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July 13, 2010

  • Mystery Boys
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    It was my best friend Robbie Jones who invented the Mystery Boys. He was clever like that. My ideas were all ripped off of comic books or TV and adhered exactly to every plot element such that my superhero Captain Avenger’s first adventure was directly swiped from the Spider-Man newspaper comic strip, and most of the games in the playground had some bearing on last night’s broadcast of the Batman TV show.

    Robbie’s genius was making the Mystery Boys more than a Hardy Boys rip off, which, let’s face it, it otherwise was. In the spring of 1977, we all worshipped The Hardy Boys which aired every Sunday night on ABC, alternating with Nancy Drew. I think we all sort of tolerated Nancy Drew because, well, Nancy Drew was a girl (years later I would see Pamela Sue Martin in a slightly different light). With The Hardy Boys, on the other hand, Frank and Joe Hardy were our instant heroes. We immediately snatched up their books at the local library—I used the new Xerox machine for the first time to photocopy the cover of Footprints Under the Window—and bought them outright (when my allowance permitted, or my parents were feeling generous) from Bi-Way and Coles. We loved them.

    Actually, if I was honest, I didn’t actually read the Hardy Boys books. Truth to tell, I was a year or so out from fully enjoying reading longer stories. I sort of skimmed them. If I was honest, I was in it because of Shaun Cassidy who was the first and only boycrush of my childhood TV watching. He remains to be the only actor I’ve ever sent a fan letter. I got his address from Teen Beat—which I took to buying to get Hardy Boys publicity stills—and dictated the letter to my Mom who typed it out on our orange Smith-Corona portable typewriter. I talked about my favourite Hardy Boys books and TV episodes and, having half a page left, was encouraged by my Mom to talk about my school, bowling and joining Wolf Cubs.

    Shaun Cassidy aside, I think I liked the idea of the Hardy Boys more than anything. Two teenagers, maybe 9 or 10 years older than me who solved crimes, drove a cool GMC van, played in rock band and owned a chemistry set. How cool was that? I figured I could do all that too.

    Which brings us back to the genius of the Mystery Boys. The Mystery Boys were the collective name of a group that included Robbie, myself and several of our friends including Richard, Igor and Mike. It was us, only we solved crimes and (as far as I was concerned) drove a GMC van and had chemistry sets. We weren’t two brothers, but a crime solving, chemistry-using, gang of super sleuths. Robbie even drew us—the Mystery Boys all wore sweaters, monogrammed with our own initial.

    It was the best idea ever.

    I immediately joined in the Mystery Boys bandwagon, writing stories and drawing pictures of us in our Mystery Boys sweaters, driving GMC vans and solving crimes. My teacher, Ms. Allen, who by this point endured two years of hyperactive jags of junior school fan fiction, must have been rolling her eyes.

    We collectively decided that the Mystery Boys needed to solve mysteries in the real world. Thus Robbie, myself and a couple of others did what we did back then—we went to the creek afterschool.

    A small creek that ran off the major tributary of the Sixteen Mile Creek bisected the subdivisions we all lived in North Oakville. A lot of our lives were centred there. It was the better—though longer, our mothers admonished us—way home. It was the place for summer crayfish hunting and winter tobogganing. (And lest you think it was some Calvin and Hobbes wonderland, it was also the place where I nearly broke my neck as part of a daredevil stunt campaign in the winter of 1976).

    We followed the creek up from the path behind Onslow Court, where Robbie lived, to the culvert pipe that passed underneath Miller Road. We were looking for a Phantom.

    Actually, we were originally looking for a ghost. I, however, deemed that “ghost” was unsophisticated—the sort of thing Scooby Doo investigated. I suggested we were looking for a Phantom. The other Mystery Boys concurred, though Robbie kept spelling it Fantom.

    Coming to this part of the creek, we were convinced the Phantom’s lair must be nearby. Tree boughs stretched over the creek menacingly, and the culvert pipe was dark and scary. Then there was the house overlooking the creek. It was a tudor-styled bungalow with a brown rusticky fence surrounding the backyard and it looked down on the creek like a dread castle overlooking some peasant valley. We were all convinced it was haunted, perhaps even where the Phantom actually lived. I wasted no time coming up with a backstory involving ghosts and hauntings. The house at 50 Miller Road was not to be trusted.

    The creek, meanwhile, was being obligingly sinister. I postulated that the Phantom must be able to move the rocks in the creek bed somehow.

    “I bet he says something like,” I dropped my voice an octave for dramatic effect, “Rocks let go, let this river flow.”

    As if on cue, Robbie’s friend Wendy—who wasn’t in our class, being a grade ahead of us—exclaimed, “The rocks moved!”

    For the next few weeks, Miller Road continued to be our number one suspect in the Mystery of the Phantom. We became convinced that not only was number 50 haunted, but several other houses as well. There was one with a carport that seemed suspicious. It had a big letter R on the front.

    “What could that stand for?” I wondered aloud.
    “Robbie?” asked Robbie.
    We all laughed at that.

    The summer arrived. My Dad went to New Jersey for a work conference and came back with the holy grail of Hardy Boys books, The Hardy Boys Detective Manual. I did read this book, probably more thoroughly than any other book before or since. I learned about making plaster casts of footprints, about undercover work and, best of all, about fingerprinting. I was utterly fascinated by the process of dusting for a crime scene for fingerprints, finding that vital clue that confirmed, totally, who was the guilty party.

    I was determined to figure out a way to dust for fingerprints. My Dad, ever the decent and resourceful guy, helped out by grinding down pencil leads on sandpaper to create graphite dust that he put in a pill bottle. He gave me that and a small paintbrush and, sure enough, it worked—I could find latent fingerprints anywhere and everywhere and then I could lift the dusted prints onto masking tape.

    Predictably, by the standards of everyone except my father it seems, I obsessively dusted for prints everywhere: mailboxes, doors, tables, sheds. My attempt at finding fingerprints on a car got me into some trouble when a neighbour caught me dusting for prints on the door of their white Mercury Cougar.

    Undeterred, or just unaware, my Dad dutifully ground down more pencil leads for me. I carried my tools of crime detection in a beat up old utility box that had once been my first aid kit.

    One day, I went to visit Robbie at his place. He wasn’t home and I decided to dust the handle for prints, just in case. I opened up my fingerprinting kit and got out the graphite shavings and started dusting the door when Robbie, in the back seat of the car driven by his mother and father, pulled in the driveway.

    I was, at the time, intimidated by Robbie’s mum (I have no idea why. I’m rather fond of her now). According to Rob, a look of terror crossed my face and I ran as fast as my legs would take me and my fingerprinting kit.

    Meanwhile, my parents decided to move. I remember an interminable Saturday afternoon visiting houses until we came to one on Miller Road.

    A few days later I visited Robbie, looking ashen. “I’m moving into that house.” I told him.

    The Phantom, it turned out, didn’t live there. Just a guy who sort of reminded me of Bert Convy from TattleTales and his wife and kid. The house wasn’t haunted. It was an ordinary bungalow with blue shag carpeting and a stuccod faux-tudor family room. My bedroom would be in the basement, which certainly seemed cool to me (it didn’t really work out that way: I developed tremendous anxieties sleeping alone in the dark). About the only excitement worthy of the Mystery Boys was that my room had a panel that lead to a crawlspace for storage and the sump pump. Robbie was envious that I had a secret panel.

    By the end of the summer, Star Wars arrived and supplanted the Hardy Boys in our affections. The Mystery Boys lingered on, mostly in stories Robbie and I wrote, but I had skipped a grade and we were now all in different classes. We wouldn’t investigate anything ever again.

    Stuff like this couldn’t happen now. Kids don’t have the freedom like we did—adults twigged to the ever present dangers that we simply didn’t care about. And the spaces aren’t there anymore. The creek by Miller Road is now dangerously overgrown. I miss that world. A world full of Phantoms and heroes of our own devising. A world full of mystery. A world where you could do anything.

    Anything except get a response from Shaun Cassidy to my fan mail. The bum.

    Posted by graeme | (5) Comments | Permalink

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    Rob J  on  07/15  at  04:05 PM

    Graeme, thanks so much for writing this.  In reading it, I was taken back to that time instantly.

    I’ve often thought about this, and other adventures we dreamed up for ourselves. The best part was that everyone we played with fell in with the drama.  They wanted there to be a phantom as much as we did, knowing full well that what we were really doing was just telling stories that we could walk around in. 

    Maybe this impulse is what ignited the rash of interactive stories on the web, and of first person video gaming. Who knows? But what I do know is that this ability to create in this way is a very short-lived skill.  It calls for a sense of wonder and a suspension of disbelief only available to a child. In this world where everything has to be realistic and convincing in order to hold any value, even among children, I wonder if this kind of thing still happens as it happened for us.

    Thanks again for the post, Graeme. It’s a treasure, as is the memory that inspired it.

    Gwyn Teatro  on  07/15  at  07:01 PM

    A lovely story Graeme!  I actually don’t remember your dusting our front door handle for prints but Rob has reminded me from time to time of the look on your face as you tore away.
    I’m so glad you have forgiven me for my intimidating ways!  And I expect that if you asked me nicely, I would still peel and quarter an apple for you too..and do it gladly grin.

    Leslie Robinson  on  07/15  at  09:51 PM

    This made me grin hugely! That sounds exactly like the sort of scientifically awesome thing my dad would have done for me. And yes, things are different these days. I can only hope my children will find their own innocent childhood joy and not notice the restrictions we place on them now (perhaps unnecessarily).

    But, Shaun Cassidy? Pshaw! It was all about Parker Stevenson. wink

    Stu Kennedy  on  08/04  at  07:40 AM

    Great story Graeme.  Geez, I miss the Oakville of my childhood.  Hope my boys have as much fun as I did, and survive it all too.

    Stu Kennedy  on  08/04  at  07:54 AM

    btw in 1982 I was in the back seat of a ‘79 black Trans Am that crashed into 9 Miller Road.  Naturally I told my parents I fell down the stairs at Perdue.  I just looked up the address on google maps and was surprised to see it was #9.  My friend since kindergarten and my wife both know 9 is my lucky #.

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