"I'm scared and scarred but I’ve survived"
Tom Wilson was raised in the rough-and-tumble world of Hamilton—Steeltown— in the company of World War II vets, factory workers, fall-guy wrestlers and the deeply guarded secrets kept by his parents, Bunny and George. For decades Tom carved out a life for himself in shadows. He built an international music career and became a father, he battled demons and addiction, and he waited, hoping for the lies to cease and the truth to emerge. It would. And when it did, it would sweep up the St. Lawrence River to the Mohawk reserves of Quebec, on to the heights of the Manhattan skyline.
With a rare gift for storytelling and an astonishing story to tell, Tom writes with unflinching honesty and extraordinary compassion about his search for the truth. It's a story about scars, about the ones that hurt us, and the ones that make us who we are.
From Beautiful Scars:
Even as a kid my existence as the son of Bunny and George Wilson seemed far-fetched to me. When I went over it in my head, none of it added up. The other kids on East 36th Street in Hamilton used to tell me stories of their mothers being pregnant and their newborn siblings coming home from the hospital. Nobody ever talked about Bunny's and my return from the hospital. In my mind my birth was like the nativity, only with gnarly dogs and dirty snow and a chipped picket fence and old blind people with short tempers and dim lights, ashtrays full of Export Plain cigarette butts and bottles of rum.
Once, when I was about four, I asked Bunny, "How come I don't look anything like you and George? How come you are old and the other moms are young?"
"There are secrets I know about you that I’ll take to my grave," she responded. And that pretty well finished that. Bunny built up a wall to protect her secrets, and as a result I built a wall to protect myself.
About the author
- Short-listed, Kobo Emerging Writer Prize
TOM WILSON is a three-time Juno winning Canadian musician with multiple gold records. He has written for and recorded songs with Sarah McLachlan, City and Colour, Jason Isbell, Colin James, Lucinda Williams, Billy Ray Cyrus, Mavis Staples and The Rankin Family. His band Junkhouse has scored eleven top-ten hits, and his iconic, Americana-fuelled Blackie and the Rodeo Kings was widely publicized for its presence on George Bush's iPod. Tom's most recent incarnation, Lee Harvey Osmond, has received extensive praise and airplay throughout the United States, where he's been touring for the last two years as a result. His art has shown in galleries in New York City, Vancouver, Toronto and more recently, Ottawa. The author lives in Hamilton, Ontario.
Excerpt: Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home (by (author) Tom Wilson)
The War Amps Pool
Most of the social events Bunny and George dragged me to were held at assorted Legions, veterans clubs and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. The War Amps on the mountain brow was the closest club to our rented house on East 36th Street. It’s where I would be taken to swim from time to time in the summer as a young boy, and at Christmas it’s where I’d go to get my presents from Santa.
Children of broken World War II veterans would gather for Remembrance Days, Easters, Christmas parties. These gatherings were a chance for the vets to drink and bitch and watch the Leafs and Ticat games together, and for the aging war brides to drink and complain and talk about what was happening on Coronation Street. As a young fella, I saw it as the best of times for all of them.
The War Amps club was an old house on the edge of the Hamilton escarpment at the end of East 34th Street, on land granted by the Queen to the boys who gave so much in the fight against “those nasty Germans.” It was a Garden of Eden for working-class war heroes, I suppose, a break in the action, a place to lay down the swords and join the family. The house was on a treed lawn bordered by a short stone wall. There was a parking lot, some picnic tables and a swimming pool.
Oh god . . . the swimming pool.
My first trip to the swimming pool was when I was six years old. Our family didn’t own a car, so Bunny and I walked down East 36th Street and over to the brow in the blistering afternoon heat. It was the sixties and everything I wore in the summer was polyester and came in Hot Wheels colours. Lime-green bathing suit, spectra-flame tank top, antifreeze sun hat. I looked like I had rolled right off the Mattel assembly line, a walking version of Big Daddy Roth’s Beatnik Bandit.
I remember Bunny giving me a little history lesson about the pool as we walked up the steps towards the smell of chlorine and cigarette smoke. “This is the pool that Harry Cockman’s crippled son committed suicide in by tying himself to his wheelchair and rolling his wheels towards the edge of the concrete bunker filled with water. He drowned and sank to the bottom until the grounds maintenance man found him the next morning. Poor wee fella.”
It’s also where blind veteran Dino Rocco stripped down and stumbled onto the diving board, then, running full speed off the board and into a dive, landed on the concrete at the bottom of the—yes—empty pool. Rocco broke his neck and died there. After surviving two years in a Japanese POW camp, tortured by his captors and nearly starved to death, Rocco met his end right there on the floor of the empty war-vets swimming pool. Needless to say, I was terrified as we approached my maiden swim at the pool. Bunny’s timing was always spot-on when it came to telling horror stories.
The most unthinkable stories she would save for supper time. She couldn’t help herself. Tales of train wrecks, body parts, mob hits, Hiroshima, Kennedy’s day in Dallas, priests and altar boys, white slavery, shotgun suicides—all got thrown out across my plate of meatloaf and boiled potatoes, the bloody condiment to otherwise boring meals.
I stood there in my lime-green bathing suit for a long, long time with the August sun beating down on me before I finally found the courage to jump in. As the cool water took hold of me, I could imagine poor Cockman’s wheelchair below me. I screamed underwater but no one heard me. I swam to the surface and saw Bunny poolside in a camp chair reading the Hamilton Spectator and smoking a Rothmans. I screamed again. She looked across the water at me for a moment and went back to the news.
Inside, the club was dark and dreary and filled with smoke and the smell of piss and beer and dried blood. Blind men and men missing arms or legs would gather to drink and often fight in the dimly lit room. Shuffleboard tables and pictures of Queen Elizabeth, Lester B. Pearson and King George hung on faded wallpaper. Nobody ever stopped to look at those pictures. Ever.
I was the youngest of the WWII kids, due to Bunny and George having become parents late in their lives. I was flung into a group of vets’ grandchildren, some orphans and assorted child amputees from around the region.
We’d be brought to the War Amps club to ring in the Christmas season in style. Santa was a guy named Jack Fairfax. He dressed in the well-worn Santa suit, strung the beard around his gin-blossomed cheeks and stuck a black glove on the stump of his left arm. He manoeuvred the gifts from a big bag with his one good arm and his only hand, while his assistant, Mrs. Fairfax, bellowed the names of the lucky children across the bar. Santa smoked Player’s and drank Molson Export stubbies.
What a mess. But the vets’ hearts were in the right place. They had come marching home from war a fraction of the men they were before they left. They continued to fight addictions and poverty and shitty jobs, and still every year they would pull together their version of a Christmas party for some kids with less than normal lives. Way to go, boys.
There was no money for a babysitter, so I accompanied Bunny and George to War Amps dinners at hotel ballrooms in Hamilton and Toronto. I would be dressed in bow tie and blazer and forced to sit through speeches and awards and beer and rye, and sometimes a band would play some old country classics or Vera Lynn tearjerker. “White Cliffs of Dover,” “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain,” “Tennessee Waltz,” “Red River Valley,” etc., etc.
When I got a little older, around nine or ten years old, I was usually sat at a table with the annual “Timmy.” Timmy was a young person who, due to an unfortunate accident, had lost a limb, just like the big boys from WWII. He was put up on posters and dragged out to War Amps events and shopping centres and presented at schools as an example of what can happen if you fuck around and act like a careless daredevil.
The speakers and dignitaries at these dinners would sit at the head table at the front of the room. In front of that head table, exposed to the entire room, was a smaller one with just two chairs. As a spotlight shone down on him, Timmy would be paraded in and led to the little table.
“There he is folks—Timmy.” The wives applauded and the old men dragged their forks across their plates searching for a carrot or a pea, or sat back and poured whisky over their gums and banged their canes on the hardwood floor while Timmy limped by.
I would be brought over to Timmy’s table and introduced to him. The crowd would ooh and aah, and I would take my seat across from Timmy. We’d sit there in complete silence eating our roast beef and carrots and extra kid-helpings of dessert. We would both act like it was not happening. Like nothing was happening. Like the world had stopped and we were invisible.
Here are a few facts about the annual Timmy:
• Timmy was an understandably miserable kid who had lost an arm or a leg doing some foolish shit like playing with blasting caps at a construction site or trying to hop on a moving train.
• Timmy was, nine times out of ten, a peewee hockey star before his accident, although I had no way of proving this annoying fact. And because I was such a lousy skater myself, I never acted impressed by this potential NHLer’s poor luck. In fact, I was a bit pissed off that this kid threw away a chance to stickhandle and shoot a puck with amazing ease just so he could impress some girls or some buddies or, even worse, pick up on a dare from his so-called friends.
• Every time, the train will take the leg.
• Every time, the blasting caps will take the arm.
• Every time, I prayed to God that no more kids would lose any more limbs, just so I didn’t have to sit and eat another meal in silence under a white spotlight in a ballroom full of tired old men and women eating roast beef.
I prayed that no more kids would have to be named Timmy and used as an example to show the world how unforgiving life can be to those whose luck runs out early. I prayed I would grow up fast and forget all this, but I guess my luck ran out.
Finalist for the 2018 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize
Finalist for the Hamilton Literary Awards
A CBC Best Book of 2017
"Beautiful Scars is a frank and fair, raw and loving look at what it means to grow up with the silver spoon as far from your mouth as it can get, a confession that celebrates the miseries and joys of working-class life, of musicianship, of chasing secrets, of fighting through to discover the person you didn't realize you were. This is a remarkable, generous, big-hearted book that will stick with me for a long time." —Guy Vanderhaeghe, author of The Englishman's Boy, The Last Crossing and A Good Man
"The book isn't just good. It's stunning. . . . The secrets around [Wilson's] life form a fundamentally Canadian story, rich in history and steeped in darkness. They also separate Beautiful Scars from the ranks of the typical rock memoir, and place it firmly on the shelf with the likes of Angela's Ashes and The Glass Castle—riveting accounts of family and secrets, poverty and peril, adversity and triumph." —Quill & Quire, starred review
"A helluva story. . . . Wilson has the ear of the poet and the eye of the painter. He manages to pick just the right anecdote to sum up a personal feeling, at the same time as capturing a broader cultural moment." —Hamilton Spectator
"This is not your typical recollection of a debauched life of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. . . . The storytelling ability present in Wilson's songwriting translates to the written page with real ease. He has a direct cut-to-the-chase style, but is still capable of delivering poetic imagery. . . . This [is] an inspiring read." —Toronto Star
"Beautiful Scars is like Cataract City, only true, mixed with the kind of rock memoir you were scared to read. Wilson, musician and shockingly fine storyteller, is from Hamilton, Ontario. And not the bougie new Hamilton. That should tell you all you need to know." —The Title
"This incredible story is handled with grace, grit and a real feeling of a boy, then a man, trying to find their place in the world." —Vancouver Sun
"A compelling story, beautifully told. . . . Wilson writes with honesty and clarity." —Winnipeg Free Press
"A funny and poignant memoir about family, identity and coming to terms with unexpected truths." —Zoomer
"Tom Wilson's memoir goes deeper than your average rock 'n' roll book." —Calgary Herald
"[A] moving and beautifully written memoir." —CBC Books
"A dread of unknown origin cloaked and nearly choked Tom Wilson, but his voice continued to soar and what emerges here is an incredible tale of inclusion and devotion and love." —Ron MacLean
"Tom writes with charisma, humour and passion. There's a depth to his story—full of a trauma and mystery—that helps explain the arc of Tom's life and career. If you're already a fan, you'll love him even more after reading this." —Max Kerman, The Arkells
"Tom Wilson's memoir, like his music, keeps a measure of time that is so beautifully his own. This is a life, a story, born of secrets and lies, of dark humour and love. Its song will stay with you." —Ryan Knighton, author of Cockeyed
"Wilson's memoir is much more than yet another retelling of the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll story that many other musicians before him have told. All of that is in the book . . . but beneath and behind this, always there lurks Wilson's search for truth and his place in the world. . . . [Beautiful Scars] is more than a book. It is a precious gift, a legacy of insight and truth from a father who finally knows who he is and where he belongs." —Hamilton Review of Books