ARTICLES

the bewitching sights and sonnds of autumn

Kicking through piles of rustling leaves wielding the gang’s toughest chestnut reluctantly answering the clang of the school bell sniffing the sharp country air ...

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN September 26 1959
ARTICLES

the bewitching sights and sonnds of autumn

Kicking through piles of rustling leaves wielding the gang’s toughest chestnut reluctantly answering the clang of the school bell sniffing the sharp country air ...

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN September 26 1959

the bewitching sights and sonnds of autumn

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

Kicking through piles of rustling leaves wielding the gang’s toughest chestnut reluctantly answering the clang of the school bell sniffing the sharp country air ...

When I was a kid in Toronto, the first sign that fall was about on us was the opening of the Canadian National Exhibition, and I often wonder how many people who go to it now remember what it used to be like before it started to look like a missile base. It used to be a fall fair, and you could smell the sheep, horses, pigs and cows from the time the streetcar groaned around the corner of King and Dufferin streets, with city kids hanging out the windows inhaling the air with looks of rapture.

The midway hadn’t been taken over by sound engineers and was still an exciting place of tents and circus wagons where talented front men conned the crowd in their natural voices, and the grandstand was the scene of unique epics that I wish I could see today. I still can’t get over the feeling that someone is kidding when I hear people say: “Are you going to see Bob Hope at the grandstand tonight?” Anybody standing out there in front of the grandstand cracking jokes would have had his microphone bent into a pretzel by galloping horses in the shows I used to see there when I was a kid.

There’d be this cabin out there all by itself. I mean a real settler’s cabin with a settler sitting out in front tanning a fox skin, or making a pair of snowshoes. and out there at one dark end of the grandstand a whole tribe of Indians would be sneaking up on him with tomahawks. Real Indians, or anyway real people who looked like Indians, close enough that you could have touched them with a pole maybe six hundred feet long, and if you’d had one you would have, because you were already standing up yelling at the settler to get inside and barricade the door. Then just as they swooped dowm on the cabin, a tribe of good Indians galloped out of the other end of the grandstand and you stood there just about vibrating loose from your free samples of Magic Baking Powder and Mentholatum as all hell broke loose with warwhoops, dust, screams, flying tanbark, flames, smoke, gunfire, corpses and riderless horses, until all you could see was a twenty-foot portrait of King George V in fireworks and you knew it was over and worked your way out in the September night with something to sustain you through the first four or

five weeks of dividing by complex fractions.

Next day there’d be good-byes to exhibition visitors, friends and vague relatives from out of town. There was a horrible little girl who arrived one year from Montreal and just kept blowing a bugle at me. I don’t know where she got it or why she had it, or how she fitted into the family. But she just kept looking at me with utter loathing and blowing this bugle at me, as if rallying some ghostly forces. And there was cousin Edgar from Winnipeg, who used to come dowm every fall. We’d circle one another with sneering contempt and my brother and I would tell him to go back to Winnipeg, if there was a Winnipeg, and Edgar would break our bicycles and tell us they made stronger ones in Winnipeg and we’d see if we could make Edgar cry. Each year if we made Edgar cry we felt we’d had a rather successful soiree.

When all the visitors had left we’d be taken downtown for school clothes. We’d be fitted in scratchy new tweed Eatonia suits, and my mother would make use of the trip downtown by dragging us through some ghastly place like the homefurnishings department, where I’d keep from going crazy by listening to elderly clerks whistle softly through their teeth when they said “thirtyseven fifty.”

And one morning we could hardly believe our monstrous bad luck when my father pulled the sheets off us before he went to work, and wc were scrubbed with Lifebuoy, fed porridge and turned out of the house to the clang of Franklin School bells. Holy Name church bells and Harbord streetcar bells and marched through corridors to the tune of We’re The Men From Sussex, played on the piano by a Miss Hobbs, who, fresh and rested from two months inactivity, would eye us sharply over the piano as if she wouldn’t have trusted any of us a foot.

We waded to school knee deep in piles of dead leaves and filled our pockets with acorns and began marauding horse-chestnut trees for “bullies.” To make a bully you bored a hole through a horse chestnut and anchored it onto a piece of butcher’s cord. You hardened it, or thought you hardened it, by roasting it on the kitchen stove and rubbing it with

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The bewitching sights and sounds of autumn continued from page 24

lWe had com roasts in the crusty autumn woods, when the whole world seemed to smeil of fallen leaves”

floor wax. then used it like a blackjack on other kids' bullies. If you had a bully of championship calibre you began identifying yourself with it, and it was hard to look becomingly modest when you dangled your scorched, wrinkled, battle-wise

old veteran in front of a fresh, plump, young red innocent - looking chestnut which, when it was your turn, you reduced to pulpy vegetation with a quick, ruthless “Wh-h-h-uck!” leaving its owner standing there with an empty string, a sadder but

wiser man for tangling with Bob Allen and his Champion Chestnut.

On a day of Indian summer we made a big cracking fire of the vines and dead plants that we raked up in the back yard and the whole neighborhood would be

veiled in the smoke from fires of burning leaves. It was a melancholy time of the fall for me, with days when the world seemed lit indirectly by footlights and the trees looked silent and stricken and the only things untouched by the pale yellow sadness were the grey squirrels scatting noisily over the leaves trying to bite one another. It was probably my first intimation that all exuberance mellowed, and the bright promises of summer turned into soft punk.

Each fall my parents used to take my brother and me for the last visit of the year to friends in the country who would meet us with a buggy at a place on Kingston Road called the Halfway House, which I always thought was about halfway to Montreal until last year, when I got some gas near there and was almost ready to accuse the owner of the service station of moving the whole district into Toronto when I wasn’t looking. My brother and I would take turns holding the reins and experiencing something very like electricity from the horse as we whipped along at about eighty miles an hour past corn fields and patches of tattered sunflowers, green squash, and pumpkins gleaming among sheaves of wheat.

We’d have a day of playing with the black and orange kittens that hopped like fleas in and out of a cedar hedge, and when nobody was looking, startling chickens into indignant shrieks. We’d crunch over fields of stubble and roam rocky pastures of milkweed and thistle, wild mustard, asters and goldenrod. We listened to bobolinks and sometimes got a good look at a fat rust-bellied groundhog or a jack rabbit that burst out of the brittle grass. But the best were the rolling open fields that for me, when I was down a hollow that hid the horizon behind tall grass, became prairies, over which I pushed farther and farther west before winter—and the threat of scurvy and my frightened followers—forced me to turn back to Fort Frontenac.

We'd poke our heads into root cellars full of turnips and steal a bit nervously into the golden cave of the barn, which smelled just like the inside of a Quaker Oats box, and sit in the steel saddles of binders and hay rakes. We'd reach over a manger and grab the warm, slippery horn of a cow and scatter like quail when she reeled in a couple of feet of rattling chain halter. And sometimes we just stood listening to the horses eat oats and the ancient sound of hooves thumping softly and we'd try to imagine what it was like living there when we weren’t there. Everybody should stand inside a stable at least once a year.

When the nights closed in and got murky and the street lights came on before supper, there were corn roasts in the crusty autumn woods, when the whole world smelled of fallen leaves. On Hallowe'en we gathered after supper and roamed around looking out at a strange dark world from inside a papiermâché false face and peering in at the candles that slowly cooked the tops of pumpkins. The neighbors’ kitchens would be awash with water as kids in bowlers, burnt cork and bed sheets bobbed for apples in wash tubs, and often there would be big noisy, crowded house parties that included miscellaneous aunts, uncles and grandmothers. Parties like that

seem to have gone out of fashion among the kids who come to my house, tell me they're going to be engineers and then ignore me for the rest of the evening while they just sit on the edge of chairs going steady.

We played blind man’s buff, pin-thetail-on-the-donkey and musical chairs. We tried to sink our teeth into apples that dangled from doorways on strings, our hands behind our backs and tongues lolling. We asked unpopular girls to dance. I gather that if a boy did that today he’d be stoned. Every now and then you’d even ask somebody’s mother to dance, and she’d give a yelp of delight and you’d struggle around earnestly with this great, noisy, sturdily corseted, laughing mountain of good nature. It was not only good manners and good for your character, but good exercise.

When the roofs were pink and silver with frost in the mornings and the stoves were lit and kitchens were heaped with piles of green peppers and cucumbers and peeled tomatoes for canning, I started taking piano lessons again, and to this day I’ll always connect certain of the classics, especially Liszt’s Liebestraum, with the smell of chili sauce and with the mood of a certain kind of dark, wild, windy fall night when I used to cross Withrow Park to the home of a piano teacher I once had, who was always one of my favorite adults.

Adventure in the cellar

He was a short, chunky, pale-faced, excitable man with a shrill, high-pitched voice in which he sang off key, who used to get strangely agitated when his wife appeared in the living-room doorway to listen to us, resulting in some action-packed scenes that were more in the mood of a Wagnerian opera than Liszt’s Song of Love, with me crashing hopelessly through that loud part, the metronome ticking, leaves whipping wildly past the window, Mr. Byrd slapping the top of the piano more and more loudly as I not only lost the tune but lost the time, singing Song of Love like a banshee and screaming at his wife without losing a beat: "One! . . . two! ... go away Alley! One! . . . two! ... go away Alley!"

Fall was the time for home projects, like drawing a picture of a mink or playing down the cellar. 1 often wonder where kids play now when the dark fall nights close in on today’s homes with the oil furnace tucked primly in separate rooms and the cellar so neat you can see every corner. You would have needed an archaeologist's permit to find a corner in our cellar, but it filled an empty spot in our psyches like fall oats in a grain bin. We made forts and castles out of the kindling wood that was dumped into the fuel bin. We used to get inside the empty sacks for no particular reason except to see what it was like to get inside a sack. There were old bookcases, hats, umbrellas, alarm clocks, trunks, a telescope, a collar box and a set of false teeth my father got somewhere from a dental mechanic. My brother and I used to put them in and go upstairs and grin hideously at my grandmother.

My father had a jeweler's blowtorch he used to let us use. We’d melt sealing wax with it and turn it down to a hot little wedge-shaped blue flame and make nails red hot and burn holes through my father’s bench until he saw us and asked us what the Sam Hill w»e wanted to do a thing like that for. There

was always something down our cellar that we hadn't seen before, if we moved enough lumber to find it.

We were always finding books wje didn't know' we had. We’d drag them out from behind the furnace or from behind a rack of lumber and old table legs and take them over and show them to my father. He’d stop work then and there and with his blowtorch in his hand, start reading about Ancient Greece or The Animals of India and say he hadn't seen that book for years although he knew it was around somewhere.

which was the truth, for at our place anything that didn't melt or evaporate was still there, either down the cellar or up in the attic, w-here we took everything when we tidied up the cellar.

The last event of the fall was helping to put up the storm windows. The bay windows in the upstairs bedroom went on from the veranda roof and the last one hung from a hinge so that we could get back in the house. But I always used to sit there for a while before I w'ent in, watching the people go up the street without them knowing I was

there, which gave me a peculiar feeling of omnipotence, especially when I’d watch Mr. Pickles who used to come up the sidewalk looking about ten feet ahead and smiling faintly, thinking perhaps of his native Kent, where he said they had real robins, not the crows with red breasts we call robins, and wishing he were back there, with me sitting up there on the roof, my fingers half frozen from the juice of a snow apple I took up for sustenance, watching him, silent, invisible and seeing everything he did, like God. Then, every fall we'd

troop down to see Eaton’s Santa Claus parade and often by then the first snow would be driving down from the north like salt and outlining the dead leaves in pearl grey, and Thanksgiving, when there seemed to be something missing from the turkey dinner because it wasn't Christmas. 1 always had a feeling that we shouldn’t be having it at that time of year and felt vaguely uneasy that adults could so offhandedly upset the eternal order of things.

The more our lives began to centre around the home the farther away wc seemed to be able to get in imagination with books. I remember reading A Tale of Two Cities in the fall, curled in a chair over the dining-room hot-air register, and right now I just need to think of the sound of someone shaking the furnace and I’m back on the dusty roads

of France, meeting Madame Defarge, seeing that broken wine keg, reading again: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” Sometimes I think I might try taking a whiff of coal gas before turning on TV and seeing if 1 can get back the feeling of a world full of adventure.

And it was the best time of year to read the wildlife stories that made up a big part of my boyhood, my thoughts reaching out over the fall woods to the white-bellied deer mice in grass as dry as shredded wheat, muskrats coasting the icy edge of creeks, a fox teaching her young to hunt under the cold autumn moon, or curled in a den with her ears twitching listening for the first snow. You could see them all the more clearly when you were snugly indoors in the fall.