Tom Jones Forgets to Ride the Pony

Other than my son-in-law the opera star, the most famous person I ever met was Tom Jones, three years ago. He was having beers with his entourage a few tables over at an al fresco bar here in Dunedin, NZ (actually, anyone from Dunedin will tell you that the mere existence of an al fresco bar here is a story in itself). He was clearly enjoying chatting with various starstruck passers-by, so I popped over and introduced myself, we shook hands, and I said that if he cared to drop by our table before leaving, I would tell him a little story from 1965 which involved himself as a minor player. He said that if it was 1965 it could be good, and that he looked forward to hearing it. I told him not to get too excited, and went back to my friends, Niki and Suzie, colleagues of mine at the time. Being somewhat younger and much much better looking than I, they must have caught Tom’s eye, because a few minutes later one of his crew was at our table inviting us to join their party. Delighted to, the fan in me thought, but Niki was in first with, “Thanks all the same, but we’re just having a conversation among friends here.”  How cool can one girl be? The guy said, “So, um, you’re turning down hanging out with Tom Jones?”  And now the ever-sharp Suzie: “Tom Jones is for fifteen minutes. Friends are for life.” OK. Actually, the statement wouldn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny, but it sounded great at the time. I was a little crestfallen, but very proud of my buddies.

Next time we looked over, old Tom was fast asleep, resting up for the show that night. So he never did hear the story, such as it was. What I would have told him was that when I was twelve my family moved to a new home scarily near the Red River, and I acquired as a neighbour the budding psychopath Brent Rempel, an odd little critter with sawed-off rubber boots, snot-green teeshirt, and a very un-1965 number two haircut. Also a knife , and a pretty dang serious one at that, possibly designed for skinning muskrats, I hoped. On balance, I decided it would be a good idea to become his pal.

My new pal said we should pitch a pup-tent and light a campfire in the wasteland (now Bishop Grandin Blvd) at the end of our street and “steal” a free movie from the adjacent Pembina Drive-In Theatre. It was H Rider Haggard’s SHE, and starred not only Ursula Andress but also the Oob-La-Da “Native Dancers”, so it promised much, but delivered little, as things turned out. Here it is anyway, in its entirety, specially subtitled for my one and only Spanish visitor.

The fire and the movie had only just started up when a stranger arrived: a thirtyish guy asking if he could sit by the fire and chat. This was in the days before child sex offenders and serial killers had been invented, so of course we said that would be OK. But before long he started saying weird things and asking weird questions, and pretty soon Brent was on his haunches, rhythmically stabbing the ground with that knife. Here’s the scene as reenacted a decade later by the beautiful Karen Black. May she rest in peace.

Well, the Karen Black routine didn’t seem to be working, so we said we needed to go and get cheeseburgers and Cokes from the Pony Corral across from the drive-in, and would he like us to bring something back for him. He said no thanks, but that he would wait to make sure we got back safely. Which we did, but not for more than an hour. We ate our cheeseburgers indoors at the Pony, and played the jukebox: probably the Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, Petula Clark et al, but most memorably two spins of Tom Jones’s It’s Not Unusual, back to back. We thought by then it might be safe to return to the campsite, and so it was. The fire had gone out and the pup-tent was empty, so we rolled it up and ran all the way home – all 60 or 70 yards!

To this day I can’t hear that song without thinking of the weird guy in the drive-in wasteland, Brent Rempel/Karen Black, their muskrat-skinning knife, and, most especially, the Pony Corral. That’s mostly what I was going to tell sleepy Tom, so I guess he didn’t miss much. But if he had been awake, and stayed awake up to this point, I might have told him a little about the Pony Corral.

In its original incarnation and location, the Pony Corral actually deserved the overused designation of “icon”. It had designer burgers before there was such a thing, and shakes surely smoother than Jack Rabbit Slim’s. It had the best cherry pie. It had red pleated leatherette booths, dark timbers on which were mounted bullhorns, mooseheads, horseshoes, rifles and other western paraphernalia. And it had The Pony.  The Pony presided over the lobby, and very good children who ate everything on their plates were allowed to sit up on him for a spell. This was not a coin-operated mechanical toy ride. This was a full-size, anatomically correct fibreglass model of a gelding pony, complete with genuine western saddle, bridle and stirrups. He was a pony with no name. He didn’t need one. He was The Pony.

In the late eighties my wife and I took our young daughter on a pilgrimage to Winnipeg, which I had rebranded Winnipegland so they’d be more excited. The Pony Corral was high on the list of attractions but, sigh, it wasn’t where it should have been. Another piece of my childhood stolen away, I thought, but no, it had simply been relocated way down Pembina Highway, almost to St Norbert. We drove there, and found something called the Pony Corral, but oh my lord, it was all done out in the fashionable pastels of the times. The food was a letdown too. If it’s possible for burgers to be pastel, theirs were pastel, not just to look at, but also to eat. They had salads on the menu. They had satays. Satays.

Still, they had made one token nod to the Old West. Yep, sho’ ’nuff, The Pony was there. What we really came for. Gotta take a picture, a picture of little Sarah on The Pony, by which I meant, of course, a picture of little me on The Pony. It was OK with the waitress, so I mounted, sat and meditated for a spell, smiled for the camera, dismounted and went to pay the waitress. I even tipped, because The Pony had made all the sad go away. She said thanks, and as we headed to the door she added, “You realize, don’t you, that that isn’t actually the original pony?”

Remember the Red River Valley Part One

Back in the days when Brigitte Bardot  and my mother were young, pretty, and proud to wear fur – mink and muskrat respectively –  Winnipeg was in the habit of injecting apparently untreated sewage into its own dark heart, the Red River. Winter was when you could most easily see where this was being done. The river was frozen solid, but every few hundred yards along the bank you would come upon a steaming brownish black semi-circle of unnameable liquid.  Steaming, bubbling, almost heaving, and on the surface a pizza-like miscellany of unidentifiable things and easily identifiable condoms, presumably used. Of course I’m speaking here only for the WASPish Fort Garry riverside; the picture may have been entirely different across the ice, in the more exotique St Vital and St Boniface.

I don’t know what the resident muskrats made of this strange brew, through which they had to dive to get at the tainted but tasty swimmers beneath the ice. But they were rats after all, at least to us non-zoologists, and were most likely born with the requisite insensitivity to the putrid. As uncute as you’d expect an oversized sodden and smelly rodent to be, the muskrat did  provide a surpassingly beautiful fur for the Mounties and my mum. Warm as toast and silken to the touch, much more so than that of the cuter and costlier mink favoured by BB.

As if the lethally toxic water and noxious beasts weren’t enough to feed a lifelong Red River nightmare, there were trolls, and immense unnamed tentacled creatures ready to pull you under should you dare dip a single baby toe into the Red. But everything would be alright, because the River had you now, and soon you would join the others…

Whoops. Back here in 2014, I imagine the Red has been cleaned up, and someone’s probably bottling its water for sale to the sort of people who buy bottled water. You can probably even swim in it – something you wouldn’t dream of a generation ago. On balance, though, I prefer to stick with my memory of the Red River’s more sinister incarnation, murky and mysterious, deceptively calm and meandering; dangerously beautiful. Always at your side, but never your friend.

As for our suburban riverside rodents, well, they’re free of fear now – no one’s going to slaughter them but an occasional frostbitten Mountie, or a lost and hungry bobcat –  so those muskrats can poo into the Red to their hearts’ content and at their leisure. I find this somehow comforting to know. And I’m sure we’ll all find it comforting to know that the famous song is indeed about our Red River Valley, not that l’il crick down Texas way.







Fords Neil Young Won’t Remember

Neil’s memory’s probably fine, but mine? Maybe not so much.  For decades I’ve been labouring under the misapprehension that the car in his classic Long May You Run was a 1956 Ford Customline. Today I thought I’d better check on that, and found to my alarm that it was in fact a 1948 Buick Roadmaster, and not just any old Roadmaster, but a   Roadmaster Hearse, for heaven’s sake! Well, I don’t know from Buicks or hearses. I’ve never even known anyone who owned either, so I’m just going to stick with those lovely Customlines. They came in a variety of colours, but most of them –  and I don’t why – were blue and white, like this one, lovingly restored by John Blasko:

A Ford Customline (1956) - Picture Gallery - Motorbase

I’m pretty sure my big brother and hero Cameron bought one late in 1963, drove it to death, which took 45 minutes; parked it under a seven-foot snowdrift in the backyard for the winter, and then paid to have it taken away after the spring thaw.

My favourite ’56 Customline belonged to my bonkers high school buddy Gene Brown.  He’s still bonkers, but now it’s for this lunatic boat, what with cars these days being strictly from automotive nowheresville. as boring as all get-out. What was especially not boring about Geno’s*  Customline was that the steering didn’t work at all – well, hardly at all. The last two inches at either end of the steering wheel’s lock allowed, if you applied sufficient force, a slight coaxing rightish or leftish but, in-between, that wheel would just spin free, to zero effect – what they call “play”. He still drove the thing, of course, and once he even let me drive it a mile or two down Pembina Highway. The wheel alignment and tracking were surprisingly good, and Pembina is dead straight, so you could actually get from A to B if you were brave and stupid enough, which we were. Problem was getting back to A again. It took an acre or two of clear space and about half an hour to turn that f***ed Ford around. But hey, who wants to go north anyway? Winnipeg is plenty north enough, right?  So, south it was, and if we’d had enough gas money we could’ve stayed on that very same ribbon of road clear through to Texas, so long as we avoided the tornadoes and Wicked Witches of Kansas and Neil’s gun-totin’, foreigner-hatin’ Southern Men of eastern Oklahoma. But no, we just ditched that piece of glorious junk, walked home and washed up for lunch. Canadians to the core, and nothing if not safe.

Between those two ’56s was the one owned by my too-pretty-for-words cousin Lorna. After I bribed her with several cigarettes, she let the under-age me drive it part of the way from uncle Marvin’s farm to the village of Manor, Saskatchewan (pop. c.350). She can’t have been aware of the depth of my highly inappropriate crush, because when we got to Manor’s finest greasy spoon, she bought me a Coke and then abandoned me in favour of the only empty seat in a boothful of slicked-back, acne-ridden yokels. It was the worst Coke of my   life.

Those Manor boys probably had BO and stinkfoot too, to go with their zits and greasy hair. When I put it to my daughter a while ago that men no longer got BO or stinkfoot after their late fifties, she said, “No dad, you just can’t smell ’em any more.”