“Memories they can’t be boughten. They can’t be won at carnivals for free. Well it took me years to get those souvenirs and I don’t know how they slipped away from me.” ~John Prine~
Most of what follows is true. Some names have been changed or rearranged to protect the innocent, though with the wisdom gleaned in long-gone years and miles, is any one of us truly not guilty?
Picture it: February 1972. Winter Carnival at E. L. Crossley Secondary School in Fonthill, Ontario. For geographically impaired friends and neighbors that’s in Canada.
1972. Pierre Elliot Trudeau happily occupied 24 Sussex Drive, the official residence of the Prime Minister of Canada since 1951. Trudeau was a charismatic character, whose personal motto—“Reason before passion.”—appeared to be at odds with the divergent and polarizing responses his policies or mere presence could stir up. He had a touch of arrogance, which could roll off his tongue with natural ease. The image of Trudeau that sticks with me comes from the FLQ Crisis of October 1970 when he invoked the War Measures Act, which amounted to martial law. Troops were deployed throughout the province of Quebec and the right of habeas corpus was removed from all Canadians. When pressed in a scrum with reporters on how far he was willing to go, Prime Minister Trudeau took a gunslinger’s stance and said, “Watch me.”
He was seriously one of a kind and though his shadow stretches across the years, it’s doubtful that a man or woman of his flamboyant personality and intense intellect could rise to power and dominate the scene as he managed to do. Today we’ve been disillusioned and conditioned to accept cookie-cutter tweedledum or tweedledee ballot choices.
Meanwhile in 1972, south of the 49th Parallel, Richard Milhous Nixon was brooding in the White House. The President’s relationship with Trudeau was iffy at best, which made great fodder for cartoonists. Nixon seemed unruffled by those specific representations because he was embroiled in domestic concerns. He was preparing for a reelection campaign that promised to be combative and divisive. An array of potential candidates was jockeying their way through the primaries to take him on, but he had a sizable war-chest and a phalanx of some of the most ruthlessly loyal operatives ever assembled. The Vietnam War raged on and on, with opposition to it ripping its way across university campuses. Nixon would soon take on an extreme bunker-mentality as a “third-rate burglary” went cosmically haywire because neither seasoned hatchet-men nor slick-talking plumbers could seal up or plug all the leaks. A new word was about to become an integral part of our lexicon and its aftershocks would unsettle the political landscape for a generation or more—Watergate.
In mid-February 1972 Neil Young’s Harvest was hot off the press so there was much chatter about it. At E. L. Crossley the vinyl disc was destined to have a major impact on many of us and became something of a touchstone for our high school days. For the 1972 yearbook, the Student Council photograph did a notable job of replicating the style and setting of the album artwork.
Sculptures & Snowballs
Winter Carnival day dawned bright and blue. There was a bit of a thaw in the air, but it was still crisp. By noon a fortress of gray clouds was slowly gathering strength and fortitude. Good times and laughter was everywhere to be found. The grounds were buzzing with activity. Students and faculty alike were manning stations inside and out while participants rushed to and fro.
I was doing my best to hang out with girls, which bred angst and insecurity, but was an obsession nonetheless. Being a world-class klutz with pimples and the social graces of an orangutan definitely hindered me. I ham-handedly flirted with any girl who gave me half a minute, but was particularly taken by Bonnie, Judy, Sylvia, LouAnne, and Sara—all had blossoming curves and sweet smiles, and mostly tolerated me in a pleasant manner.
There were competitions and games set up in every available nook and cranny. The smoking area at a back corner of the property, which experienced a high volume of traffic throughout the day, even had an ongoing ad hoc recreational pursuit. It had to do with the formation of the perfect iceball—word from various swaggering blowhards was that when completed it would be used to nail a teacher in the head.
The biggest rivalry were the snow sculptures. Class-teams were scattered on and around the football field laboring away amidst varying degrees of urgency. Our class, as I recall, was fashioning a dinosaur of some sort. My vital contribution to the project was lugging buckets of water to be used to freeze up a section of the tail, which was to have a snaky curl in it. I remember being somewhat amazed by the earnest determination of some of my classmates. It was likely then that I began discovering that I had a latent and insistent inability to give frivolity any weight or gravitas, which likely grinds others the wrong way, but what can I say? We’re all stuck inside our own peculiar foibles and idiosyncrasies, aren’t we?
Lucky for me a snowball fight broke out. In the days before political correctness banished such spontaneous acts or regulated them to the point of destroying the fun of it all, it quickly escalated to a full-blown war. Soon the whole area designated for snow sculptures was engulfed by shouts and strategic maneuvers.
The sky was filled with tracers of snowballs being tossed back and forth, with the combatants entirely unsure of who to target next. A cluster of pedestrians wandered onto the battlefield. In the midst of them was Mr. Rivers, a teacher of history and mathematics and generally speaking one of the good guys.
A hurried volley of snowballs went arcing at the interlopers. One handmade projectile, however, took a much more direct trajectory. Afterwards there was much confusion and ambiguity, with no one able to accurately ascertain who had thrown it. In some circles, the fact that it hit its mark and resulted in a good-sized welt would be the topic of speculation and gossip for years.
The straight-line bullet struck Mr. Rivers in the forehead, causing a twitchy jerk that knocked his military style hat off. He momentarily staggered, but held his balance. It had been a solid sucker of an iceball. Evidently someone had won the prize in the ad hoc competition initiated in the smoking area.
When the uproar of the snowball escapades ran its course, there was a challenge in the cafeteria that I’d been conned into entering—a banana eating contest. Since I most definitely enjoyed bananas and they were easy enough to wolf down, it figured to be a no-brainer deal. Little did I know that in a matter of a handful of moments my entire outlook would be radically altered. The object was to eat as many bananas as possible in one minute, which on its sheer merits had hilarity written all over it, but there ought to have been a warning: Attempting to rapidly devour bananas could be hazardous to one’s health and well-being.
Alas, there was no such caveat so we proceeded onward and upward. A stack of the yellow fruit was placed on the table in front of each contestant. Spectators were lined up six and eight deep cracking wise and yelling laugh-riddled encouragement.
When the signal to start was given, I grabbed my first one, peeled it and rammed it down my throat in one motion. Onto number two. At the four and a half banana junction, a buddy in the clamoring throng bellowed my name and got my attention. Let’s call him Jack, which is an outright lie, but I did inform you of the certainty of some names being changed or rearranged, didn’t I?
He had been a friend and companion since second grade at the White Elephant School on Burnaby Road in the backwoods of Wainfleet Township. As I gobbled bananas he was standing on a chair in the midst of the gawking swarm—grinning ear to ear with his eyes lit up and cheeks blushing rosy pink.
Jack made a rather ludicrous hand gesture and whipped off a snappy one-liner, which caused an unwanted attack of the chuckles in me. What happened next occurred in seconds, but had the feeling of minutes, hours—what occurred in that slow-motion timeframe seared itself into memory and forever changed my perspective on and attitude toward bananas.
I started laughing, then choking on a mouthful of partially chewed gunk. My throat was clogged—what was in there decided it would be best to come up instead of continuing its descent to my stomach. I clenched my teeth tight and put a hand over my mouth, not having any desire to spew gobs of crud across the room.
It was then, at that instant, when I was holding my breath and forcing down a swallow that I began gagging. When I say I began gagging I do not mean the stifled suppressing of a cough or sneeze done in polite society—no, not at all.
I was a heaving, retching, red-faced mess, shuddering and suffocating. Do you have any idea where semi-solid gunk goes when it can’t escape the mouth or go down the gullet? The exact same place liquid goes—out the nostrils.
It was horrid. Embarrassing. Sickening. Squishy chunks of whitish-yellow goo came shooting out my nose accompanied and no doubt lubricated by a greasy slick lathering of nasal mucous—which in olden days was simply known as snot.
I recovered, eventually. I was picking or blowing fragments of banana-encrusted snot out of my nasal passages for days. The distinct aroma of bananas became a stench that lingered with me for weeks, perhaps even months.
The 1972 Winter Carnival at E. L. Crossley Secondary School likely produced better recollections for others. For me, it will ceaselessly be known as the locale for a humorous bit of humiliation that still generates a self-effacing smile. Once upon a time banana bread was a comfort food that my mother would bake special for me, but not since that seemingly harmless yet fateful February afternoon. Nowadays, decades removed from the apocalyptic banana incident, the slightest sniff of a banana or the telltale scent of banana bread in the oven can make my stomach do a slow, queasy roll.
And so the story goes.