Sunday Stories features original fiction every weekend by Langley writers.
The Armature Winder’s Daughter
Written by John Hurst
My first meeting with Theoline Notker was innocent enough. She asked to borrow a dime to get into the Granada Theatre in Dunnville so she could see the Jewish men in The Ten Commandments. Theoline loved hairy men and as a beardless youth, I could see no earthly reason why she would be interested in me, but as our parallel lives unfolded, she must have been, more or less, if only as a supplier of dimes.
Theoline appeared in our midst, rather than growing up alongside of us. Instead of sharing all of our childish milestones – first communion, first fist fight and so on – she was there suddenly, when we all turned around to our left and realized it. She had moved to Dunnville with her father, a travelling armature winder, and her brother, Ignaz. And just as suddenly, with fantastic quietness, she was gone.
She was the living light of our United Nations Club, at Dunnville High School. We used to sit in meetings after school and discuss everything from the 1957 Sputnik Crisis, to starvation in Ethiopia, and Theoline argued with us in a passion that could only have been gained from starving herself in real life. Once, when we had a group lunch in a restaurant near McMaster University, she announced she was going to the kitchen and finding out what actually had been served in her salad. While we all lowered our chins in embarrassment, she was gone. There was a lot of shouting in the kitchen and eventually we all left and took the bus back to Dunnville, without Theoline.
And that was the last we saw of Theoline in our high school days. We were told her family had simply moved away.
Years later, as a slender midshipman in the Canadian Navy, I accepted an unusual assignment – military escort to a debutante in the Lafayette Hotel in nearby Buffalo, N.Y. I reported for work in the front lobby, having learned that each debutante being presented to polite society at the first ball of the social season would be accompanied by a civilian escort – and a military officer in tow; the custom had been imported from New York City, where it was held to be wildly appropriate. A chaperone told me I would flank a Miss Sumner Ellicott Brennan, with Mr. Inkster Vandegraff, her actual boyfriend.
The chaperone then briefed me on the traditions of the impending social cataclysm – the ushering in of new maidenly lustre for the coming social/bullbaiting season. All of the debutantes had Anglo Saxon surnames as given, Christian names. Sumner, for instance. Other pitiful teenage girls wore first names like Hewitson, Charteris and Wapple along with their hundredweight corsages and dowdier surnames.
(Here, I thought I finally could fit in. My navy-blue jacket had rows of gold buttons and my peaked cap was frosty white.)
We were interrupted by a noisy woman who walked briskly toward me, beckoning me in the most rigorous manner.
“Get me a gin and tonic!”
The woman was intense, and when she added, “Quickly”, I informed her I was a naval officer and unable to fill her request. Perhaps a waiter could. She moved off silently, and tried the same stunt with the first African American she could find who wore anything like a uniform.
Immediately, I turned and bowed as a voice behind me declared, “Mr. Hurst. Miss Sumner Ellicott Brennan.”
Straightening myself, I was gazing into the blue eyes of Theoline Notker. She winked and asked, “Sailor, can you spare a dime?”
The elegant music began to play and in the rush of romance that followed, I danced three waltzes with Sumner Brennan, after flanking her at her formal introduction to society: she walked with us across the dance floor to a dais, on which were seated two grande dames and a distinguished man. Inkster Vandegraff and I bowed together, as Sumner Ellicott Brennan gracefully curtseyed to the Mayor of Buffalo.
Sumner could have told me anything, and she certainly did. But in the great heave of music and motion, the contents of her message became lost. Perhaps one day, hypnosis – or torture – can recover it from my brain.
At the Peace Bridge
Some years after this, I was back in the Fort Erie, Ont., bureau office of The Evening Tribune, writing the great news stories of the day involving our Intermediate B hockey team, The Fort Erie Frontiers. An urgent phone call alerted me to an impending demonstration at the Peace Bridge, a huge span linking the great allies of Fort Erie and Buffalo, N.Y.
I was looking forward to covering a demonstration, aimed as they all were in the 1960s, at ending the Vietnam War. These were colorful affairs, in which hippies in buckskin-fringed jackets and colorful red bandannas on their heads attracted the lion’s share of photo news attention. They walked back and forth with placards that advised governments to disgrace themselves in bizarre ways, but sometimes we photographers could encourage them to charge towards us, waving their slogans with menace. Also, I looked forward to seeing my byline on the front page, when suddenly, two Canada Customs officers in navy blue briskly ushered me into their office. I was placed in a waiting area with my camera on my lap and told to, well, wait.
In those days, newspaper types often were ordered about by people in uniform and being polite, we silently did as we were told. It paid off, because at Christmas time, we were given $25 cheques by all sorts of government departments, “in consideration”. I was expecting some back pay from the customs people, when a senior man approached me with a hippie woman on his arm. Her blond hair and Cleopatra hairstyle were circled by a red bandanna.
“You were warned about being on bridge precincts and now you will leave,” the man said. As I left for the exit with the hippie, she whispered, “Have you got change for a phone call?”
“Sumner Brennan!” I gasped.
“Paige Cleaver,” she stridently corrected me.
Without explaining her presence in Fort Erie on that chilly day, she asked, “John, would you like a scoop?” I nodded quickly, because until that day, my scoops were on the order of getting surprise action photos at country plowing matches, or by photographing the Dairy Princess milking her cow from the face end of the cow, instead of from behind the udder. (In those days as in these, no pretty face will ever improve the sexy end of a cow.)
“John, write this down. The big prescription drug companies are smuggling their pills into Canada by way of me and my friends and they are getting one thousand-percent price increases for them in Montreal.”
She kissed me on the right cheek, jumped up, blew another kiss and climbed into a Volkswagen Westphalia van with some other hippies. She was gone.
Back at the office, I filed my thousand-percent scoop with my editor and the next day, the story was broadcast on television, coast to coast. I got a $5 per week raise for that one.
But to this day, I don’t really know what it meant and in fact, the story was never followed up again, by anyone, anywhere. But a scoop is like a scoop and I never got mentioned, or blamed. But Paige Cleaver. There was a name for reckoning and parsing.
Terror at the County Building
The thumbscrews of time had their will with me. I was driving my plaintive Ford Pinto into the parking lot of the Niagara County Executive Building in Lockport, N.Y. The Pinto’s exterior was emblazoned with the rust of too many winters and the interior was smeared with the peanut butter petroglyphs of two artistic children. I had finally resolved to get a New York State driver’s licence and some auto insurance.
The gist of this was that I had failed to apply for New York State licence registration and auto insurance, because I could not afford it at the time. For other reasons, most of them my own, I had let the time pass and all of the deadlines lapsed. When no one pulled me over or showed up at my door with handcuffs, I forgot it for months at a time. Finally, when I felt flush enough to afford such shows of obedience, I decided to take a deep breath and just ask for them.
Clutching my coat about me, I took a deep breath and entered the vehicle registration bureau. Facing me was a long, brown wooden counter with a top shiny with the patina of decay. This was a venerable building, built and maintained by 125 years of Republican ownership, the employees being daughters and granddaughters of Republican county supervisors since the dawn of Abraham Lincoln, God bless him.
One of these daughters noticed me and slowly walked toward me behind the counter, her blue eyes never leaving my face.
“It isn’t John?” she murmured. I swallowed noticeably and she handed me a breath mint.
“John Hurst, of Dunnville, in the land of cream of wheat and chesterfields?”
I bowed again to Theoline Notker, scion of the armature winder’s family. Like many hippies of her generation, she had found refuge from outside realities in the welcoming fold of the civil service. To this day, the onerous wheels of our democracies have been greased, repaired and cunningly turned clockwise by countless thousands of defrocked flower children.
“You haven’t been driving your personal vehicle without legal registration, have you?”
“No,” I lied. This was 1973 and the Vietnam War was still in full, ghastly reddish progress. All malefactors were being dispatched to the front and I could have ended up dead and floating down the Mekong River had I been caught. The sons of Lockport were thus giving their lives.
“Well, that’s good,” replied Mary Lou Rotondo, second cousin of the 10th Ward alderman Thomas C. Rotondo. Theoline had been either deeply connected in a secret gene pool, or was as bilocative as a Catholic saint. She was also a friend of Rollin T. Grant, the shrewdly pleasant mayor.
Within five minutes, I was duly registered and directed to the nearest auto insurance office that offered monthly payment terms. Theoline had blessed me; done me another great favor. I left her behind the counter and walked out, beginning nearly two decades of wonderful employment in America.
To be continued… The next installment of The Armature Winder’s Daughter by John Hurst will be published by the Langley Advance Times, Sunday, March 15.