BENEATH THE HEIGHTS:

GROWING UP AT QUEENSTON AND BEYOND

Chapter 6

 

PEDALING PAPERS

 

One of my regular childhood duties involved pedaling my bicycle throughout the village delivering newspapers.  My paper route was part of an early daily discipline and work ethic that has followed me throughout my life.  Six days a week, every afternoon, I had to be on that route traveling through almost every inch of the village in all kinds of weather.  But pedaling papers around town was more.  First, the paper route provided me with the finances to be independent, and secondly, it provided me with an excuse to escape from those activities that could spell defeat for me.

 

I must have been no more than six or seven when I delivered my first papers.  David had a full paper route first for the Toronto Star and later for the Niagara Falls Evening Review.  His route for the Review took him through the whole village.  When the route grew over 100 papers, he could not handle the route alone, and he asked me if I could deliver the few papers for his customers that lived outside of the village, down the Niagara Parkway to the north of the house. 

 

This first route covered less than one mile and amounted to no more than a dozen houses.  For the first year I either walked or pedaled my kid's tricycle.  One late afternoon, early in my delivery career, I still can vividly recall my terror as I rode my little three-wheeler alone through a tumultuous summer thunderstorm.  Bolts of lightning flashed around me and claps of thunder shook the ground and seemed like they would knock me from my seat.  Although I was soaked to the skin in minutes, I was determined to complete my route.  I scurried frantically along the parkway, darting into every drive and leaving a paper safe and dry behind each customer's screen door.

 

I never questioned my duty on that miserable night.  I had to get those papers delivered!  My customers were waiting.  Perhaps I remember that time even more clearly because my mother would use this story against me whenever she wanted to remind me of my need to display duty and determination.

 

Within a few years, I graduated to David's old village route.   I in turn handed over my original Parkway route to Ralph, our baby brother next in line.  Now I had the big time route, somewhere between eighty to one hundred papers to deliver along a two-mile route through the village itself.

 

After neatly folding my papers dropped off late each afternoon at the foot of our drive, I wheeled down the hill from the house, past Dee Road and into the village pedaling south up Queenston Street.  At each cross street, I darted quickly down a house or two then return to the main street.  At Highlander the rise to the heights began and I had to pedal harder up the steep hill stopping for each delivery before I finally reached the last cross street, Clarence Street just past the Post Office.  I raced first a block to the west beside the small monument marking the spot where Brock was felled just beneath the Heights.  Then back I ran east two blocks to the River, and finally headed down the hill towards home along Front Street with its spectacular views overlooking the rushing deep green Niagara River.

 

 

My ride laden with so many heavy papers was a fierce grind for a small boy up the steep slope that rose a third of the way towards the Heights.   Many years later, sturdy calf muscles still show the results of those early pedaling workouts on my hillside route.

 

My paper route was a real necessity for me.  I was able to earn the money that first could satisfy my insatiable sweet tooth, and secondly could take me far beyond the Heights.   On Friday nights after collecting from my customers, my first stop was usually the Village Variety Store.  Here I stocked up on penny candy and ten cent chocolate bars, Oh Henry's and the Coffee Crisps that were my favourites.  Later, I graduated to Christie's peppermint patty cookies and ultimately to a new culinary discovery of the early fifties, instant puddings.  Jello and Royal made the best puddings anyone could ever want.  No more slow cooking stick-to-the-pan Raleigh puddings for me.  Besides, only Mum could make those for me.  Now I could make the instants myself, in secret.  I would first stop at Carnahan's General Store to buy extra milk and puddings to store in my secret stache at home.

 

In those early days of growing up in Canada, the golden world of American radio was still very much alive.  Beulah, Amos and Andy, Jack Benny, Lux Radio Theater, The Shadow and all those good old 50’s programs would start early in the evening and run late into the night.  I would hide my cookies in my room so that I could raid my supplies for radio times later.  Or I would sneak down to the kitchen and make up a full package of instant pudding.  Once my snacks were ready, I would retreat to my bedroom alone for the entire evening to listen to my favourite programs on my own little radio, also purchased with those paper route profits.

 

Apart from sweets, one of my first purchases from the money earned on that route was my first two-wheel bicycle.  I was most proud of that deep maroon C.C.M. that took me everywhere around the village and eventually far beyond.  I learned how to clean it and repair it carefully each spring.  No fancy three speed racing bike for me.  This was a basic boy's bike with direct chain drive with pedal brakes built into the wheel hub.  We ridiculed Wally Vrooman's fancy and "effeminate" American bike with its thick balloon tires and molded metal pieces covering the cross bar and the drive chain.  Mine was a real boy's bike!  I drove it everywhere though the village, to school, on my route, to Ernest's house out on Route 8A, and eventually on longer hikes to new adventures in other villages and towns. 

 

Patiently, Dad showed me how to take off the rear wheel and dissemble the hub mechanism to clean out the old grease and oil, then lube it again and put it all back together again.  He had a methodical precision-like way of tackling these jobs, and I admired his attention to every detail through the long process.  While not nearly so patient as my Dad, and not nearly so gifted with tools as my big brother David, I still delighted in being able to service my own bike.  I kept it proudly shiny and clean and in top shape.

 

The paper route was a necessity for me in yet another way.  Yes, it was hard work and it gave me money to spend, but it gave me even more.  The paper route was the excuse I needed to avoid my greatest fear, the fear of failure.  When the other boys met after school to play ball or other tough boy games, I had to deliver my papers.  I hated sports and the physical competition it involved.   I could never be first here.  Thus, my paper route provided me with the perfect excuse to avoid what I feared most, failure in games that I could neither enjoy nor perform.

 

“I can't play very well cause I have to spend my time on my route. I just don't have time for practicing.”

 

“Gee, I would like to play on the team, but I have to get home right after school to start my papers.”

 

Delivering papers was not a team sport.  I was alone and free in my own way to get the exercise I needed, the fresh air, and all the excitement I could handle growing up in this little village.

 

One of the greatest benefits of my paper route was being able to know most everyone in the village.  And most of my customers were good to me.  The old time Queenston villagers knew my family, and me personally and usually treated me as their own.  There were one or two difficult people who did not always like to answer their door.   Sometimes it would take many calls to collect the thirty-five cents owed each week.  One or two complained when the paper was late occasionally, but overall I had few troubles or hassles from these easy going regular folks.

The only difficulties I ever had were with the more transient people, the few people who moved in and out of the two or three rooming houses in town.  The biggest crush of new people came during the building of the second Hydro Electric Plant during the fifties.  The workers, many fresh from construction jobs in the Northern Ontario bush country, sometimes lived in crowded quarters, hastily put together for them in old dilapidated buildings by our own small time local slum landlords.

 

One such old structure, the Fisher Building, had been used during the War as a tenement for summertime fruit pickers from Toronto.  With the new Hydro Plant bringing in thousands of workers and families, this once grand one hundred and fifty-year-old hotel, was converted into small dreary apartments for the workers.  I always dreamed that somehow it would be revived, brought back to its once busy life serving the river trade that once passed its front door on the portage around the Niagara.  I would imagine myself an architect and draw sketches of the building with new awnings and outdoor cafés along the street and furnish its elegant rooms overlooking the riverfront.  But that was never to happen.

 

Old Mr. Fisher, the farmer landlord was not around much, he just collected the rents and the building continued to decay.  I hated having to go inside to deliver papers.  Especially around to the back, through the car strewn muddy yard to get into those grubby interior hallways and drop a paper in front of five greasy doors.  When it was time to collect, I had to knock on those doors and come up against a world I had never seen before.  These were simple and rough folk.  Not at all like the gentler residents I knew much better.  These people always seemed to have too many kids, gray laundry hanging on every tired piece of furniture.  The unmistakable smells of strange foods, stale air and poverty spread through the halls and seeped into my clothes as I made my rounds as quickly as I could.

 

Several houses in Queenston rented to these workingmen and their families.  The “Polish House” was off limits completely.  In our cruel and waspish ways, we all rejected anyone who lived there from acceptable Queenston society.  They were simply known as the “DPs” and that was all there was to know.  While I hated the toughs that delighted in taunting the hardworking and poor Eastern Europeans that lived there, I also excluded these people from my own life.  They acted strangely, smelled strongly and just did not fit my understanding at the time of how people should live or behave.

 

One time I tried bravely to reverse my attitude and decided to try to deliver a paper to a worker there.  My experiment was doomed to failure.  All the residents seemed to live as one big family, people moved in and out, and I could never tell whose family was whose.  Names and records were impossible to keep and it was just as impossible to try and talk with anyone, since few spoke English.  I finally gave up trying to collect what was owed and cancelled the subscription.  After that first confusing time, I never went back into the house again, and would never deliver a paper there as well.

 

Another small story and a half boarding house, the Manley house, backed up on our schoolyard.  After old Mrs. Manley died, her family seemed to fall on hard times and so they rented out four or five of their small rooms to single men who worked on the power plant.  Up on the second floor I delivered papers to one odd old man, a loner who always made me a little nervous.  He would often come to the door in his jockey shorts when I came to collect.  One time, on a dare, one of my friends, Michael, came with me to see this strange old man.  When he opened the door this time, he was wearing nothing at all.

 

Col--lect--ing...,” I stammered, totally amazed.

 

“Just a minute,” and he responded calmly and disappeared back into the darkness to find some change.  Obviously, he didn't have it in his pockets.  Michael could not contain himself.  He did manage to stifle his giggles till he got out the front door, but barely.  I waited patiently alone for what seemed an eternity as the old fellow routed around in his room.  Finally he returned with the money and stuck it out through the crack in the door.  In seconds, I joined Michael on the street.  We continued to giggle for blocks.

 

Years later, I wondered if the old fellow was a closet nudist.  Or perhaps he was hoping for more than a paper from the young boy at the door.   I did not feel threatened, I was only amused and maybe I was a bit tantalized by his strange behavior.  Along with the dream of my giant protector, this sad momentary vision was to become part of my boyhood fantasy imagery of mysterious forbidden things.

 

Delivering papers was hard work.  Lugging the heavy papers over my shoulder in a canvas newspaper bag.  Pumping those bicycle pedals up the hill through all kinds of weather.  Or slogging on foot through the drifts when the snow was too deep for my bicycle.   Yet, everyday my old dog Rex followed me on the route without question.  He was just an old black mixed breed, part lab and part water spaniel, but I loved him dearly.

 

Rex was always there protecting and encouraging.  Sometimes he would wander off to chase a cat or squirrel, but always came back, trailing behind me wherever the route took us.  He knew that route as well as I.  And Rex was my most loyal friend.  If anyone, even a brother, threatened me, the dog would growl and move in.  He even knew when I was sick, sad or in pain, and would soulfully nuzzle up next to me to comfort me.

 

One day I had been collecting at a house at the far end of the route.  Rex must have wondered off on a chase or adventure somewhere out of sight.  On I went without him.  When Rex came back from some brief diversion, he must have thought I was still inside the house where he last saw me.  He took up his usual watch at the door, and would not leave his post.  Later that evening, unable to get him to go home, my customers phoned me to come after him.  He was still firmly on guard waiting for his master to come out, and could not be dissuaded until he saw me ride up on my bike. 

 

My paper route not only paid for my first bike and radio, but also gave me a chance to buy my own clothes, and Christmas gifts for the family.   Each week I would faithfully bank my earnings at the little Canadian Bank of Commerce over in the neighbouring village of St. David's, then withdraw the money as needed for my purchases.   In the fifth grade, when I was first smitten by love for someone closer to my own age, I used my cache to buy an expensive present for this new object of my youthful affections.

 

Janet Thibeaux was just about the prettiest little girl I had ever seen.  She had long dark ringlets, the smoothest silkiest complexion and the cutest little nose and smile that anyone could ever imagine.  She sat across the room in grade three, and I was hooked.  There was one small problem.  Janet was French Canadian and lived in that dreadful old hotel tenement.  But I was not going to allow age or class or ethnic origin or religion to be a barrier for me.  She was beautiful, I was in love and what else could matter.  Each afternoon I would hurry along my route, eager in the hopes of seeing her in the muddy yard of the Fisher Block.  When I collected, not on the usual Fridays but only late on Saturday afternoons after her father had been paid, I prayed that it would be Janet who answered the door.

 

Then on a family Christmas shopping trip to the Falls that year, we stopped for dinner at our usual restaurant before the drive back to Queenston.  During the meal, I spotted an elegantly dressed doll sitting on a glass shelf high above the cash register.  On a return trip from the washroom, I quietly asked the cashier the price of the doll.  The pretty apparition in lace and satin was an entire twelve dollars, a princely sum for a ten-year-old.  But it was perfect for Janet.  I did not hesitate.  I bought the doll and hoped no one in the family would notice my extravagance.

 

Despite my efforts to hide both my purchase and intent, there were no secrets in my family.  But nothing could dissuade me.  The Saturday before Christmas, as I made my rounds collecting, my secret treasure was stashed in the bottom of my paper bag.  The excitement of receiving my usual Christmas tips from all my customers could not equal my joy at having a precious gift wrapped and ready to give to my own sweet Janet.  I could not have been more embarrassing.

 

When I knocked on the Thibeaux door in that sorry tenement, her mother came, not Janet as I had hoped.  But there she was, hovering in the shadowy room beyond.  I collected my weekly rate, then pushed the carefully wrapped box at her mother and ran off.  I was both exhilarated and depressed.  Had I offended by this lavish gift?  Would my love ever be returned?  What about all the money I spent on this person that would barely speak to me?

 

That gift broke my enchanted spell.  I grew shyer after making such a foolish public announcement of my unrequited love.  And Janet's family felt obliged to return the questionable honour of my doll, and presented me with a box of candy the next week.  Janet herself now smiled more guardedly, and would seldom speak to me at all.  Within a few months, Janet's unseen Dad was transferred to the next construction project and they were all gone from my life.

 

By the end of my elementary school career at Laura Secord, I had finally grown out of the discipline and routine of that daily paper route.  In 1955, the summer before I enrolled in the big High School at the Falls, I lied about my age and got a bus boy's job at the Niagara Glen Restaurant overlooking the famous Niagara Whirlpool.  Ralph took over my entire route and I was free.  I earned enough that summer at the restaurant to get me through the entire year in clothes and books.

Paper routes were for kids and I was a High School freshman now.  I was one of the big kids, bused to the Falls each day to the huge Collegiate with more than one thousand others.  My rounds on my bike through the village were over.  I had no more time for childish paper routes.  No longer did I need my old excuse to escape playing sports.  I was now sixteen years old, learning to drive the car, going out on my first dates, joining after school clubs and even going to massive high school sporting events.  I had no need to play to prove I belonged and to prove my masculinity.  I could now just attend and cheer and lose myself in a crowd of hundreds of other fellow students at Niagara Falls Collegiate and Vocational Institute.

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