the trips we took when we were kids
What’s the fun of zooming over the continent if you haven’t time to see the sights? And since when did they start measuring the joy of travel in miles per hour? Modern transportation has its place but it’ll never compare with
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
A while ago on a plane from Tampa to Toronto. I sat near a copper-colored blonde in dark glasses who spent the whole trip sitting next to the window reading The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito. Just ahead of the hostess' bar, a trim, balding young double-Dewars drinker crossed twelve hundred miles of cypress swamp, savannah, pine hammock. Pennsylvania and the Great Lakes, smiling secretively at the back of the seat ahead. Across from him a close-cropped young man conned a confusedlooking girl in stretch pants and was still at it when we landed at Mahon airport, where a man in a dark topcoat announced thank God he was back in C anada where he could buy oranges without being robbed, and the whole
thing made me realize that we had all traveled over half the North American continent without anyone noticing it.
I'm all for modern transportation, but it seems to me that the faster we go the further we get from the sense of adventure we used to have when we traveled by model-T Ford, bicycle, boat and buggy. 1 can remember when just the trip across Lake Ontario began the day before, with my father checking the plumbing in our house to make sure thore'd be no major breakdowns from corrosion before we got back. The day of the trip, we were up before it was light enough to see the snowball bush in our back yard. The kitchen smelled of lemonade and fresh bread and cucumbers as
my mother and grandmother made enough lunch to last the voyage, and about seven o’clock on a hot summer morning we'd be piped down the street by the buzz of cicadas, my grandmother wearing one of her Queen Mary hats and carrying a parasol, headed for the sparkling, wonderful world of docks, seagulls and the slap of sunny water.
From the time we left Toronto Bay and glided through the eastern gap past the unfortunate people on the jetty who weren't going anywhere (which gave us something the same feeling as if we'd casually mentioned that we'd been in Rome last week) we were launched on an almost unbelievable adventure of watching hot, wheezing
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“By the time the model -T engine burst into a roar, youfd had an adventure without even moving“
engines; finding spots on the deck where we could get soaked with spray; seeing the land disappear and magically reappear on the other side of the lake as we entered the Niagara River; then riding an open-sided electric tram right into the wet, roaring world of Niagara Falls, where seagulls soared in the mist below us and grownups sold one another little birch-bark canoes — all of which, on my recent plane trip, I flew over in the time it took me to finish a cigarette and fasten my seat belt.
The more we pack into a given time, the further it seems to stretch, a point we forget when we lament the brevity of life, which is measured by experience, not by duration. This also explains why a forty-mile trip by model-T Ford was more fun than a four-hundred-mile trip in the power-packed, high-tailed Dandy V-eigh« I drive today.
To begin with, we never knew when a Ford would start. Everyone stared anxiously out the windshield in helpless silence while the driver cranked. By the time one cylinder fired and fought for momentum, everyone inside the car doing a sort of anxious cha-cha and the driver sprang for the spark, and the engine burst into a roar that made everyone try to cover their ears with their shoulders, you had already had an adventure and hadn't even moved yet.
I notice we re trying to get back something of that feeling of adventure with sports cars. One owner recently explained to me that he liked having something to do with gears and levers, something he could have thoroughly enjoyed in an old Ford. You never knew whether you’d make a hill in high or would have to go through the frightening transition into low. when, if you weren't fast, you were liable to start rolling back down the hill. If you made it in high you struggled over the top on a series of individual explosions, everyone leaning forward helpfully.
Then there’d be the exhilarating race down the other side, when we couldn't have gone faster if we'd been blasting off in a jet for Paris. Everyone would be smiling, everything working, as we bowled past waving grass, blue shadows, barns and apple orchards, and perhaps past a couple in a buggy who looked sideways from another world as we pursued our mad, reckless race to hell. When we stopped to spread a picnic lunch out under an oak or a maple, with the cows lining up on the other side of the rail fence to stare at us in baffled silence, it wasn't the miles that separated us from home; it was the memory of a battle well fought and half won.
We used to take drives to the summer cottage of friends of ours on Lake Ontario, a remote place of rough-board cottages that smelled of pine resin and coal-oil lamps, where we met more fascinating people than I ever seem to meet on my trips today. I’ll always remember a grizzled, profane old man who was building a cottage next door and who got another boy and me to help him. He believed that boys those days expected everything to be handed to them on a platter and didn't know what a day’s work was and he’d spit tobacco juice and bellow how in the hell we ever intended to earn a living at that rate. I'd never seen such a dynamic, outgoing, refreshing personality in my life.
There was a bright, lively girl of
twenty or so with a quick, breathless way of talking, as if she were giving you last-minute instructions before hiding you in a loft, with whom I fell madly and helplessly in love. 1 remember her stopping outside the cottage one scuddy moonlit night and standing there talking over the sound of breaking waves on her way to a dance, and my mother telling her who I was and saying proudly that I made sixty-five cents catching frogs last week and just about blighting my hopes of appearing unusually old and heroic for my years. It was only two and a half hours by model-T Ford from Toronto, byt give me one more view like that and you can have the Acropolis by moonlight, along with the four-engine stratoliner that took you there.
And there was the tall, possessive, grouchy-looking young man who acted as if he owned her, and who once, when we were having lunch outdoors in the sun at a rough plank table, pretended he didn’t see a bee that had lit on a piece of cake he was eating and opened his mouth as if he were going to swallow it. and all the women screamed, and he looked puzzled and opened his mouth wider and the women screamed louder, and I half admired his steel nerves and his way with women and half wished he’d swallow it and die and leave the field clear to me.
I'd still be thinking of him and wondering if I could lick him with some scien-
tific punches I’d read about in Boy’s Own Annual as we drove back to Toronto, everybody singing Show Me The Way to Go Home, as we rolled past an unbelievable number of car lights streaming down the hills toward us. Watching that endless traffic you couldn't help wondering where civilization would all end. and it made you feel a bit sad and a bit scared, but curious to see everything the world had to offer.
Sometimes we took trips by radial car to places around Toronto, leaning out the windows and looking up the cut of the tracks with tears in our eyes as the car leaned into curves, everything jiggling. the hayfields jiggling, the clouds jiggling, our souls jiggling.
Sometimes we’d go by train, which was even more exciting, from the moment we got ordered back from the tracks because of the suction as the engine thundered into the station in a blast of heat and noise. We'd lift our knees up near our chins and climb into a peculiar world of drinking cups, reversible seats and the clatter and screeching and jostling between the cars where we could stand laughing into one another’s faces without hearing one another.
Either communities hadn’t become as standardized then as now, or our perceptions hadn't become so dulled by travel, but when we took trips around Toronto to Lake Scugog, Newmarket. Rosebank. Aurora. Markham. Bond Lake. Port Credit — trips that thousands of commuters take now before they've had their second coffee of the day, we used to stroll around viewing the strange, foreign sights as if we were visiting Casbah. We'd note that the houses were made of yellow brick instead of red brick, as they were in Toronto, where everything was the right color, and that parks were on the wrong side of the street and at the wrong end of town.
We’d visit the general store where cynical-looking farmers peered suspiciously from under wide straw hats at my father, who. fresh and innocent from the city, priced rare and exotic objects like galvanized wash tubs, coils of rope, bags of chicken feed, rat traps, coal-oil lamps and big tins of tea. Then we’d have dinner in a restaurant called The Queen’s or The Maple Leaf or the Victoria. and my father would light a cigar and say. “Well, nobody will have to do the dishes tonight." We couldn't have fell more cosmopolitan if we'd been sitting at a sidewalk table in Paris where, as a recent travel advertisement pointed out. you can "span centuries of joyous living."
1 remember spanning centuries of joy-
ous living in punts on some of the lakes and streams within a few miles of Toronto where my father used to take us fishing. We had some fishing gear left to us by a vague relative who was evidently the only member of our family with money, and whom I always pictured as very cold and unsmiling, and living in a house with hardwood floors. There was a wicker creel, three reels and a lot of flies curled on pads of white felt in a leather wallet, which we used to try occasionally on catfish. We’d spend wonderful hot, sunny mornings, when you could hear an oar drop in a boat a quarter of a mile away, with our punt rubbing gently against the bullrushes as we dug our arms down through scum to untangle our lines from lily pads.
Sometimes we’d go to Centre island, across Toronto Bay. with its great green lawns and lagoons and beautiful drooping willow trees with trunks like twisted taffy, and we'd fill our creel with suckers, carp, catfish, perch and sunfish with more excitement over each one than if we’d flown to Key Largo for sailfish.
And on some of the bicycle trips we kids used to take, we not only spanned centuries of joyous living, but ages of aching r. úseles and eons of human understanding, including the philosophy of Protagoras, who said, “Man is the measure of all things.” Distances were measured in endless hours of watching your feet, spitting on the front tire, going into a coma of boredom, watching little marks on the highway pass in agonizing procession, and describing to one another how beat you were.
We’d stop and flop on our backs in the grass at the side of the road, watching the clouds, and feeling our muscles being pulled toward the centre of the earth, and one of the group would announce: "I can't go an inch further.
Honest, if somebody came along right now and put a million dollars right down there and said. ‘You can have the whole million if you just go ten feet further’ I couldn't reach it.” Then we’d all get back on our bicycles, lower out heads into the breeze, shove our knees down with our hands and start off again to peddle some of the longest miles ever measured.
In fact, some of the longest trips I've ever taken were walks 1 used to take with my father on Sunday mornings, when he’d take me around the docks and the city gas tanks and grimy warehouse districts around the water front, except that they were measured not by miles but by intensity of experience. I remember one time seeing a pale young man with black hair lying spread-eagle on a street corner, his eyes staring up int'O the sky, while the smoke from my father's pipe, a powerful mixture of Irish twiist and a rough leaf called Rouge Carnal floated down on me and became connected for months to come with sickness, epilepsy and death.
mmm mmrnmm WMtmmmmmmtmm Comeuppance The wife who shirks her work and rests Receives what’s coming to her: guests. IDA M. PARDUE
Another time down among the weeds of a vacant lot by the railway tracks I saw a man in u tight peak cap, with no neick and the build of a stump, back up a slender, pink-faced young cop by brandishing an empty bottle, and a second, older cop, tall, deathly and black coated, arriving in long, unhesitating strides, hiking the tail of his overcoat without stopping, bringing out a pair of hatndcuffs and hitting the man over the head with them and dropp'ng him where he' stood. After that, the man lay with hiss cheek in the mud. smoking a cigarette someone had put in his lips about am inch from the ground, his pale blue eyes full of alcohol and hate, telling the co>ps he could lick both of them in a fair fight. And I remember when we got home and related our experience, my mother looking as if she could lick my farther in any kind of a fight, and would, if he ever took me out on any walks like tfrat again.
But most of our walks were out into th*e country. We’d start up our street thorough the aroma of Sunday roast-beef dimners that drifted through the open doorways, and keep on out along dusty ro'ads bordered with buttercups and yarrow and Queen Anne’s lace and walk so> far that we'd get lost and have to stand at the roadside under the soaring plume of an elm listening to the whisper of the leaves while my father looked around the horizon and said, “Let’s see now,” and tried to figure out which way we should turn. Sometimes we’d walk to the farm of people we knew, where a freckle-faced girl my age used to entertain me by giving imitations of her grandfather, a patriarchal old gentleman with a full, long beard. She’d go around mullling her voice as if speaking through whiskers, saying, “Get off that gate! Get off that gate, now! You’ll break it!" and sticking out her stomach in what she evidently thought was an indication of senility.
We took trips around Toronto by streetcar, and spent whole days at Scarborough Beach amusement park, where we coasted down a polished inclined wooden floor on a device known as “the bumps,” which probably wore out tens of thousands of pairs of pants in Toronto, and rode lean, flat-nosed boats down a chute and aquaplaned onto a pond in a wild, rocking bucking explosion of water, half enjoying it and half wondering whether we were going to die, and all in all, although we didn't see the Arc de Triomphe or view the Colosseum by moonlight, it seems to me that, in a way, we saw' more, and absorbed more, and observed more of our fellowman and the nature of the world than we do on our travels today. I’d be the last to form a new cult to do away with modern transportation or lower the living standard that makes it possible, but 1 think we’d get more out of travel if we remembered that essentially it’s not a matter of covering great distances in a short time, or going into hock to afford, in the words of one advertisement: “a five-day house-party to Europe on the fastest ship afloat." It’s more like going for a walk around the gas works, and even more like reading a good book, which should be read slowly, savored and remembered, as w-e remember the things w-c used to see on the trips we took when w-e were kids. ★