Chapter Four

Two terms of bad grades finally caught up with me in 1947. What finally did me in was the Manitoba government examinations instituted that year. I failed most of them. Should I slink back to Provencher School to repeat Grade Twelve? Or should I strike out into the world of business?

My father held out strongly for the first option, and enlisted my older brother – who was just completing his medical studies – to back him up. But my unshakeable conviction that I was bound to fail Grade Twelve a second time finally won them both over.

Dad then turned his attention to where I might do best with such a low level of education. He set up two taboos: following him into police work and accepting any other job that would have me bringing a meal with me to my place of employment.

“Keep away from the lunch pail!” he would howl. (Packing a lunch for Dad was a daily ritual at our house, but he always found it humiliating to be seen in uniform with a brown paper bag dangling from one of his hands.)

My first ‘permanent’ job satisfied my parents because, though I was to start as an office boy, it held out the promise of a profession of sorts. A person hired to work in the firm’s office or shipping room stood a good chance of moving on to its thriving art department.

For nearly 60 years, Brigden’s of Winnipeg produced the western edition of Canada’s most popular mail order catalogue – a mainstay in every prairie home. And churning out the bulky Eaton’s catalogue year after year called for the efforts of an army of commercial artists. By the time I came along, Brigden’s had become a magnet for young Winnipeggers with artistic talent but not enough money to attend art school. It had become a veritable ‘artist mill,’ having hired such notables as Charles Comfort, later director of Canada’s National Art Gallery; Charlie Thorson who sketched, and inadvertently named, the first Bugs Bunny; and Hal Foster who drew the original comic-strip Tarzan and the intricate and magnificent Prince Valiant.

.

I never made it to Brigden’s storied art department; I was still an office boy when I was hired away by The Winnipeg Free Press as an apprentice cartoonist in 1948. There, a stern lesson was to be learned: don’t take a two-week vacation – even without pay – before it’s offered to you, even if you’re to be your brother’s best man in faraway Quebec City. I was fired.

Another job came readily enough: finding work in postwar Canada was no problem – if you were willing to ‘start at the bottom’ and work cheap. Because my last employer was a newspaper, the employment bureau tried to steer me in that direction. There were no openings for cartoonists; but The Winnipeg Citizen, new in town, was looking for someone to sell want ads.

The Citizen came about because of a bitter and complicated labor dispute that emptied the composing rooms of both existing dailies in Winnipeg in 1945. Shortly afterwards, union canvassers began selling five-dollar shares in “the Winnipeg Co-operative Publishing Company.” Its offspring, The Citizen, appeared for the first time March first, 1948, burdened with a multitude of nagging disabilities:

– The Citizen was a morning newspaper. Both the Free Press and Tribune published in the afternoon. In Winnipeg, home delivery was established as an ‘after school’ proposition. It was an uphill battle getting ‘paper boys’ willing to crawl out of bed at the crack of dawn.

– With the appearance of The Citizen, The Free Press and Tribune moved quickly to monopolize all available sources of international and national news. The Citizen had to resort to ‘scalping’, that is, reprinting what it could find in other newspapers, or on a local radio station. I was one of the junior employees put to work with the newly invented wire recorder to ‘scalp’ what could be heard on local newscasts. As long as the announcer talked about places and names that I knew how to spell, I was on reasonably safe ground; but what if he reported that Jawaharlal Nehru had sent Indian troops into the city of Hyderabad to overthrow its Nizam, Sir Osman Ali Khan Bahadur? Much of The Citizen’s late-breaking international news was riddled with spelling errors.

– The Free Press and Tribune also gobbled up any remaining syndicated newspaper features to keep them out of The Citizen. It made for expanded comic pages in both of the older dailies, and a dull, lifeless Citizen.

– The big advertisers had two reasons to shun the fledgling Citizen: its circulation, never much of a challenge, lapsed into a steady decline; and the new daily was identified with the labor movement and thus considered hostile to business.

 

When The Citizen finally collapsed under the weight of these and other negatives, I moved on to another publication: an entertainment magazine. And when that enterprise also failed, I began to think of myself as a sort of journalistic Typhoid Mary.

While The Citizen was still around, its desperate management let me write a weekly column about new recordings and popular music, and even a few ‘op Ed’ pieces. It was the connection with music that put me in touch with two memorable if unsung entertainers: Paul Grosney and Carl Fischer.

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