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!

screamcontest

 

 

 

* 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!”

 

 

 


Think I’ll Go Out To Alberta

 

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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 rigeur 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  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DP9UjLeLN5A and leave a comment if it’s still not there.

 


General Byng’s Lessons On Language, Life and Lunch

I don’t have the name-chart for Mrs Whitworth’s gang of seven year-old ragamuffins, but I can rattle off 22 of the 28, no trouble. It wouldn’t be very good manners to point out the six I can’t rattle off, so if you recognize any or all. please let me know, and with luck I’ll wind up with a full set of names, and, better still, renewed contact with old classmates. I will ID the shorties of the front row right now, since you’ve already read a bit about three of us, and may like to put faces to names. L to R: Billy Noble aka myself; Randy Ptosnick, Matchbox & Dinky Toy magnate; Gavin St Germain; the fabled Agnes Lachance; Kenny McGhie, sly little interloper standing way too close to Mlle L.

winnipegland_genbyng

You could not hope to meet a sweeter wee fellow than Gavin St Germain. He lived with his quite large family on 1000-block Southwood  just – almost literally – a hop, skip and jump from school. You wouldn’t catch Gavin hopping, skipping or jumping anywhere, though: he was just….there. Or…..not there.  And almost mystical in his apparent serenity and lack of extremes. Just a couple of years ago, when we General Byng second-graders were rising sixty, I had a look at the school’s staff list, and there, as Custodian, was Gavin. Fantastic. Who needs a memory, or a diary, or even a clock, when you can just stay where you are, timelessly and effortlessly? He had at some point moved away from the family home, though, exactly a schoolyard’s width away to a Gavin-sized house on 1100-block Somerville: still the same or slightly shorter theoretical hop, skip and jump from his evidently beloved school. I could show you a picture of Gavin’s fairytale cottage, but I guess I’ve already invaded his privacy enough by using his real name. A younger me might have scoffed at what one might consider a constricted or sheltered life, but then this whole series of memories has been by way of celebrating the modest joys and equally modest little travails of life on one’s own tiny planet, where the laws of time and space are suspended for a while, or perhaps permanently and pleasantly in Gavin’s case. So I envy Gavin, and apologize if I’ve misread him.

More of this world was Karen Grabowski, beaming away (third row left) behind Bobby LaFond of the Cosmo Kramer shirt. On first meeting, Karen asked me, in a spookily mature, hoarse contralto (think Linda Blair as The Devil Incarnate, but in a nice way), “Is you a good-kid or a bad-kid?” Something about her lunch/mud-encrusted mug told me that the correct answer was the latter, but I asked her anyway what the difference would be. “Well, what swear words do you know?” None, as it happened, so the verdict was, “Rmpf, good-kid.” Clearly I didn’t come back with, “And you’re full of shit.” Best I could do was, “Oh.”  So she gave me a few low-level cusses to be getting on with, and said she’d give me some better ones once I’d mastered these. To my painful cost I tried out, “What the hell is that?” on my mother a few days later, and never went back for my second lesson.

I did pick up one inoffensive but pretty neat word from Bobby LaFond some months later, during tuition on fractions from our wonderful and wise chainsmoking* principal Miss Weber.  Even though the term “numerator” appeared repeatedly and correctly in his textbook and on the blackboard, Bobby had a tiny linguistic tic which made him say “nooperator”. Miss Weber must have been as charmed as I was, because she only corrected him the once, and then let it go for the rest of the year. To this day, that word for me is “nooperator”, and I have to force myself to use the boring old “m” version when fractions come up in casual conversation, which, mercifully, they almost never do.

Maybe there’ll be a diamond jubilee class reunion in 2020. Gavin will have bought, privatized and renamed the school, Bobby will be an Emeritus Professor of Arithmetic, and, bad-kid at last, I’ll be able to greet the still-beaming dirty-blonde Mother Superior  with, “So, Karen, whaddabout those fucking nooperators?”

* Yes, of course while teaching, but also – more intoxicatingly and maybe even explosively – while refilling her magical spirit-fueled Gestetner.

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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:

 

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.”

 

Mr L.A.G. Brown, ultra-hip in his golden years, now styles himself “Geno”. Well, okely dokely, Geno: we’re all doin’ what we can.

 

 

 


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.