Of Cheez Whiz, Wonder Bread and the Cuban Missile Crisis

In which The Elegant Bastard examines all available worlds and makes a choice.

I spent much of my eleventh year either under my desk at school or in my basement at home, waiting to be carbonized.  This was a consequence of living in Goose Bay, Labrador during the international hissy fit known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. “The Goose”, as it was known to those trapped there, was an isolated community and a major military airbase. It was, therefore, a likely target if the U.S and the then Soviet Union each decided to – as my grade 7 social sciences teacher put it – “Nuke each other’s ass.” (He was not a renaissance man.).

So, periodically and without warning, we would have air raid drills. In the midst of a recess game or a mathematics lesson or a family dinner, a choir of sirens would scream a sudden warning that missiles from a far distant world were even now hurtling down at us. Adults would curse, children would cry and cats would run in crazy circles. If at school, I would climb under the same desk as Sarah, whose freckles I had learned to love. If at home, we would follow our parents down to the cellar, making sure to close the basement door behind us. (We did not doubt the saving powers of plywood desk tops and plasterboard doors.) Then, stowed away in our hiding places, we would await the world’s dark whirlwind.

I was home alone with a minor flu one Saturday morning when the warning sounded. My bedroom was originally a dining room and had a connecting door to the kitchen where the entrance to the cellar was located. I shuffled obediently in that direction and then stopped. Sitting on the kitchen counter were the two things I loved almost as much as Sarah’s freckles: a loaf of Wonder Bread (which Howdy Doody promised me would build strong bodies eight ways, and Howdy never lied!) and a jar of Cheez Whiz.

Everything consumed on “The Goose” had to be brought in by air from the rest of the world. This meant that real cheese and real bread, in fact most kinds of real food, were rarely available. Wonder Bread and Cheez Whiz were about as good as it got and here they were looking straight back at me.  Ignoring my impending incineration by malevolent faraway Russkies, I took bread, butter, cheez and The Hardy Boys: Footprints Under the Window  back into my bedroom, shut the door, drew the curtains, turned on the light and settled down into the comfort of my bedcovers and my artificial night. Perhaps I wondered if Russian children had Cheez Whiz. How long the sirens went on that morning I cannot say. I had stopped hearing them.

I am now years and miles away from `The Goose`. It is 9 a.m. and I have the day free. The television is on. Something called a Blitzer with manicured hair and impossible eyes is launching urgent words at me. Somewhere something has been destroyed by someone and this modern day Wolfman is tearing at my morning calm, barking words and images that repeat and repeat while my coffee cools. He is joined by another set of hair and eyes and together they promise to watch the crisis unfold and keep me informed. I sense that there is no knowledge I can gain here and certainly no action I can take, but I watch for fifteen minutes, long enough to realize that for all their bass wufflings I have not been informed, merely annoyed. This shows in my posture and my jaw. Significant Other reads these signs and responds with the usual remedy. I am given a shopping list.

I bundle up and I head out. The snow has started and the traffic responds with horn blasts and shouted comments about various peoples’ mothers.  I leap over a slush bank, skid across an icy sidewalk and push open the door of “The Meat Department”. I am greeted by name and assured that yes, the chicken thighs are in and yes, the veal cheeks I ordered for next weekend’s party are coming Wednesday. The woman to my left enlists me in her struggle to choose between bison or beef. The gentlemen to my right remind me that the Maple Leafs suck and so we sigh. Melted snow puddles itself on the floor.

It’s a small warm store with subdued lighting, nose-seducing smells, wonderful things-in-jars and a chalk board displaying the name of personalities banned forever from the premises. Rafael Nadal has been added to the list. I nod and suggest the entire CNN news team join him. This gets general support. I pick up my thighs and prepare to pay when I notice that they have a Spanish ham I loved in Paris and have periodically dreamed of ever since. The cost suggests it travelled to Toronto in business class.  I stare and tap my lips and rub my chin and fold my arms. I do not speak. There is no need. The 50 gram package is already on the counter, elegantly wrapped and added to my purchases.

The snow has intensified and the wind has picked up. I stop to check the weather on my iPhone. It tells me it is snowing. At the same time, all around me, screaming from their sidewalk boxes, headlines warn me that Pakistani cricket, European soccer and Italian politics are all falling to the ground. The same crowds  in the same cities are yet again punching impotent fists at grey skies and chanting the old slogans. One Greek politician has apparently punched another, three times.  Bond prices, air quality and teenage morality are at new lows. A woman and her Blackberry walk by and I can hear the news. Words fall around me like so many end zone fumbles and I decide I do not need any of them. List in hand, I face the storm and walk for thirty minutes, bowing into the wind.

“Crescendo” is a small store dedicated entirely to oils, spices and vinegars. Its windows are fogged so I am not surprised by the crowd I find within. I enter and transfer about three centimeters of accumulated snow from my head to its floor. Amphorae line the walls. In one I find pumpkin seed oil, in another raspberry balsamic. From a third comes the powerful aroma of white truffles. Still more people arrive and soon small conversations weave themselves into the displays.

It’s always easier when everyone is talking the same language.

I have one more stop, two kilometers away so I push back out and I burrow towards the downtown core. I am no longer really walking; instead I need to raise each foot and lurch forward, a tiresome process and a long one. A fire truck screams by followed by a second and a third and the whole city block seems a nightmare of snow and slush and sound. More sirens and ambulances turn on to Jarvis, disappearing towards some crisis. The sidewalk is deserted.

So I am surprised when I encounter the happy crowd inside the Loblaws store that now occupies the old Maple Leaf Gardens. Two elderly women are selecting chocolates, pointing and nodding at some, shaking their heads at others. A young man selects a white baguette but at a glance from the woman beside him puts it back and selects a whole grain sourdough. A gaggle of snow-bedecked teenage girls strolls by, one of them tossing a blood orange to another. Three opera singers wander through the vegetable aisles singing La Donna e Mobile. I gaze up at a wall of cheese and think instantly of the wall of crutches abandoned by those who were healed at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. I gather up my arugula, my Greek yogurt and my two pomegranates and head for the cashiers, pausing just long enough to pick up four cognac truffles.

Then I return to the white world.

And I fume. The streetcar takes an hour to arrive and an hour to travel the distance normally covered in fifteen minutes. It`s jammed with people, backpacks, buggies and cell-phone conversations. Despite the outside temperature, it`s hot.  Still, I am heading home. Then I remember. Onions.  I was supposed to buy onions. I cannot go back out. I will not. I text the problem to S.O., grab the nearest pole and close my eyes, hating everything around me until I hear my stop. A text message arrives. “Need anticipated. Just head home.” I do.

Outside my building is chaos. Traffic is at a standstill; snow plows belch smoke but are helpless due to an accident; buses slide to a stop, transfer hordes and then cannot start again; people are everywhere. Shouts. Horns. Another siren somewhere. A CP24 television camera crew barges toward the crash scene. I push my way past and a few minutes later I am home.

No comment is made as I babble my frustrations and lurch about the apartment, closing curtains,  and turning on lights and even shutting off today`s version of Obama in mid-speech.  Nor is anything said as I spread what I`ve purchased across the kitchen table, mumbling on about the world being way way too much with us. I am not told to calm down or grow up or snap out of anything.

Instead there are nods and I am given two bags,

In the first is an onion.

In the second I find a loaf of Wonder Bread, a jar of Cheez Whiz and a hardcover copy of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet`s Nest.






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