Monday, September 6, 2010


The VLA design of the wartime house.

In Shaughnessy Heights we played outside. Even if the weather was miserable. The wartime houses had no such thing as a “rumpus room” like the bungalows or the peacetime houses had.

The wartime house is made of cedar and fir, so it will be there for a long long time. That should have been a basis for pride, but for sixty years the wartime house has been shrouded in a cloak of shame. The shame was not because of the materials. Its parts were harvested in the late forties. It was good and honest work that took the timber from forest and to train. Many seeds of hope and much optimism moved with the lumber down from the mountains and across the dry rolling prairies. But when it arrived in Winnipeg and rested on the pallets of the vast rail yards beneath the Arlington Bridge, all sense of pride and hope that had surrounded the house vanished.

The house became part of a circus of assembly. As its parts came together, its scope shrank and its destiny to sit as a clone of other houses on Manitoba Avenue was approaching. It would begin to absorb humanity’s aura, but because of its natural oils, it would not head back to the earth any time soon, unless by stroke of fire, perish the thought.

This house was dropped from one flat car to another and another and moved from the pallet to the ground on the edge of Shaughnessy Heights. It had been in Winnipeg over the winter and was adapted to the winds and the absence of the forest noises. The clanking and banging of boxcars, the stench of diesel and Black Cat tobacco, the running engines, and the slamming truck doors became its new atmosphere. It was dropped off the tracks and taken by truck across the muddy clay, west, about 300 metres where its assembly began.

Parts were measured. The men put it together and spoke about the wartime house.

“I wouldn’t live in one of these cracker boxes.”

“Mostly charity cases are moving in down here.”

“Can’t even get a house on their own.”

This was a VLA neighbourhood. By law, the Veterans Land Act, every soldier, unless he was too rich, was entitled to return from war to a home of his own. Everyone in Shaughnessy Heights knew this about each other, and there was some shame in that. Nobody talked about it.

Then the wartime house started to go up. It sat on a pony wall, only a measly pony wall. A circumference of cement about two feet high supported the house instead of a properly poured basement. Some of the people who were really ashamed about the pony wall got conveyer belts and sent kids crawling underneath onto the clay to send the dirt out into the backyard, scoop by scoop, until they had a hole that they could call a basement. They gained prestige by having another room in their house. But I never had a chance to go down into any of those basements.

There was, however, an attic in every house, but most people called it a cubby hole. It had a short, kid-size door with a large, adult-size doorknob. The door gave this part of the house some status because none of the bedroom closets had doors, just a shelf and a pole for coat hangers. The cubby hole was the short part under the slant of the roof upstairs. It was as long as the house was wide, and the place where the suitcase full of Christmas decorations was stored. Of course, we played in there amid the pink insulation and the cloth-covered electrical wiring.

Each wartime house had a back shed that had no inside walls. It would have been good for muddy boots if people used the back door. Our shed got fixed up a bit and they tried to keep it warm in there, even though it had no pony wall underneath. It was always pretty cold, except in the summer, because it was on the south side of the house. Eventually, the hot water tank, the freezer, the automatic washer, and the dryer got sent out there and our parents found ways to keep it as warm as the rest of the house.

The front hall was just a wall that separated the kitchen from the front door. Our first wall phone was in the front hall, so we could lie under coats to talk on the phone, if we needed privacy. Some houses had no front hall and you walked through the front door right into the kitchen. The front hall was a place to throw your coat and other stuff, like school books.

The space under the stairs also had a door of its own, with the same painted doorknob as the cubby hole. Originally, the wringer washer was kept in there. It was a great hiding place. Later, after the oil furnace broke and they sealed off the chimney in case of a fire, they put a natural gas furnace under the house and you had to go through a trap door that was under the stairs to get at it. What a fiasco when the meter reader came. It was so embarrassing. Most people put their furnace in the back shed, but not us.

The parents’ bedroom was beside the door to the closet under the stairs. Most parents couldn’t wait for their kids to move away so they could knock down the wall between their bedroom and the front room to make an L-shaped bigger room. My parents did that and got a dining room suite. It all happened after we moved away. They even pounded through the outside wall of their bedroom and added a TV room south of that! They should have done it when we lived there, but that would just have given us more space to mess up.

The top of the stairs was a dead end with a door on each side. One door led to, the girls’ room that I shared it with my younger sister, and the other to the room for my older brother. These rooms had those slanted ceilings and crazy corners so you could either fit a big bed and a dresser into them, or two small beds and a dresser. In one of the bedrooms there was a floor vent that opened to the kitchen. My brother’s room had the vent, while ours had the cubby hole.

We played outside. There simply was no extra room to play in the wartime house. There were only the two bedrooms upstairs for the kids and most houses had more than two kids in the family, so everyone was sharing, and nobody was allowed in, especially not with their friends.

In our house, we were coached in bed-making. It would happen on a Saturday afternoon every year during spring-cleaning while the music from Broadway shows rang forth on the hi-fi.

“Whoa hoe the Wells Fargo wagon is a-comin’ down the street oh please let it be for me.”

“The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plane.”

“There ain’t nothin’ like a dame, nothin’ in the world.”

It must have been raining outside on those Saturdays, otherwise we would never have been in the house on a Saturday afternoon. We were shown how it was done in a hospital or maybe in the army. We were given clean sheets that smelled sweet. We would place our little pajama dolls on our beds, mine pink, hers purple. It was a very special time. And again, the following spring, our beds would get made. Between bouts of spring cleaning, our room was a free-for all. It was designed for rumpus. We had the small door that led to our cave along the slant of the house and we would never worry about the itchy stuff while we built our hidden forts in there. We had a dresser, but usually it had no clothes in it. We’d sit in the drawers, playing ship, and over she’d go, spilling the whole thing on the floor. A laundry basket? I don’t think so. Not that I remember. We played school up there, and business girls. And probably doctor.

From my perspective, everyone’s house was like this although I didn’t see the inside of very many of the other houses on the street. These were big families in small homes and there was no such thing as d├ęcor. There were no “light fixtures,” no wall-paper, no bathtub surrounds. What for? The matching melmac belonged in St. James and the doily-covered china cabinets belonged in Elmwood. Here, all we needed was ordinary stuff. An aluminum pot full of pea soup and a fist full of crackers would sustain us so we could run the lanes and the sidewalks, and cut through the yards. In the back doors and out the front we’d go. Slam! Calling and hollering. Laughing and crying. By and large, ignoring the grown-ups.

There were no fitful nervous mothers in Shaughnessy Heights. Well, maybe one. She never came outside and we’d chew grass to make our teeth green and sneer at her in through the back bedroom window. I think she was French, so maybe she worried about her kids. But the rest of us would get home at dark or when we were hungry and there was always something on the go. Mom was always busy. Canning. Rolling smokes. Gardening. Cooking. Laundering with the wringer squeezing into the kitchen sink. Ironing in front of the TV. Shake shake that 7-Up bottle of water with the thumb, letting just the right amount out to dampen the clothes. Roll them up. Roll the socks. Maybe do some dishes, if the washing machine wasn’t in front of the sink. Save the housework until Saturday, if it rains. And the dads were at work, somewhere. Labatt’s, Esso, Dominion Bridge, Kleysens, CPR, Motorcoach. They would come home and sometimes they would have a beer. Round and round it went. The dads grunted at each other. There wasn’t much fun to be had. After all, every single dad in Shaughnessy Heights had been in the war.

Even though every one of our dads was a veteran, they didn’t talk to each other about the war. Each of them knew their war was much worse than the other guy’s war. It would become a pissing contest over who had the worst experience. There was no such thing as sunscreen or gor-tex for protection from the elements and there was no such thing as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The dads had nothing to talk about.

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