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"This is a fascinating memoir of one man’s redemption through humanitarian efforts." —Booklist
"Vachon discusses his opinions on international politics, the current war and rebuilding efforts in Iraq, and humanitarian work and the groups that employed him." —Chronicle of Philanthropy
The name's Marc Vachon.
I was born on October 27, 1963, in Montreal, Canada. Somewhere near Saint-Henri, a working-class district in the city's southwest end. I was baptized 13 days later at Sainte-Cunégonde Church. Still an infant, I was abandoned on the front steps of the welfare building. When? Who knows?
My life really began when I was 17 months old with the Fortier family at 2363 Bercy St. in another working-class district, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. If you ask me, they're my real parents. It was my seventh foster home. At least that's what the man who ran the welfare office told my foster mother. I don't remember the first six. He told her my full name was Marc Gérard Stéphane Vachon. And I couldn't be adopted because my biological mother had not signed the papers.
I figured something was odd when I went to school: mom's name was Fortier but mine was Vachon. So I asked about it. Apparently, my biological mother fell sick and had to get rid of me. Her name was Jacqueline. That's all I know about her.
I learned how to get along without her. I know my biological father's name: somebody called Vachon. I also have two brothers, but I couldn't care less. My real mother, the one I call mom, was the woman who raised me. When I got sick she took care of me. When I had the flu, she looked after me. I had asthma so I can just imagine how many sleepless nights she spent at my bedside.
My father was a tinplate worker at Macdonald Tobacco. That's where he plied his trade all his adult life. The Fortiers led a modest life; they had four other children, every one of them older than me. Micheline was the eldest, followed by Daniel, Huguette and Lise in that order. They were good people.
My mom had a heart of gold. She minded children while their parents were at work: little Arab and black kids, the offspring of immigrants who slaved away at thankless jobs. I grew up in a cheerful atmosphere with children of all cultures and races.
My big sisters, who were white, dated Haitians they met at Expo 67, the World's Fair in Montreal. My brother went out with the Italian girl next door.
The whole brood would pour into the Metro, plunk down ten cents for the fare and head to St. Helen's Island to take a dip in the pool.
Back then, Montreal was like a big friendly village. The town was fine, but it was a turbulent era. Women's Lib. People listened to The Beatles and The Stones. People were getting into pot and harder substances, like LSD. Everything was happening at once, and much too fast.
At seven, I was just a normal kid, a good little fellow who attended Sainte-Anselme School, located between Hochelaga and Rouen Streets. It was a rough neighbourhood. Kids smoked nasty cheap dope; they sniffed glue. At eight or nine, we got into smoking, rolling our own, trying to look like big shots.
Checked pants were in and the Quebec music scene exploded. When the Québécois folk rock group Beau Dommage sang "Le Blues de la métropole," they were describing my neighbour hood. Harmonium and Offenbach were hot. Separatism was on the rise. The Assumption sash was back. We were proud of being Québécois.
Then my mother got the brilliant idea of imitating her neighbour who shipped her 14- or 15-year-old son off to boarding school to keep him from running with the wrong crowd. And mom didn't want me turning into a thug.
I didn't burst into a flood of tears when I left home. I was only eight, but I was a little man, leaving on a mission. Mom, dad, and my sisters stood on the front steps. I squared my shoulders and puffed out my chest. I was a tough little kid from Bercy St. What was so scary about boarding school? Anyway, the neighbour's kid, a tough-guy wannabe, swore he'd look out for me.
But what followed absolutely baffled me.
After driving two and a half hours straight, Mr. Paquin, the welfare agent who handled my file, pulled up outside a country house. There was a bulldozer out front and five kids hanging around. A couple came out to greet us.
I didn't realize it, but this would be my eighth foster home. What a shock. Rawdon was a village with unpaved streets and no sidewalks.
The first thing I asked was, "Where can I play here?" All I could see was a black-and-white TV.
I was the family's third foster child. The mother said that school wouldn't be starting for another week. A bus would pick me up every morning. I had no idea where I was or what I was doing there.
"It's a hell of a trip to go back to Montreal every weekend, isn't it?"
"You won't be going back to Montreal."
"What do you mean I won't be going to Montreal? I have to go home, don't I?"
"Forget your home; you don't have a home anymore. Your parents have abandoned you."
I didn't believe it. Even if I was just a kid, even if, deep down inside, I was sore at my mother, I wouldn't cry. I'd show them I was tough.
Five months later, Mr. Paquin came to take me to another foster home. I had no regrets because in that family I had experienced violence I'd never known. The slightest offence would earn me a slap in the face. And if I had the nerve to cry, I'd get a volley of slaps that would make my head spin. The father would scream, "Stop bawling, you goddamn little bastard!"
I stopped crying.
It would be years before I could cry again.
The new home, my ninth, was in Chertsey not far from Rawdon. Mr. Paquin brought me there along with two other children who had stayed in Rawdon. And there was another kid besides. So the four of us were squeezed like sardines into a small bedroom. Two bunk beds constituted the only furniture. We had to sleep with our arms over the covers. I had no idea why.
It was the start of a long series of ordeals. I was changing foster homes at an ever-increasing rate. No one bothered to explain.
The truth was that in 1972 no one wanted to have kids underfoot. My city ways disrupted country folk's lifestyle. In one home, the lady told me, "If you're good, we'll take you to Expo ..." Why did I have to be good to go to the World's Fair? My mom took the opposite tack: she'd sent us there when she needed a little peace.
I returned to Montreal when I was 10. A couple in their fifties took me in. A brief oasis of joy and happiness. I went to Saint-Marc School, named after my patron saint.
I had a room of my own. This childless couple considered me an answer to their prayers. They treated me like a little prince. They gave me my first pair of skates: Daoust 10s. For Christmas, I got an electronic game.
This happy period ended because of a fluke. The couple had arranged with the neighbour to give me lunch. As I had the key to the house, I was allowed to go home after the meal and watch some kid's programs on TV. One day, the phone rang. As usual I picked it up and answered. A voice asked to talk to an adult.
"They're not here."
"This is Mr. Paquin. Do you know who I am?"
"Yes, the big gentleman."
"Are you alone in the house?"
"What are you doing?"
"I'm watching TV."
"How did you get in?"
"Through the door; I've got a key."
He hung up.
The next day, a car came to fetch me. The couple had been blamed for leaving me in the house by myself.
Parting was extremely painful. I clung desperately to the bars of my bed. When you've known misery, you recognize happiness when you see it. You know that good luck never comes in pairs. And certainly not for a bastard ...
After that, I lived with the worst family I ever knew.
Yet on the surface, it was a good family, well respected in the Richelieu Valley 20 miles south of Montreal. The mother had earned an award for her humanitarian and charitable work. I can still see the big certificate that had pride of place on the wall beside the Quebec flag. The H ... family took in about twenty Down's syndrome children.
Their house was immense. And the Down's children were left for the day in a backyard, surrounded by a high fence. They rode around on a bike or played ball. Behind the little play area, there was a trailer.
I'll never forget my arrival. Mrs. H... gave us a tour of the property. The trailer. The lovely fireplace. The huge bedroom with a view of the fields on one side and the yard on the other. Ecstasy.
I rubbed my hands with glee as I watched her sign the foster care papers. Mr. Paquin handed Mrs. H ... my bag with the new clothes they gave us when we changed homes.
The man was barely out the door when she grabbed my jacket, which lay on the magnificent bed, and steered me to the laundry room. Stuck behind the washing machines was a folding-bed. "This is your room!" she announced. I stayed there nearly eight months and never unpacked my suitcase. I was barely 10 years old.
I did the housework; I mowed the lawn. They made me do anything that popped into their heads. And when I say anything, I mean anything.
That woman's cruelty knew no bounds. One of her sons invented a nasty little game that resembled roller derby. He'd skate around the yard and plow into me. And I had to stay there and get hit. One day, I'd had enough. He charged, I dodged and he crashed into the fence. It made me laugh to see him grimace in pain.
That evening, on my way to my room, I didn't see the blow coming. The slap lifted me off the ground and sent me tumbling down a few steps. My head ached and I saw double.
"Don't ever let me hear you making fun of my son again!"
One evening, she decided to teach me table manners so I could eat like a "civilized person." She sat me down beside her on a bench and slipped a knife and fork into my hands. But no sooner did I start eating, than the blows came raining down. Whack! "That's no way to hold a knife." Whack! "You opened your mouth too soon." Whack! "We don't eat with our mouths open."
"You're nothing but the son of a whore. The son of a whore, Marc. Do you know what a whore is? That's what your mother was. I'm going to educate you, I tell you!"
I'll never forget Christmas Eve dinner. The entire village was a whirl of activity. Garlands filled the entrance of the house. A big Christmas tree sparkled in the middle of the living room. At the foot of the tree lay a slew of gifts wrapped in shiny paper.
And there on one little box was my name. Something told me it was a watch. I was sure it was a Timex. It had to be. And when you're 10, you'll forget everything, forgive everything. The abuse, the blows, the insults. Your heart brims with Christmas spirit and your eyes are riveted on the mysterious box. Mrs. H ... suddenly seemed beautiful, human.
Then the whole family arrived. I couldn't see them because they kept me out of sight. Cocktails were served before the fireplace in the extension behind the house. Meanwhile, I set up the folding tables and prepared the big dining room for the meal. The guests settled in for the feast.
Mrs. H ... discreetly asked me to meet her in the trailer. Looking positively conspiratorial, she confided in me that she was entrusting me with a mission of the utmost importance: watching over the embers in the fireplace.
"Soon the flames will die. Then there'll be nothing left but glowing embers. Make sure they don't set the house on fire. When they're completely out, come and join us!"
I sat down in front of the big bay window. Opposite me, I saw the whole clan dining, heard the music blaring; watched the people dancing. And there I was, alone in a corner, guarding the embers.
But I was onto her. She'd made a fool of me. Visions of murder or arson crossed my mind.
In the end, I fell asleep by the window.
When I woke up the next day, there were wisps of smoke rising from the fireplace. I threw on my coat and hurried into the room where the festivities had taken place. Paper and empty bottles littered the floor. I headed straight to the tree and grabbed my gift. Again, I forgot everything but the watch.
Mrs. H ... heard my steps and came down to take a look. We were alone in the room. She gave me a radiant smile.
"Merry Christmas, little Marc. Sorry the embers took so long to go out. But you did a good job! You can open your gift now."
She didn't have to tell me twice. I ripped open the wrapping paper. It wasn't a watch. It was a bar of soap.
"Now, you can wash yourself, you little bastard."
When I was 22 years old, I contemplated killing her so she would stop haunting my dreams. One day, I tooled down the Richelieu Valley on my Harley with my pistol in my back pocket. I pulled up in front of the house. There was no fence around the yard where she parked the Down's kids; I figured she didn't look after them anymore.
I could see the whole scene unfold. I'd knock on the door. She'd come to open it. I wouldn't let her say a word. I'd empty an entire clip into her from pointblank range. She'd sink graceless, lifeless to the ground. I'd step away, hop onto my motorcycle and drive back to the city. I could practically taste it.
Time stopped. For what seemed like an eternity, I sat on my Harley glaring at the door, recalling the pain and humiliation I'd suffered in that house. I didn't dismount. I told myself killing her wasn't worth it. She'd won. She'd destroyed me. I didn't need to kill her to prove she'd turned me into a rat. Sitting on the bike with the pistol in my hand, I knew she'd won from start to finish. I wouldn't give her the additional satisfaction of fucking up my next 25 years. I kick-started my motorcycle and headed back to Montreal. I ditched the gun on the side of the road.CHAPTER 2
A Teen Adrift
By 12 years of age, like it or not, I already was a tough customer. I knew I wasn't like the other boys. And my classmates never let me forget it. Every time I changed homes, I was the new kid with old clothes. My foster parents cashed the welfare cheque to buy fresh clothes for their eldest kids and foisted their hand-me-downs on me.
There was always the same old introduction.
"My name's Marc Vachon. I live at Mr. John Doe's house."
Then someone would ask, "But where's your real father?" That hurt.
It was only later on that I learned to fight humiliation with violence.
Living with Mrs. Longpré was a solace for my bruised body and soul. Then the man looking after me got sick. But before letting me go, he told me to drop by once in a while. So Mr. Paquin told Mrs. Longpré, "Marc has changed homes because his guardian's sick. If you don't mind, he can see his family on the weekend if he wants."
The next week, Mrs. Longpré gave me a little money. I took the bus and went to ... 2363 Bercy St. I knocked on the door. My mother answered.
"Do you know who I am?"
She couldn't speak. She burst into tears and smothered me in her arms. Then I strutted around the neighbourhood. The prodigal son had returned.
The next day, when my mother brought me back to Mrs. Longpré's, I witnessed an extraordinary meeting between two big-hearted women. Two women of modest means who had looked after children for 20 years: mostly troubled boys, abandoned by their parents. Women of infinite humanity and generosity. They hit it off right away.
That week, Mrs. Longpré rang the welfare office to set things straight. When she hung up, she simply said,
"Marc, you can go and spend the weekends with the Fortiers whenever you like."
"How come, Mrs. Longpré?"
"Because your mom's an honest woman."
From then on, I visited my Bercy St. family regularly. I spent every second weekend there and Christmas as well. And in the summer, I stayed longer.
I did my best to act grown-up. I smoked. Big Harold, who lived at Mrs. Longpré's house, handed me a cigarette when I arrived. But I was a kid again as soon as I was back in that warm atmosphere with brothers, a real little troupe. In all, there were fifteen welfare kids.
I started to dream of the future. Maybe I'd become a fireman. Not a soldier. I didn't like the look. I had joined the cadets before. But we had to keep our hair cut close to the scalp. Hardly in style in the 70s. So, when the monitor chewed me out for talking too much, it gave me an excuse to quit. And the scouts refused to let me join because of my bad rep.
Hockey and baseball occupied my spare time. I played ball with my friends in the middle of Bercy St., stopping to let the cars go by.
Sometimes I'd hop on a bike and go for a spin. But I never read a book. I didn't go to church. Life had taught me that not all God's children were created equal. And I had lived with Mrs. H ... To me, the Church was nothing but a place for hypocrites and phonies.
I learned to live day by day, never counting on some higher power. To enjoy happy times to the fullest and quickly erase the bad times from my mind. Never to regret missed opportunities.
Excerpted from Rebel Without Borders by Marc Vachon, François Bugingo, Charles Phillips. Copyright © 2008 Marc Vachon. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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