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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childhood, Culture, Sports

For All The Marbles

There was a time when a young boy’s wealth was measured in marbles.   In my hometown, Delhi, Ontario, any 8- to 10-year-old was appointed rank according to how low his pants sagged after a lucky run at the alley pots in our school yard.

IMG_6985

Wealthy beginnings.

We called these beautiful pieces of glass “allies”, and we played on a hard-packed stretch of topsoil just east of the bike racks under a young oak tree.  Alley season started in late April, as soon as the ground dried up from winter, and lasted until school adjourned, end of June.

The alley “pots” peppered a 50-foot square of packed dirt, which looked like a miniature minefield pocked with tiny craters, and not one blade of grass in sight.   The dirt patch was as noisy and busy as any Vegas casino, with players hustling any comer when a pot freed up for a game.   Pint-sized spectators crowded the action like gamblers around a craps table.

The pot was a significant diversion from tradition.   Generally people describe “marbles” as a ring drawn in the dirt or pavement, and a bunch of marbles inside the ring.   Two players would flick marbles at the inner circle, claiming any they knocked out of the ring.  Like dodgeball.

Our game was a more like golf.   The pot was dug into the dirt.   Kids would rotate about ten times on their heel, and form a 4-inch- deep pot that measured about 6 inches across.     Do NOT try this at the golf course.   The pot was the target, and also held the stakes–a heap of 10, 20, 40, maybe a 100 marbles.   Each player would keep one marble out for play.    Stepping about ten feet back from the pot, they dropped their marble, and would alternately inch the marbles towards the pot, usually with their foot.

IMG_6973

Big stakes for the winner of the pot.

The moment of truth occurred when a player felt they could sink one of the marbles into the pot.   Crouching down on one knee, they pushed the marble with a curled forefinger.   Much like golf putting without the fancy shoes.  Or billiards, with no cue.  Or like curling, without the 40-pound rock.

That decisive shot may have been 5 feet away, or perhaps only 12 inches, depending upon the smoothness of the path, the break, and the depth, width and contents of the pot.  If the marble dropped, the player had another turn with the remaining marble.   He might inch that one along, or, take the long shot.   If it sank, he won the pot.   If he missed, then the next turn went back to the other player, who probably would sink it.

With that, fortunes were won and lost every minute with a chorus of cheers and groans around the alley pots.

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A “starry boulder” with three small friends.

And fortunes they were. The Chainway sold “starries”, 30 for a dime.   The starry was a half inch in diameter, and had a twirly colored pigment frozen into the center of the marble.   If you had the money, you might pick up a bag of starry “boulders”.   These were nearly an inch in diameter and went 6 for a quarter.  Pricey, but in the school yard, they traded around 10:1 against the smaller marble so there was room for arbitrage among the quicker thinking players in the yard.

Possessing a fortune in marbles was risky, too.

According to their job description, grade school teachers are hired to confiscate marbles.  In class, the sound of a vagrant marble clattering among the chair legs on a hardwood floor felt like money falling down a grate.

Aggies were the antiques of marbles.

“Aggies” were the antiques of marbles.

Logging the misdemeanor, the teacher would demand the marble be retrieved and placed in a mason jar on the corner of their desk.   You could buy them back, 3 for a penny, proceeds to the Red Cross.

This was a tension-filled time for big winners, whose loaded pockets would bulge like mumps.   Gingerly sitting down with the grace of a hemmorhoidal sufferer, the trick was to keep the pockets vertical to the fall line, and packed tight.

Kids with zippered cargo pants could plop, heavily laden, into their chair with impunity, but if they didn’t wear belts, they ran the risk of mooning the class which was a major felony.

A super boulder aggie, bigger than a quarter.

A super boulder aggie, bigger than a quarter.

Of all my childhood past times, allies made the deepest imprint.   In 5th and 6th grade, I played with stakes from one to twenty marbles, and had won pots as high as 400.

But I have lost 400 too, which twisted the sharp blade of experience, let me tell you.   So much so, that I cannot pass a marble display in a toy store today without picking up a bag or two.   Now, a marble costs about 10-cents each, a 3,000 % inflationary effect.

Do you know some popular brands of liquor use small marbles in the bottle neck to slow the flow?   I cut them out when the bottle’s empty.  So far, I am not buying liquor just to retrieve the marble.  My wife shakes her head, staring at me– a sorry junkie who can’t kick the habit.

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A “purie” boulder and marble. Johnny Walker Double Black provided the tiny one.

I am not sure what to do with my stash: two large Crown Royal bags.   While I want to give them to my grand kids, I have this shameful, miserly greed that won’t let them go.  Remember in “Ghost” when Whoopy Goldberg won’t let go of the $4,000,000 check?  It’s like that.    I am afraid they’ll end up at the bottom of a fish tank.   Or worse, inside a flower pot anchoring a bunch of tulips.  It would be okay if they were displayed in a glass table, maybe.

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The alley bag of choice.

But what I wouldn’t give to take the whole lot of them to a school yard next week and find a buzzing, hard-packed dirt casino, under the shade of an oak, churning with the yell of young risk takers, digging holes for a new game.

 

 

 

Thanks for sticking with me as I try to control this habit of mine.  I just can’t shake it.  If you “like”, say so, and please share or follow!

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At the end of a long successful day.

 

 

 

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