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MY LIFE BEFORE THE NAVY

MA VIE AVANT LA MARINE

 

1948 TO 1960

THE BEGINNING IN VAL-BRILLANT, MATAPEDIA VALLEY

The village of Val-Brillant in the Matapedia Valley where I was born

has one of the most beautiful "Gothic" church in eastern Quebec

 

I was born during a snow storm in the winter of 1948. Not in a hospital but in my grandparent's house in Val-Brillant, a beautiful village in the Matapedia Valley on the Gaspe peninsula. I had yellow jaundice at birth and my grandmother was quite worried that if I died before being baptized, I would be stuck for eternity in "limbo", a place somewhere between heaven and hell. So she wrapped me up in blankets and I was rushed to the local church where I received the sacrament of baptism on the day I was born. Because of the raging snow storm, it was quite a struggle to get back safely to my grandparents house but nobody was concerned about me anymore. As a baptized baby, I would have gone to heaven if I had not made it back to the house.

 

I spent the first 12 years of my life in Val-Brillant. The population at the time was around 2,000 but many have left since then. The population today is around 1,000. Val-Brillant has one of the most beautiful gothic church in eastern Quebec. The village is located on the shore of the Matapedia Lake. Formerly known as Cedar Hall, Val-Brillant is known as "the queen of the valley".

 

As a lumberjack, my father was often away so I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandfather Johnny Côté during those years. His mother, my great grandmother Mary Ann O'Reilly, was Irish but my grandfather spoke only in French to me. He was a proud descendant of Jean Côté, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather who settled in Canada in 1635 and of David O'Reilly, my great-great grandfather who immigrated to Canada in 1847. So we celebrated both St-Jean-Baptiste Day and St-Patrick's Day in our family.

 

Through my maternal grandfather, I learned a lot about my ancestors who included John Noble, my great-great-great-great grandfather, a Maryland Loyalist who first settled in Western Nova Scotia in 1783 after the War of Independance. Western Nova Scotia became New Brunswick in 1784. His son, my great-great-great grandfather Jonathan Noble became the first resident of the town of Causapscal in 1839.

 

As mentioned earlier, my great-great grandfather David O'Reilly emigrated from Ireland in 1847 with his mother, one sister and two brothers. Unfortunately, his mother and sister died on the ship. Him and his two brothers arrived as orphans at the island of Grosse Ile, downstream from Quebec City and were adopted by families in Quebec and New York. David O'Reilly eventually married Elizabeth Noble, the daughter of Jonathan Noble, and inherited all the land owned by my great-great-great grandfather. A few years before his retirement, my great-great grandfather sold his land at Causapscal to Lord Mount Stephen, a very famous Montreal financier who was the builder of the Canadian Pacific Railway and a personal friend of John A. MacDonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada.

 

The Halifax to Montreal main rail line goes through Val-Brillant and the train station was located about 150 feet from my grandparents's house, across the street, which means that I was born within 150 feet of a morse key. Telegraph wires were used instead of radio waves, and the morse code used on these lines was not the international morse code that I learned as a Radioman. Nevertheless, I still think that since I was born so close to a telegraph station, it had an influence on my life. I remember spending many hours at the train station, watching the telegraph operator at work. It looked and sounded like magic to me.

 

There were no television sets where I lived during the first six years of my life. Only radio. I remember the old floor model radio we had. I think it was a RCA Victor built around 1934. I used to go to the back of the radio and watch the vacuum tubes as they warmed up. To me it was magical. I was so amazed to hear sounds from far away come out of the circuitry. The strongest station on the AM broadcast band was CJBR from Rimouski and it was a daily routine to listen to the rosary at 7 PM. There were many other programs which were very popular but I forgot their names, except for one. I am talking about "Un homme et son péché", one of the most popular radio program in Quebec at the time which was based on the famous novel by Claude Henri Grignon. The program eventually ended up on television as "Les belles histoires des pays d'en haut".

 

Listening to stations in the shortwave radio bands was something else. I spent many hours listening to programs coming from far away lands. I was too young to understand radio propagation so for me, and I say it again, it was magic. I never imagined that someday I would be doing IFRB measurements of shortwave stations for the ITU. Even today, I still enjoy shortwave listening although the bands are not what they used to be.

 

As far as I can remember, the first television set in the village was bought by Mrs Campbell in 1953 or 1954. She was a nice lady and she would let us in her house so we could watch Rintintin, The Last of the Mohicans, Radisson and Kit Carson. Of course there were also cartoons, like Felix the cat. The TV station was on the air for only a few hours a day and I remember sitting and watching for a long time the Indian head in the pattern signal. The only TV signal available in the area was in French and all programs were in French with one exception, the Ed Sullivan Show, which played in English. We did not  understand what they were saying but we still watched it every week.

 

By 1956, Mrs Campbell had lost her monopoly. There were a few more television sets in the village, including one at my grandparents house. I had to wait until 1958 before a television set entered our house. My mother used television watching as a privilege to be earned. If you did something bad, the punishment was no TV tonight ! It happened to me on occasions but I found a way to get around the punishment. I would sneak out of the house and go watch TV at a friend's house.

 

I remember an incident which dealt with my privilege of watching TV. My mother at the time was an unyielding supporter of the Liberal party, maybe because my grandfather had been a Liberal party organizer for many years. Back in the 1950s, when the Duplessis regime ruled Quebec, being the child of a Liberal was dangerous to your health. I remember being chased by some of my friends who became my foes during election time.

 

What does this has to do with television watching ? One day, a friend and I broke a neighbour's clothes line while playing and the neighbour soon showed up at our door to complain. Upon hearing what I had done, my mother made me apologize and told me, in front of the neighbour, to go up to my room for the rest of the day. She also made it clear that there would be no television watching that evening. Not long after the neighbour had departed, my mother called me down to the kitchen and offered me a piece of cake while telling me that the punishment was off and I could watch television that evening. I learned later why my mother had changed her mind. Apparently, during the conversation, the neighbour had stated that she would be voting "blue" in the next election. As a die hard supporter of the Liberal party, also known as the "red" party, my mother didn't think I should be punished for causing grief to a "blue" voter.

 

By 1959, we had a colour television set in the village !!! Well, not actually a "real" colour television set. The Mariste brothers who ran the local school for boys had a television set in their lounge and they had installed a blue, red and green plastic layer over the TV screen. Colour television was still a dream back in 1959, at least in my world, but the Mariste brothers claimed that they already had one.

 

I have fond memories of Christmas 1959 which was spent at a lumberjack camp with my uncle Claude. My uncle had volunteered to look after the camp and to keep the stoves going in all the buildings while the lumberjacks went home for the holidays. When I heard about this, I pleaded to go. My grandfather told my uncle that, with all the firewood to bring in for the stoves, an 11-year old kid would be useful during the two-week period. So my uncle accepted.

 

Many roads were not plowed in those days. If we wanted to go somewhere off the main highway, we either walked on snowshoes, used a horse and sleigh if the snow was hard or took a Bombardier Snow Bus. The lumberjack camp was located on the north shore of Matapedia Lake so we took the Bombardier Snow Bus to get there. I really enjoyed those two weeks in the wood although I was not home when Santa Claus made his rounds on Christmas Eve. I helped my uncle feed those stoves with firewood and I spent many hours in the kitchen where the cooks had left plenty of food before leaving on holidays.

 

The Bombardier Snow Bus was not available when it was time to go home so my grandfather drove as far as he could and used his snowshoes to walk to the camp. We learned upon his arrival that Paul Sauvé, the Premier of Quebec, had died suddenly the day before. It was quite a shock since he had been Premier only 4 months. Maurice Duplessis had died 4 months earlier of a heart attack while visiting Schefferville in Northern Quebec. Now that Paul Sauvé was dead, Antonio Barrette became the new Premier of Quebec but not for long since he would go down in defeat a few months later. It would be the beginning of "The Quiet Revolution" with the election of Liberal Leader Jean Lesage as Premier of Quebec. It was also the beginning of happy days for my mother and maternal grandfather, two die-hard liberals.

 

In addition to a sawmill, Val-Brillant also had an ice industry. In the winter, large blocks of ice were cut on Lake Matapedia and were hauled ashore by horses. Some were loaded on trains but most of the ice was piled into large compounds and buried in saw dust to prevent it from melting when spring and summer came. During the summer months, the saw dust was gradually removed and the blocks of ice were loaded on trains and shipped to large cities where the ice was sold in stores and door to door. I enjoyed helping my uncle move those railcars to the loading dock in the summer. I would climb on top of the railcar and release the brake with the large wheel. My uncle would then take a lever,  jam it between one of the wheel and the rail, and push down to get the railcar rolling toward the loading dock. As the railcar approached the loading dock on its own momentum, I would gradually apply the brakes to make it stop at the right spot.

 

For my father, a World War II veteran who fought in the  Pacific and in Europe, times were hard in the 1950s. Since the war, he had worked as a lumber jack on the north coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence or in sawmills on the Gaspe peninsula. He had also worked as a baker for a while and had also worked as a truck driver, delivering homemade butter as far as Dalhousie, New Brunswick. By 1960, there were eight kids in the house, with a 9th on the way, and my father couldn't make enough money to feed the family and make ends meet. So it was decided to move the family closer to Montreal where the high paying construction jobs were available. On a beautiful morning in June 1960, the day after Jean Lesage was elected the new Premier of Quebec, we said goodbye to our native village and headed to a new life in the Lower Laurentians, north of Montreal.

 

1960 TO 1965

THE AWAKENING YEARS

My new home was located at St-Janvier, now part of the new town of Mirabel. We were renting a farm house which had originally been used to house pigs. My father had not told my mother about this so when my mother found out, she broke down in tears. But she eventually realized the house was clean and had been converted into an acceptable home for the family.

 

Before arriving in St-Janvier, my father had already found a construction job but he needed a car for transportation so Rodrigue Lapointe, a local farmer, sold him a 1949 Chevy Fleetline for $50. My father didn't have the money so Mr. Lapointe made him a very good proposal.

 

"Your older son is now 12 years old so I will hire him to work on the farm" he said. "During the summer, he will work 6 days a week, from sunrise to sundown, and I will pay him 50¢ per day or $3 per week. When he returns to school in September, he can work on Saturdays and during holidays. By the end of the year, your car should be mostly paid up".

 

My father agreed before telling me about it. So the summer of 1960 was spent milking 16 cows morning and evening, looking after 100 pigs, spreading manure in the fields and doing many other tasks on the farm. At the end of each Saturday, I reported to Mr. Lapointe to get paid. He would bring out his little book, write something in it, and then tell me that he had deducted $3 from the amount my father owed him for the car. He would then send me on the way after telling me to have a nice Sunday and to make sure I was back by sunrise on Monday morning.

 

When school started in September, I also worked on the farm on days when there was no schooI. I also worked many times during the evening on school days when Mr. Lapointe needed me.

 

I am actually proud of what I accomplished in 1960. Working on the farm made me stronger and I paid my father's car. I was only 12 years old but I felt I was the owner of that car. It even had air conditioning, consisting of a hole in the floor through which we could see the pavement, but it did its job of getting my father to his work and back home at night.

 

I spent only one year in St-Janvier although the rest of my family stayed there for 2 more years. While there, I attended a small rural school with only one teacher and a total of 20 students. There were only 2 students in Grade 7; a girl and me. It is around that time that I learned about my parents's plans for my future. It was a custom at the time that each large family should have at least one priest, and my parents had chosen me. One factor which affected their decision was the cost of higher education. We were a large family and my parents could not afford to pay for my education.

 

There were programs available in Catholic seminaries which allowed poor kids to pursue a classical education. So in September 1961, at the age of 13, I said goodbye to my family and began classical studies at the St-Alphonse Seminary in Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré. Although it was not my decision, my new goal in life was to become a Redemptorist priest.

 

I have mostly good souvenirs of my two years at the Catholic boarding school. I say "mostly" because there is one bad souvenir which I prefer not to mention here. I was only 13 years old when I arrived at the Seminary which was 300 kilometres away from home, but I soon asjusted and thrived in the learning of languages including Latin and old Greek. My grades were excellent the first year but they gradually worsen during the second year when I became an avid reader of books on aviation and exploits of WWII fighter pilots. I imagined myself as the pilot of a Spitfire going after Messerschmitt 109s across the English channel during the Battle of Britain. The problem was that I read too much and did not spend enough time in my studies.

 

We were not allowed to have radios or watch television at the Seminary. The only news we heard was through the PA speakers in the cafeteria on the weekends. It is during that period that I became a big fan of Felix Leclerc and even today, I listen to his songs when I am in the mood for nostalgia. I also remember the Cuban Crisis in October 1962 when the world came within minutes of nuclear oblivion. We listened to the drama on the cafeteria speakers as we ate our meals in silence.

 

During the second year in the Seminary, there was something awakening within me. There were no women on Seminary grounds except in the laundry facility were a few women were working. When I was in the yard, I hanged around near the fence because I could see local girls walking by. If I was lucky, I could even talk to them for a few minutes. As I reached my 15th birthday, I soon realized that a life of celibacy was not for me. I finally told my parents that they could forget about me becoming the priest in the family. When they came to pick me up in June 1963, I said goodbye to the Seminary and moved back home, which was now located in the lower Laurentians town of Saint-Jérôme.

 

I spent the summer of 1963 working as a dish washer in the resort town of Ste-Adèle. In September of that year, I started my Grade 10 in Saint-Jérôme and became active in Air Cadets. My number one dream of joining the Air Force some day and becoming a fighter pilot had been squashed when I learned that the vision requirement was 20/20. I knew my eyes were not that good. Fine I told myself, if I cannot pursue my number one dream, how about my number two dream which was to become a police officer. "How tall are you ?" asked a friend of mine. 5'7" I answered. "Forget it", he said, "you are one inch too short to be a cop."

 

Now that I could not become a pilot, the Air Force was no longer appealing to me. Joining the Army or the Navy had never crossed my mind either. I had wanted to be up in the sky, not on the ground, not on the water, and definitely not underwater !!!

 

Everything changed on Friday November 22, 1963. The school alarm suddenly sounded on that day and everyone was told to assemble in the school yard. We then learned that US President John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated in Dallas, Texas. This was at the height of the cold war and only one year after the Cuban crisis, so my first reaction was that the communists must be involved. One week later, on Friday November 29, 1963, I went to join the local unit of the Canadian Army Reserve. I remember that day quite well because a Trans-Canada Airlines (the old name for Air Canada) DC-8 jetliner crashed in Blainville, about 15 kilometres from where I was. The plane had just taken off from Montreal and was heading for Toronto when it suddenly fell out of the sky after doing a left turn. It is estimated that the plane hit the ground at a speed of 470 to 485 knots. All 118 people onboard were killed which made it the worse air crash in Canadian history at the time.

 

When I arrived at the local unit of the Canadian Army Reserve, I learned that you had to be 16 years old to be in the reserve and my 16th birthday was still two months away. So I lied about my age (something that would be hard to do today) and I was accepted in the infrantry. I subsequently served in the Regiment de Joliette in 1963/1964 and in the 4th Battalion of the Royal 22nd Regiment from 1964 until April 1965.

 

At this point in my life, my dreams of joining the Air Force and becoming a pilot were long gone, and as a reservist I now had a taste for what the Army was all about. But was it my destiny to become a foot soldier, or was there something else for me out there ? I was craving for excitement and adventure and I was still unaware that the Navy could offer it to me.

 

In the meantime, as the oldest son of a large family, I felt obligated to work and help. My Army Reserve employment was part-time only so I worked at a number of jobs. I started by washing dishes in Hotel Lapointe, and then moved on to night cleaning of the hotel and adjacent bar & tavern. I also worked at a textile plant, mixing and boiling tinting liquids, and then moved on to the local airport where I assisted a mechanic repairing planes. I also washed airplanes and folded parachutes for a local sky diving club.

 

When I was working at Hotel Lapointe, I often went to the basement of the hotel where the studios of local AM station CKJL were located. I enjoyed watching the announcers and the disk jockeys at work. The owner of the station was Jean Lalonde (which explains the JL in CKJL). For those of you not familiar with Quebec celebrities, Jean Lalonde was the father of Pierre Lalonde, a famous singer who was at the top of the hit parade during that time. Jean Lalonde noticed me hanging around the station and asked me if I could clean his office and the studios a few times a week. I told him I definitely was interested since it gave me access to the studio facilities. I had no idea at the time that someday I would be working for the Federal Department of Communications and CRTC, and performing inspections of broadcast stations.

 

Joining the Navy had never crossed my mind before February 1965. I was aware that Canada's Navy was flying Banshees off the aircraft carrier HMCS Bonaventure, but I knew this only because of my love for flying. I had never considered the option of working on ships or in submarines.

 

Then one day in February 1965, around the time when the Maple Leaf was adopted as the new flag of Canada, two of my friends heard that the Navy was at City Hall and they were looking for recruits. I was working in a textile factory at the time, doing very hazardous work with chemicals, fabric dyes and acid. My friends were worried about the long term impact on my health. So they lied to me in order to get me out of that job and save me. They told me that they had applied to join the Navy and they urged me to go apply so we could all be together in the Navy. So I applied to join the Navy and was accepted. I found out later that my friends had never applied but I was grateful to them since I was now looking forward to a new adventure in my life.

 

There was however a little problem. I was 17 years old and I needed one of my parent's consent but my father refused to sign. He is a veteran of World War II and he served in the Pacific as well as in Europe. The cold war was heating up and it seemed at the time that the world was inevitably heading toward another World War. My father didn't want me to experience the horrors of war as he did 20 years earlier.

 

But I was able to convince my mother to sign the papers by promising her a small monthly allotment from my pay to help her and the family. I come from a large family, and most of my brothers and sisters were still at home. My parents were struggling financially and as the oldest boy, I felt that I had a responsibility to help. So I joined the active service of the Royal Canadian Navy on 29 April 1965 and began a naval career which lasted until 26 January 1973.

 

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