A Vancouver Boyhood

Posted by Daniel on Mar 2, 2009 - 1 comment

Veteran broadcaster and Vancouver historian Chuck Davis recalls his boyhood in the city:

I’ve written quite a few newspaper and magazine articles in my time, but today’s readers might be surprised to learn that I first appeared in The Vancouver Sun more than 60 years ago. And on the front page, at that. I’ll explain in a moment.

When my Dad and I left Winnipeg to come to Vancouver in December 1944 the snow around the Winnipeg CPR station had been pushed aside into piles higher than the train. When we got to Vancouver the sun was shining, there was no snow, and I seem to remember flowers growing outside the Vancouver CPR station. I do recall saying to my Dad, “I think we’ve come to the right place.” My first visual memory of the city was the statue in front of the station of the angel carrying the soldier to heaven.

The train to Vancouver was filled with soldiers from the Royal 22nd Regiment, the famous “Van Doos” of Quebec, and they kept me well supplied with oranges as we travelled. The oatmeal the CPR served in the train’s dining car, by the way, was so good it left me with a taste for it that is still there more than 60 years later.

I was nine years old when we got here. My Dad had been running a small confectionery and second-hand magazine store on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg, but had decided to move when a friend told him there were lots of vacant stores in Vancouver . . . where the weather was warmer. He arranged to have a CPR boxcar filled with the store’s inventory shipped to Vancouver, but when we got here he found there were no vacant stores. Or, at any rate, none he could afford.

We stayed for a few days at a hotel in the Downtown Eastside, then for $300 Dad bought a squatter’s shack on the south shore of Burrard Inlet in Burnaby. I didn’t know what a squatter was, but I did know I loved the place. Ours was one of a long row of shacks, linked by a boardwalk, right beside the train tracks. When trains went by the whole shack trembled, lighting was by kerosene lamp, and our toilet emptied right into the Inlet. One of our neighbors, whom we visited a few times, was an old gentleman whose pipe tobacco had a wonderfully sweet and smoky aroma I have never forgotten. I learned only recently, in an article by Sheryl Salloum, that writer Malcolm Lowry was in a squatter’s shack on the other side of the Inlet at the same time, writing Under the Volcano.

I forget now where my Dad arranged to have his merchandise — mostly second-hand magazines, thousands of them — stored, but I do know everything was stolen shortly after we arrived. He never recovered it. He got a job loading milk trucks at Dairyland, which was then on 8th Avenue near Cambie, and I attended school at Gilmore Elementary in Burnaby. It was a long walk up the hill through the bush to get there. (It was while I was in Grade 5 at Gilmore that I became interested in words: our English teacher, Miss Scott, explained to us one day that the word “breakfast” came about because the first meal of the day would “break” the “fast” of the preceding night. I was fascinated to learn that words had histories!)

After a few months Dad was able to rent a little place on East Hastings in Burnaby that had been a taxi dispatch office, and he sold our shack (for $300, what we’d paid for it) and we moved in there. Our shelves were orange crates. The streetcars ran right outside the door, and I recall laying out strings of caps on the rails, anchored by wads of gum, and listening to them bang-bang-bang as the cars drove over them. I remember, too, the yellow rattan seats in the streetcars and sitting in the back row with my hands on the framework of the seats in front of me and “steering” the streetcar when it turned a corner.

We next moved to a two-storey two-apartment building at 374 West 4th Avenue, and thereby hangs a tale: in the early morning of November 29, 1946 the apartment above us was destroyed by fire. (No one was hurt.) I woke up to the fire trucks’ alarms, then dashed up the street to Dairyland to alert Dad to the fire. The firefighters put the blaze out before it affected our place, but everything we had was soaked to mush by water. The front page of The Vancouver Sun had a photo of me later that day, just turned eleven, sitting on a wagon in the midst of the devastation and grinning like mad for the photographer. I went out and bought a copy of the paper, and remember pointing at the picture and telling the paperboy: “That’s me!”

It was many more years before I appeared in the paper again.

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