A late summer day, 1965, is unforgettable
BY NICK SALTARELLI
Special to the VOICE
Mark Twain, had he been around a century later, would have almost certainly been obliged to pen Ben Crawford. The task is thus left to a much lesser author. There’s a difference, though. The events and characters in the pages of the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn novels are fictional, whereas those in the story you’re about to read are real.
Ben Crawford was the most fearless and reckless and most shameless 13-year-old ever minted. And for a short, precious time he was a loyal and generous friend.
I dedicate this recounting to his memory, though he’d disapprove of having been assigned a pseudonym for legal considerations. Ben didn’t care a rat’s patootie about legalities.
The when is 1965, the where is central Welland, but most interesting is the how Ben and I came to be fast friends.
Ben is seven months my senior and a school grade ahead, one of a large brood of Irish Catholic kids and their parents, shoehorned into a rental quadplex unit on Plymouth Road. The front lawn’s strewn with naked dolls and balls and toy trucks and tricycles and the inside of the house always looks like a bomb has just gone off. Ben’s younger brother — younger by all of nine months — and I are classmates, but it’s Ben who’ll leave the indelible impression.
But that’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? This story’s about him, after all.
It’s the dog days of summer, late morning and already sticky. My best friend Mike and I are loafing in the shade of the big silver maple in his front yard. We turn in sync to look in the direction of an awful racket coming from a hundred yards down the street, near St. Mary’s school. We can just make out a boy on a bicycle, head down, peddling pell-mell and zigzagging curb to curb.
As he draws nearer, and the din louder, we recognise Ben Crawford, whose reputation as a wild kid is well established.
Ben looks up, sees our bemused stares and slams back hard on the brake to a metallic screech and shower of sparks.
Ben, you see, has removed the tires from his bike and is riding around on the bare rims. His clothes are rumpled and his hair is matted and disheveled, as if he’s just got out of bed, and his broad, freckled face smiles wide to reveal a chipped front tooth.
“Wanna try it?” he beams. “You get a really cool buzz up your butt!”
Mike and I decline, Ben shrugs. He dismounts, picks up the bike and tosses it over the sidewalk onto the lawn. Its rims are squashed flat and some of the spokes have sprung free. Ben drops down beside us. He’s bored out of his gourd, he says, so came up with the idea of getting rid of his tires.
“Pretty neat, huh?” he says with a grin. “What’re youse guys doin’?”
What we are up to is nothing, which to Ben is a criminal waste of unbridled but time-limited freedom. He suggests we go to Albanese’s and check out the comic books. It’s the beginning of August. All the new titles should be out.
Now, Mike and I are broke and old man Albanese will yell at you if you touch a comic book with nothing in your pocket to pay for it, but just this morning Ben’s found a couple of spare quarters in his mother’s purse.
“C’mon youse guys” he says as he lifts himself up, “Arses in gear!”
We leave the bike with the mangled wheels derelict on the grass, confident nobody’ll steal it.
Albanese’s convenience store is on the west side of Hellems Avenue, just up from the Hungarian Hall. The front door’s propped open and there’s a big pedestal fan in the corner moving the sultry air around. Mr. Albanese looks up from his Italian newspaper as we enter and throws us a dry look. He doesn’t much like boys like us. We have a tendency to loiter and not buy anything — or worse. Ben strolls to the counter and is perusing the offerings behind the glass while Mike and I approach the comic book rack halfway into the store. Mr. Albanese narrows his gaze but says nothing, so long as we just spin the rack around looking and not touching.
The old man turns his attention to Ben. “Whatchoo wan’?”
Ben buys a 20-cent package of Chinese firecrackers, some punk sticks and a penny match; takes his change. The three of us exit the store and head back to Mike’s.
The fuses are woven together so you can set off the entire package like a machine gun if you want, but when you’re 13 and a quarter is a week’s allowance, that’s getting pretty extravagant.
Ben separates the individual red sticks and splits their number three ways. We spend the next couple of hours blowing up dinky toys and little plastic soldiers and anthills and anything else we can find deserving of unfettered adolescent mayhem. Ben puts the last intact firecracker into his shirt pocket and asks Mike if he’s got an elastic band.
Mike says, “Yeah, inside. What for?”
“You’ll see,” says Ben. “Just get it. Did youse see any new comics?”
Yup, the good ones’re all there, we say, but the price has gone up from 10 cents to 12. Ben assures us it’ll be no problem. He’s flush. A moneyed man. Then the grin. Always the grin when he’s up to something.
Back up the street to Albanese’s, except this time Mike and I have to wait on the sidewalk. Ben enters the store and walks directly over to the comic book rack, taking one out.
“You gonna buy dat?”
“Yup” answers Ben. “One or t’other. Just pickin’ one out, is all.”
“Well den, don’ getcher greasy fingerprints alla over d‘em.”
We watch as Ben positions himself behind the rack, puts a Superman into a Batman into a Green Lantern on top of a fat magazine he’s slipped into the mix. He puts it all back on the rack, rotates it toward the door, then pays for a Spiderman at the counter.
Back outside Ben wordlessly hands over the Spiderman, then, using Mike’s elastic, secures the firecracker from his pocket to a small stone picked up off the street.
He lights the fuse and tosses the thing through the doorway, low down so that it skitters across the checkerboard linoleum and comes to a rest up against the back wall by the pop cooler.
Mr. Albanese is reading his newspaper and smoking one of those crooked Italian cigars, oblivious in the low hum of the floor fan.
“Five, four, three, two …” whispers Ben and just as he’s crouch-walking back through the doorway, Ka-BANG!, and a moment later there’s Ben back on the sidewalk running beside us with a stack of comic books and a Playboy magazine laughing and saying “See? Easier done than said!”
Such was my formal introduction to Ben Crawford.
Still greater adventures lay ahead. A week before the comic book caper Mike and I’d built a soapbox derby car but couldn’t find wheels to mount to it. Now a grinning Ben shows up, running behind a baby carriage he’s just now stolen from a backyard on Burger Street. Mike and I don’t want to get into trouble and tell Ben to put it back but he’ll have nothing of it. He is genuinely disappointed by our lack of gratitude and respect for his advanced age and status, but he’s willing to compromise. That night, under cover of darkness, he returns the pram to where he found it—minus its wheels.
By summer’s end Mike has had just about enough of Ben. I am, however still taken by his reckless sense of adventure, so when he comes around suggesting some new off-the-wall exploit I’m an eager go-along.
In the bush by the canal dikes we whiplash the trunks of dead trees till they snap, dodging the heavy logs when they slam down into the ground. One night Ben uses his dad’s aerosol shaving cream to silence the cowbells strung along the back lane fence, just before we climb over and pick a basket of prized Macintosh apples from old lady Hagar’s tree. And there’s the time Ben and I scramble up the hills of anthracite, crushed limestone and sand stockpiled by the Lincoln Street Bridge, sliding down on heavy cardboard we’d taken from behind Leon’s on King Street, then skinnydipping in the canal to clean off. Then sitting on our raft on the Wabasso cotton mill pond, smoking a couple of pilfered Kools while sharing a brown stubby of warm Old Vienna secreted from the open two-four in my mom’s pantry.
“Hang around with dogs,” my Irish mother would say, “and you’re going to catch fleas.” (Yeah, ma, but when you’re 13 there’s just something really, really appealing about scratching the itch.)
The greatest adventure of all was the Water Tower.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in mid September, after church and holy communion at St. Mary’s. Ben’s just turned 14. He’s bored. Antsy. We’re sitting on the steps of his littered front porch and can clearly see the Welland Water Tower construction project coming together in the near distance. The top half of the big tank has yet to be added, making it appear much like a gigantic goblet on legs.
“You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?”
“I dunno,” says I, “Whatchu thinkin’?”
“I’m thinkin’ we should check it out,” says Ben, as he tilts his head back and points his cleft chin in the direction of the water tower.
There’s nobody around. The site’s littered with construction debris and empty cigarette packs. The weeds are waist deep in the field but the dry clay around the site is bare and cracked. A tall crane occupies the centre column; a huge generator and big coils of cable are set off to one side. Curved steel plates rust quietly where they rest on wooden pallets. A sign warns “DANGER! KEEP OUT!” Ben laughs at it as he walks past.
The unfinished tower is immense. We circulate around, craning our necks upwards, rapt in the scope of it all.
Ben’s face lights up. There’s a steel ladder on the side of one of the support columns. It disappears a hundred feet straight up through an opening into the half-built tank. He mounts the ladder, looks at me and says, “You comin’?”
“Um. I dunno, Ben,” I say. “It looks kinda dangerous.”
“What? You chickening out on me, Nicky boy? Buck, buck, buck? Chee-ken? Buck? Buuuuuck!”
He climbs five feet, stops, looks down, grins that grin and says, “Well?”
The ladder’s just hanging there in the wide open. No safety cage. The rungs are thick, round bars. The air’s cool but I’m perspiring from effort and trepidation. I am not as athletic as Ben.
Fifty feet above the ground my hands begin to sweat and my grip on the rungs is increasingly tenuous.
I stop, hook an arm up and over a rung and look up to see Ben a good fifteen feet above me climbing strongly.
I look down.
Five stories below, with nothing but air in between, is concrete, steel and debris.
Above looms the bottom of a huge tank with a hole in it and either a great schoolyard story of daring-do or certain ridicule. Or sudden death. That just might be preferable to what I’m feeling right now.
I swallow hard, wipe my sweaty hands one by one on the front of my shirt and continue to climb.
I am now over-topping the trees on Coventry Road. Wind gusts rustle their crowns. I feel a chill go through me as my open jacket is whipped up against my narrow shoulders. I would give just about anything to be back home, safe and warm in front of the TV. Anywhere but here.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee … I continue to climb, looking neither up nor down. Focused straight ahead at the ladder, rung by rung. Is there no end to this thing? … Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb …
Then, at last, the opening in the bowl.
My legs and arms are burning. I climb through and step into a large interior expanse of steel.
Ben’s already mounting the work platform that’s been erected inside by the welders, bidding me “C’mon! Hurry up! Jeez!”
When he reaches the lip of the bowl his face takes on an expression of pure awe.
“You gotta see this,” his voice resonating in the great, steel parabola.
Moments later we’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder, looking out upon the entire City of Welland. Ben and I were both born here and neither has yet to venture far.
It’s magical. We are larger than all we see. We see the lift bridges over the canal all the way down to Thorold and St. Catharines, Lake Ontario shimmering beyond, and back up to Port Colborne and the Robin Hood Mills grain elevator set against the backdrop of Lake Erie.
There’s the clock tower on Division Street and church steeples in all directions.
The tops of Brock’s and Seagram’s towers poke above the mist of Niagara Falls. The trees in the distance look like miniature broccoli florets; the streets and cars and houses below are toys; a scene from a model railroad.
We have never been so high, and so high up. How small the world suddenly has become.
It’s awesome. Awesome.
In twenty minutes Ben’s getting antsy and ready to move on. It’s always Ben taking the lead, and he likes to show off. He dismounts the work platform like a gymnast on a pommel horse. He swings down, holds on with one hand and stretches the other toward the side rail, lets go and misses the mark.
He smacks his face hard into the ladder and drops down into the hole below.
If you’re an older person, like me, you may have forgotten that an adolescent is old enough to process the dreadful evidence of his eyes yet still young enough to deny it.
Time and belief suspend. I freeze and look and listen.
Nothing but the low moan of the wind, the clanking of the guy wires and the hard thumping in my chest.
I descend the platform on rubber legs and drop to my knees to peer down into the ladder hole.
Ten feet below is a chipped tooth grin beaming back up at me, framed by a fat lip and bloody nose, brown hair and jacket tossing about in the wind. No matter how awesome the view from the rim of the bowl had been, it pales in comparison to the relief of this sight.
Less than year later my family moved from First Street to Broadway Avenue and in the fall I attended Welland High as a grade niner while Ben continued on at Notre Dame.
Separated by distance and schools, we lost touch and went on to new friendships. Within another five years I would attend university a thousand miles away in Thunder Bay and then, after graduation, stay on to work. Years passed.
On one of my return trips home I bumped into his younger brother and inquired after Ben. “He’s gone,” the reply. “Killed on his motorcycle. Years ago.”
Here the Ben Crawford movie footage runs off the reel.
Odd, isn’t it? I can recall the smallest detail of those several months a half century ago but I cannot for the life of me remember how I reacted on hearing of his death.
Surprise? Assuredly not.
Regret? How could one possibly regret that summer.
A sense of loss over a wonderfully indescribable and intangible boyhood … something?
Almost certainly. ♦