Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Dream 21 "Standard Time" (Sir Sandford Fleming, 1878)

Fleming dreamed the Institute loved his idea — wanted, in fact, to take his logic a few steps further and set the clocks back an entire 50 years. And so the City hired bricklayers to take apart all the new buildings: homes and churches and stores were turned into rubble and dust; their predecessors were rebuilt in their place. The sidewalks were pulled up by carpenters; Yonge and King and Queen Streets were returned to muddy glory. Fleming himself helped to disassemble his own railway, taking a great iron hammer to the rails. The debris was used to fill quarries back in; they were then covered with dirt and re-sodded. Trees were planted and roads were undone. Creeks were unburied and brooks let loose.

Once everything had been put back in its place, the young people hid themselves away. Most of them vanished into the ravines. Some disappeared into basements or backyard shacks. Others set off on ships to make a new life for themselves in the Old World.

As the last of the sails dipped below the lake’s blue horizon, a great cheer went up in the city. That night, the elderly would go dancing. Get drunk. Make out with strangers. Fall in love.

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Sir Sandford Fleming was one of Canada's greatest inventors and engineers. He helped to plan our earliest railroads, designed our first postage stamp and co-founded the Royal Canadian Institute to promote Canadian science. In the 1870s, he proposed a new system for the world's time: a universal 24-hour clock divided into local time zones. It would become the standard for measuring time all over the world.

You can read more about Sir Sandford Fleming on Wikipedia here. Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Night When Neil Young Was Conceived


It was the last winter of the Second World War. 1945. The first week of February. Far away in Europe, the Nazis were crumbling: the Soviets were closing in on Berlin; the Americans would soon be crossing the Rhine. The war would be over in just a few months. The Big Three — Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin — were already at Yalta, meeting to decide what the world would look like when the fighting was finally done.

Neil Young's dad was one of the people doing that fighting. Scott Young was a writer by trade: a young reporter who would eventually write dozens of books and even co-host Hockey Night in Canada for a while. He first went to Europe to cover the war for the Canadian Press. His dispatches were published in newspapers all over our country. But he soon joined the Royal Canadian Navy instead, serving as a communications officer in the invasion of southern France, among other places.

The war was taking a toll, though; Young was suffering from chronic fatigue and losing weight at an alarming rate. So he was sent back to Canada for tests. That meant he would get to make a brief visit home to Toronto, where he could spend a little time with his wife Rassy and their toddler, Bob.

When he got here, he found the city covered in snow. That winter was a terrible winter — one of the worst in the entire recorded history of Toronto. One infamous blizzard in December killed 21 people. And the temperature barely ever climbed above freezing, so the snow just kept piling up as the blizzards kept coming. By the time Young came home at the beginning of February, Toronto had already seen five feet of snow that winter.

361 Soudan Avenue
And there was yet another big storm coming. As the city braced itself for the blizzard, the Youngs spent the day visiting with friends who lived in a little house near Eglinton & Mount Pleasant. (361 Soudan Avenue; it's still there today.) It was far on the outskirts of the city back then; a long way from downtown in the days before the subway. And so, as the storm descended, they all decided it was best if the Youngs stayed put. They dragged a mattress downstairs and set it up on the dining room floor.

Scott Young wrote about that night in his memoir, Neil and Me. "I remember the street in Toronto, the wild February blizzard through which only the hardiest moved, on skis, sliding downtown through otherwise empty streets to otherwise empty offices."

The Youngs' love story wouldn't last forever. In the coming years, they would often fight; she drank, he had affairs. In the end, they divorced. But on that stormy winter night in 1945, they were happy. A young wife and her new husband home on leave from the war.

"We were just past our middle twenties," Young remembered, "and had been apart for most of the previous year... We were healthy young people, much in love, apart too much. It was a small house and when we made love that night we tried to be fairly quiet, and perhaps were."

Nine months later, the war was over; peace had finally come. Scott Young was back home again. When Rassy went into labour, a neighbour drove them down to the fancy new wing of the Toronto General Hospital. It was early in the morning of a warm November day when the baby came. They named him Neil Percival Young. He would grow up to become one of the greatest rock stars in the world.

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Main image: the winter of 1944-45 via the Toronto Archives; other image: 361 Soudan by me, Adam Bunch.

You can find Scott Young's memoir, "Neil and Me", on Amazon here. Or borrow it from the Toronto Public Library here. You can read more about Neil Young's early life in "Young Neil: The Sugar Mountain Years" by Sharry Wilson which is on Amazon here and in the Toronto Public Library here. I first heard about this night in a review of "Rock and Roll Toronto: From Alanis to Zeppelin" by Richard Crouse and John Goddard, which is on Amazon here and in the Toronto Public Library here.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Scarborough's 700 Year-Old Burial Mound


This is an ancient, sacred place. It's a hill in Scarborough, about 700 years old, with nearly 500 people buried inside it. It's near Lawrence & Bellamy, a few storeys high, looking out over bungalows for miles in all directions. It was made sometime around the years 1250-1300 as a burial mound by the Wendat (who the Europeans called the Huron) during a Feast of the Dead. The Feasts were held every time a village moved to a new location — every 10-15 years or so, at the end of the winter. Those who had been buried during that time were dug up for the 10-day Feast before having their bones cleaned and then re-buried in a communal grave like this one. Today, we call it Tabor Hill and it's one of the most remarkable places in Toronto.





A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead

Coming September 2017 from Dundurn Press
Available for pre-order now