills once a month when that precious paycheque was deposited in the bank. I’m not saying that we were rich but we were wealthy. In 1953 My Father purchased an automobile that he parked in a garage below our second storey flat on the corner of Monteith and Valiquette Streets. That automobile gave us the freedom to go wherever we wanted to whenever we wanted to go somewhere. We travelled to the edges of the universe to places like P.E.I., Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and multiple trips to where my parents were born on The Gaspé Coast. Short trips may have included Plattsburgh beach in New York State or Frontier Village or Santa Claus Village. There were always the bumper stickers wrapped around the rear bumper of the car to prove that you had actually been to the place that you would brag about to your friends when you returned.
Life was good because as soon as your feet hit the street at the bottom of the stairs there were children your own age pouring out of their flats looking for something to do. Luckily there was no peer pressure because we all pretty much had the same toys and the same clothes and the same experiences as all of the other children that we played with every day. Most of the neighbourhood was employed by Northern Electric or Canadian National Railways or Canadian Pacific Railways. Some of the men worked on ships as they had gained their stripes in The Canadian Navy or The Merchant Navy during the war. There were construction projects that were building the St. Lawrence Seaway to replace the Lachine Canal and downtown they were building something called “Skyscrapers” that would rival the established monumental structures on St. James Street or even The Notre Dame Cathedral. There seemed to be no end to how far human accomplishment could go and how fast that those accomplishments could reach.
The discipline trickled down to the productivity of those who served or those who supported those who served resulted in unrivalled prosperity. The flat where I grew up was visited by “The Bread Man”, “The Milk Man”, “The Fuller Brush Man” and “The Avon Lady”. Our milk was still delivered by a horse and wagon owned by The Guaranteed Milk Company of Montreal. There was a no parking zone in front of the flat because there was a fire hydrant right on the corner. The horse always took advantage of that space to relive himself and that gave us free hockey pucks in the winter cause for concern on hot summer days.
The streets were cleaned with power washing trucks and street sweeper and in the winter there were snow blowers and dump trucks to haul all of the snow away. A Quebec entrepreneur by the name of Bombardier invented a machine to clear the sidewalks of snow and that caused a lot of fingerprints and nose prints on the double sashed wooden windows as they passed below us. Shopping was always a family affair and something that we all looked forward to do together. We somehow knew not to ask for favours or unnecessary treats. At an early age we understood what a budget was and we respected that fact and realized that we were actually living quite comfortably. Christmas was a magical mystery tour for us long before the Beatles named an album after that fact. Wellington Street had metal arches lines with lights and music played from every small doorway tucked under the living quarters above those businesses. The grocery store that we shopped at was in a building under a bowling alley that we sometimes bowled at the duck pin alleys (before graduating to ten pins later in life). The EESO station next door had an entire Santa Claus Sleigh and Reindeer crossing its roof with Christmas Carols blaring out of a loudspeaker. That garage had a Willys Jeep from the military that had a snow plow on its nose with heavily chained wheels that I used to examine closely as my parents loaded the groceries into the limitless trunk of the Chevy. As the snow piled up along the avenues My Father would sometimes cross the street to where Doyle Motors had a used car lot and there was a shack with a wood fired stove where the vendor of spruce trees lived for a few weeks selling Christmas trees to the Faithful. The aromas of the trees and the wood smoke always made me want to be somewhere other than a flat in Verdun but I loved the fact that I could go and breathe those heavenly aromas at least once a week for a few weeks in the winter.
Dad had his own tradition for buying Christmas trees. He would bundle us all in the Chevy and head for Atwater Market. My Mother and My Sisters would browse the shops and the vendors inside Atwater Market and emerge with brown paper bags of treasures that only showed up at Christmas. Dad would walk me up to the top of the road where railway tracks ran from the St. Henri Railway Yards and we would wait for a locomotive to come our way. This was the mid-fifties and shunting was still done by small but powerful steam engines. One would always be making its way from up the tracks and would stop just outside the Market. The Brakeman would jump down from the engine and throw the iron switch to guide the train down onto the tracks beside the Market and beyond. There was a wood provider named Rutherford’s just across the street from the Market and the engine would slide into the tracks outside its warehouse and unlock cars loaded with lumber to be unloaded and housed for sale. The Brakeman would unlock the cars destined for delivery status and leave them on Rutherford’s property. The remaining cars were filled with trees from The Maritimes to be offloaded and sold at Atwater Market. The Brakeman would follow the train to the Market, pull the pins from the locks on the cars and leave the railway cars beside the Market for unloading. With a great belch of smoke and a long whistle the engine would belch out fire and hot coals from her firebox and struggle back up to the tracks that would take her back to the St. Henri Yards. Vendors would wander out and deal with a Seller that had accompanied the Maritime Trees and within a half hour or so the flatcars were empty except for the residual spruce needles and an over powering smell of spruce trees.
Dad had worked on log booms and in sawmills and he had an eye for good tree stock. He would eventually choose a tree and make it disappear into the limitless trunk of the car. The tree ended up on his shoulders and was drawn up the wooden backstairs into the flat to thaw out. My Mother would spend a week gently nurturing decoration into their perfect positions that would be surrounded by meticulously hung tinsel icicles. Patterns were pated to the windows and sprayed with “snow” and Christmas Cards began to populate the venetian blinds that could not be opened again until after January 6th when Christmas was officially over and destined to be packed away in the shed halfway down the back stairs for another year. The snowbanks up and down the streets of Verdun reflected the miles of lights that the Faithful hung out every year. There was an unofficial “competition” to over decorate the outside of your flat with as many lights a s your fuse box would allow you to light up.
That was the world that I was born into and I did not know how much my parents’ generation had suffered to provide us with this perfect life. I didn’t know that there were times when they struggled just to make ends meet even after we were born. I didn’t know the total extent of their love and commitment to us because I assumed that all children and all families lived this way. The innocent bliss of ignorance is a virtue that I still carve but also regret because I had no idea how privileged that we all were. My best and favourite memories of Christmas were formed in that precious crucible of time and circumstance that allowed me to have an extended childhood and an incredible position from which to launch the rest of my life.
The Church that we attended was Evangelical Baptist with a huge choir. The Pastor at the time had ministered as a Missionary in The Bahamas when The Bahamas were rife with diseases like malaria and yellow fever. He had buried family there while selflessly serving his Lord and he was the beacon that lit the dark futures that we were about to experience. His ministry attracted people from Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados and (inevitably) The Bahamas. Our choir was populated with the dark faces and the brilliantly bright Souls of adherents for “The Islands”. The Christmas tree was donated and the decorations and lights were the remnants of people’s castoffs. The Christmas Miracle occurred when the plug was put in its socket and ALL of the lights lit up…every year!!! For some reason when the Choir would perform their Christmas Cantata the Church would resound with joy and peace and light. Mr. Fred Spence would play The Wurlitzer organ from behind the burgundy curtains that allowed him to be invisible. That one instrument sounded like an entire orchestra and the choir sounded like all of The Angels in Heaven singing at once. The Choir Director at the time was a massive human being named Ron Hill. He was a Law Enforcement Officer with a frame and a voice that was intimidating. He was not supposed to do so but he often sang along with The Choir. You have to remember that he was not facing The Congregation and he was not supposed to be singing at the time that he was directing the Choir. Nevertheless his voice would bounce off of the mural at the back of the Baptismal Pool and enhance the notes of the Choir who could not resist smoking their approval of his commitment to the music.
It was an idyllic time to be born and raised and preparing to launch off into our own version of reality. The world was changing and the transition would occur more quickly than it had in the past. Everything would occur more quickly than it had in the past. All of the traditions and all of the personal beliefs that had been unchallenged for generations were being quietly questioned and quietly threatened by change. These times would rapidly become the nostalgic memories that we would cling to after experiencing and surviving all of the changes that we were so anxious to make. The beauty of The Christmas Season is that it seemed that world would slow down for a week or so and become reflective and peaceful and joyous and we would assume that the world would always be this way whenever we wanted it to be this way.
The St. Lawrence Seaway opened and then a new span crossed the river from Nun’s Island in Verdun to Brossard on the South Shore of Montreal. My father crossed that bridge in 1962 and bought a house that we moved into in 1963. No more flat and no more balconies and no more sheds were the immediate differences. There were also no more home deliveries and the frequency and the number of children to play with was less than when we lived in Verdun. Moving to that address was absolutely the best thing that ever happened to me and I thank God to this day that the move ever happened. My horizons got kicked out and my point of view deepened and the morals that I live with to this day were a result of moving into that community. Once again, everyone in the area was moving into their first new home. Everyone was suffering the same casualties and the same stresses and the same victories all at the same time. This to me was evolution at its ultimate high point. This was where the test of time would happen almost every day and they would only qualify you to survive more and more tests. There was no graduation from that institution and no diploma offered. If you were alive and happy …you had earned your degree…end of story.
In 1963 when I moved to Brossard I was eight years old (going to turn nine) and spoiled rotten. I’m still spoiled rotten but that is another story. The level of education between Verdun and The South Shore Protestant School Board was night and day. They had been learning French since Kindergarten in this environment and the Math and English courses were way ahead of what I was used to. Préville Elementary School was a leap of faith for me. We had a questionable School Principal named Mr. Benton who showed a great deal of leniency in allowing me to upgrade to this new curriculum. I’m a literal and linear type of person. Later in life I would discover that I am also quite dyslexic. I remember in grade three I had an Instructor who when I didn’t understand her instruction asked me to stand beside my desk so that she could make an example of me. She told me to pull up my socks if I intended to go to the school that I was attending that I needed “To pull up your socks” . So…I leaned over and literally pulled up my socks because that was what I had been told to do. My next stop was Principal Benton’s office.
The next place that I studied was Chambly County High School. No place on earth could leave a more indelible imprint on my soul. It was 1968 when I first got off the bus from Brossard and entered the hallowed halls of the school. The teachers were more like Professors and they took a personal interest in how you understood your education and what you did with that education. If that was not enough there were students who actually y liked you and invited you into their homes after school finished. Eventually you were spending weekends with them at their cottages in The Laurentians and The Eastern Townships. The basement of everybody’s home had been reserved for us. Pretty much no matter what we did was tolerated. The parents turned a blind eye to what they considered normal teenage behaviour. They were more interested that they knew where you were and what you were doing. When invited to dinner at any of these homes you knew that you were being slightly interrogated. The parents wanted to know what YOU were all about and what your influences were. Once you passed muster your information was shared by the vibrant Parent/Teacher Community long before Social Media existed. Those same parents would urge you and help you to develop once you became part of their extended family. Once again I found myself in an incredibly safe and secure environment to grow up in.
Even though this was happening in the 70’s and we all swore that we would never become our parents…we did. We went back to the times where we were safe and respected and still evolving. We went back to the source of energy that made us feel alive and propelled us to move forward with our own lives with confidence. The world changed and it changed quickly. The world never afforded us all of the luxuries that it had promised us that it would. As the world became a place that more and more difficult to deal with we found ourselves returning to the times when we felt that we were indestructible, perfect and all knowledgeable. We found ourselves nurturing another generation and in most cases another generation after that. Maybe nostalgia is the curse of having 60 or more trips around the Sun. Maybe nostalgia filters out the harsh realities of the times when we were young or maybe nostalgia just highlights all of the things that we feel that we did right. Maybe we were one of the last generations to have a truly good life.
I went to Champlain regional College with the intention of entering into journalism. All of the English courses and the English Literature courses that I had taken at CCHS helped a lot. The Professors at Champlain really kicked out my horizons once again. Unfortunately jobs were plentiful in the 70’s and I never earned my diploma and became your typical working class hero. Jobs came and went and friends disappeared as they followed their dreams but there was always one constant. Christmas was the same every darn year. Being “an adult” Christmas parties became a new tradition that I looked forward to every year. One year my Big Sister Pat came home to Brossard from her home in Etobicoke in Ontario. She has two little Angels in tow that I love to this day. Arriving slightly pie eyed in My Father’s driveway I took an aluminum ladder out from behind the house and went up on the roof. I had bought some sleigh bells and trudged around on the relatively flat gravel roof pretending to be Santa Claus and his eight reindeer. After wishing the world a Merry Christmas I missed the first step of the ladder coming down and ended up face first in a snowdrift. Christmas was evolving and I was doing my best to make that happen. Life would not reward me with children of my own, however. The attempts that were made resulted in some Angels gong directly to Heaven and spending their first and Forever Christmases in Eternity never knowing what hardships and heartbreaks that they might have experienced here on Earth. That is a reflection that always causes me to stop and consider life in it entirety and thank God for my own life.
This week I posted a song by Simon and Garfunkel on my Facebook page called “The Seven O’clock News”. It brought back memories of being back at CCHS. I remember leaving the Gymnasium after an incredible Christmas Show and stumbling down Green Street. We bought beer illegally at that Depanneur on the same street and drank it on cushions in the basement of Tim Durack’s apartment on Mercille Street. When the street lights flickered on we wandered along Victoria Street and watched the blinds go down and the doors close behind the last shoppers at Taylors Department Store. The Red Baron Coffee House was De Rigeur at the time and we would all pile into that space and solve all of the world problems as we listened to music on one of the best sound systems in St. Lambert. When they played Simon and Garfunkel’s Seven O’clock News it was the signal that the coffee house was closing for the evening. Romantic couples turned affectionately in the last slow dance before going home and it was time to find your coat and your boots and head outside. The snow fell in feathery flakes over the benches in the park that I crossed to catch the last No. 15 bus back to Brossard. With a shudder and a shake and the smell of oil diesel fuel I was on my way back home watching the lights of The Village slowly fade away behind us.
Those are cherished memories for me as well. Christmas always makes me reflect and remember what it is to survive and to live a life worth living. No one can ever take those memories away from me and no one can ever say that there is not wisdom in those memories as well. There is aslo affection and compassion and a desire to make the world a better place than I found it in those memories as well’ Those are literally the gifts that just keep on giving.