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)


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)