Western Arctic Tales and 1970’s Car Phones

For years I’ve been amused by the geographic similarities between Glenn Gould and my parents.  Born in Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) and Sudbury respectively, my Mom and Dad (Patricia and Gary Johnson) have roots in the regions of Northern Ontario that were of interest to Glenn.  After marrying in the early 1970’s, my parents went to live and work in the Northwest Territories.  Trained as teachers, they took an opportunity to work with the indigenous community of Fort Franklin.

mom in fort franklin

(My Mom with a sweet pup in Fort Franklin, Northwest Territories, ca. 1973).

In his 1967 CBC radio documentary entitled The Idea of North, Glenn talks about having pulled up his parka and gone there.  As far as we know, Churchill, Manitoba was as far as he got.  Recently, Lorne Tulk told me that Glenn’s trip to Churchill was probably what planted the seed in his mind for the program.  “Mind you,” Lorne continued, “his Churchill journey was (I think) before we’d made Petula [The Search for Petula Clark]…I do remember after we finished Petula, we were in the front hallway of the old radio building, and Glenn said, well, asked if I’d like to do another project and made a reference to something about the North, that was swirling around in his head.”

Interestingly, as with others who have went North, I notice that whenever my parents speak of their time in that remote part of the country, there is a level of seriousness that accompanies memories.  Of course there are smiles, but always there is an element of solemnity, as if the isolation can still be felt.

Figuratively speaking, it was that same quality of isolation sought by Glenn, for as an artist he believed solitude to be the prerequisite for ecstatic experiences.  I think this is why whenever we watch him perform at the piano it is as though he’s in another world, a beautiful and good place where we, as listeners, can only peer in from the outside.  In a way, Glenn had gone North in his mind, away from all things mainstream.  He had trodden off the central path and found for us unlimited musical treasures.

Although my parents don’t speak very much of their time in the North, I can recall rainy days spent in the basement of our home in Sault Ste. Marie.  I would enjoy going through photo albums and what I perused was a mix of items from both Alaska (in the late-1960’s, my Dad lived in Point Barrow) and primarily Fort Franklin.

There were photos of Inuit people in classrooms and of them outside laughing.  There was a photo of a sled dog and I remember hearing about how the weather was so cold that when it died, the body quickly froze and got placed in an outdoor bin.  I also remember my Mom telling me how the Inuit people didn’t use clocks and so it was difficult to have them arrive somewhere at a desired time.

In addition to the photos, there were various mementos that my parents brought back with them.  My Dad remembers how the mukluks that he had in Alaska featured soles made from the hide of a seal.  The brown coloured mid-portion of the boot had come from a wolf and the white portion on the top had come from the hide of a mink.

Dad in the Arctic

(My Dad at the Arctic Ocean just off the shore of Point Barrow, Alaska, ca. late-1960’s.)

The enormous mittens, of which I remember having being slightly fearful, were made from the fur of an Arctic wolf.  As my Dad explained, “it is interesting to note that the ruff around the hood of the parka on many occasions included the fur from a wolverine.  This fur sewn into the ruff served a major purpose in that the moisture from one’s breath would not freeze and stick onto the ruff.  One had to merely brush the frozen area of the wolverine skin and it would simply fall off.  It was amazing!”

Another item from my Dad’s time in Alaska features a carving done by an Inuit gentleman.  As it was explained to my Dad, the carver “carved the subjects [a Momma polar bear, her two cubs and a newly captured seal] out of ivory [whale bone] and they were glued onto a fashioned piece of baleen from the baleen whale.  The baleen,” he went on “were large appendages of the whale that they used to scrounge for food on the ocean floor.”

What I remember most about this piece is its smoothness to the touch and also the expressiveness of the mother polar bear.  The piece evokes a feeling of quiet thoughtfulness.  It also reminds me of a similar piece that was shown to me by Marianne Schroeder, a nurse who went up North in the 1960’s and who Glenn selected to be one of the speakers in The Idea of North.

Arctic art

(Handmade carving in ivory (whale bone) with baleen, from Point Barrow, Alaska, ca. late-1960’s.)

Additionally, my parents had brought back two sets of an Inuit game involving two balls, each of which was attached by a string to a solid object.  The solid object was a tooth from a large animal, perhaps a seal.  The string part was made from animal product as were the balls, which had faces on the fronts of them.  Apparently the object of this game was to hold the tooth in one’s hand and wave it in a circular fashion in such a way that the two balls would make large circles in opposite directions.

Inuit yoyo

(Inuit game from Fort Franklin, ca. early 1970’s.)

My parents also had large educational poster board colour prints of various scenes from Inuit life.  On the backside of each card was a description of the scenes ranging from hunting to life inside of an igloo.

It was during their time up North in the early 1970’s that my parents would pick up a radio signal from Peace River, a small town in North Western Alberta.  They thought that it might make for a nice place to raise a family once their time in the North had ended.  I find it interesting to note that my parents moved to this small, friendly little town despite not having had any relatives or friends in the area.  As with Glenn, my parents have always placed great value on quietness, solitude and nature.

fort franklin & peace river

It was shortly after their relocation from Fort Franklin to Peace River that my parents  opened a pizza restaurant called Mugsy’s.  This was in the mid-1970’s and the restaurant did very well.  It did so well in fact, that my parents were able to treat themselves to a new car and a car phone!

Recently, I was talking with Lorne and wondering if he could recall whether or not Glenn ever identified from where he was calling.  I had been curious to know if Lorne ever knew when Glenn was calling from various locations along the highway (motels, rest stops, etc.) versus regular calls from his home in Toronto.  Anyhow, Lorne got to telling me about how Glenn had a phone in his car.  “This was back in the seventies, before cell phones,” he told me.  “Only taxis and police cars had mobile phones in those days.  As far as I know, Glenn was the only exception to have a mobile phone in his car.  It was rather unusual…No, it was unheard of!!!”

When Lorne told me this, I had no idea that my parents had also had a phone in their car in the 1970’s and that was not in a major city either, but rather in a little prairie town.  Working long hours as they did, my Mom explained how she and my Dad needed a treat, a way to get away for a ride in the nice car and still be reachable to the staff at the restaurant.  The car phone was the answer.

All of this came up recently as I was talking with my Mom about various things, some of which related to Glenn.  Imagine my surprise when I learned of the phone my parents had in the car.  My Mom and I had a good laugh.  We had been sitting at the kitchen table, warm and cozy and looking at flyers, while outside the cold rain cast a Gouldian blanket of grey upon our densely wooded backyard.  Glenn would surely be surprised (and pleased) to know that in loving grey weather he was not alone, for this weather offers a gentle reminder of the value of going North.

Getting back to the business of having a car phone in the 1970’s, I should point out, that as with Glenn’s phone, the control box (transmitter and receiver) sat in the trunk and, to quote my Mom, “the telephone part itself was literally a big, black old fashioned kind of telephone!”  I can just imagine pulling off to the side of the road in order to take (or make) a call, not to mention rummaging through cassettes for the 8-track player.  I wonder if Glenn’s car had one of those.

En route for a new life in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario (Glenn loved this region of highway 17 in the Northern part of the province) our little family left Peace River, minus the Thunderbird, in the summer of 1983.  We would now be closer to my grandparents.  By that time, Glenn had been dead for almost a year and it would be another ten years or so before I would come to learn of him.

I like to think that, had I been born earlier and had an opportunity to know Glenn we would have gotten along well.  Perhaps not.  What I do know is that I have been incredibly influenced by the artistry and personal character of that telephonic Northern obsessed Canadian pianist and, when I am daydreaming I sometimes think about the rare possibility that, on one of our trips east, the Johnson family Thunderbird just may have passed Glenn’s beloved Lance or Longfellow (he named his cars) on highway 17.

It’s a happy thought that the Soo is not just home, but also a point along Glenn’s journey towards musical ecstasy and human goodness.  The experiences of my parents up North have helped me to appreciate Glenn and, while my parents may have travelled South to get to where we are now, the North was and always will be in our hearts.

(P. S. In case you’re wondering how the 1970’s car phone would ring, the answer is that the horn would beep.  Thanks Mom and Dad!)

penny & zaki

(Penny with Zaki, the Johnson family dog at home in Sault, Ste. Marie, Ontario, ca. 1983.)


  1. Hi Penny. Your mom emailed me your lastest blog. I enjoyed it immensely. I now know a little more of the “Johnson” history as well as the Canadian travels of Glen Gould. Thank you! Marilyn


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