Boys in the Looking Glass

One of the best times of year to visit Dunnville, Ontario, is July. The town never really seems to change with the passing of years and the panoply of life there is like a series of passion plays, staged on lawns beneath the towering oak and maple trees.

When asked for the name of my home town, I always give Dunnville to the questioner, because even though I attended elementary schools in 17 other towns before ever reaching the hallowed halls of Dunnville High School, it is the town most likely to bear the burden of my origin. To date, it has never rebuked me for that, never realizing that Buffalo, New York, is a close second.

I was in town for Canada Day (Dominion Day for the likes of me) and it took place with deliberate regularity, every July 1 on Broad St., at Central Park.

This was 1992: Air Cadets were everywhere. Grim faced and marching in step for the only time of their lives, they filed in solemn procession behind the Dunnville Citizens Band. Rounding out the warlike stance of the community against hoodlums at home and terrorists abroad were the Boy Scouts, Wolf Cubs and Girl Guides. They had formed up in a supermarket parking lot and their progress through the streets was actively monitored by their anxious parents and mocking siblings.

I was walking to the ceremony, tonsured and alone in middle age, when a young boy, who had been running along with his brothers and a sister, crossed the street and asked me, “What time is the parade?” I stopped and stared at him.

He was tall and slim, about 12 years old, with blond hair and in horn-rimmed spectacles. His hand-me-down clothes were a bit too small for him and he wasn’t wearing any socks with his oxford shoes. He looked me straight in the eye. I looked back, marvelling at the precise impertinence of the occasion, and I fumbled with an answer: "Anytime now." We stood there, peering at each other.

I had the distinct certainty that the year was 1955; that the boy was me; his clothes were once mine; his trusting belief in strangers was also my own.

"What time is the parade?" he asked again.

I spoke out a time and he remained standing in front of me, looking into my face. I thought I was being confronted by a ghost. Then suddenly, he turned and ran ahead to join his family pack.

If I were to be in a science fiction movie where such things happen, I would have scurried after the boy and run with him. But it was hot in Dunnville and I was out of shape. I just walked to the ceremony, joining a crowd in front of the Central Park bandshell. It too was a riveting moment, because an elderly lady was being summoned from the crowd as being the eldest and best citizen of the town.

She happened to be Mrs. Edna Camelford, once Campbell, my English teacher from those uncertain days when we listened to her attentively and memorized the grand old English poems that still stir pangs in the heart. Back home weeks later, I wrote her a letter of remembrance and even later, she very kindly replied.

But ever since, as grand as it had been to see Mrs. Camelford, I could not shake the experience of the boy in the street. I have wondered about him ever since, not knowing if he was now on his way to grandfatherhood, or if he had long since been laid waste by some foul street drug.

As it turns out, I would never know. And he would be almost 40 now.

But if I ever know one thing for sure, that moment of meeting had been pre-ordained. Yes, Dunnville is a grand old town and yes, it hasn’t changed much. I have changed, but now I know that it has all meant something else: the places we loved - and the children we once were - are in the palm of our Maker’s hand, close and toasty warm.


Boys in the Looking Glass

John is working on a new collection of humour stories, most of them rooted in his past. They are called The Dunnville Chronicles and are expected to be out in paperback in the summer of 2016.
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