By Asen Aleksandrov –
In 1965, when Bruce MacGregor was tackling his sixth year of high school, Ottawa was a different and much smaller place.
Far from the bustling suburbs they are today, Kanata, Orleans and Barrhaven were fledgling rural communities. The stretch between what are now St. Laurent Shopping Centre and Smyth Road was, in MacGregor’s words, “more or less a dirt road with the barest hints of civilization.”
Today, the 72-year-old retired teacher leads a quiet life with his family in Westboro, a dozen or so kilometres west of where that dirt road used to be. The memories of the cozier city of his youth are still fresh in MacGregor’s heart, and he recently immortalized them in a book called Capital Recollections.
Part history and part autobiography, Capital Recollections contains a selection of personal, often humorous anecdotes, set against the backdrop of the many cultural and social developments of the fifties and sixties.
Back then the growing city was a tapestry of places and attitudes a modern reader might not recognize, many of which MacGregor recalls with heartfelt detail.
“I have a ridiculous memory,” he jokes, adding that he had entirely too many stories to work into Capital Recollections.
The majority of the book chronicles his school years, which were an eventful time.
“School was a struggle–I worried big time,” he recalls. “I had terrible grades and too much energy. Today I would probably be on some kind of medication.”
MacGregor put that frenetic nature to use on the football field and in the gym. He also had a flare for storytelling, which would come into play later in life.
After failing to graduate on time, MacGregor had to retake Grade 13 and finally edged across the finish line with an average of 62. Fortunately, back in 1965 Carleton University had a lower bar for admission than it does today, and MacGregor’s studies there set the stage for what would eventually become a 30-year teaching career.
The stories in the book are entangled with the realities of life in that era. The emergence of television, the suburban explosion, the dating culture of the fifties: those and many other subjects come to life through MacGregor’s narrative. In his words, Capital Recollections aims to take other baby boomers like himself on a nostalgic ride.
To younger readers, the book opens a window to a version of Ottawa that would probably surprise them. The city of MacGregor’s youth was not just smaller, but–as readers will discover–had a very different character.
After graduating, MacGregor would lead a colourful life in Ottawa as the city itself grew up around him. He would write short stories, play football at Carleton and even become the unofficial historian of the Ravens football team and its alumni association, the Old Crow Society. He also started a rock band called Bruce and the Burgers, although not exactly on purpose.
“It was supposed to be a one-night thing,” he explains. “The band started as a joke, but our students wouldn’t let us end it. They rented a venue, and we just kept going after that.”
The group ended up playing all over Ottawa and ultimately became the house band at gatherings of the Elvis Sighting Society, a collection of larger-than-life local personalities that included the late Citizen and Sun columnist Earl McRae, businessman Moe Atallah–the owner of legendary Westboro eatery Moe’s Newport Restaurant–and pool player extraordinaire Ervin Budge.
It was an association that would set the stage for many other unpredictable events in MacGregor’s life.
“Away from the classroom, things got pretty wild back then,” he says with a grin.
MacGregor retired from teaching in 2000 and kept The Burgers going for another decade. He says three decades of patrolling school hallways–not to mention raising two kids–helped work some of the craziness out of his system.
But he still loved sports, and he still loved to tell stories.
In the winter of 2016, when he was vacationing with his wife and her family in Victoria, something her brother-in-law said to him struck a chord.
“He is kind of an intense guy,” MacGregor explains, “and he said that people our age can disappear out of our own lives. You tend to not do anything new, just going through the motions. I took that to heart.”
So after Christmas that year, having just returned from vacation, he set himself to the task of writing a book. Not sure what it would be at first, he let his love for storytelling take charge. Over the course of the next year and a half, the pages would fill with memories of his childhood in Ottawa, a city barely recognizable from the one we live in today.
“I am not going to disappear,” MacGregor recalls thinking to himself. “I am going to write a book, and I am going to learn to play the guitar.” Both of which he did.
Capital Recollections is available at World of Maps and online from Burnstown Publishing.