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EPISODE 116 VIOLENCE IN MY LIFE Part One
Sometimes my imagination takes over in my life. Memory can be faulty but always contains
a kernel of truth or perhaps some events are so shocking that they get locked into our brains
and are easy to recall. In this picture I must be eight years old. Visiting our grandparents
farm which was a very safe place to be in the turbulent 1940’s.
What you see here is not remotely connected to my real world. This picture was taken in
western Alaska in 1959 when an American Mining company armed our crew with 30-06
rifles in case we were attacked by Kodiak bears. We never carried the rifles Just stacked
them where the helicopter dropped us. There was no need for violence against the bears…
their guts were stuffed with dead or dying salmon. Playing guns as a child had no
connection with playing guns as an adult. Two different worlds that did not cross.
Violence is something I have tried to avoid all my life. I just thought about that
this morning while wrapped around Marjorie in our bed. There are people that
admire violence and try to replicate it in their daily life. I know that. I have seen
that. I have been the receiver of violence on a few rare occasions. Most of the
time I have found ways to avoid violence. Like running although I cannot find
a memory of running away from violence. I just try to avoid violence whenever
such a situation arrives. ‘Chicken shit’, was once the term.
What in hell’s half acre ever made me think of that this morning? I have no answer.
But one violent incident came to mind. Perhaps the incident should be left to the
end of this story. But I am going to put it at the first.
University life offered so many things to do other than sit in the library and try
to become an intellectual like Emmanuel Kant. Or a writer
like Hemingway or Steinbeck. Or even a poet of folk life like Robert Frost.
Lots more things to do than read books in other words. Best thing was to chase
after Marjorie. Not the only thing though.
So one day I joined a make up basketball team at Hart House. Victoria college
boys against University College boys. Just for fun. I was not a basketball star…
can’t even remember ever getting any points in that career.
We were playing fast. Running up and down the floor. Offence then defence. For some
strange reason a UC kid took offence at one of our players and he hit him with
his fist. Our player hit back. The two of them tumbled and wrestled with lots of
expletives like “You son of a bitch” and “bastard” between blows. It was not nice
so for some reason I cannot explain I decided to break up the fight. To pry them
apart. To be the peacemaker, a role I admired in the larger world of the United Nations.
Peacemaking did not work. Instead the UC guy turned on me. He grabbed me
by the throat with both hands and began to strangle me. I remember so clearly
falling to the floor and looking up at his face. I knew him. At least I knew ‘of him’
because his family were famous lawyers in Toronto. His face seemed joyful.
He kept pressing on my throat. Choking me. For no reason other than the
love of violence. How to survive? I think I faked passing out…or maybe
I did pass out for a moment.
I know that memory may seem trivial to any person reading this story but
it was not trivial to me. What I saw in his face was a love of violence.
He liked beating people up That was why he played basketball on that
winter afternoon at Hart House. The bible says something about “Blessed
are the peacemakers for they shall inherit’…something or other. Not true
I realized that day
So this story is going to be about my confrontations with violence in my
82 years of life on this earth.
I have avoided violence all my life except maybe in kindergarten. Seems I dimly
remember getting pushed on the stairs at Kent Public School and pushing back
at some other five year old. A very misty memory. Reinforced by the fact the
teacher commented the fact to my mother. A tale I find hard to believe. My
only sharp memory of kindergarten was the teacher saying. “All fright children,
time for your nap, everyone put your heads on the desk.” And that is hardly
a violent memory. Seemed stupid to go to school and then fall asleep with my
head on the desk. I may have resisted But I did not rebel.
Violence was all around me as a youngster. The larger world of incredible
violence was World War II of which my brother and I were largely unaware.
We lived in a climate of make believe violence for we loved playing ‘guns’
together. In the winter of 1944 we built a big snow fort on the front lawn of
18 Sylvan Avenue and then defended imaginary attackers with guns made out
of broomsticks. This was not violence nor was it training for violence. This
was imagination and fun. Mom took us to the movies regularly where we watched
Slip Mahoney and the Bowery Boys act out silliness. Then walking home in
the dark on Fall or winter evenings Eric and I would play ‘guns’ without even
thinking of the deeper meaning of that foolishness. I remember being shot
by Eric on one of those nights…imaginary bullet hit me…and I died in a
great dramatic sprawl through a pile of leaves ready to be burned. Lucky
I did not land on some dog turds. But the drama was great. Made greater
by a woman passing by who really thought I was hurt badly or dead.
Until mom came along saying, “Just the boys playing guns”
We lived in a cocoon of non violence at home. Protected and secure
and loving. Made so mostly by mom but reinforced by Dad when the horses
were not running at Dufferin Racetrack across the park from our house.
Mom and dad seemed pleased with having a baby around. So they wove a cocoon around me…and later around Eric.
Mom made all our clothes. She also enriched our imaginations. Dad was a gambler and the kind of father
I wished most children could have had. Eric and I remember them both with great affection. They protected us.
Eric and I loved playing guns. It was an imaginary world for us. Occasionally the two worlds collided as in this picture taken
at the cannon that protects Howard House in High Park from American invaders. We were around 10 or 11 years old.
Outside the cocoon there was violence. The real world scared me. People
did nasty things to each other in that real world.
It was easy to separate the two worlds by the way. Some psychological
whizz bangs will say I am wrong. Will believe that imagination can be
a learning ground for violence. Bull shit!
Comfort…security…non-violence. Encouraged by Grandma and Grandpa Freeman who provided an escape from
the gang warfare we witnessed in Dufferin Park in the postwar years of the 1940’s
At Kent Public School I could have gotten the shit knocked out of me
were it not for my friend Karl Slalberg. Karl and his mom lived in a
tiny apartment…two rooms I think…in a house on a street north of Bloor
St. I know that because his mom had me over a couple of times.
Karl got into some kind of trouble. “Juvenile Delinquent” was the term
used I think. That mystified me because he was such a nice kid. No father
around. But Karl protected me. Funny because he must have been the
same age as me. Perhaps Grades 3 or 4 when we were 8 or 9 years old.
“Alan, we could earn a lot of marbles with this cigar box.”
“Cut little pieces out … some big, some small…all holes in
which a marble could get through with difficulty.”
“Oh, that game. The big boys play it every day at recess…lots of
cigar boxes put against the wall. Get the marble through the hole
and win “Two for One” for the big hole or “Five for One” for the little
hole. Miss the holes and lose your marble. Most of us lose our marbles.”
“Right. So let’s set up our own cigar box. Win lots of marbles.”
So we did. Karl got the cigar box ready…cut the holes, wrote numbers
above the holes. We took our place against the school wall and invited
marble gamblers to take chance. Big payoff…maybe five to one or higher.
Karl left me in charge of the cigar box often. One particular time, however,
got ground into my memory. I stood beside the box and a big guy..maybe
a kid as ancient as ten or eleven years old…this big guy rolled his marble
right into the big pay off hole. I owed him ten marbles. Ten marbles!
I had no marbles. We expected to earn marbles. We expected marble
gamblers to lose most of the time. We expected to build up our capital
starting at zero.
“OK, kid, you owe me ten marbles.”
“I can’t. I have no marbles.” I said weakly, my knees trembling.
“Pay up!” he demanded.
Then things got really nasty. Other boys gathered around. I was about to
be punched when Karl arrived. He was a great fighter. An even better threatener.
Nothing happened. Maybe Karl said he would pay tomorrow or just Karl’s
presence defused the situation. I learned a big lesson that day. A couple of big
lessons. First, do not make promises you cannot deliver. Second, violence
is easy to trigger…harder to reduce.
I know this sounds silly but the memory is clear…75 years after the fact.
I had an even earlier memory of violence. A memory that today I find hard
to believe. Did this really happen? Grade one maybe. Six or seven years old.
Our nice teacher gave all of us a cucumber from his garden. Male teacher I
seem to recall although that does not matter. A cucumber. Small one. What a
prize. But how can I get it home for mom?
Getting home each day was difficult because I had to cross through Dufferin
Park. That meant crossing the ravine that ran at right angles blocking the route to our house
In 1944 or 1945. Our house at 18 Sylvan Avenue was almost right inside the
park. It has been demolished now sadly. Crossing that ravine was like crossing
no man’s land in our imaginary world of cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians.
Only this ravine was real and the boys hiding there were very real.
Often They frisked me to see what they could steal. Getting the cucumber home
was going to be very difficult. I seem to remember even being stripped in these
no man’s land confrontations. Could I get the cucumber home for mom?
How? Then a solution came to me. My shoe! I hid the cucumber in my shoe
and managed to get it home. It must have been a small cucumber but it was a
great victory. The violence .. potential violence .. in that ravine remains a
powerful memory even today.
Must be true because the City Parks sent a crew to cut down the bushes and
trees in that ravine. Today it is just a dip in the grass of Dufferin Park. Some’
of the ravine has been in filled with subsoil to make a skating rink. Did the
city do this because of the dangers. Or is that just my imagination. Did any of
this really happen? It must have. How big was that cucumber in my shoe? Did
I walk with a fake limp? Would mom make us a cucumber sandwich?
Dad made a lot of mistakes in his life…some of which I have told in earlier
Episodes. Most of them were funny in retrospect. But one that I remember
was anything but funny.
“Red, can you babysit the boys tonight”
“I will be working late.”
Dad did not play games with us. He treated us as miniature adults
really or as interlopers who got between him and the horses racing
at Dufferin Racetrack. He would have preferred to take us to the racetrack
but no horses were running at night.
That particular night he decided to fill in the time by taking us to a
movie at the Doric theatre down at College and Dufferin. Dad was not
a motion picture movie buff. He did not even look at what was
playing. Mom, on the other hand, pre selected our movies as
I will never forget that Doric movie. It scarred me for life I came out
terrified. I wanted to run out before it ended but Dad made me stay.
I think he was half asleep.
This memory is graphic. Not imaginary. I can see in my mind the time
and the place. The dark night . The Doric theatre which was a run down
movie house. What I remember clearest however was the horror of that film.
Some sinister people operated a dual business. They performed civil
marriages … couples in love tying the knot. Loving couples. Especially
couples with no kinfolk to get in the way. After the marriage ceremony
the couples were murdered. Their bodies kept in a dark place at the
back of the business. Why murdered? So they could be robbed I think.
The murders terrified me so much that for weeks, months afterward
I would not go to a movie theatre. Not even a silly Bowery Boys movie.
I had nightmares about the movie and still do.
I think Dad thought I was a bit touched in the head. He did not
see the movie. Mom wondered what had happened as I was white
in the face and trembling. Gutless some of you might say. I did not
We saw lots of violence. Eric and I. It was all centred in Dufferin Park
where groups of ‘big guys and big girls” congregated.
Dufferin Park was Beanery Gang territory. Lots of things happened
there. Seems I remember being under a forsythia bush in the ravine
watching two people tossing around each other in sexual paradise.
That memory must be close to reality as well since Eric and I collected
used safes at one point. (Sheiks was the brand name as I remember).
“Mom, they make great balloons.”
“Don’t touch those dirty old things.”
“Garbage..put them in the garbage now.”
The jumping around under the forsythia bushes did not seem that violent.
The violence came when the Junction gang invaded Beanery Gang territory.
Gangs fought viciously. Gang fights? Was it plural…i.e many gang fights.
Or was it just one gang fight that we saw. Likely just one which my imagination
It was very violent. Weapons were involved Knives and lead pipes….perhaps
baseball bats. Which memories are most graphic. Which memories are likely real
in other words. One stands out. A gang member was trying to protect his girlfriend
…fighting some guy face on when another guy came up from behind and hit him
over the head with a lead pipe. He dropped to the ground. Another incident
occurred near our house on Sylvan Avenue when a police officer caught one of the
gang members and had him spread eagled on the squad car hood.
How true was this? The strange thing is that I cannot find written records
of these gang fights. Seems they would be big news. Are they only in my mind.
So graphic to me. Just down Gladstone Avenue was the home of the Simmons
family whose boys were gang members as I remember. Toenails Simmons was
in jail I think. His brother showed Eric and I how to make a knuckle duster
out of a sharpened roofing nail and some white medical tape.
“Just hone the nail to a sharp point with a file…needle point…then
put the flat part of the nail on your finger. Bind it there by winding
white tape around it. Make sure the tape covers the sharpened
point. If a fight happens then your fist becomes a better weapon . one
blow with the fist and the nail pops through and cuts the other guy.”
Mom feared Eric and I would get drawn into the gangs. That
was why we moved to 455 Annette Street in 1948 or 1949.
How she managed to do that is one of the wonders of our lives.
She did it …bought a small rather begraggled house in a very nice
END PART ONE: VIOLENCE IN MY LIFE
P>S. I nearly forgot the Robertson’s Candy Truck heist. That was also
a lesson in violence. Rather a lesson in how to avoid violence. Eric and
I witnessed a bunch of boys stealing boxes of candy bars from the
back of the Robertson Candy truck. They got a few boxes and then ran
like hell down Dufferin. We knew who they were. We saw what happened.
A policeman came and asked for witnesses and Eric and I did the
right thing. Or the wrong thing.
“Any witnesses?” said the cop
“We saw what happened”
“Did you see who stole the the candy?”
“Do you know where they live?”
“Will you take me there?”
“Yyyyes.” (less confident voice)
So he drove us down to the thieves house on Dufferin just
below College St. The policeman knocked on the door and
a woman answered.
“Do you have boys?”
“Can I see them for a moment?”
(two boys came to the door)
“Are these the boys that stole the boxes candy?”
That was when I became aware that Eric and i had
made a big mistake. We were snitching big time.
We were also inviting violence if these boys decided
to get even. We were scared. Nothing bad really
happened. We were not punched out as I remember
but we were scared. We deserved to be punched out
Since then I believe that policeman was not thinking
straight by putting Eric and I in danger.
P.P.S. In another disgusting moment of potential violence
I became aware of the courage of my brother. We had
been surrounded in the park by a group of tough kids.
We knew them but did not associate with them. I think I
best not tell the full story however. Suffice it to say they
had disgusting plans for us. First they picked on Eric and
he Refused their orders no matter what. And he
was prepared to fight even if outnumbered and likely to lose…
even with my help. I had thought the wiser course was to
run away but that would have been difficult. They backed
down eventually so nothing really happened except I was proud
of my brother. These same boys had broken into a fort
we had made out of wooden barrels and scrap lumber.
They used the fort as a toilet.