SUNDAY SCHOOL’S OUT
“Fwup?” No, it sounded more like “Plotzz!” or maybe “Bluck!” It’s really difficult to get
the right word that describes the sound. Forget the word, it was the sound we were after.
What’s this all about? I’ll tell you. After Sunday School had ended at 3:45 P.M., and with our Sunday School paper-“The Canadian Boy” sticking out of our back pockets, we’d head for the dump. On a nice sunny fall day two or three of us would head down to the bottom end of town and wander through what the people in Saskatchewan call a “nuisance area.” It was our town dump. But most often we would first go round by the sewage disposal plant. Maybe it would be with Jack Manson or Peter Scargall, but it was usually with Doug Laing. The sewage from the town was collected here, given some casual treatment, and then it flowed merrily into our canal. I didn’t understand how it worked but some of the more substantial sewage was diverted from going directly into the canal and stored in large ponds.
These sludge ponds were the objects of our interest. They were about twenty or thirty feet across; we never knew how deep. We didn’t care to find out. They looked like uncooked chocolate cakes or lumpy brown puddings. There was a lovely thick crust on top and underneath was the nectar. We would locate a couple of four or five pound rocks, about the size of turnips, gingerly approach a sludge pond, then heave a rock upward in an arc so that it would come straight down in the middle. It would break through the crust sending a geyser of beautiful brown fluid up into the air. We loved that sight, but even more than seeing the geyser, it was the sound- the “fwawp” or the “plowtz” or even the “gluque” that we wanted to hear. That kind of entertainment is probably not available to kids today. They have to settle for video games or watching cartoons.
Years later, as I studied Civil Engineering, I learned about the sewage business with its trickling filters, sludge digesters, settling beds and effluent treatment methods. For a few years I earned my living caring about such things. We used the time-worn joke, “It may be sewage to you but it’s bread and butter to me!”
Before Ellery Freeman got the license to pick the dump and it was fenced in, we would wander through, turning over old cardboard to see what was underneath. We might pick up some broken treasure to see if it were worth taking home. There were always interesting plants growing in the dump. Gourds of all shapes and sizes, tomatoes and other edible things poked up through old furniture and car parts. We were discouraged from bringing any edibles home. I suspect that there were things we kicked aside that today’s flea-market vendors would give their eye-teeth for. It was just fun to wander through, checking this and that, the discards of Dundas citizenry.
I mentioned the canal. It’s worthy of a word or two. This Desjardins Canal, I am told, was
built in 1837 as a water link for farmers bringing their grains down from West Flamborough, Bullock’s Corners, Greensville and beyond. Their wares would be loaded into vessels at dockside in the canal basin to be shipped down the three miles of the canal, through the waters of Coote’s Paradise, the Hamilton Bay, and across Lake Ontario to parts beyond. One fine spring day my Dad and local school-teacher, Gordon Manson, rented a row boat on Hamilton Bay. With me along, they rowed right up the canal to Dundas and back. The water wasn’t deep but you still couldn’t see bottom. You didn’t trail your fingers in the water. You just didn’t. The town’s sewage had been pouring into that canal for over a century. The water was so dirty that my father, who had brought his bayonet back from his army service in Siberia during the first World War, felt the canal to be a safer place for it than in our basement. One day I watched him heave it in the murky waters and walk away without looking back.
Although I didn’t see it happen, I heard about it. It was an icy-cold day in winter when a speed-skater from Hamilton decided to take advantage of the fact that the canal had frozen over but there had been little snow. Conditions were ideal for a skate from Hamilton Bay right up the canal to the basin. As he approached Dundas his head was lowered against the strong wind. Alas, poor fellow, he never saw the open spot in the canal where the warm sewage effluent flowing in kept the ice from forming. He went for an unscheduled swim and emerged, as the song says, “covered all over with sweet violets.”
I lost three teeth somewhere in the ice on the canal basin when I was a kid. I took a hockey stick in the mouth. Dr. Hill fixed me up with some teeth on pegs which lasted a number of years. I thought it was macho to lose some teeth playing hockey but every time I go to the dentist for repairs I wish I had missed that particular game of shinny.
One Christmas eve afternoon my Dad and my sisters Margaret and Jean and I took a walk down to the canal. It was mostly frozen over. But Jean, aged about six, found a spot where the ice was thin and fell in. Margaret was closest and jumped in after her ready to practice her life-saving skills. The girls got out, soaking wet and not too clean. We eventually got home. That evening, the town was having a Christmas tree event at the Memorial Square. Mom said that the girls couldn’t come. I went alone. It was during the depression and the town fathers wanted to bring a little cheer to the town kids. They were giving out bags of candy. I said to the fellow giving them out, “We were on the canal this afternoon and my sister fell in, etc. etc. Could I have three bags?” “Fell in the canal eh? That’s a good one. Anyway here’s three.”
Not everyone in our town was connected to the town’s sewage system. Many of our houses had their own septic system with tanks and tile beds nicely hidden under their lawns. You could always know where they were because the grass was greenest there. It took a special kind of service to get your tank emptied. Those who followed this calling had to be prepared for some digging, some scooping and living with the smell. I honour the profession. In Dundas I think it was the Quinlans who provided this service and who
drove what is universally called “The Honey Wagon.” It carried the sewage from septic tanks to those large ponds near the dump.
Before the days of special trucks with large tanks and suction pumps, people had to use a rope and bucket to draw out the sewage and dump it into barrels on the back of Quinlan’s truck. It was tedious work. One afternoon a septic tank having been emptied and the barrels on the truck full, the truck took our corner too fast. Over went the barrels onto the side- walk and the gentle hill that slopes up to the Old Union Cemetery. The driver stopped long enough to retrieve his barrels but he could do nothing about their former contents. He fled. The odour lingered for a few days but after the next rain all was back to normal except the grass was greener in that area for years.
Lest you think that recreation that followed Sunday School was always around garbage, sewage, cess-pools and sludge, sometimes we would go “up the railroad.” We would go up Sydenham Street and cut off over by the Canada Crushed Stone quarry and onto the C.N.R. tracks. There are double tracks through there. In those days travel, especially on passenger trains, was much greater than it is today. Three or four trains would go by within an hour and we would always wave to the engineer and sometimes to passengers. One of our small but expensive pleasures was to put a penny on the track and let a passing train flatten it out. Those were the days when pennies were as big as today’s quarters and King George’s face would take a beating. Hopefully you could find the penny after the train had gone by. Steam was king on the railroads and the wail of the steam whistle was a mournful, enchanting sound. I could hear it clear across the Dundas Valley as I lay in my bed at night, sometimes wondering where that train was going and what awaited the people in the sleeping cars at the end of their journey.
Sometimes we would go east from the Sydenham hill along the tracks and explore around “Hoboes Hideout” which was also called “Bum’s Roost.” This was a shallow cave created by overhanging rock just thirty feet up from the railroad tracks. You could see remains of the little fires that warriors of the road, in these depression days, had lit to warm their beans or other items they had scrounged along the way. They chose this particular spot to rest because the trains going west had to climb a fairly steep grade through there. It was simple for one to run alongside the train and, if the box-car door was open, jump in. There were often men already inside willing to lend a hand up. Those were difficult days for a man who had no job, going from town to town, or perhaps to the grain fields of the prairies, looking for work. It was worse for the wives and children left behind.
Certain trains would stop at the Dundas station and passengers would get off and board a bus to be taken to Hanilton. The Chicago to Montreal Train honoured Dundas with a stop but it did not go into Hamilton. One Christmas night, I think it was in 1937, there was a great collision between a passenger and a freight train near the station. I don’t remember how many were killed but someone said the casualty rate was in the high thirties. There were Christmas presents strewn all over the tracks and the dead and dying among them.
Someone had either thrown the wrong switch or neglected to throw the right one. It was the worst Canadian train wreck in years.
A happier railroad story concerns the occasion when Mamie Finlayson’s Junior and Intermediate choirs from St Paul’s Church, all ninety or so with their chaperones, boarded the east-bound train at the Dundas station. They had put extra cars on. They were on their way to sing in Ottawa’s Dominion Church where the Rev. Lorne Graham, who had been our minister at St. Paul’s, was now the minister. He also arranged to get them invited to sing at Rideau Hall for the Governor-General. I think it was Lord Alexander of Tunis at the time. As one of the choir, my girl, Dorla Mountain, sang a solo for him. (By the way, she also sang for Governor-General Georges Vanier when we were living in Sudbury after she had become my wife.)
The C.N.R. ran above the town on the north side, but there was another railroad. The Toronto, .Hamilton and Buffalo, (T. H. and B.) ran a spur line right into Dundas. It came up Dundas Street, crossed Main Street and proceeded on up Hatt Street. It was just a short, slow train with some freight for Jerry Hourigan to pick up and, by truck, deliver to destinations in town. That spur line was also important to John Bertram and Sons who manufactured heavy mining equipment that had to be shipped out by rail. Just east of Thorpe Street, there was a little trestle where this train crossed a small, usually dry, watercourse. Bob Jaggard and I would sometimes, on a dare, get under this little trestle when the train was coming, and huddle there while the train passed about two feet over our heads. Railroads and trains have never lost their fascination for me.
The Black Crick runs through a deep gully down from Webster’s Falls and under the C.N.R. The east-side of this gully soars some fifty feet above the tracks and forms a peak in the rock. It is “The Peak.” From its top you could see all over town and most of Hamilton. It was fun to climb it on a Sunday afternoon. One way up was the leisurely way around but provides no risk at all; the other is to climb right up the face of The Peak. This is much more hazardous. Doug Laing had a little white dog that weighed about six pounds. One time we decided to carry her up the face of The Peak. From hand to hand, uncomplaining, up she went. We nearly dropped her, and almost went over ourselves. But we made it and declared that no one before had ever taken a dog up the face of The Peak. (How does one contact the Guinness World Book of Records?)
Perhaps the most invigorating exercise we enjoyed after Sunday School, and sometimes on Saturday afternoons too, was to go down into Patterson’s Bush and push over dead and rotting trees. We would spot one that was pretty well rotten through and get it rocking until it went over. Some of them took quite a bit to topple them. There was something satisfying about hearing one fall with a crash. One of the riskier pastimes we shared was to ride great pieces of ice that flowed downstream in the crick in Howard’s Bush during the spring thaw break-up. We sometimes got wet.
Looking back on what we did when Sunday School was out, if the citizens of the town knew, they would have probably thought that our activities were rather unusual. But we wouldn’t have cared. It was the sounds we were after. It was the “flwup” the stone made when crashing through the crust of the sludge pond, the whistle and roar of the steam engine, the crash of a dead tree, the crunch of ice floes banging together and the splashing songs of cricks. They say that smells are the strongest things to evoke memories. I put sounds a close second.