California & Engine Joe

Once, we all took a trip down to California.
Apparently Mum and Dad ran completely out of money during the trip. They had been drinking a lot, and ended up stranded without enough cash to get home. (I know that when they drank a lot they usually fought, so who knows how bad it got.)

So, Kim and I were sent to stay with our Aunt Shirley and her husband Ralph and their family until Mum and Dad were back on their feet. Shirley is my mother’s cousin, and they were pretty close when they were growing up together in Victoria. She was probably closer to my mother than anyone back then.

Aunt Shirley told me that she and her husband, my Uncle Ralph, were quite concerned that Mum and Dad had a real problem with alcohol and that it could jeopardize us kids. Shirley said that one morning I woke her up very early to tell her that Kim’s diaper was wet and needed to be changed. Shirley figured that a four year old shouldn’t have to worry about such things – that was too much responsibility on little shoulders. Her heart went out to this little boy who was already taking responsibility for his baby sister. She was worried enough about our welfare during this time that she actually wanted to adopt Kim and I. But Dad wouldn’t have it. Ralph and Shirley were American citizens, which I suppose prevented them from adopting Canadian children (at least in a timely manner).

I originally wrote this story over 15 years ago, back in 1998 or 1999. Since that time, I learned from a cousin that at the time, my Mother was actually in favour of giving us up for adoption to my Aunt. I believe that Mum was at a low, vulnerable point, perhaps feeling helpless and not knowing the right thing to do. I want to believe that, because it’s easier than believing that she would just give us up to someone else.

I could also see how easily influenced Mum was by others. I could envision her feeling trapped between either no longer wanting to be a mother, sincerely wondering if we kids might have a better life living with Shirley and Ralph, and torn by feeling obligated to side with her husband. Mum was not a very strong-willed person, and was not cut-out to be a mother or to take responsibility for someone else.

Anyway, I think Dad wouldn’t have any of it, and for better or for worse, we stayed with our parents. In a strange way, I’m proud of his decision, but reflecting on the welfare of us two little kids at the time and knowing all the turmoil and trauma that happened to us in later years, I’ll always wonder if Mum and Dad made the right choice. Blood is thicker than water, but you cannot choose your parents. You can only hope that they choose you.


Dad never ever mentioned those episodes in California to me, but he did tell me a story of a time he was working in a gas station in California. Here’s the story he told to me:

Dad was working nights in this gas station located along a freeway in California, I think not far from Los Angeles. Motorcycle policemen would usually cruise by and flick their headlights at him from the road. Dad would wave back so that the cops would know that everything was okay, and continue on their patrol.

One day early in the morning, Dad and another fellow were manning the gas station, and a guy came in with a paper bag over his hand. He pointed it at Dad, and said he had a gun. He told Dad to give him all the money or he’d get shot. Dad grabbed the paper bag off the guy’s hand, revealing just a hand with no gun at all. Then Dad held the guy down until his co-worker flagged down the motorcycle cops. The co-worker asked “How the hell did you know there wasn’t any gun? You coulda been killed!” Dad explained that he had been a military policeman in the Canadian Armed Forces, and could tell a gun from a paper bag.

It’s a pretty cool story, and it’s also almost the only california-related story I was ever told. Dad told me once that he and Mum took us to Disneyland, but it was closed. He never explained to me why he was working in the gas station in the first place, so I figure that this might have been the same trip where he and Mum got into trouble. So the gas station might have been the way he raised money for the trip home, but I’ll never know for sure…

One of the earliest memories I have is of being crouched under a chair in a place where there was a lot of noise and activity. I think it was a furniture store, and I think we were in California at the time. I don’t remember exactly why I was under the chair, except that it was a private place – somewhere to hide. I think I was with Mum. Maybe I just wanted to get away or explore on my own. I would repeat this maneuver in the future, but with dubious success and dire consequences to my rear end.

Later on, perhaps the same day, Mom, Dad, and I were in our motel room, and I was sitting on the black and white checkered linoleum floor and was watching Dad very closely. He was opening a package and enthusiastically telling me about some wonderful thing he had bought me. It was something I now remember as Engine Joe. Engine Joe was an all-metal, electric train over a foot long, that didn’t need tracks and ran in crazy patterns on the floor because it had a spinning wheel underneath. It was quite heavy (needing 4 “D” cells to run), and produced the most amazingly realistic train whistle and bell sounds that I had ever heard. Imagine a long chrome steam engine with an open-top cab at the back. In the cab was a little Popeye-like character: prominent chin and ears, an intense downward red curve of a mouth, and a blazing red cap! This was Engine Joe, and he was a real man’s man. If anybody could get that goddamn train to it’s destination, it was him, and you could never have convinced me otherwise.enginejoeIn the cab in front of Joe was the train’s coal furnace, depicted by a glowing red light, textured like chipped glass. When the train was running, it would glow and flicker. Every few seconds Joe’s head would conscientiously bob out the side of the cab so he could get a good look down the track for potential obstacles. With bell clanging and whistle blaring, I was in awe of his self-directed journey. I must have played with him forever.


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