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.

Moody Manitoba memories after going back home to my old ‘hood in Winnipeg—The Bronx

The time traveller is sitting on a green, wooden bench in The Bronx on a pristine, spring morning in 2015, yet her mind insists it is early in the 1960s, not long after Ed Sullivan had introduced us to John, Paul, George and Ringo.

patti dawn swansson
patti dawn swansson

She hears the crack of colliding forces, ash on horsehide, and she sees the tiny boy jogging toward first base, where he pauses to watch a baseball begin a climb toward the sky, its arch long and majestic. It falls back to earth on the front lawn of a well-manicured yard on the far side of a playing field tucked between Bronx and Chelsea avenues, and bounces off the brick facing of the house. Few, if any, had ever seen a baseball fly this far before.

Fair or foul?

Foul ball!” cries the umpire.

By a foot.

The boy returns to home plate, picks up his little Louisville Slugger bat and stares up at the ump, almost pleadingly.

Sorry,” the arbiter says, “I was really hoping it would be fair, ’cause no one’s ever hit a ball across the street in the air. Never seen it done before. Not ever.”

The boy hits a triple on the very next pitch.

Now the time traveller snaps back to spring 2015. To reality.

To this day,” she tells herself, “it’s hard to believe that the boy actually hit a ball that far. Clear across an entire city block. He was so tiny…how was that possible?”

***

I suppose Thomas Wolfe was correct when he told us we can’t go home again, but that doesn’t prevent us from trying, does it.

The Bronx, a collection of mostly modest homes and tree-lined avenues nestled in a snug neighborhood near the eastern banks of the Red River in East Kildonan, was home. Is home. Most of my childhood memories are moored there, some shrouded in fog and others vivid and vibrant. Like the baseball that landed a foot foul.

It had been two decades since I last embraced the Bronx, so I was uncertain what I might discover upon my arrival at the foot of Kildonan Drive in early May, there to begin a two-hour stroll through the corridors of time and listening to the echoes of a distant youth. This is where I experienced some of my finest moments on the outdoor, frozen ponds and the dusty ball diamonds of Winnipeg. It’s where I had my first girl crushes, on a lass named Lynn Lowery and later on my friend Bruce Woodward’s sister, Wendy. Naturally, I harbored a hope that my pilgrimage would give rise to recollections both favorable and fond, at the same time lending a sense of serenity.

The first thing that drew my attention was the old McMurdy place. There was something wonky, something awkward about the look of the yard site. It stared back at me with a prune-face, as if it felt put off for being ignored. It was never so shabby back in the day.

A few blocks ahead on Kildonan Drive sits Bronx Park Community Centre, now an expansive structure that would dwarf the shack in which we changed from winter boots to skates, from parkas to hockey sweaters. Two regulation-size rinks stood at ease, in weary withdrawal from a winter’s worth of work, and the baseball field is notable by its absence.

Sitting on that green, wooden bench, right about where the pitcher’s mound once was, I couldn’t help but think of the lyrics from the tune There Used to be a Ballpark on the Sinatra album Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back:

And there used to be a ballpark where the field was warm and green
And the people played their crazy game with a joy I’d never seen…”

For some reason, I also gave thought to Dunc the Rat, the club caretaker who groomed the ball park and provided us with the smoothest, fastest frozen ponds in all of E.K. I don’t recollect why we called him the Rat, because he was a rather nice fellow, albeit with a big bark whenever we skated on to his freshly flooded freeze without his consent. Or when he made us skedaddle for playing foot hockey.

Bronx Park was a haven for me, a hideaway from the dreaded demons that lurked below the surface and tortured a troubled, adolescent soul in search of answers to questions that made no sense.

It saddened me that the ball park was gone, and I couldn’t help but wonder where kids in The Bronx go to hit their long foul balls and triples now. Melrose Park, perhaps. I felt empty, if not somewhat betrayed.

I strolled on. I didn’t look back.

***

It was, as I had hoped, tranquil that early Tuesday a.m. in early May. The mercury already was crowding 20 degrees and the warmth seemed to merge with my melancholy. My long, summer skirt sashayed in a gentle breeze as I slowly made my way up the winding road, inhaling spring’s freshness and taking a toke of nostalgia.

89 Helmsdale Avenue in The Bronx
89 Helmsdale Avenue in The Bronx

There were few signs of human existence, save for a couple of men doing roofing work on Kimberley Avenue, another two painting on Helmsdale Avenue and two more, from His & Hers Lawncare, cutting the lawn at the old Depoe/Pierce place, right beside the Biebers on Kildonan Drive. The steady, low murmur of their mowers provided a suitable soundtrack, and the scent of freshly cut grass gave the scene an unexpected sweetness.

I had forgotten about the many trees that stand as tall and magnificent sentries along the streets in this neighborhood, trees that have survived the ravages of time and Mother Nature, including the famous flood in 1950, the year I was born.

Moving east on Helmsdale, an old lady in a light, blue housecoat and robe stood in front of No. 136, staring at her garden. She seemed frozen in place. I found myself wondering if she might be in difficulty.

Do you need some help, ma’am?” I inquired.

No, young lady,” she assured me. “I’m looking at the plants I put in yesterday.”

Two rabbits scurried to and fro, in and out of the hedge next door, then squatted to nibble on the grass in front of the old lady’s house. There were chalk marks on the sidewalk up ahead, unmistakable evidence that a rousing game of hopscotch had taken place recently. Children, I thought. The block is blessed with children. That made me feel good. As did the single, swaying swing, roped to a gnarled, iffy branch in want of foliage in front of the old Woodward place, right beside the Kurcebas’ abode.

I really was at peace.

Fraser’s Grove Park was as far as I walked up Kildonan Drive, but it wasn’t my final destination on this magical memory tour. It was a pausing point, a place to sit and watch the waters of the murky Red River roll by, symbolic of the swift currents of time that cannot erase or erode treasured recollections.

I had one more stop to make.

***

The man was kneeling, plucking at weeds in the front yard garden when I arrived at 89 Helmsdale, my old home, just a couple houses down from Grandma and Grandpa Bott’s, where my mom had been reared.

Being rather shy, I was hesitant to interrupt his toil, feeling it to be an intrusion. But I couldn’t resist.

Excuse me, sir,” I said softly. “Do you live here?”

I do,” he aswered, looking up with a friendly smile. “Been here since 1986.”

I lived here in the early 1960s. This house was my home…I still feel like it’s my home, even after all these years.”

We made small talk and he mentioned something about people often stopping by and knocking on his door to inquire about former residents of the house.

I wonder who that could have been,” I said.

I don’t know,” he replied. “I’ll go ask my wife.”

He disappeared into the house, then resurfaced about a minute later as I stood on the sidewalk.

She says for you to come inside,” he called out.

If my heart didn’t stop, it surely skipped a beat. I hadn’t seen the inside of 89 Helmsdale since the mid-1960s, and here was a stranger opening his home to another stranger.

I stepped through the door and paused. I was nervous. Once inside the foyer, tears began to well in my eyes. I looked into the living room, at the bay window and the fireplace and the solid oak sliding doors. I noticed the oak wood paneling along the walls in the foyer and the dining room. The antique light. The sharp-turning stairway to the second of three floors. The main floor verandha.

I was home again.

The house now belongs to Zofia and Les Wielkopolan. Their son Urich also lives there.

I stayed for no more than 10 minutes, during which they asked me an assortment of questions about the house, some of which I had answers for, others not so much.

I have to leave,” I finally said. “I’ve intruded long enough and you’ve been so very kind and generous to welcome me into your home. And if I don’t leave now, you’ll have a blubbering idiot on your hands. I’m going to really start crying any minute.”

You come back any time you like, dear,” Zofia told me. “You come back later today if you like.”

I’m afraid I’m flying back to Victoria in a few hours.”

Perhaps some other time then.”

I left, tears of pure joy streaking down my cheeks as I began the journey back to my downtown hotel, where I pondered the events of the day.

Going back home was glorious, even if there’s no longer a ballpark in The Bronx.

(Editor’s Note: This article is featured on the MyToba.ca website…http://mytoba.ca/voices/moody-manitoba-memories-on-a-visit-to-my-home-in-the-bronx-e-k/).

September seems like an ideal time to return to my ‘hood, The Bronx

89 Helmsdale Avenue in The Bronx
89 Helmsdale Avenue in The Bronx

I find myself in a reflective pose these days. I think of good, old Home Town and the ‘hood with increasing frequency, also longing, wondering if I dare wish for a dalliance with an old flame named East Kildonan.

There’s no appetite for a permanent reunion, understand. That isn’t doable. I am, however, of a thought to visit her again. One final time.

I see myself on a silent, soulful sojourn beginning at the foot of Kildonan Drive, where Ralph and Paula Tait once lived, across the street from Shelley Keeping. Ralphie was always laughing and kibitzing. I recall pretty Kathy Finnigan harboring fond feelings for him. No surprise. We all liked Ralphie very much.

Around the first bend in the long, winding road sits the McMurdy abode, on the eastern banks of the Red River. I cut the grass and trimmed the hedge when big, happy-go-lucky Grant and his older sister, Linda, were away on vacation. Grant died so young, in his early twenties, but he lives on in my youngest son, named Grant Douglas after my childhood friend.

Another two blocks up, on the right, is Bronx Park, and I’m 12 years old again, swatting baseballs that land on the well-manicured lawns of Chelsea Avenue. The Lowery house, full of girls called Lynn and Dal and Cathy and an older sister whose name escapes me, is next, then the Depoe/Pierce abode. Donnie and Lois Depoe lived there first, then along came Tom and Terry Pierce. Their dad, Keith Sr., was a Shriner and once played for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Tom and my incredibly annoying older brother, Richard, played in a band together, The Other Syde of Lyfe. Tom was lead guitar and vocals, big bro banged the skins. Kenny Mack was on keyboards. I nicknamed him Face for the very logical reason that he had an interesting face. I liked Kenny Mack a lot. He was fun.

Now I’m at the intersection of Helmsdale Avenue and Kildonan Drive. I stare at 89 Helmsdale. She hasn’t changed. Not in the slighest. Still radiant. Still majestic. Still magnificent. Still lovely. Still home.

I look east down the modest, tree-lined street and notice the small building at the end of the road, on the other side of Henderson Highway. It’s no longer Helmsdale Pharmacy, but I can still see Mrs. Anderson and taste the scrumptuous banana splits, milk shakes and ice cream floats she used to serve us kids at the soda fountain.

She was a lovely lady, Mrs. Anderson. Kind, gentle, thoughtful, very sweet. A mother’s mother. I recall her son David was a repeat winner on Kids’ Bids, a TV auction that allowed youngsters to bid for bikes, ball gloves and such with Old Dutch potato chip box tops and bags instead of money. None of us were jealous of him when he would win a new trinket. I just remember thinking that the Andersons must have eaten a lot of potato chips.

I’m walking west now and, two doors down from 89 Helmsdale, the sidewalk takes an abrupt dip that served as a drag strip for the crude, wooden soap box cars that my younger brother, Mick, and I would craft. Mick was a ginger-haired sweetheart, the most unannoying person in our household.

“Fire the retros!” we would yelp as one of us feverishly pushed the other toward the decline, which featured a nasty, 90-degree right turn at the bottom that, more often than not, left us in a crumpled heap and in need of a new left front wheel and ointment for scraped skin. I don’t believe either of us ever successfully navigated that turn.

The sidewalk drag strip is directly in front of the red brick domicile of the Komadoski clan, which included my pal Neil. He was the biggest but not the baddest of the kids with whom I ran. He launched a National Hockey League career in our ‘hood, the Bronx.

Kildonan Drive snakes its way from there north to Fraser’s Grove Park, a peaceful setting that lends itself to summer serenity and winter frolic. That’s where I sit and give ponder.

It was a wonderful place to live, to grow.

I must return. Perhaps next September, when the high humidity and the mosquitoes of summer have given way to the falling leaves and the fresh crispness of autumn’s air.

I might even knock on the front door at 89 Helmsdale. See if any ghosts are home.

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