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An Excerpt from Gerry Fostaty's As You Were

In a report to the minister of defence to be made public on January 26, 2017, Canadian Armed Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne outlines the need for cadets to receive the same level and care of compensation available to members of the Canadian Forces — or to civilian employees — who are injured or killed on duty. This report resulted from an inquiry into the 1974 explosion at Valcartier in which six cadets were killed and fifty-four others were injured.

To read more about today's report to the minister of defence, please click here.

The 1974 tragedy was the subject of the 2011 book As You Were: The Tragedy at Valcartier by Gerry Fostaty. Continue reading for an exclusive excerpt from the book.


Were You There?

The name that appeared on my computer screen on February 14, 2008, was one I hadn’t seen in thirty-four years. The sight of it in my email inbox sent a flush to my face and a chill down my spine. An adrenaline rush seemed to prompt me to stand or run as my mind flooded with memories of that day in 1974: the colour, olive drab; the smell of oiled canvas tents and boot polish; the noisy din of the mess; the grind of the mosquito-fogging truck as it wound its way through the base, trailing oily, bluish smoke behind it; the cadence of marching boot-shod feet and distant shouted commands. The memory of the sudden deep crack of the exploding grenade and breaking glass followed by screaming, the stinging reek of gunpowder and blood — there was so much blood.

The name was that of Charles Gutta. We struggle to remember people, events, and things in our lives, but I had no trouble remembering him. Even after all this time, the memory of him was as big as life. Not a tall man, but solid, in both his build and his demeanour. The lines on his fair face and the intensity of his gaze suggested an uncompromising nature, soon confirmed by his manner. I recalled that his salt-and-pepper brushcut hair belied his thirty-five or so years, but he had seemed old to me. I was eighteen then, when thirty-five seem aged; now I’m in my fifties, thirty-five seems like yesterday. Charles Gutta moved with purpose and economy and had no time for fools, as I painfully learned early in our acquaintance. He was no nonsense and no fluff. We quickly understood that Sergeant Charles Gutta was a man of his word, and his word was law.

I had thought that nothing would surprise me in an email anymore, but with the sudden appearance of this name on my computer I was clearly mistaken. His message was sitting in the middle of a pile of messages, but my eye was drawn to it in the same way one is compelled to look at something moving at the periphery of vision when all else is still.

The subject line was “Valcartier 1974.” I almost didn’t want to read the message. As I clicked the mouse to open it, I suddenly became aware of my heart beating, my breathing becoming shallow. The three-word message, like its author, got to the point: “Were you there?”

I had been there all right. I hit the reply button and began typing. “Yes. I have thought of you often. I hope you are well.” Send.

I sat there looking at the screen, as if expecting that a reply would come back right away. I was baffled by what could have prompted him to contact me after all these years and how he had even remembered me. How had he found me? I sat there, transfixed by reminiscence.

By the summer of 1974, I had been a cadet for five years and had undergone the same training as the youths I would oversee were about to experience. The cadet movement, which traces its history back to 1879, is the oldest federally funded youth program in Canada. Although the movement is funded by and affiliated with the Canadian Forces, it is not technically part of the Forces. Cadets are not required to move on to regular or reserve service, though I’m sure every cadet at least thinks about it — I certainly did. The training I received at various summer camps and with my home unit had qualified me to apply to become a non-commissioned officer (NCO). I had advanced through the ranks and was certified as a cadet leader, senior cadet leader, and master cadet, and was now to become an NCO for the summertime cadet training at Valcartier.

Eventually, I pulled myself away from the computer and headed to my basement in search of some old boxes of memorabilia I had been dragging around with me for decades. These items had no practical value, and I would never use them again, but they were benchmarks of my life. Blowing the dust off one box, I dove in, looking for pictures from that summer I knew were there somewhere, though, of course, I couldn’t find them right away.

Instead, I came across a small red leather journal, given to me in 1972 when I was training in Banff at the National Army Cadet Camp. Of Canada’s twenty-five thousand or so army cadets, around two hundred and fifty were chosen each summer to take a six-week senior leadership course in Banff, and even then I realized how fortunate I was to have been invited. I had never been so far from my family before, and getting there was my first time on an airplane. I was sixteen.

I did not exactly excel at keeping a journal then, so within the red leather binding are just the addresses of a half-dozen or so British cadets I trained with that year. When they were finished with us, they were going off to the British Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Their home addresses had quaint names like Sifton House and Rose Hill. One fellow’s home address was the British embassy in Prague; his father, apparently, was the military attaché. They were so different from us. We were loud and raw; they seemed sophisticated, polished, conservative, which for some of us made them a target for mockery.

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That was the year Paul McCartney released “Give Ireland Back to the Irish.” The record was on the canteen jukebox, and every time the Brits came in, someone would spend a quarter to play it. The Brits, of course, viewed this as bordering on treason. In retaliation, one would stand on another’s shoulders, unhook the large photograph of Queen Elizabeth II from the wall, and together they would run out of the canteen with the picture, while a third Brit held the door open. They would stand outside until the song ended and then calmly re-hang the picture on the wall.

This pattern repeated over the course of a few days, until our commanding officer got wind of it. Instead of having the song removed from the jukebox, however, he forbade the Brits to remove the picture from the canteen. At first, they fumed and made a great show of disgust whenever the song played, which was annoyingly often. One day, however, they began to sit there smiling no matter how often the song came on, continuing to grin even when the canteen crowd loudly sang along. Eventually, the usual response not forthcoming, the jukebox became relatively quiet.

It was purely by chance that I discovered the reason for the Brits’ newly relaxed attitude. I had arrived late and was looking for a place to sit when I spotted a few of my friends lounging at a table near the back wall. “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” was blaring on the jukebox. As I stepped around an overstuffed chair to sit down, I glanced up at the wall in front of me to see the picture of Her Majesty sporting the smallest of cotton balls, stuck to her ears. No one else had noticed, and I never said a word to anyone.

Whenever I see those addresses in the small red journal, I’m reminded of that story. Memory is fluid that way. One thing can link quickly to another, creating a string of memories just as in a treasure hunt where one clue leads to another.
I returned to the computer about an hour later to look at the message again, “Were you there?” and to reread my reply. Despite the initial shock of this contact out of the blue, I was glad Sergeant Gutta had sent the message. But as I anxiously awaited his response, I found myself lured down a path I did not really care to retread.

I don’t remember saying goodbye to anyone when I left the base in 1974. I guess I just wanted to get home, to leave the explosion and the deaths and injuries and all that had happened far behind me. In retrospect, I suppose I thought home was the answer. Home implied stability and normality. Even at age eighteen, the irony was not lost on me that I had tried to get away from home for the same reasons I later wanted to return. I will see all these people from the base soon enough, I had thought. I was wrong, of course. Most of them I would never see again.

The young feel that the world and their relationships will remain as they leave them — like folding over the page of a novel and walking away, trusting the story will continue where we left off once we resume reading. I have learned, however, that, like reading a book, the longer you put aside a relationship, the more likely you will have to start at the beginning to make sense of it and regain continuity.

Over the years, I had often thought of the people I spent that summer with and wondered what became of them. I felt the occasional pull to contact them, but how would I begin what might be a one-sided conversation with someone I hadn’t seen in years? Would I be remembered? Would they want to be contacted? Could I reach the right people just by pulling names out of the phone book? In the days before email or even telephone answering machines, it would have been just me, a phone book, and the electric hum of a dial tone prompting me to dial. In the end, I was too timid to make any calls. What held us together was the horror of the explosion, but it was both a bond and a barrier.

Photo: A cadet checks into the D Company OR on his first day. Facing the cadet (from left to right) are Wheeler, Fostaty, Katzko, and Fullum.

Follow Gerry Fostaty online @gfostaty.

As You Were Canadian Forces excerpt Gerry Fostaty Valcartier Explosion

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