Hazy Days of Summer
afternoon summer afternoon; to me these have always been
the two most beautiful words in the English language.
eight-year-old boy sitting on the well worn limb of the willow tree
overlooking the weed-infested shoreline of the Detroit River has
never heard of Henry James, but no matter he knows about
Long lazy days.
A group of boys renting the broad, flat, light-grey rowboats from
Beards Boathouse (15 cents per hour; each boy contributing
one hard-earned nickel).
Fishing for perch and rock bass with home-made rods off the dock
of the Walkerville and Detroit Ferry Company.
Watching the older boys diving into the foaming water off the stern
of the tubby ferry, the Wayne, as she butts her way toward midstream
on her way to her Detroit dock at the foot of Jos. Campeau.
Helping Dennis Harris melt tar (probably stolen from the streets
of Old Walkerville) in an iron pot over a fire at the rivers
edge. To be used to seal the cracks of his on-the-beach-constructed
sail boat (which will sink on launching and never see the light
of day again).
Playing in secret hideouts up the dirt embankment on the underside
of the Peabody Bridge (where pubescent boys draw crude pictures
of the female anatomy and misspell the four-letter words accompanying
Hanging around the Walkerville Taxi stand at the Devonshire end
of the bridge, waiting for some rich American to disembark from
the ferry and order a cab to ever-so-distant places. Sometimes as
far as Ouellette and Wyandotte in Windsor. What if it does cost
a quarter? Expensive is nothing to these wealthy Yankees.
A visit to the Walkerville Police Station in the coach house at
Willistead where Chief Constable James P. Smith lectures sternly
on the dangers of entering a life of crime.
Other boys are duly impressed. But not enough to erase from their
young minds the thrill of the ride to the station in the spanking
new police cruiser. How else would any of them enjoy such a luxurious
experience in the summer of 32?
Long, lazy days.
The afternoon freight from
Toronto comes huffing and clanging under the bridge. Steam snorting
and wheels clacking over the rail joints. The engine glides to a
stop at the entrance to the freight yards at the foot of Marentette
and a half mile of box cars squeals to a stop behind it.
From dozens of these empty-cars (like ants scurrying from a kicked
ant hill) hobos, the hallmark of the 1930s, come shambling along
the cinders and down to the riverbank.
Looking for jobs that dont exist. Living in the age before
the welfare state. Single men from 16 to 60, drifting from coast
to coast, fighting off starvation. Last week they were in Halifax.
Three weeks ago, in Vancouver. Yesterday, in Toronto.
I heard there were jobs in Windsor. A fellow I
met in Brantford said Ford is hiring. Is it true? Grasping
Each hobo staggers (from the heat and fatigue; he cannot afford
a drink) down to the riverbank. Here a ritual is performed. He reaches
into his dusty suit-coat pocket (the suit-coat, a relic of the prosperous
1920s when he had a job; it does not match his trousers).
From his pocket he draws forth a piece of brown paper in which he
has carefully wrapped an old bar of soap, a comb and a razor. His
ablutions performed, he goes forth in search of a meal.
The approach: are there any jobs he can do in exchange for something
to eat? Sometimes the boy in the tree takes him to the back fence
of a nearby boarding house where he wheedles a sandwich from his
mother for the hungry man out back.
These tramps are not the rambunctios, even ferocious types sometimes
portrayed in fiction. Mostly they are sad-faced young men with dirty
collars and haunting eyes. And little hope. Waiting, lethargically,
pathetically, for the prosperity Franklin Delano Roosevelt has promised
them is just around the corner.
boy ...takes him to the back fence of a nearby
boarding house and passes him a sandwich wheedled
from his mother for the hungry man out back.
But for the boy in the tree they are just another part of the summer
scenery. As natural as the ragweed that grows along the tracks.
They are part of his world. He looks forward to the day when he
will be old enough to join them on their exciting travels.
How can he know a new cataclysm will follow in 1939, putting an
end to the Depression? When the hobos will be no more.
Who thinks of such things? Its summertime. And he slips out
of his tree seat and bounces home singing:
Halleluiah, Im a bum
Halleluiah, bum again
Halleluiah, give us a hand-out
To revive us again.