When I think back to my childhood, the memories play as 8mm Kodachrome film; they are hazy, often out of focus - snippets randomly stripped together. Edited, perhaps, from their unique imprint in the recesses of my brain. They are, at least, in colour. I wonder if my children, brought up in the age of 4 and 8K imagery, will remember their childhoods in HD. I hope so.
My first conscious memory is of the sound of hammers nailing shingles to the roof of our new home on Riel Avenue in south St. Vital. 3 strikes per nail; 2 if they were on their game. Men carrying heavy bundles of shingles up the wooden ladder, a clap as they were dropped in place, then again, tap, tap, tap. It was a sound repeated often throughout my childhood as urban sprawl took hold in 1960s Winnipeg. To this day I feel hammers play the sound of progress.
Riel Avenue was named for the tract of land on which it stands, once owned by the Riel family, whose progeny included the infamous Métis leader and father of Manitoba, Louis Riel. Several hundred feet wide by several kilometers long, their property covered an expanse between the Red River on the west and the Seine River to the east. The Riel home, a few hundred yards from the Red River, has become Riel House, a National Historic Site commemorating Riel’s life, and the lives of Métis families in the Red River Settlement. The house is now an island of history in the residential development known as River Point, with 4 rows of upscale houses separating it from its former river front status.
In the 1960s, Riel House was a derelict shack on River Road, hidden by an overgrowth of trees and on the verge of collapse, a place for more adventurous kids than I to explore. To its north, a fenced pasture where I fed sweet-smelling clover from the fence line to “Queenie”, a beautiful honey-coloured horse. To the south, more pasture — that belonging to the McNulty’s, who owned an idyllic river acreage replete with a two-story log mansion and a true “cement pond” (pool). In between, the St. Vital Hospital. Tucked back into a river bend across from the University of Manitoba, it was a foreboding brown/red brick edifice. Founded as a tuberculosis sanatorium by the Grey Nuns in 1931, it was renamed the St. Vital Hospital in 1961, but it was, to all locals, affectionately known as the “San”.
To 8-year old me, the San was a mystical place; perhaps in my furtive imagination, a house of horrors. Nuns in long brown habits and black veils wielding yardsticks, patrolling the sterile, green tiled hallways… wardens to children with severe physical and mental disabilities. It was hardly so, but until some of my school friends started volunteering there, that is what I imagined. It was an outpost of where I grew up, and of my imagination. But there was little appreciation in south St. Vital for a boy with an imagination; in fact it was something I might easily be bullied for, and so I kept these thoughts, for the most part, to myself.
Further east was Minnetonka elementary school; a bleak, utilitarian rectangle divided into 6 classrooms and sundry office/storage space that smelled of chalk dust and erasers. It is where I acquired my first 7 years of education; in academics yes, but also bullying, racism, cliques, fighting, friendship, unimaginable ignorance,and unrequited loyalty. My report cards (I still have them) tell the story of a loner, unwilling to work in groups, who had issues with focus. And yet I still managed to bring home at least one straight A report card, and a citizenship/sportsmanship award of which I was particularly proud. Minnetonka School was 3 blocks from home, with the sparsely populated avenues of Riverbend, Woodlawn, and Greendell in between.
Coincidentally, I rode my bike down Riel Avenue today with Roula, and in the two blocks approaching our old house recounted short stories for almost every house we passed:
“This is where Danny McKane lived. He gave me a baseball as a present. Turned out it belonged to the school. He was a foster child, and didn’t show up for school one day. Or ever after.”
“The Crawfords lived here. Reggie Crawford played in a band in the 60s and they’d practice in that garage.”
Those houses there? That’s where the Fillion’s, Lindsay’s, Sired’s, and Chorney’s lived. That’s one of the first few houses on Riel. Doerksen’s live there now.”
“I got caught climbing on the roof of that house when it was being built, by Mrs. O’Hara, who lived (me, pointing) in that house. Mrs. Van Bethray lived over there; that’s who Bethray Bay was named after. Then there’s the Kehler’s, Gray’s, Neufeld’s, and Braun’s. And there are 4 houses where there used to be a big field, where I broke my front tooth while snowmobiling. Then there’s Les’s house…”
I own the fact that my recounting of these things is boring to anyone but those who grew up in the neighbourhood. But when I am there I am transported to a far simpler time. A time of innocence. A time when everyone knew their neighbours — played with them, ate with them, entertained ourselves through harsh winters with them, and generally got along with them. A time when we all shopped at Dakota Village Safeway, and all bought our clothes at K-Mart. A time when we all observed Sunday as a day of rest, with no shopping and little activity, save the children playing in the yard.
We stopped at Riel Avenue and Minnetonka Street, the epicentre for all the kids in our neighbourhood, where still stands the hydro pole that was ground zero for our favourite game of “Ghost Ghost”, our version of Hide and Seek. When it came on, the street light atop the pole signaled time for bed. I touched the pole.
“This,” I explained to Roula, “was home.”