Subterranean Gopher Homesick Blues

You too can reconstruct entire Winnipegland streets as they were in, say, 1926 or 1956 or 1967 or just about any old year you like. You can find out what business used to be where something else is now; you can find out who lived where (or where who lived) and what they did for a living. Stalking the dead/near-dead, or historical research? That’s between you and your god.

All you need is time on your hands, an unoccupied brain, good closeup eyesight, and some archived Henderson’s Directories. It’s a bit sad, I guess, but I confess that I myself happen to tick all these boxes. Your local public or university library probably has a set of Hendersons tucked away in its nether regions. Or you can share mine, which are lovingly curated by the University of Alberta’s Peel’s Prairie Provinces, bless their cuttin’, pastin’, cowpunchin’ li’l librarians’ hearts.

Thanks to Henderson, I found the Sturgeon Creek site, now occupied by three blue dumpsters, where my great uncle Ed hung his hat prior to getting himself murdered in Northern Ontario in 1925.  I found out that my 1964 classmate Georgina‘s mother worked at Federal Lunch, and that two of her sisters cooked and carhopped at the original and only true Pony Corral. No wonder G always looked so well fed…

Depressingly if not surprisingly I found that the 1960s Pembina Highway commercial strip is unrecognizable just a generation or so later. No more Ringer’s Drugs (my fault), Lee’s Lunch, Larry’s Lunch, Loblaw’s or Shop-Easy. No more Automatic Carwash, Riviera Park Miniature Golf, Pembina Drive-In Theatre, Miss Winnipeg Drive Inn or Pony Corral worthy of the name. No more carhops.  And my point is? I should get over it? Grow up? Get a life? Too late…. someone shoulda told me years ago.

Back then the motels , drive-ins and such petered out after University Crescent, giving way to a semi-rural straggle of small homesteads doubling as automotive cemeteries, not poetically funky or derelict enough to make for a Dylanesque desolation row, and certainly not spiffily earnest enough to be considered lifestyle blocks, and anyway, people didn’t have “lifestyles” or the requisite SUVs quite yet. Their cars looked like cars, their trucks looked like trucks, and both had blown rings and whining diffs. There may have been some gluten intolerance (in the humans, not the vehicles), but its sufferers would have had the good manners not to mention it.

OK, we’ve driven a couple of miles south and arrived at Mary, Mother Of The Church, straight across the tracks from my old school.The Church opened for services on Holy Thursday 1989, 22 years almost to the day since a few of us did a lunch-hour scorched earth policy number on the quarter-quarter section of gopher-infested land on which the Church now stands. The idea was to smoke the little beasts out of their burrows and bop them on the head when they popped up for air and freedom. Of course no one had thought to bring baseball bats or medicine-balls, though one of our number had earlier found and then retrieved a piece of cast iron like this one 

but the gophers were too nimble be bopped. Our little rings of fire were by now one big ring of fire which would be out of control within minutes, and anyway it was time to get back to school. We made a brief token gesture with cow pies, which are really good for putting out flames fast, but you need a lot of cow pies and a lot of fourteen year-old idiots to make much of an impression on a forty-acre inferno. Water? Well, if the Beatles don’t have a lyric for every possible situation, you can always fall back on Mr Dylan, whose song gave me the title above, and closes with the sublime “The pump don’t work cuz the vandals took the handle.”, though being Canadian we rendered it “The pump doesn’t work cuz the vandals took the handle.”.

Anyhoo, we were out of sight when the fire trucks arrived; they took one look at the natural firebreaks on all four sides and turned around for home. We got a blast from our home room teacher (“So who dropped the cigarette?”  “No one…we lit it with matches, sort of on purpose…”) and our fearsome vice-principal, but our parents weren’t told, and we never heard anything from the farmer or if there even was a farmer. The field regenerated itself, all lush and green, within a couple of weeks, the gophers packed up and moved south, and that plot of land had been reverently purified by fire, and made ready for the coming of Mary, Mother of the Church. Or so I choose to believe.

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