ARTICLES

The Spring we knew when we were kids

In one of his gentle visions of the magic world of everyday things

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN March 28 1959
ARTICLES

The Spring we knew when we were kids

In one of his gentle visions of the magic world of everyday things

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN March 28 1959

The Spring we knew when we were kids

In one of his gentle visions of the magic world of everyday things

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

The thing that bothers me even more than what we’re doing to the moon, is what we’re doing to the earth. We've not only shrunk space and triumphed over time, but I've noticed in recent years we’ve just about eliminated spring. It probably still arrives, somewhere between our airconditioned offices and automatically heated homes, but now we drive right through it in Sealed-in Comfort, bypassing all the mud, ponds, pussy willows and the miracle of rebirth. A few more technological triumphs over nature and we won't know the season of renewed hope is here till somebody tells us it's time for an oil change.

1 remember when spring used to arrive like a forgotten memory one morning when you were on your way to school and you heard water gurgling under ice, or a crow', or got a whiff of a thawed cabbage patch, or, if you were lucky, manure, and you remembered a hundred things you hadn’t thought of since last summer and raced back into the house yelling, “Mom! Can I take my overcoat off?”

“Have you gone out of your mind?” she'd answer. “It’s still winter.”

But it wasn’t still winter. It was spring. We stuffed our scarves in our overcoat pockets and waded to school along the brimming gutters, the girls carrying skipping ropes and shoe-box peep shows that they peeked into secretively but wouldn’t let the boys peek into, the boys shooting marbles through the ice water, rolling them down homemade peg boards and through openings in cigar boxes and arriving in school with so many dibs falling out of their pockets that on a good day the classroom sounded like a Geiger counter.

Every now and then everybody w'ould stop work to watch a giant alley worth just slightly less than the Hope Diamond roll down the aisle toward the teacher, who waited for it like the Inspector of Income Tax, dropped it in his desk drawer and went on explaining about the territory claimed for France by La Salle, while the kid who dropped the alley looked as if he would have traded everything from Louisiana to Lake Simcoe— including the teacher—to get it back.

We planted beans in berry boxes, watched cocoons hatch on window sills, put polliwogs in pickle jars and, in the part of Toronto where I lived, went up the Don Valley and wandered around under the pink and gold summery clouds through patches of snow, and clay that stuck to our feet till they were the size of pie plates, just renewing acquaintances with all the familiar logs, creeks, stumps and boulders we hadn't seen since last summer.

We made a fire and sat there on a wet log, wdth the smoke from the cedar branches going straight up to the sky

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“I was perpetually in love but nobody knew. All I did was pronounce the girl's name backwards"

like a piece of white cotton thread, and watched the thickets for red squirrels, blue jays and chickadees. We also watched the warblers that were beginning to arrive back from Puerto Rico and tried to indentify them from our Cowan's Chocolate Bar bird cards. We prowled through the tangle of bare branches looking for pussy willows, crossed creaking ice and sometimes put a foot right through it and came home with one shoe sounding like a squeegee. A couple of nights later, at the supper table, you’d learn with delight that you were sick and running a temperature and next morning you’d lie in bed looking out the window at the wind-rippled puddles grinning and listening to the kids call for you, and to the awed silence as they were told that you didn't have to go to school.

You don't seem to hear kids calling for one another like that any more. Now they just cut out the exhausts on their cars as they go by. The last kid 1 heard call like that was a new youngster on our street who called for my youngest daughter, chanting “Oh-h-h-h-h-Mary!” in a far-off sound, like a lazy flute. It was something ancient, like a Greek piping to his goats. As 1 listened, I felt as if I were getting the mumps and half expected our old family doctor to arrive in his high Persian lamb hat, smelling of chloroform and rare laboratory gases, and to poke me with icy fingers and tell me I couldn't go to work for a week.

By the time I got out my mother

would have decided that I might as well start dressing for warm weather and I'd step out onto the porch without my winter underwear, feeling that the slightest breeze would waft me right off the steps. By that time the doors of the stores on Danforth Avenue would be open and as 1 passed I'd get the smell of licorice and cough mixture from Maude Richardson's, ferns and moss from Waters' Florists, pickles from Lorraine Delicatessen, tobacco and newspapers from Capp’s Cigar Store, and a salt-water breeze from Chambers’ Fish Store would float me right down to the Maritimes and out to sea.

Even the girl didn’t know

I was always full of strange longings when I was a kid but in the spring they’d send out so many new shoots I practically had to be pruned to get me to do things like beat carpets. I wanted to join the Royal North West Mounted Police, go west with the harvesters, get a job on the lake boats. I watched freight trains head for the north under the Bloor Street viaduct. I began dreaming of our summer visit to the farm of friends of ours who dropped in every spring on their way into Toronto to buy seeds and farm equipment and who sat in the corner of our kitchen, big, ruddy and emitting strong messages of horses, berry boxes, harnesses, muddy fields and a whole distant exciting

world. I used to go up to Leaside flying field and stand in the blast from the propellers inhaling the smell of hot castor oil and dandelions, seeing myself at the controls, grim, goggled and dropping a wreath on the crashed plane of a worthy foe.

I was perpetually in love in the spring, but nobody knew about it because all I did about the girl I loved was pronounce her name backwards. I still can’t understand today’s precocious thirteen-yearolds who write those letters to newspaper columnists that go: “Dear Abby: I am in love with this boy but I’m very fond of this other one and don’t know whether I should kiss him on our first date or just shake hands. I am writing to you because my parents don’t understand.”

Our parents didn’t understand because we didn’t tell them, and we didn’t tell the girl either. I was in love for years with a girl whose named spelled backward was Arabrab Selwonk and I never spoke to her in my life, except in my day dreams where I was always meeting her as I stumbled out of the jungle, or rode up to my tea plantation in Ceylon, or beached my sloop on a desert island. It was evidently better than writing Abby because I can see her as clearly right now as if I were watching her pasting paper tulips on the class window, although I’ve lost all hope of ever seeing a tea plantation.

The languid restlessness of spring settl-

ed on the grownups of our neighborhood too. My music teacher, a dreamy, lazy young woman with fine untidy golden hair started leaving her front door open when I came for my lesson, and just sat there looking out at the new maple leaves and at the kids playing ball out on the street, letting me hit any notes I happened to hit, as if she wouldn't have noticed if I'd got up and gone back to the pond I’d just come from.

People were stirred to great projects in the spring and talked about the things they were going to do now that the fine weather was here, but looked as if they’d just enjoy a bit more sun before they started. One man I used to love to listen to would lean on a fence rail looking toward his house which was sagging at one corner, and deal with some of the most amazing engineering feats I've ever heard of before or since.

“If I get three pilings about fourteen feet long and dig a channel back thirty feet and drop in, say, tv/o, three flatcars full of concrete, she may hold,” he’d say, blinking lazily and looking as if he'd need a good south breeze to even get back to his couch

One neighbor, a sad-looking man named Mr. Gautier, when the restlessness of spring was on him would start looking for a shapeless old tweed cap he wore each year to go fishing. His wife, who never quite had the nerve to throw it out, hid it every fall behind old inner tubes in the garage or stuffed it into an

(empty paint can, hoping he’d forget it. He’d wander around his garage looking for it, cursing softly and stopping now and then to talk to the other men who were putting the wheels back on their Fords and Grey Dorts and getting them down off blocks for the summer.

I don't know why we took the wheels .off cars in the winter, although I think iit would be a good custom to go back ¡to. It was something like a man loosening his collar when he lay down on a couch. But I know that it was out in ¡the lane, around those wooden garages, amid the mingled smells of leather upholstery, grease, coal oil, lilacs, w'et hemlock and mud that the lazy mood ,of full spring settled on everyone. Men wandered up and down grinning in the new sun asking for an old bolt "that size, and everybody would stand around looking at the bolt for five minutes or so without saying anything, just feeling the sun on their backs and being content just to be alive, without worrying about whether they ever found a bolt the right size. If you lived near people who kept chickens, as you often did in the city when I was a kid, there'd be a hen making that soft, conversational "O-o-o-o-a-a-r-k!” a hen makes on the first warm days but nobody else would be saying a word.

>Vhat farmers don't know

After that first sample of summer weather there’d be spring days of fine, misty rain when Mr. Gautier, who by then would have found his cap. would take me fishing to Centre Island. We’d crouch there in the fog on the spongy bank of a lagoon listening to the sound of early cottagers getting their breakfast, Mr. Gautier peering desolately from under the V-shaped peak of his cap, looking wet enough to start dissolving. There'd be days when we'd go for hikes starting off in warm, sparkling sunlight and coming home in the late afternoon with our knuckles blue, glad to get to the kitchen stove. There were endless murky brown spring evenings when we shot dibs at holes in the mud we couldn't see, and the girls gathered in bedraggled brown flocks doing salt-mustard-vinegarpeppers until they looked as if they were coming apart.

You couldn't really figure on the winter being over officially until my father started planting his garden. He'd start right after the twenty-fourth of May and the neighbor behind us, a cheerful, bony farmer who had been to agricultural college and had picked up a lot of scientific reasons why things wouldn’t grow would start telling him why the things he was planting couldn’t possibly come up.

“You’ll never grow anything there," he'd call down to my father, leaning out of his bathroom window. "That’s ammonia-prone topsoil. Won’t grow a thing for five years.” Or “You’ve got thistle throat in there. Might as well turn it over to chickens. It’s bottom mulched," he’d say happily.

All he grew in his garden was a crop of broken sawhorses, gas pipes, lumber, loose shingles and baby carriages. My father, who was born near Molson’s brewery in Montreal, would say “Uh, huh,” and turn the whole back yard over, rake it until it was a soft brown quilt of loam, fertilize it with some stuff that had my mother slamming doors and glaring at him through the curtains, mark out the rows with empty seed envelopes, and pretty soon he'd be sitting out there reading the newspaper surrounded by a backyard full of unscientific lettuce, parsley, beets, beans, tomatoes and onions

and ready to make himself some nice late summer-evening snacks.

There'd be the first swim of the season in water that looked just as if nobody had dived into it since last summer. When you finally got up the nerve to dive in you came up as if being electrocuted and headed for shore not answering when somebody asked you what was the matter. And finally, when the summer had just about arrived, we started cadet training, donned red tunics and blue forage caps and shouldered our wooden rifles, and finally there came the

day in June when we marched down University Avenue, all the past hours of itching and standing still swept from our minds as we marched, about a hundred abreast I think, to a bugle band that kept the City Hall pigeons in the air a couple of blocks away, right up to Heaven on a cloud of golden glory.

In fact spring was a long, eventful and exciting time of the year that now seems to slip past us with nothing much happening but a motorized Easter fashion parade of professional models smiling coldly toward a tangle of TV cables, or the

appearance in the advertisements of that handsome greying commuter who’s always boyishly tying trout flies, or waving to his wife from a new car with Mirror Magic finish. At least I think it’s his wife. I don’t think this guy would wave at anybody else's wife. And, unless he parks that Mirror Magic and wades through some mud and tries to reach a pussy willow on a slippery bank or just sits watching a bean sprout I don't think he’ll ever know the eternal mystery of spring that we knew when we were kids. ★