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)


Barb Howard's "Saturday Afternoon at the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, 1977"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Calgary Stampede midway circa 1959 (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

Calgary Stampede midway circa 1959 (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

Thirteen going on fourteen, Wendy Kettle visits the Stampede grounds with her parents and big brother Jamie. She’d rather be watching the disco dancer’s show. Her girlfriends are right: the dancer is the best thing at the Stampede this year,  leaping and sliding in his tight white pants and silky white shirt to the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever. At the noon show, he smiled at her. At the afternoon show, he gyrates, as if for her. In his final side-split, he points his index fingers at Wendy – “like guns, bangbang”– and she returns the gesture. When the show ends, the dancer slips away and Wendy heads to the corn dog tent where her family is waiting.

 

Wendy’s family spent a long time discussing which part of the grounds they should all visit next. Wendy thought the discussion was a waste of time since they always did the same thing every year anyway. Wendy’s dad liked to walk through the Stampede barns and look in every stall, and comment on the livestock as though he was raised on a Cochrane ranch rather than in the city. Wendy’s mother liked to tour the Big Four building to look at kitchen gadgetry like Popeil’s Kitchen Magician and the Showtime Rotisserie. After oohing and aahing at every single vendor, she’d whisper to Wendy, “I need that appliance like I need a hole in the head.” And Jamie would choose something, usually the Funhouse or a ride that the Kettles could handle, but enough out of their usual box so that they would have a hilarious time and talk about it for weeks.

It was all so predictable and unfair. The dancer took only a few minutes. Everything else took forever.

 

Barb Howard, “Saturday Afternoon at the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, 1977” (Lofton8th, 2016)

 


Sarah L. Johnson's "A Ballad for Wheezy Barnes"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Midway at the Calgary Stampede (Photo: Calgary Stampede blog)

Midway at the Calgary Stampede (Photo: Calgary Stampede blog)

 

Meet Wheezy Barnes: a man who cleans up messes at the Stampede, sells pot to arthritic hippies, and is in love with a celebrity impersonator. For seven years, he’s timed his breaks so he can catch Tammy Whynot’s show at Nashville North. When he crashes a corporate chuckwagon party to see Tammy perform, Wheezy gets a glimpse beneath her country and western façade, and his Stampede week begins to slide. 

 

Wheezy squinted as silver fire blazed from the spurs of Tammy’s pink boots. The fringe on her vest danced like hundreds of energetic fingers playing piano. Her eyelashes and breasts were clearly mass-produced. But the way the corner of her mouth chased that elusive dimple… One of a kind, thought Wheezy.

“Howdy, y’all!” Tammy trilled when the last chord of “long Time Gone’ faded. “Now’s the time to grab a cold one, folks. About to get mighty hot in here!”

The opening riff of ‘I Love Rock ‘n Roll’ blasted. Tammy sang and worked the stage in a series of slinky moves Wheezy had no names for. Growling out the chorus, she ripped her vest and skirt right off. Her new outfit consisted of a white bikini top and short-shorts, both studded with rhinestones. Wheezy eyed the discarded vest and skirt, crumpled like dead animals. This was not his Tammy.

 

 

Sarah L. Johnson, “A Ballad for Wheezy Barnes,” Suicide Stitch: Eleven Stories (EMP Publishing, 2016)


Hiromi Goto's Chorus of Mushrooms

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Texas bull rider J. W. Harris at the 2013 Calgary Stampede. "I don't ride bulls for the money," his colleague, Douglas Duncan told the Herald, "I ride them for fun."  (Photo: Calgary Herald)

Texas bull rider J. W. Harris at the 2013 Calgary Stampede. "I don't ride bulls for the money," his colleague, Douglas Duncan told the Herald, "I ride them for fun."  (Photo: Calgary Herald)

A naked old woman carrying a traditional Japanese wrapping cloth loaded with cowboy equipment slips past security into the Stampede grounds. The rodeo has drawn her back to Calgary, “the sweet smell of horsehide and green grass sweat. Sour mash shit and hot dogs and coffee.” She is no ordinary Japanese granny from Nanton, Alberta: she is the Purple Mask, the rodeo announcer exclaims, “a mysteeeerious bullrider… a legend in these parts come Stampede time.” She makes her way to the chute, climbs on a brindled bull named Revelation and prepares herself for the ride.

 

The gate is pulled open from the outside, but the bull crashes it to get out faster. Clang of horns on metal. The first lurch is shocking, like always, and I push against the rope so I won’t fly over the bull’s head, his curving horns. He lurches upward and twists into a belly roll and I pull back to keep my position. The clang clang of cowbells only a dim sound in the pounding of heart and heaving pant of animal breath. The brine of his sweat, the lean muscles of his back. He lunges on and dives into a sunfish. I push and pull, my strong arm reaching for that place of balance.

 

Hiromi Goto, Chorus of Mushrooms (NeWest Press, 1994)


W. O. Mitchell's For Art's Sake

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

A ski jump on the roof of the old grandstand: part of a scheme to hold a mid-winter exhibition at the Stampede grounds. Weather interfered. A Chinook forced organizers to cart in snow from Lake Louise, and a snowstorm on the day of competition meant smaller than predicted crowds. The debt took a decade to write off. (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

A ski jump on the roof of the old grandstand: part of a scheme to hold a mid-winter exhibition at the Stampede grounds. Weather interfered. A Chinook forced organizers to cart in snow from Lake Louise, and a snowstorm on the day of competition meant smaller than predicted crowds. The debt took a decade to write off. (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

P. T. Brockington is president of a Magna Meat Packing company, past president of the quarter horse association, and owner of the city’s NHL and CFL teams. As chairman of the Great North-west Stampede, he has big plans for this year’s opening celebrations. After the parade, a fleet of hot air balloons will lift off from the rodeo infield. Dignitaries, including the Mayor of Calgary, will ride in a balloon shaped like a fleur-de-lys and captained by a Catholic monsignor from Paris: an expert balloonist who does not speak English. The balloons will set sail just after the crowd has sung O Canada. The mayor, in keeping with his nickname, Harry Come-Lately, is late. He is also afraid of heights. As the balloons fill with hot air – “Mickey Mouse, a Labatt’s beer bottle, a Re/Max ranchstyle house, a Whopper hamburger, a Shell gasoline pump, A Dairy Maid triple-decker vanilla soft-ice cream cone, even a Great North-west Stampede ten-gallon Stetson” – P. T. Brockington looks on from his box in the grandstand with the Duchess of Kent, watching the beginning of what will turn out to be an unforgettable ride.

 

The weather bureau had forecast moderate prevailing northwesterly wind for most of Dominion Day. They had been wrong. The wind was moderate, but it was also northeasterly, which blew them toward the grandstand. The balloon cleared it, just, but the hoot and toot of the carnival grounds came next. Heat from the hot dog stands and the ride motors of the Red River Shows as well as that from black asphalt and almost as many milling humans below as Wellington led into the Battle of Waterloo created a strong updraft that sent the balloon soaring.  

 

W. O. Mitchell, For Art’s Sake (McClelland & Stewart, 1992)


Ruth Scalplock's My Name is Shield Woman

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Postcard of the Indian Village at the Calgary Stampede, date unknown. (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

Postcard of the Indian Village at the Calgary Stampede, date unknown. (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

In her memoir, Siksika elder Ruth Scalplock writes of her childhood in the 1950s on the reserve east of Calgary. From the age of six, Scalplock lived away from her family at residential school. In the summers, she returned home. Her father would cut hay for Stampede money, and when he was paid, the family would catch the train into town.

 

Calgary’s wasn’t a big city then. Where 50th avenue and MacLeod Trail is, this, to my knowledge was the edge of town, and 16th avenue to the north. Forest Lawn wasn’t even part of Calgary. We camped right in the Indian Village for a few days with my Dad’s cousin and her husband – Betsy and James One Gun. In the Blackfoot way, they were like my Grandparents. They had a campsite, One Gun and his wife, where the Calgary Stampede Corral is, where the Indian Village used to be. We stayed in their tipi…

Sometimes we had a tent and camped down in Manchester, around 50th avenue. That is where some of the Siksika had their tents. There was a street car that we used to take… Later we stayed at another place, over by where the Zoo is now, by Nose Creek… There were lots of people from all over the world at the Stampede. They used to come around and take pictures. There was no drinking in the Village. It was so nice, so good when there was no drinking.

 

Ruth Scalplock, My Name is Shield Woman (DayTimeMoon, 2014) 


Nancy Huston's "A Bucking Nightmare"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

"Waiting for the Parade" by Calgary artist Stan Phelps (Photo: Arcadja Auctions)

"Waiting for the Parade" by Calgary artist Stan Phelps (Photo: Arcadja Auctions)

In the summer of 1993, Paris-based, Calgary-born novelist Nancy Huston returns to her hometown. She's been away for 25 years, and is about to see her first Alberta novel, Plainsong, published. On Stampede parade day, she and her young family head downtown. After the first band marches past, Huston bursts into tears. As a girl, she dreamed of being in such a marching band, wearing a short pleated skirt and twirling a baton. In an instant, she pulls herself together. “Roland Barthes, I tell myself (using French theory to protect myself from Albertan emotion), could have written a ‘mythology’ about this strange event.”

 

What unfolds before our eyes for a full three hours, in the freezing rain, is a succession of bands and floats celebrating every ethnic group in this province’s population: Indians of all tribes, proudly decked out in their traditional costumes (“You see, Daddy?” says Sasha. “You told me Indians didn’t wear feathers any more, but you were wrong!”), Ukrainians, Irish, Hungarians, Dutch, Scots, Germans – and the one and only message conveyed to the enthusiastic audience is: “We are here.” On the spectators’ side, the one and only response to this message is the cry of “yahoo!” endlessly reiterated… “Yahoo!” As far as I can tell, this word is my city’s one distinctive contribution to the history of humanity.

 

Nancy Huston, “A Bucking Nightmare,” Saturday Night (June 1997)


Aritha van Herk's "Pancake banquet"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Stampede breakfast downtown Calgary, circa 1970-90. (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

Stampede breakfast downtown Calgary, circa 1970-90. (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

“Stampede coming,” Aritha van Herk writes, “always in the seventh month, the off-centre pivot of the year.” van Herk immerses herself in the city’s signature event. Observer and participant, she writes a poetic primer on the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth. Infield and midway, princesses and parade, chuckwagons and hangovers. Through her poet’s eyes, Stampede is a prism through which to consider the city, and the westness of west. But first, breakfast. Pancakes served up on a street corner. A kind of Calgary communion.

 

The breakfast shuffle. A queue of weary clerks and landsmen waiting for

their servings of pancakes and bacon, some fat to fight the nausea, some

carbs to play it forward. A conga file, a column of supplicants salivating for

the hew of dough, the sweet melt of syrup and butter under the tyranny of

a plastic fork and knife, an inadequate napkin, the buckling paper plate.

One sausage for reward.

 

Aritha van Herk, Stampede and the Westness of West (Frontenac House, 2016)


Frances Backhouse's Once They Were Hats

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Employees at Smithbilt Hats in circa 1958 at its factory on 1208-1st Street SW. The site is now marked by a historical plaque at Hotel Arts. In 1946, Smithbilt produced its first white cowboy hat for city oilman Bill Herron. Two years later, it supplied Calgary's delegation with white hats to wear during Grey Cup festivities in Toronto, and a tradition was born. (Photo: Glenbow Archives)

Employees at Smithbilt Hats in circa 1958 at its factory on 1208-1st Street SW. The site is now marked by a historical plaque at Hotel Arts. In 1946, Smithbilt produced its first white cowboy hat for city oilman Bill Herron. Two years later, it supplied Calgary's delegation with white hats to wear during Grey Cup festivities in Toronto, and a tradition was born. (Photo: Glenbow Archives)

A week before Stampede, Frances Backhouse tours the Smithbilt Hats factory, a non-descript, one-storey building in Ramsay – an unassuming shrine to “one of the West’s most beloved symbols,” the cowboy hat. Standing in the gravel parking lot, Backhouse can almost smell the livestock pens at the Stampede grounds a few blocks away. Inside, she learns about Morris Shumiatcher, the 27-year-old Russian Jewish immigrant who, in 1919, bought Calgary Hat Works. He changed his surname to Smith, and the company’s to Smithbilt. The business quickly became known for making all manner of hats, including those for working cowboys. In the shop, Backhouse watches a woman tie black ribbons around the crowns of white cowboy hats, and feels a twinge of nostalgia. Her first cowboy hat was a white straw model supplied by her parents as a “key to the city” when the family moved to Calgary from Montreal in 1972. Twelve years old, she avoided wearing the hat for fear of looking “uncool.”

 

Before I left Smithbilt, I lingered for a while in the showroom and tried on some of the inventory. The elegant dress hats seemed full of possibilities, transforming me in the mirror as I switched from bowler to Prince Albert to fedora. But the allure of the western hats, with their soft, sensuous beaver felt, was even stronger. Unlike the straw cowboy hat of my adolescence, the midnight-black 100x Cattleman I tried on sat extremely comfortably on my head. I would have cheerfully worn it out of the store, if not for $895 price tag. Reluctantly, I set it back on its hook, said my goodbyes and set the cowbell clinking again as I departed.

 

Frances Backhouse, Once They Were Hats (ECW Press, 2015)


Taylor Lambert's Rising

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

In the weeks following the 2013 flood, a Windsor-based artist collective visited the city as part of Calgary's public art program, Watershed+. The result? A series of signs exhibited at a local gallery and later installed along the city's river pathways. (Photo: Shaun Hunter)

In the weeks following the 2013 flood, a Windsor-based artist collective visited the city as part of Calgary's public art program, Watershed+. The result? A series of signs exhibited at a local gallery and later installed along the city's river pathways. (Photo: Shaun Hunter)

In the days following the 2013 flood, Calgary journalist Taylor Lambert set out to tell the story of the disaster through the eyes of those who had experienced it. He interviewed people who lost their homes, emergency workers and volunteers. One day, Lambert received a 10,000-word email from a homeless man named Gary. As the floodwaters rose on the evening of June 20, 2013, Gary was at a friend’s place in Brentwood. He watched a news story about the mandatory evacuation order forcing more than 75,000 Calgarians from their homes. Untroubled by the news, he made his way on foot to the East Village and the Salvation Army hostel where he was living. That night was the beginning of Gary’s long walk for shelter as the city flooded.

 

As Gary approached Memorial Drive – the scenic boulevard that traces the north shore of the Bow River across from downtown – he noticed red lights flashing off the concrete and asphalt. There were fire trucks parked there, but he couldn’t see any firefighters working.

The roar of the river grew louder and louder as he passed over Memorial and continued on the Mewata Bridge over the river. Once over top of the water, the sound was deafening. The normally placid Bow was nearly invisible in the dark, but the mere sound of the water rushing past with incredible force was enough to frighten Gary…

Walking east along the pathway of the river’s south shore, the water became gradually more visible between the lights of Memorial on one side and the residential towers of the Downtown West End on the other. It was very high and very fast, and it would get much worse in the coming hours. It was already so high that the pathway under the Louise Bridge and 10th Street was entirely underwater. As Gary went to cross the road at bridge level, he saw a police car parked sideways in the centre of the span: the bridge was already closed.

 

Taylor Lambert, Rising (2014)


Miji Campbell's Separation Anxiety

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

In the late 1950s, three Calgary businessmen set out to turn the site of the Chinook Drive-In theatre into a shopping mall, with Vancouver-based Woodward's department store as the anchor. The rest is retail history.  (Photo: Glenbow Archives)

In the late 1950s, three Calgary businessmen set out to turn the site of the Chinook Drive-In theatre into a shopping mall, with Vancouver-based Woodward's department store as the anchor. The rest is retail history.  (Photo: Glenbow Archives)

For the young Miji Campbell, 1960s Kingsland was her kingdom, and Chinook Centre was “the sweetest place on earth.” On Saturdays, her family drove to the mall to “witness the passage of seasons indoors.” The Woodward’s sporting goods department in spring, the Stampede parking lot breakfast in summer, the sanctuary of the library on the lower level in the fall, and Santa’s Toyland castle at Christmas. Built during the city’s postwar boom and described as a “city within a city,” Chinook Centre is not only the largest enclosed mall in Calgary, but a palace of memories.

 

I remember when my mother took me to the Woodward’s foundations department to be fitted for a training bra. Together, we walked through the baby department and into the underworld of underwear, located discreetly between the beauty salon and the high racks of housecoats. I muttered a quick “Please God, don’t let any boys I know see me.”

I don’t think men were even allowed in the foundations department at Woodward’s. The ladies – capable, no-nonsense matrons – patrolled the department in their clinical white coats with tape measures draped around their necks. Lapel pins identified them as brassiere professionals. After all, Playtex had just revolutionized the world with cross-your-heart technology. We relied on these women to guide and support us – or at least our mothers did.

 

Miji Campbell, Separation Anxiety (Writinerant Press, 2014)


Rona Altrows' "Rouleauville"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

"Hanging Out" by Peter Smith (1994). Three frogs used to sit on this bench on the corner of Fourth Street and 21st Avenue SW. The day I visited, there was only one. Anyone know what happened to the others? (Photo: Shaun Hunter)

"Hanging Out" by Peter Smith (1994). Three frogs used to sit on this bench on the corner of Fourth Street and 21st Avenue SW. The day I visited, there was only one. Anyone know what happened to the others? (Photo: Shaun Hunter)

Trina, a mentally challenged woman, her guardian and their cat are on the move. In a few weeks, they’ll be evicted from their modest rental in the Mission. Trina is anxious. The cat has a skin problem. Their guardian snatches time to look for a new place to rent, but affordable apartments are few and far between. She braces herself against the noise of change in this historic neighbourhood once known as Rouleauville – the pounding of pile drivers, the roar of excavators. Around them, houses tumble down “like so many wooden dominoes.”

 

Fourth Street, what’s become of you? No more Mission Pizza, no more Franzl’s Gasthaus or Four Brothers or video shop or used book store. Now it’s all cheap link fencing, traffic cones, cranes, sawhorses, cherrypickers, half-built condo highrises. Billboards at construction sites yell about spa-like ensuites. And here I thought all we needed in a washroom was a toilet, a tub, a sink. Even the big metal frogs on the bench look stunned, like they don’t recognize their own neighbourhood.

 

Rona Altrows, “Rouleauville” (Lofton8th, 2016)


Shirley Black's "Under the Bridge"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the eyes of writers

The historic Alexandra School in Inglewood, a stone's throw from the Bow River pathway evoked in Shirley Black's personal essay. Since 1981, this building has been home to the Alexandra Writers' Centre Society, a pillar of the local writing scene. Calgary writer and lifelong Inglewood resident, Shirley Black, along with Michael Fay, was one of its founders. (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

The historic Alexandra School in Inglewood, a stone's throw from the Bow River pathway evoked in Shirley Black's personal essay. Since 1981, this building has been home to the Alexandra Writers' Centre Society, a pillar of the local writing scene. Calgary writer and lifelong Inglewood resident, Shirley Black, along with Michael Fay, was one of its founders. (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

Sophie is a fixture on the Inglewood pathway. She collects empties from her regular customers and loads them into a Safeway cart, along with the occasional discarded treasure people put out with the trash. Sophie always stops to talk.

 

There is the rattle of her cart coming down the lane. I kneel lower, dig deeper, trying to make a hole big enough to crawl into although I’m just transplanting perennials.

It’s not that I don’t like Sophie. She simply talks so much. I know nothing of her life in Calgary, where she lives, whether she’s married. Yet I know all about her former life in New York City. The big apple, she calls it, where she and her ex-husband, the rat, performed magic shows.

“We were so good we entertained in all the big venues,” she said. “Even Carnegie Hall.”

 

Shirley Black, “Under the Bridge,” Freshwater Pearls: Thirty Years of Inspiring Writers (Recliner Books, 2011)

 

 


Clem and Olivier Martini's Bitter Medicine

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Heritage Park billboard, 1966. On the southeast edge of Glenmore Reservoir, Calgary's historical theme park is part of the legacy of Calgary oilman and philanthropist, Eric Harvie. The park opened on July 1, 1964 with two dozen historical buildings and a vintage train. (Photo: Glenbow Archives)

Heritage Park billboard, 1966. On the southeast edge of Glenmore Reservoir, Calgary's historical theme park is part of the legacy of Calgary oilman and philanthropist, Eric Harvie. The park opened on July 1, 1964 with two dozen historical buildings and a vintage train. (Photo: Glenbow Archives)

Diagnosed with schizophrenia in the mid-1980s, Olivier Martini struggles with the side effects of antipsychotic drugs, depression and paranoia. Eventually, he finds work as a night watchman at Heritage Park. The training for security work of this kind, his brother Clem notes, is scant – “boiled down to its essence, was something like ‘be vigilant’ and ‘never permit anyone to bite you.’” 

 

At night the lights winked out in the log cabins, one-room schoolhouses, Old Tyme candy stores, smithies, barns, and storage sheds as the park was abandoned. Darkness quickly transformed the site into an eerie prairie ghost town. Strong winds swept off the reservoir and rattled bent cottonwoods. My brother crept through the brush at the perimeter of the park, flashlight in hand. On various occasions he stumbled upon drunks, vandals, would-be thieves, delinquents, couples messing around, discarded clothing, caches of drugs, and the occasional scared stray mule deer bursting from cover in an explosion of hooves and clattering antlers. Terrified that he might be confronted, Liv would often shout random warnings as he waded into the brush.

 

Clem and Olivier Martini, Bitter Medicine (Freehand Books, 2010)


Anne Sorbie's Memoir of a Good Death

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

In 1911, developer John Hextall built this bridge across the Bow River to connect his planned garden suburb on the old Bowness Ranch with the city of Calgary. His plans for the suburb fell through, but the town of Bowness took root, as did Bowness Park. Hextall’s bridge was replaced in 1985 and officially named after the man who built it.  (Photo: bigdoer.com)

In 1911, developer John Hextall built this bridge across the Bow River to connect his planned garden suburb on the old Bowness Ranch with the city of Calgary. His plans for the suburb fell through, but the town of Bowness took root, as did Bowness Park. Hextall’s bridge was replaced in 1985 and officially named after the man who built it.  (Photo: bigdoer.com)

Forty years ago, Ed Flett rescued Sarah from a life of domestic service in a Millarville rooming house. Now, her husband is dead. Furious, Sarah drags Ed’s golf bag from their garage to the back yard at the edge of the Bow River, where they have lived their entire married lives. She drives Ed’s golf balls into the river, then tosses his clubs into the current. As Sarah’s grief takes hold, the river rises. 

 

A train trundles past, across the river on the far side of Bowness Road. You recall the old streetcar that used to cross the John Hextall Bridge and then follow the river to Calgary when Bowness was a village. The river is swollen at the bottom of your property. Especially near the whirlpool, which forms a small vortex that makes a sucking noise as it flattens out and repeats itself. The willow bushes seem to reach out to the sound.

 

Anne Sorbie, Memoir of A Good Death (Thistledown, 2010)


Marina Endicott's The Little Shadows

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Calgary's Starland Theatre in 1909 (116a-8th Avenue SW). "The Starland itself," Marina Endicott writes in The Little Shadows, "was a plain box on 8th Avenue, not near as grand as many of the other theatres." (Photo: Glenbow Museum)  

Calgary's Starland Theatre in 1909 (116a-8th Avenue SW). "The Starland itself," Marina Endicott writes in The Little Shadows, "was a plain box on 8th Avenue, not near as grand as many of the other theatres." (Photo: Glenbow Museum)
 

A May wedding at Calgary’s elegant Palliser Hotel. The groom – the renowned vaudeville impresario Fitz Mayhew, decades older than his young starlet bride – has made all the arrangements. A spring menu in the Maple Leaf Room of turtle soup, roast capon and hot-house peas. A band and a parquet dance floor. A jeroboam of champagne and a layered wedding cake. To fill the dozen tables, Mayhew has invited every pressman he can find with an eye to promoting his new show at the Starland Theatre on Stephen Avenue. But hours before the wedding, the bride’s sister wakes up to find the city’s weather has changed overnight.

 

On the night before the wedding it snowed. Silent, constant, nickel-sized snowflakes fell all night, in no wind, and in the morning when Clover awoke the light in the room was blue.

Mama gasped when Clover pulled open the curtain to show snow heaped halfway up the window. Snow covered the entire landscape like fondant on a wedding cake, smoothing definition of curbs and corners. The street was deserted, and snow was still falling, fifteen inches already on the ground – late May, and the worst blizzard of the year. A shell of ice waited on the water jug…

The girls and Mama spent the morning washing and putting up their hair; in the afternoon they dressed in their wedding clothes – an all the time the snow fell.

The draycart’s wheels shrieked and the snow squealed as they lurched along, but it was a pretty drive, through slow-falling flakes that dazzled in occasional spears of sun. Mama raised her white lawn parasol to shield Aurora’s veil. When the wedding party disembarked at the Grain Exchange building, where the justice of the peace had his office, it was to silence. No streetcars were running, nor carriages or cars rolled through the streets.

 

Marina Endicott, The Little Shadows (Anchor Canada, 2012)


Norman Ravvin's Café des Westens

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

The Wales Hotel (709 2nd Street SW) was demolished in March 1974 to make way for TD Square. The building was the first in Canada to be destroyed by dynamite. The plan went awry and the 43-year-old building came down off its target. Debris scattered into the intersection of 7th Avenue and 2nd Street and smashed windows at a nearby Royal Bank. (Photo: Glenbow Museum)

The Wales Hotel (709 2nd Street SW) was demolished in March 1974 to make way for TD Square. The building was the first in Canada to be destroyed by dynamite. The plan went awry and the 43-year-old building came down off its target. Debris scattered into the intersection of 7th Avenue and 2nd Street and smashed windows at a nearby Royal Bank. (Photo: Glenbow Museum)

Funeral-home owner Martin Binder is a Calgary old-timer. He arrived as a young boy with his Polish parents during the Depression, and has watched the city reinvent itself over the decades. He remembers the day that “marked the beginning of the end of the city he’d grown up in.” On a Sunday in March 1974, Martin settled into a viewing spot not far from the site on 2nd Street and 7th Avenue. As he read his weekend Herald, he heard “a sound, like the ripping of a piece of canvas” as the hotel’s brick walls collapsed.

 

Over the next few years, exploding buildings caught on the way dances caught on in the old jazz clubs in Harlem. It was happening on every block. People came out to watch. There was the odd casualty as stray pieces of plywood and cinder blocks came rocketing out of nowhere onto pedestrians’ heads. No conservation groups challenged the carnage. The city was making history – as the wisdom of the day went – so it didn’t have to worry about preserving its heritage. As the town boomed and money was made, Martin set aside his sentimental attachment to buildings like the Wales. The city’s population grew by tens of thousands each year, and his accountant made a very impressive effort at reporting the funeral home’s rising revenue, without adding any snide remarks about the rising death rate that went with the emigration of over-excited fortune-hunting crowds from across the country. People brought their hard luck and illnesses and bad habits with them and, chasing the big time, died under the soft breath of the Chinook.

 

Norman Ravvin, Café Des Westens (Red Deer College Press, 1991)


Robert E. Gard's Johnny Chinook

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

“You know how it is,” the folklorist Robert Gard writes. “You can’t exactly explain the way you feel except to say, ‘this place is different from any place on earth.”

In the early 1940s, Gard came to Alberta from the US to teach playwriting at the Banff School of Fine Arts. The next year, he toured the province, gathering stories – the first time Alberta folklore had been captured in book form. He invents Johnny Chinook as his Alberta muse. On a crisp fall day, he stands with Johnny on a rise above Calgary. “This is it,” says Johnny Chinook, “this is my town. This is Calgary!” Gard begins his exploration of Johnny’s hometown on Eighth Avenue with Bob Needham, a columnist at the Calgary Herald.

 

We walked slowly, enjoying the mild November night and the hundreds of service men and women who crowded the movie house doors or just walked along the street, glad for a little holiday and looking for a good time.

As we went east on Eighth, the noise quieted down, the crowds thinned out, and the buildings diminished in height. The shops were smaller. The darkness closed slowly around us.

“This is a street of ghosts,” Needham said. “Back the street there – is today. Along here there’s still a faint memory of yesterday.”

 

Robert E. Gard, Johnny Chinook: Tall Tales and True from the Canadian West (M. G. Hurtig Ltd, 1967, 2nd edition)


Caroline Adderson's Ellen in Pieces

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Cumulous clouds above Calgary's Sunnyside neighbourhood, circa 1912. What do you see? (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

Cumulous clouds above Calgary's Sunnyside neighbourhood, circa 1912. What do you see? (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

Ellen McGinty’s adolescent memories of Calgary consist of sneaking off to bush parties and bonfires, “girls swilling pink gin then puking in the woods.” She has since moved from her father’s house near Nose Hill to the Gulf Islands, where she lives a hippie lifestyle with her playwright husband, washing diapers on a corrugated washboard, milking a goat, and throwing clay pots. Seven-and-a-half months pregnant, Ellen is flying back to Calgary for her father’s 50th birthday. She’s nervous about the trip: she’s in “the most frustrating phase of pregnancy, when desire supplanted nausea.” A time when anything can happen.

 

Even after they touched down at the Calgary airport, Southern Alberta seemed one vast cloud-piled sky. Ellen could see things in those clouds like she used to as a child. Now though, instead of elephants and ducks, there were clefted buttocks, pillowy vulvas.

 

Cocks.

 

Caroline Adderson, Ellen in Pieces (HarperCollins, 2014)


Arthur Stringer's The Prairie Child

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Calgary's Coste House, 2208 Amherst Street SW. Ontario-born Eugene Coste, known as the father of the natural gas industry, bought the land for his 28-room Mount Royal mansion in 1911. The price of ten lots in Calgary's nouveau riche neighbourhood? $10,000. After the 1913 crash, Coste fell on hard times. The city turned down his offer to use the house as a children's hospital and the mansion sat empty until 1935. After the war, the now city-owned Coste House became the heart of the city's arts scene as home to the Calgary Allied Arts Centre.  (Photo: Glenbow Museum. Facts: Harry Sanders' Historic Walks of Calgary.)

Calgary's Coste House, 2208 Amherst Street SW. Ontario-born Eugene Coste, known as the father of the natural gas industry, bought the land for his 28-room Mount Royal mansion in 1911. The price of ten lots in Calgary's nouveau riche neighbourhood? $10,000. After the 1913 crash, Coste fell on hard times. The city turned down his offer to use the house as a children's hospital and the mansion sat empty until 1935. After the war, the now city-owned Coste House became the heart of the city's arts scene as home to the Calgary Allied Arts Centre.  (Photo: Glenbow Museum. Facts: Harry Sanders' Historic Walks of Calgary.)

In a last-ditch attempt to save her marriage, the one-time New England socialite, Mrs. Duncan Argyll McKail leaves behind her beloved ranch in southern Alberta and moves to Calgary with her two small children in tow. She’s not sure how her speculator husband has turned their dismal economic fortunes around, but he has promised her a comfortable new life in one of Mount Royal’s finest brick mansions, with “cobble-stone walls” and “high-shouldered French cornices,” grounds, gardens and a household staff of three. As she begins her life in the city, Mrs. McKail is struck by the “stubborn optimism” in the Calgary air.  When her attention turns to the new social circle she’s been parachuted into, she sees something else at play.

 

It’s the women, and the women alone, who seem left out of the procession. They impress me as having no big interests of their own, so they are compelled to playtend with make-believe interests. They race like mad in the social squirrel-cage, or drug themselves with bridge and golf and the country club, or take to culture with a capital C and read papers culled from the Encyclopedias; or spend their husbands’ money on year-old Paris gowns and make love to other women’s mates. The altitude, I imagine, has quite a little to do with the febrile pace of things here. Or perhaps it’s merely because I’m an old frump from a back-township ranch!

But I have no intention of trying to keep up with them, for I have a constitutional liking for quietness in my old age. And I can’t engross myself in their social aspirations, for I’ve seen a bit too much of the world to be greatly taken with the internecine jealousies of a twenty-year-old foot-hill town…

The women of this town remind me more and more of mice in an oxygen bell; they race round and round, drunk with an excitement they can’t quite understand, until they burn up their little lives the same as the mice burn up their little lungs.

 

Arthur Stringer, The Prairie Child, (A. L. Burt & Company, 1922)