Cathy Ostlere's Lost

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Calgary's River Park. In 1956, shortly after city oilman and philanthropist, Eric Harvie established the Glenbow Foundation, he gave Calgarians a parcel of land. Harvie’s 20 acres of riverside property across the Elbow River from Britannia were designated as “a park for rest and relaxation in a natural setting.” Since then, some would say River Park has gone to the dogs: in recent years, it has become a popular off-leash park.  (Photo: Shaun Hunter)

Calgary's River Park. In 1956, shortly after city oilman and philanthropist, Eric Harvie established the Glenbow Foundation, he gave Calgarians a parcel of land. Harvie’s 20 acres of riverside property across the Elbow River from Britannia were designated as “a park for rest and relaxation in a natural setting.” Since then, some would say River Park has gone to the dogs: in recent years, it has become a popular off-leash park.  (Photo: Shaun Hunter)

Cathy Ostlere sits at her kitchen table in Calgary with her family. It is her younger brother, David’s birthday and they are waiting for his call from abroad. Only Cathy knows that he has embarked on another of his grand adventures: sailing with his girlfriend from Ireland to the Azores across the open Atlantic. The voyage is risky, and the phone call never comes. Weeks after David goes missing, Cathy travels to Madeira, the islands where her brother may have landed. The trip stirs up memories of her own youthful travels, and the sharp criticism her brother delivered in her Calgary living room. “Everyone here is wasting their lives. Everyone is the same. No one daring to think that there may be an entire world to move through, not just this sprawling grid of land scraped of all reminders of geography.” When she returns from Madeira, Cathy drops her children off at school on a dull November morning. In River Park, she considers the landscape of her Calgary life.

 

In the front foyer of the school I wave off invitations for coffee at Bell’s. I can no longer sustain a conversation. I hear only the echo, not the speaker’s voice. Sometimes I catch the conjunctions –the, and, or – the connecting words, but to what? The sentences are unrecognizable, like a foreign language I’ve never bothered to learn. Someone asks a question, a reply is expected, but I don’t know what we’re talking about.

I park the car at the end of 14th Street, dodge the unleased dogs running like greyhounds and head for the ravine. I walk as close to the edge as I dare. My feet slide. Clumps of crumbled earth slide down to the river.

I have returned to a land with three horizons. The first is a line of stubbled earth – the prairie fields broken and turned, lying fallow until spring. The second is the ragged bit of mountains, the stately wall of rock running north and south. But the third line is made of air: A Chinook arch – purple and grey clouds smudged across the upper half of a clear sky, the underside marked with a dark band as blue as a vein under the tongue. It reminds me of another demarcation not visible here – the sea-darkened curve where sailors fall off and women stare over the edge.

I still look for you. Keep my eye out for a boat with red and white sails, hovering along ahorizon.

A magpie flies over my head, mocking my despair with a piercing tongue. I pick up a stone and fling it at the plump black body. I miss but the bird leaves, crying. The colour blue flashes under its wing.

 

Cathy Ostlere, Lost: A Memoir (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2008)


Esi Edugyan's The Second Life of Samuel Tyne

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

A glimpse of the Calgary Esi Edugyan's protagonist Samuel Tyne might recognize: a 1960 parking lot at 14th Street and 16th Avenue SW. Edugyan was born in Calgary in 1978, years after this picture was taken. She grew up in Glamorgan, a ten-minute drive west of this intersection, borrowed books at the Shaganappi library, and graduated from Central Memorial High School. (Photo: City of Calgary Archives)

A glimpse of the Calgary Esi Edugyan's protagonist Samuel Tyne might recognize: a 1960 parking lot at 14th Street and 16th Avenue SW. Edugyan was born in Calgary in 1978, years after this picture was taken. She grew up in Glamorgan, a ten-minute drive west of this intersection, borrowed books at the Shaganappi library, and graduated from Central Memorial High School. (Photo: City of Calgary Archives)

Samuel Tyne sits at the workbench in his backyard shed in Calgary, soldering an old radio. It’s 1968, a “cold, vague day, with the dull feel of a hundred others,” and the weather matches his mood. As a young man from West Africa with a classical English education, he was precocious, ambitious. Now, after toiling for years at a dismal civil service job, he feels exiled and despondent. Samuel has spent the prime of his life in Calgary, and it has been filled only with “meager achievements.” Three days ago, he quit his job. He hasn’t told his wife and he doesn’t have a plan. He thinks of the decrepit house his uncle bequeathed him in a small town northwest of Edmonton, a region settled decades before by freed African-American slaves. In his shed, a decision works its way through Samuel’s gloom. At the dinner table, he announces to his wife and twin daughters that they are leaving the Calgary. “We are moving. That is final.”

 

Crossing the dark slush to the shed, Samuel felt exalted. He didn’t regret what he’d just done; in fact, he looked upon it as the truest gesture of his life. Had he been a man given to poetry, he might have said that something both stark and glorious had got hold of his future. That after fifteen years of the leash he’d finally seized it.

 

Esi Edugyan, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004)


Pauline Johnson's "Calgary of the Plains"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the eyes of Writers

Pauline Johnson's costume was an integral part of her "Indian princess" stage persona. Her outfit remained largely the same over the course of her career. Johnson willed the costume to the Museum of Vancouver.  (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Pauline Johnson's costume was an integral part of her "Indian princess" stage persona. Her outfit remained largely the same over the course of her career. Johnson willed the costume to the Museum of Vancouver.  (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The acclaimed Mohawk poet-performer, Pauline Johnson visited Calgary early in her stage career. In July 1894, during her first cross-Canada tour, she played two shows in the city. Calgary audiences were treated to her two-act recital: in the first, Johnson appeared in an elaborate buckskin costume; in the second, she stepped onto the stage in an evening gown. As Johnson traveled across the “velvet browness” of the prairies she was moved by the Western landscape and by its cities. She would return to Calgary several times before she retired from the stage, finding Western audiences more welcoming that those back home in Ontario. On a least one of her visits to Calgary, she stayed at the Alberta Hotel where she likely reconnected with Bob Edwards, the notorious Eye Opener editor she met while performing in High River in 1902. She experienced “the steam-pipe breath of the Chinook wind,” and connected with members of the Blackfoot nation when her train broke down at Gleichen. Not long before she died, she wrote, “I have always loved Calgary, and how it is loving and loyal to me.” It is unclear when Johnson penned this Calgary poem, but she chose to include it in her final volume of poetry, Flint and Feather.

 

Not of the seething cities with their swarming human hives,

Their fetid airs, their reeking streets, their dwarfed and poisoned lives,

Not of the buried yesterdays, but of the days to be,

The glory and the gateway of the yellow West is she.

 

The Northern Lights dance down her plains with soft and silvery feet,

The sunrise gilds her prairies when the dawn and daylight meet;

Along her level lands the fitful southern breezes sweep,

And beyond her western windows the sublime old mountains sleep.

 

The Redman haunts her portals, and the Paleface treads her streets,

The Indian’s stealthy footstep with the course of commerce meets,

And hunters whisper vaguely of the half forgotten tales

Of phantom herds of bison lurking on her midnight trails.

 

Not hers the lore of olden lands, their laurels and their bays;

But what are these, compared to one of all her perfect days?

For naught can buy the jewel that upon her forehead lies –

The cloudless sapphire Heaven of her territorial skies.

 

E. Pauline Johnson, “Calgary of the Plains,” Flint and Feather: The Complete Poems of E. Pauline Johnson (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1912)


Winnifred Eaton Reeve's Cattle

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Armistice Day in Calgary, November 11, 1918. The crowd gathers in front of City Hall to celebrate the end of the war. Look closely: only a few citizens are following the "mask order" issued to stop the spread of the Spanish flu. Later in the evening, the hanging effigies of the German Kaiser and Crown Prince were burned in bonfires on the North Hill and overlooking Elbow Park. (Photo: Peel's Prairie Provinces)

Armistice Day in Calgary, November 11, 1918. The crowd gathers in front of City Hall to celebrate the end of the war. Look closely: only a few citizens are following the "mask order" issued to stop the spread of the Spanish flu. Later in the evening, the hanging effigies of the German Kaiser and Crown Prince were burned in bonfires on the North Hill and overlooking Elbow Park. (Photo: Peel's Prairie Provinces)

Calgary lies at the edges of this story set in the ranching country west of town near Morley. The city sends out ripples of economic change. The oil and real-estate booms are “as a boomerang to the land,” bringing in “the wild-cat speculator, the get-rich-quick folk, the gold-brick seller and the train of clever swindlers that spring into being when a boom is in swing.” For the young farm woman, Nettie Day, the city offers escape from the cattle king who rapes her and the scandal of her resulting pregnancy. It also brings “eternal speed and noise, a feverish, rushing activity which would bewilder and terrify.” By late 1918, Nettie will see Calgary as “the city of gloom and plague” – a magnet for the sickness that is spreading from the battlefields of Europe. 

 

Calgary might have been likened at that time to a beleaguered city, on guard for a dreaded enemy attack. The widely printed warnings, in newspapers and on placards in public places and street cars; the newspaper accounts of the progress of the sickness in Europe, the United States and the eastern part of Canada, with the long list of death’s grim toll, threw the healthy city of the foothills into a state of panic.

Schools were closed; people feared to go to church. Disinfectants were sprayed in all the stores and offices. Every cold, every sneeze was diagnosed as plague, and the mounting fear and hysteria awaited and perhaps precipitated the creeping enemy. For slowly, surely, pushing its way irresistibly over all the impediments and prayers to hold it back, the dreaded plague encroached upon Alberta.

The first definitely diagnosed cases came in early summer, which was raw and cold as always in that country. Only two or three cases were discovered at this time, but all of the medical and nursing profession volunteered or were conscripted for service to the city. Curiously enough, no means of protection were taken for the vast country that abounded on all sides of the city of the foothills.

The warm summer brought an abatement of the menace; but when the first chill swept in with the frosty fall, the plague burst overwhelmingly over the country.

Calgary, the city of sunlight and optimism, was now a place of pain and death. Scarcely a house escaped the dreaded visitor, and a curiosity of its effect upon its victims was that the young and strong were the chief sufferers. A haunting sense of disaster now brooded over the city. Hospitals, schools, churches, theatres and other public buildings were turned into houses of refuge. No one was permitted on the street without a mask – a piece of white gauze fastened across nose and mouth.

In this terrible crisis, the shortage of nurses and doctors was cruelly felt. An army of volunteer nurses were recruited by the city authorities, but these failed to supply adequate help for the stricken houses, and many there were who perished for lack of care and attention. The hospitals were crammed, as also were all the emergency places that had been transposed into temporary hospitals.

Despite almost superhuman efforts, the death lists grew from day to day. The ghastly sight of hearses, carts, automobiles and any and all types of vehicles, passing through the street freighted with Calgary’s dead, was an everyday occurrence.

 

Winnifred Eaton Reeve, Cattle (Toronto: The Musson Book Company Limited, [1923?])


H. Nelson Dickson's "The Sack of Calgary"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Say goodbye to the Venetian arcade. The cover illustration of H. Nelson Dickson's pamphlet illustrates the fictional destruction of the Hudson's Bay store depicted in his story. (Source: Glenbow Library)

Say goodbye to the Venetian arcade. The cover illustration of H. Nelson Dickson's pamphlet illustrates the fictional destruction of the Hudson's Bay store depicted in his story. (Source: Glenbow Library)

A year after the war begins in Europe in August 1914, Calgary is caught up in the conflict. Young men crowd recruiting centres. Relief efforts and war bond drives kick into gear, and Calgarians feel the pinch of food and commodity shortages. As the conflict enters its second summer, a military tent city springs up on land leased from the Sarcee Indians southwest of town. Immigrant settlers deemed "enemy aliens" board trains at Calgary Station on their way to the internment camp at Castle Mountain. And a fearful Calgary bookkeeper pens and publishes a 14-page pamphlet called The Sack of Calgary. H. Nelson Dickson sets his tale in the near future, hoping to propel civic leaders into taking action against a possible German attack. The story begins with an assault on the city at daybreak. By sunset, countless citizens are gunned down in the streets. Soldiers are massacred at Sarcee Camp, and the city surrenders. Meanwhile on Eighth Avenue, the Hudson’s Bay store smolders.

 

Exactly at 6:5 [sic] o’clock the sharp reverberating report of a gun was heard and a shell came screaming across the river from the northern heights and crashed in the Hudson’s Bay Co’s. Store on the sixth floor. The shell ceased its flight on coming into contact with a roll of carpet, burst with a terrific crash, blowing out the windows, and a tongue of fire shooting upwards like a flame from a furnace showed that the store was alight. This shell was followed by two others turning the building into a roaring fiery furnace. The fire spread until not only was the Hudson’s Bay Store building a mere blackened and twisted skeleton but Eight Avenue from the Alexander Block to Second Street West on its north side was a mass of smoking ruins. The fire was stopped only by the iron and concrete framework of the uncompleted Mackie building at the west corner of Second Street West. The lower part of this building, used as a market, being mostly wood, was burnt out but the fire spread no further.

Three shots were fired at the Hudson’s Bay Store, six were fired in all from that gun on the heights. The fourth struck the Lougheed Building shattering the corner near First Street West and starting a fire which burnt itself out. The fifth struck the tower of the Herald Building crashing through the brickwork but failed to explode, and the sixth struck the Robin Hood Mill, starting a fire that burned over twenty-four hours and left the mill a wreck.

 

H. Nelson Dickson, The Sack of Calgary (The Avenue Press, 1915)

Notes:

Hat tip to Harry Sanders and his article, “The Sack of Calgary” (Avenue, 2005)

For a fictional account of Ukrainian settlers interned at Castle Mountain, check out Calgary author, Pam Clark's novel Kalyna (Stonehouse Publishing, 2016).


Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Last Crossing

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Built in 1891, Beaulieu, James and Belle Lougheed's sandstone mansion announced Calgary's aim to become a great city. From the fashionable Lincrusta wallpaper and customized stained glass windows, to the wood-panelled library stocked with literary classics, the Big House was intended to show the world that Calgary had the makings of a cultivated metropolis. (Photo, taken in 1956: Calgary Public Library Alison Jackson Collection)

Built in 1891, Beaulieu, James and Belle Lougheed's sandstone mansion announced Calgary's aim to become a great city. From the fashionable Lincrusta wallpaper and customized stained glass windows, to the wood-panelled library stocked with literary classics, the Big House was intended to show the world that Calgary had the makings of a cultivated metropolis. (Photo, taken in 1956: Calgary Public Library Alison Jackson Collection)

London, England, 1896. The renowned English painter and poet, Charles Daunt sits in an elegant hotel lobby and studies the young journalist who has come from Canada to interview him. Gaunt offers Thomas Harkness a cigarette from his silver case, and asks, “Does a newspaper in … in Calgary, is it? Remind me, that is the place?... Does a newspaper in Calgary maintain a correspondent in London?” Harkness explains he is on honeymoon in Europe, and Calgary is home. “I believe that our little out-of-the-way place ought to learn something about Charles Gaunt the poet.” Gaunt is unmoved by the flattery, and wary. The young man’s visit stirs up memories of his arduous travels in the West twenty-five years earlier when there was no such thing as a city named Calgary. Desperate to track down his lost brother, he followed the half-breed guide, Jerry Potts across the western plains – a harsh and hostile land. Now, Potts is dead and the West Gaunt remembers exists no longer.

 

Gaunt, seeking breathing space, remarked, “Lately, one sees a good deal in the British press of your part of the world. Advertisements for settlers, much talk of boundless opportunity.”

“One could say Western Canada changes by the hour,” Harkness said with fervor. “Towns and cities arise almost overnight. Why, Winnipeg, in the province of Manitoba, already has a population of several hundred thousand and is a bustling rail centre. There are those who say that in a decade it shall surpass Chicago. And Calgary, only a short time ago, it was nothing but a whisky post on the Bow River, and now it is the coming place. Hotels, businesses, it boils with activity.” He paused. “You might pay us a visit. The better class of citizen is very eager to attend lectures on literary topics. We do not wish to moulder in a cultural wasteland. You should give it your consideration.” 

 

Guy Vanderhaeghe, The Last Crossing (McClelland & Stewart, 2002)

 


Catherine Simmons' "A Man's House Is"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Calgary's Boyer family on the porch of their home at 819 - 5th Ave NW. As the crow flies, this house is not far from the peninsula in what Catherine Simmons calls one of her Calgary porch stories. The Boyers' house was scheduled for demolition in 2013. (Photo: Calgary Public Library Postcards from the Past)

Calgary's Boyer family on the porch of their home at 819 - 5th Ave NW. As the crow flies, this house is not far from the peninsula in what Catherine Simmons calls one of her Calgary porch stories. The Boyers' house was scheduled for demolition in 2013. (Photo: Calgary Public Library Postcards from the Past)

Martin and Martha live in a house on the peninsula of land between University Drive and Crowchild Trail, “the point of decision for a stream of travellers” heading north. They planned to stay for only a couple of years, until their son Don graduated from university. At first, the constant traffic noise made them yearn for silence. Gradually, the rumble of traffic began to affect them like ocean waves: lulling them, making them feel secure. Their son thinks his parents are crazy. To him, the cars are “[d]irty stinking traffic.” He urges his parents to give up their strange nighttime habit of staring out their windows at the steady flow of vehicles. Find a hobby, Don suggests, take a trip, go on a cruise. But Martin and Martha resist.

 

[I]t was the evenings, the long summer evenings that made this house their home. For, as dusk fell they would sit at the west window where road-dust caught the sunset, their street a red haze, watching that warm stream of lights drift and bob. Car beams and bronzed metal pulsed as they passed, flickering gold shadows and line light on the walls of their living room. And, in cooling darkness, Martha said that the car lights that swam like floating fire-flies were their private show: “The lights,” she said, “are just for us, Martin.”

Then they would shift their chairs to the other side of the room to watch the traffic that moved by their east window. And sitting, knowing the movement of traffic on both east and west sides of their home, they longed to see the lights from the south bobbing directly towards them.

Martin could not fix in time the drift from knowing only the dust-drone of cars to seeing, finally, metallic light dance. Nor could he discern when he no longer said to Martha, “Just for a couple of years.” In seasons of tranquil cars on grey roads and color streams on spring pavement, in hours of sharp cacophony, red light and evening soft-motor hum, it simply became obvious that this was their home.

 

Catherine Simmons, “A Man’s House Is,” The Dinosaur Review (Fall 1985)


Fred Stenson's "The Hockey Widow"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

In 1983, three years after Calgary secured an NHL franchise, a new arena changed the city's skyline. To its architects, the roof was a reverse hyperbolic paraboloid. To the majority of Calgarians who participated in a naming contest, it looked like something more familiar. 735 saddle-themed names went into the hat. The winning name received mixed reviews, but Saddledome has stuck. (Photo: Calgary Public Library Postcards from the Past)

In 1983, three years after Calgary secured an NHL franchise, a new arena changed the city's skyline. To its architects, the roof was a reverse hyperbolic paraboloid. To the majority of Calgarians who participated in a naming contest, it looked like something more familiar. 735 saddle-themed names went into the hat. The winning name received mixed reviews, but Saddledome has stuck. (Photo: Calgary Public Library Postcards from the Past)

Rita is a hockey widow. Come September, she loses her husband, Sid to the game. Then there’s her ten-year-old daughter, Lisa, who is intent on being as good a player as any boy on the rink. By January, hockey is eating into the household finances. The biggest expense? Sid’s season ticket to watch the Bisons, a team he claims to hate.

 

Five years ago when the Bisons came to their city, Rita had been caught up in Sid’s childish delight over it all. She had agreed about the season ticket, had even felt a measure of anxiety when he took his sleeping bag down to sleep outside the Bisons ticket office. What if they ran out just as his turn came? She had accepted it all so easily because, back then, Sid did work hard as a welder and was paying off his welding truck at record speed. At that time, it was also true that he had few amusements.

Well, things had changed. They had changed so completely it was impossible to believe Sid had failed to notice. Few amusements? Relative to whom, Rita wondered. Prince Andrew? His hockey drafts, his “fat man” hockey team, his going out to watch Bisons home games and the other games he watched with his buddies on the big screen down at the bar. Then there was his hockey card collection and his careful supervision of Lisa’s.

Sid played constantly, as far as Rita could see, but she also realized that, somewhere along the line, Sid had ceased to view any of it as play. The season’s ticket and the hockey cards were investments. the hockey pools were business. The fat man recreational hockey league (in spite of the gallons of beer and all the cigarettes afterward) was exercise. And the proof that none of it was play was that none of it was fun.

 

Fred Stenson, “The Hockey Widow,” Teeth (Coteau, 1994)


Katherine Govier's The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Calgary's iconic Palliser Hotel makes a cameo appearance in Katherine Govier's latest novel. This view from the 1940s looks east down Ninth Avenue with the hotel on the right. (Photo: University of Alberta Peel Collection, Prairie Postcards)

Calgary's iconic Palliser Hotel makes a cameo appearance in Katherine Govier's latest novel. This view from the 1940s looks east down Ninth Avenue with the hotel on the right. (Photo: University of Alberta Peel Collection, Prairie Postcards)

In the summer of 1941, nineteen-year-old Iona Wishart arrives in Calgary, her first night away from her home in the Bow Valley. Against her parents’ wishes, she has come to the Palliser Hotel to sing with her uncle’s band. In the hotel lobby, Iona recognizes the bellhop: a boy she talked to a few weeks before when she helped with a delivery to Camp 88 in Morley Flats. Iona couldn’t pinpoint the boy then – who he was and why he was at the “secret” camp everybody knew was a prison for German nationals. In Calgary, she finds out he is the son of a Japanese family, registered as aliens, relocated from the coast and on the run, just like she is.

 

I know you, she said, looking into the eyes of the bellhop at the Palliser Hotel. He wore a blue uniform and a pillbox hat with a wide chinstrap. He was lean and a little taller than she was. He bent from the hips to pick up her case. His ears, pushed out by the tight white band of the hat, were red. He walked away ahead.

She paused in the lobby and looked through the bar to the dining room. It was grand with elaborate plaster flowers over the doorways and a high ceiling. She took off her hat and shook out her hair, conscious that it was chestnut, that it shone, that the curls she had put in overnight bounced. She looked all through the bar and the lobby, scanning, as if for someone she knew: there was nobody; she was miles and miles – seventy-five, to be precise – away from home.

The bar was full of men. Ranchers in their Stetsons, soldiers from Currie Barracks, salesmen and travellers too old to be in uniform. A scattering of women stood in the foyer in high heels and tight little jackets with skirts that fluted around their knees. It was a clean, bright crowd, and for a minute her confidence collapsed. They looked prosperous. The women intimidated her. But she hadn’t met the man she couldn’t please. She turned back to the bellhop, who had called the elevator and was standing at its open door. She looked at him again and knew who he was and why he had not spoken.

Katherine Govier, The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel (HarperCollins, 2016)


Marion Douglas's Bending at the Bow

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

A steam engine crossing the Elbow River seen from a bluff in what we now call Ramsay, an area once known as Grandview. (Photo: Calgary Public Library Postcards from the Past)

A steam engine crossing the Elbow River seen from a bluff in what we now call Ramsay, an area once known as Grandview. (Photo: Calgary Public Library Postcards from the Past)

Annie Clemens is adrift. It has been two years since her lover, Sylvie was killed in a car accident and Annie is struggling to move on. She meets Martha Rigg, a widowed activist who is protesting the Mulroney government’s free trade campaign. She spray paints her message around town on the “things nobody really owns, hoardings and underpasses. Secret places.” Annie does not have strong feelings about free trade, but in Martha she sees a kindred spirit coping with grief. She decides to ride shotgun on one of Martha’s late-night painting sprees. From the Fort Calgary parking lot, the two women walk along the bike path toward the railway tracks in Ramsay. They carry a can of red spray paint and a stencil with a silhouette of Canada. SOLD, it reads. REALTOR OF THE YEAR: BRIAN MULRONEY. FREE TRADE ISN’T.

 

We arrived at the Elbow River, so still, as if it had come to a halt and were contemplating changing direction. The underpass was not far off. Lights had been installed and were permanently on; too many homeless in this part of the city, a dark dry place would be dangerously inviting. Best to illuminate. As we drew closer, in fact, the brilliance of the lights was repellent. I wondered if we might not be thrown backwards by the strength of the wattage or destroyed the way insects can be by light. But no, we entered the little tunnel unchallenged.

“This looks like a good spot,” said Martha. “Let’s cover this up, whatever this is. Let’s see, ‘Metallica fucking, fucking rules,’” she read. “I think a nice map of Canada would be more suited to this space.”

Martha fished out the stencil and held it against the concrete, then handed me the paint. I sprayed with abandon. Red streaks, immediately began to drip from the forty-ninth parallel. Overhead, on the tracks, voices could be heard. “Wake up, everybody,” one of them said. “Do you hear me?” he shouted. “Wake up ya bunch of fuckers.”

“Can you shut him up?” a female voice asked.

“Shut up, Mike,” said a third voice, male, tired.

“Wake up” was heard again, only quietly this time, conversationally, followed by the splattering of a stream of piss into the Elbow River.

Marion Douglas, Bending at the Bow (Press Gang, 1995)


Benedict & Nancy Freedman's Mrs. Mike

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

The authors of Mrs. Mike never visited Alberta when they wrote their 1947 best-selling novel based on the life story of Katherine Flannigan. They did their research at the UCLA library, where they may have happened upon this 1907 map of Calgary. Flannigan, however, returned to the city in 1954 to visit friends, and died here at the age of 55. (Credit: Calgary Public Library Historical Maps collection)

The authors of Mrs. Mike never visited Alberta when they wrote their 1947 best-selling novel based on the life story of Katherine Flannigan. They did their research at the UCLA library, where they may have happened upon this 1907 map of Calgary. Flannigan, however, returned to the city in 1954 to visit friends, and died here at the age of 55. (Credit: Calgary Public Library Historical Maps collection)

In 1907, a sixteen-year-old girl from Boston meets and marries a Canadian Mountie on her uncle’s ranch in the Alberta foothills. She and her husband will travel by dog sled to his post in the Peace River country, but the grand adventure of Katherine Mary O’Fallon Flannigan’s life begins in what her uncle calls the “mighty big” city of Calgary.

 

It was because of my pleurisy I was being sent to Uncle John, who lived in Calgary, Alberta. Up till 1905 Alberta had been part of the Great Northwest Territory, and it gave me a real thrill to go to a place that had been officially civilized for only two years.

My mother had had her doubts about letting me go into such a wilderness. We looked it up on a map of North America, and Alberta seemed awfully empty. Our part of the country, which was Boston, was covered with winding black lines meaning roads, and barbed-wire lines meaning railroads, and circles of all sizes meaning cities and towns. It was so crowded with these proofs of civilization that there was no room for the names, which were stuck out in the Atlantic Ocean. In Alberta there was none of this reassuring confusion. A couple of thin blue rivers, a couple of crooked lakes, and the map maker was through. My mother found the circle that was Calgary and carefully compared it with the circles of Massachusetts.

“A fine black dot it is, but not be mentioned in the same breath with Boston,” she said. Boston was a very distinctive city on our map, being a large dot with a ring around it. “And you’ll bear in mind, Katherine Mary,” she added, “that’s as far north as I want you to go. Don’t be letting your uncle take you up into this.” She waved in the general direction of Mackenzie and the North Pole. “My own mother lived and died in the house where she was born, and all the traveling she did was to the oatfield and back.”

We both sat and wondered at the size of the world until she folded it up and put it in the bureau drawer.

However, the doctors said the cold dry climate of Alberta would be good for my lungs, and Uncle John said it was a long, long time since he had seen one of his kin, and so at last my mother gave in and let me go.

 

Benedict and Nancy Freedman, Mrs. Mike (New York: Coward-McCann, 1947)


Deborah Willis's "Sky Theatre"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

The dome of the Calgary Centennial Planetarium, under construction in 1966-67. The facility was built, according to a city astronomer, to celebrate not only Canada's centennial but "the world's entry into the space age... and the marvel of the heavens." (Photo: City of Calgary Archives via Alberta on Record)

The dome of the Calgary Centennial Planetarium, under construction in 1966-67. The facility was built, according to a city astronomer, to celebrate not only Canada's centennial but "the world's entry into the space age... and the marvel of the heavens." (Photo: City of Calgary Archives via Alberta on Record)

By her own admission, Caitlin is an ordinary kid growing up in the Calgary suburbs. In her neighbourhood, “each street looked like every other street: double garages, aerated lawns, pastel stucco.” Within this safe, predictable frame, Caitlin fantasizes about living anywhere but here, and about Mary Louise, the golden, mysterious girl a grade ahead of her in school. On the first day of Grade 11, Mary Louise returns to school paraplegic and Caitlin’s sense of the world begins to change. The accident causes Caitlin to consider the fragility of the reassuring patterns of her life in a city “that was always booming, or about to boom, a city that was sunny even in winter.” For the first time, she thinks about “that flimsy, moody thing” called luck. As she and her ordinary boyfriend Jay make out in the darkness of the domed theatre at the Planetarium, the projected night sky shimmers above them.

 

We kissed until our lips became swollen and raw. We kissed until we physically couldn’t kiss anymore. Then we straightened our clothes, breathed, leaned back in our seats, and looked at the stars. We held hands, our palms sweating against each other, as Andromeda sparkled or asteroids flew toward us. The Sky Theatre had a different show each week, but each was accompanied by a voice-over done by the same man. He had an accent that I couldn’t place but that I adored. The pattern of our days occurs because we live on a constantly spinning Earth. Because of this motion, day turns into night, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and summer turns into fall.

In my mind, the man who owned this gruff but gentle voice was named something foreign, like Pavel or Armand. I settled on Armand, and once I’d named him, I fell in love with him. I imagined that he was dashing and elegant and better-looking than Jay. I imagined that he was romantic and confident. I watched the complex movement of the heavens – there was a swirling nebula, there Orion’s belt – and everything Armand said seemed to be intended only for me.

For our earthbound view, stars appear to make a connected shape. But in fact the stars are not so connected, except in mythology and human imagination.

 Once, I forgot myself and said, “I love his voice. I would marry someone who talks like that.”

“That guy?” said Jay, with his Western Canadian accent – a form a speech so neutral that telemarketers in Delhi are encouraged to adopt it. “I think he sounds like an asshole.”

 

Deborah Willis, "Sky Theatre," Vanishing and Other Stories (Toronto: Penguin, 2009)

 


Roberta Rees's Long After Fathers

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of Writers

An early view of Calgary's exhibition grounds and race track, later home to the Calgary Stampede. Victoria Park is to the right, and the Elbow River is in the foreground. The Stampede Grill in Roberta Rees's story collection was located on 2nd Street East (aka MacLeod Trail), across the street from the entrance to the Stampede. (Photo: Calgary Public Library Postcards from the Past)

An early view of Calgary's exhibition grounds and race track, later home to the Calgary Stampede. Victoria Park is to the right, and the Elbow River is in the foreground. The Stampede Grill in Roberta Rees's story collection was located on 2nd Street East (aka MacLeod Trail), across the street from the entrance to the Stampede. (Photo: Calgary Public Library Postcards from the Past)

Jessie Morris is a survivor. She grows up too fast in Victoria Park in the 1940s: a working-class neighbourhood of two-storey wood-frame houses squeezed between the train yards, warehouses and factories of East Calgary. When she’s eleven, a stranger abducts her. Three weeks later, her mother dies, and then meningitis steals her beloved big sister. At thirteen, Jessie sets out on her own. She leaves her father to drink himself to death at the St. Regis Hotel downtown and finds a room in a boarding house. Jessie shows up for work at the Stampede Grill, a hangout for racetrack jockeys and the place where her life takes yet another turn.

 

Every day for a week the girl comes into the café just as the jockeys pick lettuce and tomato out of their teeth, throw back their fourth cups of coffee, “Can’t gain weight, Jessie, gotta stay light, know what I mean,” rush out the door, “See ya Jessie kid, keep a steak on ice for me kid, when ya see me sittin’ big in the winner’s circle, throw ‘er on the grill,” spring across Second Street East, through the Stampede Grounds, to the track.

Steam and burgers and onions and mustard and fries and ketchup and vinegar and horses. Horses. Jessie wipes the grey arborite tables, wipes the drips off the ketchup bottles, pockets the dimes and nickels the jockeys hide under their cups.

Warm, she rubs her thumb over their surfaces, breathes deep through her hose. Horses and the sweat of tight-muscled men. Boys, most of them no older than her.

 

Roberta Rees, “Hand of A Thief,” Long After Fathers (Regina: Coteau, 2007)

 


Barb Howard's "Still Making Time"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Completed in 1933 and costing $4 million, the Glenmore Dam was the largest public works project in the city's history, providing needed employment during the first years of the Dirty Thirties. The dammed Elbow River flooded 900 acres of land to create the Glenmore Reservoir. In the 1940s, the area was considered a "swimming, fishing and picnicking paradise." Later, the reservoir was closed to swimmers and power boaters, but not to the literary imagination. (Photo: Calgary Public Library Postcards from the Past)

Completed in 1933 and costing $4 million, the Glenmore Dam was the largest public works project in the city's history, providing needed employment during the first years of the Dirty Thirties. The dammed Elbow River flooded 900 acres of land to create the Glenmore Reservoir. In the 1940s, the area was considered a "swimming, fishing and picnicking paradise." Later, the reservoir was closed to swimmers and power boaters, but not to the literary imagination. (Photo: Calgary Public Library Postcards from the Past)

Labour Day weekend. Scott pauses on a bluff above the Canoe Club and thinks about calling Nadia. It’s been twenty years since their summer on Glenmore Reservoir. He’s seen Nadia only twice since then, once with her two small children in tow, and once on the Stampede grounds. He unlocks the cellphone screen, and pauses. Nadia is at her parents’ house in Calgary, helping them pack up before they move to a condo. She sorts through a cardboard box of outdoor gear stowed away after her job at the Canoe Club twenty summers before. Each item sparks a memory. A late-night paddle up to the river’s mouth at the west end of the Reservoir. An accident involving the Canoe Club commodore. The Labour Day weekend when she and Scott met at the dock. “The water, the morning, the summer. The guy. She never wanted them to lose their pre-dawn shimmer.”

 

Scott sits on the bench, looks across to the patrol hut, shakes his head. He shouldn’t have stopped here. It makes him feel like some rube who can’t move on, like he wishes he was still twenty-four and working on the patrol and rescue boat. Pathetic. Because for all his first-responder courses, and water rescue training, and experience in jet boats and sailboats, for coming all the way from Muskoka, the job hadn’t required much more than putting around the reservoir. The patrol boat was the only jet boat allowed on the water, so there was some status attached to being in it, but driving slowly with that powerful engine always seemed like a waste. Sometimes he towed a canoe or sailboat back to shore. Mostly he drove around telling people not to swim in the water. He met Nadia on a Friday, which meant regatta day for all the canoe and sailboat camps on the water. He and Eddy – he was always on a shift with Eddy – spotted a group of kids standing in their canoes. One kid at the stern of each canoe, right up on the gunwales, bending their knees, swinging their arms, bobbing a crooked track across the reservoir. A swimming incident waiting to happen, Eddy figured.

 

Barb Howard, “Still Making Time,” Western Taxidermy (NeWest Press, 2012)


Rosemary Nixon's Are You Ready to Be Lucky?

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the eyes of writers

"Itching to live inner-city? This Mount Pleasant cutie is perfect for a first-time buyer's renovation project." This photo (and caption) appeared in a March 2014 Calgary Herald article, "What $400,000 will buy you in Calgary." (Photo: Calgary Real Estate Board)

"Itching to live inner-city? This Mount Pleasant cutie is perfect for a first-time buyer's renovation project." This photo (and caption) appeared in a March 2014 Calgary Herald article, "What $400,000 will buy you in Calgary." (Photo: Calgary Real Estate Board)

Roslyn’s second marriage is over. She’s back in Calgary, picking up the pieces of her life. She buys a handyman's special in Mount Pleasant: a house her contractor, Floyd says was built by “a goddamn wacko.” While Floyd transforms her place, Roslyn lives in her sister’s basement. If Roslyn had her druthers, she would put more space between herself and her sister’s steady stream of advice. But Calgary is booming and rent is sky high. “Accountants living in their cars, retired couples crashing on their grandkids’ floors.” And contractors are impossible to find. Her sister and her husband have connected her with Floyd, an old-fashioned builder from the Kootenays: a “house-savant” who is fixing not only Roslyn’s house, but mending her life.

 

“Would you care to read my novel?”

Roslyn jumps. Floyd is stuffing insulation into the two long rectangular holes in the living room wall – holes that served as built-in knick-knack shelves – forearms scratched red. He drapes the insulation in plastic.

“Six hundred pages so far.”

“You’ve written a novel?” Roslyn says.

“Written ‘er by hand. Don’t know why I bother with vapour barrier. Rest of the house doesn’t have it. Give it twenty, thirty years and this house will deteriorate because the builder didn’t have a plan. It concerns my ex. My second ex. The first wife was a dream.” He looks around the dusty living room scattered with tools. “Where did I lay my screw gun? The title? Father in Heaven, Daughter from hell. Minister’s daughter. I made her sign a prenup.” Floyd climbs the stepladder, dust streaking his nose likea swab of makeup. “One morning she turned over in bed and said, ‘You know that piece of paper you made me sign? It isn’t worth shit!” Got home one night not long after. Place was cleaned out. Kit and caboodle. Computer. Camera. Tools. She even took my heads.”

“Your what?”

“My trophies. She fetched fifteen hundred dollars for the antelope. Four thousand for the el. No point reporting it. She was banging the town cop.”

 

Rosemary Nixon, Are You Ready To Be Lucky? (Freehand Books, 2013)    


W. O. Mitchell's The Vanishing Point

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Blue-Bird Motel and Trailer Court, 3912 MacLeod Trail, circa 1955. "Modern, comfortable and well furnished cottages, for summer and winter comfort. Close to the City Centre on Highway No. 2. Calgary's Finest Trailer Court. Pleasant quiet and courteously managed. Your Hosts: Mr. and Mrs. Ed. Pahl." (Photo: Calgary Public Library Postcards from the Past)

Blue-Bird Motel and Trailer Court, 3912 MacLeod Trail, circa 1955. "Modern, comfortable and well furnished cottages, for summer and winter comfort. Close to the City Centre on Highway No. 2. Calgary's Finest Trailer Court. Pleasant quiet and courteously managed. Your Hosts: Mr. and Mrs. Ed. Pahl." (Photo: Calgary Public Library Postcards from the Past)

After years teaching school on the Paradise Valley reserve eighty miles southwest of the city, Carlyle Sinclair wonders if he might be bushed. His time with the Stoney people on the eastern slopes of the Rockies has changed his perspective. Caught in downtown Calgary traffic, he sees the city as a carnival, its buildings and crowds put on display for his occasional visits, and taken down when he leaves. As he heads back to the reserve on the main north-south road out of town, traffic thins but the city continues to clamour.

 

Banners and neon lights signaled hamburger and root beer stands – used-car dealers’ car herds – fried chicken – fish and chips – pizza and pancake palaces. The city was briefly industrial and superlative: ZENITH–ACME–UNIVERSAL. The speed zone changed – the Bluebird Motel – Shirly-Dan – Round-Up – Arrow – Pioneer –Stetson – Mecca – Oasis. He accelerated at the city limits – PEERLESS EXTERMINATORS FOR SPARROW, PIGEON, STARLING, SILVERFISH, MICE, RAT, BAT AND SKUNK CONTROL. He flashed by your goddam tootin’ Luton, lifting a fluorescent flamingo into an estate wagon by the pumps. SID’S VIRGIN LOAM, PEAT MOSS AND ROTTED MANURE–CHARLIE’S GOLD STAR DRAIN CLEARING AND SEPTIC TANK INSTALLATION – WES’S TRENCHING, BACK FILLING, BRUSH CUTTING, EXCAVATING, LEVELLING AND CRUSHING. Arnold’s, Pieter’s, Vern’s, Les’s, Oscar’s, Walter’s…

 

 

W. O. Mitchell, The Vanishing Point (Macmillan, 1973)


Cheryl Foggo's Pourin' Down Rain

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

The landmark twin railway bridges in Bowness, looking west from Bowmont Park, with Stoney Trail in the distance (Photo: Blair Carbert)

The landmark twin railway bridges in Bowness, looking west from Bowmont Park, with Stoney Trail in the distance (Photo: Blair Carbert)

The descendant of African-American prairie pioneers, Cheryl Foggo grew up on a street in Bowness that “contained the closest thing to a Black community that one would find in Calgary in 1961.” As a girl, she was barely aware of racism. “There was nothing amiss,” Foggo writes, “nothing lacking in Bowness.”

 

Across the street from our house was another field which we had to cross to reach the railroad tracks leading to the twin bridges, the Bow River, and ultimately, to the paths that took us “up in the hills.”

Most summer days we spent meandering along the tracks to the river, the usual goal being a picnic in the hills. The picnic, however, was not really the point. The point was the adventure we would sometimes encounter along the way.

On a very warm day, if there was no breeze, the heat from the iron rails and sharp smell of oil and metal bouncing up into our faces would drive us down from the tracks to walk through the high grasses. This meant slower going, but it was good to sniff the flowers instead of the heat and to dig around what someone would insist was a badger hole.

From the first time my brothers pronounced me old enough to go along with them, until I was sixteen and we moved from Bowness, the journey along the tracks to the river, across the bridges and up into the hills was real life. It was the meeting place, it was where we went to talk and light campfires, it was something we did that our parents did not do.

 

Cheryl Foggo, Pourin’ Down Rain (Detselig, 1990)


Lily MacKenzie's "Soul of the City"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Central United Church on 7 Avenue & 1st Street West. Future prime minister, R. B. Bennett helped choose the site for this then-Methodist church. When the building was completed in 1905, it was the largest in the city, seating 1,975 people. (Photo: Calgary Public Library, Postcards from the Past)

Central United Church on 7 Avenue & 1st Street West. Future prime minister, R. B. Bennett helped choose the site for this then-Methodist church. When the building was completed in 1905, it was the largest in the city, seating 1,975 people. (Photo: Calgary Public Library, Postcards from the Past)

Lily MacKenzie left Calgary in 1963 as a young woman. Then, fewer than 250,000 people called the city home, twenty-story Elveden House was the only skyscraper, and Prince’s Island was overgrown and neglected, “a wild place in the heart of the city.” Decades later, when MacKenzie returns to visit, many of the landmarks of her childhood are gone. In their stead, she finds a city transformed, a place that “slips away, constantly revising itself.” But what of the city’s soul, she wonders, the “places that touch us at the deepest core of our being”? At Central United Church, the caretaker lets her into the place where she learned to play piano as a girl and attended holiday services with her family. Her visit points to something that has resisted the city’s incessant change, the intangible essence MacKenzie is looking for. 

 

Central United, a stable downtown fixture like The Bay, smells old, unlike the glitz that surrounds it. The same dark wood pews that I sat on as a girl face the altar and the stained glass windows… The church has seen better days, paint peeling off the walls in places, red carpet fraying.

Still, it’s like visiting an elderly uncle or aunt, the interior shabby and somehow more authentic, things basically unchanged.

 

Lily MacKenzie, “Soul of the City,” Alberta Views (July/August 2004)


Barry Callaghan's "After the Fall: A Sadness at the Heart of Calgary"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

"Why not here, in this balloon, in a moment of blessing close to the morning sun, begin a love story?" -- Barry Callaghan (Photo: Rainbow Balloons)

"Why not here, in this balloon, in a moment of blessing close to the morning sun, begin a love story?" -- Barry Callaghan (Photo: Rainbow Balloons)

It’s 1983, and the city is in a deep economic slump. Toronto writer, Barry Callaghan arrives to search the city’s soul. He scavenges for stories at the city’s edges. The prostitute stroll on 2nd Avenue. A gay bar on 17th Avenue called Dick’s. The hockey arena on the Tsuut’ina reserve. In the Devonian Gardens, he reads John Ballem’s 1981 novel, Alberta Alone. This best-selling political thriller is the only fiction he can find set in Calgary. He meets Ballem in his law office on the 36th floor of the Scotia Centre. Disturbed by the “fierce violence” he senses in the city, Callaghan asks Ballem, “If you were writing a love story in Calgary and were looking for the image of tenderness, where would you locate two lovers in this city?” Ballem’s suggestions (a ranch outside of town, an office tower, the Glenbow Museum) are not what the Toronto novelist has in mind. On a cool, clear morning, Callaghan takes a ride in a hot-air balloon. High above the city, he finds what he is looking for.

 

The tall glass-and-concrete towers of the city caught the sun below a band of dun-coloured smog, a city in contention with itself: caustic and yet courtly, prickly and yet polite and pliable, and impervious to collapse. There is a strange vacancy at the core of the city, and a money-meanness that goes with it – but around the edges, people are filled with an often loony love of life, a celebration of the self, a desire to be someone, to create themselves, to exist in the imagination. As the chef served pears with coffee and Grand Marnier, as the silence over the city filled me with ease and wellbeing, I thought, “Why not here, in this balloon, in a moment of blessing close to the morning sun, begin a love story?”

 

Barry Callaghan, “After the Fall: A Sadness at the Heart of Calgary,” Saturday Night (November, 1983)


Geoff Berner's Festival Man

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Tarp runners at the Calgary Folk Festival. (Photo: CKUA)

Tarp runners at the Calgary Folk Festival. (Photo: CKUA)

“The people who run Calgary would give Jane Jacobs an aneurysm,” says Vancouver-based, Alberta-born music manager Campbell Ouiniette. “If you see [Calgary] from the air at night, its lights and grid make it look exactly like a massive Pac-Man game laid out flat on the dark screen of the prairie.” It’s the summer of 2003 and Ouiniette is in town for Folk Fest. From his room on the 18th floor of festival headquarters at the Westin Hotel, the acerbic, bullshitting, cross-threaded visionary spots the festival venue, Prince’s Island Park, “a small green attempt at a backhanded apology for the rest of the dystopic beige city.” Ouiniette dons a white hotel bathrobe – “Just the right balance between Rasputin-like madness and regal authority” – tips an imaginary hat to his pals in the lobby, and takes a “purposeful march” over to the park. He is the Festival Man.

 

I love the walk to the festival, whether from the hotel or the parking area or wherever. I like to feel the excitement building in the audience as they make their way toward the gates. They chatter to each other, carrying their blankets and camping gear and extra layers for the chill when the sun goes down. For a lot of these people, this one weekend is the highlight of their entire year, when they see old pals who moved away and maybeonly come back to town for Folk Fest, when they cut loose a little (or a lot), when they find the music they’re going to be listening to on their joe-job commutes for the rest of the year, the music that will give them the spiritual strength to get up in the dark of a Canadian morning and drag themselves into another workday that no matter how deadening, at least takes them a day closer to the next Folk Fest.

They moved in little clumps of family and friends, usually somebody reading a program as they walked, figuring out what they wanted to see this weekend, what they’d heard of, what “looks interesting.”

It did my heart good to see one clump that appeared to be three generations of counter-culture types: an elderly Beat-professor type Grampa, a couple of middle-aged Deadheads, and a teenaged punk son, all sharing a nasty-sweet-smelling joint as they meandered along. I asked them for a hit, and they shared it with me in the true spirit of Alberta horse brutality.

 

Geoff Berner, Festival Man (Dundurn, 2013)