During the summers, when I was a middle school child, I and my friends often rode our bikes from my home town, Gimli, Manitoba, three miles north to Midas (meadow). The banks there were high above the lake and a creek ran through the property. At the bottom of the banks there was sand beach backed by a fringe of willow.
We left our bikes at the edge of the meadow and slid down the steep slope. Some of us were newspaper delivery boys and had large black metal baskets on the front of our bikes. We could fit a lot into those carriers. We packed wieners, buns, relish, mustard, marshmallows, soft drinks and matches with us. If we’d been able to wheedle our mothers into baking, we might also have oatmeal cookies, kleiner or puffed wheat cake. The problem with the puffed wheat cake is that in the heat, it went soggy and the syrup ran.
We dug a hole in the sand, then ringed it with flat pieces limestone. Driftwood lay in ragged windrows from when high water and winter ice had pushed it into the willows. We all had pocket knives. To be without a pocket knife was to go unprepared into the world. Not for protection but for cutting willows on which to roast wieners, for whittling bits of wood into a vague semblance of birds, to cut string and rope, to open PepsiCola bottles for all good pocket knives had a bottle opener. Sometimes one of us would bring 7Up or Orange Crush in its brown ribbed bottle and, once, someone brought a soda that was florescent red and claimed, on the lable, that it would taste like cherries.
First, we went swimming. The bottom of the lake was rippled sand, sand so soft it might have been dust. By mid-summer the water was warm as a bath. There were no algae blooms, no pollution. If, as we thrashed about in the lake, we got a mouthful of water, it was of no importance.
On very hot days, we’d hunt up saplings that had washed ashore, use them to create a lean-to. We usually brought a couple of old blankets, one to throw over the top of the lean-to and the other, to spread on the sand so we could lie on it in the shade.
To roast the wieners, we threaded them on willow stems, held them over the fire. Too close and the wieners bubbled and turned crisp and black. Too far away and they took forever to cook. It required patience, sitting cross-legged, turning the stick slowly so all sides of the wiener cooked. Buns, if you were patient and not too hungry, could be toasted over the fire.
There was, inevitably, sand in the hot dog. You could hear it crunch as you chewed. You washed it down with a slug of soft drink.
There were different kinds of marshmallow eaters. There were the I’ll-eat-them-raw kind. These were guys who enjoyed the slightly spongy sweetness of a raw marshmallow. There were the I’m-really-careful-and get-the-marshmallow-a-light-golden-brown. These were the perfectionistas, the guys who got a hundred percent in math, who wore their hair parted at the side. They often sucked the perfectly crisp outside off, then put the remaining centre back over the fire. There were the I-plunge-the- marshmallows-into-the-flames-until-it-catches-fire, then I wave it madly until the fire goes out and the marshmallow is black and crisp. These kids usually just popped the whole thing into their mouth at once, crisp charcoal marshmallow on the outside, gooey inside, mashed together. These were the same kids who would eat a worm on a dare.
We were sexist. We never let girls come with us. We hadn’t yet figured out why we would want girls to come with us. Spin the bottle hadn’t started yet. No heavy breathing in a dark room with throbbing anticipation that you were going to kiss. From what I read in the paper, nowadays, spin the bottle would be you go into a dark room and have sex. There were no sex education classes giving us ideas and instructions on how to carry them out. When sex did rear its head, it was all figure it out yourself with no self-help manual.
Instead, we swam, we ate, we talked, we dreamed, we napped, we got sunburns, for the next few days we peeled. As supper time approached, our bottomless stomachs told us it was time to leave. We gathered up our bikes and pedalled back home.
No adults watching over us. No one checking to see that we were safe. No fear that someone would kidnap us and we’d never be found again. We lived in an orderly world where everyone knew everyone else and, if someone didn’t know us, he knew our parents or grandparents.
We bathed in a lake free of pollution and we went for wiener roasts in a society mostly free of danger. TV hadn’t appeared. We weren’t bombarded daily with graphic pictures of the ills of the world. Those ills were restricted to brief news reports on the radio after supper. The world was large, distances great, travel slow. Society, even though World War II had uprooted people and moved masses them across Canada and the world, was still stable. You knew nearly everyone in town by name.
My father, when he wasn’t commercial fishing, was a barber. He charged twenty-five cents for a haircut. After he cut a child’s hair, he gave the child a nickel so he could get an ice cream cone. Norman Rockwell may have romanticized society but there were times and places when he could have painted us and it would have been reality.