An ode to the old ‘hood by a one-time, would-be mayor of East Kildonan

Once upon a very long time ago, when I was no taller than a picket fence and weighed less than a bushel of grass clippings, I used to tell the other five people in our East Kildonan household three things:

  • I would one day be elected mayor of E.K.
  • I would one day become a world-renowned photographer.
  • I would one day play in the National Hockey League and be in the Hall of Fame.

Snickering always ensued whenever I would spew my impish bravado, but, to me, it wasn’t pie-in-the-sky dreaming. It all made sense in my tiny mind, which did not include boundaries or restraints.

Melrose Park CC

After all, I was the best little hockey player my age in E.K. (won the Little NHL scoring title at Melrose Park Community Club with eight goals in the final game of the 1960 season), so it wasn’t a fanciful notion that I one day would follow in the skate marks left behind by someone like Terry Sawchuk, an E.K. lad whose goalie pads I once wore until a coach wisely determined that our team would be better served with me playing centre and scoring scads of goals than stinking out the joint by standing between two red, metal posts and allowing scads of goals. More to the point, it was pure fantasy that I wouldn’t get to the NHL.

Similarly, I could think of not a single compelling reason that would prevent my photographs from being displayed in renowned galleries hither and yon. “Photog of the year,” I would tell the others, weekly.

Being chosen mayor of E.K. and its 25,937 citizens (1960) was more of an iffy bit of business.

E.K. City Hall

I mean, what did I know from politics? But I remember reading once in the Elmwood Herald that there were 48 homes in E.K. that still had outhouses in 1959, and I didn’t think that was right. Seemed to me, even at my tender age, that everyone should have been in full flush. I also took note of various rat infestations and trouble with delinquent teens. You know, hooligans who ran in packs and got their jollies busting into schools and businesses, or just hanging out in large numbers prepping for gang rumbles.

It all made for an appealing Triple P platform: I would flush out the Poop, the Pests and the Punks. Vote me.

Except it never came to a vote.

East Kildonan merged with numerous municipalities to form one big Winnipeg in 1972 (Unicity, we called it), and that gathering of bits and pieces ended my political career before I could take my notions to the people.

That meant Stanley Dowhan served as the final mayor of E.K., and I have no recollection of his worthiness for the job. Ditto Frank Dryden, George Suttie, Mike Spack and Mike Ruta, although I recall that my dad didn’t think any among them was worth a lick, perhaps because they failed to rid the various neighborhoods of the outhouses, rats and teen punks, but more likely because he didn’t seem to like anything.

At any rate, I never became mayor of East Kildonan.

Bronx Park

Never made it to the NHL or the Hockey Hall of Fame as a player either. Turned out that the Manitoba Junior Hockey League was my ceiling, although I had a flirtation with pro hockey when I took up John Ferguson’s offer to suit up with the Winnipeg Jets in the final exhibition skirmish of their inaugural rookie camp in Sainte-Agathe, Que, in 1979. I set up the first goal in that game, then picked up my pen, notebook and tape recorder to resume a 30-year career in jock journalism, one that took me from the outdoor frozen ponds of Melrose Park and Bronx Park to Maple Leaf Gardens, the Montreal Forum, Madison Square Garden and all the finest shinny barns on the continent. I wrote about Pee Wee champions, Junior champions, World Hockey Association champions, Stanley Cup champions and global champions, so I took a different route to the NHL.

As for photography, exactly zero galleries made room on their walls for my work. The best I could do was an honorable mention certificate in the North America-wide Kodak International Photo Contest, and a cover pic on a golf magazine.

I don’t view those as failings, though. Not even missteps. It’s life. It’s the journey.

And I can’t imagine a better starting point on the journey than our middle-class neighborhoods in East Kildonan, tucked into the northeast section of Winnipeg.

89 Helmsdale Avenue

E.K. was very much a work in progress when our family put stakes into the ground in the mid-1950s, initially in a very modest story-and-a-half homestead at 429 Melbourne Ave., then at 89 Helmsdale Ave., a grand house that stood majestically where Helmsdale and Kildonan Drive intersect, just four dwellings removed from the banks of the always-rushing Red River.

The first traffic lights weren’t installed until 1955, at the intersection of Henderson and Melrose (now Kimberly), work crews were still paving my block on Melbourne in spring ’56, telephone booths were located at various street corners, and we weren’t connected to the bustle of downtown Winnipeg in a significant way until October 1960, when the Disraeli Freeway opened to traffic.

Until then, we lived in our own little world, and everything we needed was within walking distance.

The Roxy

The Roxy Theatre was a 10-minute scamper from home, and we often spent our Saturday mornings there watching cartoons and horse opera. Once Porky Pig told us “that’s all folks” for the final time in May 1960 (last movie, Sleeping Beauty), it became Roxy Lanes. If my dad needed nails or other handyman supplies, Melrose Hardware was two blocks away, a few shops removed from Ebbeling Pharmacy on Watt Street. If they didn’t have the right goods, Kildonan Hardware was just a whoop and a holler away, next door to Helmsdale Pharmacy where us teenage kids would hang out and sample Mrs. Anderson’s banana splits and ice cream sodas when we weren’t in frolic at Bronx Park.

Mom could do her shopping at a variety of markets, including Safeway, Nell’s Grocery, Zellers and Petty’s Meat Market, which served the tastiest corned beef east of the Red River. Corned beef on rye was often a Saturday afternoon treat.

Fast food joints and restaurants were plentiful, from Dairy Queen to Champs, which served Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken, to Gondola Pizza and its its nine-inch pies (with a drink) for $1.25.

Again, everything in walking distance.

But if my parents wanted a one-day getaway to, say, Palm Beach just north of E.K., corner filling stations were in abundance and gas was sold by the gallon, not the litre. And my parents didn’t require a loan from one of the neighborhood banks to put an Esso tiger in the tank.

St. Alphonsus

Not once did I take a bus to any of the three schools I attended but didn’t like—St. Alphonsus, St. Clements, Munroe Junior High—and the one I did like, Miles Macdonell Collegiate, and we came home for lunch. Every day. Sometimes my mom would be there to make soup and sandwiches for us, otherwise we’d whip up the peanut-butter-and-jam sammies on our own. When we returned to school after chowing down, we didn’t bother to bolt the doors, even though E.K. was not without nogoodniks.

Our top cop was Chief Constable Einfeld, who once was in hot foot pursuit of two two bank robbers only to hopelessly watch them flee to safety when he tripped on a curb and did a face plant, like something us kids might have seen in a Keystone Kops film at the Roxy.

Rossmere golf course: Hold the onions!

There was another oddball legal snafu in the 1950s, whereby a nearby resident thought it would be a swell idea to plant onions on one of the fairways at Rossmere Golf & Country Club (oh, yes, we had our own golf track and a couple of curling clubs). Apparently the guy had been given the okie-dokie to onion-up the golf course, and I’m guessing that members, albeit annoyed, were grateful he hadn’t planted a tomato or potato patch.

We read all about these goings-on in the Elmwood Herald, which was our go-to source for local news, even as most homes subscribed to either the Winnipeg Tribune or Winnipeg Free Press. I don’t recall either the Trib or Freep publishing the scores and goal-scorers from our Little NHL games at Melrose Park or Playground A-B-C games at Bronx Park on a weekly basis, but the Herald did, and that included my eight-goal gem, which I mistakenly assumed to be the first step on my path to the NHL and shinny immortality.

So many good memories, including the arrival of color TV (Ronny Cruikshank was the first of our group to get it), cable TV, and both CJAY TV (CKY) and KCND signed on. Those of us who didn’t have cable could bring in the KCND signal from North Dakota via wonky rooftop antennas and TV-top rabbit ears (and maybe a wad of tin foil.)

One entrance to Fraser’s Grove

It all sounds so quirky today, but it was my childhood and I loved E.K., even if I ran away from home numerous times (I never got any farther than the railway tracks that separated us from Morse Place). I’ve owned two homes in the old ‘hood, one on Leighton and the other on Kimberly, and I’ve long imagined myself living on Kildonan Drive, near Fraser’s Grove, where us Catholic kids would have our once-a-year school picnics.

That isn’t part of the picture now, though. Just like the NHL/Hockey Hall of Fame, the photo galleries and the political career that have faded from focus.

Hey, stuff happens, but sometimes stuff doesn’t happen, and even I can giggle about my impish impulses now.

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