17 - CHATHAM STORIES (Mp3)

Milkweed

Chatham, Ontario, Canada was a city of 30,000 souls. more rural than urban.
The number 30,000 was very important since it defined Chatham as a real city and not just a town.

I remember the town characters and stories.

Some high school lads were hauled up in Court for painting a farmer's cow blue.
“Why did you paint that cow blue?” the Judge asked sternly.
“Because, Your Honour, we didn't have any red paint.”

There was a local woman of loose morals. No-one remembered her real name but she was called “Mrs. Pickle”. This may have been a phallic reference. She had many, many children all of whom she loved very much but they were as near wild as children could be and the school system groaned in anticipation as little 'Pickle' worked his or her way through the system, soon to be followed by the next wave of 'Pickle' kids. The children were all named after priests or nuns or Catholic saints.

On a more professional level there was a local house of ill repute. Some high school boys called the place up once and asked the lady in charge how much they could get for $5.
She replied, “Not even as sniff, boys. Not even a sniff”.

Catholicism was a mystery religion to us. The Catholics had two very big churches and the main on downtown was loudly marched by on a Sunday in July by the Orangemen. Catholics were called Dogans, a derogatory Canadian term no longer much in use.

There were Catholic French Canadian misses in my Girl Guide group. They taught us to swear in French. We thought 'allez au diable' was a fiercely bad thing to say and practiced it carefully.

There was a teaching nunnery called The Pines and I can remember seeing on a wooded path leading back to the main house a group of young nuns in their novice habits joyously dancing a kind of ring-around-a-rosie. Their happiness was so pure that it evoked in me a longing for the contemplative life of a nun.

Then, there were cautionary tales. The one I remember is of a local worthy who went into a downtown drugstore with a soda counter one very hot summer day and ordered up a whole glass of cracked ice. He downed the lot and promptly died of a heart attack. Children would be solemnly told this tale with the tag line, ”And let that be a lesson to you!!”

There were local sayings, a kind of dry rural wit. The one I remember is, “Do you think the rain will hurt the rhubarb.” (rhubarb can handle any amount of rain).

Another was, “Quite a spell of weather we're having.” This suited all occasions.

I also remember High School legends about getting high if you added aspirin to Coke. Never tried it so I can't say if it worked or not. Reminds me of the urban legend in NYC in the 60's that the inner white lining of banana peel would have the same effect if smoked. That one I know was not true.

WWII had impressed a number of prisoners of war and allies with the benefits of living in Chatham so we had Japanese, and German and also Dutch immigrants, as well as a full load of sojourners from the British Isles. I remember one Dutch family that saved and scrimped and put all their money into farm equipment and livestock and the like but they had a wood stove in the house and not much else until that magic moment came when the investment paid off. We were unaccustomed to such disciplined frugality.

These Dutch farmers had an enormous manure pile next to the barn, a veritable hill of bovine end product and this was carefully spread over the fields in the early Spring when it was cooler. You could tell where the manure ended by how green the field was or wasn't as the case may be.

When I think of Chatham in Summer I see milkweed and monarch butterflies and my mind drifts back to an earlier time remembering that we were saving milkweed down during wartime. Bags of milkweed fluff were used in military life jackets during World War II. Tinfoil was rolled into balls and saved for the war effort. It was dropped in strips to confuse enemy radar. Dumped in quantity, these strips simulated armadas of bombers on Radar screens of ground controllers, who would then misdirect intercepting aircraft and anti-aircraft guns against tinfoil while attacking bombers would sneak past the distracted defenses.

Tin cans were saved and flattened too. A poster told us
“Prepare Your Tin Cans for War
1 Remove tops and bottoms,
2 Take off paper labels,
3 Wash thoroughly,
4 Flatten firmly.”

In school we bought little “Victory” War Bonds at, I believe a quarter a week or some such amount, to be accumulated until there was enough to buy a bond.



Victory Bonds



© Sonia Fricker Brock 2005
http://www.soniabrock.com

RSS Feed Feed: http://www.soniabrock.com/Podcasts/chatham1.xml