Taking The Millie Small Cure

Before it was usual for cars to have seatbelts, and up front in most cars was a big bench seat for three, it was common practice to have the smallest passenger seated (or squatting or even standing!) front and centre, on what was jokingly called the suicide seat. Placing your tiniest and presumably cutest and most precious cargo so decidedly in harm’s way seems counter-intuitive, looking back.

Although our dad was able to roll a cigarette and drive a car simultaneously, once I was eight or nine and just able to see over the dashboard, he would sometimes have me take the wheel from the middle seat. Not in traffic, of course, but out on the open prairie road, straight as a die, where properly aligned vehicles can cruise for days without actually being steered.

Once that cigarette was rolled and lit, I handed back control of the car, then sat back and enjoyed the smell. I am not kidding: I truly loved the smell of cigarettes. Not so much the big clouds that issued from someone’s face, but the seductive wraith that drifted from the lit end as if from a genie’s lamp. It was best if the windows were left rolled up, which they were, mostly, from September through until May. I inhaled discreetly and wondered how grown-up one needed to be to have one’s own cigarettes. The common wisdom seemed to be fourteen. That was too many years away, so, having decided that twelve would be the new fourteen, I got myself underway a few weeks before turning thirteen. Coincidentally, this was half a century ago almost to the day.

And now exactly fifty years of close and mostly trouble-free friendship with the cigarette is at an end, not for any health or social or moral reasons, but because it has become just too insanely expensive to carry on. I smoked my last cigarette five weeks ago, and am surviving cold turkey on a diet of anti-depressants and too much coffee. Also lollipops. These surprisingly needn’t cost a heck of a lot more than they did fifty years ago, if you buy in bulk as I do. This is all working so far, though the cruel and inescapable irony is that the number one most effective cure for nicotine craving is, well, a cigarette. In fact, if you’re a sufficiently well-heeled hitherto abstainer, I warmly recommend taking up the smoking habit as soon as possible, if only for the unallayed joy of making the craving go away twenty or thirty times a day. The more you smoke, the more of these magical moments you have. It just makes so much sense.

Anyhoo, I’ll make do with the above curative cocktail. The chemicals and the coffee I can take or leave as the need for them recedes. But after five weeks and a couple hundred of the things, I find I am now powerfully addicted to lollipops. And isn’t that, in a way, a metaphor for life? You know: it’s just one damned thing after another.

Here’s Millie. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4EZxovibh1Q

Will I See You In September…

… or lose you to a summer love? Well, I’m back, and I wish I could blame my recent absence on an endless prairie summer vacation with Shelley Fabares, and a summer love with her or anyone else. Sadly the facts are not so sunny as that, and involve a bleak, unfriendly and spiritually debilitating winter, nearer to the South Pole than people ought to go. This is all the complaining and excuse-making you’ll get from me; happier and warmer days are here again.

In Stephen King’s 11/22/63 , the hero Jake has a portal, in back of a diner, through which he can flip out of his present and into September 1958, and then back again if he needs to—but of course why would he want to? I winced each time he returned, however necessarily and briefly, to his 21st century situation, and dreaded that he wouldn’t be able to flip back again into the entirely more charming Eisenhower/Kennedy version of Maine and then Texas, settle in, and stay forever.

To write Winnipegland I similarly have not simply to remember, but actually to be in the right time and place. My portal is the “gopher hole” of the subtitle, and for the past couple of months I’ve been required to be so very much involved in my own 2015 that I’ve had trouble remembering where that gopher hole could be. So Winnipegland has been in hiatus, but now the hiatus needs a hiatus.

While I look for that old gopher hole, or stumble upon some new portal to genuine time travel, I’ll have to resort to memory and to the occasional secondary source. I might begin with an account of my brief career as a four year old skirtlifter, a discussion of the lurking evil of playground equipment, or maybe something about a summer camp run by an alarmingly liberal branch of the Mennonite church. We shall see. God forbid I should have to emulate Mr King, and start making stuff up.

Pattypans, Patina and Homecoming Plans

One day in 1958 a hapless door-to-door salesman came to 48 Biscayne Bay to show our mum an Atomic Age precursor to the Me Generation food processor. When you’re five, a mother is just an old person who’s not quite as old as a grandmother, and it didn’t occur to me then that she was in fact a fairly young person with a pretty good line in childish mischief. The guy never had a hope of selling her that machine, but that didn’t stop her allowing him the best part of an hour to put it (and himself) through its paces. He made us kids some quite lush and tasty and ever so slightly crunchy milkshakes which included “… raw eggs, ma’am, shells and all!” Then he produced a bag full of pattypan squash from his magician’s case. I don’t remember what he promised to do with them, or why such a cute, unassuming and easily managed little vegetable required the full force of Atomic Power to be unleashed upon it. I do remember that he “…musta pushed the wrong button, ma’am!”  and suddenly globs of tepid gelatinous yellow matter were flying everywhere, all over the kitchen. Some of it got me smack in the mouth. If you don’t count Libby’s canned pumpkin pie filling, it was my first encounter with squash of any variety, and left me with an aversion I didn’t shake until some time in my thirties. Mum managed to keep a straight face as the salesman wiped down various kitchen surfaces as best he could while offering assurances that “This almost never happens, ma’am!” and in her fun-loving spirit she allowed him his finale, which was a perfectly passable take on French Canadian pea soup. She even held the straight face as she said, “Well, not today, thanks. Maybe I’ll order one sometime from Eaton’s on my Revolving Credit Plan [which I understood to mean at no charge].” Cruelly, she omitted to mention that his next prospect, Mrs Tucker at number 46, was an actual French Canadian, an unusually fiery one at that, and that perhaps minestrone or simple tomato soup would be a safer offering if he indeed got as far as her kitchen.

I’d intended that at this point I’d segue into something about ghosts, and then remembered I don’t believe in ghosts. Not yet. The great storyteller Stephen King is moving me in that direction; thus far we converge on something I’ve been calling “domestic patina” and which Mr King in his deceptive simplicity calls “leavings”. In both cases we are talking not just about fossilized puréed food (me) or decayed human brain tissue and bodily fluids (him), but also about some sort of long-lasting (vibrational?) imprint on a place, left by stuff people did and said— maybe even felt— when they were the inhabitants. Walls, ceilings, floors…maybe even the air. In my dotage I’m coming to feel that if there are no leavings then perhaps equally there was  no point.

When I move back to Winnipegland, as I plan to do next year, I think I’ll invest in a deerstalker hat, a magnifying glass and an ear-trumpet, and go a-hunting. I will start by knocking on the door of 48 Biscayne Bay, wheedling my way in with a gift of pattypan squash (and my recipe*) and finding what may be there to be found.

*Drop these little beauties whole into boiling water for a minute and a half, then arrest cooking with a cold water rinse. Snip off the green stems, halve or quarter, and gently sauté in butter with red and/or green (or even purple!) bell peppers. Sprinkle to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. The nutmeg makes this. Serve alongside any sort of fish you like.


Covered Wagon Carol And The Cooties

Twice every school day of 1962/63 I saved the lives of the kids from the Covered Wagon Trailer Park.This miracle occurred every time they crossed at my intersection, Waterford and Beaumont. That was a Lieutenant’s crossing; Captain Jimmy McLaren had the more prestigious and more traversed Beaumont and Mars Drive, right outside the main school building. There were no privates or sergeants in the sidewalk patrol, which, without a trace of irony, I called The Force. None of us would have joined if we’d been forced to wear geeky orange vests. No, our official status was indicated by a Sam Browne belt and a police-style badge, silver for all of us lieutenants, and gold for Captain Jimmy. If I hadn’t been too grown-up to own one, I might have strapped on a toy Colt 45, too, by way of a deterrent to jaywalking.

Captain Jimmy’s was the crossing favoured by the girl in the fluffy off-white parka with the red diamond pattern on the hem. Possibly he had no idea (and he’d better not have, neither) that he was twice daily protecting a dream princess. No, not the dream princess Agnes LaChance, with whom I opened this series of little stories, but another, similarly French-named. Because of her address, I just think of her today as My Favourite Martienne (MFM), which I admit does not trip as prettily off the tongue as her real name, but c’est la vie.

I might more profitably and less achingly have flipped for Covered Wagon Carol, but she was a little too much of this world to inspire a grand passion. My but she was funny, though; so much a natural comedienne that I unofficially changed her surname from Britnell to Burnett. Here she is a few years earlier, sailor-suited in the second row, directly behind me and in between Bobby LaFond of ‘nooperator’ fame and Diane Ooto, who lived next door to school and, I think, owned the black Lab who wanted to eat me.

Carol had a joke or two for me every time she crossed. I don’t remember any of them. I know I was cracked up by most of them; being ten years old probably helped. What I do remember, though, is the day she got serious and told me all about the Cooties.

The Cooties: A mysteriously asymptomatic and highly contagious condition, carrying a degree of social stigma, albeit only for a day or so. You caught it simply by being tagged physically and verbally (“You’ve got the Cooooooties!”) by a sufferer/carrier. You self-cured in similar fashion, but only after 24 hours had passed; not much point in being socially stigmatized if you don’t have to sleep on it at least once. You only had to have the Cooties once, and were then immune*. Do the arithmetic, and it’s plain to see that even a good-sized school would quite quickly run out of potential victims and carriers, and the Cooties would peter out. This is where the asterisk comes in.

When I asked Carol, “O Cooties, where is thy sting?” she went on to explain that your immunity did not cover infections received in pure form, directly from a progenitor. General Byng School had two progenitors: a brother/sister team. Unfortunately for them, progenitors could run around giving kids Cooties till the cows came home, but could never shake their own case, not ever. Now we’re talking real social stigma, and boy did it take, so much so that to this day I don’t know whether or not that boy and girl were able to shake it off in adulthood, let alone in the following school year or when they went off to junior high.

So, I hear you asking, how did one become a Cooties progenitor? Well, Carol wasn’t exactly sure, but thought perhaps all that was required was to have come from somewhere else: quite a trick in a brand new subdivision with a trailer park adjacent! Simpler times indeed.

This little piece was meant to include a reflection on the long-gone Covered Wagon Trailer Park, and then maybe trailer parks (which I love!) in general, sidewalk patrol days, streets named after planets, fluffy parkas and so on, and on, and on, but I’ll leave all that for the time being. Don’t want you catching what I’ve got, now do I?

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)


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 actually 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.”