Living in a Small Town
From 1962 to 1971 we lived in six small towns. I was born in one in northern Manitoba. Saint Jean Baptiste was the last town before we moved to the big city, it’s the one I remember the best for some reason. I have flashes of the others, but there is something about St.Jean that has always stuck with me. This was a town and a time where the kids could play kick the can until dark, where people gave out homemade popcorn balls at Halloween and the neighbors got together to play cards.
The one missing piece is names for some reason, I was never able to hang onto any names, that’s always bothered me, that I couldn’t contact anyone from that time.
Today the population is only 1700. It’s one of those communities that is just far enough from the city that most wouldn’t want to commute daily, so it’s able to keep its small town charm. I took a drive through it ten years ago to see if I could find our old house, it had been torn down. The town was pretty much as I had remembered it from thirty years prior. There was a kind of comfort in that.
Seeing the vacant lot where the little green and white stucco house and garage once stood, felt odd, I really hoped it would still be standing. I’m not sure how we all fit in that little shack. One of my brothers and I slept on bunk beds in the basement bedroom. We shared the basement with a retaining room for water, which was our water source for the house. I don’t remember where my youngest brother slept, it must have been in my parents room, as he would’ve just been a toddler. The garage wasn’t much more than three walls and doors with a beat up floor. There was a spot up in the rafters you could climb up, then walk across the open 2×4 joists to a covered area where we would hang out. Some how no one ever fell, amazing. We had a huge garden in the summertime, we would pick n go all summer. I have just the faintest memory of a tv, it wasn’t a big part of our day. It’s funny when my kids were younger, they would ask, did you have this show or that show when you were a kid? We didn’t have 24 hour cartoon channels. We had three channels and one didn’t turn on until noon every day.
St. Jean is in a flood zone. The first time dad took us to see the town, was in the spring, and I remember seeing a bridge under water. The town is surrounded by a ring dyke that protects it from overland flooding. Our little house was the second house from the dyke. We saw the water rise pretty high up the side of the dyke in the spring. Once the waters settled back down the river became a place of exploration for us.
Us boys from my street, would pack up a lunch and head out on a hike. On the edge of town, there is a bridge for the train to cross the river that is made out of timber. The wood was treated with oil or something to give it that dark stain look and a smell that still stays with me today. We would head out past the the bridge, climbing over and under it and along the river bank heading out of town. Boys out exploring, blue sky, no sun screen, no cell phones and no worries. The river bank is overgrown with willows, creating a hanging curtain of shimmering green that every once in a while, gives you a peek at the sparkle of the sun shining off the river as you walk by. The grass is tall and dry, grasshoppers spring through the air in front of us as we make our way along. The sound of being there is like nothing anywhere else. The water gurgling and splashing along the bank, willow branches whisper as they move in the breeze, the stirring wings as bugs flee our path, the swishing grasses on our legs and the silence in the air. All that and a warm breeze and the sun on your face through a blue sky. We come across an old building on the edge of a field. It’s outside walls have all greyed from the sun, and the hinges and nails have turned a red brown colour of rust. Inside are spider webs and forgotten artifacts for us to explore, the perfect place for lunch.
The girl that lived next door, her family raised rabbits, and they had a small building just for them. I just realized they probably weren’t raising those rabbits as pets. She was the first girl I French kissed. I’d like to say I already had my moves down back then, but I think she was the one that directed that scene in the hutch.
The boy that lived across the street and I formed the first rock band in St. Jean. We only had one performance, and it was for his mom. He sang, I played drums, well I played cardboard box, but we rocked. We had a transistor radio in the drum, and played along with what ever happened to be on. For our performance, it was The Stampeders, Sweet City Woman. Oh, a transistor radio is like an iPod, except it’s bigger and it’s someone else’s playlist. He had the first ATV I ever saw. It had three wheels and was a whole lot of fun. He had a space behind his house for a track, we spent a lot time back there. The trike had huge tires and we would take turns laying down and driving over each other, and no cell phones to record it.
There was family in town that had three boys, their mom made homemade root beer. I had never had homemade root beer, or have I had it since, and it has alway been what I compare root beer to today. We would be in the front yard practicing our best WWE moves, and she would bring out cucumber sandwiches and cold root beer for us, amazing! It was the best after working on our sleeper moves, body slams, full Nelson’s, and pile drivers on the hard dirt with never an injury, well sometimes an injury, we almost always walked away.
One of the best ever road rashes was from St. Jean. With small towns comes gravel roads. I had a bike that was too big for me and while making a turn, the bike went down with me and I slid along the stones. I scraped my leg from below the knee all the way up to my ribs including my arm. Mom had to wash out the little stones.
Something we don’t see much of in the city, are ditches, in small towns there is no shortage. I don’t know if my kids have ever really experienced a booter. That’s when you walk along the ditches in the fall and spring in rubber boots to test the ice. At some point the ice breaks, or you step in snow covering water and go through, your foot sinks into the ice cold water and rushes over the top of your boot filling it, that’s a booter. Then you would end up with this burning red ring around your leg from the top of the rubber boot. Once, we were following snowmobile trails on the river bed in the winter just running along them, we came to a dirt patch and I went to run across it, stepped on the patch and sunk my whole left leg into soft mud. When I pulled my leg out, no boot, and I had to walk back home over the dyke with only one boot on.
St. Jean was where my parents separation started. There was a lot of arguments in that little house. This was also where my rebellious stage in my life started. I once ran away from home then. I took off from school one day, headed out in the world on my own in the winter at about nine years old. I think I was going to the big city of Winnipeg. I didn’t quite make it that far, I was picked up on the highway and taken to the next town, my folks were called and back home I went. Eventually it was determined that I needed someone to talk to, for a little reprogramming or a reset or just a little help on how to deal with the separation. It wasn’t long after that we left the small town for that big city.
I think of those six small towns from time to time and the memories of the kid back then. Could I go back to that life? I like where I’m at now and the life I have.