TORONTO — The mystery that has haunted Rick Brown since he watched the brutal beating of a young friend at an Ontario training school 55 years ago was finally solved this week: James Forbes survived that night.
In fact, at 68 years old, Forbes is living not far from Brown and doing well — if still getting over the shock of a call from an officer inquiring after him.
“Yeah, I’m alive,” Forbes said he told the officer, his voice cracking up. “It brought tears to my eyes.”
After the call, Forbes said he sat his wife down and told her about his training school days.
“She didn’t know anything about it — because my past was my past,” Forbes said. “I just wanted to put this all behind me, eh? because when I mentioned it, nobody believed me.”
In February, The Canadian Press recounted Brown’s harrowing tale of how, as a 10-year-old incarcerated in 1963 at the now-defunct Brookside training school in Cobourg, Ont., he watched a supervisor beat Forbes to a pulp in a dorm one night.
Brown, now 65, described how the cracking sound and almost black blood had haunted him ever since. It also left him wondering whether Forbes, whom he never saw again, had actually died that night after being carried away a bloodied mess.
The original article turned up a few leads but finding Forbes proved elusive until Cobourg police recently decided to see see if they could determine his fate.
The preliminary investigation led to London, Ont., where Forbes and Dolores, his wife of three decades, live. Neither were aware of Brown’s futile search or of a pending lawsuit against the training schools.
“Alive? What the hell you talking about,” Forbes said he responded to the officer. “Then he explained it and I go, ‘Wow! You gotta be kidding me.’ And he says no.”
The father of 18 natural and adopted children, Forbes remembers the night of the beating only too well. The supervisor, he said, was a “total nightmare.”
“If your bed ain’t made right and he can’t bounce a quarter off of it, you’d do it over again. He made me do my bed about three or four times. I finally got tired of it and said, ‘I ain’t doing it again.’ And he gave me a backhand,” Forbes recalls. “I’m only 13 years old, so I kicked him between the legs. He went crazy on me. He put his boots and all that to me. All I can do was roll up in a ball, eh? They carried me out on a stretcher. I woke up three days later.”
Forbes, who spent three years at the reform school from aged 12 to 15, was then sent to a different part of the facility, which explains why Brown never saw him again. Forbes said he remembers Brown as one of the younger guys he tried to protect.
Brown, of Kitchener, Ont., could barely contain his happiness at learning his pal had survived.
“I now know what happened to James Forbes that night,” Brown said. “I’m elated. Fantastic! Tremendous relief.”
The two men spoke at length by phone this week and plan to meet soon.
“We want everyone to know what they did to us children so long ago,” Brown said.
Originally from Hamilton, Forbes said the beating left him with a ruptured nerve close to his spine. Sent to Brookside for three yeas as a “way out of control” 12-year-old who had broken into gas stations, he said the experience was terrible.
Some days, he says he can barely hold a cup of coffee because he shakes so badly. After his hospitalization, he said he spent 30 days in solitary confinement in a padded cell getting meals through a slit in the door.
“It upsets me. It brings back memories,” Forbes said. “You don’t know half of the stuff that they did.”
This past week, the Ontario government agreed to allow a lawsuit spearheaded by another training school survivor to go ahead as a class action. The unproven suit alleges the reform schools — essentially prisons for children — were notorious cesspools of physical, sexual and psychological abuse.
Forbes, who worked mostly in janitorial services in London, said his experience was one of the motivations for him and his wife to adopt eight children over the years.
“I didn’t want the kids to go through what I went through,” he said. “Nobody knew about it. It was behind closed doors.”
Dolores Forbes, 48, said she was equally shocked at learning about the training schools and her husband’s experiences.
“Now I know why he’s got the nerve damage. I can’t believe that there’s people out there who’s done that stuff,” she said. “It’s disgusting. It’s just shocking news.”
The Cobourg officer involved in tracking Forbes down did not respond to a request to discuss the situation.
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press