on the Detroit River
Gentle Reader, I have not suddenly taken leave of my senses. As
I sit here gazing across the 40 centimetres of snow, still ensconced
truculently on my front lawn, and contemplate the frozen wastes
of the Detroit River and Belle Isle, I am only too well aware that
winter lingers on.
But Wordsworths melodic lines remind me of other days, other
years when boisterous boys along the entire length of the mighty
Detroit walked to its banks and endeavoured to will the ice away.
Tired of winter street games, they used their battered hockey sticks
to poke at the ice clinging to the shore and hurry it on its way
On the coal docks of old Sandwich, on the sloping shores below Bridge
Avenue, on the rotting piers at the foot of Bruce, on the rat-infested
wharves behind the British-American Hotel, on the ramps of the twin
yellow and brown boathouses at the end of Hall Avenue, on the Walkerville
Ferry dock, on Pillette Dock, they stood, hands in slash pockets
of melton cloth jackets, and longed for spring.
Even as you and I do today.
Sniffing the still wintry atmosphere for the first blessing
in the air which the poet promised them in their memorized
lines. They looked across the icy river at the sweetwater fleet
moored along the downtown Detroit waterfront and awaited the first
sign of the vernal equinox.
There, all along Atwater Street, from the Grand Trunk Railway depot
to the foot of Third Boulevard, each bow nosed in behind the stern
of the next vessel upstream, huddled the mighty night boats of yesteryear
and the saucy little pleasure boats of our youth.
Wrapped in canvas, paint peeling in the hiemal blasts, awaiting
the clarion call of spring, were the famous lake boats, so familiar
to boyhood in the thirties.
The Eastern States, Western States, City of Detroit III, City of
Cleveland III, Greater Detroit, Greater Buffalo, the great four-stacker
SeeandBee, South American, North American, Tashmoo, Put-in-Bay.
And, of course, the two Bob-Lo boats, Columbia and Ste. Claire
todays sole survivors of that magnificent fleet whose lights
are fled, whose garlands dead and all but they departed.
There was not a boy on the waterfront who could not reel off for
you the vital statistics of each of those impressive lake steamers
(when launched, what shipyard, length, beam, draught, tonnage, number
of passengers and crew) just as boys of today can recite the facts
of every make and model of automobile.
And the first sign of spring? Not the first robin. Not for the boys
along the Detroit River. Rather it was the day when the work crews
began to ready the Great Lakes fleet for its summer activity.
One day the boys would saunter down to the rivers edge and
see the canvas being peeled from round the decks of the sleeping
giants. Work crews scampering about. Painters slinging hanging scaffolds
over the sides.
The great leviathans were shaking off their winter lethargy and
blinking in the bright March sunshine.
river was coming to life.
And suddenly the boys realized that the last of the ice floes
had disappeared. The long winter was gone.
Time to begin planning the first dip in the numbing spring waters.
(It was a matter of pride to be the first in your neighbourhood
to take the plunge. Heck, aint you been in yet?
Whatre ya waitin for?)
Time to declare unilaterally a school holiday and lie shivering
in the cool river breezes back of the coal piles or along the
cinders of the railway tracks so as to get the first tan in
to start construction of the annual raft (usually built of deliciously
creosote-scented used railway ties donated by the Canadian
Time to go down and ask Mr. Beard when he would be putting his rowboats
in the water. Time to start saving for the rental fee.
Time to start the annual competition to see the first freighter
come up the river. (I saw the Lemoyne come up yesterday.
You did not. Youre full of hog wash! I did
too. So there!)
Time to begin listening in the night for the roar of the rum-runners,
stabbing across the river in their powerful mahogany inboards, toward
Wyandotte or Ecorse, without benefit of lights or law.
But in those early days of March we looked at the river as I do
today, and thought that winter would never end.
Be of good cheer, Gentle Reader; we knew then what we know today:
paraphrasing Shelley, when mad March days come, spring cannot be
And when that first mild day of March finally does arrive, we will
take Wordsworths advice
And bring no book: for this one day
Well give to idleness.
from All My Memories II
The Times Book & Gift Shop, 624