Chasing butterflies

When I was a little boy, I followed my big brother everywhere. Because he was older than me, and had his own friends, I just tagged along. Sometimes, I couldn’t keep up. Sometimes, nobody knew I was even trying to keep up. Sometimes, I got left behind. Whatever they did, I tried to do.

We lived at the edge of town, and we found our own special places to play. We gave our own special places special names like Huckleberry Marsh, the Hollow, Blue Lake and Cober Creek. These special places changed with every season. In late winter, Huckleberry Marsh filled with water and froze over so you could skate just about anywhere. Later, after the ice melted and the spring rains came, you could float a boat or build a raft. In summer, it dried up and the willows sprouted up, so tall you could get lost in Huckleberry Marsh. In late summer, you could pick blueberries and come home with blue tongue, blue lips and blue fingers. Everybody could tell at a glance where you had been. When the snows of winter came, rabbit and fox tracks could be found all over Huckleberry Marsh. At Christmas time, we would search for the perfect spruce tree to take home and decorate.

One summer day, Joe, my older brother and his friends hiked to Huckleberry Marsh to catch butterflies. He was making a collection of native butterflies with names like the tiger swallowtail. giant swallowtail, monarch, viceroy, admiral, mourning cloak and moths with names like luna, sphinx and cecropia. I loved to learn about nature so I was determined to keep up.

To get into the Huckleberry Marsh, you have to climb a fence made of four strands of barbed wire. Each strand sagged with every step which meant the next step was even higher. To manage this, you tried to climb close to a fence post. It helped a little, but the wire still sagged.

My story

Carefully hanging on to the third strand close to the fence post, I put my left foot on the first strand. Slowly, I raise my right leg and step on the the second strand. Then I raise my left leg to step on the second strand as well. The barbed wire wobbles erratically as I stand up, careful not to catch my shirt on the barbs in front of me. Two more wires to climb. Now I raise my left leg to step on the third stand and quickly my right leg and step on the third stand as well. At this point, holding the top of the fence point, I don’t stand upright.  Instead, I plan to step over the top wire, onto the third wire with my left foot, then bring the right leg over and jump to the ground, In this moment of contemplation, the third stand gives way. I start to fall, stright down. Events like this happen in milliseconds. Ouch! I fall back on the grass. Instinctively, I get up and look for the hurt. A long gash on my leg. Ouch. This hurts.

My butterfly chase comes to an abrupt end. Somehow, I make my way home and to the doctor. I get a needle for tetanus and six stitches to repair the wound.

 As for the butterfly, a majestic, mysterious creature that comes in many colours, shapes and sizes, and worthy of pursuing, to catch not with a net, but with a camera. But do be careful of fences.

My bicycle – it’s gone!

Rituals were embraced by following the lead of older brothers and sisters. So each Spring, every bicycle needed a cleaning, maybe a fresh coat of paint, and a mechanical overhaul – tighten and oil the chain and put air in the tires for sure.  Maybe the bicycle had just been passed down from an older brother or sister or someone in the neighborhood. The ritual included taking the bicycle all apart, getting rid of the old grease, oil and grime around the sprockets, and maybe getting it ready for a new paint job. Tires were patched and spokes were replaced. You see, old bicycles were treasured, never trashed.

Our ‘go to’ bicycle shop was owned and operated by Alfie Ryan, an Irish wordsmith and story-teller. When weather permitted, Alfie could be found sitting on a stool, in the shop doorway replacing a spoke or patching a tire. Inside the shop, somewhat dark and cluttered, was an assortment of bikes in various stages of repair, a work bench covered with specialty tools and small parts, and shelves of more small parts. Only Alfie seemed to know where things were.

A diminutive, gregarious fellow with a full mustache. Alfie had a loyal clientele, and using his Irish ‘way with words’, added colour to the community, whether you rode a bike or not. Passing by the shop one day, my mother remarked, “Beautiful morning, isn’t it, Alfie”. She and Alfie had been in the same class in grade school. “It is, indeed, my dear, since you passed by” – a pickup line my mother never forgot.

For a twelve-year-old, Alfie had stories of adventure and courage, each told with gripping emotion. Like the time he was at sea, and the ship and crew were enduring a terrible storm. Alfie was below deck, and fearing the ship would break apart,  attached a double cable from port to starboard. Then using a steel bar between the two strands,  proceeded to turn the bar. As the cable twisted and tightened, it shortened, bringing the sides of the ship together and keeping them secure. Meanwhile, on the bridge, the captain was praising Alfie’s ingenuity. ‘That Alfie Ryan, smart fellow he is”, said the captain. “Alfie saved the ship, the crew and the cargo” Even in the half-light, Alfie glowed with pride as he quoted the captain.

If sea-going stories weren’t relatable to his audience, then how about the wild west where in the dead of winter, Alfie was leading a cattle drive on horseback, moving hundreds of cattle, in a driving snowstorm, out of the foothills and back to the ranch. “Cold, bitter cold,” he said in pained gasps. “Men dropping like flies.” He cupped his hands, blowing to warm them up. “I pressed on. You couldn’t see your hand in front of you. Terrible blizzard. Cold, bitter cold.” Tears welled up in his eyes. “We believe you, Alfie. Don’t cry.” “Out of the foothills I rode,” he whispered, “the cattle, we never lost one.” We stood entranced in the drama.

My story

I only want a few spokes, Alfie tells another story. Maybe more than one.  It’s hard to tell where one stops and the next starts. Alfie is the hero, every time. I understand that. I find what I need, pay and head out.

Next stop – McHardy’s Hardware. Buy a can of silver enamel for my new bicycle, and a small paint brush. Of course, McHardy’s has everything a boy needs for adventure – rope, fine wire, copper BB’s, hunting knife with a leather sheath, hatchet, and maybe a knapsack. These are acquired over time, never in one visit.

I make my way home. My bicycle is in pieces on the basement floor. The frame has been stripped, except for the peddles and is hanging by two cords from the open floor joists above.  I pry open the paint can, stir with a nearby stick, dip the brush gently into the can, and without dripping, begin to paint. The dark blue, chosen by the former owner and the colour of my bike until now, is slowly giving way to a bright silver. I see immediately that, after drying,  it will need a second coat. Maybe tomorrow.

After I do both coats and the paint is dry, I reinstall the seat and handle bars, Then I lower the frame and stand it upside down. I install the front wheel first, then the rear wheel with chain and brake arm. The slack in the chain has to be just right. And the brake arm can’t be tightened until the chain is set. Both wheels have to be centred and held securely as the wheel nuts are being tightened. I try again and then again until I get it right. I test the brakes. Then I attach the kickstand. Everything works. Up the stairs and outside for a test run.

The next day is a school day. I ride to school and park my bike in the ‘Big Field’ as the playground was called. After school, I head up the stairs to the Big Field to get my bike and ride home. Among several hundred bikes, I can’t see mine. I remember about where I parked it, but no, it’s not there. I panic a little.  Where is it? I go back down the stairs and into the school. “Miss Hicks, my bicycle is gone!” “Are you sure?” she asks. “Go back and have another look” I pause, ‘OK.” I leave the school again, up the stairs and onto the Big Field. By now, the number of bikes has dwindled to a dozen or so. There is no blue bike. As panic is about to set in again, I suddenly remember. I painted my bike. I’m looking for the wrong bike.  Standing there, upright, kickstand still holding was my new bicycle, not dark blue, but bright silver. The lost is found. I sheepishly climb on and ride for home. Turn the kaleidoscope and you will see things differently.










When Fair Winds Blow

Fire, water and wind! Phenomena experienced the world over, and when managed well, these are invaluable resources. Especially water. Even kids are attracted to water, splashing in the bath tub, running through puddles, paddling in a shallow pool. Finding water in unexpected places is even more fun.

In some parts of the world, the winter snow melt and early spring rains create fresh ponds in wetlands, farm fields and even backyards. In my small town in Ontario, Canada, every kid knew how to find a good spring pond.  Some years, the early Spring rains would give way to a late winter freeze. The ponds would turn into vast expanses of smooth ice, another opportunity for fun. That’s a story for another time.

When a pond shows up, you need a raft, boat or canoe to experience the water. My craft of choice was a wooden boat, not really a sea-worthy boat, but still a boat, and big enough for two or three kids. Abandoned by its previous owner along the banks of the Speed River, my older brother who we call Buster saw a future for the old boat. He retrieved the boat, loaded it onto a wagon and pulled it down to the road, across the bridge, up the main street and finally all the way to our back yard. As the spring rains arrived, the ponds appeared and the water levels rose, the boat was hauled one more time, to Huckleberry Marsh, the biggest, closest pond in the neighborhood, and left for the next adventure. Friend Robert and I could hardly wait for the chance to explore Huckleberry Marsh by boat. Easter holidays and early spring rains provided the perfect opportunity.

My story

The day is quiet, grey and overcast with the possibility of showers. I see the waiting boat drawn up on the west bank, stern floating and bow resting gently on the grassy bank. I see no oars or paddles. In the boat is a rusty tin can, used for bailing out water, should the boat leak. I step into the boat. As I turn around to look back, my weight shifts and the bow silently slides off the grass bank.  I’m adrift. I sit down instantly. Within seconds, I’m away from shore. “Bail! Bail!”, Friend Robert shouts. I grab the tin can and awkwardly scoop water and dump it overboard. What now? I have no oars or paddles, only a bailing can. I’m seven years of age, and I can’t swim. And the water is cold. Adrift, I keep bailing. My mind goes into overdrive. What can I do. What can anybody do?

I remember a story about water and wind. Aunt Vera is my Sunday School teacher who faithfully teaches stories of the Bible. I remember the story of the parting of the Red Sea, how God caused a strong wind to blow, so much so that the waters parted and the fleeing Israelites were able to cross on dry land, and escape the pursuing enemy.

I pray. “Dear God, please rescue me now like you rescued your people, Israel. Amen”

I sense a gentle breeze. The wind. The wind is picking up. I feel wind on my face. It’s a cold wind. It’s a west wind. Rain does not come from the west. Clearing comes from the west. I watch in amazement. The West wind is picking up and moving Buster’s old boat and me in it steadily across Huckleberry Marsh. I keep bailing.

Friend Robert is not waiting. I see him in the distance, running. He is making his way around the pond, all the while keeping an eye on the boat. I’m wet and cold. I keep bailing and the west wind holds steady. The leaky, old wooden boat with its valuable cargo, me is bound for shore.

Not willing to wait any longer, Friend Robert predicts my landing spot, and is wading out into the cold spring water. He keeps coming, now up to his middle. I sense a lull in the wind. I look for rope to throw, none in the boat.

Not content to stand by and see what happens, Friend Robert keeps coming. The water is getting deeper and Friend Robert is up to his armpits. My bow is within reach. Now on his toes, he lunges forward, grabs the bow, hangs on tight, turns and struggles towards shore. With a gentle pull, the bow is drawn up on the grassy bank. I stand, shaking, stiff, and wet. I’m on safe ground and I’m thankful. Prayer answered.

Stories like this are not immediately recounted upon getting home. That might call for a curfew or some other punishment. Wet socks are quietly hung to dry like it’s an everyday thing. When the story does come out, it’s a managed release, no drama, just two kids playing on a pond in an old boat. The boat? – it survived to sail another day. And prayer? An ever-present resource. More to follow.


Against a cloudless blue sky and mottled green leaves, my eyes see only red apples, some redder than others and some bigger than others. I realize that may be a selfish thing, to always want the reddest, the biggest, the best. Is this the way we’re made? Hey, why not choose the best when there’s no good reason not to. The thought leaves quickly and I return to the job at hand. I’m going to pick the reddest, the biggest, the best apple. Why not? Simple to do. Climb the tree. Find the limb. Spot the apple. Reach for it. Grab it firmly. Twist the stem gently. Pull back. Apple safe in hand. Don’t drop it. Climb back down. First make a plan. Then follow the plan. I’m ready.

The aroma of the apple orchard at harvest time is pungent, kind of sweet, even intoxicating. On the ground are an assortment of fallen apples, in various stages of decomposition. Some can be rescued and used for apple cider. Some are already being eaten by worms and wasps. There’s a buzz in the air, almost like the orchard in Spring when the trees are full of blossoms and thousands of bees are hard at work gathering nectar and spreading pollen. The orchard is also home to a herd of white goats, under the watchful eye of one large male goat who stands taller than the rest and has a pair of knarled horns. Around the farm, he is simply called ‘Billy’ and not to be crossed. The mother goats and their kids are docile and have no reason to fear my presence. Billy stands on guard.
From the ground, I spot the reddest, the biggest, the best apple. My apple! I leave my position of surveillance and make my way to the tree trunk. Without a ladder, I reach up to the lowest branch, hold tight and ‘walk’ up the trunk to a point where I can get one leg over the branch. Then I gradually shift my weight until I’m sitting on the branch, one leg on each side. Every kid knows how to do this. From there, I look for the next branch closest to my apple. As I move carefully into my next position, I hear a thud, and then another, as ripe apples drop to the ground. I realize this can’t be avoided. My apple, the reddest, the biggest, the best apple is still there, hanging firmly, waiting to be picked.  Maybe Farmer will come out and gather the windfalls or simply ‘falls’ as he calls them and take them home to Farmer’s Wife to make apple cider and apple sauce for next winter. I discover that my apple, spotted from the ground, is much harder to see up in the tree. Climb higher. I climb higher to get a better look. I see it now, but it is out of reach. I stretch as tall as I can, and hanging on to the trunk with one arm, stretch further with my free arm towards my apple. I have to reach even further. I stretch more. Not enough. So I inch out on to the branch, still holding on to the trunk. Inch out more. Stretch more. Just a little more. More. My fingers touch my apple. My free hand grasps the apple firmly, twists and ….. a sharp ‘crack’ breaks the silence. Thud. My world goes black. The orchard is silent and still. Time passes.
I am lying on my back. I struggle to open my eyes. I see a blue sky beyond the perimeter of the apple tree spreading above. I struggle for air, for another breath. My body won’t move. An eternity passes. I sense a new presence and open my eyes. The blue sky and apple tree have disappeared from view. I am staring into the face of a strange, hairy creature with beady eyes like a pair of cats-eye marbles. As my capacity to breath painfully returns, I smell a strange, unpleasant aroma.

Instinctively, I turn my face away. I remember being told by Farmer that billy goats have bad breath. The strange creature above me is the the billy goat. I don’t move. I can’t move. Where is my apple, the reddest, the biggest, the best apple? I close my eyes and wait for strength to return.
In the distance, I hear voices, “Are you okay?” Closer now, “Are you okay? What happened?” I can’t muster an answer. Farmer and Boy see evidence of a broken tree branch and ask no further questions.  I only care about one thing and mumble, “Where is my apple?” Farmer and Boy say “Don’t worry, there are lots of apples.” I have my heart set on my apple. Finally, in weakness I whisper “My apple. I picked the the reddest, the biggest, the best apple. Where is it?’ Farmer and Boy stand silent, seeing no evidence of the apple on the broken branch or lying on the ground. “Let’s get you up to the house. Mother is serving fresh milk and homemade peanut butter cookies just out of the oven” “Okay”, I agree. Farmer takes one arm and Boy the other and I am gently raised up. First, standing shakily and then, step by step, we make our way through the gate and up the path to the farm kitchen.
Bedtime at my own house comes sooner than usual.  I lie on my pillow, thinking about my adventure in the orchard. Tired, a bit sore, and thankful no bones are broken. I think about my apple, the reddest, the biggest, the best apple on the whole tree, maybe in the whole orchard. I so wanted that apple. Then it dawned on me. The goat, Billy, he ate my apple. I will never know for sure because Billy doesn’t talk. To him, probably just another windfall. But for me, I had my heart set on it. Then the thought occurs, “just being in that orchard is my windfall. Farmer and Boy care for that orchard. And I get to explore, climb and eat all the apples I want”. As I drift off, slowly falling asleep, I remember the words of Farmer, “Don’t worry, there are lots of apples.” He’s right. And tomorrow might be another day in the orchard.