life and times
hiram who
birth of the auto
border cities
sports heritage

Al Roach: The Essence of Youth

reprinted from may 2001, issue#15

You know how it is. Something you can’t put your finger on. It’s all in your head.But suddenly there it is. The unmistakable smell of fresh, warm bread. And I find myself slipping backward down that long tunnel of memory.

To the late 1930’s. And a group of boys standing at the doorway of the local bakery (now long gone) imbibing the delicious odour of the tasty loaves just removed from the smoke-blackened jaws of the oval brick ovens.

I see you’ve joined me. Since you’re here, let’s wander through some of the scenes and breathe again some of those scents of our childhood.

Let’s sit on the curb here and enjoy the pungency of hot tar as the road crews repair cracks in the concrete along Wyandotte Street. There again, pouring shining tar from large, spouted tar-covered cans, are the workers in tar-splattered overalls. (These are the days before the Levis craze, and people in overalls work.)

Again we stroll a few blocks down the street to the corner hotel. We stand wide-eyed, staring innocently through windows opened to the warm summer breeze. We watch unshaven men of the Depression quaffing guiltily. And the stink of stale beer reaches our sensitive nostrils.

The waiter, in black bow-tie, shirt sleeves and elastic armbands, sees our open-mouthed visages beneath the flowing, flowered curtains and shoos us away like so many frightened chickens.

No matter. Over to the local field and watch the boys preparing their soap-box racers. Why do they call them that? They are not made of soap-boxes but of orange crates nailed onto two-by-fours with humming metal roller-skate wheels fore and aft and tincan lids for headlights.

And here we catch a whiff of the thick blobs of congealing red paint on the racers before Bulldog-running-shoed lads, leaning into broom handles shoved into slots at the rear of the "crates," roar away around the well-worn dusty oval track through the burdock bushes.

Again we climb the ubiquitous Up-to-Heaven trees at the back of the field where Fat performs his death-defying high-wire act, swinging and leaping in the upper branches to the amazement and ringing applause of 10,000 patrons jammed into the Barnum and Bailey main tent.

Our hands and clothing reek of the strong bark as we drop to the ground from the lower limbs and dash ("Last one there’s a monkey’s uncle!") to the nearby railway freight sheds.

We scramble across the couplings between sidelined railway freight cars, scarcely aware of the familiar odours from oil-soaked rags in the wheel caps and the heavy brown grease on the axles.

The tang of rusty metal is on our hands and knees as we climb the ladders and race along the tops of old wooden boxcars to the roof of the freight shed to scoop up handfuls of small pebbles and shower them on unsuspecting citizens on the sidewalk below.

Down the drainpipe and across the alley to rummage through the nearby factory’s garbage bins, redolent of its discarded products: cold cream jars, toothpaste tubes and shampoo bottles.

A bloated rat scuttles away as we dig for valuable treasures: used stamps, empty boxes and bits of flexible wire, just the ticket for binding stacks of baseball cards. ("I’ll trade ya two Goose Goslins for one Mickey Cochran.")

The olfactory pleasures of childhood. Airplane glue, your older sister’s nail polish, steak and kidney pie cooking in the high black Empire oven, shoe polish on the basement stairway, ashes being sifted in the alley on Saturday morning…

Fondly remembered essences of boyhood linger on. And we think of Thomas Moore’s lines:

You may break,

you may shatter the vase if you will,

but the scent of the roses

will hand round it still.

back to Life and Times



©1999-2015— Walkerville Publishing — All Rights Reserved