Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod: Better Not Pout

It was Christmas Eve, 1958, the MacLeods’ second year in the new house on Lorne Street. My grandparents, Duncan and Mary Theresa, were much more comfortable in the new house since Mary Theresa had already given birth to eight children. One of them, Hugh, had died in infancy, but the other seven were growing and thriving and required quite a bit of space (and there would be two more in the next few years, both boys, one of them named Hugh after his late brother). Giving birth to all those children and raising them must have been a heck of a lot of hard work for my grandmother. My grandfather had to work hard at the steel plant, too, as the children needed not only adequate space but also food and clothing. And when Christmas rolled around, they needed presents.

Throughout the year, Duncan and Mary Theresa had bought the kids’ Christmas presents bit by bit, one at a time, whenever they had a bit of money. They’d buy them at Crowell’s and Eaton’s and other stores along Charlotte Street, usually getting each one on layaway and making small payments. When Christmas was just around the corner they’d finally paid for everything, and were keeping all the items from the various stores in three boxes in the back room of one of the stores on Charlotte Street. The store’s deliveryman, it had been arranged, would bring the boxes around to Lorne Street on Christmas Eve, so the MacLeod children would have presents to open on Christmas Day. This pleased Duncan, who’d been so poor growing up that — in the words of his brother Hugh — “If you woke up on Christmas morning without a hard-on, you had nothing to play with.”

With a winter storm raging outside, Duncan worried about his delivery, and worried even more as each hour that passed brought no sign of the deliveryman. Finally he decided to call the store. The phone rang and rang. Maybe they’re busy, he thought. It was Christmas Eve after all. But there came a point when he realized the phone kept ringing not because everyone was busy, but because everyone had gone home. The store was closed. It was Christmas Eve, after all.

Duncan went for the phone book, splashed the pages around, found the cashier’s phone number. Good thing he knew her last name (most people knew most other people’s last names anyway). She was surprised to hear from him. The deliveryman, she told him, had already finished his rounds for the day and had gone home. Wasn’t there anything she could do? The kids needed their presents. There wasn’t…well, she could give Duncan the store manager’s number. Well that was something. Duncan thanked her, wished her a merry Christmas, and hung up.

When Duncan called the store manager’s house, a woman answered. She was even more surprised to hear from Duncan, who she didn’t know, than the cashier had been. Her husband, she told him, was out at a Christmas party somewhere. Wasn’t there anything she could do? The kids needed their presents. There wasn’t…well, she could try to get in touch with her husband at the party. Well that was something. Duncan thanked her, wished her a merry Christmas, and hung up.

Duncan sat by the phone for a long time. The kids were already in bed, fast asleep, or at least in bed, thinking about Santa Claus and presents and watching the snowflakes falling past the streetlights. Duncan watched that same snow falling past those same streetlights but had no visions of Santa Claus trying to stuff himself down the chimney. He knew who was supposed to put the presents under the tree. He watched the snow falling and could see where it ended up. It was blown down and across and ended up in big drifts against the house. Every time he looked away from the phone, the drifts were bigger.

At one o’clock in the morning, the phone rang. Duncan pounced on it, as if the second ring would have set off a bomb. At the other end was a woman’s voice. It was the store manager’s wife. Her husband, she told him, had finally called her back. He would meet Duncan at the store. Duncan thanked her, wished her a merry Christmas, and hung up.

He looked out the window, but he wasn’t thinking about the huge snowdrifts that were squeezing the house. Instead, he was wishing he had a car.

Several minutes later, Duncan was in the passenger side of his next-door neighbor Benny Woodill’s car. Benny had to work hard to keep the car from wiping out, not least because most of the way from Lorne Street to Charlotte Street was downhill. Benny jerked the wheel left and right, fighting with it, at times lifting off the seat, almost standing. Duncan slid back and forth across the big front seat, held on to the door, his knuckles as white as the snow whipping the windshield. And then: Victory. They reached the store. But Benny’s car was the only one in sight. Charlotte Street was empty, save for the thick coating of snow that made it hard to distinguish the road from the sidewalk. The only clue was a set of dull indentations that ran up and down the street, proof that cars had come by at some point.

At about one-forty-five a set of lights quivered around a faraway corner and swerved down the street towards the store. The car was newer than Benny’s but had just as much trouble crawling along the doughy landscape. When it finally reached the store, the car slid to a clumsy, jerking halt almost right on top of Benny’s car. It took a few moments for the driver to get the door open. When he did, he climbed out and proceeded to stagger all the way to where Duncan and Benny were standing. There was a lot of snow, so the staggering was understandable. Duncan and Benny understood it more properly, though, when the store manager got close enough and they could smell the liquor off him.

The store manager, half-cut because he’d just left what was apparently quite a party, mumbled to himself as he fumbled with a big ring of keys for several moments, finally finding the right ones. Duncan and Benny followed him inside, all the way to a back room, where a ladder led to a small loft. That was where the boxes would be. The manager climbed up, slipping once or twice, and peered into the darkness of the loft. “Nope,” he said, “nothing there.”

Duncan felt a blast of heat run upwards from his chest to the tips of his ears. “What?! They gotta be there! I’m telling you, there were three boxes, and they…”

“Hold on, hold on,” said the manager. “Get me my flashlight. It’s in the car.”

Moments later, Benny came running back in, tracking half the storm in behind him. He handed the flashlight up to the manager, who clicked it on and held it at the entrance to the loft. “Ah,” said the manager. “Now I see something. Three boxes, right? Well there they are, way at the back.”

The manager crawled down to the back and dragged the boxes, one by one, to the entrance, then started to hand them down to Duncan and Benny. Finally, Duncan thought, now all we have to do is get home and get these presents under the—”

“Hey!” A deep voice bellowed into the store, followed by the light of another flashlight, much brighter than the one the store manager was holding.

Duncan and Benny each put a hand up to their faces and squinted into the light that was coming from the store’s entrance. It got closer, brighter, until a figure emerged. Before they could even discern any features, both men could recognize the shape of a police officer’s hat.

“Hey!” the cop yelled again, finally coming into full view, his flashlight flicking back and forth between Duncan and Benny. “What’s going on here?”

“We’re getting my kids’ presents,” said Duncan.

“Oh are you now?” the cop chuckled. “And why didn’t you just come here during the—”

“Okay boys, here’s the last one!” It was the store manager, popping out of the loft entrance with the third box.

“Jesus, how many of you are there? Get down here you!” The cop wasn’t laughing now. As the store manager made his way down the ladder, the cop kept his flashlight trained on Duncan and Benny. “You two keep your hands where I can see them!”

“So,” he said to the store manager, “I suppose you were up there getting Christmas presents for your kids, were you?”

“Oh no,” the store manager said, the smell of alcohol escaping in all directions, “these presents aren’t for my kids. They’re for his.” He pointed at Duncan.

“Oh,” said the cop to Duncan, “so you’re the ringleader here, huh?”

“Look,” Duncan said, “this guy’s the store manager. His deliveryman forgot to deliver the presents I bought for my kids, and it took me all night to get hold of him, and he came down here in this storm to meet me so I could get these presents. Now my kids are home in bed and when they wake up in a few hours these presents have to be waiting for them under the tree.”

“I want to see some ID,” said the cop. The three men pulled out their wallets and produced cards, which the cop checked one by one. He looked at each man for several long moments, taking a few extra moments to study the face of the store manager.

“You two each take a box,” the cop said to Duncan and Benny. He looked at the store manager, then bent down and picked up the third box himself. Then, turning to Duncan, he asked, “Which car is yours?”

Once the store was locked and the engines started, the men prepared for the long drives back home. Duncan paused before climbing back into Benny’s car. “Thanks a lot,” he said to the cop, who was rocking the store manager’s car, trying to dislodge it from the mounds of snow that had crept up around it.

“Well,” the cop said, while watching the manager’s car swerve down Charlotte Street, “it is Christmas Eve, after all.”

The drive back to Lorne Street, which was mostly uphill, took much longer than the drive down to the store. It took Duncan until five o’clock in the morning to get the presents under the tree. Each present had the name of a child who had long ago been lulled to sleep by the snow falling past the window and thoughts of Santa landing on the roof with his sleigh and his eight reindeer. It wasn’t much longer before the seven children —including my mother— were standing in the living room, rubbing their eyes, about to dive at the tree and look for the presents that had their names on them, the presents Santa Claus had quietly left there while they were sleeping.

The MacLeod family would go through some pretty hard times in the years to come. But those are all stories for another day. For now we’ll leave the MacLeod children, laughing and tearing open their presents, as their father looked on, tired and grumpy but still, when all was said and done, having a very merry Christmas.

***

Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod is a series of posts on my MacLeod ancestors, based on a combination of research and stories told to me by my grandfather, Duncan MacLeod. To read other posts in the series, click here.

Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod: The State of Art

My grandfather’s stories about his years working at the Sydney steel plant are full of colourful characters, men who were as much a source of entertainment for him as he undoubtedly was for them.

There was one of Duncan’s bosses, who was married for 21 years without having any children. Then he changed milkmen and his wife had a baby. The baby was born when he was at work. When he called the hospital he asked, “Is it a boy? No? Is it a girl then?”

Another guy from the plant got married and the morning after the wedding he made his wife a delicious breakfast. She said, “It’s beautiful!”

“Yes,” he said, “and that’s how I want you to do it from now on.”

There was the Polish guy they called John Boy, who said, “Half the fellas driving cars these days are women.”

Then there was Hector MacMullin. The guys at the rail mill used to feed the stray cats that would hang around. Someone wanted to leave food for the weekend; to make sure there was enough, they left two bowls, one for each day. Hector MacMullin asked, “What if they eat Sunday’s food first?” So Duncan wrote SATURDAY on one bowl and SUNDAY on the other, and that satisfied Hector.

There were other characters, men whose names I don’t know. But there was one name I heard in more than one anecdote. It was the name of a man who didn’t appreciate Duncan MacLeod’s wisecracks. One night, in fact, that man decided he’d had just about enough.

Art Hunt was the physical opposite of Duncan MacLeod. He was tall, dark, strong. He was a supervisor at the rail mill, and was respected by his peers and the men working under him. At least, they respected him to his face. Most of the men there really did respect him, because he was just that kind of person — friendly, likable, helpful, reliable — but because he was black he had to put up with the reality that some of the white men who worked under him secretly loathed him. They were all nice to his face. All of them except for Duncan MacLeod.

While most other white workers at the rail mill waited until they were out of earshot to insult Art, Duncan MacLeod would do it out in the open where everyone — including Art — could hear him loud and clear. Most of the time the insults were very general in nature, nothing to do with race. Sometimes, however, Duncan would pick on Art’s appearance, like the time he said that when his supervisor smiled he looked “like a Klondike bar with a bite out of it.” Everyone laughed at Duncan’s jokes, at least until Art glared at them. Then they’d shuffle off, smothering chuckles.

“Didja hear what MacLeod said to Art Hunt?”

“Jesus b’y, he’s some lippy, that fella.”

“He’s right cocky. He’s lookin’ for a puck in the mouth.”

“Oh, it’ll happen soon enough.”

‘Soon enough’ came soon enough. One night, Art barked an order at Duncan; Duncan snapped back. Whatever it was Art had told him to do, Duncan told him to do it himself. That was it.

It happened fast but everyone had been waiting for it; within seconds dozens of men swirled around Art and Duncan. The workings of the mill couldn’t stop — not with molten steel constantly coming through, to be shaped into rails — but somehow everyone was watching Art Hunt and Duncan MacLeod. Everyone was going to see the mouthiest man in the mill get flattened. Maybe with one punch. Most likely with one punch.

Art was not a violent man, but there he was, hurtling himself at Duncan, one powerful fist raised in the air, taut and trembling like it had a current running through it. He stopped at the bottom of the stairway Duncan had been ascending and reached out with his other arm, grabbing his prey and jerking him down a couple of steps.

This was it.

“You’re gonna look awful stupid,” snapped Duncan, “lying at the bottom of these stairs with me standing over you!”

Art’s fist came down…and gave Duncan’s shoulder a playful punch. His other hand released its iron grip on Duncan’s shirt. By this time Art was already laughing, a big laugh that echoed around the mill. After a few moments he caught his breath and spoke, still smiling from ear to ear.

“You’re alright, MacLeod!”

As the two men walked off together, laughing and punching shoulders, the rest of the men remained behind, unblinking, mouths agape.

“Now what in the name of Jesus just happened there?”

“I wish I knew, b’y. I swear that MacLeod has a horseshoe up his arse.”

And so began a friendship that would continue to baffle most of Duncan’s coworkers for years to come. They would see the Mutt and Jeff-like duo walking along the steel plant’s roads together, laughing, calling each other names, even hurling racial slurs at each other, with no punches thrown except those of the playful variety. And their coworkers couldn’t figure it out. At least, their white coworkers couldn’t.

One night, Duncan was invited to a party in Sydney’s black community in Whitney Pier. He took a friend along with him; they ended up being the only white people at the party. Duncan’s friend was visibly nervous the entire time. He had reason to be nervous, as Duncan found out when the host of the party took him aside.

“What did you bring that fella here for? We don’t like him.”

“Why?” Duncan asked.

“Because he bad-mouths us all the time.”

Duncan laughed. “What are you talking about? I say bad stuff about you all the time too!”

“Yeah, but you say it to our faces. And we know you don’t mean it anyway. You say stuff like that to everybody. You’re alright, MacLeod.”

There was probably another shoulder punch here. Then the host added: “You know, when we take over the world someday, we’re gonna let you live.”

I’m not sure if that nervous friend ever attended another party in the Pier, but I think Duncan MacLeod may have been to one or two. It was probably his buddy Art who invited him every time. The last invitation from Art came several years after the two had first become friends, years filled with jokes and laughter and an understanding that few understood. Duncan accepted that last invitation with a heavy heart. It was one of Art Hunt’s final requests before he died: Just a few more moments with his friend for all those years at the rail mill, Duncan MacLeod.

***

Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod is a series of posts on my MacLeod ancestors, based on a combination of research and stories told to me by my grandfather, Duncan MacLeod. To read other posts in the series, click here.

It’s a Small World After All

A couple of months ago I tagged along with Leen while she met with a potential supplier for her clinic (which, God willing, she’ll be opening in early October). I didn’t really want to be there, but there I was, watching the supplier pull shiny metal instruments of torture out of his briefcase. He was a really nice guy, actually, very friendly. We made small talk and when we got to the inevitable where are you from? stuff he said, “Oh, I know someone from Nova Scotia. One of my teachers at UPM. She’s from Cape Breton.”

My jaw dropped.

“She lives right here in Kajang.”

My jaw dropped even lower, narrowly missing the sharp dental implements scattered atop the table.

Next time we met up with the supplier, we called his former teacher. Her name’s Karen. “Oh,” she said, “you’re from Sydney? That’s where I’m from. What’s your last name? MacVay? I’m sure I knew MacVays. What’s your father’s name?”

Who’s your father? is a standard question among Cape Bretoners. Well guess what? She actually knows my father! Turns out they grew up in the same neighbourhood. She left a long time ago, though. She married a Malay guy she met at university (who passed away last year), then moved to Malaysia. She’s been here for 40 years, and spent most of that time teaching at UPM. She taught in English at first, but when the government switched language policies she found herself having to teach in Malay. Needless to say, she’s quite fluent now.

One evening a couple of weeks ago Leen and I (and the boys) had dinner at Karen’s place. It was a Malaysian buka puasa, Cape Breton style. Roast chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, apple crumble, brownies…and great conversation, all of it taking place in the kitchen. Just like home.

It was great to hear her speaking Malay with Leen. I think one of these times I’ll have to get video of me and Karen having a conversation in Malay. Now that would be cool.

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Me & the boys with Karen & her daughter Nadira.

We had a great time getting to know Karen, as well as her daughter Nadira (who’s a student at Cape Breton University), and also her son’s wife Becky. I’m sure we’ll be seeing them again and getting to know them better. After all, Karen’s place is only about four kilometres away from ours! And to think, when I was a baby, I lived just a few houses away from Karen’s family.

It’s still hard to believe that not only is there someone else from home who married a Malay and moved to Malaysia and speaks Malay and has half-Cape Bretoner/half-Malay kids, but she lives five or ten minutes from me. Yes, it’s a small world after all!