THE ROCKY SAUGEEN RIVER RUN THROUGH MY MEMORY
Just another town in Ontario but special in my memory.
The homes may have changed with porches and alterations but inside are friends whose faces haven't changed since school.
At least that's the way I remembered it.
A river runs through those memories even though since I learned to swim in it, I have gone on to the great rivers, from fishing for peacock bass on the Amazon far from civilization to floating through the Yangtze gorge. Now I know the Danube is not blue and the songs of the boatmen no longer carry over the Volga.
My river is humble in comparison. Yet once it was the reason people clustered along its banks. The river gave them everything, water for drinking and a sewer and to power the mills so there would be jobs.
Now that is past. The flour mill with the best dam isn't busy. The grist mill serves fewer farmers. The woollen mill burned decades ago and its wreckage sat wrapped in weeds until it became a bit of river park.
Then there was the sawmill. Stacks of drying lumber sprawled along the bank. A patient team sleepwalked to the big factory pulling wagons of sawdust to feed boilers.
When it burned, no one rushed to rebuild because the big factory closed. Solid Canadian maple couldn’t compete against curvaceous teak and build your own shelves.
Then the yawning expanse of an old low building that had dominated the town limped through resurrections as a flea market and museum before it was demolished for the scrap.
Its last workers never had a regular job again as their grey turned to white. All they could afford was to fish, and all that was left in the river was rock bass.
Because of the mills, the railway came and curled around an edge of town. Twice a day the passenger train whistled as it came up from the Big Smoke and then returned a few hours later. It brought the mail and the papers, and a few visitors who had fled away to a job.
The little bridge that harrumphed over the tracks just as they made the stretch run to the station was torn down for its timbers because when the trains stopped, a level crossing was safe again no matter how worn the pickup’s brakes.
And so was the big bridge where the railway crossed the river on black stilts of girders. Foolish boys used to put their ear to a rail to see if a random freight was coming, then run to the middle on a dare, the local rite of passage.
Just a town in my memory, but I know now there are new people in old houses, and my face vanished along with the rest when the mills burned or slowed, the factories closed, and the train and factory whistles no longer divide the hours of the day better than a $34 Bulova.
My classmates are forever young because I never saw them again. I can recite names and tell of their escapades as kids but what happened next is just a guess.
And I wondered. What about Mary, who lived just around the curve of my street, across from the station? There was no shame in the location because the jealous divisions of bigger railway towns never existed. There was no other side of the tracks.
The bigger houses, which would never be called mansions, were scattered through more modest homes, so the gracious house of one factory owner sat beside a labourer growing vegetables on his second lot. He still had a stable/garage and even an outhouse that he hadn't felt obliged to tear down when they got town water and indoor plumbing, to his wife's delight.
The town was cheerfully democratic. There were more churches than real stores but none of them had a fancier clientele
And just one big old school. It was a real journey from the concessions, almost painfully so in winter, so they weren't there, darn it they said, when the school burned one night, and the townies who had escaped their parents' vigil cheered as shop equipment crashed through the flames.
Fires kept changing town life. None were as big as the fabled fires that leveled blocks in the big cities, but each was a funeral pyre for our hopes.
When we sprawled with our bikes on those endless summer afternoons, yarning after a game where there were more squabbles than runs, fires and wars took second place to the latest Ford model. Then we would talk about our buddies who were lucky enough to go to a cottage. And eventually we would get around to girls, not that we knew that much.
I confided that my girlfriend lived just across my street. My chums didn't know that Nancy never really noticed me. She seemed safe, however, and there was a tingle of tension about other girls in the class, such as Ruth with great dark eyes, Sheila with flaming cheeks, and Susan, with a forbidden air that only a pastor's daughter in a small town could have wrapped about her like the perfume from a little bottle from Kresge's.
And then there was Mary. I never dared talk about her. She was slim as a boy even as we started high school, as mysterious as a pool in the river on a wilted summer afternoon.
I was the orphan boy from around the curve, she was the lawyer's daughter, although I didn't know it was not a happy or even prosperous home, despite his profession, because small-town lawyers don't make much and he was said to "drink," not that I really knew much about that other than thundering Baptist sermons about demon rum.
And in the town so long ago, drinking was something the sweaty farmers' sons and young bucks from the factories did behind the pool hall where it was rumoured there were bloody fights after the black
ball was sunk in snooker games which took on all the tension of gunslingers stalking through a western.
There was a camaraderie between everyone in the class in public school that was easy to maintain when girls and boys were isolated in separate playgrounds and marched into school through separate entrances. No one strayed across the Maginot Line decreed by the principal and the trustees.
Yet puberty and the school fire arrived for all of us with equal warmth. Our class was set adrift when the old school was destroyed and we moved to the unique setting of the council chamber in the town hall where the rows of desk were replaced with three students to each picnic table. Behind the screen of books at the front of the table, mischief flourished.
The principal was a legendary tyrant who one day, after I made the mistake of trying to pass a note to a buddy – we never dreamed of writing to the girls - hammered me so hard with a thick razor strap that his buttons popped. Which made him madder until he glowed red.
When you entered the classroom through a ripe cloakroom, you looked at a portrait of Churchill who had a glint of mischief. It prompted giggles. But when you were making the trek in from the strap, you didn't dare giggle, not when hands stung and cheeks burned and you felt like crying, but not in front of Ruth, and Sheila and Susan.
There was our first class party in Grade 9 on a frigid day when we skied near the town dump and went back to Mary's for hot chocolate. Or rather they skied and I bounced down on an old sled because I couldn't afford skis. We played games, children's games, and then one girl, with a daring look at the others, suggested we play spin-the-bottle. There was a delicious pause. Mary looked around the eager circle, and then at me, and said that her father might be mad if he caught us.
I was crushed by that look. I thought about it long into a night so chilly that frost had formed inside the bedroom window. My spirit matched the night.
My grandma tired of looking after me so I was shipped to a city school that equaled the town in population. The guys were friendly, sort of, after I played football for the school, but the girls were unfathomable. I had no history with them. And then university and work and wife and sons and the decades flew like the whirling calendar pages in a bad movie.
Then came the invitation to a class reunion. Of course I returned to the only class to which I ever felt an attachment, back to the accustomed streets. I drove every one, but now there were just strangers.
I stood on the main street bridge and searched vainly for new buildings. But everything was as familiar as the red-wing blackbirds that whistled as they flew up from the rushes under the bridge, just as they used to when I crossed to the tiny Baptist church on the North Hill, the only "entertainment" I was allowed
That night in the Legion, a traditional gathering place in towns (but not for Baptists) we sifted and sorted memories and pretended we remembered every anecdote.
Mary came late. I had almost forgotten by then, but not quite. It was almost over when I sought her out. She had become a nurse, she said, and married a surgeon and moved to a big state. He had been dead for years, and she was trying to find herself again.
Do you remember, she said, before the school burned, when you found out that my father wouldn't buy a Christmas tree because he didn't have enough money but he pretended instead that he really didn't believe in Christmas?
You insisted the principal give you the school tree after classes finished for the year. He was mean and stubborn and you got flustered but you wouldn't leave and finally he gave you the tree, providing you removed the ornaments.
You dragged it up the big hill all the way to my house and left it on the porch. I borrowed some balls from a neighbour and bought some tinsel.
I didn't remember. And I wondered why. Are there some tales of childhood that you strive to forget because nothing finally happened?
You know I was in love with you even before the tree, Mary said. I know I never talked to you about what I found on the porch even after the others told me what had happened. I never seemed to look at you, but I loved you for years. I used to think about you after you left, and I thought of finding you when I came to the city to train. But I never did. It just got too busy.
We stood looking at each other and wondered what might have been. And then she went away. Her ride was waiting.
Not even a kiss!
I drove back home that night, although some stayed at the old hotel that finally can serve beer. I looked down at the river, drove the street where I had lived and round the curve to Mary’s, and finally out the road south, knowing I would never be back.
All the bittersweet clichés flashed through my mind, such as you can never go home again. It’s really not true, you know. You can, but you find it not beside the river of the yearning days of boyhood but in your nostalgia.
It’s nice there, nicer than reality.