Over a Barrel

By Ed Staskus

The summer day in the late 1960s when I walked across the Rainbow Bridge was stormy. I had gotten there by leaving the driving to Greyhound. The driver wore a uniform. It made him look like a mix of state trooper and doorman. Since the bus had no acceleration to speak of, he drove all-out all the way from Cleveland, Ohio to Niagara Falls, New York. We passed sports cars and muscle cars.

   The driver sat high up with a vista vision view of the highway. The transmission was a hands-on four-speed. There were four instruments on the other side of the steering wheel, a speedometer, air pressure gauge for the brakes, oil pressure gauge, and a water temperature gauge.

   When I stepped foot on the Canadian side it wasn’t raining, yet. The Border Service officer asked me where I was from, where I was going, for how long, and waved me through without any more fuss. I found the bus station and bought a ticket for Toronto, where I was going. I was going to visit a girl, Grazina, who I had met at Ausra summer camp on Wasaga Beach a couple of years earlier.

   It rained hard all the way there, past Hamilton and Mississauga on the Queen Elizabeth Way, until I got to the big city, when the clouds parted, and the sun came out. Everything smelled clean. I picked up a map of the bus and subway system and found my way to my friend Paul’s house. His family was friends with my family.

   The Kolyciai lived in a two-story brick row house off College St. near Little Italy. I was polite to his parents and ignored his two younger sisters. I roomed with Paul, but ditched him every morning after breakfast, hopping a bus to Grazina’s house. It wasn’t far, 5-or-so minutes south near St. John the Baptist. Lithuanians bought the church from Presbyterians in 1928 and redesigned it in the Baltic way in 1956.

   Grazina met me on the front porch and took me on a guided tour of Toronto. We went by foot, red and white streetcar, and the underground. We looked the city over from the observation deck on top of City Hall and went to the waterfront. We strolled around Nathan Philips Square. We had strong tea and scones at an outdoor café. Grazina popped in and out of shops on Gerrard St. checking out MOD fashions. At the end of the day, I was so tired I begged off a warmed-over dinner back at my home away from home and fell into bed.

   The next morning Grazina had a surprise for me. We were going to a funeral. 

   “Who died?” I asked.

   “Nobody I know and for sure nobody you know,” she said.

   She was dressed for death, all in black. I wasn’t, wearing blue jeans and a madras shirt. We stopped at a second-hand clothes store. I bought a black shirt, so I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

   “Why are we going to this funeral?” I asked.

   “Because it’s Friday and it’s a Greek funeral.”

   I was an old hand at funerals, having doled out incense at many of them when I was an altar boy at St George’s in the old neighborhood in Cleveland. I had only ever been to Lithuanian services. Because it’s a Friday and a Greek funeral were obscure reasons to me, but I was willing to go along.

   Toronto was full of immigrants. Immediately after the war war-time brides and children fathered by Canadian soldiers showed up. Post-WW2 DP Italians, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Balts and Central Europeans poured in. In 1956 after Soviet tanks rolled through Budapest, Hungarians came over. During the next decade there were many family reunification arrivals. Throughout the 1950s and 60s the old-stock British-Canadianism of Toronto was being slowly transformed.

   The church, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox, in the former Clinton Street Methodist building, was back up Little Italy way. We got on a bus. A priest sporting a shaggy beard, Father Pasisios, was at the helm. He wore a funny looking hat. The church was small on the outside but big on the inside. We sat quietly in the back. When it was over, I finally asked Grazina, “Why are we here?”

   “For the repast.”

   “What’s that?”

   “Food, usually a full meal.”

   “Doesn’t your family feed you?”

   “It’s not that,” she said. “I went to a Romanian funeral with a friend a few months ago, and they served food afterwards, and it was great, food I had never had before. After a while I started going to different funerals whenever I could, always on Fridays, Sicilian, Czechoslovakian, Macedonian, so that I could taste their national food.”

   “How do you know where to go?”

   “I read the death notices in the newspaper.”

   I had heard of wedding crashers, but never a funeral crasher.

   The repast was at a nearby community hall. When asked, Grazina told both sides of the family she was distantly related to the other side, speaking out of the side of her mouth. “Memory eternal” is what she said next, shaking a hand. She knew the lingo. The lunch was delicious, moussaka, mesimeriano, and gyros. We had coffee and baklava for dessert. By the time we left we were loaded for bear.

   We went to Yorkville and hung around the rest of the day. There were coffee houses and music clubs all over Yonge and Bloor Streets. The neighborhood went back to the 1830s when it was a suburban retreat. Fifty years later it was annexed by the city of Toronto and until the early 1960s was quaint quiet turf. Then it morphed into a haven of counterculture.

   “An explosion of youthful literary and musical talent is appearing on small stages in smoky coffee houses, next to edgy art galleries and funky fashion boutiques offering trendy garb, blow-up chairs, black light posters and hookah pipes, all housed in shabby Victorian row houses,” The Toronto Star said.

   It was fun roaming around hopscotching ducking in and out, even though a police paddy wagon was parked at the corner of Hazelton and Yorkville. There had been love-ins, sit-ins, and so-called “hippie brawls” in recent years. Some of the town’s poohbahs were up in arms. The politician Syl Apps said the area was a “festering sore in the middle of the city.” There were wide-eyed teenagers and tourists, hippies and bohemians, hawkers and peddlers, and sullen-looking bikers.

   We weren’t able to get into the Riverboat Coffeehouse, which wasn’t really a coffeehouse, but a club with the best music. We peeked through the porthole windows but all we saw were shadows. The Mynah Bird featured go-go dancers in glass cases outside the second floor. We saw Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins do back flips across the stage doing guitar solos at Le Coq d’Or.

   Starvin’ Marvin’s Burlesque Palace was somewhere upstairs, but we didn’t go there. All the clubs were small, and most of the doors open. We sat on curbs and heard a half-dozen bands. We stayed until midnight. By the time I got back to Paul’s house I was dead tired again and fell into bed.

   The sky Saturday was clear and bright over Lake Ontario, so we went to the Toronto Islands. We took the Sam McBride ferry and rented bikes. There were no cars or busses. We stopped at the new Centreville Amusement Park on Middle Island and rode the carousel. When we found a beach we changed, threw down a towel, and spent the remainder of the afternoon in the sun. We had bananas and threw the peels to the seagulls, who tore them apart and downed them like it was their last meal.

   Grazina invited me over for dinner. She told me her mom was a bad cook, but I went anyway. She set the table while her mom brought platters of cepelinai, bacon and sour cream on the side, serving them piping hot and covered with gravy. They were fit for a king.

   The next morning was Sunday. After going to mass with Grazina and her family I caught a bus for home. At the border I waited my turn to answer the Border Patrol man’s questions. I had all the answers except one. When he asked me for I. D., I said I didn’t have any.

   “How did you get into Canada?”

   “I walked over the bridge.”

   “Didn’t they ask you for I. D.?”

   “No,” I said.

   “Jesus Christ! Well, you can’t come into the United States without identification.”

   I was born in Sudbury, Ontario, and had been to Canada many times since for summer camps. But I never concerned myself with the legalities. I left that to whoever was driving the car, my parents, or somebody else’s parents.

   I was speechless. Distress must have showed on my face. The Border Patrol man told me to call my parents and ask them to bring identification. It sounded like a good idea, except that it wasn’t. My father was out of town on business and my mother worked at a supermarket. Even if she was willing, she had never driven a car that far alone in her life.

    “Is there any place I can stay?”

   “Do you have any money?

   “Just enough for a bus ticket home.”

   He said Jesus again a few times and finally suggested what he called a “hippie flophouse” on Clifton Hill. He gave me directions and I found it easily enough. I used the pay phone to call my mother, reversing the charges. After she calmed down, she said she would send what I needed the next morning by overnight mail. I was in for two nights of roughing it.

   The flophouse was an old motel advertising “Family Rates.” It was next to a Snack Bar selling hot dogs and pizza by the slice. There were young guys and gals loitering lounging smoking pot in the courtyard. One of them offered me a pillow and the floor. I accepted on the spot before he drifted down and out. It was better than sleeping in the great outdoors.

   I spent the next day exploring Niagara Falls. There were pancake houses and waffle houses. There were magic museums and wax museums There were arcades and Ripley’s Odditorium. I took a walk through the botanical gardens and to Horseshoe Falls.

   The Horseshoe Falls were tilting water over the edge like there was no tomorrow. The American Falls had been shut down by the Army Corp of Engineers to study erosion and instability. They built a 600-foot dam across the Niagara River, which meant 60,000 gallons of water a second were being diverted over the larger Canadian waterfall. It was loud and mist floated up into my face. 

   The Niagara River drains into Lake Ontario. We lived in Cleveland half-a-block from Lake Erie. If I threw myself into the river, I would have to swim upstream all the way to Buffalo before I could relax and float home. The practical side of me discarded the idea.

   Lots of people go over the falls. The first person to not do it was Sam Patch, better known as the Yankee Leaper, who jumped 120 feet from an outstretched ladder down to the base of the falls. He survived, but many of the daredevils didn’t.

   The first person to successfully take the plunge in a barrel was schoolteacher Annie Taylor in 1901. Busted flat, she thought up the stunt as a way of becoming rich and famous. The first thing she did was build a test model, stuff her housecat into it, and throw it over the side. When the cat made it unscathed, she adapted a person-sized pickle barrel and shoved off. It was her birthday. She told everybody she was 43, although she was really 63.

After she made it with only bumps and bruises, she became notorious, but missed out on riches. Everybody said she should have sold tickets, but it was Monday morning quarterbacking. She never tried it again. Two years later the professional baseball player Ed Delahanty tried it while stinking drunk and died.

   About thirty people perish going over the falls every year. Most of them are suicides. 

   The last person by 1969 to go over the falls with the intention of staying alive was Nathan Boya in 1960 in a big rubber ball nicknamed the “Plunge-O-Sphere.” When it hit the rocks at the bottom it bounced and bounced, but he was uninjured. Nobody but the absolutely serious about ending it all had tried it since then. 

   I got my official papers on Tuesday, proudly displayed them at the border, and walked into the United States. I sat in the back of the Greyhound bus and stretched my legs out. When it roared off, I took a look back, but it was all a blur.

   Grazina and I wrote letters to one another that winter until we didn’t. We slowly ran out of words and by the next summer were all out of them. She was enrolled in university full-time while I was working half the year and going to Cleveland State University the other half of the year. She found a boyfriend and I found an apartment on the near east side of town.

   A few years later Henri Rechatin, his wife Janyck, and friend Frank Lucas went across the Niagara River near the downstream whirlpool on a motorcycle, riding the cables of the Spanish Aero Car. The friend piloted the motorcycle while Henri and Janyck balanced on attached perches. Since they didn’t have passports, when they got to the far side, they hauled the motorcycle and themselves into the aero car and rode back in comfort.

   The police were waiting. They were arrested for performing a dangerous act, but formal charges were never filed. For my part, I made sure to always have something official with my picture on it whenever I went anywhere. Getting stuck in no man’s land is captivating for only so long..

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Searching for the Surfside

By Ed Staskus

“Whenever we leave home, to Ontario or New Brunswick, I always say we are crossing into another world, into a strange world, into Canada,” said Marie Bachand. “I always ask Louie did you bring our passports?” She always asks in French because her partner Louie Painchaund doesn’t speak English.

It was a cumulus cloud high sky day when they went to Prince Edward Island. They didn’t have their passports. Who wants to look like their passport picture on a sunny summer day, anyway?

They live in Saint-Gregorie in Quebec, a community of the city of Becancour, on the south side of the St. Lawrence River. Their house dates to the 1780s, built by refugee Acadians after the French and Indian War. “They came down the St Lawrence River, four hundred families. It was a rough time. They stopped, said OK, looks good, and settled here.”

It is about six hundred miles to Prince Edward Island, up the St. Lawrence, down New Brunswick, and across the Confederation Bridge to PEI. The first time they went they were touring the Maritimes. The island was a spur of the moment runaround. They drove across the Northumberland Straights on the nine-mile-long bridge to the other side.

“We thought we could run over and visit PEI in one or two days,” Marie said. “It’s so small.”

Even though it is pint-sized, the smallest of the ten Canadian provinces at just a little more than two thousand square miles, compared to Quebec’s almost six hundred thousand square miles, it goes over big.

Ten years later, even after Andy’s Surfside Inn is no more, they still go to Prince Edward Island two weeks in the summer, staying at the Coastline Cottages up the hill across the street, riding their bikes all over the place, still finding substantial fresh things to rack up on the to-do list.

The inn was on the ocean side of North Rustico, near the entrance to the harbor, a white clapboard two-story house with a dozen windows, two dormers and three porches on the side facing the water. A broad lawn slopes down to the cliffs. It wasn’t always the Surfside Inn and isn’t the Surfside Inn anymore, having since taken up where it left off, back to being a home.

“The first house was bigger,” said Kelly Doyle.

Kelly’s grandparents, Mike and Loretta Doyle, were visiting and playing cards at a neighbor’s house one winter night in 1929. Their friends lived about a mile away. At the end of the evening, going home in their horse-drawn sled, they crested a frozen hill. A red glow lit up the sky and flared across the flat cove below them.

The house was being swallowed up by fire. The pitch-dark night was blazing. They had left seven children behind in the care of the eldest.

“It was a flue fire,” said Kelly. “It burnt down because of the stove.”

By the time the Doyle’s raced their sled down to the house, and finding all the children safe and sound outside, there wasn’t much they could do. There were no neighbors nearby to help and there was no fire department. Mike Doyle was able to drag some furniture from the first floor out the front door and saved as many fox furs as he could.

The house was rebuilt the next year and finished the following year.

“The foxes my grandfather saved built the new house.” Kelly’s grandfather was a fox farmer. What he sold the pelts for paid for the work of the itinerant immigrant tradesmen who built the house.

Furry garments are made of furry animal hides. Even though it has lately fallen on hard times, fur is one of the oldest forms of clothing. Once we started globe-trotting out of Africa, to where everywhere else was colder, we started wearing furs. Ever since, people have worn beaver racoon sable rabbit coyote wolf chinchilla opossum mink and foxes.

Mountain men wore the bears they shot and killed.

In the 1880s foxes were bred for the first time, accomplished on Prince Edward Island by locals Charlie Dalton and Robert Oulton. Theirs was the original fur farm in 1884. Within several years the rush was on. But the rush didn’t really and truly mushroom until after a pelt sale a few years later when their harvest of 25 skins brought them nearly $35 thousand dollars. It was a boat load of a barn door of money, bearing in mind that the average island farm worker those days made less than $30 dollars a month.

In 1926 nearly nine hundred live silver foxes were shipped from Summerside to the United States. It was the most valuable shipment in the history of Prince Edward Island up to that time and is still called the ‘Million Dollar Train’. Andy Doyle was born the same year, spunky and healthy, although nobody ever called him the ‘Million Dollar Baby’.

By the 1930s the fox farm industry was strong as a bull, raking in multi-millions of dollars. There were hundreds of thousands of foxes being farmed and skinned coast to coast throughout Canada and the United States.

“The furs my grandfather was able to rescue from the fire were worth five thousand. In the end the new house cost five thousand,” said Kelly.

“We stayed at a country inn, at the information center at the bridge they said it was nice, but it was a little room, yuk,” said Marie. She picked up the official PEI tourist book. Where to stay next? She thumbed through the book. She put her finger on Andy’s Surfside Inn. “I say to Louie, what’s that, the north shore? We had already decided to stay three or four more days. We went looking for it.”

Gavan Andrew “Andy” Doyle was 81 years old in 2007 when Marie and Louie went driving up and down the north shore looking for his eponymous inn. Andy had been born in the white house that was the inn. Years later, grown-up a young man, pushing off after World War Two, he landed in Montreal, married, brought up three stepchildren, and years later, when his wife Vivienne died, went back to Prince Edward Island.

His mother died shortly after and he inherited the house on Doyle’s Cove. “My aunt, his sister in Montreal, always had a soft spot for Gavan. She helped him get the place up and running. She bought a bunch of nice furniture for him,” said Kelly Doyle. It was the late 80s. Andy Doyle resurrected the Surfside Inn that had been his mother’s brainchild in the late 40’s.

“When my grandfather died in 1948, my grandmother wanted to make some money with the house and started taking in tourists,” said Kelly. “There was a white picket fence, she had ducks and geese and sheep in a big barnyard, and she kept a garden.” It was a large working garden. “She fed the bed and breakfasts herself.”

As her six girls and two boys grew up and left home, she converted their rooms to guest rooms.

“She filled those rooms all through the 50s and 60s,” said Kelly. “PEI wasn’t like the rest of the world back then. Tourists found the way of life interesting, honest and down-to-earth. There wasn’t much entertainment, but there was always lots to do. They just liked the place.”

When Marie telephoned the Surfside Inn, a Japanese woman answered the call.

“Andy always had Japanese girls, three girls, housekeepers for the season who were exchange students who wanted to learn English. They shared a small bedroom over the kitchen. She told us, yes, we have a room.”

Louie and Marie drove up and down Route 6 between Cavendish and North Rustico searching for the Surfside Inn. When they couldn’t find it, they finally stopped at a National Parks kiosk and got directions. It was in the park, although on private land, Doyle’s Land on Doyle’s Cove. They drove down the Gulf Shore Parkway, past Cape Turner and Orby Head, and down to the coastal inlet.

When they got there, there wasn’t a room. There were four rooms that shared a bath. They were all taken. What Marie and Louie didn’t know was that there was a fifth room on the ground floor, which was Andy’s bedroom with a private bath.

“When we are full, he gives you that room,” explained the young woman.

“We’ll take that,” said Marie. “Where does Andy go to sleep?”

“He sleeps in the boat.”

The Japanese girls did the heavy lifting in return for being able to learn English. “I don’t know where they learned it, but it wasn’t from Andy,” said Marie. “He never talked to them.”

Outside the house was a castaway wooden lobster boat. The hull and forward cabin were worthy enough, although it needed some planks and rib work. it looked like it still had some spirit to it, like it could still make a living at sea.

“It smelled bad, all old stuff papers tools junk a small bed,” said Marie. “It should have been burned long ago.”

The Surfside Inn had a kitchen with several refrigerators. “We thought it was just for breakfast, but we saw other people storing food and making supper.” They started shopping at Doiron’s Fish Market on the harbor road. One suppertime Andy saw them coming into the kitchen with lobsters.

“Let me fix those for you,” he said.

“Oh, my God,” said Marie, “he was good. Tack, tack, tack, all done.”

They started bringing their own wine from home, though.

“I don’t like PEI Liquor wines. We brought Italian and French whites and rose for the fish.”

Coming back from Doiron’s one day, putting away fresh cod wrapped in Kraft paper, Marie noticed small buckets of frozen milk in the freezer.

“There was a Muslim couple staying at Andy’s, the guy was always in the living room, but she was wrapped up, always going to the bedroom. She didn’t talk. At breakfast, no words. She looked at her iPad, that’s all.”

The mother was expressing her breast milk and storing it. She kept it in the back of the freezer, the coldest part of fridges. One day all the milk was gone.

“We never saw the baby, though, maybe it was somewhere else, with a grandma.”

“Tourists in the 50s and 60s weren’t from Monkton or Toronto,” said Kelly. “Some were from the States, but a lot of them were from Europe. We lived next door and ran around the yard, having fun, meeting people. In 1970 my grandmother got a little bit ill and couldn’t keep it going. She lived alone for seven years until my dad moved her into the senior citizen’s home in North Rustico.”

The white house was empty for about ten years, for most of the 80s. It came back to life as the rooms filled up. In summertime it was never vacant.

“You could see the sea right in front of you,” said Marie. “We sat on the porch every day. It was a special place. After a week we would say, let’s stay another day, then another day. Other people, too, were crazy about this place.”

One day Andy asked Louie to help him take an old heavy bicycle out of the lobster boat. “You’re a big guy, you can do it,” said Andy.

When the bike was on the ground Andy straddled it and pedaled to the downhill on the all-purpose path. “He was going down the hill, but Louie told me there were no brakes. Stop! Stop! I yelled but he yelled back, I’ve been riding this bike for thirty years!”

Whenever Andy pulled his four-door sedan out to run errands or go to the grocery, Marie and Louie kept their distance. “I don’t think there were any brakes on his car, either,” she said.

He seemed to own only three short-sleeve shirts. “I have three nice ones,” he said. “I got them for a dollar each at the Salvation Army.” One was yellow, one green and one blue. The blue shirt was his favorite. He dried all his laundry on an outside clothesline, in the sun and ocean breeze.

“All the guests, they were from Canada, the United States, Italy, England, all over. A Chinese couple had a four-year-old who had been born in Quebec, so they named him Denis. Whenever we saw a Chinese child after that we always called the child Denis Wong. There was a couple from Boston, they lived in the harbor on a boat there. He was 80 and she was in her 70s.”

“I didn’t come with my boat. I came with my girlfriend,” he said.

“There is no age,” said Marie. Until you find out your grade school class is running the town city province country.

Aging and its consequences usually happen step-by-step, sometimes without warning. One minute you’re only as old as you feel and the next minute you don’t feel good. It’s like going on a cruise. It can be smooth sailing or a shipwreck. Once you’re on board, though, there’s not much you can do about it.

“There were always many guests, but suddenly a few years ago Andy started getting mixed up. He forgot reservations, there were two Japanese girls instead of three, it wasn’t the same.” What it takes to make an inn work wasn’t getting done. By 2016 it was far more vacant than occupied and Marie and Louie were staying at Kelly Doyle’s Coastline Cottages up the hill across the street.

“Andy introduced us to him,” Marie said.

Like Dorothy said at the end of ‘The Marvelous Land of Oz’, “Everything has to come to an end, sometime.”

In 2018 Andy Doyle moved to the Garden Home in Charlottetown and his nephew Erik Brown took the house over, renovating it and transforming it into his home. In November Andy died. He was 92. It was the end of the Surfside Inn.

“On the ocean was wonderful,” said Marie. “Once we found it, Louie and I loved the Surfside.”

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”