Pictured above, little boys outside their dormitory – once a solarium on the south side of the Hextall mansion house. The year is 1947. The author, Frankie Dwyer , is in the front row, on the right, in overalls and black top. Our matron, Miss Ethel McArthur stands in the rear. Copyright the Glenbow Archives (see photo credits at end of material on “Welcome to the Home” page.)
Caution: Readers should be aware that in this account there are occasional graphic descriptions of violence and abuse of children that may be unsettling for some. My recollections are unvarnished. This is not a hagiography (a description of the life of a saint), though it is, and deservedly, often flattering to the institution and to the many who make our lives better.
I came to the home on November 4, 1946. (We arrived on the little, wobbly trolley car that ran on rail tracks.)I was some six weeks shy of my fifth birthday. My mother had disappeared when I was ten months old. She and my father had connected in Vancouver as a wartime liaison, one of many in those dark, early war days. They then travelled to Toronto from Vancouver, where my dad went to work in war-time factories. He had been rejected for service in the army, since he was blind in his right eye and had a deformed right foot, both from childhood farm accidents. He helped assemble Mosquito fighter bombers for much of the war. Why my mother left is not known to me, but in a near miracle – some seventy-five years later I have learned much about her life. In effect, discovered her and her fate. (Mostly through the efforts of a fellow old boy, J. Richard Nickle of Gympie, Queens Land, Australia. I am forever grateful to Dick.) When the war ended, my father and I took the train to Calgary. His life there was rough, so it wasn’t long before he might have been urged by the police to put me into some kind of care. That is how I came to the Woods.
We woke to a clanging hand bell wielded with excessive enthusiasm by an older girl. She would appear, at seven, to shatter our slumber. Then she bolted for the outer door, dashed across the cement slab to the looming/grey big boy’s dormitory and repeat this rousing act. The result was pandemonium. Eighteen small boys bolted from beds, pulled on knit slippers, and dashed across the formal oak room. With a flurry of elbowing, they 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 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 a hundred 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.
The matron when I arrived was Mother Blackadar, an elderly 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 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. I knew later by the wailing and the tear flooded eyes. All my life I remember crowding into the main dining room with older kids. The dark outside, and the brilliant lights, with the wonderfully sweet children’s voices singing Abide With Me, some soprano girls voices soaring, their faces tilted and their cheeks glistening with tears. It was awe inspiring.
The small boys slept in what had 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 a showcase residence. By 1946, 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 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. They later placed a pee bucket at the entrance. Certainly a kind, if odoriferous, improvement. If it had been me who had the task of carrying it down to empty every morning, I would have greatly feared slipping on the waxed, hardwood stairs.
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. 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, 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 could hardly wait for Saturday mornings. We would line up and the manager, Mr. Robertson, the very picture of a businessman, reached into the tins and handed a dime to each outstretched palm. We were free, then to go to the store and spend all of it. 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 it seemed ages.
I was one of the youngest. 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. 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 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.
The washroom was on the right off the playroom, with a row of sinks and 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. We thrust our elbows up for her examination and had our ear lobes pulled, while she peered into 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 a 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 soon found out. The behaviour of many of the small boys was always taunting, daring. 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 benches. We crowded in. They allowed some talking, at least a small amount. That differed from the main dining room where the rest 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 provoke my inquiries. 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 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 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. 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 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 fetch three jawbreakers or maybe even, less desirable, a few slices of bread.
When church let out, 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! 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 caught the attention of the boss boy. One has to understand that we were poor, so we scrounged, found or stole everything needed to make a stash or fortune of sorts. The boldest ventured as far as the local dump, finding rubber for slingshots, nails and every other kind of useful supply. They got 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 agent.
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 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 marvelous, 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, still surprised at what was a huge amount those days, “he gave me six dollar.” It was maybe only three months later when the word went around that they found him out, and he hanged himself in his garage.
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 under a bench on the lower floor play room of 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 towards the nearby Bowness Golf and Country Club. There was some clearing going on for the new trans-Canada highway being built then, maybe a kilometre away. I remember being awestruck at an ambulance arriving. 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 injured, 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. I have spent some years, trying to learn more about the broken boy – all to no avail. The others who might remember are now very old or gone. All I know is that something awful happened, way back then, up in the woods above the Woods. I am left a somewhat haunted. 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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