WHEN THE CANADIANS TOOK FRENCH LEAVE

QUINTIN WIGHT August 1 1967

WHEN THE CANADIANS TOOK FRENCH LEAVE

QUINTIN WIGHT August 1 1967

WHEN THE CANADIANS TOOK FRENCH LEAVE

It was the RCAF base at Marville, France, that was closing — but the saddest farewells were said in Belgium, just across the border, with Highland pipes, totem poles and an Indian chief

QUINTIN WIGHT

MARCH WAS OUR MONTH for saying farewell. It was a time for tears and ceremony. We had been at I Wing, the RCAF base at Marville, in northeastern France, for two years, and the RCAF had been there for 13, but the time had come to pull up our roots, and we crammed a lot of goodbys into those short spring days.

The married quarters for 1 Wing were at Longuyon, a French industrial town 12 miles from the base, but many families lived “on the economy,” as they say, among the local people. Of these, the majority chose to live across the border in Belgium: particularly in the towns of Virton, St. Mard, Ethe and Florenville. Not content to let 1 3 years in these communities pass unmarked, the RCAF commissioned the carving of two totem poles to be erected as mementos in Longuyon and Virton. To add spice to the dedication ceremonies, Indian Chief Simon Baker from the Capilano Reserve in North Vancouver, BC,

was flown over to take part in the unveiling. All of Virton buzzed with the news for days beforehand. The Indians were coming! The Belgians could hardly wait.

March 11, the day itself, looked inauspicious. Virton was held in a current of moist air in which were embedded a series of vicious little squalls. But as the time of the ceremony drew near, the skies cleared and the crowd at the totem swelled to at least 5,000. Jostling, shouting, and heaving as only European crowds can, they all strained for a glimpse of the Indian chief. A group of Boy Scouts pushed through the throng, handing out programs stamped with the Canadian flag. Next to us, a matronly Belgian lady looked at her program and sighed with disappointment. I asked her what was the matter, and she said, “It's written in French.” Since she couldn't speak English. I was somewhat surprised, but she produced a logical reason. Her Cana-

dians, she explained, had gone back to Canada, and they were missing the ceremony of farewell. She wanted a program in English to send back to them, so that they would know everything had been done properly. I gave her mine.

Came the skirl of pipes, and with it the RCAF band. They w'ere scarcely noticed, for behind them streamed a dense collection of children and dignitaries. and there, in the middle of the hubbub, bobbed a high, black-feathered crown. The Indian chief had arrived. My younger daughter had vanished. No—there she was. perched in the arms of my matronly friend, prattling away in her best Walloon French. Everything was in an uproar. The bourgmestre read a long telegram from Canada. The former commanding officers of the base were presented to the crowd. Chief Simon Baker sang the totem song and danced in the waning sunlight. There w'ere Belgians up the light standards, leaning out of windows and standing on each other to see the performance. Chief Baker had promised sunshine for the unveiling and the sun shone beautifully. The minute the ceremony ended, it began to rain.

It was our farewell to a part of Belgium we will always remember. Our first step into European life was like a plunge into cold water, but we soon surfaced, and even managed to swim around a little. We learned to give a cheerful "Bonjour, messieursdames” on entering a shop; to drive with a defensive glance to the right at every street corner: and to watch the eyebrows of the rotund little douanier at the French customs post for permission to cross the border. We learned to live with the smell of mazout from the ubiquitous oil stoves: to grapple with the formidable shutters on the windows, and to operate the

butane gas bottles which are used for heating w'ater and cooking, and which invariably gasp their last halfway through a bath or in the middle of baking a cake. We found that the bakers in France make bread seven days a w'eek, and that a baguette, warm from the oven and dripping with butter, is about the closest thing to heaven the human palate is likely to find. We found that the local school could teach our three-year-old daughter cursive handwriting by the time

she was five. And I found the polissoirs.

I learned of their existence by accident. Our landlady, a demoiselle of considerable willpower, was determined that her new Canadian tenants would not long remain untutored in local history, and packed us off with instructions to visit the museum in Virton. After a half-hour of gazing at Roman carvings, embrittled relics of the extinct basket-weaving industry of St. Mard and faded photographs

of local heroes, I found a glass case he ing polished stone tools. Behind it ...re photographs of three oddly convoluted boulders, and a small notice stating that while the stones had been known for centuries as Les Pierres des Fées (The Fairies’ Stones), actually they were chunks of Tertiary sandstone, bearing no relationship to the Jurassic sediments on which they lay, and which had been used 4.000 years ago by Neolithic man for sharpening stone knives. continued

“We’ve grown used to Canadians—you brought us gaiety”

The summer of 1965 was wet and cold in Europe, but there was so much to see and do that it sped by and swept the polissoirs out of mind. We began to move in ever-expanding circles — a Saturday in Verdun, a Sunday in Luxembourg, a weekend in Paris. It became a sin to waste a precious moment. We discovered the Grand-Place in Brussels, and the zoo in Antwerp. We climbed the Eiffel Tower, and got lost in traffic in Trafalgar Square. We ate our first escargots, and we picnicked in the hills north of Trier.

The wet summer became a wet winter, and the mounting pressure of work at the air base curtailed our wanderings. The nights were full of sleepshattering telephone calls and howling jet engines as the NATO alerts swept across the Continent. We saw new aspects of France and Belgium, stumbling ghoulish I y over greasy cobblestones through silent shuttered villages in the small hours of the morning. Most of us survived, but one or two had their luck run out and succumbed in a crumpled vehicle against one of the great trees that line the roadways. or to the impact of one of the massive white cows that can materialize out of nowhere on mistwrapped mornings.

In the spring of 1966 the polissoirs came back to mind in a rush. I found a reference to the “Neolithic polishers” of St. Mard in a book on Belgian folklore.

Intrigued. I stood at our front window and looked at the view'.

Our house crests a grassy ridge between two small river valleys. From our front windows we get a panoramic view of the southern valley. It is a comfortable pastoral scene with the red tiles of Chenois and the grey slates of St. Mard framed by the rising slopes of the far side. Somewhere out there were the polissoirs. Four thousand years ago men had lived in this valley.

Primitive tribesmen perhaps. but men who were craftsmen enough to spend hours of effort in transforming a rough stone knife into a polished work of art. The stones that once whetted knives now whetted my curiosity. 1 had to find the polissoirs.

On the surface it seemed simple: go to St. Mard and follow the signs for the polissoirs. All items of interest have signs pointing them out for tourists. All except the polissoirs. that is. Finally, in midsummer. I asked an old gentleman who was sitting on

an hour later, ankle deep in mud, and regarded curiously by dozens of cows. I came to the conclusion that I still hadn't the faintest idea where the polissoirs were.

Twice more in 1966 I made valiant attempts to find those boulders, and twice I retired, defeated, from the field. That summer was wetter than the one before, and to cap it all. General de Gaulle announced the departure of NATO and. by implication the Canadians, from France. Still, we made the most of our time. We

watched the diamond polishers in Amsterdam; we spent a delightful week high in the Swiss Alps searching for minerals in a famous old mine; we spent hours over gargantuan European meals, and for days afterward brushed our teeth to kill the garlic. We found that the Scots were better pastry cooks than the French, and that German roadside stands sold delicious

bratwurst and frites. But I didn't find the polissoirs.

Came winter, and our time was short. Already the Americans had left Verdun. Toul and Nancy. Soon we would follow. Our Belgian neighbors felt the pangs as keenly as we. The lady who sold me my magazines spoke wistfully: "We've grown used to Canadians — you brought gaiety to the town.” Others were more specific: “Where will we see ice-

hockey games?" they cried. (The Belgians were the 1 Wing Arrows’ most

faithful fans.) “What will we do when the Canadian children leave our schools?” (Of one class of 20, 15 were Canadian.) We could not answer. At the mid-Lenten parade in Florenville, there were moist eyes as the Canadian float — a giant cake with 13 candles — went past. The murmur of the crowd became an oft-repeated phrase: “What a pity . . . what a pity . . . ” Our time was almost gone. Then, in our farewell month, as I scanned the hillside opposite with my field glasses, I caught a glimpse of something other than grass in the fields. It was only an impression, an image too small for the eye to resolve, but I knew w'hat had happened. I had seen a polissoir.

That day 1 drove the car up the path between the fields in a triumph of knowledge. I parked, and squeaked through the wet grass to a meandering creek. On the far bank were a scries of pits in the hillside, and in each pit. snuggled down as they had been for 4.000 years, w'ere the polissoirs.

It was an act of greeting. to sit and run my hands over the sculpted sides of the boulders. There is a bond between us. Like the Canadians, they too arc strangers in this land. They are erratics. having no relationship to the rocks that surround them. But. also like us. they arc embedded deeply in the soil, and they too were once needed for their particular qualities. They are even tied to the ceremony of the totem, for in the second of them arc incised two deep, parallel grooves. Six years ago. in British Columbia, I saw' identical cuts made in a block of jade by West Coast Indians. We are separated by 4,000 years — and bound together by ties of circumstance.

As March drew to a close, a squadron of CF104 aircraft formed a silver arrow in the sky over 1 Wing and flew past in tribute to their memories. They did not return. The rest of us were soon to follow, and with us would end an era in the life of a small corner of France and Belgium. There will be no more Bills, Joans, or Harrys in the streets of Longuyon or Virton. But there will always be a few Belgians who will astound their visitors by eating corn-on-the-cob, and a few Canadians who will astound our own French speakers by saying septcmte-cinc/ and nonante instead of soixante-quinze and quatre-vinf>t-dix or je ne saurais pas instead of je ne pourrais pas. Neither side has escaped unscathed.

For me. there was only one consolation. At last I had found the polissoirs. ★