And what, you ask, was in the big bag behind my breakfast? It contained a part of my birthday gift from Karli - and you'd have to know me extremely well to understand why she would give me this odd selection of common items.“Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well.”George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
For a long time when I was growing up, summers were an idyllic break from school and schedule. My father ran a little semi-successful construction business, and it was a given that we would act as his semi-paid* employees, but as the youngest of five (and quite admittedly the least interested) there was a period of time where I wasn't really expected to help shovel gravel or dig trenches. As such, the sunny Muskoka summers were very much my own time in the years before I started high school.
Because my siblings were off working for my father, I was pretty much on my own with my mother - we'd go for walks, or I'd play on my own. But once every couple of weeks or so I'd put on my worn canvas knapsack, climb onto my rusty fixed-gear bicycle, and head off to the Bent River General Store, located a few miles away on the highway.
The first part of the trip was always a little exciting - there was a long long hill that went from our house down to Lake Rosseau, and it was easy to build up a lot of speed on that hill. (It was a lot less fun coming back - one of the measures of summer for me was making the trip enough times that I built up the stamina to ride all the way up the hill on my return trip without having to walk my bike.)
Once at the store, I had a set shopping list. I'd buy a Coke, a bag of hickory sticks, and some comic books. We didn't have allowances or anything like that, but my mother would sometimes give me some money, or we'd collect empty bottles from the side of the road for the deposit.
The comic books that I purchased would probably be worth a reasonable amount of money right now if that youthful version of myself had somehow been able to put them in storage. In the 60s, both Marvel and DC had adopted the practise of selling three or four** comics in a bag for a few cents less than cover price in an effort to both increase sales of less popular comics and to reduce the number of returns from retailers.
The Bent River General Store sold Marvel Comics, and this was at the height of the Silver Age of comics, as the Bronze Age was just beginning. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were busily building on the foundations of the Marvel Universe that they had created in the early 60s, along with disciples like Steve Ditko, Jack Sinnott, John Romita Sr., John Severin, Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, and a host of other classic Marvel artists and writers. As such, even a one-off comic guilty of poor sales at the time could easily have become a valuable collectable 45 years later.
After I'd made my purchase, I'd get back onto my bike, and start the trip home. There was a little isolated hill about half a mile along the road on the way back, where I'd run my bike down into the ditch and lay it down in the tall grass on the other side. I'd lie there in the sun, read my comics, drink my pop, and eat my hickory sticks. It's a treasured memory for me, one which has never lost its lustre as the years have gone by.
Tomorrow we're flying to Toronto, and after spending a few days there, we'll head up to Muskoka so that Karli can see where I grew up. As part of that side trip, we'll be driving along the road that I would have ridden on those long lost summer days. I've packed everything, and even if it's raining and we have to sit in the car at the side of the road, I have every intention of being a ten year old boy again for just a few minutes, with my comic book, my Coke and my snack.
What a brilliant and thoughtful gift to give to someone who has just turned 55. Thank you, my love.
* This was a ongoing bone of contention. My father maintained that after all, he was paying for food and a roof over our heads, whereas we always felt that we were saving him from having to hire workers who would have been considerably more demanding in terms of regular paycheques. Practice fell someplace between the two - we'd get paid now and then, but not really as much as if we weren't members of the family, and my father didn't end up charging us rent.
** I would have sworn that you could get two comics for 19 cents, but I cannot find one bit of documentary evidence that supports this belief.