“Get in the car, we’re going to Hamilton.”
These were sweet words when I was young. Though it sometimes meant going on Highway 403 and up the mountain (itself a quaint idea: the Niagara Escarpment is more a bump than a mountain), it usually meant taking the Beach Boulevard around this western tip of Lake Ontario.
It was a rare treat to get to take the big bridge, the soaring Skyway with the panoramic view; there were toll booths up there, and my father was not a man to pay a toll when he didn’t have to. On those special occasions we’d patiently line up with the other cars, awaiting our turn to hand the man in the small booth the cost to fly so high.
There was a time this was the only job I wanted, to stand in that booth seeing who got to gain access to such a spectacular place. I decided I would work on the other side of the bridge, of course, thus enabling me to cross it twice each day – a perk of the job besides the peaked hat I also longed for. This was only if my other dream job failed to take wing: driving a bus. While other kids wanted to put out fires or teach children, I just wanted to navigate pavement.
Until that toll was removed (back when governments not only had to finish paying for something, they had to tell you they had), we almost exclusively took the lift bridge, a giant orange marvel that would be raised and lowered in agonizing increments to allow the ships servicing the steel plants into and out of the harbour. We called it the alligator bridge, the rumbling noise beneath the vibrating tires drowning out the squeals of little girls craning to look out the window to the water below, hoping to catch a glimpse of ships or sea monsters.
We had intense conversations about what would happen if a car was stranded on the bridge as it launched skyward. My father explained the weight of a car would prevent that happening; I silently – hopefully – wondered if the weight of a little girl might escape notice.
We’d scan the lake as we made our way towards the bridge, scouting for the telltale signs that a ship might hold us up. This made my father antsy; you could be stuck here for an hour or more depending on that dropped gate. For me and my sisters, a delay was perfect. In good weather we would get out of the car and join everybody watching the ships as they funnelled through. We’d wave enthusiastically to what we imagined were sailors happy to see us, squinting at the deck as the tiny dots came in closer, becoming men.
More men would line the sides of the canal, their fishing lines and nets cast. Coolers and lawn chairs would be set up indicating they were here all day because they wanted to be. I’d wonder why we couldn’t fish here. I’d watch them pull up a net full of small black wriggling fish, and my Dad would tell me they were fishing for smelt. I said I might like to catch smelt. He told me you eat the whole fish, including the heads and the bones. After that I didn’t want to catch smelt.
It’s been several years since I took the lift bridge, and I’m sure I’ve never been delayed there with my sons. It has always been a numbers game, and considering you usually just drive across it, as a child we must have been stuck there frequently for the experience to be etched in my childhood data bank.
We’ve changed. Get caught in traffic snarls now, and watch blood pressures rise and tolerances drop. Before the road to cottage country was straightened and doubled, a crash meant hours of waiting. We’d get out of the car and sit on the roadside rocks, strangers sharing cooler contents as Dads walked forward to check on the delay. I remember dismay; I remember overheated cars; I remember resignation. I don’t remember much rage.
Like the new and improved highway that replaced that meandering two lane black top, I wonder sometimes what we traded off for that better way. It’s not that my memories are sepia toned; it’s that they are more textured. I touched that bridge, I smelled those fish in the coolers, I heard those ships coming in out of the fog and I sat on those rocks in the heat of the day.
You know your childhood is going well if your parents’ inconvenience is your adventure.