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Moral support and a 62-lb squash

January 9, 2011
By

A childhood memoir

Dad proudly displays his second-place blue ribbon.

Dad had taken a miss the past two years of the district fall fair vegetable-growing competition – squash category. Always a green thumb and always a solid competitor, he had been discouraged when his 41-pound giant won a blue-ribbon second prize, forfeiting the red-ribbon first prize to a smaller but apparently better squash. He was stung by what he considered an unfair judgment and he let the judges know, announcing that he would be boycotting the competition in future. This year, however, he had lifted his boycott. The reason: he had grown an even larger squash – a 62-pound whopper.

I detected disappointment in Dad’s voice when I explained that I might not be able to pay him a visit during the fair. He had entered his squash in the competition and he was clearly proud of his gardening feat. He wanted me to share in a celebration of his near-certain victory and exoneration after the embarrassment of the previous loss.

“You just want me there to carry the damn thing for you, right?” I said. Well, yes – and no – came his reply. It was partly that. I had younger muscles with which to lug the atomic-sized vegetable to its perch on the winner’s stand.  He was in tip-top physical shape, but I could see that he might not want his neighbours to see him struggling with the awkward monster, manoeuvring it from car trunk to display shed. But it was something else as well.

***

When I was a boy, Dad often insisted that I spend time with him in his basement workshop. As I think back now it was probably my mother who did the insisting: “Take your son downstairs and teach him something,” she might have urged. “He’s just in the way up here.” She might not have added that last part because I was a pretty good kitchen helper. In fact, I was her key assistant during the annual sauerkraut-making ritual. Regrettably, there was no fall fair category for kraut. I later wondered if it wasn’t a lingering hangover from the war against the Germans. 

Anyway, there amongst the lathe and table saw, the drill press and screwdriver rack, ‘we’ would work on various household projects. I say we, but it was mostly Dad fixing a storm window or rebuilding a kitchen cupboard, varnishing a wood tile or turning a new lamp base on his homemade lathe.

I recall a night in the winter of 1961, when Dad busied himself with such a project and I stood nearby, hoping to be called into action to perform some useful role. It was the night that our home team, the Trail Smoke Eaters, faced off against the Russians in the world amateur hockey cup. It was Sunday, March 12, 1961, a date that is still remembered with pride in the town where I was born.

At first I thought I heard Foster Hewitt’s voice getting ready to deliver the play-by-play of the game. Already a god of the hockey world with his distinctive broadcasting style, it would have been appropriate if it were his full-throated oratory that I was about to hear as our players skated into hockey history that night. Instead it was the lesser-known Bill Stevenson who would bring the game into our basement.

We didn’t have a television set at that time but listening and having to imagine what was happening that night in Geneva, Switzerland, a million miles from home, made it even more exciting. Stevenson and that Hewitt-sounding voice of his helped us believe. Our imaginations and our dreams did the rest.

When Stevenson shouted that our team had scored a victory, pandemonium broke out. As local hockey historians remember it, the “12,000 fans jammed into the seats in Geneva went wild.” Stevenson’s baritone commentary went quiet as the “flag was slowly raised,” historians later noted. “The team began to sing, and with them, the 1,000 Canucks in the arena. It was a musical roar.” Stevenson later said that it “may have been the most memorable moment of my career.”

We heard every second of it on our crackling basement radio. The Smokies had shot and scored their way to a second world cup. Dad explained that they first won it in 1939 before most of the players went off to “make the world safe for democracy.” The league was suspended so “folks on the home front could focus on the war effort.”

When Stevenson confirmed the 5-1 win, Dad looked up at me and smiled. I seized the moment. “Can I help, Dad?” I asked as he prepared to go back to his hammering and sawing, gluing and drilling.

“No, son. I don’t need your help right now,” he replied, leaning into his brace and bit.

We had gone over this short dialogue before, but I thought maybe the euphoria of the Smokies’ victory would soften Dad’s will. Maybe he would let me do something, anything, to help (read relieve the boredom).

“Well,” I asked, shoring up my courage, “why am I down here then?”

“You are down here for one reason and one reason only,” he said sternly, looking over the top rim of his safety goggles as he approached the lathe.

“What’s that?” I asked still smarting from the rejection.

“You are here to provide moral support.” He said it with such authority that I didn’t dare ask what moral support meant. I just sat back on my little workshop stool and sulked.

Now, many years later, I was being summoned to that basement again and I couldn’t help but wonder if it might have something to do with moral support. 

***

At the previous competition, the judges had claimed that the winning squash had better colour, body, symmetry, etc. Dad walked away in a huff, saying to me under his breath, “There are some things in life where size matters.” At the time, I wasn’t sure of the full implication of that statement, but I could see that he was in earnest.

Foolishly, I pointed out that the rules of the competition did state that ‘other criteria’ would be in play. He wasn’t listening to such flawed reasoning. He told me to pick up the 41-pounder and walk it to the car. I was to do penance for allowing as how ‘other criteria’ even existed. I struggled to balance the beast – I had become the Quasimodo of the squash set – as he stopped several times along the way to complain to neighbours about the “faulty judging this year.” 

So, after his insulting experience, I was surprised to learn that he was back in the squash competition. I asked him why the change of heart. Never a quitter, he explained that he had developed a new strategy that seemed guaranteed to win: he was entering two squashes, one in the category that clearly states ‘weight only’, the size-matters category, and the second in the ‘other criteria’ category.

I said I hoped he would win one of them or both and I had a feeling that this time ‘round he was going to get the red ribbon. I offered to provide moral support. He looked at me with another of those knowing smiles of his. He was 97.

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