Instead of going towards the steps, the mattress described a lovely curve and headed for the side wall of the cellar.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, March 24, 1945.

“Hey,” came Jimmy Frise’s voice over the telephone, “can you come down here right away?”

“What’s up?” I replied anxiously.

“I’m flooded out,” cried Jim. “Come and lend…”

“Aw,” I said, “who isn’t flooded out? I’ve been in my cellar ever since before supper.”

“But look,” pleaded Jim, “it’s nearly four feet deep in the cellar and it’s still rising.”

“Four feet?” I scoffed. “Look: your house is on ground 10 feet higher than mine. And all I had was about three inches….”

“I see!” shouted Jim sarcastically. “So you’re telling me how much water I’ve got in my cellar? I tell you, it’s four feet deep. The only way I found out about it was when the furnace went out and I went down to investigate….”

“Clear the drains,” I counselled. “Stuff has clogged those little drain holes with the gratings in your cellar floor. Just clear those….”

“How the dickens,” bellowed Jim, “can I clear them when there is four feet of ice water, dirty ice water, in my cellar? Okay. Never mind. I just thought I’d ask you, as an old friend and neighbor….”

“Okay, okay,” I replied. “I’ll be right down.”

And I hung up. But when I got to the clothes closet for my coat, I suddenly thought: If he can’t reach the drains, what can I do? What does he want me down there for?

So I called him back.

“Look,” I said. “If I do come down, what can I do? If you can’t reach them….”

“Okay, okay,” groaned Jimmie distractedly. “I just thought. When water is engulfing your house, you look to your neighbors for help. Never mind.”

“Hold on,” I cried, as he seemed to be about to hang up. “Can I bring anything down that would help? Have you got long clothes props or anything?”

“No good,” said Jim. “The drain hole is around past the furnace. A straight pole won’t reach. How about your canoe? Hey! How about your canoe?”

“It wouldn’t go down your crooked cellar stairs,” I reminded him.

“In the cellar window!” cried Jim.

“Too high in the nose,” I said. “But say. I’ve got a better idea. I’ve got one of those floating mattresses the kids use in the summer. They use it in swimming.”

“Perfect!” shouted Jim.

“I’ll get it from the attic,” I assured him, “and be down in two minutes.”

I found the pneumatic mattress neatly folded in the attic, under a few suitcases and bicycles and things. It is one of those pre- war gadgets we used to buy the kids to try to make more enjoyable their two months of riotous luxury at the summer cottage. Remember? The stores used to be full of all sorts of rubber monsters, huge rubber ducks, blow up crocodiles, mud turtles. Every weekend, you used to go in on Fridays and buy them something to take up to adorn their vacation…. Ah, those were the days.

I hustled down street to Jim’s, where all the cellar lights were on and a sense of emergency seemed to pervade the house.

Jim and Rusty, his water spaniel, met me and ushered me immediately below decks.

“Why don’t you get Rusty to swim in and fix things?” I inquired.

But Rusty always hated water. He stood back on the steps and stared in terror at the unfamiliar element engulfing his lovely dry home.

Toronto’s Original Site

“This thing,” I said, unfolding the pneumatic mattress, “takes quite a while to blow up. You haven’t a bicycle pump or car pump?

“The bicycle pump is somewhere under that mess,” said Jim, “and I haven’t even seen a car pump for 10 years.”

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll blow till I’m run down. Then you can take it on.”

And while I blew, Jim sat on the dry step and soliloquized on the view.

“It’s a queer thing,” he mused. “We haven’t got nature beaten yet. And we’ve been trying for hundreds of centuries. All the past winter, nature has been pouring snow on Toronto, messing up our whole system of civilization, toppling our civic government, making mayors and aldermen and lifelong directors of civic departments look like a lot of bewildered old maids when their roof springs a leak.”

“Pffffff,” said the mattress.

“Nature,” I said, “is inconquerable.”

“Two thousand, three hundred years ago,” pursued Jimmie, chin in hand, “the Romans had worked out a system of perfect water supply, drainage, sewage disposal. Two thousand, three hundred years ago! Yet here we are, after all those centuries, made to look like a lot of cave men.”

“Pffffff,” said the mattress.

“Even cave men,” said I, “had enough sense to choose their caves well up a hillside, out of danger of flooding. But we’re so smart, we build our cities in swamps and gullies. Did you ever know that the original site of the city of Toronto was an alder swamp?”

“Why the dickens,” demanded Jimmie, gazing at the brown bog that filled his cellar, “did they ever choose such a site?”

“Well,” I explained, feeling the mattress which, so far, only showed a very slight chubbiness even if you pinched it into the corners, “pioneers were looking for mill sites even before they selected the land they wanted to clear for a cabin or a farm. A mill is the beginning of every community. A grist mill and a saw mill. No man was going to start clearing the bush until he knew how far he was going to have to carry a bag of grain on his back or drag his logs with his oxen.”

“Mmmmm,” said Jim. “I feel like a pioneer tonight.”

“All along the great lakes,” I pointed out, “you’ll see a town or a village at every river mouth. At every stream mouth, you might say. And some of the streams have dried up to trickles half a century back.”

“But Toronto’s site,” reminded Jim, “was an alder swamp.”

“A swamp,” I elucidated, “between two river mouths. Toronto never intended to grow out over the swamp. At the mouth of one of the two rivers, the Humber, there was a French trader’s fort that had been there 100 years before we British ever arrived. A little village started to grow around it, because there was a good mill up the Humber half a mile. But the British soldiers decided the Humber mouth was a poor place for the town, because the Yanks could get at us too easily from the lake. The other river, the Don, emptied into a fine big bay, with an island sheltering it. The Yanks couldn’t attack us from the lake if we built our village on the bay’s shore. They’d have to come in through the narrow channel or else land from their boats up the shore. And either way, we could lick the Yanks from dry land.”

“Here, let me blow that thing up,” interrupted Jim anxiously.

“Pifffffff,” said the mattress when I handed it to him.

“How do you know all this stuff about Toronto?” demanded Jim, as he bit on the nozzle of the mattress.

“My great-grandfather was born in York, as Toronto was then called,” I stated proudly, “the very day in April, 1813, that the Yanks captured and burned it.”

“Pffffffff!” said the mattress, startled.

“I never knew they burned Toronto!” cried Jim.

“Oh, yes, I informed him. “They burned us. They came by boat and shot our Humber fort to pieces and then marched over to the Don and sacked the village, burned it, and blew it up with gunpowder.”

“Why, the Huns!” expostulated Jimmie.

“They spared my great-grandfather,” I pointed out. “He was born that day, among the smoke and explosions.”

“It’s a pity,” said Jim, gazing at his furnace and at the various things floating around in the mess, “we didn’t take the hint and leave this site for a better one. Did you go right ahead and rebuild Toronto?”

“Mills,” I reminded him. “Don’t forget mills. Toronto was very fortunately situated. It had two rivers, with Humber Mills and Don Mills on them. Competition. You know Toronto! So we rebuilt the village and started slowly spreading out over the swamp. The rich and fashionable pioneers, the English remittance men, the owners of whiskey distilleries, slaughter houses and pill factories, soon moved out of the swamp up to the sandy heights back of the tag alders. And lo, Toronto was born.”

“Pffffff,” said the mattress.

“Low, did you say?” inquired Jim bitterly.

So he blew. And I blew. And little by little, we felt the comfortable flesh of air filling the rubber skin of the mattress.

“Try her now,” said Jim, sliding the mattress out on the dark and greasy flood.

“Try her yourself!” I retorted, stepping smartly back one step higher.

“Aw,” said Jim, “I weigh 40 pounds more than you.”

“Whose cellar is it?” I inquired.

“Besides, I can’t swim,” pleaded Jim.

“Haw,” I snorted, “it’s only four feet deep.”

“But I hate water,” muttered Jim, setting one foot lightly on the floating mattress.

“Well, you certainly don’t catch me,” I informed him, “floating around in that stuff!”

“Well, what did you bring it down for,” demanded Jim indignantly, “if you don’t trust it!”

“Listen,” I said earnestly. “You asked me to come and help you in an emergency. I brought this mattress. That’s the first constructive thing that has been done so far, in this emergency. And I did it. I suggest you do the rest.”

Jim leaned out and pushed with his hand on the middle of the mattress. It buckled slightly.

“Not enough air,” he said, and hauled her up for some more wind.

So we blew more, by turns, until the mattress took on that plump and shiny appearance that meant it was becoming a practical vessel fit for launching.

Jim tried it again. Standing on the step, holding my arm, he set one foot cautiously in the middle. It did not buckle. He let a little more weight on. The mattress sank very slightly.

“Easy, now,” I said. “Eeeeeaasy.”

But when he tried to lower his weight, the mattress started to slide out into mid-ocean.

Jim leaped back wildly with a cry. The mattress floated away.

“Aw, here!” I cried angrily. “What the Sam Hill1. If you’re not the descendant of pioneers, at least you’re the descendant of cave men. Here, hand me something to pull that thing back here.”

Afloat on the Deep

Jim handed me the long furnace poker which he had earlier salvaged by means of clothes prop.

“Watch this,” I said firmly.

I pulled the mattress back in with the poker.

I drew it securely against the first exposed step. I stepped cautiously but steadily into the middle of it, as you step into a canoe. It sank slightly in the middle under my weight but the edges, due to the even distribution of my weight, lifted evenly.

There I was, afloat.

“See?” I announced. “The heir of a long line of swamp dwellers knows how to do these things. Where’s the drain hole located?”

“It’s right over there, around the furnace,” said Jimmie, eagerly. “I think.”

“You think?” I exclaimed, paddling with the poker. “Don’t you know where the drain hole is? In your own cellars?”

“Well, to tell you the truth,” said Jim, “I’ve lived in so many houses, I can’t just recall off-hand if the one I am thinking of is in this cellar or in the last one we had….”

“Well, this is a fine time,” I expostulated, “to not know where your drain hole is! Am I supposed to go paddling all over, groping….”

“Pffffffff,” said the mattress.

“Hey!” said I.

But the mattress went right on saying pfffffffff, and I drove the poker to the bottom to give the craft a shove for shore and safety.

But the hook on the poker caught on something down below, and instead of a shove, it turned into a pull, which drew the mattress and me, over to the wall farthest from the steps and right under the window where the biggest part of the flood was coming in.

“Wait. I’ll get a rope,” shouted Jim, vanishing up the steps.

“PFFFFFFFFF,” said the mattress, really getting its wind up.

I disentangled the poker from whatever it was stuck on down below, braced it against the cellar wall, aimed my shove for the cellar steps and hove.

But the mattress was so rapidly losing its shape, and it had sunk so deep in the middle under my weight, with all four corners sticking up so sharply, my aim was bad. And instead of going towards the steps, it described a lovely curve and headed for the side wall of the cellar.

“Pfffffff,” said the mattress less vigorously.

“Jim–MIE” I roared.

I reached over the side and felt for the bottom with my poker.

The air in the mattress quite suddenly decided to move to the rear.

Only by the greatest agility did I avoid going into that icy muck head first. I went in middle, rear, first, but got my feet promptly on the cellar floor.

At which minute, Jim appeared on the cellar stairs with a piece of clothes line.

“Aw,” he said, with deep sympathy.

I just glared.

“Well,” sighed Jim cheerily, “seeing you’re in anyway, how about feeling around with your feet and seeing if you can find the drain hole?”

“That,” I said icily, “is exactly what I expected you to say.”

But as a true descendant of generations of swamp dwellers. I realized I should face up to the job. So feeling carefully with my feet, stepping over all kinds of things – it was an outboard motor that I had hooked the poker in — I felt and scraped with my feel using the poker for a staff. A lot of Jim’s property was down there. Bicycles, fishing tackle boxes, several framed pictures standing against the wall, a tool bench, all complete.

And finally, away across the cellar, at the opposite end from the furnace, I found the drain hole, clogged with hunting coats, ashes, ski boots, and sundry goods.

And feeling somewhat like a pioneer of the day the Yanks burned us, I went up to the kitchen and changed into some of Jim’s clothes.

And went home via the back lanes.

Microfilm image

Editor’s Note:

  1. “What the Sam Hill” is an American English slang phrase, a euphemism for “the devil” or “hell” personified (as in, “What in the Sam Hill is that?”). ↩︎