Toronto – March 14, 1944 – Part 2

(Dodging Shells gave you Tommy’s letters to his sister, from the front. Kathy’s letters in response tell of life in wartime Toronto.)

…..I can understand why newcomers like Stanley begin to wonder, by March, whether winter here is ever going to end–impromptu blackouts and bitter cold and clambering over thigh-high snowbanks to reach the road, only to step into a lake of freezing slush–it’s a tough country to get used to in the wintertime. But it has its compensations.
…..Have you ever gone skating at the Jolly Miller’s Tavern up on Yonge Street? One Saturday last month, I met a few of the girls at the street car, and we headed north, with our skates slung around our necks and our woolliest underwear well hidden by warm slacks and several layers of sweaters. Well…almost all of us did. Alice showed up decked out in a black velvet skating skirt with a matching tiny jacket. Her skates were stashed in a darling velvet bag and she had only a pair of tights covering her legs. She looked like a pro…ready for the Ice Capades!
…..Oh…I forgot…you wouldn’t know. The Ice Capades is a Hollywood-style cabaret show on ice…lots of scantily-clad girls with spangles, on skates. Anyway…she really looked like she knew what she was doing.
…..“Hey, Alice…are you sure you’re going to be warm enough?”
…..“Sure! The sun’s out.” (It was.) “And anyway…I brought a scarf.” It was tiny and fluffy and ethereal and it looked great with her tiny, fluffy hat. “There’s no harm in looking good, is there?” She glanced ever so briefly at our more pedestrian garb. “There are sure to be some guys there…soldiers skate, don’t they?”
…..“Sure…soldiers skate. You look adorable. Let’s go.”
…..At the end of the line, we switched to the radial car and continued up Yonge Street. The radial is great fun! It’s an old, double-ended reversible streetcar that goes back and forth on a single set of tracks. When it gets to the end, the back becomes the front, and south it comes again. There’s an old iron coal stove in the centre of the car, and the conductor sits across the aisle from it. When he’s not taking fares, he tends the fire, scooping the coal out of the storage bin with a handy little black shovel. The seats aren’t upholstered like they are in the city; they’re wooden. And the floors are made of wooden slats, so the melted snow from our boots just trickled down and there were no puddles (which just goes to show you that modern improvements have their price–the modern cars have no-skid floors, but the puddles in the winter can make a soggy mess of your pant cuffs). We felt a bit like we were going back in time…and the Jolly Miller, once we reached it, fit neatly into the illusion.
…..By the time we got there, the city had gradually been left behind and the tavern, along with a general store, was pretty much alone in Hogg’s Hollow. (I’m not kidding. It’s called Hogg’s Hollow.) Even the old streetcar seemed modern and out of place. The effect was charming.
…..The Jolly Miller is a huge old rectangular building with a wonderful signboard out front featuring–you guessed it–an appropriately jolly miller. The rink has been built on the flats in back. And there’s a cozy change room in Hogg General Store, neighbouring the tavern, with washrooms available there. (This is a good thing, considering how far it is from the city. Just imagine! No place can appear quaint surrounded by yellow snow.) I guess they don’t want kids traipsing through the tavern–and the store probably figures they’ll do enough business in snacks to make it worth their while.
…..Out on the ice, it was easy to forget time and place. The sun glinted off the snow and frosted tree limbs all around, and helped our own motion to keep us warm. Even the crisp air seemed to sparkle, and the hiss of skate blades was mesmerizing. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to realize that Alice definitely did not know what she was doing, after all.
…..Oh, she looked like the most graceful of snow fairies, in black velvet and fluff. She was exquisite…while she was upright. But when I first noticed her on the rink, she was sprawled flat on her butt. I almost tripped over her.
…..“Alice! Are you okay?” I blurted. “Here…let me help you up.”
…..“Thanks, Kath. No! Not under my arms…it looks so awkward…just give me your arm….” She wobbled to her feet (or, rather, to her blades), and brought her legs together in a pose that would have been perfectly ladylike if her skate blades had been perpendicular to the ice. But they were splayed out sideways…her ankles wouldn’t hold her weight.
…..“Come on over here and sit down,” I ordered. “I’ll re-tie your laces. They’re all wrong.”
…..She parked (gracefully, I’m bound to add) on a bench beside the rink.
…..“Did anybody see me, do you think?” she asked.
…..“I don’t see how they could miss you. Brush the snow off your ass. Here. Leave the laces comfortable at the bottom, so you won’t cut off your circulation. Then real tight at the ankle, for support. Looser up the leg.”
…..“Oooh! They’re too tight!”
…..“They’re not. You’ll get used to it.”
…..“They are!”
…..“Do they pinch?”
…..“Um…not exactly…”
…..“They’re fine. Leave them alone. Now stand up!”
…..Now her blades met the ice at a clean right ankle. For a while.
…..“They feel funny,” she complained. “I feel teetery.”
…..“That’s because you’re perched on blades instead of sliding around on your ankles! Now come on…and keep your legs apart and your hands out, for balance, until you get better at it.”
…..“But that looks so clumsy!”
…..“Not as clumsy as wiping the ice with your butt!”
…..“You go ahead…” She crossed her ankles demurely and arranged herself to best advantage. “I think I’ll just sit here awhile and see who’s on the ice.”
…..The next time I noticed her, she was skidding around the rink helplessly, clinging to the arm of a handsome stranger. He guided her, protectively. She gazed up at him trustingly. It was very touching. She had loosened her laces.
…..While the sun shone, the other girls and I skimmed around the rink, joking and chatting, and I had no trouble putting Alice out of my mind. But after a couple of hours, the sky became overcast and it started to snow. We were deciding to catch the next streetcar for home when we heard a shriek and saw a crowd gathering at the other end of the ice. It was Alice, collapsed on the ice again…and this time she couldn’t get up.
…..She was sobbing, and none too gracefully. Her nose was running and her skirt had gotten bunched up under her in a manner nobody could call ladylike. “My ankle is broken!” she wailed. “It hurts!”
…..We practically had to carry her back to the change room–she was making a really embarrassing fuss–and we wrestled her skates off.
…..May felt around the ankle a bit. (May works in a doctor’s office.) Alice, of course, howled.
…..“Knock it off!” ordered May. Patience isn’t one of her strongest traits. “It doesn’t seem like any bones are broken. You’ve probably sprained your ankle.”
…..“Oh my God! What are we going to do? What if it is broken…what do you know?” She was whipping herself into a frenzy. “We’re stranded here in the middle of nowhere…we’re helpless!” Handsome had long since disappeared. I don’t blame him.
…..“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “We’ll get you back to the city and to the doctor…that’s what we’re going to do.”
…..We barely had time to buy a couple of candy bars to share on the trip home when the radial arrived. Nothing is all bad. Alice looked so pathetic that we were immediately offered seats right by the stove.
…..“Oh, well,” she sniffed. “I was getting cold out there anyway.”
…..“Imagine that,” I responded, unsympathetically. It’s lucky I have no desire to be a nurse. I haven’t got the personality for it.
…..I was glad we hadn’t stayed longer. It was really snowing now. We were well on our way back through time toward the city when Alice sat bolt upright.
…..“Oh, Shit!” she yelped. (So much for demure propriety.)
…..“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Did someone joggle your ankle?”
…..“No, nothing like that…” she moaned, tears starting to roll down her cheeks. And, believe me, her makeup was already the worse for wear without this additional damage. “It’s the Leap Year dance next week at the Columbus Hall–I won’t be able to dance!”
…..“Oh, for Pete’s sake! If that’s all you’re worried about, your leg can’t be hurting so damned bad.”
…..“It does so hurt,” she pouted. “But I was looking forward to the dance.”
…..“What’s the big deal?”
…..You know…it’s leap year…the girls get to ask the guys we really want to go with, for a change. I was thinking about asking that fellow I was skating with. Did you see him?”
…..“Who…handsome? Oh, he faded out as soon as that last fall shattered the romance. If there’s someone you want to go dancing with, why don’t you just ask them to another dance…when your ankle’s better?”
…..“Oh, you know I can’t do that! What would they think?”
…..“They’d think you wanted to go to a dance with them.”
…..“Oh, don’t be so silly…but leap year…at the Leap Year Dance, it’s okay! And now I’ll have to wait four more years!”
…..“So who made up this stupid rule, anyway?”
…..“It’s not stupid! It’s tradition. Some old saint, back in the dark ages…Saint Brigid, I think…arranged it with Saint Patrick. To give the women a chance. But then it lasted all year! We only get one day.” The injustice brought tears to her eyes again.
…..“All year. So much dancing…they couldn’t have gotten a lot of work done….”
…..“Don’t be ridiculous! In those days, the women could propose to the men during each leap year.”
…..“Propose. Marriage?”
…..“Of course marriage. What else?”
…..“Oh, I could think of several interesting possibilities.”
…..“What…? Oh, shame on you!”
…..We got Alice back to the city and into the doctor’s office before he closed for the day. Her ankle was sprained. She’ll be fine…but not by next Saturday.
…..I just thought I’d give you a heads-up about that leap year thing. It comes up every four years. When you get back…well, four years is barely enough time to prepare yourself. You’ll want to keep in trim.

…..I read a wonderfully inspiring piece in the Toronto Star. Apparently, the Russian peasants are among the richest people in their country. Rationing is tight, and the people are so hungry that they will pay 15 roubles–that’s nearly $3–for a glass of milk and 600 roubles for a kilo of butter. The peasants, who are allowed to tend their little victory gardens in their spare time, naturally pour the proceeds of their sales back into the government. One reporter who was over there tells of a girl on a collective farm who bought a fighter plane with her savings and generously presented it to the Red air force.
…..A fighter plane. I wonder if he actually met the girl and saw the plane, or if he just believes everything he reads in the newspaper!

…..On a more realistic note, American girls have been crossing the border into Canada, hitchhiking if necessary, to join the Canadian army. You see, they had to be 20 to join the W.A.C.’s, but the minimum age up here was 18. Enlistment of U.S. girls in the C.W.A.C. has been stopped recently, but those who were already in can stay and continue to learn to type or repair cars or whatever they can do to help win the war. I’m sure glad, because I seriously doubt that any amount of effort at home would earn them a fighter plane, however fervidly they might want to donate one to their air force. And Russia–well, it’s just much too far to hike!

…..Tommy, even though you’re in the mortar platoon–way back, yards and yards behind the front lines –I know you can find ways to get yourself into trouble. So I won’t be happy until you get out of there altogether. Until then, take care of yourself.
…..Now, that’s an order, soldier!



About Wendy Bertsch

I’m a Canadian author—a pragmatic optimist with rather eclectic interests and a pervasive sense of humour. Toronto born and bred, I live by the lake with a motley array of dogs and a cat, all but myself being of unknown origin, in a comfortable old house filled with books. Over a thousand books. Books in every nook and cranny. And now, since there can never be too many books, I'm writing more. Once More, From the Beginning highlights the women in the bible. It's about time! And believe me, they see things quite differently. And in Dodging Shells, you'll meet the irrepressible Tommy, as he fights his way through Italy in World War II. You'll love Tommy. I do. Next? Well, that's a secret yet. Stay tuned... I recently initiated the fledgling Ocean Highway Books, providing editing, formatting and cover design services to authors wishing to self-publish.
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