Kids with Coca-Cola, 1959. Photo courtesy Jill Mandrake.
When Ronny was in grade 8, his teacher wrote on his report card: “Ronald has lost interest in everything except girls and Elvis Presley."
I. WE CALLED IT THE MERRY-GO-ROUND
A classic piece of playground equipment stood near the primary wing: a circular platform that revolved when enough of us kids pushed. In order to get on board you had to take a running jump.
At lunchtime, that thing was more crowded than the school bus. We’d play a game where one kid was the conductor. He’d holler, “Where to?” and someone else would answer, “Chilliwack” or “Calgary” or “the Ponderosa.” We’d push that merry-go-round till everyone agreed we’d arrived.
One day a girl answered, “Texaco!” No one made fun of her, even though most of us knew she couldn’t have meant the gas station. The weather must have been sweltering that day because her cheeks were flushed. “Okay, we’re going to Texaco,” said the conductor. We began spinning around faster than ever before. The girl who’d said “Texaco” flew off and was partially dragged under the revolving floor.
This was the first time I’d heard someone cry “Mummy, Mummy” when in danger. I didn’t know kids really said that. The conductor and his friends managed to bring the merry-go-round to a halt before the girl had hollered “Mummy” more than three or four times. She got back on as though nothing in the world had happened, and we all went someplace new.
The conductor that day was a kid called Greg. In class that afternoon, Miss Tudor caught Greg eating his sandwich when he thought no one was looking. She got the strap out from her desk, took Greg to the cloakroom and hit him with it. The strap was a classic piece of teacher’s equipment; black leather with a red pinstripe down the middle. It had the same design as the red racer snakes we’d see on the way home. The red racer isn’t poisonous.
II. RONNY'S REPORT CARD
When Ronny was in grade 8, he was afraid to bring his report card home. His teacher, Mr. McMurray, had written in the comments section: “Ronald has lost interest in everything except girls and Elvis Presley.” If McMurray had taught Ronny the following year, he would have written: “Ronald has lost interest in everything except girls and the Beatles,” but this was the year before the Beatles played Empire Stadium.
When Ronny handed his report card over to Mum, she read McMurray’s comments out loud in a disgusted voice: “ . . . girls and Elvis Presley.”
“Nah, that’s not true,” Ronny muttered, before he was sent to his room.
Later that evening, I was listening to my radio and one of Ronny’s favourite songs came on. It was a lesser-known Presley tune, with a rollicking, uplifting refrain: “I gotta know, gotta know, gotta know.”
Ronny’s room was next to mine and I wanted to cheer him up, so I cranked the volume as loud as it would go. The volume wasn’t loud, but laughably feeble, if you compare it to what’s playing now.
III. SNACK BAR AT THE DRIVE-IN
On Labour Day when I was eight years old, I wondered why the teenage tough guy would not go back to school for another lousy year. He didn’t answer the question; he only gave half a shrug. He wore a leather jacket with cracks in it, as though he’d spent a lot of time in the rain. Craven M tobacco smoke blew from both his nostrils.
He was ahead of me in the queue-up at the drive-in snack bar. Another guy in a leather jacket, with his girlfriend tagging along, shoved ahead of me and said, “Brent, are you going back to school tomorrow?”
“Did you pass?”
“Then why not go back for another lousy year?” His friend tried to sound nonchalant, but I could tell he was disappointed.
The man behind the snack bar, wearing the sort of chef’s toque you rarely see any more, leaned over and asked me what I wanted. I wanted a candy bar that I’d had only once, and couldn’t think of its name. I gave half a shrug, in complete imitation of the teenage tough guy. I later discovered, when asking around, that what I’d wanted was an Eat-More.
Why did all five of us pile into the car, just to go to the store for milk, eggs and bread, and maybe butter? Dad said, “We’re out of milk, eggs and bread, and we’re low on butter.” Mum was away somewhere that day. Dad got in the car, followed by me, Grampa, my brother Ronny and my friend Henry. The ride was bumpy for half a block. Dad stopped the car and got out. “Flat tire in the front,” he said. Then Grampa, Ronny, Henry and I got out and stood around while Dad got busy. He bent over the trunk. A few drops of rain fell. “This spare tire is for some other car,” Dad shouted.
Two girls and a boy from my school were walking past. The boy, who was extremely popular, looked in our direction and groaned. Then he smirked. The two girls, who were almost as popular as the boy, didn’t look at us. One of them was casually swinging a transistor radio. The music wafting in our direction was “Yes, I’m Ready” by Barbara Mason. Ooh, I loved that song. It took a painfully long time for the three kids to walk past, as though I were dreaming them.
Then I guess the car was pushed back to our driveway. I wouldn’t have been required to push, being a girl. Henry wouldn’t have been required to push, being so young, but he would have wanted to. Grampa wouldn’t have had to push because he was frail. Dad would have said, “Oh no, Frank, you don’t have to push.” He might have even said that to Ronny, too, just to be nice. We would have all jumped in and lent a hand anyway, pushing it home.