Ground Zero

By Ed Staskus

   The General Hospital of the Immaculate Heart of Mary opened in Sudbury on Paris Street in 1950. It was the first English speaking not just French hospital in northern Ontario. It had a brick façade with a steel beam grid system. The parking lot was close to hand right at the entrance, which was handy if you were dragging a broken leg behind you.

   Nobody needed to speak English or any other language to get around. “They used to do this cool thing,” Ginette Tobodo said. “On the walls they painted certain colors, one color for the lab, another color for the cardiac department, and you just followed the color to where you needed to go. It was easy to find your way around.”

  Susan Cameron was the lead blast off. “The hospital was not officially open, but my mother was in labor,” she said. It was unofficial but necessary vital time sensitive. When it’s your time to be born, it’s your time, no matter what anybody officially rules on the matter.

   When I was born the next year in March 1951 everybody was already calling the hospital the ‘General.’ I don’t remember a single second of being in my mother’s womb. The next thing I knew there were bright lights, voices, a pair of scissors, a slap on my butt, and I was being held up for inspection like a hunk of ham. I couldn’t make out what was happening. Everybody was wearing clothes and I was naked as a jaybird. It seemed like I had come into being not knowing anything.   

   The whole thing was such a shock I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it for almost two years, by which time nobody wanted to hear about it.

   A man wearing a mask counted my toes and fingers and pinched my arms and legs. He stopped when he seemed satisfied. I wanted to ask him what he was doing but didn’t know how to talk. That month’s issue of Sudbury’s Inco Triangle newsletter had a poem called “Man’s a Queer Animal” on one of its inside pages.

   “With a lid on each eye, and a bridge on his nose, with drums in his ears, and nails on his toes, with palms on his hands, and soles on his feet, and a large Adam’s apple, that helps him to eat, with a cap on each knee, on each shoulder a blade, he’s the queerest thing made.”

   I looked myself over. I didn’t seem queer, but what did I know? I checked the other newborns but couldn’t see any difference between them and me. Were we all off the wall? I was reassured when I heard a nurse say, “They are all such little miracles.”

   Inco was the corporation that ran most of the mining in Sudbury. Its head man died a month before I was born. Robert Crooks Stanley was a mining engineer who patented many new refining methods including the Stanley Process. He became president of Inco in 1922, when the company was at a low ebb. He had to close operations owing to a loss of war orders. Six years later, recovering his poise, he launched a $50 million dollar building and expansion project. 

   When I came down the chute the mines were booming. My mom was getting her bag ready for the hospital the day Len Turner and Nifty Jessup arrived at the Bank of Toronto in the Donovan neighborhood, one of Sudbury’s oldest neighborhoods, with Inco’s weekly payroll. Going up the steps of the bank, the pay clerks were suddenly brought up short by two men armed with revolvers.

   “Let me have that case,” one of them snarled.

   Len made a grab for the man’s gun. The gun went off, the bullet slamming into the bank building. The bank was unharmed. The gunman grabbed the payroll case and the thieves drove off in a stolen car towards North Bay. For all that, they made a wrong turn, got trapped on Fir Lane and the Sudbury police, more of them and better armed than the bandits, rounded them up.

   “A little of that excitement goes a long way,” Len said to Nifty after they got their company’s payroll back.

   Sudbury came into existence in the early 1880s as a construction site for Canadian Pacific Railway that was laying tracks for a transcontinental line. It was a company town and all the stores and boarding houses and everything else were operated by the company. W. J. Bell cut down every tree he could see to supply the railroad, at least until the day the railroad was done and left town. It looked like the end of Sudbury.

   It was saved from stillbirth by prospectors who found vast mineral deposits, what became known as the Sudbury Basin. It is the third largest impact crater on the planet, when something big from outer space crashed there about 2 billion years ago. “By 1886 we knew Sudbury was going to be a mining town,” Florence Howey wrote. In that year mining and smelting was started by Copper Cliff. Seven years later the town incorporated itself.

   Meanwhile, Sam Richie formed the Canadian Copper Company in Cleveland, Ohio, which was an unknown place to me in 1951, although by 1959 I was finding out all about it since my parents, with my brother, sister, and me in tow, migrated there. At the turn of the 20th century Canadian Copper was merged with International Nickel, controlled by J. P Morgan, and moved to New Jersey.

   Sudbury’s nickel plating on warships helped win the Spanish-American War for the United States. Afterwards, the British and their international military cousins sat up and took notice. The arms race was on, and Sudbury was rolling in dough.

   Even though my mother and I had been inseparable for nine months, the next thing I knew I was being separated from her. I was carried to a nursery and spent the next week in the company of a gaggle of strangers. Half the time half of us were crying. The rest of the time we were sleeping or looking around for food.

   The boy next to me seemed to be hungry 24 hours a day. Whenever anything edible was within reach, he reached for it. “He’s a nice boy but he’s got more nerve than a bum tooth,” I thought, even though he was far off from cutting his teeth. A girl on the other side of me wiggled her legs and giggled. She started wiggling her arms, too. 

   I couldn’t take my eyes off her, baby fat and all. “That girl is fidgety as a bubble dancer with a slow leak,” I tried to tell the hungry boy beside me, but the words wouldn’t come, and besides he was eating again.

   The nurses gave us a bath every morning and fed us every three hours. The nurse who scrubbed me from tip to toe was all business. She tested the temperature with her elbow, soaped me up, and I went gently down into the water. One day something scared me, and I jumped like an electric eel. I was crazy slippery from the soap and slipped out of her hands. I landed face down in the baby bath. The commotion I caused would have made anyone think she was trying to kill me.

   When we were done with breakfast lunch dinner and goodies, which was all the same mush, they bubbled us, changed us, and put us back to sleep. I wasn’t fussy or gassy and slept like a log. As soon as I woke up, I was hungry again.

   The boys took it easy in blue beds and the girls in pink beds, what the bosses in white uniforms called cots. My mother got to stay in a room with another woman, chatting it up, eating in bed, and reading Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, and Ladies’ Home Journal. I saw her twice a day for a few minutes for some real food. One day my dad showed up.

   “Who’s that?” I wanted to ask.

   My cot was near a window. When I looked out all I could see was ice and snow. More than a hundred inches of snow had fallen that winter and there were snowbanks as far as the eye could see. The month before the thermometer had gotten stuck between 30 and 40 below for a week. It was still bitter cold. I pulled my blanket tight around me when I heard one of the nurses say, “It’s too bad we can’t take them out for a little airing.”

   The minerals in the Sudbury Basin had a high sulphur content and needed to be roasted before smelting. The open pits burned for years. The roasting yards puffed yellow gray clouds all around the compass. There were slag and mine tailing piles, soil erosion and blackened hilltops. When I was born Sudbury was largely barren and treeless. Everybody said that was the way it was. Everybody cashed their paychecks and got on with it. Tourists on their way somewhere else called the Sudbury Basin the Canadian Death Valley.

   I was an infant and didn’t have a clue that engineers and corporate executives can be a burrito short of a combination plate. The executives were sly dogs, though. What their mines paid in taxes was the equivalent of about one-half the revenue that Sudbury would have gotten if it had been any other heavy-industrial city in that part of Ontario. The national press was always saying my hometown was a “slum” or “a smaller version of Katowice, Poland.”

   My dad belonged to Local 598 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. It was the biggest trade union in Canada. Local 598 and Inco hated each other’s guts. The local built union halls and a children’s camp where we went to hear music and see movies. I saw Walt Disney’s “Treasure Island” and “The Littlest Outlaw.”

   It wasn’t like I needed a day off like my father and godfather, who worked long hours miles down in the ground. One day my godfather walked up to me at the camp and said, “What are you doing here relaxing? You haven’t worked a day in your life.”

   “You’ve got to love livin’,” I said.

   He coughed up a mouthful of mine dust and cigarette smoke and laughed. “If you aren’t laughing, you aren’t living, my baby boy,” he said, reaching for his Export A’s when my dad walked up, so they could kick back together for ten minutes.

   My baby days were behind me, but I let it slide.

   My parents didn’t live in Lively or Onaping Falls, where class and race paid the bills. Little Warsaw was where the Poles lived. Little Italy was under a line of smokestacks and the Italians lived there. I ended up living in the middle of town where the East Europeans and Finns lived. The Finns liked to wrestle and ski, although not at the same time. My parents and their friends liked to play cards smoke drink and dance. They worked like Puritans, though, saving their money, so they could get ahead. They left the DP camps of Europe in the late 1940s on separate freighters with a duffel bag and enough cash to buy a snack.

  When it came time to pack up, I wasn’t ready. I had gotten used to the nursery and had made friends. I learned soon enough that all good things come to an end. It was a sunny day towards the end of the month when my dad gathered my mom and me up and took us home. There weren’t any crocuses showing, but most of the snowpack had melted away.

   The General did fine work by me. I was hale and hearty when I got to what I found out was home. I had been living on the bottle, but my mom switched the menu up, feeding me herself. My parents lived in a small, rented house on Pine Street. My father was working in the tombs of outer space, taking all the overtime he could get, and was planning on buying a house on Stanley Street, just down the street.

   Sometimes the hospital couldn’t get it done and people took matters into their own hands. Edmond Paquette, an Inco pensioner in his 80s, had suffered a paralytic stroke that left him unable to walk. He vowed an act of penance, building a built-to-scale church inside a five-gallon glass carboy. When he was done, he stood up and walked across the room to tell his son-in-law Dusty that he had accomplished his mission.

   “You’re walking unaided,” Dusty exclaimed. 

   “It’s a miracle,” Edmond said.

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

One thought on “Ground Zero”

  1. Enjoy your stories. I have fond memories of the Sudbury General Hospital, as I was born there as well and lived at 147 Stanley Street after your family moved from Sudbury.

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