Love's Gay Fool. Autobiography of John Alan Lee.


Chapter 2. Boyhood Worlds

School was my favourite world but what a "suck" my peers considered me! Teachers liked me and I went out of my way to win their praise. Meeker classmates accepted my leadership when I organized a small circle of boys and girls into a playtime "army," with bits of cloth for uniforms and strips of coloured paper for ranks, medals and ribbons. Our headquarters was a tumble-down garage near the schoolyard. We organized a secret project to ferret out the German spies in school. We settled on Miss Griffiths, and confronted her. She sent me to the Principal's office!

The local public library was another place where I found love. The spinster librarian, Miss Trotter, mother-henned me. Always, my books came back on time, in good condition. I've never had to pay a library fine in my life.

At home, I spent my time eluding the Shinamans whenever possible. A double garage formed a barrier between the house – where Orca was often stationed in a window over the kitchen sink – and a patch of ground which contained two trees – apple and cherry. I erected a swing between the trees. It became a symbol of refuge, and I have set up a swing in every home since. It's still a reliable way to soothe my nerves.

There was a dilapidated shed behind the house, about eight feet square. I made it my hangout. I'd wind up the old Victrola, and listen to Grandma Lillie's 78 RPM records: Where is my wandering boy tonight? Johnny comes marching home. Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me. The interior walls of the shed became my first art gallery.

I found other escapes without actually "running away from home." I impudently passed hours in the back yard of a friendly neighbour, planting a Victory Garden (children were encouraged to help the war effort). Or I’d make sandwiches and take David for a hike in a woods not far away.

Few boys and girls ventured into those deep ravines, but David and I loved to pretend we were pioneer woodsmen. I taught myself how to build shelters, start campfires, and collect edible berries. I can still recall a thrill of fear when one campfire nearly got out of control and threatened to set the woods on fire.

Another escape was walking Night, our black cocker spaniel. He and I would play secret games, and he would listen to my sad complaints about lack of love. Night contracted some baleful illness at the age of three and died in my arms. I can still see Johnny cradling Night's warm, dead body and wailing inconsolably. Many years later I would own another spaniel, and he too would be Night.

The Rec Room

When the war ended and savings bonds could be cashed, one of Joe's first home improvements was running hot water. The old “jacket heater” was no longer kindled every Friday to provide a weekly bath. Next went the cranky furnace, a coal-eating giant I fed several times a day, setting the "drafts" on a regular schedule. The dingy coal bin was demolished. Joe scrounged materials from work: lumber, wallboard, and a big roll of battleship linoleum, a quarter-inch thick. He started to build a "recreation room." When the free materials ran out and more would cost money, he lost interest.

Like the famous camel who first poked his nose into the tent, and gradually his whole body, I audaciously installed a few of my things into the unfinished room, then a few more. Joe said nothing, and I began to complete the construction myself. He grumbled at the way I "took over" the rec room, but he never claimed it back

Because I couldn't afford building materials, I learned how to convert orange crates into furniture. A crate stood on its end forms a simple side-table or a "dresser" with upper and lower compartments. Contents may be hidden by stretching a piece of cloth over the opening. If a crate is dismantled, more elaborate furniture can be made. Drawers can be fashioned, and doors created. Nails are retrieved and reused. I built a desk, and another for David. Since the room and its furnishings were much too spartan for Beverly this private world was left to David and me.

Joe never made provision for heat in the "rec room" and he refused to allow an electric heater: "Power costs too much." I solved the problem by using my Mechano set to build a fan and install it in an opening cut into the wallboard. The new furnace was next to the rec room and spilled heat into the cellar. When the furnace was running, I turned on the fan to draw air into the rec room.

I was already practising my new motto: "It is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission." The Shinamans resigned themselves to my faits accomplis. I won't say I never lied to the Shinamans, but it was extremely rare. I preferred to use my wits, stonewall, or brazen things out, defying them to do their worst. I was living behind enemy lines and had to do what I could to survive.

In fairness, the Shinamans were as decent as any working-class parents could be – probably more so. We were never badly beaten. They didn't waste money, thus both of us learned "the value of a dollar." They respected schooling, and we could do our homework before we were used as cheap labour around the house.

Life at school.

One of my few school friends was Dave Newell, a tall fat boy whom others called a "dumbo" behind his back, but nobody dared to challenge. In exchange for my help with his homework, he became my bodyguard.

I often had trouble reading the blackboard and a kindly teacher informed the CAS that I needed glasses. "Oh yes please," I thought. They might help me see better, but they would certainly deter attacks on the way to school. No good sport hit a boy with glasses. This boon was slow in coming, and I feared that it might be denied me. Every night I fell to my knees and prayed for glasses. My faith was rewarded, and I went on praying fervently – for marks, for a job – until my late teens.

Johnny and his brother David in the church choir (front row, first and third boys from the left).

Choir boy

When the Shinamans claimed inability to afford my expenses in the Boy Scouts, they suggested the church choir instead. I also enrolled in confirmation class. The minister was amazed at my knowledge of the Book of Common Prayer. I told him candidly: "During your sermons I read the prayer book – even the 39 Articles of Faith." The senior Sunday School classes of Mr. Blackwell helped too. He was no stuffed shirt, but a warm, rumpled, sensitive man. When I wanted to talk, he listened.

Church became more central to my life when Mr. Blackwell invited me to join the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, a social group for men. It met every second Sunday for breakfast and a speaker. I began by setting out the dishes and cleaning up. Soon I was asked to contribute my artistic talents by making posters to announce the Brotherhood's speakers and films. In a couple of years I was the group's youngest-ever president.

My brother, David.

As each other's only kin, David and I were natural allies. His was an ambivalent role – looking up to big brother, but resenting my successes. David was not as outspoken as I, and not nearly as willing to stand up to the Shinamans. David and I sometimes fought, as most brothers do. Often a tussle broke out after we went to bed. In our first months at Oakwood, Joe stood at the foot of the stairs. When he heard our combat he'd rush up, throw open the door, and demand: "Who started it this time?" Punishment followed.

Eventually we got smart. The next time he ran up, we innocently inquired "What fight? What noise?" Thus was born a formal alliance between us. We wrote it down, law by law. We would never snitch on each other, or lie to each other. We held regular meetings to discuss any disagreement, and form a united front on such matters as allowances and chores. We would never share our secrets with Beverly, and would refuse to play with her. We would back up each other's excuses, and cover for each other's misdeeds.

Thus began years of living by Our Charter. We even agreed on a procedure to lay formal charges against each other, and punish an infraction with fines in pennies. The coins went into a piggy bank to provide us with special, secret luxuries. Being older and smarter, I managed to "convict" David more often, but he preferred the opportunity to argue that I had broken one of our laws, to a settlement by fists.


Graduating photo, grade eight (1947). “The Shrimp,” “The Brain.” and “most conceited boy in the class.”

Final year of public school

My final teacher at Rawlinson Public School was Mr. Bean. I admired him so much that I continued to visit him all through my high-school years. He was politically left-wing and encouraged us to debate the issues of the postwar world in his classes. There were five rows of seats, and each row was assigned a topic each morning. No nonsense about prayer and hymns – we discussed the United Nations, events in Europe, and the future promise of Communism. I still have my grade-eight exercise book; his name figures prominently in it.

At the end of morning presentations everyone voted on the best student performances that day. For this purpose we received blank slips of paper. I used to "doodle" on mine, but these were no ordinary caricatures. In grade eight I discovered a book explaining architecture to young people, and I loved to draw house plans. Each doodle was a miniature plan. I experimented with the placement of doors and windows, kitchens and bathrooms. Amused by my doodles as he counted ballots, Mr. Bean encouraged me to study architecture in high school.

The makings of a sociologist also emerged: I took surveys of the class. Only one remains with me: a survey of favourite songs. My own choice was The Old Lamplighter but the class majority preferred Mares Eat Oats.

The 1948 Rawlinson year-book includes the popular reputation of each pupil – "most likely to succeed" and that sort of thing. My reputation was "most conceited pupil in the class." It stung, but it was true. I was slowly becoming a self-made man who worships his creator.

I didn't care much for summer holidays at boys' camp, in spite of my love for the outdoors. I fared badly in sports competitions and there were numerous fights to be avoided. Yet a guardian angel hovered over me, and I was never "pulped" as the boys blithely called a many-fisted beating. I was fast with words and could usually talk my way out of trouble. A quick sense of incipient conflict warned me to get out of the way.


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