If you spend time with Ron Rodwell at the Canadian National Exhibition, he will likely ask you a few questions: What is your favorite attraction? What about your favorite ice cream? When was your first time at CNE?
Few people can beat a 95 year old. Its first year was in 1932, when admission cost a quarter, radios were mandatory technology in the electrical building, and Dufferin Gate was lit with hope: “Busy factories bring better times.”
He was five years old and it was the Great Depression. It was taken by Jesse’s grandfather because Ron’s father had mustard gas poisoning during the Great War and didn’t have that kind of stamina. His grandfather saved up some money for a tram ride home, and Ron drove bumper cars until they ran out of money. He remembers one day his mother was there with friends and ran the other way when she saw them because she knew they would run out of money.
“No one had a lot of money. It was hard for people.”
Since then, he has been here every August, except for the seven years when Aix was closed due to World War II and the pandemic. It’s 83 years old, and in most years he’s driven twice. Whatever happened in his life or in the world, it was always his great joy.
The last two summers had not been the same, but what could he do? “I was very disappointed that I couldn’t get to my exhibition,” he says. He enjoys the establishment in Toronto like a proud father at a parent-teacher party.
“They have mustard ice cream, have you seen that?” he says, pulling an article about noisy eating halfway through his trouser pocket, standing in the shadow of the Prince’s Gate. (This is a printed article. He does not have a mobile phone.)
The eight pockets of his cargo pants hold everything you need for the day, including the resume he brought in to save us “an hour and a half” of talking about his life after “The Ex” and his career in lumber, car parts and dry cleaners. In the other pocket are seven psychos, seven cartoons and seven lollipops, without which he never leaves the house. “I’m not superstitious,” he says.
He’s the guest of honor that day, waving to the crowd at the opening ceremony, trying to hear the speeches over the striking security inspectors picketing on the other side of the gate. Since he married Shirley, he has never been to the Ex without his wife, who is 88 years old. Her knees hurt so she didn’t come this year. He tries not to dwell on it, but she made a smart decision given the heat, he says.
“This is his favorite thing to do in the whole world,” Shirley says from their home in Burlington after four generations of Rodwells traveled to Aix on the GO train. I hope he’s having fun.
It passes halfway and talks about the buildings that were once here, where one could learn about countries on the other side of the world, such as “Tahiti, the mystical island of the South Seas.” Crowds gathered shoulder to shoulder to watch marathon swimmers, typing competitions, and see the latest “labor savings available to the urban housewife.”
“Isn’t it something? he says, pointing at the Mach-3, a pendulum-style ride the height of a mid-rise apartment.
– Do you want to continue? he asks his son John, patting him conspiratorially on the shoulder. When he was 83, Star spent the day with Rodwell and his wife at Ex. He drove bumper cars. He doesn’t ride the rides anymore, but he still enjoys walking halfway and looking at people.
“You know, my journey is coming to an end,” he says of his 95-year-old age.
He scans the food hall, studying the offerings. “I used to love those little donuts,” he says as he bites into a slice of pizza.
His grandson Joel quietly leaves to buy some.
Rodwell’s eyes widen as he returns with two bags of Tiny Tom Donuts. “They still got it, huh?” Donuts warm, freshly fried in the machine.
– Was there a composition? he asked. “There was always a line.”
Rodwell loves to tell stories. As we pass under the Sky Ride, he realizes he is telling the story he told me a few days ago. Which reminds him of a story about his stories. He was on a long road trip with his son John when he noticed that his son was marking something on a piece of paper. John ticked the box each time his father told an old story. (John, walking beside his father, shakes his head lovingly.) On the other side of the page, John was writing down new stories. At the end of the three-hour trip, Ron recited 24 classics and one new one. He told his wife and their Sunday morning coffee team about the count. Now every time he tells a hackneyed story, the ladies put ticks in the air. He is laughing. It’s not his fault that the stories need a good seasoning.
“You have to round it up, embellish it, make it better,” he says.
The Rodwells make their way to the children’s area, past a lone bucking mustang in a beer tent.
“You caught me too late for that,” he says.
Standing with his hands behind his back, he watches his daughter Stacey ride the little roller coaster with her great-grandchildren. That’s the whole point, he says. Who screams the loudest? he asked.
Before they leave, he visits the Guess Your Age stall. This is a tradition.
He pretends to be crazy when they guess 76. Rodwell claims he is 68. A small crowd has gathered. When they hear that he is 95 years old, they go crazy.
After 90 years of admiring rides, food and big band music, Ron Rodwell was a miracle at this point.
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