the story continues.....
For those who have read the book, (available at the Greater Vicoria Public Library and at the University of Victoria Library) this is a continuation of our family history....our first years of adjusting to, and building a life in, Canada.
A work in progress.......photos will be added from time to time.
If you happen to know any of the individuals named in the story, or have more information about them, feel free to contact me on the BLOG page.
For those who have read the book, (available at the Greater Vicoria Public Library and at the University of Victoria Library) this is a continuation of our family history....our first years of adjusting to, and building a life in, Canada.
A work in progress.......photos will be added from time to time.
If you happen to know any of the individuals named in the story, or have more information about them, feel free to contact me on the BLOG page.
Sequel to the book "A RIVER OF ORANGES" Order the book here.
The owners of the house at 810 Red River Road, our first Canadian address, were Mr. and Mrs. Bazdarich. As a young, married couple, they had emigrated from Yugoslavia in the 1930s. The hard working Mr. Bazdarich prospered and started his own business, Mike’s Construction, which he ran from the house. Mrs. Bazdarich was happy in her role of housewife and mother; her son Eddy was “the apple of her eye.”
Our first Christmas in Canada had a bittersweet quality. We missed our relatives in Italy and the aspects of Christmas that were of a religious nature but we also loved the “American” Christmas of commercialism: the presents, the extravagant store-window displays and the myriad of lights. The cold and the snow made it even more enjoyable. We loved our first Christmas tree in Canada, one that my father cut down in the dense bush not far from our house. He also brought home several strings of multi-coloured lights along with boxes of glass ornaments while I, with my allowance, came home with a number of white plastic glow-in-the-dark icicles. All of these new-found Christmas ornaments and lights helped to brighten our cramped quarters.
Christmas 1953 - wich Diana Strani
Mrs. Babudro with Livia and Ferruccio
L: Mrs. Babudro - R: Livia - Standing R:Dante Sdraulig
Wally & 1949 Chrysler - 13 Rowan Ave. - 1956
Wyoming in 1953 Ford - July 1958
Vlado, Piccina & Aldo - Lake Superior - 1957
Len Morris & Aldo
On the aircraft carrier Kearsarge - San Diego - 1958
Len Morris - Aldo
Wayfarer's Church - Palos Altos Ca. July 1958
The same church 56 years later - with my friend Richard Williams - 2014
Ibi and Stelio - 1957
My brothers and I had no problem adjusting to the brutal, prolonged cold of Northern Ontario. We dressed warmly and enjoyed the novelty of wearing earmuffs, mitts, parkas and “long johns,” long underwear with flaps in the back. The wood burning stove kept our attic flat warm. At night, my father stoked the fire with coal and an electric cone heater was used on extremely cold nights to prevent the room from becoming icy. The clear, cold nights were incredibly beautiful. We experienced, for the first time, the spectacular display of northern lights. We had heard of the Aurora Borealis but, until the first winter in Port Arthur, we had never seen them. We stood in the freezing cold and stared in wonderment at these coloured, dancing lights as they swayed in the northern sky. The air seemed to have an electric charge to it and the lights seemed to give off an almost imperceptible hum.
In the fall of 1951, Dodo, (who, who by this time had evolved into Wally) injured himself severely. Attempting to emulate a hockey player, he ran back and forth in the back yard, maneuvering his newly found “hockey stick.” He tripped and fell on the stick and his belly received the brunt of the blow. The stick did not penetrate but left a very large bruise that, in the course of the next few days, grew into a large, multi-hued lump, the size of a fist. My mother was sick with worry and decided to seek medical help. The doctor was quick in giving his diagnosis. Wally had an abdominal hernia caused by the whooping-cough when he was an infant. The blow of the stick aggravated the condition; to make matters worse, a large tumor was forming. Within a week, Wally was operated on and was back to normal in no time. Those were the days before Medicare, and my father paid the hospital in installments. It was my job to take the money to the hospital office, usually on a bi-weekly basis, until it was paid in full. With my father’s hard work, and good earnings, it didn’t take long.
The Port Arthur and Fort William region was known by several names: The Lakehead, The Twin Cities, and Thunder Bay. On January 1, 1970, the city of Thunder Bay was formed, amid much controversy. The ballot choices given the voters were: Lakehead, The Lakehead, and Thunder Bay. The Lakehead names garnered nearly double the votes of “Thunder Bay” but because their votes were split almost evenly, “Thunder Bay” emerged the victor.
Winters in Thunder Bay were severe and we were not prepared for that extreme cold. Fortunately, my father was earning good money at the shipyards and was able to equip us with winter parkas, boots, gloves and other winter gear. He worked overtime most days of the week, to the point that, when he did not appear for supper, my mother worried that something had happened at work. One evening, when he did not arrive home for supper and it was getting close to eight o’clock, my mother sent me down to ask Mrs. Bazdarich if I could use her phone to call the shipyards. I went down to see our landlady and she pointed to the phone on her kitchen wall. It was the first time in my life that I ever used a telephone. I looked up the number in the phone book and proceeded to dial. I was puzzled as to my next move, because the line was completely silence. Seeing my look of consternation, Mrs. Bazdarich, with a kind smile, suggested that I should lift the receiver before dialing. When I finally reached the shipyard office I was told not to worry, as the last of the men had just left. My father was home on the next bus.
On a blindingly bright Sunday morning, Claudio, Wally & I ran out of the house to catch the bus to take us to Sunday Mass. My mother felt that she had enough faith and that God understood why she and my father didn’t go to church every Sunday. That is why they sent their children in their stead. I suspect that it was a welcome break from the children. As we came to the front of the house, we saw the bus was nearing our stop and ran for it. As we ran across the road, I was in the lead, with Claudio and Wally following me. That morning we made our acquaintance with black ice. As soon as we stepped onto the road, our feet went out from under us and, in rapid succession, we fell on our rear ends. We picked ourselves up and, gingerly, shuffled to the waiting bus and a bemused bus driver. From the bus, we could see Mrs. Bazdarich at the window laughing and waving at us.
The numerous outdoor skating rinks were one of the benefits of Thunder Bay’s extremely cold climate. Although Claudio and I were proficient roller skaters, this was our first experience with ice skates. We took to it very quickly and found skating outdoors in the clear, crisp, winter air, exhilarating. Claudio and Wally became proficient skaters. On occasion, we would have to rush home when the Castoria, a laxative that, for reasons unknown, my mother administered on a regular basis, took effect.
Within a few months of our arrival in Canada, Claudio, Wally, and I, almost simultaneously, contracted the measles, with Claudio the clear winner in the spots category. In those days, it was the custom to keep measles patients away from direct light and, for almost a week, the three of us were confined to our darkened attic room, making only occasional desperate dashes to the outhouse.
My father always had a soft spot for dogs but, because of our uncertain circumstances, we had not had a dog since Doro, in wartime Fiume. A co-worker offered my father one of a litter of pups and he gladly took it. It was female black and white shepherd type, which my father named Nelly. Nelly was a friendly enough dog, though definitely short on smarts. It was a frustrating trying to teach her simple commands, but we still enjoyed our time with her. Her major flaw was that she was terrified of thunderstorms that, in Thunder Bay, were frequent and violent. During a sustained thunder and lightning occurrence, Nelly, terrified, ran around the room in circles, whimpering while losing control of her bowels. My mother was relieved that, when we finally moved from Red River Road, the new landlord did not allow pets. My father found Nelly a new home with a co-worker.
We had never before experienced such violent thunderstorms. My mother was afraid of lightning and, whenever it occurred, she would utter a prayer to St. Simon and St. Barbara, protectors against thunder and lightning. On one occasion, an electrical spark zapped the magnet of the can opener fastened to the kitchen wall. There was a loud crackle and my mother screamed. After that incident, whenever a storm was brewing, she rushed to remove the can opener from its bracket and bury it under a sofa cushion.
Fall, in Thunder Bay, was a beautiful time. There was an endless variety of colour in the trees and the air was bracingly clean and crisp. Early in the fall, my father bought a Cooey .22 Calibre single shot rifle and was determined to go hunting. I was just as excited as he was and, in late October, we finally set off into the bush at the edge of town, looking for prey. It was a damp and cold day and, after hours of scouring the bush, we ended up empty-handed. The only catch of the day was an unlucky sparrow that I had spotted high up on a tree about twenty feet in front of us. I took aim and shot at the poor thing. It dropped to the ground only a few feet in front of me. I rushed over, picked it up in my hand and stared at the lifeless little body with profound sorrow. I put the little victim in my pocket and, when we returned home, buried it in the back yard. I never shot at another living thing again. My father was a little more successful and, on a few occasions, brought home the odd rabbit or grouse. My mother cooked them but my father was the only one who did not object to the wild taste, consequently, he was the only one who ate them.
A few years later, in our high school days, my friend Peter and I would go to the edge of town, along the McIntyre Creek, and practice our aim on inanimate objects. Unfortunately, for a hermit who lived in a shack along the river, one of those objects was a galvanized zinc pail hanging from a rope on a nearby tree. That pail proved too tempting a target and both of us shot holes through its bottom. One week later, when we returned to the scene, a brand new pail had replaced the old one. Peter and I looked at each other and, in unison, aimed and fired. We left and never returned. We never did see the hermit but I have often felt guilty about our senseless prank and hope that the hermit found it in his heart to forgive us.
Eddy Bazdarich, who was then in his early twenties, was a heavy set, jovial type. It was not surprising that he had a large circle of friends. My only friends were my classmates but our interactions were limited to school hours, a fact that did not escape Eddy’s notice. It felt good to be invited to a hayride that he and his friends had arranged.
On a cold, clear January evening, Eddy and I drove to a farm on the north side of town in his Mike’s Construction truck. There we were joined by six of Mike’s friends in a horse-drawn hay wagon. I was the youngest by far; the rest were all, like Mike, in their early twenties. My most vivid memory of that night, aside from the beauty of the snow in the moonlight, was the friendliness of those young adults.
At school, there was still the odd student who referred to us as “DPs” or “Goddam DPs,” a custom that would soon fade away. This group on the hayride was uniformly friendly and kind. They peppered me with questions about life in Italy and about how I was adjusting to life in Canada. Not long into the ride, Mike pulled out a mickey of Lemon Gin from his jacket pocket and passed it around. I would gladly have taken some, had it not been impressed on me by my parents that you never drank from someone else’s glass or, in this case, bottle. The young people didn’t mind my refusal and continued to have a good time, singing songs that were completely new to me. I loved those songs. They were sung by the Weavers - songs such as “On Top of Old Smokey” and “Goodnight Irene.”
A few months earlier, my father had bought a small table radio. It had been more than two years since we last heard one and it was a welcome addition. It was wonderful to hear the “American” music, so different from the music that we heard on Italian radio, and it was instrumental in helping us improve our English.
We were surprised at the tardiness of spring. In Italy, the first warmth of spring could be felt in March and, by April, the weather was at its most pleasant. In Thunder Bay, the first blades of grass appeared around the Victoria Day long weekend, on or about May 24th. The mountains of snow, plowed onto the sidewalks throughout the long winter, seemed to take forever to melt away. To make the landscape even bleaker, the dirt and sand plowed with the snow turned the banks into an ugly, dirty black mass.
Until my mother became familiar with the food available locally, our diet was the familiar one that served us well in the Italian camps. The main course consisted of canned meats: KLIK, SPAM, or corned beef, fried with eggs or potatoes. Our first shopping trip to the local grocery store, one block away and across the street, was a revelation. Canned foods of every description and variety were in abundance. The dairy counter, with their stacks of butter, cheeses, bottles of milk and cream, seemed like a dream to us.
Our first prized purchase was one pound of butter; never before had we bought butter in such quantity - we usually bought it in quantities of 100 grams. The moment we arrived home, my mother unwrapped the package of butter and quickly spread it onto the slices of bread. On taking the first bite, we immediately spat it out, almost in unison. It tasted awful. We had been used to the sweet, unsalted, European butter and it took us a few years to become accustomed to the salted, North American, variety.
After this episode my mother only used the butter for cooking.
Milk and bread were delivered by horse-drawn wagons that reminded us of Hollywood westerns. The milk was not homogenized and we literally fought with each other for the cream in the neck of the bottle. Shopping was very awkward, at first, because of the language barrier. My mother would not go to the local store; that was my task. Speaking not a word of English, she felt helpless in the small shops and would only go with me, by bus, to the downtown Safeway store. At this larger supermarket she felt more free to handle and look at the items and would rely on me to deal with the cashier.
Learning English, for Claudio and I, was a slow process at first. It was not until after we started school in September that we began to understand and be understood. Because we were Catholics, it was decided that Claudio and I attend the Catholic school of Corpus Christi, which was a much longer distance away from our house than the local public school. Communication with the principal, Sister Maria Christina, was mostly by hand gestures. Sister Christina was an imposing, statuesque, beautiful young woman, whose features were perfectly framed by her starched head covering.
Another welcome event was the arrival, in November, of another Italian family from Fiume, Mr. and Mrs. Babudro and their three children, Egidio, Ferruccio, and Livia. Egidio was three years older than his brother Ferruccio who was my age, and Livia was two years younger than me. They had rented a house two kilometres away from us, further out of town, in an area called Jumbo Gardens. We became good friends and spent many hours together.
When I moved to Toronto, in 1960, Livia was already married. On February 26, 1964, a radio news report told of a railway crossing accident in Port Arthur, where two people had been killed when their car was struck by a moving train. I wondered, at the time, whether it was someone I knew and, that evening, my mother telephoned me to inform me that the two people killed were Livia’s husband, Dante Sdraulig and Livia’s brother Ferruccio. The truck they were in, stalled at a railway crossing and was hit full-force by an oncoming train. Livia was a strong individual and that strength was apparent when a self assured Livia visited us after my parents had moved to Toronto. It was a welcome visit but it was also the last time that I saw Livia. She and two of her daughters died instantly in a fiery collision near Rochester, Minnesota. Livia’s surviving daughter, Liz Sdraulig, has written a moving and eloquent account on the following website.
In June of 1952, I graduated from Grade 6 and Claudio from Grade 2. After school ended that summer, my father decided that he could afford a better apartment and we were happy to move from Red River Road. Our new home was a basement apartment at 297 Spruce Crescent, in the Port Arthur suburb of Current River, in the east side of the city. It was a nice area, close to Boulevard Lake, the best swimming place in summer and, in winter, a boundless skating rink. Our new apartment had two bedrooms and, to our great joy, it had the luxuries of indoor plumbing and hot and cold running water. Another source of relief was that I no longer had to take long bus rides to the Fort William Sanatorium. One of the conditions applied to our immigrating to Canada was that, for the first year, I was to have X-Rays taken every three months to confirm that the spot in my lung was not active. On my final visit, I was told that the spot in question was a scar left by pleurisy, which I probably had as a child and was left undiagnosed. This meant that the delays, all the time spent in the sanatorium, countless X-Rays, and my feelings of guilt that I had held my family back from emigrating, were all for nought.
Our new school and the parish was that of St. Theresa, only a few blocks from our house. It was run with benign strictness by the Sisters of St. Joseph. My Grade seven teacher was Sister St. Paul, affectionately referred to by students as “my Sister Paul.” Sister St. Paul was a rather plain-looking woman in her late forties. She was a kind woman but one who would not tolerate nonsense or unruliness; I had both love and admiration for her. It may be because I was an immigrant that she showed extra kindness to me but, whatever the reason, we got along famously. In her eyes, I could do no wrong and, within a month of starting Grade 7, she placed me in Grade 8, which she also taught. Without a doubt, Sister St. Paul was one of the finest teachers I have ever had.
I found it surprising that, even in a Catholic school, one would encounter prejudice. This time, the prejudice was not directed towards the immigrants but rather at the native people. Three of the students were First Nations people but they were then called, indeed, they called themselves, Indians.
My first friends at St. Theresa’s were the Majors. Catherine, the eldest, a stunningly beautiful dark-haired girl, was in Grade 8. Her brother Joe was in Grade 7 and the youngest sister, Eva, who was blonde and the epitome of a tomboy, was in Grade 6. I had no idea that they were First Nations until I witnessed an incident during recess in the schoolyard that I found puzzling, and disturbing. After what looked like a minor altercation, I saw that Joe was upset and crying. Sister St. Paul, who was also in the schoolyard, went to him and asked why he was. He told her that one of the boys had called him an Indian bastard. Placing her hands on Joe’s shoulders, Sister St. Paul looked him in the eye and said “Pay no attention to any names an ignorant person may call you. You should be proud to be an Indian.” She then approached the culprits and directed them to her office. At recess, I spent most of my time with the Majors and, of all my classmates at St. Theresa’s, the Majors are the ones I remember most fondly. I met Joe many years later, by chance, in a Toronto subway station and, in the brief time we had together, he told me he was training to be a wrestler.
We spent only one winter on Spruce Crescent but it was a memorable one. It seemed that the entire winter was spent skating. Boulevard Lake was formed when a dam was constructed to contain the Current River. In winter it froze over and became the largest skating ring I’d ever seen. After a snowfall, the surface of the lake was plowed and one could skate the length and breadth of it. “Cracking the whip” was the most exhilarating experience. As many as a dozen people, in single file and holding hands, would start skating. The lead person started skating in a circle. This set the last person skating at an incredible speed and, when that speed reached an almost untenable rate, the outer person let go and was propelled into a long, free skate. This continued until everyone had been released from the “whip.”
Shortly before the Christmas holidays, Sister St. Paul sent the Grade 8 students to cut down a Christmas tree for the school. Saw in hand, we set off across the ice, to the far side of Boulevard Lake. On reaching the halfway point, we heard what sounded like a cannon shot. Startled by the sound, we stopped and, to our horror, saw a number of cracks appearing on the ice. Water started seeping from those cracks. Someone said “Don’t run, just slide.” Almost in unison, we turned around and started sliding and shuffling back. We made it back to shore safely, but without a Christmas tree.
In June of 1953, I graduated from Grade eight. The students gave a concert as part of the graduation ceremonies. The Grade 8 class, dressed as farmers, sang “Old Black Joe” and received enthusiastic applause. Sister St. Paul presented me with a $25 bursary from the Knights of Columbus. I was sad to say goodbye; within a year she was transferred to the mother house, St. Joseph’s Convent, in Jamestown, Ontario. We corresponded for the next five years and then lost touch. My parents were proud of me and happy that I would be going on to high school. I was the first person in our family, other than my paternal grandfather, to attain that goal. By nature, my father was critical and quick to find fault (a character flaw that I may have inherited, at least in part!). My graduation was one of the few occasions when he showed his approval of me. His dream was for me to take up his trade and that we would set up a plumbing business together; my dream was to become a teacher. In this respect, I felt I was always a disappointment to him; our relationship was polite, rather than warm.
Through his hard work and many hours of overtime, my father was able to earn enough money for a down payment on a small, older house in the Oliver Road section of Port Arthur, on the west side of town. He purchased the house from his barber for $1800. Rather than enter into a formal mortgage agreement, the barber let my father pay as he could. This informal arrangement worked to our advantage because it enabled my father to retire the loan early and obtain the deed to the property within three years.
13 ROWAN AVENUE
The moment we saw the house we knew why my father was able to buy it for roughly half the cost of the average house. The address was 13 Rowan Avenue, which was not a proper street, but was the unpaved back lane of Dalton Avenue. Ours was the only house on that “Avenue.” Even today, it does not appear on Google Maps. The house was approximately five hundred square feet and sheathed in dirty, greyish-white asbestos siding. Its two-foot high foundation was covered in gray Insulbrick. Built during the Great Depression, its walls were covered with dark, flowery wallpaper; every square inch of wall sported huge, garish, chrysanthemums. Although it was supplied with electric power, the house was not connected to the municipal sewer or water lines. The outhouse was roughly twenty-five feet from the back of the house. The well, on the south side of the house, was our only water supply. A hand pump, clamped to the kitchen sink, drained into a bucket.
The pump needed to be primed with each use. Despite these conditions, we loved the house on Rowan Avenue. It was the first house that we ever owned.
The wood-burning stove in the kitchen and an oil-burning space heater in the tiny living room were the only sources of heat. The space heater was very effective but it did have its drawbacks. One December morning, in the record cold winter of 1955, I returned home from the night shift at my Christmas holiday job at the Post Office, my mother greeted me at the door. I was shocked at her appearance. She looked like a white person in blackface at a minstrel show. The house was icy. That night the outside temperature had dipped to 42 below zero. Waking up to a cold house, my mother checked the heater and noticed the flame had gone out.
The repairman who showed up a few hours later, told us that, in extremely cold temperatures, the heater is deprived of oxygen and the flame smoulders. My mother, assuming that the fire had gone out, opened the door of the heater. The rush of fresh air ignited the fumes and the heater “exploded,” covering her, and most of the living room, with oily soot. By the time I arrived home, the outside temperature had warmed up to 35 below zero. The repairman, after some thorough scrubbing of the heat chamber, had no trouble restarting the fire. By that time, the indoor temperature had dipped to the freezing point. Fortunately, that space heater was extremely efficient and the house did not take long to warm up. Claudio and Wally slept through the entire ordeal. There were many days that winter when the high temperature for the day was 20 below zero.
My father missed all that excitement. The Port Arthur shipyards had shut down, some say for political reasons, by C.D.(What’s a million)Howe
Although our house was small, it stood on a huge lot, measuring 120 feet by 200 feet. The lot sloped gently onto a narrow creek and a beautiful stand of birch trees separated our property from that of the Oliver Road Community Centre. The Centre was a well used, active place throughout the year. Baseball, basketball and volleyball were played from spring to fall. In winter, we enjoyed the outdoor skating and curling rinks. One of the Centre’s most popular attractions was the Winter Carnival, held in late February. It was a noisy, festive occasion that attracted large crowds.
The main event was always the log-sawing contest. This contest attracted a number of professional lumberjacks but the winner, for two consecutive years, was an extremely heavy-set, good-natured woman whose frame put her well into the lumberjack category. Everyone knew her as “Carnival Annie.” It is possible that, having had the largest cheering section, Annie was spurred on to victory.
On repeating the triumph one year later, immediately after having run her saw through the log, like a knife through butter, she fainted dead away. A handful of snow on her face quickly revived her and Annie managed to down two beers in record time.
My father wasted no time in transforming the house. He bought most of the necessary tools from a second-hand dealer on Algoma Street. Unfortunately for me, the manner in which these tools were purchased caused me some of the worst embarrassment of my life. The dealer was of the Orthodox Jewish faith and my father used that knowledge to extract these tools from him at exorbitantly low prices. My father knew, from his early days, in apprenticeship servitude in Yugoslavia that, to an Eastern European Orthodox Jewish dealer, a sale to the first customer of the week was a must. Should the first customer leave the shop empty-handed, it would prove to be a disastrous week for business.
Armed with this folkloric “wisdom,” my father, with me in tow, set out early one Monday morning and walked the twenty minutes to the second hand shop on Algoma Street. We waited outside the shop until the door opened. The first time we walked in, my father took his time casing the shop carefully. After carefully having scanned the entire shop he began to slowly gather up a number of tools before making his way to what passed for a counter, at the back of the shop. I stood a safe distance from the action, pretending to be invisible. My father then offered the man a fraction of the asking price. The poor man was horrified and began to shout at my father, who was already making his way to the door knowing that the man would call him back. He did. The haggling then began in earnest. There was a lot of shouting back and forth, which made me feel very uncomfortable. Eventually, after much haggling, and just as much cursing, my father managed to extract the tools from the poor shopkeeper for less than half the asking price.
This same charade was repeated at least four or five times until the poor dealer had had enough, or perhaps my father already had all the tools that he needed. On our last Monday morning visit, after the transaction was completed the by-now-choleric dealer turned to my father and, in a growling, trembling voice said: “Get out of my store, you dirty Polack, and never come back.” My father, obviously surprised by this outburst turned to the shopkeeper and, with a contempt in his voice that I had not heard before, shot back: “Not dirty like you, you dirty Jew!” It was one of the most awkward moments of my life.
We never went back to that store, and I was glad I would never have to face such a scene again. My father remained anti-Semitic until the end of his life. He carried that early resentment to the end despite the fact that he was otherwise a very kind man and would have given the shirt off his back without hesitation.
It wasn’t long before we could see huge improvements in the old house. By the onset of winter, we had managed to dig a large enough hole, and poured concrete for the septic tank. We also dug a deep trench for the municipal water pipe. It was hard work but, at the same time, both satisfying and rewarding.
A plumber by trade, my father very quickly had the water pipes connected to the kitchen sink and to the toilet and shower stall in what used to be the back porch. We were glad to have running water but disappointed at the blandness of the taste, compared to that of our well water. It was also a most welcome luxury to finally have an indoor working toilet. Caution needed to be taken to prevent the septic tank from freezing, however, and to this end, a thick layer of fresh horse manure needed to be spread over the surface of the tank, a task that fell to my father and me.
That manure was the cause of Claudio almost losing his right eye. For a now forgotten reason, he and Wally, standing in the vicinity of the chicken coop, were taunting me. I stood near the pile of manure above the septic tank and, when I had had enough of their repeated mocking, I picked up a single ball of that manure and heaved it in their direction. To my horror, that chunk of horse dung landed squarely on Claude’s right eye. I rushed down to him, wiping the dung from his face and I shouted, in panic, “l’ocio, l’ocio” (his eye, his eye). At this commotion, my mother came rushing out of the house, took Claudio by the hand, led him to the house and proceeded to clear the muck from his eye. To our immense relief, he didn’t suffer an infection and no permanent harm was done to Claudio’s eye. We still talk about the incident with much laughter.
The attic insulation consisted of an eight-inch layer of wood chips and layers of old newspapers that were an extreme fire hazard. We replaced that potential hazard with fiberglass wool. The small shed at the edge of the creek was converted into a chicken coop. To that, we attached two rabbit hutches. My father bought six young chickens, mostly Rhode Island Reds, and a number of rabbits. This ensured that we would have a good supply of fresh eggs and, on occasion, a delicious meal of rabbit. My mother made an extraordinary rabbit stew and also a rabbit spaghetti sauce and, best of all, rabbit marinated in rosemary and oil and vinegar.
The rabbits bred at a rapid rate ensuring us a steady supply of fresh meat. Although he had no problem decapitating the chickens, my father was reluctant to kill the rabbits at first. It was our friend, Lino Strani, who took on that task until my father finally overcame his reluctance. Mr. Strani would not accept payment for the job but did, on occasion, take a rabbit as compensation. Mr. Strani was one of the men who also contracted, along with my father, to work in the woods of Northern Ontario.
Claudio, Wally and I had some misgivings about the rabbit killings. Although we did love the meat, each of us had a favourite rabbit and considered it a pet. By the following year we had all become adjusted to the routine of raising rabbits for the dual purpose of food and pets. We did not feel the same compassion for the chickens except for the time, in the coldest nights of winter, when even the heat lamp in the shed did not prevent the water from freezing solid and also freezing the chickens’ crests. On those occasions, my mother moved the chickens, overnight, into the dugout dirt basement to keep them from freezing. At the end of winter they, once again, had the run of the property and were the healthiest and plumpest chickens I have ever seen.
Our house was near a heavily wooded area and Claudio, Wally and I explored it often. On one of those outings, we happened upon a porcupine and quickly cornered it up a small tree. Claudio rushed home to fetch a laundry basket and we managed to capture it. The three of us brought the animal home triumphantly. My mother was amazed but was afraid to go near it. We did not harm the animal and, after observing and admiring it for a few hours, returned it to same spot where we captured it. We realized later how lucky we were to have escaped without a single quill stuck to our bodies.
Our neighbours, the O’Reillys, whose property on Dalton Avenue backed onto Rowan Ave, were the only “fly in the ointment.” Mr. O’Reilly was a burly, rude, drunk man whose two sons were the bullies of the neighbourhood. The eldest son was implicated in a rape-murder case and served time in jail. The younger son, Lawrence, who was Wally’s age, bullied Wally constantly. I was determined to put a stop to Lawrence’s aggressiveness and decided to discuss the matter with the O’Reillys. Early one evening, I made my way to their house and when Mr. O’Reilly came to the door he snarled, “Waddaya want?” I told him about Lawrence’s behaviour and that, if the boy could not be civil, to keep away from our house. Mr. O’Reilly, still standing menacingly outside his open door, turned around and shouted to Lawrence, who was inside the house, “I thought I told you to keep away from the DP’s house.” That was the only instance when I felt insulted and hurt by being called a DP. I don’t know what made me keep my cool, but I looked Mr. O’Reilly square in the eye and said, “Okay then, tell your son to keep away from the DP’s house and I’ll tell my brother to stay away from the bastards’ house.” He looked apoplectic. His face was now crimson red as he snarled, “Get the fuck out of here right now, you skinny little runt, before I turn you inside out with my bare hands.” For some reason, I was only mildly afraid but, as I turned to leave, I was relieved to hear his door slam shut.
One of my father’s co-workers at the shipyards had a dog that had recently given birth to a number of puppies and he offered one to my father for a very reasonable price. It was a West Highland Terrier/Pomeranian mix. My mother named him Teddy, possibly because, as a puppy, he did resemble a Teddy bear. He was so small that, in the winter, he fit snugly in the pocket of my parka when he was too tired, or too cold to walk. Teddy turned out to be one of the best toys we were ever given. He had boundless energy and delighted in bouncing about in the snow where he disappeared in the drifts. His other favourite pastime was to roll blissfully in the fresh horse dung that was left on the road by the Shaw Bread horse.
Two years later, Teddy disappeared and we gave him up as lost forever. Eight months after his disappearance, my mother had a dream where Teddy appeared and spoke to her. In the dream he told her that he was being held captive and that he would return as soon as he was able to free himself. The following week, to our utter amazement, he appeared on our doorstep, skinny, dirty, his fur so matted that most of it had to be cut off. We were glad to have him back and my mother’s prophetic dream made a lasting impression on all of us. Our cat Suzy was also happy to see him. The two of them were good friends. Suzy was named before anyone realized that “she” was actually a male, at which point my father quickly changed the cat’s name to Susanno.
The big event of 1953 was the purchase of our first car. Until that time, aside from streetcars and trains, the only vehicles I had ever been in were buses and army trucks. The car was a gray, 1949, Chrysler fluid-drive semi-automatic, built like a tank. My father taught me how to drive but it was not until the following year, when I completed a driver’s course offered free by our high school, that I earned my driver’s license.
My mother, who worked very hard keeping the house and the garden in order and looking after three boys, felt that she could do more to supplement the household income. Silk and nylon stockings were expensive in those days and a single run in them rendered them useless. Women of my mother’s generation never wore pants and they would not be seen in public without nylon stockings. To this end, my mother wrote to my aunt Livia, in Italy, asking her to send some stocking-mending needles. When they arrived, my mother was elated. Her first clients were her women friends who were happy with the way the stockings were restored to their like-new condition. I was fascinated watching my mother mend all those runs. She, very carefully, pulled the worn stocking over the open end of a glass tumbler and inserted the hooked needle into the bottom end of the run, lifting it, thread by thread, to the top, where it was hooked into place. The glass tumbler magnified the clicking sound of the spring-loaded needle and we would often fall sleep to that hollow sound. The stocking mending career did not last long; it came to an abrupt end when, in disgust, she realized that a pair of stockings belonging to the wife of one of my father’s co-workers, was unwashed and rather smelly. She never repaired anyone else’s stockings again.
Slowly, more and more Italian immigrants settled in the Port Arthur and Fort William area. A few of them were from Fiume and surroundings. Some of them we had met in the various refugee camps in Italy. Indeed, a number of the men had contracted to work in the same camps as my father.
Most of the men integrated easily into their various occupations but the move to Canada was particularly difficult for the women, the majority of whom were “housewives.” Most of these women had no other family around them and, therefore, felt isolated. My mother no longer had the comfort and the security of having the large Zupancich family around her for support.
These women felt quite alone so it was not surprising that they bonded so strongly with each other. Our house became the gathering place for most of the Fiuman, Dalmatian and Istrian immigrants in Port Arthur. My parents were well liked and respected. I remember fondly the many nights when our house was full of the energy of these new Italian immigrants. The laughter and the singing went on until late at night, and the wine flowed freely.
Close as these women were, they always addressed each other, as was the custom in Italy, in the formal second person, “lei,” rather than the familiar, “tu.” The same was true of the men. It was an unwritten rule that the familiar form of address was used only between childhood friends. A person addressing an older person in the familiar was considered a “maleducato” (ill educated). Similarly, a man always addressed a woman in the formal. The custom is more casual today. Adult friends, male or female, all use the familiar form.
Anna Strani, from the picturesque Istrian town of Pirano (now Piran), came to Canada, with her daughter Diana, to join her husband, Lino. We had met Mrs. Strani and Diana, briefly, at the Sant’Antonio camp, when they were trucked in from another camp, to sing at the Christmas concert. Both mother and daughter were blessed with beautiful singing voices. My mother was elated when Mrs. Strani made contact with her via the “Italian Grapevine.” Anna Strani never adjusted to Canada and always spoke longingly of her “Bella Italia.” She became thinner and thinner and was in ill health for several years. Anna was one of the kindest people I have ever met and I visited her often and our conversations always turned to music. She gave me a recording of “The Merry Widow,” which is still in my collection. After a number of years of ill health, she became addicted to painkillers. She died, of cancer, officially, in 1960; but I believe she died of nostalgia.
Margherita Gherbaz, from Fiume, a woman of boundless energy and good humour, became my mother’s closest friend. She had come to Port Arthur with her three children, Antonio, Franco, and Anna-Maria, to join her husband, Pietro Gherbaz. Before she married, Margherita found employment in Rome as a housekeeper to Pietro Mascagni, composer of the opera “Cavalleria Rusticana,” who was then in his eighties. She worshipped the man and always spoke of him with reverence. Margherita had a beautiful soprano voice and was often the soloist in the St. Anthony Church choir. Whenever the subject turned to music, without hesitation, she would announce that Mascagni’s “Hymn to the Sun” from his opera, “Iris,” was the most beautiful music ever composed.
In 1961, my mother and Margherita travelled to Toronto by train. My mother was coming to visit me, and my Uncle Stelio. Margherita continued, by bus, to New York, to visit her sister. Upon arriving at the New York Bus Terminal, she rushed to the nearest telephone to call her sister. When her sister answered the phone, Margherita excitedly blurted out, “I’m here. Come and get me,” then promptly hung up. It took her sister several hours to find her, having gone to the airport and the train station first before finally arriving at the bus terminal. Many years later, when my mother was ill with cancer, in Toronto, Margherita sent her a beautiful bust of the Madonna and Child that, after her death, my brothers gave to me. It is in my house today.
Erminia Dimini, also from Fiume, joined her husband, Vittorio, in Port Arthur in 1952. Like Anna and Margherita, Erminia was the epitome of kindness and warmth. She relocated to Toronto in 1958 with her husband Vittorio and their two children, Walter and Sandra. My parents followed in 1961. Soon after reconnecting in Toronto, my father and Vittorio began to have differences but my mother and Erminia remained life-long friends. Vittorio died of a heart attack in 1991 and Erminia succumbed to cancer in 1997.
Vittorio Dimini, who worked with the Royal Typewriter Company, was instrumental in me being hired by Royal. I worked with the company for 17 years and, although the wages were not great, it did give me the opportunity to transfer, first to Toronto and then to Vancouver, without the loss of wages or seniority.
When Anna Strani became ill, my mother temporarily took over her job as office cleaner at F.W. Fitzsimmons Co., the local food wholesaler. She worked at this job for several months until her friend’s short-lived recovery. I accompanied her to her work, after 7:00 pm and, while she mopped the floors and cleaned the toilets, I did the dusting and the cleaning of the telephone receiver with Dettol antiseptic. My mother enjoyed the work and was happy to earn the extra money.
I was able to contribute a little money to the household by finding work with the municipality during the high school summer vacations. The new recruits spent two-week shifts on new road construction, on clearing brush for new roads and, the worst job of all, two weeks on garbage collection. I always dreaded those two weeks. The stench in the July and August heat was overpowering. In the days before plastic garbage bags, all the refuse was thrown loose into galvanized cans. When the garbage cans were emptied into the truck, the bottoms were covered by a thick layer of squirming maggots. Some of the regular crew reached in with their gloved hands and scraped them out, while others simply left them squirming in the can. The real shock, however, was finding out that one of the duties of the garbage collection crew was to empty the outhouses used on the outlying construction sites. Thankfully, the regular crew took care of that and I was never handed a long-handled scoop. It was not surprising that, when we stopped for coffee or lunch, there were often a number of empty tables next to us. What surprised me the most was that these “veterans” of the garbage collection crew sat down to eat without washing their hands.
During the school year of 1954-55 I was employed as a pin setter at the local bowling alley. Surprisingly, it was not the tedious job that I thought it would be. One had to be quick on one’s feet and be able to jump out of the way of the scattering pins knocked down by a particularly fast ball. The pins were set perfectly when the setter stepped on a metal pedal that lifted five spikes from underneath the floor. The pins, with holes in the bottom, were then set on the spikes and the pedal released. A fair number of the bowlers were often quite drunk and it was not unusual to have one of them lob a ball down the alley while the pins were still being set.
Rowan Avenue was the first place where my father had the opportunity to make homemade wine. He became a master at it. We all joined in crushing the grapes by hand and, after the grapes had fermented, they were given to the chickens. They fought wildly over the grapes and very quickly became drunk. We all stood watching them stagger and fall, pick themselves up and stagger around again. That spectacle had us literally rolling on the ground, screaming with laughter.
While my father and I and, to some extent, even Claudio, were busy with the renovations of the house, my mother attacked the soil on the north side of the house and wasted no time in planting vegetables that, in the short growing season of Northern Ontario, managed to grow to maturity before the frost. This was our family’s first experience with gardening. The only other garden we ever had was in Via Monte Grappa, in Fiume, which Giuseppe tended almost single-handedly. Over the next few years, our garden on Rowan Avenue expanded to an area of 50 feet by 75 feet. It included a large potato patch, rows of green peas, beans, beets, and carrots. My mother was most proud of her dahlias which she grew in great abundance. Everyone was amazed at the size of the dahlia blooms; she truly did have a green thumb. She was at her happiest when she could cultivate her garden and grow all those magnificent flowers.
The move to Rowan Avenue did wonders for my mother who, having been confined to the basement apartment in Current River, a long distance from town and her friends, was now within walking distance of them. Her friends loved coming to visit because the huge property and the open space gave one the feeling of being in the country. The seemingly endless garden space kept her very active even though she, like my father, suffered from chronic lower back problems. Both of them, on at least two occasions each year, were bed-ridden for five days to a week in excruciating pain, unable to move. The only relief was derived from a foul-smelling liquid called Sloan’s Liniment. My father was convinced that the awful potion was some type of horse liniment. Another product on which my father relied, the name of which I cannot remember, was something that looked very much like fiberglass insulation. A patch of this product, measuring about eight inches by twelve inches, was placed on one’s lower back and held in place by winding gauze around the torso. The heat this product generated seemed to give a brief period of comfort. He stopped using this “patch of insulation” when, while working outdoors in the rain, it became wet. This caused a chemical reaction, which burned and blistered his skin. From then on it was back to Sloan’s Liniment and aspirin.
Shopping, in our new location, was easier for my mother. Within a reasonable walking distance were two neighbourhood grocery stores owned by Italian families. The closest was Folino’s Grocery, on Oliver Road and, only three blocks further, on Algoma Street, was the Dallas Grocery with its ice cream fountain. Both families came from the south of Italy and both were exceedingly courteous and helpful. Because we came from opposite ends of Italy, we communicated in the formal Italian language, rather than in our respective dialects.
The summer of 1953 flew by and, before we knew it, it was time to return to school. This was a traumatic time for Wally, who was entering Grade 1. Until now, he had enjoyed complete freedom and, the prospect of spending time in a classroom, away from our mother and the house, was stressful for him. He was prone to vomiting and complained about stomach pains but within a month he had adjusted to the school routine. During the summer he had made a number of friends but these friends attended the Oliver Road School. Wally and Claudio were enrolled in St. Joseph’s Catholic School, two kilometres away. Unlike the Corpus Christi Church, run exclusively by nuns, St. Joseph’s had a combination of nuns and lay teachers. Claudio’s Grade 3 teacher was a stocky, amiable, unmarried woman of Italian descent, Rose Borsani. Claudio was not fond of her because he felt that she was too much of a disciplinarian and, like the nuns, was not reluctant to use the strap. Due, possibly, to the nervousness associated with entering a new grade, Claudio began to stammer in class. Miss Borsani telephoned our house one day to express her concern regarding the stammer. I answered the phone and, on replying to Miss Borsani, I found myself stammering. We both laughed and agreed that nervousness was the cause and I assured her that Claudio never stammered at home.
My introduction to high school was not as traumatic as I had expected. By this time I had lost most of my Italian accent and had a good command of English. My greatest wish was to become one of the “group” with my schoolmates, as a Canadian, not someone who stood out because of his accent. To that end, I was successful. I made friends quickly and, outside the home, I ceased to think of myself as Italian. The one exception was my peculiar habit of doing any mental mathematical calculations in Italian. That lasted for approximately another 10 years, when the Italian numbers were slowly replaced by the English.
I enrolled in Port Arthur Technical and Commercial High School (P.A.T.S.), renamed, years later, Hillcrest High. My home-class teacher was W.B. (unfairly referred to as Wild Bill) Sime. He was a soft-spoken, erudite man who taught several subjects in the various grades but only taught our class Guidance. Guidance was a popular subject because students were not required to write exams. It was, as its name implied, a guide to everyday living, ranging from ethics to personal hygiene.
The school principal was W. L. (Bill) Rundle, a short, stocky, good-humoured man. His thick white mane was the reason he was referred to as “The Great White Father.” With only two exceptions, all of my Grade 9 teachers were even-tempered and fair. The two teachers, of whom the students were the most wary, were Mr. Holloway, the machine shop teacher and Mr. Westbrook, who taught economic history and typing. Both were short-tempered and, with their sharp tongues, quite menacing. Any student who did not pay attention during machine shop was quickly brought back to reality by a piece of steel, flung by Mr. Holloway, whizzing past him.
Mr. Westbrook, who had the demeanor, and the look of, an English bulldog, would suddenly rush from behind his desk at the offending student and berate him mercilessly; his choleric face a bright crimson hue. His favourite expression of incredulity was, “My sainted Aunt Agatha!” Mr. Westbrook gave me the only after-school detentions I was ever given. One of the school rules was that there was no eating in the hallways. Bulldog Harry enforced this rule to the extreme. After finishing my lunch in the classroom I put my lunch bag in my locker and, in the hallway, only a few feet from the exit, I took a bite of the apple I had in my hand. As I bit into it I heard a booming voice yell, “Hey, you!” I turned around and there was Mr. Westbrook, at his choleric worst, screaming in my face that I broke the no-eating rule. He immediately gave me a three-day, after-school detention with a stern warning that the next time he would not be so generous. I mentioned this outburst to Mr. Antoniak, my literature teacher, whose daughter, Charmaine, had been a classmate of mine at Corpus Christi School. Mr. Antoniak gave me a sympathetic smile and told me that teachers enforced the rules with different degrees of strictness.
Mr. Holloway, the machine shop teacher, was responsible for the single most embarrassing episode of my first high school year. During one of his classes, he told me to go to the sheet-metal shop and ask for a skyhook. I did so and Mr. Dingwall, the sheet-metal teacher smiled and said that he was out of them but that I would probably get one in the motor-mechanics shop. It finally dawned on me, from the laughter in each shop class, that I was the victim of a practical joke, a cruel and embarrassing one as, after only two years in Canada, I had not yet mastered the subtleties of the English language, nor the names of all the tools. I returned sheepishly to Mr. Holloway’s class only to be greeted with raucous laughter. Fortunately, the episode was quickly forgotten when a new victim was found.
The first friend I made in high school turned out to be, to my surprise, one the boys I had met at the toboggan hill two winters before. Peter Milenko and I became good friends immediately. Peter and I and another friend, Jack Miller, spent a lot of time together outside of school hours. We lived in different parts of the city and, in the good weather, we bicycled to school while in the winter the bus was the only assurance that one would not freeze to death.
Wilfred Miron was another close school friend. His life ended tragically at the age of 17. Wilfred’s parents were divorced and he lived with his mother, his younger brother and his grandmother. He had joined the Boy Scouts while in grade school and was also a member of the air cadets. He was a good student. Wilfred and I spent many hours together, going on extended hikes and enjoying our discussions about our respective lives, our school, and our futures. Through Wilfred, I was introduced to the unique taste of Saskatoon berries that we frequently picked by the basketful. His mother baked excellent pies; my father, on the other hand, used the berries to make rich, full bodied wine.
On Friday, April 13, 1956, the entire school was called to an early assembly. The principal, in a somber tone, spoke of the overnight tragedy, where a “good boy” lost his life because of one irrational act. That boy was my friend Wilfred, but a Wilfred I didn’t know. He had gone joyriding, with two other boys, in the outskirts of Fort William. The driver lost control on a sharp curve and went off the road; Wilfred was the only one killed. He was buried in his Boy Scout uniform.
It was in grade nine when I first realized the advantages of having completed my elementary education in the Italian elementary school system of five years, as opposed to the North American system of eight years. My friends, Ferruccio and Livia Babudro had similar experiences. Soon after the first semester exams, Mr. Rundle, the principal, came to our home class and called me into the hallway. He informed me that my Grade average was 85 against the class average of 65 and my teachers had recommended that I advance to grade ten. He then gave me two options, I could finish grade nine and advance to grade ten at graduation or, I could move to grade ten immediately. I chose the latter and returned to the classroom to retrieve my books and to say goodbye to my grade nine classmates. A smiling Mr. Sime shook my hand and wished me well. Mr. Rundle escorted me to my new class on the second floor and introduced me to my new homeroom teacher.
Clifford Stamp was a middle-aged Englishman, even-tempered and devoid of humour. He taught mathematics, geometry and draughting. He was also the school bandmaster. In spite of my dislike for Mr. Stamp, I joined the school band. I had dreams of playing the trumpet or the French horn, but the only instrument left was the bass tuba; I accepted reluctantly. The band members were required to practice at home, after school. It was no mean feat struggling to get the cumbersome instrument on the bus while hanging on to books simultaneously. No doubt, the sight of a gangly kid attempting to maneuver through the bus with this load must have been a source of amusement for my fellow passengers. I endured the band for only one year. I found it frustrating that the tuba never played a melody; in fact, the only “tune” I ever learned to play on it, on my own, was “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
My new classmates, in grade 10, were, were congenial and helpful. I made good friends with two of them quickly. Ralph Whistle, who helped me with my most difficult subjects, mathematics and algebra, and Len Morris, who lived only a few blocks away from me and had, like me, joined the chess club. Chess was played at lunchtime and, twice a week, after school. We became quite proficient at the game and, one winter day, during a fierce blizzard, when school had been canceled, Len and I managed to play a game of chess over the telephone.
Len’s parents, Bill and Hilda Morris, were the nicest people that one could ever meet. They always greeted me warmly and were very fond of me. I spent many evenings at their home playing card games for hours at a time. Hilda Morris, although she was a very kind woman, was also a strict disciplinarian. Her family had immigrated to Canada, from Germany, when she was a child. Hilda had no tolerance for nonsense or bad behaviour.
A transit strike had been called for the first week of September when Len and I were in the twelfth grade. We took advantage of that and, rather than go to school on strike day, we opted to go to a movie instead. We thoroughly enjoyed Walt Disney’s “The Living Desert.” After the movie, we stopped off at Len’s place first, only to be met by an angry Hilda. To our consternation, we found out that the transit strike had not materialized and our parents were notified of our absence from school. Hilda was indignant. She berated Len and told him that she had raised him to be a responsible person and, if he could not behave in an honourable way, he should join the army and learn discipline. I felt badly for Len, especially, since my mother, unable to write in English, left it to me to write the note excusing myself from school that day because of illness. She merely signed it.
There was another reason why I was in the Morris's good books. Their sons, Len, Roland and Kenny, my friend Peter, and most of the boys from the neighbourhood gathered at the most popular swimming hole on hot summer days. McIntyre Creek was just that, a narrow stream of water that, because of a number of beaver dams, had very large, deep pools. While we were all diving and cavorting around, I noticed that Roland was in trouble. He was screaming and flailing his arms in the air. Everyone thought that Roland was joking but something made me dive in. I grabbed hold of him and brought him to shore. He had not been joking. To Bill and Hilda Morris I was a hero. The Morris family moved to Los Angeles before the Grade 12 ceremonies because of Mr. Morris’s asthma and other lung problems. I visited them in 1958 and they greeted me like a long-lost son. Mr. Morris died soon after. Len phoned me and told me that Hilda Morris passed away in Las Vegas on March 7, 2005, at the age of 86.
In Grade 11 the students opted for the trade of their choice. Ralph Whistle went on to Motor Mechanics while Len and I chose Electricity. Peter Milenko decided to enter the commercial program, where the focus was on office work.
Our electricity instructor was Mr. Bill Astle, a kind person whose frizzy hair gave the appearance of his having stuck his finger in the electrical socket a few times too many. The electrical shop was hopelessly antiquated and, even in 1956, knob and tube wiring was a thing of the past, yet that was the thing we learned first. We did learn the basics, however, which helped us to find jobs in the field, after graduation. One of the perks of being in the electrical department was the privilege of operating the public address system and also the projection booth in the auditorium. The “electrical” students took turns at running these operations and welcomed the time spent away from the classroom. The projection booth was the most challenging because of the various functions involved in its operation, from dimmers to spotlights.
Each year, the drama club, with Serafina “Penny” Petrone at the helm, put on a performance of a play or musical. There was no lack of dramatic or musical talent at P.A.T.S. The performance of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” drew raves from the parents in the audience, and the musical, “Brigadoon” was given a rousing reception. The male lead in Brigadoon was taken by Mon Hui, whose parents owned the only Korean restaurant in town. Mon had a strong and melodic voice and the sight of him doing highland dances wearing a kilt, did not appear the least incongruous.
Of all my high school teachers, Louis Roche and Catherine Wegenast were my favourites. Mr. Roche taught Grade 11 and Grade 12 English Literature and Composition. He was a gentle man in his early sixties with a subtle sense of humour. To Mr. Roche, Shakespeare was next to God. He guided us through the Merchant of Venice, Othello, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. He urged us to see the British movie of Romeo and Juliet, with Lawrence Harvey, and we were thankful to him for recommending it. The only time we felt he let us down was when he lost our completed spring term exams in the Prince Arthur Hotel beer parlour.
The Grade 12 industrial class had Catherine Wegenast for Economic History. All through high school, the industrial course classes were male-only classes; the only classes that were co-educational were the commercial courses. Miss Wegenast was slightly over five feet tall but stocky and self-assured. She rewarded hard work and did not tolerate nonsense. She gave me an A+ for my project on “Transportation in the Ancient World” and was extremely helpful in improving my self-confidence. She was not popular with the female students. During a student-teacher basketball game, she was knocked to the floor and suffered a broken leg. Rumour had it that it was not accidental but was a deliberate act by the girls on the team
I met Miss Wegenast years later in Toronto, when she was in charge of a speed typing contest and I was in charge of keeping the machines in good working order. We were both surprised and glad to see each other and she wished me well in my career.
The first member of the family to visit us in Port Arthur was my uncle Stelio. We had not seen each other since his visit to the Pagani sanatorium in 1950. His departure from Fiume was more adventurous than ours. In 1948, at age 20, with his parents’ blessings, he escaped from Yugoslavia, crossing the border into Italy, near Trieste. Other Fiumani found other means of escape. My mother’s second cousin, Emilo Burul, a municipal employee, and his wife Erminia, a school teacher, obtained permission to leave on summer vacation, left Fiume with one suitcase each and never returned. They sought refugee status and eventually settled in Toronto.
Stelio was an outstanding soccer player and soon found himself playing professionally in Italy, first for a team in Naples, and then with the Monteponi Iglesias Team in Sardinia. In 1952 he declared himself a refugee, the following year followed the same route that we had travelled two years before from the Bagnoli camp, near Naples to the port of Bremerhaven, in Northern Germany. From there he sailed on the S.S. Sturges, arriving at Pier 21 in Halifax on Sept.9, 1953
He settled in Toronto, where he met and married a beautiful and vibrant Hungarian woman, Ibi, short for Ibica, the Hungarian term for Violet. Ibi and Stelio welcomed me when I moved to Toronto in 1960. Stelio played for the Toronto Hungarian team. During one of the games, an opposing player missed the ball and kicked Stelio in the leg with such force, as he related, his lower leg almost snapped in two. That spelled the end of his soccer-playing career. He spent a part of his convalescence in Port Arthur and we were all happy to see him. His son, Stelio Jr. was born the year after and Junior went on to become a superb hockey player. He was a member of the Canadian Olympic hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.
Sadly, Ibi did not fare so well. She opened, and managed, a ladies’ wear store in Toronto and, a few years later, was convicted of deliberately setting a fire in the shop in order to collect the insurance. She received a jail sentence and she and Stelio divorced soon after. Ibi died in 2003, under suspicious circumstances. Her second husband, Dr. Joseph Roncaioli, was charged with murder but was found guilty of manslaughter in 2008. Stelio went on to marry Graziella, a lovely woman from Fiume. He passed away in Toronto, on March 30, 2010, at age 81
My aunt Piccina was the next relative to visit. She, along with her husband, Mario Zuliani and their son Mauro, immigrated to New York. The following summer, Piccina, Mauro and Anna’s son, Walter, arrived in Port Arthur by train. It was wonderful to see Piccina again after so many years. Our last encounter had been in 1949 in Camogli, when we made a brief stop in our transition from Italian to International refugee camps. She and the kids enjoyed staying with us and going for picnics to Kakabeka Falls, Chippewa Park and other picturesque places around Lake Superior.
Television came to Port Arthur in 1954. Until the system of microwave towers was completed in 1956, all shows were on delayed broadcast. One or two television stores kept a television set playing in the window after closing hours. We could not afford a television set but my mother, once having caught Milton Berle’s performance in the store window, was determined not to miss any of his shows. On Tuesday evenings, on the pretense of walking down to Algoma Street for an ice-cream cone, we would, as if by chance, pass by the window of the television store and pause there until the show ended. Often, Mrs. Strani and her daughter Diana joined us there. The sight of this immigrant group on the sidewalk, laughing hysterically at the antics of Milton Berle, must have provided great amusement of its own to any passersby.
In 1956, my father bought us a Philco television set and we now could watch Milton Berle and I Love Lucy in the comfort of our tiny living room, but I still think that watching it outdoors provided the greatest enjoyment. The big event of 1956 was the Russian invasion of Hungary and the British-French- Israeli invasion of the Suez Canal. We watched the U.N. debates on television late into the night and, once again, the spectre of war gave us cause for alarm.
A special night for my mother was the Montreal-based broadcast of Puccini’s opera La Boheme, with soprano Claire Gagnon. Puccini’s La Boheme was her favourite opera. That evening she asked me if I would stay up late and watch it with her. I did stay up and enjoyed watching the entire opera with her. She told me then that my third name, Rodolfo, came from the tenor role of La Boheme.
The television, like the rest of the furniture, was bought at Mac Dolcetti Furniture and Appliances. Despite the name, Mac was not Scottish; it was short for Macedonio and he was a kind and generous man. He was of the previous generation of Italian immigrants and assisted the newly arrived Italians by providing time payments at low interest, and often with no interest at all. This is how we came to furnish our house in the latest 1950s style: chrome and yellow arborite dining room set, kidney-shaped coffee table, curved sectional couch set, and, to my mother’s delight, a brand new stove to cook on.
For my parents, the most important event of 1956 was receiving Canadian citizenship. They had waited the mandatory five years of residence with anticipation and wasted no time in applying for their citizenship. The certificate was received in July, 1956, with a congratulatory letter from J.W. Pickersgill, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, on August 29. They became a proud Canadians and never looked back; neither did they ever pine for the old country. My father now called himself Walter. Claudio, after contemplating changing his middle name from Mario to Murray, dropped it altogether and now called himself Claude. Vladimir, the former Baby Dodo, became Wally, and I, though not objecting to, on rare occasions, being called “Al,” remained Aldo, but there will always remain a soft spot in my heart for the Rodolfo of La Boheme.
Port Arthur Technical School Students at the arena for Royal visit, 1954. Yours truly, front left. Port Arthur News Chronicle photo.
Graduating class - Port Arthur Technical and Commercial High School - June 1956
1956 Graduating class - Port Arthur Technical and Commercial High School.
The elusive 13 Rowan Ave. Even Google Maps failed to spot it. It is, in fact, an unpaved lane off Dalton Ave.
The first ship to arrive in Port Arthur through the St. Lawrence Seaway, 1957
Royal Typewriter Company - Port Arthur, Ontario. 1958 - From left: Vittorio Dimini, Service Manager. Mrs. Ruth Johnson, Secretary. Athol Foster, Branch Manager. Aldo Nazarko, Service Technician.
A River of Oranges: Memories of a Displaced Childhood