JAIMIE VERNON – CHILDHOOD: THE BEST YEARS OF MY LIFE

I had every intention of writing a Compact DISCovery column this week – featuring great releases by the J. David Band, Mena Hardy, David Ward, The Well Wishers, Focal Points and Kris + Dee – and comment on the ongoing controversy concerning NPR intern Emily White’s theft of 11,000 MP3’s. But on Thursday I got news that one of my oldest friends, Jim, lost his father. It’s amazing how one’s ancient memory recall fires up instantly like an old reliable automobile at the mere mention of a past acquaintance. Time has erased the specifics of our first meeting, but Jim and I agree that we started hanging out together when we were seven years old – some 42 years ago.

It would have been the summer of 1970 at the inner-city apartment building where we both lived at Markham Road and Lawrence Avenue in Scarborough, Ontario – a former municipality east of Toronto proper.  It was the tallest of four low-rise buildings with ten floors filled with a wave of recent 1960’s European émigrés from England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Germany and even Scandinavia. My family was local and we came from ‘across the tracks’ in East York, Ontario while Jim’s parents were Irish, I believe. Despite the disparity in everyone’s origins, the young families that lived in this microcosm would form relationships that would last a lifetime.

We lived on the fourth floor in a three bedroom corner apartment overlooking both the side parking lot facing north and the back parking lot overlooking the playground, the swimming pool, two gas stations and Cedarbrae Mall – which was obscured by the back of a Stuart’s furniture outlet – to the west. We could also catch a peek of the Cedarbrae Cinema and the fire station farther north on Markham Road. [This is the building as it looks today]

My schoolmate, Gary, lived next door to us and my other schoolmate, Colin, next to him. Jim lived one floor below Colin. We never used the telephone to figure out what we were going to do – we’d either run up and down the hallway pounding on doors (“Can Gary come out to play?”) or we’d have a public pow-wow by yelling across or down to each other over our balconies. These balconies were like eagles’ nests for watching the community. Indelibly stamped into my memory is the night that the club house at Tam O’Shanter Golf course caught fire – nearly five kilometers away – and the people living on the west side of the building camped out on their balconies for hours watching the mushroom cloud of smoke turn the Scarborough sky black. Our parents also used these lofty perches to keep an eye on all the kids. With stay-at-home Moms the norm, one or the other of us would always be watched from above by a vigilant maternal eye – and they had no problems ratting on us if they saw doing something untoward out in the playground or the swimming pool or parking lot. And on the rare occasion, bitch slap us for getting out of line as our parents had signed agreements to allow one another to discipline any one of us as they saw fit. The village that raised these children was 10 storeys tall.

These were days of unparalleled childhood freedoms where our parents didn’t follow us around with bubble wrap to make sure we didn’t injure ourselves or get kidnapped. When school was out we were only required to adhere to curfews which allowed us plenty of time to do whatever we wanted from breakfast until dinner as long as we checked in for lunch; And everyone in the neighbourhood knew when it was supper time because my father would whistle from the balcony at volumes that could be heard blocks away. The first clarion call was a warning. If he did it twice I’d be in hot water. He would give me five minutes between the two whistles to drop what I was doing, grab an elevator or beat a retreat up four flights of stairs before he’d come out looking for me with steely rage. Needless to say, I always made it to dinner before the second whistle. My friends’ parents soon started using his whistle alarm to set their own dinner time schedules as well.

The four of us were inseparable. It was five straight years of a ‘Stand By Me’ like existence – without he dead body; Though, I do recall watching ambulance attendants extract a guy from underneath a car that had fallen on some poor guy’s head while he was trying to fix it as we were on our way home from school one day. But it’s the only drama from that time period that I recall aside from the frequent false fire alarms emanating from our building a few times a week. Otherwise we all got along – as well as any four card-carrying alpha-males hard wired to try and dominate the pack. Eventually, there were five of us with the addition of Leonard who lived on the ninth floor along with his sister and widowed father who was a certified navy chef and had seen action in one of the wars (Korea, I suspect). Colin and his sister lived with their Mom – a nurse – while Gary’s Dad was a Toronto Cop who provided the voice for Blinky the Talking Police Car while running Elmer the Safety Elephant school visits. He might not have been walking the street arresting bad guys, but I think his influence on keeping thousands of children safe on our streets was a far more noble calling. I still remember the slogan “Walk. Stop. Listen!” and the nearly forgotten “Look both ways before crossing the street”.

Meanwhile, Jim and I had white collar Dads doing office work. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t remember exactly what Jim’s Dad did for a living. I think he was working for the TTC. But he had the coolest, biggest car in the parking lot – a Strat-o-Chief. My father, meanwhile, drove a turquoise Plymouth Valiant four cylinder. He was a safety inspector for electronics companies like Sunbeam that made kettles, hairdryers and toasters. He spent his time lighting these objects on fire or dropping them from great heights or crushing them with cinder blocks in an effort to get the Canadian Standards Association to approve them for the consumer market. To this day my Mom still has a hot dog maker that he designed and had approved but never made it into commercial use. It was this compact plastic box with a lift-up lid featuring two parallel rows of metallic spikes that allowed you to jab each end of the hot dog in so they sat arch-like. The spikes heated up and cooked the dogs in about five minutes. No muss, no fuss and no need for BBQ fluid or boiling pans of water. Dad also invented the first annoying alarm to let you know that you’d accidentally left your car headlights on. He created half a dozen of these speakers-in-a-box in our apartment kitchen using Silly Putty for molds and melting polyethylene plastics in a pot on our stove top. He made half a dozen of these things and gave them away to car owners in our building…for free…just because he could. It would take two decades for this technology to be standard in North American automobiles. He could have been a millionaire – but selling them wasn’t why he did it. He just loved to make stuff that worked and he could share with people.

To that end he built me the two greatest possessions I ever owned – a turntable that was MacGuyver’d from old discarded stereo parts. A normal component set during that period included a power source or radio ‘receiver’, the turntable to spin vinyl records and speakers. Dad managed to put the power source and receiver INSIDE the turntable casing along with self-contained volume and tone settings plus a headphone jack. I had my own private listening centre in my bedroom that I could use with headphones or speakers while lying in bed reading books or doing homework. This was no mono-speaker portable flip top kid’s system like teenagers used back in the ‘60s…mine was a junior version of the stereo console models families had in their dens and living rooms.

The other item he built for me was a giant train set not unlike the one Gomez Adams would destroy every episode of ‘The Addams Family’ TV show. This massive table occupied half of my tiny apartment bedroom…and it could be folded up and stored when not in use. Dad rigged up an 8ft. piece of plywood, cut it in half, stuck hinges on it and built a frame that supported it on 3 ½ foot wooden legs featuring Sheppard Castors (remember those) to wheel it around in the room [I would recreate the table for my own son 30 years later]. I was the immediate envy of all my friends except, maybe, Colin who had himself a Toronto Star paper route and owned the greatest G.I. Joe collection that money could buy. We all had G.I. Joes and Big Jim Sports Campers, but Colin had the Smithsonian Institute of collections – probably worth thousands in today’s retro toy market. I believe my own talking G.I. Joe (“I’ve got a tough assignment for you!”) met its end one day as we tested Newton’s Theory of Gravity from a tenth floor stairwell window of the apartment building. I’m here to say that gravity does, indeed, work as described. Smart guy that Sir Isaac Newton.

But we weren’t greedy or snobbish about our toys. There was a trust and everyone shared and played along (unlike one traumatic early event that predates my life in this particular apartment building where two bullies stole an original Corgi Batmobile from me). Hot Wheels and Corgis and Dinky toys were still the preferred mobile toy of choice and the perfect place to play with our collective car dealerships was at the foot of the apartment’s in-ground swimming pool. The pool sat atop a grassy burm surrounded by the parking lot…at the bottom of the burm was a grassed in area that, when it rained, would flood the lower apartments on the first floor of the building. The side of the burm itself was eroded from years of rain and produced a most glorious dirt ‘cliff’ where we could build small communities for the imaginary owners of our luxury cars. I would often bring out my train set buildings and town fixtures to add authenticity to our dioramas. Half a popsicle stick was all we needed to scrape out suitable roads and superhighways to drive our vehicles on that expanded up to twenty feet around the bottom of the swimming pool area. Shame of it all is that we never took any pictures. In fact I don’t have photos of the train-set either – only a few split seconds of it on a Super 8 home movie reel that my Dad often made.

One summer we opined about using Dad’s camera to make our own James Bond action film. Dad scuttled the idea when we found out how much a roll of 10 minute Super 8 film cost. It was going to be called ‘The Executioner’. There was no plot but lots of rolling, diving and pretend shooting of bad guys. I was going to direct it and because Colin owned an authentic looking Luger toy gun he was to play James Bond. It never occurred to us that James Bond couldn’t be a kid whose lineage was from India. We never thought of things in terms of racial lines. We were all brothers and we stood together in our five-man group we affectionately called ‘The Barracudas’ – named as such because it was the coolest sports car on the market at the time and, well, we rode bikes that looked like choppers. We were the suburban equivalent to The Wild Ones. Gary was in and out of our little group over the course of those years because he and I used to fight. I can guarantee I was at fault for this. I don’t recall what we ever fought about but I know I was an attention seeking asshat even back in Grade 3 so I take full responsibility for having him ousted from the ‘gang’. But there was always a love there…as I’ve known him longer than Jim, Colin and Leonard.

Inevitably, that split led Jim and I to become closer. We were hellraisers and that would lead to its own set of conflicts – and punishment – from the parental units. Our first assignment as buddies was competing against Colin and Leonard in a soap-box, go cart challenge. Jim and I, in the true spirit of the competition spent the summer searching for junk to assemble into a workable ‘vehicle’. Jim’s Dad got us some wood. My Dad found some old shopping cart wheels. But when we went to reveal the karts for judging at the end of the summer Colin and Leonard had gone to the mat and had enlisted Leonard’s Dad and his access to a machine shop to build a wood paneled metal bullet on wheels. The damn thing had a steering wheel and a working friction break. It was the coolest go-kart ever. Jim and I were not impressed that they had gotten help. Truth was, we were jealous as hell. They won fair and square and we were sore losers.

We generally passed the time across the street at Cedarbrae Library reading the newest kids releases like ‘Redline 7100’, ‘Crossroads (a picture book of bizarre street signs) and standards like ‘Half Magic’ and ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’. They also brought in children’s entertainers and we’d ultimately get tossed out of the library after attacking these fine people with flying wads of black-cat bubble gum…which left tar stains on your clothes if it stuck to you. It’s interesting to note that pop star Lawrence Gowan’s Mom was the head librarian at the time and was most likely the one tossing us out on our asses every week.

Despite our delinquency, somehow Jim and I managed to get a part-time gig painting the apartment building for the landlord one weekend. It was $10 an hour. The superintendent handed us paint brushes and gallons of grey paint with the instructions that only the stairs and the landings between floors were to be painted. But when you hand a loaded painting utensil to a bunch of ten year-olds the paint was not going to limit itself to the floor. Needless to say, many of the walls required white-wash repainting as we left a trail of graffiti and hand prints on stairwell walls from the tenth down to the second floor. Surprisingly, the landlord still paid us.

Our favourite pastime was riding our bikes a few miles over to the Scarborough Golf Club to watch the trains fly by along the Lakeshore railway corridor. The level crossing there was, and still is, the biggest in the city and we always timed our visits so we were there to see the late lamented Rapido or Turbo trains rocket past at record speeds from Montreal to Toronto and back again. In our endless juvenile stupidity we’d place pennies on the tracks and watch trains squash them into copper wafers (something I tried again years later as a teenager which nearly put me and some future friends in Juvenile court). The train corridor also had a road-sized gravel path on the southside and if you followed it east to its logical conclusion it would empty out into the parking lot of Guildwood train station in the midst of the posh Guild Inn community. On one occasion while riding our bikes along this corridor – which is on CN Railway’s private property – we found ourselves being followed by a CN security car. We raced like hell pedaling as fast as our little legs could go so we wouldn’t get caught trespassing. We cleared the train station parking lot and had to make a quick decision as to how to get home – as our access back was being blocked by the security cruiser. We barreled down a side street and as we raced up a driveway entrance to get onto a sidewalk the back wheel of my bike slid on some loose gravel and I went down – knees and elbows first. I yelled for Jim who was ahead of me and as he helped pull me up from underneath the wreckage of my once beautiful 10 speed, I noticed blood gushing out of my knee. Great. Wrecked bike. Wrecked body. Mom and Dad were going to kill me when I had to explain this. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. A neighbour intercepted us when we got back to the apartment and patched up my knee. She then phoned my Mom and explained that I’d had a fall on my bike and to come and get me. Dodged that bullet and the inevitable punishment for leaving the confines of the apartment property.

Alas, I wasn’t so lucky the day we were playing road hockey beside the Esso station at Lawrence & Markham. In what was a typical game of summer ball hockey I mistakenly stood behind a buddy who was winding up for a slap shot and his stick took out my front tooth. I started crying – not from pain or the gallons of blood gushing from my face, but because I realized instantly that my parents would ground me at best or kill me at worst. I was right. Mom freaked out. She immediately called my Dad to come home from work. Through a friend’s dentist they had me in getting an emergency cap put on it within a few hours – from a guy that worked in the same building that occupied the parking lot where the accident happened (how ironic). Through this accident he became my dentist for life – well until the tooth fell off again in 2003 and he refused to fix it for less than $1700. Needless to say, my parents paid for that little ‘accident’ for years.

Then there was the ‘football’ incident. The grassy area below the swimming pool wasn’t big enough to play games as there were two giant ventilation fans in raised bricked chimneys that stuck out of the ground at inconvenient intervals to help remove the carbon dioxide from the underground garage below it. So, we would throw Frisbees and play football on the lawn that was on the eastside of the building…which happened infrequently because none of the parents could watch us from balconies there. During a particularly memorable scrimmage amongst ten or twelve older kids, I managed to catch a ball and began to run it back to the imaginary goal line with mini-legs of fury (I was a first place sprinter at school track and field days). Before I could complete the play, I was tripped by someone and landed, ass first against the only object near the play area – a fire hydrant. It kind of hurt a little but the adrenalin was pumping and I was excited to finish the game because my team was actually winning. When we’d finally been called back by one of the parents who was sent to check on us someone noticed blood on the back of my leg. And on my other leg. And on my pants. And on my shirt and all over my hands. I had failed to notice a two-inch gash and glass pieces of a broken pop bottle sticking out of my left buttock. I was soon at the emergency room of Centennary hospital having shards removed with tweezers from a giggling resident. My folks were decidedly unamused…again. They somehow blamed it all on Jim and I think they stopped me from hanging out with him for awhile.

It didn’t matter – we’d just get into trouble at school instead. Looking at my report cards from grades 4 and 5 the comments were the same: “Jaimie is an amusing young lad…but he needs to focus more”. It’s because Jim and I sat at the back of the class plotting every kind of public outburst or distraction. One of our teachers was smart enough to see we were a handful and offered to allow us to do our ‘stand up’ routines once a week just to let us blow off steam – and therefore, not disrupt class. The most popular of these was him and I re-enacting the lyrics to popular songs. We managed pantomime versions of tunes from K-Tel’s “Wacky Weirdos” album like ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’, ‘Flying Purple People Eater’, ‘The Witch Doctor” and my personal favourite – “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron”. I don’t know where he got it from, but Jim managed to get his hands on a WW2 flying helmet with the goggles exactly like the one Snoopy wears in the ‘Peanuts’ cartoons. The climax of the skit was having him fall off a stacked set of desks after I, Baron Von Richthofen, would shoot him out of the sky. The teacher soon regretted giving us this freeform ‘outlet’ the day we attempted to re-enact Benny Bell’s profanity censored comedy song “Shaving Cream”. Baron VS Beagle

Things weren’t always mayhem and destruction. Oh, who am I kidding…yes, they were. There was the inevitable bike crashes – Jim, f’rinstance, once bounced his head off a jutting wall cornice while riding his bike to the elevator on the first floor of the apartment – and one of us was always getting a wooden swing in the head or falling off the metal monkey bars in the asphalt paved playground (!!!). The idea of helmets was a foreign concept back then. We almost lost one or two kids during a trench cave-in when Shoe World built a new store beside the Stuart’s furniture store. But the most fun that danger could buy was always at the swimming pool. It was pretty serene most days when the pool was filled with half the building’s tenants – basking in the sun, cranking up the tunes and cooling off from the pre-Global Warming sun. But occasionally it was just a hoard of us pre-tweens keeping ourselves amused by acting out scenes from our favourite movies as we flung ourselves off the diving board. Alas, our poor buddy Sven decided to try a full-bodied flip – where he came back around and connected the diving board to his head. I seem to recall there being blood and the pool had to be evacuated and cleaned. Still, he lived to tell the tale.

That chapter of my life finally came to an end in 1975 when my family bought a house and moved to Malvern in the northern part of Scarborough. The gang would attempt to stay in touch as we took turns riding our bikes back and forth to pay visits. But when the warm weather turned to winter the trips ended and we said our eventual goodbyes to misspent youth and hello to middle school. I remained in touch with Gary over the years as our parents continued to socialize. He became a paramedic and is a true life hero that flies in those emergency helicopters that assist at highway car accidents; Colin and I accidently bumped into each other at the end of the ‘80s when I was working for the City of Scarborough Works Department. Our office was located in the massive towers at Consillium Place across from the Scarborough Town Centre and he was an executive for Prudential Insurance. Our two buildings shared an atrium and we started meeting regularly for coffees. We lost touch after I took a new job at the Civic Centre across the street. Years later, on a fluke, his kids began taking music lessons with my sister-in-law whom I played in a band with. He knew where Jim was and so we slowly rekindled our friendships and managed to come out and see my band play; Finally, Leonard may have gotten the final laugh as we’ve found out in recent years that he’s a North American Texas Hold ‘em poker champ and is living off the avails of his ongoing winnings. Sadly, it may take the passing of Jim’s Dad to reunite this whole group of time-connected friends. To be continued…

Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com

3 Responses to “JAIMIE VERNON – CHILDHOOD: THE BEST YEARS OF MY LIFE”

  1. I think this childhood memoir is similar to many who grew up in the sixties. Lots of mayhem and GI Joes. It’s a wonder we survived. One of my friends told us what the ingredients to gunpowder were and we spent a lot of time trying to blow things up. What the hell was I thinking? Suffice to say there was a lot of freedom back in the day, and our elders were feared and respected.

  2. It makes me wonder where the idea of flattening pennies on the railroad tracks got its legs. We did the same in a small town in Oregon, but the trains came by slowly pulling open cars of giant firs, so there was no danger to the trains. I am amazed how many rites of passage were shared by children of even isolated areas, though.

  3. Robin,
    Oh…yes…the cherry bomb firecrackers and pop gun caps. Completely forgot blowing shit up! 🙂

    Frank,
    I believe the simultaneous evolution of all children and their activities stems from one common element – boredom. As I say to my own kids: you gotta make your own fun!

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