On the Road Again

If you were born and raised in Canada, you are doubtless familiar with sounds that typify our country—the quavering call of a loon across a lonesome lake, for example; the eerie, chilling howls of a wolf-pack under a cold, starry sky; or the absolute sound of silence in a colourful, autumn woods.

For me, the most iconic sound of all is the shrill warning cry from a group of kids playing hockey on the street when an approaching vehicle is spotted—

CA-A-A-A-R-R-R!

Back in the 1950’s (yes, dear reader, that long ago!), I was one of those kids.  Every day after school, all day on Saturday, and on Sunday after church, the neighbourhood boys—no girls back then—would assemble on our street in what was then North Toronto, hockey sticks in hand, to play road-hockey.

road hockey

If we all showed up together, we’d choose teams the fairest way possible.  Gathered in a circle, both fists held to the centre, we’d listen to one of us count off, tapping every fist:  One-potato, two-potato, three-potato, four, five-potato, six-potato, seven-potato, more!  The boy whose fist was tapped on the eight-beat would step back, waiting for the next kid, and the next, until half the boys were out.  Those would be the teams.

Kids who showed up late jumped right in, joining the team with the fewest players at that moment.  Our sticks were sawed-off wooden models, many of the blades worn thin from the constant scraping on the asphalt.  Our puck was a scuzzy tennis ball, no longer white and fuzzy, and I remember how that ball could sting, especially when frozen, if it hit an unprotected spot.

Everyone at some point played with tears in his eyes, waiting for the pain to abate.  Nobody laughed at the crying kid, though, because we all knew only too well how it felt.  But no one ever quit.

In truth, we had scant protection—no helmets, no padded gloves, no shin pads.  Toques, thick mittens, and lined jeans were all we wore, along with sturdy boots.  Inadvertent whacks on the shins and hacks across the fingers were merely occupational hazards we all endured.

prohibited

We didn’t care that road-hockey was technically forbidden, even when, once in a while, a police car would roll down the street.  We’d simply scatter up any of the myriad driveways between the houses, sticks in hand, until the danger was past.

Makeshift goal-markers would be set up at each end of the stretch of street we had claimed—sometimes small piles of snow, sometimes mounds of frozen horse-turds left behind by the stoic steeds that pulled the carts of the milkman, the bread-man, and the ice-man.  The youngest kids’ sticks were requisitioned to gather and pile the turds—a sort of rookie hazing, I suppose.

When those intrusive cars would dare to interrupt us, we’d trudge begrudgingly to the side of the road, glaring at the offending drivers as they passed, and yelling at them if they managed to squash one of the goal-markers.  Repairing it was gross if it was one of the turds.

There were few rules:  no slashing, no high-sticking, no deliberate bodychecking.  That left lots of room for incidental body contact, however, especially when the number of boys playing was particularly high.  When that was the case, we had to move the goal-markers back, lengthening the playing area to fit everyone in.

By and large, all the boys played by the rules, governed by a commonly-understood code of fair-play.  The odd kid who might repeatedly play dirty was not assessed a penalty time-out for his transgressions, though; he was simply told to go home.  Adult supervision was not required.

rules

With no goal-nets and no end-boards, the ball would sometimes roll halfway down the street after an errant shot.  The youngest among us were designated to chase it, but we never minded.  It was a chance to practice our stickhandling as we came back up the street, unhindered by the other boys hungering to steal the ball from us.

Most of us had nicknames, some ethnic in origin, which nobody regarded as a slur back then.  All that mattered is if you could play.  There were Boo and Dinny, the Draper twins, Paul (Puppy) Jackson, and Terry (King) Clancy, son of the Maple Leafs’ hall-of-famer—all of whom would go on to win a Memorial Cup in 1961 with the St. Michael’s Majors.  We had the twins’ older brother, Mike (Meatball), and Gary (Swampy) Marsh, who would win an Allan Cup in 1973 with the Orillia Terriers.  No one knew of the fame some of the gang would find, of course, not then.  But we all harboured our own dreams of grace and glory.

We played with Kraut, whose parents owned the Salzburger Deli on Eglinton Avenue; Mick, whose parents owned Murphy’s Meats nearby; and Dago, whose family owned Carradona’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.  Our mothers all shopped those stores, two or three times a week, back in the days when icebox-chests, not refrigerators, were still the norm for many of us.

groceries

Other players included Boomer, he of the hard shot; Skinny, the guy who could slip through any defenders; and Magic, the kid who could stickhandle in a phone-booth.  I think I was mostly known as Hey Kid!

I vividly remember reaching the age where my parents let me go back out after supper to play under the dim glow of the streetlights—it seemed a rite of passage, somehow.  And I can still see the ethereal wisps of steam from all the panting mouths, dissipating into the darkness overhead.  But I’ve lost track of how many Stanley Cups we won on that darkened, winter street, running and passing and shooting with reckless abandon.

There’s an old barbershop-quartet song titled, That Old Gang of Mine, and part of the lyric-lines come to mind when I think back to those long-ago good times with boyhood chums—Gee, but I’d/Give the world/To see them all again…

But I can see them, really, whenever I choose, stretched out in my recliner, eyes half-closed, ears attuned to the inimitable sounds echoing in my brain.  It feels like I’m on the road again, under the streetlights, hearing the shouts of those indefatigable hockey players.

Calling loudly for a pass—Here!  Here!

Yelling at a teammate to take a shot on goal—Shoot!  Shoot!

Celebrating a score—It’s in!  It’s in!

And hearing that most urgent shout of all, the iconic warning we all would heed, no matter what—

CA-A-A-A-R-R-R!

car 9

So Late, So Soon

There is a song from a popular musical production that I’ve always liked.  Its opening lines run something like this:

Where is the little girl I carried?

Where is the little boy at play?

I don’t remember growing older,

When did they?

When I first heard the song as a young father, before ever seeing the play, it struck me as something to be sung by people much older than I, parents whose children had grown into adulthood.  Knowing now how quickly time can pass, however, I’m not so sure of that.

42709193-little-girl-being-carried-on-the-beach-by-her-father-she-has-her-head-on-his-shoulder-

This past year, one of my sisters welcomed her first great-grandchild into the family.  During that same period, a friend of my daughter’s sent her eldest child off to university for the first time.  Almost twenty years separates these two children from each other.

It seems to me, looking on from a vantage point somewhere between these two milestones, that the difference from one to the other is not so great at all.  Only yesterday, my own five grandchildren were infants; tomorrow, they’ll be heading out into the great, wide world.  And when that happens, the intervening years will have passed in the blink of an eye.

I find it fascinating to talk with my sister and my friend about their respective hopes and ambitions for these two children.  Although they’re speaking from different perspectives, their feelings are remarkably the same.

Whether still at home as a babe in arms, or off to school in a faraway town (as a babe in the woods?), each of these children is the object of a good deal of love and concern.  Each is seen by their families as being at the beginning of a long, exciting journey.  Everyone hopes the kids will be healthy and safe, happy and secure, and successful as they grow through the next few years.

Hart House 2012 (phot by James Marsh).

Both families pray the children will make the best use of what their parents are able to give them.  They hope the children will be guided by a strong set of values.  And they definitely want to keep open the lines of communication with their young.

Their most similar characteristic, though, is their tendency to care about and fuss over the children.  It matters not whether the kids are with them still, or out in the brave, new world—they worry.

In a way, I find that reassuring.

Of course, there are differences, too, in how these folks look upon their situations.  With my daughter’s friend, the mother of the university child, I detect a hint of resignation in her outlook, which is not apparent in my sister’s perspective.  It stems, I suppose, from the knowledge that she no longer exercises as much control over what her child is doing, or what might be done to him.  More and more, she can only look on as her son finds his own way.

mother and son

She appears to be at peace with this, however; she evinces a belief that most of what she will ever be able to do for her son has already been done.  Or not.  She doesn’t see her job as a parent as finished—perhaps it never is—but she doesn’t view it as the major focus it once was in her life.

She summed it up quite nicely on a recent visit.  Speaking almost wonderingly, she said, “There was so much more we wanted to teach him before he went off and left us.  But it got so late, so soon!”

In her comment, I hear an echo of that song I like.  My daughter’s friend doesn’t remember growing older, so when did her son?  It’s a song many of my friends are singing now, as their grandchildren continue to grow and strike out on their own.  It’s a song I, too, will soon be singing.

As Jack Kornfield, an American writer and Buddhist practitioner, has written—The trouble is, you think you have time.

time

So, I don’t complain that I’m too tired when my grandchildren still want to come visit me.  And I don’t say I’m too busy when one or the other wants to tell me all about their latest exploits.

For I know, as my daughter’s friend says, that too soon, it will be too late.

A Panhandler’s Christmas

[first posted December 2016]

After we retired to Florida some years ago, we discovered that Christmas there is as jolly a season as any we enjoyed up north, enveloped by snow.  It was especially joyous when our grandchildren came to visit.

Merry_Christmas_on_the_Beach

One evening during our last Christmas season in the sunny south, we all went out to dinner—my wife, our daughter and her husband, and three of our grandchildren.  We’d spent the afternoon shopping at a large, regional mall, and were looking forward to enjoying the cheer of the season and the pleasure of each other’s company.

During dinner, we talked of our plans for their holiday with us.  Unlike the north, where tobogganing, skating, snowball fights, and warm fires were the order of the day, in Florida the beach, the pool, and the golf course were all on the agenda.  We were looking forward to an old-fashioned holiday with lots of singing, plenty of fresh air and exercise, good food, and family to enjoy being around the tree with.

By the time we finished dinner, sharing our happy plans, we were all feeling very fine—warm, full, comfortable.  We left the restaurant, chatting amiably, and began the walk back to the parking lot where we had left the car.

As we waited to cross the intersection, guided by flashing green and red traffic lights that added to the festive Christmas air, we were accosted by a stranger.  He meant us no harm, but his sudden approach startled us out of our contented state.

He was tall and quite thin, and his face jutted out from under a worn cap.  His beard was unkempt, his eyes red and rheumy.  He wore faded jeans, tattered and patched, and an old, plaid shirt with the collar turned up.  The children huddled behind their parents, afraid of being so close to such an apparition.

panhandler

When he spoke to me, I could hardly hear him in the hum of the passing traffic.  He mumbled through that scraggly beard, through missing teeth, his words coming in disjointed phrases.

“Hey, can you….you got anything….any change?  A bus ticket, maybe….got any…?”

He was clutching a sign on a scrap of corrugated cardboard that read:

Out of work   Homeless   Anything helps   Thank you

“No, sorry,” I muttered, watching for the green light that would allow us to escape.  And we walked away, slightly embarrassed, but relieved to leave him behind.

“Who was that guy, Daddy?” one of the kids asked.

“Did he wanna hurt us?” another chimed in.

Their parents reassured them that he had meant no harm.  He was just a man asking for money.

“Is he sick, Mummy?  Will he be alright?”

None of us could really answer.

When we reached the car, we clambered in silently, each of us lost in our own thoughts.  The kids soon put the episode behind them, immersing themselves in their gaming devices.  As I drove back through the intersection, heading home, the stranger was still on the corner, huddling around himself, approaching passers-by.  He looked pathetic, and utterly alone.  I hoped he didn’t see me staring at him.

xmas panhandler

Later that night, after everyone was in bed, I thought of him again.  At first, I chastised myself for not giving him something to help him out.  From somewhere, the scrap of a Bible verse teased a corner of my mind—Whatsoever ye do unto the least of these, ye do also to me—something close to that, I think.

But then I rationalized that a token from me would not likely have helped him anyway.  He was obviously past the point where a solitary handout was going to make much of a difference in his life.  He’d probably have wasted whatever we might have given him on booze or drugs, I told myself self-righteously.  At one point, I got angry that he had put me in such an uncomfortable position.

Still, underneath it all, I felt a nagging guilt.  ‘Tis the season to care for one’s fellow-creatures; yet we, so full of the Christmas spirit, had kept on walking.  Because we were fearful, because we hadn’t known how to respond…or because we didn’t care.

Was it best to have ignored him and walked on, I wondered?  Or would it have been better to have given him something, in the spirit of Christmas and with the hope that it would have helped him?  I didn’t know.

As I think about it even now, almost a year later—sitting warm and safe at home at the onset of another Christmas season, surrounded by people who love me—I wonder where that stranger is and whether he’s okay.

And I wish I knew what I should have done.