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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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.