Chapter Three of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s

Conkers was a popular game for kids to play in the 1950s, and author Keith Black remembers three or four big and beautiful chestnut trees on Queen Street East near Wineva Avenue. Inset photo, the 1954 Parkhurst hockey card for Ted Kennedy.

Below is Chapter Three of former Beach resident Keith Black’s book BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s.

Every Tuesday over the next few months, Beach Metro News 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 kandjomemee@gmail.com

To see our earlier story on Black, and to read Chapter One, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/14/former-residents-book-looks-back-on-growing-up-in-the-beach-in-the-fifties/

To read Chapter Two, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/21/chapter-two-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s

CHAPTER THREE: ‘One steamboat, two steamboats…’

By KEITH BLACK

One steamboat, two steamboats, three steamboats, four steamboats…Why on earth were we counting steamboats? There is a simple explanation. With these words the arrival of autumn was announced and the baseball gloves of summer were put away and a new season of football commenced.

Perhaps that explanation is insufficient. In touch football, when the ball was snapped to the quarterback, a member of the defensive team would start counting steamboats while the members of the offensive squad ran forward in an attempt to get clear to receive a pass. When ten steamboats had been counted, the defence was allowed to cross the scrimmage line to try to tag the quarterback who could attempt to gain yardage by running or he could still try to connect with a pass. I did say it was simple.

But why steamboats? I have absolutely no idea.

Actually, Canadian quarterbacks were under considerably more pressure to find an open receiver than their American counterparts; kids in the U.S. shouted out one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc…

Since it takes longer to say Mississippi than it does to say steamboat, American playmakers got a significant respite. Maybe we young Canadian footballers were more efficient.

Now I want to talk about the ball. An official football is awfully big. A ten or eleven year old boy has great difficulty grasping a full-sized ball firmly, let alone throwing a perfect spiral pass. Even when a spiral was achieved, the best we could expect was a throw of ten or twelve yards.

Sometime during the Fifties, someone who was either very smart or who had exceptionally small hands produced a miniature football which looked exactly like the real thing but was only about five or six inches long with a three-and-a-half or four-inch diameter. We could throw it a mile and it was easy to catch. This ball made the game much more enjoyable for us and we spent many joyous hours playing it.

Before I continue discussing autumnal pastimes, I should mention a perplexing reality of childhood games and sports. Young boys did not look at calendars. Without really knowing it, we instinctively determined when one season was ending and a new one beginning. After many weeks of playing baseball at lunchtime, recess, after school and on weekends, all of a sudden it would stop. Collectively, on an unannounced day, we would all show up wherever without baseball gloves or balls. Instead we would have our miniature footballs. Not a baseball glove was to be seen anywhere in the schoolyard. It was uncanny. We just knew that it was time to change. We just knew.

It was about 60 years later in a 2015 study entitled ”GABA-Mediated Repulsive Coupling Between Circadian Clock Neurons in the SCN Encodes Seasonal Time” which concluded that the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN) is the Master Circadian Clock which keeps track of the seasons.  Who knew? We did. We knew it all along. You can look it up.

On the north side of Queen Street just east of Wineva Avenue there were three or four beautiful big chestnut trees which, like most chestnut trees in this province, have since been blighted and died. The seeds, which, with their prickly coverings were about the size of limes, began to fall in mid September. We would gleefully pick these up and, removing the thorny covering, find the wonderful hard seeds, chestnuts in extraordinarily rich shades of brown and burnt umber. They were beautiful. Naturally, we wanted to destroy them.

We hammered a nail through them, removed the nail and then threaded a piece of string through the hole and knotted it. We were then ready for battle. While one player allowed his chestnut to dangle freely, his opponent would swing his so that it made contact with the stationary one. If one chestnut shattered, its owner was the loser. If neither broke the procedure would be reversed and the war continued until a chestnut was destroyed. Some chestnuts seemed to be harder than others and remained undisputed champions for a long period. They became the target of every chestnut-owning kid in the neighbourhood. Sadly, the trees have died and so has the game of Conkers.

Trees also provided us with another autumn pastime but, thankfully, in this case, the trees have survived. There are massive oak trees throughout the Beach and, in the fall, they gave us an abundant harvest of their seeds: acorns. Remove the cap from an acorn and what have you got? A missile. A large number of these (collectively known as ammunition) could be kept in pockets and they could be thrown great distances with considerable force. I remember some epic acorn fights.  Many of these ended in either tears or anger or both.

Wasn’t it dangerous? When you consider how hard acorns are and the fact that an acorn is just slightly smaller than an eyeball, you might come to an affirmative conclusion. But once again, safety was our number one concern. There were rules. First, aiming at someone’s head was not allowed. And secondly, and most importantly, it was ruled that the tiny little sharp pointy tip of the acorn had to be broken off before it was thrown. Do you feel better now? In any event, the acorn season did not last long and we were soon heading into winter which brought a whole new set of activities.

Road hockey wasn’t invented; it just is. And it has been for about 120 years. The only difference between “then” and the Fifties is that back “then” no one yelled “CAR!”.

The only difference between the Fifties and now is that we played wherever there was a paved surface with minimal traffic and now there are signs “BALL AND HOCKEY PLAYING PROHIBITED”. Really? What about the Canadian Bill of Rights of 1960 which, under clause 1 (e) protects the “freedom of assembly and association”.  And this is where we find THE major flaw in the Bill of Rights which states that there shall be no discrimination “by reason of race, national origin, colour, religion or sex”. What about age? Since 1960, kids have been given a bad deal!

We played wherever we wanted and as often as we pleased; and it was often. All it took was four or more boys, a quiet stretch of street without any parked cars, two pairs of boots for goalposts, and an old worn-out tennis ball and each of us instantly became our favourite player of that day.  For obvious reasons, most of us were fervent fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I say most because I remember two people who were not; one friend whose idol was Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings and my brother, who, for no discernible reason whatsoever was a fan of the Chicago Blackhawks.

The only piece of equipment we had was a hockey stick: no pads, no hockey gloves, no helmets and no goalie pads or facemasks. And I don’t remember any serious injuries other than those few times when we took a hard shot to the groin and sat out for a brief time waiting for the nausea to pass. And when we were playing on school property within school hours we didn’t even have hockey sticks. In those days we were forbidden to bring weapons to school, weapons being deemed back then to be hockey sticks and slingshots. So, during lunch and recess we played foot hockey.

When we weren’t playing hockey, we were talking about hockey or admiring each other’s collection of hockey cards or, better yet, trading cards; making deals.

“ I’ll give you Fernie Flamon and Danny Lewicki for your Ted Kennedy.” “No way!  I want Tod Sloan too!” And on it went. Of course, some of us were better traders than others and some of the older kids took advantage of the younger ones brutally. I don’t remember what he gave me in return, but I never forgave my brother for relieving me of my Harry Lumley. I just know that I got ripped off.

Hockey cards were not the only collectibles at the time. Shirriff Foods, the makers of Good Morning Marmalade and a host of other products, distributed small metal coins with the images of National Hockey League players on one side. Although we liked these medallions, they were never as popular as the cards. But we did like Shirriff’s marmalade and ice cream toppings!

The snows of winter brought another form of battle, these being of course, snowball fights. They were best when the snow was fresh and the temperature was around the freezing mark. The wet snow allowed for perfectly formed (and hard) balls while at the same time let us build terrific snow forts. If there was no one around for us to throw snowballs at, streetcars were a favourite prey; we loved the challenge of a moving target.

Older, packed down snow and colder temperatures were ideal for tobogganing and sledding at Glen Manor Park which was shaped like a three-sided bowl providing options. The west side hills were fairly steep while those on the east were steeper and slightly higher. The north side gave us a much more gentle but lengthy slope. Lightning fast and quick, or long and slow. Your choice.  But, either way, what goes down must go up! While going back to the top of the north slope was a long trudge, getting back up to the top of the other hills offered a different challenge. So often we would get about three-quarters of the way up and then slip and slide back to the bottom with our sleds or toboggans following and invariably hitting us. Also, as we were inching our way back up to the top, there were those who were on their way down. Collisions were expected and indeed did happen and were actually a lot of fun. Plus, when you think about objects proceeding down the sides of a three-sided bowl, you realize that everything was trying to essentially meet at the middle which was often the case. Today, Glen Manor Park is well treed so I don’t imagine there is a lot of sledding or tobogganing going on.

The extreme south end of the park offered another winter pastime: skating. The City regularly flooded one section and used the shoveled snow to mark the perimeter and also a dividing line between two equal parts, one for skating and the other for hockey. These two rinks along with a few park benches around the edges were all that was needed for many hours of fun. Skaters could be seen there from first light in the morning until late evenings when the area was dimly lit by streetlights.

I can remember many times when I left home right after supper and headed to the park to go tobogganing or sledding and did not return home until three hours later. I guess the “home when the lights come on” rule was suspended sometimes during winter when it was dark by five. I arrived home covered with snow and almost frozen solid and tired.  As I started to thaw out, parts of my body would ache terribly. I was never so happy to get into bed. Between flannelette sheets. Heaven!


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