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  • My Own Story

    I was born and baptized, Robert Alfred Gagnon, in Barcelona, Spain October 8, 1935. The snapshot above is of me in my big sister’s arms when I was less than 4 months old. A few months later I managed to show a more cheerful expression still in Helen’s arms with my brother JP behind us in the garden of our Barcelona villa.

    All three of us looked happier than we should have since bloody political strife outside our garden walls soon turned into bloody civil war weeks in mid-July 1936. It ended in April 1939 after a lot of nasty fighting and disgusting intervention by Italy, Germany and USSR. This conflict has been described as the precursor of WW II in that the democracies of GB and France were unable to come to grips with the mounting belligerance of Herr Hitler and his Nazi hordes!

    Pablo Picasso produced a bold tableau of his imagined Civil war which portrayed the unprovoked Nazi bomber attack on a small village in Western Spain during the Spanish Civil War. In a highly symbolic way this tableau also evokes a country that had been torn by violence for too many years.

    Me and my older siblings looked weirdly innocent of that savage political struggle, which was taking place nor for from our garden perch in the hills of Barcelona.

    As it turned out in mid-July 1936, my mother, my older siblings and I, accompanied by Pensa Gomez, our maid cum nanny (for me mostly), were bundled off by my father in a private car to catch a cross Atlantic boat in France. We travelled from Barcelona through Andorra in the Pyrenees. Before the end of 1936 we were living in Montmagny, QC close neighbours of my father’s brother, Raymond Gagnon, who was married to my mother’s younger sister, Marguerite.

    By the fall of 1937 my father had decided that it would be better for him if the family lived in Vernet-l-bains in the French Pyrenees while he worked on in Barcelona about 100 miles away.

    I have a candid snap of a dockside farewell with my uncles Raymond Gagnon and Pierre Boudreau as well as my aunts and my cousin Leo-Henry in Montreal 1937. I was in the arms of Pensa and my mother, in her fall best, stood right behind my head!

    For a boy of 2, I had a good share of travel and excitement. But my smiling countenance in that picture and in other pictures taken on the ship that returned me and my birth family to Europe, France and Spain (for my father) seems to portray a relatively happy boy.

    But here and there the face I project seems to be an awkward and uncomfortable boy-child. As the image of me standing in front of Notre Dame de Montmartre in Paris with my mother an older siblings showed all of my real awkwardness.

    The amount of travel and displacement I experienced couldn't have been a better way of developing my fear of life, which has marked so much of my adult life until I got into my dirty 50s.

    I guess I was a bi-polar from the earliest times. But it's really since the age of 40some that I realized my bi-polar tendencies and what that entailed for me and those who I have lived with..

    Until then I was under the influence of my father's aphorisms and object life lessons: a rolling stone gathers no moss, a penny saved is a penny earned, a fool and his $$ are soon parted, you will be known by the company you keep, waste not and want less.

    For her part my mother was probably distracted, more than I, by all the travel and change of homes. I can't recall her ever hugging me or making an affectionate gesture with me. She was the disciplinarian I knew most intimately.

    I suppose that simple fact of life affected my emotional life more than anything else. Oh, I don't blame her. She accepted to marry and live with a man who enjoyed most of his private life, but not much of his family life, as I recall. The one thing that remains in my mind about my parents is that they argued, and sometimes very loudly, about so many things.

    My cultural background

    It's no surprise that I have had considerable French and English acculturation. However, I quickly lost all my Spanish cultural connections since I lived in Spain for less than a calendar year from October 1935 till July 1936. But I still have a sense of connection with my nanny, Pensa Gomez, who lived with us until 1939 or 1940. I can feel tears welling in my eyes with certain music, especially when Julio Eglesias is singing about spanish places like “La Paloma Blanca” and whenever I hear the strains of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez.

    I remember vividly the feelings I had when I visited Palma de Mallorca in the for five lovely days during Easter Week 1971. At the time I was living in Algiers with my family since I had undertaken contract work with an American consulting company. Walking the streets of Palma, especially in the early morning visits to the market and fishers bistros, I had this eerie feeling of having been there before.

    I experienced similar feelings when I visited Perpignan several years later. In both cases I was probably under the influence of my bi-polar tendencies. I didn't sleep much, drank too much alcohol and felt that I was in a world of my own, even though I was with my family in Palma and my constant companion, Lise L, in Perpignan.

    It was strange that when I was visiting Villefranche de Conflent during my trip to Southern France with Lise L in the 1990s, I didn't remember that I had lived in Vernet-les-bains in 1937-38. It was only a few years ago that I realized how close I had been while in Villefranche to my temporary home town of Vernet in the French Pyrenees. The fact is that my experiences, before life in Sherbrooke from late 1940, were wiped from my memory by the feelings of displacement I had, especially in 1939 and 1940 because of my birth family's frantic reactions to the beginnings of WW II.

    The kind of boy I was

    What I remember most is that I never felt at home. I felt awkward, very shy and was quite sickly (rheumatic fever and viral pneumonia) until I was 12 or so. Because of my sickliness our family doctor suggested to my parents that I should spend more time in the sun.

    That led to my attending YMCA camp in Petit lac Magog for two summers and Kamp Kanawana, St-Sauveur des Monts, which was north of Montreal, for four summers. After 6 summers of sun, I was not so sickly anymore!

    For the first two years of schooling, I was a student at the Couvent Notre Dame du Perpetuel Secours in Sherbrooke. Then my parents probably decided that it was better for me to finish my schooling in English. I was transferred into grade 3 at St. Patrick's Academy in Sherbrooke until I graduated from high school in 1950.

    My time at St-Patrick's was vividly coloured by my teachers, who were Christian Brothers. This order became infamous in Newfoundland and BC because of allegations and convictions for molesting their students in the 1970s. I recall quite vividly my experiences with religious brothers from Ireland: Brother's Cormic, Doherty and Leander. Yes they were seriously dysfunctional men (Br. Doherty was an episodic drunk) and indifferent teachers. But I survived my experiences with them and even flourished academically. During graduation, I was the class valedictorian.

    CMR de St-Jean

    After high school graduation, I had hoped to go with my best buddy to St of X in Antigonish NS. My parents pleaded poverty but I suspect their motives were really to wean me away from unseemly friends.

    Since I had to do something the solution was that I join the RB of C as a junior clerk. That dull arrangement lasted about a year. My mother finally persuaded my father that he use the influence of his great bridge partner, Senator Charlie Howard, to sponsor an application for entry to Collège Militaire Royale de St-Jean. It had opened in 1952 to develop more bilingual officer candidates for the Canadian Military.

    It solved the financial burden issue since I would become a paid student cum officer cadet. Most of the usual costs of university education were paid by the Canadian taxpayers. It n doubt appealed to my mother's sense of snobbery that I should become a member of the officer corps. But probably of more direct utility, I would be living in a university environment were personal discipline was expected and supervised.

    The fact is that as soon as I began to earn a clerk's pay at the Bank, I found ways to dissipate my modest earnings in the taverns and night clubs of Sherbrooke. These dissipations ended more than a few times with me drunk and disorderly and throwing up in my sleep. So it was obvious that I needed a dose of military discipline. Little did she know that my time as an officer cadet only gave me more opportunities to indulge in drunken and disorderly goings on.

    Later in my adult life, I did realize that I had picked up a modicum of sophistication during my time as a mildly disreputable officer cadet. And my personal resume was not hurt by my ROTP experience. But I fortunately sensed that I wasn't good officer material and that I preferred to finish my university education at Bishop's U in Lennoxville QC, a longish bus ride from home.
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