Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Back in the Saddle Again

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.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

When I'm (almost) 64

Some events are so profound that everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they occurred.

Every good Winnipegger of my generation remembers where they were and what they were doing when the Beatles landed at Winnipeg International Airport. I certainly do. I wasn’t there.

It was August 18, 1964. 2:05 pm. The entire episode was aired on my favorite teen radio station. The Winnipeg Free Press carried a story about it the next day. The Beatles! In Winnipeg! In our –nothing-ever-happens-here, mid-Prairie Canadian city! The biggest music sensations in the world! At our airport! This was a very big deal!

The Winnipeg Free Press ran a story this past weekend marking the 49th anniversary of the Fab Four landing in Winnipeg. It brought back a flood of memories for me.

Their plane came in for a routine refueling stop on its way from England to Los Angeles where they were about to begin their first full North American tour. Someone from the airline tipped off the press and a local DJ ahead of time. Before you could say, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” a thousand or so teens had turned up on the airport observation deck.

I listened to the entire broadcast from a cottage on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in Sandy Hook, Manitoba where my family was vacationing, 55 miles away from the airport. I was 11 years old. It was hopeless. No one in my family comprehended the importance of this monumental event. My Mom didn’t drive. My Dad simply refused to drive the hour and ten minutes it would take to get from the lake to the city. He just couldn’t see why I would want to “do something so crazy,” and besides I was “only 11!” I was stuck. Miserable.  Furious with my parents. How could they not see my agony? I sulked for days afterward, just to show them.

I listened, totally depressed, as a reporter described the scene. Paul, my fave Beatle, came down the aircraft stairs first. He waved to the crowd and shouted, “Hello, Winnipeg!” He was calling directly to me!! I knew it! “I LUV you, Paul!!” I called back to the radio. Oh, how could I not be there?!?

Worse of all was that the newspaper the next day quoted a girl three years older than me who lived two houses away from my house! Diane Clear. She was there!! I wanted to DIE right there on the spot from envy! I could hear her gushy 14-year old voice in the quote, “Oh, I wished they had stayed longer!” she had said, “They are so cute!” Good one, DI-annnnne.

John was reported as being smart alecky. Ringo and George as polite and congenial. Paul as being friendly. How long does it take to refuel a plane? A half hour maybe? They were not in Winnipeg long enough to sing even one chorus of “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” but I bet no kid that was there will ever forget it.

The Beatles never did play Winnipeg. I never got to see them anywhere. Paul McCartney did a concert in Winnipeg just about 10 days ago. From all reports it was wonderful. He is still my fave.
I’ll tell you one thing for sure, though. If anyone is planning a 50th anniversary in August of 2014 to commemorate the day the Beatles landed in Winnipeg, I want to be there!
And wherever you are today, Diane, you lucky duck, I still wish it had been me quoted in the Winnipeg Free Press instead of you. Because that would mean that I hadn't missed the biggest day in a Beatlemaniac's life!

Read all about it:

Friday, August 16, 2013

Where's My Poodle Skirt and Penny Loafers?

You know you’re getting old when you visit a museum to see an exhibit about the decade in which you were born.  1953. History!?!?  Oh, come on! Am I really an artifact from another era?

Yes, apparently. I am a 1950s-model baby-boomer.  Turns out we are fascinating.

Generally, I am quite captivated by the design and culture of my youth. Ken and I have owned two mid-twentieth century houses. The first was in Richmond, British Columbia. It had been the model home for a development built in 1957 meant to attract those most modern of folks – pilots, stewardesses and employees of the new airport nearby. The house was a 2-bedroom Rancher and by the time we bought it in 1984, it still had all the “modern” décor that would have made it to magazine pages back in the day: pink and black ceramic tile kitchen counters with a pink sink, pink stove top and wall oven; aqua and yellow tile and bathroom fixtures. We loved it. I began to collect 1950s novelty salt and pepper shakers and other memorabilia, such as a Roy Rogers thermos and a metal tray with post card images of Niagara Falls. Our house in Buffalo, New York was an architecturally designed home built in 1950. The architect had followed some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian principles: long and low roof line, overhanging eaves, open plan living and dining room, built-in millwork in the bedrooms. The en-suite bathroom had grey and maroon ceramic tile.

And so, I was eager to see the show, “1950s; Building the American Dream” just recently opened at the Ohio History Museum in Columbus. I wasn’t prepared for how historic it all looked. In my mind, the 1950s were only yesterday. But, there it was, my childhood, rendered as the Olden Days.

Now, I don’t normally go around saying things like, “In my day…” or, “Way back when....,” but there we were, Ken and I on this recent Sunday afternoon, reading labels and looking at photographs and relics from our childhood. At every turn we came across half-century-old items so familiar to us: toys, clothing, push-lawn mowers and other stuff, like one of those canister-shaped, red-tartan-clad picnic coolers and we found ourselves gleefully blurting out old-fogey words such as, “Oh, will you look at that! We had one of those when I was kid!” These exclamations burst past our lips faster than you could say, “It’s Howdy-Doody time!”

The exhibition did a fine job of drawing out the social relevance of the decade in its commentary on politics, rock and roll, bomb shelters, television’s early days, paint-by-numbers paintings, pointy bras and programs like “Duck and Cover,” the insanely naïve “personal protection” concept that instructed school children to hide under their desks during nuclear attack. The “spokesman” for “Duck and Cover,” by the way, was a cartoon turtle named Bert who told kids, “I’ve got a shell, but you need to find a place to hide!” “Quickly now!” The 50s were a weirdly innocent era.

The weirdest artifact in the exhibition, however, is an authentic, fully-rebuilt Lustron House. Well you might ask, “What is a Lustron House?” (Here’s a helpful link for you: 

Designed to fill the huge demand for housing post World War II, the Lustron houses came delivered to your suburban lot in pre-fab kits that could be shipped around the country or even packed up and moved to a new quietly desperate suburb should you tire of the one you were in. There were three floor plans available. The one in the Museum has a living room, a dinette, kitchen, utility room, bathroom and two bedrooms. It contained marvelous modern technology, such as the top-loading, in-counter dishwasher that doubled as a washing machine simply by switching out an interior drum. The floors throughout the Lustron were covered with that easy-to-maintain vinyl asbestos tile that mom could just damp mop! Closets had space-saving sliding doors.

Sounds like the American Dream, right? Sure, if you didn’t mind living in a sardine can. The Lustron House was built of porcelain-enameled steel. Yes, the walls, inside and out, were cold, hard, shiny metal. This house possessed all the warmth of a cookie sheet – in a choice of four factory colors! Can you imagine the heat in summer or the cold in winter or the pitter patter of rain on a steel plate roof?  A selling point in the advertising: “You won’t need to put holes in your walls to hang your pictures! Just use magnets!”

As I said, it was a weird era. I'm glad it’s history! Visit the exhibition online at


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Sean Connery and Other Scotsmen

I’ve been thinking about Sean Connery this week. (And you haven’t?)

He’s been on my mind, first, because Goldfinger and To Russia with Love are the feature films in the James Bond fest this weekend at the Victoria Theatre’s Cool Film Series here in Dayton. Coincidentally, my first date was at a double feature of those two exact movies.

 It was the late 1960s. I was in junior high. My friend up the street had a crush on the cousin of the kid next door.  And, just so her pursuit of the cousin would not seem so forward (girls were not supposed to be “forward” in those days; as my mother used to say, “You don’t want to get a bad reputation!”) my friend contrived for the four of us to go to the movies as a casual outing. Her plan was that I should sit with the neighbor, a goony kid from my class at school whom neither of us deemed crush-worthy, and she planned to snuggle up to the cute cousin with the Beatles haircut. I wore a dress – it was kind of a sailor’s number in navy with a big collar and a navy tie.  We all went downtown together on the bus on a Saturday afternoon — my parents had insisted that if we were out with boys, it had to be during daylight hours. For some reason, and I don’t remember why, the two guys sat in one row and we girls sat in the row behind them. It wasn’t as if the theatre was crowded. There were maybe 10 people in the whole place. Who knows how we ended up that way. Maybe my friend chickened out. Or it’s entirely possible that the doofy guys had no idea that they were on a date or even that they were being chased (“Chased” was how my mother would have put it. “Boys don’t like girls chasing them. You let them do the chasing.”) Or maybe they were on to our plan and weren’t having any part of it —girl cooties —they were there to watch 007. In any case, the date turned out to be a big fizzle, at least for my friend. I don’t recall the sequence of events after that, but I ended up going steady for about a year and a half with the cute cousin with the Beatles haircut. My friend up the street never spoke to me again, which was ok with my mom who never liked her anyway, “No big loss. That girl has always been a bad influence.”  I was head over heels crazy about the guy until high school when I got braces on my teeth and he took up with a cheerleader.  Mother was philosophical about that, too, “Well, dear, plenty more fish in the sea.”

Anyway, the end of that story brings me to the second reason that Sean Connery is on my mind. I just have to share a photo I took on our trip to Scotland last month.

As you can see, this fabulous poster was in a bathroom —our hotel bathroom to be precise. Adds a touch of excitement to one’s morning ablutions, let me tell you! I might want one of these at home.

Why was there a giant poster of Sean Connery and Ursula Andress in our hotel bathroom, you ask?  Because, the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, one of those venerable old railway hotels, which is a very central edifice in the city situated atop Waverley train station, underwent a major refurbishment in the 1990s. Sean Connery, possibly the most famous of Scotsmen, was invited to cut the ribbon at the reopening. Later, in 2012, the interior designer involved in the most recent Balmoral renovation paid homage to Sir Sean with these iconic images in the bathrooms. (Isn’t that a hoot? Extra points to whoever can name the Bond movie this shot came from.)

Now, Connery was once voted by People magazine, “the sexiest man of the century” – not sure which one, but no matter, he is drop-dead gorgeous in this century or the last.

This brings me to the topic of Scottish men in general.  The majority of Scotsmen I observed —whether they were waiters, bell hops, doormen, concierges, tour guides, clerks in shops, soldiers at castles, maître d’s or guys on corners playing bagpipes — were so darn cute! Many with red hair and freckles. Some in kilts — verrrrrrry sexy, Jimmy! And those accents! Even though I had no idea what they were saying half the time, that lilting Scottish brogue could reduce me to a wee puddle of oatmeal porridge every time!

Och, to be in Scotland again. I’m not fishing in the sea, of course, but Scottish salmon seem to be a handsome catch. Aye, laddie!