A Beehive, a Bush Pilot, and My Favourite Martienne

 

The glorious and glamorous Miss Linda K Bay liked to tell her Grade Five class all about her boyfriend the bush pilot. She loved him a lot. He didn’t work down south, she was quick to explain, but way up north, flying over the wilderness around Flin Flon*, Thompson, and Lynn Lake. His name was probably Steve, or Brad, or Jack, or something similarly square-jawed. Not Gord. Gords are not bush pilots. Gords get rescued by bush pilots. There are Gordons all over the Scottish diaspora, but Canada seems to have a monopoly on Gords, which is a whole ‘nother story. This one’s about Miss Bay, mostly.

Linda K Bay had the best beehive ever. The fact that it was flaming red was a bonus, and I just know that was her natural colour. If Principal Weber happened to look in and see thirty little heads lain on their desks between their arms, it wasn’t because we were shielding our eyes from Miss Bay’s fiery radiance: it was because she was reading us our daily dose of Nancy Drew, and eyes-closed was the only way to listen to Carolyn Keene’s suspenseful tales. Miss Bay was a magical story-reader. The way she delivered “Nancy was startled [as she was seemingly every other chapter!] by a bloodcurdling scream” was…. well, if any of us kids had known the term frisson we surely would have commented, “Nice frisson, Miss Bay!”

Between bloodcurdling screams, I sometimes snuck a peek at The Girl Three Rows Over (and Two Seats Down), also a redhead of sorts: hair of deep, mysterious, otherworldly auburn—almost violet—and every bit as big though not as vertical as Miss Bay’s.

Royalty-Free (RF) beehive hair Clipart Illustration #1052120

Today I am certain to be the only 60-something man on planet Earth reading a Nancy Drew mystery. I wanted to do a bloodcurdling scream count, and clearly chose badly, as The Secret of the Old Clock doesn’t have a one. There’s a piercing scream early on, and from then on diddly-squat, screamwise. Here’s hoping for a better result from The Mystery At Lilac Inn. Carolyn Keene was no more an actual person than Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima, of course, but the ghostwriters did a good job; the prose is actually quite elegant in places. So I’m enjoying my important research, along the way being transported right back to 1963, receiving frissons from Linda K Bay while banishing from my mind the image of Steve the bush pilot, and deciding that the otherworldly auburn girl must be from Mars, the red planet, or maybe from another galaxy altogether.

 

* I’ve always been  fond of the name Flin Flon and its more sensible sounding uncut version: Flintabbatey Flonatin. Here’s a song, with my parental advisory that a man smoking a cigarette appears briefly on-screen. So you may wish to shield your children’s eyes, and your own, too, if you’re of delicate sensibilities….perhaps a Gord.

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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 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  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.

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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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