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Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer

by Al Roach

“Summer afternoon – summer afternoon; to me these have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”
— Henry James

The eight-year-old boy sitting on the well worn limb of the willow tree overlooking the weed-infested shoreline of the Detroit River has never heard of Henry James, but no matter – he knows about summer afternoons.

Long lazy days.

A group of boys renting the broad, flat, light-grey rowboats from Beard’s Boathouse (15 cents per hour; each boy contributing one hard-earned nickel).

Fishing for perch and rock bass with home-made rods off the dock of the Walkerville and Detroit Ferry Company.

Watching the older boys diving into the foaming water off the stern of the tubby ferry, the Wayne, as she butts her way toward midstream on her way to her Detroit dock at the foot of Jos. Campeau.

Helping Dennis Harris melt tar (probably stolen from the streets of Old Walkerville) in an iron pot over a fire at the river’s edge. To be used to seal the cracks of his on-the-beach-constructed sail boat (which will sink on launching and never see the light of day again).

Playing in secret hideouts up the dirt embankment on the underside of the Peabody Bridge (where pubescent boys draw crude pictures of the female anatomy and misspell the four-letter words accompanying them).

Hanging around the Walkerville Taxi stand at the Devonshire end of the bridge, waiting for some rich American to disembark from the ferry and order a cab to ever-so-distant places. Sometimes as far as Ouellette and Wyandotte in Windsor. What if it does cost a quarter? Expensive is nothing to these wealthy Yankees.

A visit to the Walkerville Police Station in the coach house at Willistead where Chief Constable James P. Smith lectures sternly on the dangers of entering a life of crime.

Other boys are duly impressed. But not enough to erase from their young minds the thrill of the ride to the station in the spanking new police cruiser. How else would any of them enjoy such a luxurious experience in the summer of ’32?

Long, lazy days.

The afternoon freight from
Toronto comes huffing and clanging under the bridge. Steam snorting and wheels clacking over the rail joints. The engine glides to a stop at the entrance to the freight yards at the foot of Marentette and a half mile of box cars squeals to a stop behind it.

From dozens of these empty-cars (like ants scurrying from a kicked ant hill) hobos, the hallmark of the 1930s, come shambling along the cinders and down to the riverbank.

Looking for jobs that don’t exist. Living in the age before the welfare state. Single men from 16 to 60, drifting from coast to coast, fighting off starvation. Last week they were in Halifax. Three weeks ago, in Vancouver. Yesterday, in Toronto.

“I heard there were jobs in Windsor.” “A fellow I met in Brantford said Ford is hiring. Is it true?” Grasping at straws.

Each hobo staggers (from the heat and fatigue; he cannot afford a drink) down to the riverbank. Here a ritual is performed. He reaches into his dusty suit-coat pocket (the suit-coat, a relic of the prosperous 1920s when he had a job; it does not match his trousers).

From his pocket he draws forth a piece of brown paper in which he has carefully wrapped an old bar of soap, a comb and a razor. His ablutions performed, he goes forth in search of a meal.

The approach: are there any jobs he can do in exchange for something to eat? Sometimes the boy in the tree takes him to the back fence of a nearby boarding house where he wheedles a sandwich from his mother “for the hungry man out back.”

These tramps are not the rambunctios, even ferocious types sometimes portrayed in fiction. Mostly they are sad-faced young men with dirty collars and haunting eyes. And little hope. Waiting, lethargically, pathetically, for the prosperity Franklin Delano Roosevelt has promised them is “just around the corner.”

“the boy ...takes him to the back fence of a nearby
boarding house and passes him a sandwich wheedled
from his mother for the hungry man out back.”

But for the boy in the tree they are just another part of the summer scenery. As natural as the ragweed that grows along the tracks. They are part of his world. He looks forward to the day when he will be old enough to join them on their exciting travels.

How can he know a new cataclysm will follow in 1939, putting an end to the Depression? When the hobos will be no more.

Who thinks of such things? It’s summertime. And he slips out of his tree seat and bounces home singing:

Halleluiah, I’m a bum
Halleluiah, bum again
Halleluiah, give us a hand-out
To revive us again.



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