Legends of Myself 40

Posted on March 22, 2012


Continued from Legends of Myself 39

40.  Prince Rupert, 1958:  This Old Man

Old Pop would have been about 25 during the great British Columbia Wobbly battles of 1912.  He would have been in his early thirties when he returned from World War I to continue his work with the Wobblies, and in his late thirties, when—having somewhere between assumed the Collins alias—he began as patriarch of the Clan Collins in Port Essington.  He was 71 years old or near to it when I lived with him in Prince Rupert in 1958.

I remember him as tall, but I was myself a little short then.  I suppose he was actually of medium height.  He leaned on a cane when he walked, artifact of an ancient motorcycle accident the circumstances of which Pop never otherwise elaborated upon.  He had a triangular face, wore wire-rim spectacles and sported a mustache beneath his Gallic nose.  His head gear changed a little over time, perhaps based on utility and availability.  In 1958, he wore a beret of dark-blue wool.  I remember—because those are the sorts of things that eight-year-olds notice and obsess over—it had what looked like a piece of blue string or the end of shoe lace protruding from top of it.  In later years, he wore a grey-tweed flat cap of British proletarian and Andy Capp fame.

Prince Rupert is, for old bones, cold and damp sometimes, and, like many an old fisherman, Old Pop dressed warmly, with long johns underneath, and heavy, brown-grey tweed trousers worn over.  I don’t remember what kind of shirt he wore, merely the impression of suspenders.

I suppose I always knew that the beret he wore was a French thing, and I think I guessed that when Old Pop sang “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” it was somehow a French thing too.

Mademoiselle from Armentières, par-lay voo

Mademoiselle from Armentières, par-lay voo

Mademoiselle from Armentières, hasn’t been kissed in forty years

Hinky dinky par lay voo

Well, it was an old French tune, I was correct about that, already vintage and sung with different lyrics during the Franco-Prussian War, before Pop was born.  The melody had been appropriated by the “Old Contemptibles,” the British Army in France and Flanders, ‘round about 1915.  English lyrics were substituted—largely unprintable—which, except for the first verse, changed as the tune passed from trench to trench, singer to singer, on the Allied side of WWI.

I don’t remember my grandfather ever singing anything but the first verse, and it wasn’t until much later that I began to doubt that a song containing pidgin French would, in fact, be a French song.

I suppose Pop wasn’t really musical enough for the songs he sang to provide many clues to his past.  I don’t recollect Old Pop ever singing a Wobbly song, although the Wobblies were the iconic singing union.  I remember that he taught me “This Old Man”, accompanying himself with pats on his knee, which has forever coloured my experience of that song.

I was also always an editor.  I remember having trouble with thumb and one.  They didn’t rhyme.  And I thought playing knick-knack on the hive was a pretty crazy thing for this old man to do.  In fact, this old man seemed like a knick-knacking fool, a notion confirmed by the way they always sent him rolling home at the end of every chorus.

Since the old man in the song was inescapably entangled with the old man who taught me the song, somehow the lyrics always evoked an image of my grandfather, caught up in a St.Vitus Dance-like frenzy, knick-knack paddy-wacking all over the landscape, ending always with him being sent home to the building on 8th Avenue, rolling down Prince Rupert’s streets and sidewalks like a log and over the little footbridge to his door.

“This Old Man,” far from being a general and universally-applicable song, had to me both specific personnel, my grandfather, and a specific locale, Prince Rupert.

Mumblety-Peg, Etc. Prince Rupert, 1958, that little part of it which I was familiar with, was a good place for a kid.  Empty lots and spaces around and behind my building and across the street attracted games like Kick the Can, a version of hide-and-seek where kicking the can provided a home-free from whoever was “it.”

I remember also playing a version of mumblety-peg.

Mumblety-peg, a game played by tossing a pocket knife into the ground, was in its original form much more complicated than the way we played it in Prince Rupert, that is, if the written descriptions I have read of it are representative.  Writers discuss various ways the blade had to be tossed, and a penalty at the end of it where the loser extracted a peg from the ground with his (or her) teeth.  All we ever did when I played it was take turns pegging the knife into the ground, moving our foot out successively to the blade with each toss, until the loser fell over or failed to make a successful peg.  There was no penalty.  We considered losing to be the penalty.

The gang around my neighbourhood was significantly bi-cultural, Tsimshian and White, although I’m not sure how much most of us were aware of it.  I don’t remember it affecting our social interactions (except, I suspect, to make them more democratic and co-operative and less hierarchical) but it did add a sometimes-Tsimshian flavour to our vocabularies.  I remember noting for the first time—and this was early in my researches—the large number of names for the penis, among which number I included “doogie.”  It wasn’t until years later that I realized that “doogie” in this usage was geographically constricted.  It was a slang Tsimshian term, in fact.

Many years later, in 1989 when the drama-comedy “Doogie Howser, MD” came to television, I was no longer living in Prince Rupert or in Tsimshian territory.  But I have often suspected that there were a few more laughs about that show in Prince Rupert than were indicated in the laugh track, and not at all for the reasons the writers imagined.

They were hearty laughs, I think.

Continued @ Legends of Myself 41

Posted in: autobiography