By ALAN SHACKLETON
A Baby Boomer, Keith Black grew up a child of the Beach.
Now 73, he looks back on those days of the 1950s when he was a young boy living in the neighbourhood and learning about life in his book BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s.
Black, who now lives in Omemee, Ontario which is east of Lindsay, said he was inspired to write the book about what life was like for a kid back then after driving past a group of children playing in a field.
“I thought it was odd to see because you just don’t see kids out playing unsupervised anymore, and that got me thinking back to what is was like when I grew up,” he told Beach Metro News recently.
Things were a lot different for kids back in the Fifties, especially in the summer when school was out and they were too young to be going to jobs, compared to how they are today.
“I’d be out in the morning, home for lunch, then home for dinner and out again until the streetlights came on,” remembered Black. “Everybody was like that and our mothers had no idea where we were all day.”
Born in 1947 at Toronto East General Hospital, Black lived on the southwest corner of Queen Street East and Maclean Avenue until 1962.
He attended Williamson Road Public School and then Malvern Collegiate.
In the introduction to BOOM, Black writes about the impact of the Baby Boom and what life was like in a neighbourhood full of young families and children.
“Much of what I recount in this volume centres on places or events in the Beach but I hope that readers not familiar with the neighbourhood will bear with me; much of what I recall about the ’50s is applicable to neighbourhoods throughout Toronto and, even the country. If you remember mello rolls and Murray Westgate, it doesn’t really matter where you lived,” he wrote.
Black is hoping readers will enjoy the book as it takes them on a journey down memory lane.
“I hope people will remember these things and lots of commonalities…It’s not all Beach-centric. There’s stuff about radio and TV and stores that used to be in the neighbourhood but are gone now,” he said.
Black is still in the process of getting the book published. Once there is more information on that, it will be shared with Beach Metro News readers.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Below is Chapter One of BOOM. Every Tuesday over the next few months, we will post up another chapter of the book on our website at https://www.beachmetro.com/ for readers to enjoy. For more information on the book, contact Black at email@example.com
BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s
CHAPTER ONE: ‘Mrs. Chote is getting a new fridge’
By KEITH BLACK
“Mrs. Chote is getting a new fridge!” “Mrs. Chote is getting a new fridge!” This announcement circulated very quickly among the kids of our immediate neighbourhood and we began to congregate on Avion Avenue.
The fact that Mrs. Chote was getting a new refrigerator wasn’t such a big deal; a lot of people were getting new ones in the Fifties. Although electric refrigerators had been available for years (the first stand alone home unit was built in 1927) their sales had been restricted by the Depression and the War and as a result many continued to make do with ice boxes well into the 1950’s. But the old zinc-lined wooden ice boxes were on their way out. In 1955 a new Westinghouse refrigerator could be bought for about $300.
Did we children really care how food was kept fresh or how Ethel Chote’s milk was kept cold? Not a chance! So why the excitement? The box!
The box presented us with endless possibilities. The box a new refrigerator came in was more like a crate; heavy cardboard strengthened by a spruce frame. Most of them were about 30” square and from 5’ to 6’ long. That box could be a fort, a house, a store, or stood on end it could be a watchtower or a rocket ship. To the girls of the crowd it became a playhouse, a kitchen or a nursery. One of us would run home to surreptitiously borrow a kitchen knife to cut out doors, windows, gunports, or whatever.
It was all good, clean, safe (except for the part about the knife), fun. Until that is, one of us, one day, had a brilliant idea. We would make one of the boxes mobile! We would sit it on top of a wagon and turn it into ….a stagecoach. In no time at all the inspiration was turned into reality. The crate was tied to a wagon with a piece of rope; doors and windows were made and the open base was positioned at the front to allow the wagon to be steered from inside. It was a thing of beauty!
But where to get the motive power? Gravity! We would take it to a hill. But at this point our collective safety awareness miraculously kicked in and it was agreed that it would not be a good idea to roll down Maclean Avenue without brakes past the points where Bonfield Avenue and Selwood Avenue meet Maclean and then have to face the abrupt end of the street at Hubbard Boulevard. We would take it to Glen Manor Park!
Running alongside Glen Manor Drive all the way from Queen Street to Kingston Road there is a lovely greenbelt which actually consists of three separate sections. From Queen up to Pine Crescent is an area which we knew simply as “the ravine”; it is now called Ivan Forrest Gardens after a gentleman who served for many years as the Commissioner of Parks and Recreation for Toronto. From Pine Cres. to the point where Glen Manor East and West converge was known as Glen Manor Park. This is where we often went tobogganing and ice skating in the winters. And from there up to Kingston Road we called it the “big ravine”; it is more formally known as Glen Stewart Park.
So off we went to Glen Manor Park where there were few trees and a variety of slopes and heights to the hills. We picked a hill of medium height with a comfortable slope of about 30 degrees. Three or four of us crowded inside our “stagecoach” while another two sat up on top with their feet dangling over the front. They were the teamsters. And away we went! What could possibly go wrong?
Grassy hills appear to be very smooth. They aren’t! We hadn’t bounced and rattled down more than 6 or 7 feet before the wagon handle was wrenched from the hands of the driver, the wheels slammed to one side, the wagon started to tip and, none of us having had formal Naval Training, the knots on the rope proved woefully inadequate and the refrigerator crate parted company with the wagon. The fellows on top were fortunate; they were thrown clear very early in the mayhem and simply bounced and rolled down the hill. Those of us inside were jerked, jolted and jarred, limbs flying around uncontrollably with parts of our bodies cracking into the parts of the bodies of others until the whole mess came to a merciful stop at the bottom.
Silence. Five or six boys sitting on the grass staring blankly. There were cuts, scratches and welts, a little blood and lots of grass stains. But no broken bones. And I don’t remember any crying. I’m not sure but I don’t think people suffering from shock, cry. In time we got up, and looking around, assessed the situation. The wagon appeared to be undamaged but the refrigerator crate was a mass of cardboard and wood.We left it where it lay and slowly walked home….in silence.
When I got home my mother no doubt asked what I had been doing and I, no doubt, had simply answered “just playing”. A few weeks later another refrigerator box came into our possession. I think it became a fort!
The Beach of the Fifties was idyllic. Especially for children and especially during the summer months. The aforementioned ravines, particularly the “big ravine” were forested wonders full of hills, valleys, an intricate web of footpaths, and a tiny stream perpetually wending its way through them.
There were other parks as well and there were playgrounds, baseball diamonds, school yards and laneways and empty lots. And then, of course, there was the lake. A mile and a half of waterfront, a mile and a half of sand and parkland, and about a mile of wooden boardwalk.
And it was ours to discover. All of it. And we did. By the age of eight or nine I was roaming from home as far west as Woodbine Avenue and as far east as the R. C. Harris Filtration Plant (known to one and all as the waterworks), and as far north as Kingston Road, a radius of three quarters of a mile. In short, the Beach was my territory. But I wasn’t alone. All of my friends did the same.
How many children lived in the area at that time I do not know but it must have been a very large number. Just within a radius of a couple of hundred yards from my apartment, I can recall about 20 kids close to my age and four of them lived in the same building.
Very little of what we did or where we went was planned. Friends and acquaintances would simply materialize and a suggestion would be made and off we would go.
But there were rules. I was expected home for lunch by noon. I was expected home for supper by six. And in the evening, it was expected that no matter where I was, as soon as the street lights came on I was to head home….no diversions or detours allowed. As best as I can recall, everyone I knew had about the same set of rules.
While many things that we did were unplanned, one activity that was an arranged event was an afternoon at the beach, which reminds me of another rule; I was never to go swimming alone. And that brings to mind that other rule; wait for an hour before you go swimming after eating! This was drummed into each and every one of us on a daily basis. We didn’t just hear it from our own mothers but from all of the other mothers. We heard it so often that we truly believed that if we violated this Universal Law of Gastro-Aquatics, certain death would ensue. Of course it was all nonsense. Just think of all of those hours of joy that were stolen from me by a myth.
Yes, we swam in Lake Ontario. A lot. Before going to the beach, one of us would hop on his bike and ride to the Leuty Lifeguard Station, surely one of the most photographed, drawn, painted and sketched buildings in Toronto which was (and still is) located on the shore at the foot of Leuty Ave. Each day the water temperature was displayed there and generally it ranged from 52° to 72°. From 52° to 61° was not good but we still swam (but not for long!). From 62° to 67°, which was the norm, was considered pretty good and we leapt into the water without hesitation (well, some hesitation). From 68° to 72° degrees was downright tropical and we loved it. I don’t recall ever seeing a reading above 72°. I suspect my current minimum water temperature for swimming is about 86°!
The sand was a lot warmer than the water. In fact it was absolutely boiling hot and the trip from our towels to the water’s edge was made at breakneck speed and then we came to a screeching halt. We dipped our toes in and looked at one another. “Last one in is a rotten egg!” And then we ran and dove and when we resurfaced a variety of exclamations of frigidity filled the air. But it was fine when you got used to it. Really?
And what did we do when we got there? Ball tag was a favourite. A worn tennis ball was considered best, the idea of the game being that he who was “it” threw the ball with as much force as possible in an attempt to hit someone else who would then be “it”.
It’s truly amazing how much a wet tennis ball can sting when striking bare skin! It was best to play this game in an area which lessened the possibility of hitting innocent bystanders.
This brings me to another global rule of swimming, a rule which almost all of us broke regularly. “Always swim parallel to the shore or toward shore; never away from the shore.” But we had to break this rule; if we didn’t, how would we ever find….the sandbar. The bottom of Lake Ontario was sandy and just offshore there was, at most times, a large ever-shifting dune of sand which changed position daily. In order to find this dune, it was necessary to walk out from the shore until the water was over our heads and then start swimming for about ten feet, pause and search for the bottom and, failing to find it, swim for another ten feet and continue this process until the bottom was found. Some days the sandbar was sixty or seventy feet from shore and, on some days, it was never found.
I am happy to let you know that this exploratory expedition was conducted by the best swimmers among us; once the sandbar was located it was very easy for the others to follow. Here we were masters of our realm. This was our territory. Here we could hoot and holler, do headstands, have wrestling matches, and throw balls around as much as we wanted. The sandbar was an amazing feature of nature; on some days at the highest point of the submerged dune, the water barely covered our ankles and it could be as much as thirty or forty feet wide. Is it still there? I do not know.
I must tell you that periodically in this volume we will encounter a memory of the Fifties which is not a good one, something which we will call a “Fault of the Fifties” and here comes one now.
Lake Ontario in the 1950s was polluted; grossly so. Untreated and partially treated sewage was pouring into the lake at a tremendous rate and little effort to alleviate the problem was taken until the end of the decade. We who swam in the lake experienced a variety of ailments including boils, sties, cold sores, rashes and stomach issues. Although a major determined effort to save the lake has been ongoing ever since, it appears that the battle is not being won; the huge growth in population and industry bordering the lake has negated many of the efforts. And now, back to our story.
Sometimes when the sun and sand got too hot we would retreat to the shady expanse of parkland running beside the boardwalk to play. It was cool on our bare feet. Run, run, run. Where did we get the energy? But here comes another “Fault of the Fifties”. Absolutely nobody in the Fifties picked up after their dogs. No one. “Watch out for the dog dirt!” was a familiar refrain. And if you didn’t….enough said!
Most of the time, however was spent on the beach. One of our favourite occupations involved a unique feature under the boardwalk at the foot of Scarboro Beach Boulevard. Just to the north of the boardwalk there was a drinking fountain which didn’t need to be turned on and off; it was always emitting a stream of water. The waste water was piped underground and emerged under the boardwalk, ran for quite a few feet out from under the walk and then eventually soaked into the sand.
Children and running water! First, using wet sand we would build a dam. A big dam. And then, downstream from the dam we would build a large sand castle city with an assortment of buildings big and small. And then we would populate it with small stick people. Each of us would get a handful of stones and, when the reservoir was finally full, the shelling began. The incoming would pummel the dam until it was breached and a torrent of water obliterated the city, drowning all of the occupants. It was great fun. Actually, this exercise required engineering skills, architectural design knowledge, municipal planning and hydraulics; in short, imagination. But we didn’t know that. Nor did we care.
When I was younger and went to the beach accompanied by my mother, I can remember her lathering me with an obnoxious oily substance regularly; something to do with the sun. But I can’t recall ever using such a product after I started going to the beach with my friends, unaccompanied by my mother. I don’t remember her telling me to use it nor do I remember any of my friends using it nor do I remember ever hearing the word sunscreen. What I do recall is sitting at home in the evenings peeling off large pieces of dead skin from my arms, legs and chest and my brother and I would take turns peeling off pieces of skin from each other’s backs. It seems kind of gross now that I think of it. We were forever getting sunburned. Recent studies indicate that melanoma rates are falling amongst younger generations but that the disease is rampant among those 55 and older. Maybe we should add this to the list of “Fault of the Fifties”.
Please visit us at https://www.beachmetro.com/ on Tuesday, July 21 to read Chapter Two of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s.