All along the docks and breakwaters of the Toronto Island are places that can be deadly to a boy or girl who fell in the water, so we were taught to swim when we were very young, and often reminded of the danger of drowning as we grew up. Be careful around the lagoon! was a warning we heard many times. When my cousin fell off the Ward’s Island ferry dock while looking at a duck, the pantaloons of his sailor suit kept him afloat just long enough for my father to reach down and pull him out by his belt.
Not all mishaps ended so well. One year a teenager was washed off the eastern gap in a spring storm. His body bobbed onto Ward’s Island beach a few days later. Early in the twentieth century the Ward family provided lifesaving services to the Island community that carried their name. They pulled shipwreck survivors out of the lake, day sailors out of the bay and children out of the lagoons, rescuing people with their bare hands, their courage, and their ability to endure cold, rough water.
For years they responded to an old ship’s bell, rowing out in the day or night in a lifeboat that had washed off a freighter in a storm. Later, the Harbor Police assumed responsibility for the safety of Island residents, and their signals were familiar to Bay Pilots and Islanders alike. One of these alarms was several short blasts from the ferry, a notice that the Master of The William Ingles, The Sam McBride or The Thomas Ronnie needed assistance out on the Bay. Since the trip from the City is only about fifteen minutes from dock to dock these carried an urgency that was always noticed along the Island shores.
Most times it was a false alarm, a missing child who had wandered into the ferry bathroom, or some teenaged sailors wallowing around a dumped Albacore or Finn, good swimmers paddling around a sailboat kept afloat by its buoyancy bags. Other times the blasts announced a matter of life and death. It was only when I was older, about ten, that I learned more about this from my Island friends. The short blasts meant somebody has fallen off the ferry, they told me. Fallen off the ferry? I asked. How could anyone do that?
The upper decks of those old boats were surrounded by high rails and their lower cabins were lined with by sliding windows. The only danger on an Island ferry was falling down the companionway when a skipper misjudged his throttles and ground into the dock tires on a windy day. It happens when somebody jumps, Ricky explained. Kills himself by jumping over the rail into the bay. And when they jump they go right down ’cause they don’t want to keep on living. Then the ferry sounds the blasts. We all looked at him as we considered this frightening and complicated idea. Taking one’s own life? What a thought! Even adults didn’t like to consider that. I never watched the dark water pass under the bow of the ferry the same way again.
Other emergencies on the Island were not so grievous, even though they resulted in tragedy. Sometimes they happened right in our backyards. One of these began when I was fishing with my friends on the ferry dock on a sunny afternoon, watching my line for the telltale circles that told me a perch or silver bass was interested in my worm. Squatting in the sun, daydreaming about The Lake and The Iroquois I looked up to see the Harbor police launch heading toward us at full throttle, big waves breaking from its stern. I rubbed my eyes to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, then heard the wail of its siren.
The Harbies are coming! I called. We reeled in our lines. Jimmy dumped our perch pail into the bay and we jumped on our bicycles. As the police motored toward us we rode along the lagoon road, guessing the emergency was nearby. Sure enough, the long brown launch roared onto the calm water, causing the Dragons and Sharks of the Queen City Yacht Club to bob violently in its wake. Pedaling past our backyard fence we rode to the top of the Algonquin Bridge, dropped our bicycles on the old brown boards and peered over the rail to watch the Lifesavers pass below.
We saw the shining fittings on their boat, the uniformed Skipper grim faced and intent, his radio squawking as a police diver zipped himself into a rubber suit. In the open cockpit their equipment was carefully arranged: coils of white rope, piles of red and black blankets, tanks of oxygen, boxes of medicine, orange preservers filled with kapok. A cloud of exhaust throbbed from the diesel engine as the launch passed beneath us, Island children and adults standing open mouthed along the bridge rail, every one of us reassured to see these men and their equipment responding to the emergency.
A hundred feet along the Algonquin shore their boat slowed near a dock already surrounded by Island firemen, two of whom stood chest deep in the murky water. The fire truck was parked on the avenue nearby, its engine idling. As the police boat maneuvered into position its skipper pointed to a spot in the weeds, his diver somersaulted into the water and bubbles began bursting on the surface of the lagoon.
Ripples of speculation passed among the spectators who had gathered on the bridge: They’re searching for him now. He couldn’t swim. They have the scuba gear. You can see where the diver goes.
I looked up at the clouds over the Algonquin trees, the leaves of the poplars and willows limp in the still air as people beside me I whispered and pointed, fearing the worst. Some adults wondered aloud if there was anyone down in the water at all. Just when it seemed the diver was not going to find anything, his head broke the surface with a surprising splash and he started toward shore, towing something that caused the teenaged girl beside me to let out a gasp. As he paddled toward the beach I saw it clearly, a ragged form rolling in the weeds, brown water sloshing around its hands and face, clothing fluttering around it in the dark water of the lagoon. He hefted the body into the shallows and the firemen pulled it onto the beach.
One of the men knelt down and blew into its mouth, though all of us, Island children and adults, suspected this was no use. Eager to see more of the spectacle, we jumped on our bicycles and rode down the bridge, annoying adult onlookers as we approached the fire truck. Because we were Island children we assumed we would be allowed to ride into the middle of the lifesaving operation, but an officer in green rubber boots held out his hand. Nothing to see here boys, he cautioned, move away now. Move away? But his face was set and his manner firm. Under stares of disapproval we retreated, even though we knew the adults were as curious as we were to see the dead man.
We pedaled along Ojibway Avenue, ditched our bicycles and hopped some fences to get into our friend’s front yard and watch the whole thing from there. I looked past the puffing fire truck and saw Fire and Police officers talking to each other. He’s dead, Ricky whispered, they can’t bring him back now. To confirm this, a fat man in a dark suit walked to the beach, knelt beside the body and opened his little black bag.
He conducted his examination in a way that could only come from a Doctor who had seen death before, coming to people from failures in their hearts, brains, or guts, or episodes of illness or plain old bad luck. All eyes were on him as he placed his stethoscope on the drowned man’s chest, lifted his arm, felt his wrist. He looked carefully at the man’s hands and fingernails, then leaned down so his cheek was an inch or two above the motionless lips. After several seconds, an interval in which the life or death of the man on the sand was decided, he struggled to his feet and walked to the Policeman in charge, and the shaking of his head told the tale. We craned over the fence for a better look, and one of the Firemen caught us staring.
Without reproach or emotion he covered the body with a red blanket and instructed his subordinates to lift it onto a litter. The Doctor pointed at the lagoon and the police launch nosed to the end of the dock so the dead man could be taken aboard. He’s going back to the city, said Colin. That’s where he’ll get buried, said Ricky.
After the body had been put in the Harbie boat, the firefighters put their equipment back in their truck and raked the sand beside the dock. We bicycled back to the top of the bridge and leaned over its rail to watch the dead man below. On the lagoon, waves from the launch rippled over the old square timbers beneath us and rocked the QCYC boats as it passed. Now all that remained were a few adults talking quietly, looking at the sand and water, their faces grave. We realized there was nothing more to see so we rode full speed to our fort in the Algonquin wilderness.
All we knew was that he was dead, drowned in the lagoon. We made a pact to camp in the fort that night and go down to the dock at midnight. A dead man’s ghost will come out at twelve on the first night of his death, someone declared, and the rest of us agreed. We would camp out and go back to see the ghost of the corpse.
In our fort of old boards and branches we all became silent, remembering the white hands and face being turned over in the water and I decided it was time to go home and tell the whole story to my mother. But before I could act on this impulse, Ricky crawled outside and stood up. I’m going swimming in the cut! he declared. And anybody who doesn’t come is a suck! He pulled off his T shirt and trotted down the path to the water.
We followed him to our sandy beach on the Snake Island channel. When he got to the shore he grabbed the rope hanging from the old poplar there and ran around it, swinging over the water, letting out a yell as he fell in with a splash. On the bank we gathered and waited for him to come up, and several seconds passed but he did not appear. We became quiet and looked anxiously at each other and the water, wondering if something had gone wrong, and just when it seemed it had, Ricky’s head broke the surface with a surprising splash and he turned to us and laughed.
Ha Ha! he shouted. Bet you thought I was dead! Ha ha! Ha ha! And one after another we followed him, running around the old tree, swinging as high as we could, then falling in and paddling back to the surface, shouting and splashing each other, and laughing at the dark water of the lagoon.