The Early: Chapter One

The after-school news photog

It was the Montreal of the 1950s, a town where a largely Anglophone teen-aged boy could enjoy the raunchy side of the French culture; quart-sized beer bottles, nightclubs that stayed open literally all night, taverns where a very young fellow could get served before he was 18 (wink, wink), a French-speaking hooker on “the Main” street who delighted one time in showing a young man certain pleasures at a reduced price and a police department that fully understood the fundamental differences between crime and sin. The cops did not enforce the law of the Catechism, thank God.

It was not like those poor, dry dumbbells in Toronto. They had to bring their own babe to a bar, for goodness sake. They had separate sections in their drinking places for men who arrived without a dame. How “sterile,” as they’d say at the Downbeat, at 1424 Peel Street, or was it the Top Hat on Ste. Catherine.

Don’t misunderstand. It was not demi-debauchery all the time. Most everyone on Sunday went to a Catholic Church, except those misguided Protestants who lived mainly in the west-end. The Jews, around St. Urbain Street, were another matter according to many Francophones. Racism was never a stranger to this city.

At the same time an Anglo young man, who grew up in the mostly Franco east-end, could look forward and wonder about his future working life . . . perhaps like being an accountant . . . or radio announcer . . . or lawyer . . . but never a doctor or dentist . . . ugh!

Oscar Peterson still lived in town where his father had worked as a porter for Canadian Pacific Railway. You might see youngish William Shatner, who grew up in Outremont and graduated from McGill, riding up an elevator in the Sun Life Building opposite Dominion Square or in a live 60-minute drama on the new black-and-white Canadian Broadcasting Corporation TV station inaugurated in ’52. McGill Grad Leonard Cohen and the non-graduate Mordecai Richler were still at home, not to mention Geneviève Bujold and other less famous local stars.

The first time Johnny Christopher thought of taking pictures of car crashes or fires, or anything like that, was the early fall day in 1953 when two vehicles collided in a more-or-less minor accident not far from his home on 23rd Avenue in the lowish middle-class suburban Ville St. Michel of northeast metropolitan Montreal. Neighbors all around the immediate area heard the crunching and tearing metals and rushed outside to investigate, as did 12-year-old Johnny and his father, George Christopher, now in his early 40s.

Johnny was the kind of rebellious, pre-teen-aged kid who questioned everything and everybody; the system, the rules, regulations, priests, teachers, aunts, uncles, mother, father and on and on. He most enjoyed doing so when the authorities in his life seemed perplexed in their response.

For example, why did a paragraph in a fifth grade composition have to have an introduction, a body and a conclusion as dictated in the rules set out by his teacher that year? Johnny had used the single word “No” as a paragraph. The teacher, a rather unimaginative sort of small person, had circled the supposed transgression in red and given Johnny a verbal rough time about the offense in front of the other kids in the class.

“Remember this, Mister Christopher, all paragraphs in compositions have an introduction. They have a body and they have a conclusion,” the teacher stipulated. Then the damned “goodies,” who always sat at the front of the class, erupted with their sickening and joint suck-up-to-teacher laugh.

From the back row of desks, Johnny asked: “But, Mister Hartley, who says I have to have those things.”

“I say . . . I’m the teacher. You are the learner. And those are the rules in this class,” responded the poor man.

“But, you’re not a writer, Mr. Hartley, you’re just a teacher,” came the challenge from the back-row questioner.

The goodies did a group gasp and Johnny Christopher had his next writing assignment: 250 “lines” which read “I must respect the teacher in my class and not question the rules of composition.”

So, he used two pens taped together and, in effect, wrote only half the punishment. But the extra time and effort he spent making sure the double-pen scam was not obvious on the paper cost him more energy than doing the penance honestly.

Johnny and his father observed the car accident wreckage from the front lawn of their relatively new post-war, three-bedroom home. The boy then made a move to walk toward the mishap. The police were probably on their way. Maybe somebody was hurt and they’d need an ambulance.

“Where you going?” George asked his offspring.

“Have a closer look, dad, maybe somebody’s bleeding.”

“Hold on a sec,” his father said as he went into the house and returned with the gift he had given his son on his last birthday . . . a Kodak Hawkeye Brownie camera. As it happened, there was some film left in the unsophisticated black-plastic box equipped with a simple, fixed-focus lens. Johnny had developed a bit of an eye taking black-and-white pictures of things like fire hydrants and trees and other objects around the area. He had not thought of the accident as a photo opportunity.

Then it dawned on him. He grabbed the camera and said “thanks” as he ran off toward the wrecks. This was the instant John Lincoln Norman Christopher became a newsman, one of those few lifetime moments when something inside you goes “aha!” He was still a little too immature to comprehend, but he was energized.

Johnny and the St. Michel cop car arrived at the accident site at the same time.