Julie Wilson: The tragedy of which you speak in your book, As You Were: The Tragedy at Valcartier occurred in 1974 on a Canadian Forces Base in Valcartier, Quebec. During a routine lecture on explosives safety, the pin was pulled on a grenade thought to be a dud. Six teenaged boys died and fifty-four were injured. One hundred and forty boys survived, but were left traumatized. You've noted surprise that so many people remained silent in the aftermath, some who have since come forward to talk more openly after having read your book. Can you share some anecdotes?
Gerry Fostaty: I initially thought I was the only one to remain tight lipped. I was wrong. Only a few of the boys, who are all now in their fifties, have broken the silence, and even then, only to those they feel they could trust. Most didn’t even speak to their families about the explosion for years: not their parents, siblings, nor even their spouses later in life. It was just too painful to focus on the memory, much less to recount it to someone else. So much energy was spent avoiding the memory of the trauma that it seemed counterproductive to revisit that which we would have gladly escaped.
We would all like to position ourselves as strong, and a first response is to “man up, brave it out, suck it up and walk it off.” Not many men are immune to the cultural conditioning and the media influence that promotes the image of the strong silent male. There are men with visible scars on their bodies, who still refuse to tell their spouses the details of their injuries.
One man told me that, soon after he was married, his wife noticed the large puckered scar from the wound he received in the explosion. He had been wounded very badly. He asked her to sit down, and he told her that he was injured in an explosion when he was younger. He then told her that it involved the army, and then abruptly said he would never speak of it again.
Another factor is that in 1974 we were told by those in authority not to speak of what had happened. For instance, I learned only two years ago, in 2010, that one of the injured boys had been repeatedly asked by his doctor about the small pieces of metal in his legs while being x-rayed for pain. He brushed it off at first, but when the doctor persisted, he replied only that he was not permitted to speak about it. This was a man in his forties; the incident had taken place thirty years earlier, yet he still felt bound by his order to keep silent.
The silence was quietly broken in 2009 when many of us met for the first time in thirty five years. There were about forty of us that had come together on a private Facebook page, and we made arrangements to meet at a memorial for our friends at the site of the explosion. The night before the memorial, we met in a room at a hotel in Quebec. For most, it was the first time they'd spoken of what had happened. I realized then that the story had to be told, if only so these men could hand the book to their families.
JW: Talk now about your own relation to the event itself. You were an 18-year-old sergeant and one of the first to arrive on the scene after the explosion. What other frame of reference did you have for death, violent ones at that?
GF: At eighteen, we all think we are as old and as wise as we will ever be. I had no real reference point for death. I had been to very few funerals at that time, and those I had been to were for people with whom I had no close connection. There is nothing, however, that could prepare anyone for what I saw that day.
One hundred and thirty eight members of our company were sitting in a lecture on explosives safety. Tragically, this was a lecture that was supposed to protect them from accidentally detonating an explosive device. All teenage boys. Somehow, a live grenade got mixed in with the dummies that were being used as training aids. Like the dummies, the live grenade was circulated around the room and a boy, thinking it was safe, pulled the pin. I was on my way into the room when the explosion occurred. I was suddenly immersed in a situation that not only took the lives and well-being of those I was responsible for, I thought I had lost my brother in the blast. With each step, all of us who were evacuating the boys thought something else could explode, taking others with it, possibly us as well.
Although we were moving the dead and critically injured from the area, I had no real cognitive response to what had happened at that time. A massive adrenaline surge kept me moving. Soon after though, any type of involuntary dissociation I might have experienced came to a complete stop, and the reality of the situation hit me like a train. I literally had to stare death in the face later that day when I was taken to identify the bodies. To that point, I had never written a diary or kept a journal, yet I wrote everything down that I could remember when I returned home a few weeks later. I was afraid that if I didn’t, I would forget. Of course, I have never forgotten that day; how could I?
JW: In your NCO quarters, there were fourteen young men, as you describe it, "fourteen bunks in a six-by-six metre room." What was it like in the aftermath of the tragedy to live in such close proximity to one another? How did you all cope?
GF: After the explosion, we were moved to temporary quarters in a chapel. The NCOs were peppered around the building to spread us out among the cadets in an effort to keep them calm and to identify any hot spots of fear, discomfort or undetected injury. We would move to another bed in the chapel every night. We didn’t talk about what had happened very much. It was still a mystery to us. While there were rumours, we didn’t know it had been a grenade that had exploded for quite a while. We were told soon after the incident that we were to get back to business as usual, and, of course, not to discuss it. For the most part, we didn’t.
The regimental routine kept us from dwelling on it. On my own, however, I felt very alone, like I was only one affected. So, I certainly didn’t want to exhibit weakness by displaying my feelings. But, the problem with trauma is that the stress manifests itself later, even years later.
JW: Talk a bit about service. Was it ever an option to leave? You ultimately left the service when you were 19 years old.
GF: It's curious, none of the cadets went home. They all stayed for the completion of the course, an additional three weeks. None of the parents demanded that they be released. Before this happened, I had plans to go on in the Forces. My goal was to apply to university at the Royal Military College in Kingston. After the way I had been treated following the explosion, though, I dropped those plans. The military inquiry looked to me like it was focused on ascribing the blame of the explosion on one of us from the company. Naturally that was completely out of the question. Once the truth was found, they were through with us. There was no debrief and certainly no counselling. I felt that I was a disappointment to the Forces, and unwanted by them, so I decided not to pursue my previous plan.
JW: What was the impetus to tell this story now, after all these years?
GF: I had never told my family about what had happened. My brother died many years ago, so I couldn’t even talk to someone who was there at the time. I tried to tell my wife a few times, but it was difficult, not only emotionally, but because the story is complex and it raises additional questions that demand that the story take a different direction. I found that the answers to these questions provided important background to the story itself. I realized then that the only way to get the story told, would be to write it out.
I dug out my old handwritten notes, and began pounding away at the keyboard. Around that time, I heard from my old company sergeant major. I hadn’t heard from him since 1974, but he popped up on my computer screen one day. We started to communicate regularly and he let me know that he was in contact with a few of the “boys.” If it was difficult for me to speak about it to my family, I thought, it must be near impossible for them. I decided that it was not only important for me, but for the boys and their families to find a way to literally put our story into our families’ hands, and, hopefully, initiate a dialogue and ease some of the pressure. I knew I had done the right thing when my mother put the manuscript down and said, “I never would have known.”
JW: At any point, did you consider writing this as fiction?
GF: Never. It never even entered my mind. The facts of this story are too unbelievable for fiction. I was introduced to someone as an author once. (I beamed when that happened.) The woman asked me what the book was about. I told her it was about an explosion that accidentally killed six teenage cadets at an army base. I didn’t say it was a memoir. She asked what country it happened in. When I said here, she was stunned. She said she couldn’t believe it, because she had never heard of it. She asked how I could be sure it happened. When I told her I was there, she shuddered.
The closest thing I got to fiction was in the first draft of the manuscript, where I had changed some of the names of the boys. My editor convinced me, quite rightly, to name everyone accurately. I had acquired documents using the federal access to information to corroborate my story and to demonstrate some of the decisions of the court proceedings as well as the information gleaned from the official investigation, like the corkscrew path the grenade took from the ammunition depot to our barrack. My editor said that changing the names of the players might lead a reader to believe that other details were changed as well. That, she said, might compromise the integrity of the book.
That was the first time it was referred to as a book. Before that, it was a manuscript.
Gerry Fostaty reads from As You Were: Tragedy at Valcartier.
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