childhood, Culture, Entertainment

Down At The Rink – 3

The Delhi Arena: Home of the Ice Carnival

The Delhi arena was our community center. It housed our public skating in winter and summer, our hockey teams, our figure skaters, our bike races, wrestling matches and the odd magic show.  But chief among its attractions was the Ice Carnival, that happened every March.

Small towns like Delhi enjoy a trait you can’t find in a big city: togetherness.  The Ice Carnival brought together hundreds of parents, children, fans, performers, business leaders, round-the-corner store owners, and just as many more contributors who worked tirelessly in the background, unknown to many of us as they mobilized for this annual event.

Juniors in full clown get-up.

The Delhi Figure Skating Club put on the Ice Carnival. This was the capstone to four months of figure skating instruction.  Youngsters would show up every Wednesday afternoon to learn the basics of skating.  They scrabbled over weak ankles and catchy toe picks that tripped them every time they moved.  Yet four months later, they had mastered forwards, backwards, modest hops and skips, and skating hand in hand with their groups.   The Intermediate and Senior skaters appeared on Wednesday and Saturday evenings, and had learned or polished their ability to execute spins and mid-air jumps, dances in pairs and precise figures.

Fulfilling the dream of being the next star on ice.

All of these accomplishments were the fulfillment of many parents’ dreams of one day seeing their child be the next Karen Magnussen or Toller Cranston.  But in the short term, they would be happy just to see them applauded as a star on ice, and that’s what the carnival promised.

The themes generated ideas for costumes and duets.

Every year the DFSC would choose a theme.  Maybe one time it was Peter Pan, or Wizard of Oz.  The musical Gypsy was nominated one year.  Other times it was Deep In The Heart of Texas, Nutcracker and Aladdin. The theme became the platform for choosing characters which might be Munchkins, or gum drops, Tinkerbell, scarecrows, clowns, broncos, cowgirls, roughnecks, roses, skunks, elephants, pink panthers, candy canes, Belles of The Ball, you name it.

It was a war effort of volunteerism, sewing 100’s of costumes.

The carnival ignited a war effort of volunteerism.  The juniors show would require possibly 200 costumes.  And for each of these, a mother would get a pattern which might be for a teddy bear, to be sewn in three segments.  If she couldn’t deliver, there were sewing dynamos who were skater mothers like Jackie Byron, Hazel Osborne, Yvonne Kelleher, Georgette Rapai, Marjorie Klein who would bang out ten teddy bear costumes, or fifteen skunks with stuffed tails, as long as you brought the material.

A milk maid with her charges.

The theme was rounded out with backdrop and props. Moms and dads would show up to staple 40-inch tin foil around the entire boards of the rink, and string electric lights.   Under the direction of Gord Franklin, sheets of plywood and lengths of 2x4s would appear, and were pounded into scenery walls across the back end of the rink.  Teams of painters would arrive with buckets of tempera to draw forests, and houses, and oil wells, windmills and whimsical street scenes.

Odd man out: boys were in high demand.

Truly, if there were 200 skaters in the carnival, there were 200 parents who helped sew, paint, build and deliver.  One year we required 30 tambourines for a big number.  With some ingenuity Cy Stapleton acquired enough steel pie plates into which he cut and welded flattened, perforated bottle caps that rattled raucously.  Not quite symphonic, but still impressive.

A Swiss Miss with smiling escort.

The music was key for the Ice Carnival.  Under the direction of Floyd Thomas, the Delhi Band would practise and perform perhaps 20 different tunes and bumper segments to bring our solos, dances and parades to life.

The Delhi Community Band delivered sound and rhythm to mobilize the acts.

Meanwhile at the business end of the production, every skater was assigned a group of tickets to sell. These challenges were as daunting as a walk to the principal’s office.  Neighbourhoods were canvassed door-to-door by mumbling, addled urchins with handfuls of card-sized tickets, going for $2,$3,$4 each.  We were exhorted to get them all sold, or don’t come home.

Elves waiting backstage for their cue.

As the day approached, dress rehearsals were convened, and under the stressful din of our instructors we were given our routines. The Juniors were herded in groups of ten or fifteen. Their performance consisting of a couple tours around the ice, perhaps a rotating ring or parade of bunny hops.  The more accomplished were picked to do solos.  The soloists usually got exclusive costumes with more colors or frills or trim.  They were stars.

The girls were dressed in sequins, gloves and tiaras.

The intermediates and seniors had more complex routines to maneuver and there were more opportunities for truly gifted skaters to create and perform solos and duets, showing off impressive turns, spins, jumps and speed. They looked special, and the crowds loved them.

There were always a few dance numbers.  A dozen or more seniors would waltz around the ice while the band played.  The Averys, a very senior and elegant visiting couple would skate the equivalent of a ballroom dance, dressed in tails and evening gown.   They glided around the rink, gracefully, classy, smiling and  wowing the audience with their apparent ease on ice.

The guys grabbed all the comedy routines, in ridiculous outfits.

Ice Carnivals also provided comic humour, and the few remaining senior guys, Paul and George Rapai, Skip Lumley, Mike Byron, Chris Brown, Rob Lammens, contributed. The crowds enjoyed their romps in weird cow costumes, throwing confetti into the bleachers, riding steel wash buckets, pedaling two-seated bicycles backwards on tacked tires, skipping rope and lassoing each other.

The Precision Line on ice was spectacular, and good.

One legacy of the Ice Carnival was its famous precision line.  While most of us at the time did not know of the Rockettes, it was certainly the model after which the senior girls and ladies were instructed. Thirty or more would appear in stunning short-skirted outfits, embellished with ruffles, ribbon, sequins and gloves to dazzle the crowd with powerful confident moves in unison, rocking and skating to the up tempo sounds from the band.  They circled, counter-circled, wiggled and swayed, and finally lined up to deliver a jaw-dropping kick line forwards and backwards.  The precision team became a show piece in the region for years after under the direction of Karen Haskins.

Wizard of Oz, in full dress.

All of these things are indelibly etched in my memory for the years that I participated.  The experience of putting on a show, the excitement and tension of huddling behind a backdrop, surrounded by giggling groups of pretty girls, goofy guys dressed in party gear and faces smeared in grease paint, lipstick and Nivea cold creme like Mardi Gras, waiting for a cue…and the music would start up, the lights dimmed, the spots went on, out we went, and the crowds would cheer… it was a special time.

Thanks for reading and sharing!  I hope you too remember a special time when you were down at the rink!

 

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childhood, Culture, Sports

Down At The Rink 2

The Delhi Arena, In An Uncommon Quiet Moment

Down at the rink there was a constant stream of guys from youngsters to teens who slogged in and out, all winter, with bags of equipment, tapes, pucks, pads, skates and sticks.  They came at all the hours of the day and night.

In this small hockey-crazy town, how did I end up in the figure-skating club?

Of all the gifts my parents bestowed, this was the one that took the longest to understand.  But whether it was their intention to produce a figure skater, or just to keep me occupied, I eventually saw the light.  And it was dazzling.

Barbara Ann Scott, 1948 Olympic Gold Medalist for Canada

My parents moved to Delhi in 1948 and in a short time took a lead role in starting the Delhi Figure Skating Club. It was the same year Canada’s Sweetheart, Barbara Ann Scott, won the Olympics. This may have been Dad’s idea, but Mom would have pushed him along, and with the help of those many post-war friends who landed in this small tobacco-growing community, the DFSC was born.  It drew widespread endorsement, especially by parents whose daughters couldn’t play hockey.   Within a couple of years there was a long list of members aged 7-70 who came to the rink on Wednesdays and Saturdays to cut figure 8s, do steps, spins and jumps and dance in wavy processions around the rink.  You might say it was a little Arthur Murray mixed up with some chilly ballet.

CCM skates, built tough for hockey.

While all my friends went the hockey route, I went figure skating, primarily because it was my ride home.  So, I owned a pair of black, shin-high laced skates with long, slim silver blades with chiseled picks on the toes.  My buds all had CCM hockey skates: black with brown trim, yellow laces, reinforced tendon guards, and wide, hard, puck-stopping steel blades riveted into the soles. Their scarred and dented toes resembled miners’ helmets. Mine shone like OPP boots.  There couldn’t be a greater contrast between the two sports.

Or could there?

The girls came in numbers: a serendipitous awakening.

In fact, I discovered in figure skating that for every boy there were at least five girls. This may have been the unintended consequence of my membership, but it was a serendipitous awakening that I have never regretted, much less forgotten.

In the earliest of my stumbling skating career as a Junior, I wandered around crowds of other newbies on the ice, learning to push out for forward and butt-wiggle for reverse.  Once ice-friendly we graduated to Intermediates where we attempted three-turns and hops like little bunnies in the snow.  We raised our legs and arms for spirals, imitating clumsy birds landing on the feeder.  I perfected the nose-plant.

Paul Rapai, Marion Pitts, Suzanne Klein, Skip Lumley nailed it.

In the midst of my imperfect executions however, there were some real stars.  Paul Rapai, Suzanne Klein, Skip Lumley, Marion Pitts, Jack Kellum, Mary Ann Coyle, Nora Marie VanHove–these older kids were excellent skaters. Gifted with balance, strength and grace, they captivated their audience, both those of us on the fringes, and the adoring crowds on the benches.  They had nailed it.

But as a 12-year-old, I found the boy numbers had thinned, my skating buds had evaporated to the hockey track, and I was accompanied by a few guys who hung on, to witness like I did, that we were surrounded by girls. It was a stunning, magical, delirious moment for an addled kid who until then had been happiest with a pellet gun in the woods.

The girls always dressed up for figure skating.  They wore colourful toques, scarves, furry ear muffs, white gloves or mitts, smart tunics and on occasion, impossibly short skirts and tanned tights.  They had immaculate white skates with bows or jingle bells laced into the toes.  To a one, they had fresh rosy cheeks and bright eyes, lovely curls and some even sported earrings.  In the middle of a cold grey winter I had somehow stumbled into a warm, sunny bakeshop at Easter.

Chris Brown, Bunny Klein. Boys came at premium in the DFSC.

The task of serious figure skating still advanced however.  We were now instructed in drawing crisp, neat figure 8s on our outside and inside edges.  My 8s looked like shaky ampersands. We learned to launch into the air with 3-jumps.  Mine looked like 4s and scratchy 5s.  A simple cutback into a spin left me doodling aimlessly, slowing to a halt after one rotation.  In short, I was a figure skating klutz.

And I was treated that way, pretty much.  But still there were high points.  In the annual competitions I could draw a bronze medal for third place because there were only two other guys in the field.  But best of all, I was indispensable as a dance partner.  We needed boys to partner with girls to perform dances.  So I may have been a solo wash-out, but I truly learned to deliver a passable Dutch Waltz, a Swing Dance, or my favourite, the Canasta Tango.

These dances guaranteed a pairing, arm in arm, hand in hand, eye to eye, with some of the prettiest girls Delhi had.  We strode around the ice to orchestra tapes of Perfidia, Blue Moon, Wonderful Copenhagen… it was surreal, exciting and riveting all at once.  While I may not have ever shared a social word with these girls at school, on the ice it was a joint challenge to perform, and that seemed the winning ticket.

While my hockey friends were scrambling and whooping around the ice like scrappy junkyard dogs, slamming the boards and crossing sticks, I was gliding along smooth arcs, laughing and talking our way through a complicated foot-move in time to Andre Kostelanetz.  While the guys were groaning in the sweaty change rooms breathing the high-sulphur coal-heated air, I was enchanted by the occasional wafts of Breck shampoo, Noxzema and Juiceyfruit gum.   How bad was that?

The ice carnival, exciting, enchanting, memorable.

The climax of the skating season however was the Ice Carnival.  This was the DFSC’s presentation to the town.  It was a top-tier war effort, and in addition to its spectacular performance, the carnival was, to many of us, the most exciting and enchanting event of the season.

More, next week.

 

 

 

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Cars, childhood, Culture, Government, Legal

The Nose Count

“Opinions are like noses: everybody’s got one,” which is what one of my best bosses ever advised me. And so it is, the 2nd Appellate justices reviewed the Libertyville appeal, buttressed by eloquent oral arguments, and came to the opinion: “No dice.”

Our appeal to reverse the Lower Court Judge Michael Fusz’ ruling was refused. The ruling stands. The Archdiocese of Chicago may now expect the Village to re-zone the 40-acre lot on Butterfield for residential building, and along with that, allow the final plats to be submitted and approved for building the 148-units which were proposed in 2017.

This of course is subject to the Village Board’s acceptance of the decision, which will be deliberated in the next few weeks.

There is no upside to predicting future events. However, if there is an upside of any sort, it is that the proposed development still has to respect and comply to the fifty-plus requirements which the Village planning department had stipulated two years ago. And that is assuming that there is a developer who still is eager to pursue the enterprise.

Putting it all aside, we hang on to the original objections to the development as values and concerns the neighborhood held about this development. We hope that the Village departments will remember these too.

Chief among our concerns today is the forecasted population of 150 children who will live and play a stone’s throw distant from Butterfield School, and its magnificent and inviting playing fields. They are there within sight, viewed from the opposite side of a 4-lane Butterfield highway.

Hindsight is perfect vision. While the Village focused on the difficulties in local motorists making left turns out onto Butterfield, little light was shed on the dangers of pedestrian traffic– young kids, minors, venturing across the highway over which 24,000 cars speed through at 47 mph. every day.  The lower court judge never heard that insight, and the opportunity to remind him now is moot.

However, the developer will still have that, among many other hurdles to pass before the shovels go into operation.  We will wait to see what the Board chooses to do next, and how the parties involved will respond.

Thanks for reading and sharing, loyal Butterfield Friend and Neighbor.  We will see how it all works out!

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childhood, Culture, Sports

Down At The Rink-1

The Delhi Arena, our sports center year round.

If it wasn’t for the Delhi Arena, most of our youth would have been spent watching TV. But as it turned out, the “rink” was the birthplace of our skaters, hockey players, and curlers. It was also the winter playground where we grew up, showed up, showed off, fought, danced, laughed, spectated, spat, scraped, yelled, screamed and inexorably, became self aware.

The building was the largest and tallest in Delhi, a cinder block fortress with a vast yawning wooden frame roof. Below were two rows of wooden-backed  spectator benches painted in bold reds and blues. Sitting in these, one could look up and wonder at the ceiling. Massive multi-ply planking formed the immense rafters in a parabolic curve that supported tons of shiplap and asphalt roofing tiles.

A modular wooden track is installed for bike races.

Under the rafters, there were hangers and struts arranged in geometric, weight-sharing designs.  These were bolted into the 120-foot wooden joists that stretched the width of the rink.   The walls were held together by penetrating steel rods that crossed the expanse twenty feet above our heads. One could only marvel at the steeple jacks that created this edifice.   And suspended in the middle, at center ice was a four-sided game clock and score box, sponsored by Players cigarettes, that was large enough to house a two-story chicken coop.  Fully automated, it could record Home and Visitor teams scores, count to twenty minutes, and blast a brash game-over siren that was unmistakable.

Here was every Delhi kid’s excuse to get out of the house.  We had a raucous, robust minor hockey league that was a rite of passage for boys.  Typically, we were up before 7am on a Saturday, grabbing a breakfast, and then hiking down to the rink.

For most of us, standard equipment included flimsy little shoulder pads, hardly more protective than a grilled cheese sandwich.  Plastic kneepads, held up by rubber Mason Jar rings, were worn under our jeans, or if we were devoted to the sport, inside Canadiennes or Maple Leaf socks. Most of us had huge sweaters,  hockey pants and suspenders.  We stuffed the whole kit with our skates into a burlap potato sack, and slinging that over our hockey stick, shouldered our gear along streets, alleys and wooded paths, over Big Creek, and down to the rink.

One of Delhi’s many All Star rep teams, courtesy of Vandenbussche Irrigation and The Knights of Columbus.

The rep teams, the All-Stars, had company-sponsored jerseys and played their games in the evenings and weekends, at home and away.   Our rink hosted future hockey royalty too, when a championship match included a young 12-year-old Wayne Gretzky.   He glided across our ice like a jet, maybe aware of what was to come.

But the rep game was far beyond my mediocre skills, intuition or strength, so I spent my hockey hours on Saturday mornings chasing runaway pucks, bouncing off the boards, picking myself up, with occasional wobbling shots aimed at scrambling goalies.

The highlight was Sunday at the rink when our Junior B team, the Rocket 88s would take on a visiting team from neighbouring towns, like Simcoe and Waterford and Tilsonburg, all within 10 miles of Delhi.  The 88s were named for their sponsor, Wills Motors which proudly sold Oldsmobiles.  These games were the quintessential celebration of small town spirit.  500-600 fans would fill the wooden seats and cheer the 88s for every goal, upset and penalty called.

Wills Motors named their team the Rocket 88s for the classic Oldsmobile.

As kids, we ran up and down the concrete aisles, popping empty paper Dixie Cups under our heels, razzing the visiting team behind their bench, banging the boards with broken hockey sticks, scarfing down hot chocolate and cups of salted french fries.  The fans roared for our hometown heroes like Rolly Thibault, Bob Sabatine, Tony Benko, Earl O’Neil, Dan Barrett and Joe Kelly, who was rumored to be Red Kelly’s cousin, but we never knew for sure.  And beside home bench, sat Dr. Ron McCallum, the team’s very own, who eyed every shot, and high stick for a possible injury.

Worthy of note, the ice hockey back then was different from today: no head gear, including the goalie, and no fights.

Between periods there was a solemn procession that never varied.  A cadre of older teen age guys had earned the right to shovel the ice.  This was in the pre-Zamboni era.  About ten of them split into two teams, and would push heavy steel shovels up and down the length of the rink in formation like Canada geese.  The shaved ice would flow off the first shovel onto the one beside and back a few paces, until it had cascaded across 5 or 6 blades.

Hockey the way it used to be: no helmets, masks or fights.

The shovelers had a uniform, too.  Not with stripes or corporate sponsoring, but just as important.  They were on display.  It would be a flight jacket or heavy windbreaker, zipped half way up the chest to reveal a plaid flannel shirt open at the collar displaying a white t-shirt.  The jacket collar was always turned up.  Their hair was slick and groomed to perfection. The uniform called for jeans that were draped into black rubber wellingtons with orange trim, folded down to reveal about 4 inches of the boot’s canvas lining.  An acceptable alternative was the zipped rubber boot which by consensus must be unzipped down to the toes so that the boots’ collars flapped open like Batman’s cape.

The game clock, courtesy of Imperial Tobacco’s Players cigarettes.

After circling the rink, the two shovel teams corralled all the shaved ice into the middle lane.  There, in the grande finale, they would cup the snow into one pile and all ten shovelers would push the shavings out the back door of the rink.   They didn’t return, but it’s likely they paused for a smoke out back as the crowds waited inside for the next act.

It was very special.   A small, quiet, older gentleman with silver hair, Ivan, would apply a new surface to the ice.  Before Zamboni, ice makers rigged up a 45-gallon drum filled with steaming hot water.  It was mounted on two black rubber tires, and had two 6-foot-pipe outriggers that oozed hot water through toweling onto the ice.  Ivan wore steel cleats.  He would carefully pull his contraption along the scarred and riddled surface, and opening the valves a tad, create a smooth satin sheen before us.  Ivan could resurface the entire rink in about ten minutes, under the watchful eyes of impatient ’88 fans who couldn’t help but notice the “Vandenbussche Irrigation” sign displayed on a tent over the drum.

The rink was the town’s sports center, in use all year.  It hosted bicycle races, wrestling matches, roller skating, a little curling – and hockey, for sure.  But that was only part of the program.  The rink had figure skating too, which was magical, and wildly exciting in another way I can’t begin to tell you now.  A weird place for a guy to show up, but there I was.

More to follow, next week.

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childhood, Culture, Thanks

Where The Time Went

The James Park Grandad from Preston Lancashire.

As I’ve mentioned before, the curse of the Baby Boomer is to inherit their parents’ estates. It is a blessing too, but the cursing starts when you search for a place to put it all. Nevertheless, in our case, we have been blessed with time…time in the form of clocks.

Taking a stand in the workshop.

The Park Grandfather Clock
As a very young fellow, barely walking, I was enchanted by the tall, wooden long-cased clock that guarded over our hallway in our first home in Delhi. The antique was built sometime between 1816-1855 by James Park in Preston, Lancashire, England. My great great grandfather had acquired this handsome old wooden gentleman when it was fairly young, and had kept it running, just as his son, grandson, and great grandson, my father, would continue to do. A gorgeous piece of cherrywood sculpture, graced by a brass works that with regular winding would tell the time of day, the day of the month, and chime the hours with a beautiful bell.

As a toddler, I scrambled and slid across those hardwood  floors with baby fat knees, making it up to the glass-windowed front door of the clock. Inside, a long pendulum punctuated by a baseball-sized brass medallion swung slowly behind two ominous, bullet-shaped weights. These weights were cast iron, hung on pulleys, and tipped the scales at 20 pounds each. They looked like ’88 shells from a WW2 anti-aircraft cannon.

The grandfather clock’s windowed door presented a tiny brass handle which I found intriguing, and happily, just within reach. Fascinated by the pendulum’s slow swing, and the twin 88’s, I pulled the door open for a closer look. The bob was suspended on a steel pendulum connected to a fragile tin hook called a feather, at the top of the clock. With the strength that only a curious tyke can offer, I pulled at the bob, stopping it in its perpetual track, and without a moment’s delay, gripped it hard while I climbed into the case. The tin feather gave way, and I fell in.

As you might guess, calamity followed, and the clock tumbled  over on top of me, spraying the hardwood floor with shattered glass and chunks of 150-year-old lacquered cherry and clock hands. When my horrified parents lifted the clock up, they found me nestled between the two 88’s, unharmed.  The clock’s case was demolished, and after a forceful, shrill, and pointed scolding from my mother, dad picked up the pieces, and packed the works into a box.

Grandad’s works. The gnarly toothed wheel counts the strikes of the bell.

Forty years passed before dad opened the box again.  Using some plans he purchased from a clock company in Kitchener, he built a new case, out of Norfolk County cherry, installed the aged brass works, and had the clock up and going.  It was another thirty years later in 2012, with some transitions along the way, that the now shrink-wrapped clock was retrieved from storage and made its way into our home. I mentioned storage because that is an essential tool for seniors today: a place to store our late parents’ stuff.

The clock was a mechanical puzzle for me.  It took literally 2 months of leveling, machine cleaning, tinkering, timing and fiddling with the works of the clock and its chime to get it to run.  During this time I scanned the internet to identify its maker, James Park, and thereby, date the clock.

Today, the revered piece quietly and solemnly ticks away beside my workshop bench in the basement.  It’s not exactly a man cave down there, but it’s home to the clock.  I visit regularly, and address it as my old friend, winding up the 88’s, a reminder of my heritage, and its place in our family.

The Seth Thomas Clock

The Seth Thomas. It had not moved in over 70 years, but comes to life.

Still again, as a young boy, I sat at an ancient cherry desk, once owned by my grandfather, worrying an eraser across a smudged arithmetic drill sheet. Above the shelving of the desk rested an equally aged mantel clock.  Its rectangular wooden case stood about 16 inches high, and housed a chipped black and white face.  By opening the hinged, windowed door, one could wind the works.

This clock, in my entire history with it, never worked.  It merely sat as desk candy, adding some dignity to our den, but no timely input.  The brass bob hung still, and the black  bedspring that acted as the chime, stood mute.

When we were emptying out my parents’ home, it was one of the first items we took for our own home.  It was placed on top of our piano, a previous inheritance, still and quiet.

The Seth Thomas works, made by Ansonia Clock Company, which was sold to the Soviets in 1929.

Having revived the James Park, I felt emboldened to bring Seth Thomas back to life, or at least, find out why it was comatose.  Taking the machine apart, I discovered that the works were brass, and made by the Ansonia Clock Company of Connecticut, and New York.  Seth Thomas was started in 1813, but Ansonia came 62 years later, so the clock was built after 1875, but before 1929, when Ansonia was sold to the Soviet government under the direction of Joseph Stalin.  A little known legacy of Stalin is the birth and robust growth of Russian timepiece manufacture which still prevails today.

Having bared the brass works, I viewed a spotless brass and steel jumble of springs, cogs, spindles, bushings and wheels.  They were wound up tight.  I removed the bob, and laying the machine on its side, washed it down with some mineral spirits.  Suddenly, the pendulum started to quiver sporadically.   More scrubbing, and the pendulum rattled to life, flicking back and forth unimpeded by the brass bob.   After a few minutes, the clockworks were up and at it, relieving wound-up spring pressure frozen since the early 1940s.

The Seth Thomas has now taken a new position on a side table in our family room.  It needs winding every three days, and faithfully attempts to strike its bedspring marking the hours and half hours.  I turned off the striker to avoid the continual reminders that time is passing.  But still, I enjoy twisting the brass key to re-wind the clock, and it gives me a moment to reflect on who has touched this antiquity.

The Railroad Clock

Our railroad station clock. Sparkling, shiny, stainless bob and weight.

Our first acquisition was a wall clock that was hung in the house of my wife’s family.   It has no apparent brand stamped on it, but was reputedly taken from a railroad station in the years before WW1 by her grandfather, and passed along to her family, and then to us.

The rail road clock is a beautiful weight-driven clock with a sparkling, engraved stainless steel bob and cylindrical weight. Tom, my father-in-law saw to it that this time piece worked flawlessly, and had it refurbished by a professional years ago.  It keeps perfect time, and that’s all.  No chimes.  No rising and setting suns and stars.  Perfect for predicting arrival wait times in a train station.

An instruction in DYMO.

This clock is distinguished in two ways.  First, Tom placed a cautioning instruction inside the case using his ever-present DYMO labeler: “Do Not Wind Weight Above This Level”.  This is no small point to recall.  Everything that moved in his home was liable to be DYMO-ed. He loved labels.  Second, Tom left a small tin inside the case which held a tiny oil cloth, soaked in paraffin and Packers Pine Tar Soap.  I don’t know why, but perhaps he cleaned the works with it.  In any event, I open the case and wind this clock once a week, never above the line, and breathe in the pine tar bouquet.

It is a warm reminder once again of the person who gave it to us.  I think he did that on purpose.

 

Thanks for reading! I hope you will share your own experiences with inheriting precious items from your folks!  Here’s another story, too.

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Cars, childhood, Culture, Thank You

Gus’s Coffee Shop

Mobs of students crossed Hwy #3 every day to Gus’s.

Gus Vander Elst was a genius. He was a father, uncle, pump jockey, counter clerk, cop, teacher and short order cook. But most of all, he was a genius who bought the Cities Service gas station directly across from Delhi District Secondary School.

Can one grow wealthy selling burgers and 10-cent coffee?  Yes.

My first memorable experience with a diner hamburger was Gus’s, and like 800 other high schoolers, I reveled in the unshakeable aromas of grilled hamburgers served up under chopped raw onions, and spiced with the intoxicating clouds of cigarette smoke that floated across the tables of this busy, bustling hangout.

Gus’s was our off-property school cafeteria. Like the M*A*S*H Rosie’s Bar, Gus’s attracted a majority of kids, just for its noise, warmth, foggy windows, forbidden foods, back room and unstoppable traffic.  The coffee shop was a magnet, a cash cow, and Gus was king.

So it was that every lunch hour we exited the school driveway to the eastern curb of highway #3 and strode across to the center line in crowds, intimidating the stream of drivers going to and from town. With a break in the oncoming, our hungry mob would cross over the second lane to the white, two-story concrete block building, occasionally pounding on the bell wire by the pumps, and enter ground zero, our family teen haunt.

Lunch counter, or teen haunt, prepared for the daily rush at noon time.

Inside Gus’s was a lunch counter with six red, swivel stools. Diners could face the cook’s window, or turn to the two large picture windows that looked out onto the gas pumps. But more likely they faced two banquettes separated by a Wurlitzer juke box. The banquettes were perennial turf of the seniors–that’s high school seniors– and pretty much filled with bubbling squads of girls who laughed, screamed, rolled their eyes, primped, gushed and stared dismissively at the guys shuffling in front of them, the guys who studiously ignored their looks as if the table was circled by bags of oats.

At the south side of the small diner were two more tables where a junior or soph may get lucky to be invited to sit, but space was limited, so most visitors took their lunch standing up, the whole time, bumping shoulders and elbows while they downed their burger.

Gus managed the crowd like the Music Man. He was loud, smiling and all business, hustling orders to the cook’s window, spinning burgers onto buns, and dressing the patties as they appeared, “what’ll you have, mustard, relish? Onions with that? Cheese?” He bantered with his young eaters flipping on the extras.  He knew everyone’s name.  When an order was built he’d smack a bun top onto the mountain of condiments with a cupped hand like he was slapping down a set of dice on a sponge. We took our food happily, while his wife Jeanie took our coins in payment.

Wurlitzer: the heart beat of Gus’s Coffee Shop

The jukebox was a powerhouse.   It was always in motion, pounding a super bass speaker that shook around our ankles.  Sounds of Freddy Cannon, Little Eva, Gene Chandler, Chubby Checker, and Dion moved pairs of girls to dance in the crowd.  The guys would swagger and slouch as Dion would tell his story of The Wanderer.

The back room was where Gus stored the empty pop cases: stacks of large worn wooden crates that nested four 6-packs of empty Coke, Canada Dry and Wishing Well bottles.  These were lined along the walls, and leaning up against them was a cadre of guys, staring at each other through the haze, smoking, and telling impossible, implausible, and richly impressive stories about girls, cars and teachers.

Out front were the cars.  Old Fords and Chevys mostly, but always with doors and windows open for more conversation and music.  These were driven by seniors, all in grade 13, ready and restless to escape, off to university, off to work, back to the farm, off to the lake.  One drove a beautiful plum-coloured Volkswagen, and with help from four of his buddies, would rev up the engine, spinning the wheels while they lifted the rear of the Beetle a foot off the ground.  As the engine whined its loudest, they would let go of the bumper, and the car came down on those tires that screamed as he scooted across the pavement.

When Gus couldn’t reach the pumps in time, the guys would get their own gas.

Jeanie and Gus fed us from 1951-1969.

Gus looked after his customers like a parent.  On a wintry January day, a silly joke nearly turned violent until Gus walked out to settle the score.  It was cold, and the frozen, Brylcremed hair of a young student looked like it might repel water.  Experimenting with a bottle of Coke, a second student poured a couple drops on his head, and indeed, the Coke did bead up and roll off.  Moments later, a third student decided to pour a whole bottle of Coke down the neck of the second in retaliation.  That was enough to enrage student #2 who then smashed his bottle against #3’s bottle.  The tense exchange was viewed through those picture windows as the two kids faced each other with broken Coke bottles raised towards each other.   Gus suddenly appeared between the two, and with a few words took their weapons and shut them down.  I was thankful he showed up when he did.

Everyone who went to DDSS has a story about Gus, and the student body loved him and Jeanie for the place they took in our youth: steady, reliable, hard-working, dependable and non-judgmental, they were the older couple who parented us for an hour every day as we journeyed through our high school career.  He watched over us for nearly 20 years.

The last time I saw Gus, he was a much older man.  He lived in the Delrose Retirement home at the south end of town.  Always the spark plug in a crowd, Gus led a daily exercise and work out routine for the residents who lived with him there.  They loved him too.  He was wealthy in the best way.

Thanks for reading and sharing!   You can add your Gus memories below, too!

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Agriculture, childhood, Culture, Thanks

History Lessons

 

A swing bridge over Big Creek, long ago.

My hometown of Delhi has a Facebook group site exclusively purposed to recall the days of our youth. Growing up in Canada’s most unique farming community, the premier source of flue-cured virginia tobacco for nearly a hundred years, the Facebook members post daily about their early experiences. They also remind us of what our parents and grandparents did to get us here in the first place. A couple world wars and a hostile political environment in Europe pushed our ancestors to Canada’s open doors, and Delhi was where they landed.

It struck me this past June, as I read the many stories emerging from the 75th anniversary of D-Day that we, as its beneficiaries, have an awakened reverence for what our parents did for us.

RCAF’s finest, off to Europe.

Is it just a function of getting older that we spend more time remembering, or is there a sense of responsibility to our predecessors of not letting them be forgotten?

Lest We Forget

But to my point: we now look back with respect. There is a lady in Delhi who is daily researching and compiling a history and narrative to describe the little town and its inhabitants from decades ago.

Kilnwork: our main stock in trade.

Another gentleman posts documents, clippings, ads, pictures, bills of sale and civic events, clearly from materials he has sought after and kept for posterity.

When my parents passed, we inherited a library of photography and letters, some dating back to the 1890’s. The pictures are eloquent, in their black and white motif, depicting the youth of a different time. Vacations, school, romance, marriage, kids.

1914: Canadian Expeditionary Force

They also include military poses: those ‘before’ shots, getting ready to ship off to some unknown and dangerous place, dressed in perfect uniforms, spotless, neat fitting and inspiring.

The hand-written letters dig below the pictures though, and reveal what’s really going on. I photo-scanned them all for sharing with our family.  Unlike Facebook, where our lives are generally perfect, the letters from 50, 75, 90 years ago talk of privations and scarcities. Life in its rawest forms was much more daunting back then, than we would know it today: lining up for rations…looking for materials to sew a dress… finding a place to live… battling an illness…waiting for news of a loved one.

A 16th birthday.

Yet there was a confidence, a resilience and persistence like moss stuck to a wave-washed rock in the shoreline that these ancestors of ours would grin and bear it, and get through it.

We have a neighbor who is writing a book about her father’s service during the war. Her source is the collection of papers and manuscripts which he had written 50 years ago. Within these letters are the details which are news to us today. Who knew? It may be half a century ago, but the revelations are still mind boggling.

My conclusion is that for the Baby Boomers, who are now enjoying retirement, or looking forward to it shortly, we have an obligation to use our spare time to dig up the past.

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An expressive lesson in lighting a coal fire.

Our kids need to know the table that was set for us and for them.  In today’s digital environment, where every piece of history is accessible, it’s really only there for background, a general context of the times, and only if you have a user-name and a password to see it. What we find in our attics and closet shelves is much more telling.  We owe that to our parents, now long gone.

The Diary

My young grandson reinforced in me once of the value of writing it down: “Don’t put it in an email.  That’s technology, and it will just disappear.  You’ll never find it again.”  Out of the mouths of babes…

As an experiment, I started a small diary. This is a 2-1/2 x 4″ moleskin which I keep in my pocket, with pen. Originally I used the book to write down things I didn’t want to forget: passwords, shopping lists, names of bartenders, song titles, movies, plumbing fixtures–you name it. But starting in July, I wrote about my day. Not long windy stuff, but a factual account of my travels. At first it seemed a self-praising pastime. But about six weeks later, I paused to read what was in the diary. The surprise was that I had forgotten most of what I had done, and there it was, in print. Multiply that awakening by 12 months, and you start to realize how much we experience in a year, and then forget forever.  It’s like a beige mush of time spent, and little retained.

As a business manager, I regularly advised my staff to write down their accomplishments for the month. “You are going to need this one day. I won’t always be here.  Someone will come to you, and ask what you are contributing, and your mind will go blank. Your job security is in the balance. So make a list!”

Thankfully, they did this, and their accomplishments rolled into mine, and we always had a resource to explain our worth to the company.

So I am keeping the diary going, not to explain my worth, but at least as a hard copy reminder for me, or for whomever follows, that this is how life was today.

Thanks for reading and sharing, and thanks too, to Dave Rusnak Sr. and Doug Foster for the images! 

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childhood, Culture

The Summer of ’61

July

Is there any event in our lives which doesn’t come back to remind us later? As I dressed yesterday morning, I recalled an evening in my youth, back in Delhi, my hometown when I was 12. It started at summer camp, but ended up at the Delhi rink.

Leading up to the moment, we had just burst out of 8th grade for the summer, and were headed off to our various pursuits. For some, it was the pool, for others, baseball, yet still others would go to the fields to hoe tobacco or run chains for the marketing board.  These days of promise were interrupted by sunny visits to Long Point and Turkey Point on Lake Erie for a stretch of beach and hours of breathless, soaking fun in the waves.

For me, I was packed into a bus, and sent to a YMCA summer camp on Georgian Bay. Many Delhi kids went there, so it was a familiar setting. My counselor was from town as well.

Every year the camp hosted a World Service Day where we chose to portray a United Nations country which would qualify as less than fortunate on the world stage. We dressed up like natives of the country, and prepared an exhibit for all the campers to visit. We charged admission, and all the money was sent to the YMCA to contribute to the World Service program, Canada-wide.

Charcoal for World Service; getting into the role.

I can’t remember the country chosen, but our cabin of 12 campers elected to strip down to our skivvies and cover our bodies in charcoal. We were attempting the native look.   We coated up in black, grimy wet fireplace ashes.

The day went well, and money was raised, just another activity for a community of young guys, followed by a serious wash up to remove the charcoal.

Obviously, the underwear never came clean.  And it went back into the suitcase, and came home in August to our laundry where it hung on to its coal black tones despite many washings.

August

Home from the forest.  The summer was in full force, and while tobacco harvest was underway, we looked for diversion, knowing school was just a month away.

“Let’s go roller skating at the rink,” offered my creative friend.  “It’s open every weekend. You can rent skates, there’s plenty of music, and girls too.”

Neat!  The rink was a booming business in the winter with hockey, curling and figure skating.  In the summer when the ice was out, the smooth, polished concrete floor was a platform for boxing and wrestling matches, magic shows, even bike races.  But the big draw was roller skating.

The prospect of an evening out at the rink was exciting.  Even more, was the opportunity to see girls again, after four weeks of boys camp.  I excused myself from dinner, and went to shower and dress for the evening ahead.

Prepping for an evening out was pretty much unknown territory for me, but basically, I wanted to look sharp.  I pulled out my favourite patterned, cotton short sleeve with button down collar, and placing it beside my slickest pair of khakis on my bed, it looked swell.  No t-shirt required, but yep, I need “gotchies” all right, and I pulled the next in rotation out of the drawer, which was the same grotty pair I wore on World Service Day a month before.

Holding them up, I inspected the dingey grey briefs.  Clean, no question, but not the “tighty-whitey” white one would expect.  I mumbled to myself, “what the heck, nobody’s seeing ’em,” so I stepped in, and completed the outfit.

A little Brylcream, Right Guard, teeth brushed and a fresh stick of Doublemint and I was out the door, hopes high, and to the rink.

Every weekend hundreds of teens and wannabes like me would swarm the rink and course counter-clockwise around the immense, dry, warm, barn-like enclosure to the broadcast beat of rock and roll  ’45s played by a pimpled DJ in the corner.  The rink sounded like a large dance hall submerged by the steady, grey drone of thousands of plastic wheels rolling on pavement.

Seeing the groups speed by–some laughing, others with serious, non-communicative expressions studiously ignoring the onlookers, but privately inviting the stares and furtive glances of others in their pathway–my heart revved up with the thoughts of what might come next.

I stepped off the doorway, and strode into the current of skaters, tentatively rolling on the clip-on rentals.  It was easy, and before long, I was rounding the circuit, feeling the wind on my face, and the crazy buzz through the soles of my shoes, all the while to the tunes of Ricky Nelson, Del Shannon, Patsy Cline and Gene Pitney.

There are girls everywhere.  Not a well-practiced pursuer, I am focused on a pretty, smiling blue-jeaned skater, her pony tail swaying behind her as she swung around the rink. She had beautiful white roller skates, tied above the ankle, just where the rolled up cuffs revealed an inch of exquisitely tanned shin.  I am conquered.

The best I can do is come up from behind, draft in front of her and keep ahead. Oh nerve, where are you when I need you?

Gene Kelly of the roller rink.

Meanwhile, there is a lone skater who stands out in the crowd. He is tall, pompadoured, and twirling about like Gene Kelly on fancy black lace-ups with red toe brakes. He’s big and muscular, with his short sleeves rolled up an inch to show off his biceps. Throughout a Dee Clark number, “Rain Drops”, he is tangoing and swinging through the moving groups, spinning, skating forwards and backwards, cutting a crazy path. Everyone moves on as he navigates the openings for a pirouette on one skate.

I have just completed another “fly-by” in front of the attractive miss who has captured and numbed my thoughts. She seems oblivious, but I have to keep at it.

Then, Boom! Out of nowhere, I am crushed by a jumble of legs and skates as Gene Kelly backs into me. Down we go onto the unforgiving concrete, and he lands on top.

“Jeezuz! Watch where you’re going creep! Ya little wiss! Get off the (**$%^&#$) floor. Ya wanna fist??”

Looking up, I stare at his hair which has come undone like a wilted bouquet of dead flowers. He sneers at me while he combs it back, and with a final dismissive hand signal, he is on his way again, spinning through the crowd.

Rolling over onto all fours, I push myself back onto my feet. I have a sore butt, but otherwise intact. I skate on to continue my approach to pony tail who seems to have missed my floor event. She smoothly circles the floor as I catch up from behind.

I am intent on coming up and saying hi, but at the last moment I chicken out, and pass by, crossing in front of her. I have serious, craven doubts about taking the final step in greeting her. In a moment she is off again and I am left to cruise around in my desperation.

A couple more circuits around the floor, and I have now glided in front of her yet again. Somewhere in the middle of “Calendar Girl” I slow down, turn my head and say, “Hunh.” Or “Hi”. Or, “Oh”.  It’s stupid, and dumb and I’m speechless. Looking at her, my head spins in a mixture of emotions: delirious, mindless, giddy panic.

Miraculously, she responds. “Hi.” She has a grin on her face and giggles as she looks at me.

“Yeah, hi,” I counter.   Idiot. Twit. Moron. I can’t talk. My mind is a tub of Jello. My tongue is towel dry.

“Are you hot?” She asks. Odd question, but here goes.

“No. Yes. Not really. It’s hot, no.  What?”   Why don’t I just shoot myself right now? And then she responds, laughing.

“It must be hot if you don’t need pants.”

“What?”

“Your pants. The seat’s gone.”

At this moment, the bottom drops out of my world as I feel back there, and find nothing but shreds. The neat khakis have atomized into a collection of torn scraps like a ragged, tattered old flag. Then the realization hits me, just like Gene Kelly did when he took me down onto the treacherous concrete.

Busted!

I look at her, with my mouth open big enough to chomp a Tootsie Roll. And then she makes another comment.

“Nice underwear. Seeya.”

And with that, she skated away on those spinning wheels, ponytail swinging behind her, as I peeled off to the exit, heading straight for the men’s room.

I never saw her again.

In time, like by the next day, the whole event was behind me, just another fateful insult in the long education of growing up.

But it’s the one lesson I have learned, and it still holds, whenever I get dressed: if I am ever hit by the proverbial bus, I am prepared.

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childhood, Culture, Environment, Wildlife

The Treetops Club

The white pine is the tallest in the woods.

Driving through the country the other day I spied a tall white pine on the edge of a woods, and it reminded me of the pine woods at home, in Delhi, Ontario. We spent many weekends.. in the woods, under the woods, and on top of the woods, building forts, huts, tunnels and abodes.

The pine woods framed the southeast corner of our wanderings around town.  Just south of the CNR tracks, and a few blocks east of Delhi Industries, and Delhi Metal Products, the 10-acre plot was our outdoor workbench as kids.

Soft green needles when on the branch, they fall rusty brown to the forest floor.

As the name implies, the woodlot was predominantly white pine, intermingled with some beech, birch, and the odd maple.  The floor was a soft pad of rust-colored pine needles.  If you dug down 2 or 3 inches you were into soft, black, sandy loam, the product of years and years of quiet decomposition.

White pines are majestic. They are permanently wind-blown like carefree flirts in a park, constantly getting the attention of every eye.  They were frequent subjects of Canada’s Group of Seven painters.

On any given weekend, the odds were good that we were in the woods, digging or climbing.  Our quest was the construction of a hut, or a fort, and occasionally a tree fort.

An adult attempt at reclaiming youth, somewhere on Kauai.

The huts were lean-tos.  We scavenged dead branches for ridgepoles and then layered quantities of pine bows over the structure until it blocked out the sun.  We never knew if it would stop rain, but if it did, it was on a day we preferred to rampage in someone’s basement instead.

Those huts were our headquarters on fair weather days, and absent the real thing, we consumed pine needle and newspaper smokes like little chimneys on fire.

The huts were also big enough to dig pits for small campfires, and if a lost hiker strolled by the lean-to, they were as likely as not to smell the pungent fumes of our home-rolled cigarettes as the smoke curled through the needles of the roof.

Rupert’s folly on Survivor 7. Caves don’t work.

On one series of weekends we ventured to build a cave.  This entailed equipment: shovels, smuggled out of the garage avoiding the scrutiny of our parents.  We learned years later that they were oblivious to the whole escapade.  Digging into the soft cool dirt, we dug down a good three feet, piling the proceeds around the sides of the pit.  When the resulting cavity was about 4 feet in height, we laid down the required logs and poles to hold up the roof, which again was a frilly knit of pine bows and other bracken.  Before long, the cave was satisfactorily complete, and smoke ventilated through the canopy to be blown into the woods.

The pine is majestic: a frequent subject for The Group of Seven painters.

This cave was pretty impressive, having shelving inside for a small inventory of consumables like Cokes and smokes, and also a side for a small fire.  We even had it stress-tested when a local teen drove his motorcycle over the roof to prove its strength.  Bikes were lighter then.  Today’s Harley would be stuffed into one of the shelves in an instant.

The first 10 feet were the challenge.

What we did find, and this is precursor of what the hapless Saboga Tribe found in CBS TV series Survivor, Season 7 on Pearl Islands– when it rains, water collects in the pit.  We could have jumped into the future, 2003, and told Rupert, the witless architect that it was a bad plan.  But sometimes, history needs to repeat itself.

Our best, and highest accomplishment remains however, when we built the tree fort.  The tree was an elegant and aging white pine, probably  among the tallest in the woods.  Easily 60 feet high, and climbable to the very top.

The challenge was the first ten feet, over which there were no branches to leg up on.  As a solution, we pilfered various 2x4s and 1x4s and fists full of 4 inch nails to build a ladder up to the branch-climbing level.  When the handholds and steps were in place, we were on our way.

A pine woods, ready for building.

Pine trees are distinguished by their regular frequency of branches.  Every year sprouts a new level, so that we could climb up the tree with relative ease.  As we only weighed about 60-70 pounds, we had the freedom to climb and swing our way to the top, high enough that only another 10 feet of tree was above us.  Standing on broomstick-like branches, hanging onto the trunk, staring into the breeze on a sunny afternoon, the world was ours.

Google Maps finds our woods, untouched 60 years later!

Over to the west we could see the Barrel Restaurant, Wills Motors, Smith Lumber and the factories on the highway.  To the northwest, there was Beselaere’s Fuels, and the German Hall.  Just north of us was the CNR track, and if we timed it right, we could see the locomotives lumbering down the track towards Simcoe.  Beyond was the tobacco exchange and then the high school. To the northeast was the dump, and way off to the east was the fertilizer factory. Twisting around the tree and facing south was a vista of treetops and woods, edging up to a tobacco field, already green with young plants dotting the endless rows.

I think now about the tree as our finest moment.  It invited us to climb, and regardless of our real position, we felt entirely safe and secure, high above the ground, surrounded by a nest of soft green needles on a web of black branches.  There we hoisted up more boards and nails, and made a platform big enough for 2 or 3 kids, happy to be out of sight, but able to see for miles.

Google provides a beautiful view of the pine woods today.  Miraculously, it is still there, somehow protected from development.  I wonder if kids still climb trees, and I wonder, is ours still there?

Thanks for reading!  Please share this with your tree-climbing friends!

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childhood, Culture, Education, Wildlife

Big Creek

For the past couple of weeks I have been enchanted by a Facebook site whose entire focus is looking back at my old hometown, Delhi Ontario.

Young fishers on the bank, waiting hopefully for that first tug.

It has been a treat, viewing grade school pictures and tagging names to people I haven’t seen in 60 years.  There have been renewed conversations with these long lost friends.  While the site’s members are asking others to remember their shared experiences, it has also rekindled some memories of my own that I clearly had forgotten.   Running central through these experiences is Big Creek.

The creek drains west Norfolk, like a vast willowy exotic plant.

Big Creek is about 40 miles long from its smallest tributary running into Windham township, at the northern border of Norfolk County. As it heads south towards Lake Erie it gains volume and girth, first with the addition of Brondy Creek north of town, then Cranberry Creek, from the west, in Middleton, then Trout Creek and Silver Creek come from the east, in Charlotteville.  Further south it expands as Venison Creek flows in from the west of Walsingham.

Two youngsters head into the edge of the Carolynian forest.

It drains west Norfolk through a valleyed web of locally named brooks, streams, rivulets, freshets and runs that on a map looks like the willowy profile of a vast, exotic plant.  Through its valleys grow a robust Carolinian forest, distinguished by towering beech, hickory, walnut, sassafras, butternut and tulip trees.  The woods are alive with rich scents and sounds, modified by the steady gurgle of flowing water.  Underfoot we find marsh marigolds and vast spreads of skunk cabbage.

Along every bank there is a path, both sides, worn deep by the feet of literally centuries of generations of natives, settlers, small animals and small people.  They are there to walk, fish, camp, trap, hunt, swim, wade and stare deep into  the current’s constant pushing of sand and silt towards the lake.

Green pools hide the fish on a sunny afternoon.

Fighting the flow are small fish– trout: brook, brown, and occasional suckers which vacuum the river bed.  They are scurrying against the riffles to sink deep into the green pools under fallen trees and trapped logs.  Every elbow in the river is the occasional site of fishers dangling a monofilament line over the pool, waiting for a tug.

The creek offered new events at every turn, especially after the spring floods.

As a boy, no more than 8 or 9, I accepted the waterway as open territory for discovery, as did all of my friends.  Big Creek was as accessible as the school yard and main street.  But more inviting, as it constantly delivered new events at every turn.

At the north end of town, a half mile pedal, racing down swimming pool road, a driveway took us into Deerlick, a rustic retreat.  Some church owned it, and sent their meditating members off to think, and maybe relax.  We wheeled in there on our bikes, and stopping in the woods, a few hundred yards, dumped our clothes, and jumped into a clear, shallow stream that flowed into the mother creek.

Icy water, 12 inches deep!  We hung in long enough to claim a short rebellion against our parents’ warnings to stay out of trouble.  Somewhere back towards the road we could hear the occasional rumble of cars over a steel bailey bridge paved with heavy, loose, oak timbers, and a pounding reminder that civilization wasn’t too far off.

The old swimming hole: fun, sand and noisy with shouts and splashes at a bend in the creek.

The little stream poured into a larger current, and a few minutes back to Delhi, past the horseshoe, which was an abandoned oxbow in the creek, and one could see the old swimming hole.  A sturdy wire bridge was suspended over the creek to reach the other side.

This was a service club’s effort to offer some fun for the youth of Delhi.  At a gentle bend in the creek, the water deepens as it wraps around a sandy beach, grossly out of place in the woods.  Were it not for Norfolk’s sandy composition, there would be no beach.  Nevertheless, there is a place to suntan, a change house, and every weekend the screams and chatters of a host of jubilant kids spread across the creek waters as they drift slowly by.

The dark water streamed by keeping us cool and moving.

The swimming hole is just that.  Shallow on the beach side, the creek bed drops off immediately into a dark, murky green pool.  The big kids jump off a diving board into the dark waters.  On the beach side, I walk out to the end of a small dock and jump in, expecting to hit bottom, waist deep.  There is no bottom, to my surprise, and am shocked enough to inhale two lungs full of water.  My last memory is a stream of yellow bubbles rising before my eyes.

I woke up in the change house some time later.  Luckily, I had been missed by a lifeguard who jumped in and pulled me out.  She must have been terrified as they pumped me and shook me in the change house.  I awoke under the eyes of a group of concerned kids.  I had a horrific case of the hiccups which lasted all the way home as my brother escorted me.  When I met my parents, I said I had taken a mouthful.  A couple years ago, I sent that lifeguard a note with a picture of my family and grand kids.  I pointed out they were her doing, and thanks.

The site was eventually downgraded to a camp for out-of-work transient tobacco workers, and the service club built a new pool up by the rink. Today the area is entirely unrecognizable, and the bridge is gone.

Skunk cabbage: big, voluptuous and odiferous.

The creek flows south, just behind a cliff.  At the top is Talbot Street, and that is the address of the Anglican church, St. Albans, then St Casimir’s the Lithuanian church, and St John Brebuf school.  It is one of the oldest streets in town, and is named after John Talbot who mapped southwestern Ontario, earning himself a throughway called the Talbot Road.  More currently it is Highway 3.

Highway 3 bridge on the west side. Upstream we played hockey in the winter.

Just before Big Creek curves under the bridge, there is a slow spot.  In the winter the ice forms easily, and we often went down to play hockey on the grey skin of ice in the winters.  One had to be careful as open water drifted close by, and our mutual responsibility was to stop the puck from sliding into the icy black that bubbled and melted the edges of our rink.

After the bridge, the creek has a run of a couple hundred yards in shallow waters before it hits Quances Dam.  There are stacks of rough cut wood there, six feet high, air-curing.  I have climbed on those boards and waited for hours to spot the groundhogs coming out on a spring day to catch some noon sun.  The brownie camera I hold takes vague, grey pictures, but they are gold to me, better than Disney, actually.

Big Creek jams up at the dam.  The dam is old, originally placed there in 1830, and powered the lumber mill and feed mill owned by the Quances, one of Delhi’s earlier families.

Quance’s Dam: a concrete pillbox was our watching station for fish jumping.

In my younger years there, I never sensed that lumber was a business. The dam was for our entertainment entirely.  Water cascaded over the concrete, separated by a ten-foot-high pill box between two spillways.  We would jump into the pillbox to stare up into the lip of the dam that was under a steel bailey bridge.  We looked for whatever was coming down, and occasionally for some hardy fish that thought they could jump up into the water above.

Quance’s Mill, creekside.

In the pool below there were small retention ponds built out of stones put there by fishers who wanted to keep their catch alive but captive, until they went home.  One day we played in the pond looking for crayfish and found a nest of lamprey eel.  They were just babies, about six inches long, flashing silver in our hands as we grabbed for them.  They would grow eventually to attach themselves to the game fish in the stream, and in Lake Erie.  Evil little slitherers.

Around the corner, there once was a hanging bridge that crossed the creek.  I never saw it, but it was a convenience for folks who didn’t want to walk around Western Avenue to get to the dam, which was a rendezvous for many purposes.  Farther down, the creek flows under the road, and past Stapleton’s stone welding and metal fabricating shop that is a landmark. When we built a go-kart, he built us an axle for the wheels.

Perhaps the loneliest, most foreboding building in town, our sewage plant.

Further south, the pungent odor of sulphur fouls the air.  We have frequently walked down the dirt road to the town’s sewage plant.  There, we would pass by a one-story cinder block building, lonely, unattractive and foreboding.  Beside it, a fenced off water distribution system carouseled around a 60-foot-wide circle, dripping treated water into a bed of rocks.  There was an intrepid group of truants who climbed the fence and rode the pipes one afternoon, reportedly.  There was mention of a police visit.  It was during school hours, so we missed that.  Nevertheless, we were in awe of their bravado.

Beside the sewage plant springs a bubbling fountain of sulphur water.  It boils out of the ground, exuding its trademark stench, and leaves a milky film over the rocks as it flows down to the creek.  Like a saviour, Big Creek takes both the sulphur water and the treated sewage water away, cleansing the town of its trespasses.

A couple more bends in the creek and it curves past a reforested pine woods.  There were many Saturdays when we sat in those woods, loaded up with a giant bottle of Coca Cola and a pack of cigarettes and solved the problems of our world, mostly school, teachers, parents and girls.  The meandering creek took our troubles away with it.

The new Lehman’s Dam, equipped with fish ladder forms a magnificent small lake extending to highway 3.

Just before it hits another bridge, the waters are joined by the North branch as it is called locally, and Lehman’s dam traps a small lake of water further upstream.  If one ventures up North creek, it eventually cuts under highway 3.  Just around the corner we camped up there for a night in a small canvas wall tent.  Fire, food, smokes, our friendly companion dog for company, and the calls of mourning doves made for a pleasant vacation in the woods.  We were 11 years old, and living the good life.

The early Grand Trunk steam engines blew their whistle on the trestle coming into town.

Back down at Big Creek proper, it travels south under the railway trestle.  Grand Trunk used to run trains over it, and then the CNR.  The trestle still stands today, black and rusted, out of use, and it is a monument to the energy and will of a bygone business generation.   50-year-old trees are growing among its foundations.  When I was very young that same rail line had steam engines pounding over the rails, and I can remember their flute-like whistles, nothing like today’s diesels with their air horns.

The trestle today, unused but picturesque. Credit: Randy Goudeseune.

This patch of creek is a highway for foot traffic.  We often came here, walking down from William street, over the tracks, and into the woods.  On any given Saturday this was a destination hike, punctuated by a campfire, and a sizzling frying pan of hamburger, potatoes and onions.

There was a particular elbow that we would camp on, where the creek rushed by in six inches of rapids.  Wandering out into the water, I fetched a peculiar rock that stuck out among the froth.  Picking it up, it looked like a brick, but very smooth and scarred with shallow scallops like someone had scraped the sides with a spoon.  It was block of flint.

Not knowing this, but still intrigued, I hefted the brick into my knapsack and took it home.  There, I chipped away at it with my dad’s hammer, and amid the sparks, broke off sharp thin wafers of flint.  Before long, I was failing,  but enjoying the attempts at making flint arrowheads.  Just another gift from the creek.  I still have the rock today.

Dicks Hill bridge under horse and carriage.

On Saturdays we went for bike rides beyond the tobacco factory.  The gravel road led to the long sloping Dick’s Hill intersected again by Big Creek.  The steel bridge there was a bailey construction with rumbling timbers that shook with every car that crossed over.  From that bridge you could fish, spit, drop stones and apples to the smoothly passing water below.  The town council closed that bridge in the 70s, and cut off the neighbours to the west of the creek.

The bridge in 1984.

A couple hundred yards in, at another elbow we camped in a grassy clearing over a 24th of May weekend: wall tent, food, fire and our same faithful dog.  It was a delicious, sunny warm afternoon followed by a quiet star-lit night.  Totally inspired, we rigged up a large tripod, and boiled a 5-gallon drum full of water and took showers, then turned in to bed, wet heads on a mattress of pine bows.  The dog wouldn’t enter the tent and slept outside, no doubt looking for varmints.  Next morning we woke under a heavy chill, with horrendous, thick, throaty coughs.  Outside, the dog slept, covered in a heavy coat of frost.

Croton Dam generated 60-cycle hydro to Quance’s Mill. It couldn’t hold the water back in 1937.

A couple miles down from Dicks Hill are the remains of Croton Dam.  We got there by gravel road and bike.  This structure was built over 50 years earlier in 1907, and blew out in 1937.  By the time we discovered Croton it had a young forest of trees growing out of its foundations.  The portions of the dam still standing are worthy of climbing and walking, all the time staring up the steep hill on the other side of the creek.  Looking upstream, it’s easy, and stunning to visualize what the mill pond used to look like, stretching back perhaps half a mile.  Croton provided Quances Mill with 60 cycle hydro, long before Ontario Hydro.

Our furthest bike pursuit of Big Creek was Lynedoch.  This little hamlet is poised in a valley around the bridge over the creek.  Just south is an orderly grove of walnut trees planted decades before: probably thirty or forty 50-foot trees in neat rows across the flats.

A few tools from the fields south of Lynedoch.

As the creek wanders past Lynedoch to another elbow, you can still walk up to the field above where there are arrow heads and tools left behind by an Indian village centuries ago.  Just another find by the water’s edge if you care to look.

Having unloaded my memories of Big Creek, it comes to mind just how lucky we were as kids to live in an unfettered, free-range world, to wander for miles, away from home.  By today’s urban standards, our parents would all be in court facing child abandonment charges.  Thanks to their trust, and maybe to their post-war sense of relief, we were launched optimistically to explore and learn, full time.

All the while, Big Creek was our playground and classroom.

Thanks for hanging in there and getting this far.  This was a long essay, but so is the creek.  Please like and share this one!  Thanks also to John Waite, Randy Goudeseune , James Bertling, and Alice DeGeyter whose Facebook posts supplied some of the images.

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