GOOD MORNING TO THE FLATS
by Mel Robertson
LAST FALL I WROTE an article entitled "Farewell to the Flats", in which I described the annual trip 1920s Burford boys made to the creek every October to say a sort of "Good Night" to the things of summer before winter set in. Looking back, it would seem that this article presented only one side of the situation and that was a rather sad side. However, since childhood had both glad and sad sides it is important to note that whereas we felt a bit sad when we left the flats in the Fall we returned every Spring with gladness and an urge to get our friends of Nature out of bed.
How did we know when to make our Spring trip? Was it inspired by "The Playground Telegraph", that fore-runner of the fax machine? Was it a human form of that mysterious impetus that awakens hibernating animals? Was it the broadening of Spring's "gladdening light"? It may not have been any of these things and it may have been all of them that made us gather one day at the corner of King and Maple to plan our annual expedition. Sometimes this urge took place on a Friday night when we were allowed out "after supper", but usually it began on some bright Saturday morning when someone would say, "Let's go to the crick this afternoon". No one organized this trip or tried to tell us the best way to make it. Everything was done by mutual agreement and any kid who tried to "get his own
way" would have been severely sat upon by the forces of Democracy. (When I say "sat upon" I mean that this was physical fact.)
Expeditions of this nature were made up of boys only, for in the 1920s there was sexual segregation in most things involving children. Boys played with boys and girls played with girls, and boys and girls who wanted to play with each other were thought to be too old for either group. This may not have been "politically correct" but that was the way it was. Both sexes accepted this gladly and I never heard of anyone threatening to take things to the Supreme Court.
Yes, there we were carrying sticks for canes and with our minds laden with all the hiking paraphernalia we imagined "Fearless Hunters" would need to subdue the wilderness. All the equipment that most of us carried was a jack-knife, but in our minds we bore knap-sacks, compasses, guns, swords, mountain-climbing gear, water canteens and solar topees. In short, we were ready to tackle anything from the Himalayas to Mohawk Park.
How did we know what date would be most propitious for our annual trip? None of us was a naturalist and the world "environment"has not yet become a screen behind which power-seeking individuals could hide their
However, both Nature and the Environment had a lot to do with the way a date was selected. First, the ground had to be dry enough so that we did not need rubbers. Second, the Spring freshet had to be over so we could see the bottom of the creek. Third, the year had to have progressed to the stage where Hepaticas were in bloom. Fourth, it had to be warm enough so that the heavy clothes of winter could be left behind. Fifth, and probably the most important factor, was that we had that mysterious feeling of wanting to run. All of these factors were considered without discussion. No one had to say, "This is the Day" because we all know it was "the Day" without anyone saying it. Indeed, if any adult had suggested that we needed an analyst to tell us why, we would have said something like "so's your old man", and run off to do some other spontaneous thing.
What was the route we followed? Well, it was the same every year. Down William Street as far as Dufferin, where a gate barred our passage. Then along the edge of a field until we came to an old barn that stood where modern Wilson Street begins. There we would turn west and follow another fence edge until we came to the "Big Bend" where the creek makes a right-angled turn at the foot of a high bank. Then we followed the high bank until it sloped down to the site of
the old mill dam, the mill race and the old sluice gate. There, if we were lucky, we could enter the scene of our summer fun. However, sometimes we found that the "Playground Telegraph" had erred and the old mill race was still full of water. If that occurred we had to travel about a mile to where a wire fence crossed the old race and intercepted fence rails and trash. Here would be a shaky bridge over the water. Here we would stop to examine the things that had been collected. Sometimes among the old rails and logs there would be a dead woodchuck and once there was a sheep. This latter discovery baffled us for we knew that no farmer along the creek raised sheep. However the mystery was solved by our imagination. The book "Heidi" about a little Alpine girl was very popular at the time and most of us had either read it or had it read to us. Therefore, since our knowledge of geography was rather shaky, we decided that the sheep must have come from the flock mentioned in "Heidi". The incongruity of this assumption did not bother us for most of our playtime involved ridiculous situations dreamed up from the books we read.
Crossing the brush-wood dam presented a serious problem, for the last thing we had heard at home, as we ran out the door, was.
This was the ultimate precaution most 1920s children received when they went out. It would not have mattered if we were heading for the Sahara Desert, we would be told "Don't get your feet wet." We really didn't know why this warning was always given but we knew that it was a dire warning which, if ignored, would result in decapitation, impotence or something worse. We knew that if we got our feet wet we could just sit down and await the "Ultimate Summons". We took great care to keep our feet dry and if our mothers had shouted "Don't lose your floppy disc" or "Beware of the six-toed fig plucker" we would have treated such admonitions with scorn.
After we had negotiated the brush dam and noted how the trickling water was seeking to make its way along its old path to the Dead Pond, we all "with one accord" began to run. Running was the ultimate feeling of freedom for 1920s kids, for in those days few houses had central heating and from October to May kids were tied to the earth by the heavy clothing they had to wear. Thus when these earth-confining things were put off in the Spring we felt that we were free from the bonds of earth and demonstrated our freedom by running. This feeling is not experienced by 1992 kids for there is little need for heavy winter clothing and the 10-speed bicycle has made running unnecessary.
Yes, we ran. Oh, how we ran along the old path by the old mill race. We ran because we had to start our annual Spring expedition "up" the creek. Why "up" instead of "down"? There was no particular reason for working our way "down" the creek. It was just that we felt that the only way to make a proper examination of things was to start at the top and work down. That meant we began our Spring check-out at the old dam. There we examined the depth of the swimming hole and the old concrete slab from which we did "belly floppers". Then if everything seemed all right we started our tour of inspection down the creek. This was done slowly and wood-chucks which had fled from our early rush would come out to watch us. High in the big elms the watchers from the high nests were not the mysterious watchers of the winter twilight but new tenants getting their homes ready for their new kids.
The next item on our trip of rediscovery was the thorn apple thicket where every summer we built houses, "rassled", and fought the Prussian Guard. The houses never survived the winter but we were sure that the Prussian Guard of our imagination would be ready for the annual conflict. If not, Long John Silver or Captain Hook would, no doubt, be ready to take its place.
thicket we were faced with something we found hard to accept. That was the island where the creek divided. This was an island all right, but not a real island for in the books we read all islands had to be tropical with palm trees, parrots and acrobatic monkeys.
Since our island had none of these attractions it could not be rated with Robinson Crusoe's island or that of "Treasure Island". Still, it was a place to be rediscovered and if the weather was warm enough we waded over to see if the initials that we had carved in the beech tree were still there. There were also old encampments of "The Fearless Hunters" to be examined and plans made for the coming summer.
After the island had been rediscovered and re-explored we returned to our original track, examining every turn in the creek and noting any changes that winter had wrought. Fishing holes were looked into and their inhabitants noted. Sometimes new inhabitants such as a big bass or a pike would be discovered and their capture planned with all the zeal of Captain Ahab and the Great White Whale of "Moby Dick". At more shallow spots, plans were made for little bridges or water diversions.
The final item of our afternoon's trip of rediscovery was the Red Bridge which spanned the creek on what was then the 6th Concession. For those who are
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not familiar with this noble structure, it was built of wood with high wooden sides and wooden support beams. Its platform consisted of loose planks and underneath were iron rods on which kids could perform acrobatic tricks. The whole thing was called the Red Bridge for the simple reason that it was painted red. Finder the bridge was an ideal swimming hole where most Burford children learned to swim. This was an excellent learning place for the current was slow, the bottom was sandy and the depth was about three feet. There were also nearby bushes behind which shy individuals could change their clothes. The Red Bridge was a thing of wonder to us for whereas it did not resemble the bridge over the Firth of Forth it seemed just as liable to fall down. To check the durability of the bridge we jumped on its rattling boards and turned ourselves "inside out" on its supporting rods. Sometimes, in a fit of stupidity, we speculated on how big a splash would be made if someone executed a one and a half "belly flopper" off the bridge.
Since the Red Bridge marked the lower limit of the area we called "our creek" we were ready for the hike home. Looking back I wonder if the birds and animals of the flats had welcomed us back. Did the things of Nature "laugh and sing" in the way we were told they did in Sunday School? I don't know and I am not prepared to speculate. However, I like to think that somewhere in the minds of those nine and 10 year old little boys there was a thought that our friends of Nature were glad to see that little cast of little boys come back on the scene to play out the fantasies they had created
from the books they read.
Another afternoon of rediscovery was over and, refreshed with a drink of water (form)Mrs. Bridge's pump, we headed home full of plans for another summer of fun which, like those of life, were only of sunny days and not of any approaching storms. It was "Good Morning" again with a long bright day ahead.