The Old Man and The Lake

I often wonder why my dad bothered giving up alcohol as he did, officially, when I was just zero. I hope it wasn’t on my account, and anyway it would be vain to imagine it was. He clearly missed the stuff, with good reason in my view, because he was a lot nicer to be around when on one of his sporadic lapses. I had the privilege and pleasure to be with him during the odd bender before he got back on the wagon for once and for all just before turning fifty.

As head of Manitoba’s country library network he was often required to travel around the wilds, occasionally with me in tow and making a bit of a holiday of it. Completely out of character, he took me camping in the woods near the Minnesota border when I was nine or ten, taught me how use a low-powered rifle on targets and a full-sized ax on firewood and on a couple of perfectly innocent garter snakes.  We had bacon & eggs, buttery toast and perked coffee just before daybreak at a diner in Sprague. To this day I’ve never quite managed to recreate that heavenly  scent of hot breakfast mingled with crisp and pungent autumn air.

He pointed to the Canada/US crossing just a few yards away, and explained that south of that line the people were soft, the weather benign, and life so easy as to turn your body to flab and your mind to mush.  And sure enough, I could just make out on the horizon a couple of pudgy Minnesotans scratching their heads as they gawped uncomprehendingly across the frontier at the true north strong and free.

The summer before, we got a bit closer to the real true north when we steamed to the top of Lake Winnipeg and back again (which took the best part of a week) on the beautiful, long since retired—some say haunted—MS Keenora.

The afternoon before the big storm I came into money. Big money. A buck-and-a-half, which my dad pressed into my little hand, suggesting that I go up to the promenade deck and fill my face with a hot dog or two, apple pie à la mode and as much Seven-Up as I thought I could handle.  “Take your time. We’re on holiday, Billy!” This had never happened before, and never would again: not the pressing of the money and certainly not the taking of the time. I was bemused, but happy to oblige.

After my large snack and an edifying chat with the rehearsing resident jazz band, I went back to our cabin, but there was nowhere to sit, as by now two lady teachers had arrived to share a bottle of what they insisted was “Chinese Tea” with my dad. From memory I think it was Ballantine’s Chinese Tea, or possibly Famous Old Grouse Chinese Tea. And when I say “lady teachers”, well, in hindsight I guess “fresh-out-of-college girl teachers” would be closer to the mark. Odd, because my dad was not normally known for his patience with the young. There was some giggling, the odd baritone chortle, and a few more coins being pressed into my hand. “Have a second slice!” I was happy to oblige all over again, thinking, “What a nice daddy you are…” and  years later adding, “you dirty dawg…”

Later, having of course skipped dinner, I was finally able to reclaim my bunk, but I was bounced right back out of it when the big storm came, and for most of the night I was bent over a bucket crying, shuddering and still heaving long after the last bits of hot dog and pie had come back up. This was my first intimation of death, and remains the most palpable. All through the night my dad was solicitous, comforting and, well, fatherly and in control: the guy could hold his Chinese tea. He told me there was no way the Keenora could sink, and if he had his doubts he didn’t let on, not even when two holes were being ripped in the hull below the waterline. The captain managed to find safe haven before a third rupture, which, he told us in the morning, would surely have sent Keenora to the bottom. What I didn’t know at the time was that for all Lake Winnipeg’s massive area it’s actually quite shallow – thirty feet or so at its deepest. So maybe the worst case was that Keenora would just wind up sitting on the floor, with her superstructure and parts of the top deck poking above water, feeling a bit stupid. Kind of like that famous and ill-fated pontoon boat down on Lake Wobegon in Minnesota, land of swaying palms and head-scratchers.

We were laid up for an unscheduled day in Grand Rapids while a crew was flown in from Flin Flon to fix the hull. Passengers were talking about thirty-foot waves, which would have been quite a trick from a lake thirty feet deep, and like myself they will have dined out on that figure ever since. I don’t recall seeing the teachers again for the rest of the trip; perhaps they fell overboard and no one told me. Perhaps they’re still out there, sunning themselves on the rocks, lying in wait for the next errant librarian to wander by.

Think I’ll Go Out To Alberta




Miss Tinkler and her very first (I think) little flock. Strange to consider in hindsight that she wasn’t really a great deal older than us kids, and even now is only in her mid-seventies. I like to think she still has the ponytail – sadly not on display here – and the ’56 Customline, but I guess it’s more likely she has a blue rinse and a mobility scooter. And maybe a sixty-something toyboy too, but he’s unlikely to be one of this bunch, what with two of the six males having died young by their own hands.

Sitting to my left is Jimmy Bradford. He’s probably looking so happy because he’s just remembered that he lives in the Donna Reed Show. My excuse is that I’ve been told that in place of final exams (yep – final exams in Grade One!) I can take a viva with Principal Smith (his real name). This will mean my family can drive to Calgary a week before school’s out and not have to leave me home alone.

I don’t remember much about Winnipeg’s wild western kid brother, which is just as well, because cousin Sarah would only correct me on anything I might say. Our dad being our dad, it goes without saying that we headed back east the day before the Calgary Stampede began. “Too commercial. Too many Americans.” And I would think and wisely keep to myself, “Yeah, and too much fun, cheapskate. Xenophobe.”

I do remember Brooks, Alberta, though. It was a dark and stormy night. So stormy, in fact, that visibility got to zero and even our dad had to admit defeat and stop trying to drive through it.  It was still a few weeks until Robert Bloch would give the world The Bates Motel, so we had to settle for second worst: The Brooks Motel. There was a bed for the parents, and we four kids had to arrange our sleeping bags on the floor, which was fair enough, but our configuration was made a tad difficult by the leaks in the roof and the needful placement of buckets, and the two little ones had to curl up under the table. So the room had puddles, the biblical torrent on the tin roof was deafening, but not so nerve-shredding as my little brother’s crying and whimpering (fear plus chronic infantile eczema). Nor was it as angry and foreboding as our dad’s low rumble threatening to become a roar, brought on by our neighbours, who were drowning all of this out, a-moanin’ and a-shriekin’ and a-thrashin’ on the other side of the de rigueur paper-thin partition.

The official version, from our mum, was that the woman was having a baby – maybe even twins or triplets. I don’t know if eleven year-old Valerie or thirteen year-old Cameron bought this. I did, of course (but who knew it HURTS?), and itchy little Ross was oblivious, distracted by his flaming skin.  Over the ensuing decades, though, I have managed to piece together a pretty fair idea of how babies are made, and I can now report that we were not witnesses to the delivery of the Brooks litter but to, er… its conception.

We decamped before daybreak, as soon as the rain and the thunderheads began to dissipate and the four strong winds were folding up into an innocent prairie zephyr. The holiday was over, and the deathly quiet drive back to Winnipeg was non-stop, save for the inevitable running out of gas near Miss Tinkler’s Starbuck.  As a very young man I came back to Alberta for the purpose of having my heart broken for the second of three times by a girl who later became a Princess of Burma, albeit in exile in Edmonton. But that was 1971, a whole year after “my” Winnipegland ended, so not for these pages. Just wanted to get in the thing about the Princess, is all.

Here’s the song, performed by Jack Nicholson in a darned good impersonation of our Neil, and here’s what I’ve “decided” became of the Brooks Motel, which stopped operating under that name shortly after our brief and unedifying stay.

p.s. If the song is being elusive, go to and leave a comment if it’s still not there.