BENEATH THE HEIGHTS:

GROWING UP AT QUEENSTON AND BEYOND

Chapter 10
SECRETS OF THE GULLY

[The Gully]

A small wooded ravine lay below our old house in Queenston, cutting us off from the village and the Heights beyond. Slicing gently through the landscape, the narrow cut lead from farmers’ fields half a mile to the west, along behind and beside our house, before it arrived at the Niagara River. Dad told us tales of Pennsylvania “Dutch” settlers crossing the Niagara here in their covered wagons en route to new homesteads in Upper Canada. The ravine offered a break in the high banks of the Niagara and allowed them access to the countryside beyond.

My brothers and I called this ravine, “The Gully.” It was our year-round playground and our place for secret rituals. We discovered violets there in the spring and blackberries in the early summer. We built an endless progression of campgrounds and play huts over those summers. We found bits of ice to skate on or smash through during the long freezing winter months. And it was in our own private gully, I first learned about many of my own deep fantasies and longings.

David, Ralph and I were builders. Perhaps it was our early Cub Scout training, but we were always building a lean-to or some sort of shelter in which to make our special place. Each of us would mark our territory in some new secret location and tried our best to keep each other and our village rivals away.

Two small creeks ran through this ravine. We called them, “Bright’s Creek” and “Dickson's Creek,” named for the neighbours who owned the land on either side of the gully. We would dam up these streams as they rushed down to the river full of spring melt, mud and water. Or we would divert them into pools in the lazier days of summer, and create restful parks with rock-lined walkways. Sometimes we would construct bridges across them from fallen tree trunks and scraps of lumber. Then we would hold manly contests of daring on the biggest and most dangerous passages.

The gully was the center of our boyhood lives. These gully days also marked times of boyhood rivalries and strange new feelings that came with the onerous task of growing up. Here each of us would try to escape his brothers. My older brother, David and his friend, Johnny, developed their gully retreats first. They built their most substantial huts of timbers and discarded railway ties. Ralph and I were often not tolerated in the world of big brother. We were seen as pesky little brothers and their most elaborate estates were off limits to us both.

But David and Johnny were not the only ones who could create a private oasis in our gully. My friends and I would find another corner and build our own smaller hut of branches and flattened cardboard boxes lashed together. We developed secret clubs with special uniforms and colours and passwords. Inevitably, I would engineer to be chosen the leader of my more timid and complacent friends. We in our turn would then banish my younger brother, Ralph, just as I had been banished by my older brother David. In the darkness of the gully, I was able to bring together the powers of nature with the powers of my mind to rule this little world. I loved, however briefly, to create my own perfect little ordered natural universe.

An old train line ran through this ravine, a service route for the first Hydro Electric power station built above the Heights. Trackmen on self-propelled cars called “jiggers” would pump themselves along the line, often stopping to work on the tracks in the woods below the house. We would sometimes take them cool drinks or cookies from our house on the hill, or just hang around and watch them as they worked. They were husky rough men, muscled and young, smelling of tar and iron and sweat. I loved to be near them and watched for them to come along the tracks, a signal for the coming of spring. But by the time I was ten, they were gone.

With the construction of a new power plant in the fifties, huge diesel trucks replaced the trains to haul out the rock and deliver men and materials up the river to the construction site. Those dusty, noisy trucks fortunately took another route, leaving our gully safe from unwanted mechanical intruders. But I missed the train men on the tiny cars who clickety-clacked back and forth just below the house. Eventually, our old rail line was abandoned and finally removed entirely. The tracks and ties were uprooted, neatly piled beside the right of way, and then carted off with all their many pleasant childhood memories. No carefree trainmen came through our woods again to distract us during our lazy summer days.

The first stirring of some new and mysterious awareness deep within me came from adventures in the gully with its old abandoned train tracks. In front of our house, on the street leading down into the village, was a black iron bridge that arched over the tracks below. Strange men of the road, tramps or hobos we called them then, would often sleep beneath that protective bridge. We would sometimes stumble upon these rough men early in the morning on our way to play in the gully. Ralph used to stash his first illicit cigarettes there in the girders until they suddenly began to disappear. We feared their smells and the mess they left behind: the old flattened out cardboard boxes or newspapers where they slept in the dirt, and the excrement they left in piles below the rusty girders. Yet still I found something oddly intriguing about these shadowy men who lived so close to us, just out of sight.

The gully eventually fulfilled those early longings for uncertain desires. As childish interest in huts and campsites waned as I approached the end of grade school, the gully became the place were we young boys found new play things. For a time it was a tantalizing and intriguing place to explore our own developing bodies. Like so many boys before us at the age of puberty, we began to discover the intrigue and joy of youthful sexual feelings. Someone discovered and showed us that with a little handy friction we could bring on a mysterious, and somehow strangely tender and tingling sensation. No hair appeared on our sweaty palms after circles of our boyish lust, and so we experimented further. We played in circles, on logs or blankets, alone or together, shyly and guiltily fondling one another.

Many village boys seemed to want their turn in experimenting within our private gully. One day, on my first job picking cherries, a village tough kid named Bobby had shown me how much faster it was to fill the basket by breaking off the small branches and stripping off all the red fruit. But our boss, Mrs. Martin, the lawyer's wife, did not share our efforts at efficiency, and angrily dismissed us from her cherry orchard that we were so callously destroying.

Bobby was not at all the kind of boy with whom my mother thought I should associate. He was often a schoolyard bully. Many times he had taunted me for skipping rope with the girls instead of playing ball. He was from a large rough and tumble family that lived in an unfinished tarpaper shack. We left the orchard, he indifferent to our crime, but I in shame from being fired from my first fruit-picking job. Yet, somehow just being his pal in this callous crime gave me a special thrill that day. Without saying anything to one another, we walked side by side towards the gully. Once in my familiar wooded retreat, we headed up the old train line. I soon knew why Bobby walked with me into those woods. I suspected what he wanted and secretly longed to feel his strong body next to mine and share our gully joys with this younger, but somehow more worldly and more manly boy than I.

“Do you want to do it?” he asked me bluntly as we trudged along the old railway right of way, walking deeper back into the woods.

“I guess so,” I answered slowly so as not to appear too eager. I was still not sure about this rough kid wanting to play the games I thought beneath his rowdy kind. But soon, in a hidden place beneath the trees, we did the delightful deed. In the heat of boyhood passion, neither of us stopped for a moment to think about the differences that separated us.

After a quick and embarrassed mutual “pull,” we walked quickly back out of the woods. Our childish passions had been released and we went our own ways that day and always. We never became friends and never even had much to say to each other after that brief interlude. When we walked back into the village each of us returned to his own life and role: the goody-goody and the bully.

The woods of our gully remained the source of childhood games for only a few short years. The trysts with boyhood friends became less and less regular as they grew through puberty and moved on to other desires. Only I was left wondering what had happened. For me the thrill was not only still there, it was even stronger. But by the end of grade school I learned that I needed to hide my “impure” interests. For by then the conflicts of my lust and a new piousness conspired against me.

By the eighth grade, I was devotedly attending regular Sunday School at our little United Church parish in the village. But despite my piousness, I still longed for those adventures in the woods. On one last spectacular occasion, around a fallen tree, a group of us in the eighth grade had challenged each other to a boyish shooting match. Who could shoot the furthest. By the following week my own long distance record had become legend and I was the gossip of the boys' cloakroom. My pious nature forced me to deny why I had been so inspired that day. What's more, I was suddenly horrified that all of my secret passions were so publicly exposed to my schoolmates.

This was no longer just a childish game in which we all indulged. Something more serious and sinister seemed to be happening here. The other boys had now begun to talk about “doing it” with the girls and about the thrills we all were missing. Yet girls still held no intrigue for me. That day when I heard their sneers for my continuing boyhood passions, I learned I must deny and disguise those old desires. My former playmates had moved on, but I still longed to continue to play the old games with my boyhood friends. Somehow this was no longer acceptable. My dislike and disability in the area of sports had already earned me the term “sissy.” Now I was dangerously close to being called much worse. “Fairy” was that dreaded term that some boys like to inflict on those they thought weaker and less manly than themselves.

And so I kept to myself in the village to avoid their scorn. To hide my feelings, I grew more religious and more aloof from the other kids in the village. Yet, throughout my teenage years, I would still look for those solitary and oddly frightening men who once dwelt under the bridge in front of the house. Perhaps I hoped to find another soul who shared my secret passions. Yet by that time, those men, like the rail line, disappeared, and I saw no more lonely tramps beneath our bridge below the house.

Thus, for many years, I found it far safer to fantasize alone. And through those years, the woods, the sweaty trainmen, the hidden tramps, my childhood buddies and even the village bully, all furnished me with sweet nightly adventures that I could replay over and over in my own memory, free of ridicule and rejection. Secret dreams of what was and could have been, deep in that mysterious and seductive gully that lay down there just beneath our old home. And hopes for new adventures beyond the gully tempted and intrigued me.

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