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.

Not Stalling, Honest!

No writer’s block here: it’s just that I’ve been reluctant to bump Uncle Ed off  the front page; one way and another he’s taken more than enough bumping off. But I am now resigned to never hearing from the descendants of his cronies or his killers. I guess this means that any further reconstruction of his life and death must take the form of a novel. I’ll work on it. My daughter tells me I’m not bad at turning fiction into fact, so I hope it follows that I can do the reverse to equal effect. But meanwhile a plague of locusts, a case of frostbite, five-pin bowling with Yvonne Kebalo, and a bunch of other stuff wants airing in Winnipegland. Tonight’s winners, though, are a trio of career busboy/dishwashers: Little George Gage, Crazy Albert, and Fat Barry. I’ll just go and open their coffins now, and they’ll be here, briefly, just before sunrise.

Three Ems, An Ed, And Echo Lake Revisited

I try in these pages not to slip into plain old nostalgia. It’s too easy and too common: everyone has a decade or so in their past during which the world was a better place than it is now, and already our children are beginning to come over all sentimental about the 1990s, which as far as I’m concerned are still the present. It follows, then, that the world of the past was, is, and always will be better than the world at hand, and that nostalgia, though great fun, is too highly personal to be truly meaningful. So I stick with the Three Ems: memory, meaning—where there is any— and now and then, murder.

Just last year I found that I had a long lost great-great uncle, Edward Hewitt, who’d been edited out of our family history. Perhaps he was already considered a prodigal son when, having left the family seat in Simcoe County, he decided to stop in Winnipegland—as any sane person would—and work for the Canadian Pacific here and in Coldwell, rather than continue west to farm in Saskatchewan with his brothers. As well as his bunk in the company dorm out back of Port Coldwell Station, Ed kept a Winnipeg bolthole by Sturgeon Creek in the then semi-rural St James. I’d like to think his digs were more salubrious than the trio of blue dumpsters now occupying the site. but the more I get to know Uncle Ed, the less I’m surprised by any bad news about him. Certainly his life was sufficiently unsavoury to have ended unsurprisingly at the hands of a still unidentified murderer, on the shore of Echo Lake. Here is the Winnipeg Tribune report published the Tuesday after the killing:

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, there was no arrest, nor any further reportage, so I’ve been doing some research in order to reconstruct some of the detail of Uncle Edward’s life and death, and to bring him, if not back to life, then at least back into the family which has forsaken him for nearly a century.

A rock cut like the one where Edward Hewitt protected slow-moving trains from falling rocks, freeloading rod-riders and larcenous leapers.

A rock cut like the one where Edward Hewitt protected slow-moving trains from falling rocks, freeloading rod-riders and larcenous leapers.

As a rock-cut watchman, Edward helped protect the trains which moved by necessity at a snail’s pace along a pretty dodgy section of track. Eastbound trains carried his brothers’ Saskatchewan rye to Ontario and Québec, but Edward chose to take his share of the harvest in its tastier and more lucrative distilled form on the return journey west. The disappearance of a bottle or two here and there—maybe even the occasional case—was par for the course on that long haul, and minor shortages at the Winnipeg railhead were only rarely investigated by railway police. But Uncle Ed got stars in his eyes when a CPR colleague told him he knew a guy with a boat who could sell as much hard liquor as he could get to another guy who lived on Isle Royale, Michigan, just fifteen miles off the Lake Superior shore and five miles inside the thirsty, jitterbugging, prohibition-stricken USA.

Edward started increasing his “harvest”, and week by week the summer of 1925 he amassed a marketable surplus he hid in the narrow strip of woods between tiny Echo Lake and the mighty Superior, which is bisected by the US border. The first shipment of twenty cases went without a hitch in the wee small hours of Thursday September 3rd. The $1800 take was split three ways by Ed, his CPR crony who had expertly altered the manifests and unlocked the freight-car doors, and the guy with the boat.

Wouldn't you?

Wouldn’t you?

So far, so good, but Ed was now infected with greed and the next night, the start of the weekend, he headed into Port Arthur in search of a big-stakes poker game. He found one, and whisky-addled though he was, he managed to turn his $600 into just over a grand, running out of less lavishly bankrolled opponents one by one till the game broke up. He managed to stagger to the station just in time to hitch a ride home in the caboose of the midnight train to Coldwell. Alone, he thought, but no such luck. He didn’t disembark at Port Coldwell Station. Strictly speaking he didn’t disembark at all, but was bashed on the head and thrown off the train a few miles south of Coldwell, just a stone’s throw away from his Echo Lake stash, where the trains always slowed to a crawl. His $1000 wad was gone, but it didn’t matter, because Ed was dead.

Port Coldwell Station in its (and Edward’s) heyday.                          CPR Staff dormitory to the rear, left.

Port Coldwell Station in its (and Edward’s) heyday. CPR Staff dormitory to the rear, left.

By virtue of his day job, Uncle Ed was bound to have been a tough guy, perhaps not bad to the bone, but certainly no angel. The local police were probably happy enough to let him and his type kill each other off, and it’s clear the “investigating” was neither lengthy nor dogged. Had the Mounties been brought in they would doubtless have “got their man”, but it was not their jurisdiction.

I stand to be corrected on any of this, and would love to know more, but that would require one or more of the killer’s descendants to come forward; I won’t be holding my breath. So this, for the time being, is Edward Hewitt’s story. Sure, it’s not the whole story, but it’s the only one he’s got, and a damn sight more than his family has allowed to be told thus far.

It’s a little nephew’s little gift to you, bad Uncle Ed. Welcome home.

Storing away some future memories at Grant’s Mill, Sturgeon Creek. (Winnipeg Tribune Photo Collection)

Storing away some future memories at Grant’s Mill, Sturgeon Creek. (Winnipeg Tribune Photo Collection),+ON+P0T,+Canada/@48.5762912,-86.7539179,285718m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!3m1!1s0x4d43795c02a7b557:0x94341db3344f2473

Crystal White Persuasion

If you don’t mind the odd brown-eye or worse, then a slow roll through town on an early morning train can be entertaining and is certainly educational. Without breaking any laws you can be a serial peeper across the back alley, into the back yard, and at the backside of a nation. The last time I had the experience was when passing through the outskirts of Poughkeepsie and other points south on the way to New York City. I can report that Americans are spookily similar to us when it comes to the early morning routines and rituals which reveal us as brothers and sisters under the skin. I guess there is residual sleep dust, otherwise known as rheum, which needs to be cleared before the daily epiphany of specialness and superiority experienced on both sides of the border and informing the conduct of our respective days.

There’s residual snow, too, in early spring upstate New York and it’s just like ours in the true north: patchy, grey and slushy, good for nothing but snowballs that really hurt. Dogs won’t even poo in it, and nor will boys bother “autographing” it, and even if they did it wouldn’t show. For those art forms, and for less damaging snowballs, you need the virginal white fluffy  stuff of December.

A fresh fall on top of a hard-packed base meant that in my smooth- soled moccasins I could slide up and down Somerville Avenue as quick as a flash, flicking up fabulous little Christmas-lit blizzards in my wake. That’s why I was sent on a mercy dash to Ringers Drugs on Christmas Eve 1962, for the life-giving Dr Pepper and Old Dutch BBQ chips needed to keep a family Scrabble session going.

This was probably also a ruse by my father to take me out of action for one game, so that he could escape for that game at least my evergreen challenge to his evergreen contention that the addition of pre or re to any old verb yielded a new Scrabble-legit word. Prezoom was his favourite (mine too), followed by prezip and requibble. But, ruse or not, I figured that a guy who’d voluntarily —unnecessarily, in my view— forsworn for life his beloved Scotch deserved to be indulged in the occasional small pleasure. So I bundled up and headed out for the three-block slide to my own personal Star of Bethlehem.

For a change I paid for the supplies, which seemed somehow appropriate on a holy night, and anyway it wasn’t my money. On the way home I felt a new sensation; had I known the term I would have thought to myself, “So this is agapé.” Every little bungalow was Christmas-lit in similar fashion: not a one was overdone, but every one was twinkling prettily. The night was crystalline and windless, and fresh illuminated snow was falling. Every front window emanated a gently glowing warmth and hinted at a quiet, harmonious tableau behind drapes drawn against the cold. Families just like ours—for that moment at least—doing family things. Somerville Avenue was the world, and the world was good.

I slid on home, unbundled myself, and sat back down, resolving in my newfound universal love state to let my father win the next game. But halfway through it he just had to proffer prezooming, and I just had to say “Challenge.” Agapé was agone, folks, and I never really experienced it again, though Poughkeepsie did come close.

From Russia With Love

I was rifling through the pockets of my father’s Air Force dress uniform, looking for tobacco or maybe even cash, and found only a little black booklet with RESTRICTED in big yellow letters on the cover. Exciting! It said something like Authorized RCAF Intelligence Personnel Only, so of course I opened it; what could be the worst they’d do to a treasonous little kid? I don’t think they had juvenile courts martial back then.

Anyhoo, the big military secret turned out to be nothing but a course in intermediate Russian. Refusing to be underwhelmed, I added up Restricted + Intelligence + Russian and “decided” that my dad had been a spy.  Maybe he still was, as he had remained in the Air Force Reserve post-war. Or maybe not. He did his war service on the sensible side of the Pacific, and I understand that he was a radio operator with the rank of Sergeant, and that the Air Force taught him Russian so he could listen in on what our not-to-be-trusted “allies” had to say for themselves.  His achievement in Russian seemed to have been in comprehension and not so much in conversation. Who knows but that if he’d better mastered the latter skill he couldn’t have prevented the Cold War? I have always blamed him for not doing so.

He had the same problem with French: he could read it and get the jokes on French TV, but couldn’t speak it to save his life, so could not carry on a conversation with his French-Canadian neighbours. Then again, why would he, what with there being no talking to the French?

From the restricted textbook I taught myself the Russian alphabet, but it wouldn’t be till high school that I learned a meaningful phrase in Russian, from the older classmate who introduced me to Samuel Beckett, the Greek & Roman philosophers, and marijuana: I guess this made him my guru, so it was a shock to learn that a decade later he’d been jailed for crimes against pre-schoolers. The phrase was “Любовь не картошка.”  It’s pronounced something like “Lyubov nya katorshka” and means, of course, “Love is not a potato.” Useful to know, but on balance I’d rather have learned this from my father the failed peacemaker. Too bad we never had “that chat”.

Not so long ago I had an elderly English drinking buddy, Roy Snow, who’d served in the RAF in the Battle of Britain, prior to which he and many of his compatriots trained at the RCAF base in Carberry, a little bit west of Winnipegland. I asked him whether the English flyboys had had much social intercourse with the locals. They had indeed, so I told him that we’d had a Somerville Avenue neighbour named Beryl, born and raised in Carberry and eighteen or so at the time he was stationed there. I posited that they may well have met once or twice at the Saturday night dance, and then I let my imagination run wild: “So, Roy, do you think you might have… I mean, I guess you probably…er…”

“RAF, William, RAF. Of course I did.”

Blockhead Billy

The season after my season with the West Fort Garry Little League Colts, our Major League namesake team decided that  Colts wasn’t such a good name after all, and thus were born the Houston Astros. They even moved to a new ballpark, presumably to escape the memory of Colthood. I took the blame for this at the time, but perhaps I was being a bit hard on myself.

I was after all a far better player than Charlie Brown, Lucy van Pelt, and the rest of the Peanuts team except for maybe Schroeder and the dog. Which is not to say I didn’t have my Charlie Brown moments, the worst of which is still, truly, too painful to relate, other than to say it was a fly ball to right field while I was thinking I’d rather be in left and out of the direct blaze of the setting sun. It was a game-losing miss, the game was a big one, and I credit myself only with my refusal to be consoled by our kindly coach, Murdo Morrison. “You lost it in the sun…” was no help at all. There are ways not to lose a ball in the sun, and I should not have forgotten them as I did that day.

I liked to catch for my friend the speed-merchant Clyde Merritt when he practised his pitching, and although I used one of those old-fashioned catcher’s mitts that looked and smelt like a cow-pie, catching still smarted when he really let rip.



Clyde Merritt was a name made for baseball. Curtis Small and Larry Lagimodière were names made for baseball. Larry Lagimodière! Good player, nice kid, perfect name.

Billy Noble: not such a perfect baseball name, but I did pretty much pull my weight—all 65 pounds of it—by way of my near-perfect on-base percentage. What with the tiniest strike zone in the league, and a two-sizes-too-big uniform, it was as hard for the ump to call a strike on me as it was for any pitcher—even Clyde Merritt— to throw one. Coach Morrison would say, “He’s gonna walk you, Billy Boy, so for chrissake leave the bat on your shoulder.”


And so I did, mostly. Very occasionally I’d get a rush of blood to the head and take a swing, and more occasionally still I’d actually make contact. It wouldn’t be until I played in a post-Summer of Love team out west that I finally came into my own as a hitter and fairly bewitching pitcher, but I have to be honest here and admit that the opposition in—I kid you not— The Kozmik League was ipso facto non compos mentis, often as not.

Back in Winnipegland now for my other Charlie Brown baseball moment, which was actually off-field, after a double-header on an empty stomach in the August heat. I blacked out on my bike and rear-ended a parked ’59 Cadillac, narrowly missing impalement on one of its glorious fins. As I lay semi-conscious on the road I heard familiar voices approaching: a couple of girls from school. Help, I thought to myself. One of them asked, “Isn’t that Billy Noble?” and the other answered, “Um, yeah, I think so.”


Hallowe’en A$$#@les

Last week my foreign-born daughter was in country, and, but for being way too old, could have experienced her very first Canadian Hallowe’en, fifty years to the day I experienced my last one. You knew you were too old for what non-Winnipeglanders called trick-or-treat when you substituted assholes for apples in the “HalloWE’EN AaaaPUHLS!!!” chant. And if you did “play a trick”,  it was probably not so much a scampish prank as it was outright vandalism, arson or elder abuse. Or the pinnacle, the famous Flaming Bag of Poo.

Hallowe’en Apples wasn’t yelled much outside of Winnipegland, not at all outside of the Prairies, and even here began to wane in popularity following those (apocryphal?) late sixties stories of sadistic neighbours embedding razor blades and straight pins in them apples. They needn’t have bothered, because apples and other fruit were immediately used as missiles in inter-child combat or for window-pelting, what with weighing too much and taking up valuable space in our pillowslip candy sacks. That’s candy, lady, C-A-N-D-Y. Sheesh. Some kids’ well-meaning mothers gave us syrup-laden, lovingly home-baked  agglomerations of Rice Krispies, Cocoa Puffs and such which, while appealingly sweet, brown and gooey, usually gathered lint, dust and worse in our bags, so were bound for the toilet, where they floated maddeningly through four or five flushes. Toffee apples were the worst of all, carrying as they did the double threat of assorted detritus and razor blades lodging in one’s gullet.

My cousins in Carlyle, SK had a not-at-all apocryphal booby-trapping to contend with, in the form of the front yard of a local widow, presumably a witch, who every October placed an ad in the Carlyle Observer. The headline was “Children, Take Heed” and the upshot of the text was that Hallowe’ening juveniles would be considered to be trespassers on her property, and that traps had been laid.  I don’t know whether anyone ever called her bluff, or whether she had to die before The Observer would stop running her ad, clearly in malevolent breach of standards, if not laws, even those of that freewheeling time.

My last Hallowe’en, in 1964, was hallowed to be sure. It fell on the day I was caught shoplifting Doo Wah Diddy Diddy, and my punishment, in addition to the truly frightening opprobrium of my dad, was that I would not be allowed to dress up and go begging for candy that night, but would only be allowed to go out unmasked with my UNICEF coin box, which we Sunday School kids traditionally proffered along with our pillowslips. Leaving out the back-story, I piously informed the mothers that this year I was collecting nothing for myself, but only cash for UNICEF, and that they may therefore care to double their donation to that cause, which of course they did, cooing at my blessed sacrifice and general adorability. I collected and submitted (yes, unskimmed) $130-plus—serious money in 1964— and received Sunday School praise and a certificate for my winning effort.

So, crime and punishment, penitence and atonement, redemption and validation, all on the one day. Who needed candy? I was the Hallowe’en Asshole.




A Wave to Marcel From Mama and Me




Back in July, when I lifted Mama Trossi’s typographically troubled menu from the 1958 Winnipeg Visitors Guide, I thought I’d keep that useful publication to myself for further plundering before sharing it with you. But it turns out that Mama’s menu was the highlight by miles, and that there’s really not a lot more plundering to be done. As much as the wannabe cognoscenti like to characterize that decade as dead cool, or kitsch, naive and quaint, or—I hate this term—”retro”, the fact is that the 1958 Winnipeg Visitors Guide was none of the above, mostly. It simply served its purpose without much in the way of chrome, neon, red leatherette, ducktails or atomic age imagery. See for yourself. And as much as I tend to characterize early childhood as dreamlike, magical and sepia-toned, the fact is that the great artist and sage Garrison Keillor was right: it was that way because our parents and other caring grownups made it that way for us.  For their own part they lived in an unsentimental present, variously delightful or challenging or just plain ordinary; just how it was, probably worse but just possibly even better than how it might come to be remembered.

The barking Mr Schulz of the scary corner store may just be a case in point. Thanks to my faithful Henderson’s Directories and the archives of the Winnipeg Tribune, I now know that his Christian name was not scary at all. The name Marcel(!) may conjure up a variety of emotions or imaginings, but I think fear isn’t one of them. And although the name Schulz suggests German origins, Marcel was in fact a son of Flanders. I may have correctly guessed, though, that his grandchildren adored him, because he was no ordinary corner grocer. Folks, Marcel was a thespian! He staged and sometimes starred in amateur performances of plays in his mother tongue, Flemish Dutch. I wonder if he did comedy, and whether he repeatedly typecast himself as a short-tempered shopkeeper. Or perhaps as a harried innkeeper, admonishing his staff, “Laat de oorlog niet vergeten!”

Of course Marcel’s corner store is long gone, as are all the 1950s Pembina strip businesses but one, which is in its own way as flat as Flanders. And bless their hearts, they’ve kept the original sign, and isn’t it just too too dead cool, kitsch, naive, and quaint?

Why…it’s…RETRO! And yes, Belgian Waffles are still on the menu, just as they were when Marcel entertained his Flemish cast and crew on opening nights, and his beloved and loving grandchildren on Feest van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap. There are crêpes too, but strictly for those pesky Walloons.

I’ll be leaving Schulz’s Scary Corner Store as is because it’s true to my memory, and I write memory, not history. When they’re one and the same, though, so much the better. It happens often enough. And when I subsequently find a back-story which adds substance, humanity and charm to characters like Schulz, I am uplifted. Here endeth the lesson.







We Need To Talk About Nancy

I turned 62 this week, and it’s been bittersweet. I got to thinking about 62, 1962, Linda Bay and Nancy Drew, did some mental math and …. O My Lord: Nancy Drew is 102! This assumes eighteen years of growing up before Edward Stratemeyer and a team of ghostwriters collectively known as Carolyn Keene committed Nancy to print in 1930 and locked her into the longest, most suspenseful and most lavishly funded gap year in the history of River Heights. So, my renascent but wildly age-inappropriate crush on Nancy must be nipped in the bud. Sigh…

Of course Nancy doesn’t look 102, because she gets a complete makeover approximately every generation—in human years—

and River Heights simultaneously gets a socio-technological upgrade. This is so that each new generation of readers is more readily engaged and retained. Fair enough, I suppose: this is not Great Art which is being interfered with. I’m not part of the target market, though, and I’m perfectly happy to stick with Nancy Mark II, introduced to the world in 1959, and to me by Miss Bay in 1962. A secondary intention of that series of rewrites was to eliminate racial stereotypes, anticipating the era of compulsory cultural sensitivity by at least a decade if not two. But, as Nancy Drew biographer Melanie Rehak tells us, “The series did not so much eliminate racial stereotypes, however, as eliminate non-white characters altogether.”  Efficient, even borderline elegant, if a tad hamfisted. Simpler times, I guess.

My excuse for this reawakened interest in Nancy is that I wanted to check on whether she really was “startled by a bloodcurdling scream” at every turn, or whether my memory was going all creative on me, as it does now and then. With two mysteries under my belt and a third in progress, it’s beginning to look like the latter. All I’ve had so far is one piercing scream and one shriek, also piercing. Not even a situation which could give rise to a bloodcurdler.

Never mind. Not only am I being carried back to a time and place which I remember as magical, but I’m actually enjoying these books. Although ghost-written to a formula by various hands, they’re really quite stylish, and Nancy comes across as arguably a fine role model for girls not only of my generation but of the two generations which have followed. I’m speaking here of the 50s/60s Nancy, generally regarded as “Classic” Nancy. Strangely,her later incarnations seem to have gone backwards vis à vis the evolving status of women in western society, so that the 21st century Nancy is just as boy-crazy and deferential to males as real girls were pre-1970, whereas pre-1970 Nancy was politely tolerant of males, but certainly not in need of their help, their attentions or even their presence*. Her relationship with her well-heeled, generous and ever-approving father was one of great mutual respect: his advice was sometimes offered and sometimes even solicited, but followed only if Nancy was in full accord. Daddy Drew was supportive of whatever course of action Nancy decided upon, because he had faith in her ability to handle negative consequences. Perhaps more fathers of daughters should read Nancy Drew instead of parenting manuals.

You may well ask why a man of 62 is making so much of a quasi-academic interest in Nancy, and I can only venture that I may be sublimating. The age gap issue, don’t you know.

I’ll leave it at that, then, not wishing to bore you further, and moreover not wishing to be thought a teensy bit peculiar. I will let you know, though, if and when I finally hear my long lost bloodcurdling scream. Please, Miss Bay, bring it on!





* From Mystery at Lilac Inn:   Later, as Nancy, Helen and Emily were talking, the two older girls suddenly stopped speaking on the subject of their forthcoming weddings. Helen said, “Goodness, Nancy, you must be tired of hearing us talk about steady partners when—”  Nancy interrupted. Laughing gaily she said, “Not at all. For the present, my steady partner is going to be mystery!”