The Drill Hall on Foss Avenue

by J Pinsent

Even today when I reflect back to my youth, the one building in Gander that still  empresses me, was the drill hall on Foss Avenue. Although it probably was never utilized to its maximum potential, it served us well in what it offered to the citizens.

Built during the second World War, it provided recreation and instructional facilities to the Canadian servicemen stationed in Gander. The building consisted of an indoor olympic size swimming pool, a gymnasium, a bowling alley, a shooting range and several rooms where other activities could be carried out. There were two other drill halls in Gander during the war but they were minor to this huge edifice. After the war the other drill halls were used as storage facilities but the building on Foss Avenue lived on.

The swimming pool was never ever used by the public and access was limited to maintenance staff. A terrible shame. The bowling alley located on the SE side of the building parallel to Chestnut Ave was operated by the Amalgamated School Board for extra income to supplement it’s annual expenses. Adjoining the bowling alley, towards Goodyears Cash & Carry, the Elks Club occupied the premises. On the Foss Avenue side were two classrooms, a meeting room for the Masonic lodge and the Air Cadets had some space adjoining the pool admin offices. The main gym area was huge. Two basket ball courts, several badminton courts, a boxing ring., and all sorts of gymnastic equipment. Leading from the gym area, down a flight of steps was a shooting range for target practice used by the military, police and air cadets.

Attending class in the drill hall and going to PE classes in the gym, gave us an opportunity to explore the place however not being able to access the swimming pool raised our curiosity levels to the extent where we had to come up with a plan . The gym was only open during school hours which meant the only opportunity to attack this fortress was during Saturday. Sunday was out of the question. We had to go to church in the morning and Sunday school in the afternoon , after which we made our weekly visit to the terminal for hamburgers and fries. Our only other option was to carry out our plan during the summer vacation period or some other holiday when the school was closed.

Us boys figured out how to get into that locked building after some investigation by asking a lot of questions. Like, what was that hatchway for and where does it lead? It wasn’t easy for 11 year olds but we found a way to climb up through a hatch in the ceiling, in the area leading to the classrooms, then along a catwalk behind the wall of the gym, down through another hatch into the Air  Cadet room and out into the swimming pool area. Wow, what a place. The pool was surrounded by a balcony where spectators could view swim races, and diving competitions etc.. We crept out cautiously onto the diving board to peer down into an empty pool. Then it was down into the low end to run down  along the pool floor into the deeper area. Then back again to the low end where we could reach up and climb the ladder back onto the pool deck. I can remember thinking “how do you turn on the water?”. This was like a giant bathtub. I had never seen a swimming pool before, except in the movies and then it was full of water. We were sure there was a way to fill this thing up but we couldn’t find it. Looking back, I know we would have tried if we had found that elusive faucet.  We explored around, conjuring up imaginary situations in this newly discovered room, finally becoming bored only to wander back along our entry route from where we came. We had achieved our goal. One more notch on our belt of unexplored buildings. That was my one and only time ever in that swimming pool.

The following year it was announced that the drill hall would be renovated into a hockey arena with artificial ice. The class rooms, Masonic & Air Cadet rooms would become part of the arena. The area with the bowling alley and Elks Club would remain as is. It was with mixed feelings that we accepted this news. Sure we wanted a new rink but we were losing this gymnasium and it was a cool place to go to school. Then we realized we were too little to play basketball and who really cared about school so we all cheered the news.

During the renovation, we hung around the construction site like flies on a piece of molasses bread. Getting in the way, watching the men work. They had to use a lot of sealant for the floor of the gymnasium before the foundation for the ice surface could begin. They had brought in these 45 gallon tin drums of solid pitch to be melted down in a big oil fired heater. The melted pitch would be the base for this sealant. The men would chop open these tin drums with axes. Then chop the solid pitch into pieces to be thrown into the heating vat. One of the boys said that you could actually chew the stuff. They said it was like gum when it became soft. I had to try this. If it was like gum, then we had discovered a gold mine. There were millions or these bite size pieces scattered over the ground where the men chopped up those drums of pitch.

Putting the first piece into my mouth, it felt like hard rubber and tasted the same. After a few minutes it did become soft to the consistency of bubble gum and indeed could be chewed  with the exception of being able to blow bubbles. Didn’t taste very good either but it was chewable. A few other guys tried it and they agreed, this stuff is not all that bad. So off we go to school, chewing away on these black wads of pitch. As we entered the school, somewhere, out of nowhere, maybe in a puff of smoke,(he was like that) appears Mr. Loder. “Remove that gum from your mouths, boys”, he rumbles in that deep voice. Being a wise ass, I say “we are not chewing gum sir. We are chewing pitch”. “What!!!” he roars, “ you are chewing what?”. “Pitch sir” I reply, and I’m sure I had a stupid grin on my face. Do you remember that scene in the movie Oliver when Oliver asked for more food.  Well, the situation was similar to that. What a lecture we received, about the dangers of chewing this stuff. How harmful it was and what could happen to our bodies. Frightened the living daylights out of us. I was sure my stomach was going to rot away. We didn’t get punished but we didn’t chew pitch again. It was back to the Fleer’s  double bubble gum.

I can also remember discussing amongst ourselves, what was this artificial ice,  the  new hockey rink would have?  Ice was frozen water. What would artificial ice be like? We all had seen artificial flowers and artificial fruit in our homes. Would it be like plastic or wax? No one could explain what it was but to say, “it is like real ice but it will last into spring. Not thaw out like ice in the gravel pit”. If it was like real ice, how could it be artificial? How strange young minds worked. That memory always remained with me. I still remember that very first time I entered the newly renovated stadium. I went directly to the gate way leading to the ice surface, knelt down and touched the surface. They were right. It is just like real ice. Wow! The wonder of science and its new discoveries.

The building was large enough to accommodate an arena in width but was restricted somewhat in length. Bleacher seats were along both sides but the ends lacked space for seating. At the north east end of the stadium, the pool balcony along the wall was left in place. That allowed for standing room for the fans. A stairway led up to it with Wes Trainor’s  office to the left, looking out over the ice surface, over the ticket booths and main entrance below, while to the right you entered the balcony standing room area. I still can see Mrs. Bowe and her cow bell, cheering on the team. Another regular on the balcony  was Bill Cheeks shouting, when  some particular player was playing badly or made an error, “take ‘em off the hice Wes [Trainor]”. Room to walk from one side to the other was pretty unrestricted beneath the balcony, except for the congestion of fans standing behind the wire mesh.

At the other end it was quite different. Space between the end boards and the outer wall was limited to the width of the goal judges cage. To accommodate those who wanted to go from one side to the other, the goal judge’s cage was raised to the level of the boards, requiring you to crouch and maneuver underneath in order to reach the other side. Also the area  was congested with standing fans.

 Underneath the bleachers that paralleled Foss Avenue were the public washrooms and an area for the general skaters to put on their skates and hang their outer jackets. Next to this were the home and away team dressing rooms originally occupied by the Masonic Lodge. Further on down the classrooms were replaced by a canteen  and a equipment storage area. On the opposite side, the bowling alleys, the Elks Lodge and the entrance to the shooting range remained the same as before renovation

The newly renovated drill hall now became known as Gander Gardens. Providing hours of entertainment for minor and senior hockey players and their fans, figure skating for the girls, general skating for the public and curling for the curlers. Two years later we moved into the new town but Gander Gardens remained there for another 4 years. Officially closing and dismantled after the new Gander Gardens was constructed in the new town.  This old WWII building was an important part of our town and its demise was indeed felt with a sense of great loss.

 

 Morley & I