Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Storytime - The Old Log In The River

Disclaimer - This story is about stupid things we did as kids, and stupid things you will have told your own kids not to do. That being said, you all did them. And without your knowledge, so have your kids. But damn was it fun!

The log must have fallen into the river in the sixties or seventies. It was always there growing up, and by the look of it, it had survived many previous kids. Covered in carved graffiti, much of that washed away with the ebbing tides of the Detroit River. It was about fifty feet long, completely stripped of bark, and its wood bleached by the sun and water. The log lay in the water about twenty feet out from what little shoreline there was, at the foot of Moy Avenue. Its limbs splayed out in an effort to hold up the massive trunk that remained, with the evidence of its uprooting plainly visible on the one end. This log was a nature-made playground and a destination for many of us all year round. This of course, pissed our parents off big time.

In order to get to the log you had to cross the tracks. At that time the riverfront parkland did not exist, a railyard was in its place. Stretching from the Hiram Walker plant to Dieppe Gardens, the rail yards were the last stop for cargo destined for the US on the old barges. Of course, they were private property and off limits, mostly for our own young protection. That never deterred us. The yard was in the way.

My old friend Hans and I played there for several years. I know he'll read this, so I welcome him to add any flourishes that come to mind!

Firstly, the log was not on land. In order to get to it you had to venture out into the water. Surrounding it was a kind of rocky beach area that was only 100 feet long at most. The water was shallow and easily traversed. So needless to say, we never came home dry. There was a small portion of it that acted as a sort of bridge, but invariably, by design of children or simply being klutzy, we always ended up in the water. We would stay there for hours at a time, inventing silly games, watching ships go by, or wading into the river as far as we could go. Frankly, at my age I have no idea why we spent so much time there, however, try to understand a child's imagination at our age, even if it was your own. I also now firmly believe that I've developed an immunity to damn near anything, as I swam in that shithole of a river, and probably drank more of it than tap water.

Occassionally we got ideas. Ideas that now are, well, dumb. Then, they were fucking brilliant. One day, we realized the caboose near the log was unlocked. (Back in the days of the caboose). We got intensely curious, and went in. A caboose is essentially a staff room for the train men. A full kitchen, lounge, observation areas, storage, and more. It reminded me more of a mobile home on rails. Within this home away from home, we found the kid's holy grail - flares. Tons of flares. Of course we took them, what would you expect? We walked back to the log with our jackets stuffed with flares, bulging out in front as if we were pregnant. I walked right past a railway employee, and I was scared shitless. I looked him right in the eye as I walked past and said a quaint hello. He replied, none the curious and carried on with his duties. I let out a huge sigh of relief and bolted to the log. I thought I was cooked! We spent the next couple hours lighting flares and tossing them into the river. And yes, they do indeed stay lit. I'm sure twenty or thirty feet from shore at the foot of Moy there are still a pile of old flare butts laying on the bottom.

Winter brought new experiences to the river. When the ice-breakers plowed a channel for the ships that got stuck in the freeze of the river, the results of the efforts became a playground themselves. The ice would dam up against the shore in massive uneven broken sheets, all the way downriver. The blocks would stick up on angles up to 45 degrees, smashed together by the force of the river, and welded themselves together in such a manner that it became a better obstacle course than any army could have dreamt of. We of course, saw adventure in this. 

Starting from the log one fine January day, dressed in our winter finest, we set off downriver. Climbing the mountains of ice as if climbing glaciers, we made our way first out into the river as far as we could go, and then turned toward the old pump house, at least a half kilometre away. It's still there by the way, partially restored and now sporting a nice dry walkway. Back then though, it was a decrepit and derelict danger, at least ten feet out into an unforgiving river. It was much deeper here than at the log, so it was always difficult to get to. With the ice flows it became a walk in the park. Our park.

Downriver we went, climbing up steep angled ice, dropping down onto the next, hopping to an outcropping, and so forth. We were having the time of our lives, and the cold air did not matter one bit. Kids are resilient, and we were fearless. Until I fell through the ice.

I jumped onto a flow that was lower than the rest and flat. As soon as I landed I was in trouble - it gave under my weight (not that there was much of that, but it was enough). I went halfway into the hole and managed to stop my descent by sticking my arms out and breaking my fall. When Hans was finished laughing, I had him help pull me out. I didn't feel the cold at all, only the excitement of the moment. It wasn't a far stretch to realize our day on the ice was over, and we began for home. It was about six blocks to the house, and I was completely drenched. We carried on as we walked, and still I didn't feel the cold. By the time I arrived, my pants were literally iced over. The joints of my jeans were cracked, but my thighs, shins and butt were solid ice. It was really quite funny, especially from Hans' point of view, he was still dry. 

My dad was furious. Pissed. I got blasted that day more than any other. I went to have a hot bath and change all the while hearing dad yelling at the walls about how irresponsible his son was. I giggled a bit, even though I was petrified. But I knew my dad. He lectured me later on the dangers of the river, and for the umpteenth time forbade me from going near that log. Then he laughed.

Years later he recounted the story of how his son the popcycle came home that January day. He knew damn well that his threats were empty. We were kids; adventurous and sometimes quite stupid. But we survived. We had fun against the odds.

Most of us have stories like this one, we all did dumb things as kids, and frankly if you don't remember them, then you weren't having a fun time of it. And don't think for a moment that your kids haven't done some things that would fall into the category of dumb shit. You just haven't found out about it yet. I'm sure my dad never found out about the flares.


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