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John McNeish

Class of 1965

I recently read about modern teenagers who have no chores around their home and therefore "grow up" without knowing how to take care of themselves. This was not the case in St Lambert in the 1950 & 60's. We had a mother who pretended to be weak and helpless, but who cunningly led us through the McNeish Family Labour Exchange and Apprenticeship Programme, which traded food and lodging, clothing and school supplies for hard labour and intense training.

It began innocently when our mother asked us to begin keeping our rooms tidy. That led to setting the table for dinner and for special occasions, and thence to cleaning and tidying the house for special occasions -- the incentive/threat being that if the house were not spotless, relatives bearing gifts would not be invited. Finally, "since we were so good at it", we endured weekly cleaning binges. In later life, Jacques Parizeau called it the "lobster method": put the lobster in cold water and it does not suspect anything; raise the temperature and it does resist; by the time the water is boiling, the lobster is cooked.

Kitchen duty: start as an apprentice helper, prepping vegetables, be allowed to prepare dough for cookies and cakes, (perk: licking the icing bowl), graduate to meats and, finally, the pinnacle: August canning seasons, when we "put down" the annual supply of Dorothy's Famous International Tomato Chutney - enough for an army for a year.

Of course you cannot have vegetables if you do not have a garden, and the house would not look "right" if the yard were untidy, or there was not a profusion of flowers. Again the innocent beginning: "just a bit of weeding", just "turn over the vegetable beds", trim the hedges, rake the leaves until you were trapped.

It was a hard life. You do not need to read the Greek Myth of Sisyphus if you have spread a load of earth on your yard. The pile looked so small when it was dumped on the driveway in the morning. But no matter how many barrows I filled and spread, the pile grew, not smaller, as the hot muggy day slid into noon and afternoon.

Dante's Hell never had a circle reserved for clipping hedges, but that was because he only had seven not eight circles of Hell. Every branch you touched in the morning sent off clouds of mosquitoes and sharp twigs tore at your arms all day as you reached in to pluck out dead branches from the middle of the thick hedge. But oh, the depression when, after a whole day of clipping and raking, your father returned home in the evening, and pointed out that the far end was six inches shorter than the near one!

You've heard: "what does not kill you, helps you grow"?? Take our lawn mower - please! My father never bought a new one, but inherited a series of cast iron clunkers from his best friend. By the time we got them, the gears were worn down, the adjuster screws did not hold the spinning blades to the flat cutter blade and the blades would not keep a sharp edge because they were too old and tired. They were heavy and hard to push, if you tightened the adjustment too tight they would not move - too loose and they would not cut, and the gears were always slipping. So you would alternately push and get the handle speared in your gut because the thing was stuck fast, or fall on your face because something was too loose. And the blades were so dull that you had to do two or three passes to do a good job. After a few summers of those torture racks, I grew old and frustrated before my time. It was a revelation when I did lawn jobs for neighbours who had powers mowers which cut cleanly and ran smoothly over immaculate lawns.

There were compensations. Every autumn weekend, after raking and stuffing leaves and dead branches into our large metal garbage pails we set them alight. The sight and smell of curling smoke at dusk were romantic -- even to a spotty-faced teenager -- and the pyrotechnics of the embers which flared up in the dark if you blew on them were better than Hollywood CGI.

Paint jobs were the best. In the glorious heyday of 1960's pop, you would set up your paint and brushes, stacks of newspapers to protect furniture and floors indoors, put on the radio, and float away in your own world. Talk and easy listening with Rod Dewar on CJAD in the morning, rock and roll with Dave Boxer on CKGM in the afternoon. Without artificial categories to close our ears, we could hear Johnnie Cash and Johnnie Mathis, followed by Nat King Cole, Montovani, and Acker Bilk, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, and (ear worm alerts) "Nel blu dipinto di blu" from Italy or "Ue O Muite Arukou" from Japan. The rhythms of Doo Wop and Bebop fired our imaginations, speeded your arms to work faster and helped the job finish itself.

My value to the extended McNeish family economy was recognised early and I was farmed out to help my grandfather, Fred Thomas on Maple Avenue, work on his house. Old as he was, and with a gimpy leg, he was always tackling major carpentry and paint jobs on his home, and even a young ten-thumbed teenager was useful for holding lumber steady or hammering nails. I even got to use the trigonometry and algebra I learned at CCHS to calculate tricky angles or forms. My grandfather was a magician with wood, and I learned to love the creative process of shaping raw wood, nails, putty and paint into a porch or table or chair.

By this time, my activities were being noticed around town, and neighbours started calling to ask me to "look after" their garden in the summer, or "do" their walk and driveway in the winter -- AND offering to PAY. So I tended the lawn the father of Brown's Pharmacy, the Reids across the street, the Struyk's behind, Mrs Downey down the way. By the end of the record snow years of 1962-63I I was shovelling snow three feet above my head to get it over the piles beside the driveways I cleared.

The best job was taking over Douglas Maclaren's morning Gazette route for several month-long stretches. You have not lived if you have not awoken to the sound of your bundle thumping on the front porch, arisen to the sweet, damp smells of a suburb in the summer with the birds just beginning to stir and the feel of the papers folding "just-right" so they do not fly apart when you throw them to a customer's door. In the winter you go out into dead silence and scrunch in white, newly fallen snow unbroken by any other footsteps.

And before the 24 hour news cycle, you were the first in town to learn of the erection of the Berlin wall, or the heroism of the Canadian doctor who went to work for the US Department of Health where she saved thousands of American children from thalidomide by stopping its distribution. Still stunned 18 hours later, you relived moment by moment of the Kennedy assassination, and the horror 24 hours later of Lee Harvey Oswald's murder. You could revel in the multi-page pageantry of photos from Churchill's funeral and the biography of a man who live four or five super-sized lives. The papers were always late those mornings.

You never saw customers in the morning, but when you went to collect your money, you learned important life lessons from customers whose lives were very different from yours: the ones who lived in a dark, urine stinking boarding house on Riverside, who regularly could not pay for their papers; the lonely cat-lady, whose overgrown bushes were full of spiders and who peered around her paint-flecking door as if fearful that I would do something bad; or the hour-long chats with Michael Sibelius, who talked about his interest in Napoleon and shared his Jewish heritage on his door step every week -- to my astonishment, not every kid in St Lambert celebrated Christmas and got gifts every year! But oh, when Mrs Hal Patterson, wife of the Alouettes football star, answered the door, with her blond hair, white pants, magnificent smile and soft, US mid-west accent, my adolescent fancies....well, better left unsaid!

To this day, I still get immense satisfaction from a gleaming paint job, a chocolate cake that stands up straight after I've iced it (don't ask), being able to make things for myself and do things for myself that today's kids cannot accomplish with Twitter or their iPhone. They may be able to Google how to do it, or they can find a skilled tradesperson on Linkdup do it, or ask Amazon to send it to them, but they cannot iPhone the pleasure of doing it for themselves. On the other hand, I have been so busy doing things for myself and painting and mowing and shovelling that I am now a fat, bald old bachelor. So maybe there is something to be said for delegating.

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