George Wilson was a farm boy, a lacrosse player, a wanderer, a banker, a prospector, an RCAF flight sergeant, a tail gunner, a blind man, a father, and a mystery.
George fought the Germans from the suicide seat of a Lancaster bomber. It was the seat of no return. He had to have been a madman to take that job. Or maybe he had a death wish that he kept between himself and the blackness that surrounded him every night high above Europe. Whatever it was that made him sit down in the rear end of that giant RCAF Lancaster, he made sure none of us would ever know about it. It would stay locked up in George’s head with the morphine, the steel plate that covered the hole above his right temple, the English tarts he’d frequent in London, and all his other wishes and secrets. (Bunny found a photo that George had carried home with him after the war. She’d pull it out and show it to me and tell me it was “your father’s girlfriend.”)
George Wilson was a war hero. And like most war heroes, he arrived home a broken man. In those days, there was no feel-good therapy or self-help books. He found himself a stool at the bar of the newly opened El Mocambo on Spadina Avenue in Toronto and dove into the bottle. He loved booze before the war but lived for it when he came home, dumped on the streets of Toronto blind and crazy with a major head injury. He’d drink at the kitchen table, he’d drink in Legions, and he’d drink in hotel rooms at War Amps conventions.
He’d knock ’em back with his blind war vet buddies and sometimes with a larger collection of warriors who were missing arms and legs, as well as one guy named Smitty, who was missing his nose. And after George had one too many, the surgical scars left by the hospital in France would cut loose and the left side of his face would lose its nerve, leaving George’s mouth to droop and his speech to slur. George looked and sounded like he had a stroke in these moments, and Bunny was always the first to notice.
She was quick to fly off her chair on the other side of the room and rush around looking for something for George to chew. A crust of bread would work, or other times it would be a piece of wood or a facecloth, a toothpick or a match cover. The movement of chewing would reactivate the muscles and bring him back to some kind of acceptable appearance while continuing on with his drunkenness.
George’s temper used to shock people because when he was sober, he was soft-spoken and timid as a church mouse. After the whisky and the beer hit the metal plate in his head, all hell would break loose. Blind George took on all comers. Bar stools would fly and jaws get cracked. He managed to do a fair amount of damage up and down Spadina Avenue, much to the surprise of bartenders, bouncers, and onlookers who pretty well let him do whatever he wanted because he was a war hero and had lost so much fighting those soulless Germans. He won back our freedom, so he got free rein over every room he entered, which was a pretty good deal for him.
But Bunny suffered many long nights. There was no calming him down once he got home. He was a tiger in a cage. A tiger in a cage with a plate in its head and a cane to swing around. The walls of their little apartment on Huron Street had holes in the plaster from George trying to beat some light into his pitch-black world. His anguished cries were heard over the treetops and across the football field of Varsity Stadium and finally lost their power and crash-landed like George’s Lancaster bomber on the lawn of Queen’s Park.
Bunny and George moved to Hamilton in the '50s so George could settle into his job at a confectionery stand in a downtown post office. By the time I ended up running around his rented house on East 36th Street in Hamilton, he was a little older, a little tired, and not so prone to the raging anger and violent outbursts that went along with having your eyesight robbed from you at the age of 30.
The red-brick bungalow Bunny and George rented faced east, second from the northwest corner of Brucedale and East 36th Street. Our house, 162 East 36th Street, was the wreck of the block, all overgrown lawn and broken windows, and there was nobody in the house capable of fixing even the smallest problem, so whatever was broken would stay that way for eternity.
In those days, Hamilton’s East Mountain was in various stages of development. There were old farmhouses with the old people living in them still holding their own. There were wood-framed wartime houses, four-room cottages, usually with five or six kids stuffed in them, and then there were the piles of dirt and wood and bricks and beer bottles, where families in trailers lived, waiting for their houses to be built.
There were also some houses with perfect little lawns and gardens and fresh paint and washed cars and aprons and Trillium Awards displayed by the front doors. The folks in these houses needed to define themselves. They clung to middle-class attitudes to separate themselves from the armies of working-class, welfare, and biker families that had settled in the neighbourhood from downtown and out of town and far away to come and work in the steel factories.
George did not have too much to say about the war or his enemy, the Germans. Bunny, on the other hand, had lots of anger and plenty to say about a nation of people who had set up camps to kill children and their innocent families, dropped bombs on England, and taken her husband’s eyes away. Her book collection grew, with paperbacks of Treblinka, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and The Holocaust Kingdom. She would go into detail at dinnertime with excerpts of unthinkable, mindless violence and unexplainable evil that always ended with “those bloody Germans.”
I went to bed in fear and woke up in fear that the Germans would break through time and space and pull up in front of 162 East 36th Street with their tanks and lederhosen and flame throwers and try to take my eyes away from me. I had a list of the scariest monsters known to my preschool mind. In ascending order:
6. Lee Harvey Oswald
5. Alfred Hitchcock
3. Perry Edward Smith and Richard Hickock, the two guys who kill the Clutter family in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood — at the age of four, I accidentally watched that movie when Bunny and George had fallen asleep.
2. Frankenstein’s monster
1. The Germans
One morning Bunny saw a moving van pull onto our street and a new family move into the Masons’ old house, six doors up. She inquired among the other housewives about who the new neighbours were and where they were from. That night at dinner the answer came back like an anti-aircraft missile tearing through our kitchen.
G e r m a n s . . .
Germans had moved onto our street. I expected my father to go to the basement and unpack machine guns and bayonets, and my mother, in her apron, to lay out a map of Hamilton’s East Mountain on the kitchen table for us to plan our attack. I thought tunnels would be dug and barbed wire strung around the perimeter of our house to ensure no Germans could sneak up and spy on us through our bedroom windows.
But none of this happened. Instead, I lay awake in my mother’s bed every night, wide-eyed and terrified until CFRB’s Starlight Serenade faded over and out and I was carried away by the transistor radio in the kitchen, cradled to sleep and away from the Germans by host George Wilson (not my George Wilson) and Rimsky-Korsakov, Chopin, Puccini, Vaughan Williams, and Sibelius.
Still, from a safe distance, the Germans were watched day in, day out as they unpacked their cardboard boxes, teak furniture, appliances, and winter tires. “The whole neighbourhood is talking,” said Bunny at the dinner table. It comforted me that we were not alone, that the Keiths, Montes, Tessaros, Baldassarios, and all brave Canadians would be on guard for me.
Questions were raised about the Germans of East 36th Street. Had their family or their fellow villagers back home in the fatherland turned local Jews in to the Nazi authorities? Had they discovered any downed Allied paratroopers hiding in their barns? Had they killed them with pitchforks when they did? The parents were met with polite smiles, of course, but the young boy, Alfred, endured the brunt of our kitchen table suspicions. He was teased for the way he spoke, forbidden from playing street hockey with us, beaten up, and, finally, stripped and tied to a telephone pole one night during a game of hide and seek.
The war was over, but the battle raged on. The kids on East 36th Street had all seen the good guy vs. bad guy, Germans vs. Us movies like The Great Escape and Stalag 17 and every Tuesday tuned into Combat!, the weekly Hollywood account of World War II starring Vic Morrow. I ended up befriending Alfred, and even though I could not sway the mob’s opinion, I can at least say I gave him a chance to breathe a bit easier knowing he had one friend on the block.
Andy Strang was our neighbour. His alcohol-induced Jekyll-and-Hyde routine kept his family in constant fear. He threw his wife’s cooking out their kitchen window onto Brucedale Avenue, and he pissed in her cedar chest at the end of their bed on a regular basis. Once, he put his son Archie’s head though the living room wall, an incident that became a domestic-violence legend on our street, or at least next door in our house.
“Go to bed now or I’ll put your head through the wall like Mr. Strang did to Archie’s,” Bunny would say. “Do your homework or I’ll put your head through the wall like Mr. Strang did to Archie’s.” “Clean up your toys or —” It was the '60s, after all, and other people’s misfortune could be used to enforce fear and inspire a work ethic. A threat for all occasions, you might say.
In addition to several drunken moments throughout the year, Mr. Strang made an annual visit to our house on Christmas Eve, when he would enter the house, bounce off the walls and into a chair at the kitchen table, where George Wilson would pour him rum until his head hit the table and he pissed on the kitchen floor.
“Bunny . . . I pissed on your floor,” Strang would announce. Bunny would grab a mop and some soapy water, and Strang would bounce off a few more walls, out the front door and out into the night.
Bunny loved everything about mob life. Maybe because when she was a child the famous Legs Diamond hid out in her hometown, taking the local kids for rides in his Cadillac and buying them soda pops. She loved to gossip about mobsters, mob hits, mob hangouts. Hamilton provided her lots to fuel her obsession. Everybody knew somebody who knew somebody who grew up with, worked for, or got worked over by Johnny Pops. Johnny Papalia that is, sometime local kingpin, monster, and much-feared enforcer of the southern Ontario mafia. His power reached up to Montreal and down through Buffalo to New York City, making Hamilton a hotbed of fun, drugs, frontier justice, and foul-mouthed streetwise banter that otherwise could only be heard coming from Hollywood gangsters on the big screen. Bunny had a front-row seat to it all, and she loved every minute of it.
Bunny tended to group all Italians into the mobster category and as a result kept a close eye on some of our Italian neighbours. Out of this came an index finger wet with dishwater that pointed directly across the street to Jimmy Monte. Bunny estimated that Jimmy was a low-ranking diabetic mobster in the Johnny Papalia crew. He was notorious for not taking his insulin and falling into a coma, usually to be found by his son Bobby when he arrived home for lunch from Blessed Sacrament school. Jimmy and his family were the first ticket scalpers in the city. The first ones I knew of, anyway. He always had tickets to sports events, plays, concerts, in venues from Toronto to Buffalo. His wife, Andrea, had a table at the Royal York’s Imperial Room in Toronto for any show she wanted to see — Al Martino, Anne Murray, Bobby Vinton.
Andrea was kinda boy crazy. She worked as a cashier at the Dominion store at Gage and Fennell along with a handful of other boy-crazy neighbourhood women. They all had crushes on the shelf stockers, delivery truck drivers, and customers who buzzed around the grocery store. If Jimmy had got wind of Andrea’s crushes, he could have had any and all of these unsuspecting men disappear into the Hamilton harbour to swim with Rocco Perri.
Jimmy’s kids loved him, and so did I, even though looking back he was really just a grumpy Italian guy. Jimmy would sometimes glance across East 36th Street, see me hanging around on my front porch and take me along with his kids, Teresa and Bobby, and their cousins to things like the Hell Drivers at the CNE and the Shrine Circus and the Ice Capades, and one time we all went to the Hamilton Forum to see Little Joe (Michael Landon), star of Bonanza, in person along with a real rodeo. Bunny dressed me like I was going to my first communion, in a black blazer, red vest, and tie, and warned me to stay close to the Monte clan because there were going to be a lot of “homos” down there at the Forum waiting to steal young boys and take them into bathroom stalls and “bugger” them. (Mind you, the way Bunny had me dressed, I looked like the belle of the ball for every pedophile north of Barton Street.)
I took this advice to heart, and even though I didn’t know what she was talking about, I thought the words “bugger” and “homo” did not sound too good. They were mystery words like the words Stan Nixon spit out in the schoolyard.
One time I went with Jimmy and his relatives to a Ticats game at the old Civic Stadium, and after the game he took us all down to the locker room to meet Angelo Mosca. I remember Jimmy guiding us past the weak security and down into the bowels of the stadium. The hallways were concrete blocks and the lighting was dim. It was like a scene out of an old black-and-white movie: we were like gangsters on our way to pay off a boxer under the ring before the fight. In reality, though, we were a gangster with neighbourhood kids going down to meet the CFL defensive lineman.
We walked into the Tiger-Cats’ dressing room, and Mosca was right there before us in a towel eating a plate of chicken and pasta out of a Tupperware container that his wife must have packed for him. He was not so friendly to us kids, but he was all smiles for Jimmy. They disappeared to talk about something or other in Italian, and we just stood there in the middle of a room of naked football idols. Tommy Joe Coffey, Joe Zuger, Garney Henley — it was like my CFL football-card collection coming to life. Naked.
Jimmy never went to a job like the other dads. He just went out late at night. Bunny would keep tabs on him through our kitchen window. “Ah . . . there he goes . . . runnin’ around town for Johnny,” she’d say while she did the dishes. Later, she would stand in the dark kitchen in her underwear and apron waiting for him to return. I’d get up to go pee in the middle of the night and hear CHML softly playing Glen Campbell or CFRB’s Starlight Serenade. “Shhh,” she’d say. “Jimmy is out working for the mob tonight. I am waiting to see what he unloads from his car.” I imagined him digging holes up on Limeridge Road under cover of darkness and dumping loan-sharked deadbeats and rival gang members from the trunk of that Pontiac. But mostly I think he drove his green Parisienne around in the middle of the night picking up party girls and sandwiches for the big boys at their card games down at the Connaught Hotel.
Excerpted from Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home by Tom Wilson. Copyright © 2017 by Tom Wilson. Published by Doubleday Canada, an imprint of Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
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