Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Having licorice for brains makes coming back easy

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For the record, Fred Penner told me I could share this spine-chilling story with you today.

I got to hang out with the iconic children's entertainer last week at an event where 27 guitars built by kids at Ecole Selkirk Junior High School and signed by celebrities -- everyone from Fleetwood Mac and the Tragically Hip to Gordon Lightfoot and William Shatner -- were auctioned off to raise big bucks for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Fred was at this jam-packed event, which will hopefully end up raising about $100,000 for the museum, because he is a Canadian music legend and signed one of the custom-built guitars, whereas I was there because my pal, the comedian Big Daddy Tazz, was the auctioneer and I can't say no to a free meal.

Fred was pretty pumped about the BOSS (Building on Student Success) Guitar Works program, launched in 2009 by the school's high-energy principal, Wayne Davies. "It's not just about building guitars; it's about building better kids," is what Wayne told us before the auction.

Said Fred: "Wayne is brilliant. He's truly making a difference here in Selkirk. He's giving kids a real sense of purpose creating these guitars."

During this heart-felt fundraiser, for reasons I do not recall, everyone at our table started chatting about the bizarre candies we used to buy when we were kids, such as those wax tubes that were filled with coloured sugar water and would give you lockjaw if you chewed them long enough.

This idle banter reminded Fred, who spent a great deal of the evening politely signing autographs and posing for photos with adoring fans, about a candy-related brush with death he experienced at age 12 when his beloved aunt gave him 25 cents to spend on whatever he wanted.

"A quarter burning in a 12-year-old's pocket," Fred recalled, beaming. "I wanted to squander it on something wonderful, some kind of oral gratification. So I hopped on my bike and rode to the drugstore on the corner of Wentworth and Corydon.

"I went into the store and bought 25 cents worth of my favourite -- red-licorice strings. It was a lot of stuff; it was a wad. My hand was full so I stuffed my face full of this wonderful red licorice. It was oozing. It was s-o-o-o-o gratifying, you can't believe it."

Then, gnawing away on this impressive mound of gooey red goodness, the 12-year-old version of Fred climbed back on his bike and began pedalling madly toward home.

"I got about a third of the way down the block and a driver in a parked car opened up his door and -- WHAM! -- I smashed into it and fell down. I'm on my hands and knees and my back is toward the driver."

As you can imagine, the hapless motorist thought Fred was a goner.

"He gets out of his car and he's freaking out," said Fred. "He puts his left hand on my right shoulder to pivot me around to see if I'm OK. I sort of scramble around, look at him and the colour is literally gone from his face because he sees this mass of red goo and stringy stuff oozing out of my mouth.

"I'm sure he thought it was my brains and that he'd done serious damage. It was one of the funniest moments of my life. I sort of mumbled through the red goo: 'Imb oghkay! Imb awwlwight!' And I rode away and left him standing there in shock."

Now some people would have sworn off red licorice and avoided that drug store for the rest of their lives. But Fred Penner is not "some people." Just like the song we have all loved since we were kids, Fred and his cat-like reflexes came back... the very next day! He just couldn't stay away! Meeeooowww!

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 3, 2013 A2

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