Friday, 26 February 2010

The day a childhood landmark burned.

The Fort Hotel, built in 1913, was a major landmark in the city of Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. I felt saddened and shocked when I learned that it had burned to the ground on January nineteenth of this year. The fire reportedly started by the VLT machines at the south end of the main floor. As I watched video of flames shooting through the structure's windows and firefighters valiantly fighting the blaze, I recalled all the times I had passed by it as a youth. Being painted orange, I could easily identify the building even with my poor vision. My parents took my siblings and me to eat supper a few times in its restaurant too. Though we once ate all the sugar cubes while waiting for our orders to arrive and Mom apologized to the waitress, we enjoyed the outing.

Not all my memories of the hotel were pleasant. I spent many hours behind it in Dad's Volkswagen as he drank with his buddies in the bar. Back in the early sixties, parents weren't all that concerned about paedophiles snatching or molesting unattended children. There was only one time when somebody bothered me. As I waited for Dad one evening, a scruffy, grey-haired man stopped by the open passenger side window and kept urging, "Come on, son, show me your pee pee." I felt terrified, having been sternly admonished never to unzip my pants in public. I hesitated and almost complied with his wishes. "I can't do that," I said as I held onto my zipper. "I'm not supposed to." The stranger suddenly fled, doubtless frightened off by some noise or passing pedestrian. I never told my parents about the incident as Mom often panicked whenever I informed her of any problems I had.

One evening, after friends held a party at the hotel for my parents to celebrate my mom's return from hospital, my siblings and I were left in the Volkswagen for a few hours. When Dad finally staggered out the back door and climbed into the driver's seat, he promptly slumped across the steering wheel.. "Wake up, Dad," I repeated as I shook his shoulders. He just mumbled and fell back asleep. Having had enough of waiting, and it being a warm summer night, I decided to walk home. A man spotted me passing in front of the hotel entrance and, because it was two hours past the curfew, hauled me into the lobby. An RCMP constable drove us children home while Mom and Dad had to answer to a judge. Regrettably, this didn't end their practice of leaving us in the car for hours at a stretch.

Most of those times when we waited for Dad were uneventful. My brother, Roy, and my sister, Diane, often kept me company while he indulged himself. Having no toys to play with, it was only natural that we became bored. One afternoon, Roy released the emergency break, causing the robin's egg Blue "beetle" to roll backwards into a low wooden barrier. Diane and I received a tongue-lashing from Mom for letting our little brother do that.

The Fort Hotel wasn't exactly what one would call a "classy" establishment. One summer morning, Roy and I wandered upstairs and woke a prostitute. Being preschoolers, we had no idea of what this aboriginal woman did for a living or why she had no clothes on. She ushered us back onto the fire escape and told us to go home. I never mentioned that to Mom either as it seemed unimportant.

Several years later, Mom's boyfriend, Ralf, treated her and us to dinner at the cafe in the hotel. We enjoyed the food but all five of us agreed that the tables were too close together. After the meal, Mom said, "Let's walk by the wall so we don't disturb other people." As the room was crowded, it sounded like a reasonable suggestion. As I squeezed against the wood panelling, my head struck a protruding coat rack support. all activity in the restaurant ground to a halt as everybody stared. I felt totally humiliated, especially since I sustained no serious injury. Had I received a visible wound, it would have justified all the fuss people made over me.

After spending six years at Jericho Hill School for the Deaf and Blind in Vancouver, I boarded with two families in Edmonton. I attended a public school with disability counsellors to help me with reading assignments and tests. Instead of coming home only at Christmas and summer vacation, I visited my family each weekend. Two years later, my parents paid the rent for a room of my own in the city. After graduating high school, I entertained the notion of revisiting Fort Saskatchewan for a sentimental journey. Regrettably, work and other concerns continually postponed that plan. If I ever do return to the place that was once my home town, there will be one less landmark to view. Losing such a memorable part of my childhood has given me a small taste of what the citizens of New York City felt when the World Trade towers were destroyed. No matter what sort of structure replaces the Fort Hotel, I'll always remember what used to be there.

In my Deliverance From Jericho (Six Years in a Blind School) memoir, I recount many stories of what it was like to grow up with partial sight in the sixties. Though the book contains plenty of gritty reality, it also has some side-splitting stories of childhood mischief. To learn more about this memoir, as well as my debut book called When a Man Loves a Rabbit (Learning and Living With Bunnies), please visit the Inscribe Writers Group web page.