From: Alan Skeoch
Date: January 29, 2014 11:53:27 PM EST To: Marshall Leslie, Alan Skeoch, Marjorie Skeoch
Subject: Idyllic Runnymede P.S. 1949-1952 or thereabouts
note: Marshall…this article is centred on Runnymede but really is designed to give readers a feeling for those times so long ago…more to come if you are interested…will add pictures.
RUNNYMEDE PUBLIC SCHOOL…1950 (Temporary title for now)
by Alan Skeoch January 2014
Mom wanted to get us away from the gangs roaming Dufferin Park in 1949 so she scraped together a down payment on weird little house at 455 Annette Street. Dad came along for the ride although he would dearly miss access to Dufferin racetrack.
New school. Runnymede Public School for Grade 6, 7 and 8. Runnymede remains a beautiful place for kids. High on a hill overlooking the forest canopy of West Toronto. A nice walk form Annette Street, down Gilmour, over to Runnymede Road, past the fire station. Then the iron fence of R.P.S. which could be vaulted with a good run and a flip. Only once did my pocket get caught on an iron spike and rip my pants off. Most times the vaulting was second nature.
Grade Six with Mrs. Sharpley was like a second home. She really loved her students and did not choose favourites. Took me a while to accept that since I had been badly burned in Grade Five when both my teacher and the VP at Kent School informed me “You are heading for Reform School” because of an essay I wrote. “Just write about something you have seen,” said Miss Behan. I had just seen a car accident on Bloor Street and embellished the story with “his head rolled down the street like a bowling ball”…juvenile words no doubt and poor spelling but the idea was there. “You go see Mr. Dargaval, Alan, and take this essay.” He was a tough man who I had already alienated with a snowball. Tried to see how high I could throw it. Did so. Gravity brought the snowball back down on Dargaval’s head. I looked the other way at the time but maybe he knew it was me. No matter. He read the essay and made his judgment. “Juvenile delinquent for sure”
So I did not trust teachers. But loved them at the same time. Distrust and love sound like oil and water. I know that. Mrs Sharpley bridged the gap. I was in the middle of the pack. Tried to stay there through all my schooling. Comfortable place to be. Not the teachers pet and not the teachers nightmare. Anonymous and invisible. Really liked school at Runnymede.
Finger painting was great. Some called it art. I called it lunch. The coloured pastes were really edible. Slop the stuff on your hand, Whirl it around the art paper making some kind of goofy design and then lick your fingers. Loved that stuff…especially the green and blue. Probably some kind of lethal concoction. I was not the only person dining at the finger painting cafe though. All still living.
In Grade Seven I had an epiphany moment…changed my life forever. It was garbage day on Gilmour Avenue. Always a good day for finders keepers. Usually hard goods like tools or broken roller skates but this day I did an extraordinary bit of garbage retrieval. A book! Paperback with a wild west cover titled ‘Frontier Doctor”. No idea why I grabbed it. No interest in medicine…no career intentions. Shoved the book in my back pocket under the huge hand me down plaid shirt mom got from a friend in subsidized housing near Malton Airport. A great shirt, four sizes too big so it covered my pockets. So I flipped over the Runnymede fence and settled down with not much to do. Friends not there yet. Too early for school. My brother, Eric, had buzzed off to do something somewhere else. The book! I opened it and was rivetted right away. A good writer can get his reader hooked with the first line. This guy did it. Read a couple of pages that transported me to the Western United States in the pioneer period. Cowboys and Indians in a print form.
Up to that point I had not been an avid reader. The Wizard of Oz was the only hardback novel I can remember before Frontier Doctor. Oh, kids, picture books…lots of them. But our parents were never forcing books down our throats. They were too busy making a living. Not quite true. Mom made THE (bold print dliberate) living while Dad’s money was wagered through para-mutual windows at racetracks. Mom read a lot though. The most common reading material tossed around the house, however, was the Daily Racing Form…and that was impossible to read.
Mom and dad were our pals not our slavemasters. Never raised a hand to us. Seemed to like us no matter what we did. No ‘wash your mouth out with soap’ if we discovered a new juicy word. Dad knew and used them all except, weirdly, never the ‘f word. The result was that Eric and I did not swear much…at least when we were kids.
Runnymede P.S. was not a rough school. A lot different from our former public school where some rough characters lurked near Dufferin Racetrack. Runnymede was a really nice place for kids to grow from childhood to pre-adolescence. Lots to do. Believe it or not we even had ‘elocution’ sessions in the assembly hall where I remember the Rankin boys and others giving long flowery dissertations as if they were politicians seeking votes. Made me envious. I wondered if the school would want me to give a speech on wild horses and wily westerners fighting over sheep ranging versus cow pasturing. Or maybe how to dig a hole for your hips when sleeping at night on the open semi-desert of Nevada with a saddle for a pillow. No one ever asked me to do so. Of course no one knew that my fantasy life at Runnymede could be traced to that garbage pail on Gilmour Avenue where Western novels were always ready for the pickings.
Runnymede was Not entirely non=violent however. I got the strap once and for the life of me I do not remember why. I do remember sitting in the outer office with another boy. And I remember the strap…big piece of leather. “Hold out your hand, son. Don’t pull it back. This must be done.” My eyes were watering before the blow fell. Fast reflexes though. Pulled my hand back as the leather descended and the strap hit the principal’s knee. “I said hold your hand steady!” And I think he took another swing. Probably made contact that time. I don’t remember it hurting much. Nor have I been traumatized by it. Sort of a rite of passage. I may have cried…no memory of that. Locked away deep somewhere in my brain.
Mr. Hambly’s room, Grade 8, is the most vivid memory of the day to day experience as Runnymede student. I remember the room so well. First floor near the front door. Mr. Hambly loved science…the natural world around us so he was in harmony with my western fantasy world. I always had a western novel rammed into my pocket…ragged as a tumbleweed but rivetting as a streak of lightning. Hambly understood that feeling for he gathered all kinds of things to decorate his room. Biggest was the giant paper wasp nest which hung near the door. It was huge. And it got heavier and heavier as the year progressed. Why heavier? Because many of the boys had elastics which became paper clip guns. The nest was loaded with them. Every time Mr. Hambly turned to the board there was a gentle “thwack!”. Target hit again. Today, as I write this, I have come to believe that Mr. Hambly must have known what was going on. I never took a shot for my respect for Mr. Hambly was deep. Roger Pugh and John Rae, however, were deadly as I remember. Hope they won’t be offended.
Mr. Hambly did not play favourites. Treated me as just a semi-invisible part of the class. That is the sign of a good teacher I think. He loved teaching and in the first flush of spring he invited all of us up to his ‘farm’ near Mount Dennis…only 15 minute from Runnymede and not really a farm but a big lot that hung over “Chinese” valley where Chinese market gardeners had black soil fertility to exploit. We had a great time that day especially sliding down the tree clad hill on our butts. I noticed Joan McReynolds was attractive that day but she could care less that I even existed. I got back to my Westerns where I belonged. Hambly would have been a great trail boss herding those longhorns from Texas to Chicago. Their fate in Chicago was never discussed. And there were no girls on the dusty trail to distract me.
Girls! Teachers dealing with Grade 8 kids know just how powerful human chemistry can be at that age. Big changes happening. In ancient times those changes meant marriage and reproduction. It is fortunate however that males remain ignorant of these changes for a longer time. The girls mature earlier and look upon their male age cohort as totally immature. And even stupid. That fact prevents trouble.
I had a very short romance with Beatrice Cioci in Grade 8. Nice girl with Italian parents who did not seem to want me hanging around when I walked her home a couple of times. The relationship ended in the Runnymede schoolyard when I was asked to join Beatrice and Eileen Wykes and some others , male and female, in a game of spin the bottle. New game to me. Take a milk bottle. Spin it. When it stops the bottle points to two people. And they are supposed to kiss. Kiss! Are you kidding? The game made me very nervous. Beatrice, by this time, recognized I was a bit of a goof anyway. I got out of there fast. End of romance. Back to Zane Grey and Luke Short. Beatrice and I went on to Humberside together but we never spoke again. Strange.
Roger Pugh was a big time leader, at least to me he was. And his Dad must have been a great guy because he never caught us doing the ‘trick flip’…nasty thing. Gilmour Avenue did not go straight to Runnymede so there was a short cut needed. And it was one way shortcut only to be used coming home. Especially good if we could sucker someone to come along. Cut down one mutual drive to a board fence then vault the fence fast. The other side was not a lawn or garden. It was steep drop to the Pugh garage because the next street was about ten feet lower. We got used to the drop but a new kid would not know and end up flat on his bum or back or both. Seemed funny at the time. Then we would hotfoot it down the Pugh lane and head home. Mr. or Mrs. Pugh must have seen us. Their kids, Roger and Yvonne must have seen us. But nary a hostile word. Juvenile? That’s what immature males are good at. Better than spinning bottles for sure.
On that subject, I must bring up the pea shooters. Everything had its season back around 1950. Late fall was pea shooting time. Pea shooters were long hollow tubes into which white beans or wrinkled dry peas could slide freely. And with a blast of air from the mouth, those peas could go some distance with great accuracy. Lots of fun shooting each other. More fun shooting at an unsuspecting target. Needless to say pea shooters were unwelcome by the general public. There was one house on Runnymede Road where there was a woman who did not like us. Obviously for good reason. I can sympathize with her now but back then she was regarded in the same category as the “wicked woman from the west” in the Wizard of Oz. So someone in our gang of boys. Hardly a real gang for we spent more time singing ‘Heart of my Heart’ and other pop songs than causing trouble. But this woman did not like us. So someone peppered her windows with peas and white beans on the way home from school. Might have been Ross Stevenson or the Rankin kids or maybe my brother Eric. I was blameless…as I remember. Selective memory at work here. Anyway, we continued home and were at supper when the knock came on the door. Who could that be? Dad answered the door and the next thing we heard was a loud “Get the hell off our verandah!” And a few other choice expressions. We had been followed home by the Runnymede Road lady. She would have been wiser to have gone to the principal at the school. The guy with the strap. Our dad had certain clear cut values most prominent of which was loyalty to his kids whether they were right or wrong. Mom asked “Who was that at the door Red?” His answer is best not printed here.
Dad never darkened the door of Runnymede Public School parents nights. His job was to defend his kids verbally and, if necesssry physically. Like the time a kid took a shot at Eric with a BB gun as we walked to school. “Yowww!” He yelled. And we ran home. Dad was not at the racetrack that day. He hustled out the door and hammered on the BB shooters and then plowed that father a good one. The poor guy probably did not even know his son was targetting kids from an upstairs window. Maybe my imagination has made this incident more physical than it really was. Maybe it was just verbal which, with Dad, would be strong enough. He could string a lot of cusswords together before getting to a verb.
Runnymede had some pretty good teams. i tried to excel but never seemed to make the grade. Track and Field Day at Christy Pits gave me one chance in the hundred yard dash and some of relays where we tried to pass a piece of wood from one to the other. Noting great on my part but at least I was part of the team. There was room for all of us not just the record holders. I got really nervous for I believed the measure of school success was determined by these inter school competitions.
Baseball was the sport that scared me the most. I played but had a bad handicap being left handed and using a left handed catching glove. That does not work very well. Catch the ball with left hand…grab the ball with the right hand..throw down the glove…quickly pass the ball to the left hand…throw the ball to the first baseman. Time lapse usually guaranteed the runner would be safe. And I would look like a jerk. Did so too often. Banished to left or right field…as far from the action as possible and I fervently wished that no batter would hit the ball my way. Marvelled at the kids who were do natural at the game. I could hit passably but that was my limit. I knew there would be no laurels showered on Runnymede P.S. from my play.
One thing I did have that some lacked and that was compassion. Even here, however, I was no shining knight of the round table. We had tied Edward* (not real name) up in our cardboard fort in Billy Jackson’s backyard. A huge and jerry built affair with three rooms held together by scavenged lumber and dozens of flattened cardboard boxes. In the centre was a huge Manitoba Maple that towered over surroounding houses. wooden slats and wooden perches made the fort seem like a pirate ship. Quite a place. For no particular reason we treated Edward as a captive that day. He was really part of our juvenile gang. Freed him after supper. Next day his mother called us all together. Only person missing was Edward. Red Stevension, Billy and Bobby Rankin, Gary Tushingham, Eric and myelf. We were ready for a lecture. What we heard I will never ever forget. Nor will I ever tie another person up in a fort/pirate ship ever again. “Boys,” said Ed’s mom, “I want to tell you something about Edward that you need to know even if you are just kids. Edward will never change. He will be the same as he is now for the rest of his life. You boys on the other hand will get older. You will become grown men some day. Edward will grow but he will always be the same as he is now. I hope you understand me. I just wanted you to know.” There were tears in her eyes. There were tears in my eyes well. Terrible tears of guilt. Wish we had not tied him up in the fort. And true enough Edward did not change as we changed. By Grade eight I was no longer eating finger paint and was losing myself in great and not so great novels.
There is a sequel to the story. Next day we tore down the fort. The lady next door, Mrs. Booker, gave us a quarter for doing so but we would have wrecked it anyway. The fort had lost its charm and we had learned a sad lesson about the human condition. Edward just drifted away from the rest of us. He began to seem younger than we were with every passing month.
Compassion? Or was it guilt? Are compassion and guilt sometimes linked together.
What is compassion anyway? Is it the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. Or in the lingo of the western novels ‘to wear another’s mocassins.’ Thinking of Edward, alone, tied up in the fort with no supper. Tied up by what he thought were his friends. Guilt!
Which leads me to bullies at Runnymede. All schools have them. Again, it seems to me that being bullied is also a rite of passage. And, again, the scene was Gilmour Avenue. There was a big tough boy who lived near us. He was older by a couple of years and built like a tank. A loner. We tried to stay away from him for he liked to fight. Unfortunately, one day I had no choice. We were walking together. I was super nervous but had to make some semblence of conversation so I said as nonchalantly as possible, “How’s your old car, Mike?” They had a couple of cars, one of which was something from the 1930’s. It was old to me but not to MIke.
“Old? Don’t you go calling my car old,” Perhaps he added “you little prick” but maybe that was just inferred. Then he hauled off and punched me a good one. To Mike it may have seemed a love pat. Maybe that was how it was meant. It hurt but I didn’t cry. Growing up. Boys don’t cry. I stayed away from Mike thereafter. Now, as an adult, I wished I had reached out to him. He was so alone. Immigrant kid from Eastern Europe trying to make his way in new world. Older than the rest of us.
I never told Dad about that incident. Mike’s Dad seemed to know a lot about horses and racetracks…and their conversations were peppered with some salty language. Who knows what would have happened. Dad regarded us as always in need of protection. Comforting but also disconcerting.
MORE TO COME