It’s a Saturday night in the summer of 1963 at Frenette’s restaurant where a local prankster is entertaining the crowd outside. But first, the twenty-ninth installment of Pat Fournier’s memoir kicks off in March 1958 as the same prankster is the star of the show at the annual St. Patrick’s Day concert. So who is this funny guy/entertainer/all-around-nice-guy?… None other than Mr. Allan Washburn.
THE PAINT JOB
Written by Pat Fournier
March 1958, eleven years old, as introduction to summer 1963, sixteen years old
This story is based on my life, and my memories of people and events that made my childhood memorable. The events described are real, and are recalled through the efforts of my best memory, and only supplemented at times with descriptions which help place the event and tell the story.
Although I have changed the names of a number of individuals in this story, including some identifying characteristics, details and places of residence in order to protect the privacy of those individuals and maintain their anonymity to avoid offending anyone, Allan Washburn’s name is genuine.
I’m confident Allan will take no offence, and indeed will get a kick out of being the focus of this story, as the memory of his good humour, playful hijinks, and friendly personality resulted in good memories for me, and I’m certain for everyone who knew him as we were growing up in Blackville.
True to his nature, Allan is still entertaining! As I write this story, he owns and operates, and entertains in the Dungarvon Whooper Lounge, just outside of Blackville.
Everyone liked Allan. Allan was the comedian, the prankster, the funny guy who you couldn’t dislike. I remember when I first saw Allan, when he was performing in the annual St. Patrick’s Day concert.
Each spring a St. Patrick’s Day concert was held in St. Raphael’s Catholic Church hall. Many of the teachers from the Blackville School participated in the three-act play, which was the main part of the concert. And in between acts, other Blackville residents could show off their talents and add to the concert’s entertainment.
But not all of the teachers who participated in the play were Catholic. I think many of them, whether they were Catholic or not, looked forward to testing their acting skills, and being bragged up by their students at being seen playing a part in the concert. After all, the concert was a big annual event for our little village of less than a thousand people! And the teachers became ‘famous’ for a little while, after being seen in the play.
And we all loved to see our teachers act out their parts, which put them into roles that were so different from their jobs as social studies, English, and arithmetic teachers, and always compared notes afterward about their performances.
“Did you see Denny Burns dressed up as the old lady with the floppy hat?”
“Yeah! And Laurie Baldwin played a great part as the gangster, with that fake moustache!” Mr. Baldwin was my grade five teacher.
And Monica Donohue, reputed to be one of the strictest of the teachers at Blackville Rural High School, was involved in the play every year, too. But not as an actor. She had a special job each year as the director, sitting out of sight at the side door of the stage, ready to cue an actor if one of them forgot their lines.
I remember the one concert when I saw, only just visible from where I sat, someone’s foot slowly bobbing up and down in the slightly-opened doorway at the left side of the stage. And I thought to myself: Aha! There’s the murderer – or whatever – about to come onto the scene! But after a while I came to realize that it was just Monica, sitting on a chair off stage with her script notes. For a long while I wondered if she had been purposely doing that just to distract and ruin the play for me! Which of course made no sense at all. But such was her reputation.
St. Raphael’s parish hall wasn’t big, but it played a big part in our little Blackville community. While it may have held less than a hundred people, it always seemed to be filled to capacity for any activity or event held there. When auction forty-five card games were held there in the evening for the adults, all the wooden benches would be pushed out of the way, and card tables would be set up for the players. And I remember going to Saturday movie matinees in the hall, and watching Gene Autry black and white cowboy movies for a nickel admission. And old Father Nowlan, who always seemed to me to be too interested in money, jingling the change in his pocket and pacing through the hall, giving a stern glare to any kid who was acting up.
But I do vividly remember one movie that was not black and white. Shawn Younger was a kid who lived down the Back Lane. He was thin and shy and lacked confidence, and always seemed to be looking down instead of straight on at someone. He was the type of kid who’d always get teased, and wouldn’t stand up for himself.
As the movie was about to start, the lights in the hall were turned off. The film projector high up in the projection booth at the back of the hall shone its cone of light down on the screen that was pulled down from the ceiling to the level of the stage. I was sitting with some friends on one of the wooden benches toward the front. We all quieted down to watch the movie. Then Shawn came in just as the opening movie credits were appearing on the screen.
It looked like he was outgrowing his corduroy pants. One of his worn high-top Converse sneakers was untied, and the circle of white rubber at the ankle on the other sneaker was half torn off.
As usual, he looked more down at the floor than at anyone directly, as he shuffled slowly down the center aisle in the semi darkness, looking for an empty space on one of the long wooden benches. It was a Dracula movie that was being shown. Creepy organ music played as blood oozed down the screen over the screen title. On seeing that scary image, Shawn turned around and ran out of the hall!
He got scared at just the movie’s opening title! Seeing that, we all stomped our feet and hooted and howled with laughter!
And the CWL ladies sold bags of homemade fudge for a dime at the St. Patrick’s Day concerts. Divinity fudge was my favourite, and beat out the regular, chocolate, and peanut butter fudge by a long shot! It reminded me of a big chunk of the white frosting that Mom put on her cakes.
And if anyone wanted more than just fudge for a treat, they could go to the Urquhart’s store across the road and buy a bottle of Lime Ricky or Orange Crush pop, Hatfield potato chips, licorice pipes, Bazooka bubble gum, and lots of other good stuff.
The Urquhart sisters who ran the store were two little old ladies who reminded me of Mutt and Jeff in the funny papers: one was tall and thin, and the other short and just a little bit plump.
If I’m not mistaken, I think the short one’s name was Mamie, but I can’t be certain, and I don’t remember the name of the other sister at all. But they were the sweetest little old ladies I ever met! And it was always neat going into their little store, ‘cause the ladies would always treat us kids with kindness and smiles. Besides being the place to buy treats, that’s where my friends and I went to buy our pencils, Campfire notebooks, pink and blue erasers, and other school supplies.
Of course, the hall was always filled for the St. Patrick’s Day concert, with people coming from miles around to enjoy the shows. One concert performance was presented on Friday night, followed by a Saturday matinee, and then a final Saturday evening performance. The raised stage at the front of the hall had a door at each end, where the actors would enter to play their parts. And there were steps leading up to the stage from each side. Between acts in the play, people who wished to demonstrate their talent – which of course would have had to be rehearsed, and listed in the concert program – would either enter the stage from the side doors, or walk up the side stairs to get on stage.
I remember one of the concerts where Alice Moonie, who I think was maybe in grade six at the time, climbed the few short steps of the stairs at one end of the stage, and walked over to the microphone standing at center stage to sing a song. To help get past her nervousness, she held a piece of paper in front of her, which we were supposed to believe held the words to the song she was singing. However, what she was holding up was really a page from a calendar, and the stage lights shone through the paper, clearly revealing the calendar page to everyone in the front rows. Poor Alice, perhaps realizing this, and hearing whispers and muffled laughter from some of the people in the seats of the darkened hall in front of her, ran off the stage in tears before finishing her song. Poor Alice!
But Allan Washburn didn’t need a prop to avoid nervousness or to help him remember the words to his song! His mother had rehearsed him in his routine over and over again to perfection. As his mother played the upright piano at the bottom of the stage, there was Allan, strutting across the stage in top hat and tails, with a cane in one hand, a green shamrock in his lapel, and lipstick and rouge on his face to show off his thin features under the lights, and singing an Irish song in a nice tenor voice:
“When Irish eyes are smilin’,
Sure ‘tis like a ‘morn in spring….”
He’d strut over to one side of the stage, then turn around and swagger back, all the while swinging his cane in front of him, and sometimes using the knob at the top end of the cane to tilt his top hat back on his head. Allan was younger than me, and there he was on the stage, singing to beat the band! Holy dyin’! I was in awe! No way was he nervous! After the song was finished, he bowed and walked off stage, as the audience erupted in applause and cheers.
So that was Allan. Taught from a young age to be an entertainer, and comfortable in front of an audience.
Five years later after that concert, I got to see Allan performing again, but this time in a much different setting.
Saturday nights were going-out-on-the-town nights in Blackville. More precisely, going down the road to Frenette’s restaurant, and maybe enjoying a cardboard plate loaded with French fries, which had been liberally sprinkled with vinegar. Spinning on a stool at the counter, and watching other kids come and go, with the screen door of the restaurant banging shut each time someone came in or out. A night to meet up again with classmates, listen to records playing in the juke box, and maybe get to walk a girl home and get a kiss goodnight. And maybe watching a fight out on the road! It wasn’t a good Saturday night without there being a fight out in front of the restaurant!
All of a sudden, there was a commotion outside. I swiveled on my stool, turning away from my plate of fries, and tried to see what was going on through the big picture window at the front of the restaurant.
“Allan Washburn’s at it again!” someone said, loud enough for others to hear. “You gotta see this!”
“Git out! What’s he upta now?” someone asked.
“The Sullivan boys bought an old clunker of a car, and they give ‘er a fresh paint job. With white house paint! Haw!! You gotta see the Jeezlus thing! And Allan’s teasin’ them ‘bout it!”
When I went outside there was a good sized crowd already gathered in front of Frenette’s, and across the road as well, where Allan was ‘holding court’ by the Sullivan boys’ car!
Seems that the two boys bought themselves a used car, which was in sore need of repair and tidying up – which they had tended to themselves, by giving it a fresh coat of house paint!
Now, the Sullivan brothers were quite proud of their ‘new’ car, and how they’d given it a nice paint job by themselves. So they had driven it up the road from their home down in the Underhills area of Lower Blackville to show it off. But they didn’t expect the reception they would get when they parked it across the road from the restaurant. Because after Allan got wind of what they’d done, he went into action!
One of the Sullivan brothers, the driver, was ‘hanging a cool’, as we used to call it, with his left elbow hanging out of the open window, and his other hand resting casually on top of the steering wheel. And the wheel was fitted with a steering knob. My friend John Corney’s dad had a steering wheel knob on his car, but that was because his dad had lost his hand in the war. So his arm was fitted with metal grasping hooks where his hand used to be, and he used the knob to help him turn the wheel. But seems the knob on the Sullivan boys’ car was just for decoration. And if you looked closely through the side window, you’d see there was a picture of a hoochy-koochy girl embedded in the plastic knob!
As everyone on both sides of the road watched, Allan looked the car up and down. There were giggles and titters in anticipation of what was to come.
“Now here”, Allan said loudly, as he rubbed his hand down the side of the car, “is a prime example of a damn fine paint job! Why, you can hardly see the brush strokes! You guys gotta be proud of ‘er! Yessiree!”
He looked around at the gathering crowds, and slowly walked backward toward the rear of the car, looking all the while for things to point out.
“Why, this is a fine job, guys! Oops, there’s a splash of paint on the back tail light here though! Should have used some tape, boys! But besides that, she’s a beaut, ain’t she?”
Of course, the crowds on both sides of the road were now laughing and howling with glee, which only encouraged Allan more. I could almost picture him with a top hat and cane like he used in the St. Patrick’s Day concerts, as he strutted up and down beside the car.
“And look, you can hardly see where the dent was in this fender. Why, it’s been filled in with window putty, and painted over so you can hardly see it!”
Hilarious gales of laughter from the crowd!
“Shhhh! Listen! Listen!” Allan shouted to those gathered around, as he cupped his hand by one ear. “Why, they can even pick up the Newcastle radio station with their coat hanger radio antenna! And hardly a bend in the coat hanger at all! Fine job, boys! Fine job!”
While the boys had sat up straight with pride when they had first pulled in and parked the car by the sidewalk across from Frenette’s, they now slunk down in their seats. Obviously pissed off, the driver flicked his cigarette out of the window. Then he put the car in gear, squealed his tires, and drove off, spinning gravel and dust behind, to howls of laughter and applause from the crowd.
I think the boys must have turned around farther up the road, and took a detour back home through the Back Lane to avoid being seen and laughed at again, because we didn’t see the car again for the rest of the evening.
If it were anyone else who had done that, the Sullivan boys would have given him a bruisin’. But not Allan. Allan got away with it, because everyone liked Allan.
Allan was the comedian, the prankster, the funny guy who you couldn’t dislike.
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