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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Independence days

— Russell Wangersky/SaltWire Network

This was the time of year when we disappeared.

Got on our bikes, left the house early in the morning, came back sporadically for food or water and eventually for supper, before heading out again with the standard rule that we had to come home when the streetlights came on.


My mother used to like to know what general area we were in, and maybe who we were hanging out with. But before the advent of cellphones and near-constant contact, we’d essentially vanish.

I grew up in Halifax, so we might have ended up in Point Pleasant Park or out around the Northwest Arm.

Most likely, though, it would be in the railway cut that comes from the harbour and carries container traffic off the Halifax peninsula. We’d eat wild blackberries or raspberries, walk on the rails, climb the ragged shale cliffs that sometimes broke away in our grasp. We learned exactly how much time we had between the rail signal lighting up and the arrival of the train that had activated it. Built hideouts. Found a small cave. Found our way into boarded-up rail sheds.

Out of town, at my uncle’s place in Brooklin, Maine, we went even further afield. Out onto Chatto Island to look for the long-rumoured wild strawberry patch at the centre of the island that no one ever found. Further still, out across Eggemoggin Reach to the Torrey Islands, a half-hour row in an open rowboat to the two small islands connected by a thin sandbar at low tide. Hunting for sand dollars and arrowheads. Sometimes, taking an old wooden sailboat named Scarab that my mother had repaired and scooting down the coast. Catching snakes. Digging clams.

All of it, virtually unsupervised.

We were left to our own devices, without any devices.

Things did go wrong: trying to straighten the guard I’d bent on my fishing knife, I cut a huge gash in the back of my right index finger. (The scar’s still there, around an inch long.) I fell on seaweed covered rocks, barnacles tearing off patches of skin, occasionally got picked off exposed rocks by big waves, fell off embankments, and the list goes on.

We had bad ideas, put those bad ideas into practice, and sometimes paid the price for it.

We got bitten by mosquitoes, stung by bees and swarmed by wasps.

We were left to our own devices, without any devices.

When we were out, we were on our own, without any ability to make contact. Once, on Lower Torrey Island, some kid rivals stole our oars, and my older brother and I paddled back to the wharf in Center Harbour using pieces of driftwood — it took an hour or so, but we didn’t have any other real option. (Google Maps tells me it was about a kilometre and a half of open water.)

I can’t see things working the same way now. And this is not a “good old days” kind of message — because the outcomes weren’t always good.

One of the kids I ran around with lost a foot when he slipped trying to hitch a ride on a slow-moving train, in the very rail cut we were always in. Yes, we all hitched rides on freights — just for a bit of a laugh, though once Gordon lost his nerve as the train sped up, and we watched it carry him out of sight. He got off when it slowed again in Bedford.

My kids are grown, but even now, I’m glad to have the ability to reach out and essentially tap them on the electronic shoulder if I think of it. Just a simple text. When they were little, they were hardly ever out of sight or out of reach.

And maybe that’s given me some comfort and security that my parents couldn’t have dreamed of having.

But I do think we’ve lost something because of it.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.


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