OTTAWA, 1999: my partner’s uncle shows me the program of a reunion, several years earlier, of Fort Erie Secondary School. Leafing through, I see a photo of a rugby team, taken in the year 1932-1933—the fourth of the school’s operations. In the background, the familiar school building. I discover my grandfather, Alfred Spear, in the front row, second from the right.
Three generations of Spears would attend in the half-century bridging 1932 and 1982: my grandfather, my father, and I. The building remains to this day, from the outside looking much as it always has, while so much else —everything, in fact—has changed. The photo is taken from the north, near Central Avenue, looking in the direction of the Niagara River, toward Buffalo. Indeed, the rugby team is posed almost precisely on the spot where decades later a bicycle rack would be installed, and from which a bicycle of mine would be stolen.
If the buildings were levelled, you’d see Tait Avenue and beyond that, to the southeast, the railway bridge, past the boulevard and slightly west of Jarvis Street. I don’t know, but suspect, that my grandfather had more than once leapt from the bridge into the river, as my friends and I had. On many a day, we jumped the moving trains and passed over the links, leaping to the ground on the other side to make our way to the Jarvis Street chip truck.
Jarvis Street, three blocks north of the site of this picture, was for years the town’s commercial centre and gathering place. I recall the family-run department store, where each year elaborate Christmas scenes were installed. In the ‘60s and early ‘70s the street was thriving, and in the ‘80s decline set in. A mall opened to the southeast, and the gravitational centre shifted to the #3 highway. Today, Jarvis Street is a ghost town. Even the mall was forced to close when its anchor store, Zellers, went away. In place of the shops of yesterday are strip malls, inconveniently spread over the grey distance of a highway that goes from nowhere in particular to nowhere in particular.
My grandfather, who died August 29th at age 98, is aged sixteen on the day this photo was taken. He looks fit and healthy, and he is young. I recognize his face, but needless to say, I knew him only as an older man. Not old, mind you. He was 49 on the day I was born—which I now realize was the exact mid-point of his life—and almost precisely the age I am now. In other words, I’ve no recollection of the full bloom of his youth, but I do recall him in his still-active days. For example: seaman that he once had been, he owned a boat, and I have good memories of travel to other-worldy places like Bobcaygeon, where we would go fishing.
In 1932, Canada was well under the curse of the Great Depression. Fort Erie had just become a town, having merged with neighbouring Bridgeburg. The young men in this photo could not have anticipated the war, yet the conceit of meagre prospects would not have been beyond them. Their fathers could well have known the deprivations, perhaps even the degradations, of modern war. Their generation would have no recourse but to adapt and survive. I don’t know what my grandfather learned in high school, but rugby seems to me as good a use of his time as the institution could afford. Some years after high school, the war broke out. A thick skin, a familiarity with competition and struggle, an ability to shake off the blows—all of these would doubtless serve in the years ahead. While in the navy, he would be stationed in Halifax, where he would learn a trade. After the war he was, until his retirement in the 1980s, a cabinet-maker employed over the border, in the US.
Gradually the world would change, and then it would change quickly. Fort Erie Secondary School was however a point of stasis, or so it seems to me. My generation would be groomed for twentieth-century jobs that no longer exist. Even in the years I was walking to high school along Central Avenue, from the south end of the town to the north, I was observing the inexorable decline of Horton Steel. Fort Erie was being hollowed out before my eyes, and although it never occurred to me to put the matter so plainly, I could feel the reality of it. It’s funny, in a grim sort of way, that not one of my teachers seemed to take notice of what was happening all around, or to say anything much about it if they did. Nor do I recall anyone possessing a sufficient clarity of vision to have discerned the cliff’s edge. A bit like no one seeing the approach of war, decades earlier.
Paradoxically, from the point of view of the 1930s Fort Erie’s best years lay, not behind, but ahead. The newly-formed town was growing, driven in good measure by the very undertaking which would soon cut short so many young lives. Fort Erie manufactured steel, plane parts, and parachutes, among other essential war materials. On my school lunch breaks I would often apprehend the seamstresses of the Irving Air Chute Company, on theirs, seated across the street in the shallow depth of the factory grounds adjacent the foot of Central Avenue bridge. (Mis)Named after the Los-Angeles-born and former movie stuntman Leslie L. Irvin (the result of a typo), the Irving Air Chute Company supplied thirty-three of the world’s airforces in 1933. War: it surrounds this photo, in time and in geography.
On August 27, two days before my grandfather’s departure, the province officially approved $25 million in funding for a new high school, thus signalling the imminent end of an 86-year institution. Nothing, as we all know, is forever.