“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom” – Aristotle
We were children. We weren’t crippled, handicapped or disabled kids, we were children. Simple as that. Yes we lived in a hospital (or institution), whatever descriptor you want to use, but we were children first. We spend the year attending school in the hospital, we were all scouts, cubs, guides or brownies. We did arts and crafts weekly, had the movies brought in and as we became teenager we had Saturday night dances in the solarium. We did all of this while being children first.
Morning physio or after school physio was like attending before school athletics or after school activities like the school band practice but we were children first. When summer hit many of us got to go to our familial homes but just as many stayed in the hospital for further surgeries or services particularly if you were a rural kid. Traveling back and forth for physio or some out-patient (not that there were out-patient programs back then) was next to impossible so you stayed in the hospital. Cities were not designed for the disabled let alone small town Alberta (or Canada for that matter).
WW2 veterans began the push for inclusivity (of a sorts) as a way for them to reenter society. A form of the community activism these veterans had fought a war for and the polio kids would eventually reaped the benefits of. The vast number of polio survivors would just add to the demand.
As school wound down in June plans for the summer would begin. The week of the Calgary Stampede was the highlight of the summer. It began on Parade Day. It was a simpler time, less regulations and more direct involvement. This was a time when it was quite acceptable to load the kids from the Children’s Hospital onto the back of a flatbed truck (beds and all) then drive us slowly down 17th Avenue, north on 11th Street and eventually parked in front of the Calgary Armoury. The canvas walled tarps would be removed and we would enjoy the Parade. It wasn’t until years later that I began to realize the symbolism of almost being a Parade exhibit without actually being in the Parade.
The following week would be filled with visit from Stampede dignitaries. The royalty of the TV series westerns. And, in some cases, was actual royalty. The importance of being visited by Queen Elizabeth (1959) and having my picture taken with her was lost on a 9 year old who had a similar picture taken with the Cisco Kid the year before. I was more excited over the anticipated visit of the television western star Marshall Bat Masterson. I didn’t even know who Bing Crosby was when he came around. My focus was the Roy Roger’s, Gene Audrey, Wild Bill Hickok or the Lone Ranger. These were the characters we watched on the limited amount of black and white TV time we had.
These were the hero’s of our times. So it is no wonder when you look back at the influence of TV that you really begin to understand how deeply the concept of the gun culture is buried in the psyche of every baby-boomer. The Walt Disney classic “Old Yeller” brought tears to millions when the family gun is used to shoot the beloved pet. But these were our hero’s and in the hospital we waited with baited breath to see which “cowboy” would show up during Stampede.
I was 12 years old before I physically attended my first real Stampede. I was able to get out of the hospital for the summer which made it possible for me to actually go down to the grounds. The midway of my youth was nothing more than a daycare park for parents to leave their kids while they attended the rodeo. After all, the original purpose of the Stampede was the rodeo. Parents would buy their kids a roll of ride tickets, maybe give us an additional fifty cents for “treats” (you could buy a lot for fifty cents back then, a bottle of coke, seven cents). The midway was much simpler. Rides, carny and simple food venues. You got on rides with tickets, not cash. The cash was for the “games of chance”. Between lack of regulations and how well you got to know the carny is what governed who had a chance and who didn’t.
Food was pretty straight forward. Hotdogs, hamburgers, french fries, corndogs, cotton candy, popcorn, cold pop, candied apples (apples on a stick immersed in red hard candy) or caramel apples (same as candied except brown, softer and immersed in melted caramel). If you were lucky your folks would give you a buck which would mean more ride time. The midway was a world governed by the carny’s and were a microcosm of its own. Due to my crutches and leg braces my activities on “rides” was restricted by law. That was alright with me, I was more interested in interacting with the world of the carny and they were happy to oblige.
These were the days when the midway was still covered with wood shavings, carny’s put up the rides, food venue and show tents. Show tents like Club Lido (a make shift burlesque show off limits to underage kids but a place every prepubescent boy wanted to sneak into). I was twelve years old when I crawled under that tent wall to sneak a peak at my first Can-Can dance and caught a glimpse of the Glamazon (Ricki Covette), the world’s tallest burlesque dancer. This was also the time of the “freak show”. Mainly people born with genetic disorders or other birth defect irregularities like Siamese twins, particular forms of dwarfism and other rare disorders.
Over the space of a couple of year I got to know a number of them. I was as likely to be hanging around the carny village (they had their own caravans and would camp out behind the midway) as I was on the midway. I got to know a lot of the carny’s and performers of the “freak show”. They were interesting and I think we could relate because of my crutches. I learnt a lot from them and I was only 12. They taught me how to live my life and not let society dictate what I was suppose to do. They taught me how to be adaptive and not let others plan for me.
In today’s society what they chose to do would no longer be tolerated, in part, because of “politically correctness”. One of my favourite people was billed as the “mini elephant man” due to his form of dwarfism. He had a condition where his bones didn’t grow but his skin continue to grow creating large pockets of overlapping skin. His viewpoint, keep in mind this was 1962, was that doing what he was doing was better than sitting on his parents porch somewhere in the States being laughed at by everybody on the block. He knew his stature not only shortened his height but would also shortened his life. He explained to me that his choice to be a “freak” allowed him some income, a way to see part of the world and the opportunity for independence. I no longer remember his name but I later heard he died at age 27.
I spend more time with the carny’s than I did on the midway. For me there was an excitement there that rivalled any of the midway rides. They were accepting and offered a world view I hadn’t been exposed to you plus I always left with more money in my pocket than when I arrived. I was always able to buy a raffle ticket on the “pot of gold”. For those long time Calgarians who doesn’t remember, in the middle of the Midway, the solid gold bar on the pedestal in the centre of the revolving giant glass bowl. That was the big raffle before the introduction of the “dream home” introduced in the late fifties.
That’s the Stampede I remember, not the corporate side show we have today. Regulations and changing societal standards have removed the innocence of leaving your children to wander the midway while you enjoyed the rodeo. I am not arguing the benefits of regulatory change but the pendulum has swung a long way at the cost of a lot of innocence. That innocence of being a child, after all we were all children at one point. Enjoy the Stampede…