The Snow Job

The snow fell all week in Chambly. A triple team of seminarians was commandeered to clear both ice hockey rinks for the day’s important game. Woken up at one AM by the priest in charge of sports, the first team would push the snow against the sideboards using wide concave shovels. Those made a distinct scraping noise reverberating all the way to the fourth floor dormitory. Then a second team of older and stronger seminarians hits the ice at 4 AM using regular square shovels. Their mission is to throw the cleared snow on high mounds surrounding both rinks. Awaken by the return of the exhausted first team, Jacques feels fortunate to be with the third team, the ice makers. They will go down to the rinks at around 6AM and keep watering the ice surface until it is crystal hard, at around 9 AM, just in time for the first semi-final match. The Bears would meet the Jaguars on the junior rink while the Eagles would meet the Owls on the senior rink. The final game will occur Sunday, in the presence of the parents, invited through the afternoon visiting hours. Jacques knows he will miss morning mass and prayers, the 7.30 breakfast and the one hour study period at 8 o’clock. Barely twelve years old, he is still too puny to shovel a lot of snow, so they gave him the job of stenciling the red and blue lines with powder, a task he takes very seriously not to disappoint his classmates, all older than himself. To be accepted by these boys, some of whom already have hair on their legs and chest is an honor for the nerdy kid who was earlier dispensed from playing in the hockey league. Too short and too fragile, having had a double pneumonia a year earlier. Those players use a lot of body-checking and nasty stick handling, bloody noses and broken collar bones to show for it. Jacques had to find another way to participate, like the large cardboard stencil he cut earlier to mark center ice. Just three black two-foot high letters O.M.I, Oblates of Mary Immaculate, with over the « M » the blue torso of the Virgin . The priests were delighted and gave Jacques the title of assistant propagandist, dispensing him of the harder communal tasks like stair cleaning and latrine washing.
He wants to conform and feels slightly excited at the idea of missing a Saturday mass. Falling back to sleep, he was entertaining much more exciting thoughts, the progress of a secret network!

Several other kids were not allowed to play hockey. Sevigny, because he had a heart murmur, Pagé because he too was too small, Malenfant because he smelled bad and had severe acne. Communal hockey gear and jersey notwithstanding, no team wanted him at the onset. The four of them would sit out the games on the snow mounds, looking dejected while the seat of their pants would get progressively wetter from the snow melting on those cardboard scraps they used as seats. At around mid-season, the snow around the rinks is so high that it is customary for the spectators to dig out seats and bleachers, a fine wind protection and another way to pass the time when the game is dull. Jacques was first to dig horizontally at the base of his cylindrical dugout, a short tunnel leading to Sevigny’s own « house », as they now call these spectator holes in the snow. Before falling asleep, Jacques remembers when Sevigny’s fuzzy mustache grew a foot wide when he saw Jacques’s face that day, peering in through a tiny hole at the bottom of his own dugout. Five hockey games later, there was a network of tunnels all around the junior rink, and the promising stem of a similar civil engineering feat around the senior rink. The diggers now included Malenfant, Sevigny, Pagé and Leclerc, the latter, a high-ranking choir boy, having spread dozens of stolen candles throughout. Malenfant was by far the best digger, having created a private alcove right behind the coach’s bench. With a pine knot removed, he could hear the conversations. The network was born there in a ceremony, with all the tunnelers swearing secrecy while filling the tunnel with latin words and the fog of their breath. Under no circumstances, not even torture, could they reveal the existence of these tunnels or any enlargement thereof. A pocket knife, a short bleeding scar on the calf with mutual leg rubbing clumsily sealed the deal, while hard packed snow slabs concealed the entrances. A map was drawn and circulated concealed in a religious song book. There was talk of war from Sevigny. They had to be ready.

Jacques is now sleeping, dreaming of war and weapons, secret missions and the Holy Virgin holding a broken hockey stick. When father Beliveau grabs his shoulder for the ice watering session, he has a plan to execute. The reader must be enlightened to the fact that before 1956 hockey sticks were entirely made of wood and were easily broken, littering the rink environment. Jacques will send a coded message to all the comrades inviting them to pick these broken shafts and surreptitiously push them down into the snow so that they would protrude into one of the tunnels. Malenfant who spent entire afternoon in the tunnels will pull down on these and stash them carefully for a future war. The sun is bad for his acne anyway. Leclerc has the better pocket knife and will sharpen each with a point hardened on the flame of those candles.
At nine o’clock, the first game starts, and by five that day, 8 games later, a few dozen sticks are collected and stored in a new snow room called the armory. The feverish activity below has created heat and the walls are shiny with a crust of ice, hardening the tunnel against collapse. Wet and happy, the youngsters attend vespers and pass the song book to share new messages. There will be no war until the tunnels are extended completely around the senior rink, a precious source of longer stronger spears.
The Bears won the championship thanks to insidious spying by Guy Malenfant. Their chief scorer Hallé was always on the ice at a different time than the attributed checker from the opposite team. The coaches could never get it right. The rest of the winter provides hundreds of new spears stored in four separate caches in case of discovery. Those locations were know to the commanders only, namely Malenfant and Sevigny. Jacques was given a sealed envelope with a location map to be opened only in case of accidental death. Stored inside the bellow of the accordion he played, that letter gave Jacques a chest-expanding pride that cured him of any sequel from the pneumonia.
It is now April and finally the tunnels have collapsed without any outsiders noticing a thing. By then the spears have been stored at the end of the recreation field where a dump sits in a depression by a brook. Sevigny, Malenfant and Pagé are doing badly in their studies, so they fear no discipline. All would rather work on the family farm like their brothers anyway. In those days the mothers would sacrifice one son each to priesthood so that they could guarantee their access to Heaven. In Quebec, they typically had several sons, more so on the farms where families of 10 or more were the norm. All three of them are now standing by the study door waiting for the right party when Jacques walks by. looking at Sevigny’s lips whispering for him the « W » word. He repeats his exaggerated articulations with fire in his green eyes : « WE-ARE-GOING-TO-PLAY-WAR-IN-THE-DUMP---ARE-YOU CO-MING? » Jacques’s heart is pounding. All winter there had been talk of war. Now, on this very sunny Sunday morning, WAR has finally come. Jacques puts on all the drab clothes he can muster to look like the other three when he sees Leclerc trotting down the stairs with a military jacket from some surplus store. Leclerc points loftily to the end of the field. There is no need to say more. The two then walk close to the trees by the river to not be noticed until the ground slowly drops out of view of the seminary building into a large gully full of broken refrigerators and rotting furniture. Two soldiers are already here choosing their weapons for straightness and point.
« Where are they? » asks Pagé.
« Everywhere » says Sevigny with a comical grin. Just raise any rock or crate and you will see them squirming.
Jacques still has no idea of who exactly IS the enemy. He never had to nerve to ask for fear of being called a « baby » as had happened a few times before. Just then the answer comes in full sunlight in the person of Malenfant climbing from the back of a large rock. His acne is in full bloom and his face red with pleasure :
« I got seven already ».
On his stick are skewered seven enemy combatants, pinkish baby rats bleeding profusely and most very dead, although Jacques detects some tiny movements. He is thoroughly disgusted to learn suddenly that this rat nursery is the enemy for which he had dreamed all winter. Pagé lifts a rotten milk crate, exposing a terrified mother milking several little rats. Before he could raise his stick, Jacques has grabbed the biggest senior stick from the pile and hit him over the head with what was later called a devastating blow.
Father superior wanted a full explanation but the oath still held. Jacques would not talk and Pagé’s head wound would not heal well. Sevigny and Malenfant were thrown out before the final exams and Leclerc was disrobed from the choir boy association. Someone had spilled the beans. Jacques would never know who. His last job as propagandist was to make a sign for the dump, ACCES INTERDIT, French for DO NOT TRESPASS. Jacques never made priesthood. Those people are just too weird, he thought.

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