As a slang term, ‘dyke’ is the euphemism for a lesbian woman, thus ‘the dikes’ may imply a pair of lesbian women. Not in this instance. The dikes referred to a land mass located on the south side of town that served as a hedge for the Steele Park which was a short walk from my house, and the expanse of land on the opposite side, that served no particular purpose during the years of my childhood. Steele Park had one lowly swing set, a hut that was used for the parks and recreation staff for arts and crafts in the summer, a picnic table, a tether ball pole and later a playground ensemble that no one could decipher or by what force of nature had put it there. It was so convoluted an engineer would need instructions to figure it out. The summer park recreational program was fraught with arts and crafts sessions or latent walks to tour the local police station. Touring the Chatham city police was always a highlight for the summer programs and it was especially great for those of us situated on the other side of those dikes. Far enough to want a bus but close enough to force the kids to walk. We were shown real jail cells with steel bars and given the speeches of crossing the street safely on a green light. The highlight was always some kid getting invariably locked in a cell while the rest of us taunted him and debated his future prospects as aninmate.
The park and rec staff took pity on us who attended the Steele park afternoon arts and crafts sessions, as our reputation for the ‘bad’ part of town preceded us. Their activities were usually poorly organized since staff kept refusing to attend to our park out of fear or loathing or both. Those who did show up were ill prepared and we found them particularly boring, but they tried to engage as many of the smaller ones as possible. Their ‘hut’ was a focus point for break-ins and more than once their supplies depleted by the wayward teens who found alternate uses for craft glue.
Filled with lush grass and large maple trees on the boundaries between the park and the adjacent houses, the park was a great sanctuary in the summer and a tobogganing heaven in the winter. The dikes served as a nemesis for toboggan gods looking for the next big hill to conquer and conquer it we all tried.
Feathered with trees and spots of grass, the dikes was the perfect sledding haven with its slopey side rising at the end of the park, then reaching a steep pinnacle, only to incline haphazardly down the other side that, in the seventies, was inhabited by nothing but solid clay ground and dirt underneath a few feet of snow that had turned to a solid sheen of ice by the time the hundredth kid had taken his turn. The city later found that land as a perfect site to build a housing development. New and upscale homes began to populate our favorite tobogganing hill. Soon, instead of our sleds, inner tubes and crazy carpets sliding downhill to an empty expanse of hard land, if left unmanned or steered improperly, they now headed straight into some person’s backyard and newly constructed deck. I’m not sure what housing developer saw large cash rewards for this stroke of genius, but I’m guessing his pie in the sky idea never took to the fruition he had hoped. Those kids with the sleds landing in the upscale backyards of the new land owners, surely put a damper on the whole “paradise” idea. Especially if a wayward kid had inexplicably managed to detach a fence post or garner a concussion from a flying Christmas decoration.
One afternoon, a young friend who did not live in our neighbourhood asked to go tobogganing down the dikes with me. Shy and new to outside invitations, I eagerly accepted. I was wearing my quite unfashionable bright orange snow pants my mother had just bought that severely clashed with my dark brown long nylon coat that ‘covered your bum to keep you warm’. As if I was worried about ass-warmth at the age of eleven. I was quite conscientious about my attire, and swore under my breath as I walked down to the park to meet her. She was waiting for me when I arrived and I immediately noticed her matching skiing ensemble and the color rose in my cheeks. Afraid she would notice my lack of fashion sense I steeled myself for a sarcastic remark. She made no attempts at humor at my expense nor did she seem too concerned with the temperature of my ass.
The girl and I took to the hill with crazy carpets in hand. Using a crazy carpet on a hill made of ice that sloped severely and littered with rocks and tree stumps, was something of a daredevil escapade about which we would later contemplate our sanity. This journey into sledding horror proved a rite of passage, as it were, for the faint of heart and junior Evel Knievel among us. It was also an excellent training ground for future emergency room medical staff and those destined to treat head traumas.
We made the journey to the edge of the park and tackled the dikes. Our initial runs down the hill proved exhilarating and exhausting. The long walk back up (which really, wasn’t that long it just seemed like forever with all that clothing on, which did keep my ass warm in case you were wondering) was taking an eternity and we decided to move to another portion of the hill to get more of an exciting and steeper ride, because nothing says ‘temporary paralysis’ better than flying down a hill at the speed of light with a slick sheet of bendable plastic under your ass and the wayward tree stump making you airborne for what seemed like minutes, then landing with a tailbone-crushing thump on a boulder the size of Quebec. My friend took her turn and I watched first in joy, that later turned to horror as her crazy carpet hit a sheen of ice, propelling her down the hill at an alarming rate of speed, beating her off a tree stump and soaring her out of my range of vision. I took to my carpet and tried my best to keep my eyes open for the ride, but most of it was a blur. I made it in one piece down to the other side of the hill to find her gasping for breath and crawling on her hands and knees.
In school, we had taken some first aid lessons and learned the new procedure of the Heimlich maneuver. A technique that was designed to assist a person severely choking on her ham sandwich or chicken bone and anything else she had erroneously decided to attempt to swallow. This newfound life-saving technique was supposed to dislodge a wayward object from the victim’s throat by performing intrusive stomach-pumping motions with your fists as you bear-hug the victim from behind, whispering sweet-you’ll-be-all-rights in their ear as you pummel the shit out of them, thus, allowing them the ability to breathe freely once again. Quite simple, really.
Seeing my friend crawling and gasping for breath, I suddenly remembered she had been chewing gum when we began tobogganing. With the Heimlich presentation still fresh in my mind and thinking I could rescue my new friend with the greatest technique ever known to mankind, I took it upon myself to be her heroine. Rescue the would-be daredevil with precision medical attention and expert execution of a brand new technique. I would be lauded as saving a young girl’s life. Wait ‘til her mother finds out she was near-death, but with the life-saving Heimlich, I brought her precious daughter back to life and saved her from inevitable brain-damage or worse, death from the dikes.
I quickly darted for her and wrapped my arms around her so my fists were securely in her stomach and began thrusting in urgent motions. She tore away from me and started yelling at me. “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!!!” Shocked, I backed away on the crunching snow and stared. “I was saving you. I thought you were choking” I replied a bit miffed that she didn’t appreciate my life-saving and quick-thinking first aid. “I WASN’T CHOKING YOU DOPE!! I GOT THE BLOODY WIND KNOCKED OUT OF ME. STAY AWAY FROM ME!” And with that, she took her crazy carpet and stomped back to the park. I wandered home defeated, but still convinced the Heimlich could have saved her, if only she had let me. No appreciation for the would-be life-saving first-aider in her midst. We never went tobogganing together again. I guess she was afraid of the whole ‘crazy girl with the orange pants thinks everybody is choking’ thing. I hope somebody knew what he was doing when she found herself choking on her chicken wings one Friday night and I wasn’t there to put my mad stomach-pummeling fist-thrusting Heimlich-Maneuver skills to work to save her ass. Meanwhile, my orange pants took a sabbatical and my crazy carpet was in the garbage the next day.
I should point out Steele Park now looks nothing like it did when I was a kid. Everything is gone but a climbing apparatus. The dikes look like a little incline with trees and a cemented path running through it and the ‘housing development’ spared the better part of the clay ground. Instead, they covered it in sod and kept a field of green to have something pretty to look at instead of screaming daredevils careening towards their flower gardens. Everything seemed so much more mountainous when I was four feet tall.