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The Sugar Mountain Years
By Sharry Wilson
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2014 Sharry Wilson
All rights reserved.
IN THE BEGINNING ...
IT WAS A HARSH AND unwelcoming winter night — hardly unusual for early February in Toronto. A blizzard had rendered travel precarious. Only the hardiest souls ventured out.
On the morning of February 5, 1945, city residents woke to over 12 centimetres of fresh snow, bringing the total snowfall since November to more than 1.5 metres — more than would normally fall over an entire winter. And although the snow was not in itself overwhelming, it was accompanied by frigid, blinding winds.
Scott Young, then a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, was in Toronto on medical leave for fatigue, spending time with his wife, Rassy, and their nearly three-year-old son Bob. Scott was to undergo tests at a hospital in Ottawa, and Rassy and Bob planned to join him at the Lord Elgin Hotel during his recovery. But the snowstorm forced them to revise their travel plans.
They were invited to take refuge overnight in the home of good friends Ian and Lola Munro at 361 Soudan Avenue, near the intersection of Eglinton Avenue East and Mount Pleasant Road in what was then a northern suburb of the city. The Youngs had been visiting the Munros as the day passed and weather conditions worsened.
Ian retrieved a spare mattress and put it on the dining-room floor as a makeshift bed for Scott and Rassy. The couple had been apart for a long period due to the demands of Scott's service. Happily reunited, they quietly made love as the snow sifted and deepened outside the darkened house. Scott Young writes:
I know the exact time when Neil was conceived. 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. All trains were marooned or cancelled.
NEIL YOUNG'S FATHER HAD ALREADY led a diverse and in some ways uniquely Canadian life. Born in Cypress River, Manitoba, in 1918, Scott's first job, at age 16, was manning the desk of a tobacco wholesaler in Winnipeg. He was a hockey fan from an early age — in 1935 he lined up for hours to buy a $1 ticket to the Memorial Cup final between the Winnipeg Monarchs and the Sudbury Wolves. His literary career began in 1936, when he took a job as a copy boy at the Winnipeg Free Press.
In June 1940 Scott married Rassy. Born Edna Blow Ragland in 1918, Rassy was given her nickname — Rastus, later shortened to Rassy — by her father. She was the youngest of three daughters born to William N. Ragland (a.k.a. Rags or Daddy to one and all) and his wife, Perle. Her two older sisters were Lavinia, known as Toots, and Virginia, nicknamed Snooky.
The marriage began on a troubled note, with Rassy facing an unwanted pregnancy. Neither she nor Scott was prepared to face the prospect of raising a child so soon and under their financial circumstances. Rassy told Scott she did not want him involved in what she decided should happen next. She tried various home remedies without success and eventually paid $15 for an illegal kitchen-table abortion that left her seriously ill. She recovered slowly, and according to Scott both of them regretted the decision.
Their relationship survived, and in November 1940 Scott left the Winnipeg Free Press to take a new job on the night rewrite desk with the Canadian Press in Toronto. Scott's uncle Jack Paterson, then assistant editor at Maclean's, the iconic news and culture magazine, welcomed them to the city and found an apartment for them; Jack's wife, Ruth, helped them settle in.
Scott and Rassy's first son, Bob, was born on April 27, 1942. Five months later Scott was sent by cp to England, where for two years he wrote about the war. In 1944 he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve as an ordinary seaman. Later that year he was commissioned and served in the landings in southern France and Greece, and with Royal Navy torpedo boats in the Adriatic.
Scott had come home suffering from chronic fatigue and weight loss. After the storm in Toronto, he completed the medical tests in Ottawa, but no serious problem was discovered, and following some rest and recovery he learned about a new position in the information branch of the navy. Scott was interested, and he secured the posting as assistant to Clyde Gilmour, lieutenant and chief public relations officer to the Flag Officer Newfoundland in St. John's. Gilmour would go on to achieve success as a print journalist and radio broadcaster and later enjoyed a half-century association with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (cbc), where his weekly music program, Gilmour's Albums, was a much-loved staple. Scott was soon promoted to lieutenant and succeeded Gilmour as chief public relations officer (CPRO-Newfoundland).
When the war in Europe ended a few months later, Scott had volunteered for duty in the Pacific. On leave for several weeks before reporting for duty, Scott met Rassy and Bob in Toronto in early August. They were staying with friends when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A few days later Scott received a telegram from Ottawa — he was to remain on leave until further notice. When the Japanese formally surrendered on September 2, 1945, Scott was released from the service.
A civilian again, he needed to find a full-time job and a place for his family to live — Scott and Rassy began to search for a new home in earnest. Bob was an active three-year-old, and by this time Rassy was at an advanced stage of her second pregnancy. Repeatedly rejected by landlords and rental agents who were reluctant to rent to families with young children, they decided to try and scrape together a minimum down payment on a home of their own.
Scott found work again at the Canadian Press. His manager, Gillis Purcell, had real-estate connections, and Gil's endorsement helped Scott and Rassy purchase a new three-bedroom bungalow in north Toronto, at 335 Brooke Avenue, near the intersection of Lawrence Avenue and Avenue Road. Gil guaranteed their security for a $500 down payment and the builder agreed to reduce the price of the house by $500 to $6,500.
The Young family had barely settled into their new digs when Rassy went into labour. They didn't own a car, but a friendly next-door neighbour drove them to Toronto General Hospital, where Rassy was admitted to the Private Patients' Pavilion, later renamed the Thomas J. Bell Wing. It was a plush environment in which to give birth. The ornate nine-storey, T-shaped structure, with a cut-stone entrance and Doric facade, was a complete hospital unto itself, accommodating more than 300 private and semi-private patients. It had officially opened on April 24, 1930, in an elaborate ceremony in which Ontario's Lieutenant-Governor W. D. Ross unlocked the door with a gold key, accompanied by the music of Romanelli's Orchestra. Mary L. Burcher, an executive member of the Canadian Hospital Association and a guest at the opening, said the new structure was "suggestive of a palatial and exclusive hotel." Construction, the Canadian architectural and engineering journal of the day, glowingly wrote:
Every unpleasant feature usually associated with hospitals has been most carefully eliminated from this building and a home-like atmosphere has been created. ... The rotunda of dark panelled treatment, the operating and anaesthesia rooms of mother-of-pearl finish, the gleaming nickelled monel metal fixtures, the wood finished metal beds and furniture, the chintz-covered chairs, the colourful curtains, the Persian rugs and the artistic lighting fixtures are all components in a well thought out and skilfully executed colour scheme.
The Private Patients' Pavilion was also a source of controversy in the days before Canada's national health insurance program. Private patient facilities like this one brought into stark contrast the disparity in medical care between the poor and the more privileged classes.
It was in this environment that Neil Young first opened his eyes at 6:45 a.m. on Monday, November 12. Neil Percival Young is the full name recorded on his birth certificate, according to his father. His first name paid homage to Rassy and Scott's brother-in-law, Neil Hoogstraten, who married Rassy's sister Lavinia, and his middle name was likely a nod to Scott's father, Percy Andrew Young.
Conceived during a time of war, Neil was born into a world more or less at peace. The war was over, though labour conflict continued. "Strike Settlement Hope Rises," proclaimed the headline of the November 12 issue of the Toronto Daily Star — workers at a Ford assembly plant in Windsor, Ontario, were still on strike but close to an agreement. In other news, Prime Minister Mackenzie King paid his respects to fallen soldiers during Armistice Day ceremonies at the Arlington National Cemetery, where he stood alongside U.S. president Harry Truman and Prime Minister Clement R. Attlee of Great Britain. The three leaders were in Washington to attend the first full working session of the U.S.-Canada-Britain conference on atomic power.
In Toronto, according to the paper's entertainment pages, the "Ice Capades of 1946" had an upcoming engagement at Maple Leaf Gardens, The Hasty Heart was playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, and a jazz concert featuring Charlie Parker was scheduled for November 14 at Massey Hall. Movies showing at cinemas across the city included Kismet, The Devil and Miss Jones, Pennies from Heaven, Shanghai Cobra and House of Frankenstein.
NEIL WAS SOON BROUGHT HOME to what was apparently a happy and successful Canadian family. Scott had been hired at Maclean's, and would retain his position as articles editor for the next three years. The magazine's editor, W. Arthur Irwin, gave Scott and many other notable Canadian writers their first solid start. He sent Scott to Vancouver with instructions to hire Pierre Berton, then the world's youngest city editor at the Sun. Young was to entice him with an offer of $4,000 to $4,500 for the position of assignments editor. ("I'll take the $4,500," Berton said.) Associate editor Ralph Allen, a good friend of Scott's from his early days in Winnipeg, would take over the editorship at Maclean's when Irwin left. A future who's who of Canadian literature passed through the portals of Maclean's during the 1940s and '50s, including June Callwood, Trent Frayne, John Clare, Robert Fulford, Peter Gzowski, W. O. Mitchell, Peter C. Newman and McKenzie Porter. This was the golden age at Maclean's, and Scott and Rassy befriended most of these writers.
It was customary for the Maclean's staff to get together for social occasions with their families and children. "We were all very close," recalls Janet Berton, Pierre's wife. One of the few Maclean's wives who did not have children yet, she was often recruited for babysitting duty; she began babysitting Neil and Bob in 1947, before her own children were born. Neil was "a sweet baby," she recalls, and they called him "little Neiler." On one occasion, according to the reminiscences of some of the "Maclean's kids," Pierre Berton consented to haul a hay wagon full of kids, including Neil, around the farm of Maclean's art editor Dave Battersby.
The salary for an assistant editor at Maclean's was modest, so Scott began to write short stories in his spare time to supplement his earnings. He wrote at a roll- top desk in the smallest of the three bedrooms, while Neil and Bob shared a bedroom. Rassy assisted Scott by typing and mailing his stories, which soon began selling to such major magazines as Collier's, Argosy, Ladies' Home Journal, Women's Home Companion and Saturday Evening Post. The Youngs were out of debt by 1947, and they celebrated by buying a well-used 1931 Willys-Knight automobile. Scott didn't yet have a driver's licence, so the duty of driving the temperamental old vehicle fell to Rassy.
A friend had offered the Youngs the use of his cottage at Belmont Lake near Havelock, and they needed a car to get there. The oil-pressure gauge on the Willys-Knight didn't work, and between Toronto and Havelock it burned eight quarts of oil in billows of black smoke; nevertheless, the Youngs managed to have an enjoyable time — their first vacation as a family. Snapshots of the occasion include one of a 22-month-old Neil posed in the buff near the water's edge.
He was a plump and chubby-cheeked toddler. "Neil was funny as hell," remarks Rassy. "Great big eyes, yards of black hair and fat — my God, you could not fill him up. He ate and ate and ate. Wide as he was high." He enjoyed pushing a toy wheelbarrow around the spacious backyard at 335 Brooke Avenue while Bob played ball with Scott. Neil would avidly point at whatever caught his attention and cryptically exclaim, "Dombeen!" — his first word as recalled by his father. Even at this early age Neil was known to dance a little jig in his playpen when music came on the radio or record player. Rassy recalls that he was especially fond of an old 78 recording of Pinetop Smith's "Boogie-Woogie." Scott wrote, "His whole body moved to the rhythm; it was his unconscious parlour trick."
Neil's early life was not without some real health concerns. Scott remarked that Neil "used to get anything that came along. ... [He] had pneumonia three times when he was a baby." But he recovered well from these periodic setbacks and continued to enjoy a healthy appetite.
In June 1948 Scott quit his job at Maclean's to attempt a career as a full-time fiction writer. The Youngs disposed of their Willys-Knight after only eight months and bought a brand-new Monarch with $2,100 in cash from the proceeds of the sale of their house. Scott soon learned how to drive, and the family enjoyed the summer in a rustic rented waterfront log cabin on Lake of Bays in the Muskoka district, a couple hours' drive north of Toronto.
Neil and Bob spent much of their time fishing or swimming in a sandy cove that Scott had cleared of stones. A series of photos taken that summer shows Neil standing in shallow water playing happily with a wooden fruit basket, filling the basket with water, then watching in fascination as it dribbled out. The fruit baskets were more customarily used to collect wild strawberries, which Rassy would bake into pies. Scott wrote every day, though he failed to sell any of the stories he produced during this time. Friends often came to visit, usually other writers and editors. Scott recalled this time with his young family as his "best summer ever."
One family who visited the cabin on Lake of Bays was writer Max Braithwaite, his wife, Aileen, and their three children, Beryl, Sharon and Chris. Max had met Scott while serving in the Canadian navy. They shared an interest in writing, and both hailed from the prairie provinces — Scott from Manitoba, Max from Saskatchewan.
Eldest daughter Beryl, then 12 and already well-known as the lead in the CBC radio program Maggie Muggins, recalls a day in Lake of Bays when the children were being "corralled" by their parents to come in for dinner. Neil, excited by all the activity, dashed past Beryl toward the dock and tumbled into the water. Beryl, a strong swimmer, instinctively jumped in fully clothed and pulled him out, perhaps averting a dire outcome.
Although Beryl was considerably older than the other children, she recalls that Bob and Neil were both "nice kids." Neil was a "chubby, funny little guy, lots of black spiky hair and big eyes."
Other visitors that summer included John and Lenore Clare; Ralph and Birdeen Allen; Trent Frayne and June Callwood, with their daughters Jesse and Jill; and Scott's brother Bob, his wife, Merle, and their daughters Penny, Marny and Stephanie. There was occasionally tension during these get-togethers. Rassy was uncomfortable with Birdeen and Merle, who had previously been emotionally involved with Scott, and she wasn't shy about sharing her concerns with him.
Excerpted from Young Neil by Sharry Wilson. Copyright © 2014 Sharry Wilson. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Born in Ontario
1 In the Beginning… 3
2 Omemiee and Beyond 21
3 An Uneasy Time in Toronto 60
4 Brock Road: A Rural Idyll 71
5 Sad Movies 110
6 It Might Have Been 126
Part 2 Winnipeg…Field of Opportunity
7 Earl Grey Junior High School: The Jades, The Esquires 153
8 Kelvin High School (Year One): The Stardusters/Twilighters/Teen Tones (and Others) 194
9 Kelvin High School (Year Two): The Classics, The Squires 232
10 Kelvin High School (Year Three): The Squires (Continued) 274
11 Get Gone 324
Part 3 Leaving Sugar Mountain
12 Oh Canada 347
End Notes 389
Other Sources 447