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Kids just gotta be kids

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The playground structure at King Edward School in Winnipeg's North End has been damaged by vandals and needs replacing. We didn't have such things when I went to King Edward during the 1960s, but I remember some of the alternatives the kids who graduated to the Vaughn Street Detention Centre chose while the rest of us went on to Isaac Newton Junior High.

There used to be this Blackwoods Beverages plant across from the school on the corner of Selkirk and Sinclair. Sometimes we envied those kids who scaled the high brick walls and climbed in and around the loosely stacked play structure of wooden crates full of pop bottles because they could get all the soft drinks we all used to crave but so few could afford. Oh sure, every so often one of them would get their head cracked open by some falling crates, but it was good practice for the break and enters that would come later. Similar training could be gained by raiding the gardens along Flora Avenue after the babas and the gigis went to sleep. You got a backside full of salt or a rake upside the head from the ones who stayed awake. Later in life, they would call this the "cost of doing business."

Pinky's laundromat is still there at Pritchard Avenue and Arlington Street, also directly across from the school. Again, the attraction was soft drinks, but the training was more for daylight scams.

Pinky's had one of those old-style coolers that made you slide the bottle along a row until it dropped into a wider space that could only be opened after you had slipped the contraption a dime. While one kid distracted the attendant, another popped the top off the bottles and used a straw to sip the contents until he was full of pop or puked. It's the same basic modus operandi the kids would use to shoplift at Oretzki's Department Store down the street, but you needed to practise on the sleepy old gentleman Pinky's hired to make change and watch the place before you were ready to fool the floor detectives who were hired by the shops on Selkirk Avenue.

OK, not all the kids who didn't have playground equipment at King Edward went to school on the street learning how to make criminal activities their livelihood. Some just found other things to do to fill their play time.

Like "bumper-shining" cars in the winter. You waited at a red light and then snuck behind a stopped car and hooked your mitts onto some chrome to go for a joy ride or save the dime a bus used to cost.

And jumping off roofs. More broken legs were caused from not knowing what was under a pile of snow than from bumper shining, but then six-year-old Russell Carlson went under the wheels of a McGregor Street bus one day beside the Avenue Meat Market and never got to know the pleasures of landing in a soft snowbank from a height of three metres.

What choice did he have?

There were no playground structures at the time. Remember, this was a six-year-old.

Willie Skameroshish took the joy of climbing roofs to the extreme when he tried to turn a water tower in the CP Yards by Arlington Bridge into a huge playground structure. Willie almost broke his neck when he fell, but when Dick Thornton of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers learned Willie was in the hospital, "Tricky Dickie" gave Willie the watch he got for being chosen "player of the game."

Unfortunately, when word spread through the North End about Willie's misfortune, other kids saw it as a way to make a fortune and police had to spend a lot of time supervising a water tower that had turned into a way to get your picture in the paper and score some valuable jewelry. Kids like attention and shiny things.

OK, so maybe I'm stretching, but the stories I write about are true. When children aren't provided with safe, positive ways to spend their time, they will find other things to do. Where were their parents?

Sigh. Human beings aren't equipped like kangaroos and you can't blame children for negligent parents and dysfunctional families.

The North End is a lot worse than when I was a child, and I was told that kids from the area had two choices: They either "graduated" to university or Stony Mountain Institution.

An elementary school in Winnipeg's crime-ridden and violence-plagued North End of today is the last place that should be without a play structure. Sure it will cost a lot of money to replace the one at King Edward that has been damaged, and more than a few bucks to safeguard the structure from vandals.

But when we think of the time and cost in damage, police officers, lawyers, judges, jail guards, probation and parole officers that just one child who chooses the streets over a playground creates, it is worth it.

The stories I have included here all involved elementary school children I grew up with. By the time we got to Isaac Newton Junior High, those same kids were stealing cars, breaking into drugstores for Demerol and morphine and doing armed robberies.

I kid you not.

Don Marks is a freelance writer who grew up in Winnipeg's North End.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 7, 2012 A10

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