Today is September 11th, 2019, the 18th anniversary of 911. It's a dark and dreary Wednesday morning, and I've just come back from a short walk to get some air before writing this chapter. So, to commemorate the day, I thought I should write an uplifting chapter and share with you what is without question one of the most special moments I've ever experienced in my life. I recently turned 49 years old on September 1st, and my son turned 20 this year on August 24th. He lives with his mom and stepdad, so I only see him a couple of times a month, which is fine. We often celebrate our birthdays together, and this year was no different. We marked the occasion on September 2nd with my in-laws at their home in Saint-Laurent. With summer slowly coming to a close, the idea for the title, "The Boys of Summer" by Don Henley (one of my all-time favorite songs), came to me a few days ago as I was pondering what I would say in this chapter. As some of you may already know, if you know me or have read My Story on this blog, I used to be a lifeguard back in the day. As a teen growing up and in training to become a lifeguard, my two absolute favorite activities were swimming and volleyball, both indoor and beach. I LOVED volleyball, and I was quite good at it. I even played competitively for my high school team one year. Later, as a young adult, I remember playing beach volleyball in a league at the gym where I was a member for many years back in the early nineties. I had already been diagnosed with Psoriatic Arthritis, but at the time, the disease was in its infancy. It was fairly well controlled with anti-inflammatories, so I was still able to exercise and enjoy playing volleyball. I remember playing two-on-two beach volleyball with a hip that was starting to go. It was painful, but I would push through. I was hobbling around in the sand, diving, jumping, lunging, and trying to keep up with the game, but eventually, after I had my first hip replacement in 1997, I had to retire, and would never again set foot on a volleyball court.
So, let's go back in time here for a moment so that I can set the stage for the story to come. I'm 17 years old, and I'm growing up in Two Mountains, which is about 20 minutes east of Oka, a small village on the northern bank of the Ottawa River, northwest of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. It's located in the Lower Laurentians on Lake of Two Mountains, where the Ottawa river has its confluence with the St. Lawrence River. It's also known for being the home to the Mohawk Tribe reservation and is historically remembered for the infamous OKA Crisis that took place in the summer of 1990. I was working as a lifeguard at the Super Aqua Club in Pointe-Calumet at the time, which is just a few minutes away from OKA. I was more or less on the scene when it happened, or perhaps I should say, undoubtedly close by and very aware of what was going on. I went to high-school with many of the Mohawk kids, so I was familiar with their culture and what it was like for them growing up as aboriginals within the boundaries of "our system" if one can call it that. I even went to play volleyball against them a few times! The lifeguard team and I would often play beach volleyball in the mornings before being delegated to our starting posts at the water park. It really was my favorite game, and I miss being able to play.
During those three years that I worked at the water park, I would often go hang out with friends at a place known as "La Mine d'OKA" (which translates to, "The OKA Quarry") that was situated about 5 minutes away from the village of OKA. It was an abandoned quarry that used to mine for Niobium, which is used to reinforce steel whil emaking it lighter. There used to be an old decrepit tower standing nearby that once served some purpose that I'm not really aware of. We would go there and climb up to the top of it, walking along beams and rafters that were several stories up and hovering over empty space. But at 18 or 19 years old, one has no fear - well, at least most boys don’t. It was kind of like a vertical obstacle course that required a series of jumps and careful footing to make it all the way up. The quarry had partially filled with water which was crystal clear, and one would often see scuba divers in the water practicing their sport. (The rumour going around was that the quarry had been abandoned because of radioactivity. According to this article, there is still some leftover radioactive material which can be easily cleaned up. The municipality has plans to turn the site into a waterpark.) With no fear, my friends and I would meet up there with other acquaintances, making campfires at night and partying into the wee hours. My friends would smoke weed and drink, while I sipped on a soda. Even though I hated the taste, I may have had a beer now and then just to fit in with the gang. I was quite a clean square kid - and health-conscious. I was just not into doing drugs or drinking. Little did I know that all these years later, cannabis would be legalized, and I would start using it to help with anxiety and insomnia.
Fast forward 30 years to today, where I find out in chatting with my son, that he and his buddies have started going there too! When he said, "We go to a place called La Mine d'OKA", my jaw dropped. I couldn't believe that he was hanging out there. He and his buddies started going there this summer on weekends to go cliff diving into the quarry. It turns out that the quarry has filled up quite a bit which allows for this sort of thing. Unless you were a professional high diver, it would have been nearly impossible when I was there thirty years ago. The abandoned tower I used to scale like Spiderman was eventually torn down, and now all that remains is the hole in the ground - the quarry.
We find ourselves on September 2nd, 2019, and my son has taken me aside to say that he is super excited to give me my birthday gift. I've never seen him so enthusiastic about presenting me with a gift before! He's prepared us all for the unveiling, telling us that the story he's about to mention is the gift. My son knew that volleyball was "my game," much like hockey and baseball were once his games. He knew that it had been a significant part of my life when I was his age. So the story goes as follows: On August 24th, Sascha's birthday, he and his friends went to the quarry to go cliff diving. After surfacing from the water after one of his dives, he made his way back to shore, and upon walking along the edge, found a soccer ball floating in the weeds. He picked it up, regrouped with his buddies, and then headed over to OKA beach where they used it to play beach volleyball. They decided to name it, and called it "The OKA Ball." He brought it home with him, and on the morning of September 2nd, even though he’d already picked up two gifts for me, was in the shower trying to figure out what else he might want to give me for my birthday. He came up with this great idea to pass the ball along to me. He said, "Dad, I found this ball on my birthday at La Mine d'OKA where you used to hang out when you were my age, and I played beach volleyball with it with my friends, just like you used to do, so I thought you should have it. Happy birthday big guy!" (He calls me big guy, even though I'm not that big). I could not believe what I was hearing. My wife and I were so moved and touched by his gesture that our eyes started to well with tears. It was perhaps the single most beautiful thing he's ever done for me. Although I have to say that him cutting my hair recently with a clipper was quite unique too, he's never cut anyone's hair before, and he did a fantastic job! Sherrie suggested that I label the ball with a sharpie. So I inscribed "The OKA Ball" in the center, and then added the dates of Sascha's birthday and my birthday on either side.
You could say that I was once part of the Boys of Summer club. I remember having summer long crushes on some of the hottest lifeguards you've ever seen. But, they were, as is usually the case, more interested in the "other" Boys of Summer," not me. And now, it's Sascha's turn to be a "Boy of Summer." Strangely, I don't have one single photo of me playing volleyball. This is long before the smart camera phone generation, when picture taking, which had the associated cost of buying film and developing prints was reserved for special occasions, unlike today, where people take pictures of anything and everything, like the food on their plates and then post them on Instagram!
The OKA ball represents so much. I have it sitting in my night table in my bedroom, and every time I look at it, I go back in time and flip through a mental Rolodex of memories that fill me with joy and remind me that I have a loving son with a huge heart. He also gave me a Champion brand T-Shirt and a Toronto Raptors bracelet. I don't follow basketball, but I know that they won the championship this year, so I guess that makes me a champion too! I've got the shirt, the bracelet, and the winning ball to prove it. Thank you, Sascha, for making me feel so loved and appreciated. I felt like a million bucks when you gave me that ball.
- Patrick Franc
a.k.a.: Your Friendly Neighbourhood Bionic Man