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THE WORLD BEFORE

by ben woestenburg 6 months ago in Historical
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LIVING IN A PRE-DIGITAL WORLD

THE WORLD BEFORE
Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

I was a born the youngest of six kids at the end of the Fabulous Fifties. It was the tail-end of a decade that brought us Elvis Presley, Buddy Holley, and Little Richard; it also brought us Eisenhower, Sputnik, and the Cold War. It was the decade that saw our fathers return home from the war, damaged both by what they’d seen, and by what they’d done. I was a Baby-boomer without even knowing what the word meant. My parents were born in what they’re now calling The Greatest Generation—an obviously nostalgic look at the past—and were themselves children of The Lost Generation. I didn’t know what any of that was, or meant, and I’m pretty sure my brothers and sister didn’t, either.

I was born at St. Mary’s, in New Westminster, affectionately referred to as the Royal City. It’s just south of Vancouver and mere steps away from the American border. We lived at the foot of the Patullo Bridge, in Bridgeview, a tight community commonly referred to as The Flats. I think it was first settled in 1913—before they even built the bridge. It was built across from the new penitentiary as a home for the guards, but eventually the prisoners’ families moved in, and finally, the prisoners themselves when they were released. It was wet, swampy, land sectioned off into parcels, each parcel separated by drainage ditches large enough for a punt, or a canoe. The water level in the ditches would rise and fall with the tides of the Fraser River.

All of that was ancient history by the time we moved in. My parents were immigrant Dutch, eager to get out of Europe and start a new life in Canada after the war. The river was a place where we could swim, fish, and walk out on the log booms when the tide was low. There were large open fields for us to play in, sand dunes we could climb and leap from like we were defying gravity, and tall trees to climb. It was a Huckleberry Finn life in a world that was being encroached on by modern times.

Ours was the generation born after the War, and growing up, we only had three channels on TV, as well as a big antenna on the roof. One of my earliest memories, when I was four, was when a big wind came and blew the antenna off the roof. It lay splayed out on the grass, looking like something out of The Twilight Zone—not that I was ever allowed to watch a show like that—and Mom told me years later when we were eating Social Tea cookies and drinking coffee on a Saturday morning, that it was the tail-end of Hurricane Freda. My Saturday visits soon became a ritual for us; she’d tell me stories about growing up in Europe between the Wars, and I’d fill in a lot of the blank spaces of my childhood.

She’d said her one need was make that night a special night for all of us. According to the CBC, they were expecting hurricane force winds. And that night, eating dinner—which my oldest brother fondly referred to it as The Last Supper—my sister said we should be calling it a typhoon, because it was in the Pacific and hurricanes were in the Atlantic. No one disagreed, not even Dad. Mom changed the subject by saying she was going to let me stay up as long as I could; later, she told me it was because she was afraid the house was going to rip apart and she wanted all of us together in case we had to leave. It was almost like she was daring me to try and stay awake, I told her that afternoon; when the lights went off, she asked us if we were scared.

It prompted the memory of my oldest brother nudging my sister.

“I think she’s talking to you, Dar.”

“You know girls don’t scare like boys do, because if they did, there’d never be any babies being born.”

“That’s enough!” Mom snapped, and we all turned to look at her. She looked embarrassed, and then frightened, as the wind slammed up against the side of the house with the force of a slap—that is, until Dad put his arms around her, kissing her forehead letting her press herself up against him.

“She doesn’t like storms,” he explained, looking at us one at a time.

“We know,” my sister said.

“Why not?” I asked. I was too young to know any better, but my brothers and my sister weren’t; they knew exactly what she was going to say.

“I saw a cow get hit by lightning once. It was about thirty feet away from us, when me and my sisters were walking to school,” she added.

“What’d it look like?” Darren asked.

“What d’ya think, knucklehead?” my oldest brother scoffed.

My oldest brother once said that when we were growing up, he sometimes felt as if he was the arbiter stupiditatis. He said it needed a Latin name like that, like that character in Quo Vadis. Talking to him now, I think he still believes he holds his old self-appointed title, because lately, he’s been saying things to us; but then, maybe he has to say these things a little more often because we’re all getting older? I don’t know. It’s a hard one to call.

Anyway, all eight of us sat together in the middle of the living room, listening to the storm battering against the house. I could see the willow tree outside through the partially open curtains, pushing and scratching up against the windows, branches snapping and slapping at the side of the house. My mother's mirrored reflection in the windows was a combination of Munch’s The Scream and Lon Chaney’s The Phantom Of The Opera—the part where he gets unmasked—as the windows buckled in their frames.

The next morning, Mom was out in the middle of the yard picking up shingles and broken branches. The wind was blowing at a gentle breeze, and it was warm and mild. The sky was a clear blue, the clouds, what few we saw, were scuttling across the open sky like tumble weeds. Mom was wearing Dad's bathrobe and her rubber boots; Dad was wearing her pink housecoat and a second pair of boots.

“If I were to ask you why you’re wearing Mom's house coat, what would you answer?”

My brother was standing in the middle of the yard beside Dad, looking at the antenna as much as he was looking at Dad. He seemed to be waiting for an answer.

“Are you really thinking about your answer?”

“I don't want to talk about it,” Dad said with a slow shake of his head.

“Please darling,” Mom said with a brilliant smile; the gold tooth in the corner of her mouth was catching the morning light. “Don’t you think the colour brings out the blue in his eyes?”

And the three of them laughed. Dad was still standing off to the side, looking at the antenna and trying to come up with an idea of how best to get the thing back up. Mom told me to get my brothers and sister because there was a lot to clean up, and if we were expecting her to make us breakfast, we had to work for our food.

*

My oldest brother Jay was eleven years older than myself; then came Danny, the second oldest, ten months younger than Jay and ten years older than me, followed by my sister Darlene, a year after Danny. There was a space of three years between my sister, and Darren, the so-called middle child. As far as I knew, there’d been another brother who died shortly after birth somewhere in between Darren and Darlene. I never knew the details until later in life. He’d been born with an open spine—it was the first time I’d heard of the word spina bifida—and I sometimes wondered how my mother had managed to hold on as she watched her child die a little bit every day. He never left the hospital from what I understand. In the meantime, in between Darren and myself, there was Ted. He was three years older than me and three years behind Darren. I was the youngest, the hoped for second sister, who ended up being yet another boy.

Jay loved telling me the story of how he answered the phone when the hospital called, then sent my sister in to wake Dad up and give him the news. Dad asked if Mom was alright, asked if it was a boy or a girl, then said he’d be in later, rolled over, and went back to sleep. He told me I was supposed to be a girl, but because I wasn’t, they’d had to decide—as a family—as to whether they were going to keep me or not.

*

We were a two bicycle family growing up; one bicycle belonged to my mother, as then my sister as she got older, and the other one was for us boys, which my father made out of spare parts. He was good at that sort of thing; always tinkering. Mom’d ride her bicycle every morning after she made everyone their lunches and sent them off to school. I’d stay home alone in front of the TV, drinking cocoa, eating toast, and watching cartoons—Bugs Bunny; Looney Tunes; Mighty Mouse—until she’d return, red-cheeked and refreshed, telling me she was late getting the washing started.

I used to like helping Mom with the laundry. I’d help as she fed bed sheets and towels through the wringer washer, pulling them straight so they didn’t get too tangled up. She’d always ask me to empty the hamper, which was a closet at the bottom of the stairs. It was my favourite hiding place when I played Hide and Seek with Darren and Ted. I’d crawl inside and pull the clothes over me, and being small, go unnoticed, even when they opened the door. I didn’t know they went outside to play, leaving me behind on purpose so they didn’t have to look after me for the day. By the time I crawled out, they’d be long gone and my sister would have to look out for me while Mom rode her bicycle to the Grocery Store, or the Butcher Shop.

My sister used to like looking after me. It was the only time she could pretend she was a real mom; she even tried breast feeding me. I asked her why it didn’t work, and she said we could keep trying, as long as I didn’t tell anyone. It’d be our secret, she said; it was a secret I kept until the day she died.

*

Mr. Wright and his family moved in two houses down from us the summer I turned six. It was a small bungalow hidden behind a veil of slender aspens, with a large garden in the back yard he and his wife tended to almost daily. I wouldn’t be going to school until later that year because my birthday was in March. I was quick to make friends with him the way kids do at that age. He was old when I met him—the oldest person I’d ever met—and when he asked me why I wasn’t in school, I asked him why he wasn’t at work. I told him I was too young for school; he told me he was too old to work.

“Aren’t you the lucky one then,” he said with a smile. “A regular little Christopher Robin.”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“He’s someone from a book.”

“I can’t read,” I said.

“Ahh, but you will when you go to school.”

“How come you don’t go to work?”

“I’m retired.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means I don’t have to work anymore, which is a shame, really, because I still can.”

“Then why don’t you?”

“Because they won’t let me.”

“Din’t you tell them you can?”

“I did…and ‘din’t’ isn’t a word.”

“What do you mean it isn’t a word?”

“Exactly what I said. It’s not a word, so don’t used it. It’s a bad habit to get into.”

“I din’t know it wasn’t no word,” I apologized.

“And now you’re using a double negative.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a wrong way of speech.”

“I wasn’t making a speech.”

“Of course you were. Just because you aren’t in front of an audience, it doesn’t mean you aren’t making a speech. Anytime you use your words, you’re making a speech.”

“I am?”

“Sure; you’ll learn that once you go to school.”

“Did you go to school?”

“I did.”

“I din’t know they had school in the olden days.”

“Didn’t,” he reminded me.

“Didn’t,” I corrected myself.

“And what do you know about the olden days?”

“They were a long time ago?” I offered.

“That they were,” he laughed.

“What year were you born?”

“I was born in the last century.”

“The last century?”

“A long time ago when you’re only six.”

“Does that mean you fought in the war?”

“Which war?”

“The Great War.”

“How’d you come to know about the Great War? I thought you said you were only six?”

“My Dad told me. He said he was born during one war, and fought in the next one. Why’d they call it the Great War?”

“Because it was the biggest war ever fought. Every country in the world was in it, well, almost every country. There were a few that didn’t sign up.”

“Who?”

“How well do you know your countries?”

“I know Canada!”

“Well, that’s good. At least you know where you are. And no, I wasn’t in it.”

“Why not?”

“I wasn’t allowed to leave because they needed me on the farm. People have to eat.”

“My Dad said he had to go to the war on his birthday.”

“That would’ve been the Second World War.”

“It was?”

“It came after the Great War.”

“Was it a great war, too?”

“I don’t think you can call any war great.”

“My Dad said he ate a can of food from the Great War, in the war he was in. He said canned food doesn’t go bad.”

“I never knew that. There! You see? Even at my age I’m learning something. Maybe I should go to school with you?”

“You’re too old!”

“Too old? How old do you have to be?”

“My age!”

“Leonard!” his wife called out from the back door. She was a short woman with salt and pepper hair, wire framed glasses, and a large bosom, like my sister’s. “Come in and take your pills, and your lunch. Ask your young friend if he’d like some cocoa.”

“Do you like cocoa?” he asked.

“I do,” I smiled.

“Would you like some?”

“I have to ask,” I said, and ran home to ask my mother.

*

Over the years I learned that Mr. Wright had a workshop in his garage where he made small, three dimensional, wooden figurines out of quarter inch plywood he painted and put in his garden. He made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; elves and toadstools; fairies; Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. He painted each one by hand, and sometimes even let me try. It was something you had to take your time with, he said. You can’t rush that sort of thing. If you have to let the paint dry, then put it to the side and let it dry.

He said it was a hobby. That’s when he told me when you get older, you’d better find something you like, and do it. If you don’t keep your mind busy, you’ll lose it.

“My Dad likes to read.”

“Does he? And does he read to you?”

“Why would he do that?”

“Sometimes people do.”

“My brother used to read the funny papers to me. I remember he used to read me Ripley’s Believe it or Not and Prince Valiant. Do you read the funnies?”

“I do. And I quite enjoy them. I especially like Prince Valiant.”

“You do?”

“Does your brother still read it to you?”

“Nuh uh,” I smiled. “Not since I learned to read.”

“Well, I should hope so. What grade are you in now?”

“Grade five.”

“Grade five? It seems like it was just yesterday and you were telling me you couldn’t even read. Now look at you. Reading Prince Valiant on your own. Do you like school?”

“I like summer holidays,” I said with a grin.

“Are you working?”

“I’m only eleven!” I laughed.

“You never get a day off when you live on a farm. I used to like school, considering the altenative.”

“I don’t like arithmetic.”

“Why not?”

“They want me to do my times table. And I have to know it up to ten…I still don’t know it. But it’s better than what my brothers had to do. They had to know their times table up to twelve.”

“We had to know it up to twenty-five, and if you didn’t know it, the teacher would cane you in front of the whole class. Believe me, when you came in the next day and he asked you what seventeen times thirteen was, you knew it. It’s 221, by the way.”

I whistled softly because it seemed like the thing to do. Since learning how, I often whistled when someone said something that impressed me, and knowing your times table up to twenty-five, seemed impressive to me. We were standing in his front yard where he was re-arranging some of the worn-out figurines that he thought were looking old and weathered. They looked okay to me, but when he pulled them out of the garden I could see the bottom edges were rotting away. He’d tossed the old ones to the side and kept the ones he thought were salvageable. He couldn’t decide whether he wanted to make new ones, or simply repaint them and save them for next year.

I looked up at the sky where I could see it through the leaves of the aspen tree we were standing under. The moon looked big and white, and I tried to imagine what it would be like flying in a rocket ship towards it.

“Are you gonna watch them landing on the moon?” I asked.

“I think I might.”

“You might? Well, I am. It’s something I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren when I get older; of course, by then we’ll probably be living on the moon, or maybe even Mars.”

“When I was seven, my parents took me and my sister into Regina and we went to the Odeon where we watched the Wright brothers fly their plane. I used to think they were relatives until I got old enough to know better.”

“You saw the Wright brothers?”

“On the screen at the Odeon. Cost us two pennies, but well worth it,” he said with a smile. “Hard to believe that in my life time we’ve gone from learning how to fly, to actually landing on the moon.”

“I used to think the moon was made out of cheese,” I said after a moment.

“You mean it isn’t?” he asked. “Then why’re they going up there in the first place?”

“Leonard!” his wife called out the door. “You let that nice boy go play with his friends and come take your pills. You might as well take your nap. You know how you get if you don’t have a nap.”

“She used to say the same thing to the kids—except for the pills part, of course. Well, you heard her. Run along and play now, I’ve got to go in and have my nap…but before you go?”

I looked up at him, squinting at the light coming in through the leaves.

“How’d you like to come over and watch it with me?”

*

That one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind quote turned out to be not so great. I sat in Mr. Wright’s living room, in his wife’s easy chair while she busied herself in the kitchen. I could smell her perfume in the doily on top of the chair. There were more doilies with stitched flowers on the arms of the two easy chairs, as well as the sofa and the end tables—delicate doilies under glass figures that caught the light from the front window; tiny prisms of rainbowed dancing light up against the table lamps.

“Did you take your pills, Dearest?” Mrs. Wright called out from the kitchen.

“Let this be a warning to you: No one man should be allowed to stay married to one woman for such a long time,” he said, before calling out to that he had.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” she called back.

When he didn’t reply, she came out of the kitchen.

“Usually, when he doesn’t answer, it means he’s asleep. Are they ever going to open that door?” she asked.

“They’re decompressing. There’s no air out there, and if they open the hatch too quickly, things’ll go bad.”

“How bad?” I asked.

“Have you ever let air out of a balloon? It’s different from when you put a pin in it; it could be the same. Don’t worry, they know what they’re doing.”

“Well, they’re taking too long if you ask me,” she said, going back to the kitchen.

“I’ll bring you your tea,” she called out a moment later.

It was another two hours before they finally stepped out onto the surface of the moon. I looked at Mr Wright, who smiled softly as he heard Neill Armstrong speak those heady words. Mrs. Wright was sitting on the arm of his chair, watching in spite of her indifference.

“Somewhat anticlimactic if you ask me,” she said, and went back into the kitchen.

“What do you think the Wright Brothers said the first time they flew their plane?” I asked, but he didn’t answer. I looked over at him as he sat back in his chair, his empty tea cup in his hands. He had his eyes closed, a small smile on his lips. He opened one eye and looked at me, nodding slowly.

“I guess we’ll never know, will we?” he said.

“So what’s better? Seeing them fly for the first time, or landing on the moon?”

“I guess it’s all the same, isn’t it? Man’s first flight was preceded by his first ascent in a hot air balloon. What do you suppose they said that no one else heard? Nothing as memorable, I’d imagine. Or Daedalus, and Icarus? One can only speculate,” he smiled, and then turned his head back to the TV.

It was a good way to look at it, I suppose. There’ll always be a first time for everything, going back to the first time they wrote things down. You could look at life backwards, which I suppose is what everybody does anyway. He had a way of making me look at things differently.

He looked like he was sleeping, so I thought I should leave while I could. I stood in front of him for a moment and thought about taking the cup before he dropped it, but I didn’t want to wake him up.

I said good-bye to Mrs. Wright, told her he fell asleep, and left.

I could hear her following me to the door and as it closed, I heard her.

“Leonard? Leonard? You have to take your pill. Leonard?”

There was a strange silence hanging in the air, and I turned for a moment, listening, my hand still on the doorknob. It felt hot, soaking in the sun. I took my hand away.

“Oh my God! Leonard!”

I ran home to get my mother.

Historical

About the author

ben woestenburg

A blue-collar writer, I write stories to entertain myself. I have varied interests, and have a variety of stories. From dragons and dragonslayers, to saints, sinners and everything in between. But for now, I'm trying to build an audience...

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