The Way It Was
A memorable summer spent with a real-live hero
Way back in 1941 or maybe ’42, I experienced the most exciting summer of my life. This was back in the days before television, air conditioners, refrigerators and cellphones. Back when Borden’s milk was delivered by a horse-drawn milk wagon, as were the 25-pound blocks of ice, for your icebox.
Party lines were normal; we all had our own number of rings. Food tasted better. Everything was grown naturally. My sister Betty and I lived with my grandparents, in Amherstburg, Ont., while my mother and dad worked at John Inglis in Toronto, making guns for World War II.
I had a rat terrier named Teddy and tiny metal toy soldiers to play with. The radio was our only source of entertainment. My favourite programs centred around the cowboy heroes of the day: The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry—they were the good guys. You used your imagination and the Wild West magically came to life.
Back then, my grandparents had what you might call a hobby farm. A black man by the name of Oswald Simpson, a.k.a. Apples, was the man who worked the land for them. He was a large man—he weighed more than 300 pounds—and he had a team of horses he called by name. Mr. Simpson would show up at sunrise and leave at sunset. He wore bib overalls and a straw hat. The work was hot and difficult. Mr. Simpson and his team would work the ground as he sat perched on a spring-loaded seat on his three-furrow plow. Back and forth, back and forth, as the sun punished all three of them.
For breakfast, my grandma made oatmeal porridge. This stuff would not only stick to your ribs but it could also be used in wallpapering. I didn’t much care for oatmeal porridge, so when Grandma went to her sewing room while Betty and I had breakfast, I would take my bowl and place it on the floor for Teddy to gorge himself. Thank goodness for Teddy; I ate the toast, he ate the porridge.
After breakfast, Grandma would suggest I go outside and play. With straw hat in hand, I would make my way out to the field and watch Mr. Simpson. Wherever he happened to be, he would yell “whoa” to the team and motion for me to come over. Once I arrived, “Apples” would put my hat on my head and pick me up, placing me on the back of one of his giant steeds. He told me to “hold onto the horse’s mane and hang
Boy, it was a long way to the ground. The smell of a horse and freshly ploughed earth are odours you never forget. It was wonderful.
When Apples said “giddy-up,” the two matching drafts knew it was time to work. They plodded along, ploughing their furrows, but imagination enabled me to be whomever I chose. I could pretend to be any one of my cowboy heroes. I whiled away my time in a cloud of dreams on a horse that could fly.
“Whoa, whoa,” Apples would shout; my dream interrupted, it was time for lunch. Apples lifted me like a feather and placed me back on earth. It’s hard to walk after you’ve been riding a horse at breakneck speed. I got my balance as I walked over to the shade of a tree. Before any lunch was eaten, Apples took care of his dutiful drafts. They came first because, as he said, “they worked the hardest.”
The two of us sat under the shade of the tree and ate our lunch. Oh, my, if anyone ever wondered why Apples weighed 300 pounds, I think I found the answer! Notwithstanding the fact that he had brought both his lunch and dinner, Apples unleashed a cornucopia of food. Most of it was homegrown or homemade, except for the half roll of bologna. Anything served on homemade bread is delicious.
Once lunch was finished, he would tell me to lie down and take a nap. He’d place my straw hat over my face and the next thing I knew, I’d wake up to see Apples and his horses hard at work.
Now, Hollywood can have all of their cowboy radio heroes, but for me, that summer, Mr. Simpson was my real-live hero. Thank you, Apples. ■