Legends of Myself 14

Posted on April 3, 2011


Continued from Legends of Myself 13

16.  Prince Rupert – Shoes, Trains, Bimbos & Geography

After my sisters were taken away, Port Essington seems to fade from my memory as well.  Of course, it’s sometimes difficult to know the precise sequence of impressions, especially when the impressions are of matters so old and so early in life.  I can say only that by 1955, without apparent transition from earlier scenes, I found myself living in Prince Rupert.

Five year olds—and five year olds going on six—are not good geographers I think.  If that time represented my only experience of it, I would hardly understand Prince Rupert at all.  But Prince Rupert is a place I’ve been away from for extensive periods of time, yet a place I have never fully left.

I can now map and assign geography to early memory.

Prince Rupert rises from its harbour and begins with the railroad.  The Grand Trunk Pacific (now the Canadian National Railway) was completed in 1914 with its terminus on Prince Rupert harbour.  Prince Rupert was birthed by the railroad.  It was supposed to be the railroad’s prosperous child, but many such dreams went down with the Titanic in 1912, along with Charles Melville Hays.  Hays, now the quintessential statue-in-the-square whose name is attached to numerous local places—to Mount Hays, to Hays Creek, to Hays Cove and to Haysport, across the river from Port Essington—was then at the helm of the Grand Trunk Pacific project, and Prince Rupert’s principal dreamer.

In early 1950s Prince Rupert, before the highway age had fully taken hold, Chuck Hays’ railroad still held some bustle and importance in ordinary people’s lives.

I remember going down to the railway station with my grandmother.  It was literally down.  The central commercial section of Prince Rupert stands on a shelf—some two or four streets wide—which edges on a cliff above the railway yards.  To reach the station from downtown, you descended a twisting wooden staircase to about halfway down the cliff face, continued along a pedestrian overpass resembling a trestle, passing above trains and multiple lines of tracks.  A staircase on the other side brought you down right beside the station.

Going down there, I remember night, my grandmother’s hand, and a life-size train set underneath me, shifting and rattling.  I also remember being inside the train station itself with counters, benches, men in railway uniforms, porters, families surrounded by luggage, with carts rumbling on the floorboards and trains rattling with rising bursts whenever the door to outside swung open.

I have no idea what the occasion of that journey to the train station was, because, like the trains, my memory terminates at the station.

Above the shelf of land holding the rail yards, beyond the shelf of land holding downtown Prince Rupert, is a second set of cliffs, and more or less at the foot of them runs Third Avenue, the town’s main street.  All I distinctly remember concerning that part of town is a visit to a shoe store.

Now excursions to shoe stores—unless that is your thing, dear—are not usually much to get excited about even if you’re small and haven’t been around much.  But it was1955 and the most modern the world had ever been, up till then.  Thus, in Prince Rupert the shoe store had a fluoroscope.  They were thoroughly modern morons, maybe, but they knew how to sell shoes.

The fluoroscopes were promoted as a means of making sure your little one could have a shoe that fit perfectly.  But really it was so that your little one could put her or his foot in the little x-ray chamber and have fun looking through the scope at neat green pictures of the bones of their feet.  Mommy, daddy, grandma and grandpa could have a look too.

With a fluoroscope everybody could go down to the shoe store.  Have fun.  Buy shoes.  Get radiation poisoning.

Okay, it was mostly shoe addicts and shoe store personnel who got radiation poisoning, and why would that be of concern to five year olds?  Add a little hard radiation to your shopping experience.  Wiggle your toes and the bones did a dance.  Anyway, as I said, if you want to talk about really scary stuff, how about Buster Brown’s dog?

Buster Brown—my first remembered encounter with pop culture—was a cartoon character invented by Richard Outcault, the same fellow who invented the Yellow Kid and Hogan’s Alley way back at the end of the nineteenth century, thus launching the newspaper comic strip.  Outcault came up with Buster Brown in 1902 and named him Buster after Buster Keaton.

In 1902, “the Great Stone Face” was a child star in Vaudeville, already as skilled at taking falls as any modern television wrestler.

The Buster Brown character was a Little Lord Fauntleroy genotype—that is, he was long-haired and overdressed—and he started in the business of selling shoes almost from the beginning, 1904, two years after his creation, and he continues to do so to this day.  Until about 1930, the Brown Shoe Company had hired dwarfs to play Buster Brown at promotional events, something of course I never saw.  My encounter with the character was a  sign high up on the shelf of the shoe store—a blond boy in a hat and a pageboy cut together with his dog Tige, a pit bull terrier with a smiling mouth of cone-shaped teeth.

I knew nothing about hard radiation except its charms.  Tige, however, he was scary.  And anyone who thinks a pop-eyed bulldog with a mouth as toothy as an Arrakine sandworm is an appealing image to children doesn’t remember being five years old.  Speaking authoritatively for my five year old self, I would have much preferred a dwarf in a pageboy wig.

To continue with Prince Rupert geography, the cliffs behind that Third Avenue shoe store are like a breaking wave of stone—stone mollified by moss, bush and rainforest vegetation—and they are much less steep behind than at the face.  High up behind downtown, the landscape tilts generally down again straight backwards and towards the left, and tilts generally upwards towards the right, where it crests in Roosevelt Hill.  The main residential part of town clings to the hilly region at the back of the downtown cliffs.

Past the residential area, the hill bottoms out in a flat region at the foot of Mount Hays.  Looking from the harbour, Mount Hays seems to loom over Prince Rupert, but it is not really so directly above it.  Looking at the landslide-scarred face of Mount Hays, it is easy to deduce why.  That scar-face is treacherous.

Surfing backwards up the face of the cliffs from downtown is Fulton Street.  There are also numerous pedestrian climbs, formal, informal, wooden, dirt.  Some healthy exercise, some a danger to the health.  Fulton Street is and was the best route over, and the only one for wheels for anyone unwilling to go all the way around.

Beyond the crest of the downtown cliffs, Fulton Street (or something like it) proceeds downwards and towards the right, along the topological indentation beneath Roosevelt Hill.  At one point, before it has quite reached the back of the hill, the Fulton Street corridor intersects with the south end of Eighth Avenue.  At the bottom of that intersection, almost precisely there, was (and at this writing still is, if Google Maps tell me true) the little apartment where I lived in 1955, early ’56.

It was a flat-faced building, two stories high in the face it presented to the street, but three stories high behind.  Because the streets of Prince Rupert tended to contour around the edges of hills, rising on one side, falling away on the other, a lot of Prince Rupert architecture tended to reflect this fact in much the way my building did.

The apartment had an indented alcove in the middle of the front, a little more than a door wide and deep, with entrances facing each other across it.  Behind the entrance on the right was where I lived.  Another doorway fronting on extreme left of the building led to the apartments above.  I don’t remember how the apartments below were reached; possibly a stairway along the side of the building as you can sometimes still see in Prince Rupert today.

In Aboriginal tradition, a place is often introduced with a story and my first Prince Rupert home at the end of Eighth Avenue should get one too.

As pop culture came in with Buster Brown, radios and country music came in with Bimbo Bimbo and scurrilous libels about girl-i-os. Nobody likes being called a bimbo (unless that’s not usually a danger) and at 5 years old, I didn’t like it either.

There were no radios in Port Essington, as I mentioned before.  And I have no reason to assume that my first remembrance of a radio was in fact my first encounter with one.  Just as I can be certain that “Goodnight Irene” was not the only song my father ever sang in that Port Essington parlour, I can also be certain that Jim Reeves singing “Bimbo” was not my only encounter with music from the radio, even at age five.

It was just the only musical encounter annoying enough to be memorable.

I can’t say that “Bimbo” is truly a bad song, but despite being a number one country hit in 1954, (I heard it in ’55) it slipped beneath the zeitgeist sufficiently deep that it took me five and half decades to re-encounter it—and that was by actually looking for it.  Jim Reeves did much better later on, everybody agrees, when he asked (us and) you, in his intimate new voice, to put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone.

“Bimbo” was a song in Jim Reeves strident earlier style, an approach suitable for songs about little boys called Bimbo Bimbo, walking down the road-i-o.

It was because it was about a little boy, I guess, that I took the song so personally.  When Jim Reeves hollered out Bimbo Bimbo I felt like he was hollering and snarking directly at me.

Bimbo by Jim Reeves

Who said I had candy on my face?  What was all this stuff about going down the road to see my little girl-i-o?  I didn’t have any girl-i-os down the road, and that wasn’t where I was going anyway.

Does my mommy know?  Do you mean Granny?

I had no idea what that guy on the radio was implying, but I didn’t like his tone and I knew a libel when I heard one.

And I sure wished he would stop calling me Bimbo.

“Bimbo” was written about 1948 or 1949, when the word obviously didn’t have the same meaning as it has today.  It’s credited to Pee Wee King of Western Swing fame, who put out his own version.  Gene Autry released an album of children songs with the song on it in 1998.

Don’t play that song “Bimbo”, Granny.  It vexes me.


And because for fairness I shouldn’t leave anyone with the wrong impression of Mr. Reeves:

Jim Reeves – He’ll Have to Go 


Continued at  Legends of Myself 15

Posted in: autobiography