A Canadian Childhood Remembered
A Canadian Childhood Remembered
I was born in 1951 at the St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver,British Columbia. My father’s job took us to Nelson, a small town in the Kootenays where we lived, for two years, before moving to Prince George, four hundred and eighty-six miles north of Vancouver. There was a grocery store, a drug store, a hotel, a hardwood store and one Hudson’s Bay department store, two movie theatres and several paved streets, most were dirt and gravel. Such was the street, Oak Street where my parents selected a thickly forested lot on which to build our home. Forestry was why we were there, it was the reason the town existed. My dad was the Branch Manager for Finning Caterpillar and those big, yellow machines could be seen everywhere throughout the north – it was set to boom.
We spent every spare minute at that lot, my dad carved the centre out of a tree stump and that was our potty. My mum packed food in big baskets and life in Prince George started out quite literally as one big picnic. That is it was a picnic until one day, when my dad was alone at the lot clearing the bush with a big “Cat”. It flipped over on him, pinning him underneath it. He was cocooned between the roof of a D6 tractor and a shallow indentation in the ground that was just deep enough to keep him from being crushed to death by the weight of the machine. The only house on the “street” was down and across the road. My father managed to dig himself out with his hands and drag himself across the street to the neighbour’s (Canadian spelling) front yard where he was found. My brother was sent off to stay with the family of one of my father’s employees and I was sent off to Penny to stay with my godparents. Penny was only accessible by train at that time, stepping off that train was like stepping into the scene of a western movie. People moved about the little town either on foot, horseback or buggy. If there was more than one street in Penny, I never saw it.
Eventually I was returned to Prince George by the same means I left it and with my father out of the hospital and recovered from his injuries the business of clearing the property (I think they got someone who actually knew how to operate a cat) resumed and a house started to take shape. By this time we weren’t the only one’s building on Oak Street and by the time we moved in a neighbourhood was coming into being. It was not unusual to see a porcupine waddling down the road and all of the children had quite a cache of quills, acquired when one adult or another would throw a hat at a porcupine ready to defend itself. The hat would come away riddled with quills. On several occasions a grouse would find its way to our dinner table as a result of either breaking its own neck hitting our living room window or by having its neck wrung after stunning itself by the same means. Often little chickadees met the same fate,hitting the window that is, not ending up on our dinner table. Sometimes they were just stunned and we would run outside and pick them up, placing them on a tree stump in our front yard until they came to themselves and flew off.
Prince George, B. C.
We had a huge birch tree in our front yard that provided hours of entertainment as it served as the it station for games such as Hide n’ Go Seek and Poke the Iceman. We often made toys from the bark that we stripped off the tree trunks, boats and tee pees were favourites. I started Grade One and the best thing about it was my lunch kit. It was blue with silver trim and I had a red tartan thermos for hot drinks or soup. The reason my lunch kit was the best thing about school was that in Prince George winter started in late October or early November and lasted clear through until April, this allowed me to use my lunch kit to slide all the way down the hill to the edge of the school property. My mother frequently asked me how I managed to break the tube inside my thermos and I would always reply, “I don’t know.” It wasn’t until some years later that I figured out those exhilarating rides down the hill to school were hard on my thermos but more often than not I would open it at recess and find a shattered mess of silver shards mixed in with the contents.
There was a huge hill behind us called Connaught Hill that made a playground of extraordinary measure. The road at the base of it was called Connaught Drive and the name made for a good knock, knock joke. At least I thought it was a good knock, knock joke as I was the one who made it up – “Knock, knock. Who’s there? Connaught. Connaught who? Connaught Drive so I will walk.” In the spring, Connaught Hill was full of wild flowers, Indian paintbrush, lily of the valley, forget-me-nots, bluebells, bleeding hearts all tucked into beds of moss on the forest floor; the perfect place for real or imagined fairy-folk; an Eden for us. In the summer, there were fallen trees and huge tree stumps and downed branches that were ideal for making forts. Ant hills were plentiful and provided hours of entertainment, we lay on our bellies, watching them for hours, marveling at their industry. The pitch from the trees was handing for sticking stuff together, including fingers and some of it made a palatable gum for chewing.
Beside Connaught Hill that went up, there was another hill that went down. In the winter anything that could be sat upon was called into play as we whizzed, rolled and tumbled down the length of the hill only to climb back up and do it all over again. On the weekends we were out on that hill right after breakfast, came home for lunch when our stomachs told us too and home for dinner when the street lights came on. That was the only rule we had, we had to be home when the street lights came on. The rest of the time was ours and the hill, in the winter, belonged to the children.
The elementary school I attended from Grade Two on was about a block and a half from our home. Every winter the school janitors would flood an area of the playground to create a skating rink. My father did the same in our back yard. When we weren’t flying down the hill we were gliding on the ice. Everyone had skates and most had hockey sticks. If one didn’t have a hockey stick then any suitable stick or tree branch was used. More than one boy would get a puck in his stocking for Christmas so there were always plenty. Games lasted for hours. There were no periods and no penalties. There were no adults, no coaches, no referees, no gloves, no pads, and no masks. I do not recall there ever being a fight – just fun. We could even skate down the road to the school grounds until April. Once the roads began to thaw we but ice guards on our skates and walked the block and a half to the rink.
In those days girls were not allowed to wear pants to school. It may have been that it was not so much not allowed as that it wasn’t even thought of. I used to envy how easy it was for my brother to get into his snowsuit while I struggled with pushing my skirt down the pant legs without wrinkling it not to mention not wadding it up into an uncomfortable ball in the crotch of my suit. Idiot mittens were not an affront, we all had them.
Snow angels and snowmen and snowball fights comprised therest of our winters, when we weren’t in school we were outside, until thestreet lights went on. Icicles hung from the eaves, clear to the top of the deep, crusted snow. With the snow crusted and frozen on top thesmaller of us, who would not break through the surface, would gather iciclesfrom the eaves and distribute them to the rest of the children. Icicles to the children of Oak Street weresimply winter’s popsicles. There was nopulp mill in Prince George in those days, the air was fresh and crisp and clean. I would shudder to eat a ‘winter popsicle”now, but those were different times – before the boom. Today they would have to be referred to as "toxicles" and I should think parents are dissuading their children from eating them.
April was a different story altogether. In April the streets turned to mush, thetoboggan hill was dotted with rocks and clumps of grass. The unpaved streets turned into muddyruts. The leaves of sprouting daffodiland tulip bulbs sticking up through the patchy, dirty snow reminded us thatthis too would pass. It miserable butshort lived, the thaw came and went and spring arrived. Children housebound through April poured outthe doors and filled the street and yards and swarmed Connaught Hill.
Then we played the same games that children all over NorthAmerica play. We crawled all overConnaught Hill as busy and as active as the wakening ants. Two short months and spring was over, schoolwas over and summer brought with it even more opportunity to explore and enjoythe bounty that was at ours. Bicyclescame out of storage and we left the boundaries of our street and our guardian,Connaught Hill. There are two rivers,the Nechako and the mighty Fraser and there was much to be experienced at theirbanks. Across the Fraser was a wooden bridge that hada lane for traffic on each side and a railway track down the centre. The big dare was to walk the length of thetracks before a train came, our parents would have taken fits had theyknown. There was Simon Fraser Park withswings, teeter-totters, a slide and a merry-go-round that we would spin onuntil we could neither see, nor walk straight.
Finning’s had a bush plane as did many friends and business associates. I loved going up in those little craft with their silver pontoons. While my face was glued to the window taking in the marvelous vistas below, my poor brother’s was glued to a paper bag. My sounds of delight were intermingled with his miserable retching. We landed on lakes, many of them accessible only by air and in the vast solitude we crawled all over the virgin earth. I caught my first fish sitting atop a Widgeon, an amphibious craft that rested atop the water on its belly. It was magic, it was magnificent, and it was awe inspiring. It made you feel horribly insignificant and larger than life itself
Sometimes my dad would take two of us into a company pick-up while my mother and two younger siblings would follow by car and off we would go to Norman Lake. This was one of the few lakes accessible by road, if you could call it that. It was a swath cut through a great length of forest to accommodate logging trucks and it was narrow, and twisted and full of great potholes. The pickup trucks then had one bench seat and if anyone were to tell me there were springs in those seats I would put up a great argument to the contrary. Sometimes we would come down a hill, hit a pothole and bounce up so high that our heads would hit the roof – no springs and no seat belts. Landings were always hard and I’d have to fight with my body on the way down so that it would not land on my father. It made my brother and I laugh – it was tough on the bottom but it sure was fun.
The lake glistened and sparkled and danced and so did we. For hours on end we frolicked in the cool waters while the summer sun beat down on our wet heads. There were quagmires on the forest floor and we entertained ourselves bouncing up and down on the spongy earth. Once I saw a hummingbirds nest with four teeny-tiny eggs in it. I learned that small things can be awe inspiring too! There were other people there two on occasion but more often than not we had the entire wealth to ourselves. In the winter we would go there to skate on the frozen lake – magic! . I felt blessed and still do feel blessed to have grown up a child of the “true north strong and free”.
Life In Prince George
God, Ginter and Galardi - The Three G's
It was said, when I was growing up that there were three forces at work in the creation of Northern British Columbia. These forces were referred to as the Three G's or God, Ginter and Galardi. Phil Galardi, nicknamed "Flying Phil" was the Minister of Highways for the province from 1952-1968. Ben Ginter, nicknamed "Uncle Ben" was a contractor who from a modest start in 1949 was doing $350 million dollars in government contracts on top of building factories and other private construction projects. Uncle Ben was often at our home and we were often at his expansive ranch. I remember one time in particular where he had us chasing rabbits and when we couldn't catch them he asked, "What's the matter? You should have no trouble catching them, you only have two legs to worry about, they have four! And then he laughed, a huge rumbling sound that would start somewhere in the depths of him and roll out of him like thunder. Considering the beautiful scenery, the mountains, the valleys, the meadows, the lakes that made up the landscape the other G needs no explanation!
If you Google Map 1550 Oak Street, Prince George, B.C. you can see for yourselves where I spent my childhood - it looks quite different now but Connaught Hill is still the same and our old house is still there.
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