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They say smell is the sense most associated with memory. If so, Neill McKee’s recollections of childhood stink, literally. The smells of the town form a mostly unpleasant undercurrent to McKee’s much more pleasant autobiographical tales of growing up in Elmira. Kid on the Go! is a story that takes readers on a ride-along through his formative years in 1950s Elmira, his plans for escape and the numerous points beyond Woolwich Township he eventually reached before settling in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2015. It really is a tale of being on the go, revealing the early years of a life McKee had documented in his two previous books, Finding Myself in Borneo: Sojourns in Sabah and the genealogical travel memoir Guns and Gods in My Genes: A 15,000-mile North American search through four centuries of history, to the Mayflower.
“In Elmira, as I recall, the predominant wind from the west came loaded with the pungent stink from generous quantities of pig and cow manure, courtesy of the Mennonite farmers’ fields on the west side of town,” McKee writes in Kid on the Go! “Shifting winds from the north brought no relief. The fields on that side of town were equally full of animal dung with an added ‘fragrance’ from the slaughterhouse, which my brother Glen called ‘skunk factory.’…“Winds from the east proved to be more complex and beyond my childish understanding. By the time I was born, Elmira’s Naugatuck Chemical factory, located on that side of town – once a branch of a Connecticut firm – had graduated from producing a substance used in World War II bombs, to turning out new rubber and plastic products. [Much later I learned from studying the matter that Naugatuck also gave off clouds of acids, sulfates, and nitrates – noxious fumes few people could identify at the time. The factory’s new outputs included particles of its latest products: an insecticide called DDT and two “miracle” herbicides – 2,4-D, known as “Weed Bane” and the stronger 2,4,5-T, marketed as “Brush Bane.” In the 1940s, Elmira was declared the “first weed-free town in Canada” due to a scheme of spraying all the lawns with discount herbicide from Naugatuck. High school students were even roped into the job.]”
Efforts to escape those smells make up much of his early years. “Throughout my childhood, I gradually became more and more sophisticated in preventing the town’s odors from entering my nostrils, through the theory and practice of perpetual motion.” Bikes, go-karts, motorized DIY projects and, eventually, cars all allowed McKee to stay in motion, a trait that went beyond staying ahead of the odours produced in and around Elmira. “There are a lot really fond memories, but I use the conflict of the smells in those days – not as bad now – but that starts off the book, this latest book of mine, and it also starts off the Borneo book – just the first page and then I head off to Borneo – so it’s like a little recap,” he says down the line from Albuquerque.
The smells aside, Kid on the Go! is in many ways a love letter to the town where he grew up, but especially to the family, friends and the time when all of that happened. “We’d cruise around town, trying to impress girls who liked to show off their figures by walking up and down Arthur, the main street in town. Sometimes we’d make our motor backfire for guys standing in front of Kerr’s Restaurant, shouting comments and whistling,” he writes.
“Elmira’s downtown area consisted of the one main street and a few side streets, but it had a lot of businesses to drive past besides Kerr’s: Edgewood Restaurant, Bolander Shoes, Brubacher Shoes, Freiburger’s Groceries, Otto’s Men’s Wear, W. C. Brown & Son’s Cleaners and Tailors, Hendrick’s Hardware, Weichel’s Hardware, Hartman’s Jewelry, Reichard’s Dry Goods, the Light and Life Bookstore, Lishman Coach Lines, Central Cycle & Sports, Cale’s Drugs, a music store, three banks, three gas stations, the post office, two barber shops and two real estate agents, the volunteer firehall, the Elmira Signet newspaper, the jail, and most finally, Dreisinger’s Funeral Home.”
McKee recalls Elmira as an industrious town, in part due to his own family: his father Russell and uncle Gerald’s farm machinery manufacturing business, McKee Brothers Ltd.
“It’s fantastic, the industries that this town had, or still has in a way, with 3,000 people, including my dad’s. McKee Brothers was up on Union Street. We lived along Duke Street. The house we lived in, 29 Duke St., just got coated. Many mornings we just walked out the door and the overall smell just hugged the town, especially on windless days,” he says.
His reminiscences are told in a light, breezy style that makes it an easy read, whether you’re an Elmiran of his era – born months after the end of the Second World War, he’s now 75 – or a newcomer to the area. Actually, newcomers may find the book a fascinating bit of history, without the parts that might have had you nodding off in class … and with no need to memorize dates and places.
In content and structure, it brings to mind the movie American Graffiti, written as a flashback to a time, 1962, that corresponds to McKee’s time as a teenager. “That does portray my really rebellious teenage years. And in the end, I parallel everything that happened in that movie sort of to that happened to us,” he recalls, noting the present-day wrap-up in his own book. Like the Richard Dreyfus character, Curt Henderson, who narrates at the end, McKee went on to become a writer, another parallel. More information about Kid on the Go!, his other books and McKee himself can be found online at www.neillmckeeauthor.com.