A Small Town is a Close Town
When you live in a place as small as Vienna, you inevitably know most of the people, through school, sports, part time jobs, church or otherwise. This was certainly the case in my life. There are so many people that influenced me in one way or another and of course have left memories that I have had tucked away for many years.
Ruth Ann Horton, Pat McDonald, Francis Ryan and others were tasked with babysitting the “Wolfe kids”. I suspect Kim was a handful, but I was a quiet, respectful, obedient child :). That is my story and I’m sticking to it. When mom had her brain surgery and was hospitalized for several weeks, Audrey Roloson stayed with Kim and I for several weeks, likely helping mom around the house as well as babysitting.
Vern Soper was a standardbred horse owner, trainer and driver. I went to many races in London with dad, often with Gord Brackenbury or Vern’s brother Cliff along for the entertainment. I was allowed to bet on one race each occasion and one time won 11 dollars. I was so excited! I had already planned to buy a new hockey stick, when Gord told me it was customary to pay for dinner on the way home. My heart sunk, until he started to laugh – catastrophe averted.
John and Barb Csinos grew tobacco and were so very kind to our family. John and Barb had a boat and every year went to Lake Nippissing to vacation at Kervin’s Cottages (later owned by Larry and Vivian Fricker). We were invited to come for a week between planting and harvesting tobacco, in late June. Often Ted and Ruth Beattie and their family joined the fun. I recall many fish fries, laughter, swimming and my first chance to water ski. I think I was under the water more than on top, but eventually I mastered it. This no doubt helped to shape and nurture my love of the north.
I was friends with Bob Sofalvi and often stayed at their house as a young lad. I was in awe of the first colour tv I ever saw and I can still recall, watching Saturday afternoon baseball from Dodger Stadium, with the legendary Vin Scully calling the game. Bob’s mom was an awesome cook and I remember coming home and telling mom about the cool things I ate there.
There were the Bradt’s, the Causyn’s, the Thompson’s, the Neville’s, the Underhill’s – all of whom impacted my life in myriad ways.
Max Underhill did custom trucking like my dad, when I was small. But he was an entrepreneur of sorts as well. Max eventually started a fertilizer plant to service the local farmers, and built his own farming business into a large operation that is still run by his grandchildren. They were also a very kind and generous family. Max always called my Dad “Peewee”, for reasons unknown to me.
Gray and Audrey Thompson lived on “top of the hill”, not far from the Catholic school. I was friends with Paul for a long time as kids, before high school sent us in different directions. In the same way I was friends with Gary and Glenn McCurdy, twins and fellow sports nuts. Their dad built a skating rink in their back yard and on one occasion I took a puck to the head during our scrimmage. I was wearing a toque at the time, so aside from a little pain, I continued to play all day. When I got home, my toque was covered in blood and I needed a couple of stitches. I guess what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
I played fastball at 17, with the Port Burwell Vikings men’s team. I remember Bob Todd being a terrific pitcher and brother Doug could really throw a knuckleball. Larry Loucks and brother Gord were also very good players. Fastball had a huge following when we were kids. The Blue Jays started to change that, as hardball leagues for kids started to pop up.
As teenagers, several of us more passionate ball players got permission to build a hardball diamond behind the community centre. I recall taking dad’s tractor and harrows to the diamond to smooth it out. We eventually had lights installed. A pretty big undertaking for a small village and a bunch of ambitious kids. I was too old to play in the league but there was a bantam age team that played in the Southern Counties league.
Death – A Common Companion
Tragedy seemed a common thread in our little town. Aside from the accidents on the tunnel road, there seemed to be more than our share of life altering moments. Car accidents and various other calamities changed the course of several families lives when I was growing up.
I recall the Andrews parent’s had a terrible car accident in which Mrs Andrews perished. The Huber kids lost both parents in an equally tragic accident. Joe Racz died in an electrical accident when his corn elevator touched a power line.
My good friend Mike Underhill, perished in a barn fire at 19 years old (more on that another time). The Teall’s were touched by tragedy on more than one occasion and in fact adopted the Huber kids after their parents died, I believe. My friend John Teall passed away in his early 20’s from Hodgkin’s disease and his older brother Howard a few years later (2004) from another form of cancer. Their father George also died way too young. Ron Foris and at least one brother died in separate car accidents.
John Teall had married Josie Geurtjens before he passed, leaving her to grieve as a very young widow. Josie’s dad was a tobacco farmer and also died quite young. I played fastball with John Geurtjens, Josie’s bother. He was a very quiet guy with a kind smile – and hurt me more than once catching him. John was a big guy and had large hands as I recall. Playing a mean 3rd base, he threw a very heavy ball!
Linda Brown’s (Millard) dad died suddenly in 1976, as did Emil, Pete and Hannah Hartman’s father Arnold, when the kids were teens or young adults.
One of the Caswell’s died tragically when a tree fell on him while he was cutting wood
Ralph Honsinger passed at the young age of 53 – affecting both Wynne and Jim more then I ever knew at the time.
In grade 4, a school mate (I believe Sharon Gibbons) was pulled out of class – her dad had died suddenly.
My Aunt Grace Wolfe drowned after leaving the house for a walk, early one evening. After a frantic search they found her, but too late. It was a terribly sad moment.
Out of respect for the families and in the event my memory is not 100 percent clear, I will avoid details. These tragedies change you as a person. I can’t imagine how they may have impacted and shaped the lives of these families forevermore.
It seemed a lot for such a small village. Cancer seemed to be a constant companion. It has been suggested many times that there may have been a link to all the chemicals that were put on the tobacco plants, to manage the weeds and to make the plants grow stronger. Though there was plenty of speculation, nothing was ever proven conclusively – or at least acknowledged. Cancer is one of many horrible diseases that touch so many families.
The Dark Side
Today, racism and violence in the world is exposed through visual images on tv. It is hard to imagine how one human can treat another like that, just for being different. Growing up in a small village in the 60s seemed almost pollyannish looking back. But it wasn’t without its dark side. Biases run deep, and without being exposed to and accepting of different races, cultures and world views, we are doomed to repeat history.
Growing up in Vienna, we had limited exposure to real world issues. There was no cable tv, or satellite back then and only a handful of channels, all delivered via antenna and sometimes “rabbit ears” on top of the black and white tv. Programming ended at midnight and restarted in the morning. we were often limited to local news, unless some huge world event happened – like the assassination of JFK, or the moon landing.
There were no black people, no Asians, no gay people, no Jews, no one different from us, with an over zealous sense of self importance. I am ashamed to say that I heard racial and sexual slurs on a regular basis – and I may have been guilty myself from time to time.
“Your perception is your reality”, a wise friend once told me. Transient workers became targets of inebriated locals, trying to impose their superiority on the vulnerable. Quebecois were referred to as “frogs”. Feeding off each others testosterone, a Saturday night at the hotel could lead to a beating of an innocent transient worker, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Not all my memories of growing up make me proud. But good fortune has blessed me with the ability to work and travel in different countries and be exposed to all walks of life. I am proud to say I have friends and colleagues from many races, cultures and sexual orientation. I have had the pleasure of sharing time and personal stories with many of these same people. These experiences have shaped my worldview to be much more accepting and indeed embracing of different cultures, religions and perspectives.
What I have learned is that we are all the same. Despite our skin colour, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation, we have the same hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties. Fathers and mothers worry about their kids future, no matter where they are from. Young people have the same hopes and dreams no matter their skin colour. I have learned that Muslim’s are kind and loving souls, as are Catholics, Protestants and Jews. They are just as horrified by the violence of extremism as we are.
I am proud of my roots, and will always have deep ties to Vienna. I am also blessed to have experienced a bigger world and embraced change. Life changes you. We all make mistakes, but if we learn from them, it is called experience.
We are not born to be unaccepting. We are taught to be unaccepting.
Viva la difference