Meet the Flintstones
Our Cape Breton neighbourhood housed a middle school within walking distance of Cottage Road, and I use the term “walking distance,” loosely. It didn’t matter that we spent most of our lunch break walking in one direction or the other. It didn’t matter if it rained or snowed. What mattered was that we made haste so as not to miss our favorite lunchtime TV shows. If nothing else, the ritual provided the opportunity to later tell my own children that “when I was their age, I walked five miles to school,” a slight exaggeration, but not far from the truth. And as for the TV shows, well, they helped us make sense of the world.
This day, like every day, Mom was busy teaching at the vocational school. When I made my way through the back door, Granny stood at the cooktop stirring.
“What’s for lunch?” I slipped off my boots and hung my coat in the closet.
“Chicken with Rice.” Granny ladled steaming Campbell’s soup into bowls cradled on matching saucers. “How was school?”
“I got an A on my social studies test.” I took a seat at the round table with my little sister, Tish, and my baby brother, Roy, who sat in a booster seat smashing Hot Wheels together as if he were the Incredible Hulk.
My older sister, Brenda, followed closely behind and swung the TV stand from the family room to the kitchen so we could watch The Flintstones. We didn’t need a TV guide back then because we knew the times of all our favourite shows, sitcoms like The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family and Get Smart. At suppertime my father would swing the TV around again so we could watch the five o’clock news while we ate—a move that limited both conversation and conflict, our TV a multiple purpose appliance.
I stirred my soup and sung along to The Flintstones’ theme song.
“Shhh…” Brenda took a seat next to me.
I sang a few more bars just to annoy her and then dipped into my bowl.
As I watched the show, I considered the Flintstones as a family. If I’d been presented with parental options, I wouldn’t have chosen Wilma and Fred. I’d probably have chosen a father like Mike Brady or even better, a fatherless singing family with a peppy mother turned pop star, like the Partridges. Of course, you didn’t get to choose your family. We certainly weren’t the Flintstones, but as I sat there sipping soup, I realized the similarities between Dad and Fred extended further than their names. I turned to Brenda. “Dad is kind of like Fred when you think of it, only Dad has a backhoe, not a bronto crane.”
“True.” Brenda watched as Fred skillfully maneuvered his brontosaurus to move a huge boulder onto a waiting truck. “They’re also both good at what they do.”
I nodded and buttered a stack of crackers. “I think Dad loves his backhoe even more than Fred loves his brontosaurus.” Perched high in the cab of his backhoe tugging levers and gears, Dad’s relationship with his “brontosaurs” was almost symbiotic.
“That makes our garage the Slate Rock and Gravel Company.” Brenda stood to adjust the rabbit ears.
Dad had bought the backhoe used, along with a big red dump truck, at a Ritchie auction on the mainland. A heavy equipment mechanic by trade, he’d been able to breathe life back into these well-worn and rusted purchases. More and more equipment eventually made its way to the driveway until the neighbours, understandably wanting to keep their residential neighbourhood residential, complained. No amount of free driveway snow-ploughing could quell the rising discontent at what was becoming an industrial yard. As children, we never gave it a moment’s thought; the equipment, part of the family, and in some ways more important than any of us.
Granny glanced at the show and watched as Fred turned red and screamed in Barney’s face. “Oh, he’s like Fred Flintstone, alright,” she muttered.
In almost every episode, Fred would smash open the door and call out to Wilma in a voice loud enough to shake their stone roof. Or he’d lean into Wilma and point his finger in her face until she contorted into a backbend. I’d seen my father’s finger do the same, pushing mom up against a wall, but in the cartoon, Wilma would smash a cast iron pan over Fred’s head and sort him out in short order. That never happened in our world. Sometimes only a call to the police could get Dad to stop. Even though my father had half the girth of Fred Flintstone, his pointed finger conjured more menace, more fear. And Dad wasn’t a dolt like Fred Flintstone. He was smart and manipulative, far more dangerous than the man on the screen sporting a spotted loin cloth.
Midway through the show, my father made his way in from the garage. Unlike Fred Flintstone’s antagonistic mother-in-law, Pearl, who barked orders and whacked Fred with her purse at the slightest transgression, my grandmother communicated her disdain through pursed lips and drummed fingers. Unphased by Granny’s demeanor, Dad opened the fridge, grabbed an Oland’s and leaned against the counter. If it’d been further on in his bender, he would have poured himself a strong Bacardi and Tang or headed down to the Steel City with his friends, but today, week one of six, he settled for beer. As each bender progressed, the ratio of food to liquor would decrease—his poor stomach held hostage to a six-week assault until his body would surrender, and he’d start the process again.
We kept our eyes on the show, but the tightness in my chest made it hard to finish my soup.
My grandmother leaned close and whispered, “Waste not want not. For then someday you’ll say, ‘Oh, how I wish I had that soup, I once threw away.’”
I rolled my eyes at Granny’s old adage in the same way as when she told us the crusts of bread would make our hair curly. Then I dug back into my soup, one eye focused on the TV and the other surreptitiously on my father.
In this particular episode, Fred had gotten himself into trouble organizing Pebbles’ birthday party. Dancing girls jumped out of a giant cake and cavorted through the front door and out through the back. Fred ran back and forth closing doors and apologizing to Wilma for the mishap.
Dad pulled his pack of Export ‘A’ from the pocket of his green work shirt and fished around for a pack of matches. When the dancing girls charged through the door again and flattened Fred like a cardboard box, my father laughed and glanced over at us. That was one thing he liked to share. Laughter. And as always, his laugh triggered a symphony of giggles and allowed my shoulders time to unclench.
The phone rang and Dad made his way to the telephone table in the hallway to answer. “Pledge’s Construction,” he said, his voice deep and official. My father may have had little to do with our everyday lives, but like Fred Flintstone, he focused on improving our financial lot, growing his business or buying and selling properties like a kid playing Monopoly. At night I liked to listen to him scheme deals with his friends around the table, the ebb and flow of opportunity electrifying the kitchen. Each drink poured made everything possible. And even though there were many deals that crumbled, and contracts lost, somehow through the haze of alcohol, my father marched forward.
I tried to listen to Dad’s call, but the conversation became white noise behind the debacle of Pebbles birthday party mix-up. I watched as Fred managed to get himself out of the trouble he had so unknowingly created. Fred wrapped his thick arms around Wilma and laughed that booming belly laugh while Pebbles giggled in his arms. I wondered what it would be like to have a father like that. It might have been nice to have an executive like Mike Brady as a dad, smiling with those perfect teeth, asking about your day and coming to your rescue, but how realistic was that? And as much as I liked their quirky housekeeper, Florence, I loved my grandmother with her understated ways, and I surely didn’t want step-sisters or brothers. Sure, Brenda drove me nuts with her big-sister know-it-all attitude, but I wouldn’t have traded her for the world. All I wanted was a happy epilogue, even some of the time.
I couldn’t imagine my father wrapping us in his arms and saying he was sorry; save for the odd endearing glance, I was a ghost. Sometimes when he was sober, like Fred with Pebbles, Dad would carry Tish or Roy around in the crook of his arm, their little hands gripping his work-shirt. And while pictures have confirmed he did the same with Brenda and me, physical displays of affection ended once we were too big to ride shotgun on his arm.
Dad put the receiver down and headed back into the kitchen. He grabbed another beer from the fridge and made his way out to the garage, stopping for a minute to give Roy a little nuggy, a Fred Flintstone meets Mike Brady kind of move that made me smile. Roy, a miniature version of my father with his strawberry hair and blue eyes, rubbed his head not sure if he should laugh or cry. I felt the same way. Sometimes when Dad was lying on the couch after dinner with the TV turned back into the family room, he’d let Roy run his Hot Wheels up and down his body as if his limbs were a human raceway. Roy growled engine noises like Dad in his backhoe, and every now and then Dad would snatch one of the trucks, and Roy would laugh and try to find where Dad had stashed it. I liked this TV version of Dad although it didn’t air very often.
With the closing song playing and credits rolling on the screen, we took our bowls to the sink. From a rack sitting on the counter, I grabbed a cinnamon roll Granny had made that morning and stood looking out through the back window onto Champlain Avenue, peeling away sweet cinnamon strips. April in Cape Breton didn’t offer much in terms of weather, and the walk back to school would be damp and cold with rain turning to snow and back to rain again. This cycle would continue until early June when the sun mustered a little enthusiasm and green buds, finally brave enough to peek out and assess the situation, reared their tiny heads.
“Let’s go.” Brenda laced her boots at the backdoor.
I shoved what was left of the cinnamon roll into my mouth and quickly got ready. Brenda would walk with me until her friends joined, and I didn’t want to miss that. Who wanted to have a sister three years their junior following them to school? Things like that only happened on The Brady Bunch.
As we trudged back to school, huge wet April raindrop-snowflakes landed on our uncovered heads, pressing my straight hair firmly into my scalp. It never rained on the sitcoms or cartoons we watched, and no matter what misery reared its head, by the time the half-hour show finished, everyone had a smile on their face. But even then, I knew none of that was true, and I wondered how our real-life episode would conclude that night.
We turned when we heard Dad’s backhoe lumbering down Cottage Road behind us. We knew the sound anywhere. When he saw us, he smiled and waved, and we waved back in return, watching as he made his way to another job. Without the “Yabba-Dabba-Doo,” and a catchy theme song, the scene may not have played well on TV, but in that moment, I was Pebbles riding in the crook of Fred’s arm.