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.

Memo to politicos: There’s nothing to fear, let the girls play

I don’t expect you to understand me or the reasons that brought me to where I am today.

Hell, I didn’t understand it for most of my 70 years.

Head doctors wrestle with it and other people with medical degrees of a different stripe aren’t certain what to make of it, either.

But here’s something you should understand: There’s nothing to fear.

I’m not a threat to your way of life, your religion, your job, your children, your family pet, your home or the company you keep. I won’t let my pooch poop on your lawn without scooping up the leavings in a doggy bag, I won’t park in your handicap spot, and I won’t crank up my music so loud that you can’t sleep at night, whether I’m playing Sinatra, Streisand or Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

I don’t know any transgender individual who thinks differently, the possible exception being Caitlyn Jenner, who’s actually more of a menace to the trans community than the general population.

In return, I ask just one thing: Don’t exclude me.

Me: Before and after.

Don’t tell me I can’t live in your apartment building. Don’t tell me I can’t be your co-worker. Don’t tell me I can’t kneel in your temple. Don’t tell me I can’t break bread and drink in your local watering hole. Don’t tell me I can’t shop at your market. Don’t tell me I can’t join your slo-pitch team.

In short, don’t tell me I don’t belong.

Yet this is what’s happening today, most notably in the United States, where numerous politicos of a sharp conservative tilt have mounted a crusade to prevent transgender females from sharing the playing fields of the nation with cisgender girls and women.

The anti-transgender constituency talks like there exists a sizable squadron of very large, very hairy, ape-ish men just waiting to dab on a little lipstick and mascara, convinced that’s the surest route to the top step of an Olympic Games medal podium, whereupon they can look down on their cisgender opponents, vanquished and lying in tattered ruins at the side of the track.

“It’s unfair,” goes their rallying cry.

Except there’s no evidence to support any notion that a male-to-female transition has ever made someone a superior athlete.

Let me tell you something about a male-to-female transition.

When I started taking hormones, the top of my head was five feet, 6.5 inches above the ground. Today it’s 1.5 inches closer to the ground. I was 138 pounds at the outset and soon dropped to 129, just one serving of chicken and dumplings heavier than my playing weight at age 18.

I was in my fifties and worked as a cleaner at a nightclub at the time, and had no difficulty with the heavy grunt work, easily hauling hefty bags of garbage up two flights of stairs to the dumpster and casually swishing a sopping-wet mop across the sticky, syrupy floors. In short order, however, I often couldn’t pull the garbage bags out of the bins, let alone lug them upstairs, and that chore became part of the barman’s duties. The wet mop, meanwhile, soon felt like it was attached to an ATM machine.

Trust me when I tell you hormones and the dramatic drop in testosterone levels are an energy and strength-siphoning bit of business.

For example, I was skilled enough to play in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League at age 18. Yet had I transitioned then, there was scant chance I would have been physically capable of competing with testosterone-fueled boys/young men aged 16 to 20. Actually, forget scant chance. Based on my transition experience, it simply would not have been doable, except perhaps in my mind.

The alternative, of course, would have been to join a female league, except they were non-existent back then. They exist today.

Jessica Platt

Jessica Platt was permitted to suit up with the Toronto Furies of the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League, and her on-ice impact was negligible, with just two goals and three points in 49 games. Unfairness wasn’t an issue. There was nothing to fear.

Is it possible for a transgender female to come along and dominate her sport? Absolutely. Just as tall females dominate, just as big-boned females dominate, just as females with above-normal testosterone readings (see: Semenya, Caster) dominate, just as females with big feet and wide wing spans dominate. It’s never been one-size-fits-all on the playground, and never will be.

That applies to life.

Being transgender shouldn’t disqualify any girl/woman or boy/man from her/his pursuits, nor should it cloud anyone’s judgement and become a roadblock.

Again, leaning into my lived experience to provide an e.g., when I was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Writers & Sportscasters Roll of Honour the group’s president, Ted Wyman, informed me that my gender “wasn’t an issue. It never came up in our discussion.” They let me know that my body of work indicated that I belonged, and I applauded them for that. Still do.

And isn’t that something we all seek? Acceptance and belonging?

So let the girls belong and play.

Harrison Browne is sending a mixed message by playing women’s hockey

I must confess that I’m conflicted about Harrison Browne.

I’m delighted for him, because he’s begun to live his truth, but I’m mildly disappointed in him because he’s sending mixed signals by living only a portion of his truth.

For those of you who haven’t been formally introduced, Browne is a transgender male on the roster of the Metropolitan Riveters of the National Women’s Hockey League. Yes, he plays with the girls. Still. That’s why the question he most oft fields is this: If you identify as a man, why are you still playing women’s hockey?

“It’s either I continue playing a sport that I love, and be a professional athlete, or I start living as myself to everyone and start being who I am on the inside reflecting in the mirror,” he explains in the well-done TSN feature The Shift. “Both of those outcomes are so enticing to me, but I have to choose.”

He has chosen women’s hockey over testosterone hormone therapy and surgery.

“Hockey is everything to me,” he says.

“I feel that my message is more important now than ever and I feel that it’s more powerful as an active athlete. You might be thinking, ‘Will he ever physically transition?’ Yes, but not until I’m done spreading as much awareness as I can as an active athlete and as a pre-transition trans man.”

Therein lies my conflict.

Exactly what message is Browne sending about transgender individuals? That we’re confused? That we’re so messed up mentally that we don’t know who we are? I mean, he’s asking us to call him Harrison, not his birth name (or, to use a transgender term, his ‘dead’ name) Hailey, and he’s asking us to use male pronouns when referencing him. I get that. It’s hugely significant. It’s vital to most transgender people.

Harrison Browne

Two years ago, for example, one of my dearest friends asked if she could call me by my ‘dead’ name.

“Would you take offence?” she asked. “In no way would it be disrespectful.”

“Yes,” I told her, “I’m afraid I would be very offended. I would also be hurt.”

I haven’t seen or heard from her since, but losing friends and/or family is not uncommon for transgender individuals. It’s a price we sometimes pay, like it or not.

Anyway, Harrison is Harrison, and to call him anything else is a rejection, offensive and, depending on the person, the circumstance and the intent, it can be cruel and crippling. Trust me. Been there, had it done to me. It can hurt like hell.

Having said that, I have difficulty with Browne’s message because, by playing in the NWHL, he’s contradicting himself. He presents as a 24-year-old man (he looks like a teenage boy) in his everyday, walkabout life, but he chooses not to begin his physical transition. Taking testosterone would render him ineligible to play women’s hockey. Such an inconvenience. So, here’s how some might read his message: He wants to have it both ways.

Which invites criticism, cynicism and confusion from beyond the transgender sphere.

I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. Browne says once he takes his first shot of testosterone, hockey, which is his “everything,” is over. Well, no, it isn’t. Women’s hockey would be over, but there’s this thing called men’s leagues. I know, I know. He’s only 5-feet-4 and 120 pounds. So what? I was 5-feet-5, 128 pounds when I played in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, and I was only an inch taller and still 128 pounds when I participated in the Winnipeg Jets’ inaugural National Hockey League rookie camp. I was a sprig.

But, as I said, that’s the devil’s advocate in me saying those things.

I will emphasize this: There is no road map for transitioning. We all do it on our own clock and on our own terms. The last thing Harrison needs is for dozens of people, myself included, telling him how and when it’s supposed to be done. That’s why I’d never suggest that Browne is betraying some perceived transgender cause. It’s his call.

Still, he’s sending a very mixed message, and I’m not convinced that’s helpful in our cynical and skeptical world.

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