STORY


From the earliest day that I remember the boats were there. They were a real anomaly, as I came to appreciate much later. Boats belonged on the water, not in the parking lot of the Liverpool Football Club. From my vantage point of my earliest home, through the bathroom window at the rear, or the floor higher in what was known as "the attic" and which later became my bedroom for a time, I was able to look down on these boats. I could not put a time to it then or even some time later. But I was able to establish eventually that this was a World War Two experience and probably for a year or two afterwards.


 The first row of boats was out of sight, tucked behind the wall which separated the parking lot from the rear entry to my home. This was a 10 room Georgian terraced house, more vertical than horizontal, which ran the length of Lothair Road and intersected at a T-junction with Anfield Road just opposite the bombed house. The second and third rows of boats were visible easily to my young gaze, even though I had to stand on my tiptoes to see down through the window. I got much more of an opportunity to see the boats from close-up when I was old enough to play out in the street, with my big sister Marie and the other children of the neighbourhood.The parking lot was sometimes inaccessible because the doors were often locked at one end and manned by a watchman at the other. The watchman kept out the undesirables such as the urchins who ran riot around the bombed sites of the neighbourhood seeking adventure. Sometimes, though, the door of the parking lot would be left open and unattended and the word would spread like wildfire around the neighbourhood children. We would run inside the parking lot and swarm all over the boats. We played cowboys and Indians, or commandos and staged mock fights as we seized the wheel from our enemy and piloted the ship to safety, rescuing all on board and receiving the deserved medal of approbation from King George VI. Eventually the watchman would return from his lunch, or the washroom, and chase us. Somehow he never caught us; perhaps he never intended to. With screams of fear and delight we would scuttle out to the safety of the rear entry, prepared to escape quickly into our back yards, if we needed to.


The boats were all pretty much of the same size, which is to say, really quite small, even to a little boy such as myself. Not much more than a cockpit and a wheel and a hull,  capable of carrying 3 or 4 adults, perhaps one or two more with a really tight squeeze. They were in various states of repair. Some boats were totally open and filled with water when it rained. There were a few with a glass window at the front but most of the others had no glass, or else it was broken. Some were tilted at an angle on account of their resting on this projection below; that I later learned was a keel. They were all made of wood. Once in a while one of us children would put a foot through a rotting floorboard and get a foot wet in the mire beneath, to the disgusted sounds of friends.


At various times, we children talked about the boats, and created stories from our imagination as to why and how these boats came to be here for us to play in so conveniently. None of us came near to the truth, which was much more impressive than our young imaginations could ever have conjured up. I don't remember when the boats left the parking lot. I am sure that it was some time after "The War" as we and our families always referred to WW2. There was no memory of trucks or trailers disappearing loaded with our early playpens disguised as boats. They just faded from memory and then I got used to the Liverpool Football Club parking lot fulfilling its intended destiny. Players, managers, and major shareholders appeared there and we children would descend upon them with autograph books, seeking signatures from anyone who would comply. Slowly normalcy returned to the neighbourhood and the memory of the boats faded along with that. But not forever.


I think that I was around 16 years old when I eventually conjured up my early memories of the subject and discussed them with my uncles who had gathered after one of the football matches to drink tea and share their impressions of the match that they had just seen. I described my memories to them but I expressed my puzzlement as to why the boats were there. They all knew but it was my Uncle Bill Nuttall who spoke. "They were brought there after Dunkirk for the owners to recover", he said, "but most of them never did". There was much that was not spoken in my uncle's words; indeed, they did not need to be said, as they were well understood by all.


I had often read of the heroism of Dunkirk; of the fleets of ships and boats of all shapes and sizes that trekked in convoys, many of them unpiloted and tied together, protected by gunboats, where 400,000 British soldiers and Free French were pushed into the English Channel just outside the French Normandy port to await the miracle of a rescue from under the gaze of the German troops massed behind the cliffs above. The great escape of 1940 it was, with thousands of British boat owners answering the call for the emergency evacuation, for boats, any boat that would float, which was capable of carrying even one or two soldiers to safety. Later, after the evacuation, there were thousands of boats without owners, or at least owners that were known. I have no doubt that all kinds of attempts were made to match owners with missing boats. Perhaps many of the owners were themselves killed in the war. Others, perhaps, assumed the worst. Many did not reclaim their boats. But the boats were the respected properties of British heroes, and the government no doubt felt an obligation to store them where they would be protected until they were reclaimed, from locations with constant surveillance, as in the parking lot of Liverpool Football Club. And I, and my big sister Marie, and my friends in the neighbourhood played innocently in some of these boats which had been touched by history.


The realization of it all was overwhelming, stunning, in fact. History is revealed sometimes in strange fashion, is it not? You won't find it all in the text books. Sometimes it's right under your nose. The bags were packed for our departure back to Toronto, we sat in the living room of the New Brighton home of my sister Marie and her husband, Bob, sipping slowly on the hot coffee that was to be our last one on this nostalgic journey back to my roots. The commemoration of our 25 years together had proven to be more even than Annelise and I had hoped for and the mood was sad. All that remained of note before retracing our steps to Toronto was the difficult goodbye which needed to be expressed to my Aunty Hetty, the 80 year old matriarch and the one remaining connection with our parents' generation. Marie emerged from the kitchen with her own steaming cup of tea which she carefully protected as she hovered above me, pondering the latest comments on the boats of our childhood. "I never knew where the boats came from," she confessed, "but I do remember what they did to me." This was accompanied by a growing smile as I looked quizzically in her direction. "Don't you remember how I broke my leg escaping from the boats when the watchman appeared and we all scrambled over the walls?" I gasped in surprise and shook my head. "Oh, yes," said Marie, warming to the subject, "The wall (that we had climbed over to access the boats) was a funny shape, with an overhang, I fell awkwardly as I dropped down on the other side!" My look this time was one of wry sympathy. I had not remembered how Marie had broken her leg, although I did remember that she had once had a broken leg. We both snorted our laughter at mutual recollection of childhood experience. Marie picked up my empty cup, still smiling broadly, and marched it off to the kitchen to be washed.


 



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This story was added on 22nd September 2010

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