A brief memoir of my childhood in the 1970’s and early 1980’s.
When I think about my early childhood I remember the long, sunny days spent adventuring with my dad in Old Ugly, his 1965 Mercury pickup lovingly restored and painted two-tone green with a matching canopy. Red accents. Restored by dad, who was always tinkering with something mechanical. Motorbikes, the moonstone-painted Duster that he repainted in Mr. McConnachie’s garage, a black Camaro with a blower sticking out of its hood and Bondo holding it together, the Oldsmobile Delta 88 that he put a diesel engine into to replace the V8 gas engine. Painted deep sparkle purple with a beige Naugahyde roof. Old Ugly was our favourite, though, with its big old-fashioned steering wheel, analogue gauges, and single cab. We all had to pile in, with the dog on the floor. Mom refused to go with us. She might follow us in the red K-Car or come out later.
Basil, our fat beagle, travelled on the floor, farting and getting in the way of our feet. Once he laid down on the gas pedal, causing alarm as dad approached a 50-km/hr sharp corner at full speed. When Basil lay down it took a crane to move him, unless you were panicking at the thought of a crash. His full name was Sir Basil Bigfoot, a purebred beagle, ruined by life with an average family that never set foot at a dog show. Mom chose his name and we all loved it. She also made a lot of our clothes. She was a good seamstress.
Dad drove too fast all the way past Fort Steele, turned at the gas station then along the back road out to Peckham’s Lake, our favourite picnic spot. Taking out a bottle of beer as we got close, getting me to pop off the top, and then telling me to hold the wheel along a straight stretch while he hung out his window and waved with both arms to Mom in the car behind us. Knowing it would cause her to have a fit. She usually stayed home for this reason.
Now they call it “Norbury Lake Provincial Park”, but we still call it Peckham’s. The water was like ice, straight from the glacier back behind in the Steeples Rocky Mountains looming above us. No chance of leeches in that cold water. We hated leeches.
There was a big farmer’s field at Peckham’s Lake, stretching for ages, golden and dry in the late summer. Green and brown in late spring. Basil would immediately run away into the field, following his nose, coming back much later covered in the cow pies he so loved to roll in. Dad would throw him into the lake, cursing. Damn stinking dog, you can ride in the back. We arrived early to get the best spot, staked our claim around the picnic table in the sun with the bit of lawn for our towels. Swim for hours, not noticing the cold, then sleeping in the sun, no sunscreen, no hats, until we were baked and had to jump back in the lake to cool off again.
The field was the best place to launch our model rockets, by far. No-one came out there in spring or fall, no-one to interfere or say we shouldn’t be doing that. The rockets blasted higher than we could see, their B- and C-engines flaming, pieces falling off as they flew. Sometimes the parachutes didn’t work and the remaining rocket crumpled back to earth. Sometimes they did but the wind caught them and they sailed into the trees at the far end of the field. Dad always had more, more pieces, more parts, let’s build a few more. It’s a miracle our rockets didn’t cause a grass fire or loss of an eye.
Dad told stories of his childhood, making gunpowder with saltpetre and fertilizer from the hardware store, pouring a line of it across the road in Cranbrook, waiting for a car to come, then lighting it. Terrifying the driver, mumbled something about a shit-swearing from his dad. My dad’s pranks are probably one of the reasons for all the warnings and restrictions that ruin childhood today. Back then it was all fun and games until someone lost an eye – literally. Firecrackers, gunpowder, bonfires, racing cars, wrecking things. Those were the days, he said, when things didn’t come with warning labels, and you had to use your brain to survive.
35 years later, dad restores Kawasaki motorcycles and turns wooden bowls in his workshop, with his two small dogs for company. His new wife keeps all in order. They are happy, living life.
Recently, I drove my daughters and my sister along the same route during summer, past Fort Steele, to the Kootenay Trout Hatchery for a tour and to feed the giant rainbow trout, back to Peckham’s Lake for a chilly swim. How could we ever stand the cold? My sister and I laugh, escaping from the water. We’ve become soft and spoiled. Seat belts mandatory, no bottles of beer, no rockets, but many memories and much laughter.
Originally published on my blog, Tea and Quiet.