I started out in life in the old-fashioned traditional family. My father, my mother, two younger sisters and I lived together on the upper level of an old two-story house located in the short hills of a ghost village known as St. Johns West. My mother’s parents lived on the main floor and my other grandparents lived up the road on their farm beside Merrittville Speedway. Yes, these were the so -called traditional times of youth.
I went to church in Fonthill at the Kirk-on-the-Hill Presbyterian church. I went to the two-room school in St. Johns West and attended functions at the firehall. The school Christmas plays were held at the firehall as well the weekly meetings for cubs and scouts, which I attended from age 8 to age 12. My father was a volunteer fireman and we always went to the yearly strawberry festivals. Little did I know I was soon to become one of the Abnormals.
It just crept up on me. Little things were getting me prepared to join that club. At age 6 my grandfather on my father’s side died. The farm was sold and my widowed grandmother moved to a house in Fonthill. It was located beside the old canning factory, which is now a set of apartments on Pelham Street, beside the transformer station.
When I was 7, in 1961, two groups of cousins joined the club of the Abnormals. Two of my cousins lost their father to cancer. The same year my three cousins from Niagara-on-the-Lake lost their mother and they were now part of the club. They were on my mother’s side of the family through my grandfather, but they were all in the same age group as my sisters and me. For two years, when I was 7 to 9, my father was having heart troubles, and then one day right around my birthday it happened. The ambulance came and he was gone forever. Now my mother became a widow and my sisters and I became part of the Abnormals.
It started out gradually, because we did not have to move, but little by little things began to change for us. We still went to church every Sunday. I was soon becoming very tired and bored with this routine. As the only boy I always had to tag along with the women. We started out in the morning, with my mother driving our car with her mother in the front seat with my little sister between them. My other sister and I sat in the back until we got to Fonthill to pick up my other grandmother. After this we proceeded up Pelham Street past the Anglican Church on the left. Turned right on 20 Highway. Went past the Baptist church on the right, which later became a guns and ammunition store, and arrived at the United Church at the top of the hill to drop my grandmother off. She would now have to fend for herself for the rest of the day. She would always get a ride home with friends from her old community up on Cataract Road.
Then it was on to the Kirk-on-the-Hill. Yes, Fonthill had a lot of churches in those days. It still does. I was still being trained as a Traditional. The early years had Sunday school for kids, but now I was older, listening to the sermons year after year. By age 10, I got in the habit of walking to my other grandmother’s home in Fonthill after church because I got tired waiting for my mother and grandmother catching up on the local gossip. My little sisters had no choice. I would enjoy cookies and milk while waiting for my ride home. I am sure my grandmother enjoyed me stopping in. I was the eldest son of her eldest son. There were nine kids in the family and according to Scottish tradition I was now the head of the clan.
This Sunday morning ritual continued for a couple more years. But by age 12, when my mother asked me if I wanted to join the church, I said no. She made me join anyway. So much for freedom of choice. By this time their stays after church became even longer, so I said to my other grandmother I am going to start walking through the valley. She would tell them I had already left when they came to pick me up, but I usually made it home before they came along on the road. I had already changed my clothes and was hanging out with my grandfather, who never had to go with us to church. I guess there was not enough room in the car. Yes, church life was definitely their cup of tea, not mine. So now I am not only one of the Abnormals, I am now becoming stronger as an Independent Abnormal.
So now I am not only one of the Abnormals, I am now becoming stronger as an Independent Abnormal
By age 12, I was working at Goldring’s Farm, a greater source of escape, and I was hanging out at Effingham Park with my friends. My time attending church had now ended forever. It was rewarding to work for my own money. I worked as much as I could helping on the farm. In the early years I and a friend would clean house, wash and wax floors, and do anything that was asked of us by the elderly couple and their two daughters, who were the traditional old-English type.
[RELATED: The Goldring Family of Effingham]
I believe we landed these jobs because my friend’s mother worked for the other Goldrings. The younger Mr. Goldring, his wife and family lived in the other side of their shared home, with separate entrances. Mrs. Goldring was also a teacher at St. Johns School. Our boss was a gentleman farmer with a refined English accent. The younger Mr. Goldring was a lawyer in Fonthill. My friend was also in scouts with me as well as many of the lads in the community. He was the head of the pack as a sixer in scouts. I was a second in command. Our meeting area was at the old firehall. Many of our fathers were volunteer firemen.
Soon we began working in the Goldring’s gardens doing groundworks. We then advanced to working on the farm. Operating farm tractors and equipment, as well as operating the old Chevy pickup truck, with a three-on-the-column shifter, became our livelihood. Many of our friends as well as my little sisters and other girls in the neighborhood also started working on the farm. We still all attended school, but if we were not working on the farm, especially in the summers months, you would always find us down at Effingham Park.
One of the hardest parts of becoming an Abnormal was to ask some of my friends if I could sit with them at the father-and-son banquets at the Allanburg Community Centre. My mother would always volunteer to work in the kitchen on these occasions and she did not want me to miss out on all the events associated with scouting. I always felt awkward, but my different friends’ families were always willing to let me join them.
I also remember another time that my mother went the extra mile for myself and of course my little sisters. We used to have bicycle rodeos at the St. Johns Public School, learning how to operate our bicycles in a safe and efficient manner. Staying within the lines of the figure-8, as well as slowing your bicycle down to a stop, and of course using your out stretched arms for your turn signals. This year I won the opportunity to go and compete with the best riders in Niagara at the public school at Black Horse Corners, in Allanburg. Unfortunately, the Saturday morning of the competition I had a flat tire. We were short of time as it was and I said not to worry about it, but as with the scouts my mother did not want me to miss out. So we had to head to Thorold to get the tire repaired. We loaded my bike in the trunk of our old grey Studebaker and off we went. It was close but we got to Black Horse Corners with my bike repaired. Again, I was going to throw in the towel but my mother worked to make sure I could compete with the others. I came in second place, but I sure was a winner that day.
I came in second place, but I sure was a winner that day
Although I did not want to attend church any more, I still got along good with my mother, grandparents and sisters. Sometimes we would go to St. Andrews Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake together. As long as my grandfather went, I would also go. It was cool, this old -fashioned Scottish church with its wooden pews boxed-in for certain elders. Afterwards we would go for a picnic along the Niagara River and later end up at my uncle and aunt’s farm in NOTL. This was my grandfather’s youngest sister. He had five but they were still older than him. My cousins were also there so we hung out the rest of the day with them. They were the other Abnormals I mentioned earlier. They too spent a lot of time with their grandparents. Their dad was a produce inspector for the government and travelled to Toronto every day. Like my mom he relied a lot on his parents to safeguard his children.
Between 12 and 16, I was able to save up $1000. To young kids now that does not seem like much. But when you work for 85 cents an hour and pick plums for 7 cents a basket, plus pears, grapes and apples for 25 cents a bushel, it does take a long time to save. During this time, I also bought a new transistor radio and a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
Along with the phonograph I received for Christmas, I became very updated with the music of this era. Yes, the music of the ‘50s and ‘60s was creating a new youthful attitude of rebellion and non-acceptance of traditional values in society. Whether it was in Los Angeles or New York or the small ghost town of St. Johns West, change was in the wind.
School and many of my teachers became less important as I became stronger. They seemed fractured and unwilling to accept change. One particular teacher I liked discredited me because of my abilities. I once drew a grasshopper freehand for a science project. It was so good he thought I cheated and traced it, and thus challenged my integrity. Needless to say, he became just another member of our intellectual society that governs the education system.
So again, as with church I lost interest in school and just worked harder at making my own money. Needless to say, during this time my friends which I classified as the Traditionals were becoming disillusioned with their own family backgrounds. We all seemed to be on neutral ground. All hoping for a brighter future.
In our early teen years all we neighborhood kids wanted to do was hang out with each other and enjoy life. Wow, not much different from the kids today. We were still all innocents. Sure, some of us a little more daring than the others but we were all a good bunch. Swimming in the summer, skating in the winter. Going to Merrittville Speedway on a Saturday night, hanging out at Effingham Park, playing pinball and listening to the jukebox until the early dawn, our parents and grandparents all safely nestled in bed after we had sneaked out from our tents, treehouses or summer cottages.
A few of the local neighbours would label us as troublemakers because we were riding our bikes or walking these rural roads at all hours of the day or night. Basically, these were the ones who were very judgmental to begin with. The Short Hill folks were also a good bunch and I am sure we were not much different than they were in their youth.
The Short Hill folks were also a good bunch and I am sure we were not much different than they were in their youth
I do remember a time when I asked one of the girls, Nancy, to go with me to a Grade 9 dance at E. L.Crossley. Much to my surprise, her dad said no, that he didn’t want her hanging around “that boy.” He told his daughter that I and my his friends were nothing but trouble. (Yet they had moved in to the area only a couple years before.) Ah, the price you pay when you become an Independent Abnormal.
By the time I turned 16 my mom had gotten remarried to a good, solid Rockaway farmer. He has been a good husband to her and a stepfather to us for over 50 years. I immediately got my driver’s license when we relocated over to his farm. It was only five miles away from my grandparents’ home. I now always had access to wheels, something a lot of my friends did not have. My stepfather also transported cattle and hogs for himself and some local farmers to market. He had a good reputation in the area and was a churchman, which pleased my mother and grandparents well.
He had a blue Chevy one-ton stake truck, which he let me borrow to get around in. I am sure it did not impress any of the girls I dated, whether they were city or country girls, but I really liked driving this old truck with its four-on-the-floor shifter. I also had use of their car or my grandparent’s car, but they asked for it back when false rumors circulated that I was racing against a friend of mine on Cataract Road.
With my skills of working on the farm and new skills of driving trucks, school was more and more in my rear -view mirror all the time. Get ready for the next chapter: “The Renegades of the Short Hills” This will not be about William Lyon Mackenzie, but about modern-day rebels. ◆