EPISODE 124 VIOLENCE PART TWO FOOTBALL AND MY LITTLE FINGER
The broken finger did not hurt that much. It just got in the way … affected my typing. Devastated
my ability to take notes in class and to do homework. All else was quite normal.
I could still play football.
Even though scheduled for surgery in mid season. Did I need surgery? I do not remember how that
happened because our family was not dependent on doctors at all. Maybe mom
thought it was necessary. But that operation sure changed my life. Short term change
was for the worst. Long term change was for the best.
The surgery was slated for early October. Part way through the football season in 1956. No need to
tell anyone. I just got on the bus and streetcar and went down to St. Jospeh’s hospital on the appointed
day. Surely such a small operation would not affect my football playing…or my schoolwork.
Things did not go well at the hospital. I was cloistered in a day surgery bed. Then a nurse came in
and began shaving my right arm. “Why are you doing this?” “To make sure the arm is clean.”
“But that’s my right arm, the surgery is for my left hand finger.” “Sorry , extend your left arm.”
I wondered if the nurse was, like me, left handed and confused. No matter i was prepared. Then
given a shot of some kind of local anesthetic and wheeled into the holding bed just outside the
surgery room. A long wait.
Finally I was wheeled into the surgical room. It was a bit intimidating because the room had a gallery
for nurses and doctors…and maybe others…to wach the surgery. I was on my back looking at them
when the first cut was made. IT HURT…REALLY HURT BADLY. I screamed. The doctor turned to
the nurse “When was this boy given the local?” Turned out the anesthetic had worn off so they gave
me another shot of something then proceeded open up my finger and put the bones in place then drive
a long wire down the centre with its end protruding from the finger tip.
There was blood. I know that because some dripped out of the cast as I went back to school
on the street car. Mom and dad were both working. I told them I would be OK on my own.
That was not the case. At school once the antithetic wore there was pain but it was tolerable.
I even went out to football practice after school but did not get into the usual rough and tumble.
I was ready and willing to play by game day and managed to make a good shoestring
tackle stopping the ball carrier. Coach Burford commented….”Good job, Skeoch” and may have
noticed my hand was in a cast. I had not told him. That was my last game for 1956. Playing was just too risky.
I was soon in trouble at school My left hand was in a cast. I could not write…no notes, no homework.
And, worse, I was in Grade 13 and would face departmental examinations in June. I felt just terrible…
like my whole world was collapsing mourned me. The teachers must have noticed because
coaches Burford and Griffiths cornered me in the hall months after the football season ended.
They asked me if football was at fault. The phrased that differently …i.e more carefully.
“At fault for what?” They seemed to know my schoolwork was in free fall. I felt helpless.
By the time my cast was removed and the wire pulled out of my finger I was way behind and
having difficulty with some subjects, particularly Physics. But I did not want to admit it.
In the departmental examinations I felt I did OK in most subjects. Not stellar. But I could write… maybe
well enough to meet the minimum for university acceptance. Lots of blanks in my memory though. Then I had the black out in
the Physics exam. I could not remember one simple term…”S” …
in the mathematics of Physics. So simple. But my mind was blank. Embarrassing, doubly so
because our Physic teacher, Jack Griffiths, was also the senior football coach.
GRADE 13 RESULTS…LETTER OPENED IN AN ABANDONED BUILDING NEAR COCHRANE, NORTHERN ONTARIO
The results were mailed in July. I was working with a survey crew near Cochrane in Northern Ontario at the time. When the letter
arrived I slipped away from our bunkhouse to an abandoned shithouse outside an abandoned school. I remember it so
well. A big double seater…blue or green…solid. The letter scared me even before I opened it. I knew the word
would be bad but had a faint hope I might make the bare minimum of 75% average.
Let me cut to the quick. My average was 72 or 73%…not good enough. I think I failed Physics. Must have failed
because of the black out. My marks were too low for admission to the University of Toronto. Mom and dad would
not be a problem. They were the kind of parents that support their kids through thick and thin. All the same I
faced a dilemma. Was my school career over? Or should I go back to Humberside for another year? A failure.
I thought about that the whole summer. What to do? Alone and humiliated. I think I dropped the letter in the
When September came I decided to bite the bullet and go back to Humberside. I knew it would be embarrassing.
Mom and dad did not interfere but I knew mom thought returning to school was a good idea. Worst part
of returning was that my brother was in Grade 12. I would be his loser brother coming back for another year
in Grade 13. That first day back was excruciating.
At least it felt so until I found my best friend Russ Vanstone was in the same position. And many many others
whose names I will not say. It took guts to go back. And it would take years for me to admit my failure. I now
know that failure is part of our human condition. We all fail sooner or later. Many of us fail many times.
It is not the failure that is so important. It is how a person reacts to failure that is important. Having Russ
with me was a great support. We ‘soldiered’ on through life together.
I blamed my little finger for the failure. Now that is a laugh. The finger may have been part of the problem
but there were others problems. Like not doing homework. Our house was very small…one bedroom.
Shared by our dad when he worked nights. Mom on the middle room couch always. Dad on the front
room couch when he was on the day shift at Dunlop Tire Corporation. No place to study or do homework.
Now That’s a laugh. Blaming our house for my failure.
Deep down I knew the failure was my fault. And I was determined to make the best of things. That year
I actually got to enjoy homework…reading was always a favourite occupation with me. An escape.
I asked Mr. Cruickshank whether I could write the history final by my own studying. The same with English
and Mrs. Charlesworth. They gave me permission. I did not know that teachers success was measured
by the marks their students got in the annual department of education common exams. They could have refused. They said OK.
They also did not make me feel like a failure. They wanted me to succeed. Nice teachers who I admired
even if Mrs. Charlesworth had lifted me off the ground by my ear for skipping her detention one day.
(She was the girls volleyball coach. I decided to spend the detention in the girls gym rather than
her English room. Easier on the eyes if you get my meaning. Seemed OK to me. Not to her.)
FOOTBALL…THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT
DO not get the idea I was some kind of nerdy suck that year. I became a good student. I know that..,proud
of it actually. But there was a sharp learning curve. Like my being Suspended! A couple of the tougher guys in the
school asked me to join them by skipping school for an afternoon just ‘spot’ one of he enemy
teams…maybe it was Riverdale. I thought this was a good idea to help the coach.The three of us went to their game and noted their top players…the plays
they used most of the time. The quarterback…etc. etc. Really sort of stupid was my first thought as we
sat there among the Riverdale fans.
“ Would Vic —— and Ted —— and Alan Skeoch report to the VP right now” Ted had taken me to shoot
pool at a rough billiard hall in the Junction in the past. W.E. Taylor, our principal actually came to the pool
hall and escorted us back to school. A good man. He cared about us all. But this seemed different.
Mr. Herman Couke was our Vice Principal. ..in charge of discipline.
“I would like to see each of you separately.”
Vic then Ted went in and came out ‘suspended’ from school for a week.
Then came my turn. I was not a bad kid. Not really tough. Never in big trouble at school. So I
was terrified when I met Mr. Couke.
“Now, Alan, I have to treat everyone equally….”
What great words. That means I was being suspended as well as Vic and Ted. I shook Mr. Couke’s hand.
“Thank you, Mr. Couke…thank you.” What a relief.
I had been treated
the same as Vic and Ted. Suspended. Wonderful. To be treated otherwise would have had awful implications.
As with most negative experiences in my life, I took a good look. “Why the hell did I do that.
Why did I skip school to spot Riverdale. That was poor sportsmanship for sure.” And that would
never happen again. Any spare time I had that year would be spent reading. With the exception of
one of Streak McLelland’s sex talks….like the talk on safes. Most of the time I read. Self selected books,,,
all of Charles Dickens and Hardy…then Steinbeck and even some socialist philosophy. And the biography
of Dwight Eisenhauer. Books of all kinds…not guided titles. I had a journal
that broke the days into half hours. Each half hour I had a reading target. If I finished early then I got
a five minute reward to see what girls were in the reading room as well.
That broken little finger had turned into a good luck charm. My life became a total joy that year.
Shakespeare said it best.
What a great year I had. Very hard to believe really. And undeserved I knew deep down
there were other athletes far better than me. But I could hit hard….block and tackle. Never would I touch
the football but we on the line did provide a route for our halfbacks and fullbacks to score. I was even elected co-captain
of the senior team…and President of the Boys Athletic Association. Honours that I could not believe.
Then one morning both coach Burford and Griffitsh called me aside with wonderful news.
“Alan, you have been chosen for both All Star City teams…the Toronto Star and the Toronto Telegram.”
I was speechless.
“And Alan, we hope you realize this is as much a tribute to our team as an honour for you.”
“I know that. I also know there are far better athletes on our team than me. Rich Mermer is
the best athlete I have ever seen. He should be the winner.”
“He is a halfback…beaten out by other halfbacks. We know he is a fine person.”
“There is more to this honour. There is a special All Star team dinner at Hart House
and you can take three guests.”
“My mom and dad for two…and would you come as my third guest Coach Burford.?”
He loved the chance to go. My girlfriend at the time was a little miffed by the fact
she was not asked. The love affair was going nowhere but it took a little time for both
of us to admit that. This failure to invite her was just one nail in that coffin.
My final year at Humberside was terrific. This picture was published in the Toronto Star after a victory. Grant Weber was our
Fullback, a glory position but he got the shit beaten out of him often. I was a left guard, a protector of the fullback. That final
year for reasons unknown to me I was the All star Left Guard recognized by both the Toronto Star and the Toronto Telegram,
daily newspapers. Of course there were other All Stars. The best athlete I have ever seen in my life, Rick Mermer, went
unrecognized as did my fellow lineman Russ Vanstone whose forearm smash hit like cement.
My victory was mystifying but wonderful.
These honours all sound so terribly vain. And undeserved really. How do I speak of
them without sounding like a pompous ass? That takes me back to the broken finger.
Without that broken finger none of this would have happened. I just want to make the
point that sometimes when everything is going wrong and you feel lower than a snake
in a rut life may not be bleak forever. Failure is a learning experience. Savour it.
other honours followed. The Wildman Trophy and then I was even chosen as
Head Boy by my new Grade 13 classmates. It was a cornucopia of good things.
Vanity? Probably too much of that. Not bad for a kid that could not tell the difference
between right and left.
My marks were good on the 1957-1958 departmental exams. Middle of the pack
kind of good. Not the top of the mountain kind of good. I was accepted at the University of Toronto,
Victoria College campus. Great. Just great. But why am I going there?
Why am I university bound when our parents were distinctly working class…mom
a sweatshop worker in the needle trade and Dad a truck tire builder. Both
proud and skilled workers. But neither ever darkened a university hallway.
I had no idea. No idea why I was going to university. So I was careful when
choosing courses. I did not want to fail again even if failure was a part
of the learning curve. I loved the stories of history…the people. Not the
judgmental part nor the oneupmanship competition. I loved English as
well and for the same reason…the human stories. And I really loved philosophy
as presented by Dr. Marcus Long at University College. It took some time for me
to realize I was a humanist.
VICTORIA COLLEGE FOOTBALL TEAM…MULLOCK CUP CHAMPIONS (not that it matters anymore).
Maybe I chose university so I could still play football. Today football is as dead
as a Dodo bird at Victoria College. Not even lamented sadly. That is one of
the tragedies of modern university education. No intra mural football teams.
The field where we practised is now some kind of fenced off flower garden.
Football has become A ‘wasteland’ if I might twist T.S. Eliot’s words.
“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?”
Our football practice field is now a dead place. When we were there in 1961 it was
alive with the sound of men and boys making guttural noises and laughing at
themselves. Now it is ’stony rubbish’.
Let me cut to the biggest event in my life that happened on that field when the field
was alive. My simple answer to people asking why I went to university. Truth. I was
looking for a wife. Pure and simple goal that made sense to me. That is a lifetime decision.
And it happened on the Victoria College football field. God’s truth.
We were doing our warm up. Running in a great oblong circuit around the field. Talking
and laughing. Then I looked up at a fourth floor window of Margaret Addison Hall which
was the Women’s residence…really the girls’ residence. An attractive young person was
watching us. I knew her from a Soph Frosh dance the day before. so I yelled
“What are you doing tonight?”
Then continued my circuit with the boys. Next time round, she yelled
“Meet you at seven in the student car.”
So simple. So amusing. So short a comment for a lifetime decision.
Why was she looking out that window?
“I was looking for Jimmy Randall from North Bay. His girlfriend wanted
me to say hello.” Looking for Jimmy. Not even looking for me. Such
happens when the dice are rolled. Marjorie soon got to know all the
boys on the team. She even became a cheerleader for the SPS football
team…the Engineers…the opposition.
That’s where Bob Cwirenko was the outside corner backer. Neither of us knew that
until in one game I threw a good cross body and took him out. What did he say”
Maybe, “goddamn Victoria bastard.” No. Bob said and I remember this clearly.
“Nice block Alan.” We had both been members of the Humberside teams. We did
not know each other well but both had the same feelings about university…nervous.
Why were we there? His family had trekked across Eastern Europe to escape the
horrors of post World War II as had many Humbersiders. We still meet for luncheons
to this day.
Why tell you this? Because being a member of those teams was a lifelong
experience. A bonding that even extended into marriage. Russ Vanstone and I
even married roommates…had children…had careers…met often and still do.
Recently Marjorie insisted I attend a Victoria College meeting with the Principal last
year. The place seemed dead to me because our field was ‘stony rubbish’ so
I asked the Principal how the College manages to hold boys who seem lost.’
He admitted that there were problems. There would be fewer problems if they
kept the sports program healthy in my opinion. Another problem, however, is
the lofty academic standards. Lots of kids come with marks in the high 90’s.
I taught high school for 31 years. Not many boys had those grades because
the fires of spring burned too brightly. i.e. They were very interested in girls.
Summed up. There is no longer a football field at Victoria College. There is
a big library but somehow the isolation of a reading cubicle does not cut it
as much with me. Sue I spent a lot of time in those cubicles. But not all the time.
BACK TO FOOTBALL…HAMBURGER MOUTH AND BROKEN FINGER
I was a lowly lineman. I never felt that way however. I felt my job was integral to
team success. On my right was our new centre, Russ Vanstone, whose forearm
smash after snapping the ball was awesome…having experienced the forearm
in practice. “Wow, Russ, where did you get the power>” “When I snapped
the ball my arm was way back…lots of leverage sweeping forward and up.
How did it feel?” “Like a block of cement in motion.”
On my left was a new guy. Big guy. Super friendly guy who just
loved the game. His name is Edward Jackman, ex student from Upper Canada
College. His family were great donors to various charities. Well healed folk in
other words. I did not know this until I really got to know Ed. We became
good friends through many changes in our lives. Still are. The son of a tire
Bilder and sweatshop worker…side by side with the son a leader in finance whose
brother was destined to become Lt. Gov. of Ontario.
One football game comes to mind. We were playing against a very tough
St. Michael’s College team. We were also tough so do not get the idea we
On the line there is an expectation that both offensive and defensive lineman
will launch themselves against each other. Force meets force. We are only
about a yard (metre) apart so the crash of bodies is not fatal. Rare injuries.
Often good natured body against body. Not a romance though.
Well on this particular day my opposing lineman did not charge. He took a
step back and waited for my charge whereupon he lifted his knee forcefully
into my mouth. Bloody bastard. Back in the huddle I said to Ed Jackman,
“That son of a bitch opposite me is not charging. Instead he is kneeing
me in my mouth. Turning my mouth into hamburger.” That’s too many
words. There was No time for such
a long comment. “Bastard is kneeing me in my mouth.” There, that’s
Ed Jackman, Marjorie and Alan Skeoch
One odd twist of fate occurred when Ed became a Dominican priest. That allows
me to kid him a lot about that game against St. Mike’s so long ago.
Eddie’s response was immediate. “Step back when the play is going to
the right. I’ll deal with him.” Remember we are the left side linemen…ball
carrier would be going to the right. So the next chance I stepped back
and Eddie gave the guy a good solid kick in the balls. Message was
received. My mouth was spared.
As a result Eddie and I became friends for life. And he is now a Dominican
priest. I rib him often about that kick he let loose.
Would I have met Eddie had I not broken my little finger? Possibly I suppose.
FOOTBALL WAS NOT ALL VIOLENCE
Yes, football is a violent sport. Football players do get hurt in the games and sometimes their
injuries are life changing. But we also had one hell of a lot of fun. And we met each other in a non academic
forum. No need for one upmanship posturing. We socialized. Some of us got in the atrocious habit
of going to the King Cole Room in the ritzy Park Plaza hotel for a few draughts of beer. That was after i gave up
trying to stop the the team from drinking. I must have been a real prick in my temperance role. Thankfully
a female friend from Humberside broke that. “Alan, you need to take a drink…join in…you need to change.”
I have always taken criticism seriously. Not offended. Camilla was right. So I joined the boys for draughts
in the KCR and the Embassy and other watering holes. Eric and I could not afford many draughts…maybe two
or three. the glasses at the time were small.
We were really silly…immature. Lucky to be able to be that way. Like the time we came out of
the KCR and found Hugh folded neatly into the big Municipal garbage can on the corner of
Bloor and University Avenues. Today he would not fit in the slot…but back then the tub was big
enough to sleep in and there was no danger of a compacter crushing a sleeper.
THE BOB APPLE BATTLE (now just a fading memory if that)
Violence can sometimes seem funny. I know some readers will take offence at this story. Sorry
about that. At Victoria back then in 1961 and 1962 there was the annual Bob Apple Battle where
freshman were expected to capture a Vic Beany that was nailed to the top of a big pole. Sophomores
defended the pole throwing heaps of garbage…apples, maybe, more likely softer fruit like tomatoes.
Our sophomore leader was a bit on the pompous side. Maybe he put down football playing as juvenile.
Not sure why Russ and I disliked him. Maybe no reason. Maybe it was just the devil getting into our
To get ammunition for the Bob Apple Battle both sides gathered garbage. Messy stuff. We decided…maybe
it was more my fault but Russ was a partner in the crime even if he denies it today…no matter. I decided
to get slop from a restaurant on Yonge Street. Slop? The stuff skimmed off dirty plates or the excess slime
of food preparation…really bad stuff. So bad that it had to be carried in a pail.
No one really knew us in the rough and tumble of the battle. So we posed as freshman. Then pinned
down our target. One doing the pinning, the other doing the pouring. Isn’t that about the worst behaviour
imaginable. Disgusting. Somehow the slop sliding off our targets face drained away his pomposity.
Or so we rationalized.
Now is it possible to get this email to the President of Victoria College, maybe he or she can explain
to me why the Bob Apple Battle was cancelled. There must be a good reason for the cancellation of
such a mild initiation to university. Surely it was not because the battle was silly.
But I cannot understand why it was cancelled. (sarcasm) Was it cancelled in 1962 because of our misbehaviour. I hope not.
How rude and insensitive can you get Skeoch? I know. I know.
At least one of the Victoria College professors, Prof Grant, came to watch the proceedings with
interest. Not sure about the rest of them.
A few years later, around 1966 or 1967, the whole football extra curricular sport was also cancelled.
Sad. Really Sad.
The grads of my generation were very very lucky. Employers wanted us.. We had choices. We were those
lucky kids born in 1938, 1939, 1940…luckiest generation of human beings ever born. I am serious. That
comment is not just a figment of my imagination.
Our lives ran on parallel courses. We married room mates. Russ married Anne Hilliard. I married
Marjorie Hughes. And we both…all four of us I mean…got into the baby production business as
you will see below..
Enough said…more than enough said…way too much said.