Edward at Echo Lake, and Other Mysterious Deaths

Since I left Winnipeg at the end of the sixties, a number of its signature businesses have died. Some of them probably deserved to live forever, and I feel I ought to take at least some of the blame for their untimely demise. I “spirited away” a shirt, a pair of jeans and some incense from Eaton’s,  several packs of Mackintosh’s Toffee and assorted school supplies from Ringer’s Drugs on Pembina, and I was once late for my Winnipeg Tribune paper route. And now all three firms are gone.

In mitigation, the Mackintosh’s Toffees were required for the daily appeasement and pleasure of my seven year-old dream princess Agnes Lachance, and I happened at that age to be short enough that I could glide past the cashier unnoticed as a pack of toffees slid into my tiny and perfectly placed left hand. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to have  two or three slide in at a time, or from where or whom I got the required sang-froid and how and when I eventually lost it. After a couple of weeks though, Mme Lachance put the kibosh on my dutiful drop-offs, for the sake of her daughter’s moral as well as dental well-being, I think.

Neither of my parents seemed desperately interested in current affairs, so it was odd that they took both the Tribune and the bigger, slicker Free Press. Maybe it was because each offered a 16-page colour funnies section and a rotogravure (look it up, kids)  on Saturday. Before I  became a paperboy for both simultaneously (against the rules), my late little brother Ross and I had a ritual weekly fight for first dibs on the superior Free Press funnies. In funnies as in almost everything else, the Tribune played second fiddle. It was favoured by us paperboys, though, on account of its much lighter weight, and occasionally it did manage to scoop the Free Press on a big big story, such as this one in 1925:

POLICE SUSPECT FOUL PLAY IN LAKEHEAD DEATH: Man Found Dead in Port Arthur With Pockets Rifled Thought Slain                                                                        PORT ARTHUR, Ont Sept 8, 1925. Under circumstances indicating murder, the body of Edward Hewitt; aged about 60 years, 10 years in the employ of the Canadian Pacific Railway as rock-cut watchman with headquarters at Port Coldwell. was found on the shore of Echo Lake, 30 feet below the railway track, about 7 o’clock Saturday evening. A wound giving every appearance of having been inflicted by a blunt instrument, was on the right temple. A roll of bills, said to have aggregated about $1000, which Hewitt was known to have carried on his person, was missing. The provincial police are investigating and an arrest is expected. 

Well, Edward Hewitt was my great-great uncle, little brother of my great-grandfather John, and perhaps the black sheep of the family. Or perhaps not, but he surely didn’t have that much cash from his railway job. Given the year – smack-dab in the middle of the USA’s prohibition era – and the location very close to the border-straddling Lake Superior, I have “decided” that bootlegging was involved. That would be the romantic version, and it will have to do for now, because some unromantic and meddlesome Hewitt appears to have edited poor Edward out of our otherwise well-documented family history. I only found out about his existence serendipitously, thanks to the very thorough Saskatchewan historian Doug Gent.  I can’t find a follow-up story from either Winnipeg paper, or from any in Thunder Bay, so I may never track down the apparently undetected murderer. However, if I ever find out which killjoy relative of mine disposed of Uncle Edward for a second time, that person is in trouble from me with a capital T…. posthumously if necessary. But right now I’m going to try and find out what, besides the missing boyswear, went so wrong for our beloved Eaton’s.

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Running Back to Saskatoon

The title, with thanks to The Guess Who, is the only Winnipegish thing today, because I’m just slipping out for a brief trip to Saskatchewan, returning soon by way of the Starbuck Texaco.

My almost-twin cousin Sarah was sharing her recipe for madeleines the other day, so of course I recalled our shared auntie of that name and then all of our shared Hewitt ancestry. She asked if I had much memory of our grandfather, and I surprised myself with what was still there. I answered her thus:

“Yes, I remember him quite well. He was a bit gruff, or maybe just taciturn, but no more intimidating than any man of that age. I spent a week with him and his third wife Hazel at their Carlyle home the summer of 1958, and these are the things he let me do:

  • He let me fetch coal from the cellar, and said I probably wouldn’t enjoy eating it, and to resist the temptation.
  • He let me tidy up the garage and hammer nails into various things I found there.
  • He let me go with him mornings (by car!) the block and a half to Main Street, where he and his cronies, rather than go into the beer parlour or coffee shop, would just park their cars and then circulate, stopping to lean on the hood of this car or that, and chat about who knew what. There were occasional silences that went on for a while till one of them said ‘yep….’. It could’ve have been ‘yip’. Either way, the ritual was daily except Sundays.
  • He let me go with him to the lake for a semi-pro baseball game, complete with hot dog and Orange Crush. And an Oh Henry!
  • He let me pick peas from the garden and eat as many as I liked while doing so.
  • He let me sit at the kitchen table and eat peanut butter cookies while Hazel, who clearly had stepped right out of a Norman Rockwell painting and into his life, baked another batch, plus several loaves of bread and some pies: cherry, rhubarb, pumpkin….
  • He let me sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor next to a pile of empties. When I asked what Seagram’s Rye was, and why all the empties, the answer was ‘Never mind.'”

So yes,  I do remember him, in all his gruff and taciturn glory. I never saw him alive again, so I’m glad he let me do all that good stuff when we both had the time.

I could point you to some Carlyle townscapes, but although the locations are pretty much as remembered, the storefronts are now faux-something-or-other (Wild West, maybe?), the cars have no chrome, no fins, no style, and there’s not a ghost to be found anywhere. On balance I choose memory, with a little imagination to fill in the gaps.  Here, though, are a few photos of our Grandpa and his learned first wife Florence, our grandmother who died before we were born.


Georgina On My Mind

I was contemplating and googling the Red River and muskrats, Marcel Proust’s tea-dunked madeleines, and the pungently evocative smell of bobcat pee, when there suddenly appeared a very well-photographed present-day Winnipeg woman named Georgina. Here she is, with thanks to photographer Mike Pratt.

Winnipeg Street: Georgina / Mike Pratt

Winnipeg Street: Georgina / Mike Pratt

I forgot all about natural history, and remembered “my”  Georgina, Grade Six classmate and mighta-been smoking tutor/corruptor fifty years ago today, give or take a week. They could conceivably be one and the same person, and the longer Georgina Senior stares straight down my eyeballs the more I’m inclined to think they are. But it doesn’t matter, and it’s probably better that I don’t know.

Georgina was a year older than the rest of us in Grade Six, and with her outrageous bouffant and makeup, impossibly tight clothes, and the best “fuck you” look I’ve seen on anyone without a prison record, she was a genuine sensation, even in that crowded season of JFK, Oswald & Ruby, Beatlemania, and the conversion of Cassius Clay. I can’t remember (or even imagine!) the context within which Mrs Houston came out with, “Well, I’m a 36, Georgina, and you’re at least as big as me…”. This turned out to be the second most memorable thing I ever heard uttered by a schoolteacher, only surpassed four years later when Principal Daley discreetly intimated to me, “That man is out for your blood, Bill”. And indeed he was. But I digress.

I was schlepping through the April slush one day when Georgina and her equally sophisticated pal Myrna sashayed along, cool as you please with their Matinee Filtertips, and mistook my wonderment and admiration for fear and disapproval. Georgina gave me  “the look”, and sneered, “Have a big old eyeful, little Billy.”  If only I’d had the presence of mind to come back with,”Don’t mind if I do. Gotta spare cigarette, Toots?” But of course I just burned up and blushed, schlepped on home and had to wait until I was almost thirteen before Bobby Taylor would teach me smoking, and until sixty-one (and a half!) for another one of those looks from Georgina. She’s lost the bouffant along the way, but maybe not too much else, whatever the photograph may suggest at first look. Let’s hope this is true, and I’ll get back to you about the river and the muskrats and all that.


Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But…

We know that all Canadians except Alanis Morissette understand irony, and Americans don’t. It’s received wisdom, so I didn’t need to belabour the point the day in 1964 when my father the librarian hit me from behind and on the head with The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. “Shorter” is a relative term, of course. This baby ran to 2500-plus pages and weighed about 10 pounds: 10 pounds that felt like a ton when they were unexpectedly rearranging my brains. So first came the shock, then the onset of the pain and the tears, and then the moment of clarity when I chose not to suggest, “with all due respect”, that a career librarian whacking his kid with the SOED, while not a very Canadian thing to do, was undeniably and deliciously ironic. I also wisely refrained from asking if he was just trying to knock some sense into me.

I think that was the first time he ever really hit me, and he only did it twice more during my adolescence, which I guess began that day. Three times in six or seven years was not bad going in an era when father-son violence carried little or no stigma. And I was never injured, though it has been suggested that permanent brain damage was inflicted on me that day. And worse, by a librarian, the Oxford University Press, and the entire English language, albeit in a shortened form.

I don’t know how I was supposed to have provoked the dictionary-bashing. I do know that just weeks later I probably deserved another when I was caught shoplifting a copy of Do Wah Diddy Diddy. Instead, on the chilly drive home after my dad had frog-marched me out of the store-dick’s interrogation room, I noticed that I was still clutching that precious 45 in my sweaty little hand! I deftly slipped it under my parka and thought to myself, “Isn’t it ironic?”