Thursday, March 31, 2011

Which is what?

So which is what? Which one of these honkin' old brick buildings is McKeough School, where I attended from 1959 to 1964 (though it seemed like 20 times that long)?

I won't give you any hints, but I'll help you match the photo to the description. One of them is the Kent County Penitentiary. One is the Armoury in Tecumseh Park. One is a Baptist church with the inexplicable title of Duchess of Wellington. One of them is a munitions factory or something, and one is Park Street United, the church where my minister was thrown into jail for sexual improprieties (look it up: his name was Rev. Russell Horsburgh). And one is McKeough School. Oh-oh, that's six!

Since I am sure the suspense is killing you, I'll tell you. The first one is McKeough School, which operated, incredibly, until 2001. I remember looking up the web site in the '90s, and wondering why the whole thing hadn't fallen down. To me, it looks like a set for Jane Eyre or something, where they have to break the ice in the washbasins.

Why can't I get it any more?

These slabs of stuff were the building blocks of my childhood.

My Dad would bring them home for me from his school supply store, which also carried a few art supplies. Each slab was a different color. When I took it out of the package, there was a familiar smell. The plasticine smell.

Faintly chemical, a little like dirty socks. Not pleasant, but not unpleasant either. It didn't make me want to eat it, like Play-Doh, which has a biscuit-dough texture and a whiff of vanilla that makes it irresistible.

It took a while to work this stuff in your hands until you could make something out of it. I was always making something out of it, usually alone. I didn't use plastic cookie cutters or try to make Gumby or other "claymation" figures like the always-morally-correct Davy and Goliath. No one used the term claymation then, though I knew it had something to do with stop-action and being incredibly patient.

What I loved about plasticine was the fact that it never dried out, could be endlessly reused and recycled, got warmer and more forgiving as you worked with it. It was the ideal substance, the medium for my imagination as expressed through my fingers.

I still dream about McKeough School in Chatham, Ontario where I grew up in the '60s. Last night I dreamed it was no longer a historical site (as I think it used to be, before being shut down due to violating every building code in existence), and was being demolished.

My memories are fragmentary but powerful. The principal, Mr. Robertson, was an ex-army man who made us march in to military music ("Over hill, over dale, we have hit the dusty trail. . . "). He sometimes came in unexpectedly and had us stand beside our desks while he inspected the troops. We were expected to stand rigidly at "ten-HUT" until he said (no, I am not making this up) "at ease".

That school was old. The stone steps going in had hollows in them from countless thousands of feet. The basement where we watched "fill-ums" (mostly National Film Board hygiene things) was like somebody's pitch-black furnace room.

I remember things, like bringing 32 pink-iced Valentine cookies to school for the class (my mother did all the work, as I remember, turning them out grimly like a machine. Housewives kept score on each other then.) I remember the Monday after the Beatles came on the Ed Sullivan Show, when everyone was buzzing about them and trying to buy Ringo dolls. Our teacher, Miss Wray (an elderly spinster, like all the McKeough School teachers) finally said, "Settle down, class. This lesson has nothing to do with wigs."

Then there was Kennedy. We had some idea who Kennedy was, of course. How could we help it? Then one day in November the voice of doom came over the loudspeaker asking all the teachers to get down to the office, now. This was unusual, as the teacher had to ask the hall monitor to keep us in line for a few minutes.

When Miss Wray came back, she was ashen.

Then Mr. Robertson came on again and called recess: what was going on? It wasn't recess! I can't recall exactly how he communicated this, but somehow we all knew Kennedy had been shot and we were being sent outside, a nonsensical turn of events, though my adult self realizes they were probably trying to figure out what the hell to do next.

While we were milling about outside (the girls on one side, the boys on the other), Nancy, a girl who had been born in the States, started rallying us around her. We stood in a big circle in the yard and chanted, "Kennedy, Kennedy, rah-rah-rah! Kruschev, Kruschev, boo-boo-boo!"

It didn't do any good, though we were dismissed early after the faux recess, which we always thought was a good thing. My parents didn't say anything that I can remember, but Bullwinkle wasn't on, nor was anything else I liked to watch. It was all "coverage". Walter Cronkite nearly cried, which was scary, like Mr. Robertson crying or something. Confusion was everywhere, reaching its nadir as I watched Lee Harvey Oswald shot to death on live TV.

But what does all this have to do with plasticine? I'm getting to that, be patient.

At the end of the school year came the ultimate event: the McKeough School Picnic. This was a grand occasion with all sorts of sports, races and games, prizes given out, and a splendid fireworks display at the end (including the Burning School House, which didn't look like anything but always provoked subversive whoops of joy). I remember one year coming in third in the sack race, proving that even then, I was pretty good in the sack.

There was all sorts of food available for this event, bake table things and the like. My mother always made three kinds of fudge: chocolate, vanilla and coconut. To this day, I make damn good fudge with a similar recipe (the old-time kind where you boil up syrup to the soft ball stage - no thermometers, you wimps! - and beat the hell out of the molten liquid until it "fudge-ifies", as my kids called it eons later). She also made tons of popcorn using a beat-up old saucepan, put it in paper sacks while it was still sizzling hot, and drenched it with melted butter. Eaten fresh, it was agonizingly good.

But the plasticine! We're still getting to that. Along with all the other gorgeous things we did, there was the Hobby Fair. I don't remember much about it, frankly - maybe it involved crocheted toilet roll covers, stamp collections or something like that. There were ribbons given out, firstsecondthird. I had never won anything in my life, mainly because I never entered it.

Then, at the end of Grade Three, I got an idea.

I cracked open several new slabs of plasticine that my Dad had brought home from his store. (Don't ever think he bought them for me, because he didn't. This was excess stock that would have been returned to the manufacturer or thrown out.) I started warming it up in my hands, revving.

Then I began to build.

We had just "taken" a poem in school about the Pied Piper of Hamelin. It was endless, taking up page after page, a simple story crammed with detail and unfamiliar words like "nuncheon" and "sugar-puncheon". The most memorable lines are quite well-known: "Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats,/Brown rats, black rats, grey rats, tawny rats."


I would make rats. I would make the piper, holding his flute triumphant and spiriting all the rats out of Hamelin. My fingers flew as I made rat, after rat, after rat.

I don't know what color they were. They must have rested on something, some sort of cardboard (though I think that came later: I wasn't thinking of an actual display). I don't know how many rats, exactly, but there seemed to be hundreds of them.

Surprisingly, I think it was my mother who said, "We have to enter this in the Hobby Fair." I looked up at her: it was highly unusual for my parents to acknowledge any sort of talent in me, with three older siblings (one of them thirteen years older) who seemed to surpass me at everything. Even then, I fully expected to understand my 23-year-old sister's erudition when I was ten.

So my rat-swarmed display was entered. Came the time for the judges to snoop around all the exhibits, looking to pin ribbons on them, or not. One of them stopped at my Pied Piper station and sniffed, "I don't believe a child in Grade Three could have made this."

As it happened, a neighbor lady, Peggy Aitken, was standing there and said, "Oh yes, she did! I saw her making it!" This wasn't true, but I appreciated the vote of confidence.

I won first prize. For my rats. For my Pied Piper of Hamelin. I don't know what happened to the display; I suspect it was recycled, like all my plasticene things. No one took a picture of it, and I don't know what happened to the ribbon.

Nice story. But the thing is, now that my grandkids have outgrown Play-Doh (which is only useful for mucking around and making fake cookies), I can't find real plasticine. It's just not anywhere. I've gone to that Michaels craft store and bought some abominations. It's called all sorts of different things, usually Modelling Clay (which it isn't: this isn't clay at all but some sort of polymer product that never hardens), Krazy Klay and the like. I once bought a huge rainbow package (the different colors now come in small tubes like fat pencils), opened it, and was knocked back by noxious fumes.

The smell was just overpowering. Like moth balls mixed with Varsol (a more foul version of turpentine). I did let the kids play with it once, thinking, it has to be safe, I bought it at Michaels!, but their fingers were coated in disgusting oily smears, and their fingernails looked like they'd been coal mining.

So I go on the internet to find out what the hell, and it's vague as usual: it sort of tells you where to buy the stuff, if you can get it. The slabs might still be made in Britain, maybe, if you're willing to pay L25 per slab and shipping and handling, and you'll probably still get the wrong stuff.

I want my plasticine back! My eldest granddaughter Caitlin, who is endlessly crafty and creative, is just at the "big rats, small rats" stage. She could make her own Pied Piper display (though it's more likely to be Lady Gaga and her legions of fans). Don't tell ME I have to make my own, using creosote, crank case oil and corn syrup.

I saw something on the net saying Plasticine, the original name brand, had been banned for being a biohazard. Nonsense! The original had a faint odor, nothing like the knock-you-back fumes of the crap I bought at Michaels. If kids ate it in great quantities, maybe. But that's also true of poster paint and Elmer's glue. I don't understand why, if actual Plasticene is banned, they don't also ban this foul Third World glop that won't come off your hands until it wears off.

Like so many things I've lost, I want it back, but it's unlikely. I'll keep on trying to find something decent at the dollar store, then pitching it out when it stinks or won't mold any better than a pencil erasor.

Oh, by the way. The Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. My tenth birthday, coming only three months after the Kennedy Assassination and four months before my Pied Piper victory. It was one of those years.