The Sounds and Colours of Home

The memories cascade quickly, bringing snapshots crisply into focus; flooding the conscience mind with amazing details of people and places and activities of so long ago. How old was I then in the remembered days of Spruce Grove? Ten? And what was I in the days of Inglewood? I think in Grade One, maybe younger.

I had opportunity the other week to drive slowly past a couple of places where we used to live when I was a kid. I was in the neighbourhood, as the saying goes. One was the west-central neighbourhood of Inglewood here in River City (aka YEG, aka McDavidville), and the other was B-Land in Spruce Grove, where all streets and avenue names begin with a B.

The Colours of the Bungalow in B-Land

Our home in B-Land was the House That Dad Built at 21 Beverly Avenue in 1972. Back then, Spruce Grove was a small town of 3320 residents, and the Bos family was among the early wave of migrants from Edmonton: young families looking for better housing prices outside the big city. Only two years before we set down new roots, the Grove was a sleepy little town of 1110 people. The 2016 city census shows that growth marched on over time, and now 33,640 people now calling Spruce Grove home.

Chez Bos was a nice bungalow, boasting bright white wood siding and contrasting black trim. With a long front driveway and a large bay window, it stood proud alongside its peers of shiny new homes in the new subdivision. Inside, our home flaunted the loud colours of that era. Deep Hunter Green broadloom was underfoot from the front door through a wide open area and down the hallway to the two bedrooms on the backside of the house. At the front of the house was the master bedroom — a term the 10 year old Ron didn’t know. Thepainter-palette room was known simply as Mom’s and Dad’s room, the one We Are Never To Go In! But sometimes I did go in, walking gingerly over the bright, bright red carpet as if walking normally would leave behind evidence of my sneaking. Sometimes I went in looking for treats Mom had hidden there somewhere. Sometimes I went in just to snoop, looking for reasons why We Are Never To Go In! And all the time, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, I went in looking for the presents that were always hidden in the closet.

Those forays into forbidden territory were thrilling to me, and the ginger steps were only part of it. Adrenaline rushed through my system and my heart hammered, amplified in my ears, because there was always a chance Mom and Dad would come home early and there I’d be: caught red-handed, standing frozen with blood on my hands on all that red carpet. And so I’d poke and prod, peek and putter, looking high and low and in and out. But slowly. So slowly. Because everything had to be left…just…so. Just exactly how it was before the adventure began.

Over in the living room, long plush shag carpeting welcomed your feet, which sank in this soft sea of burnt orange. If you vacuumed it with care and purpose, the power brush left an orderly mosaic of intersecting parallel sections of brightness and shadow. After admiring this handiwork for a moment, out came the carpet rake from the broom closet. Then, working backwards out of the room, the shag would be raked until the task was finished and all the eye could see was a perfect, unspoiled sea of orange tranquility.

The Sounds of the Home in Inglewood

It would always tick when it was getting ready. Tick tick tick tick. Mysterious sounds to my little brother and me from the dull grey monster that lived in our basement. The big, bad gravity furnace, which took ownership of its habitat every evening when shadows fell from sound-waveits web of duct work. Up close in the dark, it was a brooding beast that whispered warnings to little boys: stay away! Tick tick tick tick! But upstairs in our bedroom, far from its darkly veiled threats and shadowy appendages, the gravity furnace was a distant friend on cold winter nights. We would take turns sitting over the floor grate in our room, with a blanket over our heads to trap in the rising heat. And when the heating cycle would end, we could hear faintly the ticking beast. But in our room on the second storey far from the clutches of the beast, it seemed no longer angry and the ticking  turned into a gentle whisper: sleep tight boys. Tick tick tick tick.

There was not a lot of talking, let alone whispering, at the dinner table in our home in Inglewood. It was a rule: no talking at the dinner table. Not just a rule but a Dad Rule. You could ignore or disobey a rule now and then, but ignoring a Dad Rule was generally not good planning because there would be real consequences. (In case you’re wondering, We Are Never To Go In! was a Mom rule.) And so for the most part, the sounds at dinnertime were mostly the clinking of cutlery, the general ambiance of eating, and sometimes the dry heaves from my sister Estelle as she gagged on her detested green beans. But every once in a while, the school day had something particularly interesting to share, and excited snatches of conversation would sprinkle the air. For a minute or two, maybe, and then the command would interrupt: “OK now. Eat.” Translation: shut up and focus on your plate. End of conversation. I look back now and wonder why. But back then, that was just life and that was just how it was. We didn’t know any better.

Yes indeed. That’s where so many memories are, too. Tucked away neatly in the treasure chests of our minds until we open them anew.

Who are you, River City?

I was chatting with my favourite eldest son, the Boy Without a Truck, the other day about
River City sports teams. How our keynote pro teams had monikers linked to the city’s heritage and its relationship to black gold. We cited the usual: Edmonton Oilers, the original Edmonton Oil Kings and – let’s do it again: the Oil Kings of modern era with their gaudy awful busy uniforms. Professional soccer’s Edmonton Drillers.

If it isn’t a squishy warm feeling about oil then we tend to reach a little deeper for team names that tie it to our city and our collective identity. Think of the Edmonton Eskimos. Visions of brutal arctic cold, isolation and seal blubber. Nice. But we have dug even deeper that that. When the Pacific Coast League of Triple A baseball was alive and well in River City years ago, Ron Kittle was routinely smashing round-baggers out of TELUS Field as a member of the Edmonton Trappers. No oil ties there but the logo featured a good old Fort Edmonton-era trapper guy. In snowshoes. How cutely Canadian, eh? How nice.

An aside: did you know River City has a pro basketball team called the Edmonton Energy? I had no idea. Apparently the NRG (yes, I’m afraid they use that – acronyms are still tres chic) play in the International Basketball League. Never heard of the IBL either but with teams in who-knows-where places like Yamhill and Edmonton, I’m guessing it ain’t quite the NBA.

But my chat with the Boy Without a Truck moved from identifying River City’s sports teams to trying to identify Edmonton’s identity. Who are we as a city? What defines us? What are we all about? Canadian writer Mordecai Richler once wrote that if Canada was a house, Edmonton was a lock as the boiler room. Oh Monsieur Richler, that is a little harsh, n’est ce pas?

The truth is though, me and the BWAT couldn’t put our fingers on a strong identity. We thought of our city’s green emerald, the river valley that runs through it. It and the psyche it shares with Canada’s national parks: Don’t touch us and don’t enjoy us – just look and be awed! But we thought, if that’s our identity, what would we call our sports team? The Edmonton River Valleys? The Rivermen? The River City North Saskers? Nuthin’ really rolled off our tongues although we thought logos of big, burly hairy-chested sailors might has some broad appeal.

We settled next on our city’s strong history of volunteers. Edmonton has a proud heritage of hosting big events with amazing volunteerism: the Commonwealth Games, Universiade, the NHL’s first-ever outdoor game in the modern era, the Canadian Women’s Open, the World’s Men’s Curling Championships, FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada, and a host of other international events. Aha! We are the Edmonton Volunteers, hear us roar! Um, well…that’s kind of lame, we agreed.

But wait, BWAT says, wagging an index finger in the air like an old friend of mine used to do: we have West Edmonton Mall. And then we share the typical non-tourist reaction to anything WEM-ish: a long, pronounced groan. What then our next big sports team? The River City Mallers? More groans.

Edmonton’s famous for summer festivals. Perhaps a natural sports team name might be the River City Festivals. Kind of falls short, doesn’t it? We thought maybe if we were a francophone community, we could be the River City Festivales, complete with french pronunciation. Don’t you think our friend Mord would approve?

So, grasping now at straws, we talked about names and identities completely fictional – names that mean little but sound cool. Hey, if the Northern Alberta Institute for Technology (NAIT) hockey team can call itself the Ookpiks, or Ooks for short, why couldn’t a pro team do similar? The Edmonton Niskus certainly has a ring to it. Or maybe, with a nod to our roadway heritage, the River City Roundabouts.

No?

Well then, who in the world are we? Are we nothing more than a cold northern Canadian city with past and current ties mostly to the black stuff in the ground? Tough to say.

What might be telling is the open contest Edmonton Northlands is running. (Sheesh, “northlands”; there’s that hinterland outpost reference again.) The Name Your Fair Contest. Seems its former name, Capital Ex, was deemed a little weak. Maybe River City denizens will be able to come up with a fair name that links it with who we are as a community. A name that says: this is us!

BWAT and I fell short. And Boiler Room, grit n’ all, is still a little harsh.

The Return of the Mosquitoes

Soon to be an MMXer?

Like a plague, they’ve returned to River City: billions of mosquitoes. They’ve come back with a hunger not seen since the 1970’s.

Before this year, the Year of Many Rains, River City residents have enjoyed three decades of relative freedom from mosquitoes. City crews here and all across the prairies along with years of drought-like conditions had virtually wiped out the needle-nosed pests. Indeed, it was generally believed that mosquitoes were extinct across western Canada save for a particularly hostile strain in Winnipeg. There, the so-called Mutant MXquitoes (or MMXers) began as thugs that deftly bit chunks out of people’s arms before sitting down in trees to chow down. Before long, they were swooping down in hunting formation to carry off Chitzous, Pomeranians, Chihuahuas, and other rodent-dogs. In time, growing ever stronger and more and more militant, the MMXers took on the Teamsters, took control, and banished them to other burgs. Today, the MMXers control Winnipeg Transit and the powerful City of Winnipeg Water and Waste Department.

Although publicly presenting a confident front, behind closed doors River City authorities fear the worst: that the billions of mosquitioes now dining on local yokels are a whole new breed with genetic links to Winnipeg’s MMXers. One factor driving that unease is that River City’s 2011 mosquitoes are proving highly resilient to insecticide. One senior City Parks and Recreation Department official suggested they’re not just resistant to the spraying that’s been done in and around River City, they seem to be thriving on it. The more the city sprays, the more mosquitoes are in the skies and on the prowl. No longer are they aggressive only at dusk — now they’re on the hunt 24/7.

This week, city and provincial biologists and scientists are huddled in emergency meetings to design and develop a Plan C. And fast! Plan A was the historic, tried-and-true insecticide spraying of all standing-water sites in the River City capital region. In 2011, this has been a colossal, epic fail. Plan B was a brilliant new strategy in which one million ravenous dragonflies were imported from their native Draconia to ingest the mosquito plague here in River City. In June, this transport was hailed as the single largest orchestrated movement of dragonflies in world history. Children clapped, women shed tears of joy, men turned aside to blink away shiny eyes. Mayor Mandel wet his pants when President Obama called to congratulate him. But as brilliant as the strategy first appeared, the back-slapping ended with annihilation by a sky full of mosquitoes in a massive, silent strike that darkened the sun. It was a devastating and sobering loss of every single dragonfly squadron. The scenic river valley remains littered with hundreds of thousands of dead dragonflies — their dry husks blowing about in the cool breeze like so much chaff. It is to weep.

While officials desparately seek new strageties and new tactics to combat the mosquitoes in the Year of Many Rains, River City denizens try to live their lives as normally as they can. But it is a different year, a trying year, perhaps even a dangerous year, and the signs are everywhere. Deep Woods Off and other repellants cannot be found on any store shelf although a thriving black market has opened with unscrupulous souls selling watered down repellent at obscene prices. Still, people are buying it when they can. Off factories in Brantford, Ontario and Racine, Wisconsin are running round-the-clock shifts.

People in River City move about in hurried, spooked trots, seeking to get indoors as soon as possible. Mosquito head nets are in vogue and trench coats are popular. A local rock band, Whitemud Drive, has just released a new hit, Slap Slap Itch Itch. NOW 102.3 plays it incessantly and when people hear it, they bounce to the catchy beat and smile ruefully. It is all the buzz.

But always, reality is but a street light standard away. It is around these poles that black clouds of mosquitoes congregate….communicating, planning which humans to capture in their collective crosshairs. And so life goes on darkly and grimly in River City.

And yet, there is hope. It is soon to be August and then people will smell the cleansing snows of the Great Winter in the air.

Pray that the snows will not come too late.

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River City drivers: from bad to worse

Image via Wikipedia

In all the cities I’ve driven in, I think the drivers in Edmonton are the worst.

Everyday I find myself muttering about some dufus chasing a stale yellow to left-turn on a blatant red. Everyday, I yell at some clown that’s completely forgotten why his turn signal lever was invented. Everyday I gesture madly at some blondie texting behind the wheel.The Bos Lady thinks I have developed anger management problems. I think simply that River City drivers are causing personal meltdowns.

Maybe I’ll move to BC’s lower mainland. At least they’re only lousy drivers when it snows.