Tuesday, May 05, 2009


I had forgotten all about Red Rover. The game. The one we used to play as kids, on dusky summer nights when the sun was gradually setting, and the air was getting cool, and in this hint of night the mesh soccer shirts we all wore suddenly seemed far too thin, the sleeves much too short, the sweatshirts our mothers advocated only hours before suddenly seeming like missing, hidden talismans. Two teams faced each other across the field. One person would shout: "Red rover, red over, I call Brendan over!" And Brendan (or Chris, or Tracey) would have to attempt to make it across the wide and pungent grass without getting caught. Or tackled. Or touched.

But that's wrong. Because I seem to remember different rules. Contradictory ones. Ones where we were all running across the field as one, our entire team, and if somebody was caught, anybody was caught, then they automatically became part of the other team.

Did we have two different sets of rules? How could something so simple, so rudimentary as the rules that once defined a good portion of my hours suddenly be missing from the space inside of my head? I used to know this stuff the same way I now know the combination to my mailbox. That routine, boring click that opens the way to flyers and bills.

I only ask because David Mitchell's extraordinary novel Black Swan Green, about a twelve year old British boy's entry into adolescene, adulthood, life, in 1982 contains a scene featuring Red Rover, but while reading the rules struck me as different. Familiar, but English. And yet when I tried to remember the rules from my own youth, I was left with nothing but vague, wispy images; the mad cackle of childhood, multiplied; sweaty, smelly t-shirts grabbed by the neck, almost torn, as punishment for being caught.

The best fiction takes us back, not forward. It reminds us of who we were and what we lost. And since we all lose our childhood, slowly, then ultimately all at once, it doesn't take a genius to recognize Mitchell's extraordinary ability to immerse us in the vivid present of those awful, wonderful early years.

How fresh everything was! Life can become so mandatory. Even me, having lived for almost exactly a decade in three unceasingly foreign countries, having straddled multiple languages and impenetrable cities, having continually borne witness to cancer and its insidious, extended grasp on everyone around it, can become numb with the nagging, cloud-grey repetition of it all. Sometimes we need the imaginary to plant us back in the technicolor savagery and grace of the past. Of the madness of childhood.

How could I have fucking forgotten the rules of Red Rover? It's almost obscene. There were days and nights in those dead and distant days of 1980, '82, '84, when games of Red Rover, kick-the-can and hide-and-go-seek seemed like sensational means of ordinary elevation. The stupendous was so routine that we didn't catch sight of our soaring imaginations. We would simply rise through our play. Effortlessly. A blue rubber ball became the focus of our obsessions. A hockey stick with shoddy tape remained a weapon, an instrument of ego. The sandbox at my school was vast, a potential entry into quicksand and oblivion. I played marbles at recess every day without fail, shielding their prowess in a deep purple wine pouch, the steelies being the most valuable, round and shiny and globe-like in their immensity. After school, there were five or six kids in the neighbourhood around Bayshore Crescent who were more than happy to indulge again in extended versions of G-Force and The A-Team. A few years later, we could play army and First Blood, Chuck Norris and Uncommon Valor with green machine guns to the steady, insistent beat of the waves softly lapping Lake Ontario's shore, whose waters almost reached my bedroom window, where on dark and chilly November nights I could see an infinity of stars keeping watch on Toronto, the CN Tower stretching upward, somehow reaching out and towards me, leaping the gap across that glorious lake, willing me away from my childhood and my city. Soon I will leave all of this behind, I thought. I will go there, to that place. Not knowing if it was a threat or a lament.

How long has it been since I had grass stains on my shorts? Scabs on my elbows? As a kid I fell down a slide and bonked my nose, the blood flowing freely, my brother and my cousin coming back with me to my grandmother's house to make sure I wasn't dead or damaged beyond repair. Sometimes I can still taste that stinging, invigorating blood in the back of my throat, reminding me of a different time within myself. Always autumn, this time remains. Blackboard clouds bringing winter. My comics in my room -- cloaked in plastic backs, backed by cardboard, safe and protected -- and the closed chambers in my head begged to be opened so that they could let imagination work its wonder. Even lead me, if lucky, to a mental spring and summer whose sunshine would help stain the endless February to follow.