Those Were The Days

Posted on March 12, 2013 under Storytelling with 6 comments

If you grew up in Antigonish in the 1960’s as a teenager, there were three places that pretty well controlled your universe; St .Ninian’s Cathedral, the bowling alley (affectionately known as “The Alleys”) and the Parish Center, or for those short on vocabulary, The Center.  For better or worse, they were all places of worship.  Many of life’s lessons, both good and bad, were learned in that small piece of real estate.  If you walked quickly, you could get to all three within five minutes; less if you were being chased by the cops.   It was a time of innocence and a time where lasting friendships and memories were cemented.

While some may indeed have fond memories of the Cathedral, it was at the Alleys and the Center where life unfolded.  The mere mention of Gillis, Buddy, or Josie quickens the heartbeat as these people were our pseudo parents, our protectors, our teachers and our friends.  I mean, who would have the common decency to loan a guy the money to buy a Carmel Cake when he was down on his luck?

Picture yourself on a warm spring evening, sitting on the black railing outside the alleys with many of your soul mates, just watching the world pass you by.  This is where you tried to figure out the meaning of life or more importantly how to find the money to go to the dance at the Center after squandering your allowance at the Alleys.  Occasionally you would spot a few of the bad ass kids from school lurking under the bridge which crosses the Brierly Brook whilehaving a puff.  And you just watched people walking past and the cars going up and down College Street.  There`s something magical about just hanging out and we were pros at it… mostly because the lot of us were broke most of the time.

Every building has a distinct smell and the Alleys were no different.  The smell of rental bowling shoes has its own distinct aroma.  So did the soda machine.  The Alleys smelled like, well, the Alleys.  You’ll just have to take my word for it.  In the early days it was just the bowling alley and at its peak it was a thriving, bustling place.  All of the baby boomers and their parents bowled…just not together.  Besides the smell of the Alleys there was the constant sound of pins being knocked down, the resetting of the pins and the bowling balls making their return to the scoring table area.  And the irrepressible Buddy who made everyone welcome.

As time went on, the Alleys expanded and provided yet another way for us to spend our meager resources.  A pool hall was added to the complex.  Can’t you still see John standing at the small cubicle which housed the time clock?  You paid by the minute and if you were a gifted player like Fingers, you probably never paid… your opponent did.  All the while you listened to the strains of “Nashville Cats”… “played clean as country water, played wild as mountain dew”.

When you has exhausted all of your capital at the Alleys and were too bored to sit on the rail outside, you could just meander around the corner up to the Center.  In those days it was the epicenter of the community.  It was truly a multi-purpose facility, owned by the parish but operated under the wise hand of Gillis.  Every imaginable activity was housed within the walls of that red brick building, strategically located at the midpoint between the tavern and the cathedral.  Talk about urban planning!

In addition to the gymnasium, which hosted physical education classes from the elementary and high schools nearby, the building had several rooms used by the CWL and other community groups.  And of course, there was the concrete bunker overlooking the gym floor which was used as a bar for social functions and doubled up as the fish pond during the parish bazaar.

There were sporting events, dances, political rallies, wedding receptions, banquets, graduation exercises, variety concerts and yes, even fights – scheduled and non-scheduled.  There were a lot of hours during the week when there wasn’t anything going on and this is when the Center became a legitimate spot to hang out.  You really get to know people when you take the time to talk with them.  To this day, all one has to do is mention the Center or the Alleys in the presence of an old friend and you’re right back there sitting in the bleachers or playing a game of ping pong in the room behind the bunker.  We did a lot of hanging out in those days.  Sadly, today much of our interpersonal contact and that of our children and grandchildren is done through the use of electronic devices.

Some of the greatest basketball games I have ever witnessed happened on that hard court including a memorable St.F.X game which went into double overtime.  I can still remember the scoreboard which was a slate and a piece of chalk.  You had to be good at addition and able to erase quickly. Who of our generation can’t remember the titanic battles between the old AHS and the St. Andrew High School (perhaps foreshadowing the current relationship between the Town and County of Antigonish)!   If you close your eyes you can still see Tilly Walsh and George Phee going toe to toe.  And on one special evening, we witnessed the wizardry of the Harlem All Stars.  When you jammed people in to the Center for a basketball game, with the fans literally breathing on the players, now that was atmosphere.

But it was the Saturday night dances that most of us remember, for better or for worse.  I was lucky enough to view dances from both the bleachers and the boards.  Back in the golden days of live performances, The Strangers and The Escorts were regular performers on the grand old stage at the Center.   I had infinitely more fun (and success!) as a musician than as a guy trying to pick up a girl.  Back then, the county kids went to the county high school and the town kids, or “townies”, went to the local high school.  The dances were one of the rare opportunities to mingle and there was always a subtle but palpable tension in the air when Saturday night rolled around.  Fisticuffs were quite common except when word got out that A.B. was going to be the bouncer.  On particularly raucous evenings, sometimes amongst the fights a dance would break out.

The early part of any school dance was quite predictable. The girls sat on the bleachers on one side of the room and on the other side of the bunker sat the boys. Occasionally there would be a row of chairs around the perimeter of the basketball court when Gillis was expecting a large crowd. The boys, mostly pimply faced, nerdy and geeky, all rolled up into one tidy package of testosterone, trolled the room, looking for a girl to ask to dance.  But not just any dance… it had to be the last dance.  The moment you heard the first organ keys of “Whiter Shade of Pale” or the opening keyboards of “Hey Jude”, there would be a stampede, as all of the guys headed for the bleachers.  But alas, the Darwinian theory prevailed and only a few succeeded in getting their dream girl onto the dance floor. The rest of us got “shot down

In 1968, Mary Hopkin sang the song that epitomized youth then, as it does today. Those were the days my friend.

Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end

We’d sing and dance forever and a day

We’d live the life we choose, we’d fight and never lose

For we were young and sure to have our way




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