THE WORLD'S WORST JOB
by A. Lawrence Vaincourt
The year was nineteen thirty-seven and I was a farm kid, not quite fourteen, when I was offered the job. It was the tail end of the depression and young men were working on farms for two dollars a day plus room and board - and were happy to get it. So when the local drover offered me four dollars to clean out his pigpen, I jumped at the chance to make a little spare change.
The pen in question was really a holding pen where the drover frequently kept pigs overnight before trucking them off to the city. Like most farm boys I had done my fair share of mucking out stables, so I wasn't turned off by his offer and I agreed to do it on the following day. Arriving at the job next morning dressed in my oldest jeans and my dad's rubber boots, the thought occurred that I had made several miscalculations.
First, it was a blazing hot day in July and the pen's metal roof was extremely low, scarcely higher than my head, which meant that the July sun, beating down on it, would shortly turn the interior into an inferno. Second, pig droppings, unlike those of horses, sheep and cows, have a rank pungency all their own; and the odour, even at one hundred yards, was pretty overpowering. And third, in calculating the size of the pen I had overlooked one dimension: depth. This pen, like the Aegean stables of Hercules' legend, obviously had not been cleaned in years and I realized that my original estimate of 2-3 hours work wasn't even close. Ah well! A deal is a deal.
Fighting down the urge to wretch, I swung open the door, to be greeted by flies in the tens of thousands, swarming up from the floor in a cloud. They attached themselves lovingly to me, my pants, my shirt, my head, my face... and I realized that I dare not open my mouth, lest I swallow a few of them. The owner, instead of cleaning the pen, had simply added straw from time to time, and I got my first inkling of what sort of job I had accepted when I attempted to determine the depth by plunging a pitch fork into the mess and discovered that the floor was approximately two feet down. Moreover, the straw and manure had rotted and bonded together into a semi-solid mass that resisted my best efforts to move it.
By the end of the first hour, I was dripping sweat and gasping for breath. The sun, on that low roof, was rapidly driving the temperature up and I was exhausted. Mercifully, I could no longer smell the stuff - my nose had shut down completely! I had lost count of the number of wheelbarrow loads that I trundled out of the pen and dumped on the ever-growing pile in the barnyard, but I had made a pitifully small dent in the whole. The flies, by this time, were swarming with great zest around the outdoor pile and when I risked opening my mouth to take a deep breath, two of them promptly entered.
Four hours later (a total of five hours), with screaming muscles and reeking clothes, I painfully made my way home, where my mother met me at the kitchen door with a change of clothes and instructions to change before I entered the house. I did better than that - in the little stream surrounded by shrubs that ran close to the house, I bathed, washed my hair and hung the soiled clothing on a nearby bush. Several days later, I fancied I could still taste and smell that mess and I vowed that I would never again clean a pigpen!
THE MAYOR, THE SKUNK AND ME
by A. Lawrence Vaincourt
One of the things I have learned during the course of a relatively long life is that most people are basically, decent, well-meaning individuals who would not deliberately lead anyone astray. While another is that bad or misleading advice is invariably given with the best of intentions. Add to that a desire to be helpful and an inclination to dispense advice or information without being in full possession of the facts, and you have a situation such as the one involving the mayor, the skunk and me.
One night several years ago at a press conference in City Hall, I happened to mention that I was having a problem with a skunk. This skunk, several months back, had decided to become part of our family and had taken up residence beneath the workshop in our backyard. Harmless enough in itself, had he not developed a tendency to waddle forth on garbage nights, rip open garbage bags all up and down Seventh avenue, and take occasional pot-shots at my dog.
Our mayor listened with some sympathy to my tale and then informed me that I really had no problem; if I called around to the public works department they would supply me with a humane box trap in which I could capture the little varmint alive. After which, if I would simply give the works department a call, they would come around and collect both skunk and trap. He assured me that the entire procedure was completely safe, since the trap was constructed so low that the skunk would be unable to elevate his tail and therefore could not use his artillery.
Well that sounded easy enough. I set the trap at sunset, baited it with a left-over chicken leg and, upon checking it the next day, found it contained some bare chicken bones plus our neighbour's tomcat, who hissed spitefully at me as I released him.
Well, the next day was garbage day and I knew our nocturnal friend would be prowling that night, so I re-set the trap. Next day, before letting the dog out for his early morning trip to the shrubbery, I checked the trap. Ah! Success. It was filled to capacity with a very large, obese and extremely annoyed skunk who hissed and stomped his feet at me as I approached the safe end of the trap; that is, the end containing the head.
Now as we all know, there is an old legend that a skunk cannot shoot unless his tail is elevated. But I am here to state, positively, that this is a lot of hogwash, in much the same category as the tale of the tooth fairy. Admittedly range, aim and trajectory are seriously impaired if the tail is in the lowered position, but the weaponry still works. My backyard and a portion of my neighbour's were totally unfit for human habitation. The dog, that morning, had a trip to the front yard while I waited anxiously for eight o'clock to roll around so that I might phone the works department and inform them of my success.
Eight-ten, the fellow at the other end of the line listened patiently to my tale, then said, "I am very sorry, sir, but we do not pick up skunks."
"What! The mayor said you did."
The voice, still polite, but a little steel in it now, said, "I am very sorry, sir, the mayor was misinformed - we do not pick up skunks."
"Well then, who does?"
Reply, "I believe the SPCA does, sir."
9:05, I phone the SPCA and repeat my story; a friendly voice at the other end says, "Certainly, sir, we will pick up a skunk, but there is a charge."
"Oh! How much?"
Long pause, then in resignation, "Ok, when can you come and get him?"
"Not until sometime tomorrow."
"Right! So what the devil do I do with a trapped skunk in my backyard for the next twenty-four hours?"
Reply, "I am certain I don't know, sir."
So back to the works department; a different voice on the line this time and I reiterate my problem, ending with the question, "How do I dispose of the animal?"
Long pause at the other end, then, "Well, you are not allowed to destroy it, sir, but you can take it to the City Dump and release it."
Now the City Dump is two miles from my house so the obvious question, "How do I get him up there?"
Prompt reply, "In your car of course, sir."
Now there is no earthly way that I am going to share a two-mile automobile trip with an upset skunk and, for a moment, a spiteful thought crosses my mind. The mayor, the author of my present predicament, lives only four blocks away and there's a convenient carrying handle on the top of the trap. But no, that wouldn't be fair. He was, after all, trying to be helpful.
Finally, dressed in my oldest clothes, I tossed a plastic garbage bag over the trap, loaded the works in my old box trailer and headed for the dump. One little worry at the back of my mind; after his incarceration and a bumpy trailer ride, what kind of mood was that skunk going to be in when I finally released him?
Now in common with many municipalities, unauthorized personnel are not allowed to dispose of their trash in our public dump (bit of a contradiction in terms, there). The dump attendant was right on the job: by the time I started to lift the trap out of the trailer, he was out of his truck and on his way over; by the time I set it down, he was twenty feet away and closing; I poked the door open with a long stick, a furry head emerged, the attendant slowed; next, a broad back with two white stripes appeared, the attendant was on his way back to his truck, taking long strides.
By the time the skunk's rear quarters cleared the trap, the attendant was closing the door of his cab, the skunk looked impassively in his direction for a moment, then turned, gave me a disdainful glance and with as much dignity as one can muster when one has a fat body and four very short legs, he waddled off and disappeared into the underbrush.
OVERALLS AND DISHCLOTHS
by A. Lawrence Vaincourt
"Who threw the overalls in Mrs. Murphy's chowder?"
These words are from an old song that my stepdad used to sing, and it tells all about how the Murphys threw a party and of Mrs. Murphy's acute embarrassment when, while dishing up the chowder, she hauled up a pair of overalls from the bottom of the pot.
It seemed she had done her washing earlier that day and had forgotten to remove them. Now, before you dismiss the whole idea as ridiculous and impossible, let me make a suggestion.
If your grandmother is still alive, go to her and ask if, as a young woman, she owned a wash boiler and if so, what uses she put it to. You see the wash boiler was a highly utilitarian receptacle...owned by most farm wives, its uses were virtually unlimited. A large, covered container, oblong in shape, with a handle at either end, it held five gallons of more and covered two griddles on the woodburning cookstove. It could be used for virtually anything that required boiling, steaming, cooking or sterilizing.
It might be used to prepare a large quantity of stew or coffee for a barn-raising or threshing crew, or to sterilize a large number of Mason jars during preserving time. However, it was on washday that it really came into its own.
In those days detergents and automatic washers were unknown, so work clothing with ground-in grease and grime presented quite a problem for the hard working housewife. On Monday morning the kitchen stove was stoked up, water was brought to a boil in the wash boiler, then soap was added and the dirty garments were tossed in.
After an hour or so of vigorous boiling the clothing was fished out, after which a light washing and rinse was usually sufficient to return them to pristine condition. This is not to suggest, mind you, that every farm wife did the cooking and the family wash in the same pot, but there were a few occasions...
I have a vivid recollection of an August night in my teens when I attended a Church social. An outdoor hearth had been set up and atop it were three large wash boilers, giving off clouds of steam and the aroma of cooking corn.
As I joined the lineup for my third ear, a little girl stopped beside me and said, "Hi!" I returned the salutation, then she said, "You see that boiler at the end?" I nodded and she said, "That belongs to my mom." I replied that it was a nice boiler, then she said, "My mom boils the washing in that." Without waiting for a reply she went on, "She boiled my daddy’s overalls in it this morning." She paused for effect then continued, "They had cow manure all over the legs." With that she went skipping away. I followed, a bit more sedately. Somehow my appetite for corn had diminished.
Now I can't vouch for the truth of this next little tale. However the man who related it to me had a reputation for truthfulness and the party involved was well known to me, being an uncle of mine. Knowing the reputations of both men as I do, I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the story.
This particular uncle was a farmer and had, over the years, acquired a reputation for thriftiness (stinginess) that was a standing joke throughout the community. In those days combines were unknown among the small farms in our area, so when the oats, buckwheat and barley were harvested in early autumn they were usually stored in the field to await the arrival of the threshing crew.
Now this crew usually consisted of five to seven men, an ancient threshing machine, plus a tractor or other power source to operate it. When the threshing crew arrived they expected, along with payment for their services, that they would receive their noonday meal as well, and the average farm wife, if she didn’t have daughters to assist her, would sometimes recruit a nearby friend to assist in preparing a bountiful repast.
These were no ordinary meals, for the crew, travelling from farm to farm, had ample opportunity to compare culinary efforts and no woman wanted to be outdone by her neighbor.
My uncle, however, had no such compunction; when the crew entered his kitchen that day they discovered that dinner consisted of homemade bread, a huge kettle of pea soup bubbling atop the old-fashioned kitchen range, and little else.
Knowing my uncle's reputation, they said nothing, but sat down and proceeded to do justice to the meal, such as it was. The soup was thick and tasty and there was plenty of it; everyone went back for second helpings, some for thirds.
Then as one thresher dipped in for a final bowl, the ladle brought up a long, grayish, pea soup laden rag that looked as though it might have been a sleeve torn from a work shirt.
My uncle looked up from his meal and exclaimed, "Ah, there’s my dish cloth! I've been wondering all day where it went.
TIME TO SMELL THE ROSES
by A. Lawrence Vaincourt
Coming home the other day I drove very slowly, for my senses were a'swim with the sheer magnificence of the autumn colors and I wanted to prolong the enjoyment of them as long as possible. "Take time to smell the roses..." I believe the rest of that quotation goes, "For you may not pass this way again."
This latter fact is being brought home to me with increasing frequency these days, as more and more of my friends keep dropping off. It seems that after so many years of stability, suddenly my whole life is changing around and, frankly, I find it a little scary.
First, there are my children who have all grown up, overnight it seems, and mostly left for far places. My youngest son just left home for Toronto where it seems that a degree from an English University is considered to be of greater value than fluency in the French language.
Then too, every time I look into the mirror this old codger with graying hair and wrinkles around his eyes stares back, and I wonder what happened to that smooth-faced fellow whose joints didn't ache and who could vault over high fences with a single bound - the last time I tries I barely made it.
Yes! The signs are all there and they are unmistakable. I can no longer dance as long, jump as high, swim or run as fast as my sons and I guess I might as well admit it, I am fast joining the ranks of the "old fogies." Now getting old is hell, until one considers the alternative, then suddenly it doesn't seem to bad.
Of course growing old does have its positive side; for one thing you get a lot more respect and people don't expect as much of you on a physical or mental level. Comments that would be considered merely common sense from a middle-aged man become pearls of wisdom from the lips of a graybeard.
Then too, should you chance to say something particularly asinine, people are likely to attribute it to your age and shrug the whole thing off.
A friend of mine contends that society expects everyone beyond the age of 55 to be stupid, so why disappoint them? He may well have a point.
Now since we all come into this world with a round-trip ticket, to worry about advancing years is, I suppose, silly. However, there are some aspects of aging that I cannot say I appreciate. For example, when my mind is wide-awake and rarin' to go at six o'clock in the morning, why does it take two mugs of strong coffee to jump-start my body?
Why, after several hours of repose, do my joints snap like cedar in a fire, as I attempt to coax them into action in the early morning? And why is it I can remember with great clarity what happened in my 16th year but can't remember where I left my reading glasses a few hours ago?
Recently I was discussing with a friend the negative aspects of advancing years and he commented wryly, "We're not as lucky as old Charlie; he never had an ache or a pain." (Charlie died two years ago). I sometimes wonder whether Charlie ever took time to smell the roses. I doubt it for Charlie was a well coordinated, hard-driving businessman who, when he kicked off at a relatively early age, left his widow well provided for. But did he ever, on his way to or from work, stop to watch a sunset or admire the changing colors? Somehow I doubt it.
One other negative aspect of growing older is that we tend to develop hindsight, to look back at opportunities missed and things left undone; for truly, we pass this way but once. I remember the marvelous times I had with our sons during their formative years and I regret only that I could not have spent more time with them. Had I spent this additional time attending to business, would I be a wealthier man today? And if so, would I be happier? I wonder!
I realize that everyone has his own idea of what is important in life and I also know that on our final voyage, the millionaire and I will take along exactly the same amount of property.
So a word of advice to you hard-driving types; if you are 55 and holding, back off, slow down, use the time you gain to renew old friendships. Get to really know your kids. Take your lifelong companion on a vacation. Stand, hand in hand, on a mountaintop or seashore and drink in the beauty of nature. Watch small children at play, for there is true happiness.
And above all, enjoy the roses, for you will never get to smell the ones they place on your casket.
THE BARBER FROM HELL
by A. Lawrence Vaincourt
As I stood in front of the bathroom mirror this morning, my razor humming industriously as it chewed its way through my whiskers, I tried to remember the last time I had been shaved by a barber. Now this was an indulgence that many men in my age group permitted ourselves back before electric razors became so popular. For many of us it was a Saturday morning ritual, that ultra-close shave with a straight edge razor that only a barber could give, which meant that not only were you smooth and sleek for your Saturday night date, but also that you could forego shaving should you decide to go to church on Sunday morning.
As I said, it was a luxury, an indulgence, for ever since Mr. Gillette patented the "safety razor" around about 1908, men have possessed a safe and easy way to remove their beards. However it was a pleasant ritual, reclining in the barber’s chair, eyes closed, while he first wrapped your face in a hot towel, wrung out, to soften your beard; applied a deep layer of lather, then scraped it away along with the beard, with expert sweeps of a very sharp straight edge razor, finally slapping on a generous portion of tingling, skin-bracing after-shave lotion. A truly luxurious experience but one, sadly, that seems to have gone the way of many of life’s other simple pleasures.
My barber tells me that he hasn’t shaved a man’s beard in over fifteen years; in fact he no longer possesses a straight razor. That implement most barbers use to shave your neck and about your ears is actually a phony, designed to look like an old-fashioned straight razor but holding instead a Gillette-type blade, broken in half. Likewise that shiny leather strop that used to hang from the side of the barber’s chair is no more. Sad, because I used to enjoy those Saturday morning sessions.
When I joined the Air Force at the age of nineteen, I was surprised to learn that I was expected to shave my blond, patchy, scarcely visible beard every day. The third day on base our Drill Sergeant informed us, in his parade square voice, "I don’t care how often you shaved at home; in the Air Force you’ll shave every damn morning, whether you need it or not."
A hand in the ranks shot up. "Sarge, the women too?"
"Right! The women too," Sarge bellowed, causing a number of heads to turn in the ranks of the W/D who were training nearby.
Later, as my beard became more luxuriant, I came to realize that — provided one stayed clear of the camp barber, with his dull razor and surly manner — being shaved by a barber could be quite a pleasant experience. So whenever I dropped into a barbershop for a hair trim, I "got the works."
Now I had never subscribed to the Catholic belief in Purgatory; however fourteen days in a convoy on a horribly overcrowded ship, with high seas and execrable food went a long way toward changing my mind. Ordinary soap adamantly refused to lather in the salt water that poured from the showerheads, while I never did learn to get a decent shave with the ship rolling and tossing beneath my feet. So it is understandable that when I set foot ashore, high on my list of priorities were first a shower, then a decent hair cut and shave.
I must say that my first impression of an English barber shop was not too favorable: a plain wooden chair, devoid of any adjustments; a tiny sink, a shelf supporting the bare essentials, and a barber who looked as though he had recently sucked a lemon — far removed from the friendly, garrulous, ever-smiling Canadian barbers I was accustomed to.
However, I reminded myself that years of having bombs dropped about one’s ears, not to mention an invasion of uncouth colonials, could probably do terrible things to the disposition, so I plopped down into the chair and asked for a haircut and shave.
He stared for a moment at my hair all neatly slicked down in the manner of the 40’s, then commented disdainfully, "I don’t see why you Canadian chaps put that Brylcreem stuff on your hair; it makes it all scurfy and very hard to cut." I was about to counter that it was preferable to the rag-mop hairdos affected by many R.A.F. types, but refrained. After all I WAS a guest in his country.
Picking up scissors and comb he set about my hair, all the while grumbling that after he finished cutting it he would be forced to wash the comb (I had rather hoped he had washed it before). Finally, my hair trimmed to his satisfaction, he moistened a brush and took a couple of swipes at a rather dried out bar of soap. No thick, foamy lather here; rather a feeling that I was being greased up for some sort of pagan ritual. Picking up the razor and without bothering to strop it, he went to work; some whiskers he sliced off, others he yanked out by the roots. I didn’t worry too much about the miniscule bits of epidermis he shaved off from time to time, that would grow back. However his final act went just beyond the bounds of human endurance. Picking up a towel, he wrung it out under a stream of water that gave off steam, then swiftly dropped it on my scraped and stinging face.
I have always considered French expletives to be much more expressive than their English counterparts, which is probably why my startled exclamation contained a couple of choice ones and while I daresay he didn’t understand the words, I am quite certain he fathomed their meaning, for he lifted the towel from my face with the tip of the scissors and commented, "Uh, sorry old man, I daresay that was a bit warmish." (Talk about English understatement.) Needless to say, from that day forward I took my trade to the base barber.
My first act a s a civilian back home was to indulge myself with a huge steak; the second was to head across the street to the nearest barber shop. The air inside was redolent with the spicy odor of bay rum and the other manly colognes that barbers keep in stock; a row of pictures on the wall suggested I might actually select the type of haircut I wanted and the barber SMILED at me and wished me a "Good Morning."
Heavenly! I sank deep into the leather cushions of the chair and gave myself over to the ministrations of this man who actually seemed pleased to serve me. He sang arias in Italian to the rapid snip-snip of the scissors, and in between he asked me about my wartime experiences as well as my impression of England. He did not however, ask me about English barbers, which was probably just as well.
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE
by A. Lawrence Vaincourt
One of the most fascinating and frustrating characteristics of man, (and here I refer to the species, not the gender) is the ability to form and hold so many widely divergent and often irrational beliefs on virtually any subject one might name and to be prepared to defend them to the death, if necessary. While other, lesser members of the animal kingdom can be trusted to behave in a reasonably uniform and consistent manner, humans, with their superior intellect, tend to believe in or to perform acts that are totally out of touch with the world of reality.
An untold number of religions have grown up over the years based on the belief in a supreme being who created the universe, and many bloody battles have been fought in defense of various versions of this maxim. "Nonsense," snort the Atheists, "there is no God, the universe just happened by chance."
Defenders of the "Big Bang" theory of creation, their hypothesis being that the entire universe was created when a gigantic ball of matter exploded, scattering bits of itself in every direction. Without exception, they have failed to explain where that ball of matter came from in the first place.
I read recently of the death of the president of the Flat Earth Research Society who maintained, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the earth was truly flat and that those who believed otherwise had been duped by scientists. This he truly believed, although a trip to the oceanfront and a look at the curving horizon might have told him otherwise.
Vegetarians and Vegans maintain that humans should not consume meat and many have stated that humans are not carnivores. Really! Well whether or not they choose to admit it, located in every human mouth, between incisors and bicuspids, plainly visible whenever they brush or floss their teeth, sit four pointy fangs known as canine teeth; herbivores don't possess such teeth, only carnivores and omnivores (our genus) have them.
Animal rights groups who maintain that no living creature should be killed for food or any other reason, blithely ignore the rather obvious fact that if all carnivores could be converted over to a vegetable diet (an unlikely prospect) we would very shortly be standing, shoulder to shoulder, on a planet totally denuded of all vegetation. (My mind is made up, don't confuse me with facts.)
The theory of racial superiority, once common throughout the world, has only in recent times been seriously challenged. It is probably safe to say that fully eighty percent of the world's population still believe that based on language, colour of skin, church, temple or mosque attended, country of origin or any number of other insignificant reasons, their peer group is the superior, chosen one. This sort of illogical reasoning is responsible for everything from heated debate to open warfare.
The truly strange part is that two minds, fed the same data, can come up with two totally different conclusions. Computers don't do this, only the human brain! And what seems completely logical to one person may seem totally off the wall to someone else!
Let's face it, if humans were logical would we persist in a belief or action in the face of incontestable proof that it is wrong? Would we strap ourselves into tin containers, which we then send hurtling along congested highways at high rates of speed, confident that our superior driving skills will preserve us from the sometime-fatal accidents that other, lesser mortals are prone to? Would we convince ourselves that the ice on the highway is not really slippery or that the guy we are tailgating will not stop suddenly?
Would we blow our hard-earned cash on lottery tickets, where the odds against our winning are twenty five million to one? And, given their track record, would be blindly place our welfare in the hands of politicians, in the faith that they will place our betterment ahead of their own self interests? Would we fall prey to the smooth talking con artist who maintains that he really has our welfare at heart?
Personally, I believe that there is a superior being (who out of consideration for the beliefs of others I shall not name) who, perhaps as an experiment or simply to provide the occasional bit of levity, populated the earth with a strange critter called "man" whom he made slightly different from other mammals. Some say (although there is little evidence to support it) that this critter was created in the deity's own image and was provided with a brain consisting of two segments, left and right. (The right hand knoweth not what the left hand doeth...) This could account for some of the bizarre behaviour we observe all around us. Only a theory, folks, perhaps you have a better one.
VIVE LA DIFFERENCE
by A. Lawrence Vaincourt
The above quotation allegedly originated in the French parliament when a member pointed out that the laws could not be applied in the same manner to both sexes, as there was a little difference between men and women, whereupon someone leapt to his feet and shouted "Vive la difference."
Now in defence of both these learned gentlemen, I would hasten to point out that their remarks, far from being chauvinistic, were true reflections of their time. There were indeed many differences between men and women, differences that persisted well into my generation. Anyone who has survived seven decades or more and who has an ounce of honesty in their makeup will bear me out in this. The differences were apparent in many ways. Women were for the most part smaller, usually prettier than men and normally smelled nicer, although the latter may have been due to the fact that they did not spend their time in gymnasiums humping up barbells or doing the host of other physically strenuous things guaranteed to work up a lavish sweat and the resultant case of B.O.
In any event, the differences were manifest and this is, in my opinion, as it should be. Throughout nature, the differences between the sexes are obvious. No one has difficulty distinguishing a buck from a doe, a cow from a bull, a lion from a lioness. Why should it be different with the human species?
It is said that differences attract and this is understandable, which is why I cannot understand cross dressing, or getting all gussied up to look like something you ain't - namely a member of the opposite sex. Mind you, I have seen some men in drag who made a pretty presentable-looking woman and vice versa. (No pun intended) It's just that confirmed old chauvinist that I am, I can't understand why on earth anyone would want to. Personally, if I were at the age where one does such things and I decided to make an indecent advance to someone, I would sure as hell like to be certain that it was not another man.
In this current era of political correctness, it is a rare issue of the local paper that does not carry a tale of some male being charged with that most heinous of crimes - sexual harassment. It matters little if the culprit is a six-year old boy and the alleged transgression a friendly smooch on the cheek. Harassment is harassment, maintain the purists, and must be nipped in the bud. One is tempted to ask the obvious question - would they have been so incensed if, instead of kissing her cheek, that six-year old boy had made a solid contact with a snowball. At age six, what is most socially acceptable, an act of aggression or one of simple affection? At that age, most children have witnessed hundreds of examples of both, via the medium of television, and if junior chooses to emulate daddy showing affection for mommy instead of Steven Segal kicking the crap out of the bad guys, I think we are heading in the right direction.
Whether we wish to admit it or not, there are two sexes out there and two sets of rules. Female journalists have long since won the right to walk into a male locker room (although why anyone would voluntarily enter an atmosphere redolent of dirty gym socks and jockstraps, occupied by huge hairy monsters in the altogether escapes me) and if nude jocks feel uncomfortable in their presence then the onus is on them to cover up. To the best of my knowledge, the same rules do not apply to female athletes and male journalists. Women who object to men using coarse or vulgar language in their presence will themselves use the same words to redundancy in public conversation.
In the past few years, there have been a number of cases reported of teachers playing naughty games with their students. Somehow public reaction never seems as intense when the said student is male and the teacher is of the opposite gender. Why is that I wonder? My wife maintains there are fewer cases reported where the alleged victim is a male and she is probably right. Were I in that position, I doubt that I would tell either.
Men are from Mars - Women are from Venus - worlds apart in both perception and reaction. Men buy. Women shop. It's common knowledge that shopping malls were created for women. The average male is overwhelmed by a big glossy shopping mall. He is more comfortable in that messy little hardware store on the corner that's been there forever. There, on a Saturday morning, he can buy a dozen screws and spend an hour or two chatting with his friends, safe in the knowledge that he can still have the lawn mowed before his wife gets back from the shopping mall. Men can't see dust. Women poke and probe with a dust cloth or mop in obscure nooks and corners in search of the stuff. Men simply allow it to collect under the bed where it is out of sight and bothers no one.
Women like cats for pets. Most men prefer dogs, preferably the large shaggy ones who can be trusted to clean the dust from under the bed each time there's a thunder storm. My wife can't abide spiders and spends her spare moments searching out and destroying their webs. I have pointed out to her that they are put there to catch flies (which she also hates) and the spiders are really doing us a service. Somehow she cannot accept my logic. Yes there is no doubt about it, men and women ARE different and if I might echo the words of a wise Frenchman, "VIVE LA DIFFERENCE."
BIFFYS, BOGS AND BATHROOMS
by A. Lawrence Vaincourt
I visited a plumbing emporium the other day. You know the sort of place I mean - a lavish showroom where all the fixtures are laid out tastefully in proper relation to each other, giving the envious browser a glimpse of how the other half lives.
I was overwhelmed by the sheer opulence and decadence of it all; the deep pile carpeting beneath the feet, the mirrored wall designed to appeal to the narcissistic impulses latent in all of us, the padded toilet seat where one might pursue ones daily meditation in comfort, and the bathtub; Ah! The Bathtub, designed for two people, equipped with whirlpool and Jacuzzi jets, its curves and contours suggestive of a number of interesting positions and activities, truly a spot where one might well spend a half day, solo or with a friend, in luxurious dalliance.
As I walked about, looking at the various layouts, each one more beautiful than the one before, I was stuck by the contrast of my own thirty year old, strictly utilitarian, bathroom. The place where I have been known to break the seven minute record for a shave, shower and shampoo, while one or more little boys stood outside the door, reminding me, frequently, that they couldn't wait.
Mind you, my bathroom is light years ahead of the type of sanitary facilities we had when I was growing up on the farm. I still have bad dreams about bathing in tepid water, in a small copper tub in the privacy of my bedroom, and anyone who has ever had to visit an outdoor privy during sub-zero temperatures cannot fail to appreciate the debt we all owe to an Englishman named Thomas Crapper - that's right folks, Crapper! You see, he was the man who invented the modern flush toilet, the fixture that still bears his name in some uncouth circles.
He had the good business sense to install one in Buckingham Palace and was subsequently knighted by Queen Victoria who obviously felt that he had made a major contribution to Royal comfort and dignity, for after all, a Queen is deserving of a throne.
Mind you, prior to the invention of the flush toilet, there were other alternatives, one of them being the chamber pot. Now the chamber pot was an interesting vessel, probably not very familiar to those of you who were fortunate enough to have grown up in a home with a modern bathroom, but all too familiar to those of us who grew up in the rural areas.
The chamber pot had a number of euphemisms including, the Po, the Pot, the Thundermug and the Guzunder, the latter being an oblique reference to the fact that it was usually hidden under the bed, both for reasons of modesty and to eliminate the possibility of stepping in it in the middle of the night. There were, as well, other terms of reference, most of which cannot be mentioned in a family newspaper.
Chamberpots might be made of tin, enamel ware, pottery or even porcelain, had a capacity of a gallon or more and the more expensive ones were often decorated with roses, cherubs or rustic scenes, in relief. Unfortunately, these decorations contributed extra to an already weighty object, which when filled to the brim, required a firm grip and a muscular wrist to transport it safely from the bedroom, through the house and out the back door, to the dumping point. I know personally of one vintage potty that parted company with its handle while its unfortunate bearer was crossing the living room carpet.
As I look back to my early Air Force days, the thing I appreciate most about barrack life was the virtually unlimited hot water for showers and the fact that the toilet seats were at room temperature. However, when I arrived in England, the home of the Crapper (excuse me!) the flush toilet, I was rather surprised by two things. Fist that someone apparently believed that a five gallon hot water tank was adequate to fill a six foot English bathtub. The second was to find that England, the very birthplace of the flush toilet, had never progressed beyond the chain age of plumbing. While our own toilets had water tanks at the back and a handle for flushing, theirs had a tank or cistern high on the wall, beyond the reach of a six foot man and connected to the bowl below with a length of two inch pipe, usually copper.
The velocity attained by the seven-foot drop, plus the natural resonance of that large pipe, created sound effects that would have made Archie Bunker proud. That is when they could be persuaded to flush. Usually they displayed an almost Churchillian stubbornness when called upon to do so. This was possibly due to the fact that our familiar ball and valve mechanism was unknown to the English. Instead their fixture contained, within its cistern, a horribly complicated contrivance consisting of levers, floats and stoppers, all connected to a long brass arm which projected over the side of the tank and to which was attached a long chain.
A normal pull on this chain was usually ignored, a moderately strong pull might be acknowledged by a few grudging gurgles and, perhaps, a cup or two of water. A flush, however, required a sturdy pull on the chain and was usually accompanied by disquieting noises from the mechanism overhead. As a mechanic I found a certain inconsistency in the fact that a race of people who could design such mechanical marvels as the Rolls Royce and the Spitfire, apparently were quite incapable of building a toilet that would flush
The English are a hospitable race and most Canadian Servicemen were, at one time or another, invited into English homes. I was no exception. A young lady of my acquaintance had invited me to her home and I arrived, all pressed and polished, bearing a gift of tea which had somehow found its way out of the Officers' Mess, determined to impress her family with my manners and good breeding.
The house was a working class home of fairly recent construction, which is to say it was rather small. The living room was tiny and the bathroom, adjacent, was separated from it by a rather flimsy door. During the course of the evening I had occasion to retire to the bathroom where, acutely conscious of the sound effects of English plumbing, I attempted the impossible - a quiet flush. A gentle pull, as might be expected, was totally ignored, the second and third pulls, progressively stronger, were met with a stubborn resistance. Finally, exasperation overcoming caution, I gave a mighty heave on the chain, whereupon the entire mechanism somersaulted over the top of the tank and landed with a crash and a clatter at my feet.
A veritable Niagara of water cascaded down the pipe, with appropriate sound effects, filling the bowl to the brim and spilling over on to the floor. Perhaps I should have been forewarned of this eventuality by the presence of a mop in the corner. At any rate, the next ten minutes were spent in mopping up the floor, then standing on the toilet seat and attempting to replace the mechanism in its proper order in the overhead tank; the entire proceedings carried out to the accompaniment of gaily running water, punctuated from time to time by loud gurgles as the toilet bowl filled and flushed repeatedly.
There is much to be said for English manners and breeding. No one, by so much as a lifted eyebrow, indicated that anything unusual had occurred when finally I returned to the living room.
Her nine-year old brother however, was crimson-faced and appeared to be suffering a seizure of some sort before he was expelled from the room.
HORSE WITH A BUGGY BEHIND
by A. Lawrence Vaincourt
Have you ever given thought to the most embarrassing moment of your life? I don't know about you, but personally my greatest, most devastating embarrassments occurred during my teens.
Ah, the teens - that wonderful, terrible period in every male's life when he is no longer a boy, not yet a man. That transition period between childhood and young adulthood, when girls are no longer a nuisance but have suddenly become wonderful, sweet smelling, highly desirable creatures whose nearness will make your pulses pound and who can send you into orbit with a smile or a flutter of their eyelashes. Girls! Whom you want so desperately to impress but simply don't know how.
In my growing up years, there was a great rivalry among the boys for female attention, with of course the older ones invariably winning the choicest members of the female sex. In those callow years, a girl's desirability was assessed by her beauty and physical endowments. Heaven forbid that we should consider such unimportant things as intelligence, or even common sense.
We learned at an early age that most girls preferred the comfort of a car to a crossbar, which gave a decided advantage to those of our peers who had a car of their own, or access to one. These fortunate individuals had their pick of the girls, while we lesser types had to content ourselves with what was left; the plain ones, the ones with freckles, the ones with glasses...
As I sat in the buggy that day, my mother's grocery list in my pocket and old Dan plodding slowly in the direction of Town, I remembered the oft' repeated story of an elderly neighbor of ours; how when he was a "smart young blade with the shiniest buggy and the fastest horse in the area," he'd had his pick of the young ladies. Maybe so, but I didn't feel that this was going to help me at all, for this buggy was far from shiny and old Dan, the third horse in our stable, had seen many summers and was unlikely to catch the eye of any of our local girls.
Dan had three gaits - slow, stop and a little 'piggy' trot which he seldom maintained for more than fifty yards, although he had been known upon occasion to break into a wheezing, awkward gallop upon sighting a bucket of oats.
In common with most of the livestock on our farm, Dan was spoiled outrageously and loved being hand fed. He had a great fondness for potato peelings, bread crusts and apples. Unfortunately, old Dan had a digestive problem and could not tolerate apples. However, this never prevented him from consuming them in great quantities if given the opportunity.
Scattered throughout our pasture were a number of wild apple trees and Dan, with the acquire wisdom of his advanced years, knew that in late summer his massive shoulder applied to the trunk of an apple tree would usually bring down a shower of apples for his gustatory pleasure. Somehow he never connected his inordinate love for apples with the gastric distress that invariably followed.
As Dan plodded along, his hooves kicking up dust from the gravel road, I made no attempt to rush him; it was a beautiful August day and I was in no hurry. Then just ahead, I saw her. Bonny was not a local girl. She was from the big city and was spending her summer vacation at a nearby farm. Bonny fit that great category of 'ordinary girls'; she was relatively plain, wore glasses and had freckles beyond counting.
Bonny appeared to like me and had made several overtures of friendship, but with the combined aloofness and shyness of my fifteen years I had never responded. Today however, I offered her a ride. She climbed into the buggy and old Dan, after casting one resentful glance over his shoulder, resumed his plodding.
As we rode slowly along, visiting, my shyness gradually subsided. It dawned on me that Bonny had those rare attributes of intelligence and humor. In short, she was darn good company and when she eventually slipped her hand into mine, my happiness was complete. By this time we were at the edge of Town; the first general store in the Town was a teenage hangout and this day the usual gang were sitting about the front stoop, consuming soft drinks and smoking cigarettes, laughing, jostling...and it was at this precise point that old Dan decided to humiliate me.
He slowed his already slow pace, cocked his tail to one side and released a loud, rolling blast that to my rapidly reddening ears had the volume, if not the tonal quality, of a bassoon. There was a momentary silence on the stoop. Heads swiveled and all eyes were fixed on old Dan. All that is, except Bonny's; hers were fixed steadfastly on the road just beyond the buggy wheel.
I gave Dan's rump a sharp cut with the free end of the reins and he broke into his little piggy trot, which didn't really help much since every second step was punctuated with another gaseous expulsion. The laughter from the porch now was a rolling wave, which assumed a note of hysteria when old Dan came to a dead stop and released a great jet of water. Finally, having relieved himself abundantly and at length, he gave a satisfied snort through his nose, blew one final posterior note and resumed his walking pace.
Many years have passed since that fateful day and I now realize that the true mark of breeding is to be able to ignore or overlook life's little embarrassments. Bonny simply looked at me and remarked, "I think I would like an ice cream, wouldn't you?"
Somewhere I once read that shared adversity will cement the bonds of friendship. This may well be true, for Bonny and I became firm friends. Which was just as well, for I didn't dare show my face around Town for some time thereafter...
THE WEDDING DAY
by A. Lawrence Vaincourt
An old friend of mine phoned me the other day to tell me that someone had contacted him and asked if he would be interested in photographing a wedding. However it seems that, at eighty-five, he feels he is a bit too old for this sort of activity and, since I am younger, he called me to see if I would be interested in the job.
Well, like the old war horse who gets a sniff of gun powder, I perked up my ears at the suggestion and it was with some regret that I told him I was not interested. When I retired my cameras some ten years ago, in favour of a second career in writing, it was with the firm vow that I would never again photograph a wedding.
Wedding photography, at least to me, can be fulfilling, frustrating, exasperating, nerve-wracking and at times, a royal pain in the butt. No, don't get me wrong, I love weddings, I think they are a delightful event and I never fail to get all choked up when I watch a radiantly beautiful young bride walk down the aisle to join a beaming young man at the alter. It is a wonderful and fulfilling occasion and I am always happy that I have been invited to participate, I even enjoy photographing them when things go smoothly.
When things go smoothly: Ah! there's the rub. I can never suppress a shudder as I watch wedding guests file into the church, with every third one toting some sort of photographic gear. Imagine if you will how the average golf pro would react if a gaggle of golfers invaded the course and insisted on playing through while he was in the midst of a tournament; or how about the Chef who is preparing the wedding feast when approximately one third of the wedding guests swarm his kitchen and start preparing dishes of their own? Does the term,'Justifiable homicide' mean anything to you? Right! Yet it is under these precise conditions that a wedding photographer is expected to smile, never lose his cool, be courteous and polite to the most pushy of guests and, above all, perform his function in a professional and competent manner. He is a pro after all, and he is being paid to provide a photographic record of an unrepeatable occasion. Unlike other types of photos which can be re-taken if necessary, wedding photos have to be right the first time and many of the shots require split second timing.
Picture the following scenarios: The following are things that have happened to me and to a host of my fellow photographers. Bride and groom are descending the aisle, photographer is waiting to take photo, camera-toting guest steps into middle of aisle in front of photographer, gets close-up of couple, photographer gets back of guest. Alternately, guest may decide to step into aisle directly behind the photographer who is walking slowly backward with his eye fixed on his view finder, then squat or kneel to take a photo. A former colleague, who at the time weighed nearly three hundred pounds, has a hilarious tale to tell of such an occasion . Photographer spends minutes carefully posing wedding party in front of church, then before he can take the picture, the guests swarm in, cameras blazing, and by the time he gets his shot the wedding party are wearing the befogged expression that comes from facing a battery of flash-guns, all firing at once.
It is useless to ask that the guests refrain from hurling confetti or other foreign objects at the wedding couple until photographs have been taken. The moment they step out of the church door the barrage begins and in seconds their wedding finery is covered with multi-coloured spots. Nor is confetti the only thing thrown: I once confiscated a five pound box of Quaker oat meal, hidden behind a shrub at the church door,it was a hot July day and I daresay the bride might not have appreciated spending the afternoon with warm oatmeal down her cleavage.
The practice of throwing things is not without its hazards, I remember one elderly lady who slipped on some rice on the church steps, sustaining a painful fall. Once when a guest threw a handful of confetti in the bride's face from inches away, a bit of it got into her eye and lodged behind her contact lens. There were some minutes of sheer chaos as several guests attempted to come to her assistance: Finally the foreign object was removed but the bride was unable to replace her contact lens and spent the rest of the afternoon looking rather teary-eyed.
It seems to me that whenever large numbers of people are gathered in one spot there are always incidents of unexpected humour, and never more so than when small children are involved. I recall one occasion when a tiny flower girl preceded the bride down the aisle and upon reaching the alter, handed the bouquet to the bride and announced,"And now I've got to go pee."
One minister, who obviously found cameras a distraction, announced that there would be no photos taken during the service, and that included the photographer. Not one picture was taken during the service, except for one little gray haired lady wearing a hearing aid who, ignoring the black looks directed at her by the minister, kept popping to her feet and taking pictures with a Poleroid. It was an old Poleroid of the type that spat forth a large paper negative, covered with a gummy, brown residue, for every picture taken: These she laid carefully on the seat beside her. Finally a small boy, peering over the back of her pew, exclaimed loudly, "The lady is sure making a big mess, isn't she Mommy?"
It is customary, at the ending of the meal, for the bride and groom to rise from the head table and circulate among the guests, pausing to chat at each table: I recall one incident when, as they rose to their feet and the groom drew back the bride's chair a guest stepped up to the table, the bride sat down but the chair was no longer there and, to my everlasting sorrow, I was six feet from my camera.
On one occasion, at the ending of the meal, I requested the bride's indulgence while I took a few photographs. She however, stating that she wanted to renew her makeup first, gathered her bride's maids around her and together they all trooped off to the lady's room. They were gone for a considerable length of time but finally returned, convulsed with laughter. It seems that the bride had suffered an embarrassing accident. Now, while I cannot claim any degree of expertise in the matter, I daresay I would not have expected the toilet seat to be up in the lady's room, either.
I have no idea how many weddings I have photographed in the forty-odd years that I toted a camera but I have an endless supply of memories, most of them pleasant, a few of them sour and a couple of them sad, enough to fill a book, and maybe someday I will. In the meantime, the next wedding you attend, if you are taking photographs, please don't get in the way of the photographer, he's just trying to make a living.
LUCK OR CHANCE
by A. Lawrence Vaincourt
People in high-risk professions such as sailors and steeplejacks, have a tendency towards superstition, while entertainers who, as we know, lead a precarious existence, are notorious for their belief in luck and omens.
Nan Blakstone (yes, that is the correct spelling) was a prime example of the latter type. Those of you who remember the Montreal nightclub circuit in the late 1940’s probably remember Nan, a seasoned old veteran of the performing arts who had seen many summers. She had a seemingly unlimited repertoire of risqué songs and off-colour stories that would have made Joan Rivers blush.
When I first met her, Nan was doing her act at Ruby Foo's on Decarie Blvd. Both Nan's rough voice and piano style were reminiscent of Jimmy Durante, and her decidedly blue material never failed to bring audience reaction that ranged from crimson faces to loud guffaws of coarse laughter.
The studio I worked for had the photographic concession at Ruby Foo's. The team consisted of a pretty young girl who circulated in the club with her camera, and a darkroom man who cooked up the pictures on the spot.
Part of my job was to spell him off one night a week, while at the same time checking out the receipts and handling any problems that might arise. The little darkroom was next to Nan's dressing room and we soon became fast friends. Nan had a persistent hoarseness, probably the result of too many years in smokey nightclubs, and she took medicine for it; at least she called it medicine. To me it tasted suspiciously like Southern Comfort but since she carried it in a silver flask I could never be quite sure.
I often visited with Nan in her dressing room between acts while she repaired or renewed her makeup, and her last act before going on for a performance was to take a quick swallow of her "medicine." Now Nan was a generous soul and if I were there she usually offered me one as well, hence my familiarity with its taste.
I was aware of Nan's superstitious nature as evidenced by the many fetishes and good luck charms with which she had decorated the dressing room. However, I had no idea how all-encompassing it was until the night I walked into her dressing room, whistling. Nan turned to me, her face ashen, and shouted, "Stop! Don't ever, ever whistle in a dressing room." And as I stood there, open mouthed, she continued, "Now please be a dear, go outside, turn around three times, swear and spit."
Well I started to laugh, but the look on her face made me realize that she was in dead earnest. So to keep the peace I stepped outside her door and while silently thanking my lucky stars that there was no one else around to witness this performance, I rotated three times, invoked one of my best cuss words and spat in the corner.
I stepped back in with an apology for having upset her but she simply said, "That's all right, love." Then she picked up the flask and, without bothering to pour a measure into the ever-present jigger, tilted it up and took a hefty pull.
Nan's act was usually scintillated with sharp humour and witty repartee; tonight, however, her act was wooden, routine. She seemed distracted or preoccupied, and at the end scarcely bothered to take a bow. I was torn between remorse at having upset her and amusement at the depth of her superstition.
We left the club together that night and as we reached the front door I stepped back and allowed Nan to precede me.
As she stepped outside the gusting March winds seized her heavy fur coat and attempted to tear it from her. Was it the force of the wind, her "medicine" or a combination of both? I really don't know but Nan missed one step and went sprawling.
I was at her side in a moment and reached down to help her up. She grasped my hand firmly, looked up at me and then with a half-rueful grin said, "You young bugger, if you ever whistle in my dressing room again, I'm going to kick your ass."
A HELLUVA YEAR
by A. Lawrence Vaincourt
I am quoting Queen Elizabeth; well not exactly - great lady that she is, she said it in Latin but her meaning was the same. She was of course, referring to the shenanigans of certain members of the Royal family who at that time probably contributed more than their share of gray to the royal head.
Slightly over a year ago my own particular saga, began with a careless step, resulting in a fall, a broken hip and a trip to our local hospital where the damage was repaired and I was instructed to lie back, behave myself and enjoy the hospital fare. Sounded simple enough until complications set in and a sojourn that should have lasted days extended into months, finally ending in a second operation - success this time. Nine days later I was home, walking about my living room, when the weird little gods of fate struck again; I sustained another fall, breaking a few ribs this time.
Back to the hospital, where I was beginning to acquire the status of a favored guest in a Howard Johnson Hotel. They treated me with the deference due a senior citizen and invited me to stay awhile for some physical therapy that would hopefully alleviate some of the clumsiness that had led to my misfortunes in the first place.
While vegetating in a wheel chair the thought occurred to me that this little detour from everyday life need not be a total loss and I should pass on the benefit of my experience to those of my readers who might, someday, find themselves in a similar situation.
Now I realize that the majority of you have probably never experienced life in a wheelchair and if you watch where you place your feet and follow the advice of Hulk Hogan to, "Say your prayers and eat your vitamins," you probably never will. Nonetheless, a basic knowledge of wheelchair etiquette is, I feel, an essential part of a well rounded education and certain to provide you with a greater understanding of your altered status should you ever find yourself the occupant of one.
A mad gallop across Vancouver airport a few years ago, while burdened down with a large load of camera gear, left me gasping and helpless; a prime candidate for a heart attack and firmly convinced that I was too old for this kind of foolishness. On the return trip I requested a wheelchair and learned how altitude and attitude are intertwined.
People who normally would have spoken to me directly now gazed over my head and addressed their questions to the person who was pushing the chair, even when it was clearly an airline employee. "Will he want an extra blanket? Is he able to use the bathroom? Does he require special feeding? At this point I was tempted to reach up, fondle the lady’s brooch and drool on her lapel.
That was it! From a figure commanding respect I had become a non-entity simply by sitting in this infernal contraption. People who could not bear to make eye contact with me cast pitying glances in my direction while addressing whoever happened to be pushing the chair.
From a little old lady, "What a shame, has he been this way long?" to a flight attendant, "He will have to be loaded on last." Beginning to feel like a piece of not-too-welcome baggage, I was tempted to leap to my feet and roar, "Dammit! there’s nothing wrong with me." They would have probably have taken back the wheelchair.
A couple years later I sat with a broken hip, in a hospital emergency room while a doctor asked a series of probing questions of my wife, then of me; many of them clearly designed to determine just how many of my marbles I was still playing with. His final question, addressed to my wife, was, "Is he competent to sign admission papers?" I am afraid my reply may have cast a chill over our relationship.
Of course there are the kindly folk, the thoughtful types who stand, ever ready to assist one over rough places, through doorways and turnstiles, or from point A to point B. I recall, with some fondness, a jovial little man with an acute hearing problem, who trundled me a considerable distance across an Airport terminus while my wife was clearing our baggage. Pointless to tell him that I had not been abandoned, he was telling me a tale of his own.
After you grow accustomed to being tilted backward at an acute angle while being bounced up a flight of stairs, or overcome the sheer terror of being borne down upon in a narrow hospital corridor by a gurney carrying a three hundred pound man and propelled at high speed by a hundred and ten pound nurse, you swear a quiet oath that you will become self-sufficient with this beast, as quickly as possible and in future, attempt to avoid all situations that might lead to its use.
by A. Lawrence Vaincourt
It was a rite of spring, eagerly looked forward to by the boys in the little country school I attended; that first icy, bone chilling dip in the little stream that ran through the woods behind the school. Its waters rose from springs on several farms in route, including our own, and by the time it reached the little natural pool behind the school It had slowed its pace but lost none of its iciness and it was here that a half dozen of us older boys plunged our quaking bodies during lunch break, on the first decently warm day after the beginning of May.
It was futile for our parents or the teacher to forbid us, that little pond had an irrestible attraction and the fact that we were left unsupervised during lunch hour, while the teacher returned to the boarding house nearby for a warm lunch, supplied the opportunity.
No one thought anything of leaving twenty or more farm kids, spanning grades one to seven, untended. It was assumed that the older ones would ride herd on the younger and that no one would attempt to burn the school down. Minor transgressions went unnoticed while the occasional larger ones were routinely reported to and dealt with, by the teacher.
It was here that one of the boys remarked, one day, that this was the first bath he had taken since last fall. His parents were separated and his father, while making certain he attended school, did not pay too much attention to his personal hygiene and it was generally agreed that his were the dirtiest shirts and the smelliest footgear in the school.
Personal hygiene was not an easy matter in that time and place; to the best of my knowledge there was not a single indoor bathroom in the row of farmhouses that spanned the length of the country road we lived on. Of course there may well have been one or two I was unaware of, whose owners simply had not gotten rid of the little outdoor privy that sat, usually within trotting distance of the kitchen door, its site carefully chosen, not so far as to inflict undue discomfort during inclement weather yet far enough to discourage commuting flies.
The privy cared for basic needs while the remaining functions of cleanliness were handled by basins, buckets and perhaps a tin tub, tucked away in some remote corner of the house. My favorite bathing spot during the balmy days of summer was a tiny stream surrounded by a grove of trees that ran a scant few yards from the end of the house. When sitting on one of the flat rocks that lined its bottom, during the dry portion of summer, the water reached barely to ones waist. But ahh! To sit they’re, surrounded by inquisitive minnows and crawfish scuttling off backward out of reach, after a hard day’s work in the blazing heat of the mid-summer sun; sheer bliss!
One of the fondest recollections of my introduction to the Air Force was the shower room with its seemingly unlimited supply of hot water. Little did I know that I would one, day, find myself on an R.A.F. base, where a five gallon hot water tank was considered adequate to fill a six foot English bath tub, or worse, spend the winter months on a base where one was expected to shower in cold water, in an unheated bath room. A rumor persisted that the officers had hot water in their showers, a rumor that was confirmed by one of my barrack-mates, who, made bold by desperation, sneaked in for a shower, his logic being that it was impossible to tell a man’s rank when he was wearing only a towel.
Rural areas used to be rife with tales of elderly bachelors who donned long underwear in the autumn and did not remove them until spring: I can’t vouch for the truth of these tales but have noted a decidedly gamy odor on some individuals, in public places.
In the immediate post-war years there were many small communities across the land that did not possess a public water and sewage system, relying on wells, and a "Can service," supplied by the town. Outdoor privies equipped with a can, which was changed at regular intervals, Oh joy! The only improvement over the infamous country "Biffy" was that one did not have to clean them. They still proved an irresistible attraction to animal and insect life and entailed daily visits, fair weather or foul.
The instinct to wash or bathe would appear to be inborn in all mammalian life forms and the few times in history when humans, for religious or other reasons, have eschewed cleanliness have invariably been followed by disease and plague. Grooming them selves and each other would appear to be not only an instinct but also a form of recreation or a sign of affection.
A friend of mine, hearing her first born howling lustily, ran to investigate, only to find the family dog, a female Doberman, standing erect by the high chair and washing the baby’s face.
One of our farm dogs preferred to perform her ablutions, loudly and at length, after lights out, outside my parent’s bedroom door, drove my mother nuts.
From the perfumed luxury of the ancient Roman baths to the bracing chill of a tumbling mountain stream there is a world of difference, yet a certain sameness; that feeling that all is well with world and, with that thought in mind, I am going to take a shower.
COMING HOME FOR CHRISTMAS
by A. Lawrence Vaincourt
They’re coming home for Christmas, some from many miles away,
They’ve already phoned to tell us they’ll be home for Christmas Day.
The above is the opening stanza from a jingly little poem that I wrote to accompany my Christmas column some years ago. The past couple of years portions of it have been turning up on Christmas cards, church flyers and various other publications. Sometime I receive credit for it, sometime not, but I always get a warm feeling when it appears somewhere and I try to remember just who was here the year I wrote it.
I recall in particular one house-jamming Christmas when the last sleep-over guest to arrive found himself bedded down on a folding cot in the furnace room. He is a successful lawyer, today, but I always remember him as a stout young man who could do nice things on a guitar. Then there was Danny, with his violin, his six feet four inches folded on a couch that was barely six feet long, in the music room; and Randy’s current girlfriend, a sweet faced youngster of the Jewish faith who spent Christmas with us two consecutive years and attended midnight service with us, singing the unfamiliar Christian hymns in a clear, strong voice. She slept that night in the family room, beside the Christmas tree, closely guarded by the family dog.
"We’ll dust off the old piano, fill the fridge with things to eat." I remember well how the house rang with music that year, as violin, flute, piano and guitars joined voice in everything from Christmas carols to old Celtic Pub songs. Empty glasses and coffee cups, containers of snack food everywhere; and from the kitchen the delicious odor of a turkey being prepared.
Sounds like an episode from "The Waltons" doesn’t it? But then, the reason the Waltons program ran on TV for so many years is probably because it was such an accurate slice of rural life. Small town life was not so much different, at least not in the small town we lived in.
So pardon me if I, perhaps, sound a bit maudlin when describing times like these: I would like to take this opportunity to thank our five sons Larry, Wayne, Mark, Randy and Scott for the pleasure they have given us over the years and the fact that they have, invariably, presented a united front when the going got rough for some member of the family. Some of you may recall a couple of years back when I was in hospital and Randy took over the writing of my Christmas column, "The bad turkey caper." He neglected to mention that the merchant replaced the turkey and we enjoyed our Christmas dinner on Boxing Day.
It appears that it will be a traditional Christmas this year: Three of our sons will be home and I expect there will be friends dropping in. The one thing that would make it perfect would be if our three grandchildren could be with us; unfortunately they are far away on the West coast of this huge continent. Perhaps another time.
And so this year, when we gather round the Christmas table with lifted glasses, I know I will silently thank God for my many blessings over the years, not the least of which is that he has spared me for one more gathering. I will thank him for this wonderful family he has bestowed upon me, for the many fine friends I have enjoyed and finally, I will wish a very Merry Christmas to all of you whom I have never met but who have been faithful readers and supporters for so many years.
The very best for the holiday season and, in the words of Tiny Tim, "GOD BLESS US, EVERY ONE."
All Material © A. Lawrence Vaincourt