On a Wing and a Prayer

A Canadian Child’s View of the Cold War

As a child brought up in the Cold War, it seems appropriate that my first memories are of ice. I recall stepping around a frozen lake with double-bladed cheese cutters on my feet while the older boys and girls (everyone was older then) glided about me on skates. Cheese cutters didn’t work like skates—but they did keep me up and I was grateful for that. With the literal-mindedness of a three-year-old, one day I wedged them inexorably into a block of cheddar. They did not, it turned out, cut cheese at all.

At four I was on real skates, clutching a hockey stick before me for that precious third stabilising point of contact with the ice. By this time, some rudimentary ideas of the world had seeped into my consciousness. We were all Canadians in my village, Montreal Canadiens to judge by the dominance of red sweaters at the local outdoor rinks. We lived near Montreal, the place that held the Santa Claus parade each year. With my own eyes, I had seen the Forum where the Montreal Canadiens played their games. It seemed a surprising contradiction when I learned later that the Toronto Maple Leafs were also Canadian. We had new Prime Ministers, Misters Dief and Baker replacing Mr St Laurent, though what any of these people did, wasn’t clear to me. By the time I was six, the concept of the nation state was more firmly lodged in my head. I had seen my first brightly coloured maps. I marvelled at the enormous pink glow of Canada on the mighty Mercator maps, so flattering they were to the great north. Baffin Island alone seemed to eclipse all of Europe. However, I soon learned that, unlike the rough and tumble of the playgrounds, size was not everything. Just because you were bigger, did not mean you could rub another nation’s face in the snow. I gradually became more and more aware of the Americans below our border. Their airplanes, fierce fighters called Golden Hawks came up to the nearby St Hubert air force base each year and put on a frightening display. The Americans, my older brothers informed me, were able to make bombs and missiles that could destroy whole cities. These people were very powerful, but despite all that, they did not play hockey. We Canadians did that and if the Americans wanted to watch hockey in such cities as Chicago and Detroit, they had to hire Canadians to play it for them. At that time, every player in the NHL was from Canada except for Charlie Burns of the lowly Boston Bruins, the lone American in the league. And he, I’d heard, had ended up with a plate in his head, though how such a thing could be true was beyond me.

There were a few Americans who lived in our village too, kids whose fathers had come up to work at the air force base. They struck me as no more powerful than anyone else. Their accents were different. They couldn’t or wouldn’t say the letter ‘zed’ properly. They spoke no French at all, which even we anglophone children thought odd. They did not know who Maggie Muggins was and talked wistfully of someone named Captain Kangaroo. Most significant of all though, none of the Americans could skate. To my six-year-old eyes, their having missiles hardly seemed to compensate for what was such an obvious and devastating national failing. I was determined not to adopt American ways. I might wave a branch around pretending to be Zorro, but when I sang the theme song from his TV show, I sang:

“Zorro, the fox so cunning and free!

Zorro, he makes the sign of the zed!”

The American pronunciation of that letter never passed my lips. Who knew what would happen if it did? I might never be able to skate backwards or learn to do a lifter.

Sometimes these American air force children, no doubt repeating things they had heard at the supper table, would tell us their fathers were here to protect us. This was odd because I knew we had won the war and no longer needed protection. I knew this from the movies on television. There, beautiful British women in their neat uniforms would push little toy airplanes around the map while their grim boyfriend pilots sent bombs skipping along the water at the German dams. These British pilots would sometimes have Canadians on board as well, though never, I noted, more than one per movie. In the desert, boisterous, unruly Australians with their hats pinned up on one side withstood whatever the Germans could throw at them and always won in the end. Two German families lived on our street. They weren’t our enemies anymore and my parents told me I wasn’t to talk to them about the war.

I did finally learn who the new enemy was. The Russians had missiles and airplanes with big bombs too. On the Mercator map, they were big like us but coloured green. They played hockey it turned out, but not in the NHL. When Canada played them, we weren’t allowed to send our best NHL players but let them go up against the Trail Smoke Eaters and teams like that, which were called amateur. The Russians would usually beat those teams. We all knew it would be different if they ever showed their faces in the Montreal Forum against our real team.

It was not just the American children who were frightened of the Russians. My friend Greg showed me how in the darkest part of his basement, his parents had stored tins of food to eat when the Russians dropped their big bombs on us. Greg’s family was going to stay down in the basement eating this food until it was safe to go out again. I was afraid of the basement under my house where I sometimes had to go to get the washing out of the machine. There was something malignant living down there. I would always come hurtling back up the stairs, panting for breath, the laundry spilling out of the basket, the thing, whatever it was, just behind me. I was relieved my parents hadn’t stored food in our basement. I was not a brave child. The thought of Greg living in a dark basement eating cans of lima beans seemed far more tangibly terrifying than facing the full fury of the Russian bombs from the U.S.S.R.

The first day democracy intruded on my young mind, was the day John Kennedy was elected president of the United States. The radio had talked about it all day. By coincidence, the Americans went to the polls on the very same day as a school board election was held in our village. It was only natural, as my mother dragged me along with her that chilly November afternoon to vote in the kitchen of the Zwetliut’s house, that I should confuse the two events. While I waited, the Zwetliut girl was playing outside her house and informed me for the umpteenth time that her family had the very last name in the St Bruno part of the phone book. Although I told her this was “no big deal”, the truth was, I was impressed by her formidable Z-w surname. Linda was only a few months older than me but that was enough to put her a grade ahead in school. To show her I was as worldly as any of her Grade Two friends, I declared I was hoping Mr Kennedy would win this election. I had no reason for siding with Kennedy, but as kids we were always being asked to side with someone. Two kids could be flipping hockey cards against a wall, nothing to do with me, and someone would sidle up and ask, “Who do you want to win?”  You were always supposed to want someone to win. Turned out Linda wanted Mr Kennedy to win as well. We both thought that the Americans let our parents vote in their elections too because, as neighbours, they would like to know who we Canadians wanted as their president. It was by no means the last instance of political naivete in my life, but it was perhaps my greatest one.

Though many were excited by the Kennedy administration with its virile young president, his glamourous wife, the intellectual renaissance in Washington, the touch football games at the White House, such things were of no concern to me and my friends. Having Robert Frost read a poem at the inauguration was not something designed to wow the seven-year-olds of the world. The Camelot image had no impact on us, particularly not when we found that it came without castles or drawbridges. President Kennedy did not condescend to spend whatever wit and charm he had making us kids laugh. Now Mr Khrushchev was far more popular among my friends. He played to the seven-year-olds. He would take off his shoe and pound it on the table in front of everyone. We all talked about what our parents would say if any of us tried that, but only Marc Lemieux, whose foolhardiness was at near fatal levels, was reckless enough to do it. Mr Nixon once got really mad at Mr Khrushchev when they were both in some display kitchen at a trade fair somewhere. Mr Khrushchev had told Nixon that having an automatic lemon squeezer was stupid and that if American housewives bought such things, they were stupid. They showed films of the two men shouting through their interpreters at each other over this lemon squeezer. It was very funny. When Mr Khrushchev visited the United States, he asked to see Disneyland just like we would have, but the Americans were mad at him and told him he couldn’t go. We even liked his name. “Ni-ki-ta!” we would call out. “Ni-ki-ta Khrushchev.” It was not uncommon for one of us, having pushed everyone else off a snowbank to call out, “I’m Nikita Khrushchev!” in triumph.

We liked other Russian words too. Saying ‘Sputnik” was almost like being allowed to spit. I remember being outside searching the night sky for Sputnik to pass overhead, freezing and hoping someone in my family would finally spot the thing so we could go back inside again. They interrupted The Magic Tom Show to tell us about Yuri Gagarin. Yuri. Yu-ri. There was another good name. The American astronauts were called plain things like Alan and Gus. Gagarin had gone right around the world while the Americans only went up and down. I told my family at the supper table that I liked the Russian cosmonauts better than the American astronauts. My mother lowered her eyebrows and informed me that the Russians sent Laika the clever dog into space and then left her up there to die. Such utterly un-Disney-like conduct effectively snuffed out any further Bolshevik sympathies. President Kennedy came on the television and said he wanted to put a man on the moon. All my friends agreed this was a pretty nifty idea. We wanted him to do it right away but he only promised to do it before 1970. We soon lost interest. We were all going to be old by 1970.

I was eight by the time the Cuban missile crisis came around. My older brothers were twelve and fourteen, old enough to be genuinely scared. They sat hunch-shouldered around the television with my parents each night looking worried. At eight, my friends and I were blithely able to get on with our play and gave the affair only slight regard. President Kennedy was very worked up about Cuba. We didn’t know where Cuba was and so we got out the map again. It took us a while to find it, but when we did, there was consternation all around. Children as a group really don’t have much in the way of ideology. Alliances are always shifting. Friends become enemies and then friends again for varying and whimsical reasons. Even your best and most trusted friend will stick a snowball down your sweater at times or ignore you if he or she is playing with older kids. There is only one thing that we held as ideology and it was fundamental for the functioning of the whole system of childhood. It was phrased as ‘Pick on someone your own size’. This ideology didn’t always hold, I mean, Trixie Sharple, who was three years older than me, had once knocked me down and kicked me in the nose. Still, I had said “Shut up!” to her right in front of her friends and I should have known better than that.   

As we looked at the map, there was no getting around it. The United States was very, very big and Cuba was small. Without wanting to brand them as such, for Randy Fairbanks was playing with us that day and he was American, it was obvious to us all that the Americans were being bullies. Randy said that the Russians were giving the Cubans missiles, but my brother had told me that the Americans had put missiles in Turkey. Turkey was one of our favourite countries. We told lots of jokes about Turkey; Turkey being cooked in Greece and stuff like that. We looked carefully at where Turkey was on the map. It was obvious. If the Americans had missiles in Turkey, then it was only fair that the Russians should have them in Cuba. We understood this sort of thing. If John Higgins’ mother let him store snowballs in the freezer so he could throw them at his friends in July, then it was only fair that my mother let me do the same. We understood how the balance of power worked.

I guess Randy Fairbanks didn’t like the mood of disapproval as we looked at tiny Cuba on the map. John Higgins didn’t make anything better by saying he thought Khrushchev could beat Kennedy is a straight fight. Randy was incensed. He said President Kennedy had fought the Japanese, that he played football and that he could beat up Khrushchev too. As John Higgins was my best friend that day, I took his side. I said Kennedy was a sissy, he was always having a bad back. “Oh my bad back,” I mimicked being the American president. Besides that, Americans, when they played football, needed four whole downs to get ten yards while Canadians could do that in three. They were just sissies. Worse than sissies, they were bullies. Khrushchev could beat up Kennedy no problem. We were good at arguing such things. This was just dinosaur talk, like whether an ankylosaurus could beat a stegosaurus, only done with political leaders. Randy went home saying he wasn’t going to play with us anymore. John Higgins called after him, “And Castro could beat him too.”

If we liked Khrushchev, we adored Fidel Castro. When we liked Khrushchev, it was because we recognised he was one of us, he was an eight-year-old kid who got to be head of a whole country. But Castro, with that beard and his cigars, he was something else. He was really neat. We tried to make Castro beards for ourselves for Hallowe’en—but mine kept falling off and I ended up a pirate again. No one wanted to go trick-or-treating as Kennedy or Khrushchev. Castro was the man to be. The Cuban missile crisis ended. We didn’t know what had happened, but at least the regular TV programs were back on the air again. When John Higgins tried to impress Miss Bernard, our new Grade Three teacher, with his “What Did I Do on my Summer Holiday” composition, he mentioned watching about Cuba on TV. He spelled it C-u-b-e-r just like President Kennedy said it and Miss Bernard laughed.

During those years, Canada was planning to have its own fast fighter plane, the Avro Arrow. It was a beautiful plane. Greg Marsden had a picture of it on his wall. We didn’t really understand what these planes were for. Spitfires, we knew, shot down other planes. The Spitfire was the best airplane around when it came to shooting down other planes. Anyway, the Avro Arrow never got to shoot down anything. Our prime minister, Mr Diefenbaker, said we weren’t going to make them after all and everybody was upset about that. Greg Marsden took down his photo. Greg said that the Americans didn’t want us to have such a fast plane for ourselves and so we weren’t allowed to make them anymore.

There was no making sense of the Cold War. We weren’t allowed to have the Avro Arrow, but the next I heard, President Kennedy wanted to put Bomarc missiles in Canada with nuclear bombs on them. We got into an election over that one. My parents didn’t think having the missiles in Canada was a good idea, but by then they thought that having Mr Diefenbaker continue as Canada’s prime minister was an even worse idea. We got Lester B. Pearson instead and he wore bowties.

By 1963, I was in Grade Four. The year with the lovely Miss Bernard was long gone and we had settled in for a withering ten months with Mrs Thibault. Mrs Thibault was not a happy teacher. The following year we would have rosy-cheeked Mrs Brown, who would sing with us, have us colour maps, play games and even allow us to teach her how to yo-yo. To get to Mrs Brown though, we had to endure Mrs Thibault. I always had the impression that Mrs Thibault’s shoes hurt her. I don’t recall her ever being in a good mood. It was Friday afternoon and Mrs Thibault had launched into one of her missions in the pedagogic world: teaching us what a peninsula was. Bunga, you see, lived on a peninsula. We were in Grade Four and that meant we got to do Geography. Our geography book was called Visits to Other Lands. Ask anyone what they did in Grade Four and they likely can’t remember a single thing. But ask them who Bunga is and he or she will nod knowingly and say, “He is a nomad and he lives on the Malay peninsula.” The book was full of all these kids in other countries and I could imagine Souvan of the Steppes sitting in his yurt studying the very same book or Pedro of the Andes trying to remember the five ‘F’s of Norway where Inger and Erik lived.

It was Friday afternoon. Any other Grade Four teacher would have had us painting our water-coloured way to three thirty and dismissal—but not Mrs Thibault. Instead of Art, she put Geography and then Spelling into the final slots of Friday. It was demoralising to leave each week knowing that after five days of your best scholarship you had still failed to master the spelling of ‘receive’ or whatever tricky word was on Spelling List 12. Mrs Thibault had hunkered down into Geography and we were once again on about nomads and peninsulas. Unfortunately, Debbie Fanjoy had just told Mrs Thibault that a peninsula was surrounded by water. There was no understanding Debbie Fanjoy. That girl was the best there was at flashcards. She could beat the whole class at flashcards. Maybe all those sums and multiplications had clogged up her brain or something, because not much else could get into that head of hers. Peninsulas certainly couldn’t. Mrs Thibault didn’t like that word ‘surrounded’, not so far as peninsulas were concerned. “That would be an island,” she hissed at Debbie tersely. Mrs Thibault had the pointer in her hand and I could tell she wanted to hit Debbie Fanjoy with it, but we knew teachers were unlikely to hit a kid that was that good at flashcards. Only the dumb kids got hit or had a chalk brush thrown at them. I bet some of the kids in that class would have given a year’s allowance to be good at flashcards just to purchase the safety that went with it.

There was a knock and Mrs Thibault sheathed her pointer and went to the classroom door. The kids at the front of row one, our early warning line for the class, shot to their feet. Mr Longford, the principal was there. The rest of the alerted class stood to attention because that was what you needed to do when the principal entered the room. But Mr Longford didn’t seem to want to come into the room. He and Mrs Thibault were whispering and eventually, he entered the classroom and looked at us as if he didn’t know why he had come or what he had to say. “I’m sorry to tell you,” he began at last, “that President Kennedy has been assassinated.” Mr Longford really should have been a high-school principal. He certainly didn’t know how to talk to nine-year-olds. No one in the class, not even Marlene Best, knew a big syllable word like ‘assassinated’. “He’s been shot,” Mrs Thibault added helpfully. They stood staring at us. We didn’t know how we were supposed to react. “I think you should go home and be with your families,” Mr Longford suggested and left as awkwardly as he came. “School’s finished for the day,” Mrs Thibault told us curtly. “Go quietly to your lockers and go home.”

The enormity of it was slow to hit us. The President of the United States had been shot and we were getting out of class early! In the scale of events for us, the weight was rather callously skewed towards the latter. We filed in bewilderment to our lockers, but as we reached the school doors, we went whooping into the school yard. Two thirty on a Friday afternoon and we were out of school!  Our merriment was short-lived. Frank Martello, speaking from the moral high ground of Grade Six ordered us to be quiet. “The President of the United States has been assassinated!” he shouted at me and my friends. “Nobody wants to hear you stupid Grade Fours making a racket!”

I used to walk home with the two Christines and John Higgins and none of us that day could figure out why the president being shot would mean we got out of school early. What were we supposed to do about it when we got home? We never guessed that Mr Longford, Mrs Thibault, and even Mr Phelps, the square-headed gym teacher, were very upset and simply not in the mood to be teachers and principals at that moment.

We met Jimmy Heaps along the way home. None of us liked him, but he was in Grade Five so Christine E. asked him if he knew what ‘assassinated’ meant. “Sure I do,” he chortled. “It’s when somebody sits down on a bomb.” He laughed his snotty laugh. “Kaboom!” he shouted, holding his bum and cackling weirdly. We didn’t get the joke and fortunately he went back into the ditch to play, which, all things considered, was probably the best place for him.

Jimmy Heaps joking about the President of the United States being assassinated was a fairly good indication that it wasn’t something that should be joked about. Sure enough, when I got home, one of my brothers was already there and he had a gloomy look on his face. He asked me if I had heard what had happened and I said, “Yes Kennedy has been assassinated. He sat on a bomb,” forgetting that Jimmy Heaps was the source of that information, My brother gave me a clip around the head and told me not to make stupid jokes, that something serious had happened. Soon my oldest brother was home too, then my mother and even Dad came home from work early that day. Gravelly voiced Norman Depoe was on the TV as was Earl Cameron who sometimes did commercials for Crest toothpaste. I think maybe Knowlton Nash was there too. There wasn’t much to see on the television. There was a lot of footage of an airplane that was taking off and another hour later of that same plane landing in the dark. Our telephone kept ringing and the same gloomy conversations kept getting repeated into it. It gradually sunk in for me that the president being shot was a pretty bad thing and that what was expected was for everybody to be really downhearted. After a while, I was surprised to find I really was feeling downhearted,

The police in Dallas had arrested a man. His name was Lee Harvey Oswald. They had got this man coming out of a movie house of all places. I couldn’t get over it. He shoots the President of the United States and then he goes to the movies? For some reason, I wanted to know what movie he had been to see but none of the newsmen bothered to say. Then Norman Depoe read out a statement from the Dallas police or somebody. It said how tall Oswald was and how much he weighed. Norman looked right at the camera as cool as a cucumber, as if what he was about to say didn’t worry him in the slightest, and then announced that “Lee Harvey Oswald was a known left winger.”

I was stunned. To my nine-year-old ears, there was only one meaning of left winger. I knew nothing much about the French Revolution and certainly not which side of the parliament the radical faction sat on. A left winger. I could feel my heart pounding. If Oswald was a left winger, then he played hockey. There was only one conclusion from that!  If he was a hockey player in the United States, then he had to be Canadian. And if Lee Harvey Oswald was a Canadian . . . then we were in big, big trouble. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Canadians ought not to go around shooting presidents of the United States.

I had visions of the Golden Hawks screaming over our village, not here for some air show, but to extract vengeance for murder. We were in the soup; we were really in the soup big time. Who was this Oswald guy? I had most of the hockey cards for that year, all for the year before and who knows how many years before that. I had hockey cards from before I was born. Some people would say my hockey card collection back then would be worth one hundred thousand dollars nowadays and I suppose in relative terms that was what I thought they were worth to me then. I knew my hockey. There was no Lee Harvey Oswald card. Whoever this Lee Oswald played for, it wasn’t an NHL team at least. But would that make any difference? The President of the United States was dead, whether it was some third stringer on the Flin Flon Bombers or Boom Boom Geoffrion himself who had shot him. It wouldn’t make any difference. The finger would point north. And the missiles and big atomic bombs would follow.

There wasn’t anything we could do. We didn’t have the Avro Arrow to shoot down their Golden Hawks. Mr Pearson came on the television to say how sorry he was and told the Americans how sorry we all were. What choice did he have? You bet we were sorry. We were plenty sorry that President Kennedy had been shot by a left winger. Being sorry was going to count for next to nothing. It was like saying you were sorry after throwing a mud ball at a friend and hitting Trixie Sharple’s school tunic by mistake. The Americans were going to give us plenty to be sorry for.

I rose from the television set, leaving my numbed family huddled morosely before the tube. The kitchen window of our house faced south towards the United States. I searched the sky for the lights of their missiles in the darkness. I thought of Greg Marsden in his basement, eating tinned sardines while the American bombs blew up all around us. Quietly, I opened the back door and went to the carport where I kept my hockey stick. Its smooth wooden shaft felt reassuring in my hands. I went back to the porch and sat down clutching the stick to my chest. I shot left in hockey. I was a left winger too. It wasn’t defencemen and goalies that had got us into this mess. It was one of us on the left wing who had done it. I don’t know how long I stared at that forbidding cold southern sky scanning the horizon for missile tracks. My frantic parents found me there, slumped against the wall, half frozen, a hockey stick across my lap, a lonely sentry asleep at his post.