The corner of Corydon Avenue and Wilton Street pretty well marked the end of civilization as we knew it, except for a handful of shacks at the far edge of the prairie that were occupied by squatters. This area was known as Rooster Town. To the west and south of Waugh’s Grocery Store lay a stretch of prairie grassland dotted with wild roses and chokecherry and willow bushes. Abandoning Corydon Avenue as it dwindled into a mud trail that led west to Cambridge Street, streetcars looped behind the store to begin their journey back downtown. A water pump at the corner of Cambridge and Corydon was the sole source of water for the people of Rooster Town. The other side of Cambridge Street was a tangle of chokecherry, bur oak and aspen trees that we called ‘the bush’.
‘It’s time to pick chokecherries,’ Mother would say toward the end of August each year. Then we’d pile into the car and drive down Corydon Avenue until the road ended. There Mother would park, and we’d sally into the bush with our pails. The chokecherry trees grew so close together, and were so heavily laden with fruit, that in no time at all we’d have enough berries for Mother to make several jars of chokecherry jelly.
‘But don’t eat the chokecherries raw,’ she told us.
‘Why not?’ I asked.
‘They’re very bitter. They’ll pucker up your tongue.’
Not heeding her warning, I immediately popped a few berries into my mouth. In an instant, the taste was so bitter that I choked as I spat them out.
‘I told you,’ said Mother. ‘Now you know why they’re called chokecherries.’
They did, however, when boiled up with crabapples and lots of sugar, make a rather pleasant-tasting wine-coloured jelly to spread on our toast in the mornings. Since jams and jellies were in short supply due to the war, we were happy that Mother was so resourceful.
Mother used the car a lot in the months of good weather. It spent the winters up on blocks in our garage, but as soon as the snow melted it would be on the road again. It was a navy blue 1928 Graham Paige sedan, complete with running boards and wooden-spoked wheels. Daddy had bought it second-hand in 1940, before he went away to war, and Roger always referred to it as ‘my own Daddy’s car’. Daddy had taught Mother to drive on the prairie beyond Corydon Avenue, and she’d taken to it like the proverbial duck to water.
‘The car is behaving very well so far, dear,’ she wrote to Daddy on May 3, 1942.
‘I had to get a new battery for it though, as the old one was no good. I find the car so useful, though I never use it for long drives, only for getting the kids from place to place. I didn’t take it out until the middle of April.’
The very day she got the car out, she had taken the three of us for an after-supper drive over the prairie. I told Daddy all about this adventure in a letter that I wrote the next day.
Yesterday night we went for a ride in the car. Mummy went over the prairie and got caught in some deep mud. She got three army men and they pushed the car and got us out of the mud. Mummy gave them some cigarettes and a ride downtown.
To this day I’m not sure what those young soldiers were doing walking across the prairie. Perhaps they’d been visiting friends in Rooster Town. In any event, they appeared just at the right time to rescue us.
Mother used the car to drive not only us, but the neighbourhood children as well. We went for picnics in Assiniboine Park, visits to a wading pool on Dudley Avenue across the street from my Uncle Charlie’s house, and trips to the Dutch Maid Ice Cream store on Osborne Street. In the summer of 1943, we even went to Winnipeg Beach by car to stay with the Holman family for a few days. Mother was very proud of her prowess on the highway.
‘The children are all in excellent health,’ she wrote to Daddy in August, 1943, ‘although we were not away very long this summer, only four days with the Holmans at Boundary Park near Winnipeg Beach. The kids certainly made the most of those days.
How they love the water! I drove down in the old car, which is still going strong, although I had to get a new timing chain this year. We came back from the beach in 80 minutes, so you see I am getting quite bold!’
Although we had our share of trips to the beaches, many of our summer holidays were spent in the city. Wherever we were, we always found interesting things to do. One of our favourite places was The Cambridge Riding Academy that stood near the corner of Cambridge and Corydon. We’d walk there across the prairie to admire the sleek horses in their stalls, their backsides looming high above our heads. They’d make crunching sounds as they munched on the hay in their mangers, stamping their hooves and swishing their tails to keep the flies away. I loved the smell of the fresh hay and the leathery scent of the harnesses and saddles, and the soft whinnying sounds of the horses. Often they’d be taken outside to the corral, and we’d feed them carrots and apples that they’d crunch between their enormous teeth, their jaws making a circular motion as they polished off their treats.
One summer morning, Barbara and I were looking for something new to do. We’d just returned the night before from a two-week holiday in a rented cottage at Grand Beach, and the city seemed dull compared to the lake and the sand dunes and the boardwalk with its merry-go-round and dance hall and concession stands. The long summer day stretched before us, empty hours clamouring to be filled with adventure.
I thought long and hard. What could we possibly do that we hadn’t done a hundred times before? Then suddenly an idea came to me.
‘I know! Let’s go and build an amusement park on the prairie.’
‘Good idea,’ said Barbara. ‘What will we need to do the job?’
‘A spade,’ I said, ‘and maybe a garden fork, and some grass clippers.’
‘And some water in case we get thirsty,’ Barbara said. ‘Maybe Roger will lend us his wagon.’
Roger said he didn’t mind, so off we went, pulling his wooden wagon loaded with garden tools and a jug of water.
‘We can build a boardwalk like the one at Grand Beach,’ I said.
‘With a merry-go-round, and a roller coaster like they have at Winnipeg Beach,’ added Barbara. ‘We could even make an underground chamber of horrors.’
We dug and dug all morning until we were hungry and hot and tired, but we’d only managed to go down a few inches. Our shovels just weren’t sharp enough to cut through the packed wild grass roots and the hard prairie clay.
‘It’s like trying to dig in cement,’ I said to Barbara.
‘We need a drill like the men who build the sidewalks,’ she agreed.
‘Well, we can’t afford one of those, and anyway, Mother wouldn’t let us use one. They’re too dangerous.’
At noon we headed home for lunch, prairie dust clinging to our sweating arms and flushed faces. The other kids on the street all wanted to know where we’d been.
‘Over on the prairie,’ we said. ‘We’re going to build an amusement park.’
‘That sounds like fun,’ said Beverley. ‘Can we help?’
The others all wanted to help too, so after lunch all the Dorchester kids paraded over to the prairie with doll carriages, tricycles and wagons piled with spades, trowels and rakes.
‘You know,’ said Josephine, who was the eldest, ‘it would be easier to build a fort instead of an amusement park. We can pretend we’re pioneers.’
‘Yes, that would be more fun,’ said Beverley.
‘Let’s take a vote,’ Josephine suggested. ‘Hands up, how many want to build a fort?’
I was a bit disappointed, but the memory of our morning’s toil was fresh in my mind. Everyone else agreed, even Barbara, so I put my hand up too.
We staked out areas for bedrooms, kitchen and living room, hanging doll blankets and sweaters on the willow bushes to divide off the rooms. The all-important bathroom was divided into sections for ‘number one’ and ‘number two’. If you went number two, you had to cover it up with leaves from the bushes. Every day for a week we played in the fort, and our mothers took turns bringing sandwiches, cookies and lemonade at lunchtime.
On the first day Josephine decided that we needed a hideout in case anyone came along and threatened us.
‘The hideout has to have a secret name,’ she said. ‘I’ll ask my father tonight. He’ll know what to call it.’
Mr. Morgan, being a school principal, knew about such things. He told Josephine that le bois was French for ‘the woods.’
‘That would be a good name,’ he said.
‘But,’ said Josephine, ‘what if the person we’re hiding from knows French?’
‘Then call it La Boo.’
La Boo was a small clearing surrounded by willow bushes, and we retreated there several times when Josephine gave the signal. She’d whistle three times, and we’d all crowd together, trying not to cough or sneeze, whenever a car or bicycle came down the nearby street. Then one day, a man from Rooster Town came by in a rickety cart pulled by a skinny brown horse. He stopped the horse, climbed down and walked all around the fort, fingering the blankets on the bushes and scratching his head in bewilderment at the sight of dolls and toys strewn about. Terrified, we huddled in La Boo, holding our breath until our visitor got back on his wagon and drove off. As soon as he had gone, we packed up all our belongings and hurried home.
‘What’s wrong?’ Mother asked. ‘Why are you home so early?’
‘There was a man in our fort,’ I told her. ‘He looked at all our things, and we were scared.’
‘Well, he probably lives nearby,’ said Mother. ‘He must have wondered what you were doing there.’
‘We were just pretending to live in a fort,’ I said. ‘We weren’t doing anything wrong.’
‘No, you weren’t,’ said Mother, ‘but that man lives there. It’s as if you were playing in his back yard. Perhaps you should stay closer to home from now on.’
We never played on the prairie again, but there were many other things to do. On hot days we’d follow the Arctic Ice Wagon, begging for chips of ice to suck. In those days, electric refrigerators were unknown. Every household had an ice box that had to be replenished regularly with a block of ice. The ice was delivered daily, except on Sundays, by the ice companies in horse-drawn wagons that were filled with sawdust to keep the ice cold. The iceman would pick up the ice with huge tongs, dip it into a pan of water that he kept in the back of the wagon to rinse off the sawdust, and carry it into the kitchen where he’d deposit it in the insulated compartment at the top of the icebox. Most people had ice delivered, but Mr. Morgan, who had a car, preferred to pick up the ice himself from the Arctic Ice warehouse on Bell Avenue by the Norwood Bridge. He’d bring it home in the trunk of his car, and I can still picture him slipping his tongs around the dripping block of ice, his arm muscles bulging as he carried it up the sidewalk and into his house. He looks so strong and manly, I thought.
There was great controversy in May of 1942, when the Winnipeg General Ministerial Association, representing the churches, objected to a decision by the police commission to allow the ice companies to deliver on Sundays throughout the summer. The Winnipeg Free Press reported that the police commission, recognizing the necessity of supplying citizens with ice in summer hot spells in order not to waste the precious food supply, had granted permission to the companies to deliver on Sundays from April 30 to the end of September. The Ministerial Association was over-ruled, and we had ice delivered seven days a week in summer throughout the rest of the war.
On lazy, sunny days we loved to linger in the lane to watch the straw-hatted horses of the milkman and bread man as they munched on the hollyhocks that grew in profusion along the back fences. We also played hopscotch, using chalk to draw the pattern on the sidewalk, and skipped rope, jumping in and out as we sang: Acka backa soda cracker acka backa boo Acka backa soda cracker out goes you!
My favourite skipping songs were:
Grace Grace dressed in lace went upstairs to powder her face How many boxes did it take?
Cinderella dressed in yellow went upstairs to kiss her fellow Made a mistake and kissed a snake
How many doctors did it take?
I liked to imagine myself as Grace dressed in pretty lace, or as Cinderella dressed like a princess in a yellow gown, though I didn’t think I’d like to kiss a snake.
It was fun skipping to ‘Two Little Dickie Birds’, especially if your birthday was late in the year. If it was in January or February you didn’t have very long to stay in the game.
Two little Dickie Birds sitting on a wall One named Peter and the other named Paul.
Fly away Peter, fly away Paul,
Don’t you come back ’till your birthday’s called, JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJuneJulyAugustSeptember OctoberNovemberDecember
One warm April afternoon I found Barbara skipping rope to the chant of the Benedicite, Omnia Opera from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. ‘O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him forever,’ she sang as she jumped up and down without missing a step. It was Good Friday, and I was shocked.
‘Barbara, it’s not right to sing about God when you’re skipping,’ I said, ‘especially on Good Friday. Jesus died today!’
‘Why not?’ she asked. ‘God likes people to be happy!’
I ran inside to tell Mother, but she just laughed.
‘I think Barbara’s right about that,’ she said.
I decided to ask God what He thought, but He didn’t answer, and He didn’t punish Barbara either, so maybe He didn’t mind after all.
We usually played on the sidewalk and boulevard in front of our houses, so our parents would know where we were. Around dinnertime each day, the mothers would come to their front doors to call us home to eat. Mrs. Birchard, who was a stickler for good manners and proper behaviour, always insisted that her children address her properly.
‘Patricia,’ she’d call.
‘Yes?’ Patricia would answer.
‘Yes, Mother,’ Mrs. Birchard would say, and Patricia would dutifully repeat, ‘Yes, Mother!’This went on day after day, and week after week, as Patricia inevitably forgot the proper response to her mother’s call. The other mothers seemed happy enough if their children stopped what they were doing and started home at once.
Sometimes on rainy days Barbara and I would play in the attic, and in one of her letters Mother wrote to Daddy about our doll hospital.
I wish you could have been here this afternoon. Margaret and Barbara have fixed up a doll’s hospital in the attic. They use the cedar chest covered with an old sheet for an operating table, and they have their doll cribs and some boxes arranged in rows for beds, and I gave them some old medicine bottles and little things to use for instruments, cotton etc. which they have laid out on shelves. Their little table and chair is the office with charts etc., and our table bell is on it with a sign ‘Please ring bell if desk nurse out.’ Roger plays his part as a visiting parent, and the dolls are all bandaged up for various troubles. Raggedy Ann had a mastoid operation tonight, but Pooh Bear was allowed to sit up for supper (toy dishes arranged on the lid of a cardboard box) as his temperature was normal. The whole performance is just a scream. I know you can just see it all, dear heart, and almost hear the incessant chatter that goes on.
On hot sunny days, the sort of days when dogs snoozed and twitched under porches and flies droned in kitchens, we would go and talk to the firemen who sat sunning themselves in their wooden chairs outside the fire hall, their jackets off and their shirt sleeves rolled up. Sometimes they would take us inside to gaze at the enormous red fire engines, and for a special treat we got to watch as the engines were driven outside and washed down with the big fire hoses. The water from the hoses gushed out in torrents, turning the street into a river as it rushed toward the sewer in the middle of the road.
Another place we went was to the Cornish Library, a branch of the Winnipeg Public Library that was located on West Gate Street, just over the Maryland Bridge, and a couple of miles from home. When I first joined, I was very proud of my library card, and wrote to tell Daddy all about it.
Last week I joined the Cornish Library. The first time I went I could not have my card and I could only take out one book. Today I went and got two books. I got my card today too. Josephine joined the library too, and we can walk there together over the Maryland Bridge.
Before long, Beverley Massey and Patricia Birchard also joined the library, and we’d all walk there together to exchange our books. One day, as we were crossing the bridge, Beverley jokingly pretended to drop one of her books into the river. Patricia dared her to do it, and with an impish smile she let go of the book. It landed in the river with a splash, and we watched with shocked faces as it floated downstream before being caught in an eddy and sucked out of sight. Mrs. Massey had to reimburse the library, and we were all warned that if anything like that happened again, we would no longer be allowed to go to the library by ourselves.
Two blocks west of our house, on the corner of Dorchester and Rockwood, stood the steam heating plant that in winter burned coal to create the steam that travelled through underground pipes to heat most of the houses in our community of Crescentwood. It was a very well-kept red brick building with a manicured lawn that was banked to form a small hill. We loved to lie on our sides and roll down this slope, the sweet smell of grass tickling our noses as we raced each other to see who would reach the bottom first. Around the back, however, where the coal trucks dumped their loads down a long ramp, the plant was a threatening place, dark and grimy.
‘You may play on the lawn at the steam heating plant,’ Mother said, ‘But don‘t ever go around the back. You might fall down the ramp, or get run over by a coal truck.’
One day, when I was ten, I just had to look. I walked slowly around to the back lane, but just as I reached the corner a huge coal truck roared past me. Trembling all over, I felt my heart go thump thump thump. Feeling lucky to be alive, I hurried back home.
Mother was right, I thought, and I never again went behind the plant.
In winter when the snow had fallen and the days were short and cold, we brought out our sleighs, toboggans and skates. We built snowmen and snow forts and lay on our backs making snow angels. Often after school and on weekends, we’d walk over to the rink on Wilton Street, our skates slung over our shoulders.
In the shack beside the rink, the smell of warm steamy wool would arise from mittens drying on top of the wood-burning stove. After a few turns around the rink, we’d go inside to warm our icy toes and fingers. Our skates made a hollow sound on the splintered wooden floor as we crossed over to sit on the battered bench before the stove, our hands and feet reaching out to feel the warmth.
Often, when it was too cold to play outside, Mother would invite the neighbourhood children to join us around our dining room table with crayons and Plasticine and puzzles, and she’d play the piano and teach us singing games. She called it her kindergarten. On January 25, 1943 we came home for lunch to find Mother at the piano playing songs from a new book.
‘Come here,’ she said. ‘I went downtown this morning and bought this new book from Tredwell’s Music Store. Do you know what it is?’
I closed the book so I could read the title on the cover.
‘Scottish Folk Songs,’ I said. ‘What are they?’
‘Today is Robert Burns Day,’ she said, ‘and I was born in Scotland, so you are half Scottish. I think you should learn these songs.’
From that day on, we all learned to sing such songs as Comin’ through the Rye, Loch Lomond, The Skye Boat Song, Ye Banks and Braes, O Bonnie Doon, John Anderson, My Jo and Auld Lang Syne. All the kids in the neighbourhood learned to sing these songs too, since Mother included them in her kindergarten music sessions.
The deliverymen’s horses now wore blankets, and the steam coming from their nostrils turned their faces white with frost. The firemen stayed inside, and were only seen at shift changes when they walked all bundled up, their boots making crunching noises on the snow-covered sidewalk, to Corydon Avenue to catch the streetcar home. Still, the lights from the firehall burned twenty-four hours a day, a reminder that the firemen were there, keeping the neighbourhood safe.