Family Story #1: Daddy was a Tackle with the CFL

Some essential facts about my father:

  • He was a naturally gifted athlete but injured his knee making a leaping catch in a game of baseball as a young man. If he had any serious hopes of a career in sports, they were dashed early.
  • He only finished grade ten, but then he scraped up some cash and went to art school. His siblings on the farm thought this was odd to say the least, and he endured a lot of teasing. They were sure their sissy brother would never amount to a damn thing. All of us kids were encouraged, or should I say forced, to draw from an early age. I liked it, but I don’t look very happy in the photo below.
  • He loved football and opera roughly equally and to this day, when I miss him, I put the game on in the other room or some opera in the background and I feel like I am nine, and everybody’s home.
  • The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were his team even when we lived in Ontario. As a little girl I would sit on his knee while he watched games on TV. I could tell when the Bombers were playing because he would jump and twitch like the armchair quarterback/linebacker/running back/coach that he was.

My parents met, married, and started their family in Manitoba. Dad, as you know, had been to art school and was an aspiring painter but knew he wouldn’t be able to feed kids on that kind of money. He worked in the Art Department at the Winnipeg Free Press for a while, had a couple of jobs in sales, and then landed a marketing job with the Carborundum Company, makers of abrasives, sandpaper, and so on. They moved to Kitchener, Ontario, and then accepted a transfer to the company’s office in Niagara Falls, New York. They moved to Niagara Falls Ontario, and Dad commuted to the States every day. I don’t think people do that anymore.

While working there he was asked to come up with some creative ways to market sandpaper to home hobbyists. So he thought he would try to make carvings out of the drawings we kids were all churning out all the time. The carvings turned out nice. This gave him ideas for some other things to make from wood. They turned out nice. He sold a couple of things at some craft shows and it started to seem like –

A pause here to note that the really cool, adventurous genius in this story is my mother. When Dad said “Honey, I think I should quit my lucrative marketing job and go into business as a woodcarver,” did she laugh? Did she burst into tears? Did she point in stony silence at the four hungry children sitting around the dinner table? No. She said something along the lines of “yes, lets.” She doesn’t get nearly enough credit. More about her another time.

We moved into an old house my parents got for cheap. It had been the Rectory for the Anglican Church next door, but it was getting a little run down, and the neighbourhood had deteriorated. The front street was now almost a highway and there was a factory down the way that covered everything with black dust. If the wind was right, or should I say wrong, the smell of rotten eggs would come drifting over from the smokestacks. The Church bought a nice new house for their Priest, and we got to live in possibly the most wonderful place you could ever find to be a kid. The grime and the egg smell didn’t bother us kids in the slightest. The house was big and shabby and could take a lot of rough treatment. The banister was ideal for sliding. There was an acre of run-down “grounds” backing onto some woods. It was next door to the Church and the Church Hall, with a nice big field between for football in summer and a skating rink in winter. There were about a hundred good climbing trees, hiding places in the hedges, and an actual mulberry bush. You could go around as many times as you wanted. There was an ugly cinderblock garage that made a good workshop for Dad.

No-one would expect a woodcarving business to be an overnight success, so at the Church Hall next door my Mum, to bring in some cash, started a Nursery School. Dad got a part-time job down the road at a new Niagara Falls tourist attraction called “Marineland and Game Farm.” You may have heard of it. It’s a big deal now, with an amusement park and a killer whale but when the owner started it up there was just one aquarium building where they did an hourly show with a couple of trained sea lions and some dolphins. The “game farm” was basically just a small zoo but the whole place was fenced and there was a herd of deer wandering around. You paid a quarter to a teenager in a little kiosk and got an ice cream cone full of grain to feed the deer. The peacocks picked up their leavings.

So add to my already idyllic childhood the fact that we were often taken along to work by my Dad, who had the keys to the whole place. We could help him feed the alligators, and visit Ricky the Timberwolf, who liked us to scratch his back through the mesh of his small, sad cage. I have never much liked zoos, and Ricky the Timberwolf is why. My Dad, incidentally, didn’t think too highly of the enterprise and its owner. Being a farm boy, he tried his best to protect and care for the animals and butted heads with the owner on numerous occasions. You could look up Marineland and you would find that my Dad was not the only one who objected to the way animals have been treated there over the years.

One morning I came downstairs to the kitchen and my mother said “look in the box.” In a cardboard box next to the fridge was a new-born white-tailed deer. I realize that this childhood of mine is starting to sound fictional. I feel kind of bad about it sometimes but it wasn’t my fault.

Late the night before dad’s boss had called. A farmer had caught a deer in a snare and the doe couldn’t be saved but she was ready to deliver. They could save the fawn but could Marineland take care of it? You can’t just let a newborn fawn wander around a zoo eating the crap the tourists drop, so Dad brought him home. I was about six at the time. Imagine casually mentioning your new pet deer to your friends at recess, then going home at lunch and feeding him from a baby bottle. We were living the dream.

In case you are starting to worry, the ending of this story isn’t like the ending of The Yearling. I just about couldn’t read that book.

We named him Twitch, because his ears and tail twitched a lot, and we built a sort of deer-run around the mulberry tree. After a couple of months he was big enough to go live at Marineland with the rest of the herd. It could have ended there, but I refer you to the title of this story. There must be more.

A few weeks after we took him back to Marineland, Twitch tried to jump the fence (to get back to us, of course) and broke a hind leg. If he had been just one of the herd I suspect he would have been put down but Dad brought him back to our place to recover, wearing an improvised splint.

As his leg healed and he continued to grow, keeping him in his sweet little chicken wire yard became difficult. One day he made his move. He sailed right up over the wire, bounded through the vegetable patch in that way of bounding though vegetable patches peculiar to white-tailed deer, and headed for the woods. All of us started shouting and running, trying to chase Twitch back towards the house and away from the woods, where we’d never find him, and away from the busy front street. Dad heard the commotion and came out from his workshop to see what the fuss was about.

By this time, Dad was a little past his salad days, but just a little. He was closing in on fifty, beginning to sport a belly, having occasional back trouble, and the knee had never been the same since that leaping catch. I was watching Twitch head for the woods when Dad blew past me. He could certainly haul ass when the occasion demanded. Twitch was just about at the tree fort and there went Dad, sprinting past the fifty yard line, the forty, the thirty. He made a flying, diving tackle the Bombers would have been proud of, and brought Twitch to ground. That picture of my father, horizontal over the vegetable patch, reaching for the hindquarters of a white-tailed deer, is one of the best photographs no-one ever took.

Twitch went back to Marineland that day and lived there until I-don’t-know-when, eating dropped ice-cream cones and eyeing the fence.

Dad’s little woodcarving business became wildly, absurdly successful. The siblings back on the farm had to eat a considerable number of words.

We never had another pet deer, but one time a raccoon arrived at the house in a similar fashion. Don’t ever get a raccoon.


©2015 Ellen Peterson




9 thoughts on “Family Story #1: Daddy was a Tackle with the CFL”

  1. And I am proud to have one of your Dad’s pieces of art in my kitchen – given to me 36 years ago as a wedding gift in Montreal by one of your cousins who had no idea that years later Ellen and Robb would become fellow actors and friends in Winnipeg!


  2. Ellen, I remember playing at your house when you had Twitch. You captured some great memories about life in Chippewa. You had the happiest Dad in town.


    1. Thanks Julie! Strange that we don’t seem to have even one picture of Twitch. Nowadays people take a million pictures of everything. I’m not sure we even had a camera. You’re right, Dad was a happy guy and a good role model.


  3. thanks Ellen! Walter and I have a a carving (wedding gift from your family) that we cherish. I have many fond memories of a bunch of us playing croquet with him. He was a great man!


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