A Different Kind of Chocolate Soldier

There’s something liberating about an occasion like Halloween that encourages children to take candy from strangers, as has been noted. But there’s something strange about taking candy from an armed soldier.

That was the prospect I faced as a 10-year-old living in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Park during the fall of 1970. The October Crisis had reached its height. In response to the FLQ kidnappings of British trade commissioner James Cross and Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte, who was ultimately murdered, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had imposed the controversial War Measures Act and dispatched soldiers to guard the many diplomats, cabinet ministers and other notables with homes in our area. I had gleaned this much from my parents’ discussions of the newspaper headlines.

The troops had rolled into our schoolyard and set up camp in mid-October. While my classmates and I had some sense of the grave situation facing the government, the sight of armed soldiers wearing camouflage helmets and combat dress in our normally peaceful and sheltered surroundings was cause for great excitement. At recess, a daring boy had approached a soldier to get a closer look at his machine gun. Nothing as thrilling had happened since the son of the fellow who hosted The Galloping Gourmet joined our class the year before.

A week before Halloween, a local official issued a notice advising parents that trick-or-treating must end by 6 o’clock on Saturday in order to avoid “the possibility of innocent pranksters being mistaken for persons with ulterior motives” or those “with ulterior motives attempting to pass themselves off as innocent pranksters.”

This meant we had to take to the streets by day and would have a narrower window of time to load up on candy.

These constraints posed a challenge because I needed to build up a candy supply that would last until Christmas. The previous year I had run out in November and had been reduced to biting into an unsweetened chunk of Baker’s chocolate, its bitter taste a horrible disappointment.

Only on Halloween could I have as much candy as I wanted. My parents usually didn’t like me or my siblings to eat sweets, and our strictly residential neighbourhood lacked a corner store so I couldn’t buy treats on the sly.

To maximize my haul during the shortened time frame, I mapped out a route in advance. At 4:15 p.m., I donned my gypsy costume and headed out the door knowing precisely where I was going.

First, I would call on my friend Julia, who lived up the street. She had instructed me to be at her house at 4:30 sharp because her mother had a limited supply of caramel apples, made with crisp Granny Smiths rather than the usual soft Macintoshes. These had been a big hit the previous Halloween and wouldn’t last long.

Once Julia had presented me with the largest apple, we hightailed it to my grandmother’s house on Acacia Avenue — a premier destination as Gran stocked the best treats: two-packs of Chiclets in mini-boxes, and Rockets. I loved the pastel colours of these little candies wrapped in clear cellophane tubes with red twists at each end; their tart zing and powdery texture made them fun to eat.

Our next stop was also on Acacia, the (then) home of Conservative Party leader Robert Stanfield and his wife Mary. They both liked children and always sponsored me at top dollar to participate in Oxfam’s Miles for Millions march. This year they wouldn’t be shelling out candy themselves.

Because Mr. Stanfield was leader of the opposition, his house was under round-the-clock protection. Troops were posted on the back and front lawns, and we were greeted at the end of the driveway by a solemn-faced soldier holding a rifle in one hand and a bag of mini-chocolate bars in the other. This was my first face-to-face encounter with an army officer, an experience I found both daunting and thrilling.

After lingering too long at the Stanfield house, to get a close-up view of their guards, we rushed from door to door to make up for lost time. Our mission was to fill up our plastic bags with as much candy as possible before the curfew. Some of the loot was undesirable, such as the molasses-y kisses wrapped in orange and black wax paper, and the unshelled peanuts, which always tasted too dry.

But at the last house we called on, a woman miraculously produced a big bowl of full-sized Crispy Crunches and KitKats, encouraging us to take several so that her children wouldn’t eat the leftovers. What luck! As we headed home through the leaf-strewn streets, night was falling and jack-o’-lanterns beamed out at us.

It would have been spookier to trick-or-treat after dark, Julia said. I agreed.

Still, l had a good haul — and I had taken candy from a soldier, to boot.

This personal essay was initially published in  The Globe and Mail.

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