3 min

The camp men’s migration

Calling friends of Messy Mae

In a not-so-recent In Hindsight column in Xtra, Robert Rothon closed with a reference to a near-legendary goose-hunting expedition to Lost Lagoon by a 1970s character named Messy Mae. The story got me thinking.

Messy Mae was, to most of Robert’s readers, a cartoonish nickname attached to a wildly improbable story involving a drunken night in Stanley Park, a hapless goose, a bathtub scene from Psycho and a memorable Thanksgiving dinner.

But there must be a few left besides myself who can actually put a face to the name and can conjure up images of Mae’s burly figure scuttling up the side aisle at the Ambassador Hotel beer parlour, rushing to get up the three steps to the washroom before he, well — messed himself.

Messy Mae was one of a special breed of queer that thrived in the 1950s and ’60s, earning a living in the ultra-butch world of the logging, construction and mining camps. Most were cooks, timekeepers, bull-cooks and other sorts of camp life factotums. They would work through the spring and summer months in faraway corners of the province, helping clear-cut forests, strip-mine watersheds and build huge hydroelectric dams. When their work season ended, they would hightail it to Mexico or Cuba or wherever they chose to winter, pockets full of cash, in pursuit of beautiful young men to help them spend it.

Four or five months later, broke, exhausted and happy, they’d head north again for the ready cash to be earned making beds and flipping pancakes for the men of the woods.

We saw them twice a year. On their way south in the fall and north in the spring they’d lay over in Vancouver, stay in seedy hotel rooms and hang out at the Ambassador or the Castle pubs and the Granville St White Lunch cafeteria until it was time to move on.

It was a good living and one that brought them into intimate proximity with an enviable number of butch, horny young loggers, miners and truckers. The mind boggles.

Messy Mae was only one of many personalities I remember from those days, most of them with colourful nicknames. Rosie Slush Guts was a good friend of Messy’s. The Duchess of Bermuda ran the kitchen for a season or so at The August Club; Big Bird was the underage bartender in many a bar and club.

Some of the old gang are still out there clipping their coupons or cashing their remittance cheques. But many of the companions of our misspent youth have taken their stories of gay life in our town in the ’70s, and earlier, to their graves. And listen up, folks: none of us is getting any younger, so it’s time to start spilling the beans.

This is the seventh installment of this little potted memoir of the period, and I’ve been hearing from some of my fellow survivors. We’ve been getting together over coffee and worse, and putting the pieces back together.

Only this month I spent an evening with Betty Durety and Mrs Gougin and shared a Chinese dinner with Big Bird. We corrected each other’s memories and filled in some blanks and, to be perfectly maudlin, we were young again. I’ll be catching you up on the results of those sessions in future installments.

A lot of old queers think that the kids are too busy having their own party to want to hear about ours. But I’ve been gratified by the number of youth who have told me that they enjoy hearing about our community’s past and want to hear more.

Events like last month’s Queer Cabaret: Bringing It All Together prove that elders and youth (am I really ready for that word “elder”?) are both learning to see their own stories reflected in those of another generation.

We need to get with this program, my cranky, creaky old friends. It’s important that we tell each other our stories, because there’s great comfort in that as we choose the costumes for our final act.

And it’s important that the next crop of queers know that they didn’t spring out of nowhere and nothing. While they inevitably think they discovered sex and drugs and whatever passes for rock-and-roll these days, others have been there and done that. And they may be able to suggest a moral to the story.

So all you friends of Messy Mae and Betty Durety and Chrissie Warren, get in touch and tell me your version of events, before mine becomes the official record! Nobody else is going to write this stuff down for you!