In Part 1, last week, I wrote about my first school friend, Watson Woo; this week, in Part 2, I write about the fire that forced us to move, thus ending our friendship.
Some events you can never forget, even decades later. The facts might not be all correct, but the general impression remains and this suffices to tell the story. Such certainties now escape me more than 44 years later. What I do recall was the following: I was 12. It was an cold day in February in the year 1970, in Montreal; I think it was a Tuesday or Wednesday at the beginning of the month, February 3rd or 4th. There was snow on the ground, which was the norm for this time of year. I was walking home from school with my friend, Watson Woo. This would make it around 3:30 in the afternoon.
As we talked, traversing along Villeneuve Ave, and neared Jeanne Mance, the street where Watson lived and where he would make a leftward turn to his house, we both noticed many fire trucks a block away on my street, Park Avenue. As schoolboys often do, Watson joked about it, saying. “It must be that your house is on fire.” I said nothing other than “bye,” and began to quicken my pace home, turning left onto my street, and seeing in front of me a long line of red fire trucks that stretched a city block.
I ran. As I neared my house, I saw the trucks were indeed in the final stages of putting out the fire at my house. I stood there motionless, not knowing what to do. In fact, the next few minutes seemed to progress in slow motion. Then back to a reality that I did not want to face. My world as I knew it would not be the same. It would change.
We had lived here since I was born. Our home was at the back of a store—Frank’s Grocery—that my parents had owned and operated. Grocery stores had long hours, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. My mother ran it during the day, and after my father came home from work and ate supper, he managed it. I would often join him in the evenings, keeping him company, and helped him serve customers, some of them Yiddish-speaking. My parents closed the store a year before, in 1969, after my mother had decided that she did not want to “do it anymore.” I liked the store, especially since it had candy, chocolates, chips and soda pop—all the things that children love to consume.
I saw my mother first and then my father and then two brothers coming out of Nina the dressmaker’s shop next door to our house, our former home, that is; after establishing in my mind that all my family was safe, unharmed, I decided to run inside to save what was most important to me. This was my hockey card collection and my cat, Betsy. Luckily, the firemen stopped me before I could run inside. Later on, I found that our cat was safe; and we gave her to a family friend. My card collection did not fare so well.
Sun Youth Organization, started by a great humanitarian, Sid Stevens, arranged for us to stay at a hotel a few doors down—an emergency shelter. It was small but cozy and safe. This was our home for the next few weeks, until my father found us a new place to live in another neighbourhood.
All the familiar sights and sounds of Park Avenue and the nearby streets of Mont-Royal, Jeanne-Mance, Villeneuve and Saint-Urbain would now be gone. Gone from my view would be the Dairy Queen across the street, my school on Saint-Urbain, Mont-Royal “the mountain,” the constant sound of traffic on Park Avenue, the sounds and colours of foreign language and culture, and my friendship with Watson Woo.
These would eventually be replaced by new ones, new places, new people, new memories. And the memories of all now remain, not vivid but constant. All flowing from one to another.