Russell’s eyes

Posted on April 9, 2010

10


I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I was an inordinately passive child, but it is true that when my cousin Ted came to live with us in Windsor in 1962, two months passed before I thought to ask why.

On the other hand, around Ted everyone seemed a bit passive. He was small for his age, but in constant motion — except when reading. Even then he had a habit of walking through the house with a book in one hand and a tall glass of vinegar in the other. (No, really.) His mind was always two steps faster than mine and his imagination was relentless.

I’ve written about Ted before. There’s the barbed-wire fence incident I related recently (not one of my prouder moments), but he was also the inspiration for the main character in Russell vs. the Prince of Darkness. And by “main character,” of course, I mean “Russell.”

The part of the “Prince of Darkness” was played by Prime Minister John Deifenbaker.

While the central story is somewhat fictionalised, or as professional writers say, “a total crock,” the background setting is essentially true. The village of “Marshtown” is actually the village of Wainfleet, which had originally been named Marshville. The underground peat really did catch fire every year, sending clouds of smoke roiling across the two-lane highway. And while the village only holds 100 people at best, it really did manage to put together an impressive parade for Centennial Year.

There was, however, no float honouring a forgotten founder of Marshville, and no black magic ceremonies at midnight ending in a life-and-death tussle with Satan.

The front of the root cellar from which Ted and I conducted our gravitational experiments

But the sore ankles suffered by the narrator at the beginning of the story are all-too-real. Ted and I, in an effort to invent a better way to escape from burning buildings, tied the corners of bedsheets to our wrists and ankles and jumped off the front of the root cellar (or as we called it, the Pirate’s Cave). The problem was that if you fall feet first, the parachute doesn’t provide any resistance; but if you fall face-down (in order to open up the sheet to the air) then you end up landing face down.

And that’s not particularly pleasant either.

Of course, all this jumping and falling came somewhat later.

When Ted moved into our house in Windsor it must have been late September or early October of ’62 because school had already started. In some ways, his presence in my life wasn’t particularly unusual at first since, despite the distance between his family and mine (his lived in Malton, outside of Toronto, and mine lived in Windsor, outside of Detroit), we managed to spend every major holiday together as well as a month during the summer.

So when Ted moved in, it wasn’t much different from Christmas or Easter, except there was no holiday, his mother, brothers and sisters weren’t around, and he didn’t go home again after a couple of weeks.

The Comet at Crystal Beach, Ontario

At the time, my mother and I were living in her mother’s house. My father, Jack, had disappeared before I was born. When I was three he showed up briefly and kidnapped me, but, as my mother explained to the policeman who brought me home, it only lasted for a few hours and he didn’t mean any harm by it. And then he came and lived with us for a few months in Windsor, moving out again about a year before Ted came to live with us. Technically, my grandfather also lived there, but being a crane engineer, he was seldom home. I know almost nothing about the various locations to which his job took him, but he apparently helped construct a huge roller-coaster at Crystal Beach — which must have been The Comet, built in 1946.

So it was mostly just my mother, grandmother and me.

And then Ted.

Sometime in the early spring of that year, however, there was a flurry of activity during which everything in the house was packed up and Ted and I were told that we were all moving to a farm house on the outskirts of Wainfleet — a small village in the Niagara Peninsula where my mother’s other sister lived with her two boys. I only knew them peripherally, since they were significantly older than I, and we didn’t see each other more than once a year.

It was all rather abrupt and unexpected, but then a lot of abrupt and unexpected things were happening that year.

At the end of the week, all the boxes were shoved into a huge truck and taken away. We followed in a rather over-stuffed car with Ted and I in the back seat singing a variation of the Beverly Hillbillies song he’d rewritten for the circumstances. Most of it is gone from memory now, but I do remember one small section:

Said ‘The country is the place you want to be’
So they loaded up the truck and moved to Wain-fleeeet.
Village that is. Swimmin’ holes, farming guys.

We arrived at our new home in the dead of night, which, on a farm, out in the country, on the outskirts of a village of 100 people, is pretty damned dark, so we really didn’t see much. After a scratch-dinner of whatever was handy at the time, Ted and I were temporarily bunked in the bedroom that would eventually be my mother’s.

The next morning I woke up to a feeling of indescribable freshness, and the sound of something clanking and muttering outside. Ted awoke at the same time, and we got up to look out the window. We could see a huge barn and a meadow that started from bushland far in the distance and came all the way up to our side door — or at least within 30 feet of it.

And all over the meadow were sheep, baa-ing away and clanking their bells.

Neither of us moved for what felt like an eternity.

As idyllic as our new home may have seemed, however, the whole “abrupt” thing wasn’t quite over. Ten days after moving, my grandfather died of the fatal heart attack he’d known was coming, the imminence of which had been the cause of our sudden uprooting. Knowing that he had almost no time left to take care of his family, he rushed to get us into a safe and inexpensive environment, with family nearby.

I should have felt his death more strongly.

He was one of those strong, quiet men they just don’t make any more. Too young for WWI, he managed to enlist by lying about his age. Too old for WWII, he again lied about his age, this time in the other direction. He’d lost the sight in one eye, and in order to pass the physical he faked the eye-chart by reading it with his good eye first and memorising it. He did his duty to God, country and his family, and in his own quiet way was a great man.

But I really didn’t know him, and to me his death mostly meant that we had an unscheduled reunion as Ted’s family came down for the funeral.

Then they left, and life went on.

Maybe a month or so later, Ted’s family came down again, this time for our regular Easter visit. When they went home, however, Ted went with them.

It was just another one of those abrupt things that seemed to be happening that year.

There were pros and cons to having a brother. I’d have to say, mostly pros. Life was just a little bit more active when Ted was around, and events seemed just a little bit more real when I could share them with someone my own age. There were times my old habits would come to the fore and I’d just want to spend time alone, but they were few and I don’t remember them being frequent.

But with all the disruptions and changes that took place during those six or seven months, there’s one thing for which I’ll always be grateful: that when I woke up that morning on my first day in Wainfleet, the life, school, city, and friends I’d known suddenly gone, and I looked out the window to see live animals casually wandering around outside the house, with budding grass and trees spreading out for as far as my eyes could see, it was Ted’s eyes that were right beside me sharing the same scene.

As for why he came to stay with us in the first place, I did eventually ask, and the reason was carefully explained to me.

I just can’t remember what it was.

The old farm as it is now. The barn, woodshed, and chicken coop are all long gone and the meadow is overgrown. But the house is still standing and occupied.


This is the centre of Wainfleet on Google street view. Feel free to walk the village. It only takes five minutes.

NOTE: the Google Maps Street View®™ is temporarily down. Or it might be permanent. There’s just — nobody’s sure yet.

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