A continuing tale of life in the boonies


No. 289

Poets who matter: 5. Walt Whitman


FARMINGTON - Rochester’s mayor, Walter Hoerman, is still sifting through his towering pile of applications from Poet Laureate hopefuls – with greatness to be thrust upon somebody or other round about Nov. 4. But I have to say that not all poets matter, so Rochester’s first poet laureate should prepare to be drenched in a great tidal wave of indifference after the celebratory cheers have died away.

The big question in my mind is this: Does Walt Whitman matter? Or is he just a 19th century guy who struck it lucky with his long, enthusiastic shopping lists of carpenters and farmers and boat-builders and locksmiths and engine drivers, and his song of this and his o joy to that. A regular Mr. Gusto.

Well, just for a week, let’s pretend he matters, as Whitman’s exuberance for production and action did capture the fervor that gripped the young members of Blackhill Wolves in the late spring of 1973. (Blackhill, for people just jumping aboard this series, was a notorious housing project on the east side of Glasgow, where I worked as a policeman and helped found the youth club mentioned above.)

Last week, I recalled how building garden fences (of a temporary nature, as it turned out) supplied the money to buy football strips for the boys, and these enabled them to join Glasgow Association of Youth Club’s league and suffer a string of depressing defeats from soccer teams all over Glasgow - with the exception of a 3-3 draw against the Jewish lads of Maccabi Boys Club, whose forte was chess.

After a 21-1 drubbing by Celtic Boys’ Club (we scored in the first 15 seconds of the game with a mad charge up-field), it was apparent that the under-14 boys of Blackhill Wolves Youth Club had to diversify their activities or suffer permanent psychological damage.

Consulting the poets, I sensed that old Walt Whitman might have the answer.

About that time, a local school, St. Roch’s Annex, closed, but some equipment in the woodwork classroom had been left behind, as I found one night when visiting the watchman. Glasgow’s central education authorities, keen to see the empty building serve the community, and not get torched like the neighboring whisky bond, allowed us to use the woodwork room as a youth club headquarters, and thus began the carpentry classes.

Take it away, Walt: 

The preparatory jointing, squaring, sawing, mortising…

The blows of mallets and hammers…

The floor men forcing the planks close to be nailed …

That was from Song of the Broad-axe, all Hustle and Vigor and End-product Taking Shape - but reality was a wee bit different in Blackhill, where there were several problems.

The first was a lack of carpentry tools, for all that had been left behind in the workbench drawers were wooden mallets and plane blades. The second drawback was a dearth of materials – the only wood being a stack of abandoned one-inch thick drawing boards. Problem three was that the woodworking experience of the youth club leaders had not developed beyond tacking mushroom box slats onto wooden rails during the fence-making debacle.

On the plus side, though, Hustle and Vigor was in plentiful supply. Every single football player in the youth club wanted to make a wooden shield, a sad and silent acknowledgment that they would never win such a trophy as a member of Blackhill Wolves football team, and so they set to work.

The echoes resounding through the vacant building …

You got that right, Walt. The noise was ear-splittingly horrendous. A dozen boys pounded a dozen mallets onto a dozen plane blades as they converted drawing boards into heraldic trophy shapes with varying success…

The tools lying around, the great auger, the little auger, the adze, bolt, line, square, gouge, and bead-plane …

Okay! Thanks, Walt. Let’s not get too carried away, though.

At the end of the shield-making project, the best six End-products, which had assumed several shapes and disguises, were given special status by being Photographed.



                                                                                                                                   PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN NOLAN

                                 Blackhill Wolves Carpentry Club, Blackhill, Glasgow, 1973

The shapes arise!                                            

The shape measur’d, saw’d, jack’d, join’d, stain’d …                                            

                                                                                                           - Walt Whitman, Song of the Broad-axe

Then, one night, the carpentry class got a boost, when someone produced a saw and some scraps of real lumber. Within a week, footstools were being made, and I sensed the time was ripe to build our first canoe.

With the last of the fence revenues, Blackhill Wolves had purchased a box of fund-raising lucky tickets, the kind where you pull open three flaps and hope to line up cherries or plums for an instant payout. The profits from the initial box of tickets begat another and another, until almost £50 had been accumulated. Thus financed, we acquired a mail-order canoe kit, which needed the further purchase of a screwdriver to fasten the pre-cut bits of the frame together. Then a PVC skin was stretched over it, and she was ready for launching.

Hogganfield Loch, a city-owned stretch of water, was a magnet for rowers, ducks and golf balls from a neighboring course. It lay less than a mile to the east of Blackhill, and in the lee of the rhubarb fields from whence had come the mushroom slats. The Parks Department had a boating shed at the edge of the loch, rowing boats for hire, and a staff who were delighted that Blackhill boys had just built a double-seater canoe. They had previously been wary of youth from that area, and their ducks had been especially nervous. But, letting bygones be bygones, the park superintendent willingly gave consent for us to store the canoe there and use the jetty.

With the sale of another box of fund-raisers, the club bought a pair of lifejackets and paddles, and was ready to launch.

To quote Walt, before he quotes himself:

…To leave the tiresome sameness of the streets, the sidewalks and the houses,

To leave you O you solid motionless land, and entering a ship,

To sail and sail, and sail!

Or, in this case, to paddle, and paddle, and paddle!

On launching day, the boys (and a couple of girls) lined up in pairs on the jetty and agreed to take five-minute trips and then return to shore for a crew rotation.

It was a pretty successful first evening, save for Willie Reilly - he whom I had recently charged with breaking a window in the brand new Fruit Market on the way home from the 21-1 Celtic Boys Club defeat. Reilly and his chum had canoed around the back of an island in the loch and gone ashore to try and club nesting ducks with a paddle.

…from the hunting trail we come,

Pioneers! O pioneers! …

Whitman, that’s entirely inappropriate. Luckily for the whole youth club, the ducks quacked in alarm, and scuttled off the island.

Against the odds, our name remained good with the park authorities, and over the next month or so we built another couple of canoes. Then - out of the blue - came an invitation for Blackhill Wolves Youth Club to take part in a prestigious boating regatta on the River Clyde down at Glasgow Green near the city center.

On Saturday, Sept. 29, 1973, a pair of our canoes were transported to the Green on the rickety roof racks of two cars, with club leaders and eight youngsters jammed in the seats below. Warm was the welcome we received from the regatta organizers, and one of our leaders, Tam Lindsay (he who had once stolen a dwelling house), was drafted into an official role and entrusted with a megaphone.

"Ready, steady, go," yelled Tam to several canoes lined up out on the water.

Unfortunately, the course was not quite clear, and one of our canoes capsized by spectacularly navigating between two rowing eights and being thrashed with oars.

Mr. Ben Parsonage of the Glasgow Humane Society, a gentleman credited, at that time, with saving over 800 lives from the Clyde, immediately shot out to the rescue in a small rowing boat.

"Never mind the boys, save the fucking paddles," resounded Tam through the megaphone, mindful of how many fund-raising tickets had to be sold to buy replacements.

"Who told you, you could start a race, ya stupid fuck," Parsonage countered through his own megaphone, and over the next few minutes, he deeply impressed the Blackhill contingent with his versatile command of amplified oaths.

… O a warning bell, rocked by the waves …

For as on the alert, O steersman, you mind the loud admonition …

For goodness sakes, not now, Walt. This is a volatile moment.

Indeed, sensing the volatility, boating officials wisely let Tam Lindsay retain his megaphone, and for his part, Tam made sure the course was clear before starting another race.

"Oot the road, ya silly bastard," he boomed to a one-man scull idling in a sunlit spot on the river, but in the path of the next heat.

"Indeed, I will not," came the shocked retort from an extremely cultured voice.

"Ready, steady, go."

Two canoes flailed madly towards a blue-vested sculler, and as he caught their wake, and sank into the Clyde’s murky water, he shook a hand, still gripping an oar, Lindsay-ward. It reminded me of the menacing, closing shot from the movie Deliverance, which had just made the rounds at that time.

Over the Tannoy came an urgent appeal: "Would Mr. Ben Parsonnage …"

And then:

Here sailor! Here ship! Take aboard the most perfect pilot,

Whom, in a little boat, putting off and rowing, I hailing you, offer …

Walt Whitman – shut up!

Sept. 27, 2003


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