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May-26-2013 13:41printcomments

The Way We Were

You only live once. But if you do it right, once is enough.
- Mae West

Victoria Day in Canada
Victoria Day in Canada. Photo courtesy: timeanddate.com

(DAYTONA BEACH, FL) - When I was a kid, growing up in the Alberta dust bowl during the Thirties, Queen Victoria's Birthday was a holiday. It still is. Victoria ruled England and all the little colonies beyond the seas for 60 years or so until she kicked well over 100 years ago. Despite the fact that nobody liked her that much even when she was alive, we still chant about Victoria Day, and celebrate with barbecues and car sales. Go figure.

Victoria said things like "The Queen is not amused," and other third person gems, such as "For a woman, marriage is beastly," and she proved her point by bearing eight or nine children to her German-speaking Prince cum royal stud, Albert Saxe-Coburg, or Hanover or whatever. One of them became Edward VII, whom some historians believe was the real Jack The Ripper. Lovely genealogy. The family that plays together stays together.

When I was a kid (I'll start again), we didn't know much about Queen Victoria, but we loved her birthday, because we didn't have to go to school. Actually, I sort of liked school, because my father was the school principal, so it was sort of noblesse oblige. Besides, I was also like the town nerd. But the 24th of May was also the first day we were allowed to take off our long johns, and after seven months of Canadian winter that was cool, in more ways than one. It was also the first day we were allowed to go in swimming. How did we manage that in a small prairie town pinned like a dry moth to endless flat brown wasteland? I'm about to tell you.

Consort, our town, was quite unique among prairie towns, which are pretty much carbon copies from Didsbury, Alberta to Rat Portage, Ontario. It had a valley south of town, surmounted by hills that we used to think were about like the Sierra Madre, but which with the perspective of 75 years have shrunk to little more than hillocks. And between the town and those hills, there coursed a creek, frozen in winter, but freely flowing (maybe five feet across and a foot deep) in the summer, but eminently dammable - and on occasion damnable. In a word, a marvelous waterway with the potential for an ol' swimmin' hole, in the best tradition of the adventures of Tom Sawyer.


At the foot of the Big Hills (for that was their unsurprising name) there was a bend in The Creek, which didn't have any other name, with a natural depression right by a clump of poplars, which were probably almost the only trees in Alberta at the time.

Those trees are germaine to the story for two reasons. First, because it was there that we used to hang out and smoke our brains out, courtesy of Harry Suey, whose father owned the general store and who therefore was wont to swipe for special occasions like this those little five-packs of Sweet Caporal cigarettes, which you won't remember if you were born after 1929 or so. You'll have to take my word for it.

And after we were all suitably sick, we would get at the main occupation of the day, which was to dam the creek and create our swimmin' hole. Which explains the second reason the trees were important, because by hewing a log or two we provided the skeletal structure for the dam.

For that purpose, we had all brought along axes, spades and shovels, the latter to carve and dig up sod, each chunk perhaps a foot square. And we set to work without blueprints, working drawings or any other formal planning, save for the raw intuition from having done it before, as our older brothers had done, with much trial and error. The dam would not be like the Hoover, nor yet like the dykes that ineffectively circle New Orleans, nor even the sandbag variety that abler men erect against river flooding. But we selected that bend in our tiny river, perhaps 15 feet across, embedded the logs and, braced against them, began wedging our sods until the channel itself was the only clear space.

When we had reached a level of about three feet, we inserted a careful spillway, three adjoined slabs of plank, to maintain the water level safely below the top of the dam and then, with a concerted effort, plugged and sealed what remained with a series of well-placed sods. A few careful supports as the water rose to the spillway level, and the structure was complete, solid, and we had a swimmin' hole of respectable surface area and five or six feet deep. Thanks to our spillway, it would hold all summer long, with minor adjustments, as the grass grew and reinforced our sod structure.


And now followed the dedication ceremony, the main event, whereby we peeled off our clothes and cannon-balled off the newly created river bank, cavorting, dunking and spraying each other and engaging in the myriad horseplay that happens when boys are exposed to water. And later, spent with the exertion, we sprawled on the banks, passed around drags on Harry's purloined cigarettes and instructed each other on the intricacies of sexual behavior that had filtered down in bedrooms and behind barn doors from older brothers and more wordly informants. Most of it - we would learn later - grossly inaccurate.

I forgot to mention that our Victoria Day project was open and available to every boy and dog in town able to dig sod or dog-paddle. Girls, obviously, were persona non grata. I don't know what girls did on the 24th of May. I still don't.

But in today's equal opportunity world, we all continue to cling to the detritus of monarchy in order to retain a three-day weekend at least once a month. In the States, in the grand three-day weekend tradition, but hampered by a lack of ancient royalty, they employ other contrivances, such as Memorials, Presidents or Revolutions, along with door-crashing specials by most retailers.

I remember the 24th of May, how our Herculean project showed us that we could build together, that we could harbor and sequester the riches that even then surrounded us in our sere and seemingly forgotten prairie world. And that in doing so we were most successful if we restrained our enthusiasm, inserted a spill-way to moderate the excess that could have eroded our success. We were not yet men, but we had begun to learn as men do together.

All of us now, those who are left, have outgrown a distant forgotten Queen. We haven't outgrown the need, the gift of our sod dam.

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Bill Annett grew up a writing brat; his father, Ross Annett, at a time when Scott Fitzgerald and P.G. Wodehouse were regular contributors, wrote the longest series of short stories in the Saturday Evening Post's history, with the sole exception of the unsinkable Tugboat Annie.

At 18, Bill's first short story was included in the anthology “Canadian Short Stories.” Alarmed, his father enrolled Bill in law school in Manitoba to ensure his going straight. For a time, it worked, although Bill did an arabesque into an English major, followed, logically, by corporation finance, investment banking and business administration at NYU and the Wharton School. He added G.I. education in the Army's CID at Fort Dix, New Jersey during the Korean altercation.

He also contributed to The American Banker and Venture in New York, INC. in Boston, the International Mining Journal in London, Hong Kong Business, Financial Times and Financial Post in Toronto.

Bill has written six books, including a page-turner on mutual funds, a send-up on the securities industry, three corporate histories and a novel, the latter no doubt inspired by his current occupation in Daytona Beach as a law-abiding beach comber.

You can write to Bill Annett at this address: hoople84@gmail.com

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