This One Doesn’t Really Count

In my Winnipegland there is no 21st century. In fact nothing much happens post-1970, and I try to ignore that it’s 21st century technology that gives Winnipegland a readership at all, or indeed a writer. I ought to be more grateful, and today I am, because the next reader will be my five thousandth.

I’m back with Winnipegland after a few months in the highly overrated here and now, and although I haven’t been writing for Winnipegland lately, its backlist of 38 miniatures has been receiving visitors every day, and now I’m coming to a motivating milestone . Five thousand is hardly what folks call viral, but in my post-1970 career in the business of real books, it was often the number that for publishers indicated critical mass: work worth publishing, if hardly bestseller-list-bound. That’s viral enough for me.

If you’re reading Winnipegland today, why not leave a comment and claim number 5000 status, or near as dammit? I’d love to have some personal sense of the special reader who reassured me that Winnipegland is where I should stay.

Again With The Library Paste

My father liked to say, “You can fix anything with library paste,” but I never saw him prove it, so maybe he was just high on the stuff. It did smell great, I must admit. From 1952 until 1970, which is to say for my entire childhood, my father ran the Manitoba country library service from a central repository located within the university, in Winnipeg. All of this library’s borrowers were in remote areas (as far north as the shores of Hudson’s Bay!) not served by libraries of their own, and thus there was no walk-in custom. Everything was by mail which went by rail, road and river (yes, in canoes).

In “Daddy’s Library” were my father, about forty thousand books, and seven or eight female staff who, from memory, actually did look like the caricature librarians you’d see on TV and in movies or comic books, complete with severe hairstyles and pointy glasses. But, perhaps relaxed by the ever-present fumes of library paste, they were always very pleasant to me, and of course in this library there was no rule of silence. One of the ladies was known as Pat, but the other ladies all had the same name, which was Miss, and to the three year old me this made perfect sense.

In 1955/56 I attended the university’s nursery school, conveniently located one floor down in the same building as the library, so every weekday afternoon my father would come to take me upstairs till his working day finished, and I would have the run of the place. The Misses would set me to little jobs, often employing library paste, and I think I learned to read by osmosis a while before I started school. Until I grasped that there was a world outside the library and our home, I was inclined to greet any new little playmate with the question: “What library does your daddy work in?”

I grew up to spend a life in the world of books in Canada but mostly in New Zealand, and mostly selling rather than lending. My own child similarly grew up in a world of books, pottering around and learning in “Daddy’s Bookshop”. And if anything went wrong or was broken, I would assure her that, “You can fix anything with library paste.” She never asked me to prove it, and perhaps we’ll never know if it’s true.

​[ Here is another little Winnipegland librarian story: ]

Toys For Every Girl And Boy

I’ve never found it difficult to become besotted, and re-besotted comes just as easily, be it one month or fifty years later.

The musicology of this little 1965 masterpiece—its Baroque origin, its since-corrected misattribution to Johann S Bach, its inspired Motown arrangement—is fairly well known, but I offer A Lover’s Concerto here simply as a 2:45 minute respite from despair, cynicism, affectedness, and things masquerading as love that aren’t love at all.

The song has been covered many, many times, but so far I’ve heard no one but Barbara Harris and The Toys do justice to the disarmingly straightforward lyrics. The song is not about sex, and yet, of course, the Supremes’ version is dripping with the stuff. Cilla Black’s recording was strident, bossy, hurtful to the ear… am I allowed to say Germanic? The Divine One, Sarah Vaughan, seemed to miss the point with a swingingly pleasant but overly sophisticated reading. And even Barbara Harris herself, all grown up and professional twenty-odd years later, was a little too streetwise to convince as a wide-eyed romantic.

The lyrics by Denny Randell and Sandy Linzer lie sufficiently well upon the page for me to provide them here, sparing you the bother of picking them up from some execrable karaoke screen. As you can see, they are hardly sassy or brazen.

How gentle is the rain
That falls softly on the meadow
Birds high up on the trees
Serenade the clouds with their melody

Oh! See there beyond the hills
The bright colors of the rainbow
Some magic from above
Made this day for us
Just to fall in love

You hold me in your arms
And say once again you love me
And if your love is true
Everything will be just as wonderful

Now, I belong to you
From this day until forever
Just love me tenderly
And I’ll give to you
Every part of me

Oh! Don’t ever make me cry
Through long lonely nights without love
Be always true to me
Keep this day in your heart eternally…

Occasionally I’m asked if I’m staying busy and not letting the head go soft in my retirement, and just lately I’m inclined to answer that my days are pretty much taken up with the composition of a single sentence which doesn’t run on, and yet deals fully with the notion that the above lyrics, although displaying the writers’ familiarity with the works of the 19th century German Romantic poets whose hydrologically, botanically and ornithologically charged banalities were often set to music in the Lieder of Franz Schubert et al, by earning and parking their nature study merit badge in the first six lines, deftly avoid an effete, faux-innocent obfuscation of what is, after all, a love song to a human being, not to some winged halfwitted critter flitting in the foliage and fouling every brook and pond in sight. But I don’t.

L-R June Montiero, Barbara Parritt, and Barbara Harris

Beatrice, The Beav’, And A Thing That Went Beep In The Night

Across our street in the summer of 1960 lived a three year old curly-top redhead known as Little Beatrice (pronounced btreece to rhyme with geese), and all I remember about her is the little song she sang the day the Caterpillars came and scraped off the six inch layer of crabgrass and rocky soil that were the Barkers’ front yard, in preparation for the laying of new Kentucky Bluegrass sod. I won’t go off on some folksy tangent here about Kentucky Bluegrass; it was just the standard choice for new lawns in our neighbourhood.

On the day between the removal of the old and the arrival of the new, Little Beatrice popped out of her front door, surveyed the scene in bemusement, and then, after a minute or two, and approximately to the tune of Three Blind Mice, began to sing: “The yard ran away! The yard ran away!” Enchanting! In hindsight, I think this may have been my first intimation (being only seven myself) of just how impossibly cute and clever a toddler can be. Little Beatrice is pushing sixty now, God willing, and almost certainly has no memory of that inconsequential episode, but  her little ditty has stayed with me ever since, and I like to think she’d be slightly charmed to know that I still sing it silently to myself whenever something I expect to be there… isn’t.

I had it in mind to turn that tiny moment into some sort of existential jewel, but it wouldn’t come, so I’ve simply deposited it on the page unadorned. Similarly, I’ve been thinking for days about how to take the night before I turned five, two years earlier— the night Sputnik One was launched and Leave It to Beaver premiered—and turn it into a Cold War parable: maybe something about a shared moment of childlike wonder across the ideological divide. Similarly, no such luck.

Actually I don’t remember the first time I “met” the Cleaver family, and even once I did I was decades away from realizing that I was watching anything other than a rather realistic (yes, it was actually like that!) depiction of a WASP suburban boy’s life often spookily similar to my own. It turns out I was also partaking of Great Art. Maybe I’ll elaborate upon this sometime. Or not, if I find I have nothing new to add to Beaverology.

I do remember the Sputnik flight, though I don’t remember actually seeing the thing . All of our Biscayne Bay neighbours were out on their front porches; every few minutes someone would shout, “Oh look! There it goes!” and then some killjoy (probably named Gord) would yell back something along the lines of, “No it’s not, you jerk! Any schoolkid knows that’s just Bellatrix or, under its Bayer designation, Gamma Orionis! Sheesh!”


The next day there was a little fifth birthday party for me, and Billy Eakin (two from left, top row) gave me (sitting, left) a three-stage rocket like the one that had put Sputnik into orbit. I was crestfallen, though, to find that it wouldn’t blast off if you lit it, because it was actually soap. It looked more realistic than the one above, but the rope on the end was a giveaway.

Oh well. Next bathtime I asked my mother for my rocket soap, but she said, “Oh no, it’s the wrong shape for soap, and you could take an eye out with the pointy end, or strangle yourself with the rope. We’ll keep it in its wrapper and give it to one of your cousins for Christmas. Years from now this will be called regifting and will carry a social stigma, but here in 1957 it’s just what you do with unwanted, life-threatening, rocket-shaped soap-on-a-rope.”  As always, thank you, mum, for yet another existential jewel.

Taking The Millie Small Cure

Before it was usual for cars to have seatbelts, and up front in most cars was a big bench seat for three, it was common practice to have the smallest passenger seated (or squatting or even standing!) front and centre, on what was jokingly called the suicide seat. Placing your tiniest and presumably cutest and most precious cargo so decidedly in harm’s way seems counter-intuitive, looking back.

Although our dad was able to roll a cigarette and drive a car simultaneously, once I was eight or nine and just able to see over the dashboard, he would sometimes have me take the wheel from the middle seat. Not in traffic, of course, but out on the open prairie road, straight as a die, where properly aligned vehicles can cruise for days without actually being steered.

Once that cigarette was rolled and lit, I handed back control of the car, then sat back and enjoyed the smell. I am not kidding: I truly loved the smell of cigarettes. Not so much the big clouds that issued from someone’s face, but the seductive wraith that drifted from the lit end as if from a genie’s lamp. It was best if the windows were left rolled up, which they were, mostly, from September through until May. I inhaled discreetly and wondered how grown-up one needed to be to have one’s own cigarettes. The common wisdom seemed to be fourteen. That was too many years away, so, having decided that twelve would be the new fourteen, I got myself underway a few weeks before turning thirteen. Coincidentally, this was half a century ago almost to the day.

And now exactly fifty years of close and mostly trouble-free friendship with the cigarette is at an end, not for any health or social or moral reasons, but because it has become just too insanely expensive to carry on. I smoked my last cigarette five weeks ago, and am surviving cold turkey on a diet of anti-depressants and too much coffee. Also lollipops. These surprisingly needn’t cost a heck of a lot more than they did fifty years ago, if you buy in bulk as I do. This is all working so far, though the cruel and inescapable irony is that the number one most effective cure for nicotine craving is, well, a cigarette. In fact, if you’re a sufficiently well-heeled hitherto abstainer, I warmly recommend taking up the smoking habit as soon as possible, if only for the unallayed joy of making the craving go away twenty or thirty times a day. The more you smoke, the more of these magical moments you have. It just makes so much sense.

Anyhoo, I’ll make do with the above curative cocktail. The chemicals and the coffee I can take or leave as the need for them recedes. But after five weeks and a couple hundred of the things, I find I am now powerfully addicted to lollipops. And isn’t that, in a way, a metaphor for life? You know: it’s just one damned thing after another.

Here’s Millie.

Will I See You In September…

… or lose you to a summer love? Well, I’m back, and I wish I could blame my recent absence on an endless prairie summer vacation with Shelley Fabares, and a summer love with her or anyone else. Sadly the facts are not so sunny as that, and involve a bleak, unfriendly and spiritually debilitating winter, nearer to the South Pole than people ought to go. This is all the complaining and excuse-making you’ll get from me; happier and warmer days are here again.

In Stephen King’s 11/22/63 , the hero Jake has a portal, in back of a diner, through which he can flip out of his present and into September 1958, and then back again if he needs to—but of course why would he want to? I winced each time he returned, however necessarily and briefly, to his 21st century situation, and dreaded that he wouldn’t be able to flip back again into the entirely more charming Eisenhower/Kennedy version of Maine and then Texas, settle in, and stay forever.

To write Winnipegland I similarly have not simply to remember, but actually to be in the right time and place. My portal is the “gopher hole” of the subtitle, and for the past couple of months I’ve been required to be so very much involved in my own 2015 that I’ve had trouble remembering where that gopher hole could be. So Winnipegland has been in hiatus, but now the hiatus needs a hiatus.

While I look for that old gopher hole, or stumble upon some new portal to genuine time travel, I’ll have to resort to memory and to the occasional secondary source. I might begin with an account of my brief career as a four year old skirtlifter, a discussion of the lurking evil of playground equipment, or maybe something about a summer camp run by an alarmingly liberal branch of the Mennonite church. We shall see. God forbid I should have to emulate Mr King, and start making stuff up.

Pattypans, Patina and Homecoming Plans

One day in 1958 a hapless door-to-door salesman came to 48 Biscayne Bay to show our mum an Atomic Age precursor to the Me Generation food processor. When you’re five, a mother is just an old person who’s not quite as old as a grandmother, and it didn’t occur to me then that she was in fact a fairly young person with a pretty good line in childish mischief. The guy never had a hope of selling her that machine, but that didn’t stop her allowing him the best part of an hour to put it (and himself) through its paces. He made us kids some quite lush and tasty and ever so slightly crunchy milkshakes which included “… raw eggs, ma’am, shells and all!” Then he produced a bag full of pattypan squash from his magician’s case. I don’t remember what he promised to do with them, or why such a cute, unassuming and easily managed little vegetable required the full force of Atomic Power to be unleashed upon it. I do remember that he “…musta pushed the wrong button, ma’am!”  and suddenly globs of tepid gelatinous yellow matter were flying everywhere, all over the kitchen. Some of it got me smack in the mouth. If you don’t count Libby’s canned pumpkin pie filling, it was my first encounter with squash of any variety, and left me with an aversion I didn’t shake until some time in my thirties. Mum managed to keep a straight face as the salesman wiped down various kitchen surfaces as best he could while offering assurances that “This almost never happens, ma’am!” and in her fun-loving spirit she allowed him his finale, which was a perfectly passable take on French Canadian pea soup. She even held the straight face as she said, “Well, not today, thanks. Maybe I’ll order one sometime from Eaton’s on my Revolving Credit Plan [which I understood to mean at no charge].” Cruelly, she omitted to mention that his next prospect, Mrs Tucker at number 46, was an actual French Canadian, an unusually fiery one at that, and that perhaps minestrone or simple tomato soup would be a safer offering if he indeed got as far as her kitchen.

I’d intended that at this point I’d segue into something about ghosts, and then remembered I don’t believe in ghosts. Not yet. The great storyteller Stephen King is moving me in that direction; thus far we converge on something I’ve been calling “domestic patina” and which Mr King in his deceptive simplicity calls “leavings”. In both cases we are talking not just about fossilized puréed food (me) or decayed human brain tissue and bodily fluids (him), but also about some sort of long-lasting (vibrational?) imprint on a place, left by stuff people did and said— maybe even felt— when they were the inhabitants. Walls, ceilings, floors…maybe even the air. In my dotage I’m coming to feel that if there are no leavings then perhaps equally there was  no point.

When I move back to Winnipegland, as I plan to do next year, I think I’ll invest in a deerstalker hat, a magnifying glass and an ear-trumpet, and go a-hunting. I will start by knocking on the door of 48 Biscayne Bay, wheedling my way in with a gift of pattypan squash (and my recipe*) and finding what may be there to be found.

*Drop these little beauties whole into boiling water for a minute and a half, then arrest cooking with a cold water rinse. Snip off the green stems, halve or quarter, and gently sauté in butter with red and/or green (or even purple!) bell peppers. Sprinkle to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. The nutmeg makes this. Serve alongside any sort of fish you like.

Covered Wagon Carol And The Cooties

Twice every school day of 1962/63 I saved the lives of the kids from the Covered Wagon Trailer Park.This miracle occurred every time they crossed at my intersection, Waterford and Beaumont. That was a Lieutenant’s crossing; Captain Jimmy McLaren had the more prestigious and more traversed Beaumont and Mars Drive, right outside the main school building. There were no privates or sergeants in the sidewalk patrol, which, without a trace of irony, I called The Force. None of us would have joined if we’d been forced to wear geeky orange vests. No, our official status was indicated by a Sam Browne belt and a police-style badge, silver for all of us lieutenants, and gold for Captain Jimmy. If I hadn’t been too grown-up to own one, I might have strapped on a toy Colt 45, too, by way of a deterrent to jaywalking.

Captain Jimmy’s was the crossing favoured by the girl in the fluffy off-white parka with the red diamond pattern on the hem. Possibly he had no idea (and he’d better not have, neither) that he was twice daily protecting a dream princess. No, not the dream princess Agnes LaChance, with whom I opened this series of little stories, but another, similarly French-named. Because of her address, I just think of her today as My Favourite Martienne (MFM), which I admit does not trip as prettily off the tongue as her real name, but c’est la vie.

I might more profitably and less achingly have flipped for Covered Wagon Carol, but she was a little too much of this world to inspire a grand passion. My but she was funny, though; so much a natural comedienne that I unofficially changed her surname from Britnell to Burnett. Here she is a few years earlier, sailor-suited in the second row, directly behind me and in between Bobby LaFond of ‘nooperator’ fame and Diane Ooto, who lived next door to school and, I think, owned the black Lab who wanted to eat me.

Carol had a joke or two for me every time she crossed. I don’t remember any of them. I know I was cracked up by most of them; being ten years old probably helped. What I do remember, though, is the day she got serious and told me all about the Cooties.

The Cooties: A mysteriously asymptomatic and highly contagious condition, carrying a degree of social stigma, albeit only for a day or so. You caught it simply by being tagged physically and verbally (“You’ve got the Cooooooties!”) by a sufferer/carrier. You self-cured in similar fashion, but only after 24 hours had passed; not much point in being socially stigmatized if you don’t have to sleep on it at least once. You only had to have the Cooties once, and were then immune*. Do the arithmetic, and it’s plain to see that even a good-sized school would quite quickly run out of potential victims and carriers, and the Cooties would peter out. This is where the asterisk comes in.

When I asked Carol, “O Cooties, where is thy sting?” she went on to explain that your immunity did not cover infections received in pure form, directly from a progenitor. General Byng School had two progenitors: a brother/sister team. Unfortunately for them, progenitors could run around giving kids Cooties till the cows came home, but could never shake their own case, not ever. Now we’re talking real social stigma, and boy did it take, so much so that to this day I don’t know whether or not that boy and girl were able to shake it off in adulthood, let alone in the following school year or when they went off to junior high.

So, I hear you asking, how did one become a Cooties progenitor? Well, Carol wasn’t exactly sure, but thought perhaps all that was required was to have come from somewhere else: quite a trick in a brand new subdivision with a trailer park adjacent! Simpler times indeed.

This little piece was meant to include a reflection on the long-gone Covered Wagon Trailer Park, and then maybe trailer parks (which I love!) in general, sidewalk patrol days, streets named after planets, fluffy parkas and so on, and on, and on, but I’ll leave all that for the time being. Don’t want you catching what I’ve got, now do I?

Knee-High To A Plague of Locusts

Well, okay, a grasshopper infestation to any killjoys out there. But “plague of locusts” sounds more biblical and dramatic, and besides, today I’m remembering south Saskatchewan, where my mother and kin lived in the Bible for the entire decade following the 1929 crash. She was nearly as silent on the subject as most combat veterans are on their wars; it must have seemed similarly like End Times, with year on year of drought, tornadoes, killer hailstorms, and the locusts. It says all that our mindblowingly savage prairie winters were greeted each November as blessed relief.

Actually, the difference between grasshoppers and locusts is a little more than semantic, but is behavioural rather than anatomical. If you run into a grasshopper or two on the road or in a bar, they’re just grasshoppers. But when a few million of their buddies turn up, they become “gregarious”—this is the scientific term, honest—and these newly gregarious grasshoppers get a name change and sometimes also a change in colour. Now they are locusts, and collectively they are a plague.

When a bunch of these guys blitzed my Uncle Marvin’s farm during our summer holiday there in 1963, he asked me if I’d ever walked in a plague of locusts (Nope.) and if I’d like to (Why not? I’m ten, fearless, and still fairly stupid.) “Okay then, out you go, they’re in the field other side of the barn. Tuck your jeans into your socks, button up your shirt, and for chrissake keep your mouth shut.”

I can’t say it was fun, really, but it surely did tickle. Of course it would have gone way past tickling if there hadn’t been all that yummy wheat for the plaguesters to munch on, but I know my Uncle Marvin wouldn’t have let me out there if he’d thought it was better than even odds I’d be eaten alive. Despite his rawhide skin and occasional tough-guy talk (“…damn cow went & cut her damn tit, barbwire fence, north quarter…”) Marvin was as cool, elegant and gentle as his beloved Siamese cat Ching.

Next day there appeared to be no wheat left to worry about, and Marvin turned his attention to the barn swallow problem. He could have told me, “Shoot all the swallows you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a crow.” Of course Harper Lee had already said pretty much the same thing a couple of years previously, so I guess he figured I already knew this. He put me up on the parked combine with my .177 and said they’d come out of the hole in the barn gable, and if I could pick off a few he’d take me into Manor for a hot dog and Coke and some free time on the barber’s pool table. And so I did: three or four in about an hour, and then I stopped after the crow went down.

Maybe I should’ve felt more like a sinner than I did, but actually I was quite impressed with myself. To drop a bird of that size with an air rifle would require a shot right between the eyes, though it’s possible he just died of sheer surprise. I found him in the tall grass and made sure he wasn’t just injured, and in pain, but he was dead alright. If I’d known then that Alfred Hitchcock had just released The Birds, I might have wondered whether my crow had any relatives in the cast, and if they knew where I lived.

A few days later as we were heading back east I looked back and saw a dark cloud on the western horizon. It was low to the ground and seemed to be gaining on us. It could have been just plain old big prairie weather, or maybe a few million more gregarious grasshoppers, or could it have been…  swallows…  crows? I began to think about how Dad’s Chevy would most likely run out of gas somewhere near Starbuck, and how we’d be stranded for an hour or so on that lonesome highway, just twenty miles short of home. I recognize that moment now as an early encounter with my inner Tippi Hedren, but I couldn’t have known that then; I was just knee-high to, oh…  let’s just say it was a grasshopper.

The Castrato Cowpoke of Kingston County

In Stephen King’s Joyland, Devon Jones mentions in passing, “…another summer mopping cafeteria floors and loading elderly Commons dishwashers with dirty plates didn’t hold much charm for me…”

In the summer of 1969 that prospect held all kinds of charm for me, though, because it meant I could have two months of complete independence for the very first time. My after-school job as busboy at the University of Manitoba would become full-time for the summer, and as a full-timer I was allowed to rent a bedsitter in the bowels of Mary Speechly Hall, the big hall of residence. There was a medium-security special wing for The Lifers: the full-time and somewhat damaged cafeteria staff who chose to live on-site. So for a summer I lived among the The Lifers. I came out of it unscathed and unsullied, possibly because I was utterly oblivious to what I now assume was going on down there.

Across the corridor was the self-nicknamed Fat Barry. “Howdy! Ah’m Fat Barry an’ ah’m from Texas,” he would say in a very high-pitched drawl from….well, if there’s a town called Kingston, Ontario in Texas then that’s where it was from. Occasionally Barry would slip out of character and lose the drawl, but the falsetto never failed him. When I became an opera fan years later, I wondered whether perhaps that wasn’t a falsetto at all, but actually his real voice, and how in demand he could have become had the baroque revival begun twenty years earlier. Of course he’d have needed to drop Texan in favour of a few European languages including English, and the ability to carry a tune—which he couldn’t—would have been a bonus too, on most if not all opera stages.

He spent most his spare cash on amazing satin cowboy shirts in mauve, sky blue and gold, festooned with embroidered lariats, spurs, guns and bullwhips. These billowed in shimmering rolls nearly down to his knees, so that no one including Fat Barry could see exactly where he hitched up his too-tight jeans with the rolled-up cuffs, or indeed whether that voice of his had been achieved surgically. Of course they hadn’t been performing that particular procedure down Texas way for, oh… decades!

The boots were absolutely real, really from Texas and glorious to behold. He didn’t need to tell me they were handmade, and I decided for myself that they had been custom fitted maybe a half-size too small, the better to facilitate a John Wayne-style pigeon-toed, mincing gait. I wondered how those beauties could be afforded on a busboy’s pay, but Barry confided to me that he did receive the occasional package of greenbacks from the family ranch. Oil, dontcha know…

I loved how Barry clearly got the joke that was his self-made persona. The occasional wink suggested that he knew I got it too, but that he was sure he had pretty much everyone else fooled, at least so long as he was the only Texan in town.

I could—won’t for now but will, soon—carry on about Fat Barry’s fellow Lifers, Crazy Albert and Little George Gage, but that would lead into a treatise on the mechanics of washing dishes for 1600 student diners in two hours, three times a day, and to a sidebar on the extended coffee break we all had one day that summer to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. And how much I loved to wheel steaming clean plates out to Sandy Schultz as she served up Salisbury steak on the servery line.