Jubilee: a John Dunn story

Some information for readers from Michael Dunn:

‘Billy’ was Dad’s younger brother and was killed when he ran out in front of an oncoming car that same year. The old St. Mary’s was located in the parking lot behind the Catholic Church on the corner of Brae and Colborne streets. It was torn down in 1953 (I believe).

The hardware store, West’s, was located where Vamos store is now. In this picture, the building to the left was an open horse stable.

The biggest mystery of all in the Senior First year had to be the Jubilee, the Jubilee of Confederation in 1927.

It came just at the time that the Senior Firsts were losing their baby teeth, and could run their tongues along the upper gum to feel the little sharp points of new teeth coming in. The Jubilee was like that, a one-in-a-lifetime mystery.

The school was hot, and we knew it was almost time for summer holidays.

“Stop fidgeting,” the teacher said. “I want you to listen carefully because I have a present here for each of you.”

She picked up a wooden ruler and pointed it at the brand new picture on the wall, the one that the Government in Ottawa had sent out.

“Remember what I told you yesterday? Now, what will we celebrate on the First of July?”

“The Jubilee?” It came out more as a question than answer because those were big words, and important things, Jubilee and Confederation.

“Yes, that is correct. The Jubilee of Confederation, 1867-1927. It’s now sixty years since Confederation,” the teacher went on, “And I have a medal to give to each of you to remember it by. It’s called the Jubilee Medal.”

She held up one of the shiny bronze coins by the edge letting it glint before our eyes.

“Every school child in Canada gets one of them today. So don’t lose it on the way home. Don’t roll it down the sidewalk, and whatever you do, don’t drop it in the river. Take it home carefully and show it to your parents.”

She handed out the medals, one to everyone, and we looked at it, with the coat of arms of Canada, and we looked at the bearded men in the picture and wondered about this legend called Confederation. It must have happened in ancient times too, because our Bible History showed pictures of Abraham and Moses and Aaron all with beards, and we figured the Fathers of Confederation might have lived about that time, because they had beards too.

We put our fingerprints on the shiny bronze, and then tried to rub them off, and when the shine would not come back, we just put the medals in our pockets, for the Angelus bell rang just then, and in a minute we were let out.

It was too hot to run, so Billy and I just sauntered down the hill, and then decided to take the long way home. We sauntered along Farm Street, and then cut through the yard at the back of West’s store to see the horses in the drive shed.

Two wagons and a buggy were there. Two teams and a single horse. One of the tugs had rubbed some of the hair off the horse’s hide where it had scraped, and the horse’s sweat had frothed and then dried into a whitish powder stain along the black leather harness and the exposed hide.

We watched a horse fly light on the heavy muscles of the rump of this horse and right away the horse made his hide twitch and shiver and that scared off the fly. But it came back and landed in another spot. Another twitch, another shiver, and away went the fly only to land a third time.

“It’s magic how a horse can twitch his skin like that,” Billy said.

“A horse is smart,” I said. “It’s the only animal I know that can shiver like that and swish his tail at the same time.”

“How does he know where the fly is? He can’t see it,” Billy wondered.

“It’s magic,” I said.

The front door of the store was open and a steady buzzing sound came from the inside where wire cables ran like trolley wires throughout the store over a lot of little pulleys. They all seemed to land up somehow in a teller’s cage up over the aisles and shelves where little canisters that had travelled along the wires finally plopped into a box in the teller’s cage. The Treasurer up there knows how to open the canister and take out the money, and put the change back in the canister with the receipt and send it back. Ordinary, everyday magic.

Up the street in front of the bakeshop a man leaned with his back against the corner part of the entrance with one knee pulled up so that the heel of his shoe was hooked on the wooden ledge for the plate glass window. He had on white duck pants, white shirt and white apron which he had tucked up so that he could put his hands in his back pockets. Smoke from a cigarette dangling from his lips circled upward. A dusting of flour on his shoes and eyebrows gave the baker the look of a man of mystery. He had stepped out into the hot sun seeking relief from the fierce heat from the bake ovens at the back.

In the window behind him a miniature bride in a white gown and a groom in a black tuxedo stood atop a three-tiered wedding cake, flanked by raisin buns, doughnuts, big high crusty loaves of white bread and a whole tray of bear paws. A whole tray of fat, reddish-brown ginger cookies, each as big as a bear’s paw, with deep scalloped dents round the outside, each as big as a man’s knuckle. The sight of them made us hungry and suddenly we realized it was time to be home and seated at the table. We raced on, up the street, across the bridge, up the hill and into the house.

I reached into my pocket and brought out the medal for everyone to see.

“Look what we got at school today,” I said. “It’s a medal. It’s called the Jubilee Medal and it’s all about the Fathers of Confederation.”

“I remember one time speaking on the same platform as Sir John A.,” my father remarked.

I was flabbergasted. My father didn’t have a long beard and hair like Moses and the Fathers of Confederation. He had a shaving mug and a brush and a new thing called a safety razor.”

“You mean Sir John A. Macdonald?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes,” he said, “It was in the election of 1892, and Sir John A. was speaking to the farmers from a stump close to the cheese factory at Cushendall. There were many questions from the people about prices of milk and cheese and exports of butter and when Sir John A. finished the people asked me to get up and give my views too. Of course, I was young then.”

Surprise struck me like a thunderbolt, and my notions about the Jubilee shattered and fell around me like pieces of broken glass.

My father was a doctor and he was concerned with smallpox, typhoid fever, appendicitis, broken legs and things like that every day. But he had debated with the Head of the Fathers of Confederation the prices for milk, cheese, butter and oats! This mystery was deeper than anything yet. Legendary people were suddenly coming to life as real persons. It was upsetting.

I could understand it if he had said Laurier, the silver-tongued orator whose portrait hung over the tall bookcase in my father’s inner office, for Laurier had died just a few months before I was born. But Sir John A.?

My father had shaken the tree of history and Sir John A. had tumbled out of legend into reality. The Jubilee Confederation at the doctor’s house was like that, a legend come to life.