Winnipeg I Never Knew

My father got to (sort of) meet the Marx Brothers, out of character​, in some bar in Winnipeg, in the early 50s, probably 53. Just to get this out of the way, yes, Harpo spoke. My father was still a serious drinker in those days, so only remembered that these were hard boys. He was also what they call a happy drunk, so will have avoided any confrontation with the big stars. Hence the “sort of met”. Happy drunks stay away from hard boys. Trust me on this: I’ve outlived several people.

I assume it was the Rancho Don Carlos. Have a look at how hip this joint was. I am not kidding.

A while ago I thought I could bring you some nostalgic bits and pieces about Winnipeg’s Golden Age, but I soon realized that my own Winnipeg was minute, maybe two square miles taking in the Garry building at Point Road, the Fort Garry Public Library, the Lount Development, General Byng School and the adjacent baseball diamond. When we moved down the highway a bit, we lived spittin’ distance from the folk club where you could see Neil Young and Joni Mitchell on the same bill, a year or two before they were megastars. Maybe Randy Bachman, too, and certainly Rick Neufeld (this should sort out the true Manitobans!)

But you had to be drinking age (18? 21?) to get in. So, although it seems Winnipeg was quite a happening place in those days, I knew nothing of it.

Suddenly, readers, I feel this narrative has nowhere to go. So that’s it. I’ll be back in a day or two, reflecting on a girl from our school named Noreen, who died at 14. She wasn’t special to me at all, but her 6-day dying still troubles me. By no accounting did she deserve it,

Norman Hewitt, hunter and farmer

Because it is not just memory, or nostalgia, but actual time travel—the real thing—I am having to ease back into Winnipegland. I’m going to start by offering again some stuff about my grandfather, the farmer and hunter Norman Hewitt, 1889-1960. If you’ve ever driven past Hewitt Lake in Saskatchewan, that was us.

My cousin Sarah once 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.

Point Road at Pembina, Endlessly

In the spring of 1965, Herman’s Hermits were briefly bigger than the Beatles, and Glenn Templeton forced me to join him on a double date. Being twelve, and a young twelve at that, I understood that “dating” was really the preserve of the big kids, like Wally Cleaver and Patty Duke. I didn’t feel too put upon, though, because my date, Yvonne Kebalo, was pretty and bright and had hair down to her waist. But really, the whole thing was an elaborate pretext for Glenn to spend time with Jerri-Lynn Barrett, who was, I think, a year older than us, and possibly unavailable to Glenn in other than the innocent context of a double date. She could display a set of braces like nobody’s business, though, and I’m sure most of our classmates wished they too could have had misaligned teeth.
We went 5-pin bowling at Garry Bowl, had a late lunch at Chicken Delight, and walked home. Glenn and I sang personalized versions of Mrs Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter along the way. I moved away later that year, and never saw Glenn again. But I never forgot him, and how he introduced me to a new stage of life. He died last year; I hope he got to see Jerri-Lynn again.
Garry Bowl.  Although the merchandise and dream-laden 1100-block  Pembina Highway of my childhood is now a desolate biggish-block near-nothingness, the Garry Bowl building still stands, at the intersection with Point Road.
It was once the Garry Theatre. When I was 5, my brother pulled me on a toboggan two miles there and back to see Bambi. I didn’t freak out, as everyone claims to have done during the fire scenes. Possibly I was more frightened of Mr Douglas (imagine a malign Daddy Warbucks), the live-in manager of the Garry Theatre and, as it evolved, Garry Bowl and then Garry Billiards: whatever succeeding sub-generations needed it to be.. Now it is a non-chain pizza joint, a perfectly worthy re-purposing of what must by now be an official Heritage Building, despite its utter lack of architectural merit. If Mr Douglas is still there, he’ll be about 125, or maybe 350-ish or more. Sometimes I think both he and that indestructible and evolving little building are just biding their time until Stephen King comes along to lock them into a novel.