Where the Penguins Hid
Where the Penguins Hid
When I was little, my town seemed very, very big to me. I was sure it was big, because there was so much of it I had never seen, and the parts I did see were big all on their own.
I knew that as I grew I would see more, but I was curious about what was past the block next to mine and the block beyond that. I would try to think of what was there, and even though I was not allowed to play much beyond my own neighborhood, I did see enough to make up in my own mind what might be out there.
I began to just dream of other parts of my town, and how wonderfully busy and different they must be. I would draw little maps of what I could remember was there. I would draw things in as best I could, and although I knew I was not always right….I was pretty close. What I did discover when I was older was that my maps were not that bad at all. They included all the places I knew best –my school, my friends’ houses, the stores where we got groceries on Saturday mornings, and the barber shop where I would get my haircut and be all itchy for the rest of the day.
I soon figured out that it wasn’t what I knew that so much mattered, but more what I didn’t. There were places in my town where I could find marbles hidden since last fall’s cold put an end to playing. They would keep quiet until spring softened up the ground and a heel could make a proper hole to roll them into once again. There were spots beside a bush where we could hide and split up bags of penny candies and laugh at our good fortunes!
Yes, I knew much of my neighbourhood, but beyond that, or even in it, there were places I knew nothing of at all, and this was where the penguins hid.
At first the maps I drew were very simple, and included in them those parts of my life that were most familiar to me. This was perhaps the best way to start anyway, seeing as these were also the things which were most important in that small beginning world of mine.
I drew things as I thought I would see them from above. All the road maps my family used when we went on trips seemed to be drawn from above so if it was good enough for them it was probably good enough for me.
Of course, what I am describing here is the house I knew, and where you live may be very much the same or very much different. That is what makes it so unique to each of us.
No story will be the same as another, no map the same. They are all how we see things around us in our own special way, and we each see things that are important to us which no one else might even think of adding. I am sure that if my brother drew a map it would look at least in some ways different from mine, and that is exactly how it should be. The real fun is looking at what others have drawn, and seeing what things they see which we may have missed.
I did most of my drawing in my room on the second floor of my house. Well, it was actually a room I shared with my little brother, and I figured I would have to include him in the maps too, or else he might feel hurt. I even figured out how to show my outings and his in different ways by using two colors for my dotted paths, but that came later.
My first map was little more than a piece of paper with the roads in my neighborhood drawn on it. I drew a line for the right side of each road and a line for the left side and when I was done I had a map that was pretty good and showed the blocks where we all lived.
To this I added squares and rectangles to show the houses that were there, and squiggly lines to show trees and other bigger things when I could think of them. I drew in my Dad’s car and walkways from the houses to the streets. I drew lines to show fences and gardens. It wasn’t long before I realized that there was a lot more stuff that could go in, so I started over and was determined to add more details about all these things.
I though and thought and thought. How would it look? If it was cloudy and misty and the house was covered in a fog, what would I see first of all?
I looked at my neighbors houses again for this answer, and the more I observed the more I realized how much I had been missing.
This was quite some time ago, and anyone who had a television- not everyone did-had an antenna atop the roof or attached to the chimney. From what I could see, this was the highest part of the whole house, and so was the first thing I would draw. Next would be the chimney itself, and that was really just a square of bricks if I drew it from above. Then there were details like shingles and peaks above the windows which I drew in too so it seemed to me this was a very good start.
Next I drew in the steps just outside my basement door, for most of my adventures would begin from there.
The basement was where my father stored things. There were usual items like ladders and a lawnmower, shovels and garden rakes, but there were also old pieces of machinery which he had carted home from work after they had broken down. No one really expected they would function again, but as he said you never knew when they might come in handy for parts. He would also collect odds and ends he found discarded in spring cleanup piles in neighbours’ yards, and my mother would often wonder as to what good any of this could possibly be. Truth being said, not much of it ever was, but then again one never knew, and to this day I still have some fine old wooden steamer trunks that he rescued from two houses up the street.
These found treasures, rescued by my Dad, were stacked in more or less an orderly fashion, allowing enough space for my mother to make a path through it to where we kept the vegetables stored in the cool of the basement. I would often play in the dusty sunlight which poured in through the open door, the summer heat lurking just outside. It was so funny. I could play for hours down there with never a concern, but as soon as it grew dark and the shadows filled in behind the shelves I would scurry upstairs into the kitchen, or out into the back yard, and wait until the sun of the following day would again fill the room with warm light.
It did occur to me that the penguins might indeed take refuge in my basement after dark, but I am sorry to say I never had the courage to go look until I was much older. Of course by then they would have moved on. I was sure they seldom stayed in one place for long, just to make finding them all the more difficult.
Beyond the basement the yard was mostly a band of grass which went from front to back. It was fenced all round except for the front, although we seldom thought of it as much of a barrier. It probably served more as a boundary for the neighbourhood dogs, each having its own yard and therefore its own territory to patrol. Some of the dogs took liberties and strayed beyond the designated areas, but mostly it was pretty harmonious and apart from the occasional round of barking when a dog from outside the neighbourhood strolled through, it was usually quiet.
The front yard had a very tall, very wiry old linden tree, its branches coveting the air around it and providing nests for birds and an escape route for local cats which were being chased by non-local dogs. (The neighbourhood dogs and cats seemed to have agreed at some point to generally let each other be rather than waste time annoying each other, and this worked quite well.) The tree had been planted when I was about three as on old family photo attests, but its growth far outpaced mine so I had conceded early on in that race.
Our tree definitely had its own timetable, leafing out about two weeks after the others on my street and shedding those leaves about two weeks later than the rest. I wasn’t sure why this happened, but figured our tree was just stubborn, and that was ok by me.
There was a concrete walk from our front steps to the curb, and we used it for many things. In summer it was a runway for our balsa wood airplanes, or a solid base on which to draw our chalk outlines for hopscotch. It was about four feet wide and twenty feet long, which was quite nice for playing on, but not so nice to have to shovel when the snows came. It was divided into roughly square sections, each having settled in at a slightly a different angle, so we had to be careful if playing hide and seek not to trip on the cracks in our haste.
The seams were home to many families of insects, and these would fascinate me. I could sit for hours and watch as ants patrolled their tiny universe, searching for food, paying no attention to the cracks we avoided so carefully. They were single minded and relentless in their journeys, and if they had been able to draw maps like mine I am sure there would be line upon line upon line. The carpenter bugs would cross paths with them at times, but usually with little conflict, and spiders would stay hidden if they knew I was watching.
The rain would bring the earthworms to the surface, or if the downpour was sudden, the odd butterfly would find shelter on our front porch. The summer smell of rain would fill the house, mist blowing in from the outside in gusts, filtering through the sheer curtains that Mom had never quite been able to keep clean.
These showers would pass over in minutes, sometimes bringing thunder with them which rolled around our inland valley before passing on, leaving sunshine in its wake. Our tree would shake off the excess water as best it could, if the breeze permitted, but deep under its cloak the dry earth remained, undisturbed by such events. The grass was thin at best in that area around the trunk, for even though we watered it with the hose when needed, the sun could barely penetrate to give it strength to grow.
There were at times flowers in the front as well, planted along the walkway by my mother, and we tried our best to not walk on them in our play. They were prettiest in the fall, blooming nonstop it seemed, and knowing full well that soon the frost would come and they would sleep until the spring would wake them up again.
Some of the flower bulbs had been located by my dog of course, and had been dug up and buried elsewhere, so quite often there were little surprise gardens in spots of the yard where we had never planted anything ourselves.
My house faced the street, which curved towards my house in a semi circle through my neighborhood and met another street at either end which curved in the opposite way. To the right side of my house was the gravel driveway which sat beside the driveway of the house next door. To the left of the house was a wide expanse of grass, flat everywhere except for a small hill which was one of my favourite places of all.
This hill had not been there originally, but came to be one summer day when my Dad had a truck deliver topsoil which for some reason never got spread out. This mound of mud became my joyous playground when it arrived, and soon roads and tunnels were made in and around it and there many great adventures took place. One thing though, the more we played, the more the things we played with got hidden in the shifting soil.
My toy fort, complete with wagons and cannon and cactus in molded green, was perhaps the first victim of my wandering attention. The garden hose provided ample water for a river to flood my poor fort until my brave cavalry could charge in and save it!
As that summer continued, the fort kept surfacing to be rediscovered, but the mounted horsemen, smaller in size and brown in color, hid very well in the river of muck. By summer’s end it was herds of plastic dinosaurs which saved the day, brightly colored as they were, easily found at end of play, a plastic arm or leg pointing skyward and allowing for quick rescue.
Other toys, a Noah’s Ark among them, would find themselves stuck in similar fashion. More able to survive my floods, the ark remained aloft, perching high upon the topsoil peak, its cargo of animals having wandered off into underground tunnels or nearby yards in the pockets of friends.
Fall arrived and sprouts of grass had begun to fill in the folds of road and valley that we had made, and our muddied hill became a grassy mountain, more solid and ready for the impact of the winter winds and snow. It was a foundation then for snow forts, big and strong with walls made thick by the attention of many hands. It was a rally point where my friends would know to meet me after school and the home-free base when games of tag and spotlight would be played.
This hill was a hive of activity as I have already mentioned, and so gets a prominent place in the beginning of my map. There wasn’t much else of note on that side, so I kept it pretty simple in my sketch.
The back yard was a different story altogether.
There was a long set of steps which lead down from the kitchen door at the rear of my house and into the back yard. I would sit on them in summer and eagerly await the first wafting smells of baking bread coming from the kitchen when my Mom had a day off. We always had homemade bread when we could, and Mom had the time, and this was generally the case with most of the other homes in our neighborhood as well. My friends and I would do the rounds, sitting on the steps or front porch of whichever house was baking on that day. The group was pretty consistent and there wasn’t a real pecking order seeing as we all knew there would be plenty. Our ears would perk as the oven doors squeaked open and we knew that within five minutes or so we would be getting warm buttered samples of whatever had just been taken out.
At the bottom of my steps was the path to the basement door at the back of the house, and then from there to the back fence lay the yard. This garden had more uses than I can even remember. It had a swing set, which always came in handy for things other than just swinging on. We would hang blankets from it and make tents and this would be the headquarters for a vast neighbourhood campaign, the purpose of which would most likely be forgotten before the day was over. We would tie ropes to the swing set frame, and on these our action figures would glide to safety or some unknown misadventure. We would use it as the home free base in tag, the sound of jangling chains indisputable to announce our victory.
The swings were in the far left corner of the yard, and in the far right was the clothesline pole which held the line that stretched back up to the rear porch landing. The line was high enough so that our muddy hands would not be able to reach the fresh blowing sheets that billowed above us, but occasionally, for badness, we tried anyway.
The clothesline pole itself was more or less sitting in a pile of rocks. Each spring saw it lean ever so slightly more towards the porch, and so my father’s solution to this was to add more rocks to the pile to firm it up. This seemed like a very good idea to me as it afforded another mountainous terrain for my trucks and cars to conquer, and inevitably to become lost in as well.
To the right of the clothesline pole and along the side fence was a small vegetable garden. Planting it had been a good idea at the time, according to my mom, but neither she nor my father ever really had the time to do much with it. It yielded, to the best of my recollection, mostly radishes, and these in profusion. I don’t think they grew from nurturing, but rather more in spite at the neglect.
After a week or two of radishes I think we were all quite tired of them, so they grew on through the summer, occasionally being surrendered to a neighbor who dropped by, in exchange most likely for an equally overly prolific zucchini or eggplant.
To the left of the clothesline pole, along the rear fence, there were a few berry bushes which had been planted long before I can remember. They were blackberries I think, and my Mom and I harvested them and she made jam. There seemed to be buckets of berries, and then only a few small bottles of jam, but it was sweet and good on toast in the winter so worth every bit of effort in the picking.
The area in front of the bushes was a very special place. This was the spot where our pets, of various and sundry description, found a final resting place. My brother and I were always blessed with furry or feathered or finned friends, and when they passed away it meant some special place had to be found for them in our makeshift graveyard. There were sad ceremonies when budgie birds, goldfish, hamsters or gerbils were all given as best a send off as we could, and it seemed that there was always a shoebox to be found when needed for these occasions.
We would place a small ring of stones around each space, and a Popsicle stick marker so we knew who was who. It was always a solemn occasion, and Mom or Dad would be there afterwards to comfort and supply hugs as needed. As the years went by, the individual spots more or less blended into one, but we all knew where the general area was and kept our respectful distances when digging in the yard for other things.
Beyond my yard were other yards, similar but different as you might expect. They were all pretty much the same shape, and the houses of similar style, but time and necessity had added to each in its own unique way. Color was by far the most obvious difference between the homes, and types of bushes and flowers distinguished one garden from another. Our neighbour to the left had no trees in his backyard at all, and in winter we would flood the yellowed grass with water in anticipation of the first good skate.
Our neighbour to the right had a vegetable patch, which unlike the one in our yard was tended with patience and by summer’s end produced tomatoes and cucumbers which were canned or pickled to be enjoyed throughout the year. There were other yards with other special traits.
Across the street , on a lot that was a bit bigger than most and triangular in shape, there stood a grouping of apple trees and lilacs which we were attracted to like moths to light. In the fall the apples which were too high to pick would drop and we would salvage what we could.
There was also a garden behind the house where carrots grew, sweet and delicious when pulled fresh from the ground and rinsed in water from the hose, and we would be treated to these when the old man and woman who lived there were harvesting their bounty. In fact they probably weren’t all that old at all, but they had children who had grown and moved away so to us they seemed very old indeed.
A little further up the street, behind the carrot patch, there was an area of rocky outcrop where no house had been built at all. It wasn’t really very high at all, but was high enough for us to think it was. We would survey our domain from its summit; confident that we knew all there was to know for at least as far as we could see. This in fact was true, because in all honesty we couldn’t see much beyond our own backyards in any direction.
There we staged our revolts and rallied our forces when needed. If you didn’t know where anyone was, this was the place to start the search, and if no one was there, there was a pretty good chance they would show up eventually, for this was the rule. It was also the spot in our small world where the voices of any parent calling us home from front or back door could be heard. One call was usually enough, for we all knew full well that claiming to have not heard would fall on deaf ears. I tried on one or two occasions to plead such a case, mostly in an effort to stay out later with the older kids, but that never worked, and I would find myself grounded the next evening. This was not my idea of a successful strategy, so I soon gave it up.
The more I drew in all these things, the more I realized how special they all were. To others who did not know my yard and street, they were just things to pass by and not give a second look, but to those of us who lived in my neighborhood, they were places where we were best able to just be us.
As I grew bigger, I added more to my little map, and as I was old enough to go further in my town, I could add more in all directions. I soon found that, rather than make a new map every time and try to squeeze in all my new discoveries, I was better off to just add more maps to the first map I had drawn.
This was good for other reasons too, because quite honestly my paper was much too small to hold all the additions I wished to make. I added to my map on its left and right, its top and bottom. The more I learned, the more I added, and my maps and I grew together it seemed.
Like a flurry of snow in winter, every day I found out all these things that were around me, and I drew as quickly as my pencil could be sharpened. It was my own story written down in drawings, and I could glance at any part of my map and know what tales it told.
In all of this, despite how really good I was at trying to find out what surrounded me, I still could not figure out where the penguins hid.
One day, while I was drawing a new page to add, it occurred to me that not only was it important for me to make note of all my new additions, but also it was important to try somehow to keep track of the order in which I found them. This didn’t seem as big a thing to me when I first began drawing. There wasn’t all that much to keep track of, and it was mostly in my own yard anyway. But now this doodled journal of mine was getting very complex indeed, and needed more attention. It would make it more a story than it had ever been, and seeing as I liked doing it so much, I decided to put more into it.
What I had to come up with was a way to add my trips to my map so that I knew what things I had encountered first, second, and so on. I started by putting numbers on things, in the order I saw them, but soon my page was covered because there were so many things to point out. My first page had numbers on numbers on numbers, so I knew I had to try something else.
I next thought I would draw lines and connect the places I had gone with these. It was sort of a “connect the dots” kind of puzzle, and while it did look less messy and did let me link things up, it didn’t really look as nice as I wanted my map to be. It was by then past my bedtime and I was tired anyway, so I decided to solve this problem the next day.
When I woke up it was raining, and I could hear my dog out in the yard barking to come in. I got dressed, went down and in he came, all wet and shaking off the rain. He stayed in the porch and circled round, his muddy feet leaving small paw prints on the tiled floor. There it was! My answer was in front of me! My own footprints would be my guide to where my maps had taken me!
I ran upstairs and scribbled down a simple trail on my map, not solid, but in foot print fashion, and held it out to see. I was impressed. Not only did it show where I had been, it looked pretty nifty too. I was onto something.
Eventually my map grew very big, with folds in all directions, longer in the directions where I had traveled furthest, and some with fewer details where my passage through had been by quicker means. It was these areas of my map, traveled in by car or flown above in plane, that I knew I would come back to and fill in all the details I had missed.
My map, I now had come to understand, would never really ever be something that would have an end, and though in some ways this seemed daunting, in other ways in was very exciting indeed. I knew there would be parts of the world around me which I perhaps would never see in my journeys, and that got me to thinking.
What if everyone was drawing maps like mine? What if one day we all would meet, having arrived at the same point at the same time on the maps each of us had drawn! In some ways, we would really then share where we all had been with all those we met, and the stories would go on and on, with footprints winding far and wide, touching all the places which on our own we would never be able to have the time to visit.
These stories would cover many lands and cross many oceans, and in that way make the distant places we had dreamt of seem somehow closer to each of us. I thought maybe my stories might then seem less exciting than the stories others might tell, but then I reconsidered.
Who could, after all, come up with a better map than the one I drew which showed the way to cross the frog pond in the woods near my home, stepping from board to board and getting to the other side without once getting wet feet? The pond was of course only a few inches deep, and in truth was just a boggy field, but to us it was more. It served as a boundary which, once crossed, put us into a Play Woods of tree forts and trails which we were sure we could well have hidden in for years. We could, of course, still hear the important things from beyond the forest, like the mill whistle blowing at four, letting us know that somewhere there were sandwiches and cold drinks to break up a warm summer day, or hot chocolate to warm us up in winter.
We knew these woods as well as we knew any part of our town, but at night it occurred to me that other footprints might be making patterns on the trails we knew by day. Maybe this was where the penguins hid. I never saw any evidence of this, but then again they are very careful to make sure their tracks are well concealed once they have passed by.
My Woods held other creatures too, and these I saw on quite a regular basis. I think they paid more attention to us than we did to them. We were busy playing games that all kids play, and maybe sometimes missed the things which were quieter and yet were all around us.
I think I may have noticed more because I was always looking to see what I could add to my map, and things others may have missed I was lucky enough to see.
The trees were always alive with birds and squirrels going about the business of their days and pausing to see what foolishness we were getting up to. For our part we would sometimes take a break from our adventures, sit and share a half melted chocolate bar that was too well warmed in someone’s back pocket, and maybe listen to the songs the birds above would sing us.
If we had packed an apple or an orange, then the crows were indeed in luck, for we knew that no sooner would we leave the core or peel behind than one of them would swoop down and seconds later be perched on a branch above with its prize in hand. I had at one time thought to include on my map the trails the animals all would make, but I think I would have needed a much bigger map and a much smaller pencil.
It was when we left the Woods to the birds and animals that lived there that I wondered what went on when we were not there to see it. One warm summer evening I remember sitting half asleep in the back seat of our car, and as we passed the Woods I was sure I could hear singing and laughing coming from within. There were parties I was sure, when rabbits and squirrels would get together and dance, birds would sing for them to make sure they could keep a beat, and frogs would chirp alerts if any of us tried to sneak in to have a peek. If there were penguins there I sincerely doubted if they would participate in this event, for even to the other animals I was sure the whereabouts of the penguins was a well kept secret.
The first few weeks of my map had perhaps been the most consuming. I was in such great haste to capture what I knew of my surround that my poor pencil could barely keep up! I drew for hours on end, capturing and recapturing the world as I saw it. At the outset I felt as if I would never get to the end of my first page, but I eventually did, and after the initial fury of scribbling was over, my map became more of a daily journal which I could update in quite a short time, relaxed at my desk or sitting on my front porch or back steps.
My parents would ask me how it was going and look at what I had drawn from time to time, and although they sort of got the idea, the map still remained a bit of a puzzle to them, and I thought that was fine. I had found a voice of my own on my pages, and while it was nice to share with my folks, it was also nice to have that little part of me that no one quite knew as well as I did.
The older I got, the more areas in my neighborhood I could venture into. I had always been able to go back and forth to my school, which was in reality only a few blocks away, but on this journey I was only allowed to walk a specific path and make no side trips. If I did not come straight home I was in trouble, so I usually did. I do confess that stopping to pick dandelions or poking a stick into a puddle to see how deep it went would distract me briefly, but I tried as best to be home when expected.
Winter was a harder time to pay attention to the rules seeing as there were always snowball fights to get involved in or to avoid, and cardboard boxes beckoning to be jumped into and ridden down a snowy hill. There were also days when it was so cold that all thought of dilly dallying went out the window, and those days I would make up time for any of the straying I had done before, so I think it all balanced out. My parents probably knew this too, and as long as I got home safe and sound in reasonable time they were happy.
The roads along which I would go to school were lined with houses much like my own as well, and the only part which was really different was at the bottom of the hill below my neighbourhood. There was a gas station there, and a small line of shops, and on weekends this was where we would go with our allowances to buy assorted candies kept secure behind a finger and nose smudged glass case. The case seemed immensely high to me on my first trip, and the man behind appeared to tower on forever.
We would all go at the same time, so as to guarantee the biggest variety, and then run back up the hill to sit on front steps and drink cold drinks in summer, or gather in a warm porch in winter. We sometimes paused on our way home to sneak a few select treats before continuing on our journey, and for this the well placed bushes and scrub of trees which lined the hill behind the gas station afforded suitable cover. It was far enough away from the edge of the road to give us a sense of being not quite in our own backyards, but still close enough to make a mad dash to our houses if we heard something rustle in the leaves.
The line of stores had in it other things besides the candy shop. There was a barber shop as well, and a small take-out of sorts, but the barber shop was most feared among the three. I don’t know which I hated more, having to get my hair cut or having to get my regular baths. I dreaded them equally, although the haircuts were a biweekly event at most, but in combination they were horrible!
My long hair in the mirror would tell me soon enough when the day was approaching. It was always a Saturday morning when my Dad had time to take me, and he would get his hair cut as well. I would suffer the indignity of being propped on the booster seat (which in reality was a piece of fabric covered plank which the barber placed across the arms of the regular chair) and await the buzz of the clippers.
I don’t think there is anything as icky as the feeling of hairs down the back of your shirt, and despite the towel placed along your neck to prevent them from going down there, they do.
Step number two in this process was of course going home to have a bath to rinse off the hair that was still stuck to you, so although the final result was that the itching was gone, the fact that it took a bath to do it seemed a bit of a nasty twist of fate to me.
There were sometimes special events which compounded things even more so- a birthday or a visit from my grandparents, or conversely a visit to see them- and on these occasions a bonus haircut could be in order. Not only that, but the haircut was followed by the bath which THEN was followed by being made to wear new clothes with starched seams and collars. To add insult to injury, I was told to keep out of any dirt until I had at least been seen in my new getup for a satisfactory period, and this seemed an endless sentence to me. I complied as best I could, but usually had my own motives.
If it was my grandparents who were to benefit from my appearance, then they would usually reward me with ice cream or a chocolate bar or something equally sugary, and it seemed to me that the size of my treat and extent of the attention was directly proportional to how clean I stayed. I got hugs as well, and these I treasured above all. The irony of course was that my state of cleanliness decreased with the addition of the ice cream or chocolate, but by then I had done my duty and what more could anyone ask?
On these visits, there would be trips with my grandfather in his car, and this time I cherished and guarded at all costs. When he came he would spend the day visiting as usual, then after supper was over he would give me a wink and I knew we were headed off.
There was a train depot of sorts in a town a few miles from ours, and we would spend the fifteen minute drive chatting about school and other things until we got there. I would then sit and watch, totally concentrating on the engines and cars in front of me as they shunted back and forth. I can’t really recall if I ever saw a train actually leave the station or not, but in truth it didn’t matter if they had just stayed still and not moved much at all. There was the sound and smell of the engine and squeak of wheels on rail, and that was enough for me.
All of these events would find their way to my map in time, for even though I may not have thought of them as too important at first I came to understand that if I missed the chance to note them on my drawing, I might forget them altogether.
By the time I was eleven or twelve, I was allowed to play well beyond the confines of my neighbourhood. Most of us had bikes by then, and our days were spent exploring wherever we could. There was a river which ran beside the town and we often would race down to sit by its banks, sandwiches and soda pop in brown bags secure in our backpacks. These we would devour upon arrival, and this was regardless of what time we had previously eaten. If we had gotten up and had our breakfasts and then were at the river in an hour or less, we still ate as soon as we got there because that was half the fun.
We probably were hungry by lunchtime though, and by supper we were starved and couldn’t wait to dive into our plates. If we were able to grab an apple or an orange mid-afternoon that helped fill in the gap too.
The river was an area of exploration all on its own. There were nooks and crannies where we poked around, flashlights in hand, sure that bats and other beasts were only inches away, but hidden in the cracks and shadows. There may well have been penguins too, but I never saw any signs of their presence, and my friends weren’t looking for them because I had kept that particular search as more or less my own secret project.
The river was always busy, full of logs drifting down from the mill dams, or salmon jumping high to breech the rocks above them as they headed upstream to spawn. We could feel the spray in summer, and watch ice chunks form in winter. The sound of the water itself would lull us to sleep at times as we stretched out upon the rocks, happy just being in the company of friends. As time went on, the town grew closer to the river edge, and much of what had been our sanctuary disappeared. I was sad at that thought, thinking that the kids who lived there after we had grown would not be able to have such great adventures, but in reality there was forest all around, and I guess part of having a place to call your own is discovering a spot where no one really had played that much before.
I could only guess at how the river wound beyond our town itself, but did know of other towns downstream which it passed on its way to the ocean, so I mapped this out as best I could. In later years I would add more detail to my river, and even detail of the towns beyond as I knew more about them.
It was around the same time that the patch of forest just beyond our neighbourhood came to play such an important role in our lives as well. This was the Play Woods which I have mentioned to you before, and now I shall describe how I mapped this favorite place out upon my paper.
At the far edge of the two streets which defined where I lived, there was another street, more a road really with much more traffic. It had houses along it as well, but mostly it had shops and restaurants which served the neighbourhoods around them. There was an area along this road and about four streets away from my house where a boggy field fronted a stand of trees.
The trees were very old, and the rocky cliffs scattered in amongst them prevented any easy construction, and so it was left undisturbed as the town grew all around it. Eventually another road was added on its other side, parallel to the road beside the field, but this still left us more space than we needed to play our days away.
There were trails which had been there for perhaps as long as the town had been settled, for they were very well worn and wide in spots from years of use. The names we used were not names we had invented, but names our parents and older siblings had passed along to us, so for ease of communication we used these names as well. In many ways the tradition of the Play Woods was passed along from generation to generation, and this was rather nice.
There were at least four or five main trails which I recall, and they were all called “Ski Hill”. There was “First Ski Hill’ and “Second Ski Hill” and so on up to five, and as the name denotes they were hills which lead from the field side of the Woods to the lower part of the Woods on the opposite side. I don’t actually recall ever skiing on the trails, but sliding was a must. About a week after it had snowed enough to cover the trails to a slidable depth, they were smooth and shiny with use and more like a bobsled track than anything else. I am sure the trails caused their fair share of bumps and scrapes, and I for one had suffered many, but that would never keep you from staying away for more than a day.
Summer had as much activity in the Woods as winter, and as snow forts melted, tree huts took their place. These were never much in terms of construction, but they did establish a certain sense of territory, and most of the neighbourhoods had some defining spot where the kids who lived there would assemble. There were the odd raids between the forts as mock battles took place, but this was all in fun and really was just a good way to set up teams for the games which would enthrall us for hours on end.
I think it was in drawing up my map of the Woods that I realized how different a winter map would be from a summer map. The trees of course were the biggest factor, seeing as from above in summer there really wasn’t much to see other than leaves and an occasional rock, but in winter the trails we cherished came through in all their glory.
I then looked at some of my other maps and figured I would have perhaps to revisit some of those as well to make sure that any significant seasonal differences were drawn in. On many it wouldn’t really matter that much, for most were just showing routes from here to there. Others, like my own house and yard, would benefit from a winter and summer map seeing as there was so much activity on them at all times of the year, and this of course needed to be noted.
My maps became my diary on paper, and despite its unusual format it in fact allowed me to claim ownership of my history in a very different way. I think I kept it up because it was so special to me, and rather than a continuation of words which grew stacked page upon page, it grew outwards, North to South, East to West, in much the same way as did my own awareness of my place and times.
I still value writing my journals as well, but my maps were a side companion to it which reinforced the words with images of all description. My journal would have odds and ends, and poetry, and the subjects of these poems could often be found in some illustrative way hidden on my map. This was neat as well, for it would often be the clues in my poems that would point out the significance of these sketches on my maps. I shall not point out to you what these were, for you have your own stories to tell.
Soon I was adding pages all around my first, and bit by bit my world unfolded around me. I could see the way my house and neighbourhood related to those bordering it, and beyond how town related to town, countryside to city, and so on. My range grew unchecked it seems, and soon my lines were no longer restricted to my island home.
My first ventures across the water were in the form of family vacations. It was on these trips when my longest maps to date took shape. I had some sense of distance, primarily because we drove so long, and I interpreted this on my map by guessing at how many trips from my town to the next this would be equal to, and drawing that. It was not accurate I am sure, but the drive was long and tiring and it gave me something to do while the miles passed by.
The first part of the first vacation I drew began with a car trip which ended at a port where we were to take a ferry to the mainland. I had been on small boats before, fishing with my father, but this was entirely a different thing. The ferry was huge, with many many decks, and pulled into the dock in slow and steady movements. Within minutes, the front tilted up and out came cars and trucks of all description. They seemed an endless stream, and the small port town, previously quiet with traffic at a minimum, now bustled with roads sending dust into the summer air.
I had never been in such a place and my pencil squealed with excitement as I drew in a furious attempt to capture every detail. Soon our line of traffic began to move. We were all parked in lines of twenty cars or so, with lines of trucks as well, and there were eight or nine rows across as best as I could guess. I couldn’t figure where we all would fit, and it was only because I had seen the traffic coming out that I wasn’t concerned about us going in. There was also the promise of a cabin on the boat and the chance to stand on the deck and watch us pull out that calmed any fear I may have had about this new adventure.
It was dark by the time we were driving on, one behind the other. Then we were secured to the deck with chains put on the axles by the crewmen. I could smell the fumes from the engines and it was nothing like I had ever smelled before and to this day I am reminded of it whenever I am walking on a city street and a bus passes by.
We made our way up steep stairs to the decks where the cabins were and a purser directed us to where we were to stay. It was small, with two bunks on each side and a sink beside the door. I picked the top bunk on the left, my brother the top bunk on the right, and we unpacked our knapsacks to stake our final claim.
Soon after we went up to the main deck. It had gotten much colder it seemed, and the wind off the water was chilly and smelled of salt. A sudden rumble from below signaled the engines in reverse, and with a shudder we began to back away from the dock. Already lines of cars had begun to replace us on the dock below, and each one I am sure could have drawn a map different from the one I was making. We all would have had this trip across the water in common though, and that was really neat.
The stars were all I could see in the night sky and soon my brother and I were yawning for sleep. My Dad said salt air makes you sleepy, and I believe he was right.
All in all the trip took about nine hours. (I could tell this by the new watch I had gotten for my birthday.) I slept quite soundly and wasn’t the slightest bit seasick, and I was glad of that. It was around six in the morning when the purser knocked on our door and said that breakfast was being served in the cafeteria and if we wanted to eat we should go soon. The boat would dock in about an hour. We rinsed off and dressed, and walked up to the main deck and out into the day. Our cabin had not had a window so the sun was bright and took a few seconds to get used to. The air was fresh and crisp as well, and seagulls flew above in search of treats that might have fallen from the decks. My Dad said there must be land nearby for the gulls to be so near, but we couldn’t see it at the time.
The lineup at the restaurant was long, but they were used to having many people show up at once and served us all quite quickly. My Mom had coffee which slopped over the edge of her cup slightly as the ship rolled forward. I had eggs and toast and pancakes, and was very full, but my father said we would not eat for another few hours so to make sure we weren’t hungry when we left the ship.
The horn blew soon after, and we were told to proceed to the car decks in preparation for docking. We returned to the cabin, brushed our teeth, and went down below. We weren’t there very long when we felt the engines reverse again as we slowed down to approach the wharf. There was a slight bump, then the clanging of chains as the crew unfastened the vehicles from the decks. The front of the ship opened up, engines started, and one by one the lines of traffic exited the ship. Our adventure in this new land had begun!
I think it only occurred to me what our vacation was to be like after we drove off the ferry. Up to that point I had never thought about much else other than the boat crossing itself, and now there was an entire world ahead of me where I had never drawn a line at all.
I felt I was up to the task, but nonetheless took a few deep breaths before I pulled out my first new page. We didn’t stop at all where the ferry had docked, and soon became part of a long line of cars and trucks which filled the highway and left the town behind.
Every so often, an overpass would come along and bit by bit our numbers dropped until we seemed to more or less be on our own. Dad stopped for gas, and a quick trip to the washrooms was good, and we got pop and chips and returned to the backset where my brother and I had set up camp. He slept most of the time, or complained about how long the drive was when he was awake, but the windows were down and I don’t think I heard him all that much.
We were heading to the country side to visit my uncle and aunt. They had a potato farm and in phone calls to them it had been promised to me that I could drive their tractor. This now replaced the memory of the boat and my focus was firmly shifted to some undisclosed countryside ahead where farm machinery awaited my visit. I was sure this would be a good story to tell in any case, and planned ample space to fit it into my new map.
It was after supper and dark when we reached the farm. I was excited but too tired to stay awake and my farm visit really would have to wait till morning to begin.
It began with cats. Two of them. They were Siamese, smoke grey with blue eyes, and when they jumped on my bed I found out they also had very sharp claws. My brother slept undisturbed by them in the next bed, so I think I must simply have been a bigger target.
My nose soon detected the smell of cooking from the kitchen downstairs, and I hurriedly dressed and went in search of what the source might be. There was my aunt and my Mom drinking tea and chatting away, as I knew they would, and the table held a basket with bread and muffins piled high in it. There were scrambled eggs as well, and milk and orange juice. I was sure that everything had come from the farm that morning it tasted so fresh, and apart from the orange juice, I was mostly right.
My Dad and uncle were outside, talking as well, but mostly about the weather and the price of potatoes, and this didn’t interest me much. The barn did. It was across from the house and had two big brown plank doors, slightly open. I crossed the yard and took a peek in. There it was. The tractor. It was red, as I had been told, but it was much larger than anything I had ever seen. The wheels were taller than I was, and the seat was no bigger than a bicycle seat and was perched way up high. I looked for a ladder, but there was none, so I knew that climbing up to drive this was going to take some assistance.
It also occurred to me that I had never driven anything like this before, so there were bound to be things about it I had not thought of, but it could be done. It was quite impressive however, and it wasn’t even moving.
The first day was spent exploring the farm. There was a grove of trees which my uncle and aunt grew to sell as Christmas trees to the people in the city. There were fields of dark green leaves which covered the rows and rows of potatoes. There was a pond some distance from the farmhouse which my uncle had stocked with trout, and where he could catch dinner fresh as can be if need. There were chickens and geese, but these had free range in most of the yard and were quite friendly for the most part. We would feed them seeds by hand and were careful not to let our fingers be part of the meal.
An old oak tree stood to the rear of the house and from it hung a tire swing which we played upon for hours. It was easy to get dizzy if you spun around too much and my brother and I each took turns trying to make the other one sick.
My aunt had rescued two baby raccoons some time before we got there as well. Their mother had been killed on the road nearby and the baby raccoons, which had been nesting on the farm property, were now in need of a home. They would drink milk from baby bottles and scramble up our shirts to take a look around, and we could watch for hours as they played around the tree. When they got older my aunt released them back into the wild, and after a few days they had reclaimed the forest beyond the farm as home again.
The promise of the tractor had been mentioned to my uncle and he said in due course it would be fulfilled. I was never very patient, and still am not, so I would begin each day with the question as to when my ride would be. I think my uncle was delaying this event just to make me more excited about doing it, for when the day did come, I could barely contain myself.
In the meantime, our days were filled with many other things. The city, which was about an hour away, was bigger than any I had visited, and we drove there in my aunt’s station wagon. The gravel driveway from the farm soon brought us to another road, and then to a small town, and next to a highway with three lanes in each direction, all moving much more quickly than any I had ever drawn before. It wasn’t long before suburbs came into view, and then, in the distance, I glimpsed the first skyscrapers I would ever see.
The morning was hazy, and they appeared as shadows at first, but as we drew closer I could see the glare of windows and tried to count the number of stories each tower must be. I confess I had put my map down by then, for there was so much to take in, and I hoped I could remember all of this and record it on our way back to the farm. We parked downtown in a parking garage with many levels, and the first thing I noticed was how loud the city was. It was coming from everywhere it seemed, from traffic in the streets to jack hammers in construction sites across the road to planes flying overhead on approach to the airport nearby. This took a little getting used to, and that was ok, because as busy as the sound was around us, this was nothing compared to how busy the city actually looked.
There were people moving in all manner of transportation. There were buses and taxis and street cars and from what my uncle had told me a subway underneath as well. I decided I would keep my map as simple as I could, and restrict it to my own journey, or this part of our trip would take me forever to draw.
Some people were in a hurry, others sauntered much as we did, looking up at the office towers and eating ice cream or hot dogs purchased from umbrella covered wagons on the street. They smelled good, but the streets were pretty dusty, so I was kind of glad we didn’t stop to eat.
In reality I think the tallest buildings were maybe thirty stories at most, which may not seem that big, but to us they seemed infinite as they stretched into the sky. Some were stone and others were glass and steel, and they formed a corridor along the main avenue of the city which caused gusts of wind to whirl along the sidewalks.
While I mostly looked around, my mouth wide open looking up, my aunt and mother took us from store to store in search of bargains. From what I could gather, the school year coming up required a whole new wardrobe for my brother and myself, and this was what my mother was intent on purchasing. Luckily we were not made to try anything on, and this was a relief.
We stayed for an early supper, and then, as a surprise, we were taken to a movie in a nearby theatre. It was cool and air conditioned, and I can’t tell you what we saw because I fell asleep. I asked my brother after to tell me what I had missed and he wouldn’t. He was like that sometimes. I was upset at first, but then I remembered that I was going to get to drive the tractor, and he wasn’t.
I decided that the next day I would fill my map with as much of the previous day as I could. That was about the last thing I thought before I fell asleep on the way back to the farm, where I slept soundly until the next morning.
The tractor. It had to be the tractor because I had not heard the likes of the noise before. It was loud and sputtery and bursting with protest at having been woken up at all. It woke me up too, and I would guess pretty much everything and everyone else within a good mile from the barn.
I raced down to the kitchen, bypassing the smells all together, and there behind the fully opened shed doors was the tractor. Smoke came thickly out of its stack and I coughed a little as it reached my nose. It soon cleared and became a less awful thin grey trail, and out the tractor lurched. I jumped back, a bit startled, and saw my uncle smiling down from his perch.
He drove into the yard and headed to a grassy field behind the barn where he kept the tillers and other things which the tractor would be used to tow. He looked around, and I am guessing decided he was far enough away from anything at that point to let me have a go.
By now my Mom and Dad and aunt and brother were standing outside the kitchen door and watching as my wish was to come true. My uncle climbed down, leaving the tractor idling, as I now know that to be, and asked if I was ready to drive. I didn’t actually answer, but was nonetheless hoisted up and planted on the seat.
My uncle stood behind me, and with his direction I adjusted the controls and slowly moved the tractor forward. Time seemed to stand still, and as far as I was concerned the vacation could have ended then and I could have asked for no more. In fact, my uncle was probably doing most of the driving, his hands controlling the levers to the right of the seat, and I was steering the wheel, but it was a thrill none the less.
Our path was a simple one as my Dad’s old home movie camera recorded, and with the wheel held firmly to the right I made wide circles in the grass. I doubt we did this for any longer than five minutes, but it was more than enough for me to have done it at all. From that morning on, he became my favorite uncle.
A few more days were spent at the farm, and then we left for our return trip home. I think my brother and I slept for most of that trip, tired from all the activity, and apart from the excitement of the ferry crossing back to the island, it was very much a quiet ride home.
The school year was upon us fast and furious, and I was decked out in all the clothes we had gotten while away. I wasn’t a big fan of new clothes, because they always itched for days until I had them broken in, but they were a direct link to the map I had drawn on the trip, so I put up with them anyway.
Almost overnight it was fall. Trees changed colours and leaves fell and dried on the ground in the cold air. I would shuffle along to school, making paths through the reds and yellows and browns which I would try to copy on my maps when I got home. I drew messy bunches of squiggles to show piles of leaves, with a few more real looking ones drawn off to the side to show what the rest were supposed to be. I was sure I would have sat there forever if I tried to draw every leaf.
I sometimes did add little bits of color when it was so important to the things I was drawing, and the leaves were of course as colorful as you can get. I guess you could add color to anything you wanted to make something special in your maps, and the leaves were very special to me, so that’s what I did.
Fall always had such a sweet smell to it and I wished I could draw that in, but of course I couldn’t. It’s funny though, when I look at my map and see the colors I can almost smell the air just from thinking about it.
Before long it had changed once more from autumn to winter and my map changed again. I had now drawn three really good maps of the areas I knew best and pages of other maps that were individual adventures on their own.
My house and yard of course, and some parts of my town too, and I was almost glad that I did not have to draw my visit to the farm all over again now that it was winter because that would have been a whole lot of work. I had made a rule for myself that my maps would show the season in which I had been to each place, and that seemed fair to me. Who knows, maybe someone else would have been to my uncle’s farm in winter and would be able to show me sometime what it looked like then!
The first part of winter seems a lot shorter to me than the last part. I think it’s because the first part has Christmas and New Year’s, and they were the days most everyone in my town looked forward to. I am sure that other places have different days which were just as much fun, and I hoped that at some point I might be able to visit such places and be a part of what they do to celebrate where they live.
After New Year’s time went by a lot slower it seemed and the months just seemed colder and darker. If the weather was particularly nasty and we got lots of snow, the plows couldn’t clear the roads in time and we would get to stay home from school. This was called a “snow day’, and we would get them maybe once a month if we were lucky!
The funny thing was that even though it was supposed to be too bad outside to get to school, we always managed to be able to get out in it anyway and play.
I liked school a lot so I was glad we weren’t off too long when these snow days came around. One day was usually long enough for me.
One thing that made winter so much different was that if there was snow on the ground then my footprints looked almost the same as the paths I drew on my maps. I would sit in my house, all warm and snuggly and look out the front window. If it was a snowy night and there was little going on, the street and yard would have a clean and untouched sheet of white all over it just waiting for someone to write on.
There were times when it was after dark, which in the winter wasn’t really very late at all, and I would be able to but on my boots and coat and just go out in the yard and make trails in the fresh white powder. I would make designs and patterns and swirls and my name if I could do it right by jumping between the letters so they didn’t all join up.
I would then go back up on the porch and view my creation, the prints dark and deep in the snow as the moonlight spread across the whiteness where I had not stepped. This was a brief moment at best, for it usually wasn’t long before the dog would join me in the yard and make his own trails as he romped and rolled, and my lines disappeared under the new ones he was making. This seemed very much the way it should be to me, as one by one we each would make our own very different marks in the snow.
I would go to my room and jot down a fresh map for that special day, and those maps I kept all to themselves in a special folder.
I was old enough to go out after supper by then as well, and if I was good and my homework was all done and if it wasn’t one of those icky nights when I had to have a bath, I was allowed to go outside for an hour or so and play.
One evening I went out for a walk with my dog. The flakes were very lightly falling and there was no wind. The night was absolutely quiet and the gentle crystals seemed to muffle the air as they floated down. I couldn’t even hear my dog as he snuffled through the drifts and sniffed for hidden treasures or tried to find the tracks of the dogs who had been there before. His nose was covered each time he poked his head into the drifts and he would sneeze once in a while as the cold tickled his nose. His tail wagged behind us and it was thick enough to almost cover up the footprints we were making as we walked.
My house was very near to the old part of my town, just above it in fact. We headed down a hill across from my house and onto the snow covered street at the bottom. We then went right on that street and then left at the next street to another hill which overlooked the downtown and all the lights which twinkled there.
During the daytime this was where we often went sliding on old cardboard boxes on our way home from school, getting home with cold bottoms and sniffly noses if we had stayed too long and hoping for a big mug of hot chocolate. At night it was usually not as busy and this night there was just me and my dog.
We stood at the top of the hill on the old concrete steps which would take you down the hill to the road below. To my right I could hear the bells ringing out the time on an old wooden church, the sound soft as the snow dulled it before it reached my ears. There were two other churches along that same road, and they were grey and outlined against the glow that came from the streetlights and houses beyond them. One had a clock that was all lit up and it would appear and disappear as swirls of snow would blow by and gently hide it from me for a second or two.
On the left was the main shopping street. The stores were closed, but some lights and signs were still on and light spilled across the street from side to side and made wavy lines in the snow. The plow had not yet been along and maybe was waiting to see how deep the snow got before it came out to clear it all away.
One or two cars moved up and down, the light from their headlights meeting and crossing over one another as they reached an intersection and turned in opposite directions. I could barely hear the motors running and what I did hear was more likely the low rumble that always came from the mill at the far end of town. Most people worked in the mill and it chugged along all day and all night and only stopped for special holidays.
When the machines did shut down I was never really able to sleep that well, and I think most people in my town were the same way. I guess we were so used to the sound of the big machines that we missed it when it wasn’t there.
The mill was built along the river just beyond the main street to the left and its smokestacks climbed forever into the darkness. There were big clouds of steam which curled into the sky above the stacks and rolled left or right depending on which way the wind was blowing. There was not a sound to be heard from the mill other than the rumble and the whistle which blew every day at eight in the morning and four in the afternoon. There may have been a whistle late at night as well but I was most likely asleep and don’t ever remember hearing it.
I stood and looked out over my town, and it was set out in front of me like some toy train set with a village all lit up. I thought it would always look the same as it did then, but as I got older and changed so did my town. Some older buildings were replaced with newer ones, and some were taken down all together. I missed some of them and some I barely even noticed were gone. Some were painted different colors every year it seemed, and in some empty lots where houses were removed new trees and flowers and benches took their place and on and on it went.
I think for that reason too I was so glad I had my maps. My little brother would sometimes watch me draw and I would show him a map drawn of the same spot just the year before and he could see how things were different. There might be a house gone and store built up, or a tree planted or a new road put in. He might not even remember how it had been so short a time ago and so for him it was like a new discovery!
I guess what I learned from that is history really doesn’t have to be all that long ago. It can be last year or last month or even yesterday.
The best thing is I know my maps will never really be finished, because there will always be something new to add or take away and that is what is so special about them. I hope you can try a map yourself and see what you discover about what you thought was an ordinary day.
And the penguins-I still haven’t found them. I will always keep looking and who knows, maybe someday I will draw another map and somewhere on it written very clearly in my best and smallest writing it will say-“this is where the Penguins hid”