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first person

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Illustration by Drew Shannon

As I lay on the floor, the smothering mixture weighed on my face. Struggling to breathe, I imagined myself a forsaken soul entombed alive in a Poe tale.

I had my father, Casey, to thank.

His plan had been revealed days earlier; an early June morning in the 1970s. As we ate breakfast in our Toronto bungalow, Dad lowered the newspaper and announced with a smile: “I’ve something to tell you. I’ve had a great idea!”

Uh oh, I thought, waiting for it. My unease was forgivable. My father always had an idea. Dad was a dreamer: a card-carrying, Phileas Foggian member of the imagination nation. No plan was too fanciful; no scheme too absurd; no proposition too preposterous. And like most dreamers, few ideas turned out as expected.

Like the time Dad strolled into the house proudly declaring that he had bought the aptly named “Dream Home” at the National Home Show. It was the centrepiece of the annual design exhibition in Toronto; available to anyone at the show’s end for a buck.

The catch? It’s yours; as is.

Once you pay to dismantle it, haul it away, buy land to put it on, hire contractors to rebuild it, place it on the market for months and finally sell it, however, the Dream Home costs more than a dollar. A lot more.

But caveat emptor be damned. Pessimism had never been part of Dad’s playbook.

As an immigrant, Dad tried to ignore racism and it forced us apart for years

My father is a man I never got to know, so I hold on to what I have left

As it turned out that morning my angst was misplaced. “You need a new mask,” Dad said between sips of coffee. “I’ve spoken to the Plante folks. We’re going to Montreal to get one.”

By my reaction, he knew he’d nailed it. I’d just finished another season as a collegiate hockey goaltender. The “Plante folks” were guys who’d hooked up with the popularizer of the goalie mask, Jacques Plante. Plante had begun to wear a mask in an era in which such self-preservation was considered cowardly. Years later, Plante had established a made-to-measure mask business in Montreal.

My father knew I’d taken a slapshot flush in the mouth the previous season while wearing a flimsy mask. Luckily my teeth were intact; however, the inside lining of my mouth was shredded like cheese through a grater. Several stitches were needed to repair the damage; acutely painful while done on the fly by the team doctor in the dressing room, without anesthetic.

The following Friday evening we checked into the Mount Royal Hotel on Peel Street in Montreal. Dad had arranged for the mask makers to come to the hotel and create the fibreglass mould. Later the impression would be perfected at a suburban workshop.

Come Saturday morning two brawny 30-something men in black biker tees appeared at our door. One lugged a duffel bag large enough to carry a body. “‘Allo Casey? We’re the masked men,” they announced with a laugh and strolled in.

After introductions, they unzipped the bag to expose a bucket, a bag of fibreglass/epoxy resin, gauze, vaseline, a roll of polyethylene plastic, a long tube-like straw and a nylon stocking. While one of the guys retrieved water from the bathroom, his buddy covered the carpet with the plastic. Handing me the nylon he said: “Put this on.”

I hesitated: “Where?”

“Pretend you’re robbing a bank,” he replied with a grin, as if reminiscing about a happier time.

Soon my sheepish self was supine on the plastic sheet at the foot of the bed; shirt off with the nylon pulled over my head. Then it began: vaseline, gauze, wet epoxy mix, more gauze, more mix, all coating my face. They worked as if performing restorative plastic surgery. When finished, the mixture would need time to harden. It would then be lifted off to become the cast for my new mask. Meanwhile, I needed to breathe: hence the long straw inserted into my mouth.

As the layers of compound were being applied they began to feel suffocating. But I focused on breathing.

There was a knock on the door. “Femme de chambre, housekeeping.” Before anyone could answer, the door opened.

“We’re busy,” Dad blurted. “Please come back later.”

The startled chambermaid apologized and retreated. After several more uncomfortable minutes, there was another loud rap.

“What the hell is going on in here?” shouted one of Montreal’s finest as he barged into the room with his partner, both of them with guns drawn.

Consider the scene: a man prone on a hotel room floor breathing through a straw with a plaster mask over his face; two men who look like Bond villains hover menacingly. Our whistleblowing housekeeper had concluded that the Mafia had chosen her hotel to torment a snitch.

“It’s okay. It’s okay,” bellowed my stunned father. “He’s a goalie,” as if that justified torture. The commotion so startled my craftsmen that they managed to smear the compound on my face, giving it a Phantom of the Opera appearance.

Dad’s frantic explanation led to raucous laughter by all, except me of course. After a hurried recovery of the mould, the officers departed with a “you won’t believe this” anecdote for the precinct.

A few weeks later, the mask arrived in the mail. My father smiled as I lifted it out of the box and examined it from all angles, like a child inspecting a butterfly in a jar. The mask was smooth and rounded from the bridge of the nose up over the forehead, with a peaked ridge running hawk-like beneath the eye holes down to below the chin.

I wore it for several seasons. As it turned out, the flaw in the design was the same as other fibreglass masks of the day. The eye holes were vulnerable, as tiny scars on my brow attest. On top of that, it never fit properly. We blamed the chambermaid.

Each June I think about our mask escapade when Father’s Day rolls around. Dad died last year at age 93. But it wasn’t too long before his death that he called me to discuss an opportunity he was pursuing with an entrepreneur in China he met over the Internet.

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked.

“It’s a great idea!”

David Elenbaas lives in Toronto.

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