This is my weekly newspaper column. Things you should known: Michael Bliss was born in my hometown, and is a celebrated author of national stature. He was a History Professor at the University of Toronto and is “one of Canada’s best known and most-honoured biographers”. Here is a little bit of his story entwined with a little bit of mine and our hometown:
“People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we get around (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Why don’t you all f-fade away (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
And don’t try to dig what we all s-s-say (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I’m not trying to cause a big s-s-sensation (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I’m just talkin’ ’bout my g-g-g-generation (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)”
~ “My Generation”, The Who
What is a generation? From my spotty research, a generation can be as little as twenty years or as long as thirty-three. When The Who sang “Talkin’ ‘bout my generation’, they were of the age group that trusted no one over thirty. That generation (of which I am at the tail end) is now over twice that age. And while many of us still hold to some of our “revolutionary” beliefs, the “trusting no one over thirty” philosophy has died a thousand deaths.
What brought the whole question of generation to my mind was the opening chapters of “Writing History” by local boy made good, Michael Bliss. In those first chapters he paints a picture of the town of Kingsville just a few years before my time—but a Kingsville I recognize if not wholly, at least in part. Born in 1941, Michael, depending on your definition of generation is a half to a third generation older than I, and seeing Kingsville through his eyes and memories is an interesting tutorial in (fairly) recent history.
One of my favourite passages in his book is one in which he describes himself as a small boy experiencing his town while wheeling around on his trusty tricycle. He lived on Main Street in the block between Division and Spruce in the beautiful brick home torn down to the chagrin of many a town folk to make way for new development. I remember walking by the house many a high school noon hour and seeing a sizable cat sitting on the front lawn. The cat was famous for sporting one green eye and one blue eye. At that time Dr. Bruner had taken over the medical offices where Dr. Bliss, Michael’s father had his practice at one end of the house.
Here is Michael’s tour of the block that was host to his home: “The centre of my world was our big brick house on a double lot on the north side of Main Street, half a block east of the Four Corners.” (I love how he capitalized the Four Corners, giving them their proper due.) “When I grew old enough to expand my territory by tricycle—like Matt Goderich in Hugh Hood’s The Swing in the Garden—I would turn right, pass by the Kingsville Fire Department, then Babcock’s Restaurant, then a tobacco warehouse in the old Methodist Church, then the Kingsville Hotel, and finally reach the post office at the Four Corners. When I turned left, I passed a half a dozen homes with chestnut streets in their front yards, then reached the end of the block at Spruce Street.” When he was a little older and “finally allowed to go all the way around the block on my tricycle, I would peddle very fast past the pool hall, a hole in the wall of one of the town’s oldest brick blocks, whose proprietor, grey and cadaverous, would sometimes be standing on its doorstep, seemingly afraid to come out into a world of breathable air.” (Just a personal note here—I had a green tricycle upon which I had many an adventure thus can so relate to Michael and his tricycle—it was a magical vehicle which took me where I wanted to go as fast as my little legs would peddle. Had I run across the cadaverous proprietor once though, I would have probably changed my route.)
I recognize a few of the places that Michael talks about but am fascinated by the Kingsville of yesteryear of which he devotes about a quarter of the book. His descriptions are rich with nostalgia; and in the words of author, David J. Bercuson, his memories about the small town where he grew up “have a canny sense of time and place…. (he) manages to put his readers inside his story”. He is a wonderful story teller—something I did not particularly expect from someone who has written such tomes as “The Discovery of Insulin” (which may be a page turner in its own right).
In his preface he says somewhat modestly: “Almost every life is interesting enough to sustain a book if you know how to write it and if there is one person curious enough to start reading.” I am not sure what took me so long to pick up this book. Finally and gratefully, I have started reading it at the urging of Mr. Simon Vreman who lent me his copy. Admittedly I am only on the beginning chapters, but seeing my Kingsville through Michael’s eyes is illuminating—it reveals some of the foundation upon which our thriving little town continues to build itself.