1950s SCHOOL DAZE
MEMORIES and PHOTOS
Strathclair school was an imposing building built on the east side of Strathclair in 1917. My Mom, Louise, and her two Campbell brothers, Don and Bill, had graduated Grade XI from the school back in the '30s depression years -- Grade XII wasn't offered there at that time. My first memories of the school are of the morning when Mom and my two-year-old sister Bonnie enrolled me in Miss Fulford's Grade I class in the fall of 1949. There was no such thing as Kindergarten then. My grandparents and parents had gone through alphabet books with me, but nothing prepared me for the experience of sitting in rows of desks among almost 40 other little six-year-olds that I'd never seen before and a teacher giving directions in front of a huge blackboard. Nor was I prepared for group singing of two songs -- O Canada and God Save the King -- and the group reciting a long verse called The Lord's Prayer.
Sometime before noon hour I heard a familiar car horn so I stood up, left the class and escaped to the parking lot. Mom was surprised to see me before classes were let out -- apparently Bonnie had pressed the horn button a few times. I was ready to go home for dinner (noon meal on the prairies was called dinner in those days). From then on it was common to take a black oval-top lunch kit to school -- usually filled with peanut butter sandwiches, cookies or cake, fruit and a thermos of milk (we had milk cows, a carry-over when my grandparents used to deliver milk and cream to customers around down in a horsedrawn Bennett Buggy).
I have a few scattered memories of the early grades. It was not long after the end of WWII so we were still very aware of wartime rationing. Some kids even packed Spam/Klick sandwiches since the government supplied old age pensioners with cases that wartime staple left over from the war years. There were still wartime recruitment posters kicking around and some of the 16 mm films shown were also left over from those years -- mainly training or propaganda related films. Most of that material probably came from the RCAF which supplied material for the Royal Canadian Air Cadets who held some of their classes in the school. Students were still encouraged to bring in the foil paper from cigarette packages and this was molded into a big ball at the back of the classroom.
The main textbooks issued were Dick and Jane readers. They were from a slightly different world featuring American city kids. I remember seeing the word "frock" and asking the teacher what it was. Even she didn't know at the time. I looked forward to daily sessions when the teacher would read aloud from novels -- usually nature adventure type books. Some kids, however, saw this as a good time to take a nap. We always looked forward to the 15-minute recesses and the 1 1/2-hour noon hours. There were no slides and playground structures that are so common in today's schools The swings were fun though. These were two huge wooden structures with the board seats attached to the top by thick hemp ropes. Most of us would stand up on the seats and pump away trying rise to a height level with the top cross bar. Another trick was to sit on the seat and have a buddy twirl it around as tight as possible. Then, when released the seat and rider would go into a thrilling spin.
My favourite sport at the time was dodge ball. It was fun twisting and dodging inside the lime circle. I don't remember there being any playground supervision. I was pretty quiet and shy but I remember being bullied by a much bigger kid. One time he threw gravel stones at me out in the parking area. I responded by throwing stones back at him and he ran crying into the school to tell the teacher. Another time the same bully started pushing me around in the classroom. Finally, I couldn't take any more and wrestled him to the floor just as the teacher came into the room. She saw me on top, so I was the bad guy. My parents were shocked when the teacher wrote about "Billie's bad conduct" on my report card. She had softened the blow a little by later inserting the word "occasional" above the word "bad." I had experienced life's first injustice.
It was common practice for a few years to have a dentist come into the school to check and work on students' teeth. This proved to be embarrassing since he declared that I had soft teeth and needed a multitude of fillings. In front of many of my classmates he declared that the many painful fillings he put into my teeth would last only long enough until I was old enough to have them replaced with false teeth. I proved the old fart wrong as I still have most of my own teeth 70 years later. The same butcher pulled out many of my sister's baby teeth so that the permanents would grow in better. Sounded drastic but she has a beautiful set of teeth.
During Grade VI had my first stage debut. Our teacher was a Ukrainian lady who decided that she would add a bit of her culture to the Christmas concert in the theatre. She dressed us in Ukrainian costumes and coached us for weeks in performing a Kolomeyka dance. We whirled and twirled to frantic music and kicked our legs out front while in a crouch with our arms crossed across our chests. The performance went well and we enjoyed it, but most of our parents, who were of British stock, were a little bewildered seeing their young 'uns so immersed in unfamiliar Galician culture.
We never had the experience of field trips so it was always a treat to be led from the school grounds for some reason. One event was the annual Tuberculosis X-rays from a portable system in a bus parked over at the hall. Another off campus adventure was a visit to our CPR railway station where we boarded a rail car to view films on forestry or some such topic. An unforgettable experience was a hike about a half mile south on highway 354. It was early June and the slough on the side of the road was full of water -- very inviting on a hot day. Many of us jumped in and waded in the algae covered water before the teacher could stop us. The rest of the day was a bit uncomfortable while we waited for our clothes to dry off.
Our school didn't have a real library -- instead, each classroom had a bookcase full of books considered suitable for our age group. It was in Grade VI that I got really serious about reading. One thing that really kicked off this love of books was finding a badly tattered and much read cast-off book from the room's waste basket. The current teacher probably thought it unsuitable for young eyes since it had rather grotesque illustrations of strange Martian aliens, battle scenes, partially clad humans, and a headless human body. It also described battles between warriors on a huge arena chessboard and rules for a form of Martian chess called Jetan. I rescued this treasure and was soon hooked on the book: The Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs -- and all the science fiction books and comics I could find. I even joined the Science Fiction book club and later the Mystery Book Club.
My marks in arithmetic started to suffer. We were asked to copy math questions off the blackboard and then calculate the answers in our scribblers. I got most of the answers wrong. Eventually, the teacher took a closer look at may work and found that I had been writing down the wrong numbers for the questions. This resulted in a trip to see Dr. Green in Winnipeg's Boyd Building to have my eyes checked. I was soon the not-so-proud wearer of eye glasses to correct my short sightedness.
There were no school buses for us back in those days. Farm kids such as my sister Bonnie and I travelled to and from school via "school vans." Local farmers were commissioned to use their own cars to pick up kids on assigned routes. Most of them were issued signs reading "School Van" which they attached to their car roofs. The roads in those days were narrower and not raised up to the level they are today. We also had long cold winters with severe blizzards. There weren't school closures due to weather and since most farmers had horses the school van drivers were expected to adapt to winter conditions. I remember times when the roads were covered with huge snowdrifts almost as high as the telephone lines in places. It was always a novel experience watching a long closed-in sleigh pulled by a team as it came along the road from the south to pick us up. This winter school van had a bench along each side, a stove to keep us warm, and the driver sat at the front holding the reins which stretched out through an opening to the horses in front. It was quite a ride tipping side to side and up and down over snow banks.
After one major blizzard when the roads were closed our neighbours just over a mile to the south had a serious accident. They were clearing the road with a unit attached to a tractor when one of them caught his leg in the power take-off. The leg was ripped off and his brother carried him to the nearest farmhouse. They phoned the town doctor for help. The doctor followed the town snowplow across the fields to the farmhouse. He attended to the injured man as best he could and called in a helicopter from Rivers Air Force Base. The man was strapped to the side of the chopper and taken to hospital. He survived and went on to live a normal life with an artificial leg.
Another serious accident I remember happened outside the school. Each of the very large windows on the south side of the school had storm windows that were put before winter and taken off in the spring by the janitor. One time he difficulty prying off one of the second story storm windows and he lost hold of it -- it fell heavily to the ground below. It was during recess and a young boy was playing below. The window fell on the lad's head, crushing his skull. It was a horrible scene to witness. Remarkably, after many surgeries the boy recovered.
Our Grades VII and VIII were taught in the same classroom upstairs in the room facing south. I became a real fan of MAD magazine after having bought the pocketbook, "Inside MAD." I liked to read the book in class and share some of the humour with classmates. It was a shock when it was confiscated by teacher one day but a relief when I finally got it back. Friends and I started to draw comics parodying our fellow classmates and school events with characters with names like Korak, Mugsy, etc. Sadly, these primitive efforts are long gone although I still have a poster I won a prize for at the summer fair. I also started to write short stories and a few of these remain.
As a farm kid, provided my main social life but the farm isolation brought our family closer together. Sister Bonnie was main playmate with the odd visit from our three Campbell cousins who live a mile south of us on Dixie. Bonnie was a great companion. We built snow houses together, climbed trees, built a tree house and created a midway style fun house and house of horrors in the large space under our verandah. We both took piano lessons and after dad bought me my first guitar we even sang folk songs together.
Meanwhile, while in school we looked forward to listening to the US World Series in the fall and watching education and entertaining films through the year. Since we had no gym we found other sports activities. Many winter days were spent playing tackle football out in the snow drifts -- an activity that many of the girls joined in. School curling was a popular after school activity. We had baseball diamonds to play on in the summer and there was also a nearby tennis court. Field days generated a lot of interest in racing and broad and high jump events. A sport that I really liked was Borden Ball -- a sport that Mr. Morris introduced after seeing it during one of the air cadet camps he was supervising. This handball sport had a long history in Europe but a simplified version was introduced to Canada during WWII by German POWs in Camp Borden, ON. Our version of the game was played on our football field and was a sort of combined football/soccer/hockey/basketball game which involved much passing with a standard football. There were hockey type goals placed at each end of the field.
During noon hours we cleared a storeroom in the basement furnace/storeroom. The student council purchased a record player and we brought in rock records of the day to dance to. One of the perks for selling magazines through the school was to earn records -- added to my collection of R&R Elvis 78s: FAts, Little Richard, Buddy Holly
I had joined the RCA Record club and had all of Elvis' records but hesitated to share many of them since they were hard earned and I took great pains to keep them free of scratches. Other noon hour pastimes included playing cards for pennies, pick-up sticks contests, chess and a few board games.
I was in the air cadets for eight years. Parade night was always on a Thursday so this was an ongoing weekly ritual. Some of the classes were in the Legion Hall but we made good use of the school facilities. This experience supplemented what we learned in school with classes in first aid, survival, marksmanship, citizenship, leadership, morse code, drill, plays, training films and periodic trips to nearby Rivers Air Force Base, where we used gym facilities and flew in a variety of aircraft. Many cadets made good use of the air force surplus uniforms that they were issued and wore socks, shoes, shirts and even greatcoats to school.
I mentioned previously that our school grounds had some baseball diamonds and an area marked out for football and Borden Ball. But in the junior and high school years we concentrated at lot on football -- Canadian rules. I was a passionate fan of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers -- a family friend even knew a player and took a football into their locker room and had the Grey Cup winning team all sign it for me. I spent time creating plays which, as quarterback, I passed on to my team mates The plays got more complex after I spent some time with a football coach at an Air Cadet camp in Quebec one summer. He showed me the proper way to map out plays. We practiced most noon hours and even played teams in Elphinstone and Newdale. Many of our scrimmages in Strath were pretty rugged - full tackle -- but since we had no equipment, when we played other teams it was always with flag football rules. Fueling my football passion my family gave me a beautiful red football helmet on Christmas. Sadly, a rambunctious younger player tried it out one day by bashing his head into the solid wall of the agricultural shed - and cracked it.
The move into Grade IX and high school brought about many changes. A variety new teachers, more advanced texts, and a large classroom in a new two-story addition built onto the east side of the old school. We were impressed by a long fire escape slide which was fun to use during fire drills -- and occasionally when there were no teachers around. Quite an improvement on the metal stairs escape attached to the old school. We soon found that the floors were not built as sturdily as those in the old school. We sometimes tormented teachers when the whole class would jiggle the floor in unison as we sat at our desks. There was a large empty basement under the building used as a mingling area and to which we soon added a ping pong table..
It was during my senior years that high school students were bused to our school from Newdale which was ten miles to the east. I've included many photo memories in my photo section of the celebration in the new school where we initiated the new students and teachers. All the newbies were in costume and back in those days the initiatiates were also paraded across the Bend Theatre stage. Something our parents always looked forward to were the class photos. . . and later, individual photos were added -- memories that found their way to many home mantels. . . and now featured on the Internet in my photo sections. Most of the class photos were taken outside beside the school and some of them on the front steps of the building -- the same area where my Mom's class photos were taken many years before. Girls mostly wore dresses and skirts in those days. If they wore trousers they always had the fly zipper/buttons on the side -- only boys had the zip on the front. I can't remember anyone wearing shorts. Many of the boys carried a jackknife in their pockets -- something that would certainly be frowned upon in today's times.
In Gr. XI a recent immigrant from Hong Kong, son of Soo and Jade Choy of the Paris Cafe in Newdale joined us. Kenny Choy was older and had already graduated from Hong Kong schools, but entered our school to earn a Canadian diploma and gain immersion experience in English. He was a math wiz and was an enormous help to our math teacher and the whole class. We were familiar with Soo's Paris Cafe as we had sometimes dropped in while playing football against their team and attending dances in Newdale hall. Since we had no gym, all of our school dances had to take place in halls in Strath and Newdale. Kenny's young sister worked long hours in the restaurant and I was always impressed by her warm bubbly personality. A few years later after I had graduated and moved to Brandon College, my parents had moved to Newdale to open a Marshall Wells store. They went to the Paris Cafe every day for coffee breaks and occasional meals and had always told me how impressed they were by Sue-On, the young Choy waitress who by now had grown into a beautiful teenage lady. Kenny had plans to become a doctor after graduation, but had to settle in a career as a lab tech since he didn't have a "second language" -- French that is.
In our Gr. XII year a buddy and I decided that we wanted to learn to type. There were no typewriters in the school and typing wasn't offered. Undaunted we sent money to the Dept of Ed to pay for a correspondence course. I borrowed a clunky old Underwood and spent many hours completing assignments and practicing during free time in our classroom -- the south room above the front entrance. Suffering through countless repetitive drills, we gradually mastered touch typing although we never wrote the final. This, beside learning the 3 Rs, turned out to be the most useful course I took in school and played a major role in working with computers, earning degrees and teaching university courses many years later.
In June 1961 I wrote the required Grade 12 Departmental exams. The two I remember most were English and geography -- courses I loved. On the morning of one exam, after studying most of the night, I went out to find that our car wouldn't start. I took off on foot and ran the mile and a half into town, arriving panting and only few minutes late. The grad banquet was in the basement of the United Church and the diplomas were presented at a formal affair in Crandall where the school division offices were located. Two months later I enrolled in Brandon College.
WHAT WE DIDN'T HAVE
buzzer -- teacher rang a hand bell
library with librarian
music room and instruments - (I had a guitar but was never encouraged to bring it to any events)
playground slides, etc. -- (we had only two giant wooden swings with ropes)
soccer fields -- (we had a makeshift football field, ball diamonds and dodgeball circles)
Business Ed rooms
telephones land or cell
administration office - secretary
computers -- cursive was still taught and used
video projectors (only 16mm film projectors)
Xerox - only spirit or jelly duplicators
electric plug-ins in the parking lot
Loonies and Toonies
$100 to mult-thousand dollar sneakers
A ROOTS ADVENTURE IN THREE PARTS
Part I of the HILLMAN TRAVEL ADVENTURE
1950s SCHOOL DAZE
MEMORIES and PHOTOS
BILL & SUE-ON HILLMAN: A +50-YEAR MUSICAL ODYSSEY