The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, May 2, 2011.
During the longest nights of winter, I often imagine myself as a hermit. This inevitably brings back the memory of an abandoned shack in a wooded area between what is now Wickstead Avenue and Glen Rouge Drive. As children, we would only visit it on a double-dare: our older brothers and sisters had warned that a hermit used to live there, and that he could return at anytime.
Let me explain.
I used to live on Sylvan Crescent in BLH (what is now Birchwood Village), and yes, that makes me an air-force brat. There was a creek that connected Trout Lake and Circle Lake: full of catfish, toads, frogs, snakes, snapping turtles, and a family of beavers. It was the threshold to our excursions into the bush - and the shack. In fact, we had to cross the beaver lodge in order to enter the woodland. It was five or six seconds of bated-breath terror and I always ran over it with my eyes closed. Once in the woods, we would creep up to the deserted shack and peek through the windows; it was like entering a different time and I imagined that the owner had once been a Coureur de Bois. Inside, there was still crude furniture, a tarnished coffee pot, chipped cups, rusty tools, and various other squalid bits and pieces strewn across a dirty floor.
The outing always ended when someone screamed in mock fear; it mattered little, for we needed little prompting to run. And run we did: through theÂbush, over the beaver lodge and into the safety of the E.W. Norman Public School yard.
I often wonder about the mysterious hermit. If in fact he really was a hermit, what made a man become a misanthrope and cut himself off from humanity? If modern society was too much for him then, how would he judge the twenty-first century? Cell phones, the Internet, e-mail, Face Book, satellite television, GPS tracking, instant news and drive-thrus.
We all have misgivings with the stress of modern life, and I sometimes feel like shutting myself off from it - especially by late winter. But when spring comes calling, so does life. This winter hermit vows to experience the simple things in life this spring: breathing fresh air, listening to birds singing, watching children frolicking, feeling the cool rain, smelling the flowers, tasting themaple syrup, and welcoming the hope of summer and the future.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, June 6, 2011.
The Lone Rangers
As a child, there were only two kinds of hockey fans - Leafs and Canadiens. Oh sure, there were a few Bruins fans kicking around, and they were always tolerated out of total respect for Bobby Orr, but everyone else I knew fell into those two camps. The summer after Toronto won the Cup in 1967, the Leafs played a charity softball game against the local police at Amelia Park. I remember all the other children swarming for autographs. I didn't want to be part of any bandwagon; so, on the eve of NHL expansion, I chose to cheer for one of the other Original Six teams - the New York Rangers. However, I had inadvertently put myself into self-imposed hockey exile; it's hard growing up in Canada and not being a Canadiens or Leafs fan. You should cheer for a Canadian city! How can you like a Yankee team? I had heard it all before. Canadian? "Who's more Canadian than Ratelle or Gilbert?" was my constant response. A more difficult thing to defend was their record: they had not won the Cup since 1940.
All of that changed in 1994. Fifty-four long years, and now they were up against the Vancouver Canucks. Feeling like the Lone Ranger in the Great White North, I found an ally and friend in Arnie Hakala, the long-time distinguished North Bay Nugget reporter, and New York Ranger fan. I had met him over the years and was always impressed by his hard work and commitment to journalistic truths. He had heard all of the scorn as well. And in the weeks leading up to New York's victory, we discovered our mutual passion for the Broadway Blueshirts.
Game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals: Messier is playing "keep away" with the Canucks. Passes to Zubov, over to Leetch. McLean's out of position. Wide open net! Every nerve in my body screams. Scores! I knew then it was Fait Accompli. The drought would be over. The greatest goal in my life. Final score at Madison Square Garden is 3 - 2.
It's funny how little things in life can change your perspective and attitude: one person, with very little effort, can pull you out of banishment. The game was seconds old when my phone rang - it's Arnie. "We won! We won!" God bless you Arnie. I'll never forget that game, and I'll never forget your joyous voice.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, July 5, 2011.
"I'm bored mom."
School's out and that means summer is officially here. Like clockwork, children are now roaming the city, looking for things to do. And these days, there is so much offered: baseball, soccer, basketball, swimming, and much more. Invariably, however, the kids will get bored. What then?
One summer ritual I remember, with great fondness, is watching movies at the old Drive-in Theatre on Trout Lake Road. There was a playground and a canteen, and the whole atmosphere was like a sociable, neighbourhood block party. The first movie was always an old one; not that it mattered, as it didn't get fully dark right away. The top-billed flick came later. When we were younger, we went in our pyjamas and were carried into our beds at the end of the night.Movies were just so much more fun in a car: mono sound, foggy windows, mosquitoes, and your parents' cigarette smoke mixed with the burning coil of bug repellent on the dashboard.
As preteens, we used to wander, looking for things to do. And one day, we discovered that the movie, A Clockwork Orange was playing at The Drive-in; and tantalizingly, it was rated R! This was just too tempting for a trio of boys. That night, we waited for the first show to end, and then climbed the back fence, turned several speakers on full blast, went back over the fence, and climbed a tree - to get a good look. I'm not sure what those hormonal adolescents were really expecting, but what they saw merely confused them. (If you have seen the movie, you know what I mean.) After a half hour of boredom and curious bewilderment, we jumped down and wandered away. The strange characters were drinking milk when we dawdled home. "Rated R" had not lived up to its alluring promise.
I only admitted once to being bored in front of "Bebbe," my grandmother. She admonished me, "Intelligent people never get bored." I spent the rest of her life pretending to be pleasantly preoccupied with one thing or another - lest shethink that I was of below-average intelligence. I think of her every time I wind the antique clock that I inherited from her.
This summer, I shall read the paper, go for walks, watch a movie (indoors!), enjoy a play, and write a little - anything to avoid tedium. I guess I'm still pretending, Bebbe.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, August 1, 2011.
It's funny how your brain works - from deep inside, a long-lost memory can bubble to the surface. Triggered by the strangest of things, they aren't always necessarily just images either; it can be a sound or maybe the smell of coffee brewing. Just the other day, I heard The Original Caste's "One Tin Soldier," and instantly I was on Sunset Boulevard heading to the beach. Odder yet, I could smell the sweet smoke of flame-broiled food.
If you're from Hamilton, you may not like this, but the first Tim Horton's was right here, in North Bay. Hammer Town may have a plaque declaring otherwise, but the original Tim Horton's Restaurant was in the building which now houses Churchill's on Lakeshore Drive. Originally called "The Big Seven," it sported a sign with a Maple Leaf and the number seven - Tim's number when he won four Stanley Cups with the Leafs. His brother, Gerry Horton, co-owned and ran the place. He was a fun-loving man (even if he did make fun of our "hippie" shoulder-length hair) who always had a story to tell; his restaurant was forever filled with people and lots of laughter. Later on, Bob Wood took it over and called it "Woody's."
The original Tim Horton's didn't sell doughnuts; no, it was the best burger joint on the planet. And in the Sixties and early Seventies, it was the place to go for something to eat after a long day at Sunset Beach. There was always a line-up for hamburgers, fries and milkshakes. But the best was their spectacularly burnt hot dogs. Yes, burnt - to crunchy perfection. You could almost catch a whiff of the smoky aroma from as far away as the overpass. My wife complains when I burn food on the barbeque, but what she doesn't realize is that I do it on purpose - I'm just trying to recreate a childhood memory.
Apparently, charred food is unhealthy for you; although, these days it seems everything is bad for you (including even being at the beach!). Remember when your grandmother reused bacon grease? Now, it's: "Too much salt. Too much sugar. Eat more broccoli." Next thing you know, I won't even be able to order a "double-double."
Tim had a wicked slap shot and Gerry had the gift for gab: two Cochrane brothers who made their mark on North Bay - and the world. Both were truly original.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Wednesday, September 7, 2011.
Share and Share Alike
We just might all be sharing the same thought: where did the summer go? It's September and children are united in their collective reluctance and indignation to be back at school. As a teen, I always fantasized that something might happen to delay our return to pencils, paper and that perplexing apparatus, the slide-rule. In my last year of high school, I received my wish, although only by terrible misfortune: the fire at Chippewa High School in the fall of 1979.
Driving to school one morning, I heard the news on the radio: the auditorium and gymnasium were badly burnt, and the entire school had extensive smoke damage. The silver lining on this piece of news: two extra weeks of summer holidays while a contingency plan was put together. The delay was due to the fact that we would be sharing West Ferris High School; and because of the size of Chippewa back then (the last of the Baby Boomers), it necessitated the placement of several portable classrooms.
When we finally did return to classes, we learned that Ferris would be at school between 6:00 and noon, while we had the building from 1:00 to 7:00. This was great news for your typical teen: sleeping in and still having plenty of time to make classes in the afternoon! Studies have actually shown that children require more sleep and that an optimal school day would actually be a similar timetable to the one slated for us. It certainly was for me. After sleeping even more than was necessary for several days, I took to getting up a little earlier each morning. Television was not aimed at young people in those days, and without the modern distractions of computers, texting and video games, I soon resigned myself to devoting mornings to my studies. After four years of being content with mostly Bs and Cs, I was now getting As in everything!
There were more than a few of us who mocked the morning shift (as teens are wont to do) for having to get up so early for school. Karma intervened, however: the Spring of 1980 was one of the hottest on record. And while we were dragging our feet into sauna-like portables at the height of the midday sun, they were parading off to share a day at the beach. I'm sure that they also shared a laugh at our expense.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, October 3, 2011.
The Sixties seemed a safe and carefree time - at least if you were a child and oblivious to the darker and more dangerous reality of the adult world (Vietnam, race riots, drug use and much more). No, as children, we used to spend our days blissfully wandering the Trout Lake and Birchaven area, oblivious to real danger.
As curiosity got the best of us waifs, one of our favourite pastimes was to visit the abandoned brick factory on Wallace Road. It overlooked Circle Lake and was in almost total ruin by the time hordes of Air Force brats discovered it. Total exploration and inspection was in good order and this was committed many times over. Unbeknownst to our parents. Looking back, I recognize that it was a pretty dangerous place to "play." But, even as children, we must have known this: for though it was never mentioned, it was understood that our parents should not be told of our clandestine adventures.
Inside, it looked like a bombed-out building from war-torn Europe; there were dozens of large rooms with plenty of nooks and crannies full of discarded tools and assorted rubbish that titillated the minds of nine-year-olds. Piles of abandoned bricks were strewn everywhere and we would build little forts with them. By far the most interesting (and scariest) feature was the system of small mining cars on rails that went through tunnels and connected two sides of the building. This was likely used to bring raw materials to the baking ovens, and to transport finished bricks, leftover muck and the sludge back. We would take turns pushing and riding these barrels in the darkness, going back and forth through the narrow passageways. Years later, as an adult watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I was reminded of the old brick factory. While our cars never matched the speed of Indy's, we were still able to invent great exploits full of imaginary terror.
Danger did eventually reach us, bringing the cruel and very real world into our idyllic lives. One autumn afternoon, one of my friends stepped on an old, rusty nail and had to be helped home. Conspiratorially, our parents soon learned of our "playground," and we seldom, if ever, visited it again. I seem to recall that a safety fence was put up around the factory before it was eventually razed. Better safe than sorry.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, November 14, 2011.
A Tempest in Four Seasons
It's challenging to recall a fall quite like this. The temperatures in September and well into October were gorgeous. But, of course, Canada is a country of extremes; where else in the world could you possibly need the furnace and the A/C on the same day? As northerners, we sometimes like to exaggerate our love of cold weather; and as winter approaches, you can almost feel its frosty wind chase away autumn's faint grasp of summer. And while the seasons come and go, changes come and go with them.
One particular pastime that seems to have gone through its own share of popularity is bowling. It was once a wide-spread and much-loved activity. Saturday afternoon television seemed to be full of professional coverage, there were dozens of leagues throughout the city, and homes everywhere proudly displayed bowling trophies of all sizes. I have some fond memories of our family's weekly trip to the Four Seasons Centre at the top of Thibeault Hill. My parents were in a league, and my brother and I were there every Monday evening to watch them bowl.
The Four Seasons was a key centre of community gathering back then - second only to Memorial Gardens. It was always full of people. For a youngster, it was quite a thrilling adventure: down the highway, up the hill and then into that cavernous building full of exhilarating noises. There were shouts and laughter from the dining area, music spilling from juke boxes, bells from pinball machines (where I would pretend to be The Pinball Wizard), televisions, and of course, the thunderous rolling of bowling balls and the crashing of flying pins.Ultimately, groups of youngsters would gather around the television sets, which were set up high, and we would all get sore necks from craning to see (and hear). I think I saw every episode of Hogan's Heroes at the Four Seasons.
Bowling wasn't the only event up there; there was also a curling rink, complete with a lounge full of funky orange chairs that screamed fifties' art deco - Marty McFly would have felt right at home there. It was later used for concerts, and I remember seeing Jerry Doucette perform "Mama Let Him Play" to a packed room of rocking teenagers.
As the cold wind drifts through parts of that old building, I imagine distant memories echo with it through the seasons, endlessly waiting for a new spring.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, December 5, 2011.
Snow. A pessimist might think, hazardous road conditions, shovelling, cold. On the other hand, northerners think, skiing, ice-fishing, snowmobiling, and maybe making snow angels. Remember the magical feeling of falling into fresh snow - the cold brushing your face and neck, and the instinctive childish pleasure of swinging your arms and legs? Sometimes the simplest of pleasures give the greatest rewards.My fondest winter memories are of Circle Lake rink. I probably spent every winter's night of my childhood there; and oftentimes it was so brutally cold that you would have to go into The Shack and rub feeling back into your toes. On a snowy night, we would spend an equal amount of time shovelling as we did playing hockey. Pucks that went overboard were lost until spring.
My first year of hockey was played on that rink - against kids one and two years older. That season was mostly spent catching up with the older players. However, I remember getting the puck at centre ice once (it was the first and only time that year my stick touched that magical piece of vulcanized rubber), and as I looked up ice at the other nine skaters, I decided to turn around and skate toward the other net. This seemed easier and, in my mind, I was Rod Gilbert on a breakaway. Unfortunately, I was skating toward my own goalie! Thankfully, and to coach Gauthier's relief, my shot missed the net.
One winter, our air-force fathers made a sheet of ice between two blocks on Sylvan Crescent and the ten families had their own private rink. Many imaginary Stanley Cups were won on that small piece of ice. However, we had to share it with the girls - who would ban our sticks and pucks until they were finished lunging, twirling and jumping. The fact that we did all of the shovelling was a great sore point among the boys.
But of course, we all remember differently. And we all recall different people - some of whom we haven't seen in years, and also a few who have left us. Nostalgia is made fuzzy by years of blankets of snow. But the frosty memories are there - and they return every winter. I'm reminded of an old English proverb, echoed by Michael Rutherford in song: "A snow year is a good year, filled with the love of all who lie so deep." Amen to that.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, January 3, 2012.
Old Lang Syne
As another New Year settles in and Robbie Burns' overture for old acquaintances still resonates, I remember my old drum teacher, Charlie Parslow. Charlie was a prominent local musician who played drums with the Capitol Band in the Golden Ageof big band music. They performed live concerts for sold-out crowds, and some were even broadcast live over radio.
He told me a story once about how, for a concert at the Capitol Theatre, he and the pianist thought it would be "aces" if they set him and his drums right up on top of the grand piano. It seemed like a good idea; however, during the first set, his drum and cymbal stands began to slip away due to the vibration: continuing to play, he had to constantly pull them back. They had not taped anything down as they were worried that this might damage the surface of the piano. (I always wondered whether or not the actual drum kit had scratched the piano top!) After the first intermission, they put the drums back down on the stage; it was a failed attempt at something creative and he never tried it again! We had a good laugh over that, and I still smile every time I imagine him up there - panicking to keep everything together, but still managing to keep that swing beat.
Scores of talented drummers throughout the north were taught by Charlie. Many other amateurs like me also spent hours learning our paradiddles with him. I loved those sessions in the basement of his Sherbrooke home: me drumming on a rubber pad and Charlie tapping away on a block of wood. His timing was better than an atomic clock andÂ my mistakes would stand out like a crow in a chorus of songbirds.
My biggest regret is that I didn't continue lessons with him longer than I did; I was too impatient and chose instead another path. My drums have been slipping away from me ever since and I'll never get to set them down on the stage. However, every time I'm in the Capitol Centre, my thoughts turn to Charlie: a truly great artist from an age that took time to enjoy nightingales singing in Berkeley Square. His beat carries on.
"And there's a hand, my trusty friend, And give a hand o' thine, And we'll take a right goodwill drink For auld lang syne!"
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, April 2, 2012.
April showers brings more than just May flowers; like buds on a branch, spring time also sprouts fervent feelings of fancy. The young and young-at-heart will soon be heading out and looking for love - the twinkling of an eye or the magical spark of holding hands.
Roller skating at Memorial Gardens was, at one time, the thing to do on a Friday night, especially if you lived downtown. The drone of skating endlessly around in circles was hypnotic, and the thunderous music was equally mesmerizing; certain songs bring back memories of the inside of that cool arena. Not just the sights and sounds, but also the aromas, tastes and sensations: freshly-made popcorn, ice-cold cola, or just the rushing breeze of a passing skater.
Once, under the pretence of meeting some friends, I put on my brand-new, blue corduroy jacket and headed to the Gardens one Friday evening. There was a certain young lady who had shown a rather reticent interest in me; but, as a thirteen-year-old, that was enough to infatuate me entirely. I paid for my skates, found a chair to sit down, laced them up, and then vainly went looking for veneration - eager to nonchalantly "bump" into her. The problem was that I was way too shy to get the nerve up to simply skate over and take her hand. Instead, I did lap after lap watching her, passing slowly, but never getting the pluck to do anything other than grin like an insane Cheshire cat.
I remember that I worked up a bit of sweat that necessitated me taking off my coat - placing it on my chair in the front lobby. I went back to skating; now doing laps like a roller-derby maniac. I couldn't find her at first, but then there she was - skating, hand-in-hand, with someone else; someone with more courage than me. Dejected, I decided to leave, and found that someone had stolen my beloved jacket! I can laugh about it now, but that young teen took it all too hard. And the short walk to Princess Street seemed like a lengthy and forlorn pilgrimage.
Spring not only brings feelings of love, but it also delivers lessons of innocence and naiveté. Now, when I hear Grand Funk singing, "You picked a bad time to be in love," I am overwhelmed with feelings of melancholy for a lost opportunity, a missing jacket, and some vanquished ingenuity.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, February 6, 2012.
Warm Winter Merriment
Why is it that winters of old seemed so much colder? I remember walking to Trout Mills School and being rushed in by a panicked Mrs. MacDonald; it seemed like any other winter morning and I could not understand her urgency. My frost-bitten cheeks apparently begged to differ. We made longer, yet similarly cold, morning walks to W. J. Fricker School; and we all survived with all of our appendages intact.
This year, winter didn't begin until mid-January, and long ago that would have sent panic into the hearts of the organizers for the old North Bay Winter Carnival. This was an event that was greatly anticipated as much as its contemporary, summer cousin, the Heritage Festival. The most amazing and enchanting feature about the carnival was the fact that it was held right out on Lake Nipissing. A cavalcade of cars, trucks, and thousands of people would meet out there for a weekend of fun - for children and adults alike. Long before Memorial Drive and the new lakefront were created, the entrance to the lake was either from what was then Government Dock Road or at Amelia Park. This was a part of the lakefront most would never have seen, as only trains rumbled by that shoreline. It was truly a celebration of ice, snow, and winter.
There was skating, ice-fishing, sleigh rides, snowmobile races, dog teams, ice sculpturing, a carnival queen pageant, and lots of food. I think we survived on hot dogs and hot chocolate all weekend; but, it was more than worth it. The atmosphere was like a Mardi gras ice festival. And, as a fund-raiser, we all bought those distinctive orange toques sold just for the carnival. It was a celebration filled with laughter, merriment, and a love of community.
It was, however, often bitterly cold. I remember arriving once with my mother and brother, and the wind coming off of the lake felt like an arctic blast. We were there for less than a minute before mom turned us around and brought us (kicking and screaming) home. We begrudgingly settled for her homemade hot chocolate back on Sylvan Crescent.
It was a carnival worthy of the northern stereotypes, but it was also a wonderful and festive antidote for the February "blahs." We may have lost our carnival due to environmental changes, but the memories also remain in the heart of a warm community.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Wednesday, March 7, 2012.
Trout Mills Enchantment
Heralding the imminent arrival of spring, March tends to swagger in, tempting windows to open; and shortly, the sounds of spring will drift inside: birds singing, bees buzzing, and children laughing. As part of the last few years of the Baby Boomers, there were plenty of us making noise - the schools were bursting at the seams with flocks of kids. So many, in fact, that in 1970, E. W. Norman Public School had too many of the little rascal variety - and subsequently, two full classes of grade fives were shipped off to Trout Mills School on Lavase Road. Parents thought of it as an inconvenient exile, but we viewed it more as a wonderful adventure.
Built in 1949, Trout Mills was mothballed when the Canadian Air Force opened the "Hole" and developed BLH (what is now Birchwood Village). To accommodate all of the Air Force brats, the local boards built E. W. Norman and John XXIII; and so, the little three-room school by Trout Lake was no longer needed. Reopened, it was cleaned up for one more breath of fresh air. The third classroom was used as a "gym," although all I ever remember doing in there was learning how to square dance. No, more often than not, we played outside where there was more space; back then, the two apartment buildings that now overlook Trout Mills were not yet built. Exploring through the bushes, we pioneered a maze of trails and built many forts during recess. The best was the week I had the responsibility of raising and lowering the Canadian flag - making sure that it did not touch the ground. In hindsight, it was quite an honour for a ten year-old.
Life seemed somehow more idyllic back then; and we never even seemed to complain when we had to make the trek to E. W. Norman for school assemblies. And it was an interesting hike, especially when we took a short-cut through even thicker woods (past the Hermit's Shack), avoiding a deep pond where Wickstead Avenue now stands. It was the overflow of two creeks that linked Trout Lake with Circle Lake. That wet frontier is now merely a damp memory.
With the children long gone, Trout Mills now stands mostly empty: a depository of lifeless school supplies instead of a reservoir of children's laughter. But if you walk by, and listen very carefully, the sounds of spring resonate wistfully.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, May 7, 2012.
With the warmer weather enchanting and transcending spring, the "boys of summer" are already in full swing; and, magically, it stirs the inner child in many of us. Long ago, if you didn't have enough players to form two baseball teams, "scrub" was a charming substitute. All you needed were several fielders and a couple of batters: if you struck out or grounded out, you were sent to the outfield, and then everyone else would rotate "up" through the infield. The one exception to this occurred when you caught a line-drive or pop-up - then you instantly switched places with the batter. This was always a thrilling moment, as it sometimes felt like an eternity for your chance at bat. Scrub was the spring and summer equivalent of fall and winter road hockey. We would even make a pile with our gloves, and then have someone close his eyes and pick up the mitts to decide the playing order - there was always immense scrutiny over this as everyone wanted to bat.
The beautiful thing about North Bay is that we had (and still have) enough fields close by that we were always within walking distance of hitting some balls. I remember playing scrub behind John XXIII and E.W. Norman schools, depending on whether either playground was already in use. Once, we played by Circle Lake, but that game was called early when one too many softballs ended up in the water (they're probably still resting there, waiting to be rescued).
The group of kids would be different every time and it didn't matter to us where we played - any field could become our sports ground. You just needed some good old-fashioned imagination and some time to play (I was always dreaming of sensational catches by Tommie Agee of the Miracle Mets); but, baseball is made up of "outs," and as such, transcends "time." There's no overtime - just extra innings, and that's what makes baseball timeless and ageless: it's a pursuit for perfection while remaining perpetually in play. And we could seemingly play with exuberance endlessly - all spring and summer long.
Or at least until mom called us in for supper; but, it would always continue the next day. The Beach Boys once envisioned an endless summer - and in a kind of collective consciousness, we are almost certainly living it now. An everlasting seasonal rotation that's welcome all the time. Leave me in coach.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, July 9, 2012.
Things are looking up: summer's here, the beaches are busy, and sensible students are working - some with the Ministry of Natural Resources. What could be more fun during a hot and scorching day than to wear a jump suit and train in the oppressive heat? With the fires blazing earlier this spring, it shows just how important the MNR isÂ to North Bay - as a forest-management service, a fire-safety response team, and as a place where young people can learn some civic responsibility. For decades, fire gangs from the Trout Lake Road hall have sprung into action when needed.
I spent the summer of 1980 training alongside Trout Lake; initially, it was a humdrum routine of practising in the morning, eating and resting at noon (truth be told - napping!), and then cleaning up Olmstead Beach in the afternoon. It became serious preparation, however, as fires in the northwest grew out of control. A six-week training course ended up becoming a whirlwind of six days. There was a pressing need to put together a crew, and they asked for volunteers; with hesitation, trepidation and naïveté, I put up my hand. Another man, who was a little older and who had been through a few harrowing fires, saw my poorly-hidden anxiousness, and offered some advice: "Always look up. The fires spread faster up there.' Unfortunately, I can't remember his name, but it was welcome (albeit frightening) advice.
It was a crazy 21-day mission at the fire north of Ignace: lugging water tanks, flying in helicopters, and eating greasy food. But, besides once finding myself standing on a wasp nest (looking up!), getting lost on a logging road, and suffering from endless heat exhaustion, I was relatively safe.
Eventually, we tried a "back-burn" at night - four of us in a boat crossed a lake and set fire to a virgin forest; but, the fire rode a changing wind overnight, and we had to evacuate. I remember sitting in the back of a pick-up truck being chased down a bumpy road by a wickedly speedy fire and wondering what would happen if we blew a tire. Returning to North Bay was a welcome relief, and a refreshing old routine. I moved on to university, filled with optimistic confidence only a summer-full of experiences with the MNR could provide. Time laughs as it runs, and summer is soon over, so never forget to keep "looking up."
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, June 4, 2012.
June brings high school graduation and formal proms; and there was a time that this was also commemorated with live music. Almost everything "back in the day" was celebrated with living, breathing musicians: graduations, weddings, and retirements. That was the exhilarating point to it all - it was a lively and spine-tingling happening. I have always loved music (a Beatles fan from the age of four), but I had never seen a real live act before our grade eight graduation at Centennial school. Can you imagine that? A live band for junior high graduation!
A local band called Axle played for us. This was my introduction to live rock and roll, and it (more or less) changed my life. Many of us stood dumbfounded at the edge of the stage listening to "Smoke on the Water." Never before had we experienced anything so intense - watching them play with such power and passion was amazing. I bought Deep Purple's album Made in Japan the very next day; and soon, I quit playing hockey and bought a set of drums instead. A local wit has suggested that two careers ended simultaneously that day!
The city's high schools had a long heritage of great live music: the Downchild Blues Band at Widdifield, the Stampeders at Scollard Hall, and Rush at Algonquin! Back then, you usually had to be a student of the school to gain entrance to the dance. But once, my friend Art and I took advantage of an open door at the back of the old gym at Scollard to sneak in and see a great band called "98.7" (later Photograph). When I was a radio broadcasting student at Fanshawe College, I had the pleasure to interview them; unfortunately, like hundreds and maybe thousands of others, they are long forgotten.
Do you remember "sock hops?" What would the thirties and forties have been without Big Band music? Without Frank Sinatra? The song "At the Hop" epitomizes the fifties, at least in popular culture. Imagine the sixties and seventies without live music! It's a bygone era, but one that is sorely missed in an electronic age. Without an audience, I wonder how local musicians are even able to get started. Maybe the answer is with school dances. I think it would be the perfect antidote to our sterile, twenty-first century lifestyle - a way to enliven sedentary, semi-conscious beings back to life.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, September 10, 2012.
Dreaming in Colour
My family moved to North Bay from Tacoma in the summer of 1966, and along for the ride was a very unique piece of machinery - an enormous Zenith colour TV. Most people only had black and white sets, and often my parents would have to turn it on when neighbours dropped by just so they could see the Technicolor spectacle. It took several minutes for it to warm up - and for the infuriating horizontal "rolling" to slow down and stop.
Another problem with this modern contraption was that we really only had one channel - CBC. Of course, there was also Radio Canada, but the signal was so fuzzy that it really wasn't worth viewing; except, of course, for hockey games. I remember watching a Leafs - Canadiens game with the sound off and the radio on so that we could get English play-by-play. Obviously, there was also no high-definition back in the Sixties: instead, we had "rabbit ears," and the option was between snowy and snowier.
An historic event came when it was announced that we were getting CTV. My brother and I were ecstatic: now we would have two channels! For surely, if there was nothing on one station, there would be something good on the other one. This was, of course, immediately proven wrong. Like that funny scene in National Lampoon's European Vacation, sometimes the choice was between sheep and cheese. The Seventies brought cable and a staggering ten extra channels! But, even today, with satellites and hundreds of choices, it's often difficult to find something remotely stimulating.
At least back then, you actually had to get off of the couch and walk over to the set to change channels. I can still hear the clicking of the dial, and my dad warning me that I would "wear it out" by spinning it too fast. Wireless remote controls, cellular phones, and personal computers were unheard of and still many years away.
Most of our technology today was science-fiction to us back in the Sixties. I remember being amazed by the first automatic doors at the Dominion grocery store on Cassells Street - I stood there dumbfounded, boldly imagining that I was Captain Kirk on the bridge of The Enterprise. And now, with GPS and smart phone "apps" able to manipulate everything in our lives, I wait and daydream for Scotty to beam me up - in full colour with any luck.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, August 13, 2012.
Dog Gone Summer
The "dog days of August" serve to reveal our primitive attraction for water - instinctively, we are gently drawn to the beach. And it seems that the younger you are, the greater the appeal. And there really is nothing like a cool dip in summer to remedy idle panting and sweating. During the sixties and seventies, cut-off jeans was the fashionable swimwear for the beach - and not the sixty dollar variety that you find pre-cut at the mall today. No, back then, when the knees on your jeans began to wear out (and after the iron-on patches began to rip!), a pair of scissors could easily liberate a pair of swimming trunks desperate for freedom. While it was somewhat indolent in its clumsiness, it was relatively fashionable and innovative. And at the very least, it served to rid society of many pairs of bell-bottom jeans!
But, forget the beach (as Lake Nipissing is less about swimming and more about wading) - most teens living downtown and in Pinewood knew that the coolest place to swim was right off the end of the Government Dock (now King's Landing). We could effortlessly jump in and swim right where the Chief Commanda II is now moored. There was no Memorial Drive back then, so it was a neat little walk to find that quaint corner of the city - the Government Dock was the destination. Whether you were dog-tired from the oppressive heat, or you had tasted a little hair of the dog itself, it was a hangout where many young people spent the summer lazing about.
It's amazing how the brain can play memory tricks on you - as I envision jumping in, I not only hear the splash, but I also smell the oily water. It was probably not the best or safest place to swim, but even the few hesitant (and sensible) swimmers were ridiculed until they too joined in. Somewhere, I can hear Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" playing on a small portable stereo. Oh yes, and there were also spiders - very BIG spiders. It is remarkable how one recollection can trigger and then evoke various other sensory memories.
I have never been the greatest swimmer, and when I am done lethargically floating and using the backstroke, I always resort back to slowly crawling along with the dog paddle: a lazy man's best friend. But "dogging it" always seems appropriate behaviour in August - and well into September.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, November 5, 2012.
Scenes from a Carriage Dream
Railroads run through our city like arteries, and they have always been the lifelines of North Bay: the heart of a community built "north of the bay." Knowing that people traveled from the Atlantic to the Pacific or from the Great Lakes to James Bay, and that they passed through our neck of the woods, was like being joyously coupled with the rest of the world. As a child in bed, drifting off to sleep, the resonating train whistles that reached your window would stir enough images of adventures to fill a thousand dreams.
The sheer excitement and anticipation of standing at the C.P.R. Station downtown, waiting to welcome family home or board a train yourself, was blissful happiness. On more than one occasion, I journeyed east; truth be told, I often rode (somewhat surreptitiously) with the conductor in the baggage car. The exhilaration and danger of standing in a freight car, with the door wide open as the Ottawa Valley rumbled by, was thrilling and unforgettable. And, as I helped sort the luggage and packages, he told me tales. One was about the legendary strength of Bonfield native Ernie Foisy. Ernie could single-handedly lift a rail line; he would often tuck a ten-spot under it, and then advise the latest brakeman that it was his to keep - if he could get it. None ever could.
Boarding the train at the C.N. Station on Fraser Street was just as enthralling. For many, it was the anticipation of the Northlander and a spiritual trip north through the Canadian Shield. For me, it meant a direct link to Toronto. As a teenager, nothing could get your blood pumping like seeing the sprawling metropolis unfold outside the window; and to disembark under the vaulting heights of Union Station was akin to stumbling into the dizzying centre of a magical circus.
Hopefully that reverie will be reawakened again one day. North Bay has always been a crossroad and patchwork of highways and railroads; more importantly, it has also been a survivor. The diminished C.P.R. opened up the lakefront. The loss of the C.N. line sprouted a cleaner panorama and new subdivisions that have reinvigorated old neighbourhoods. The O.N.R. is the latest provocative chapter. The haunting and poignant rhythm of trains echo through the night and, like a dream catcher, will express and continue to deliver hope to our windows in this little corner of the world.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, October 1, 2012.
North Bay has a long history of theatre - inspiring hopes, dreams and desires in starry-eyed children of all ages. A hundred years ago, we even had an opera house - the Royal Theatre. Imagine that: from the dirt of Main Street, across a boardwalk and then straight into TheBarber of Seville! I truly wish that I could have witnessed that! The city was also blessed with the Spanish themes of The Capitol Theatre and all it had to offer: live radio performances, plays and thousands of concerts from Big Band jazz to modern rock and hip-hop. Thanks to Betty Speers and countless others, this "palace of splendour" survives as the cultural soul of the city: our own Castle in Spain.
In 1974, I saw April Wine at the Capitol with my brother and his girlfriend. As a frenzied fan, and with a seat close to the stage, I was on cloud nine. So, when Myles Goodwyn encouraged us to stand and clap along, I leapt to my feet and pounded my hands in rhythm "Just Like That." A few songs later, I looked behind me and discovered that I was the only one in the venue still standing and clapping. Embarrassed back to reality, I sank back into my seat. Later on, when I asked them why they hadn't stopped me, they laughed, "You looked like you were having fun." And I guess I was - frozen in a blissful trance, however briefly.
Long before that, when movies took over as the latest way to escape, the Capitol Theatre erected a giant screen, and it became North Bay's favourite place to watch a film. Across the street was its sister theatre, The Bay; and with the Odeon Theatre a block away, North Bay had the choice of three movies in three different theatres all right downtown. Waiting in line on the sidewalk outside of the "Joke Shop" before seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark is an especially vivid memory. We knew nothing of this movie except for the poster, so I assumed it was just going to be another hokey western; but, those expectations were obviously smashed in the first fifteen minutes. No film since then has taken me by surprise like that. Afterward, we stumbled out onto Wyld Street's sidewalk, utterly flabbergasted.
Fantasy can excite, change and inspire. All the world is indeed a stage - and the theatre delivers it to us.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Wednesday, July 9, 2014
Doctors of Dreams
“I’ve gained some understanding of the only world that we see / Things that I once dreamed of have become reality.” Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist of the Canadian rock band Rush, wrote those words almost forty years ago; it proved prophetic last month after all three members were awarded an honorary doctorate in music at Nipissing University’s Convocation.
The group has connections with North Bay: believe it or not, they played at an Algonquin high school dance in 1974. It was a rare gig with Jerry Fielding playing the drums, filling in temporarily between John Rutsey and Peart. My brother was witness to the performance and says that they nearly blew the doors out of the gymnasium! I saw them for the first time in 1978 at Memorial Gardens – the third concert in a nine-month Hemispheres tour that would take them around the world. In that otherwise cold and cavernous arena, they managed to produce both a warm and sharp sound. It was an evening of astonishing virtuosity as only that trio can create.
On the surface, it seems implausible that three high school drop-outs could be given such a prestigious award from a university. However, Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee are not your typical rock stars: during the Seventies, while on the road with bands like Kiss and Aerosmith, they would more often be found reading than partying. In the tradition of Walt Whitman, they became highly educated on their own terms.
After years of writing poetry for the band, Peart also published several non-fiction books, including the classic, Ghost Rider – Travels On The Healing Road. In it, he details the heartbreaking devastation of losing both his daughter and his wife; part philosophy and part travelogue, he writes beautifully and thoughtfully about tragedy, humanity and survival. Peart even mentions a visit to North Bay (staying overnight on Lakeshore Drive and enjoying a prime rib meal), before setting off again on his motorcycle: “…as I was riding out of North Bay, a marbled gray sky and a brief ray of sun emboldened me to stick with the ‘scenic route,’ and I headed north…”
That’s great advice: to experience life to its fullest by enjoying the “scenic route.” And even though Rush’s appearances in North Bay have been brief (and the latest cancelled by fog), they inspire their fans to follow the sun until dreams become reality.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, December 3, 2012.
It Was The Best of Times
The Sixties seemed a sunnier and safer time, and yet it was also darker and scarier: the "good old days" still fell under the shadow of W.W. Two. As such, BLH (Birchwood Village) was built in the early Sixties to house the families of the SAGE installation - the "Hole." Well below Trout Lake, hundreds of air-force corporals sat in front of banks of radar monitors watching for signs of the enemy.
BLH was like paradise to us kids: we worried for nothing and we knew all of our neighbours. No door was ever locked and children were always welcome in any house on their own block. This was very handy if you were thirsty - you just ran into the nearest kitchen and, hanging over the sink, drank straight from the tap.
The neighbourhood teemed with air-force brats - wandering the surrounding area, including the bush. These woods occasionally called for an especially juvenile prank: someone would eventually yell "Snake!" and then we would all start running. It didn't matter that we knew it was a ruse, that we weren't even afraid of snakes, or that we had done this a million times: running out of our little Eden at a frenzied gallop would always panic us. Once, while on a particularly furious exodus, I stepped on a stick and one half snapped up and "bit" me in the calf. Dazed and distressed, and convinced that it truly was a serpent, I was momentarily certain of my own disastrous and sardonic demise.
We also played "war" in the springtime trenches of E. W. Norman's school yard. Before the hill was paved with asphalt, April showers would erode great ditches that served as the battlefield setting for dozens of little John Waynes. We were all immediately decommissioned, however, whenever someone's mom yelled "supper!"
All the while, our fathers kept watch for global peace. Or Armageddon. This was the darker side of the times - the Cold War. We were told that there was a missile somewhere in Russia with North Bay's name on it. At school, we practised taking shelter under our school desks. Laughable now, sure, but we grew up believing that our desks could and would one day save us.
NORAD was eventually computerized, leading to the end of the air-force community. Today the Eastern Bloc is long gone, but we now live behind locked doors. It is the age of security; it is the epoch of foolishness.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, January 7, 2013.
Begin the Beguine
January is a time for reflection and renewal; and with the return of the OHL on many people's minds, Britt Jessup's memory danced into my head. He was one of the more beguiling men I have ever met: a war veteran, a reporter and editor for The North Bay Nugget, and a sports enthusiast. He would have been dismayed by the NHL lockout, but also glad to see the restoration of the OHL in North Bay.
There were so many other sides to Britt, however, including a love of music. I personally witnessed first-hand his passion for Big Band Jazz. As the midnight disc-jockey for CFCH in the 1980s, I was assigned the task of producing a new one-hour Sunday afternoon program called, 'Britt Jessup's Big Band Era." At first, it seemed an odd duo - a long-haired smart aleck who loved Led Zeppelin, and a distinguished, mature gentleman reminiscing on the Golden Era of jazz. But, we hit it off right away. Enthusiasm for music was our common ground: I relished those endless hours of listening to Britt tell stories of the "olden days." And man did he have a lot of records - every week he would surprise me with another rare gem. His favourite song was Artie Shaw's "Begin the Beguine," and the mere mention of it would be enough for him to smile, close his eyes and sway to the music. Britt's mind always seemed to be swinging.
We had another commonality of course: our love of hockey. His vast knowledge of trivia was astounding and he would explain all of the historic rule changes to me whenever he could. Knowing my obsession for the New York Rangers, he surprised me one afternoon with a book entitled, The Patricks - Hockey's Royal Family, by Eric Whitehead. It's strange, however, that whenever I open that book and see his signature, I think of music.
Britt is part of North Bay's royal family of sports; but, I will always remember him as a music lover. In my mind, I imagine him as a young Donald O'Connor wowing all of the young ladies with his wit, charisma and moves. Hockey could never be as fine, sensual and timeless as that: "So don't let them begin the beguine, Let the love that was once afire remain an ember, Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember, When they begin the beguine."
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, February 5, 2013.
Drifting along Main Street the other day, my mind played a trick on me when, out of the corner of my eye, I imagined seeing the "Richardson's" sign. I was slapped out of my stupour though by an Arctic squall cutting through the L-shape hole that once held the downtown jewel. Richardson's is no longer there, of course, but for decades it was the destination for shoppers looking for that extra special gift.
While stylish customers used the main entrance, the Sports Shop on Fraser Street was also a portal into that extraordinary world - especially for younger athletes. The selection of equipment was second to none: skates, sticks, skis and more waited there enticingly. And if you found yourself without adult supervision, you felt an odd flush of guilt - like a kid caught in a candy store. A wonderful selection of winter snow suits (the pride and joy of any ski slope was a brand new Sunice jacket) and a colourful variety of hats and mittens lured children of all ages. Down the hall, the office and repair shop always seemed to be buzzing ceaselessly with sounds of mystifying activity.
The steps into the china and gift shop magically welcomed you into yet another realm. The floor creaked warmly as you stepped onto the well-worn Richardson deck, always meticulously swabbed to a shining sheen. And like the calming effect of a confident sea captain, Mr. Richardson towered over his domain in a turtle-neck sweater. This small part of the world always seemed to sail smoothly in his presence. Carefully treading softly around the maze of displays, the warning whispers of mothers echoed around you: be careful; don't touch anything; do you realize how expensive Royal Doulton is?; just go stand over there! The communities of ceramic figurines would just stare back surreally in disquieting silence. Special gift-wrapping and delivery to anywhere in town was available, and the arrival at your doorstep of a Richardson's package thrilled thousands over the years. I imagine that the wedding registries themselves filled an entire room - the generational chronicles of families with Richardson's china. Then came the fire, and the heart of downtown sank as the smoke rose into the black sky - lost forever.
The last time that I was inside Richardson's was with my young family to graciously accept hot chocolate during a Christmas walk. Like spirits trapped in a sunken ship, the memories linger undisturbed.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, March 5, 2013.
Small Signs of Spring
Spring arrives early in North Bay - at least in our imagination. As the days gradually grow longer, we slowly look forward to it and secretly hope that each insipid shovelful of snow is the last one of the season. The collective and optimistic expectation of warmer temperatures help us tolerate Old Man Winter as he stubbornly clings on; because, even if we won't admit it, it is still way too early to wish for spring.
One sign that better weather is around the corner is the spectacle of an army of city workers filling in pot-holes like a grotesque Whack-A-Mole game. For many, a better indication is the reawakening of Duchesnay Falls. Slowly, very slowly, the under-current builds until the trickle becomes a rush and the falling water screams its longing for "Biissing" ("Little Water"), as the Ojibway named it. For millennia, Natives have followed the passageway through the French River to the Great Lakes. Duchesnay Falls and Lake Nipissing could indeed both be considered little - if only as an echo of Niagara Falls and ultimately, the Atlantic Ocean.
It is still truly awe-inspiring to take the trek up along Duchesnay during spring. Mother Nature comes alive: the forest erupts, like paint melting on an artist's palette, into a thousand shades of green; returning birds re-colonize the trees; and the smallest animals begin to stir. Families of the human variety too: you can witness the season's change in the smiles of parents as their children sparkle with life.
It's all those small things that cumulatively remind you that vitality has rejuvenated our world. Just sitting and listening to the white noise is relaxing - it can bring peace and harmony to both body and soul. And the walk back down is always faster: less to do with gravity, and more to do with the renewed spring in your step. Like waiting for the ice to disappear from Lake Nipissing, the stirring of Duchesnay Falls also heralds the coming of change: it welcomes and beckons for the eventual oncoming of summer. Only then has spring truly sprung.
While the same temperatures would have had us shivering in October, by March we shed our parkas to avoid overheating. With the patience of an iceberg slowly drifting south, spring eventually does arrive and returns life to all. Meanwhile, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the collective prayer for winter to "just end already!"
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, April 2, 2013.
North Bay once had two A & W Drive-ins - on Trout Lake Road and Lakeshore Drive. Driving up for a frosted mug of root beer and a hamburger or hot dog was a special treat. Somehow it seemed charming to be served by a carhop right at your automobile, and it was exciting waiting for her (I don't recall there being any male carhops) to return and set the tray of food on the driver's side window. I also remember them being on roller-skates, but I may have just watched too many movies.
Time has a curious way of warping things, and nostalgia can be nebulous at best. Reminiscing about the 50s has always been trendy - barely ten years later we had movies like American Graffiti and Grease, and television shows like Happy Days and Sha Na Na. But that is the alluring appeal of the era: pastel colours, rock and roll music, Hollywood icons and, of course, really cool cars. Leaving the Macpherson's car lot on Lakeshore one spring, my brother and I were convinced that we were riding in the coolest car ever - my parents had traded in their rusty 1953 Oldsmobile for a brand new 1966 Chevrolet Corvair. A fast car was aÂ source of pride, and young James Deans showed them off everywhere: at the drive-ins, the beaches, or at the old-fashioned hand carwash that used to run between King and Cassells Streets. Many of my friends bought cars as teenagers and "suped" them up. Unsafe as it was, there were many short races at streetlights back then. Chuck Berry's song, "Maybellene" springs to mind - I always wondered which car won that race: the Cadillac or the V-8 Ford?
But the car culture had its romantic side as well - with many tender relationships held together with trips made across the city. Thibeault Hill provided lookouts for scores of amorous liaisons. This was also part of the appeal of the drive-in. It was more than just a restaurant to meet friends, hang out, and check out the latest hot-rod: it was also a place for a date. Rumour has it that more than a few marriage proposals were made in the front seat of a car.
Summer is coming and that means it might be time to wash your car, turn up the music, and have some "Fun, Fun, Fun" driving in your "Little Deuce Coupe."
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Saturday, May 4, 2013
Chief of the Lake
While sceptics might be inclined to doubt summer's arrival, we can still (with child-like optimism) dream about frolicking in and on our local lakes. From a cool spray of Trout Lake or a warm splash of Lake Nipissing, North Bay has a rich tradition of boating: time-honoured aboriginal canoes, the steamships of J. R. Booth in the 1800s, and the O.N.R. vessels of the twentieth century.
The Chief Commanda has always been a wonderful way to see the Manitou Islands up close, and to also experience the French River in all its glory. The original Chief (dedicated after Raymond Commanda) sits peacefully and watches every summer as her sister, the Chief Commanda II, sails in and out of King's Landing. Children of all ages are enchanted and giggle with delight as the sleek catamaran glides over the waves; it's astonishing to think that the panoramic scenery is largely undisturbed since Samuel de Champlain first saw it.
The Chief has also brought new traditions and ways of enjoying the lake, including graduation, wedding and musical cruises. In the early 80s, Frank and Lynn Caruso used to orchestrate Mystery Dinner Theatres - and they took that concept to the Chief. Embedding several actors among the passengers, they staged a "murder," and the passengers interviewed the actors for clues to try and solve the deadly deed. Frank's ideas were creative, and of course, Lynn was a special and beautiful person who charmed everyone. With bated breath and incredulous suspense, it was all terribly fun.
I was lucky enough to be asked to join the "whodunit" cast. On one particular cruise, I was acting the part of a young and shady Casanova, and I met my demise early on. Frank had arranged that the Chief staff would come and roll me onto a gurney and carry me away. Unfortunately, they misjudged the angle of the stairs and dropped me! While they giggled with embarrassment (and perchance amusement), I managed to stay in character - even though my elbow implored me to scream out in agony. I spent the rest of the cruise on the bridge with the captain, enjoying the view and nursing my arm.
With guarded suspension of disbelief, we can cautiously dream of summer. In the interim, Lake Nipissing patiently flows to and fro awaiting the return of the Chief - ready to impart a new treasure trove of memories on the latest generation of lakers.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, June 3, 2013
Paradise in the Outfield
Driving by Kinette Park the other day, I witnessed the surest sign of summer - a baseball game. Real baseball that is: Little League. Local parks have always been the heart and soul of the pastime for the best of reasons: girls and boys simply enjoying themselves. Children know intuitively that time can stand fantastically still when you let yourself get lost in the thrill of the moment.
And regardless of your ability, it's always fun. To wit: as a kid, every time the pitcher released that very hard ball, I flinched when I swung the bat. Mastering this special technique is a difficult and delicate science: you have to guess where and when the ball will cross the plate. I never truly perfected this, but, like most children, I knew that there would always be another at bat. My method did work on one occasion, however, and the result was a glorious home run - the best moment in my short-lived baseball career. I don't remember any of the several thousand strike-outs, but I recall with delightful clarity that one magnificent crack of the bat. It's frozen in time.
Part of the reason that I was afraid of getting hit was that I was also our team's relief pitcher; so, I knew the very real danger of a wild pitch! I was content playing first-base but, regrettably, I was also the best of our team's worst pitchers. It wasn't for lack of practise though: I threw balls endlessly against twelve chalk-outlined bricks of the wall at 260 Sylvan Crescent. Hours and hours of throwing pitches against make-believe batters filled my summer; in my imagination, I won the World Series for the Mets. In reality, I drove my parents mad.
I got called to the pitcher's mound about every other game for an inning or two. Now, let it be known that I did have a hard fast ball (my only pitch); but, when it came to accuracy, well, that was another thing. For every strike, there was at least one wild pitch. This was extremely stressful for me (and my opponents). There's nowhere to hide when you're the pitcher: even my best friend, Donny, would ridicule me from the stands. Oh, how I envied my team-mates playing the outfield - in another world and lost in time. They looked so content, sitting there, blissfully building sand castles. Paradise under the endless summer sunshine.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Wednesday, July 3, 2013
As another summer unfurls, some parents will be seeking a safe refuge for their children. Back in the Seventies, this was not a problem as the federal government gave generous grants to just about anyone who had a pulse and could fill out an application form. So, my teenaged brother, and five of his friends, applied for money to run an activity program for children. Yes, the government issued a cheque, and S.H.A.R.E. (Student Help And Recreational Experience) was born.
St. Andrew's United Church welcomed them in and offered full use of its basement and gymnasium. Led by (and no, I am not making these names up) Ingrid and Astrid, Doug and Rug, and Penny and Bill, inner city youth had a safe place for mentorship, arts and crafts, and all sorts of physical activities. Picture that: a group of 16 and 17-year-olds taking care of a pack of 8 to 12-year-olds.
Too old to be a part of the program and too young to be a counsellor, I hung around like a cross between a side-kick and a mascot (translation: an unpaid gopher). My strongest memory is of a pair of brothers who spent their time capturing bats and putting them in Mason jars. It terrified and intrigued me at the same time. Years later, I asked one of them, Ron, what they had done with all those bats. He told me that they collected them (hundreds of them) in a large cardboard box until their horrified mother ordered them (the bats) banished from her dominion. And they did so - on the sidewalk of Cassells Street. After a few kicks of encouragement, the flying rodents took off, darkening the otherwise bright afternoon sky. They sought asylum in the awning of Tek's Seafood Restaurant; but, not before they swooped down and around one frightened diner, who in her panic, could not get back into the restaurant: screaming while frantically pushing on the handle of the door that was clearly marked PULL. Stephen King could not have orchestrated that better.
The summer ended with an overnight trip to Restoule Provincial Park - complete with scary stories around the campfire. Images of Stormy Lake's "Restoule Wretch" served to scare the waifs and strays, who then retreated to the tents, seeking sanctuary in their sleeping bags. They most definitely dreamt the dreams of conventional Canadian children that night. Ah, 1974: "We are such stuff As dreams are made on."
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Warning children not to do something has been a dilemma of parenting down through the ages. Case in point: long before Birchaven’s Cove became a sanctioned beach, it had always been the cool place to swim, despite (or because of) its clandestine allure. Down a narrow, dirt road, off Lakeside Drive, was this beautiful and undisturbed corner of Trout Lake; but, as children, we were banned from this unsupervised beach. Of course, as Air Force brats, this was incentive enough for us to at least go and check it out.
What we found was a child’s paradise: nature, fresh water, and, most importantly, no adults. The only danger that we believed was remotely real was being attacked by Leroy the Muskie, the legendary fish of the lake. We had all heard the tales of this gigantic “ugly pike” and his appetite for kids’ toes – the penalty for letting your feet dangle off of the dock.
However, my own youthful judgement was perhaps even more impaired, considering how Trout Lake gets very deep, very fast: I could not swim. There was a dock where kids took turns diving and jumping into the lake; and back then, you could only get to it through the water or by climbing over the rock wall. Desperately desiring approval, and being fairly foolish, I took the climb; normally, I just stood there on the dock, chatting with my friends, and keeping an eye out for Leroy.
Unfortunately, a girl I knew thought it would be funny to push me in. Falling, I recognized that this was punishment for my own stupidity. I sank like a rock. Panicking and thrashing around, I remember looking up from below the water’s surface: it was truly terrifying. And then I saw my friend, Ron, on the ladder and reaching out to me. Somehow (with super ten-year-old strength) he pulled me up to the dock.
Devastated, I went straight home to announce that I needed to take swimming lessons. And not the “Tadpole” course that I once went through at Armstrong Park (I had a card that stated I could “dunk my head under water three times”); no, I enrolled at the Y.M.C.A., and by summer’s end, I could at least keep myself afloat. From time to time we sugar-coat the past; however, sometimes it’s sweeter to be alive and kicking right here in the present – with all of your toes.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Wednesday, September 4, 2013
North Bay’s one-time senior football team, the Tiger-Cats, had a devoted group of supporters in the sixties and seventies before their fortunes waned. Back then, Thomson Park was always full of people for every home-game – cheering, laughing, and trying to stay warm with plenty of hot chocolate and coffee (as well as the occasional glint of a few silver flasks).
They have a special and honoured place for the 1979 Chippewa football squad as well; following the school’s fire, the Ti-Cats generously donated equipment and sweaters so that the team could keep playing. It was something special to put on that “pro” gear; and the best was that we also got to use Thomson Field (a talisman perhaps, as the Raiders won NDA that year). Every once in awhile, when I pass by that field, I sense the ghosts of football-past.
Thomson Park also has historical significance for North Bay. Its namesake, Roy Thomson, was quite the entrepreneurial figure: as a young salesman of that newfangled invention, the radio, his Toronto-based company sent him north to try his luck (the senior salesmen were given the more profitable southern markets). Ridiculous if you think about it: there were no radio stations here at the time, and he had to convince people to buy radio sets! So, what did he do? He borrowed some money, bought CFCH in Iroquois Falls, and moved it to the Bay. And prior to any station even being built, he simply broadcast shows live from the Capitol Theatre.
Thomson invested his money into publishing newspapers, and eventually, he owned over 200 of them, creating a media empire that culminated with The London Times in England. No fortuitous accident – just lots of hard work. Ultimately, he was named to the House of Lords and became The First Baron of Fleet. Never forgetting his humble beginnings, however (riding the TTC to work every day), he always remained a devoted philanthropist. For his support of culture, Thomson Hall in Toronto is also named for him.
So while Memorial Gardens expands a little into the Baron’s Park, it’s worthwhile to remember its inauguration as a beautiful and modest piece of greenery in the middle of town. And whether you’re walking your dog or throwing a pigskin around, it will hopefully remain a providential counterpoint to all of the inauspicious concrete and asphalt; our very own curiously charming Central Park…albeit slightly smaller now.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget, on Tuesday, October 1, 2013
If there is one place that personifies North Bay, it is arguably the J. W. Richardson Fountain at the corner of Algonquin and McIntyre. Here, the baroque-inspired iron cascade softly sprays water all summer long. And across the street rests a city block that also drips with the salient essence of our town.
At one time, Bill Booth’s store stood leaning (nestled, let’s say) against the I.O.D.E. Victory Shop. Of this charming little building, I remember mostly the warmth: from the old wood stove, and from old Bill himself. He always seemed to be sitting, his English accent and colourful personality exuding geniality. That unique storefront is imbedded into our collective memories.
The tales and activity within Algonquin Laundromat could probably fill volumes; how many of us have sat reading a book while waiting for the dryer to finish spinning? Think of the friendships started nearby, the long heart-to-heart talks, or the peaceful naps taken in between cycles.
Meanwhile, Greco’s Pizza has been the hubbub of activity down through the decades – the perfect place for a rendezvous after a night on the town. During my college years, I must have single-handedly kept someone employed rolling meatballs in the kitchen.
And you really can’t call yourself a true North Bayite until you’ve stepped into the evocative venue that is Demarco’s Confectionery. I remember steamed buns for hot dogs, home-made Easter eggs, fruit baskets, and Coca-Cola floats. Where else does the owner give a piece of fruit to a patron’s child? Test your luck in the spring by picking the date that the ice comes off of Lake Nipissing. Or, if you want the most truthful and accurate of polls during the next election, just drop in and see Tony. He could save Elections Canada a lot of time and money, if only they would listen – all the politicians do.
Here, the sidewalks have probably had more foot traffic than anywhere else in the city. And here, generations of gregarious St. Joseph girls hung out, waiting for their bus to come along and bring them to the college. The laughter still echoes all along the avenue.
A prettier site is hard to find anywhere – an “imperfect pearl” of brickwork and trees. Slow down when you pass by, or better yet, stop and rest on one of the benches, and just soak in the local colour and flavour that is the quintessence of North Bay.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Wednesday, November 6, 2013
A Real Good Time
North Bay’s bars were once filled with live music nearly every night of the week. Throughout my childhood, my parents went to the Commodore Hotel most Friday evenings, where they would dance to the music of Don Brose and the Chords. Apparently, Don would often dedicate Andy Williams’ song, “More,” to my mother, and she would come home on cloud nine, singing that song and many others. I would lie in bed listening, my mind full of imagination and lifelike sounds and visions. The sixties seemed to be a good time.
In the seventies and eighties, live music remained popular (even through the disco era). Watching musicians perform is always enjoyable, and I spent many evenings at The St. Regis Hotel (appropriately enough, the home of Music City now). The biggest act I saw there was the Canadian band, Triumph. While they sold out arenas in Texas, back here they mostly played the bar circuit. We didn’t mind at all, as they rocked the building all night long. Amusingly enough, that evening some uniformed gentlemen entered the bar, and, being a little dubious of my ability to prove that I was of legal drinking age, I panicked and almost bolted for the door. As it turned out, they were Salvation Army volunteers! Unknown to me, this was common practice back then: they would enter taverns and solicit donations from the clientele. It worked on me; relieved (and perhaps a little guilty), I offered a generous contribution.
Of course, there were many other venues: the Lakeview, the Parkview, the Continental, Fiddler’s Green, the Voyager Hotel, and others. The great thing about the Voyager was that you could enjoy a rock band in one room and a country act in the other.
The Empire Hotel had its fair share of live music as well. I found myself sitting there one night listening to The Trout Lake Monsters; I remember Dave Demarco playing an inspired version of “Roadhouse Blues.” Local and live, we all had a “real good time…all night long.”
Curiously, it always amazed me that the Empire once had a separate Ladies entrance – evident by the sign that stood over the side door. As a child, I asked my dad why women couldn’t use the main doorway. He told me, “They can – with an escort.” Sometimes, you realize that the “good old days” had its own archaic absurdities; times change – often for the better.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, December 2, 2013
Sunshine in the Darkness
Dawn broke on a quiet and frosty morning, Sunday, December 2, 1973; the air seemed strangely still, yet it began to blow bitterly as shocking news spread: North Bay police Constable Leonard Slater had been killed the evening before. In an Oak Street parking lot, Constables Gord McCourt and Norm Shillington, along with Sergeant George Nicholson, helped take Slater’s killer down. McCourt was also wounded as all four brave men most certainly saved others from injury by putting themselves in harm’s way. On that fateful evening forty years ago, selfless acts of valour in the course of their sworn duty ended with the death of one of North Bay’s finest.
Less than a month later, I had to call the police over a violent domestic situation. What astounded me, as an adolescent, was the unreal bravery of the officers when they arrived. They showed up without hesitation, even after two of their own had recently suffered violent injuries, and only a year since Constable Jack Dempsey had also been shot while on duty. As a teen, I made a point of walking past the police station whenever I could – and my bewildered gratitude for their unwavering rescue and compassion has never left me. Renaming that building in honour of Constable Slater was an appropriate and venerable tribute.
Consequently, every time I drive on the Fred Lefebvre Memorial Overpass connecting downtown with West Ferris, I am reminded of the service that police perform every single day. The bridge is named in honour of another fallen officer: back in 1923, while valiantly trying to apprehend a dangerous fugitive, Lefebvre was shot and killed. Sergeant John Urquhart, of the Ontario Provincial Police, was also murdered by the same convict.
The remarkable and uncompromising courage that police officers demonstrate never ceases to amaze me: every shift has the potential for violence, but they head out to serve and protect nonetheless. And it is often a thankless world: “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” Yet, in perilous moments, they are like rays of sunshine in the darkness.
There's no easy rationalization for something incredible anyone does when acting in complete selflessness. But for peace officers in our area – North Bay, West Nipissing, Anishinabek, 22 Wing, OPP, RCMP – their utter sacrifice every day is overwhelmingly humbling. Darkness comes before the break of day, and the human tragedy forty years ago should give us all contemplative repose.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, December 31, 2013
In the dead of winter, we frequently dream of summer: camping, roasting marshmallows, and sometimes telling scary stories. Camp counsellors and babysitters alike apparently love to terrify kids with horrific tales: honeymooning couples getting stranded, a kind stranger who turns out to be a ghost, or evil phantoms in your closet. Ghost stories often come into our lives before we have even learned to read. One particular frightening babysitter once told me that if you placed four pens upside down in a fire, the fumes would reveal the year of your death. I never had the nerve to try it, and yet, I have never looked at smoke the same way since.
It’s not just a summer thing, either; in the depths of a Canadian winter, when temperatures approach Absolute Zero, a particularly creepy story can be most effective. Charles Dickens proved this well enough with A Christmas Carol. Perhaps it’s the bitter wind, the lack of therapeutic daylight, or the maddening ennui, but wintry apparitions come easily enough on a gravely cold night.
As children wandering about during frozen winter evenings, we often turned to ghost stories for spine-chilling amusement. A favourite place to gather for our ghoulish tales was on top of the shelter that once covered the player benches at the Circle Lake rink. Up there, the moonlight and the shadowy glow from The Shack across the ice only served to add creepiness to the already frosty atmosphere. One night, while lying atop that structure, a friend of ours told the legend of a demon called Wendigo. Due to inflated imaginations, and our friend’s conviction that this terrible creature actually existed, the story scared us half to death. Panic struck, I jumped off of the shelter into the snow, and (without once looking back) ran all the way home.
North Bay has its own fair share of ghost stories. Discovery North Bay’s Haunted Hikes reveal disturbing tales about some unfortunate deaths (and apparently a few ghost sightings as well). As teenagers, we heard about a haunted house north of the Education Centre. We scoffed at the idea – that is, until we drove by it and had to turn around at a dead end. Like scared children running up the stairs from imagined horror, we couldn’t get away fast enough. There’s nothing like cold shivers to get you moving: warmer, rational thinking seemingly waits for the spring thaw.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, February 4, 2014
A Tale of Three Towns
It’s amusing to witness the confusion of newcomers to the Bay when they wrestle with the fact that West Ferris is actually at the eastern end of the city. That it is west of East Ferris is a minor detail best kept hidden – at least for a moment or two. 1968 saw the amalgamation of North Bay with West Ferris and Widdifield Townships: in one fell swoop, the city grew so much in size that it once ranked third in the country for its geographical reach. Growing up in BLH, next to Trout Lake, meant that my first years in North Bay were actually spent in the township of Widdifield.
For some strange reason, perhaps enticed by the fall colours, a friend and I once decided to go for a walk. We set off toward the escarpment and began (for a couple of nine-year-olds) what eventually turned into quite a trek. Heading down Ski Club Road, we had no intention to walk the ends of the earth; nevertheless, after awhile, he and I both sensed that we were stumbling onto a grand adventure. So, mesmerized by the glory of our daring feat (and with the spirit of a couple of Dickens characters), we marched on.
Lost in conversation and laughter, we eventually passed the old boundary of Landsdowne and Norwood, and found ourselves mired in the web of streets that is Pinewood. We were worried when we realized that we were also, in point of fact, truly lost; however, that passed quickly and we continued, happily enjoying the strangeness of this colourful part of the city. We were two country bumpkins from
Widdifield after all, and it was a crisp autumn day with a full rainbow of leaves above us. Thinking back, I imagine that we must have ended up somewhere along McIntyre Street West.
Eventually, Cassells Street snuck up on us, and we followed our noses back to Trout Lake Road. Stopping off at the A & W, we celebrated our exploits by pooling our money and sharing a hot dog. In the relatively sober daylight of the twenty-first century, it’s beyond belief that two young waifs managed to stray that far. Incredibly enough, when I was back home (after being gone the better part of the day), I was met with bored indifference, and then merely told to wash up for supper. Sometimes a boy’s story is best untold.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, March 4, 2014.
Once upon a time, Northgate Square used to be a quaint strip mall, and back then the Woolworth’s lunch counter was a favourite hang-out for many. As children, we would walk there along the railroad tracks; beneath the skies and between the trees, it was a providential shortcut between Birchaven and the mall.
And like a fortuitous sign of spring, whenever the Midway came to town, it always set up in Northgate’s parking lot. With its timeless spectacle of games, rides, and music, the carnival draws young people like moths to a flame. So, one March afternoon, a friend and I walked the tracks to have some fun amid the noise and confusion. Ultimately, we ended up standing before the Salt-and-Pepper ride. Looking up, our young blood turned to ice; yet, we were somehow compelled to try it – there was no freewill involved.
And then, inside that iron wheel-of-fortune, my wallet slipped out of my pocket: during a stomach-churning moment of weightlessness, and as if in slow-motion, I saw it float away. There was little money in it, but it had been a gift from my grandfather in Denmark. The carnie operator, smelling of grease and tobacco, told me he hadn’t seen it fall. Miserable, I lost the innocent wonder of the day, and blamed him – convinced that he had kept it – with all of the stereotypes and condemnations that I had witnessed in my young life ringing loudly in my ears. An hour later, sick of the clamour and chaos of what I now judged to be a seedy culture of carnies, I was set to walk the tracks back home.
That is, until I felt a tap on my shoulder; I turned around to see the carnie looking down at me. Smiling, he winked, and then handed over my wallet. It all happened so fast that I didn’t have time to thank him. My memories are not of his tattoos, oily jeans, nor of his “disreputable” profession; but rather, it is of his remarkable thoughtfulness. He had found my wallet, and then selflessly sought out a naïve and cynical small town boy. I learned a valuable lesson that day: rather than appearance and reputation, people should be judged for their character and actions. I left to deal with my own guilt and inner demons. Sometimes the tracks shift course and fate sets you on a better path in life.
The following column appeared in The North Bay Nuggeton Friday, June 27, 2014
My teenage son and his friends have taken to climbing Sage Hill as a pastime. I did that too, I told him. I’m not sure that he believes me. But, we did – climbing up the hill by the hydro path. A left turn would take you toward the old Widdifield reservoir. It was still full of water back then, and I remember people actually swimming in it; apparently, only one concrete wall is still visible. If you walk straight up, you end up on Tower Drive. The television show, The Forest Rangers, used to film scenes at the Widdifield Fire Tower up there. We thought of ourselves as rangers; in fact, we were only air-force brats.
One place that we did not venture was the south entrance of the Sage hole. Our fathers warned us that it was a restricted area, which seemed curiously at odds with our own carefree lives. The Sixties, however, were a perfect example of that dichotomy: times were good and Canada seemed idyllic, yet there was this thing called The Cold War. Just north of the city, BOMARC surface-to-air missiles with nuclear warheads waited to be launched. Meanwhile, we would walk to the coffee shop (now Average Joe’s) on Trout Lake, and sit and discuss the weather – as armed sentries stood on patrol a few hundred yards above us.
My son and his friends walked around the now abandoned guardhouse, and he told me about their adventure. It seemed astonishing to me that I had never been there; so, we got in my car and visited the past. The Cold War may be over, but its remnants are still evident – one merely needs to take a drive down Ski Club Road to witness it. There’s a beautiful neighbourhood with stunning scenery, pretty homes, and then: a gated sentinel that looks like something out of an old James Bond movie. It is strangely surreal. Two huge, yet very empty, parking lots attest to a busier time. I imagined my father parking his Corvair there among hundreds of other vehicles, and then boarding a bus for his daily trip sixty storeys into the earth. The barbed-wire fence, the sentry posts, and the warning signs are now all rusting away in disuse. And there, in the side of the mountain, is the gateway to the “hole.” A beam of light still blinks out from beyond – as if in nostalgic reminiscence.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, April 1, 2014
A Circle of Willows
Spring eventually arrives in Northern Ontario, hopefully sometime in April. And no-one looks forward to this time of year more than college and university students. The long winter of enlightened discontent will soon be over, with only some last minute cramming and final exams standing in their way. Many will be looking forward to summer’s respite, while others will be graduating and moving on – with degrees and diplomas in hand. Wiser than they were just a few short years earlier, they are eager to take on the world. It is truly a season for renewal.
In the past, Gormanville was a long and winding road that forced you to slow down – the forest, a monastery and a riding stable encouraged you to enjoy the surroundings. It was less a route up the hill and more of a journey. Nevertheless, an even more leisurely trek was at hand for those who were willing to walk. To the right of Gormanville there was a gentle path through the bush; it was well worn, suggesting that there were many others who had taken the sylvan short cut up the hill.
About a third of the way, concealed in the midst of all of the other trees, was a breathtaking circle of willows. Cloistered in such a strangely surreal way, they looked as if they had sprung up in defiance against the more aggressive conifers. It was serene and humbling to stand there among those ancient spirits in the shadows; you could almost hear them laughing in the breeze – amused by our mortal alacrity. In the presence of sweet and beauteous magnificence, it’s easy to smile.
Today, many students speed up the new Gormanville Road at seventy kilometres an hour, hurry to classes, check Twitter sixty times an hour, and curse the “crooked stairs” for interrupting their texting. But after graduation, perhaps they would be better off slowing down: descending the hill at a more peaceful pace and leaving their post-secondary life with a calmer demeanour – to smell the roses as it were (or at least to look for the buds in the snow). With a little patience, they can seize the day; for as the forest is full of trees and the sky is full of stars, there is an equal measure of opportunities for them. The future is a crooked and winding destination: yesterday reaches today, today catches tomorrow, and everything comes full circle.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, May 6, 2014
The Enduring Quints
Eighty years ago this month, the world was astonished by the birth of the Dionne Quintuplets. It then became a lesson in modesty and resilience as their small home between Corbeil and Callander (now Highway 94) became the centre of worldwide attention. The house was moved a couple of times before finding its current North Bay location back in 1985. Of course, growing up in this area, we all are well acquainted with the identical quints born to Oliva and Elzire Dionne: as children, it was a place we visited often, especially when hosting friends and family from afar.
They really were world famous. For that many babies to survive back then was nothing short of miraculous: it is commonly accepted that they were the first known identical quintuplets to survive infancy. In the middle of the Great Depression, it was fabulous news indeed. Hollywood made movies about them, and merchandise was created and sold, including expensive composite dolls. A half world away, as a child in a rural town in Denmark, my mother remembers playing with “Quint Dolls.” They were cheaper paperboard cut-outs that were mass produced and sold everywhere as an inexpensive alternative during the hard times of the Thirties. This illustrates just how renowned they truly were. And whenever our Danish relatives visited, the Quints Museum was always a must-stop. My grandmother (having six children of her own) was fascinated by them.
Unfortunately, the real lives of Émilie, Marie, Yvonne, Annette and Cécile were not ideal. Torn from their parents, they were placed in a specially built compound – the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery (Nipissing Manor today). Tourists traveled from afar to pay to watch them play, and then purchased souvenirs in “Quintland.” The girls grew up distrusting authority and society in general. And who could blame them? Cars lined highway 11 just to get a peek as they were put on display for the benefit of curious crowds. It was more a zoo than a home. Later on, they managed to live out a comfortable life together, and gave us all a lesson in humility and endurance.
When we pass the unassuming museum on that same highway, it would behove us well to remember and reflect upon the hardships and sacrifices that all of our elders endured. Here’s to Annette and Cécile, hoping that they both have a wonderful 80th birthday on May 28. Bonne fête!
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, August 12, 2014
A Ghost of Changes
Vintage pictures of North Bay reveal wooden sidewalks, dirt streets, and the odd horse and wagon. They also expose the serendipitous nature of development: stores change, buildings rise, and a few are lost to fire, leaving empty spaces behind. People, teeming with these ethereal memories, are seemingly the only constant ingredient – and in those old photos, they stare back at us, frozen in time.
One fond memory many of us share is stepping into Walker’s department store on Main Street, riding the escalator up to the next level, and then exiting onto McIntyre Street. This was mind-blowing to me and my childhood friends; and as if it was some sort of carnival attraction, we used to run around the block to do it again. After quickly tiring of that, we would ultimately just ride the escalator up and down – over and over again. Until a grown-up came by and told us to leave.
Of course, no trip downtown was complete without a visit to Kresge's and the child magnet that was the candy counter in the middle of the store. One wonders how many brown paper bags they went through – pennies were never better spent! And then there was the popular lunch counter where many went not only to eat, but also to savour the world’s most delicious milkshakes.
Once, while sitting there on those bright red stools with my brother, an elderly gentleman at the end of the counter looked at me in despair and said, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." Though I could not speak French, the passion of his voice suggested that it was something profound. Strangely, my brother later insisted that he did not see anyone. Yet, the old man repeated his proverb to me several times until I just could not forget it. Afterwards, a friend translated it for me as, “The more it changes, the more it stays the same.” Time has a way of playing tricks with your mind, and I sometimes entertain the idea that I might have encountered a ghost. Perhaps even Alphonse Karr himself.
Those mystifying words, however, make more sense now than ever before as we witness change, progress, and renewal around the city: while some buildings and shops are lost and some transform, the community itself continues. Through it all, of course, people are people: we remain seemingly unchanged while the curious world twists and turns around us.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, September 9, 2014
It’s September once again and for many that means the beginning of another school year. When I think back to my days at Chippewa, inevitably the first image that comes to mind is that long entranceway by the High Street parking lot. The south end was the popular place to hang out in the morning, at lunch, and after school. Why? Because that was the area where students were allowed to smoke; and as non-smokers seemed to be in the minority then, that’s where we all gathered. Sometimes there would be a couple hundred of us standing around, discussing important issues – like who was better, Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin.
Inside, when we walked by the teachers’ lounge, and the door would by chance swing open, a cloud of smoke always billowed out. Straining my neck to see what really went on in there, all I ever got was a surreal image of teachers cloaked in a blue haze. I always imagined that they were listening to Miles Davis.
Personally, I was cured of smoking when, at the age of eleven, four of us pooled our money and bought a pack of cigarettes (store clerks would sell them to anyone back then). Afterward, we gathered clandestinely behind John XXIII School and lit up. My friends puffed precariously, paradoxically trying to avoid the smoke. This was ridiculously pointless I thought, so I fearlessly inhaled the entire thing. Dim-witted, dizzy, and sea green, I crawled home. I was very sick, and that was my first and last cigarette. Others were not so lucky.
In these days of health awareness, it’s hard to fathom why it was so commonplace back then: most homes had at least one smoker; newscasters on televisions openly smoked; and even your family doctor was liable to light up in front of you. In a restaurant or coffee shop, there were always smokers. A night at the bar meant spending hours in a dense fog. I remember being at Madam’s one night and wondering whether or not anyone would notice if a real fire broke out. Or even why the fire alarm never went off. Today, I can smell a cigarette burning from a hundred yards away; but back then, it was so prevalent, so accepted, and so commonplace that most of the time we didn’t even really notice it – we couldn’t see the cigarettes for the smoke.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Hockey season has returned, and many excited children are busy enjoying Canada’s favourite sport. No practices or games seem to be played on outdoor rinks anymore, but there was a time when they were home to most House League games. The season obviously started later then, and the pre-game warm-up often meant shovelling the ice. Intermission included the horrible routine of rubbing toes to get feeling back in them – a custom that still makes me wince.
We eventually graduated to the Pete Palangio arenas (“Double Rinks” to us back then), and when I was lucky enough to play triple-A, even Memorial Gardens a few times. My brother, Billy, used to complain that he still had to shovel his rink while I had the luxury of stepping out onto a sheet of clean ice in a nice, warm building. I don’t know how “warm” those arenas were, especially the one in a hangar at the Air Force base. It was always so cold up there that it had the hardest ice – you could hear the hollow clunk of your blades on that solid surface.
Playing in Memorial Gardens was a reverential experience and we were all in awe of being in a “professional” arena (tempered only by a sliver of guilt as Billy would mock me later for being spoiled). Every generation has its own great coaches, but one who comes especially to mind is Coach Misch. I can still hear him yelling, “Get busy Danny!” We were indeed always busy, and I don’t think that my brother ever believed me that we had to do laps after practice – up and down the stairs. He would merely moan that he was busy shovelling.
The Gardens was also home to the Junior-A North Bay Trappers – a team that once came close to qualifying for the Memorial Cup. A good friend and team-mate of mine, Don Spiess, went on to play for them. The best player with whom I ever played, he reminded me of Yvan Cournoyer. My job was to dig the puck out along the boards and find Donny – he would do the rest. When you play with someone long enough, you get a sixth-sense of where he is on the ice, and I made many, many blind passes. However, I owe my few moments of hockey glory to him. In my wild imagination, we were always busy winning the Stanley Cup.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Man of Stuffing
October is such a wonderful month: the colours are beautiful, the air is crisp, and winter is still far enough away to be discreetly ignored. It also holds two special times of the year: Thanksgiving and Hallowe’en. With turkey and stuffing, and then all of that candy for dessert, October has it all.
For me, this time of year inevitably brings back memories of The Joke Shop that was once on Main Street. With exploding cigars, trick gum, and a variety of masks, it was a treasure trove in the tiniest of shops. As children, it would take us an hour to explore – always under the watchful eyes of the owners. We thought of them as an old, cantankerous pair; but upon reflection, their wariness was probably well warranted as we would always ramshackle through everything but rarely purchase anything. Truth be told, I only ever remember buying three items from that store: a Whoopee cushion, vampire teeth, and a pair of Groucho Marx glasses.
At Hallowe’en, it was unrivalled for its selection of costumes and masks. Sadly, my brother and I usually had to settle for the home-made variety: pillowcases transformed us into ghosts; a stick, a scarf, and an old coat turned you into a hobo; and of course, every self-respecting Sixties child already had a ready-made cowboy outfit. One special October, however, my mother brought home a Superman get-up for me. Okay, it was a neighbour’s hand-me-down, but I didn’t care because my imagination glowed like Kryptonite. Superman was the ultimate costume. Unfortunately, that year we also had a cold spell just before the big night – complete with a couple inches of snow. My mom informed me that I would have to wear a coat if I wanted to go trick-or-treating. My six-year-old mind screamed in mild-mannered agony: what a waste of a magnificent opportunity to transform into Superman! She then suggested I try wearing the costume over top of my jacket. It barely fit, and looking in the mirror, I was dismayed at my ridiculous reflection. Parents can be deviously clever however, and she was able to convince me that the extra padding actually made me look as muscular as Superman himself. I went out that night thinking I was the Man of Steel, when in fact I looked more like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Regrettably, not much has changed in fifty years.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Wednesday, December 3, 2014
An old-timer once said to me, “Winter can hit like a locomotive cutting through fog.” The symbolism is clear to those who grew up in North Bay: the Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, and the Ontario Northland railways all sliced through the city. Like icy arteries, the cold steel rails connected us to the rest of the continent.
As children growing up in Birchaven, we used these conduits as trailways. The ONR line was a short-cut to Northgate Square; we also crossed it daily on our way to school (stopping occasionally to flatten a coin or two); it was an access from which to steal a peek at the SAGE entrance as well; and later, as teens, we used it as a corridor straight into the downtown core.
Before Memorial Drive was built, the CPR line was the only way to see that part of Lake Nipissing’s shoreline. Those were perilous tracks to traverse however, as the railway cops always seemed to be roaming the yards. They were a tough and terrible force that you never hoped to encounter.
My fondest memory of walking the tracks is along the CN line. It cut through the very heart of the city, and was our path in and out of Pinewood. The flower gardens at the end of McIntyre were most spectacular when viewed from this perspective. One wintry evening, while nearing the CN tracks, a friend and I heard the distinct sound of an approaching locomotive. He yelled “Train!” and then set off running. I realized at once that we were in a race to cross the railroad before it passed. I don’t know why, as we had no reason to be in a hurry; but, it became an immediate and panicky obsession. Scampering up a steep hill through waist-deep snow, we felt the rumbling of the engines shake our very bones. At the track bed, we screamed and jumped like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. My friend later claimed that he felt the head-end hit his boots. All I remember is landing on my back in deep snow and staring up at the passing train. Overwhelmed by the sight, the noise, and the vibration, my heart seemed to stop. After the caboose passed, we lay there in stupefaction – watching the winter stars for another ten minutes. Covered in snow and diamond dust, we eventually continued on our merry and mortal way.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, January 6, 2015
The Sixties was a hopeful era, and in its final year, there seemed to be cause for further optimism: a new prime minister, peace talks for the Vietnam conflict, and the Apollo program had twice circled the moon in preparation for a landing. Moreover, Robbie Burns Day fell on a Saturday that January; it had the makings for a perfectly stormy shindig.
As children growing up in the Air Force neighbourhood of BLH, we were witness to this spectacle. There was a block party that afternoon – complete with oatcakes, haggis, and, of course, lots and lots of Scotch. While most in the service were from a variety of cultures, there were a few Scotsmen around to lead the festivities. As day turned into evening, it seemed that all of Sylvan Crescent had become Scottish.
While the grown-ups partied, the kids snuck off to the hill behind EW Norman School. It was a great place for sledding, and we spent most of the winter sliding down its slope. However, on that particular day in January, a few of us took advantage of the adults’ less-than-sober condition by executing something normally prohibited: we secretly carried buckets and buckets of water to make one spectacularly icy track. As if bobsled-training for the Olympics, we sped dangerously down that hill dozens of times. The scream of bagpipes signalled that our fun had come to an end; wet and weary, we trudged homeward to find our parents now in full celebratory inebriation.
For the second time in a month, I heard “Auld Lang Syne,” followed by toasts to the queen, Irene Castle, and Burns himself. In a Scottish accent that I had never noticed before, one of the fathers gave a stirring – though slightly slurred and confusing – speech about liberty. For the rest of my childhood, I was under the impression that Robbie Burns was a Scottish Robin Hood who battled tirelessly against wicked oppressors. Many years later at university, I learned that this was not really far from the truth. For a country with a history of “brave hearts” like William Wallace and Rob Roy, Scotland prefers instead to honour its greatest poet. Robert Burns will forever remind me of freedom, ice-sledding, and a mislaid melancholy of the past.
“But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white – then melts for ever…”
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, February 3, 2015.
Pods Once Swayed
Ask anyone involved in education and they will tell you that the wheel is reinvented every five or six years – and always with fancy new catchphrases. It’s usually all about semantics, but once in awhile something new and daring is undertaken.
Case in point, when W.J. Fricker School was opened in the Sixties, it was built to feature the most recent trend: “open-space” classrooms. Designed for “student-centred” learning, there were three main halls geared for math, humanities, and language. In each area, called “pods,” there were effectively four classes of mixed grade seven and eight students. The theory was that each child would be placed into a level according to her or his ability and staff would act more as facilitators than teachers. On the surface, this was a very enlightened and progressive theory. Learning mathematics in a large room with so many distractions was, to state the obvious, a little challenging.
In the first week of grade seven, we were given a basic aptitude test. My friend and I managed to get an average score, and we were placed in group five of eight (with one being the strongest). The teacher would give instructions and then assign the daily work. The only problem – other than not understanding the lesson – was that we couldn’t even find the textbooks. But, being typical twelve-year-old boys (and realizing that no-one checked our homework), we quickly took full advantage of the situation and relished in doing absolutely nothing. At the end of the unit, we failed the test in spectacular fashion and were sent straight to remedial math. Because that was way too easy for us, we passed the next assessment with flying colours and were immediately sent straight up to group four. Of course, we floundered again and ended back in remedial. Back and forth it went until they finally just stuck us in group six for the rest of the year.
The lesson of this tale: there are now walls where pods once swayed.
There were some prominent teachers at that school when I attended, including future premier Mike Harris, and future director and trustee Paul Moffat. I have fond memories of surviving lunch dodge-ball (“murder-ball”) with Peter Minogue; scoring my only two career points in basketball for George Maroosis; getting an early music lesson from Tim Clark; and making groovy tie-dye t-shirts with John Weiss. Walls or no walls, those were some heady days.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, March 16, 2015.
Spring is tantalizingly close at this time of the year – and much like approaching a distant mountain, it just never seems to get any closer. For those who snowmobile, ski or fish, winter can be a blessing; for others (who merely shovel), it feels like a curse. A long, monstrous curse.
Once, when I was eleven years old, I went snowmobiling and almost went through the ice on Camelot Lake. Never again, I told myself. As a teenager, I went cross-country skiing on Lake Nipissing; it felt way too much like exercise, and because I am somewhat lethargic, that did not last long. Working in radio during the Eighties, I was given a complimentary ski pass for Mount Antoine. Zooming down the mountain – totally out of control – I thought I was going to die. They told me later that my dangerous slope was, in fact, the children’s “Bunny Hill.”
And then there’s the time I went ice-fishing. It was on Lake Nipissing and I was seven: a cold and wet boy who was terrified of fish. I believed all the stories of legendary creatures that were lurking in the water, waiting to attack. Looking down into that icy hole, I imagined that a scaly leviathan was poised to jump up and swallow me whole.
Instead, a humpbacked whitefish flipped, flopped and died before my eyes. Ice fishing was not for me.
The legend that I grew up with in Birchaven concerned a lake creature called “Old Ironsides.” We were told by our elder siblings that this horrible monster would bite your toes off if you ventured too far out in the water. Petrified, it impeded my swimming faculties until I was an adolescent. (Years later, the movie Jaws would rekindle those same fears.) “Leroy the Muskie” was another name for the watery beast. “Muskie” purportedly comes from the Ojibwe word, maashkinoozhe, meaning “ugly pike.” The presumption here is that a pike is good-looking. However, beauty (or hideousness) is surely in the eye of the beholder, and it’s all relative I suppose when you’re speaking of an ambush predator like the Trout Lake Monster.
If not for our national pastime, I don’t think that I could have ever survived our monstrous Canadian winters: as a kid, I lived and breathed hockey. Nowadays, after endless shovelling, I merely watch and wait for the play-offs to arrive: spring lasts from April to June.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, March 31, 2015
In Like Linn
Radio in North Bay has a rich and colourful history. However, there’s one morning host that I recall with particular fondness: during the Eighties, I had the pleasure of working with Doug Linn at CFCH. I couldn’t believe that, as a recent Canadore graduate, I had the privilege of hosting the midnight shift ahead of such a seasoned and polished professional. Better still, he would often let me hang out with him in the booth.
I witnessed his on-air antics first-hand, and Doug was second-to-none. With cutting satire, he served up comical observations and witty ad-libs. I remember these outrageous voices that would come seemingly out of nowhere, like mischievous devils sitting on his shoulders. All of a sudden, there would be a pompous Brit or a confused Mexican in the room. It was absolutely amazing. And like Jonathan Winters or Robin Williams, he would have full-blown conversations with himself. His laughter was infectious, and I always thought that he could have easily carved out a successful career as a stand-up comedian.
Once, he reported that the North Bay Water and Sewer Department was experiencing mechanical problems, and those who lived in odd-numbered houses were to flush their toilets on the half hour while those with even numbers were to flush on the hour. A credit to his popularity, pandemonium ensued, City Hall was flooded with complaints, and Doug had a meeting with our station manager. Privately, we exchanged a high-five.
Another time, the Chicago Knockers mud wrestling team came to town and performed at Blackjacks (Cecil’s). As a warm-up, The Nugget challenged CFCH to a friendly match, but then cancelled at the last minute. Well, like a scene from Ivan Reitman’s movie, Stripes, Doug valiantly stepped into the ring (wearing nothing but a pair of shorts) and challenged the ladies. Alas, the women from Chicago pounced with Amazonian ferocity and proceeded to break Doug’s ankle! Painful and traumatic as it was, in typical Linn style, he turned the episode into many weeks of side-splitting material.
Those were the golden days of radio in North Bay, and Doug was inevitably lured away – by JR Country, a 100,000 watt super-station out of Vancouver that competed down the west coast with Seattle, San Francisco, and L.A. Retired now, he works mostly with paint instead of mud: Doug is also a talented artist. His paintings are wonderful, and his cartooning is reflective of his personality – inspiring and charming.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Saturday, May 16, 2015
Treasury of Dreams
North Bay is fortunate to have a beautiful library with a wonderful treasure trove of inspiration just waiting to be discovered. As a child, I became familiar with every nook and cranny of that building because my mother made weekly visits, and happily, she dragged me along with her.
While she was browsing, I usually wandered about, pulling random books off of the shelves (I appeal for clemency from any and all exasperated librarians). Flipping through them, it was like unearthing a special cache of enchantment: dinosaurs, Egyptian pyramids, outer space and so much more. Eventually, I sat down and read one: The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. In fact, I read it more than once – falling asleep in the middle of my third time through. My mother found me in a corner, dreaming of Sherwood Forest. It’s still my favourite story.
Once, I found a crisp, two-dollar bill tucked inside Blackbeard’s Ghost; it had obviously been someone’s bookmark, but for me, it was a literal, literary discovery. I shook dozens and dozens of books before leaving that day – escaping like a pirate with his booty. I knew exactly what I wanted to buy: hockey cards.
The following day, I cruised over to Mike’s Milk on Sage Road and squandered away my money. Back home, I counted my loot: 190 cards and 38 sticks of powdered bubble gum – a sweet aroma of pure bliss. In one fell swoop, I had tripled my collection (and begun the corrosion of my teeth), and the jewel among them was North Bay’s own Kenny Wharram. Playing with the likes of Bobby Hull and Stan Makita, his card should have been a keeper. Regretfully, most of us rarely saved our stash of cards – I always threw out last season’s set when the new edition went on sale. If we kept any at all, it was to clip onto our bicycle wheels for that super-cool sound effect.
Most things eventually come back in style, and some are like buried treasure. Of course, a library is about more than just books these days; but, there’s something about holding a real novel in your hand that far outweighs any electronic device (no matter how many pixels). A library is an investment in the future. It’s a touchstone – an
indication of the health and fortune of a community. And Robin Hood lives there still, quietly waiting to give and to enrich anyone in need.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Wednesday, June 3, 2011.
When my family first moved to North Bay in 1966, we stayed temporarily at a motel on Lakeshore Drive. It was the middle of shadfly season and I remember marching right into a flurry to investigate them. Unaware of the mosquitoes, I was naively convinced that the shads were stinging me. Mark Twain once wrote that to succeed in life, you only need two things: ignorance and confidence.
Shadflies confirm the health of Lake Nipissing, yet they can also be a source of entertainment. Once, after seeing a movie (Alien, I believe), my friend and I exited the North Bay Mall’s old Cinema Champlain theatres. The doors clunked behind us and we realized that we were caught in the middle of a fierce shad storm. A lady (who I can only imagine had never encountered them) screamed like we were being invaded by millions of tiny aliens. She struggled to open the cinema’s locked doors, and then ran toward her car in complete and utter panic, losing her shoes along the way. I am embarrassed to say that her tragedy was our comedy (“shadenfreude” if you like).
Our daughter once kept a shadfly as a pet. She named it Stanley, made a house for it with a book, and talked to him as if it was her very best friend. This lasted an afternoon – until its home collapsed and crushed it. Not to worry though, as there were plenty more to replace it.
They are certainly stubborn and tenacious little guys. When they come out of the water, it is truly awe-inspiring to witness: swarming in a rolling, undulating rhythm that seems to mimic the waves of the lake. There are so many that they always manage to survive the flocks of birds and bats. Not to mention the snap, crackle and pop of traffic on city streets.
Commonly called mayflies, they come to us in late June or early July. We are so far north that they are seemingly a full month behind their namesakes to the south. Like the shads, we also survive eight months of winter only to enjoy two weeks of summer before autumn begins to fall upon us. We too are hearty souls, surviving in our own way, fooled into believing that we live much longer lives than our little insect friends; but, in the grand scheme of things, our existence here is relatively short-lived, albeit in ignorance and confidence.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Monday, July 6, 2015.
A Walk Down Memory Lane
Another school year has ended and students are now enjoying summer vacation. For the graduates, it’s also the beginning of adulthood. Yet, one bittersweet lesson remains: they may never see many of their friends again. Some will become mere phantoms in their mind's eye.
Driving down Cassells Street, I was reminded of the spirits that haunt my own memory. For a year, we lived at the east end of Worthington, and I used to walk home every day from Chippewa High School. After a long day of classes, I had a couple of miles to go before I could rest. And like old friends, there are many ghosts from those days in the Seventies.
My first stop was usually at Grandma Lee’s where I would devour a cinnamon knot (or two). Then, I would drop by Music City and try to talk someone into selling me one (or two) of the used drum sticks. Due to my shoddy technique, I tended to break them.
On cold or rainy days, I would often duck into Ideal Cleaners – if Penny was working. She was like a sister to me, a kindred spirit, especially when we deliberated about my brother. An alternative refuge from the weather, albeit briefly, was the CN rail trestle. There was always some interesting graffiti there if you cared to look. My favourite: “And the meek shall inherit the earth – if that’s alright with the rest of you.”
Passing the old bus station always stirred recollections of many trips to Toronto. And then there was the original Canadian Tire Store – if I close my eyes, I can still feel my way to the sports department at the far, back right. Countless wooden hockey sticks were purchased there. I broke a lot of those too.
Next to Wilmer Rowe’s Pharmacy was the medical building where I would visit my mother in Doctor Dellandrea’s office; however, I only did this if I wasn’t in a hurry because she always sent me to buy coconut cream pie at the Goodwill Restaurant on the corner.
My last stop was at Erma’s Variety for some more after-school snacks. (Strangely enough, I once frequented a very similar shop in Copenhagen – it was called Irma’s.) Finally, I would arrive home to do some homework, play the drums and nap – not necessarily in that order. We have different paths, different destinations, but we all share some miles before we sleep.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Friday, July 31, 2015
A Killer of a Month
Forty years ago this month, notorious criminal Donald Kelly escaped from the North Bay jail. His legend reads like a Hollywood movie script: with his mother in attendance, he assaulted a guard, bolted through a delivery door, stole a rifle, and then, by commandeering a car on Trout Lake Road, he fled into the countryside. Kelly ended up in the bush and would be on the run for thirty-one long days.
It became national and even international news, and it certainly was the talk of the town that August in 1975. Sensibly, many people avoided spending time at their cottages. Charged with the 1969 murders of Carol and her brother-in-law, Jack MacWilliams, Kelly had been awaiting his Preliminary Inquiry. Consequently, some gave him the benefit of the doubt and questioned his guilt; still others bestowed on him a kind of Robin Hood status, with all of Northern Ontario as his very own Sherwood Forest. This sentiment was bolstered by rumours of Kelly’s behaviour: he was purportedly kind and gentle in his treatment of his hostages, even loosening ropes if they were too tight. Every day that he remained on the lam, his outlaw reputation grew.
He was guilty of course – the vicious assault on the jail guard should have tipped everybody off to that. As a matter of fact, he was arrogant when it came to the murders – full of bravado, he never denied his murderous tendencies and even, on occasion, bragged about it. My father bartended at The Continental back in the early Seventies, and one night Kelly came in and openly boasted about the killings. Frightened, the bar emptied rather quickly, leaving my dad alone with the murderer. With a trembling hand, my father served up a double Bushmills – on the rocks.
Ultimately, any sympathy for Kelly dissipated quickly with the killing of a special OPP tracking dog. In a cabin near Wanapitei Lake, Cloud II died while helping to end the manhunt. The death of the German shepherd tugged at the heart strings of most, and now everyone finally condemned the fugitive. Kelly survived, spent time in hospital, was tried and convicted of murder, and spent the rest of his life in prison – dying in 2009. That it took the death of a police dog for everyone to finally denounce him seems truly remarkable. It serves as an awkward reminder, however: law enforcement is a dangerous and often thankless job.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Saturday, September 5, 2015.
Clear The Track
As the summer nights get cooler, many people’s thoughts inevitably drift to hockey. North Bay has always been passionate about our national sport: from backyard and neighbourhood rinks, the Trappers and Centennials, to the Battalion and Lakers. The city demonstrated this in 2007 when it was crowned Hockeyville and rewarded with an NHL exhibition game between the Atlanta Thrashers and the New York Islanders.
There were, however, two other pro games long before that one.
NHL teams used to tour during the pre-season, and the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins played two games at Memorial gardens: in 1970 and then again in 1971. The first ended in a 3-3 tie, but Buffalo crushed Pittsburgh 6 – 2 the following year. I was at that second game on September 30, 1971. There’s nothing as exciting as watching a live event, and seeing Eddie Shack, Larry Keenan, Punch Imlach, Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, Roger Crozier, Dave Dryden and others was the most thrilling thing that I had ever experienced in my young life.
Those in attendance were mostly interested in seeing the legendary Imlach (who won four Stanley Cups as coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs) and Perreault (the young and rising star of his generation). However, my fondest memory is that of Eddie Shack flying down the ice, his hair flowing in the breeze. He appeared to have two speeds: fast and faster than everyone else. The first time he took off down the left wing boards, everyone stood and erupted in a thunderous cheer. It was electrifying, and whenever I visit the Gardens, those sights and sounds always come flooding back.
Hailing from Sudbury, he was certainly one of the league’s more eccentric celebrities, and even had a song written about him, “Clear The Track, Here Comes Shack.” It was a number-one hit in Canada, and was played endlessly on the radio. As a spokesman for soft drinks and razors, he always showed his comical side. Those commercials are memorable, to say the least, and live forever on the Internet.
Hockey is about playing a game, and playing should be fun. Shack reminded everyone of that. How many of us have imagined scoring the winning goal in a Stanley Cup championship game? Shack managed that in 1963; but, in his own charming and self-deprecating way, he always claimed that it bounced off his backside. In the good old hockey game, it still counts.
MEMORIES OF NORTH BAY
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Saturday, October 10, 2015.
North Bay once had three movie houses downtown: the Odeon, the Capitol, and the Bay. Popular films would actually return again and again, making the circuit for years, and back then, all three theatres boasted full houses every weekend.
I saw many films at the Odeon, including: Batman: the Movie in 1967, Tommy in 1975, and Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981. The larger Capitol had a long, cavernous entranceway and carpeted stairs leading up to the balcony. My lasting memory of that theatre is going to watch The Godfather. Regrettably, there was a power failure that night and the manager had to come out and apologize that there would be no show. A collective groan erupted because everyone understood that we all had to file out – one at a time – to get our refund. This took over an hour.
In the Sixties, my brother Billy would often bring me to the Saturday double matinee at the Bay – two movies for just 50 cents! It was there that I first encountered the zany antics of the Marx Brothers. I had never seen anything like them before (or since). Scorn, mockery, and derision were championed by perhaps the funniest man of all time, Groucho Marx; with outrageous wit, he elevated sarcasm to the epitome of satire. Our mother would drop us off at the entrance, and in hindsight, it seems that the Bay was used as an early form of daycare since the place was always packed. One time, I fell asleep during the second feature, and my brother went downstairs to the washroom. He found a cigarette butt and proceeded to write his name on the wall with it. Why? Good question. Maybe he was inspired by the anarchy of the Marx Brothers, or perhaps he was just bored to tears. Either way, an alert usher caught him in the act and calmly proceeded to eject the reluctant juvenile delinquent. Only after much pleading was he allowed to first collect his little brother before being banished. Like a couple of lost waifs, we waited on the sidewalk until our mom picked us up.
Only this past summer did he finally reveal the real reason for our early exit; yet, it’s never too late to truly appreciate the significance of a life lesson. As Groucho once said, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can never live long enough to make them all yourself.”
The following column first appeared in the North Bay Nugget on Saturday, December 12, 2015
Winter can only be kept at bay for so long, and anyone who has grown up here is resigned to that foregone and frigid fact. Sooner or later, North Bay will be the scene of a glacial siege: as cold, arctic air descends, squadron after squadron of frozen clouds will swoop down and bombard us with tons of silvery white snow.
Airport Hill always gets it first. The Air Force base is the vanguard – our very own Distant Early Warning line; and because of that, it sometimes feels like another world up there. The Cold War gave us the N.O.R.A.D. “hole,” the 22 Wing, and thousands of Canadian and American families. It was also home for Michael J. Fox. (I could write that I hung out with him in E.W. Norman’s chilly playground, but that would be mere wishful and creative imagination.) Think of the generations of American families who have come up from Colorado Springs to live in our neck of the frosty woods. They must have thought that they had been sent to the American equivalent of Soviet Siberia!
In the Sixties, the wife of an American flyer was the favourite hairstylist of the mothers in B.L.H. One time, during a chilly dance at the Mess Hall, it was duly noted that she had created most of the bouffants, beehives and bobs in attendance. Not so for the men – they all sported the requisite crew-cut. I was always dragged along for the ride when my dad would visit his barber. As enticement (or perhaps compensation) for sitting quietly, I was bribed and then rewarded with a chocolate milkshake each time.
The Canex was a favourite place for children dreaming of Christmas. During December, it had boxes of toys stacked from floor to ceiling. One year, Santa gave us a special table-top hockey game from that store which provided hundreds of hours of entertainment.
And then there was the sub-zero rink in the hangar. It had the coldest and hardest ice south of the North Pole – the hollow sound of the frozen surface as your skates clunked along was polar proof of the sharp, arctic blast outside. My team once lost a heartbreaker there – we went undefeated all season, and then lost the championship game on that unforgiving ice. It was a bitter, bleak and biting fact for any ten-year-old to accept.
Hockey – and winter – is like that.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Friday, January 8, 2016
Twisted Turns and Tales
North Bay is blessed to have both a university and a college. Originally a couple of buildings that were easy to navigate, the Education Complex is now a sprawling, mishmash of buildings that appear to procreate on their own, seemingly springing up overnight. A left turn here, a right turn there, and a wrong turn anywhere, and you end up in Narnia.
With a unique crossover of programs, it has spawned generations of graduates – from nurses to psychologists to avionic technologists. On any given day, you might stumble across peculiar film-making students acting out crazy scenes; around another corner, you may just as easily witness a pair of mad biology students tending to a rotting, stinking vat of home-made compost – grossing out the education students playing with their hand-made puppets.
Symbolic of the twisted nature of higher education are the infamous slanted stairs that connect two buildings. First-year students stagger with various techniques to best navigate them. Is it better to go straight up or to climb at an angle? (Angling is slower, but diminishes the risk of spilling your coffee.)
Like the complex, I am a disjointed graduate of both institutions. I dressed up as Bob McKenzie once and did a special “Hoser” version of the weather for Canadore News. It went over well with everyone except the broadcasting brass. Years later, I studied history and English at Nipissing with professors Olsen, Surtees and Klingspon, among others. Dr. Klingspon’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare was deliriously contagious: “I essentially am not in madness, but mad in craft.”
Any school is only as good as its instructors.
Which brings me to Professor Norbert Schuldes. He was a philosopher and a true genius. Philosophy was for him the epitome of all learning – something that bridged the arts and science. He lectured like a Prussian poet, and he would often get side-tracked, leading to discussions about the intrinsic value of a painting or the aesthetic meaning of our very existence. For him, life was beautiful – if only by contrast to some of the horrors he had experienced in World War Two. When reminded of Mozart, he would
close his eyes, smile, and sigh, “Ah, my friend, Amadeus.” Symphonies played in his head.
Steve Martin once said that “One year of philosophy is enough to screw you up for the rest of your life.” A little warped soul-searching, however, can sometimes reveal the spice of life.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, February 9, 2016
A city is merely a series of images and sounds cloaked by time – like the whiteout of an early snowstorm blowing across Lake Nipissing. North Bay was built around the railroads, and these days, the tracks that once criss-crossed our area move with less frequency; and some, like the CNR, no longer even exist. Yet, from the ONR steam shop, there is still a daily reminder of the town’s past: a horn sounds at 8:00, 12:00, 12:20 and 4:00. Like an old-fashioned town crier, they hark back to times gone by.
The sound is clear and unmistakable no matter where you are in town – from West Ferris to Pinewood and Birchaven. Obviously, they are signals for ONR employees: to start their day, to begin and finish their lunch, and to announce quitting time. I always imagined Fred Flintstone yabadaba-dooing out of that parking lot.
The rest of us have also used it most of our lives.
As kids playing baseball (“scrub,” actually) in the E. W. Norman playground, it was a warning that we needed to head home for supper. Instantly, it was the bottom of the ninth inning and the next out or run would end our game. To us, this was as nerve-racking as game seven of the World Series. In hindsight, it was probably because we knew that we were testing our collective mothers’ patience if we prolonged our return too long.
As teenagers, we would often use the ONR tracks as a direct route home. Once, we surreptitiously wandered through the ONR complex and unknowingly passed near the steam shop when it blasted the 4:00 signal. The shock and thrill of it removed us from our skin momentarily.
Like an audible town clock, it’s been used as a reminder for lunches, appointments, or just for the time of day. Sometimes, it’s a haunting reminder: September 28, 2012 was a sad day for lots of travellers as the Northlander left on its last trip. As ONR employees waved goodbye, the crew and passengers were saluted with three blasts of the horn.
Meanwhile, the cold and dark rails jealously watch in silence as the city changes, and the past runs away from us with every reverberation of that lonely whistle. Like a Doppler effect, it echoes the rhythm and regularity of the human world deep into the harmony and tranquility of the wilderness that surrounds us.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Saturday, February 13, 2016.
The last month has shown the profound influence that David Bowie had on the world of music and culture; and for me, he will be irrevocably linked with the sounds and visions of our little corner of the cosmos.
In July, 1969, it seemed all of Sylvan Crescent crowded into our living-room to watch Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. The following day, “Space Oddity” played on CFCH, and my imagination spun out of control. I yearned to be Major Tom.
The Seventies brought many transformations as my friends and I began roaming farther and farther from home – exploring dead-end streets, train tracks and abandoned brick factories. Bowie’s song “Changes” resonated with us.
By junior high, music had become an indispensable diversion. Following a long day at Centennial School, we would spend hours in the basement of our Princess Street home wearing out my brother’s copy of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Ziggy was someone we shared esoterically and it bonded us: “Hey, that's far out so you heard him too!”
The first time us boys dared to dance in public was in the school gym when “Jean Genie” played. Bowie had become our personal genie: revealing that being and looking different was okay, and that perhaps the prejudices of our parents’ generation might just be untenable.
By high school, we embraced the song, “Rebel Rebel.” Hanging out at Chippewa High School’s south end, we all believed that we were “calamity” children: long-haired revolutionaries in bell-bottom jeans and platform boots. “Fame” and “Young Americans” dominated dances. Those were “Golden Years,” as we drove endlessly around town with the windows down and the music blaring. In retrospect, teen years can seem golden, at least “In the back of a dream car.”
With our social consciousness awakened, Bowie gave us “Heroes” and “Ashes to Ashes.” Yet, the future scared us, and I remember walking along Jane Street when my friend quoted Bowie by asking, “We live for just these twenty years / Do we have to die for fifty more?”
Many of us left town for greener pastures, ready to change the world. Eventually, we returned, and seemingly nothing much had changed: in North Bay’s club life of the Eighties, “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love” dominated the dance floors.
The gravitational collapse of Bowie’s star has left many of us with a black hole. Everything has changed.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nuggeton Wednesday, March 9
Old and New
The Civic and St. Joseph hospitals were wonderful places. In times of sadness and joy – from adverse prognoses and death to healing and birth – people commemorate both mortality and renewal.
For years my mother worked in the X-ray department at the Civic. Whenever I had a dentist appointment, she would bring me with her, and I would walk over to the Algonquin Medical Building. While a ten-minute stroll down Browning Street and Greenwood Avenue may seem simple enough, for a nervous child it was a disconcerting trudge into oblivion. I always worried that I would get lost and miss my dental rendezvous. Sadly, I never did.
Later, I would hang out with the X-ray staff while my mother tried to keep me busy with menial tasks. The thing that I remember most about the Civic was the pneumatic tube system that was used to send messages, x-rays and other documents between departments. Through a system of pipes and compressed air, you could put something in a canister, set it in the barrel, and shoot it off to another part of the hospital. She probably shouldn’t have shown me how to operate it: when she would step out for a few minutes, staff around the hospital would be bewildered by incoming tubes containing blank paper, paper clips and pens. It might have been nineteenth century technology, but to me it was like being aboard the Starship Enterprise – beaming things off like magic to who-knows-where. In hindsight, it seems slightly akin to “steam punk” fiction, worthy of Billy Pilgrim himself.
That office was like Grand Central Station: doctors, nurses and patients all passed through on their way somewhere else. In fact, on September 28, 1972, everyone crowded around a little portable television in the X-ray waiting room to watch Team Canada win the Summit Series. In blurry black and white, Henderson scored that wonderful (albeit snowy) goal and the hospital (and country) erupted with cheers.
Although St. Joseph’s Hospital had not aged well, the Civic was still a relatively new building that had actually been designed for expansion. But, in the name of progress, they were both abandoned. Ironically, while the brilliant institutions are no more, the shadowy memories remain. Every time I drive up Algonquin Avenue and see the sign, “Hospital Closed,” beside a snow-covered pile of rubble, I have to suppress a sentimental chuckle. A more ridiculous understatement I have never seen.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Thursday, April 14, 2016
Oftentimes spring arrives and then winter slams right back, as if the seasons are confused and have somehow reversed themselves. From time to time, life can also feel like that – especially when we indulge in reminiscing. Like watching life backwards, images dance around in our minds. Nostalgia can stir up many foggy ghosts, and I am often drawn back to E. W. Norman School. Our house was seconds from the playground, and I must have run back and forth tens of thousands of times. If fence-hopping was a track and field event, I may have had a career as an Olympic athlete.
Hosting assemblies, lunchtime and extra-curricular activities, the gymnasium was the heart of the school. We also played endless hours of gym-ringette in there. One of our teachers, Wayne Hopkins, organized a fantasy N.H.L. league and he would post the standings every day. Thanks to his tireless efforts, many make-believe Stanley Cups were won; yet, it seemed just as important and real as anything else going on in our lives. I remember his smile and the bottomless cup of coffee he always seemed to have in hand – on yard duty or while coaching volley-ball and soccer.
He also organized a special production of A Christmas Carol in 1971. I remember standing on stage worried that I was going to forget my one line. And I did, thus ending my delusional dream of becoming a famous actor.
Unlike Michael J. Fox, who also spent time in that school; the Back to the Future star was a student in Miss Orlecki’s class – as was I. My favourite memory of her is the day that she tried to rewind a film on one of those old projectors and ended up showing the entire movie in reverse. We had never seen such sights: people and cars speeding along backwards. This bizarre, alternate reality was so mesmerizing and amusing, that the class erupted into a roar as we laughed our heads off. For the rest of the year we begged her to always rewind the films that way.
Sometimes the past is seen through rose-coloured glasses, and sometimes it’s comical – yet time always flows softly away from us. We are only left with an obscure future, a blurry present and the endless elusiveness of the past.
However, we can hopefully bid adieu to winter. For now.
“All our sweetest hours fly fastest.” Virgil
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, May 24, 2016
In springtime, when we salute the welcoming weather by opening windows, there is sometimes a chorus of birds greeting us. One of the great things about living so close to nature is, of course, the wildlife – especially the plethora of birds. Laurier Woods is an especially good place to see not only the flora and occasional beaver, but also quite a diverse selection of our local avifauna. No matter where you find yourself in town, you’re bound to hear the sweet music of songbirds. Of course, there are other birds whose sounds are not quite that soothing: the blue jays, ravens and crows make noises that can easily substitute as an unwanted and annoying alarm clock.
One spring, we discovered a rather nice surprise when a pair of robins began building a nest just outside our bedroom window at our old house on (appropriately enough) Nightingale Drive. Our kids were young then and we were able to watch the entire development together: from nest-building, egg-laying, to the birth of nestlings and then finally a pair of fledgling juveniles. That was quite a memorable summer. Except for our cat. Sitting on the bed, he could only watch and daydream – twitching all the while.
I find that most birds are also mischievous. Case in point, when I lived in Pinewood, I would go for a daily bike ride, and there were a couple of particularly ornery red-winged blackbirds that lived somewhere in the vicinity of Cedargrove and Tackaberry Drives. For some reason, when I would cycle by, they would come out of nowhere to dive-bomb and peck at my head. I soon learned to pick up enough speed so that the barmy birds would always be too late to attack; however, they still insisted on flying out and performing some compulsory reconnaissance. I wore my Mets hat, and I think that they were alarmed by the orange NY crest and saw it as a threat – maybe as another blackbird. Or perhaps they were just Blue Jays fans. Either way, I wonder whether their descendants continue on with their reign of Hitchcockian terror.
Others are downright bird-brained. The ducks have taken to staying all winter (I’m not really sure how they even survive). And then there’s the seagull population, who seemingly have two seasons: wintering at the landfill and then spending the rest of the year at the lakefront.
In any case, birds are a most welcome sign of spring.
Enjoy some past "Memories of North Bay"
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, June 7, 2016
Some Things Never Change
North Bay seems to have always had unique characters around town – from the sublime to the deadly notorious and everything in between. There are legends of bear-wrestlers, barons and bizarre politicians. It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
For many years Thomas Kuzmick took a daily stroll down Cassells Street. He was nicknamed the “Button Man” due to the medals and buttons that adorned his military overcoat. As kids we heard the outrageous rumour that he had had his tongue cut out in World War Two. By most accounts, he was a quiet person who had merely suffered an injury as a young man.
Across from the cathedral, Bill Booth was often seen sitting in front of his tiny store – having a conversation with anyone who cared to stop by. And regularly seen on the sidewalk of Main Street East was Scotty the barber – always dressed in white, you couldn’t miss him. For a high school project, my friend Art borrowed an 8mm movie camera and shot scenes around town.
Somewhere there’s a video of Scotty jumping up and down, waving at Art from across the street. We laughed until we cried watching that clip.
Merle Dickerson was definitely one for the books. He once extended an invitation to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to come and take part in a beard-growing contest. During his tenure as mayor, he was arrested for gambling and also convicted of voter fraud; nonetheless, North Bay continued to re-elect Dickerson. People defended him by saying that he was as an “honest crook.”
There was also the infamous Donald Kelly. While awaiting trial for murder, he broke out of the North Bay Jail on Trout Lake Road and disappeared into the bush. It took a month before the police found him, but not before he took several people hostage and killed a police dog. That was a wild and hot August back in 1975.
Then there’s the long-forgotten Irene Foster. One day in March of 1930, the teenager made international headlines by brutally murdering her mother. When ordered to end a budding romance, Foster instead hit her fifteen times with an axe in the basement of their Fifth Avenue home. Love is often referred to as “temporary insanity.” I have a Romeo and Juliet poster in my classroom with the caption: “Boy Meets Girl. Parents Don’t Approve. Some Things Never Change.”
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Tuesday, July 12, 2016.
Military families are modern-day nomads, and like many others in North Bay, I’m an Air Force brat. We moved here in 1966, and lately, I have been retracing some familiar streets.
Our first home was on Echo Place. Lake Nipissing was nearby with its welcoming beaches and warm water. However, arriving in early July, we were also met by shadflies. The fact that they don’t bite was unknown to us.
From one lake to another, we then moved to Sylvan Crescent, where I learned to swim in Trout Lake’s much cooler water. To walk there, you had to navigate around a swamp, nicknamed, appropriately enough, “Beaver Lake.” It’s now Wickstead Avenue. After taking swimming lessons at Armstrong Beach, I was presented with a “Tadpole” card which proclaimed, “I can dunk my head under the water three times.” I can only imagine my parents’ pride.
Of course, both Echo Place and Sylvan Crescent were not actually in North Bay back then, as West Ferris and Widdifield had not yet been amalgamated. We moved into the city proper when my parents bought a home on Princess Street West. Long before the Kinsmen Trail, nearby Chippewa Creek and the bush surrounding it were more often than not frequented by teenagers participating in activities other than cycling.
I had my first taste of apartment living when we relocated to Ann Street, and my main hangout became Snoopy’s on Algonquin. I poured a small fortune into its juke box. Moving to the first of two houses on Tackaberry Drive, my teen years were spent in the depths of Pinewood. Using the railway tracks as our personal expressways between neighbourhoods, we must have walked ten thousand miles.
For a short while, we lived on Worthington Street East, where I became very familiar with bats – lots of bats. To this day, we refer to that residence as the “Bat House.”
The first home of my own was on Nightingale Drive. I had always heard that Ferris was built on swampland, and I learned quickly that it was true – becoming a regular at Kelly’s Pumps. Our children’s formative years were spent on that idyllic street: the only people who drive down Nightingale are those who live there or people who are lost!
Currently, I live on Mariah Street, where I have no sump pump, but I do drive by Echo Place every day – and I still hear the reverberating memories.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Friday, July 29, 2016.
Sweet Serene Serendipity
Summer in the Park rekindled another wonderful, yet bittersweet memory: The Tragically Hip headlining the Heritage Festival back in 2009. As Gordon Downie has been diagnosed with an incurable form of brain cancer, we can only send him best wishes – and treasure that special night seven years ago.
From the opening song, “New Orleans is Sinking” to the finale, “Grace, Too,” it was an unforgettable evening. A concert by The Hip is always extraordinary, but what always strikes me the most is the juxtaposition of the rock music with their poetic front-man. Gordon Downie is a true poet.
He is always mesmerizing to watch – no, it’s more than that – you experience, absorb and celebrate with him. At any moment, he’s liable to dance an awkward little jig, grimace and then deliver a legendary story through a poetic rant. It’s usually profound and ridiculous at the same time. His lyrics reach across universal themes that celebrate humanity with the sensitivity of a sagacious philosopher. All in front of a band that rocks like a coal-fired freight train.
The main stage was set up in the top parking lot along Memorial Drive back on that August evening, and for a good part of the concert, Gordie (I’m not on a first-name basis with him, but calling him “Downie” just doesn’t seem appropriate) covered his face with his handkerchief. Maybe he was bored or just being goofy, or perhaps he was exhausted, but I like to think that he was simply overwhelmed by his surroundings: thousands of joyous fans on a long weekend with Lake Nipissing reflecting the violet light glowing from the sparkling summer sky. It was a perfectly Canadian setting for the quintessential Canadian band.
At one point I found myself drawn right up front singing along to “Courage” at the top of my lungs when Gordie looked down at a group of us and gave a serene and sweet smile. I caught the eyes of the perfect strangers standing around me and the tranquillity seemed to be contagious. We were all in a wistful musical trance, and in that instant, I felt truly Canadian: celebrating this mutual bliss together in a moment of exquisite, harmonious and spontaneous serendipity.
In a poem entitled “Sailboat,” from his book, Coke Machine Glow, Gordon Downie writes, “… the most you can do is spend all your time giving some of your time meaning.”
Yes. Thanks Gordie.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Thursday, September 1, 2016
Fall of Greatness
September means the return of high-school football, and many energetic teens will achieve greatness, or have it thrust upon them – just like in the professional leagues.
With names like Ditka, McMahon, Payton, and Singletary, the 1985 Chicago Bears were arguably the strongest Super Bowl champions ever. (Bill Swerski once bragged that “da Bears” could beat the New York Giants 74 – 2!) What's more, they had a secret weapon: William Perry, also known as The Fridge. He was a defensive tackle, but Mike Ditka also used him as a fullback; at well over 300 pounds and almost impossible to tackle, Perry managed to score a few touchdowns.
It seems that Ditka might have scouted our area back in 1974.
Back then, I was a skinny bench-warmer for the Chippewa Raiders' junior football team. The Scollard Hall Bears had, as usual, a dominant team that year, and like the future Chicago Bears, they also had a secret weapon: a giant who we believed was six-and-a-half feet tall and weighed at least 300 pounds. As their running back and kicker, he could seemingly score on every possession, and he would boot the ball clear through the end zone every time. In fear and trepidation, we dubbed him the “Bulldozer.”
One bitterly cold, autumn afternoon at the Bears’ field (before the artificial turf, the lights, and without all of the houses surrounding it), we were losing badly (possibly 74 – 2). At halftime, the coach told me that I was going in as a linebacker. (His eyes were more apologetic than inspiring.) On the first play, the Bulldozer took the ball and started plowing through our line. It was like watching a bowling ball strike pins. Amid the flying carnage, I saw him heading straight for me, now seemingly nine feet tall and 600 pounds. With my short life flashing before me, I closed my eyes and jumped at his legs. The world revolved around me a few times, but in the end, his body was on the ground next to mine. Like David to Goliath, I felt that I had achieved the impossible; in fact, greatness had merely tripped over me. He scored on the very next play.
This was my finest moment in my high-school football career, and yet I never learned the Bulldozer’s real name. However, I like to imagine that Ditka was there and had had inspiration thrust upon him – sadly, at my expense.
The following column first appeared in The North Bay Nugget on Saturday, November 5, 2016.
North Bay has a long history of media – from The Nugget to Baron Roy Thomson and the many radio stations we have today. At
one time, there was also an active television market: in October of 1971, CHNB-TV began operations as the CBC affiliate, and the
existing CKNY-TV switched to CTV programming.
My brother and I were excited at this news because the number of channels had suddenly doubled – from one to two! We were
convinced that there would always be something interesting to watch now: because, if you didn’t like what was on channel four, you
could just spin over to ten. After a moment of rabbit-ear choreography, presto – another show!
We were soon dismayed that the choice, more often than not, was between Question Period and Audubon Wildlife Theatre.
Choosing between an interview with the Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board or a documentary on the life
cycle of earthworms was disheartening for a couple of kids searching for Bugs Bunny.
In complete denial, we would stand there, dumbfounded, spinning the dial back and forth between channels four and ten. My
father would become exasperated with our idiotic behaviour. “You’re going to strip the gears!” he would shout in maniacal futility.
His prophecy was eventually fulfilled: the knob did indeed fall off one day, and no amount of tape or glue enabled it to function
usefully any longer. Instead, a pair of pliers took up permanent residence atop the television.
Radio-Canada was available on channel seven as well; however, as it was French, this was not even an option for ignorant,
English-speaking boys. TVO was also there on channel two, but it was snowier than a mild day in January.
Years later, I worked at MCTV as a switcher – the person whose job it is to cut in on the national signal with local commercials.
Both the CTV and CBC feeds came in through the same control room, and I had the pleasure of working in front of two television sets.
The standard Friday and Saturday night programming back then was usually old Forties and Fifties movies. Late at night, I would
watch two movies at once – getting completely lost in both. While this was an improvement over my childhood viewing options, to
this day I mix up the stars of those old classics. Is that Montgomery Cliff or Tyrone Power? They switch places in my befuddled mind.