Those Were the Days

The century offered history and events that touched the soul

January 1 2000

Those Were the Days

The century offered history and events that touched the soul

January 1 2000

IF THE PAST IS PRELUDE to our present, recalling the way things used to be enlivens life today. As documented in the following reminiscences, memories often become more vivid as the narrator warms to the subject, filling in long-forgotten details that provide a road map to the present.

Dust bowl drought

Canadians born and raised elsewhere are inclined to think of the Prairies as a vast and prosperous land of golden wheat. Yet for thousands of those who grew up in the West, the past harbours darker images of blight and near-poverty. Those memories belong to the Depression-era 1930s, when the already-savaged western economy was further devastated by an unyielding drought that fried crops and created what came to be known as the Prairie dust bowl. Author Robert Collins, now 74 and living in Toronto, remembers his childhood on the family farm southwest of Moose Jaw, Sask.

ALL THE INSECT PLAGUES, grasshoppers and so on that seem to accompany drought descended on the Prairies at about the same time. It seemed to accentuate what was a bad time all around the country and beyond. But out there, it seemed to be a little worse.

There were incessant dust storms. The ground became so dry that the topsoil was just lifted and carried away. It literally piled up along the fence rows. There were times as a kid I remember my brother and I walking home from school, about a mile and a half, and on one or two occasions our father came to meet us because he was afraid wed get lost in the dust, it was just swirling thick on all sides.

There was a time when relief shipments of clothing and food were sent out west from Ontario and other places. This stuff was parceled out to people who needed it and I remember getting what I thought was a really neat T-shirt. There was also codfish from the Maritimes, great slabs of it, which we hated because we didn’t know how to cook it properly.

Kids my age knew it was a bad time because our parents said it was. We didn’t know we were poor because everyone around us was in pretty much the same boat. But it was a great time for the imagination because we did a lot of storytelling to each other, reading aloud, singing songs—all that good old-time stuff.

In 1963,1 went back to see that two-bedroom frame house where we’d lived. It was in a pretty bad state and it more or less fell apart after that. I felt incredibly sad.

Human smuggling, circa 1900

At the beginning of the 20th century, Victoria was a raucous place, the antithesis of the proper British community that has been its postwar image. Longtime local journalist Archie Wills, who was born in Victoria in 1892 and died there at age 96, recalled life in the B. C. capital in the early 1900s.

THERE'S A LOT OF TALK of the drug culture today, and one would think to hear them that drugs were recently discovered. Well, let me tell you, there were

plenty of drugs around Victoria at the turn of the century, especially cocaine and opium. There were 14 places involved in the business right here in the city, some of them right on the main street. One area called Fan Tan Alley and another called Spudge’s Cove were places where ships coming from the Orient docked. These ships were all heavily built for steerage passengers, who were smuggled into the country.

You see, there was a $500 head tax on Chinese immigrants who came in legally, so smuggling them in was a lucrative racket. Anyone who had $500 over in China at that time would be considered wealthy, and there was no way he’d spend it just to come to Canada if they could get in for less. These ships could get them in for considerably less, or else the owners would put up the $500, just like a loan shark, and these poor people would be in bondage to those smugglers forever.

Those smugglers, by the way, were always white men, dealers in human flesh and misery. These were the same people who were bringing in opium and cocaine, most of it going to the United States, just as we did with liquor during Prohibition in later years. It was amazing to see who some of their customers were. These classy women would go to these places and get a pipe and a container of opium and then would lie down in a dirty old bunk and smoke themselves into a coma.

'HARDLY ANYBODY OWNED A CAR those days. That was 1915.’

Present at the creation

On June 10, 1925, Canadas Congregational and Methodist denominations, most Presbyterians, along with the Council of Local Union Churches, joined to form the United Church of Canada. More than 8,000people gathered at Toronto’s Mutual Street Arena to celebrate the union. Rev. Edward Newbery of Simcoe, Ont., now 90, remembers that his father, a Congregationalist minister, was a commissioner at that historic meeting. And Newberys Presbyterian wife, Rena, now 84, recalls the bitter battles among friends and family over whether Presbyterians should join the new church.

Rena Newbery

I REMEMBER QUITE fierce fights taking place right in my living room among many of our friends—those who wanted to unite and those who didn’t. And the debates were quite bitter. I suppose it was a national thing—a Scottish thing, as much as theological, though I don’t know anyone who would admit this at that time. Scottish theology and Scottish politics were quite the same. It was what you did, a form of service, how you lived your life. Going with these other denominations, who were more casual and informal in their worship, felt uncomfortable for many people. It split friendships and it took a long time to repair the animosities.

Edward Newbery

THE CONGREGATIONAL Church was small compared with the Methodists and Presbyterians,

and we were 99.9 per cent behind the union. We didn’t have quite the same deep theological denominational objection that the Presbyterian people had. So my father was quite enthusiastic about the whole thing.

I remember his thrill just being able to attend that meeting. Thousands of people were there—all the denominations were represented. The arena didn’t have the electrical facilities of our present day. So there was no microphone which the minister could speak into and give instructions. In the communion service, which consummated the union, the various people were signaled by the presiding minister flapping his handkerchief. My mother was rather put off by this— she thought it was undignified.

Automobile love affair

Shortly after Clarence Lowry saw his first car at age 16, he left his Napanee, Ont., home and went to work for the McLaughlin Carriage Works in Oshawa, which in 1918 became General Motors of Canada. By 1923, Lowry had become head chauffeur for GM president R. S. (Col. Sam) McLaughlin, who maintained a fleet of five cars—and he served in that capacity until McLaughlins death in 1972. Now 100, and living in Whitby, he recalls the early days of the automobile in Canada.

I WAS ON THE MAIN street of Napanee one day when a man drove by real slowly in a four-door touring car that shone like a bottle. There wasn’t a speck of dust on it. Everybody stopped to look because hardly anybody owned a car in those days. That was 1915.1 made my mind up right then I was going to work with automobiles because I didn’t like school and I didn’t want to work on the farm. I put all my worldly possessions in a cardboard suitcase, strapped it to the back of my bicycle and rode to Oshawa, 110 miles on a dirt road. I was 15 years old and they hired me at the Motors as soon as I walked in because the war was on and all the young fellows were joining the army.

I had to get a licence right away because one of my jobs was to test drive the new cars as they came off the line. We produced 15 or 20 of the four-cylinder cars a day and 12 of the big ones, the six-cylinder models. The Motors sent me to a mechanic in Oshawa who had a garage and he gave you the test. He made me back down a steep hill without using the brake, and made me drive around the block, then issued the licence.

There were hardly any paved roads and it could take you two hours to get from Oshawa to Toronto because the speed limit was only 35 miles an hour. Youd nearly freeze driving in the winter because the cars didn’t have heaters or defrosters, and the windshield wipers were operated by hand. It was terrible on those old dirt roads in the spring. One night, I was driving Mr. McLaughlin home and went off the road. I had to get a farmer out of bed and he used a team of horses to haul us out of the ditch.

‘Greatest outdoor show’

Founded in 1912, the Calgary Stampede has become a touchstone of western Canadian culture. Billed as the “greatest outdoor show on earth," the annual 10day rodeo-which remains the central event of the Stampede-attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world. No cowboy is more closely associated with the Stampede than Herman Linder. During a decade-long competitive career-from 1929 to 1939-Linder won a staggering 22 Stampede championships, a record that remains unsurpassed. He later went on to a distinguished 30-year career as a rodeo judge and promoter. This past July, at the age of 91, Linder served as parade marshal for the last Calgary Stampede of the 20th century.

THE FIRST TIME I COMPETED in the Calgary Stampede, I won the Canadian saddle bronc and bareback riding championships and made over $1,000 in winnings. I’d never dreamed that I could make that much money. I decided right then I was going to be a rodeo rider. They presented me with two gold watches, one for each championship. That night, I had a watch clutched in each hand while the fireworks were going off all around me. That was the biggest thrill of my life.

The Stampede was a big event even then.The cowboys came from all over North America. While the Stampede was on, we camped outside the exhibition grounds. And we all became pals.

A person is like a piece of machinery; the harder you use it, the quicker it wears out. Those last two years in Calgary, I was getting very tired, working so many events. So, in 1939, I decided to hang up my spurs. It wasn’t an easy thing to give up, though. That first winter, I think I wore the rug out.

I’ve been to every Stampede except one in the past 70 years. I always go back behind the chutes and talk to the boys. It’s gotten so big now and there’s a lot more money. It’s nice that they still remember me as someone who was pretty successful at the rodeo life.

Tragedy of the young Dionnes

On May 28, 1934, the editor of The North Bay Nugget received a one-of-a-kind phone call. “Does it cost the same to place a birth notice for five babies as it would for one?” gasped the caller. The five babies, all girls, weighing between one pound eight ounces and two pounds eight ounces, had just been born to 25-year-old Elzire Dionne. The odds were 57 million to one against a woman giving birth to quintuplets, and the girls became an international sensation. In an edited and unpublished manuscript, the Quints first nurse, 21-year-old Yvonne Leroux, who died in July, 1981, remembers their early days.

I GOT TO THE DIONNE FARMHOUSE a few hours after the babies did, and I shall never forget that first week when I was all alone to nurse them. For five days and nights, I didn’t take off my clothes, or sleep more than an hour or two at a time. I had been a graduated nurse for only six months, and had taken care of only one other small baby.

I kept them fed with an eyedropper—they mewed hungrily like little kittens. I bathed each in a saucer of olive oil, fearful of breaking tiny arms and legs. I sent for my own hot-water bottle to warm them. I dashed from one to the other, as each in turn forgot to breathe—all were blue babies, prematurely born.

The fight for existence went on and on, even after we moved the Quints to their modern, beautifully equipped hospital nursery across the road. We took every precaution on their behalf—the isolation, the gowns and masks worn in the nursery, the rigid routine.

No five-year-old ought to frame in her mind the question the Dionnes themselves surely asked: “Why do mamma and papa always go away?” For go they did. No matter how long they spent in the nursery, or how often they stayed for supper, or until they had their daughters tucked into bed, they still had to go. They had other children waiting in the farmhouse across the road. Always, those babies clamoured to kiss their parents good night. When the inevitable moment for departure came, it was always too soon for the little ones. They did not cry. But their mouths drooped, their eyes grew large and puzzled. They shook their heads from side to side, held out their arms, even grabbed at their mothers skirt or their father’s trouser-leg as their parents scrambled to get out of the nursery.

The flying Italians

In July, 1933, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini dispatched an armada of 24 seaplanes across the ocean to take part in the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition. It was the first multiple-aircraft crossing of the Atlantic, and Chicago waited eagerly to join the worldwide applause for the intrepid pilots. The first Canadians to welcome the flyers to North America were in the southeastern New Brunswick fishing village of Shediac, where a huge crowd gathered to watch the Italians make a well-publicized refueling stop. Charlie McEwen of Moncton, now 83 and a former commercial airline pilot, was there.

IT WAS QUITE A GALA thing. My mother and my older brother took me. There were bands playing and the women were wearing brightly coloured clothes. It was a beautiful day. The two wharfs were pretty well covered. I would say there were between 8,000 to 10,000 people.

There were temporary radio transmitters set up and you could hear the squawk and squeal of the radios in the control centre, and, at last, they did get in contact with the Italians, long before we saw them.

I think it was directly after the noon hour when I actually saw the fleet come in. They were a bit late arriving, but their landings were beautiful. They were just on top of the waves for well over half a mile and then they gradually settled into the water, one after the other. They were fairly close together—I’d say about every five minutes another one would come in.

The crews were ferried ashore. There was a reception in Weldon Square in front of the Shediac Hotel with various dignitaries, including the premier of New Brunswick and the mayor of Moncton. The Italians gave the Fascist salute and left the next day.

A truly regal royal tour

In May, 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrived in Quebec City for the start of a historic, 29-day cross-country tour, the first in Canada by a reigning monarch. In charge of the Prime Minister’s daily details was James A. Gibson, a 27-year-old third secretary at External Affairs working on secondment to the Prime Minister’s Office of William Lyon Mackenzie King. Now 87 and living in St. Catharines, Ont., where he was the first president of Brock University, Gibson remembers Canada’s biggest royal tour.

SITTING AT A DESK IN THE EAST BLOCK, I directed the goings and comings of, I suppose, 2,000 people. I received delegations of many descriptions. Presidents of chambers of commerce and MPs, one of whom told me: “Young man, if the royal train doesn’t stop in my constituency, I can’t expect to get re-elected.”

A few months before the royal tour, I went one morning with the Prime Minister to the site of the new War Memorial, which at that moment was shrouded in scaffolding. Mr. King wanted to count off steps—how far he would walk here and there. “This has got to be absolutely right,” he said. “ They will take pictures! They will send them all over the world! They will expect us to know how to do it!”

GROWING UP in a much simpler time

We then went to the Supreme Court, which also was just being built, where the Queen was to lay the cornerstone. Mr. King wanted to count off the steps going and coming. “Shall I walk on Her Majesty’s right or on her left?” the Prime Minister asked. I told him: “The people would want to see Her Majesty. It would seem sensible on this journey for you to walk on the Queen’s left and coming back to walk on her right.” And the Prime Minister said: “Well, perhaps you’re right.”

The dedication of the War Memorial was scheduled for a Sunday morning, and I received a delegation of religious leaders. The reverend gentlemen said: “Surely, you must be aware that 11 a.m. on Sunday is the ordinary hour for divine service.” I drew myself up very straight and said: “This ceremony has been arranged at the express command of His Majesty the King. Good morning!” And that was the end of that conversation.

There were tens of thousands of people for the official dedication of the War Memorial. When the King and Queen simply moved into the crowd and went about, it was the best public demonstration I ever saw in Ottawa.

Earlier in the week, the procession through the Centre Block into the Senate chamber was as spectacular a piece of pageantry as I ever saw. The Queen had a magnificent gown of brocaded apricot satin. The King came in the uniform of a field marshal of the army. He had his plumed hat and his decorations. It was a historic occasion when the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod came and rapped on the closed doors of the House of Commons chamber and when he was admitted, said: “His Majesty commands the immediate presence of this House in the Chamber of the Senate.”

There was then a great rush, and there was one woman member, Agnes Macphail, and she had to use her elbows along with the rest of them.

The lean years of a B.C. millionaire

Jimmy Pattison, 70, is British Columbia’s own Horatio Alger, a poor boy from the east side of Vancouver who parlayed his skills as a car salesman into a business empire that spans three continents, employs 20,000 people, has assets of $2.6 billion and 1998 sales of $4.4 billion. The redheaded billionaire started working when he was 8, selling garden seeds and delivering newspapers. His first real job was as a page boy at the Hotel Georgia in downtown Vancouver in 1942.

I WAS 13 YEARS OLD, in high school, and I’d take the streetcar down to the hotel and work from 4:30 to 8:30 each night, and all day Saturday. I had a red uniform with big gold stripes and a Philip Morris red hat. I’d hold a silver plate and go up and down the lobby carrying messages. If someone had a call, the switchboard operator would ring a bell and hand me a note through her window. I’d take the note, place it on my tray and I would call the person twice in the main lobby and twice in the mezzanine. I’d usually get a tip. My income was $15 a month and I always tithed 10 per cent to the church. I bought myself clothes and a bike, and the rest I spent on girls.

I loved the job. I got to meet so many people. It was the first time I had met business-people. In my other jobs, I’d worked door-to-door so I’d only usually met housewives.

At the hotel, there was a bank of six pay phones and people used them all the time, phoning for a nickel a call. I used to check the coin return and I’d always find money left and so, each night, I would clear out the telephones. That turned out to be a really big deal. Sometimes I’d make more money clearing out those phones than I made as a page boy. Even to this day, when I’m at a bank of telephones, I’ll put my hand down to find coins. I was in New York City the other day and I found eight quarters in one pay phone! They all came crashing down.Two dollars in American money!

Two sides of a one-room schoolhouse

To city-dwellers, the one-room schoolhouse is a colourful symbol of the nations long-ago past. Yet that is where thousands of Canadians still living got their first years of formal education. Retired Toronto businessman Norman Cruickshank, now 71, vividly remembers how daily life in a one-room school began in 1934 near the town of Paris in southwestern Ontario. And his wife, Jean Cruickshank, 72, remembers beginning her 35-year teaching career in such a school in 1948 in the nearby Brantford area.

Norman Cruickshank

FIRST OF ALL, I HAD TO WALK TO SCHOOL. My kids tell me it gets longer every time I tell the story but I would think it was a mile and a half, nearly two miles. That was a walk, especially when the snow was piled high.

We went there in the dark in the winter, because we didn’t even have hydro in the country. There was none in our home, nor in the school. In winter, my two brothers and I were responsible for getting the fire going in the school wood stove and the temperature up before the teacher got there. The thermometer was near her desk so we’d take it down and put it by the stove until we saw her coming and then we’d put it back up.

But it wasn’t just a question of getting the fire going—you had to split the wood. Leaving it to kids to split wood and start a fire probably wouldn’t be allowed today. I got 10 cents a day. I did it for three years and I saved up enough money to buy my first bike. A student cleaned the blackboards and swept the floor every night. He got 15 cents.

While I was there, we had three teachers in seven years. The first was wonderful, she’d grown up in the country. So was the last. But the one in between was a city girl, and she just didn’t fit in. She was the one who was always giving kids the strap. I got the strap once, but I can’t remember what for.

Jean Cruickshank

I BOARDED WITH THE family next to the school, and they were the people who did the care-taking. There was a woodshed at the back, and I had to keep the fire going through the day. Often when I became absorbed in teaching, the fire would go out and I would have to scramble around and get it started again. The school trustees could only afford to buy wood and in my second year, my father, who was a coal dealer, brought me a load and we kept the fire going overnight.

There was no indoor plumbing. We had a big porcelain washbasin in the cloakroom and a pump to get cistern water, and a j ug. When it snowed really hard, the snow would drift in under the door.

I had 13 pupils in eight grades. Country kids love to go to school because when they’re not in school, they’re working on the family farm. No matter what age they were, they had to work. There were never any discipline problems because they were so happy to be there. Years later, that schoolhouse burned down. I was very attached to that school. It was a time in my life I won’t forget.

Swinging on the lake with the big bands

In the early 1940s, Johnny Downs and his 11-man orchestra performed their brand of swing and big band music in communities across southwestern Ontario. But the top venue was The Stork Club in the Lake Erie resort of Port Stanley. Opened in 1926, the lakeside dance hall hosted many famous acts, including Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. The rise of rock ’n roll in the 1950s signaled the decline of big band music, and The Stork Club was badly damaged in a January, 1979, fire and later demolished. Downs, now 77 and retired in Port Stanley, recalls the days when his band backed up some of the biggest acts in popular music.

DURING THE WAR YEARS, The Stork Club was a gold mine. It was operating six nights a week with a free concert on Sundays. You could walk all the way around the hall, and the side that faced the lake had big screened windows that would be open in the summer. You could see the moon and hear the waves breaking on the shore. It was a romantic place.

We’d start at 8 o’clock and go till 9, then stand by because the headliners always took a half-hour intermission. Cab Calloway was one of the first big names we backed up. He wore a top hat and tails and was such a showman I couldn’t believe it.

There were pretty close to 6,000 people on hand the night Benny Goodman played. And I still remember meeting Louis Armstrong in the dressing room before a show. He was sitting on a stool with a briefcase open in front of him, putting on his makeup. I introduced myself and said I’d heard his autobiography had just been published. He looked up and said: “Oh yes. That’s what they tell me.” Musicians loved The Stork Club because of the acoustics. The Kentons, the Ellingtons, bands that played big ballrooms all over America would come into Port Stanley and say: “We’ve got high ceilings, a big bandstand and no echoes. Whoopee! Man, we’ve got it made tonight!”

‘We played a lot of cards’

Electricity arrived in the tiny town of St. Jules, Que., on the Gaspé Peninsula only in 1953. Norma Sexton, now 70, was a 24-year-old housewife with two small children at the time.

GROWING UP in a family of nine children without electricity wasn't easy. In our home, we had a small hand pump, so we always had plenty of water. If you wanted to do laundry, you had to put pots on the stove to heat the water, and that took half a day. My father always got up really early, and when we came downstairs, the old stove was almost red, but where we slept wasn’t heated. We had lots of blankets and everything. We weren’t cold; it was probably healthier for us.

Studying and trying to do homework was difficult, especially when there were four or five in school, everybody was trying to get a corner of the table closest to the lamp, one big lamp in the middle. We had coal-oil lamps at first and then we got gas. And the coal oil wasn’t always number 1, you know, the globes would all get black and cleaning them was a chore.

We played a lot of cards. I remember we had an old gramophone at home, the kind you would crank, and we had a few old records. And I remember when we got the first battery radio. That was a big thing. My father had to hear the news at night, and we had to be real quiet when the news came on.

The same electrician did all the houses. There was one family, the first time they burnt out a light-bulb they called a repairman.

Trailblazers in Canadian comedy

In 1929, a 13-year-old kid named Johnny Wayne met a 12-year-old kid named Frank Shuster at Toronto’s Harbord Collegiate. The pair went on to become one of Canada’s pre-eminent comedy teams. Wayne and Shuster starred on both radio and television and found success on both sides of the border. They appeared 58 times on The Ed Sullivan Show, one of the most popular TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s. Wayne died in 1990, but Shuster, now 83, recalls the infancy of Canadian television and their immortal sketch “The Shakespearean Baseball Game, ” a comedic treatment of baseball done in iambic pentameter.

THE EARLY DAYS OF TV WERE STRANGE because nobody knew what the hell they were doing. Nothing worked. Johnny and I, being in comedy, we could make fun of it being a mess. You see, we were brought up on stage. In high school we did skits with this little drama club. When we where at U of T we did the University College Follies. When we went into radio, that’s what scared us. When we went into television, we said: “That’s a stage with cameras on it, and it’s live and that’s what we’ve always done.” We loved the excitement.

For our third time on the Sullivan show, we were asked by Sullivan to guest emcee. They usually had these great screen stars hosting and here we were, these two guys from Canada and we knew we needed a big hit. There was a terrific argument. It lasted three days. Our wives joined in, too. You see, on our first show, we had done the “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga,” a sketch on Julius Caesar done as a detective movie and it had been a hit. Johnny was against doing another Shakespearean sketch; he didn’t think the audience would get the references.

Finally, we were in this little diner in Manhattan and this guy comes out from back in the kitchen, wearing a stained apron, and says, “Hey, Wayne and Shuster, I really loved your Julius Caesar sketch, but do you think anyone at home got it?” After that, we did the baseball sketch and it worked. But Johnny said I probably slipped the guy five bucks to come out and say that.

Teaching black kids in southwestern Ontario

In the second half of the 19th century, thousands of fleeing and freed slaves came to Canada, many of them settling in small communities in southwestern Ontario. One former slave descendant, Dorothy Shadd Shreve Segee, 90, grew up on a farm in Fletcher, Ont. She now lives in nearby North Buxton, where she once taught school.

ELIZABETH MAY BEATTY TAUGHT ME from Grade 1 to Grade 10. When she retired, she said I was the smartest pupil of her first 25 years. That was a real honour. It was mostly white children, but there were two or three families of blacks.

I took Grades 11 and 12 in Windsor, and then I went to London to teachers’ college. When I came out, I didn’t get a school because of the prejudice in hiring. Windsor had one black teacher, and she was teaching art. I got an invitation to the meeting [at which new teachers were assigned to classes]. They handed out the classrooms to everybody else and, finally, at the last, they said I was on the occasional staff. There were people in teachers’ college with me with lower marks who got jobs, but I was still put on the occasional staff. Well, it wasn't a very good feeling, not a very good feeling.

I was in Windsor until Christmas, and there wasn’t one occasion to call me to teach. Then my brother, who was in Cleveland, said: “Come to Cleveland and get a job.” Well, I got a job there as a maid and I met some of the finest people I've ever met. And the money was as good as the teachers were getting. And I met a young fellow who went to Germany, Jesse Owens. I was at his 16th birthday as his older brother’s girlfriend.

I eventually got a mixed-race school in North Buxton for two years and then taught in Windsor for another two years. Then I got married and once you were married, in those days, that was the end of your teaching. I didn’t teach again until 1952. In 20 years of teaching after that, I didn’t have as many as five black children. It was all white and a lot of them are my good friends. They tell me that if all teachers had been like me, they'd have stayed in school.

Tight skirts, high heels

“Are you: Under 30 years of age? Unmarried? Between five-foot, two-inches and five-foot, six-inches? Under 125 lb. ? Is your smile friendly and sincere? Posture erect and poised? Hair short and styled? Then, perhaps, you can qualify as an air stewardess!” In 1964, 24-year-old Renate Gasber responded to a similarly worded ad in Germany placed by Trans-Canada Airlines (now Air Canada). Last year, she retired after 33 years of service.

I WAS HIRED WHEN Trans-Canada decided it didn't have enough multilingual flight attendants. You had to speak English, French and German. The only difference between my colleagues who were hired in the ’40s and the ’50s and those of us hired in the ’60s was that we no longer had to be nurses.

I had my interview at a hotel in Germany with the manager of in-flight service and a senior stewardess. They were quite strict. And you were weighed every year once you got the job. I was over a couple of times, but I was lucky enough to shed it in no time at all. Your hair definitely could not be below the earlobes—no ponytails or buns.

The uniform was a tight-fitting pale blue skirt with a jacket, white blouse, a hat and navy high-heel shoes. I remember the first two years, we all had problems with backs and feet because of the shoes.

You had to wear a girdle. It was mandatory, no matter how skinny you were—if your check stewardess was on a flight with you, she would pinch your bum to see if you were wearing your girdle. We laugh about it now, but it was serious.

We had four weeks of training. They would evaluate your skin and tell you what type of product to use. What colour lipstick. And they would suggest a hairstyle. You would go to the hairdresser, and then on Monday they would approve or disapprove of your style. Your nails had to be groomed. None of the blue, green or purple colours. There was only one red that was acceptable—cherry. We all looked the same in the end. It was like we were coming out of a factory.

“I FOUND POLITICS, DRUGS AND SEX —and had my brain vacuumed clean“

The week Spring Thaw had a meltdown

In April, 1948, a group of Toronto actors led by Dora Mavor Moore opened the first Spring Thaw, a revue of satirical sketches and songs that lampooned Canadian culture and politics. Spring Thaw went on to run for 21 years and developed a host of talented performers, including Don Harron, Robert Goulet and Jane Mallet, and spawned future generations of Canadian comedians. Dave Broadfoot, a member of the Royal Canadian Air Farce, spent nine seasons with the revue. Now 74, Broadfoot recalls a 1957 Spring Thaw that melted down unexpectedly.

BEFORE HE LEFT ON A BUSINESS TRIP to England, Mayor Moore, our producer and Dora's son, had prearranged for a very smooth understudy takeover of the Robert Goulet roles. As it happened, the night after the understudy took over, another member of the cast, Andy MacMillan, lost his father. Andy left the show immediately to make his way to his father’s funeral in Montreal. After a scramble, Dora, who owned the show, found an opera singer who had never done a revue and knew nothing about Spring Thaw to replace Andy.

He spent the day trying desperately to remember where he was supposed to move and what he was supposed to sing. We rehearsed all day, hoping some of what was happening would stick in his mind till that night. We groped our way through the performance, only to learn at the end of that night, that another cast member, Paul Kligman, had received the news that his father had died. Paul left the next morning for Winnipeg. Another opera singer was brought in to replace Paul. There was no time for him to memorize anything. He just went on stage with the scripts in his hands and we pushed him from one position to another, hoping for the best.

The next morning, we learned that another cast member, Peter Mews, had come down with laryngitis. I went immediately to Dora and asked if we could please give our customers their money back or let them exchange tickets for fixture dates and close the show for a few days. Dora wouldn’t hear of it. She found another opera singer to replace Peter Mews. This opera singer didn’t know the show, had never seen a revue, didn’t know how to talk and had no sense of humour.

This was the most catastrophic theatrical experience I ever lived through—a humiliation beyond description. Not knowing the workings of Dora Mavor Moore’s mind, it took a long time to figure out why all of the replacements were opera singers. I came to the conclusion that all die actors Dora called sensed what they would be getting into and firmly refused to have any part of it. The opera singers were naïve or in desperate economic trouble.

When the terror-filled week was over, Dora uttered one of her classic comments: “The only time an actor leaves a theatre for a funeral is for his own.

The Sixties revolution

Toronto’s Rochdale College, a controversial student-housing complex and free university that opened in 1968, came to symbolize the social change sweeping North America in the Sixties. A low-interest federal-housing mortgage financed most of the $5.5-million, 18-storey complex, which, over time, disintegrated into a haven for dope dealers and dropouts. Alex MacDonald, now a 50-year-old political activist and photographer, despite being legally blind, lived in Rochdale for five years until it closed in 1975.

I GREW UP IN SARNIA, Ont., the textbook nerd: near-sighted, fatherless and Catholic in small-town WASP Ontario. Then I went to the University of Windsor in 1968—found politics, drugs and sex, and had my brain vacuumed clean. I was bright, but clueless: the depth of my ignorance was breathtaking. I went to Rochdale because I couldn’t think of what else to do and everyone I valued had moved there. I moved into a small one-bedroom unit, called an Aphrodite. The guy across the hall ran a shop for stolen motorcycles, and the free health clinic was down the hall. The west wing was pretty much like normal apartments; the east wing’s sixth floor was a bit like Dante’s hell, where the crazy retail drug-dealing happened. For a while, it was raided weekly, when police would break down the doors.

In big American cities, the social phenomena expressed itself in neighborhoods and campuses. But in Toronto, the whole damn thing was in one building. If you weren’t there, you can’t grasp how intense that was. For all intents and purposes, it’s like I’ve never moved out. I remain a political activist and my principal organizing mechanism is still having large numbers of people over for dinner. I just never grew out of it.

Asleep in the audience

Hockey or Shakespeare? That was the question facing Tom Patterson and his friends in 1939. They were teens growing up in Stratford, Ont., trying to think of ways to rejuvenate their community. In the early 20th century, Stratford was a centre for industry, particularly furniture manufacturing. That prosperity was finally wiped out by the Great Depression, but the Second World War delayed Patterson’s plans. Now 79 and living in Toronto, he recalls the beginnings of the renowned Stratford Festival.

STRATFORD HAD ONE of the first major strikes during the Depression, in 1933. Around 700 workers from all sectors were involved and the strike was controlled by the Communist party. The government sent in the troops. The reputation of the town was ruined and industry started moving out.

In 1939, a bunch of us kids went back and took our last year of high school over again because there were no jobs to go to. Four or five of us got together and thought, “What the hell are we going to do to save the reputation of Stratford?” Howie Morenz was from Stratford, and the city was a real hockey town. We had one of the only artificial rinks in southern Ontario, so there was the suggestion to have an international hockey school.

The other idea was to have a Shakespearean festival simply because ofthe town’s name. It almost never happened. The moment I remember most vividly was being in a boardroom in 1953 waiting to hear if the town council was going to give us the money. On the other side of the ocean, Tyrone Guthrie and Alec Guinness were waiting in Guthrie’s London apartment. They were waiting to hear if we’d got the money before boarding their ship to come over and begin production. It was close. I’ll never forget the exhilaration after we had the backing.

When I say I remember opening night, I remember going to it-l was SO tired that I fell asleep. It was July 13, 1953, and the play was Richard III. Guinness played Richard and Guthrie directed. After the play ended, everybody was so stunned that they didn’t know what to do.There was silence and then suddenly they all stood up and cheered. You know, the doubters said, “Who the hell is going to come 100 miles from Toronto to Stratford to see Shakespeare?” But they came in droves, not only from Toronto but from Detroit and New York City. Stratford had been on its way to becoming a ghost town.The festival saved it.

‘I went to the fridge and got him a beer’

Brian Mulroney, 60, served as prime minister of Canada from 1984 to 1993. He now lives in Montreal, where he is a senior partner at the law firm of Ogilvy Renault, but he grew up nearly 600 km away in the rugged northern Quebec municipality of Baie-Comeau.

MY DAD WENT to Baie-Comeau to look for work during the Depression before I was born, while my mother stayed behind in Quebec City and joined him when he got a job. He worked six days a week all his life, either at the paper mill or running his electrician’s business on the side. He would work Sundays whenever he could, because that paid time and a half at the mill. I would wait for him to come home after a 12or 16-hour day, and he would sit in his La-Z-Boy chair and take his shoes off while I went to the fridge and got him a beer. He would sit there and we would gather round. He would always talk about the future, and always say the same thing: “We’re almost over the hump.”

He was an optimist, he never got down. He was a Montreal Canadians fan who never saw his team play. He knew I was going to be a lawyer, but died [in 1965] before any of the really big things that happened after. I remember the morning of the election night of Sept. 4, 1984. I woke up in the old mill-manager’s house, and I could see my Dad’s house from the window. I heard the mill whistle blow, calling everyone to work, and I thought of him, and what he would have thought of this. He was like so many unsung heroes of this country: the dedication, the eternal optimism, the commitment to keep moving ahead. I still have that old chair in my home.

The bathhouse raids were a turning point

Gay activist George Hislop, 72, was the first openly homosexual person to run fior civic office in Toronto. It was 1980, and while he lost his bid to become an alderman, he remained an outspoken advocate for gay and lesbian rights. In the past two decades, Hislop has seen many of his efforts pay off.

YOU WERE ALWAYS vulnerable to attack by queer bashers-young guys looking for trouble who would come downtown at night. Eggs would be thrown at the windows of the bars. We really had a problem convincing the police to do something. I was beaten up once myself by a couple of cops. There was this bias from the police department. I once asked the police chief to come to the gay community and hold a meeting. He said homosexuals are incipient criminals, so what’s the point of having a meeting.

It was the Toronto bathhouse raids in 1981 that changed all this. In one night, 300 people were arrested. Nothing like that had happened in Canada since the FLQ crisis. People were outraged because of the raids. Surprisingly, the larger community—once not supportive of gay rights—reacted sympathetically when the raids happened. The public was outraged. The media was outraged. It was a big turning point in terms of public opinion.

Another great stepping stone was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It led to freedom of expression and freedom of association. The biggest change in our own community came about when we urged people to come out of the closet. At our first protests or marches, we chanted: “Out of the closets and into the streets.” In the early 1970s, there were only a few of us—maybe at the most 50— who stuck our heads above the ground. Last June, 750,000 people came out for Toronto’s Gay Pride Parade.