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.

In praise of Mrs. Grieve and Mr. Peters, two of my teachers at Miles Macdonell Collegiate in the old ‘hood, East Kildonan

Miles Mac

I was in full veg mode the other day, lying flat on my loveseat, staring blankly at my flatscreen and wondering why, with so many channels on the menu, there was nothing worth watching.

It’s sort of like my wardrobe. My closet is full, but I have nothing to wear.

(Quick aside: I’ve long thought that Nothing To Wear would be an ideal name for a women’s consignment clothing store, because most women I know have peered into their closet and arrived at the damnable reality that they have nothing to wear, no matter how many frocks and accessories are staring back at them.)

The difference, of course, is that I always find something in the closet that satisfies my needs and taste du jour, whereas I more often than not can’t find anything on the flatscreen that will entertain, inform or humor me for more than five minutes. Also, the quality fare that snags all the Emmys doesn’t air until 9 or 10 o’clock at night, long after I’ve lowered my eyelids, which means I only get to sneak a peek when they’re featured on commercials.

The Reagans about to chow down and bicker.

It was during a fruitless channel surfing mission the other day when I noticed an advert for Blue Bloods, a New York City cop drama that features Tom Selleck’s mustache and the Reagan family eating dinner. They engage in much bickering between bites, and it’s usually eldest son Danny with the worst table manners. Since Danny solves every case and arrests all the bad guys, usually with one hand tied behind his back, he feels obliged to remind the rest of the clan that they’re all bunglers, and that includes his cop commissioner dad, Frank, his ADA sister, Erin, his cop brother, Jamie, his cop nephew Joe, and his cop sister-in-law, Eddie. Stooges, all of them.

Mostly spared from Danny’s bullying, however, is the patriarch of the Reagan brood, grandpa Henry or “Pops,” an old-school cop and now-retired NYPD commish with no appetite for the coddling of scofflaws. At worst, Danny might say, “Come on, Pops, you can’t really believe that.” Otherwise, the old boy is teflon.

Which brings me to the main point of this essay.

Pops Reagan is played by Len Cariou, and seeing him at the family table is always a reminder that I went to the same high school as Broadway’s original Sweeney Todd.

Len Cariou, aka Pops Reagan

During my time at Miles Macdonell Collegiate on Roch Street in East Kildonan, I had no clue that I was walking the same halls of academia as a guy who would become a Tony Award-winning actor and tread the boards with Lauren Bacall and Angela Lansbury, among others. He’s also shared the silver screen with Liz Taylor, Diana Rigg, Viola Davis, Rita Moreno, Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner and Johnny Depp, among others.

Since Cariou has 11 years on me, we weren’t MMC Buckeyes at the same time, and it’s unlikely we had any of the same teachers, although I suppose it’s possible.

The thing is, I’m guessing there were certain teachers at Miles Mac who had a special influence on Cariou during his two years under their watchful eye (Grades 10 and 11), and perhaps that’s what sealed the deal for him: He would become a star on stage and screen.

I’ve never experienced the same acclaim as Cariou, and high hosannas are unlikely to fall my way now that I’m well into my dotage and far removed from a 30-year career in journalism, but I had two high school teachers whose words pointed me in the right direction in the 1960s, even if their methods were quite contrasting.

Literature teacher Mrs. Grieve planted the first seed, when she awarded me a mark of 29/30 for an essay on baseball. She did so hesitantly. She wasn’t convinced it was an original work, but, apparently unable to find evidence to the contrary, she gave me my mark of 29-out-of-30 and scribbled a note on the margins of my paper, saying, “If this is your writing, I recommend you pursue it as a possible career.”


But then there was Mr. Peters, a teacher with a favorable manner, but one who too often observed me with my nose deep into a sports magazine and/or book at my desk at the back of the room.

“I think you should concentrate on what the rest of the class is focused on,” he said one day, interrupting his lesson to scold me to the tittering of classmates. “You’re wasting your time reading all those sports books. It’s not going to do you any good.”

Not so nice.

Except Mr. Peters’ tsk-tsking served the same purpose as Mrs. Grieve’s encouragement, and sealed the deal: I would get into jock journalism. Not to prove him wrong, but because I admired the wordsmiths in Sports Illustrated and Sport Magazine and Hockey Illustrated, etc.

Scant months later, I was working at the Winnipeg Tribune, the start of a 30-year odyssey that would take me into a world that included Muhammad Ali and Wayne Gretzky and Sugar Ray Leonard and Bobby Orr and Gary Carter and Tommy Lasorda and Tom Seaver and Jean Beliveau and Gordie Howe and Vladislav Tretiak and Paul Henderson and Don Cherry and Vic Peters and Jeff Stoughton and Jack Nicklaus and Cal Murphy and Benny Hatskin and Dave Keon and Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her Special Olympics. I covered Gretzky’s first professional game and Ali’s final fist fight. I had feet on the ground at Grey Cups and Super Bowls and Stanley Cups and Briers and championship boxing in Las Vegas and World Cup skiing. Hockey took me to most major cities in North America, and to the world championship in Sweden, and a few outposts hither and yon that didn’t have traffic lights. I’ve been perched in press boxes at the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens and Madison Square Garden and the Olympia in Detroit and Boston Garden and the Stadium in Chicago. That’s the NHL’s original six. I was sports editor at two major dailies.

I owe Mrs. Grieve and Mr. Peters no small amount of thanks for all that.

If they’re still around, I doubt they include me in their recollections, because there was nothing noteworthy about my grades, or time spent, at Miles Mac. But I’ve often thought of them. Still do.

And it’s never too late to say merci beaucoup.

Been there, did all that by the time I was 21…now what?

It is not quite two weeks since I huffed and puffed and blew out the three-alarm blaze that was my 65th birthday cake.

newest pic
patti dawn swansson

(Full disclosure: I didn’t actually have a 65th birthday cake with 65 candles. I wasn’t prepared to bake or buy one myself, and the neighborhood where I live has a strict code about the size of open fires. Thus, when I talk about summoning enough hot gasses to extinguish the three-alarm blaze that was my 65th birthday cake, it is in the figurative, not literal, sense. But work with me here.)

In the brief time since that birthday bonfire was extinguished, it has occurred to me that I’ve been there and done that. All of it.

I mean, society provides us with a list of milestones that we are expected to check off (at specific ages) between the moment we escape our mother’s womb and our retreat to the grave or crock pot, and, as much as I don’t necessarily subscribe to the dictates of the “they say” mob (mainly because I don’t know who “they” are), I have given pause for ponder vis-a-vis the so-called hallmark moments of life.

To most, I suppose, the first day of school tops the checklist, although, at the time, I thought it to be very much a journey into unspeakable horrors rather than a life milestone. I was a blubbering mess, standing on the sidewalk on Munroe Avenue and refusing to cross the threshold of St. Alphonsus Catholic School in Winnipeg. I have experienced worse moments in my 65 years, but those are few in number. To this day, I cannot walk into a school and I whistle while walking past the schoolyard.

Neurosis aside, early life milestones differed for those of us raised Roman Catholic in the 1950s, in that the sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist (Holy Communion) were significant benchmarks.

I cannot recall with clarity at what age I was confirmed, but I know I was no more than knee high to Sister Superior. Probably six or seven years old. I would have received my first communion shortly thereafter, a peculiar rite of initiation in that a priest places a very thin, white wafer on your tongue and you are expected to swallow it. Whole. Or so I believed. Supposedly, the wafer had been dipped in wine, but it was drier than a popcorn fart and I spent what was left of that mass attempting to scrape the thing from the roof of my mouth. It stuck like a spoonful of peanut butter, only it didn’t taste anywhere near as yummy.

milestonesAt any rate, with those milestones out of the way, it was game on…

First kiss: I puckered up and planted one on Patsy Chivers, a little girl who lived down the road on Melbourne Avenue. I believe that first smooch actually took place prior to my first communion and, as I recall, nothing about it stuck to the roof of my mouth. I then turned my attention to Gaylene Dahl, an almond-skinned damsel who lived down the road in an westerly direction.

Turned 16: 1966, recall nothing of it.

Graduated high school: Miles Macdonell Collegiate, 1969, age 18.

First job: In the business office at the Winnipeg Tribune. I was 18.

Moved out on my own: I was 19.

First date: Age 20.

First love: Colleen. I was 18, she was 21.

Lost virginity: I was 20 and on my honeymoon (it’s true, I was a virgin when I got married). Alas, it wasn’t with Colleen.

First child: Tony, a special, beautiful kid. I was 21.

First drink: A Tom Collins in Victoria at age 19. I quite enjoyed it, but I haven’t had one since.

Turned 21: Like my 16th, a non-event.

First house: A side-by-side bungalow on Wayoata Street in Transcona, the eastern-most part of Winnipeg. I was 21.

Driver’s license: Got it at age 20, but I was driving a car on the streets of Winnipeg long before then.

So, you see, I’m a been-there, done-that girl who got in all done before there were 22 candles on my cake, and now I have arrived at the final two life signposts, 65 and retired…so why do I feel like there’s so much more to do?

Perhaps it’s due to the fact that I’ve yet to embrace retirement. It’s boring and doesn’t pay well. Maybe it’s because I’ve never had a marriage or romantic relationship that truly worked. I’d like to give that a go. You know, fall in love for the first time again. I suppose it also could be the reality that none of us truly has been there and done all that.

But, hey, there’s always time to put up and aim for more milestones, isn’t there?

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