Life Lessons from Boyhood
I have had more trouble with myself than with any other person I have ever met.
It is the summer of 1957 and the weather outside is pleasantly warm but I am sitting inside the Chief of Police’s office in my hometown of Wiarton, Ontario and I’m sweating bullets. I have just turned 13. A couple of my buddies have been “invited” to the Chief’s office as well. There are only two restaurants in our town and a couple of nights ago one of them was burglarized and some cash was stolen. The Chief says he knows we hang out on the main drag a lot and wonders if we saw anything. He is playing “good” cop routine with us no doubt hoping one of us is guilty and will be so nervous that we will confess. I am sweating because I have a wad of cash that I am holding tightly with my left hand in my pants pocket. If he sees the bulge and searches me I am going to be in big trouble.
I grew up in this small but pretty valley town until age 15. It’s the home of the famous furry Weather Prognosticator, Wiarton Willie. As you enter Wiarton you pass gates that declare it to be the “Gateway to the Bruce Peninsula”. Once you are through the gates you are travelling north on the main drag, Berford Street. You can’t see the shops and stores at the gates because you are at the top of a hill and the businesses only become visible as you descend down the hill. The business district of Wiarton is on the floor of the valley and the town consists of about 2,500 people with huge hills surrounding it on three sides and the shores of beautiful Georgian Bay on the flat side to the east. The hills are actually part of the Niagara Escarpment. To the north is the Bruce Peninsula, home of numerous lakes and recreational properties. In the summer there is always a steady stream of cars coming through the gates and after a brief stop for groceries they exit the town via the big hill to the north and they are off to enjoy their vacations and all the recreational opportunities that the Peninsula has in store for them.
My mother and father are divorced and for awhile it was just her and my two brothers and myself. Gary older by two years and Ted two years younger. We live in a two-story house on Louisa Street. My father lives in London, Ontario, and I don’t see or hear much of him in my boyhood days. My mother initially worked at the Pacific Hotel and struggled to make enough to support herself and her three boys. She then remarried and started a second family and so our household grew eventually to seven kids in all. While today we all have great relationships with each other I must admit as the family grew at that time in my life Ifelt less and less wanted and hence the reason I spent little time at home and could always be seen hanging out on Berford Street. The Chief knows me well because I am always on his beat.
We call the street we live on the “back alley” because there are only two houses on it and it is directly behind and parallel to Berford Street where the businesses are and so our house is facing the back of the stores including the restaurant that was burglarized. Maybe the Chief has called me for this little “chat” knowing I live only steps from the back of the ill fated restaurant. It is not a busy street, hence the name “back alley” and why with our friends, the Lodge boys, we can play “kick the can” in the summer time and road hockey in the winter without much interference. If someone was going to break into one of the businesses he/she would surely want to access it from our back alley. It would be even easier if that person lived there.
Our street is halfway up a huge hill and the west side and behind our house is a forest. If the forest wasn’t there we would be able to see the houses on the next street up at the top. I actually spend a fair bit of time by myself in the forest. Sometimes I go there with an empty brown paper bag and a box of matches. I tear the bag into small pieces, roll them up to the size of a cigarette and then smoke them. No tobacco, just paper. Not the best of puffs but the price was right.
Because the forest was on a hill with houses along the top, there was a stone wall constructed to support the ground at the higher levels and keep it and the houses from rolling down on top of our house and the back of the businesses when rains came. The stones in the wall were like bricks and one day while I am enjoying my paper “fag” I find one that is loose and I pull it out. This is where I would stash my money for safekeeping. I had job at my uncle’s grocery story and prior to that I had a paper route, so any spare money I had would be entombed there for safekeeping. I am a very insecure kid but having this stash that no one knows about gives me a feeling of security knowing I can always come here and get it when I need it. I am pretty frugal and so the money after time keeps accumulating. This is pre Loonie/Toonie days so most of my stash is in green $1 and brown $2 bills. Today my wife keeps about the same amount of these no longer used bills hoping some day they will be worth a mint. They won’t be in our lifetime but to a 13-year-old kid they were my security and safety net.
No one knows about my stash but me and I am always very careful whenever I go to make a deposit or withdrawal. I ensure no one has seen me enter the forest and even when I get to the spot where the money is I sit there for quite awhile before I pull the stone out of its place to make absolutely sure no one is around. I do not make deposits or withdrawals in the winter because if I did I would leave tracks in the snow and someone would be able to follow me and steal my money. It seems as though I was setting myself up to be a younger version of Scrooge.
I don’t know why but for some reason I had my wad of cash in my pocket on the day the Chief invited us to his office. All he had to do was search me and I would have no way of explaining why I had so much cash on me because it had accumulated over a Iong period of time and I kept the money hidden in a stone wall with no bank records. After that I rarely took my stash with me again and would only withdraw from m hiding place small amounts that I needed for something which didn’t happen often because there isn’t much opportunity for a 13-year-old kid to spend monet in Wiarton. Also the total amount was probably only about $30 but because it was all small bills the wad seemed huge - never more huge than it was sitting across from the Chief. Fortunately, he never noticed or asked about why I kept my hand in my pocket the whole time and we promised to keep our eyes and ears open for the real perps. I never did find out who the real culprit was but I was just happy to have dodged a bullet even though I was sweating them the entire time the Chief was having his little chat with us.
It is said we are all “products of our past” and lately in the fall of my life I have been doing a lot of thinking about how my experiences as a young boy growing up in Wiarton have affected my behaviour and choices over the years. For example, I can see this need for monetary security from my childhood as carrying on into my adulthood. I no longer hide money in forests but the secure feeling of having a stash of money that I could always count on lives with me today. When I started working (only a few years later at the age of 18) I wanted to ensure that I would always have at least three months income available to me in a “rainy day fund” that I could draw upon. There were some times in the early years that I was cutting it close but can honestly say there has never been a time when I couldn’t pay for anything I really needed. Over the years I have always preached to my kids about the importance of having a “rainy day fund”. I was like a lot of older folks who went through the great depression and had nothing. After that experience they vowed they would always have a stash to fall back on. My wife’s Aunt and Uncle were two such people having cash under their mattress and other secluded spots that were found throughout the house after they died. We never thought to go and check out the stone fences they had on their farm but maybe we should have as perhaps they had similar thoughts as me about hiding money in stone walls.
I attended public school in Wiarton located on the main street at the bottom of the hill after you pass through the gates. Across from our school is a furniture factory about four stories in height. I never thought much about it at the time but now realize it seems strange to have a furniture factory on the main street of your town. Same thing for a school to be located. Anyway, I go home for lunch every day and on the way back to school I see the factory workers looking out the windows and enjoying the view while they too eat there lunch. Many times as I am almost to schoo1 I look up to one of the fourth floor windows of the factory and see a factory worker called Donnie waving me to cross across the street and I park myself below his window. He then, with a big smile on his face, throws me a couple of coins from the top floor and I am careful to keep my eye on it so it doesn’t hit me and so I can see where it lands on the grass. As I say this is not a one off thing but happens regularly and only with me. This would have happened around grade six before I was earning money at my uncle’s grocery store.
Donnie is a fairly heavy set guy in his late 20’s and I suspect at that time in the late 1950’s he is probably making 50 cents an hour, so throwing me small change was probably significant relative to the mcney he was earning. Today if that happened there would be suspicions of potential child abuse but I don’t recall ever having seen Donnie except in that window on the fourth floor. We lived in a small town and he would have known that my mother was a single mom trying to support three children on her own. In those days being divorced was quite unusual. I like to think he was just trying to brighten my life up a bit knowing that I would not have any spending money of my own. After l got my paper route and started working for my uncle I had my hidden stash to fall back on so the money from Donnie was not needed and I stopped looking up for him. Hopefully he found some other needy kid to help out. In later years when I worked in downtown Vancouver I would sometimes give money to street people and as I did so I would think of Donnie and his generosity to me. Products of our past!
There was a downside for me because of Donnie’s generosity though. On the way to our public school was Ferguson’s confectionery store. It was a store that sold only candy and it had plenty of different varieties of candy to choose from. It was amazing that a small town like Wiarton could support a store like this but I was at the beginning of the baby boom generation after World War II and so there was a fairly large clientele of kids. Like any small kid with a few cents to spend this is the place we would come to and partake in many afternoon delights. The result of that along with the fact that dentists were expensive meant that by the time I was 21 years old my upper teeth and part of my bottom teeth were rotten and so I had to get dentures at an early age. The wages of sin!!
I remember another time while walking to public school that was not so pleasant. I was walking with a group of kids and as always when kids are in groups things get said that probably wouldn’t be said if there were only two people conversing. I am sure I must have said something critical to one of the girls in our group and she turns on me and starts criticizing how shabby my clothes are and they must be “hand-me-downs”. She came from a fairly well off family and at that time rny family consisted of my mother and two brothers with my mother struggling to make enough money to support us on her own. As I look back on my life I can see that perhaps this is one of the reasons I like to dress well and have twice as many clothes as most people. It was a good life lesson though because it taught me that being critical of someone could be very hurtful and come back to you and while I have not always succeeded I have tried to be respectful of other people and recognize that we are all just trying to find our way as we attempt to navigate our way forward. So this confrontation turned out to be a positive life lesson for me. Perhaps readers of this memoir can think of instances in their own lives that were traumatic at the time but in the long term provided valuable lessons.
For some reason adults want to tease kids about this boy or girl being their girl or boyfriend when the child may not have the slightest interest at that point in their life. When I was seven years old a girl called Norma and I were prince and princess on a float in the Christmas parade so naturally I got teased a lot about her. For our efforts we were given a “silver dollar” which I still have today. One time a couple of friends and I tied her to a tree in the forest and then we took off. We got into a bit of trouble for that but that pretty much put the brakes on any kind of relationship developing between us. Thankfully this was not a childhood experience that followed me into adulthood.
After school I always hung out with kids quite a bit older than me. Most of them were either in high school or working. My favourite hangout was at the New London Café. At any given time night or day you could always see me hanging out in front of the New London Café wrestling or kibitzing with older guys or I would be inside either playing the pinball machine or sitting in one of the booths and putting nickels in the music selection machine on the wall. I was always a good little wrestler because I was slippery and fast. I could get out of most holds guys had on me. One time my Uncle Doug who was in his late teens was wrestling with me there and he had an axe in his hand (I have no idea why he was carrying an axe on the main street of Wiarton) but he was pretending to be going at me with the axe with him on top and me on bottom and I suddenly moved quickly and the axe dropped on the back of my hand. I still proudly wear the scar from that on the back of my hand.
I had this fantasy inside of me from a brief meeting with my father many years before that he would come and rescue my brothers and I and he would take us to his affluent home in London. I wou1d no longer need to be stashing money away in forests to feel secure. They say “absence makes the heart grow fonder” but it took me half my life to realize that my father was not really interested in his three sons. Because of my fantasy about my father, my mother basically lost me at an early age and we never did become close even after I realized in my mid 30’s that my father was not interested being part of my life. My mother and I were cordial in my adult years but I don’t recall ever having a heartfelt conversation with her. Too much distance had come between us in earlier years for us to become close. She had a hard life raising us three kids all on her own and then four more from her second marriage.
In my family today, if you were to line us up against a wall and ask which one is the one that gets “cabin fever” the quickest, everyone would point to me. Everyone else in my family could feel quite comfortable hanging out at home except me and when I think back to those days hanging out on the streets of Wiarton I wonder if my “cabin fever” started back then.
While the town of Wiarton touches the shores of Georgian Bay it is also actually only a few short miles from Lake Huron, one of Canada’s amazing Great Lakes. In the summer my back alley neighbour and friend Al and I would hitchhike to either Oliphant Beach (about seven miles away) or Sauble Beach (about 15 miles away). Sauble was the larger and more dynamic beach with tons of people and miles of sandy beach. There were lots of restaurants, souvenir shops, mini-golf on the main entrance. We had friends from Toronto that came to the beach each year and we would go out and hang out with them and sometimes staying overnight sleeping on the beach. What a great time that was. We often hung out at north part of the beach called Sauble River and swimming in the river was an experience because every once in awhile you would see a water snake come swimming by. Hitchhiking was always the way we got around and it was never a problem in those days for us. We never thought that we would ever be in danger and just assumed people picking us up were trustworthy. The big danger for us would have been getting picked up by a drunk driver because there were plenty of them around Wiarton. This little town of 2,500 people had two major hotels serving beer as well as the Legion. There was always a lot of a activity in these establishments and too many drunk drivers on the roads.
One time when I was walking along the beach at Sauble a cool looking convertible pulls up and it is my father with his wife and now two kids. They live in London so I assume they were visiting my grandparents but it seemed really odd that in a place as big as Sauble he would recognize me and I would know who he was. We chatted for two or three minutes and they went on their way. This experience added to my wish to go live with him and it also spoiled my future trips to Sauble as any time I would return I was always on the lookout for him and hoping he wuld pull up in his fancy car again. I always came home disappointed though as it never happened - sort of like when you find money on the sidewalk. Afterwards, wherever you walk you are always looking down hoping to get lucky again but it rarely repeats itself.
When I was born, there was a malfunction in the tear duct of my left eye. My eye would always be leaking water and it looked as if I was crying. The leakage would continue throughout the night as I was sleeping and so when I awoke in the morning I would have to get a cloth soaked in warm water to out over my eye to soften the matting that had occurred overnight and that was the only way I could get my eye open.
My mother took me to an eye doctor in Owen Sound a couple of times to have a procedure to correct this and two times were horrible experiences for me. In those days they sedate a patient by putting a mask over their face and then pouring ether over the mask. It was terrible smelling stuff and it was like you were suffocating for a few seconds before passed out. The procedures helped a bit but my eye still waters but thankfully I don’t have any trouble opening it any more in the mornings. People often wonder why men are so hesitant to go to the doctor when ailments occur - my experience with ether is my excuse!
I mentioned about my tooth cavities before. I also had a real fear of dentists but I believe for good reason. The dentist’s office was a storefront operation at street level on Berford Street and often in the summer he would have the window open and more than once as I passed by I could hear a kid screaming. The air by the window had a peculiar smell and I was told the dentist used gas to sedate the patients. There was no way I was going to the dentist even if money had been available and so that little experience set me up for the removal of most of my teeth in my early 20’s that I spoke of earlier.
In the summer months we traded hockey in the back alley for organized baseball. I was not skilled at either sport. I remember though one time it was the beginning of the baseball season and the coach of our team was having the first practice. He said that we should have a captain and asked who wanted to be it. Naturally there were a lot of confident kids who were yelling “pick me, pick me” and I was one of the ones saying nothing and backing away because I felt the captain should be a reasonably good player with an outgoing personality. I was neither. The coach gets annoyed at the eager ones and says that it is not a popularity contest. He then points to me and says that he picks me to be the captain. It wasn’t a job I really wanted but now I am grateful that I had a coach who was there to not only teach us the game of baseball give us some life lessons as well such as the squeaky wheel doesn’t always have to get the oil first.
Growing up in a small town in the 1950’s was something special. The movies “Grease” and “American Graffiti” capture the essence of the time with cool cars cruising back and forth along main street, loud music from the radios just a booming, T-shirts with cigarette packages in the side pocket, girls with poodle skirts and boys like me with Elvis Presley style haircuts loaded down with so much grease that on a hot day it seemed possible to fry an egg on the top of your head.
Rock and Roll was starting to take off and it seemed like every day there was a new hot musical performer or group of performers coming on the scene. The songs were very upbeat and creative and new dances were emerging from out of nowhere. The jive and the twist became very popular and even in our little town every Friday night there was a dance party at a local hall. My brother Gary was a terrific “jiver” with “moves like Jagger before Jagger had moves like Jagger”. I remember him encouraging me to get off the street and come and learn to dance and while I did go to a couple of dances I just didn’t have the rhythm he and others did. I wish I would stuck with it though because being a good dancer meant a lot of doors could be open to you, particularly when you entered high school and hormones and interest in girls surfaced.
One weekend I went to a cottage with a bunch of older guys and it turned out to be one of the defining moments of my youth that would have a major impact on me in later years. In those days you could buy a bottle of cheap wine for about 50 cents. And so we loaded the car up with a bunch of cheap wine and off we went up the Peninsula. We arrived at the cottage on a Saturday afternoon and I started drinking the cheap wine like you would drink water. I had never really drank much in the way of alcohol before and I was terribly sick for the rest of the weekend and to this day I believe it is because of this weekend away and drinking the cheap wine that I dislike the taste of alcohol so much including beer and liquor. I probably saved myself a lot of money over the years but on the other hand I hear so many people saying how much they enjoy a glass of wine before or after supper and I wish I could too. On the other hand, I saved myself the misery of waking up hung over.
When I was 13 my best friend was a guy named Gerry. He along with Gary was a protector to me. He would be in his early 20’s and he was tough as nails. He often got into fights with guys from Owen Sound who would come to our town looking for a rumble and Gerry always came out on top. Gerry and I had a strong connection because we both came from homes that had experienced divorce. He had a car and so I would often go cruising the town with him. One time there was going to big rumble with the “bully” kids from the town taking on the “good” kids. It was all prearranged to take place in a forest (not the one where I had my stash thank goodness) on a particular day at a specific time and there were a lot of kids going to be there. I wanted to go but Gerry told me it wasn’t a place that was safe for me and that I should stay at the New London Café until they returned. He was trying to protect me and whenever he spoke I always listened. Fortunately they returned and there were only two combatants with the “good” guy being the winner. There was lots of celebration and “post fight reviews” and I was just as glad not to be there as even though I like to wrestle for fun I was never a fighter for keeps.
A couple of times Gerry and I slept in his car at the bay all night and then in the morning would jump in the freezing cold water of the long dock at the bay. He was one of those guys who everyone respected a great deal and the kind of guy who would spend his entire life in a small town. Every small town has one or two “Fonzie” kind of guys like him and thank goodness they do. I remember we were in a group one time and he was talking about how we were all stuck in this small town and would be there forever and then he looked at me and he said, “Except Jim is going to be the only one getting out of here and someday he is going to come back and show us all up.” It would be 20 years later before I would see Gerry again and enjoy reminiscing about these times with him. He unfortunately would die well before his time.
When I finished grade eight and turned 14, I found out that our family would be moving to the town of Chesley - a rural farming community about 40 miles south of Wiarton. Given that I wasn’t feeling real close to my family, they probably expected me to rebel and put up a fuss that I had to leave all my friends and start high school in a strange town. One of the most important life lessons I learned in my boyhood years was that in life everything changes, nothing stays the same and we change too. At any time in our lives there are moments that come upon us that we had no way of predicting their arrival. I was losing the happy-go-lucky kid who was just content to be hanging out on Berford Street. I was growing up and a change of scenery at that time in my life was actually what I needed in the short term at least and so I readily agreed to the move.
My boyhood days in Wiarton were coming to an end but in later years I always enjoyed returning to this beautiful little town and thinking about the good memories it provided me with during a particularly important time in my life. In June 2013 my wife and I came from our home in British Columbia for a few days of relaxation. It had been over a decade s since we last visited and as we drove around town I tried to recreate the days of my youth in my mind but it was hard to do. The New London Café, my uncle’s meat market, Donnie’s factory, Ferguson’s confectionery store, my old public school, the burglarized restaurant and most of the businesses of my youth were all gone. The Chief was “resting in peace”. Our house in the back alley was now a parking lot and even the forest was gone. As I looked up to the top of the hill where the forest had once sheltered the old stone wall I wondered if my secret hiding stone was still loose - waiting for me to come back to make a deposit.