LONDON, ONTARIO - One of the sweetest aspects of childhood is how common it is that your best friend is that chap of similar age who just happens to live on your block and is the first person you bump into on that day around your third birthday when you get it into your head that you’d like to ditch Mom for a couple of hours and go exploring in the outer world. For me that friend was Beezer and on weekdays for the next two years from September to June when my older brothers were all at school (and I didn’t have to accompany Mom on some errand that usually involved bus rides downtown) he became my constant companion.
His people lived across the road on Connington Street, maybe ten houses to the south and we’d get our adventures underway by about nine o’clock when one of us would run over to the other’s house just as they were finishing breakfast and call out their name. I guess we thought that only adults were qualified to knock or ring doorbells. “Oh Dave,” or “Oh Steve,” we’d call in a singsong voice just outside our best friend’s kitchen door. The last spoons of cereal would be quickly lapped up, a melmac dish would get chucked in the sink and you’d grab a jacket and push out the door to join your friend in a glorious morning of mucking about.
Amidst the dozens of games we’d concoct and get up to, an early one I particularly remember was turning the handlebars around on our tricycles so that its round chrome curve swiveled against our stomachs like a horizontal steering wheel as we pedaled along. This simple adjustment was all it took to totally convert our trikes into buses and we would zip up and down the sidewalk, stopping at designated fire hydrants and utility poles and going “tissshhhh” in emulation of air brakes as we picked up our mostly imaginary riders.
Beezer’s family was a little richer than us and their house was a little swisher which meant that on those very rare inclement days when playing outside just wasn’t a possibility, we’d end up at our place where my mother’s tolerance for noise and chaos and occasional breakage was the envy of the neighborhood. So long as there wasn’t a blizzard or some truly torrential rain, we usually headed down to the wooded hollow at the bottom of our backyard where Traction Creek (originating at the city's highest point behind Upper Queen Street and mostly channeled through underground pipes even by the 1950s) emerged from a culvert underneath Baseline Road at the southern boundary of our block and poured back underground through a half upright drain near the northern end. If a committee of three and four year-old boys had been given the assignment of designing the Garden of Eden, that ribbon of wild land at the bottom of our garden would've been what they came up with.
Racing homemade and store-bought ships on days when the creek was high, contriving lookout points in the trees and tamping down lairs in the underbrush, picking bouquets of wildflowers that would wilt before we got them home to our moms, twisting a handful of hanging willow fronds into an emulation of a Tarzan vine and swinging out over the creek . . . we learned a lot of useful life skills down there. If you wanted to stay on your mother's good side, you didn’t tell her about squeezing in through the barred grate of that northern drain near Chester Street where the creek cascaded into a dark and acoustically resonant tunnel that flowed on toward the centre of town where it emptied into the Thames just behind Labatt's Brewery. Even on the driest of days, if it was just me and Beez, we didn't go in for any spelunking down there or even let go of the bars on that grate - you needed the security and extra muscle of older brothers to explore any further than that - but would just stand inside on the uppermost ledge and yodel into the depths.
Though Beezer was about five months older than me, he had to tuck down most afternoons for an hour’s nap. This was a form of torture that my mother never went in for; shrewdly understanding that four wiped out boys who’ve been running all day will be less disputatious about going to bed; thus netting her an earlier start to the evening’s long break when the down time could really be savored. But in spite of those sissy-boy naps, Beezer was the alpha male of our duo. I may have been taller but being that little bit older, he was physically stronger. And being that much richer, he had neater stuff, like a push-pedal, one-seater car. Frankly you couldn’t do as much with that car as a trike - no travelling off-road over bumpy terrain or inviting friends to hop on the back for a lift - but I madly coveted it nonetheless just because it looked so freaking cool.
He also had some really choice articles of cowboy gear like a beautifully sculpted and generously brimmed hat with a strap that went under his chin and a leather belt with a tooled design of horseshoes and a big silver buckle. But most stunning of all were his cowboy gloves that went halfway up to his elbows and had fringes running along the outside from just above the wrist and decorative metal stars stamped onto the tops. Naturally enough, we believed those gloves imbued the wearer with extra strength and courage and upheld this article of faith for a couple of weeks until that disillusioning day when we were rolling some rocks on the creek's lower bank and came upon a writhing nest of snakes which sent Beezer screaming for higher ground even faster than me. “What gives?” I thought. “He’s got the gloves on. He should be grabbing those snakes and pitching them into the creek.”
I’m not sure if Beezer ever wore those gloves again. They certainly lost their lustre and the legend of their magic properties. And it wasn't too long after that disenchantment that I lost touch with Beezer altogether when our family moved into a cramped apartment on Maitland Street in North London where I bedded down each night on a roll-away cot in the dining room. This rather desperate decampment onto foreign turf was strictly temporary and became necessary when the sale of our Connington Street house went through five months before the completion of our new home’s construction on Mountsfield Drive. As our new home was going to be right across the street from the school my three brothers were already attending, they stayed on at Mountsfield and commuted by city bus for the fall term of 1957 while I alone walked up to the end of our block to begin my scholastic career in kindergarten at Lord Roberts.
By the beginning of the winter term of 1958, we were in our new home and all four Goodden boys were attending the same public school which was only ninety-eight steps away from our front door. But here's what my five year-old brain didn't grasp about our new situation (and if anybody told me, I didn't understand). Our five months' residence on Maitland Street had so immured me to the idea of unbridgeable exile, I had no conception that it now was over; that I had returned to the blessed province of my youth and lived only four zig-zagging blocks away from our old home . . . and the Garden of Eden with a creek running through it . . . and Beezer.
Indeed, I didn't even know that Beezer was enrolled in kindergarten at the very same school as me because he went in the morning and I went in the afternoon. By some insane scheme of enrollment organization, it was deemed that taller kids should go in the afternoon. I believe the thinking was that kids did most of their growing in the night and the self-stretching strain of it all made it advisable to let the lankier ones sleep in.
Out for a car ride with Dad that May, I was flipping through the maps and hats that collected on that dusty, sun-bleached shelf underneath the back window and found a yellowed, unsealed envelope with a card inside that had a picture of balloons on it. I couldn't read the writing but wanted some pennies that were taped to the inside of the card and passed it over to Dad, asking, "What's this?"
"Good Lord," he said with a look of appalled negligence and told me it was an invitation to Beezer's birthday party. "I got this months ago from Beezer's dad and forgot all about it ." Dad was a meat salesman for Canada Packers. Beezer's dad was a salesman for Hayhoe Coffee and Tea. Sometimes they'd run into each other when out making calls and slip into a cafe for a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup and a chinwag. I was thunderstruck to learn that Beezer and I still lived in the same world and that it might be possible to see him again. Dad worked the phone that night and arranged for Beezer to come over to our house that Saturday afternoon.
Dad probably told me what he'd done but all I remember to this day is the ecstatic shock that rolled up my spine when Beezer re-entered my life after ten months' absence. I was playing with some kids I didn't know very well in a large sandbox two yards away when I heard his sing-song voice calling out my name. And here's the other astonishing thing about that scarcely believable moment when I turned and saw him walking towards me: even from all that distance, Beezer's face shone.
And so we got another six years of best friendship out of each other. And kids' years are like dogs' years compared to adults; each one of them's worth at least seven. We each picked a scab one holy summer afternoon and ceremoniously rubbed our re-distressed wounds together, marking us out as blood brothers for life, we thought. Yes, we each started to take on other friends as well (and discovered that our new friends wouldn't necessarily get along with our old ones) but we remained each other's primary mainstay, the easiest guy to hang out with, until about the age of twelve; riding our bicycles everywhere, living at Thames Pool all summer long; attending every Tarzan and Hercules movie that the Victoria Theatre ever screened; saving up a fortune each year to blow on our grand September excursion to the Western Fair.
When our family moved again (about another four blocks, this time to the suburb of Lockwood Park) I started to fall in with a faster set and Beezer was developing more interest in sports than I could ever muster and we started to drift apart. We both attended the same high school but as I had become an insufferable hippie and Beezer was becoming a bit of a jock, we had precious little to do with one another there. In our post high school years we thankfully found a way to shed that too self-conscious, clique-ish exclusivity which is the bane of adolescent life.
We reconnected in a big way at our 1986 high school reunion and have sought each other out at any similar sort of confabs in the years since then. An abiding fondness has remained in place even when ten or fifteen years transpire between our encounters. I think we both recognize in an easygoing sort of way that - right up there with parents and siblings - we hold an a priori importance for each other that no one else will ever be eligible to displace. And on at least four occasions - like our dads before us - we've gotten together just on our own for coffee or lunch and brought ourselves up to date with the developments in our lives and, of course, reminisced at length about our earliest days in Arcadia.
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THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
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