Copyright is held by the author.
“Beauty Will! Nice goal.” I patted my brother on the back. I’d set him up with a pass and he’d put his backhand “upstairs” much in the fashion Howie Meeker would have enjoyed.
Ten of us were out this last Saturday of October 1970 to kick off our street hockey season. We played in a long driveway that ran behind apartment buildings at the top of Ridgewood Avenue in Montréal. We had to be careful because if a ball went over the side metal fence, it was gone, down the 20-foot drop into the woods below. And we only had one ball.
Half of the boys played with plastic Super Blades — you could heat and bend them to create wicked curves, but the rest of us preferred wooden sticks. I had a Titan: seven bucks, made in Russia. Will and I liked the Russians and tried to emulate their play. I was Yakushev, he was Maltsev, the winger who had led them to the World Championship in March that year.
Will and I were still celebrating the goal when Bobby, a tall kid into body building, our team’s “enforcer”, called out, “Guys, look!”
“Wha — ? Who?” Everyone’s jaws dropped at an unusual sight, a troop of soldiers in full uniform with rifles quick-marching towards us in the driveway. I stood in awe as they approached.
The captain halted his unit and strode toward me. I froze. It felt like one of my GI Joes had come to life in front of my eyes. He asked in English, “You live here? You know this area?”
Perhaps he chose me because he recognized my budding leadership qualities, I thought. “Yes, I know the area very well. I’ve lived on Ridgewood all my life.”
He maintained a serious tone. “Do you know the forest?” I nodded. “Do you know about caves in the forest? Do you know where they are?” I nodded again.
I did know the forest. We all did, we played capture the flag, built tree houses, and fought rock wars. We practically lived in the forest every afternoon. It was our forest; in the heart of Montréal, stretching from Côte des Neiges on the north to St. Joseph’s Oratory on the west, and Westmount to the south and east. Ridgewood Avenue, with its 30 apartment buildings, wound through the middle of the forest. We knew it probably better than anyone in the world.
The captain fixed his adult gaze on me, “Please show us where the caves are.”
“Just me?” I mumbled.
“Yes, we need your help.”
I looked back at my impressed friends and answered with emerging confidence: “OK.” I would be their guide. The 12-year-old guide leading VanDoos into the forest. I’d watched “Combat” on TV, I knew what guides do. Keep my head down, I reflected.
I gave Will my stick. He asked if this was happening because we liked the Russians.
I looked at my 10-year-old brother. “It’s the Army, they need me.”
“Are you going to ride in a jeep?” He asked.
We looked down the driveway over the heads of the soldiers and didn’t see any vehicles.
“Doubt it,” I answered.
Recently, we’d seen jeeps and personnel carriers buzzing along Côte des Neiges. The Armory was a short walk from the bottom of Ridgewood, and there’d been a lot of activity since the Royal 22nd Regiment had been sent to guard federal properties.
“How far are the caves?” The captain asked me as we reached the end of the driveway.
“Ten minutes,” I responded enthusiastically. I did know what I was doing and where to take them. I’d be a good guide, I told myself. Maybe they’d even promote me and I could be a captain.
I led them off the street into the forest. We walked single file along the path, which narrowed as we became engulfed by large maples and oaks. We lost sight of the apartment buildings and when we neared the cave, I veered off the main path toward our destination.
“That’s it,” I said, pointing to a large rock, 20-feet high and 15-feet wide. It had a diagonal crevice wide enough for someone to fit into.
“How deep does it go?” The captain asked.
“About 10 feet,” I answered, contemplating they’d find our cigarette butts in there.
He signalled. A soldier investigated.
I knew there’d be nobody there, it was too small for anyone to hide out in other than for a few minutes of hide and seek. I began to feel I was letting the Canadian Army down.
“How about the other caves, are they bigger than this?”
“The next one is smaller.”
The captain sighed.
“But,” I interjected, “the Foundation is the biggest.”
He regarded me and his eyes opened a little wider. “The Foundation?”
“Yes,” I responded. “It’s much bigger. It’s not a cave, but it’s like a cave. The hideout is there,” I added. Perhaps I wouldn’t let the Army down after all.
“The hideout? How far?” the captain asked.
“Five minutes through the forest. Over there. Under the driveway.” I pointed.
We turned and marched towards the Foundation. I kept my head down. We continued our trek, me in the lead, until we got to the wall. I showed the captain the entrance, a tear in the corrugated steel. He urged me to step back, and a half dozen of his men entered single file, flashlights on.
I stood outside with the captain, my guide job complete. His men spent half an hour in the Foundation. I knew they would. It was big, the size of two school gyms, and divided up into walled sections, little rooms with openings for windows or doors. It was a good hideout, but a dark and smelly one.
The soldiers came out nodding to their captain — nothing found. They should have found cigarette butts and Playboys, maybe they did, but their reactions had finality. What or who they were looking for wasn’t there. We walked back out of the forest to the street. The captain thanked me, shook my hand, and marched his troop left down Ridgewood Ave. I turned right, toward the driveway.
I didn’t get promoted, but I had been a good guide.
On November 6t, Bernard Lortie of the FLQ (Front de Libération du Québec) cell that kidnapped and killed Quebec politician Pierre Laporte was arrested in his apartment while other members of the cell avoided capture hiding behind a false wall. The FLQ hideout was at the corner of Queen Mary and Côte des Neiges, in sight of St. Joseph’s Oratory, 500 yards from the Foundation.