I can't imagine life as a teenager in St. Lambert without “The Pit”. It was even more important than our two other favorite haunts, “The Cave” (AKA The Cavendish Tea Room) and the pool hall (AKA Chez Armand). The Cave provided an escape from high school where we could grab a quick smoke at recess and the pool hall was an all-male sanctuary that served the best (and only) steamed hot dogs in town. The Pit was something else – it was where shy, hesitant adolescents learned how to connect with the opposite sex through that time-honored ritual of the Saturday Night Dance.
The Pit, as we called the beginnings of the Legion Hall, opened in l949 (?). The original plan was for a two-storey building for community events. Not daunted by an initial shortage of funds, someone in authority decided half a hall was better than no hall at all – even if that half was a basement. So a basement was dug out of the ground and a temporary roof put in place. It was adjacent Lesperance field, where we held track and field meets, played hockey (on an outdoor rink) and football. It gave us indoor locker rooms for the first time and was where they took me after I broke my collar bone making an ill-advised tackle in l952. It also provided a meeting place for kids of all ages.
The city fathers may have been disappointed when that first community center failed to rise above ground level, but for teenagers it was perfect. The basement setting gave the dances a mystique. With the lights low and the music playing, we could imagine we were attending a Paris club or a New York dive. My dad, who worked for the CBC, had built the sound system and it was state of the art. Dougie Parsons usually played the records (Remember 45s?) from a small raised stage. There was a counter and kitchen at the far end of the hall where you could buy soft drinks (Remember Lime Ricky?), coffee and snacks. On a typical Saturday night I donned my pegged pants and leather jacket, rubbed Brylcream into my hair (a little dab'll do ya), slicked it back to create the desired “duck's ass” look and headed out, on foot, to The Pit. Once there, I descended the stairs and, depending on the weather and the season, hung my jacket, duffle coat or parka on a rack beside the entrance and entered what I liked to think of as a mysterious grotto. Straight backed chairs lined the walls and, had this been a junior high school dance the girls might have sat to the left and the boys to the right. But this was no junior high school dance. Couples mixed and mingled and you could sit out dances with your date or chums as you saw fit. You didn't have to bring a date, and because it was dark and crowded no one really noticed if you needed time to work up the courage to ask a girl to dance.
The greatest thing about The Pit? It was a place where age didn't matter. You could be fourteen and still ask a seventeen-year-old to dance if you had the nerve. Age was a defining characteristic for teens in St. Lambert. It determined what grade you were in, what teams you played for, what friends you hung out with and what girls you dated. But in The Pit the age barrier dissolved. Of course a seventeen-year-old girl could turn down at fourteen-year-old boy's invitation to dance, but this rarely occurred. The other great thing about The Pit was the social mix. Kids from neighboring towns were welcome. We got a chance to see people who didn't attend the local high school, the occasional French-speaking girls, a minority in St. Lambert of the fifties.
The Pit was where most of us learned how to dance and “the” dance in my time was the jitterbug. Not for the faint of heart if you were a beginner. This was where the older girls came to our rescue. They would take pity on the younger guys and walk us through the intricate steps until we were sufficiently proficient to ask girls our own age. These girls, of course, all knew how to jitterbug long before we did. Then, when the evening wore on and space was at a premium, there were the slow dances. These were, for most of us, the closest thing to sex we experienced, unless we were going steady. If that was the case and the weather was co-operative, there were the stands outside that lined the football field. Slow dances demanded closeness and many times couples remained within the same tight circle, moving only a few feet, locked in a swaying embrace. The DJ made sure these close dances were interspersed with faster numbers to re-establish a safe distance between couples.
Liquor was prohibited and you risked ejection if you were found in possession of a mickey, the 12-ounce bottles of “hard stuff” that older guys occasionally smuggled in. But most of us felt no need for booze. We were high on the thrill of the darkness, the closeness of the opposite sex and the soft lyrics of the singers of the day. Sinatra, Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Eddie Fisher, Peggy Lee, Frankie Laine, Vaughn Munroe, Teresa Brewer . . . the list is endless. There were also the groups - The Four Aces, the Andrews Sisters, the Ink Spots and The Mills Brother to name a few. We were at the end of the swing era and Glen Miller was slowly giving way to Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Jazz had begun to make inroads into the music scene. Louis Armstrong vied with Dave Brubeck and Nat King Cole for our attention. The last number of the evening was always Hoagey Carmichael's Stardust. You tried to make sure you had the girl you wanted to walk home lined up for that dance.
I went off to college in l953 and my summer jobs took me away from St. Lambert. When I returned, as an adult in the sixties, I saw that The Pit had been topped off. A full-fledged community center was finally in place. I suppose there are dances there on Saturday nights and subsequent generations have special memories of those dances.
I don't envy them. The facilities may be better, but I doubt they can match the ambience of The Pit. It was part of a more innocent time, the post war period when everything seemed possible. Even in the basement of a half-finished community center in a small town on the South Shore of the St. Lawrence River. I don't know who dubbed it The Pit. But the name, like the place, was perfect.
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