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Youth « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

Reflections: Youthful days
Transcripts of interviews with Douglas

[singlepic id=7 w=500 h=500 float=none]Douglas on right, Leonard MacArthur, Mrs. MacArthur, Irene Fisher and Mary MacArthur. Doug remembers this as “a great summer”, spent on the lake and around bush pilots at the docks; 1930.

1919

I was born in a cottage on Queen St., in Sioux Lookout, Ontario. The house is still there. One day my dad swung me on his shoulders, carried me to a new house built for our family by Bob Wright. Red brick, white glassed-in porch. It was on a corner of Queen St and 7th Avenue, Sioux Lookout. I remember my excitement, how impressed I was with the size of the rooms. At the time I had an older brother, George, and two sisters not yet born.

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Pearl Fisher with son, Douglas.

1924

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I learned to read in the new house. My father was the one who got me going. He used to read me poetry from his senior second (grade four) school reader, and taught me the alphabet as his finger moved along the line. Lochinvar. Many Burns poems. The Death of Nellie Gray. The Wreck of the Hesperus.

From the poetry, he switched to the newspaper, the Winnipeg Tribune, and he began with the sports pages, with baseball and hockey. Within a year I knew how to read a baseball box score as well as how to read generally. From then on I was reading almost anything that came into the house, from Eaton’s catalogue to my father’s union magazine (the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers).

My father bought two sets of books-the 20 volume Books of Knowledge and the 10 volume The Wonder Books.

The book I remember best is Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Also Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

My father also bought a five volume set of the Ridpath History of the World, copiously illustrated, particularly with line drawings. The last volume fascinated me because it was about the world war, with a lot about the Canadian army and flyers like Bishop and Barker, much stimulating my fervent British-Canadian nationalism.

Got to know the neighbours, the Stothers (Nora and Jim-railway engineer) and their two daughters Mae and Lenore, and Jack, who was my age.

Across the street was another new house with another railway family, the Charlie Campbells. He was a CN conductor. Campbells had one son, Hamilton, three daughters, Dorothy, Myrtle and Audrey.

Next to the Campbells, to east were the Bruces, Clarence and wife and two kids, Bud and Mary. Mary was my age. Mr Bruce was a conductor and professional photographer.

I saw my first airplane up close, a biplane, a Curtis Jenny, which had crashed into a buoy on Pelican Lake. My father carried me across the ice (the snow was deep) to see the plane’s wreckage. The crash had happened in a snowstorm.

The summer before (in 1923), a couple of Vickers flying boats had been based in Sioux Lookout doing early mapping for the federal department of Mines and Technical Surveys. They were slow yet graceful.

1925

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Between our new house and Stothers were two vacant lots. On the one closest to Stothers, Ed Cole and wife Ida had had built a quite big, two storeys with outer walls of field stones and cement. The Coles moved in late 1925. This was a big deal for me because they had five kids – Gertrude, Jim, Eddie, Fred, and John. Fred was a year younger than I and Eddie two years older. Each in different ways became my pal.

The other neighbours I remember particularly well were Mr Vaughan and wife Sarah, who lived to the west of us on the corner of Front Street. Mr Vaughan was an elderly geologist who had been prospecting on both sides of the CPR to the south for many years before choosing to live in Sioux Lookout as it began to emerge as a railway divisional point in 1913. The backyard at Vaughans was littered with piles of rock samples and a low-cut wide wooden water tank used for panning samples after they were hammered into powdered ‘ore’. We loved to see the minute grains of gold in a well-swirled panning by Mr. Vaughan. Mrs. Vaughan was a reader and she was to start a public library in our town when I was 10, much aided by Mrs. Farlinger, wife of the big man of the town, George Farlinger, owner and chief operator of a substanitial sawmill lying along the lake shore (Pelican Lake) and up the tracks towards the West about a quarter of a mile from the Vaughan corner.

In September, I started school, at Sioux Lookout Public School. My first teacher in junior first (grade one) was Norma Glazier. I knew her very well because she boarded at our place that year and the one following.

Also living part time in our new house was my uncle Wilfred Mason, my mother’s youngest brother. He was born in 1901 and was unmarried at this ‘time. Some time in the late spring of my 4th year he took me fishing and, at Frog Rapids, between Pelican and Abrams Lakes. Using a thick, green line and a spinnered hook I caught my first fish, a four pound jackfish (northern pike). I was so proud, lugging it home of Mother.

1926

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[singlepic id=3 w=340 float=none]Boy Douglas with Grandma Mason, Mom, sister Ruth.

I returned from visiting my maternal grandmother and aunts in Toronto. This was my first memorable visit there because we went to the Canadian National Exhibition. I was asked by Miss Glazier to give a talk to the class about the CNE. This was my first public performance and I loved it.

1927

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There was great excitement in Sioux Lookout because of the Red Lake gold rush. The town was swarming with strangers, including pilots. Hundreds of men were trying to make their way 150 miles north to the Red Lake gold fields, to stake claims or get jobs in mine development.

1929

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A trip to Toronto led to my aunt Dora taking me to Niagara Falls in a car she had bought. It took a whole day to get there because the roads were bad (no King’s highway past Hamilton).

As I recall, this was the summer that I first stayed overnight for several weeks at Coles’ Moosehorn camp, on Pelican Lake, near Sioux Lookout. Eddie Cole, who was two years older than me, was the boss, and the rest of the crew that summer, and for several to follow, were Eddie’s younger brother, Fred, Jack Stothers, Glenn Bennett, and Ken Wilson.

We had a small, flat-bottomed boat with a tiny Elto motor and spent most of every day out fishing or exploring Abram and Minnitaki Lakes.

Mrs. Cole was very strict about safety and sanitary measures and we had to show we could swim well and how to make pancakes and how to fix a rod, line, and baits, and to handle and shoot a .22 safely.

1930

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[singlepic id=115 w=320 h=240 float=left]Young as I was, I got the message about a growing economic depression, which meant a lot of people were without jobs. Suddenly almost everybody talked politics and what devils the politicians were. This was my first recollection of politics.

My father was a Liberal, in part because he had worked as a railway fireman for an engineer named Peter Heenan. Heenan had become the MP for the Kenora District in 1926, and the minister of labour in Mackenzie King’s government, 1926-1930. In the federal general election of 1930, the Liberals were thrown out, much to the delight of neighbour Charlie Campbell, an intense Conservative who expected his party’s leader and new prime minister, R.B. Bennett, would soon get Canada out of the Depression.

This was a wrenching year because we moved to a new home which my Dad had built, almost a mile from where we’d been. I missed the old place and my chums very much, including my two favourite women, Mrs. Cole and Mrs. Stothers.

1931

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My brother George was in Toronto staying with our aunt and uncle, Bill and Goldie Tough, and trying to get his matriculation at Bloor Street Collegiate.

1932

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Fort William

[singlepic id=102 w=320 h=240 float=left]The biggest wrench yet came when we moved from Sioux Lookout to Fort William so that both George and I could go to the Fort William Collegiate (there was only a continuation high school in Sioux Lookout, offering only two full years). I had taken my first year of high school in Sioux Lookout and had done rather poorly after always standing first or second during my years from junior first to senior fourth (grade eight).

In Fort William, what saved me from desperate loneliness were my uncle Jim and aunt Phoebe Wright, and their kids, Edith, Bill, Grace, and Melbourne. Grace was my age and Bill a year older.

We first lived in a big rambling house at 632 South Mark Street. My chum from Sioux Lookout, Jack Stothers, lived two blocks away. The Stothers had moved a year or two before we did, partly for the same reason. Jack introduced me to the neighbourhood and the kids. We both had in common our Sioux Lookout neighbourhood and the camping we had done with the Coles’ kids.

I scraped through the first year at second form (Grade 10) and began to get a reputation in the school as slothful. I only enjoyed two subjects-English and History. I spent most of my spare time either reading or playing hockey or baseball. I was fascinated by the Fort William Public Library, which let me borrow five books at a time, and I was on a reading rampage that still hasn’t ceased.

1933

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In the neighbourhood I came under the influence of the Stewardson brothers, from a family which had been in the Lakehead several generations. The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th of the boys each had a motorcycle. We were fascinated by them and spent a lot of time in their big garage while they worked on their bikes. Through the Stewardsons and all their cousins, who lived out in the Slate River Valley, on rather good bush farms, we got to know quite a bit about the surrounding region, away from the lakeshore.

The small gang of us in the 500 and 600 blocks of South Mark Street began to establish ourselves over along the Kaministiquia River, which was about 500 yards away.

At the junction of the Kam and Mission rivers, which is about ½ a mile above where the Kam ran into Thunder Bay, we made a deep dugout into the bank of the Mission River, just below the junction with the Kam, and lugged railroad ties and lumber to build a diving platform. So we had our own swimming hole.

We were also fascinated with the traffic on the river, including grain boats, coal boats, which unloaded at Murphy’s dock beside the jackknife bridge, and package steamers like the Noronic and the Hamonic and the Keewatin, which carried passengers and freight between the Lakehead and Sarnia.

The river front was also attractive to me because of the very good outdoor rink, built each winter for the two MacLean kids, whose father was the boss of the Quaker Oats elevator operation. This provided us with almost our own rink at almost any time of the day or night and this bonanza was repeated for three winters.

In these two years I also came under the sway of two women who helped me a great deal in reading and becoming somewhat critical of what I read. These were the best English teacher I ever had, Christina Tilden, and Mary Black, the librarian in charge of the Fort William Public Libraries. Both of them tried to make me read more critically and to narrow my focus a bit. Both also pushed me into becoming a speed reader.

Miss Black was a veteran librarian. Years later when I was a librarian, I discovered that she had been considered the leader of all librarians in Canada in the 1920s and 30s. Certainly the Fort William Library was a magnificent structure and with a splendid collection for that time, including two excellent reading rooms in which there were many daily newspapers and most general purpose North American and British magazines. Miss Black also encouraged heavy readers, permitting them to take out more than four books at a time. I would sometimes have as many as ten.

Miss Tilden was the best teacher I ever had in high school. She spent quite a bit of time on any student she thought interested in writing or journalism. As a consequence, she became my stern but friendly advisor on what to read. Further she convinced me that I could better satisfy my obsession with reading if I read faster. So, long before speed reading courses became fashionable, she had me tring to read line by line rather word by word, and eventually to reading page by page, running one’s eyes slowly down the centre of each page. Within a few years I could gallop through a normal novel in two hours and something heavier, like a biography, in three or four. The surprising thing, looking back, is that I never acquired a close friend in Fort William who read a lot. Instead, most of my friends tended to be “jocks”, obsessed with either or both following or playing sports. The first place we lived in Fort William, on South Mark Street, was only two blocks from the collegiate. The Stewardsons, with their big garage in the back yard, was only 50 yards from the school’s side door. This enabled me to duck out and disappear from class and random attendance became my pattern after I moved from grade 10 to grade 11. Naturally my absenteeism was traced and my poor mother kept getting lectures from the principal that she had to get her son to school on time.

My poor attendance and general disinterest when I was in school brought me to the brink of failure and I spent two years getting grade 11 and another two years flailing around taking some grade 12 and some grade 13. In sum, when I left Fort William Collegiate in 1938, I was seven subjects short of senior matriculation and two subjects short of junior matric. The boys I chummed with were undistinguished as scholars but several of them were excellent hockey and football players.

It was at this time, particularly in grade 11, that I began to be interested in girls in the class. But my romantic progress was very slow and awkward. It sounds funny looking back, but I didn’t have my first real kiss until I was 17. It was bestowed by one Helen Gavin, a smart, neat, and witty girl who didn’t take long to decide that we’d be friends of a sort but not romantically involved. She was eventually the nesting sort and married a good junior hockey player by the name of Stewart Wilson. When I recall the years from 1932 to 1938, I have to regret I put so little into schooling and so much into reading and sport. I did wind up doing short write ups on high school sport for the Fort William Daily Times Journal. I did become a useful lineman on the Fort William Collegiate football team, and later, in my last year, playing for Fort William Vocational School. I switched to the vocational school, 1) to play football, and 2) to be near to a girl I had a crush on named Marguerite Asquith. I did better there in football than romance. On the library usage, the availability of daily papers like the Chicago Tribune, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, and the New York Times, got me following far more than football and baseball. I became a sports journalism nut and looked forward to the day when I’d be covering the World Series and the Stanley Cup. This is when I began to make notes in a scribbler about sports history which led 40 years later to a book I co-wrote with Sidney Wise, titled “Canada’s Sporting Heroes.

One explanation for my sloth at school, aside from overreading, was my growth. In my first year at Fort William, I began to grow at a great rate. By the time I was finished my 16th year, I was six foot three and weighed 225 pounds. In three years I had put on one foot in height and 110 pounds in weight. No wonder I slept a lot.

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Douglas with sister, Irene; late 1940s.

I should add about the year 1932 and the subsequent years at Fort William that I kept in touch with Sioux Lookout and my life there by going up there by train on every holiday break, where I’d live mostly with my uncle Wilfred, who had built his own home in the early 30s and rented out sleeping space each winter to three or four fellow firerangers, that is men permanently summer-employed by the Ontario Forestry Branch. These sojourns in Sioux Lookout at Christmas, Easter, and every summer meant that I was frequenting two different locales and societies, always drawn back to Sioux Lookout by friendships and through liking the lakes and the bush for fishing and hunting. Indeed, from about 10 to 20, I was an obsessive fisherman. This pattern of fishing at every possible time of the year rested upon the canoes and outboard motors that both my uncle Wilfred and my father had in Sioux Lookout, and the camp facilities of the Cole family. My father and my mother never directlly encouraged me in my hunting and fishing obsession, but they didn’t block it. I found myself fascinated by one of the chums I developed-Alfie Maxwell was his name.

He was to be one of the last Canadians killed in World War Two, his Liberator, being shot down by a Japanese fighter over the Indian Ocean in August, 1945, within a week of the Americans dropping the Bomb on Hiroshima. Alfie was a tail gunner and behold, his flight captain and pilot was Arthur Anderson, a boy from next door to the Maxwells, and, like Alfie, a superb fisherman. Alfie was in great demand at the biggest fishing lodge in the area because by the time he was sixteen, his guests at the lodge had caught the biggest muskies and black bass on record in the area. He was very quick and sharp in the boat and one day in the spring of 1940, he and I caught ten muskies in one morning, the smallest about ten pounds, the largest about 20. We put them all back, preferring to eat lake trout.

1936-39

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Fisher looks out at the lakes near hometown, Sioux Lookout.

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Sioux Lookout

The family moved back to Sioux Lookout because my brother George had left Fort William Collegiate without matriculating and had gone to work in gold mines, first at Geraldton, and then at Pickle Lake. My father wanted to go back because working conditions for him were much better in Sioux Lookout than at The Lakehead, and my mother enjoyed Sioux Lookout more.


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