ABOUT THE HEADER PHOTO: Little boys outside their dormitory – once a solarium on the south side of the Hextall mansion house. The year is 1946. The author, then Frankie Dwyer,a five-year-old is recognizable, as is the long deceased Miss Ethel McArthur, our matron. All other faces are disguised in light of Alberta’s draconian Personal Information Protection Act, since this particular image is sourced from and copyright the Glenbow Archives (see photo credits at end of material on About This Website page.)
(Caution: Readers should be aware that there are occasional graphic descriptions of violence and abuse of children that may be unsettling for some.)
We woke to a clanging hand bell wielded with often-excessive enthusiasm by an older girl. This was a monthly girl’s duty. She would appear, at seven AM, to shatter our slumber. Then she would bolt for the outer door, dash across the cement slab to the looming/grey big boy’s dormitory and repeat this rousing act. The result was instantaneous, near pandemonium. I and sixteen or so other small boys bolted from our beds, pulled on knit slippers, and dashed across the formal oak room. With a bit of elbowing, we tumbled down broad stairs to the dungeon-like boy’s toilet. There was a left turn on the lower landing, and being slick, polished hardwood, invariably several of us would lose footing and crash into the end wall. Sometimes shoves ensured that inglorious pileup.
In the decade following my arrival in 1946, when I was nearly five years old, typically around 95 children lived at the home. The staff consisted of a matron, a boy’s supervisor, a little boy’s supervisor who also managed most of the girls and a full-time cook. There was a laundress too. I remember them as ample and mostly cheerful ladies. The matron and supervisors lived in. They had one day a week off. Their workday must have been twelve hours or more.
The matron when I arrived was Mother Blackadar, an elderly and lovely woman, who had worked with the co-founder, Mother (Annie) Wood, who had died some years before. Miss M, in charge of little boys, was a fixture at the Home. A spinster, she often wore a striped cotton dress, belted. M had severely parted black-dyed hair. The wire-rimmed spectacles stood out. Why I choose to call her, only by the moniker M will likely become clear to readers as I relate my memories. She is dead now; they all are, with the exception of a special teacher; the very best and most loved of all our guardians. There will be more about her, and the other remarkable teachers, in subsequent parts of my memoir.
The one who died first had an impact on me, as I carried out one of the little boy’s duties. That was Mother Blackadar. I had the assignment of carrying her silver breakfast tray into her bedroom. I did not know that she was dead, just slumbering I thought, her gray hair luminous in the soft light of morning. I knew later by the wailing and the tear flooded eyes. All my life I remember crowding into the main dining room with the older kids. The dark outside, and the brilliant lights inside, with the wonderfully sweet children’s voices singing Abide With Me, some soprano girls voices soaring, their faces tilted up and their cheeks glistening with tears. It was awe inspiring.
The small boys slept in what had once been the solarium, the sun room, of a former tuberculosis sanatorium operated, for a few years, by a religious order in the 1920s. We called our dormitory the little boy’s end. An eccentric British born property developer, John Hextall, built the great house in the early 1900s on the western edge of Bowness, as his showcase residence. By 1946, when I arrived, it had become a home for orphan and disadvantaged children. The place was an immense and fading Tudor style mansion house. The main floor was finished with hardwoods. The formal Oak Room, which adjoined the boy’s sleeping quarters, was exquisite. At night, that room was impossibly spooky. It’s no wonder we had bed wetters. Having to cross those shadows and descend into the basement after dark would have deterred all but the bravest.
There is some irony in this, the mansion-like furnishings, since we were poor. Some, a minority of the children were wards of the province, and for their care, the Home received one dollar a day. A parent or relatives had put most others, like me, in independently. Those handing us over committed to pay thirty dollars a month. From this sum, and it surely was not always paid or paid promptly, a dollar was set aside, converted into dimes and put in to a small tin box; the tins arrayed temptingly on a shelf in the manager’s office. I say temptingly, not because someone might steal from them. There were no thieves in the home. The culture would not abide that, but tempting because we knew and could hardly wait for Saturday mornings. We would line up and the manager, Mr. Robertson, the very picture of a businessman, would reach into each tin and hand that child a treasured dime. The anticipation no doubt exquisite, because we could go to the store and spend all of that money. A dime then would buy, splendidly, thirty jawbreaker candies. Six cents would buy a cola, but we would not waste money on something as transitory or fizzy as a soft drink. We could suck on jawbreaker, with multi-coloured layers, for an age.
I was one of the youngest there. There were two others about my age, brothers, who were to become my best friends, whom for the purposes of these recollections I will call Scooter and Cheeky – well, we all had nicknames. Unlike me, they were wards of the province. They had come in before my arrival. There was certainly one difference between us. I am sure that their parent did not get the same information as mine. My dad, as were all parents at the time – most single parents – were told that they could not visit their child for one month. Visits took place on Saturday afternoons and for an hour or so after dinner, depending on the child’s age. Weekend visits away from the Home with parent or relatives could not happen for some months. That was policy intended to break the bond between child and parent. It helped to ensure we became Wood’s kids. One mother, whom I knew well in my later adult life, told me that her two boys inquired why she did not visit and were told by the boy’s supervisor Mr. T (to be consistent) that the Home did not know why she did not visit.
The small boy’s rooms in the basement had an outer space, a boot/change room, where there was a row of lockers. We kept outerwear there. This adjoined the playroom, which was a concrete box. The only furnishing a very large, and sturdy, wooden table – more of a platform. This platform often became the castle. The idea of the castle was that a dominant boy would hold it, standing on top, often with lieutenants, whose role was to repel the rest of us who tried to gain the castle heights and depose the king. Violent chaos ensued. This might have been to prepare us for life in the big boy’s dorm, if only to dispel any idea that we could easily get rid of the boss boy.
The washroom was on the right off the playroom, with a row of sinks and some toilet stalls. The toilet cubicles lacked doors, which was consistent with practice in the home. It might have been to save doors and hinges from damage, but the reason cited at least as far as the bigger boys was to discourage undesirable habits. Little boys, had no idea what that meant.
The dominant fixture was the bathtub. The tub, a large one, sat elevated on a wooden platform that had slats. Two boys bathed at a time. Older girls did the bathing on Saturday night, making liberal use of hard bristle scrub brushes on our knees and elbows. Bath night saw us all naked in the steam-filled room, engaged in exuberant play, tossing water and sliding on our butts across the flooded floor. It was all a chaos of shouting and splashing.
After bathing, we lined up, dressed in housecoats and knit slippers, for inspection. Miss M, the severe and dominant little boy’s matron, inspected us. We thrust our elbows up for her examination and had our ear lobes pulled, while she peered into our ear canals. We then thundered up stairs. The big girls, who had bathed us, must have drained the flooded floor, and gone off to change their sodden dresses, hoping for a dryer assignment on the next roster.
Bedtime was seven PM, always. We slept in single, white-metal cots. The blanket was the wool gray army sort (which would soon feature in a disastrous experience for me). In winter, we got an additional blanket. That blessing vital, because the sun room we slept in had long and narrow, continuous windows all along the outside walls, with no drapery. There were steam radiators, below the panes, a few of them, which thumped and hissed and did little else. We slept tightly curled in fetal positions.
No talking was the rule after lights out. We whispered. Sometimes, Miss M would creep in and snatch a misbehaving boy. One time, she even crawled part way in, under the beds, to burst up and grab a talker. Boys seized in this way, went somewhere, I did not know what happened to them, but I would soon find out. The behaviour of many of the small boys was always taunting, daring. So, we giggled and jumped on our beds with abandon. That was true for most of us. We were stubbornly happy, defiant and mad about play. It would be no falsehood to say that we were a band of little, happy brothers. Then, we were somewhat sheltered and were not yet aware that we would eventually go up to the big boy’s dorm.
We took our meals in a special little dining room. There was a long, oilcloth-covered table with a bench along each side. We crowded in. They allowed some talking, at least a small amount. That differed from the main dining room where the rest of the kids ate. Talking though could still get you into trouble. Miss M took to calling me gabby. Soon I had to sit with my back to the big windows so that events outside would not prompt questions on my part. On one occasion, I exasperated our keeper, and she dragged out by my ear, for lockup in the main hall closet for an hour or so. That is where, I learned, she often sent misbehaving boys for correction. Miss M believed in isolation, and maybe darkness, irrational fears, as the correct remedy for misbehaving boys.
I learned to make a bed. From your first day, you made your bed with hospital corners and tight blankets. My bed was my refuge, but for some boys the bed was a mixed – even occasionally terrifying thing. The few boys who wet the bed regularly had reason for terror. You knew by the smell as soon as you woke that someone was in for it. The offender, and they were chronic repeats, would have his nose rubbed on the sodden sheets and be forced to bundle his sheets up and take them to the laundry room. This, ordeal enough, was nothing to what would await them when they eventually moved in with the bigger boys.
Cheeky was a bed wetter. He was mentally challenged and odd looking. Cheeky had course features, dry looking hair and a protruding belly. His brother and he were both short, almost midgets. They became my best friends. Some of the luckier boys could get hold of comic books. I remember sitting against the playroom wall on the concrete floor – there were no chairs or benches, reading comics with Scooter on one side, Cheeky on the other and a crowd of boys pressed against us. I learned to read very early. I do not know how, precocious in that way I guess. It served as a kind of protection for me. Very many decades later, I met up with Scooter, and I asked him, “Why didn’t they beat me up regular like they did Cheeky?” He replied, “Because they thought you was a genius, being you read books and stuff.”
I started preschool when I was five. (The same age that I got my first weekly chores assignment, to polish the landing below the oak room stairs.) All of us, excepting high school grades, went to school in a single large room, also down in the basement. This likely had been a ballroom in the former mansion. The small number of boys and girls for high school went out to schools in the adjacent Bowness community. I recall that there was a mezzanine where you walked into the room. There were maybe four of us in playschool there. I can picture it, in the founder’s day, with elderly couples watching the dancers swirling around the floor below. In my day, though the once grand dance floor was school for nine grades. On Sundays, they transformed it into a church. A fire and brimstone type of preacher, Baptist I believe, would come in and lead us in stirring song. We sang, “Jesus Loves the Little Children, Rock of Ages and, for the military minded boys, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
We stamped our feet in a great imitation of marching. Some of the old boys inserted profane words into verses, which caused much sniggering. Before service, all of us in Sunday best (which was ragtag) received a penny for collection. The peculiar collection bowl happened to be hard plastic replica of a pirate’s pot of gold. It had a slot in the top, centred in the replica pile of Spanish gold coin; and a large screwed in plug at the bottom for later extracting the horde of pennies. The drill was, and we all knew it came down from the boss boy, was that as they solemnly passed the bowl along, the recipient would lift eyes skyward in reverent manner, drop the copper in and with a hidden hand give the plug a little turn. This ensured that at some point in its travels, the plug would release and a cascade of coins would tumble over an unwitting boy’s lap and careen noisily all around. I can still remember the impulse to clamp a boot over a stray penny, thus keeping it hidden for later retrieval. That bounty could get me three jawbreakers or maybe even, less desirable, a few slices of bread.
When church let out, and after lunch we were set loose. In the summer we played, on weekends, at a weedy, but large playground across from the Home’s entrance gate. There were all the usual playground amenities of the time, and scant attention to safety. Bigger boys sometimes took the swings over the top, and might be seen nonchalantly perched atop the highest pipes, with a leg dangling casually over each side. Small boys played in the general melee. Sometimes older girls took an interest in us, and one such led me into a disaster. She had no such intention of course, when she taught me how to knit yarn with a spool knitter. What happened as a result, strangely and awfully, affected me for a very long while and maybe it helped to shape my character – being I hate injustice.
Kids made the spool knitter from a larger, empty wooden sewing spool. Four finishing nails were driven, equidistant, into the top to leave about one quarter inch protruding. The knitter pulls up the yarn, and casts on by looping around the nails. The result gradually piles up into a woven strand of yarn that trails from the bottom. This, oddly, fascinated me. I was only five years old, but I could do it and it happily provided me something to occupy myself in bed before sleep. In the little boys end we went to bed at seven, and it might be an hour or more before we mostly nodded off. I wove happily in my bed until the inevitable occurred. I ran out of yarn.
We had a single gray army type blanket on our beds. I discovered that there was loose yarn on the top of my mine, so I began, obliviously, to weave away my blanket. Then, one calamitous morning, with maybe four inches of my blanket gone towards my knitting project, she discovered me. The irate Miss M. made me stand in the hallway corner just outside the Oak room for the entire night. I cannot remember now if I sat or slumped, but I endured, though it was in complete terror of what might be stalking out there, creeping along the shadows in the night hallways. What I am sure is that I would not have seen this as a premonition. I could not have known that I would be deliberately venturing out there in only a year or so, also at night, and with a different terror driving me.
Meantime, we had the glory of Christmas. Calgary civic groups would outdo themselves to put on Christmas parties for us. I remember one year when we had five, or maybe it was six. There was a gaily-decorated tree outside the little boy’s dorm. They decorated it wonderfully. On Christmas morning, we would rush out, all of us small boys in house coats and there would be piles of gifts. I vividly recall one year getting a Japanese orange, three pieces of ribbon candy, a snakes and ladders game, two Brazil nuts and a real gyroscope that spun sensationally across the oak room floor. It must have been something, because I remember all of that from seventy years ago. I also remember, and still appreciate, the Calgary social clubs, the good people in the city and the Home itself for the grand outings we went to several times a year. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs thrilled us beyond imagination and to see the World yo yo champion – wow! There was an annual sponsored picnic in Bowness Park, where how many hot dogs you could scarf was a badge of boyhood honour. (Does anyone remember the little/flat wooden spoon that came with Dixie Cups, or eating wieners on a string with hands behind the back)? The sack race still merits title of my annual humiliation, but more on my athletic ineptitude later.
In the spring of my second year, they appointed me as helper to the seamstress in the sewing room that was on the ground or basement floor of the big boy’s dorm. It too was a sort of mezzanine, with an elevated sewing table.
Cubicles stored all of our clothing along the one wall. Every boy had an assigned number sewn into the lining or a part of every garment. This must have occupied a good part of the sewing ladies time, who was a part-time paid employee. Her major occupation though must have been patching knees in overalls and jeans. She might have come in afternoons. I cannot remember that detail, but a little boy helped with various tasks, sorting socks, fetching but mostly keeping out of the way and playing with scraps of material and empty spools.
It was my access to materials that likely caught the attention of the boss boy. One has to understand that we were poor, so boys scrounged, found or stole everything needed to make a stash or fortune of sorts. The boldest ventured as far as the local dump, there-finding rubber for slingshots, nails and every other kind of useful supply. They sourced lead from old batteries, bits of canvas/rubber belting, metal and anything that might be useful for building shelters and such or making weapons. The material I had access to was much smaller stuff, but even thread, buttons and especially needles and pins had their uses. In our world, the boy who was cruelest, biggest and had the most resources was king. That was the boss boy, and I became his little Fagan or supplier of treasured small goods.
He recruited me, I remember, in a ramshackle lean-to that leaned against the scout house, the derelict old structure adjacent to the big boy’s dorm. My enlistment came about through small bits of physical torture and threat. His favourite method was to thumb and finger twist one of my ear lobes, pushing my face into the dirt, whereupon he would whisper in my ear what it was he wanted or needed. Not surprisingly, I began to fetch the things he desired.
Some of the things he asked for maybe only intended to ensnare me further. A boy, even the boss boy, has a limited need for things from a sewing room. It wasn’t long before his wishes became clear to me. I was to steal bread for him from the kitchen at night. He persuaded me into this more adventuresome activity by threatening to expose me as thief and doing elaborations on the bits of physical torture.
The little boy’s end was not far from the kitchen entrance. Bread had immense value, as it was a kind of currency in the Home then. The statement, “You owe me two slices chum,” was a regular expression. Snacks did not happen at the Home. We had no food; no way to get snacks, other than what they put before you in a bowl at mealtimes. There was though a seeming endless supply of bread. I believe McGavins bakery donated generously to the Home – mountains of bread. Much of this was surplus and amplified by stale bread donated by various grocery outlets. They delivered bread ever week. It filled a storeroom just off the kitchen. There were ranks of shelves stuffed with loaves all wrapped in wax paper. This was the vault that I had been commanded to break into – well stroll into in the dead of night.
I do not know how many times I did this. Not long. It might have been four or five times. What would happen is that I would lie awake for a long time. Maybe I slept and woke up near midnight, padding out of the little boy’s end, my knit slippers silent. I made my way across the shadowed oak room, past the flickering blue of the gas fireplace and out into the hallway. The hallway was long, with maybe seven or eight doors off it. I would aim for the first on the right, the kitchen, a tiny figure in pyjamas. The kitchen had some faint illumination as the porridge for breakfast cooked all night long. There was a gigantic pot on the gas range, with a wooden paddle aslant in it. I turned left into the near black storeroom. I could feel along the shelves until I found a loaf opened with slices already removed. Then I would slip three or four into my pyjama top. On my way back along the corridor, I often ate a single dry slice, chewing until it became glutinous and more easily swallowed. In the morning, after breakfast, I would meet my controller along the quiet side of the big mansion house, the part below the little boy’s dorm and hand over the slices. Blessedly, relief from this nocturnal ordeal, when my tormentor finished grade nine and had to leave the home. That had to be the happiest summer of my early life.
Other things happened to me in that final year as a little boy. I must have been six years. I had weekends away, twice with Calgary families. Kind families would sometimes take boys and girls for a weekend experience. The first was marvellous, the second not. On the second occasion, this man, who was as I recall a businessman, had I believe some association with the Woods – a volunteer maybe. He might even have been the guy who came out and showed us movies on Saturday mornings. What happened with him is that I woke up during the night with him fondling me to no effect. I objected, pulling away and he let me be. Not so for Scooter though, as he later said “he gave me six dollars”, his tone one of amazement at such an amount, “and he put a tube up me and used his finger while he frigged himself.” It was maybe only three months later when the word went around. The scuttlebutt was that they found him out, and so he hanged himself in his garage. The hanging part was the thing that bothered me at the time. I remember that, struggling to understand what it meant.
My education and preparation for life in the big boy’s dorm was not yet complete. Something else extraordinary happened that year, and in the spring, while I apprenticed as a kitchen thief. We had a chicken coop out in the middle of the backyard. This supplied eggs for the staff room breakfast table. The eggs were not for us. We enjoyed eggs twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, a big event. Those eggs must have come in from a supplier. On this particular day, I was playing idly by the chicken coop, when I saw a group of big boys exit the Scout house and head up the hill into one of the forest trails. The odd thing is that they were dragging someone along with a rope. He had a blanket draped over him, tied at the waist. Then there was silence, until I heard wailing sounds up there in the woods. Turns out, he was a so-called faggot boy, and what they had done was whip him. Tied him up to a tree and used a homemade cat-o-nine tails. That boy left, and we never heard anything more about him.
The other thing, and that just as haunting, though in different ways, happened over my last summer as a small boy. A new older boy had arrived. He was striking, a wild boy. I remember he had dark spiky hair and the older boys did not seem to like him much. He was though friendly to small boys, to Scooter, his brother and me. We often played with small metal cars in the silt, the clay bank, behind the big boy’s dorm. He captured a hawk and made a cage there to keep it. It was salvaged wood slats and chicken wire. One day, we found the cage shattered and the bird dead, gray in the clay dust; its beak horribly open and with feathers scattered everywhere.
Not long after this, they found that boy terribly injured in the basement of the big boys’ dorm building. My dim memory is that I had some role in finding him, broken and moaning. Little boys occasionally used the big boys’ toilets during day times. He had somehow got himself into a locker on the lower floor play room in the big boys’s dorm building. The thing has haunted me for something like seventy years.) They took him away in an ambulance. The story that circulated afterwards, was that he had been crushed after a log rolling over him at some construction work, up at the nearby Bowness Golf and Country Club. That place might have been a kilometer away, on the bench lands above the valley. I remember being awestruck at an ambulance coming to get him. I recall the jostling and whispering of boys outside the dorm as they loaded him. Of course, as a small boy, I would not have wondered about much else. It has though occurred to me, as I ruminate back on the misty past. How, so horribly damaged, did he ever get back all that way from the golf course, up the stairs to the dorm, then down into the basement and wound up under a bench along the north wall? Well, we are never likely to know, as he never came back.
Postscript 25 February 2019. Nearly thirty years ago, in therapy, I kept a daily journal of my memories of home life. The entry on August 29, 1989 reads, in part, “This was the time, around then, when I found the Indian boy dying. … An accident happened near a bush-clearing project. He had been badly crushed log. I found him crammed into his locker. I heard him moaning through the door. He went away. I believed that most boys who went away from the home died.” Bigger boys said this happened at a bush-clearing project on the nearby golf course. A decade later, when I began work on my novel, I wrote the current Woods Home C.A.O., asking for access to old records and explained, “You might inform the board that I am investigating the fate of child who might have been grievously assaulted within the precincts of the Wood’s Christian Home. I am haunted by my memories of the condition I found him as a result of whatever happened.” The Chairman politely denied my request by referring to the Alberta Freedom of Information and Privacy Act. Thwarted, I turned to a novelistic treatment of the incident. Now, twenty years later, I have information that validates one aspect. I had long thought that the bush clearing must be from expansion of the Bowness links. Calgary was booming in the early fifties, so that all made sense. Imagine my dismay when, recently, I learned, after I made inquiries to the Bowness Historical Society, that the golf course had never expanded. It was always big, having 27 holes at its creation in 1907. My heart sunk. Then reading on, I was astonished to learn that they built the Trans Canada Highway through there in the early fifties. I mean I was there and not even aware of it. The bush clearing might have been done for surveying or bull-dozing the actual right-of-way. So my memory is likely real. One wonders if the authorities ever investigated, but given the history of child welfare in Alberta, on such matters, nothing much resulted. All I know, is that something awful did happen, long ago. As I put it in Passing Innocence, “Sometimes fragments surface, quite vividly, and visit with me in the small hours of the night.”
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