Lower Boy’s Dormitory

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         (Readers take note: there are some graphic descriptions of violence and abuse of children that some may find unsettling)


When a boy left from accident, illness or misadventure, it seemed as if they had vanished. Children regularly left the home, a few because of adoption, but that was a rare thing. It must, for many, seem strange to imagine a family where members regularly arrived and departed. That though was the reality. We were so accustomed that we hardly noticed departures until the end of the school year. When you finished grade nine, you left. I was though, in 1949, eight years old; and about to move over to the lower boy’s dorm after I turned nine. Although there was some foreboding, most little boys were eager to move up and to leave child’s play behind.

My birthday is in December, so my move over was postponed to early January. Christmas was simply too busy a time to move house, even if that move was as simple as gathered a few things and walked across the back yard to the blocky, towering building that was the dormitory. Any anticipation I had vanished in the near orgy of Christmas parties we had at the home. One year, I remember, we had eight. Before the parties began, a group of big boys would go out with an axe in hand and bring back a splendid tree. I remember six or so of them dragging the mighty thing, snow covered and whooping. We all helped decorate. The home must have had a near monopoly on all the rolls of crepe paper in the world. We used that to twist and make streamers across the schoolroom. We decorated the tree in glorious if haphazard fashion. Twenty or so little hands will do that. Then the parties began, as social and service clubs came out to stuff us with candy and gifts. We were the happiest boys and girls imaginable.

January was the dark and bleakest month. It is unlikely that I felt any apprehension about moving over. I did not know about initiation. We had as little boys heard stories about the buck run, but we also heard that that had petered out. Buck run boys, new boys in the dorm, naked, even without shoes, descended the fire escape ladder at night and ran a route, which ran a mile or two through neighbouring Bowness and back to the home. They ran, no matter the weather. It could be raining, even snowing and desperately cold, but shivering boys staggered back in after their ordeal – some near hypothermic. I was glad I would apparently not have to do this. What I did not know was that initiation had become more creative and individual.

My initiation took place in the first week. After the morning bell clang, we tumbled down the stairs in a thundering mob. That was mostly a race to be first at the single urinal. I thought I was lucky then, when I, elbowed aside on the last landing, surprisingly found there was only the one big boy at the urinal. I didn’t wonder about this or even notice, not becoming suspicious that most boys were loitering on either side making a kind of trap to make me lucky and next in line. As I came up to his back, the big boy turned dramatically and urinated straight into my face. I remember shouting, “No, don’t do that!” Regretting that and realizing that laugher was ringing out. I remember burying my face in the sink and flooding my mouth with icy water. I remember too a burning rage. I do not remember crying, though I have the Irish in me and tears come easy. I might not then have realized that when I am angry, when I am moved to fight, that I become calm, calculating and lethal. That capacity, while it served well in a few alleyway fights many years later on, would soon cause me to do something that has haunted me all my life.

Fights were not very common in the home. By that, I mean physical fights. Even when we played hockey, and we were mad about it, fights were rare – almost unknown on the ice. While they did occasionally happen, it was always ‘back of the shack’. Sometimes, and rarely also, a fist-fight was ordered by the boss boy – that is he had decreed that two boys should fight as a result of some transgression. On other occasions, they beat up a boy because a supervisor had inflicted a general punishment or was threatening to, and someone had to suffer consequences. Sometimes, there was the threat that there would be no ice cream on Saturday unless someone owned up to whatever had aroused ire. Oddly, in spite of the fact that I was mild mannered and quiet, both things happened to me. The first I will describe soon and the second I will defer in my telling. It happened several years later, and it has to do with the haunting I earlier described. It has taken me some sixty-five years to be ready to reveal this, and so I will bide a bit more time

When one entered the big boy’s dorm, there was a landing and then a sharp left to spiraling stairs that led up one floor to the lower boy’s dorm. Another flight gained the upper dorm on the top floor. The boy’s supervisor had a private suite at the top of the stairs – just as one gained the top floor. That last flight of stairs had special significance, since that was where strapping took place and that was frequently. It’s only fair to state that, in those times, the strapping of children was commonplace – on the hands – and indeed every Alberta schoolteacher had an official certified strap in their classroom desk. Strapping though was much refined in the home itself. Boys, who were strapped, sat on the uppermost stair. The supervisor stood below them about three steps down. The unfortunate had to hold his arms so that his forearms rested on his outstretched knees with palms uppermost. In that way, when the strap came down, there was no recoil and maximum impact. If a boy seemed defiant and pulled back, he got strapped across the wrist. Painful as that must have been, some of the boys (I salute their glorious spirit) were regularly punished and not much deterred by it. It surprised me that I got another painful punishment within a week of the drenching initiation and it had nothing to do with whether I was mild mannered or not.

I wandered in, tardy from breakfast, to a surprising sight on the landing. The boss boy stood there, with all the big boys sitting on the stairway above him. He said, in the classic distraction, “Look kid, your shirt buttons undone. Ever dutiful, I looked down. He then punched, hard, a full five times in my face. I shouted, “Go ahead, I can take it.” Maybe I surprised him, so the punches stopped. I fled for the bathroom and the cold-water treatment again – it is effective for erasing tears and blunting pain. I was so surprised to see two other boys my age, also red faced and stricken. I realized then that the big boys had decided to punish most or all of the lower dorm boys for something the boss boy concluded we must have done, and which event had seen the big boys lose some privilege or other. I remember being furious. Mostly, I was mad at myself for saying what I did. It might have been then when I decided that I would become a boxer, but maybe I am flattering myself in my old age. In any event, I did become a boxer of sorts – I had wicked hand speed – but that story will wait until I came under the sway of a Finnish coal miner, in Canmore of all place. That is where I became, in my mind, the Canmore Kid with fists of iron.

When you moved over to the big dorms, you also came into the big dining room. There were about eighty of us took meals there. Girls sat on the right, as you entered, and boys on the left. As mentioned earlier, we got eggs twice a year. Breakfast was porridge, with sometimes a dollop of jam in the middle. We got a slice of toast with a spoonful of Rogers Golden Syrup dribbled over by a serving girl. If she was sweet on a boy, he got two dollops. I always got one, but then I was a good boy (wince) and not an athlete at all (with a surprising exception to come later). There was a cup of milk. The bread sometimes – not infrequently – had spots of blue mold. We would eat around those or more often close our eyes and munch it down. You couldn’t taste the mold if the syrup was over it anyhow. What I hated, and can almost taste still, was the brimming spoonful of cod liver oil that we got after breakfast through the winter months. You had to keep a corner of your toast, and stand in line leading to the kitchen, on the way out. The matron would fill the spoon, pop it into mouth and then signal that you must put the bread chunk in your mouth, chew and swallow in front of her. I can still remember the comeback belch, usually at my school desk some hours later.

There were usually two supervisors at mealtimes. They wore white, belted cotton dresses with a wooden spoon tucked in the waist band. A game we played regularly was pop-up. We had to remain silent and seated during meals, but we often challenged the rule. On a signal, a nod maybe, a big boy would lift up some six or so inches from his chair. This was the signal, for the next to do do the same, and so on with ever greater daring, tongue wagging or cheeky expressions. Inevitably, the matron noticed and dashed over to smack the unfortunate on the earlobe. Whap! This fun ended when the matrons abandoned the uniformed patrol. Games of the sort carried on though, with the aim, always, to make some poor kid the victim and to defy the rigid rules. Subversion of authority, often gleeful, was a constant.

Among the regular assignment of chores, peeling vegetables was a standout. Three or four of us perched around a big tub freezing our hands. We could talk and most importantly swipe potatoes and conceal them in a jacket or something we had brought for cover. These were destined for the cookouts older boys had up in the woods. A Hutterite community generously donated the potatoes and all of the splendid, if often hated vegetables every fall. They came in two or three giant stake trucks from their religious community somewhere nearby. They were large, solemn men; all of them dressed in black and bearded. They off loaded the giant turnips, bags of spuds, carrots and onions into our wheelbarrows. We trundled them into the giant root cellar that plunged into the hillside. I remember that it had a concrete front with a heavy door and stalls along either side. It was dank and gloom in there. Stocking up the cellar was mostly a happy chore compared to the opposite in the late winter or early spring. Then, especially unfortunate, boys got the gruesome task of cleaning out the cellar. The need for tall rubber boots should have forewarned them. I did it. I remember the rotten carrots and all the crawling things that lived in there.

I really cannot recall what we had for lunches, soup I expect – bologna sandwiches. Suppers were heavy on vegetables, the staple and most of which we despised, excepting spuds which we had a special regard and use for. We regularly had shepherd’s pie and dishes like that. There was always a desert, jello of course but also tapioca (fish eyes). Mostly I remember the vegetables – endless root vegetables – with the turnips disgustingly woody in late winter. Sometimes things were scarce – never spuds or bread – and so I vividly recall one meal being a half Spanish onion boiled in milk. That’s maybe why I have such a well-honed gag reflex. We ate everything. We ate because there was no alternative and no such things as snacks – save the blessed spuds – or in any way to get food between meals. Boys newly arrived in the home, sometimes thought they would defy the staff and refused to eat. For that affront, they would sit in the dining room until they finally caved in. On at least two occasions, I saw boys sit resolutely alone in that dining room throughout the night. They all ate in the end. We were a skinny and fierce lot. I have no idea how we endured the long hours between supper and breakfast. Oh, and greatest glory of all – with apologies to God’s kingdom – there was the ice cream. Donated by Palm Dairies it arrived every Saturday morning in a large canvas carrier. One packed with dry ice, which we tried to drop down the back of other kids’ shirts. We got a fair slab of Neapolitan – three flavours – after Saturday supper. Sometimes, they withheld ice cream as mass punishment. Truth is I remember that happening only a couple of times maybe – as the boss boy and his cohorts were relentless in getting some hapless lower boy to own up.

Most of us feared the master in the boy’s dormitory during those years. I learned that in spades during my second year in the lower dorm. One morning, as we busied ourselves bed making after breakfast, we got a summons from a breathless older boy to come up to the upper dorm. Our small gang, maybe a dozen or so or us, trooped up. The older boys were all standing on the east side, backed up and in a loose circle. We small boys knelt or sat cross-legged in front. All these years later, I remember sitting there with my hands cupped under my chin, expectant. (What a strange thing memory is to recall such a small point after these many decades; but such was the traumatic impact of what happened that the mind retains some small imprints of detail, littered in with the dramatic images.) What happened next is that the supervisor appeared, dragging a smaller upper dorm boy with the one hand, whist he fumbled at his waist to unfasten an army web belt. The boy wore pyjamas. Sir described, bellowing, how he had been caught raiding the garden of a neighbour – a blind man (well known to us as it happened.) The boy was after carrots. He then pulled down the boy’s pants, and holding him by two wrists aloft, flogged him mercilessly with the web belt on his buttocks, lashing him. I do not know if he used the buckle (tang) ends of the belt, but the assault left welts and wailing. It was all so shocking, that I remember this thing vividly and that was some sixty-five years ago.

In 1950 the most exciting thing ever happened. The home began work on a new school building right on the grounds. For years, our older children had gone to junior high school in nearby Bowness, whilst we continued to have the younger grades in the old ballroom. All that changed with a momentous amalgamation with the Bowness public school system We were to have a proper school with separate class rooms – three of them – and a gymnasium. We could not imagine a gymnasium. Soon crews were clearing the area to the left of the gates where you came in; the large flat area, which had been the home’s vegetable garden when I first arrived. Watching the framers at work turned out to be a new diversion. One of the first things they put up was a rough sort of temporary outhouse, which hardly had anything ominous about it but which would figure prominently in something that happened to my pal Scooter a year or so off. Scooter and his brother had remained in the small boy’s end when I came over. I knew that Cheeky was the butt of jokes and increasingly abused by other kids.

The new school made a huge impression on me. It was marvelous. (Aside: I will describe the school and our wonderful teachers in the chapter to come) but meanwhile on with this story. Scooter and his brother Cheeky had moved over from the little boy’s end but otherwise little had changed. Scooter confided in me about his initiation. Some big boys had taken him down to the construction workers outhouse. There, they rigged him with a rope harness, pushed the outhouse over and lowered him into the pit – over his waist. Scooter shared how he had gone down to the river and washed his body and clothes. He spread his clothes out on bushes to dry whilst he huddle in the woods nearby.

More benign pranks of all kinds were regular. A garter snake left in a girls school desk drawer, dry ice (it came with the ice cream on Saturdays) dropped down the back of some boy’s pants, laundry bluing dabbed on girl’s noses and soap flakes substituted for shredded coconut – on a despised supervisor’s birthday cake. Once, memorably, we went on an excursion to see Calgary’s new water treatment plant. One roguish boy pocketed a handful of alum (the whitish aluminum derived powder used in water treatment) and later, prior to dinner, dosed the milk of others. I was one of the victims. I can tell you that alum tainted milk sure makes your lips pucker up. It’s toxicity is debatable, but in any case none of us could have swallowed enough to cause harm.

The bigger boys kept on picking on Cheeky. Miss M had protected him quite a bit when he was a small boy, but he was out of her sphere as a middle boy. He wet the bed nearly every week. Big boys punished the bed wetters. The offenders ran the gauntlet, nearly every time. For the gauntlet, big boys lined up on both sides of the dormitory. They armed themselves with pillows, web or old pulley belts and sometimes even a locker door separated from the hinges. The supervisor must have smelt the reek of urine, so my assumption is that they would linger over breakfast in the staff room. Boys undergoing punishment ran the gauntlet. The pillows knocked them off their feet so they could really be beat upon with the other weapons.

Where you entered the big boy’s dorm, the stairway down led to a cavernous playroom. The floor was concrete. To the left there was a boiler room – for the heating system. We stored our winter boots and gumboots in cubicles there. Before long, I found a new use for the boot room. It became an imagined corner of a boxing gym or workout room. There wasn’t room to skip and I did not have a speed bag. What I did have was the rubber boots, several of which I would stand up on the cubicle box, top shelf. Then I would dance about in front of them, feinting and bobbing, throwing swift jabs and hooks. They were always lined up there ready to do combat, expressionless, even menacing in their silence. I battled with them as often as I could, wanting to be to be ready for whatever lay ahead.

Before long, something happened and the boxing skills became vital. Someone stole my fire truck. That was near unthinkable in the home. We didn’t have much and there were no locks at all. The big boys, hearing about this, set out to find the offender. One of them found the fire truck, dented and with the ladder crank broken. The boy who took it had hidden it under some old wooden slabs. By some means, they found the one who took it and he was one of us – a middle boy. The boss boy directed that I had to give him a pounding, and that that would happen the coming Saturday, after breakfast, in the lower dorm. The offender was Cheeky.

Cheeky would bite and scratch and if close, he would go for the eyes – gouging with his thumbs or clawing with hooked fingers. I did not want to fight him, but that was the code and the thing had to happen. We met after breakfast on Saturday in a circle of boys. Boys stood on the beds, whist bigger ones made taunting whoops and catcalls, feigning at making bets. The fight began. Cheeky mostly immobile, flailed uselessly with one arm, with the other trying to cover his face. I, as if back in the boot room or better Madison Square Gardens, danced about flicking jabs. I lashed him with combos and hard punches. When he staggered and half sunk, looking up, I drove him square in the nose. At the end, when I could drop my fists and stood there over him, panting, Cheeky laid there on the floor with his legs pulled up. With a face smeared with blood, he grunted in rage and bit at the back of his right hand. I never fought again while I lived in the home. I lost all my interest in boxing as well.

The summer that followed turned out to be memorable for stupefying boredom. Many of the boys and girls left, some for good but others to be with relatives on farms maybe. it seemed the hottest July ever. Cheeky left too, but not in the manner of most who went away. They came for him, and took him up  to the Alberta Training School the place for mental defectives near Red Deer*. I never saw him again.

*Note: That was the cruel language of the time. Known for a time as the Alberta Training School, the place was also called the Michener Centre. In there, mentally challenged children were often sterilized in accord with now disgraced eugenics practice.


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