The lost lore of childhood

Ways and words that once grew wild in any corner lot are withering under cultivation by little league coaches and TV pitchmen

Robert Thomas Allen October 22 1960

The lost lore of childhood

Ways and words that once grew wild in any corner lot are withering under cultivation by little league coaches and TV pitchmen

Robert Thomas Allen October 22 1960

The lost lore of childhood

Ways and words that once grew wild in any corner lot are withering under cultivation by little league coaches and TV pitchmen

Robert Thomas Allen

SOMETHING THAT’S BEING bulldozed over with the sod in these days of rapid housing developments is the traditional lore of childhood. People are moving around so fast that the kids must have a hard time finding their homes, let alone remembering their traditions. The lore of childhood may be spread farther and faster by modern transportation and communications, but it's spread thinner, and if all the nourishment it gets is from TV and the sales-promotion industry, it will soon give way completely to Little League ball clubs, with real uniforms, plastic crash helmets and roots as deep as a prefabricated lawn.

When I was a kid our legends, language and games grew out of the neighborhood like pigweed out of the cracks in the sidewalk. We lobbed boulders in a kind of aerial bowling game called Duck on the Rock, in a lane bordered by high hemlock-plank fences. A vacant lot (I don't mean a parking lot; I mean a vacant lot) was a place to put the smallest member of the gang into orbit in a game of group gymnastics called Crack the Whip. We played horseshoes behind the blacksmith’s shop at the foot of our street with the smell of burning hooves clearing our heads, and the noisy hide-and-seek game. Kick the Can. with a manhole cover for home. There was a lamppost up the street where we played Buck Buck How Many Fingers Up?, a game that started with one player leaping on another’s back and ended with a sagging, groaning, weaving human chain of kids two layers thick making so much noise that the woman of the house would come out on her veranda and call to us:

“Why don't you go and play around your own lamppost?”

You’d think we played near her place on purpose or something. This was the place where everybody played Buck Buck, it was where our brothers had played Buck Buck before they put on long pants and started work, trailing glorious clouds of cigarette smoke as they went downtown to join the real game of Buck Buck. When I visit the street even today, that lamppost still looks like a place to play Buck Buck, and i often wonder how kids know which games go with what places in today's new scientifically designed communities, or where they find places to hide for games like Hoist the Sails.

We called it Oyster Sails, and it was an exciting farflung game of search that took place over a city block. You’d hear the cry of "Oyster Sails” tloating over the rooftops on a summer night as faint and far off as the cry of a nighthawk and race up narrow alleyways between the houses and scramble over wooden garages and cut through neighbors’ back yards, opening gates and carefully hooking them behind you, running crouched over and on your toes past strange vegetable gardens and flower beds. I don’t know how we could have played the game if we had lived in one of today’s plateglass-and-gravel residential deserts where the only place to hide is under a parked car, and even most cars are kept in the house under the bedroom like shiny, sleek lovers, instead of out in the back lane where they belong.

Kids don’t go in for games the way they used to when gangs of old friends who had grown up together spent the summer playing on the streets and roving surrounding ravines and farmlands and unfamiliar city districts, developing a fascinating store of knowledge. If you held your finger up straight and looked silently at one of the junk peddlers who went up the lane chanting “R-a-a-a-gs bones!” he would turn into a raging demon

arid you’d be lucky if you got away with your life, which was probably why nobody ever tried it. If you started to sink in the abandoned quarry north of the Bloor Street viaduct you’d never stop, because it had no bottom and the water formed a kind of pillar right down to the centre of the earth, and probably out the other side. Tar from the cracks in t ie sidewalk whitened your teeth, as well as making a good chew. Stepping on a rusty nail produced lockjaw, and killing a spider would make it rain all the next day. If you looked a lion right in the eye he couldn't attack you.

What do you mean, how did we know? Everybody knew those things and discussed them sitting around a fire up the Don Valley on a Saturday morning, watching potatoes bake and rolling willow-leaf cigarettes. I feci sorry for the kids today who know that what makes it rain is condensation of moisture on ionized particles. Instead of causing downpours by killing spiders, these kids just look across the unpaved road of Royal Ridge Homes and go "a-a-a-a-a-a!” with an imaginary machine gun. killing some new kid who just moved into a $400down development house exactly like the one he left in Paradise Acres.

We spoke our own language and had our own rhymes, although most of them were chanted by girls. They skipped to “Rich man. poor man. beggar man, thief.'' and a hideous simpering one: "1 love coffee, I love tea: I love the boys and the boys love me . . . A—B—C—D" which they’d intone suspended in mid-air looking sideways at the boys. We had no idea where some of the words we used came from, but they were part of our daily lives. We said, "I barrows first,’’ for first turn at bat, although 1 hear that in Vancouver they used the wrong word and said something that sounded as if it were spelled "I bony-eyes first." We prized the fancy glass marbles called alleys, smokes, and agates over the clay ones called dibs. Marble players in the west, I’m told, used such mystic terms as "knuckles down and bonies tight," and “no bull hinching." When we saw someone with something we wanted we yelled “divvies" or “bids on you," or "halvers"; if it happened to be an apple we yelped “cores.” But our chants and vocabulary had to be learned slowly, by living in one place for a long time. I can understand kids today who are being hauled around in a huge sociological game of musical chairs giving up trying to preserve their literary heritage and just letting press agents and disc jockeys make them a package deal.

The other day a little girl arrived on my street. She was born in Calgary, brought up in Texas, and educated for the past year in Saudi Arabia, where her father was a petroleum engineer. She passed my house looking just like the little girls who used to go by chanting "Twentyfourth of May, the Queen’s birthday," except that she was singing a commercial for Busch Bavarian Beer, and I don’t blame her.

I notice adults are even organizing the kids now into junior racing clubs, with real miniature cars, and Little League hockey and ball clubs. 1 saw a movie short the otiier night that showed a complete kids’ team in Montreal, with uniforms and, presumably, money in the club kitty. There's so much adult supervision today that kids are going to forget how to get along in a group of kids. I’ve heard a lot of after-dinner speeches about the character-building qualities of organized team sports like hockey, but if you ask me, all it produces is hockey players. In our disorganized street league, little guys who hated hockey had to learn to look after themselves, and

still keep a membership in the human race. The most outrageous violation of group ethics was to complain to an adult about the way you were being used. Once a kid said. "I'll tell" — meaning he'd tell his mother, or his father, or a cop. or anyone over eight — he was socially dead. Oddly, though, a porridge-fed hundredand-twenty-pound boy whose father secretly wondered if he could still lick him could bellow "I’LL TELL MOM ON YOU!" at a brother just recently out of diapers, and it was acceptable to everyone as a matter of internal politics.

We swore to the truth by crossing our hearts and spitting and saying “May God strike me dead." sometimes adding in an undertone, “if I'm telling the truth."

"What did you say?" some kid would ask who. in later years, would read all the fine type on contracts.

"I said. "MAY GOO STRIKK MH OH AD if I’m letting the truth.’ You’d have your fingers crossed, toes crossed and elbows crossed, which was like having Blue Cross Plan. Green Cross Plan, company insurance and a pension plan.

We addressed one another fondly by nicknames, like Funk. Monk. Wink. Dyke and Shiner, and there was alwavs a kid called Fat. The other day I asked my

youngest daughter if there was a boy in her class called Fat and she looked at me in disgust and said. "Why would they call a boy that? It would hurt his feelings."

I never was in a gang without a Fat in it. One of my best friends was a boy named Fat Emerson, and it never did anything to his personality but make him a bit pompous. He was a man of substance, and he settled quarrels by arriving with all the calm prestige of today’s TV repairman and just lying on the opponents and squeezing them into a state of togetherness. I often think I’m still watching him today when I look at some TV fight that somebody assures me is for the Championship of tiie World.

Not that we got into many lights. We had a custom devised by many wise generations for avoiding fights without losing face, which involved an expression I've never heard explained—a eardy blow-. You didn't punch your adversary, which might have forced him to punch you back. You tapped him on the shoulder, said "There’s your eardy blow," and looked at him with the most ferocious expression you could manage, implying impending annihilation and incredible pain and punishment if he didn’t come to his senses and seek a bilateral agreement. Sometimes you could get away with giving a guy who had given you a eardy another eardy. which was something like buying on lime: nobody had to put anything up.

It was rather important to have the last word in a jeering contest, which could be carried on from any distance even w'hen both parties were going in opposite directions calling over their shoulders:

“That’s what you think."

"I know you do. "

"That’s what I said.”

"Too bad. isn’t it?”

“That’s what I said.”

“I said it first."

"I said it second. "

"What did you say?"

"You heard me."

They’d turn into their homes and still be hollering repartee as they headed up their hallways toward their kitchens for peanut-butter sandwiches.

And it was a somewhat sickening, inevitable fact of life, like having to pay income taxes, that you had to try anything you were scared of but most of the other kids had done — things like walking across one of the railway trestles over the Don River on the outside of the bridge, shuffling along the six-inch flange of steel trying to make yourself the thickness of rust and keep your mind on Tom Mix and off the Don River below.

We had to go through tests like Iroquois braves, and sometimes it was tough, but it had the advantage of all traditional behavior — we knew what had to be done. Kids today are in the position of their parents, who every day have to try to solve problems of behavior without the aid of the established group traditions that mankind has been busy overthrowing. The fact is that in spite of our increasingly complex civilization, we are being left more and more on our own. Group life is going the way of house parties, picnics, building bees and band concerts. What’s taking its place is crowding, noise and uniformity. But we’re becoming more and more isolated in little mobile social islands surrounded by power mowers and topped by TV aerials. Perhaps it’s time we stopped moving around so fast, settled down and gave our kids a chance to revive the traditions and community life we knew as kids. ★