17 - Chatham Stories


Back in the 50s 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 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 each 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 phoned once and asked the lady in charge how much they could get for $5. She replied, “Not even a 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 nearest July 12th by the Orangemen. Orangemen’s Day commemorates the 1690 Protestant victory over Roman Catholic forces in the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland. We called Catholics 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 in 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 tagline, “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.” (Answer: Not if it’s in cans!).

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 intoxicating 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 defences.

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

Wavy Line

© Sonia Brock 2005

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