“Oh yeah, before I forget. Gimme two packs of gunky balls. Blue ones.”
Excuse me!? All the training and guidance of my good friends at the Handy Andy auto parts store hadn’t prepared me for that one. I really didn’t know then where those little trim things inside cars came from. I guess I thought they were original equipment. And I certainly didn’t know they were called “gunky balls.” I thought the guys were having me on again, just like in my first week when a mechanic called up and asked for a left-threaded camshaft for a ’63 DeSoto. I near went nuts looking through the catalogues.
In my growing up years, I would learn even more words and expressions that I would hear no where else but in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. And the differences weren’t limited to language alone. We played games unlike those found elsewhere – games that required stadiums and coaches. The games were as strange perhaps as the language that accompanied them.
It’s likely you have not heard of “clampers,” “skooshin,” and “bumpers.” “Clampers” are what city folk call “ice floes” or “ice pans,” – you know, the things larger than an icicle but smaller than an iceberg that drift around the ocean in the wintertime. They are not even as large as what Newfoundlanders call “bergie bits,” the chunks that fall off icebergs.
Now I don’t really know for sure if I am spelling “skooshin” correctly. It has probably never been spelled before. But I do know for sure there were two kinds. There was ocean skooshin and brook skooshin. In ocean skooshin, one ran from clamper to clamper without (you hoped) getting wet. You had to get on and off before the thing broke up or submerged. You had to get a great head up of steam going in this business, and you might do a mile or two before you wore out and returned to your start point, or fell in.
After an afternoon of ocean skooshin, you could always be identified (by those in the know) because your pant legs would be frozen right up to the crotch. Sometimes you were forced to quit for the day because your legs got too stiff to walk. At that point, you had to trek homeward walking like a man on stilts.
Now bay skooshin was quite different. Rather than running from clamper to clamper, you simply poled around the bay. You had to start judiciously by looking over the pack. You then culled out a good one that would support you while not being so heavy that it could not be easily navigated. We all liked boat shaped clampers.
One’s adventure started by, ahem, “borrowing” someone’s clothes pole. With a perfect pole, an elegant clamper, and looking every bit as gallant as a gondolier on the Grand Canal, one poled around the bay till all hours, passing along tide and times tidbits to others.
We probably imagined that we looked every bit as Venetian as our Italian colleagues, though we were short passengers and operatic librettos. Like our sea-going skooshin brethren, we too fell in from time to time. But where they were into speed, endurance and agility, we were more into sedate, pensive navigation of relatively still tidal waters under the cool crisp moonlight of a winter’s eve. While ocean skooshin was athletic skill and endurance, brook skooshin tapped our romantic sides.
Both forms of skooshin were great. Now some spoilsports might label these activities dangerous, but in several years I never saw or heard of someone experiencing a real calamity. The police did take a dim view of these proceedings. One time, the Mounties chased my brother and I out about a mile (onto the ocean) until they (quite intelligently, I now think) gave up. We were able to reach shore undetected some considerable distance away. Reaching home, we hid in our coal bin for two hours, scared to death that we had been identified and that we would experience father’s wrath in a tender place.
When we appeared for supper, our pants were still crispy cold though we could walk. We left a trail of water wherever we went. Our hands and faces, raw and chapped, were also full of coal dust. I would love to know how we explained all that away at the time.
Skoosin rivaled another wonderful winter activity called “bumpers”. Bumpers was played at street intersections. When a car stopped, or just slowed down, you would leap for the bumper, crouch down and go for a ride. You might get ten or fifteen blocks at 40 to 50 miles per hour on the slippery road before the driver screamed at you to get off, or worse.
We bumper people were known to get together teams of two or three to make it especially challenging. Because it became near impossible for the driver to accelerate with a couple of hundred pounds of kid hanging off the car, some of these drivers became quite indignant. Sometimes they would pull over and chase you into the night, uttering death threats.
As you could tell a skoosher by his frozen legs, you could always identify a bumper rider by the fact his boot soles were worn off from hitting bare patches. He might also be known by his torn trousers, bruised elbows and bruised ego if he had failed to latch on properly, or disengaged at an inopportune moment.
Like skooshin, a lot of skill was attached to being a top performer. Real cool dudes could coast to a stop in the crouch position without falling over. The better ones could also steer with their feet, arriving with elegance back at the start point, or in front of their home.
I remember one winter night was especially cold. After quite a long wait, I was able to attach myself to a shiny new chrome bumper as the car sped off into the night. In accordance with standard safety procedures, I released when the car got going too fast for comfort. But to my horror, I discovered that my mitts had frozen to the bumper. I saw them drive off into the darkness, like some dying soul grasping onto the last vestiges of life. I still wonder what the driver made of that sight when he saw his bumper in the light of day.
We played many other games. Whether because we were inventive, or poor, or both, our games were free. One we played every summer. Whoever saw a foreign licence plate first had the right to punch everyone else in the arm. As they did, they shouted, “Free punch, car from away.” That was the dumbest game I have ever encountered. It was also very painful during the tourist season. Nevertheless, that’s how we entertained ourselves summer afternoons, as we slouched on the old church’s stone fence, waiting for the police to come along and shoo us off.
When we weren’t getting and giving punches, we were trying to out-brilliance each other with our knowledge of car makes and models. In time we all became experts. This fund of useless information (knowing what distinguishes a ’57 Ford from a ’58 Ford) continues to this day to clog up vast tracts of my brain.
If all this sounds like we were rough and tumble, I would say that on balance we were rather tame. Neither drugs nor alcohol were part of our lifestyle. One rarely saw cigarettes because they were simply too expensive. Swearing was quite pale to what one hears today on television. If someone got real angry, he might say something like, “Lord sufferin.” A bit stronger expletive was “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” though such was acceptable in better circles, especially if you crossed yourself while you said it. None of this would have made a sailor blush.
This is not to suggest, however, that some of this may have been ill advised and could have resulted in injury, or worse. We did take risks. We did do things that common sense should have disallowed. But try as I might, I can’t recall any greater tragedy than a cold dunking or the loss of a pair of mitts (which was, incidentally, a severely punishable offense).
My treasured experiences and memories are all about kids having fun together, without really doing anyone any harm. I do believe that such simple pleasures still exist, but you won’t often find them in our great urban centres. It’s why, perhaps, our families flocks to the country and suburbs. They want to ensure, as best they can, that their children will grow up with some of the experiences (naughty or not), that they had in their own time. They have only to ensure that they don’t ask too many questions about coal dust and crinkley trousers. And I trust they will be as wise in their guidance as I knew my parents were, for without that, we just might have lost more than our mittens.
[This essay appeared in the August / September issue of The Cape Bretoner. It has been added, at their request, to the cultural holdings of the University of Cape Breton.