Photograph of the Viau Cookie Factory, circa 1967, courtesy of Heritage Montréal.
I grew up in the East End of Montreal, down by the river. Like east ends the world over, it was a poor neighbourhood sandwiched between an army ordnance depot to the west and a huge Johnson & Johnson factory to the east. North of the factory was a woods that included a dump used by the factory to burn stuff they didn’t need, things like bandages that failed quality control, while east of the factory lay an open, ploughed field stretching from Notre-Dame Street on the south to Hochelaga on the north. Beyond the field lay a psychiatric hospital called St.-Jean-de-Dieu, which we boys called the crazy house.
We didn’t have a park of our own in the early fifties, but there was a terrific one in the next neighbourhood on the other side of the hospital. We could get to it by Notre-Dame Street, but there was a shortcut through the hospital grounds that would save about twenty minutes. Besides, there was a magnificent chestnut tree in front of the main building, where, in early autumn, we could find fallen fruit and harvest the hard nuts inside to play kingers. We’d thread our chestnuts on a knotted length of string or shoelace about twelve inches long and try to crack the chestnut of a rival who’d then have a go at cracking yours. A champion chestnut was called a kinger one, two, three, or more, depending on how many rivals it had slaughtered.
Chestnut trees were rare, and that one was the best tree we knew about; if we wanted to get those lovely chestnuts that was where we went. We were young and all a little scared of the place at first, since we’d often see strange men walking around, staring vacantly or muttering to themselves. The nuns, who we supposed ran the place, regularly tried to chase us off. But we were fit and fast and never feared that they would catch us in their clumsy habits. By the time we’d reached ten or eleven years old, we had more or less gotten used to the nuns and the patients and didn’t have any inkling that there might be any real sort of danger associated with the place.
Some of the patients were allowed off the grounds. There was one named Armand who rode around on a bicycle in summertime collecting empty soda pop bottles. Winter or summer, he always seemed to wear four or five layers of clothes, and around his hips he often sported a holstered set of cap guns. One winter we put skates on him and pushed him around the ice while he fired off his caps, his eyes rolling in pleasure till we saw the whites. We thought that was pretty neat and would get him to do that trick whenever we could. Some of the older boys were less kind to him, hinting that crazy men like Armand were only interested in one thing when it came to little boys. We had no idea at the time what they meant, so we would often include these inmates in some of our schemes. Boys like to build forts, for example, and forts need lumber, which was hard to come by in a neighbourhood like ours. So when the neighbourhood began to expand north, we convinced a few of the inmates to steal lumber from the construction sites and haul it into the woods for us. I can’t say we felt quite as safe with these other patients, and we began to carry sheath knives and axes with us when we went into the woods to work on the forts.
With puberty around the corner, we began to hear about the pleasure of masturbation from the older boys (which is where all young boys got their sex education back then). With only a vague notion of how it was done, we nevertheless made the connection that the older boys had hinted at between this act and the men from the asylum. In retrospect I can see the wrongness of what we did next, but our curiosity at the time was powerful and perhaps even innocent in its own way. And so we convinced sweet, simple Armand—no mean feat since he spoke only French and we spoke only English—to masturbate for us. It took him a while to undo all those clothes and the size of his penis once he started was alarming to us boys, who had such puny equipment. Some of the other patients we knew less well seemed to have an interest in it, too, but we’d keep our distance; they seemed bigger and menacing, not at all like Armand.
Usually, we went to the woods in groups of four or five just like in the movie Stand by Me, which truly reflected how friendships were in those days. One summer day, I went into the woods with my best friend Larry. We each climbed up a small tree, looking to cut boughs suitable to a purpose that escapes me now. We were absorbed in our task and failed to notice that one of the inmates less known to us had approached quite close and was masturbating vigorously at the base of my tree. Larry saw him first and whispered to me “Look down” or something akin. We were as scared as twelve-year-olds could be. There was no doubt in our minds that he’d take one of our knives and skin us if we climbed down. But, if we stayed where we were, there was also no doubt that he’d climb up after us. There was nothing for it except to leap from those trees, which we did and ran for all we were worth. How one of us did not break a leg or an arm was a small miracle; we never went back to the woods alone or at least without the company of a sizeable gang.
Two or three years passed. We’d grown out of fort-building and grown into girl-watching. Indeed, we’d do our level best to get the girls to come with us behind the Johnson & Johnson factory, not into the woods but nearby where there were some grassy hills. Just recently, Larry reminded me about getting “moon tans” there on summer nights. I’d forgotten about that. Later that summer, or perhaps it was early autumn, an incident occurred that I think cured us of roaming those environs any more. A man was found dead on one of those hills where we’d been so many times. Try as we might, we could not get anywhere close to seeing the corpse, which was probably long gone by the time we heard about it anyway. Rumours flew that the man had killed himself, blowing his head off with a rifle or perhaps a shotgun. That rumour morphed until it was about a man from the crazy house; perhaps it was someone we had known, or someone who had stolen lumber for us, or fired his cap guns, or stood lonely beneath some trees. Later that year, Kennedy was assassinated. In the cold of dark November, life had changed for our little gang.
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