Peter at the Beach with Tadpoles, Trains, and Morgan James

This week, I’m going back to revisit the seemingly endless summers of my youth, when my parents were always going to be there and the only decision I had to make was which tee-shirt I was going to wear. Our house on Franklin Street was one of the most easterly houses in Orillia, mere metres from Lake Couchiching and about a kilometre a) from Moose Beach, so named because according to local lore, a moose had once been spotted there. (Thank goodness it hadn’t been a skunk.)

One of the advantages of being in a large family was the fact that the older kids could be trusted to safely shepherd the younger ones to the beach and back, giving Mum a badly needed and well deserved respite from her grueling routine, even though she had the (albeit dubious) pleasure of enjoying having me as her son. In conditions that would make a modern “helicopter parent” autorotate, our older sibling would convey us across a busy two lane road, an active railroad track and down a path flanked on both sides by a swamp, before arriving at a beach which was, for many years, bereft of both lifeguards and buoy lines. Of course, after swimming for hours in the murky water, the procedure would be repeated in the opposite direction. It worked a treat, for years. Now as you got older, the great day would finally dawn when you could go to the beach on your own, or with friends. Yes, at length you enjoyed freedom, after you had proven yourself worthy of having it bestowed upon you.

I mentioned the swamp, which, much like Scylla and Charybdis b) lay beside the gravel path. The swamp which was on your right as you proceeded towards the beach was almost civilized in appearance, with bull rushes and cattails. The bog on your left would not have looked out of place on a jungle movie set, with slimy water, turtles and moss. There was also a pond, in which frogs were known to spawn.

In the late spring I would go over and watch the tadpoles swim. Little black pinheads with tails at first, every day they would grow. It was fascinating watching them mature, as they gradually assumed a more frog like appearance and legs began to sprout and I marvelled at the miracle of Mother Nature. This entertained and educated me for several years. Even when it was too cold to swim, I would walk partway down the path and commune with my tadpole “buddies”.

Came the year they decided to build a tennis club, with its attendant courts. One morning I passed the pond on my way to swim, as the weather had warmed up. I hung back from the group I was with and looked at the pond now teeming with life and I smiled. It would only be a week or two before they would be off to start their own lives. Someone then called my name and I hurried to rejoin them. A day of swimming ensued. We heard heavy machinery running, but didn’t really think anything of it at the time, as we were busy swimming and having fun. Tired and happy, we eventually headed home. When we got to the pond…….it was gone. I ran my eyes over the fresh earth, saw the bulldozer tread marks, saw the pitifully few, pitifully small dead tadpoles scattered around on the ground. Realizing that the majority of them were buried under the fresh earth, buried alive, I had an awakening. How cruel was mankind to selfishly lay waste to the fruits of Mother Nature in order to assuage avarice and greed! Did “progress” really warrant ecological slaughter? How low would we go? How low could we go?

Well over 50 years later, that moment still haunts me, and it was truly a life changing moment for me. I gave up fishing and vowed to never hunt. I swore to do what I could to protect animals, especially from their worst enemy, people.

The beach itself was, at least in those dim and distant days, half sand and half grass. The bottom was sandy, and you could walk out about a hundred metres and be in water up to your chest. The bottom dropped off sharply after that, however. I have fond memories of watching pleasure craft skitter around the lake, hearing the hum of their engines, watching the “Miss Orillia” cruise boat glide by at her stately pace, full of gawking tourists from New York and North Dakota who must have felt that they were cruising the  far reaches of the Amazon. I also came over sometimes at night, not to swim, but to watch the navigation lights of the boats and see the campfires of the trailer camp and drink in the fact that noise travels farther at night, so you could hear boats a very long way out on the lake. The lights, the sounds, the stillness of the water just offshore blended to make beautiful, peaceful memories. It’s funny, as an aside, but I don’t recall a single instance of a power boat coming inshore, too close to the swimmers. It just never happened. There seemed to be at least a patina of respect for others in those simpler times

On the beach, there were two swing sets installed at right angles to each other, painted dark green. One was a big set, the other more suitable for small fry. While I never used either swing set, I do remember one morning when I was standing by the big swing set and got bitten on the left side of my chest by a horsefly. Man, did that hurt! Again, years later, I still remember that. (What a difference one single letter makes. If it had been a housefly, our “interaction” would have been less notable, as well as less painful, for me, at least. In fact, you wouldn’t even have read about it.)

There was also a little change hut, painted light green c). It was divided into two parts, a women’s change room and a men’s change room. The change rooms were dark, dank, unlit and dripping, with bare concrete floors to enhance the customer experience. I changed there once, but ever after, I put my swimsuit on at home. Much nicer, less creepy. There were also toilet facilities, which were basically an attached outhouse, equipped with a piece of plywood which had a circular hole cut in it. It hurt me to even look at the apparition, so its use was eschewed, at least by Mrs Montreuil’s little boy. Now in the fullness of time it was torn down and a new change facility was built. I understand that patrons of this new building were spoiled with “needless” luxuries such as electrical lighting and running water! Why, back in my day……..

I am going to finish off by recounting some of my memories from swimming at Moose Beach. It was a great place to go, you would go with your friends or meet them there, you could run into classmates and spend the whole day swimming, gabbing, relaxing, savouring the day, savouring the freedom. No one knew that Life was lurking around the corner to “bushwhack” us, to deprive us of our youth, our innocence. Or maybe we did know, but we just didn’t care. We seized the day.

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Moose Beach Orillia

One day, when I was about 12, I went from Moose Beach to the snack bar at the neighbouring trailer park. I had a quarter and was going to buy an ice cream bar and a bottle of pop and have change left over! There was a woman, probably in her mid 30s, in line in front of me. She had a bikini on, and the top was cut in such a way that about a third of each of her breasts was exposed. Now I had seen breasts before, I was breastfed and one of my friends had shown me a Playboy magazine which he had temporarily purloined from his father’s impressive cache of “training materials”. My errmm, “exposure” to the real McCoy was therefore limited and certainly not recent. Yet there they were, hovering 5 feet away. Of course one shouldn’t stare, that is extremely impolite and egregious conduct unworthy of an altar boy. Well, Monsignor Lee wasn’t around, and I was 12 years old d).I employed a furtive glance at first, however, drawn like a moth to a candle flame, I kept going “back to that well”, until, to my chagrin and mortification, she caught me looking. The strangest thing happened next, though. Instead of being angry, a smile briefly played at the corners of her mouth. Rapidly reduced to a blubbering, stammering mass of jelly, I withdrew posthaste. Too happy to just get “out of Dodge”, I really didn’t think about this episode for some time. In my later years, I did reflect on the event and her reaction, which I thought might have several explanations.

It was entirely possible that she interpreted my awkward adolescent gaze as a compliment, not expressed very well, but nonetheless, making allowances for my painfully obvious lack of experience, a compliment. It is also possible that she was smiling because she realized that I was getting early exposure to the tremendous sway which the female body holds over many people. An interesting experience, in any case.

Sometimes Nature intervened at the beach. I often enjoyed just standing on the beach, watching the pleasure craft and the water skiers for a few minutes before going back in for another refreshing dip. I remember getting to the beach really early one morning. The air was calm, the water like glass, the crowded trailer park silent as it slumbered. I distinctly remember that it was so quiet that you could hear the songbirds. Again, that memory has stayed with me to this day. It was the only time it happened, but it was enough. Magical. On another afternoon, I stood on the beach as a rainstorm crossed the lake. The rainfall obscured Longford Mills and steadily advanced towards me. There was no thunder or lightning, just rain, eerily silent as it came on. The surface of the lake had turned white, like an ice floe. I was transfixed, very much in awe of the power of Mother Nature on display.

Throwing my head back as the rain reached me, I savoured the moment as I got pelted. My reverie was shattered as someone, from a distance, yelled at me to get my stupid ass out of the rain! The closest available accommodation was the gruesome little green change hut. I therefore decided  to walk home instead, whistling as I got soaked, happy at that moment with Life and grateful that Mum had done wash that day. There would be any number of clean t-shirts for me to choose from. How ungrateful was I, how ignorant of the massive amount of work that others did to keep me clothed and fed and housed and happy and loved!

Especially in those days, we would occasionally have infestations of insects, such as “June bugs”. Another all too common visitor was the “tent caterpillar”, whose namesake “tent-like” nests would crop up around the neighbourhood in various trees. They would sometimes cover the railroad tracks and cause havoc for train crews, hard to believe as that may seem. One year we had a biblical like plague of “mayflies”. These winged insects covered everything! I remember the outer walls of 328 Franklin Street having so many of them perched vertically that it was difficult to see the familiar yellow brick. Large numbers of them went to the beach, where they died in the water. I remember going over once and the water was covered out to 2 or 3 metres with their bodies. The town had to come in and clean the shoreline up before we could swim again.

One evening, I had gone to the beach with my youngest brother Charles. It was my turn to be the shepherd. Rather than use the trail, I opted for the railroad tracks for our return trip. Blissfully ignorant, we trekked home, chatting about the day. In the distance, I thought, I heard a train’s horn. Ignoring it for the time being, I turned to my brother and we resumed our conversation. Shortly thereafter, I heard it again. Now I was irritated! I snapped my head around, looked behind us and froze. Less than 50 metres behind us was a train coming our way at high speed. Let me digress for a moment. There was a train which came through Orillia every night around this time (Doh!) It was, IIRC, named “The Dayliner”. It was certainly unlike any train we had ever seen before. It had no traditional locomotive, but was composed of two “passenger” cars and in our innocence, we came up with some truly fantastic theories about its source of locomotive power. One friend of mine solemnly told me that this train had been on a siding when another train ran into it, and the resultant shock from the collision made it start to roll forever, a la “The Flying Dutchman”. I didn’t believe him, but I’m sure that some kids did. In fact, it was a pair of combined passenger/power unit cars, which I believe were built by the Budd Company of Philadelphia. One quick google search, in fact, confirms this. It shows that they were 2 of 398 Budd Rail Diesel Cars, also known as Buddliners, built between 1949 and 1962. They have a maximum speed of 137 kilometres per hour and some are still in service. They were, in fact, built in Philadelphia by the Budd Company e).

Well, I could certainly prove their existence and I also could gauge their speed, two facts which were just a bit too uncomfortably real for me at that particular moment. Deciding that “this Budd wasn’t for me!” f), I grabbed my little brother and unceremoniously slung him into the ditch beside Atherley Road. Since I had no great wish to have my picture in The Packet And Times g), I leapt into the ditch after him,  the train whizzing past my ears as I landed, or so it seemed. To say that we were ashen would be an understatement. We shook silently, looked at each other and finally went home. When we got there, I never said anything and he never said anything either. In fact, this is the first time I have put this story down in writing. I think I told it once when I had been drinking.

Buddliner

Certainly a narrow escape for us, and a lesson very painfully learned and carefully adhered to ever since. Of course, it was only when I had obtained the wisdom and perspective of years that I was able to consider the other person directly involved in this scenario, to whit, the engineer. I can sort of imagine the horror and the fear as he bore down on the two youths walking the tracks. Perhaps he too had children, sons maybe. As he frantically and hopelessly tried the impossible, to get his train halted in a space which completely contradicted the laws of physics, what was running through his mind? How did he feel when we literally evaded the “jaws of death”? Did he hug his children extra tightly when he got home? Did he have an extra drink or 12 when he got home? I want to apologize to you, sir, even though you are probably no longer with us.

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So loyal reader, you’ve had yet another look into my exciting childhood, a glimpse of the days when my hair was brown, my voice hadn’t broken and I had yet to discover girls in a serious way. I hope that you enjoyed it. Maybe it conjured some of your own memories. Do feel free to sign up for this blog. You can do that by clicking on the header and navigating through. I highly recommend this blog, the writing is excellent, and I don’t even count myself in that august company.

Recently I stumbled across an American singer by the name of Morgan James. While she does some original music, she also does outstanding covers not only of contemporary songs, but also oldies like “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Ain’t Misbehavin'”. She is on Facebook and has numerous videos. Give your ears a treat, look her up. I should add that she has sung with “Postmodern Jukebox”, so hers is not an unappreciated talent. Here’s a trio of tunes to get you started.

See you soon.

  1. a) Unlike Neil Fraser, another federal civil servant, I got acclimatized to the metric system pretty quickly. He got fired for publicly speaking out against it.
  2. b) Mythological monsters.
  3. c) Why do I remember these colours yet have to look down to see if I’m wearing a shirt?
  4. d) As Gordon Lightfoot sang in “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” “…Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams…”. He was right. I was there.
  5. e) I am startled that I remembered the information about these railcars, as I am very much a “There are two kinds of models, aircraft and targets” kind of guy.
  6. f) I am so very sorry, but I will do anything for a cheap laugh!
  7. g) The local paper. Fun fact, I briefly had Route Number 86 for “The Rachet And Grimes”, as we paperboys used to call it. I was very sad when I heard that it had folded. Why do people sacrifice so much that is good on the altar of Greed?
=PJM=

6 Responses to “Peter at the Beach with Tadpoles, Trains, and Morgan James”

  1. Great column Peter!

  2. Damon Hines Says:

    Gonna hafta share Bob Snider’s ‘Parkette’ with you, or a rendition thereof. If you come across it first, please send it my way..dunno when I’m gonna tackle a home performance, let alone disseminating it. Cheers, Peter, thanks for sharing another round of delightful recollections. 👍👍😘🎶😎💖😂🎭😉

  3. June Olimer Pollard Says:

    Hi Peter! Great column again!!! I really enjoy your early memories of swimming and the beaches in Orillia – I swam at Moose Beach in my later teens & early 20’s when my family moved to Orillia around 1968 . When I was a kid, we had to stay close to where my Grandparents lived and Lake Simcoe had a park with swings at the foot of West Street . So that is where my early memories are when we visited our Grandparents in the summer. It would have been fun to know the kids at Moose Beach! It sounds like it was a wonderful time in your life!

    • Peter Montreuil Says:

      It was a wonderful time, a time which I thought would never end. I am so happy to reawaken memories in so many people.

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