BEATLES BUBBLEGUM CARDS

Ricky is the youngest boy – the one born on the very day the Scot left for overseas.

The troop ship left the port of Halifax as my mother labored in a Cape Breton hospital.

She well-remembered the day in 1941 when the Scott left with the Cape Breton Highlanders.

At 33-years-old, his step was unusually springy.

“He’d spent over two years training in Canada, so he was anxious to go,” she says.

“Heading off to exotic locations – I think, to him, it seemed like a holiday.”

“None of those men knew what they were in for.”

With the new baby in her arms and four other boys at home, his departure leaves her with more than a few misgivings.

Ricky had five full years as the youngest child, before any of the girls came along.

They must have been wonderful years.

There is a tale that he traded the baby girl born in 1946 for a tire, although there is really nothing more than anecdotal evidence of the transaction.

But, as the youngest of the whole brood, I was in the primo position.

Although my parents must have been tired of kids by the time I came along, that didn’t mean they cut much slack – well, maybe a little. More money (fewer kids) meant life wasn’t such a scramble.

They had pretty much “been there, done that” a few times over before my appearance on the scene.

The best part about being the youngest? Older brothers and sisters – with jobs!

And Ricky was the softest touch.

“I’ll take you to the store for some Beatles bubblegum cards,” he says one day.

This.

He’d just arrived home from Montreal for a visit.

I am 10 and he is 24.

He seems so mature, so adult-like and so independently wealthy!

We walk the block over to a corner store on Townsend Street.

It is my favourite place in the whole world.

The owners make it so. I’ll call them Mr. and Mrs. Charles.

There is a rack of comic books and magazines and a counter lined with every candy and chocolate bar known to humankind.

A lift-top pop machine filled with cold, circulating water sits just to the left of the counter. Lift the lid, put your money in, choose a bottle and drag it through a metal corridor until it comes to a metal trap. Pull the bottle quickly up through the trap.

Mr. Charles wipes the cold water from the bottle with a dish towel.

I always get Double Cola. There’s more in the bottle and I can share with my friend, Barbara.

“How are you today,” says Mr. Charles as we come through the door.

He is always smiling.

Mr. Charles speaks with a thick Eastern European accent and wears a brace on his leg.

The little numbers tattooed on his arm are the source of endless fascination for me.

The only other person I know with a tattoo is my brother Danny. It is a heart wrapped around his wife’s name.

The tattoo on Mr. Charles’ arm was different. I know that even as a child.

Having my brother by my side gives me more courage. I point to the blurred blue numbers.

“What is that.”

He looks down at the number undoubtedly dug into his arm one horrifying day in Auschwitz and then back at the scraggy-headed 10-year-old in front of him.

“It’s my telephone number – so I won’t forget,” he says, smiling.

As a child, I knew nothing of his history or that of his sweet wife, so I accepted his answer without further questioning.

Besides, my brother now has a pincer grip on my shoulder.

“I’m sorry – she talks a lot …”

“No, no – she’s curious – she’s a child,” he says to Ricky.

He looks at me and smiles once more.

“Your brother buy you something, Mary? He’s good to you.”

Beatle Bubblegum cards! I’d almost forgotten.

I begin to dig through the wrapped packages, trying to figure which ones will contain cards I already had in my collection and which would transport me to another world with new photos of the best musicians in the world.

At 5 cents apiece, these packages were worth their weight in gold. With a weekly allowance of only 25 cents, I could only afford one package per week (movie, pop, chips took up the remainder of my allowance), so I had to make this count.

Ricky and Mr. Charles talk about jobs in Montreal, about world events – all the adult stuff I choose to ignore.

If only you could peek – lift the waxy corner of the packaging and discern which cards would be inside.

It’s a dilemma.

I stare at the opened box – there are four rows of cards in the box, four packages deep – well, someone has already bought one of the packages – but how can I decide?

Ricky decides for me.

He reaches under the box and slides out a full and unopened box.

“We’ll just take the whole thing,” he says.

Oh, there are children who go to Disney World and children who live in palaces but there are no others who stand beside a smiling man with a telephone number on his arm and a brother like mine.

Barbara and I spend the rest of the afternoon sharing a bottle of double cola as we open endless packages of Beatles bubblegum cards.

I haven’t used the name of the store or the owners in this story. They are deceased and I haven’t found anyone to ask for permission to use their real names. They were a wonderful couple, hard-working and sweet to scraggy little kids who would venture into their store every day.