Published in the Montreal Gazette on June 20, 2015
From the colourful Montreal neighbourhood of my now much-lamented youth, I still vividly recall, even at the advanced age of 68, the community Handy Andy Hardware store on Verdun Avenue at Melrose. Long before the arrival of the mega home equipment centres that we all know today, Handy Andy catered, as its name suggests, to men wishing to carry out their own household and contrivance repairs. Popularly dubbed ‘a sports, goods, and appliance hub’, there were in 1960 some 95 such ironmonger shops in eastern Canada alone.
However, unlike my late father Norman and most men of his years, I was never really a handyman. As a young boy, I remember watching Dad disassemble, and then reassemble, his CCM bicycle, just to help him pass the hours. He never asked me to help; neither did I offer. I just stood there and watched in wide-eyed amazement. So many gears, so many bolts, so many wing nuts, and so many places seemingly to place them all!
Of course, Dad was a talented and competitive cyclist, even coming very close to winning, at the age of only 17, the 100-mile Long Island Classic in June of 1939 in New York City. Later in time, he frequently visited our round-the-corner Handy Andy shop to purchase what he needed to keep his bicycle in tiptop shape. Hour after hour, I would see him blissfully tinkering with that precious two-wheeler. Mother said he loved that bike more than he did her, but I never really believed it.
My father also passed a great deal of time fiddling around with his hand-me-down automobile. Again, I wasn’t particularly interested although it seemed quite obvious to me that most men of his age group did at the time engage energetically in their own car maintenance. Few could afford an alternative, as the great affluence of the later post war period had not yet arrived.
Below, my father in 1952 beside his brother’s truck
Living in the late 1940’s and ‘50’s in a uncompromisingly simple working class flat on the very periphery of the Montreal city centre, Dad was often obliged to work on his ’34 Ford near the curb of the narrow street upon which our humble dwelling was found. To me, every so often, it seemed dangerous but my father was, at least in my child’s eyes, seemingly oblivious to fear, always soldiering on.
On one unforgettable occasion, Dad brought his motorbike into our tiny kitchen and decided to have a go at it. Much to his surprise (and my mother’s horror), after he got the engine started, he couldn’t shut it down. The cooking area quickly filled up with noxious fumes as we all struggled to open the very limited number of windows in the flat. I don’t believe that he ever attempted that specific exploit another time.
That same kitchenette, however, was witness to yet another drama of my father’s blameless creation. You see, Dad loved animals and never liked to see them suffer. On one occasion, during a particularly bitter winter cold, he found a half-frozen pigeon on our back gallery, and brought the suffering creature, much to my mother’s annoyance, into our well-heated cooking area. Of course, within minutes the bird recovered its wits and started flying blindly about the room, more than once near the flaming gas stove. Dad never undertook that feat again either.
He, like most men in the day, would try his hand at virtually anything. As such, he was also very accomplished with our old Singer sewing machine – certainly much more so than my mother was. It was for me amazing to see this rough and ready man amusing himself by repairing and altering the very diverse clothes that were found in our household. Hems on dresses were his specialty.
Even in sports, my father (who was also once a boxer in his youth) would not hesitate to try his hand at being practical. In winter, Dad would regularly take me along ice fishing with him. He would laboriously dig (‘elbow grease’, he called it) his own holes through the awfully thick ice, and then later deploy his home made lines that he so painstakingly crafted from salvaged whatnots in his workroom only days earlier. Like most individuals raised during the Great Depression, Dad wasted little.
As a somewhat unconventional child, I routinely watched this regular exhibition of robust dexterity with a great deal of aloofness. It was only when Dad turned his eyes to our surely first-generation television set that I would become intuitively perturbed.
As I forever came to expect, just before the weekly ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ broadcast (which, of course, I always wanted to watch), my father would enter the living room, glare unrelentingly at the television image and bemoan its lack of precision. The ageing black and white appliance would be moved forward, its back cover rapidly removed, and Dad would fiddle around with its enigmatic insides all the while asking me if the picture were improving. As I habitually responded in the affirmative hoping, just hoping, to catch the last period of the Saturday evening game, my father would sometimes have me hold up a mirror so he could see the quality of the likeness for himself.
Despite it all, early the following week, with a few suspect television tubes in hand, Dad would invariably head out to appraise them on the tube tester at where else but the local Handy Andy. To this day, I am not certain how he found his energy to do all of these things after a hard day’s work.
Nowadays, notwithstanding the growth of the monstrous and very contemporary home equipment centres, I am not sure how many men, and today women as well, attend to their own home, vehicle, and appliance repairs. Automobiles have become very complex machines, and in many ways quite computerized. They often require exceedingly specialized maintenance by well-appointed and costly garages. The same can also be said for countless of our modern household utensils, many of which function with a variety of computer chips and diverse electronic cards.
In some cases, the very notion of refurbishment has become foreign to many in society. Overwhelmed by incredible abundance, we have, sadly, become a culture that prefers to discard rather than repair numerous of our modern products.
The era of cash-strapped men daringly tinkering around with a plethora of home appliances and instruments has perhaps past. Yet, were he alive this Father’s Day, I know that Dad would be one of the unwavering holdouts, mucking about resolutely with his old CCM bike himself – only this time I would be near him, asking if I could help.
Below, Dad (in the centre), age 17, June 4, 1939, on Desmarchais Boulevard, Verdun, Montreal (Conrad Poirier / BAnQ)