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Welcome to the blog of Ian Wilson, author of the award-winning Canadian Branchline series, the King's Highways & Steam Trains series, and the Angus Wolfe adventures series.

On the passing of my boyhood friend, John Garner

February 27, 2017

It’s a murky February morning as I write this. My upcoming volume Steam Scenes of Stratford beckons. So does the rewrite of King’s Highways & Steam Trains, Vol. 2. But it’s time for a pause.

Indeed, I have been pausing for the past four days, since learning of the untimely death of my boyhood friend, John Garner. So, today, this morning, I turn to John.

Life and people follow meandering courses. Our paths join. They diverge. Sometimes, they only cross. Often, they re-converge. Often, it’s a matter of our thoughts refocusing on earlier times. That’s where I’ve been with John Garner for the past few days.

John’s funeral was this past Saturday. I attended with my wife Mary-Jo. John’s two kids—Brett and Katy—spoke. So did his brother, Jeff. And a couple of his closer friends with whom he shared rounds of golf, and other things, over the latter half of his life.

In my case, I’m going way back with John—back to the 1960s and Steele Street Public School in Barrie, Ontario. John and I started in kindergarten together. Mrs. McNiven’s class in September 1965. Then, through the successive eight grades and into high school, together, side-by-side.

John was a gifted and dedicated athlete. Hockey was his main game. It stayed that way for him all his life—as evidenced by his right-curved stick on his coffin. Me? I had no real athletic ability. I turned into a book author. John and I followed different trajectories in life. But those lives overlapped in our formative years.

Being a writer is a lot like being a hockey player. You function best, and excel, when you follow your instincts. So that is why today, I’m dwelling on my childhood memories of John Garner. It’s where my inner voice is telling me to go.

John and I played together at recess on the grounds of Steele Street Public School. We raised hell—with a dozen other like-minded boys—in the Grade Four portable where rookie teacher Miss Neathway experienced baptism by fire. Garner—and that’s what I’ll call him, as we often went by our last names in those days—was someone the rest of us guys looked up to. In 1960s Ontario, a decade in which the Leafs won four Stanley Cups—hockey was everything. And Garner was simply the best hockey player in the 1960-born cohort.

Me? I was a little guy. Not in Garner’s league. That’s why, in Grade 5, when it came time to teach a lesson to the class troublemaker, I was chosen to administer the punishment (the rabble-rouser was my size). And here is where the relationship between John Garner, star athlete, and Ian Wilson, little guy, was best exemplified.

Garner, and other leaders among the male population of Mrs. Kleinfeldt’s Grade 5-6 class, decided that I was to “pound” the troublemaker (I’ll only use his first name, Danny) into submission after school on a particular day. The guys cooked up the scheme and conveyed it to me in whispers over the last hour of class. Everyone but the teacher and the troublemaker learned of the plan. Garner was the guy who kept me psyched up for the showdown. (‘Come on, Willie. We need you to do this. It has to be another little guy to beat him up.’)

So, the closing bell rang at 3:45 p.m. and I—and the other dozen or more Grade 5 boys in Mrs. Kleinfeldt’s class—tore outdoors as fast as our legs would take us. I took up a position outside the door where Danny, the troublemaker, would emerge.

And, sure enough, he emerged. He took a few steps toward me across the school yard. (Garner and the guys had positioned me in his path—and they all lurked in the shadow around the entranceway.)

The troublemaker, Danny, was used to solving problems with his fists. And his sharp tongue. He was a brawling, in-your-face bully. Scrawny and strong. The girls and little guys cowered from him in class. The bigger guys considered him a pest, but it went against the code to flatten him.

So, there I was, with Garner leading the other boys in whispered encouragement. (‘Here he comes, Willie. Get him!’)

Danny stopped in front of me. There were some nasty words exchanged. We shoved each other. (That’s how schoolyard fights always started in those days, with some preliminary back-and-forth shoving while bystanders chanted, ‘Fight, fight!’).

Then Danny let fly with his hands. I remember him clawing and scratching at me, like an angry cat. I let fly with a right fist. I’m not sure where it landed. Then I came up with my left. It connected squarely on the troublemaker’s jaw. A satisfying impact.

Danny’s head snapped back. Then the strangest thing happened. This troublemaker started crying. He turned and fled back into the school, wailing. I just stood there. The fight was over. In seconds.

Then, from around me, came the cheering. It was led by Garner. And this is where his hockey teammates will recognize the John they knew better than I. A lot of ordinary guys would slap “Willie” on the back and congratulate him for taking care of the class bully once and for all. Garner did those things. And then he did something else.

Spontaneously, John Garner, the star hockey player in Mrs. Kleinfeldt’s mixed Grade 5-6 class, hoisted me up on his shoulders. He paraded me around, piggyback, like a father would with a child. While all of our friends cheered and shouted their congratulations to Willie for winning the fight.

That’s a moment, a vignette, in my catalogue of memories of my late childhood friend John Garner. I have many more. But this one exemplifies John—picking up someone else on his shoulders, leading a moment of joy in honour of that other person.

John did that for countless people in countless ways. John, thank you. I know you’re reading this, wherever you are now. It’s why I wrote it.

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