PART ONE – Darkness to Light (cont.)
Jim Puls, his friend Bill McCallum, Jerry Minarz (coincidentally entering my life again briefly), and I decided to go to a Ukrainian wedding north of Dauphin, in Winnipegosis or Fork River. Uncle Bill Atamanchuk was there. He decided to have some fun, poured me a six-ounce glass of straight whiskey, and strongly urged me to down it all at once, which I reluctantly did. Within 20 minutes or so, the dance hall was spinning around me, and I could hardly stand up. Bill McCallum and Jerry also got drunk; Bill was soon to become an alcoholic.
Jim had the good sense to try to stay somewhat sober, because he had just bought a used Dodge car. While we all survived, the rest of us did not do it without Jim having to stop the car every so often to let us vomit.
Besides drinking and doing drugs, one of many habits I would surely urge anyone to steer very clear of is smoking. I tried it when I was in my early teens, but started on a more regular basis when I was perhaps eighteen. The first time I inhaled was sickening. How strange that people are discomforted, to the point of nausea, by something entirely useless and even harmful, yet continue with it! I suppose they do so in most cases to follow the crowd or mimic admired individuals.
I think actor James Dean had an influence on me when I saw him on a movie billboard, walking the street with a cigarette in his mouth and a summer jacket slung over his back, the image in my mind at the time of a cool, tough, rebellious, street-smart dude.
There is a stretch of time for the novice smoker when he or she thinks to be able to quit anytime. “I’m not addicted,” are the famous last words for so many. I said it, believed it, and did not realize the addiction’s development was gradual and insidious. It was not long before I was snared.
I smoked Du Maurier, Rothman’s, and No. 7’s mostly, while my friends had their chosen brands. Why those favorites? I don’t know – marketing impact, peer influence, and habit, I guess.
Addiction is a deceptive comforter and powerful enemy. Imagine – we pay murderers to kill us and help them do it!
I had a rude awakening to the realities of this world in a rather striking way one night. Some friends and I decided to go to a Ukrainian dance in Valley River, ten miles northeast of Dauphin. While there was music, dancing, and drinking inside, some of us were outside, drinking and talking. Suddenly, we saw a tall man go berserk.
He went into a rage, looking around to see what or whom he could hit, spotted me standing alone, and rushed for me. I knew I had but one choice – run, and run I did. It seemed like I could easily do 100 yards in less than 10 seconds. I did not look back once, heading for protection or concealment anywhere. When I finally stopped and looked, he was back on the scene where he had spotted me, bashing the trunks of cars with his forearm. He was strong and wild; nevertheless, men soon took control of him and led him away.
I thought, “How is it someone that dangerous is allowed to mingle freely at social gatherings? Someone could have been badly maimed or even killed! How is this allowed to happen?” Along with the Kennedy assassinations, it was one of my first realizations that there are no guarantees of safety from grave danger anywhere in this world.
I later learned the man was known to do such a thing from time to time, especially when he got drunk. He appeared to be in his thirties, a bachelor, the son of farmers who took care of him, perhaps because of some mental handicap.
It would take me years, more unpleasant experiences, and deep change to realize that some places and events pose more danger than others, places where alcohol flows freely, entertainment is the purpose, and wiser people do not go.
While I was working at the hospital as a janitor for my father during summer break, Jim Puls got the idea that we go without sleep for as long as possible. I managed to do it for over three days. It got so I could almost sleep standing and leaning on my mop. (Come to think of it, I am not sure Jim went without, as he claimed; I didn’t actually witness it – he was one to pull stunts like that.)
I would not advise anyone to go without sleep unless absolutely necessary. I began to feel, not only sleepy, but strange in a not-so-good way.
There came a time when Jim and I wanted to do more with our rock band, but Bob and Weldon were not able or willing to commit themselves to increased practice. My cousin Ted had begun another band in town. They had a lead guitarist, Jerry Syrnick, and a drummer, Morris Ficzycz, who were rather impressive to us. I didn’t think there was room enough in our small town for one band, never mind two.
A cunning and devilish idea came to mind. Jim and I would form a new band with Jerry and Morris, assuming they were interested in hard work and doing something serious with music, which they seemed to be. This would give us a crack at our ambition and eliminate competition, too. I would also be able to sing and not have the pressure of playing lead guitar at the same time (which is often difficult, even impossible).
We met with Jerry and Morris, who, as it turned out, also wanted to do more than they were doing and than their band members were willing. They decided to join us. We notified Bob and Weldon, who were offended, Jerry and Morris notified their members, and together we started the new band.
But I didn’t feel right about it. Though we got along, it didn’t go far. The “mix” wasn’t there, and we had abandoned our friends, though we had apparent justifications for doing what we did. That was one of the regrets in my life. I am sorry I did it. Several years later, Bob and Weldon referred to that time in bitterness.
Another lesson: Don’t go against your inner instincts, no matter how advantageous it may seem. It is never worth it. It is not about accomplishment, gain, power, or glory; it is about people. Life’s rewards are in direct proportion to how well we treat our neighbors.
I have spoken of a treacherous cousin – Ed. Wasn’t I a treacherous cousin to Ted? And Ted joked about it years later – he never held it against me.
My friends and I had a problem getting alcohol, being under age, so I approached Alf Kennedy, one of my mother’s boarders. Alf was a financial advisor and new branch manager of a finance company, and he aspired to advance with it. He was very reluctant to buy us beer, but I talked him into it. “If you get caught, you are not to tell anybody where you got it,” he urged. “I could lose my job, my career, and my reputation, you understand.”
“Yes, we understand. We won’t tell a soul – I promise! Besides, we won’t get caught!” I answered confidently.
One day we were drinking at Jim’s place and his parents, Cy and Mae, were supposed to be at the lake for the week. They returned early, walked in, and caught us with the glasses and bottles in our hands. Mr. Puls pressured us to tell him where we got the liquor, but we wouldn’t say. Finally, he threatened to summon the police, who would charge us and investigate to identify our source. He said it would be much better for us and for our supply friend if we confessed, so we did.
Mr. Puls met with Alf Kennedy at the hospital where Mr. Puls worked as health inspector. It was probably one of Alf’s most frightening and humiliating moments of his life. I witnessed the confrontation – Alf was literally shaking at the knees. He totally humbled himself as Mr. Puls severely scolded him right in the public hallway. Now Alf was making the promises, and I was willing to bet that, unlike me, he would be keeping his.
I learned that we need to think long and hard about making promises, no matter how much we think we can or will keep them. I was sorry for getting Alf into trouble, and for getting ourselves into trouble – but I was not sorry for drinking. We continued to do so at every opportunity. It was “fun” and “the thing” to do.
My mother took in boarders to supplement our income. I recall several:
Alf Kennedy, who bought us alcohol – once!
Willy Mark, an engineering trainee, a tall, good-looking, sociable Chinese fellow with a sense of humor;
Ken Stevens, a CKDM announcer, guitarist, and singer, who did a Manitoba version of Hank Snow’s “I’ve Been Everywhere, Man,” replacing Hank Snow’s cities with Manitoba cities;
Martin Freedman, another CKDM announcer, arrogant, selfish, inconsiderate; he was out to slay the world for himself, disregarding common sense and decency. For example, he would boast about how he had such great power by radio, that he could make an audience believe anything. “You can make them eat sh_t,” he said. He would date girls, bed them during their menstruation, and expect my mother to launder his bloody shorts.
Don Pepplar and Ken Lewis, a couple of down-to-earth, friendly construction fellows from Saskatchewan;
George Moczulski, an elderly man from the Ukraine, a Catholic who, we were told, escaped the Iron Curtain, leaving behind his family, never to see them again, a very sad man;
Doreen Kowalski, a single woman who would come home late at night and stomp up the stairs in her high heels and drop them with loud thumps on her floor, waking my parents directly below her, in spite of their protests. Her fiancé, Lawrence Chita, rescued my parents by marrying her and getting their own home.
Last, but not least (I say the most), there was the unforgettable…
Bill Orr came from England when he was in his late teens (about two years older than I), took lodging with us, and began working for Beaver Lumber as a management trainee. I was infatuated with him, partly because of his accent. Bill was full of energy, humor, and adventure. He was unafraid of so many things I felt insecure about. He had some popular characteristics, had a way with people, was not afraid to give or take advice, and was not afraid of a scrap (or so he talked – I never saw him in one). I coveted his friendship, but I couldn’t keep up with him.
One day our relationship came to an end. He told me that my Uncle Bill Hafichuk, who was a car salesman for Tibby Munro’s Dodge/Chrysler dealership, sold him a black 1949 Chevy fastback for an exorbitant price. He said that though he had trusted my father to steer him to a decent deal, he believed that my father and my uncle had taken advantage of him.
I questioned his allegation and, I suppose, naturally defended my father, saying I did not think he would do such a thing (I really didn’t think he would – how naïve of me! Hadn’t I learned that his own children couldn’t trust him?).
I was not insistent or upset that I recall, but Bill either felt that I was intent on defending my father regardless of the truth, which was not true, or he simply decided to write us off as a family, me included. I think I questioned my father on it, but didn’t get anywhere. Bill walked away, resentful.
He stands out as one of the most prized characters in my life. I wish him well. I looked him up in Calgary years later, just after my life had dramatically changed, but he was not at all interested in what I hoped to share with him. I heard he at least partly accomplished his dreams of being successful and wealthy in Calgary, in real estate development.
It happened when I was about seventeen years old, on one of my summer breaks. I was working as a janitor for my father, who was Head of Housekeeping at Dauphin General Hospital. My mother fell ill and was admitted. When my father told me, I was shocked and wanted to see her. Then came the second jolt: He told me she didn’t want to see me. Then shock number three: She viewed me as the cause of her illness, and the doctor strongly advised I not be permitted to see her.
I didn’t understand why my mother blamed me for what we thought to be a nervous breakdown. I was no angel, to be sure, but neither was I much different from any other average teen that I could tell. I was greatly disturbed that she was ill and that she blamed me. Was I somehow responsible? I don’t recall anyone telling me how.
Working in the hospital, I didn’t resist the temptation to go to her room. I stood in the doorway and said, “Hi.” She said, “Hi.” I asked her what was wrong and what I had done. I don’t recall that she had anything to say. But I think she saw I was disturbed about it. Nothing seemed to get resolved, but it wasn’t long before she was home.
Somehow, I knew I wasn’t to blame, though I knew I wasn’t innocent. There were conflicts between her and Dad, as well. I recall many arguments; Mom was always frustrated with Dad, who was forever doing something she didn’t like. I don’t recall being aware of anything I did to bring her to such a crisis, though I can’t deny many things I said and did likely aggravated her.
Mom was never the same after that. She was subdued and withdrawn. It was like there was nobody home, or at least asleep.
As a Ukrainian Catholic, I greatly enjoyed Christmas caroling with the youth club. I enjoyed singing in the choir, especially at Christmas midnight Mass, when Ron Hrehirchuk (my future brother-in-law), others, and I would sneak “mickeys” (flat half quart bottles) of rye whiskey inside our suit jackets to church, take secret sips, get drunk, and sing loudly and joyously.
I loved the food; Ukrainian Christmases and weddings are known for it. I ate so many perogies, holopchi (cabbage rolls), nalesnikeh (pancake and cottage cheese rolls with cream), so much khutia (cooked honeyed wheat), turkey, pie, and other dishes that I could hardly make it to the couch to “die-gest.” I had to lay there for a couple of hours and recover.
What a sacrilege! What a shame that these things were done in the name of worshipping God, but that is the way I was. Did all do those things? No. Is there true worship of God in the Catholic Church, drunk or sober? Not that I ever knew.
Because I got to mingle with stage personalities, I enjoyed organizing dances and booking local performers to raise money for the Ukrainian Catholic Youth Club. There was a memorable night with Del Keith Dubbin and his band from Brandon, Manitoba, who were a hit with everyone, though they were nobody famous. One of the numbers they did well, which I always enjoyed, was “You Really Got Me.” (Come to think of it, they were the only ones I ever booked.)
While finishing high school at the Dauphin Collegiate, I wanted to stick with music. Nothing else interested me, but nobody else in the band was interested enough; I did not see sufficient talent in myself or in them, and my parents urged me to continue education. “At least get your schooling first, then decide what to do. If you don’t get your schooling now, you likely never will, and you’ll live to regret it.” And so off I went to Winnipeg to take Business Administration at the Manitoba – not Massachusetts – Institute of Technology (MIT), now known as the Red River Community College.
Why that course? Other than be in a rock band, I had no idea what I wanted to do or be, but that course seemed a practical one and had a diversity of subjects that I thought might give me some idea of what I wanted to do with my life – subjects like law and psychology, which interested me.
It often perplexed me that fellow students in high school seemed to know what they wanted to do in life, but I had no clue for myself, not for years to come.
In this year of 1964, thousands of miles away, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, something was happening with an 8-year-old American Jewish boy. Here is Paul Cohen’s recent account of a simple, apparently insignificant, event that year:
“When I was about 8 years old, my mother came into my room as I slept, and I spoke in my sleep, which was not something I regularly did. She told me the next day that I said, quite clearly: ‘I feel like a Jewish warrior.’ I had no recollection of anything, or a dream, but these words seem significant in light of what the Lord has done with my life.”
Paul also had this dream around that time. He writes:
“I dreamt I was in the car with my parents and brother. We were in the city, and around dusk, we stopped at a stop sign or light. I was in the back seat, looking up at the row homes across the street. In the window of one of the homes was a man in what seemed to be a spacesuit. He was looking directly at me, no one else. My parents were not aware of him. I felt like he knew me and had his ‘eye on me,’ for what, I did not know. There was nothing I or anyone else could do about it. This ‘spaceman’ seemed to be able to watch me no matter where I went. He was not menacing, but I did not understand and was somewhat frightened. There was also a sense of melancholy.
It could seem the nightmare of a child, but I believe that person was an angel of God watching over me to call me at the appropriate time for God’s holy purposes for my life, taking me out of all that I had and knew.”
I would not meet Paul for another 15 years, and when I did, it would be halfway around the world in the major trouble spot. This meeting would lead to major developments in our lives.
My last year in Dauphin, I was a grocery boy at Eaton’s. My manager, Mr. Paul, decided to give me some advice before I left for college. He said, “Whatever you do, don’t go into retail. It is a dog-eat-dog business.” Why did he give me that advice? Obviously he was not happy with it, but was that the case with all retailers? Would I reject that advice, learning the hard way, or simply do what I was destined to do?
There I was, off to the relatively big city, leaving home with some sadness at age 19. Dad arranged for me to go with Ron (Ken) Ksionzyk of Ethelbert, about 3 years my senior. He had been working in Medical Records at the Dauphin General and was slated for training in Medical Records at the Children’s Hospital in Winnipeg.
Ron took me under his wing. We did some drinking, partying, and double dating together, but in my youthful pride and foolishness, I somehow offended him. After some months, he went his way, and when we occasionally encountered one another thereafter, he maintained a visible coolness toward me. I never knew specifically what I had done to warrant his rejection, and he never told me.
Some people choose to sulk instead of resolve; not good, not good at all. Curiously, a few years later, he happened to build a house just around the corner from where I lived in Charleswood (another of those strange coincidences in life). I decided to pay him a friendly visit. The personal pout had entrenched itself into his countenance, and though he gave me a tour of his home, I really was not welcome; it was a strange mixture.
Deciding to pay for my own education because my parents indicated they did not have much money, I began to play rhythm for Barry, a country and western singer, in beer parlors all over Winnipeg, frequently in the north end. This was at the same time Randy Bachman and The Guess Who were making it big in the same city (as well as the country and the world). While they played at large concerts and recording studios, we played in dumps and dives that were soon to be demolished.
Because I was 19 and the legal drinking age was 21, I would borrow someone’s driver’s license for I.D. (they didn’t have photos then.) One night the bouncer asked me some quick questions and tripped me up. My alleged birth certificate age didn’t match my oral date of birth. While the band kept its commitment with one man short, I spent the night in the hotel restaurant, waiting for them to finish.
Most of the time, however, I had no problem persuading the keepers I was of age. I often came home late, drunk and tired. I barely made the grades, but I paid my way.
On Saturdays, I worked as a grocery boy for my Uncle Donald Hafichuk at National Foodland, his small grocery store on North Main. I would catch the bus and work there all day. It was in the poor ethnic part of Winnipeg where many Ukrainians shopped.
Occasionally, I would see one of the cashiers and Uncle Donald dashing out the door after a shoplifter (usually an older person). They would catch them, seize the goods concealed under their coats, and send them on their way without reporting them to police. They were simply forbidden to return, under threat of being charged the next time. Uncle Donald explained that there was too much trouble involved in trying to press charges.
I was there for a few months and finally went on to other activities. I don’t recall that Uncle Don ever gave me, a nephew, student, and working bachelor, any free, or even discounted, groceries. He kept even the damaged goods to return to suppliers.
And he was in partnership with his father-in-law, Mr. Woroway, who operated a wholesale grocery business (Sel-Rite, I believe). Couldn’t he have done something? He was most often apparently lighthearted, friendly, teasing, and joking with the staff and me, but I guess he just wasn’t all that generous. I didn’t even get invited to their home in Transcona.
Families are often not families, no matter how close they think to be (I thought ours was close-knit).
I recall the first place where I boarded and roomed, the seventh home of my life. I rented the suite in Winnipeg from an elderly English couple, the Palmers. They lived on Elgin Avenue near King Edward Street, near MIT. A small bedroom and meals were provided for a reasonable sum. The meals were good for about two weeks, then took a marked decline in quality.
Within two months, I was required to share my room with another guy, Walter Lewis, a farm fellow from Saskatchewan, who was taking Medical Lab. The rent fee was not diminished, and he did not pay any less than I.
One day I was absent for supper, and Walter told me the landlady flew into a rage, throwing pots full of food against the walls. We decided to move soon after to a light housekeeping suite on McDermott Avenue, trading the traveling distance advantage for freedom to cook and eat at our convenience.
One Saturday we had a rock jam session with a few students and, not meaning any harm, we dreadfully frightened the elderly landlord and landlady, the Millers, I believe. They came upstairs crying, trembling and immediately served us notice of eviction. We disbanded our party, apologized – sorry we had frightened them – and solemnly, sincerely promised we would never do anything like that again. They would not change their minds, however, and we had to leave.
During Business Administration ‘65-67, and for a few years while working for the Bay, I fell in with some friends who, like me, loved to drink and party. We visited many a bar throughout Winnipeg, going to see many entertainers. I believe I was an alcoholic and after a few years began to black out. I could not remember driving home from bars.
I reveled with my friends – Gerry McClintock, Dave Miller, Dave Adams, and a few others. I look back and wish I had treated them better; I was so very selfish and chintzy with everyone.
I also know that without a radical change of life, we are all selfish and corrupt in various ways. A regretful moral hindsight only comes after a supernatural spiritual change for the better, nothing less than a rebirth.
I was one to tell Ukrainian jokes, using the Slavic accent in my English. Many would break up laughing. We put some mock interviews on closed circuit TV in the college. A fellow named Erickson posed as my interviewer. I also imitated people, like Mr. Trenholm, our accounting instructor, with his shirt out of his pants and his gut hanging out; it was fairly easy because I was developing a larger waistline from all the beer.
I never wanted to make a career out of vaudeville, but I casually dabbled, and some enjoyed it. I relished being an entertainer and often played guitar and sang for many at MIT and parties.
Tim, a fellow student in Business Administration, was a funny fellow. He imitated our economics professor and Mick Jagger’s microphone antics, to their music, and did a rather good job of it. He reveled in the humorous and saw something funny in many things.
Tim got himself circumcised and spoke to several people about it, relating how painful it was. I didn’t know what to make of it, or why he would do it. It wasn’t for religious reasons that I was aware. Why did he tell people about this? I don’t know, but it seemed to be a big event in his life.
I saw Tim years later in Winnipeg. He was employed with a grocery chain – Dominion or Loblaw’s. I tried to talk to him about God, but he showed no interest.