By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, August 25, 1934.
“Look at you,” declared Jimmie Frise. “Almost at the end of the summer and you haven’t a speck of color.”
“I got a good tan in July,” I said.
“It’s all gone now,” stated Jim. “You look as pallid as a garment worker. You have no more color than a sheep. The summer is the time we Canadians should soak up the sun and warmth to carry us over the long and blood-chilling winter.”
“I don’t tan,” I said. “I burn.”
“Everybody tans,” corrected Jim. “Some of us have to take it in easy stages, but we tan. Tan is the sign that you have done your duty, as a good Canadian, in so far as storing up energy against the winter. Like bees storing up honey.”
“I guess I have it inside of me,” I suggested.
“Look at those kids now,” said Jim.
Two girls and two boys were walking along King St. ahead of us. The boys were both shock-headed blonds and the girls were sleek brunettes. The boys were bare-armed, bare-necked and they were tanned a gorgeous orange shade. The girls, their backs and shoulders bared by print dresses, were a deep chocolate.
“There,” cried Jimmie, “are true Canadians. They will survive the winter. They will be full of pep next March when the last fatal blizzards blow.”
“Jimmie,” I accused, “I believe you are a nudist at heart.”
“No, just a semi-nudist,” said Jim. “I’m going down to Sunnyside this afternoon and lie in the sun. I think you should come along.”
“It’s a pretty hot day.”
“This late-season sun doesn’t burn,” assured Jim. “It has lost its sting. The sun is already sloping far down to the south, only we don’t realize it. The weather is still hot because all the heat the sun has been baking and pouring on to the earth this last two months keeps things warm. The earth has been doing what we should do. It has been soaking up the sun. But there is no kick in the sun now.”
“I’ll come,” I said, “but I think I’ll bring a parasol.”
Jimmie looked at me with contempt.
“You don’t deserve to be a Canadian,” he snorted. “You act like a soft Californian or a Jamaican. To be a Canadian you have got to be able to take it, hot or cold.”
“We will have bathing suits?” I inquired.
“Trunks only,” said Jim. “I’m going to wear my trunks and a sweat-shirt in the car until I get there.”
After lunch Jimmie picked me up at the house. He was handsome in bright blue trunks and a yellow sweat-shirt. I wore my striped dressing gown over my regular bathing suit. I beckoned him to come into the side drive to pick me up. With my family, away. I don’t want the neighbors seeing me traipsing around in a striped bath robe. Sunnyside is all right. You are lost in the picture there. But summer bachelors have to use discretion.
Spectacle of Happiness
There were thousands spread along the Sunnyside shore. Bathing, beach bathing, sun bathing, in clots and mobs and family parties, along the bright shore and the blue water, they made a spectacle of color and health and happiness.
“Now,” said Jimmie, coasting along the highway, “it is illegal for us semi-nudists to parade in half a bathing suit, so we just have to hunt along the beach until we see an unfrequented spot. There are hundreds of our fellow sun-worshippers there on the beach, lying flat and out of sight. The only time the police pick you up is when you walk around in full view.”
“It would look fine in the papers,” I said, “in the police court news-‘journalists pinched for nudism.’ I can’t take any chances, Jim. Not with my family. Let’s drive out to the country somewhere and lie down in the middle of a ten-acre field with a hollow in it.”
“The beach is the proper place,” said Jim. “What would the cows think of seeing us in their field? And, anyway, it would be a far worse crime to be semi-nude in the middle of a ten-acre field in the country than semi-nude on a city beach. You don’t understand the rural mind.”
“I’ll only tan my legs and arms,” I said. “And if the cops see you I’ll pretend I don’t know you.”
Jim parked the car. Down even with us on Sunnyside were scattered bushes and long grass and far away to the east and well off toward the west were bright crawling hordes of sun-worshippers, but in front of us were just a few scattered couples.
“This is ideal,” said Jimmie. “You can’t see a person lying down here.”
We walked down the terraces and out across the grassy and sandy approaches. The few scattered couples paid no attention to us. I observed that several of them were exposing gleaming backs to the bright rays of the sun. The water was glassy. It was a gorgeous afternoon.
Jim chose a nice spot, well distant from any others, and we lay down on the sand. Jim skillfully peeled off his yellow sweatshirt and I removed my dressing gown and spread it for a quilt to lie on.
“Ah,” we said. And it was lovely We chatted lazily about this and that. About the ancient peoples who worshipped the sun as the giver of life. About nudism.
“The Germans started this nudism,” said Jimmie. “I think it was symbolical. They went nude to show the world how thoroughly they had been stripped by the war and the pence.”
“No,” I said, “there has always been nudism. It is a deep instinct in us. It harks back to the ages when we all went around nude. But of course in those days we wore a heavy hide of fur all over us. But whenever a race gets weak and worn out nature starts stirring in their blood old hankerings and ancient instincts. The Germans after the war were weak and defeated, and to bring them back to life old Mother Nature waked in them the idea of running about naked. That explains all this stuff about the old gods and Hitler trying to bring back the ancient German virtues. It is like a sick man trying to show how strong and active he is. He sticks out his chest and talks in big deep voice, but he doesn’t fool anybody.”
“Mmmmmm,” said Jimmie. His eyes were closed. The sun was like a flood. I looked discreetly about and as far as the eye could see was just blue water and yellow sand and couples and groups of delightful people minding their own business. And not a cop was in sight anywhere. So I slipped off the shoulder straps of my bathing suit and peeled it politely down to my waist. I lay back.
“Jimmie,” I said.
“Mmmmmm,” said Jimmie.
So I just lay there and drowsed and I fell asleep.
Jimmie waked me.
“Turn over,” said Jim. “You are done on the front. Now for your back.”
I turned over. It felt cool and dry.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“About three-thirty,” thought Jimmie. “Isn’t this swell?”
“It ought to be part of the public health laws of Ontario,” I declared, “to spend so many hours a week taking the sun.”
So we talked on our stomachs for a while about ants and desert sand and grass and so forth. We thought of this good old earth with all the vasty face of it covered by these countless, uncountable grains of sand, of all the blades of grass standing pointing at the sun in a sort of Hitler salute…
“Mmmmmm,” said Jimmie, who has been tired of Hitler for four months.
I lay watching the ants and the small bugs and the fatheaded baby grasshoppers working out their silly destiny at the end of my nose, and the great sun fired its millions of life-giving electrons or whatever it is into my back and down my legs. I could feel them tingling rather tightly.
“Jimmie,” I said quietly, “did you say the August sun had no power?”
“Mmmm,” said Jim, his head on his arms.
So I fell asleep, too, and I dreamed I was Gordon Sinclair snapping my fingers under the noses of tigers in Samarkand and climbing mountains in Asia on the southern slopes, where a sun like a furnace fried my back.
Jimmie woke me.
“Wah-ho,” l yawned. “Ouch!”
“It must be six o’clock,” said Jim.
The sun was far over Hamilton, London and points west.
I started to roll over.
“Jimmie,” I said.
“Now, now,” said he. “I’m still on my face myself. Take it easy.”
My back felt as if it was all bound up with court plaster. It had a cold feeling, As I lay there a kind of shiver ran across.it. I tried to straighten my arms to lift my upper part clear of the sand. But my elbows would not bend.
“Jimmie, my elbows won’t bend!”
“Not as bad as my knees not bending,” said Jim. “Fifft! Woe is me!”
I turned my head, but something was holding the back of my neck. I moved one leg, but the skin on the back of my knee had stiffened and I had a feeling it would not stretch, like skin, but would crack, like glass.
I could see Jim. He was a bright fiery red.
“You look boiled,” I gasped.
“I would sooner look boiled than fried,” said he, looking me over.
I found that my middle section, covered by my bathing suit, still had a joint in it. Somehow, despite terrible lacerating sand and cruel spikey grass, I got turned over and sat up, with arms, legs and neck held carefully rigid.
“Boy,” I yelled, and even my voice felt crackly, “boy, come over here!”
A little boy was passing and came over.
“Please go and get somebody,” I said, “a policeman or a fireman or a doctor. Get somebody and bring them here.”
“We’ll Pay For the Ambulance”
The little boy scampered away down the beach, and in a little while he returned with a great black-armed, black-chested, black-faced life-guard in a red bathing suit and a white hat.
“Well, gents,” said the great mahogany life-guard.
“We’re fried,” I said. “My friend there can’t turn over and I don’t bend anywhere but in the middle.”
“Where’s your car?” asked the life-guard.
“Level with us up there,” groaned Jimmie.
“I’ll carry you up,” said he. “Once you get home you can go to bed and call the doctor.”
I didn’t like the thought of the great walnut hands gripping my skin. I felt as if large slithers of skin would slip off me wherever he touched me.
“Perhaps,” I said, “if you could send for an ambulance with a stretcher it would be better. We’ll pay for the ambulance.”
“Just take it easy,” said the life-guard. walking muscularly and bow-leggedly and very chocolately away.
In a few minutes he came back with two planks and a wheel-barrow.
“Easy,” I begged. Jim and I were not speaking. In fact we hadn’t spoken at all.
The life-guard laid the planks down beside me, rolled us on to the planks, skidded us on to the wheel-barrow and tenderly trundled us across the rolling sands and through the harsh grass and over all the ants and grasshoppers, up the terrace to our car.
“This happens all the time,” he said gently. He lifted Jim in his immense black arms and I noted the contrasts between his color and Jim’s. It was different.
He laid me on the back seat.
“Now,” he said, “you’ve got a good beginning. Let this lay a couple of days and then, if you don’t blister or peel, come on down for another dose. In about two weeks you’ll have a nice color.”
“You’ve very kind,” Jimmie and I whispered.
Jim, like a jointed doll, slowly turned on the switch, stepped on the starter.
“I’m glad,” said Jim, “there aren’t many turns on the road home.”
“Think of to-morrow,” I said hollowly.
“What’s the matter with the police force in Toronto!” demanded Jimmie, angrily, not moving his neck. “Why don’t they get on the job and stop this semi-nude stuff on our beaches!”
“You’re right,” I said.
Editor’s Notes: It was still illegal in 1934 for men to go topless in public. That is why when you see old pictures of people in bathing suits, the men have an undershirt part to it. Also at this point in history, Adolf Hitler had only recently became Chancellor of Germany and started consolidating his power. He would be a prominent news figure, and curiosity, but not likely considered a real threat yet.
Samarkand is a city in southeastern Uzbekistan and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia. The writer Gordon Sinclair was famous during this time for his stories of travels to exotic locations.
Court plaster, is just another name for an adhesive bandage.
These illustrations by Jim accompanied an article by Fred Griffin on female baseball players. One of the unexpected delights of reading pre-World War Two newspapers is the emphasis on amateur sports in the Sports section, often giving near-equal time to women’s sports. From the article:
Consequent upon witnessing the game of baseball described below, the Canadian National Exhibition authorities made arrangements to have the leading teams of the Toronto Major Girls’ League and other crack teams from other parts of Canada play off for the dominion championship in the Coliseum. The games will be played on the evenings of Sept. 1, 3 and 5. Three games will be played each evening. This will give Exhibition visitors an opportunity of witnessing the newest and most interesting sporting development of recent years.
By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, August 22, 1942.
“I’m glad,” stated Jimmie Frise, “that you I are wearing your business clothes.”
“As a matter of fact,” I confessed, “it is getting a little harder all the time to put on my fishing togs. At least, in public.”
“To tell the truth,” said Jim, “the reason I suggested we leave as early as this was to avoid the neighbors seeing me pack up the car with fishing tackle and the outboard engine.”
“I noticed you drove up to my house very quietly,” I informed him, “not tooting your horn as usual, but just rolling up into my side drive.”
“Well, I didn’t know what you might be wearing,” explained Jim. “I’m glad to see you put your fishing clothes and tackle in an ordinary suit-case this time, instead that old canvas bag you generally use.”
“I guess we both feel the same about going fishing,” I submitted, “We are both trying to conceal the fact that we are taking a holiday.”
“Well, for all our brave talk,” said Jim, “this is the first time we’ve gone fishing since the opening of the season, away back in the end of June.”
“And now the summer’s nearly over,” I sighed.
“If people knew how we measure our lives,” said Jim, “not by years, but by days spent in the open, they mightn’t think ill of us.”
“Well, I hope we have some luck,” I stated. “This is our last fishing trip for 1942. With the end of this trip, another year has gone out of our lives.”
“We should kick,” said Jim. “Think of the boys in the army who have been three years away.”
“They’re young,” I reminded him. “They can catch up.”
“If,” said Jimmie.
Be Ashamed of Others
Which brief remark gave us a few minutes of silence as we drove out of the city and got on to the highway leading north. We were both in our regular business clothes. Our bags and fishing rods were carefully stowed out of sight in the car. We might have been mistaken for a couple of gentlemen of the War Prices Board heading out to some neighboring city to investigate a scandal.
“I guess,” said Jimmie, after we had both pondered that wicked little “if” for a while. “I guess when people begin being ashamed of themselves, the war may be said to have arrived in our midst.”
“The best way to avoid being ashamed of ourselves,” I agreed, “is to be ashamed of others. When you are busy being ashamed of the government or your neighbors or relatives, you have no time to think up things to be ashamed of in yourself.”
“And the louder the critics talk about others,” pointed out Jim, “the nearer, probably, they are to realizing their own faults. The awful day dawns sooner or later.”
“Of course, there are some people,” I recollected, “who are physically incapable of being ashamed. They haven’t got the necessary mental organ to feel shame with.”
“That’s called conscience,” said Jim.
“No, it’s different from conscience,” I declared. “Conscience is the moral sense of right and wrong. And right and wrong are like the stock market; you’ve got to have the latest quotations. But I know lots of people who do the most dreadful things without the least sense of shame. To be able to be ashamed, you’ve got to be a little soft. The harder you are, the less shame you can feel.”
“Then where does that let us off?” demanded Jimmie. “Because it certainly isn’t softness we need now. The war demands hardness from us in every possible respect. Hardness in our soldiers and fighters. Hardness in us at home here, to quit our selfish, creeping ways and get into the chain-gang of war. If being ashamed is a sign of softness, then we should not feel ashamed.”
Old Man Wilson’s Oats
And as we rolled up hill and down dale, we noted the farms and how thoroughly gleaned they all looked; all the fields stubbly brown; all the barns full; threshing going on at some; and only here and there a few farmers still toiling in the fields.
“Oats,” said Jim, “and wheat.”
Ahead of us on the side of the gravel road, a man was sitting who as we drew near, rose to his feet with every indication that he intended to hail us; a hitch-hiker, no doubt.
He waved his arm with more authority than most hitch-hikers and signalled us to halt.
He put his head in Jim’s window.
“Good-day, gents,” he said. “Are you from hereabouts?”
“No, we’re from the city,” I replied with dignity. There was something breezy and commanding about this man in his shirt sleeves that caused me to regard him with suspicion.
“H’m,” he said, casting his eye over our baggage. “Are you bent on business? Urgent business?”
“Yes,” I said shortly.
“Could it wait for a few hours?” he inquired. He had a cold, hard eye, with a slight glint in it.
“How do you mean?” demanded Jim a little sharply. “What are you getting at?”
“Well, gents,” said the stranger, “the probabilities are rain tomorrow. The farmer who lives in here is an elderly man. His oats are still in the shock. We have organized this township the past three weeks better than any other township in the province, but we still haven’t got Old Man Wilson’s oats in.”
“So?” I said firmly.
“I’m out here, on the road,” said the stranger, “commandeering anybody I can find to come in and help us get those oats in.”
“I’m afraid,” I stated, “we wouldn’t be much use to you. City men are hardly the type you are seeking.”
“Listen,” said the commando stranger, “anybody can pitch sheaves of oats.”
“I was born and raised on the farm,” said Jimmie proudly, leaning back.
“Hey, then, will you come?” cried the high-jacker, delighted.
“I thought,” I stated loudly, “that you had all these farm commandos worked out within your own township. Why stop people who…”
“We did have it organized,” explained the stranger, giving me a hostile look. “Even the boys in the army from the farms around here came and spent their leaves pitching oats and wheat. All the old men, all the girls and women …”
“Wouldn’t you be better employed,” I inquired pleasantly, “in there pitching sheaves than standing out here on the road?”
“Well, I’m a city man myself,” said the stranger, “and I’ve been up since 4 o’clock this morning. And I could see we would never get the job done before dark if we didn’t have at least eight more forks working…”
“We’re on,” said Jim, grabbing the steering wheel. “Hop on the running board and show us in.”
“No, drive right in,” said the stranger. “I’ve got to get two more…”
Just Opposite Types
So we left him on the road and drove up a few rods to the lane and drove in.
In the distance, we saw four wagons on the fields, some loaded and headed for the barn, some empty or half laden, out in the fields. And at least eight men were working on the wagons or with forks in the fields.
“Old Man Wilson’s got a lot of oats,” I remarked.
“And the country needs them all,” said Jim.
“I don’t think I like our friend out on the road,” I stated, as we drew up at the barn.
“I don’t think he likes you either,” smiled Jim. “You’re just opposite types, that’s all.”
“I think he is one of those busybodies,” I said. “There is at least one in every service club. One on every church board of managers. Always going about, doing good; in loud voice and with a commanding manner.”
“He seemed a good guy to me,” said Jim.
“What do we do?” I demanded grimly, getting out of the car.
“First put on our fishing clothes,” said Jim, “and come on out in the fields and I’ll show you how to pitch oats.”
And while we changed, the stranger arrived in the barnyard on the running board of another car with three men in it.
He greeted us in our fishing clothes with hearty enthusiasm.
“Hah,” he said “you even have the clothes. Gents, my name is Wilson, I’m nephew of the Old Man who owns this farm. These gentlemen were just heading into town to sign some property deeds so they figured that could wait.”
The three newcomers were farmers; the six of us marched in a body into the field where, at the back of the barn, Old Man Wilson was sitting amidst a collection of hay forks, pails of lemonade and other accoutrements of the harvest. Old Man Wilson was an extremely old man in his 80’s by the look of him. He was long past work himself.
“I’ll pay you regular wages,” he quavered at us grinning, as the whole platoon of us swarmed around him. “Regular wages, by jimminy. Now wade in there, boys.”
An empty hay rick came clattering out from the barnyard and Mr. Commando Wilson hailed it and signaled to Jim and me to climb aboard.
“There’ll be two others down there to help you pitch on this one,” he yelled, giving the horses a spank.
And licketty bang we went, thundering and bouncing over the field in the hay rick, headed for the long row of stooked oats.
I tried to yell to Jim that this was quite a fishing trip, but the words came out all jiggled. All the end of a half pitched row, the rick drew up and almost before Jim and I got off, the sheaves were flying from below the as the two farmers already on the job began pitching.
From everything I have seen of farm life, it’s a leisurely profession. You never, for example, see a farmer actually plowing. He is either resting from plowing; just going to plow; just finished plowing; or else is stopped down by the fence talking to somebody passing on the road.
But this was different. This oats pitching. It takes more skill than strength. But it takes strength too. Jim, after a few minutes, was almost as good as the two farmers on the far side of the rick. But after about 10 minutes, one of the farmers from the far side came around and traded places with Jim.
“I’ll just team up with you,” he said to me amiably, “until you get the knack of it.”
Getting the Knack of It
They said, at supper, that I did get the knack of it, more or less, before the day was done. I may have. But I had knacks in my neck, and knacks in my waist, kidneys and tenderloins; knacks in my legs, arms and shoulders. I was one large knack.
The wagon keeps slowly moving ahead, in short starts and stops, as the sheaves are pitched. The more you pitch on, the higher and harder you have to pitch. By the time the rick is loaded, you are heaving those apparently flimsy bundles of straw right over the moon, it seems.
By resting the handle the fork over my hip, I could get a fair heave. But to tell the truth, it was the farmer who came around to my side who really did most of the pitching. He would pretend, as he caught one I fumbled in midair, and pitched aloft for me, that that was a great improvement on the ordinary way of pitching oats. He said I had probably stumbled on a new idea of great importance to agriculture, to have a little man and a big man on one side of the rick so that the little man could pitch it halfway, and the big man catch it and pitch it the rest of the way.
He was a swell guy.
We had the whole field done well before supper time, and Old Man Wilson’s grand-daughter had prepared a magnificent spread for us.
Before we sat down, Old Man Wilson came in and staged a regular ceremony. He had an old purse, and from it he counted out our wages. We each got a dollar thirty.
“These high wages,” said the Old Man, “will be the ruin of farming.”
Mr. Commando Wilson took each of our dollar-thirties off the whole party to send to the boys of the township overseas in cigarettes from “the Oats Pitchers”.
“I came up here,” declared Mr. Commando Wilson, “on a holiday. I came up here to fish. And I got let into more work than I’ve done in 30 years…”
“Where were you intending to fish?” I inquired.
“In the lake here, back of the farm,” said he. “There’s a little lake back here, about 40 rod, that has more big bass, by big bass. I mean five, five and a half…”
Well, of course, it was too late for anything but a few casts before dark. We got two each, Wilson, Jim and I.
But we had the whole of the next day.
Editor’s Notes: Greg and Jim probably feel guilty enjoying themselves during this period of the war, when everything was still uncertain.
A rod, is an old unit of measure, about 5 metres in length.
A hay rick is a wagon, stooked oats means uncut oats, and a stook, is the stack they are in.
By Greg Clark, August 21, 1926
“Be sure,” ran the memorandum, “to wear your old clothes for a rough time will be had by all.”
Chess is only one more of the innumerable games which has a big following in Toronto. And a chess tournament is a memorable sight. The tournament we witnessed was between forty members of the Toronto Chess Club and a single international expert and former world champion. To come to this scene in the Central Y.M.C.A. fresh from a baseball game touched the gamut of sport in one of the liveliest sport cities in the world.
The tables were laid in a hollow square. At each table sat a player with a friend at each elbow with whom he might consult. Around the inner side of the ring of tables walked the international expert, stopping a brief moment at each player to make his move and then on to the next. He played forty games against every other player’s one.
The large Y.M.C.A. room was crowded. Densely packed in back of the players were several hundred people, almost exclusively men, with eyes glued on to the nearest board. A complete silence reigned.
The players were of all ages. There was one old gentleman from Hamilton in his seventies. There was a boy of thirteen! There were university professors and mechanics, men run all to head and men all run to body, florid beef-eating men and pallid, biscuit eating men. But one thing they all had in common from the little boy and the very young men right through to the greyest head of all, and that was a peculiar air of contemplation which was fortified by a common mannerism-head rested on the hand and eyes glued to the board.
There is a stance in chess as there is in golf, tennis, bowling or anything else. Slightly sunk in the chair, each player sits forward enough to rest one elbow on the table, so that he can support his head on his hand.
As the great international expert arrives at his table the chess player does not look up. He wears a conscious, secretive expression, perhaps gently rubbing his head. The great expert looks at the board, glances shrewdly at the player’s downcast face, and then with a sudden, almost contemptuous gesture, makes his move. The player, his face unmoved except rarely by a faint smile that might reveal chagrin, never lifts his eyes from the board, but broods on and on, preparing for his next move.
Chess is a brooding, contemplative game. There appears to be hypnotism in it. The intensity of the attention which is directed down on that board for motionless minutes at time appears to be an effort to read some immense riddle, as if from some slight psychic gesture of the chessmen some hint could be got.
All the faces, after a little while, take on a blank expression as if the spirit had retreated to some far inner secret place. Hours and hours pass. The tournament started at 8 o’clock at night and the last of the games was not played until between 2 and 3 the next morning.
They say there is a peculiar type of mentality required for success in chess. In checkers, which is an infant’s game, there is life, movement, triumph, humor, action. It is a skirmish. Chess is a battle on a grand scale. The players try to read the riddle of enemy’s moves. Time does not enter into it. You could not dream of one of these players saying to another, “Come on, hurry up!” The players, for a fact, do not seem to be aware of each other at all. There is no human element visible. Abstraction settles down like winter night.
You can still see ping-pong played at the Y.M.C.A. There is still a lively trade in croquet sets at the big stores. Badminton – batting feathered shuttlecock across a net – takes up large space at the Armories. Every known form of card game has its devotees in Toronto, down to the queer fan-tan with buttons counted out from under an inverted saucer in the Chinese kitchens on Elizabeth street.
But for the remote extreme from those games of which huge grand stands and uproarious yelling is perhaps the most essential factor you must go to the brooding, contemplative, timeless abstraction of the ancient game of chess.
Editor’s Note: Fan-Tan is a form of a gambling game long played in China. It is a game of pure chance which has similarities to roulette.
Another take on the concept of “summer bachelors”, husbands left working in the city on weekdays while the rest of the family is at the cottage all weekend.
By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, August 11, 1945
“How queer,” said Jimmie Frise, “the city looks in summer.”
“You mean the streets like this?” I suggested, as we drove up our old familiar avenue. “Sort of slumbering.”
“I imagine,” mused Jim, “there isn’t another city in the world that has the percentage of summer absentees Toronto has. I bet there are more people in Toronto who have summer cottages than in any other big city on earth.”
“It’s because our lake country,” I submitted, “begins less than 50 miles from the city limits. Not many big cities have a Muskoka, Haliburton and Georgian Bay within a couple of hours’ drive.”
“Montreal?” queried Jim.
“In Montreal, I pointed out, “you see the summer cottages right in the suburbs. But per population, I don’t think Montreal uses her Laurentians to the extent Toronto uses Muskoka. For one thing, vast hunks of the Laurentians are leased out to comparatively small clubs of wealthy men. Some of the choicest lakes near Montreal are exclusive.”
“Just look at this street!” cried Jim. “Not a soul in sight. Not a dog, not a cat. Every house deserted. Look at the trees, all hanging heavy with summer. Look at the bushes and the flower beds. Untouched by human hands for weeks.”
“Let out a yell,” I suggested, “and see if a single curtain stirs.”
We drove in our side drive in the dusk. We were home for just overnight, to attend to a matter of urgent business. We were going straight back to the cottage in the morning, as soon as we had bought some potatoes.
“I’ll just run around to my place,” suggested Jim, “and see if everything is okay. Then I’ll come back and spend the night here, so we can get organized for the morning.”
“No use disturbing two houses for the one night,” I agreed. “Let’s leave it until morning, and we’ll call at your place in passing.”
“Okay,” concurred Jim, taking off his coat as we entered the house.
It had the close smell of the summer-deserted house. We went about opening windows and doors. We turned on the radio, tried the taps to see if civilization was still functioning. The cool air of early night blew through the house, freshening it.
We strolled out the kitchen door into the garden. In the gloom of final dusk, we could see the lawn grass thick and wild, and the flower borders tangled and strange with hundreds of blooms. The spare and trim and skimpy garden we had last seen in early July was now a regular jungle of lush growth.
“Jim,” I called, “come over and look at these zinnias!”
Nobody ever succeeds in planting zinnias far enough apart. In the optimism of June, when you buy the little boxes with the baby zinnia plants in them, they look so spindly and lonely, one by one, that you can’t resist the human temptation to plant them close together. Plant them as far apart as you should, and they look like little orphans.
But my zinnia bed was, even in the dusk, a riot of light and dark, of great flat heads of blossom standing above a solid mass of foliage.
We strolled along the borders, peering. The verbenas that had been straggly little wisps of plants were now sturdy clusters from which sprays of bloom lifted, to my lighted match, ping, blue, white and henna. In that false spring we had in April, I had taken a walking stick and poked a hundred little holes here and there all over the borders and dropped cheap nasturtium seeds in. Every inch of my garden that had not already been conquered by some mightier breed was solidly squatted upon by swarms of nasturtiums fairly squirting perfume into the night air. In one spot where I had never seen anything much grow before, a large bush loomed in the dark. My lighted match shower it to be a pom pom chrysanthemum.
“What Was That?”
“Why,” I cried delighted, “there used to be a scraggly little mum bush, here. This is a great year for flowers.”
“It ought to be,” said Jim gravely. “The way we have kicked this poor earth around the past six years I guess it just naturally feels like blooming again.”
“Remember how late the spring was?” I recollected. “It will likely be a wonderful year for autumn flowers.”
“Autumn flowers,” said Jim, “are all Toronto people ought to plant. The average home that can afford a reasonable garden can also afford a summer cottage. The family is all away for July and August. Therefore, Toronto should be famous for its autumn flowers. All our gardens should concentrate or things that bloom in September and October.”
“See that stuff there?” I pointed in the dark to large forests of tall shapes. “Sunflowers, golden glow and other bright gaudy yellow things for September.”
“It’s wonderful the way things have thrived, without watering,” admitted Jim.
“I bet the ground under those things is moist right now,” I said, pushing cautiously among the shadowy stalks and feeling down.
At which instant there was a sharp squeak, right under my hand. And some creature, somewhere in size between a chipmunk and a cocker spaniel, thrashed away up the garden amid the plants.
I leaped back with a yell.
“Hey,” I barked, “what the heck was that?”
“It sounded like a groundhog,” said Jim, tip-toeing up the lawn in the direction in which the animal had gone. “Psst! Scat!”
But whatever it was, it lay very doggo.
“Jim,” I exclaimed, “it was huge. It was as big as a collie.”
“Hardly,” said Jim. “It might have been a rat. Or it might have been a small groundhog.”
“It barked,” I declared.
“No, that was you that barked,” said Jim. “It gave a kind of squeak.”
“Or whistle,” I suggested. “I just about put my hand on it. I was going to feel the ground and I could feel the wind from it as it jumped.”
“Maybe it was a groundhog,” surmised Jim, “that has wandered in from the park. The park is only a few blocks away. And in a city as deserted as this, probably the groundhogs and other animals wander at will through the desolate streets.”
“Let’s get a flashlight,” I proposed, “and ferret it out. I don’t want any wild animals loose in this garden. Why, a groundhog could wreck the place in a week.”
We went and searched the house for a flashlight but without luck. All the torches had been taken to the cottage. We stood on the veranda and gazed up and down the street. Not a window showed a light. There was no flashlight to be borrowed from any neighbor. And the drug store closes at 9, bringing Toronto’s night life to an absolute stop.
“I tell you what we will do,” I suggested. “We’ll each get a clothes prop and poke around in the garden. If we give it a scare, maybe it will keep out for the rest of the summer. I’m worried about what it can do to those lovely plants.”
So we went back to the garden and I located the clothesline props in their usual corner by the garage. Armed with 10-foot poles, Jim and I went systematically around the garden, cautiously poking in among the shrubbery, the flower plots and the unseen tangles of sweet william, perennial phlox, ferns and salvia. In the spot where the mysterious marauder had vanished up the border, Jim thought he detected some movement. He gave a loud “boo” and made a menacing jab with his clothes prop. But it was a false alarm, and when he hauled the pole out, I could see something dangling from the crotch at the end. I struck a match. And it was almost an entire verbena plant Jim had torn loose. One of those rare henna-colored ones.
“Well, if you want me to help hunt…” retorted Jim to my groans.
“Let’s Set a Trap”
We went all over the garden without disturbing anything but a few small moths. And we caused a few crickets to cease their singing for a moment or two.
“It may have been a rabbit,” declared Jim.
“Rabbits don’t bark,” I said sharply.
“That thing did not bark,” said Jim firmly. “It squeaked.”
“Or sort of whistled,” I insisted.
“Okay, whistled,” resigned Jim. “But it certainly isn’t here any more.”
I stood in the dark, picturing my beautiful garden all eaten off to stubble by the time we got home from the cottage.
“I’ve got it!” I cried suddenly. “A trap. Let’s set a trap?”
“What kind of a trap?” demanded Jim.
“Down cellar,” I said, “I’ve got an old rat trap that we brought from a house we used to live in. It’s a sort of oversize mouse trap.”
“It wouldn’t hold a groundhog,” said Jim.
“But it would scare the bejeepers out of it,” I asserted.
“You don’t want some poor little animal,” accused Jim, “wandering around with a trap fastened to it. A trap should be used for vermin, like mice or rats. And it should kill instantly.”
“Wouldn’t a rat trap kill a groundhog instantly?” I demanded. After all, that was a pretty small animal…”
“I thought you said it was as big as a collie dog,” said Jim.
“First impressions are always hasty.” I excused, “especially in the dark.”
“Well, I don’t like the idea of setting traps at random,” declared Jim. “If you know what you’re after, okay. But to set a trap for an unknown animal is pretty risky.”
“No animal has any right,” I asserted, “in my flower beds. I have my gate locked, so no dogs can get in. I have spent quite a number of dollars on this garden. After all, this garden is my crop. It is my property. Even if it is only ornamental, it is still my property. And anything that damages it is liable to the consequences.”
“Let’s see the trap,” suggested Jimmie.
Which was only his excuse for getting back into the lighted kitchen and organizing a cup of tea. While the kettle boiled, I went down cellar and hunted up the trap. Incidentally, I explored the cellar and found a number of things that would be handy up at the cottage. A box of assorted nails, mostly second hand; a scythe that I had forgotten buying, 10 years back; a long iron bar that I had never seen before but which would certainly come in handy for something up at the cottage.
When I came clattering up the cellar stairs, Jim exclaimed:
“What in thunder is all this junk?”
And when I explained, he muttered:
“Some people should never go down cellar!”
I showed him the trap. Just an ordinary over-size mouse trap. He washed it under the tap and it came up as good as new.
“What will you bait it with?” he inquired.
“I don’t intend to bait it,” I said. “I’m just going to set it. And leave it concealed in among the likeliest looking things. I’ll wait until daylight to place it on a runway. All these groundhogs and things follow regular runways or paths. We’ll find them sure, in the morning.”
“Then,” reasoned Jim, “whatever it is we heard squeaking in the bushes will have to step, with its tiny foot, on this tiny little trigger…”
“Ah, no,” I explained. “That is where my humanitarian instincts come into play. I’ll set the trap and then rest a long stick over the trigger in such a way that whatever steps on or disturbs the long stick will set off the trap with a loud and terrifying smack. Listen …”
And I set the trap and then tapped it with a table knife. It sure made a terrifying sound. It made us both jump.
“The idea,” I pointed out, “is to scare the creature, not to kill it.”
“Ah, this is better,” agreed Jim, pouring the tea.
After we had finished the tea, we went back into the garden with the trap. From the lattice fence, I peeled off a slender strip about the size and thickness of a school ruler. Down among the mint and chives, my two favorite vegetables, I hid the trap, ready set, with the help of matches. Across the trigger, I tenderly laid the strip of wood.
“Now,” I explained, “whatever comes through the mint bed gets the fright of its life.”
Caught in the Mint
And feeling a lot happier about the autumn flowers, Jim and I went in and luxuriated in the unaccustomed pleasures of a hot shower, getting off us a lot of that scale that encrusts the human body after a few weeks in the pure air and cold water of the Ontario northland.
And with rooms flushed full of cool night air, we went to our beds with all the oohs and aaahs of summer cottagers returning from the hard mattresses of the vacation to the light, soft mattresses of the effete city.
It was bright gleaming morning when we were awakened.
I sat bolt upright.
Jim called from his room:
“What was that!”
“Something woke me!” I called back.
Then it came.
A loud shriek.
From my back garden.
I leaped to the window, and looked out. There, dancing in the flower border, was my next door neighbor, a charming lady, with my rat trap clinging to her finger. After a pause in which she stared in anger and astonishment at the outrage, she let out another shriek.
Down the stairs we raced in our pyjamas. Out the back door.
“My dear, my dear lady,” I gasped as I reached her and seized the trap.
“Did you set that?” she demanded angrily, snatching it away.
“Please, please,” I begged, “let me open it.”
Jim held it, while I pried its hungry snapper up.
The lady nursed her hand and studied me sternly.
“What was the idea,” she inquired, “of a trap in the mint?”
“Why, last night,” I babbled, “last night, when we got home … we heard a groundhog or something… last night, just after we got home … Say, I didn’t know you were home.”
“I got home at midnight,” said my neighbor. “And I didn’t know you were home!”
“But … but…” I fumbled.
“Your wife told me,” said the lady firmly, “to help myself to the mint any time I was down in the summer. I came down just to get some potatoes and some supplies, and I was leaving right away. Suddenly, I thought of the mint. And this …”
She held up her damaged fingers.
“Do you believe me,” I inquired earnestly, “when I tell you we heard some sort of animal in the shrubbery here… Jimmie, did we hear some sort of groundhog?”
Jimmie, in his pyjamas, solemnly bore me out.
“I don’t think,” said my neighbor, “that you deliberately set the trap for me. But it was me you got.”
So we picked her a nice big bouquet of mint, with some chives too, though they’re not at their best this late.
And I took the trap back down cellar and hid it up in the furnace pipes.
And Jim made another pot of tea.
Editor’s Note: “Down cellar” (meaning “in the basement”) is a regional phrase common to old Ontario. My grandparents said it all the time.
An illustration by Jim for a story about what lifeguards do.