Les Rivere des Francais :Chapter One: Chipped Tooth
Van Morrison would say, “ take me back, take me way back”.
Alex and I were just boys of thirteen and fourteen living in the hardscrabble Mt.Dennis area of Toronto. Father had died a year earlier on April 30, 1961, coming home late from a Union meeting. I never could figure out what the heck a Union President was doing out at 3:30 in the morning (rumour has it he was having an affair much like the way they do in today’s TV show Madmen. What would you expect a sexual man to do, to satisfy his needs when the wife, spurred on by her Church closed the door to her vagina after the sixth kid snaked their way down and out the womans pelvic region. The Catholics were not allowed to use birth control in those days, and I may be wrong but I believe that same archaic rule applies today, though many do not abide by it). That’s when fathers grey blue four door 1958 Chevrolet Biscayne crashed into a pole on Dufferin Street near Eglinton Avenue. We were all sleeping upstairs in our little rented house at 26 Victoria Blvd when a steady stream of people began coming to the door, first it was the police, two tall men in dark blue uniforms with peaked caps held at their side they came in a banana yellow police car that was offset by the brightly flashing red cherry on the roof, then a priest, the assistant parish priest, Father Robitaille, the one who ratted on me to my father about me relocating coins from the poor boxes in the church. That time, during that particular beating my mom had to pull father away from me, she yelled, ‘stop it, stop it, you’ll kill him’! I guess the shame became his shame when the priest squealed. I can understand that, I forgave him years ago, both of them, actually, I had to, it was all locked up inside, I figured that if I loved them, my earnestness would, perhaps help them move forward in that other place that some believe in.
Things weren’t the same after dad died, I mean, how could a woman with six young kids fend for herself once all the family dreams had been destroyed, the breadwinner, the leader was gone. They were about to purchase a fancy house near Greenborok Drive in a much swankier neighbourhood, lesson learned had they bought the home and had mortgage insurance the loan would have been paid off. I vividly recall them talking about it at the kitchen table prior to the fateful event. At night, dad would get in late, we always ate before him, there were so many of us. Before he had that car I used to meet him at the top of the street as he got off the Weston Road bus at around five or five thirty. He’d often be wearing a long dark blue overcoat over a sports jacket, a white shirt and tie visible in the v neck of the coat along with a dark felt fedora resplete with a silk band, that was the style back then, he carried a leather briefcase full of papers, more union papers than tax man papers he was a tax assessor for the City of Toronto. Then when he got the car my routine changed. The car was second hand, bought from Gorries Chev Olds in downtown Toronto, I would walk Duke the Boxer up to the factory area through the train underpass at Ray Avenue, the dog needed a walk, you know how Boxers are for the most part pretty darn frisky, he was a good looking dog with his tail cropped and ears clipped, I was proud to be walking him. Dad would pull around the corner on Industry Street where my Uncle Jim was an Executive at Moores Business Forms and I’d most often be there on the CCC (short for the Continental Can Company) long expanse of well manicured lawn and mature maple trees. In the background on a warm day you could hear the printing presses and the cutting machines inside the factory working away, they were barely visible through the long twelve pain windows that were operated by pull chains. There were always a few smokers wearing blue smocks, men and women with their hair done up in a kerchief sitting on the back steel emergency landing, having a smoke, everyone smoked back then.
I’d yell, “Hi Dad” at the top of my lungs then I would put the dog in the back seat, of course he’d be salivating all over with white snot like stuff running out the side of his jaws. Mom had the job of cleaning the car on Saturdays right on the street and she had put an old blanket on the back seat for Duke to lie on when he calmed down. Like a young child the dog was so happy with excitement to see the man of the family, I guess, I dunno, it’s obvious to a dog that the eldest is the leader of the home, the pack so to speak. The ride to our house was only two blocks but somehow that two block ride was the most important part of my day. It was then, in those private minutes that our love for each other showed, and I think that that love is not unlike the love that most species have for their offspring if they are given the time and place to express it. I was twelve when he died, Alex was thirteen, Suzanne was eleven, Kevin was nine, Shane was seven and Barb the youngest was just four. Mom, well she was in her late thirties, an attractive woman with French Canadian heritage, her maiden name is Lemay. At the front door of the house all the kids would come running, they’d shut the TV off from watching American Bandstand or the Three Stooges or whatever was playing them days, and run to the porch and hug him tight, the little ones hugging one of his big legs, he was a big man, Sue would make shy and stand off to the side with a wide grin her dimples aglow, she’d get a separate hug in a moment, Alex would just say Hi, see, him and dad rode together in the mornings, they had their private time, dad would drop him off at St.Michaels Collegiate on the way to his office in the Old City Hall.
The day he died it was a Saturday, I recall Aunt Mary saying to my sedated mom as Dr. Crummey had come over and given her a shot and a bottle of pills, ‘oh Charlie, just let him go to the school and throw the ball against the wall keep his normal routine”. Around ten that morning I put The Glove under my arm along with a worn grey Indian (no offence) rubber ball and walked up to Weston Road, past all those shops then south on Guestville Avenue, past the yellow Our Lady of Victory Church and to the O.L.V. schoolyard, nobody was there and that’s probably a good thing. The school had a back wall with several windows about three foot by three foot that were covered with heavy wire screens, after school a bunch of us would play using those screens as the umpire. The rules were simple, if a ball was thrown and it made it to the screen that counted as a strike and like regular baseball after three strikes you were out, the batter did not run the bases, hits were calculated as bouncers, high flys or pop ups, line drives and home runs, the guy you were playing against or guys at times would call the play after the pitch, the batter accumulated a score and each player kept track of their points it was easy you could create rules as circumstances presented themselves. It was neat how you’d be able to hear the sound the sponge rubber ball made when it hit the screen, then a different sound when it hit the brick wall, and then a completely different sound when it was hit with a bat, we went through a lot of those 25Cent red white and blue sponge rubber balls, as the left field fence was not a long ways away. It was a great game, a very serious battle actually between little boys, at least for me those games were extremely important to win.
When I played alone which could be fairly regular an inner dialogue between two people existed. Between the windows at the school there was enough room to throw that Indian Rubber ball, as hard as you could against the bricks and mimic the players in the American Baseball Leagues as they ran and jumped to catch hard hit grounders and flies and first hoppers, then spin and turn and throw the ball again against that wall, sometimes silently shouting, “your out”! I remember the older McCullough boy coming over from his street that backed onto the school yard and saying, ‘I heard your dad died in a car crash it was on the radio, I’m sorry for your loss’ or something to that effect and I think that that’s about time it began to sink in. It was getting near three or four, I headed home first stopping at Lanes Variety across the street from the school and purchasing a 5cent popsicle, I would have liked some fries from the little snack shop on Lambton Avenue but they were closed on weekends, their fries were the best and you could get a hole order for a quarter.
I stopped at the church as I passed by and looked up at the cross on the steeple, I made the traditional sign of the cross as you are supposed to whenever you pass a church, and mumbled the few words that today I do not recall what they are. I looked down at the ground, and the tears came in buckets, I was so sad.
Mom was in shock, she couldn’t make any decisions, I mean death, it can be so sudden when it happens like that. My poor mother, years later, when things had gotten worse she’d often say, ‘I should have moved back to Montreal when your father died’. Then again, she had her own issues with her father Noel Lemay. I suppose getting knocked up with Alex before she was properly married was a great upset to him and of course, The Roman Catholic Church. Back then, both families, my mothers and my fathers were like Catholic Robots, if the Church said, anything, it was gospel, they had this fear of the Church this Reverence as well that, well, I never quite got it like that, in fact that reverence they had for the church probably had a lot to do with our eventual acting out as children. I’ve not been to a psychiatrist or other professional to discuss this, but I think I am bright enough to know which buttons the Church pushed. Then when he died, sad as it was, I don’t recall the Church helping out much once that weekly tithe dried up! Oh, there’d be other reasons, mom probably told the Father to Fuck Right Off. I do know they paid Alex’s tuition to St.Mikes and mine the following year, a sum of about $250 dollars each. Truth is, some of us should have been sent to other family members in either Toronto or Quebec, it was way to much for mom, but those things weren’t done in them days. They were in the early part of the century as my old granddad, my dads father George Gregory was abandoned by his father in Ireland, George and his brother Jack were called Bernardo Children, this is documented in a book titled Little Immigrants, they were put on a boat to Canada when they were ten and eleven and settled in the Stratford area where the farmers did a heck of a job of working their butts off for little or no pay.
We kept living at the house on Victoria Blvd. The rent was just $75 a month. From time to time, I would hop on the Weston Road bus heading north and take the money to our landlord, Mr.Gowland who lived on Queens drive in a stately home not far from the Catholic nuns house in that part of Weston. The money was placed in a sealed white envelope and the old man would come to the door and politely say thank you, you’d think he’d give you a lolly pop or something, no, not ever. There were times when afterwards I would go to the Weston Pool on Lawrence Avenue located behind the Weston ice rink where for a dime or was it a quarter you could go swimming. In winter, I often had hockey games at the Weston Arena as a member of our school hockey team, it was a rickety old place made of cinder blocks and wood as if a giant Quonset hut had been set on top of the blocks. I chipped one of my front teeth grabbing a drink from under the tap in the mens washroom one day after a game. I’ll never forget the time this famous priest hockey coach attended the game and I played as if I was possessed, a regular Whirling Dervish, Father Bauer was his name, he coached the Memorial Cup winning St. Michaels team and then the Canadian Olympic team, at the end of the game, after we said a prayer for the victory he commented on my play, that was high praise, high praise indeed, the next Sunday in the Our Lady of Victory church handout, there was my name in the scoring column, C.Gregory, one goal, two assists!
Myself, I kept busy with hockey on the streets and on the school team and in the Bert Robinson Minor Hockey League in the winter. In summer I played a pretty good caliber of baseball for the Softley Cartage team who were York Township Smythe Park league Champions a few years running, I could really hit the ball, on defence I played back catcher or right field, everyone on the team got a chance to play and even though I was the clean up hitter I took my time on the bench which for a kid with a high degree of activity I found that a bit boring, to allay this boredom I taught myself how to talk and read backwards, just to fill in the time, I’ve wrote about this elsewhere in one of my other stories, but not everyone has read all the stories. It was fun, my name, of course was the first words I learned, Selrahc Yrogerg, then I’d see a car, a Ford for example, that was easy to read backwards and pronounce Drof as in Oaf, other cars came along Telorvhec, Kciub, Caitnop and so on including the hardest car word backwards Negawsklov which I pronounced like this Neg Aws Klov. I also determined that backwards speakers could invent their own pronunciations of words, sort of a bonus for those starting out. It was fun. Of course football wasn’t organized until you got to high school, but I played enough of that at Pearen Park to make all the teams I tried out for. Some say I was the most feared and skilled Road Hockey player they had ever seen with a stick and ball. There was none of this getting home from school and putting the TV on, no sirree, we spent almost the entire time after school playing sports.
From time to time Dad had taken Al and I on fishing trips. The most memorable of them was a trip in the late fifites to a large body of water north of Sudbury called The Spanish River. Nelson Bowman my dads best friend was a pipe fitter and he had a job as a fitter at the newly built Domtar pulp and paper mill in Espanola, Ontario. The drive up was in a fifites green mercury, dads friend Mickey Dowd was with Alex and I, I remember there being lots of stops on the way there as highway #69 was under construction. The construction crews would stop all the cars whenever they were dynamiting it was exciting, there were these signs everywhere that said, turn your radios off and any other transmitting devices, besides the words there were pictures of sticks of dynamite on the signs. After what seemed like a long time they let the cars go through, there was still dust in the air as the convoy continued on to the next stop where men were drilling into the hard rock face with compressor operated drills the size of the man working it, then another guy would put dynamite into the holes, the rock face looked like a pimply kid with all these holes in it. They’d place heavy rubber mats over the holes to cover the debris and keep the dust down when the fuses were lit, it was a long drive up.
Every now and then we’d stop for a pop at a gas station and eat one of the pre made soggy salmon or peanut butter sandwiches that mom had packed for us, there was no such thing as fast food back then, unless you count French Fries as fast food, every place had French Fries, and burgers and hot dogs, that was fast food. When we turned into the town of Espanola we stopped at another gas station and got out to get directions to the cottages we were to stay at and there was the neatest thing, there was a baby bear, a few months old tied to a post. The bear cub was very agitated to be in that situation, it was quite an experience seeing a bear, a real bear! Our camp wasn’t far from that station, there were a bunch of ramshackle cabins built near the river, we settled in for the night Alex and I sharing a lumpy bed the men in the kitchen drinking beers and whiskey and telling tall tales, their was laughter. We got up early the next morning to go fishing. A boat had been rented, Alex and dad and I got into the boat. Being there was like being in heaven, the river, the mist covering it, the tall pines at places leaning over the river, the sounds of birds in the morning .We motored down the river and stopped and tossed an anchor out near an elbow in the river, it looked promising, almost immediately Alex hooked onto a large golden pickerel, it had to have been at least nine pounds, as he tried to drag the fish into the boat, it broke the line and escaped, some might think this as an Omen, to lose such a fish. We caught our share of smaller ones that morning but none as big as the one that got away, still, we had seen it, the great fish we had encountered it, we had battled it, when you are in a boat your are one with the other fishermen, I guess it’s a warrior like thing, like soldiers. Later that day, when the sun was higher we were tired out just sort of lazing around when we came across a boat with two men in it, they were fighting a fish, a monster of a fish that was towing their boat, it turned out to be a twenty five pound sturgeon very rare for these parts they landed it then they released the shining beauty after showing it to us, that fish was as big as a child. Back at the cabin the men drank beer, Al and I stayed out of their way, we were fed hot dogs on buns, as many as we wanted, we had all the pop we could drink, sleep came easy. A few days later we headed south to Toronto, we stopped to see the bear cub again at the gas station, Nelson had to go back to work on the Monday as did father. Since we left on a Sunday the traffic heading south was much less congested than when we drove up on the Friday afternoon, there were no delays. I sat in the back of the car with Alex, looking out the windows at the cars going by, I remember talking to myself in backwards talk as each car passed by. Egdod, Relbmar, Yrucrem, Namllih, Ssirom Ronim which was difficult to pronounce!
Oh we’d done some fishing with dad at the cottage we’d rent every year from the Evoys who had some tired old cabins on Orr Lake. That’s it, I think that’s where this need to fish came from, Orr Lake in the fifties. Dad himself had fished Orr Lake as a boy where he had been taken by his dad, he told us stories of boatloads of bass being caught in the thirties, maybe they (him and grandpa) were bragging but we believed them and those stories told a young boy raised on vivid post war dramas like Davey Crockett and Old Yeller were apt to provoke the wakening mind and its untapped capabilities into creating exciting images of dreamlike sequences of a million fat bass jumping in a dream into your bedroom. We’d go up on the weekend for a three week vacation, one time, the car was so full Al and I took the Greyhound that dropped us off near the small lake, a long ways from our cottage which was way past Crowes General Store. Anyways, that time Al and I were wearing these fucking Davy Crockett hats, the ones with the genuine raccoon tails hanging from the back of them. To save space in the car mom packed us up with a few bags of stuff to eat at the that first week, one of the articles was a big ten pound cooked ham. Eventually on that hot hundred degree day we got picked up and taken to the cottage, they opened the bag the ham was in and it was full of maggots!
That’s the year Marilyn Monroe died, I remember my dad and mom and their friends talking about that as they quenched their thirst around a fire with long necked bottles of Molsons and IPA beer. The next day I remember like it was yesterday mom saying to dad, ‘why do you invite them up here, they never bring enough beer and they always eat all our food’ I’m sure she was in trouble for saying that. But there on Orr Lake, dad would rent us kids (mostly for Al jr. and I) a fourteen foot long wooden row boat with a green Evinrude five horsepower motor. I remember those glorious days of summer reading Thor Heyerdals Kon Tiki Expedition in the hot afternoon sun as my bobber set with a juicy worm, minnow or frog caressed the waters surface twenty feet from the boat. The rod and reel I used was just one of those cheap ‘kits’ that parents bought for kids. Alex had the same set as me, just a small four foot rod with a level wind reel and black braided line. Meanwhile dad had this matching six foot long white steel Shakespeare rod with a smooth cork handle complementing the rod was a white Shakespeare level wind baitcasting reel, it was beautiful, like the queens jewels, we weren’t allowed to use it when he was back in the city. Sometimes we’d use big juicy earth worms that we bought at the local Marina, the worms they sold were kept in this wooden box that was the shape of a three can garbage bin, it was full of moss, the kid who worked there would open the lid and stick his hand in the moss and pull out a handful of the healthiest looking worms you’d ever see, the colour of the moss was this bright Irish green, then he’d close the lid after sticking the worms and some moss and guck into a plain soup can for us. We’d pay the fifty cents for two dozen worms and head back to the boat, then out to the lake.
Anyone who fishes will tell you that there aren’t many fish biting at that time of day, just mostly catfish which are a pain in the ass to get off the hook, and sunfish, millions of sunfish. You had to till wait till near dusk or get up real early to catch the wily Bass. The weekend comes and on the last day of our three week vacation dad is out in the boat with me and Alex. It’s getting near dark, my bobber goes under, I mean under, the next thing you know it pops up and dad says ‘the Bass is eating the minnow’, we remain quiet, but dad he was so darn excited, he knew there was something special on that hook. Suddenly the bobber raced ten feet one way then twenty feet back from where it started, then it began to take the line from my piece of crap reel, at that point you could see the tautness of the line, you could see the two places I had tied the line together when it had broke earlier in the week, that worried me, would the knots hold, dad yelled, ‘start reeling in’ and I did for what seemed like eternity. The fish was now near the boat, you could see the yellow of its belly as it fought for freedom, I was holding the rod up as instructed, dad was still yelling, ‘don’t lose it, keep your rod up, reel in, damn it, reel it in or you’ll lose it’ I could feel dads tension, when the fish was close to the boat I handed dad the rod and he brought the five pound fish into the boat. It was now ‘our fish’. There was lots of whooping and hollering, the fish was flipping and flopping around in the bottom of the wooden boat. Dad yelled at Alex, ‘hit him with the club or he’ll jump out of the boat’, Alex smacked the fish hard, afterward he put one of those steel clips from a fish stringer on the Bass and hung the bass over the side of the boat in the water, this revived the big fat fish, but he wasn’t going anywhere as the metal stringer was attached to the oar lock. We headed the few hundred yards back to the dock in near dark past the green sagging pencil reeds using a worn down flashlight to see the last fifty feet. At the dock we attached the boat to the dock rings. When we got there everyone was down at the dock to see if we had caught anything, I held up the stringer, Dad and Alex and I were beaming, I felt as if I had won the Stanley Cup of fishing, it was a great moment, Duke the Boxer who mom and dad spent the rest of the months grocery money on at a kennel in Waverly the week before jumped up and down, we took the fish to the cabin looked at it for another ten minutes or so, conked it on the head again, wrapped it in newspaper and put it outside in this thing they called a crock, a small running creek near the cottage which kept our milk butter and meat from spoiling, the crock was accessed through the lid of a wooden box, there was no refrigerator, the cottage was very basic. The next day we returned to Toronto with a new dog, and the fish, before going to our house we went to gramps and grandmas place on Webb Avenue to show them the fish, never mind that we had a new dog, it was the fish that dad wanted to show gramps and grandma, the fish!
Dad passed in that accident the following April, the autopsy showed he had had a heart attack while driving, at least that’s what I was told. In some insane moment of anquish I entered the church on Guestville Avenue one day, through the week when no one was around, no Priestly Father playing remorseful Gregorian type chants in the balcony above as little boys put their hands into the unlocked coin boxes of the candle area where somehow the coins and lit candles served to assist the souls of the deceased. I sat in the middle of the newish church and looked around, I looked at the larger than life size 13 stations of the cross, which I had been sent to do penance of repeating various prayers, the Our Father, the Hail Mary at numerous times in my young life, I looked at the altar where a gold case held an invisible chalice holding the Ressurected Imagined Christ. I took a huge shit on one of the benches and left, never to return!
—————————————————————————————————-to be continued
#Les #Rivieres #des #Francais #chapter #chipped #tooth
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