Writing conversation

April 22, 2014

Even in Portsmouth
John McKenty

Part two

It would be the summer of 1960 that the Harold Harvey Arena was constructed at 42 Church Street, directly across from where my family lived. Being close at hand, it wasn’t long before my two brothers and I became “rink-rats” at the venerable old arena which began life as an open-air affair, before eventually being closed in.

As rink rats our job was to sign the teams in and out and collect their rental fee and then at the end of the day to clear the ice of snow and put on a fresh flood for the next day’s activities. When there was public skating, we were to don the official rink sweaters and go out on the ice in a bid to impress the girls and to discourage the boys from playing tag.

In exchange for our meagre efforts we were given free ice time and a bit of money. With the money I made, I saved up to buy my first set of CCM “Tacks”, the skate of the pros, the skate of my dreams. Unfortunately, the price of my dreams was always greater than the size of my savings and, as a result, my first pair of “Tacks” turned out to be a used set. They were beat-up and far too small, but it didn’t matter. They were “Tacks” and I was going to cram my feet into them no matter what.

Back in those days, everyone in Portsmouth had their skates sharpened at Baiden’s Hardware, a retail operation overseen by Henry Baiden and his younger brother Bill. The only problem, according to the villagers, was that Bill knew how to sharpen skates correctly, but Henry, on the hand, didn’t. Thus, before anyone took their skates in to be done, they peered cautiously around the corner of the store’s front window to ensure that Henry was busy, while Bill wasn’t.

It was a ritual I followed faithfully for I didn’t want just anyone messing around with my “Tacks.” That’s the way it was back then. Little did I know back then that my infatuation with my skates would eventually lead me to write a history of the CCM company. But life can be like that. You just never know what will happen when you follow your passion. Even in Portsmouth.


The writing conversation: a poem

Every Tuesday we try to put something on the blog about writing. This week we have a poem from Ireland.

Poem by Briege Maguire Ederney Co. Fermanagh
Aged 10

the sun will go down
While everyone is laid to rest
It is night
Sleep tight.

First published on May 21, 2013

Writing conversation

April 15, 2014

Even in Portsmouth
John McKenty

Part one 

I was born in Peterborough, Ontario, in 1948, but moved with my family to the village of Portsmouth shortly after it was annexed by the city of Kingston in 1952. It was a union, I later discovered, given little attention by the villagers who went about their daily lives as if they were still a recognizable entity unto themselves.

While Portsmouth, with a scant population of five hundred, had the usual small-town amenities, such as a grocery store, a drug store and a barber shop, it also had two rather rowdy hotels and two maximum security prisons, one for the men and one for the women. Many a parent in the village reminded their male off-spring that staying too long in the former could result in a stay in the latter.

With the prisons standing as a stark reminder of what can happen when one’s life goes astray, it was around this same that Kingston building contractor Harold Harvey, troubled by the frequent sight of children playing in the streets or just hanging around with nothing to do, founded the Church Athletic League, an organization that offered youngsters the opportunity to play recreational hockey, softball, basketball and bowling.

The one stipulation was that all participants must attend church or Sunday school 80 per cent of the time. Based on his belief that “a child brought up in church is seldom brought up in court,” the Church Athletic League was Harvey’s valiant attempt to set the youngsters of Portsmouth and the city, as a whole, in the right direction.

When the Church Athletic League began its first season of hockey in 1951, it had 100 boys registered. From there the number grew at a rapid rate causing Harvey to come up with a plan for a new outdoor rink to be built-in the old quarry in Portsmouth, the same site where inmates from the men’s maximum security prison had once hammered limestone into building blocks. It was here where hard labour had once been intended to teach the incorrigible about the error of their ways, that young boys were now to learn the rules of fairness, co-operation and team work.

Part two, next Tuesday


April 11, 2014


Catharine and I often have brunch at a well-known Montreal restaurant named Beauty’s. We always order the same items. Fresh orange juice, blueberry pancakes and bacon. Catharine orders the more expensive real maple syrup. I use the regular table syrup and it is perfectly satisfactory to me.

It is true, however, that it is all too easy to misrepresent real maple syrup. Rigtht now two American senators have a bill in the hopper that would impose tougher sanctions for the marketing of other syrups as maple syrup.

Table syrup is sickly sweet. While maple syrup may be expensive, even a small amount transforms a plain waffle or pancake, a simple slice of ham or cube of tofu, or a mustardy salad dressing.

But does Canada do enough to protect maple syrup? Quebec forbids the use of the word “maple” or of maple-leaf shapes or pictures, on any bottle that does not contain 100 per-cent pure maple syrup. But Quebec is the only province that does this? Some restaurants still pass off inferior syrups and most customers do not notice or they acquiesce.

Should there be more protection for pure maple syrup?

Is there a difference between maple syrup and table syrup?

What do you think?

Published by Neil McKenty on November 27, 2011

Here are the comments that followed:

philsfancy Says:
I like brown sugar,actually.  Put enough ketchup on anything and it works out.

Posted on November 27, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Lady Janus Says:
There’s a definite difference between maple syrup and its many copy-cats (I learned how to make one of those copy-cats for myself a few years ago). And the expense of it is only part of the difference. But yes, like with wines, a lot of people have trouble tasting the difference, and sweet is sweet.

But I don’t know what you mean by “protection.” Other than accurate labelling, what else could be done?

Posted on November 27, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Tony Kondaks Says:
Coke, Pepsi, no-name brand.  Blindfold a volunteer and see if they can tell the difference in a taste test. Whenever I’ve read about this being done, no one can by any significant statistical amount.

I’d like to think that there’s a discernable difference between real maple syrup and maple-flavoured table syrup but I don’t have much confidence I could tell the difference in a blind test.

Sugar is sugar…whether it’s refined from cane sugar in some factory in North Carolina or from boiling boiling forty gallons of sap down to one gallon of maple syrup in a quaint log cabin outside of Knowlton. And for all I know disreputable purveyors have been cutting the latter with the former for years and I have been none the wiser.

Posted on November 27, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Neil McKenty Says:
One thought. Agriculture and Agi-Food Canada and the Quebec maple syrup industry have developed a “flavour wheel” for maple products, adding descriptors such as clove, butter, or roasted dandelion root, which enables Canadians to develop a finer appreciation of pure maple syrup.

Posted on November 27, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Jim Says:
Table syrup is corn starch colored with caramel, and has never seen sap, except the sap who thinks it’s maple syrup. Why anyone thinks it’s maple, except for the colour, is beyond me. When I was knee high to a peephole I would chill the sap right out of the tree and drink it as I would a glass of water. That was a real thirst quencher. I must admit, however, that I drank more beer. The reason was that I could only knock off a few glasses of sap in a day, whereas with beer I could knock off 24 pints in a day. Isn’t it odd that we can knock off 24 beers in a day, but not the equivalent in milk or whatever.

Posted on November 27, 2011 at 4:14 pm

littlepatti Says:
I was surprised recently to find Quebec maple syrup in the USA for $3.99 in a maple leaf shaped bottle that sells for 7.99 here. I suggest that Canada is subsidizing Maple Syrup to that extent.
I use a sugar-free syrup, and very little because I like strawberries & whipped cream on my pancake or waffle.
I wouldn’t pass a taste test-
Years ago I shipped a case of syrup to clients in Florida. They had never tasted the real thing and I was the most popular person, for awhile.
I think that Canada should increase our exports.
There’s no point in more product protection.

Posted on November 28, 2011 at 8:21 am

Working together ?

April 10, 2014

Coming together is a beginning

Keeping together is a progress

Working together is success

- Henry Ford

What do you think about this quote ?  What do you think about this question of working together ?  Have you have a good experience of working together, as part of a group ?  What are the challenges ?  Did you have to overcome resistance in yourself or other people ?

Catharine asks : What are your best and worst memories of winter ?

April 9, 2014

Catharine ask : What is your best and worst memories of winter ?

Winter in Montreal.

Comments on the question : What are your most memorable winter moments ?

April 9, 2014

Laurie Hanslin Says:

Hi, my name is Laurie. I live in central New Hampshire in a small town called Grantham. The month of January was special to me because I became “Hestia, goddess of the hearth”. I had to stay home to feed the wood stove all day while my son was in school, so it would be warm when he came home. It gave me a sense of purpose, doing something so simple. But what a wonder it is to come home to a bright fire in the woodstove and a warm home. So, my life became simple in January. Now that it’s warming up, Hestia can go out more often and the house stays warm enough. Pretty soon, Hestia will have hardly anything to do at home and will be tootling all over town.

Posted on February 10, 2014 at 11:13 pm

Sona McCullough Says:

This winter has been special in so many ways.

Firstly, I have begun to realise that our family of four (five including our cocker spaniel puppy!) are going to put down roots. We are renting at present and when we moved to Norfolk, England last summer it was my 8th move in 9 years. My husband and our young daughters are all settling into work and school and we live in an area of such beauty, surrounded by open farmland and the sea. Nearby is one of the oldest Marian shrines in Europe which in medieval times was mentioned alongside Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela and now is hidden and humble, with a tangible presence of Our Lady.

(Of course the downside to putting down roots, is trying to motivate myself to do postal redirections, when we hope to buy a house and move for the 9th time in 10 years!!)

Secondly, my new year’s resolution was to do something creative each month. And for January that meant going on a bread making day course: I had no idea that my body would dance to the rhythm of the dough as it was kneaded and that I would find myself breathing more deeply. A wonderful experience for all five senses.

Thirdly, (as three feels a more complete number!), this winter has been a special time of letting go: not pushing myself so much, not having others’ expectations as my benchmark, not worrying about all my unanswered emails. I don’t feel so ruled by a daily to-do list and in the world’s eyes haven’t achieved so much but know something more of me will emerge at the appointed time.

Thank you Catharine for the question – I wouldn’t have known my thoughts so surely otherwise xxx

Posted on February 11, 2014 at 4:28 pm

Laurie Says:

Hi. This is Laurie from New Hampshire again. It’s mid March and still very much winter time. We have run out of wood for our woodstove and we are not the only ones. It’s become quite a talk around town, how people have used up their firewood and winter still goes on. …

The maple buckets are already out on some trees, but it’s still cold enough to need the woodstove going. This will be a winter I will remember. It’s the first time we’ve run out of wood before the snow even starts to melt.

Posted on March 12, 2014 at 11:43 pm

Isabella McCullough Says:

Hello! I am Isabella. I am 6 years old. I live in Norfolk. I go to a school called Greshams and I am in Red house; it’s my favourite school in the world!

Here’s a poem about why this winter was memorable:


In winter my dog arrived,
He is called Jack.
Mummy gave me a game of charades
and we played it having supper.
My uncle came to visit,
Uncle Richard is his name.
Christmas we spent with my Nana and Grandpa.
We did not get any snow and I was
hoping to go sledging. .
But now it is springtime and the daffodils are blooming!


Posted on April 2, 2014 at 12:20 pm

Tuesday writing conversation

April 1, 2014

Time after time, when I put the question ‘ how do you get what is in your head down on paper?” the person I am talking to comes up with a genuinely interesting fresh response. Sometimes it is a rather puzzled murmur. ‘Oh you know….’ sometimes it is a vivid description of a writing project begun and brought to a conclusion. A four year old gave me her poem. My schoolfriend, Katherine Tyrell, immediately replied ‘if it doesn;t work, don’t get your knickers in  a twist!’
Lets’ be clear – this question about writing was not my idea. It was put to me by a fifteen year old student from Northern Ireland,sitting with a group of about eight fellow students in the lobby of Concordia University, here in Montreal. These students had all come out to Canada on a two month programme with Wider Horizons. The conversation was about my book Polly of bridgewater Farm: an unknown Irish story. Someone asked if I was going to do a sequel. Then this young woman sitting beside me sprang to life, “What I want to know” she said firmly and formulated a question we’ve all been talking about ever since in conversations and in this Tuesday blog.
This question was right up Neil’s alley – he began writing when he was nine years old. I ‘m a late bloomer, as you’ll see if I ever put up some of my earlier efforts.
What would you say to this young woman? Have you ever tried to write and failed? Do you have something half-completed? Do you have something tucked away in a drawer that no one has ever seen? Were you encouraged or discouraged by your teachers?

Writing conversation: Threshing Time, final part

March 26, 2014

Threshing Time in the ‘Thirties, continued

by Everett Fleming

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, that is to say the farm house, furious activity was apace in the kitchen, preparing for lunch, which would be laid out on a huge table on tressles set up on the lawn. This was no ordinary lunch. After all, mother’s entire reputation in the community was at stake, and she could not possibly be seen to do any less well than Mrs. Harris or Mrs. O’Connor whose noon hour dinners were held in high esteem throughout the community. There had to be pot roasts of beef, chicken, mashed potatoes, turnips, carrots, beets, tomatoes, beans, peas, relishes, gravy, bread and butter, all in huge quantities. These were ravenous appetites to assuage, and they must not go unfulfilled. And then the pies. Can she bake a cherry pie? You bet she could, and apple and blueberry too, with milk, coffee or tea to wash it all down. Of course she had help. This was on top of taking care of five children.

Our threshing usually took two days, sometimes three, with some 60 acres or so to bring in. One prayed for dry weather, as rain can ruin grain for threshing until it is quite dry. I might mention my last threshing experience. It came when I was twenty years old, and working in Toronto. I volunteered to help Dad, probably on Saturday, and my job was to handle our wagon and build the load. There were two pitchers, and they saw a great opportunity to embarrass the city slicker boss’s son by feverishly tossing the sheaves at a pace I could not keep up. The basic rule in building a wagon load of sheaves is to keep the butts out. This way, any grain that shakes loose wil fall into the wagon and not onto the ground. I did my darndest, but I know that those loads of sheaves were far from properly built.

Those traditional threshing machine gangs and days are now a memory only, with combines now doing the job. Small 200 acre dairy farms such as ours are no longer economical. I was filled with emotion recently, as I investigated a subdivision being constructed on the very fields that grew that grain, and which I had cultivated in my early teen years. It seemed almost sinful, somehow, to see such productive land covered in concrete and asphalt. However, for me, nothing can erase the wonderful memory of threshing time for me.

The end

Writing conversation: Threshing Time continued

March 23, 2014

Threshing Time in the ‘Thirties, part 2

Next morning all the horse teams would arrive, along with the extra hands, mainly for pitching sheaves onto the wagons. There was, however, need for two men in the loft of the barn to tramp and distribute the straw. It meant a full day of dust, probably enough to shorten the life of anyone foolish enough to take it on. Fortunately there was always one old geezer who volunteered, leaving Dad for the second one. At lunch time they would come out with totally blackened faces, and red eyes hard to find. Of course their faces had been covered with a makeshift cloth to help breathing, but how much help would that be?

With all jobs assigned, off they all went. Farmers with the wagons would build the load, with one or two pitchers assigned to each wagon. When the loaded wagons came along side the threshing machine it was the job of the farmer on the wagon to feed his load into the machine. While they went off, Frank Puchrin went about getting the big Rumley Oil Pull started. No automatic starter or even a crank. No, to start this brute one had to come up to the flywheel, brace your foot up on the tractor and give the flywheel a mighty heave. First try would result in a couple of big PMMMF’s. The machine would catch on the second or third try with a frightening, accelerating series of PMMMF’s that only moderated when the governor finally cut in. Once going, that great beast would run the thresher all day long smooth as a water slide. You could hear it settle down to a steady pmmmfn, pmm pmm pmmmfn all day long. Frank’s job was to go around both machines with an oil can, and be there for any emergencies, or if necessary, to adjust the straw blower pipes. By far the easiest job, and I made a mental note that this would be job I would seek come threshing time in the future.

The threshing machine itself was a wondrous thing to behold. In full motion its throat seemed like a giant tiger with its flashing teeth grabbing any sheaf that got near it and instantly devouring it. The principle of the threshing machine is to shake the sheaf so severely that all the kernels of the grain fall down while the straw is blown by a huge fan either onto a stack, or in our case directly into the barn loft. This was probably a Massey Harris make, or maybe a McCormick. Its wooden sides were a maroon colour. In action, all kinds of levers on the sides could be seen in furious motion, while the wheat or oats fed down a chute that split in two, so that one bag could be filling while the other was being tied up and piled in a stack. This was the second best job, I thought.

[to be continued]

Writing conversation: Threshing time in the ‘Thirties

March 22, 2014

Writing conversation

Find something to write about, was the advice given to Neil McKenty by a wise mentor.

What advice would you give in answer to the question put to me by a 15-year old student from Northern Ireland, “What I want to know”, she said, “is how do you get what is in your head down on paper?”

What is your experience, good or bad, did you have a helpful mentor in school? Or a parent? Did you read a lot?

Here is  a piece by Everett Fleming of Toronto, writing from his own experience as a boy:

Threshing Time in the ‘Thirties.

Only those who lived on a farm in the first half of the twentieth century can have any understanding of threshing time, particularly in the eyes of a ten year old boy. It was by far the most exciting event of the year.

To set the stage, it was not economical for every farmer to own his own threshing machine, and some enterprising farmer would invest in a machine and rent it out to his neighbours. This led to threshing gangs in which all farmers would rotate their services, usually with a team of horses and wagon or a hired hand, and meet at whichever farm was scheduled for the threshing machine. Of course, the grain in the field had been cut and bound into sheaves by the ‘binder’, and then stooked into standing bunches for good draining and ease of loading by pitchfork onto the wagons.

For me the day began watching for Frank Puckrin coming along the highway in his huge Rumley Oil Pull tractor, pulling the massive threshing machine, and behind it a wagon with extra straw blowing pipes, fuel, etc. This was no ordinary tractor. It was huge, with the driver encased in a wooden shed, massive cleats on the wheels twice my height, and a great flywheel. It sounded and looked a lot like a steam engine coming up the lane, and on up the hill, where the threshing machine would be carefully positioned to blow the straw right up into the loft of the barn. Needless to say, every last detail of preparation was observed by me. Perhaps the most sensitive task was to properly line up the tractor some fifty feet from the threshing machine, so the belt providing power from the tractor would be perfectly in line. By night time everything would  be ready for the big day ahead.

[to be continued]


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