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Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Plattsburg, New York

About 60 miles south of Montreal, off of US Interstate Route 87, sits a small city called Plattsburg on the shore of Lake Champlain. During the 1950s the beaches, St. Armand’s about 5 miles north of Plattsburg and the Municipal Beach fairly close to downtown, were big draws on summer weekends for Montreal families who were doing modestly well and had young kids.
Historically, The Battle of Plattsburg was part of The War Of 1812 and was fought on land and on Lake Champlain. It was the Americans against the British (Canadians were kind of British then) along with a number of Indian tribes who chose sides.
Battle of Plattsburg

In 1954 the construction of Plattsburg Air Force Base was started and over the next 40 or so years, thousands of enlisted men from all over the US found themselves stationed there. At one time there were also a number of ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missile) silos in the area.
Many who grew up in that era remember the family road trips in the 1950s The impatience we had in getting to where we were going, the back seat squabbles, the telephone posts going by, the counting of cows. The license plates on other cars from places like Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York. We were in America!
Plattsburg could be a day at the beach or the whole weekend that might include staying at a motel like The Royal or The Pioneer, (The Royal had a swimming pool and the units at the Pioneer were made out of logs.)  doing some shopping, particularly for clothes, maybe going to a drive-in movie in the evening and seeing a movie like Trapeze with Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobrigida, perhaps having dinner at Howard Johnson’s.
We would stuff the trunk of the Olds 88 or Buick Special with beach blankets, towels, a red and white beach umbrella with fringes, a red Coca-Cola cooler, a few pails and shovels for digging in the sand and off we would go with five or six of us in the car. Almost always before we left my father would say to one of us kids “Am I waiting for you or are you waiting for me?”
I grew up on the west side of the island of Montreal in an area called N.D.G. and our route south to the US involved crossing the Lachine Canal, passing the Seagram’s Distillers plant with its pungent odor, and going over The Pont Mercier Bridge.
There was always a long line up at the border on a sunny summer weekend. My father always told us not to offer any information at the border unless we were specifically asked. I think he relished the opportunity to tell them that he was born in South Africa. The thought crossed the rest of our minds that the South Africa stuff might cause a delay but he didn’t seem to care. If we were interrogated with electrodes he still would have said where he was born.
The beach we went to most often was St. Armand’s. We would usually arrive sometime around noon and the parking lot was always packed by then. Eventually my father would find some spot to wedge the car into. The kids were all assigned things to carry from the trunk of the car and then we set off like a band of gypsies looking for our space of sand. And the sand by then was like a bed of coals. “Yikes! Ooh! Ahhh!”
Plattsburg Municipal Beach

After we planted our umbrella, my mother would paste our young bodies with some kind of sun lotion before letting us go near the water. Noxema would later take care of any missed areas.
We played with complete strangers. We made primitive attempts at making sand castles. The occasional sandwich crust or egg shell could be seen floating in the water. When we got thirsty we would go back to the umbrella which was kind of like a tent and have a Nesbitt’s Orange or a Coke. My mother served us soggy sandwiches that tasted great.
Around 5 o’clock we would pack everything up and make the long trek back to the car. While we were at the beach someone had inevitably attached a sign to the chrome bumper. They didn’t have bumper stickers back then so the sign was secured by wires.  Americans always seemed better at promoting things than Canadians. Everywhere we went we would see other cars with advertisements for places like Ausable Chasm, Santa Claus Village, Forts William Henry and Ticonderoga. “Daddy, Daddy. Can we go to Santa Claus Village?” Parents must have hated those signs.
Fort Ticonderoga
If we stayed for the evening we would always go out to dinner at a drive-in and have breakfast at some restaurant. I remember one breakfast in a crowded joint where a young couple walked in and the gal was wearing baby doll pajamas. There were some glares from the mothers in the place and there were some fathers pretending that they were reading the menu.
I remember the cartoons on the drive-in movie screen that would tell us about all the wonderful things at the snack counter. One of the movies I remember was about some calvary guys who were stuck in a canyon by a river. They sent one the soldiers up to the top to see where the Indians were and a few minutes later he was tossed off the canyon rim like Wiley Coyote.
Going across the border was being in America. They were kind of like us. A lot of them seemed to have brush cuts. Whether in a store or on the beach they almost always seemed more friendly than people we were used to. “How are you doin?” They also had pop in bigger bottles and chocolate bars like Baby Ruths that we had only seen on TV.
The Canadian dollar was worth a fair amount more than the American dollar back then and we Canadians were always looking for a good bargain. There weren’t any shopping malls back then but there were places like J.C. Penney. Most of the shops were in downtown Plattsburg in the vicinity of the Fyfe and Drum Restaurant and Bar. More than one dad sat in that bar while his wife spent a good part of his pay cheque.
On one of our day trips to Plattsburg my brother was allowed to bring along a friend.  The friend wanted to buy a pair of black Wellington boots very badly and I remember him sitting in the back seat of our car with his feet jammed under the seat with his new boots on as drove through customs.
When I was about 10 years old one of the coolest things I thought I could do was be in the front passenger seat in the car with the window open when we came back from a road trip. I would rest my elbow on the window bottom and grasp the top of the window with my hand. This was a lot cooler than my father’s farmers tan on one arm.
By about 1960 Plattsburg had lost some of its charm. The baby boomers were starting to grow up and going anywhere with the parents wasn’t that much fun.
In the summer of 1961 I convinced my mother to drive myself and two other guys down to St. Armand’s Beach in her Morris Minor convertible. By this time, unawares to me, nobody was going to this beach. We didn’t have a tent and planned to sleep under the stars in our sleeping bags. We were pretty well eaten alive by mosquitos and spent part of night cowering under a decayed picnic table. I bought a Calypso straw hat that an older boy tried to steal off of my head. The weekend didn’t turn out as planned.
The next time I went down to Plattsburg was around 1965. A guy I knew borrowed his mother’s wine coloured Pontiac Parisienne convertible and about five of us piled into the car for a day at the beach. I remember the Stones Satisfaction blaring away on the car radio. This time we were going to Plattsburg Municipal Beach. We stopped at Carrol’s burger joint for lunch (burgers were about 15 cents) and then we sent the oldest looking of us into a liquor store to buy something called Orange Maid that was a sugary premixed version of the Screwdriver.
By late afternoon most of us were pretty drunk including the driver. Everyone headed back to Montreal except me. I have no idea who drove. I had met a French Canadian gal on the beach. About as far as I got was a bit of wresting on the couch in her motel while her two roommates were just a few feet away.
We used to hang around a smoked meat joint on Queen Mary Road called Manny’s. I met the guys there a night or two later and kind of led them to believe more happened in that motel than really did.
For a couple of years after this adventure, I would hitchhike down to Plattsburg by myself now and then, hang out on the beach during the day and have a few beers at a joint called Brodie’s  in the evening and dance the night away with the willing in front of a live band. Woolly Bully was a popular tune at the time. I spent more than one night sleeping on the beach.
One afternoon, I was sitting at the bar in Brodie’s when a guy next to me started a conversation. He was buying so I was listening. He told me a strange tale about being in the air force in WW2 and claimed that he was one of the guys that wheeled out the bomb code named “Little Boy” that was dropped from the bomber named the Enola Gay on Hiroshima in 1945. I have no idea if he was telling the truth. Eventually his wife turned up and took him home.
Route 87 north
At the end of one of those weekends I got a lift back to Montreal from a guy and his girlfriend who I had met on the beach. A few miles north of Plattsburg we were pulled over for speeding. Several minutes later we were instructed to follow a patrol car and we were led to a farmhouse off the highway where a local judge resided. There was an American flag on the front porch. Through a window we could see the judge’s family eating dinner. I can’t remember how the speeding ticket was resolved because between the three of us (particularly me) we couldn’t pay for it. My guess is that there was some kind of written promise to pay with the threat of jail time should the police at some future date pull the driver over and discover the fine was not paid.
The last time I saw Plattsburg was around 1968. I was on a date with a blonde French Canadian girl and we took the bus down. I can still remember being totally wowed when she came out of the changing room at the beach in her bikini. We ended up at Brodie’s Bar at the beach that night and I was just about out of cash. As luck would have it an old school friend was in the bar and bought us a couple of beers. Strangely enough, this same guy was one of my roommates a few years later in Toronto. I ended up having to borrow the bus fare from the gal I was with to get us back home.
Aside from the beaches in Plattsburg there is something about the city that has always stuck in my mind. WPTZ in Plattsburg. In the mid 1950s TV antennas started going up on the roofs in our neighbourhood. We were used to Canadian TV, the English language CBMT and the French language station CBFT, both part of the CBC network in Montreal. Percy Saltzman, the weather guy tossing his chalk.
Having an antenna meant that we could now get American TV stations. The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, The Ed Sullivan Show. Commercials for Knickerbocker and Naragansett beer. “I want my Maypo!” cereal.
ABC came from Poland Springs, Maine and CBS came from Burlington, Vermont. It was WPTZ in Plattsburg that I remember the most. They had a guy there who was like a one man band. His name was Bird Berdan. He was kind of a balding guy with glasses. He did it all. He read the commercials, did cooking shows, the weather report and the sports. He probably mowed the grass outside of the station.
Bird Berdan
Other than worrying about Russia and the US annihilating one another, times seemed much more simple back then.

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