9:56. Every time I glance at a clock displaying 9:56, I’m hurled back through the decades to the two years during which 956 was my number. I was the the nine hundredth and fifty sixth teenage boy to be admitted to the original St. John’s Cathedral Boys’ boarding school, located about an hour out of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Labels featuring 956 were sewn into every article of my school issue clothing – my lumberjack shirts, my black and gold sweaters and my quick drying army pants. Given every student had the same limited attire, these labels were crucial in assuring that the boys assigned to Laundry Crew put the correct clothing in the correct cubicle. But no clothes were washed during my first couple of weeks – at least not in a laundry. Every student starting St. John’s had to survive the ‘New Boy Trip’ – a three hundred and fifty mile canoe trip along routes once used by the ‘Voyagers’ to transport furs from the wilds of Canada to civilisation. It was a confronting and, at times, terrifying experience – boot camp with canoes, burnt porridge and wooden paddles: most used to propel us through water, one used to whack us on the backside. This was called getting ‘swats’ – sanctioned corporal punishment paid for by our parents. The most a boy could receive at one time was ten – usually reserved for the most extreme transgressions. But I was unlucky that my first ‘swats’ experience was for something I didn’t do. Perhaps the only pleasure during this hellish trip was occasionally getting a small square of chocolate. But when a thief (or thieves) stole all the chocolate rations, they were given a choice – fess up and get ten swats or keep quiet and everyone will get ten ass stinging smacks. He (or they) choose option two. Perhaps they figured that if they were going to get their butts smacked anyway, then doing so anonymously was preferable to also getting beaten by boys pissed off that there was no more chocolate. I did my best not to cry when I got my undeserved punishment, furious at the people who had put me in this position – my parents. Any relief at having survived the New Boy trip was short lived once we encountered Old Boys upon our return. Various ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenarios played out over the subsequent months – sadistic Old Boys dishing out cruelties they’d once suffered during their own time as New Boys. We were assigned to our various work crews and I soon discovered, to my surprise, that cleaning toilets was preferable to looking after chickens or making sausages. But there was no escape from selling these (dead) chickens and sausages door to door – the money from which helped to keep our school fees so low and attractive to parents. Also minimising fees were teachers (‘masters’) willing to work for just a dollar a day – plus their food and board. The temperature dived and the snow dumped. The rivers froze – making canoeing impossible but enabling us to walk on them with cow gut tennis rackets tethered to our feet (also known as show shoes – though nothing like the light as a feather modern day ones). Every Saturday afternoon in winter, despite the sub zero temperatures and howling winds, we would walk on rivers for hours. Before my time, a boy actually died of hypothermia. He then came back to life minutes later. Needless to say – he was a St. John’s legend. Eventually, spring shuffled along and the rivers flowed again. This meant it was back into the canoes for any boys returning the next year. Sadly, that included me. So, on my way to being an ‘Old Boy’, I started paddling the longest route the school tackled – the eight hundred and fifty mile ‘Grande Portage’. A ‘portage’ is when you have to carry the canoes across land – with the ‘Grandest’ being eight miles long – an ordeal which reduced me to a whimpering mess. But I had a smile on my face days later when we pulled into a small town and were given a bit of cash for a much desired sugar hit. When we returned to the canoes, babbling and carrying on, we were told that our trip leader (who happened to be our Head Master and founder of St. John’s and its two subsequent schools in Alberta and Ontario), had an announcement. The man was as white as a sheet. He told us that while checking in with the school via payphone (these were the days before mobiles or even satellite phones), he was told that an accident had occurred during one of the Ontario school trips. Thirteen boys and two masters were dead. They didn’t drown – their life jackets wouldn’t allow it. Instead, they had succumbed to hypothermia. Unlike the St. John’s legend, none came back to life. We were shocked – especially when I discovered that three boys on that trip had been in my canoe months earlier during our New Boy trip. One of them was now dead – one of a pair of identical twins. In a bizarre twist – that doomed group had three pairs of twins. One of each pair had perished. We got back into our canoes without our Head Master. He had been whisked off to face the media and defend a school that pushed boys to the extreme – and beyond. With each stroke of my paddle, I thought about those dead boys. I wondered if their parents regretted sending them to St. John’s.
Hi mate. Heard you tell this story before but wow it always freaks me out how tragic it would have been. Very heavy. Tough upbringing for sure. Hope you’re all going well. Cheers, Duncan
I’m in this picture. What vivid memories this post evokes, and today in particular.
Yes you are! I remember you well Michael (though you were always ‘Rowe’ to me – as I was ‘Amsden’ to you). I see you’ve gone on to become an author, which doesn’t really surprise me as you were always bright and creative. I’m curious about your ‘today in particular’ remark. Is it the anniversary of the Ontario School accident? From memory, this is around the time of year we’d have been on a canoe trip. Anyway – hope all is well with you and thanks so much for your comments.