Saturday, December 23, 2023

O Little Town Of Chesley

 Climb aboard the magic carpet of nostalgia and fly eight decades in time back to the town near Owen Sound which grew like so many where mills marked fords in the rivers that crisscrossed Ontario before the province staggered from depression into war. If there wasn't a mill, there was a CNR station all located where the locomotives needed to refuel. 

A vanished time because the factories are gone along with the station. And the school burned down. The classes ended up all over town, Grade 8 in the council chamber with three pupils to each picnic table.

I was orphaned as a tot in the Big Smoke and came to the little house near the tracks heated by the wood stove (used for cooking all the bread) except on special occasions when a little round coal stove heated the parlour. The outhouse in the back kitchen was decorated with GE pictures of Niagara Falls generators. Some times the frost coated the inside of windows. It was not unusual for no plumbing or furnace in town and they were high faluting too expensive on the mixed use 100 acre farms on the circling concessions. We never did get a furnace before the house burned down. Fire was the big enemy The volunteer fire engine was kept behind the town office which also housed one cell. There was one policeman who had little to do with 1,800 residents who thought shop lifting was a major crime.

Life revolved around several furniture factories where time was marked by whistles and heat was provided by burning sawdust carted by a team of horses that plodded all day by our house from a sawmill on the Rocky Saugeen where I taught myself to swim.

The social life was dominated by the Protestant churches, although the Catholics had been allowed a small one. The farmers came to church by sleigh and left their steaming teams in big driving sheds. Evil was the little pool hall and the few men who snuck to drink in a hamlet. You knew about the little that was going on by reading the weekly and listening twice a day to Toronto newscaster Jim Hunter on the big mantel radio (which was only on for an hour of soap operas.) Most war news came from the Sun Times out of Owen Sound, which is where you went for major shopping if the item wasn't in the thick Eaton's catalogue which we used when they grew tattered for pads for the endless games of street hockey.

There was no milk delivery and you kept meat not in the ice box but at the dairy in rented boxes of mainly chicken wire. The dairy sold buttermilk, a nickel a pail. The little movie theatre was busiest on the Saturday afternoon matinee which was always a Western. Churches had a big picnic, which featured egg salad sandwiches, the ingredients for which came from the gardens that many had, along with chickens in back yard pens. Pigeon coops were common. Every church also had a Christmas concert, with a few faltering solos and girls in dyed cheese cloth swooping in coloured lights from an old projector.

Not a big sale of Christmas cards, not with the price of stamps and you had to rent a little windowed box at the post office because there was no delivery. Not many Christmas decorations either, and using the short form of Xmas was frowned on. Eaton's was said to have a magic Toyland on the fifth floor up rickety wooden escalators and Simpsons just across Queen St. had a carol sing for staff and customers every morning which was carried live on radio. Every class in the public school lined up in their smelly cloakrooms and sang along with a few big radios placed strategically in the hall. Then it was back inside to an atmosphere which would cause a woke agitator to suicide, and being sent to have the Grade Eight teacher, a mean tempered principal, strap your hands with a big leather belt was as common as the daily drills on grammar.

Winter was a problem. They dropped yeast by plane for the humble bakery when a big storm marooned the town when the big railway plow couldn't clear the track. The highways were growing like varicose veins but car trips were arduous. Living into your 70s was a big deal and if you did die in the town with no hospital they would wait to spring to bury you because the ground was too hard under the snow drifts.

Ah yes, all those years ago, all those decades that I have survived, even though I no longer send cards because I don't know who of my friends, relatives and colleagues did too. I still enjoy everything about Christmas even if TV seems to be endless crap about the jerk known as Trump and the joy of a rum eggnog at a party is blighted  by the noise of people enjoying themselves who aren't deaf and in a wheelchair. I read the newspapers and curse their slimness and accounts of anti-Semitism and savour the legend of Santa and the literature of Dickens.

We have never known more about the world. We have just got to ignore the alleged populists among our pols and endure the feeling that we are going to hell in a hand basket. It is hard to do so considering the Trudeau Grits and woke infestations in our schools and councils and institutions. But after all these decades I have come to the belief that 2024 can't be worse although 2023 certainly tried. 

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Wonderful life on Elsfield

I had lived in 16 different houses, apartments, rooms, and rooming houses, and had at least 16 part-time jobs and two reporting ones, before I ended at 92 Elsfield Rd. and my work as a writer.

Somehow I had always drifted west even though I had been born in the east end where streetcars ground past my father's house on Gerrard. He died there, overworked as a family doctor and school trustee, launching me on a dizzy round of relatives, homes and empty holidays.

When I came to Sunnylea nearly 60 years ago, where once there had been an orchard with an underground creek reeking havoc with construction near Glenroy, it was a decent haven of solid families. I knew it would be when the alderman-realtor talked me into buying the house of the TD bank manager just up on Bloor St. Changes came, of course, and not just humble ones. One of three supermarkets became the world's first adventure in cable TV where we paid to watch first-run movies by putting coins into a gizmo on top of the TV.

I covered politics. So I gathered there would be a subway line and station at the big corner. And three Metro Toronto giants lived just blocks away, with the works commissioner to the north, the planing commissioner to the west and the parks commissioner to the south. Famous for innovations like Tommy Thompson with his sign Please Walk On The Grass. 

Sunnylea was anchored by a school, and not just an ordinary one but one famous in architecture as the model for new elementary schools in the country with doors leading outside from every class. The architect, John Parkin, was a bit of a bon vivant who owned two big houses across from Royal York United Church and later designed unique buildings like the new city hall which was so different that the mayor gulped when the model was unveiled. The school had advancement classes where the brightest in the borough were bussed in but the rest of the kids walked while the parents worried about the lack of sidewalks.

The more ambitious parents played volleyball one evening a week at the school. Their children joined a legendary Scout pack that Audrey Jolley ran strictly in the church basement and fathers were dragooned into helping one weekend camp each fall. Once a year I would buy mounds of fireworks and fire them off in an orgy at the school yard, and the watchers would rate the rockets for a story I would write in the Tely. All the Sunnylea kids sang carols one noon at the church and there was a grand costume parade in the school yard every Halloween.

There are always blind spots when you slip into your anecdotage. Just what was the name of the minister at the church who became the moderator of the United Church? How many wives glazed  creche figures at the church? Who was the woman who edited the major astronomy magazine? What number was the house of the sister of the director of education?

Some evenings when the street lights bounce off the wet pavement and the kids are long gone from their zig zag splash through the puddles, I listen to the mutter of the city beyond the Humber and am grateful that decades ago I had enough sense to buy into this bit of peace.