It’s August, and if you were once a kid growing up in Toronto, you know what that means. The Ex, the Exhibition, the CNE… is back. You know, that two-week window just before school starts when the Canadian National Exhibition – the huge amusement park down by the lake – is up and running for another year (well, for 14 days, anyway). Our annual family pilgrimage to the Ex when we were growing up in Leaside was anticipated almost as much as Christmas or the sweet and sour chicken balls from China Food on Millwood. Having said that, I should really start with a confession. I don’t think I’ve been to the Ex in about 40 years. But I remember it well.
We’d arrive in the morning, leaving the station wagon in a temporary grass parking lot near Fort York. Invariably, it would be the hottest day of the year, so we’d be sweating bullets and other higher calibre munitions before we even got out of the car. Air conditioning in cars was not particularly widespread at the time and our Country Squire wagon sure didn’t have it. Of course, my twin brother Tim and I had one destination on our mind: the midway and all those exciting rides. But my parents always seemed more intent on touring the Food Building. Now, there were some attractive features of the Food Building, including the tiny doughnuts concession – sugary-cinnamon, I recall. You could watch the little rings of dough trundle along a conveyor belt of sorts through the various stages of the cooking process, before they finally spilled down a ramp into the sweet and sugary mini doughnut holding bay, from which our bag was filled. They were so good.
Eventually, we’d hit the midway. An annual favourite was a few sessions on the bumper cars. Tim and I would chase each other around the closed rectangular driving space giving each other whiplash and the odd concussion with the force of our collisions. When we turned 16 and started driving lessons, our instincts behind the wheel were forged driving the bumper cars at the Ex – not exactly the ideal introduction to the art of driving safely. Later in the day, Dad would always take us on the Flyer, that ancient, old-school wooden roller coaster that was a permanent fixture at the CNE. It’s a miracle we all survived, but we did. As well, we’d usually take the overhead Alpine ride transporting us two-by-two in open, ski-lift style gondola seats from one end of the Ex to the other. As kids, none of this scared us, but I doubt I’d be so unruffled reliving our Midway exploits as someone who now gets the senior’s discount at Shoppers Drug Mart.
Perhaps the most memorable ride we always tried was the infamous Wild Mouse. This was a smaller but more hair-raising rollercoaster with cars that seemed to run off the track 30 feet in the air before suddenly and belatedly jerking around the turn to follow the rails. The deep dips were quite literally stomach-turning, so naturally, Tim and I would ride the Wild Mouse three times in quick succession. Then we both came down with a mysterious abdominal malady that my parents called Wild Mouse Stomach. We later learned that was just a fancy name for motion sickness.
But I also have memories of the Ex as a teenager. I worked there once at what I think was called the Railway Station Restaurant. Actually, it was really just a hamburger stand serving Choo-Choo burgers. We were forced to wear engineer’s caps and red neckerchiefs to get into the frontier railway spirit. I don’t think the restaurant survived more than a couple of CNE seasons. In hindsight, I’m not surprised that this particular restaurant at the Ex soon became an ex-restaurant. It took me a few years before I could even look at a hamburger again without hearing the booming voice of the short-order cook – and I use the term “cook” loosely, very loosely – shouting “Choo-Choo burger, pick-up!”
This may explain why I haven’t been back to the Ex in so long. But maybe I’ll give it another shot this year, but I’ll likely spend more time in the Food Building than at the Midway. I’m now a little too old to tempt the Wild Mouse and its queasy after effects. But you’re never too old for those mini doughnuts.
Stephen Leacock winner Terry Fallis’s ninth novel, A New Season, will be in bookstores on August 29th.