Forced away. 600 kilometres beyond the wartime house.
I have a shtick that I perform and have performed for a decade or more. Yes, it is true. I left Shaughnessy Heights. Perhaps I abandoned it. I did not simply move across town. I left that land, that city of bridges and impossible, unnumbered grid-patterned streets that would always be stuck in my memory as rhymes. Memorized, as my Dad had coached me to do:
Or the alphabetical names of street women:
Dagmar Ellen Frances Gertie
Harriet Isobel Juno Kate
Lydia Olivia Pearl.
I always wondered if the N was for Nancy, but it was probably Nelly.
I left that city of people moving toward and away from hubs of malls and parking lots to their fully detached, amply landscaped, totally fenced houses on streets in their separate neighbourhoods.
My parents defined their marriage by the Red River Flood of 1950. They got married on Thursday, April 6, before the Good Friday holiday. A month later, on May 8, the dykes gave way and bridges collapsed and Winnipeg saw 100,000 people evacuated and every able-bodied woman and man worked around the clock to shore up makeshift dykes with sand bags. And my Mom and Dad were on that front line. They had the photos to prove it.
My dad’s death, for me, is defined by the Flood of the Century. In 1997, on Easter Sunday, at the crack of dawn, with the comet Hail Bop adorning the dark blue sky outside the window of his room at Seven Oaks Hospital, he took his last breath. It was warm for the end of March, and it was water water everywhere. The staffers at Brookside Cemetery wondered whether they’d even be able to put him in the ground beside my brother. Everything was pretty soggy and we all knew about the limited drainage hassles of the Winnipeg gumbo, but we managed. No sooner had we buried him than the Wrath of Eric fell upon the flat lands and the early April snows began. They came and they came. The rivers rose and they rose.
I returned to my forest refuge, high above the Manitoba Escarpment and listened to the aftermath of the unprecedented spring blizzard. The dykes at Grand Forks had given way and that city went up in flames above the river, water spilling northward with nowhere to go but overland because the frozen white expanse of Lake Winnipeg could not yet budge. No amount of water could push aside ice of such mammoth proportions. The water would move instead upon the path of least resistance, overland.
One morning, I woke to the news that the town of Ste. Agathe had not held back the monster. Their dyke had failed and the people were fleeing.
“Fleeing?” I wondered. “Hmm, to where?”
The somber voice on the radio, in a serious 1960’s radio style, reported that the town of St. Norbert was accepting refugees from Ste. Agathe.
“Huh?” thought I. And then I found myself standing and yelling at the radio, “Go Up Hill! Go Up Hill!”
But no, these flatlanders ─ and I had been one of them ─ had no concept of uphill! Indeed, when the LaSalle burst its bank and the St. Norbert hosts themselves became refugees of the Flood of the Century, they too had to flee, and where did they go? Did they go uphill? No! They went to St. Vital! These educated people, these witnesses of floods of years gone by, these generational flatlanders were running downhill with the path of the gushing waters at their back. They could go west, above the escarpment, they could go east, beyond the eskers, but not even the City Fathers, not the engineers, nobody offered this advice.
They put all of their money on Duff’s Ditch. They only cared about their concrete zone. They showed no mercy for the lake-land folk to the north.
In my inescapable and honestly earned Shaughnessy Heights cynicism, fed by years and years of being told by the boys that I was a lowly scab, and by the girls that I was a freaking jock, and by the city folk that I was a useless hick, my shtick was born.
I decided to write a TV sit-com and call it “Tales from the Flat City: The City with No Perspective.” To get perspective in the flat city, you’d have to go up on the Arlington Bridge or up in the Richardson Building. It’s like living in a pac man game. There is never a view of the distance to the other side. In the flat city, they have neighbourhoods called River Heights and Silver Heights. But there ain’t no heights in Winnipeg! Their laughable pitiable useless plight. True, Winnipeg isn’t the only flat city on the planet. I’m told New Orleans is pretty flat, and Amsterdam, too, but I think they realize it there. And Barcelona is pretty flat, and even Chicago. But these are coastal and shoreline cities and the people there understand their landscape.
But Winnipeg flatlanders don’t get it. They call their land the Red River Valley. Hello! It is not a valley! It is a lake bottom. Plain and simply, it is a lake bottom. The confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers is literally the navel of the province, the drain hole.
The farmer to the south of the flat city and the farmer to the west of the flat city, and the inter-lake farmer, relentlessly struggling with the gumbo clay, the flatness, and the uncooperative drainage, tamed the mighty John Deere caterpillar to do their bidding. Ditches and ditches and more ditches were dug so that the water would flow off my land and onto yours until, when the Flood of the Century reared its ugly head, the Red River and Assiniboine River watersheds came within metres of becoming one vast body of water, spilling back into Winnipeg from the west! Spilling through St. James and possibly all the way to Shaughnessy Heights! The Brunkhild Dyke, just west of Winnipeg and south of the Trans Canada Highway was the last hold-out. The man-made drainage patterns had left a mere sliver of land between the LaSalle and the Assiniboine.
I can still see Diana Swain standing on the dyke telling the wrong story. It was all a story of hope and work and miracles, when it should have been a story of misperception, stupidity, and exploitation. I wish it would have spilled over. I wish there was a way to wake the flatlanders up.
Settlers who moved across eastern Manitoba through the Winnipeg flats came from landscapes with mixed terrain. They preferred it and they settled above the escarpment because of that. They settled where the farmland drained and the forests flourished, where they could find a vantage point to see overland for a great distances.
In the North End, in Shaughnessy Heights, I could not understand the perspective that was missing from my life. My two yearly visits to Granny and Grandpa’s was not enough to grant me that, but we would hoot and holler at every landmark valley along Highway 16 or 45 and we’d climb hills and roll down them, just for fun every time we went.
I don’t know why my dad opted for the flat land. But it couldn’t hold me. My mom was a great lover of her flat city. She’d stand at the party and defend it with all her ninety-eight pound might, “Winnipeg born and Winnipeg bred, and when I die, I’ll be Winnipeg dead.”
Maybe that’s what kept Dad in Shaughnessy Heights. While all of Mom’s friends from Eaton’s were moving to the heights from Elmwood to EK and from the West End to St. James or from Fort Rouge to St. Vital, Mom silently waited for the opportunity to get out of Shaughnessy Heights. But they never left the wartime house. I made plenty of visits to the old neighbourhood, long after I had gone up land.
I watched the back lane evolve from a wide-open zone to a corridor of two-car garages. I watched the saplings grow to become fully valid trees with birds and everything! I saw house after solid wartime house with big extensions built onto the back on those nice sixty-foot lots. I watched the old dirt road, Keewatin, become a mighty commercial thoroughfare, a four-lane, with new neighbourhoods well beyond, all the way to Park Royal.