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That Was Now, This Is Then

By Fred Kuzyk. Copyright 2001, Freddy The K Communications. No reproduction without permission.

That Was Now, This Is Then.
To this day, if I hear an aircraft overhead, I still have to look up & see if I can identify it. If it's a military craft, I wonder if anyone I know is aboard...

The monsterous cavern of the hangar at Downsview is empty now, just like it was during ceremonies, such as a Change Of Command Parade, when the aircraft would be out on the flight line. I can almost hear the last strains of "Oh Canada, we stand on guard for thee". The 400 Squadron Pipes & Drums Band is marching off, with the Colour Guard. We in our ranks are marching behind. The 411 Squadron Brass Band begins to play the RCAF March Past. You could feel the history, tradition, pride. Then as the tune ends, the band suddenly breaks into the theme music from the "Friendly Giant" TV show and we all groan & wince. As we use to say: "It's hard to soar with eagles when you fly with turkeys".

There we were, manning the bastions of democracy against the communist hoards. Some of us believed we were standing on guard for thee. Although they didn't give us any weapons. Well, it wasn't exactly a growth industry - the Air Force Reserve was in a steady decline since the late 1950's. Probably because the communist hoards never showed-up in Canada. Today, a good number of the products in your home are likely made in the Peoples Republic of China, by some of those expected communist hoards. As a child in Hamilton during the late 1950's, I remember seeing the occasional transient fighter jet over the city. The 424 Air Reserve Sqn at Mount Hope was flying Mustangs. Air defence was big then. But things changed. The fighters would soon go, as the Air Reserve went from fighters to transport. Expediters & Otters came around 1960. Then in 1964, budget cuts forced the Air Reserve to lose about 2/3 of its numbers. Hamilton Air Reserve operations were shut down, along with those in London, Calgary, & Vancouver. Toronto Reserve units became the last ones flying in Ontario.

Now CFB (Canadian Forces Base) Toronto is called Downsview Park. Long term plans include parkland, trails, ponds & museums. Many buildings I 
remember have been demolished & others converted to civilian uses. The hangars are now used for indoor soccer.  Visiting it recently, I was astonished to find that the 400 Squadron offices were still there & unlocked. I felt like Dean Jagger's character in the movie "12 O'Clock High", when he visits the abandonned airfield he served at many years earlier.He can hear the lads singing one of their squadron's songs. He finds a keepsake & in the end leaves. I too found some keepsakes & heard the ghosts in the silence. Memories flooded forth. Sights, sounds, smells from 20 years ago. I swear I just hear the clang of someone dropping a drip tray under the belly of an Otter. Is that the sound of a "mule" tow tractor racing off from Aircraft Servicing with a tow bar banging behind it? I can still see & feel it like it was yesterday. The people, events, emotions.  For decades, locals around the Base wondered what went on behind the barbed wire. So did I. I was a student at York University in the mid 1970's and lived in the neighbourhood. I had an interest in flying  & was a student pilot at Maple with the York U. Flying Club. As a Fine Artsy, I reached a point where I craved some adventure & disciple that the military offers. So, I enlisted & from 1978-82, I did find out went went on behind the barbed wire.

The military thrives on the need for young people to belong in groups. You could also do it elsewhere - 4H Club, CYO, Junior Achievement, or street gangs. But in the Canadian Armed Forces you not only worked & learned together, but they also fed you, clothed you, gave you medical attention, housed you ( in barracks or PMQs), sent you on exotic trips (like a Search And Rescue in Sudbury), and generally exposed you to a myriad of stimuli & realities. As well as cheap booze & smokes! And they paid you for it! All this & money too. The young are also impressionable. Everything seemed fresh, new & is carved in stone. I was exposed to lesbians, alcoholics, air-heads, wife-beaters, dopers, psychotics, submissives, sadists, witches, the depressed & suicidal, as well as some good folks. We had it all. A few made careers of it. Some achieved great things & comfortable lives. Most just came & went - like the transient aircraft that we serviced.  At the time, who'd of thought that all this was fleeting. That the aircraft we worked on would go. That the Squadrons would be gone & the Base itself would be history. Hey, like Maple Leaf Gardens, it was a relic from the past. A substantial hunk of real estate that many wanted to get their hands on. But the Base was more that under-used runways and land. For awhile, it was our lives.  

It was a setting, a place & time that would not last, nor is unlikely to ever return. A little, isolated island smack dab in the middle of the largest Metropolitan area in Canada. An island of security & sometimes insanity, that you could become afraid to leave or venture off of.  Populated with a real cast of characters that at times were surreal. It had all the elements of comedy, conflict, drama, tragedy, surprizes, disappointments, victories, lust, loathing, fear, jubilation - that make a good story. It was the greatest of times but also the shitiest. It was a time before the 403 & 407 hiways but you still could commute easily. When virtually everyone lived in the 416 Area Code, you only "dialed" seven digits, the switchboard still had plugs & cables, and cell phones were non-existant. Beer was in stubby bottles, Disco was king, AIDS wasn't invented but the pill was. Before Kareoke, PCs & the GST. Capital Punishment had only been abolished for 2 years & the Conservatives amongst us believed that we were going to hell in a hand basket, as crime would go through the roof. Journey back with me to the time when Otters flew about Toronto & the float planes landed in Toronto Harbour. Back to the days of mis-spent youth. Some of the names have been changed to conceal the guilty. Any similarity to actual people & events is strictly INTENDED!

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