school photo

Port Whitby 1953, Mitch front center, Butch 2nd row fourth from left, author sixth from left.

A Pack Of Three: A Reminiscence

When I was a boy my best friend was a pack of three. Three boys who made up one of the gangs that roamed “The Port”.

There was Brian Evans, Mitchel Sobczak and myself. The rival gang centered around Johnny Young and Keith Mace. I can remember a chance encounter of the two groups one day in a grove of trees that set stones whizzing back and forth.

The Port, part of the town of Whitby, was a small community that lay just above the fine harbour on Lake Ontario. It was separated in the North from the main part of town, which we called “Uptown”, by a highway and railway line. East of the Port were farms and Pringle Creek. On the west side were farms, the psychiatric hospital and Lynde creek. There was just one two-room school, one stone church and one general store and my parents knew the name of the family in every home.

Brian Evans, “Butch”, lived in a messy white house across from the church. The yard was more dirt than lawn and the Brewer’s Retail truck made frequent stops there. His older sister had photos of a new teen idol, Elvis, up on her wall. What I remember about Butch was his temper. In a fight he would lose control and play the berserker while Mitch would fight with a cold, calculating fury. Mitch’s family, the Sobczaks, lived on a farm down the road from us and beside the creek. In many ways they still lived the peasant lifestyle they had lived back in Poland. In the cellar potatoes formed a huge mound in one corner and carrots a huge mound in another. A large frypan half full of fat sat constantly on the kitchen stove ready for potatoes. A pile of broken glass and rusty cans lay within throwing distance of the back porch. The living room exhibited old colour-retouched portraits of family back in the old country and one picture of the crowned eagle of Poland. There was little else in the way of decorum in the rough life they lived. Mitch’s parents, Thomas and Mary, always scared me. They possessed the fierce intensity of people forced to live at the subsistence level. There were five children who varied from extremely bright to retarded. Mitch might have proved to be the brightest one.

The world of our childhood, although we never gave it a thought, could scarcely have been designed with more features to provide us with pleasure and adventure. At our convenience were fields, creeks, marshes, woods, abandoned houses, haylofts, railway tracks, bridges, the harbour, the lake, beaches and cliffs. In the spring we tapped the maple trees for sap and pulled glistening loads of smelt out of the harbour entrance with our nets. On certain nights we filled bottles with fireflies we caught down by the marsh. In the summer we took perch, bass and mudcats out of the creeks to fry over a fire. We watched lake freighters and fishing boats sail in and out of the harbour and spent the hottest days in tree forts or swimming in the lake. In the fall we played “conkers” with chestnuts and raided farmer’s crops for grapes, corn and sweet peas. When winter came we tobogganed down hills and skated on frozen marshes.

Our pride and joy was a boat Mitch had built. Somewhere he found two long, flexible planks which he nailed together at both ends and then spread in the middle. He then nailed thicker boards crosswise to make the floor. After sawing these flush to the shape of the side boards he turned it over and waterproofed it with tar from roof shingles he melted over a fire. After adding a few thwarts the boat was complete. One interesting outcome of the design was that one end was no different from the other so it never had to be turned around. Named “The Longfin”, this heavy craft took us fishing, carp spearing and exploring up all the local creeks and out into Lake Ontario.

When I see a Redwing Blackbird balanced on a swaying bulrush and hear it’s liquid call I think of the beauty of our childhood world. But that is not what was in our hearts back then. The Second World War had ended only ten-odd years before. To us the echoes of the guns could still be heard and we drew swastikas and rising suns and sketches of Messerschmitt, Zero and Spitfire fighter planes on our school books and our games included any army surplus gear or wooden rifles we could get our hands on. Although at a certain age some of us had an interest in nature study the year came when we all developed bloodlust. With spears, bows and arrows, slingshots, traps, BB guns and steel pipes with a marble in one end and a firecracker in the other we attacked anything that crawled, hopped, swam, flew or moved. Boy Scout newspaper drives were an opportunity to obtain magazines dealing with lurid crimes, masculine adventure, or the beauty of the female form. We pounced on empty liquor bottles hoping to find that last drop of rum or whiskey that would fall on our tongue with the mysterious taste of adulthood. Our hearts were full of a savage innocence we would soon lose.

Looking back I can identify the day that ended our childhood. It was the day in the summer of 1961 Mitch stepped on a rusty nail and told no one. Several days later he was taken to a dentist who recognized advanced lockjaw and had him rushed to a hospital. Mitch didn’t make it. At the graveside ceremony his older sister wailed on and on and would not be consoled. As a nurse she perhaps realized how unnecessary his peasant’s death was. He is buried in a graveyard on a hill overlooking the town. A school photo portrait is embedded in the stone and his sweet face looks up at the living with a shy smile. The story I’ve heard is that after Mitch’s death Tom Tompkins and some other boys took the Longfin down to one of the creek mouths and filled it full of stones until it sank.

The last time I met Butch was on the bridge over the highway. The year was 1970. We stopped and talked as the cars sped past underneath us. He seemed to have grown into a quiet, personable young man. A few weeks later in a local newspaper I came across an article about him. Butch had gone down to the states several years before and joined the Marines. He excelled at hand to hand combat and was made an instructor but when he found out he wouldn’t be sent for combat in Vietnam he quit as soon as possible. He was currently waiting to leave for Africa to join a mercenary force he had joined up with. That was the last time I heard of him.

When I was a boy my best friend was a pack of three.