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Of Boys and A Bridge

peabody.jpgI remember, I remember
How my childhood fleeted by -
The mirth of its November
And the warmth of its July.
Winthrop M. Praed

Two thunderous blasts reverberate off the Detroit skyline through the crisp November air. Passing to port. The 633-foot Canada Steamship Lines bulk carrier Lemoyne, biggest on the Great Lakes, is butting her way majestically upstream on the choppy, white-capped river.

Approaching her downbound and returning the signal, proudly flying her Detroit Yacht Club colors is Mrs. Anna Thompson Dodge's Delphine. The magnificent all-white floating palace of the widow of auto magnet Horace Dodge sweeps in close to the Canadian shore to give the big laker plenty of room.

Her pennants are snapping briskly in the snow-flurried late nor'wester. Black smoke tumbles out of her red and black stack, rolls across the icy water and envelops the low-profiled customs and immigration buildings on the Walkerville and Detroit Ferry Company dock.

Watching from the top of Peabody Bridge, four pairs of boy's eyes follow the steam yacht's progress downstream.

They watch the rollers from the Delphine splashing against the rickety piers of Beard's Boathouse west of the ferry dock. The rowboats rise and fall, tipping crazily, tugging at their hawser lines and bashing against the spiles as the waves slosh under them.

"She's flying a Red Ensign on her bow," says the skinny dark-haired kid. "Must be going to Toronto."

"Maybe Montreal," puts in his chubby friend.

The boys are sitting on the rivet-covered grey metal wall on the north side of the bridge, oblivious to the ear-piercing squeals of the steel wheels of the east bound S.W. and A streetcar executing the sharp curve at the top of the bridge just a few feet behind them.

Heavy corduroy trousers insulate the boys' butts from the cold of the steel wall. Rough woollen jackets (with snaps instead of buttons) fend off November blasts. The kid with the big nose fastens his aviator cap under his chin. It will keep his ears warm on this late fall Saturday afternoon of 1934.

Bored with river, the boys swing their legs over the wall and face the Walker Power Building. While three of them are wearing boots, one retains his annual pair of Sisman scampers from the summer holidays. Going barefoot most of the summer, he has kept them in good shape.

The red-headed boy jumps downs onto the streetcar tracks. A heavy grey woollen sock sags to his ankle. He yanks it back up just under the knee and pulls it over the buttoned bottom of his navy blue course serge knickers.

The clip-clop of a horse's hooves on pavement and the rumbling of solid rubber wheels attracts their attention. Head lowered, snorting warm steam onto his frosted velvet snout, a weary roan comes labouring up the bridge, pulling a tall and narrow brown wooden wagon.

The driver sits on a worn black leather seat, over which the curved roof of the wagon extends to protect him from the elements. His wicker basket rests on the seat beside him.

The boys gaze impassively at the black letters reading "Soble Tea and Coffee" on the side of the wagon.

"My Old Lady buys from them," says the chubby one.

The other boys hop down from the wall. They look to the east where the streetcar has now stopped to drop a passenger in front of the tall craneway of Ford's Plant #1 on the north side of Sandwich Street near Drouillard Road.

A sudden rush of a gaggle of boys across the bridge roadway, over a second steel wall and down a sidewalk to the foot of Victoria Road (Susan Avenue to very old-timers, the Chilver Road of the future).

An impulsive challenge to walk across the concrete railing between the sidewalk of the bridge and the tracks of the Canadian National Railways 30 feet below. Boys with arms outstretched, airplane style. Wobbling precariously high above the cold steel of the tracks. Gusts of wind rumpling their chunky hair.

The safety of the far bank approaches slowly - ever so slowly.

Four thumps. On the sidewalk at the foot of Devonshire Road. Safe for another day. Until the next challenge of boyhood is accepted.

The boys hang around the traffic gates operated by the corpulent Mr. Jones from his perch, a grey wooden gatehouse stuck on four steel posts 15 feet above the tracks.

The railroader hoists one of the greasy wooden windows of his oversized birdhouse, sticks his head and sings one stanza of his ribald version of "It's a Long Way to Tickle Mary", bringing appropriate replies from the boys.

The chubby kid leans against one of the gateposts, which is still lettered "G.T.R.R." (for Grand Trunk Railroad, which owned these tracks before selling to the CNR in 1923).

The boys remember their wagon at the top of the bridge. There is a mad dash for possession and the right to "ride down" first.

A howling mob rolls downward (three on the wagon and one "outrider" pounding along behind) around the blind corner at the foot of Victoria Road and out onto Sandwich Street (Riverside Dr.). Narrowly missing two outraged ladies who give them a "Well, I neverņ" purse of the lips as the wagon roars past.

Darkness comes early on a November afternoon. The streetlights come on. The boys go their separate ways. The skinny dark-haired kid adjusts his red earmuffs and pulls his wagon wearily over the bridge, heading east towards his mother's boarding house, located at 111 Sandwich Street. She rents the 10-room brick home from Hiram Walker and Sons Limited for $25 per month.

The streetlights blink three times. Walkerville Chief Constable James Smith wants the town police cruiser to report back to the station in the coach house at Willistead Park.

It is after dark now. And the town has a curfew. "Maybe they've seen me," thinks the skinny dark-haired kid. And he hurries homeward.

More Al Roach



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