BENEATH THE HEIGHTS:

GROWING UP AT QUEENSTON AND BEYOND

Chapter 13
SOME LIKE IT HOT

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I have far fewer memories of my teenage and high school years than those earlier childhood years. I dated girls and even had a couple of “steadies,” but most of the time I seemed to keep to myself, burdened with piety, prudishness and denial. With homework and summer jobs, there didn’t seem to be much time for fun. And then, Queenston was so small; I only had a couple of friends my own age. And as I sensed my difference nature, as I grew older, I had less in common with even these friends.

But these years were not always so dull. Once in a while I would break out of the mold and plan adventures that seemed to me harmless at the time. During the five summers through high school, I worked for the Niagara Parks Commission as a kind of soda jerk and bus boy. For the first time I worked with a group of people beyond the Heights, people who were very different that those I had met in the village or at school.

I took my first real summer job in the summer of 1955, the year before I began my first year of high school. The Niagara Glen Restaurant was up a couple of miles up past the Heights, half way to the Falls. The restaurant was just a small cafeteria and gift shop perched on the cliff above the gorge. The Niagara Glen itself was a nature area where the adventurous descended wooden stairways down past the sheer limestone cliffs into the Niagara Gorge. Huge boulders and trees and mysterious trails lead from the face of the cliff down to the river’s edge. Few places along this part of the Niagara were accessible, but here people could explore along trails and campsites maintained by the Niagara Parks Commission.

My life for those busy summers was rooted at the top of the cliff, the resting place for weary hikers returning from the Glen trails. I worked at this Niagara Parks concession, my life once again controlled mainly by women who worked as short order cooks, counter staff, or kitchen staff. Many of these women were hard-boiled victims of unhappy marriages, alcohol or ungrateful children. But I enjoyed the stories and gossips of lives far more complicated and compromised than I had ever know before.

[Marilyn in Niagara] During the previous summer, Marilyn Monroe had come to the Falls to film Niagara. The women at the Glen still talked about her scandalous outfits as she flounced across the set and through the General Brock Hotel where she was housed for the summer while they shot the film.

That fall I began high school. A life not at all like the days at Laura Secord. With about six others of my grade 8 classmates from Laura Secord, we were bussed up river from the village to the huge collegiate in the City of Niagara Falls where more than 1000 students were enrolled in Grades 9 to 13. David was already enrolled in the third year of their industrial arts program. I began the academic program in Grade 9B, just short of the A class of high achievers. For a kid that was accustomed to be first in line, it was a jolt. My friend Orest was in 9F and Diane was lost when she remained behind in Grade 8 at Laura Secord. Now I was confronted with new kids from other parts of Niagara Township to the north and west of Queenston as well as “city” kids from Niagara Falls.

The city kids made fun of their country cousins and treated us as farmers. They called our busses “the flower busses” because they brought in a “blooming idiots.” I was not amused by their feeble humour. I was the proverbial small frog in a very big puddle, and not in friendly water at all. The only friend I still remember was my high school girlfriend, a mousy girl with short cropped hair and a single goal: to catch me. I ignored her as long as I could but when she asked me to go to one of the teen dances, I was flattered and gave in.

We took long walks, talked and mooned together in the hallways. David was appalled at my lack of taste in girls. “You could take out any girl you wanted. Why pick that ugly kid?” I was not so sure and continued in the easy non-threatening path. Or so I thought. One evening when I dropped her off at her front porch Sandy sarcastically asked, “Are you queer?” “What are you talking about,” I asked nervously wondering what she might have noticed. My secret gully days were only just behind me. “Well we’ve been dating for weeks, and you haven’t even tried to kiss me,” she observed belligerently. Kissing her had never occurred to me. But kiss her I did for a month or so more until a traumatic breakup, I am not sure why. Maybe she wanted more than kisses. I was definitely not interested and kept to my books. And besides I was getting out of the big city soon.

[Niagara District High School, 1956] The next year, Niagara Township opened a brand new and much smaller high school of its own. Niagara District High School was located in the open fields and farmland north of Queenston between the towns of Virgil and Niagara-on-the-Lake. The design was a new concept whereby they laid the roof and each floor on the ground, then hoisted it up and bolted them into place. We watched as construction progressed and were proud to be the first enrolled classes, beginning with just grades 9 to 11 in the first twelve classrooms completed on the second floor. Never mind that there was no cafeteria or gym or library for some months. We “blooming idiots” had our own school where we could excel in a much smaller puddle.

For the next four years I stood a little closer to being first, but never again did I better all my classmates. Yet, this did not deter me from loving school and striving to earn the best grades. While Physical Education classes were always a challenge, I continued to avoid the embarrassment of team sports and ignored the few times I was taunted as a sissy. In fact, I spent much of my time in Phys Ed talking with another sissy, my lab partner in Physics. Jack had already earned somewhat a reputation, but I ignored that and enjoyed his funny mannerisms and conversation and tried not to notice that anything was different.

At Niagara District I was able to measure my success in scholarly activities and held my own alone. At last being first was not so important I as I became involved in student activities such as the yearbook and the United Nations Club where I could compete with brain instead of brawn. In my senior year, I was selected as one of three young men to compete in a Hamilton-based TV show, Knowledge College. With four wins in five appearances we became celebrities at school and beyond I later learned when attended college.

[Niagara Glen Restaurant]Through those high school years, I returned every summer to my job at the Niagara Parks Commission. It was a welcome escape from studies and the only way I was able to save money for the coming school year. Occasionally, another young student like myself would join the more mature staff of working women at The Glen. In the summer of 1959, I began dating a student waitress, Glenda. By this time at 17 I was driving the family car and began adventuring further from home. Also working there that summer was a young Queenston boy, Bill Barr, in the same class as my younger brother Ralph. Bill was hired to clean tables relieving me from my old tasks so I could work the sales counters.

One warm summer’s night, Glenda and I and Bill and his date, decided to drive up to The Falls to see the latest Marilyn Monroe film, Some Like it Hot, at the Starlight Drive In Movie Theater on Lundy’s Lane.

We giggled at the sight of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in that crazy drag hiding from the mob and masquerading as members of a lady’s dance band. Despite the close quarters with the other girls on the train heading for Florida, we were amazed that they could not detect the imposters. We were not so convinced that a man could get away disguising himself as a woman. And somehow we became obsessed with the issue of cross-dressing.

“I could tell if those guys got near me,” claimed Glenda.

“Me too,” Bill responded, “There’s no way I wouldn’t know that they were fakes.”

Our discussion of the film continued at the Glen for several days. Our favorite line was Joe E. Brown’s last comment to Jack Lemmon when he finally revealed himself as a man.

“Well, nobody’s perfect,” smiled a totally unconcerned Brown.

“We should try to see if it would work. Why not try it out?” someone suggested.

And so began an outrageous, and ultimately unkind adventure, not at all typical of my normal “best little boy” image that I still tried to maintain.

The last character in our adventure was the unwitting victim of our cruelty. During that same summer, I had been tutoring a younger student who had failed Latin that year. If he could pass summer school Latin, he could go on to the next grade. Derek was the son of a well-to-do older English couple, recent arrivals in the village. This was first time he had been enrolled in a public school, having attended a series of private schools over the years. Derek was boisterous, and a bit obnoxious, in the English schoolboy sense. More than a tutor, he seemed to want a friend and he enjoyed talking with me about my recent religious experiences and other serious topics. But Derek was at least two years younger at a time when age means so much. In my own denial of my true nature and secret longings, I failed to recognize we shared a loneliness and isolation from others.

Derek was especially inept in meeting and dating girls after years in boys’ schools. Each time I showed up for a Latin session at his house, he seemed to want to talk about meeting girls. He begged me to find him a date so that we could double date. I was no real expert on dating either and only knew a few girls. Besides, I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to inflict this goofy kid on anyone, and so I ignored his pleas.

As I was telling my friends at work about Derek’s problem getting a date, someone suggested that we test the Some Like It Hot concept on Derek. Could a guy really get away with masquerading as a girl on a date? And whom could we get to do it? None of us could find a willing teenage boy who wanted to dress up like a girl, even for a joke. But we were determined. And by this time, the boss and his wife at the Glen had seen the film and wanted in on the game.

One day Bill and I made a trip across the Rainbow Bridge into Niagara Falls New York to buy a cheap blond wig. We smuggled it back across the border, too intimidated to claim that suspicious purchase. But who would wear it? We could find no one to take up the challenge.

Finally, in desperation, Bill himself agreed to be the date. But would this work? Bill and Derek were in the same class at school. But no other volunteer was willing to dress up in women’s clothes, even for an evening. So Bill reluctantly decided to try it to test our theory.

The whole staff at The Glen helped find clothes and makeup for Bill. Everyone wanted in on the joke. Then after our shift on the assigned date night, Bill was being dressed as I left to pick up Derek in my Dad’s little black Volkswagen Bug. Derek was finally going to get his long anticipated double date. I was dating Glenda and he would be dating “Laverne,” Glenda’s cousin visiting from the country. We were to pick up the two “girls” after they finished their later shift at the Glen.

When we drove up and parked, I had agreed to distract Derek by taking him over to the edge of the cliff to see the view. While we were gone, the “girls” quickly climbed into the car to avoid too early an “exposure.” When we returned “Laverne” was sitting in the back seat and Glenda in the front. In the dark we hoped we could trick poor Derek for at least a few minutes. The game would be over in a few minutes and we wanted to stretch it further. After the introductions and my warning to Derek that poor “Laverne” had laryngitis and couldn’t talk much, we headed off. Bill was a six-foot young man with a deep voice and a chiseled masculine face. With his squeaky falsetto voice, we thought that the game would be over in a few miles. But Derek didn’t seem to question a thing.

“Why don’t we drive over the States and see a film,” Derek suggested suddenly.

“Oh no, my father won’t allow me to take the car to New York,” I lied in response. Somehow I knew that there was some sort of a penalty for disguising as a woman and we were sure to be caught by either the US or Canadian Customs officers.

We ended up on a long drive all the way up the Niagara Parkway to Fort Erie, all the time making polite conversation. Derek still didn’t seem to bite. We then headed back to the Falls along the Queen Elizabeth Highway and into the City the back route via to stop at our favorite teenage hangout, the new A&W Root Beer Drive In. Actually, we had secretly arranged to meet the boss and his wife there just in case the joke was still on. No one could believe it was still working and Bill had not been unmasked.

As we drove into a parking slot, “Laverne” from the back seat squeaked out at “Would you boys excuse me a minute, there’s something I have to attend to.”

Derek and I got out dutifully and headed to the men’s room. While standing at the urinals, Derek challenged me, but only indirectly.

“Don’t you think that Laverne looks like Bill?”

“Yes Derek, she does a bit, doesn’t she.”

“Do you think I should kiss her good night?” he asked me pointedly. Was he testing us?

“No Derek, not on the first date,” I cautioned, ignoring his attempts to get me to admit our prank.

I hurried back ahead to see what was happening in the Bug. The strap on my mother’s old bra had been fastened with a safety pin and it had opened had sticking poor Bill. He and Glenda made a hasty repair and were re-stuffing the bra with rolls of socks as I returned.

Then up drove the boss and his wife just two stalls away. I walked over to explain that nothing had been revealed as of yet.

“What should we do, he suspects, but hasn’t said a word?” I asked the couple.

“Keep it going. See if you can get away with it for the whole evening,” advised our incredulous boss.

I climbed back into the car, we finished our milkshakes and took off. “Laverne” was getting tired from her “sore throat” and wanted to make an early night of it. Besides we had carried this off for almost three hours at close quarters in the back of the Bug.

When we arrived at Glenda’s home, I wanted to tell Derek. I was outvoted again. But not telling him at that moment was something I will always regret.

As we drove back to Queenston, Derek kept bursting out with short angry exclamations, like “You’re a traitor, you rascal!” and “What a smart ass!”

I feigned innocence and let them go past me. “What do you mean, Derek?”

“Oh nothing,” he replied and let it alone.

Well of course we all had a great laugh about the masquerade the next day at work. Our theory had been disproved and we were overwhelmed. “It really does work! You can fool people, even with a bad wig and makeup.” And then when our laughter died, we thought it was over.

But it wasn’t over for Derek, not for a long long time.

When I arrived at his house for our next Latin session, Derek’s mother let me in and told me Derek was in his room. I climbed the stairs and entered his bedroom ready to tell him of our prank. As I entered his room, Derek emerged from his closet with a rifle pointed at me.

“You dirty dog, you tricked me,” he cried.

“Who told you?” I asked, nervously eyeing the weapon pointed at me.

“No one, I suspected all along. I just kept thinking that you wouldn’t do that to me. Wouldn’t be so cruel. I thought you were my friend.”

It took me the rest of the hour to talk Derek out of killing me. He was deeply hurt that I had betrayed him. He kept saying that he couldn’t believe someone as serious and religious as I claimed to be could play such a dirty trick. He had been testing me all that evening with his jokes that I had just ignored. He had even suggested going across the river to New York to see our reaction since he knew the danger we might have faced with our bogus female aboard.

He had trusted me as his teacher and friend and mentor. “Why didn’t you all let me in on the joke that night? Then we could have all laughed together.”

Derek was right, I had truly failed this vulnerable young man at a critical time in his life.

All I could I say was “The others thought we should see if we could carry it off completely.” It was a lame excuse, especially when that I could see how deeply I had hurt Derek. I never charged him for that session and of course, he never wanted me to tutor him again.

Yet it was to get worse for Derek. The word got out rapidly in our small village and in our high school at Niagara. I had not anticipated that his classmates would ride him for weeks about his “date with Laverne.” Our private joke and test of Some Like it Hot became hot gossip and the source of much cruel taunting for Derek for many months. By the end of the year, Derek and his family had left Queenston and I never saw him again.

How could I have been so cruel to anyone? That stupid prank made an unhappy boy who didn’t really fit in even more of a social outcast. I myself had never felt really accepted by my classmates either. Was this a futile attempt on my part to gain acceptance? Or was it just an unthinking act unaware of the consequences to another human being? More importantly, how could I have inflicted such pain on another boy not so very different from myself?

Twenty or so years later one of my brothers sent me an obituary from an Ottawa newspaper. Derek had achieved some fame in theater and media there in Ottawa in subsequent years. But he had died tragically in fire at his remote cabin.

[Queenston Heights Pavilion, c. 1950] The year after our cruel double date was my final year in high school and preparation for college. I took on extra classes and worked even harder and kept more to myself. I dated over that last year, but I don’t recall much enthusiasm. My last summer job for the Parks Commission in that year before college was not at The Glen but at The Pavilion at Queenston Heights just above the village. I was glad to be on more familiar ground. I hiked up the hill to work, stayed close to home and out of further dating nightmares and cruelties.

Then in the Fall of 1960, I too left Queenston behind. For my freshman year at McMaster University in Hamilton, I paid $8 a week to share a room in a small boarding house close to my classes.

While the same escarpment ran along the southern horizon of the city, here they called it “The Mountain.” For the first time in my life I had to find my own way. I left my parents behind.

And on these unfamiliar heights I could no longer my General. Another new and uncertain world was opening for me.

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Beneath the Heights

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