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WAYNE DICKIE: A prom night to remember for Cape Breton man

Scotia Hotel in Truro in its hey days of the 1920s. CONTRIBUTED
Scotia Hotel in Truro in its hey days of the 1920s. CONTRIBUTED

It was the spring of 1963, and I had just turned 17 and was living in Truro.

I was working at my sixth job since starting work at the age of 15. I worked briefly at several jobs at the Fosco Roofing Company, Robertson's Candy Factory and Yould's Farm in Old Barns, Bill Lynch's Show and the Debert Air Raid Shelter (The Diefenbunker).

The job I had that spring of 1963 was the best so far — working as a night clerk/porter/gopher at the Scotia Hotel on the Esplanade in Truro, across from the train station.

Wayne Dickie
Wayne Dickie

Some of my gofer duties at the hotel were running errands and picking up all kinds of things for the guests. My main job was checking in any guests after midnight as I worked the 12-8 a.m. shift, commonly called the "graveyard shift."

I had to lock the door every hour and take the night watchman's clock and go around from floor to floor where there was a key on a chain screwed to the wall. I would insert the key into the clock to verify I had been there at the time shown on the clock paper. This paper was replaced every shift as a record for insurance purposes. While doing this, I was to check for fires or water leaks. This practice was similar to today's smoke alarm and video check to ensure everything was OK.

Later I would have to go to the basement where a sizable coal-fired boiler provided the heat and hot water for the hotel. I had to open the boiler door, take a long rake and insert it into the boiler and rake the coals to ensure an even burn. Then I'd take the coal shovel and fill the boiler, banking the sides. It was like that famous boiler in the Overlook Hotel from the movie "The Shining."

Then it was on to the main lobby, checking the switchboard for calls, then wait another hour to do it all over again.

The hotel provided full-time accommodations for some guests, month-to-month for others, as well as nightly rooms. It had an abundance and a variety of characters coming and going.

My pay, for my not so typical work week, was a room at the hotel to live in and $25. I did get tips for running errands for clients and for helping set up for the sample men who came to town selling their wares. They had big trunks with various things in them, depending on what they were selling. Some had clothing, and I would take them out of the trunks and hang them up and create a flashy show for the potential buyers. These buyers would have had to book an appointment to view all the latest styles.

The clothing they were selling was always for upcoming seasons, sometimes six months in advance. In the spring, they would book all the Christmas fashions. Some sellers even employed a model to display their clothing.

The salesmen came with everything, from shoes to toys to kitchen utensils and appliances. They would have big fancy cars towing a trailer with all their merchandise in trunks stored inside the trailer. I was frequently asked to unload these massive trunks and take them downstairs to the sample rooms in the basement, first placing ramps over the stairs to slide them down. I usually got a good tip, and if they were successful with their order, a bigger tip when packing up.

One of the characters that lived there was a man named Stan, who was probably somewhere in his 50s (or at least he seemed that old to my young self). One day I was in the coffee shop when Stan came over and struck up a conversation. Out of the blue, he said: "I need you to do me a favour."

I turned to him and said, “Oh?”

Stan said, "I have this problem. This young girl is going to graduate this spring from high school. Her school is having a prom and she wants to go."

"Of course!" I thought to myself.

"The problem is she has no one to take her, and I couldn't go for obvious reasons, so I was wondering if you would do that for me?"

My first reaction was to say no, I hadn't even finished Grade 8. Stan pleaded with me, to which I quickly said: "I can't go anyway. I don't have anything to wear."

Then he said, "Well, I'm sure I could help you out. We could go over to Lilly's Clothing Store just a couple of buildings away and buy you a suit."

Now I was starting to get interested, so with me agreeing in principle to this, we went over to Lilly's. She arranged to sell us a suit, a white shirt and a tie. Lilly said she first had to see one of the sample men who was coming in that week and get it from him as Lilly's was a women's clothing store.

Stan and I went back to the hotel, where I told him I still needed shoes. Stan arranged with one of the shoe salesmen, who happened to be there, to purchase a pair of his sample shoes for me. The next week one of the men's clothing salesmen checked in, Lilly took me down to see him and arranged to purchase one of the suits that would fit me.

It was a grey serge suit and looked great and the salesman having heard the story said, “Here is a red vest and a tie to go with it.” Wow, my first suit! I tried it on, and did it ever look great on me.

It was getting closer to prom night when I approached Stan, who was with some other men in the coffee shop.

I said, "I still have a problem. I don't have a car; how could I take her if I don't have a car?"

After a lot of talk, one of the men I had come to know from his frequent visits with the owner of the hotel, who was Stan's friend, said I could borrow his car for the night. I know Stan breathed a sigh of relief as he had a Cadillac, and I know for sure he didn't want me driving it. Alex, the other man, would loan me his light blue, “not a Cadillac” car.

The hotel provided full-time accommodations for some guests, month-to-month for others, as well as nightly rooms. It had an abundance and a variety of characters coming and going.

Everything seemed to be falling into place, except I still needed some money. After all, I had to take my date for something to eat and maybe a drink after the prom. Stan, who was already paying out a considerable amount, reached into his pocket and gave me a $20 bill without hesitating.

The day of the prom finally came, and I was to meet my date for the first time. Stan drove out to the country where the girl lived, picked her up and brought her back to the hotel early that evening. He introduced us. She seemed like a nice person and wasn't bad looking either.

Then came the instructions from Stan.

"Take her to the prom, out for a bite to eat after and then straight home."

We drove to the Onslow High School for the prom. It was great. There were decorations everywhere. Everyone was dressed up and having a good time. We danced, laughed and had fun. Afterward, we went to Truro to the White Spot restaurant. We had a burger and a shake.

Then as per Stan's instructions, I took her home, which was a few miles out in the country. I gave her a quick kiss, said good night, and away I went.

My favour to Stan now completed, I went on to Hopgood's IGA where the Friday night dance was still going. I had a car and $15.50 left in my pocket. My night was just getting started!

The next day I went downstairs, and Stan, Alex, and the rest of the morning crew were sitting in the coffee shop. The inquisition was on. "Where? Who? When? What? Why?" The whole nine yards. I assured him I was the perfect gentleman and that all was well.

A few days later, Stan saw me in the lobby and came yelling, "What did you do to that girl?"

"What do you mean? I told you I was a perfect gentleman."

"Yaa! Well, she left me!"

"I can't help that. Maybe she just found out what it was like to be around some kids her age?" Then I walked away with him still screaming.

Every time he saw me after that, it was always the same conversation. That is, until November of that year when I joined the army. I managed, at my young age, to get into the military because my mother signed a form for me. My mother also contacted my school teacher who wrote a letter for me saying I had completed Grade 8, which was the minimum education you had to have to enlist.

I never saw my prom date again but did see Stan many years later, when he was an even older man. He remembered me but never mentioned the girl or the prom. It was just as well. My memories of that odd prom night are some of my best from that time.

Wayne Dickie is a resident of Sydney.

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