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Remembering White Rock’s endless summer

Longtime resident Alex Matches recalls childhood summer days during the 1930s and ’40s

This feature appeared in print in Peace Arch News’ spring 2022 Indulge


Whenever Alex Matches smells newly-baked bread his mind travels back through the decades to the White Rock that used to be, in the late 1930s and the 1940s.

He can still feel the warmth of the glorious, seemingly endless summers of his childhood, when every hour from sun up to sundown was filled with delights and new wonders.

As a boy, he and his kid sister Shirley would travel from Vancouver by train every summer, with their parents, Jack and Catherine, to stay with Catherine’s mom and dad in the East Beach section of White Rock.

The Mairs, Alex and Mary had a summer cabin – named Clydebank, after their old home in Scotland – at the corner of Maple Street and Victoria Avenue, just a hop and skip from Washington Avenue (as Marine Drive used to be called).

“Right across the street on Victoria was an auto court where people would take summer rentals,” Matches, 87, recalled.

Also across the street lived Sgt. Bill Moffat of the Surrey Municipal Police Force who owned a 1939 Plymouth – late-model cars were a rarity in those times.

They’d fall asleep each night to the wheezy bray of Great Northern steam train whistles, he remembered, while the rising sun would wake them each morning in the lattice-enclosed front room they shared in the cabin.

So, too would the “unforgettable smell of freshly-baked bread at the commercial bakery up the street at Columbia Avenue,” he said. “It was next door to the Red & White store at the corner of Maple and Columbia – both of them long gone.”

While it wasn’t a bakery store per se, the public could purchase some of the daily product – and the children would often be sent up there with a handful of small change to buy a couple of loaves.

Turning through each page of old photo albums – in the South Surrey home where he lives quietly these days with his wife Arlene – evokes another memory for Matches.

It was a lazy summer lifestyle at that time, the retired RCMP and Vancouver Fire Department veteran and author said.

“We spent a lot of time at the beach. You would go to the beach in the morning and be down there all day, getting burned to a crisp. We’re brown as berries in some of these pictures.”

His grandparents’ home was one of a cluster of small buildings, and outdoor ‘biffies’, on a sandy bank overlooking Washington Avenue and the tracks, he said.

There was none of the hustle and bustle of modern-day traffic in White Rock, Matches noted.

“The noisiest thing then was the train. When we heard it, naturally, as kids, we’d have to run and see,” he added.

A diagonal route among the cabins led to a corner building known as The Nest, which provided the finest vantage point to watch trains clunking along the rails.

“When we heard a train coming we’d run right over to the corner of the bank and watch it rumbling by,” he recalled.

“The engineer would blow the whistle all the way along the waterfront – the tracks were a thoroughfare. People walked on them all the time, walking up from the parking lots, which were dirt. None of them were paved then.”

In retrospect, the times seem idyllic, Matches agreed. Although the Second World War started when he was four and ended when he was 10, his dad, as a plain-clothed officer with the Vancouver Police Department, was not subject to the call-up, and the family was not separated as so many others were.

But the children were still very conscious of the war. It was ever present in Red Cross and Victory Bond drives and the presence of men and women in uniform on the streets, while the trains that passed through daily often seemed to be loaded with war materials on flatcars – armaments, trucks, even dis-assembled plane fuselages and wings covered with tarpaulins, he recalled.

At that time, the preferred mode of communication with Vancouver was by letter (“to call White Rock from Vancouver was a long-distance charge,” Matches noted).

It was customary, he recalled, to send the children over “the hump” to West Beach to pick up the mail from the post office.

“It was a long walk for us kids over very hot wooden sidewalks, and then we had the long walk home,” he said.

There were compensations, however. At the time there was a confectionery store on the beach side of Washington Avenue – just down the hill from the Semiahmoo First Nations cemetery – where he could spend some of his 25-cent weekly allowance.

“We’d often go there for an ice cream cone after getting the mail,” he said. “We’d buy torpedo and horseshoe-shaped ‘suckers’ at the same store. If you were lucky, you’d find a coupon for a free sucker under the wrapper. One day I came away from the store with two free ones!”

Hamburgers were also a big deal in his youth, Matches recalled – in Vancouver he was an early aficionado of the White Spot and The Aristocratic chains – although, in White Rock, “nothing beat a small pressed-cardboard tray of fish and chips from one of the small shops in the area, salted and peppered and sprinkled with vinegar.”

As a movie fanatic in those days, it was only natural that he would go to the Park Theatre, across the Campbell River Road from Semiahmoo Park, to catch a matinee, including popular cliffhanger serials.

One particular movie he saw at the Park sticks in his mind – the 1943 extravaganza Dixie, starring Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, which purported to be the story of 19th century American composer-entertainer Daniel Decatur Emmett.

“I remember it for the Technicolor and the song ‘Dixie’ – we kids were singing it for weeks afterwards,” he said.

But so much of their time then was spent outdoors, he remembered.

“Whenever we came to White Rock, the first thing we’d do would be to rent a tandem bike from Hanslow’s Home Gas station on Washington Avenue,” he said. “We liked the tandems because we could ride together,” he added, pointing to a snapshot of himself and Shirley on one of the bikes in 1943.

“We’d ride all over the neighbourhood.”

Another draw for children was the large cage of squirrels beside Hanslow’s at the foot of a stairway down from the hillside, Matches remembered.

“I don’t know who caught and caged all those squirrels, but they were a source of fascination for all the kids,” he said.

Another picture, from around the same time, shows Matches on the beach, gingerly holding up a large crab.

“One of my grandparents’ neighbours was a Mr. Coughlan – an older gentleman with white hair – with whom I often went crab fishing early in the morning,” he recalled.

“We’d head down to East Beach with our home-made crab catchers and a pot that we’d fill with sea water.” The water would be placed over a small fire to heat up while they were crabbing, he said.

“We’d return to a pot of hot water, stoke up the fire, and, when it was ready, he’d drop in our catch and we would enjoy a crab feast – and the extra cooked crabs were always welcome when we came home.”

Of course, as with all idylls, there was inevitably an ending.

“I stopped coming down here when I was around 14 or 15,” Matches said. “I had other interests at the time – mostly cars and girls.”

Adult life – with all its responsibilities and unexpected twists of fate – was just around the corner.

Little did Matches know that, as he and other teens whiled away the time playing the pinball machine in a café near the Ocean Beach Hotel in the summer of 1949, in less than five years he’d be a member of the RCMP.

“When I graduated from high school I didn’t have any goals,” he admitted. “Joining the RCMP was the best thing I ever did – it made a man of me, made me a better person.”

Not just that, but after a couple of years of training he’d be selected for the plum assignment of donning the Red Serge for the RCMP Musical Ride – the force’s touring equestrian show team – which took him across Canada and the U.S. in 1956 and to England, and meeting the Royal Family, in 1957.

Meeting and courting Arlene was still in the future, along with their children Stephanie, Sandy and Ryan, as was a 33-year career with the Vancouver Fire Department, when his five-year hitch with the RCMP was up.

So, too, were writing four books, including an authoritative history of the VFD, Vancouver’s Bravest.

Although some serious heart issues have limited his mobility recently, he and Arlene spent many blissful retirement years travelling all over Canada and the U.S. with their classic Airstream trailer – as well as seeing much of the world on many cruises.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” Matches said.

Turning the page of a photo album evokes another memory.

Back in 1949 when the teenage Matches put his nickels in the White Rock cafe’s jukebox to listen to Frankie Laine sing hits like Mule Train and That Lucky Old Sun, he never dreamed he’d be seeing his idol in person one day.

That happened in 1956, when the RCMP Musical Ride was appearing at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Following the show, Matches and several comrades found themselves with time on their hands.

“We left Madison Square Garden in the full Red Serge with sidearms and everything. Somebody said ‘let’s stop in for a beer somewhere – since we’re in the States’.

They found themselves at the famed Latin Quarter nightclub – where Laine was appearing as the headliner.

Matches recalled the group of full-dress Mounties told the ‘maitre-d’, somewhat apologetically, that they had just stopped in for a beer – but he was determined to extend the club’s hospitality to the visitors.

“He said ‘We’ll find something for you’,” Matches remembered, with a smile. “That turned out to be a table right at the stage.”

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About the Author: Alex Browne

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