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Thirty Feet Across, if it was an Inch

An excerpt from Freewheeling; Seven Venturesome Tales of Boys and Their Bikes

Hillside Gardens Adventure

Thirty Feet Across, if it Was an Inch

My friends and I hung around the waters of High Park and Swansea way more than we ought to have. There’s something about water that’s just a constant draw to kids ... maybe not every kid, but certainly for me and my gang. There’s a mystery of what lays below the boundary layer between air and water. The ever changing surface texture and the inverted reflections of the trees along the shore and the simple fact that is was largely away from the prying eyes of adults, or more specifically, parents.

One particular day, a few of us; Pantsy, Jimmy Ears, Bobby Byrd and myself were riding our bikes along the top of Hillside Gardens, in High Park, above Grenadier Pond. It was a beautiful, sunny morning, in late August as I recall, for the Canadian National Exhibition was in full swing and we had all been there the day before.

As it so happens, you’re not supposed to be riding your bike along the top of Hillside Gardens, in High Park – all the signs say so. All the gardeners yell it at you as you ride by. Certainly the police officers on foot patrol take great pains to say so. So, it’s not like we didn’t know we weren’t supposed to be riding our bikes at Hillside Gardens. Yet there we were.

The gardens, lawns, pathways and waterways of Hillside Gardens are situated on the eastern side of the valley of Grenadier’s Pond and are quite extensive. The gardens are beautiful – breathtakingly so – and well worth a visit at any time of year. It is especially beautiful in the summer and that of course is only one of the parks many attractions. Another attraction is the rock and pond waterfalls that cascade invitingly (too invitingly it turned out) down the hill just above the boat rental house.

As an aside, it so happens that the gardens are only a stone’s throw from the High Park Zoo, which is yet another attraction for kids who are looking for some release from the boredom of their neighbourhood. One winter, a few years later, when I was in high school, Ears, Peter Renzoni and I were doing some ski training on the steep hill that bottomed out at the zoo. We had about twelve bamboo slalom poles that we’d carry back and forth between this hill and our high school about a mile distant. None of us drove so we had to heft them back in our arms. One evening, after training, we didn’t feel like walking home with the poles, so we hopped the fence and put the poles behind the mountain goat shelter, inside the chain link fence, intending to retrieve them next afternoon. When we returned the next day, all that was left was a bunch of bamboo splinters! The goats had trampled them, chewed them and generally dragged them all over the enclosure. The poles were now useless, but I digress.

At the bottom of the hill, between the gardens and Grenadier Pond is a large ornamental Maple Leaf (grown entirely of some sort of dark and light purple plants) which seems to pop up on any Google search of Hillside Gardens, High Park. It must be thirty feet across if it’s an inch. All beautiful and loving cared for by the full-time, professional gardeners who attend the entire garden area.

It was a hot morning. Oh God it was hot. Awful, really. Hot and humid. We had just spent a couple of hours riding around the dirt trails of the park and we needed relief, and that's where the rock gardens and ornamental waterfalls (cascading invitingly) come into the story.

We were kids after all, maybe only twelve or thirteen years old and quite frankly, not particularly bright, and what kid wouldn’t want to go into the invitingly cool waters of the ornamental waterfalls? None, I say! So, of course, we got off our bikes and climbed into one of the numerous pools that graced the waterway.

They didn’t have fences up then, for the gardens were relatively new. Either they hadn’t gotten to it yet or they didn’t think anyone would climb into the pools. Really, they might as well have put up a sign that read, “Swim Here.”

So, there were are, the four of us, walking around in one of the upper pools, just wading mind you, nothing mischievous, when a gardener yells at us, “Get out of that water, or I’ll set the cops on you!” Being obedient kids, we did exactly what he asked. We scurried a few meters down stream, over a little cascade of water, into the next – lower, pool. We were out of, “that water,” but that didn’t seem to satisfy the cranky old bugger. Now he starts yelling about this pool! Dutifully, we clamber down into the next lower pool. Still not satisfied, was this gardener. He badgered us all the way down the hill, brandishing a rake, to where the water finally disappears under a service road, before draining into Grenadier Pond.

Ok, we’re finally out. He seems satisfied. We walk back up the hill to where we left our bikes on the northern side of the stream, while he walks back, up the southern side, rake in hand, to his wheelbarrow.

Now, the thing about Hillside Gardens is, as I’ve mentioned, that it offers more than one amusement for stupid kids on bikes. The next most popular thing to do is ride along the hilly and winding cement walkways that thread their way along the hillside. I guess the reason they don’t want bikes doing that is – well, it’s hilly and twisty and maybe a bit dangerous for pedestrians, what with bicycles speeding past them at breakneck speed. What greater way to hurt yourself or someone else?

We’re now more near the southern end of the garden, far away from the water features. Another gardener starts yelling about not riding on the paths. We make our way past the red-faced gardener and around a corner and out of earshot. We head back towards the water features.

As we approach the northern end of the gardens, we see an officer on horseback. He whistles and motions for us to come over to him. He’s on the other side of a fence, further up the hill, near the gardener’s house. Jimmy Ears yells out, “The dick is supposed to be under the horse not on top!”

Holy crap! Why’d he yell that?

Sure, Jimmy Ears’ old man had a couple of run-ins with the cops, something about, “Being in possession of stolen property.” Occasionally Ears dad would drop by our house with a new table radio, toaster or maybe some power tools that, “fell off the back of the truck.” My dad knew how he got them and I suppose that made him complicit, but ours wasn’t a judgmental neighbourhood. Like any street, I suppose, there were certain inequities between families, but not too much. We all had TVs but only a couple of the neighbours had a colour TV. We all had back yards, but only a couple of us had a “patio.” No one had too much to brag about.

Any way, after yelling at the mounted cop, Jimmy Ears turns off the path and heads straight down the grass hillside towards the pond, in an attempt to evade the stern looking copper and his horse. I guess we were all little panicked about the officer and we all rode off the pathway and onto the slippery, soft lawns.

Now, if you haven’t ridden on a steeply pitched, soft and damp lawn, let me tell you about it. “Control” is only a notion – you don’t really “steer” your bike, you more “wish” for your bike to turn in the direction and manner you hope. “Braking” is very much like “steering” in that one doesn’t so much do it, as hope it. One dare not even touch the handlebar lever to activate the front brake, for fear it would lock up, slip sideways and send you crashing over the handlebars.

So here we are, wishing and hoping our bikes down the slippery, soft lawn of Hillside Gardens in High Park – police officer on horseback yelling at us and the large ornamental Maple Leaf (grown entirely of some sort of dark and light purple plants - thirty feet across if it was an inch) looming closer with each passing second.

Jimmy Ears was the first to go down as he crashed through the low boxwood hedge that surrounded the circular ornamental Maple Leaf. Following close behind were Byrd, Pantsy and myself. Down we all went – over Jimmy Ears. I was I was in the rear and, apparently, the one with the least intelligence of all, for, having watched all this falling and tumbling over the low boxwood hedge that surrounds the circular ornamental Maple Leaf (grown entirely of some sort of dark and light purple plants - thirty feet across if it was an inch) I did nothing but continue my trajectory into the heap of downed cyclists.

We are now a sweating, soaked, bruised heap, rubbing our knees. elbows, shoulders and shins.

As we’re trying to untangle our mess of bikes (pulling pedals from one bike out from between the spokes of another bike), up rides an offer on his Harley Davidson motorcycle – the special “police” model with the gear shifter mounted on the left side of the gas tank and big black running boards for big, shiny leather police boots, themselves attached to a big leather jacketed, sunglass-wearing motorcycle cop.

He turns off the engine, engages the kickstand with his left foot and leans the bike onto its support. He kicks over his right leg, gets off the machine and starts to help us up and untangle our bikes. He was kind enough to look at our minor wounds and ensure we didn’t have any broken bones before he slapped us on the back of our heads, with a leather clad hand, for being stupid and riding in a posted area.

About this time, the officer on horseback had made his way down to the melée. His horse steps gingerly over the boxwood hedge we had just crashed through and towers over us, with officer Dick looking stern indeed. With the sound of creaking leather, he dismounts, takes off his sunglasses, pulls his hands out of his black riding gloves, places them both in his left hand and slaps them against his thigh a couple of times while looks us over.

“It’s Kowalchuk. Officer Walter Kowalchuk,” he says to us.

He then turns and has a quiet word with the motor cycle cop, who almost managed to suppress a laugh. They both turn back to us with dour faces and proceed to make a show of pulling little black notebooks out of their tunic pockets. They began taking our names.

Jimmy Ears gave his real name, but a fake address, which the officers dutifully wrote down. Byrd does the same. Pantsy continues the charade. Now it was my turn. Don’t forget, apparently I’m the least intelligent of the lot. I stammer out my name and fake address. Officer Dick pauses and looks up from his writing, “What’s your address again?” I repeat the false information. “I don’t think so. There is no 558 Quebec Avenue.”

“I meant 585.” He shakes his head and looks at the motor cycle cop who looks at me. I’m terrified. I panic and give him my real address.

In a few minutes we’re on our way home. Frightened and warned but released on our own recognizance. Bruised, scraped, battered and scratched. I get ribbed about providing a stupid address – what were we expecting – I’m a stupid kid.

For the next couple of weeks each of us, in our own private hell, was waiting for the other shoe to fall. We were certain that at any moment a cop would show up at the front door with a reason for our parents to give us a scolding, a curfew or worse. My old man would walk down the street and tell Jimmy Ears’ father that his idiot son was involved with his own idiot son in some mischief that brought the cops to our house. Then Pantsy’s dad and Bobby Byrd’s old man would get pulled into the fracas and we’d all get grounded.

The funny thing is, no cop ever showed up. Despite being stupid kids doing a series of stupid things in a place we weren’t supposed to be, we managed to avoid the consequences.

When we got back to school in September, one of my classmates, Glenn, sits down beside me on the steps during recess.

“I hear my old man pinched you and Ears in High Park.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I reply. Out of context, I really didn't know what the heck he was talking about.

“My old man chased you in High Park. You got into the fountains, or something.”

“I still don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lie. Ah, now I know what he's referring to.

“My dad is in the mounted police.”

“Your DAD is in the mounted police? Your DAD is Kowalchuk?”

“Yeah. I heard about you and Jimmy. Dad said you called him a dick.”

“Uh. That wasn’t me. I think it was Byrd or Jimmy.”

“He and mom had a good laugh over it a dinner. He said you guys pissed your pants.”

“No we didn’t! We were fine.”

“That’s not how I heard it. Either way. It was funny.”

“Yeah, I’m laughing.”

The recess bell rang and we both dragged ourselves back into class.

I remember thinking, “That was too close for comfort.”

It must have had an impact on me, for here I am, fifty years later and I can still remember the false address I gave and the fact that Jimmy Ears hurled an epithet at a cop on a horse and only because the officer had a good natured side did we manage to avoid any consequences.

#bicycles #cyclist #boys #childhood #edwardHorner #highpark #HillsideGardens #Toronto #GrenadierPond #Swansea

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