The kids in our neighborhood have been back to school for a full week already. This is just wrong. School should start after Labor Day. At least that’s the way it was when I was a kid. We had the two full glorious months of July and August in which to be FREE, kids “off school,” sprung from prison, with nothing to do but be outside playing, going to the pool, going to the beach and generally goofing off. It was summer with a capital “S.” It would be the last week of August before we’d see any advertising for school reminding us of our 10 month sentence just around the corner. This countdown week at the tail end of our vacation was meant for cramming in all the loafing we hadn’t done already and for buying Back to School clothes.
In my family, this meant the annual Labor Day weekend road trip, 1 ½ hour’s drive from Winnipeg, Manitoba, “across the line,” as my parents always called it, to Grand Forks, North Dakota. My mother was determined that I should look stylishly American in penny loafers and saddle oxfords. I don’t know if these weren’t available in Canada, but I know I got a pair of each in the US every year from Kindergarten through Grade 4 or 5. The loafers looked very snappy with knee socks and pleated plaid skirts topped off with sweater sets. The oxfords were quite striking with our black Phys Ed tunics and white blouses with black ties. (For Sunday Best, we went to a kid’s shoe store (was it Rand's?) on Academy Road in Winnipeg, where I got shiny, flat-heeled, black patent pumps with straps across the top which I thought were very sucky until some clever shoe manufacturer came up with a strap that could hinge back to be worn behind the heel, thus making a much sexier topline on a seven year-olds foot. It was a slippery slope to high heels from there.)
Every year, my mother bought towels and bed sheets which she believed to be of better quality because the “cotton is nicer across the line.” (Towels and sheets were imported to Canada from the US generally, so the cotton wasn’t any different, but my mother was convinced that Grand Forks towels took the prize.) My Dad always looked forward to buying his favorite sausages called “Peter Porkers” which he snuck across the border because carrying meat products across the line was prohibited. Declaring goods at customs was a harrowing event in my memory, what with Dad telling us kids to keep our mouths shut and my Mom attempting to conceal bed linens that were over her spending limit. Because of those trips, I developed a serious case of Border Anxiety that has lasted my lifetime.
In spite of my annual apprehension about crossing the line, I loved our trips to Grand Forks. My brother and I usually got to pick out a toy from a downtown department store that had an entire basement devoted to toys and games and models. I got my Barbie in that store, the first year they came out which was 1959. I was six. My Dad found it and asked me if I would like it. She had that black and white, Chevron-striped one-piece bathing suit and impossibly tiny feet with black, open-toed high heels, and a half dozen outfits to choose from. She was so beautiful and there was my Dad offering me this amazing doll. Every time I see a Barbie today I get flashbacks of the joy I felt at that moment and how I loved all of Barbie’s beautiful clothes.
Even better than the toy-shopping and the shoe-buying, though, there was one thing that made the trip the highlight of my summer: the Westward Ho Motel. Yes, a cowboy-themed motel. Why would anyone ever stay anywhere else? It was a kid’s dream come true. Underneath its half-timber façade, it was only a concrete-block 1950s motel like any other, but it was so thoroughly cowboyed-up, it was like walking onto the set of “Gunsmoke.” It had rustic rail fences around the property and hitching posts out in front of each unit where you’d park your Pontiac, Buick, or the horse you came in on. There was an outdoor swimming pool in the shape of an enormous cowboy boot. The restaurant was done up as an Olde West saloon complete with swinging half-doors and giant wagon-wheel chandeliers. If I’m not mistaken, the servers called us kids “Tex”and “Miss Kitty.” The menus were done in Western typeface. “Wanted” posters lined the walls with the scary faces of dastardly gun slingers sneering down at us. Back at the ranch, I mean, our room, I was the youngest so I had to go to bed first. The chenille bedspread had a bucking bronco design on it. I drifted off to sleep listening to Mom and Dad watching TV or talking, rocking in chairs that had wagon wheel arms and decorated with horses’ and steers’ heads stitched into the leather coverings. Maybe my brother, five years older than me, thought it was all kind of corny, but I loved it. My parents even bought a set of the cowboy furniture for our basement rec room. How cool was that? I have no idea what eventually happened to our green leather couch, chair and the wagon wheel tables, but you can find these sets occasionally on e-Bay.
Ken and I drove through Grand Forks on our trip back from Winnipeg to Dayton a couple of years ago. We stopped for lunch and looked for the Westward Ho Motel but it was gone. Some things stay the same, some things change. Winnipeggers still shop across the line in Grand Forks, but it’s called Cross Border Shopping now. Hotels that cater to families have giant water slides. Some have theme rooms which I’m sure must be very appealing to kids. But I bet there isn’t one where a six year old girl can drift off to sleep in a faux-western, concrete-block motel room dreaming about being Dale Evans riding fences on her trusty horse Buttercup, alongside her singing cowboy hubby, Roy, and his faithful steed Trigger.