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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Tom Jones Forgets to Ride the Pony

Other than my son-in-law the opera star, the most famous person I ever met was Tom Jones, three years ago. He was having beers with his entourage a few tables over at an al fresco bar here in Dunedin, NZ (actually, anyone from Dunedin will tell you that the mere existence of an al fresco bar here is a story in itself). He was clearly enjoying chatting with various starstruck passers-by, so I popped over and introduced myself, we shook hands, and I said that if he cared to drop by our table before leaving, I would tell him a little story from 1965 which involved himself as a minor player. He said that if it was 1965 it could be good, and that he looked forward to hearing it. I told him not to get too excited, and went back to my friends, Niki and Suzie, colleagues of mine at the time. Being somewhat younger and much much better looking than I, they must have caught Tom’s eye, because a few minutes later one of his crew was at our table inviting us to join their party. Delighted to, the fan in me thought, but Niki was in first with, “Thanks all the same, but we’re just having a conversation among friends here.”  How cool can one girl be? The guy said, “So, um, you’re turning down hanging out with Tom Jones?”  And now the ever-sharp Suzie: “Tom Jones is for fifteen minutes. Friends are for life.” OK. Actually, the statement wouldn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny, but it sounded great at the time. I was a little crestfallen, but very proud of my buddies.

Next time we looked over, old Tom was fast asleep, resting up for the show that night. So he never did hear the story, such as it was. What I would have told him was that when I was twelve my family moved to a new home scarily near the Red River, and I acquired as a neighbour the budding psychopath Brent Rempel, an odd little critter with sawed-off rubber boots, snot-green teeshirt, and a very un-1965 number two haircut. Also a knife , and a pretty dang serious one at that, possibly designed for skinning muskrats, I hoped. On balance, I decided it would be a good idea to become his pal.

My new pal said we should pitch a pup-tent and light a campfire in the wasteland (now Bishop Grandin Blvd) at the end of our street and “steal” a free movie from the adjacent Pembina Drive-In Theatre. It was H Rider Haggard’s SHE, and starred not only Ursula Andress but also the Oob-La-Da “Native Dancers”, so it promised much, but delivered little, as things turned out. Here it is anyway, in its entirety, specially subtitled for my one and only Spanish visitor.

The fire and the movie had only just started up when a stranger arrived: a thirtyish guy asking if he could sit by the fire and chat. This was in the days before child sex offenders and serial killers had been invented, so of course we said that would be OK. But before long he started saying weird things and asking weird questions, and pretty soon Brent was on his haunches, rhythmically stabbing the ground with that knife. Here’s the scene as reenacted a decade later by the beautiful Karen Black. May she rest in peace.

Well, the Karen Black routine didn’t seem to be working, so we said we needed to go and get cheeseburgers and Cokes from the Pony Corral across from the drive-in, and would he like us to bring something back for him. He said no thanks, but that he would wait to make sure we got back safely. Which we did, but not for more than an hour. We ate our cheeseburgers indoors at the Pony, and played the jukebox: probably the Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, Petula Clark et al, but most memorably two spins of Tom Jones’s It’s Not Unusual, back to back. We thought by then it might be safe to return to the campsite, and so it was. The fire had gone out and the pup-tent was empty, so we rolled it up and ran all the way home – all 60 or 70 yards!

To this day I can’t hear that song without thinking of the weird guy in the drive-in wasteland, Brent Rempel/Karen Black, their muskrat-skinning knife, and, most especially, the Pony Corral. That’s mostly what I was going to tell sleepy Tom, so I guess he didn’t miss much. But if he had been awake, and stayed awake up to this point, I might have told him a little about the Pony Corral.

In its original incarnation and location, the Pony Corral actually deserved the overused designation of “icon”. It had designer burgers before there was such a thing, and shakes surely smoother than Jack Rabbit Slim’s. It had the best cherry pie. It had red pleated leatherette booths, dark timbers on which were mounted bullhorns, mooseheads, horseshoes, rifles and other western paraphernalia. And it had The Pony.  The Pony presided over the lobby, and very good children who ate everything on their plates were allowed to sit up on him for a spell. This was not a coin-operated mechanical toy ride. This was a full-size, anatomically correct fibreglass model of a gelding pony, complete with genuine western saddle, bridle and stirrups. He was a pony with no name. He didn’t need one. He was The Pony.

In the late eighties my wife and I took our young daughter on a pilgrimage to Winnipeg, which I had rebranded Winnipegland so they’d be more excited. The Pony Corral was high on the list of attractions but, sigh, it wasn’t where it should have been. Another piece of my childhood stolen away, I thought, but no, it had simply been relocated way down Pembina Highway, almost to St Norbert. We drove there, and found something called the Pony Corral, but oh my lord, it was all done out in the fashionable pastels of the times. The food was a letdown too. If it’s possible for burgers to be pastel, theirs were pastel, not just to look at, but also to eat. They had salads on the menu. They had satays. Satays.

Still, they had made one token nod to the Old West. Yep, sho’ ’nuff, The Pony was there. What we really came for. Gotta take a picture, a picture of little Sarah on The Pony, by which I meant, of course, a picture of little me on The Pony. It was OK with the waitress, so I mounted, sat and meditated for a spell, smiled for the camera, dismounted and went to pay the waitress. I even tipped, because The Pony had made all the sad go away. She said thanks, and as we headed to the door she added, “You realize, don’t you, that that isn’t actually the original pony?”