Strange New World

Another installment in my “Camp Followers” memoir series. Enjoy.



1977, Brantford, Ontario. My young new husband is playing his last year of Junior hockey for the Brantford “Aragon” (named for the restaurant sponsor) Penguins and working at a ShopRite catalogue store. I’m working full-time as a swim instructor at the Brant Aquatic Centre, now renamed these many years later as the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre. How the hell did two base brats end up here? And where are we going?

I met Don in Madame Labarre’s Grade eleven advanced French class at General Panet High School in CFB Petawawa in the fall of 1973. Fifteen years old, moved up to the Grade 11 advanced program; meaning I was expected to go on to the grade 13 Ontario had in those days. Coming from Saskatchewan was quite a culture shock – another one – in a lifetime of a military father’s postings. It seemed to be getting harder the older I got – yes, I was starting to feel old at fifteen. In Yorkton, I had just finished grade nine in a civilian Junior High school called Dr. Brass. To be going to this huge base high school of grades nine to thirteen where I was now a year younger than my classmates: well, it was a real jump to young adulthood, that’s for sure. But this move would not be the hardest I would experience – that would happen after leaving Petawawa, not arriving.

Don put up with the dragonish Madame as long as he could to meet the new girl – as the only male in her class, she was especially hard on him – and it wasn’t long before we were high school sweethearts. He had a mustache. This impressed me greatly. We graduated grade twelve together, and although his Regimental Sergeant Major father was posted that summer to Brantford to work with a Reserve Unit, Don remained in Petawawa supporting himself as long as possible. But there was not much civilian work in Petawawa or even Pembroke for an inexperienced Grade 12 graduate, so he finally joined his family in Brantford and got a job in a store. I stayed engaged throughout my grade thirteen year, which I also spent working as a lifeguard and swim instructor as much as possible to save up some money, and we were married in October 1976. Now what?

I had always been an Honour Roll student, and when elected Valedictorian by my classmates, I got the call to the office to meet the principal. He was shocked that he didn’t know who I was. I hadn’t applied to any universities because my sole plan for the future then was “to get married”. The guidance counsellor had suggested that I not bother with the Calculus course I was struggling with, because it was pulling my average down, and what did I need it for anyway – I wasn’t going to university, right? Such was the career advice to young women in the 1970s. But I had some inclination to keep options open, and thank goodness I fought through and passed the Calculus, as the credit eventually did come in handy. But I get ahead of myself – that was farther in the future and not in mind at this time.

A lovely late October wedding, which my mother organized and planned completely by herself; her bride-to-be daughter had not a single clue. Many of my classmates came back from their first semesters away at universities to attend. The next day we headed away from Petawawa with my new in-laws to Brantford, to our first little apartment in the upstairs of an older home. My parents and brothers had sent me off, waving and crying from the lawn of our PMQ; I can’t remember feeling emotional about leaving home – just numb. The drive to Brantford was dreary and quiet, I do remember, all the excitement and anticipation of getting married now over. I had no idea what kind of life awaited. I had never lived on “civvie street”.

Bewildered but busy throughout November, I set up our little nest with hand-me-downs, went shopping, and wandered the new world of big city southern Ontario. It wasn’t long before I applied for and started my job at the pool, my credentials and experience remarkably welcome. I hadn’t realized the excellent sports programs I had grown up with weren’t as cheap in this different world as they were on bases, where our instructors were often military trainers, and where facilities required little or no fees to use.

Life continued its unreality that winter – my job was great at the start, nine to three, Monday to Friday. I taught swim lessons to school kids as part of their gym program, and for other special needs programs. My co-workers were mostly older women, which started me thinking – was this it? Slightly more than minimum wage and wearing a Speedo into menopause? I liked working with the kids, but soon was really looking forward to the weekends to get away from them. Then there were the old, the disabled, the blind swimmers : all very new to me. Anyone with special needs in those days didn’t live on the bases where I grew up. I was discovering that I had lived a very sheltered, homogenous life until now.

I remembered a teacher from Grade thirteen English class who had come to General Panet to teach for his last year of his 40 year career, the previous 39 having been spent at a public high school in downtown Montreal. He was as curious about our base life as we were about his stories of Montreal. We couldn’t understand a world where some kids drove their own expensive cars to school in designer clothes while others lived on welfare with single mothers. The biggest difference in social class among students at my high school had been your father’s rank : officer’s kids were seen as the upper crust. But even they lived in PMQs, like the kids of corporals. And nobody had designer clothes or fancy cars. The only rich kids I knew in high school were the drug dealers. There were no single mothers living on the base that I recall. I assume families split up but when they did, their mothers took the kids away with them, to live in the civilian world. They weren’t missed – turnover in our classes every year was at least 30 percent, and it was not unusual for kids to come and go throughout the school year.

So living in Brantford was all very Alice-in- Wonderland for me. Rich people. Poor people. Old people. It was a wonder and a shock.

We didn’t have a TV in those cozy months, so for entertainment I would often go watch my husband’s evening hockey practices. Weekends there were games and as the only wife on the team, I was privileged to be allowed on the team bus, which wasn’t as wonderful as you might think: a school bus-load of high-spirited boys aged sixteen to nineteen whooping it up and sneaking beers for the ride home. I had grown up with enough boys and didn’t find them very amusing. But I did enjoy a ready-made social life with the hockey team. I sat with the other girlfriends and sisters. There were parties at player’s houses, most if not all of whom lived with their parents in what I considered mansions. We had a Christmas party at the magnificent home of one the Italian kids on the team – it had a marble foyer with a staircase curving up to sumptuous heights. We ate snacks and sipped drinks in a reception parlour of sorts with a showy fireplace. People in black and white served us. I had never been to an event like this, especially in someone’s home. Incredible; like being in a movie.

And we figured out soon enough this kind of life was not for us. Don was laid off from his store job in the spring and applied for various positions, but eventually we returned full circle, and in June of 1977, he was off to Cornwallis, NS to do his basic training in the military. As former Army brats, we knew enough that he should join the Air Force, of course. I went with him to the recruiter, who tried to cajole me to join up also, and with my Grade 13, I could have been an officer. But I had other plans by then – my boss at the pool ran the Aquatic center from a wonderful desk in her own office with a door she could close, and where she wore nice clothes to work. I found out she had a university degree in Recreation, so that sounded great to me. I would go to University. Like I remember I had once promised my mother I would do, when I came home from school that day in Grade thirteen wearing a little diamond ring. So I wouldn’t have to wear a bathing suit to work in forever.

I joined Don in Winnipeg after his basic training. He had a trades training course to do, a course he would graduate from at the top of his class. This would give him a choice in our first posting. I stayed with an aunt that fall. I worked at the city pools : Sargent Park, Sherbrooke, even the magnificent Pan Am, wherever I could get shifts. And I signed up at the University of Winnipeg for some classes, getting accepted with my required science credit, that good old Calculus course. We were on our way.

One thought on “Strange New World

  1. It is amazing that our lives were so different even though my dad was in the Air Force. With my younger sister being handicapped we did not get transferred as often. I never attended school or lived on on base and so if was a very different experience. Of course knowing other military members and their families, I knew what the base life was like. (And often envied them) It’s great that you are able to write these stories and show your readers what diverse lives we all live.

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