The Gym Shirt
I want to tell you a story about a boy named Eddie.
Eddie spent his childhood in a Toronto neighbourhood known today as St. James Town. Eddie lived here decades earlier before the homes that once stood on the tree-lined streets were replaced with today's concrete towers.
Eddie lived in a narrow, two-bedroom house at 39 St. James Avenue.
Eddie was on the short side. He had dark eyes. Long eyelashes. Jug ears. Pencil straight hair.
Eddie was a curious sort of kid. When his grandmother, Sarah−Eddie loved his grandmother, gave him a Brownie Hawkeye camera for his twelfth birthday back in January, he explored his neighbourhood, capturing images of people and places he encountered.
Click, click, click.
A framed photograph of King George VI hung conspicuously on a wall above the icebox in his kitchen.
On Saturday afternoons, Eddie went with his pals to the matinee at the Parliament Theatre. Eddie loved westerns. Gary Cooper. Henry Fonda. Gregory Peck.
Eddie's grades were average.
Every Sunday, he attended church with his grandmother.
Eddie lived with his parents in a cozy little home and shared a bedroom with his older brother, Marshall.
Eddie's father, Earle, was an upholsterer.
While other women entered the workforce after World War II, Eddie's mom, Maude, remained at home.
As is common among brothers, Eddie and Marshall were competitive. They tormented the heck out of one another. But they were also close, close as heat to fire.
When Eddie was a boy, it was common for youngsters to work a few hours before school, after school, on weekends. At ten, Eddie worked in a local bakery. Well before the school bell rung, he tied an oversized apron around his slender waist and got to work rolling out dough.
He changed jobs a year later, making deliveries on foot and bicycle for Mr. Shield, proprietor of the pharmacy next door to the Winchester Hotel. There wasn’t a backstreet, laneway or alley Eddie hadn’t explored.
Marshall worked too, delivering the Globe & Mail to big homes across the ravine.
Eddie’s family pulled together. By twelve, Eddie contributed to the household’s finances.
Eddie entered seventh grade at Rose Avenue Public School within spitting distance of home. Marshall was enrolled at a new school: Jarvis Collegiate. For the first time in their lives, the brothers would attend different schools.
On the first day of class, September 4th, Eddie went to classroom No. 8. His teacher was Mr. McPherson. He was assigned a desk, provided with a pencil, ruler, Scribblers, and a newfangled writing instrument called a ballpoint pen.
Seventh graders were also given a crimson gym shirt with forest-green trim, red crewneck collar, and Rose stitched in white across the chest. The wool gym shirt was a loaner, expected to be returned at the conclusion of the school year.
On account of Eddie being an early riser, Marshall suggested he help him with his paper route. They could finish in half the time. Marshall could expand the route, bringing home more money.
Because family pulled together, Eddie agreed.
The boys developed a routine. Awake before sunrise and a quick, healthy breakfast.
They slinked across Glen Road Bridge, where a flatbed truck hauling bundled newspapers awaits them. Canvas bags filled to bursting and then slung over shoulders, Eddie would deliver one side of the street, Marshall the other. Naturally, the brothers turned the laborious task into a competition: Who could complete their side quickest. Before commencing, they settle on who would take what side of the street with a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.
A glint of first light climbing in the east flickered in Eddie's eyes. Marshall smirked, tousled his kid brother's hair. Before sprinting off, he chided, “Cheers, big ears. Beat you to the end of the street.” Then, off like a shot.
If you're making this story up, this would be the ideal place to introduce menace. Thrust a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in your protagonist’s path and watch the outcome.
Throughout the summer of 1951, the menace terrorizing children had an oddly whimsical name: Polio.
The menace had been here all along: During Eddie's childhood, there was no protection against the infectious disease. Year after year, thousands died. Many more were paralyzed with atrophied limbs, restricted to wheelchairs, hobbling around on crutches and braces, or worse, confined to an iron lung.
Toronto public health would later surmise that in violation of stringent health codes, a wealthy household infected with the virus along Eddie’s route−perhaps humiliated by the designation, had removed the quarantine sign conspicuously posted on their front door to keep Eddie and the rest of the public safe.
Worse, a member of the household had disposed of contents of a bedpan on the front lawn.
But on that sunny September morning, a week after the first day of school, Eddie didn't know any of this. All he knew was a gap of at least eight houses separated him and his big brother. Disparate to catch up, he raced across plush green lawns, leaped manicured hedges, dashed around late-summer gardens in bloom.
Run. Run. Run.
Suddenly, his foot catches on a root. He stumbles into a sodden mess.
Marshall caught up to his kid brother and, offering him a kerchief, asked, “You okay?” Eddie replied, "Yeah. I’m okay."
September 11th, 1951, was a Tuesday. At morning recess that day, Eddie has a sore throat. At lunchtime, a fever. He's nauseous. His head throbs. By the last bell, he is in crisis. Barely able to walk, he staggers home and stumbles over the threshold. Maude is horrified by her boy's condition. She sweeps her son up in her arms, conveying him to bed.
An ambulance is dispatched. By day’s end, Eddie will never have use of his legs again.
Seven days into the seventh grade, he would never complete school.
Fever desperately high, he was rushed to Sick Kids and stabilized. Next, he is transferred to an isolation hospital, then a convalescent home. More hospitals. An operation. More surgeries. A new convalescent home. This continues for years.
During a visit by Marshall, holding out hope his brother would walk again, he brought along the Rose Avenue gym shirt as encouragement. Marshall held up the shirt. Eddie pushed it away and said, "It was supposed to be returned a long time ago. Take it back." "No," Marshall pleaded, "Keep it. At least 'til you're better."
Eddie got a bad break. A year later, a vaccine was discovered. During hospitalization, his mother died, his dad a few years later.
Eddie got a bad break but never gave up. Eventually discharged from the hospital, he took the gym shirt as a reminder to keep going, to persevere.
And he did.
Confined to crutches and a wheelchair, he learned a trade, married a lovely woman and became a father of five. That marriage dissolved. He met someone else. Had another child. He bought a house, ran a business, retired.
The end? Not quite. During a visit to my father's home a few years ago, he handed me a plastic bag. Inside was a red shirt with Rose stitched on the front. He explained why he'd kept the shirt. The time had come to give it back to its rightful owner.
Today, my father's gym shirt is conspicuously displayed in a shadow box in the foyer of Rose Avenue Public School.
Why share this story today? My father died in December 2019. His life is proof one small event, one single action, can alter the course of a child's life, for good or ill, forever.
But it’s also a story about endurance. Like the inscription below the gym shirt explains, any obstacle can be overcome with dedication and perseverance.
My father's life is a testament to this.