When my sons were small, I used to take my family hiking often. My youngest son enjoyed it but was drawn to other activities. He was outnumbered three to one and I am sure he endured a few trips when he would have much rather have been playing Morrowind. As time went on, he became more vocal in stating his opposition to these excursions. As he became more vocal, he became more inventive as well.
In due time, I figured the lads were ready to climb a mountain. I took both sons up the Stawamus Chief. This is a giant basalt cliff near Squamish British Columbia. We went up the back way along a creek and all day long son number two kvetched and complained. I was taken to task for bringing such horrible food items as Jaegermeister smoked sausage and worst of all, EEEEW, dried currants!
Miggy, was a very well read boy and waxed eloquent in his condemnation of our tucker bag.
“I mean, come on Pop, raisins I could understand. Everyone eats raisins. I like 'em, you like 'em, Dan likes 'em. But no, you go and bring frikkin currants. EEEEEW! OK, the chocolate chips were a good idea but the sausage is tough as shoe-leather. Still, I could put up with it, but GAWD, frikkin currants?! What are you, English? Why didn't you bring buttered crumpets and quince jam? You should have let Mom pack our food. I'm dying.”
Daniel, my eldest, usually wandered several meters ahead during these energy wasting precious moments on the trail. I could only bide my time.
When we reached the summit, it was time to gobble our food. I cracked open all the bags and began chewing a sausage and throwing back mouthfuls of cashews and chocolate chips. I placed the offending bag of currents on the sun-warmed rock and Daniel opened it up carefully as if to show solidarity. He tried a few and made a face. I gobbled a few handfuls and had a drink of water and rolled a smoke.
I walked around a bit and decided to unpack the camera to preserve the moment. I took the image above of Miggy clutching the bag of currants and devouring said dried fruits several yards away from all competition. He nearly polished the bag. His animal guide is the raccoon. Wouldn't hurt a soul but not to be trifled with, especially when eating.
We learned on that trip that honest work is the best appetizer, good company is the best spice and an empty stomach may not always agree with the imagined prejudices when presented with the menu.
Another time, I took Miggy alone to climb a proper mountain peak, as the Chief was more like a mesa on top. I had chosen Coliseum Mountain in the Lynn Watershed. Miggy was not over-thrilled at the prospect but he knew that it was important to me so he came along. I even let him choose his own foodstuffs.
The day dawned fair at the start but I knew it could change in a matter of moments. I had a lesson I wished to impart to the boy. I had discovered that a mind once stretched, never reverted to its former size and that for this reason, it behooves one to try to push beyond old perceived limitations.
I knew my son well enough to be prepared for aborting the climb at any time. Lessons cannot be forced on people. I prayed we would succeed. Within thirty minutes, Miggy parked himself down on the trail and threw off his pack. I stopped and walked back.
“Do you need a rest, son?”
“You are killing me, Pop.”
“Take a rest. Have a sip of water.”
“I cannot do this thing.”
“Son, can you see that tree there? Just walk to it. You can do that, eh? Then pick another one. I'll do the route-finding, you needn't worry. Take it in little bites that you know you can do. That's the secret.”
“Screw the secret. I got your secret right here. I don't want to do it, plus I cannot do it. This is a big frikkin mountain. Pop, you're torturing me. I'm dying here.”
“Miggy, you are upset. Look, I'm going to have a smoke and then when I'm done let's walk to that tree. Just try. Anytime you really cannot take another step, we will turn around and go home.”
When I finished the smoke and asked my son to get up and try, he balked. Then he put his foot down. The main point of his argument was that on top of not wanting to climb the mountain, he physically could not possibly do it. That became a burr under my saddle. I had an idea. It was a shot in the dark, a last-ditch attempt to resurrect the day.
“Mig, you win. We will go home. Before we do, I have to ask you something and I want an honest answer.”
“Son, Do you really believe that you cannot climb this mountain?”
“Could you do it if I gave you twenty dollars?”
“No,” he answered as he shouldered his pack.
"Could you do it if I gave you thirty dollars?”
I was ready to head home but I am as curious as I am stubborn.
“Miguelito, could you climb Coliseum Mountain for forty dollars?”
“Can we stop at the bank machine on the way home?”
“We sure could.”
“What are you waiting for Pop, we got a mountain to climb?”
We made the summit in very good time and I was trailing the young buck all the way up. Two Aussies who were already on top snapped our photo which I have inset into the picture above. We ran down that mountain and went straight to the bank. I learned as much as my son that day. He learned about ability and I learned about motivation.
Last summer my wife and I were invited to an outdoor concert in a favorite little town ours. In between sets, the guitar picker decided to tell a joke to warm up the audience who sat under some old apricot trees on folding chairs in the fading light. I will paraphrase it below.
Two farm boys were out pitching hay one morning. The elder, who was ten years old stopped and leaned on his fork for a moment. He looked at his brother who stopped and looked back.
“You know what little brother, I reckon it's time we started to cuss. Tell you what, when we go into the house after our chores, I'm going to use the word hell. You pick out one too, alright?”
The younger boy, not to be outdone, thought long and hard.
“I'm going to use the word ass,” he said after proper reflection, with gravity in his seven year old voice.
They shook hands on it and the pact was made. You could take it to the bank.
They finished up, walked to the house, removed their dirty boots, washed their hands and tromped up to the breakfast bar where their mother was ready and waiting. She turned to the elder son and asked him what he would like to have for his breakfast that morning.
“Hell, Mom, I reckon I'll have me some Cheerios.”
Seconds later he picked himself off the floor where his mother's bear-slap had landed him and went to his room where he had been banished for the remainder of the morning.
The woman wiped her hands on her apron, turned to the younger boy and placing her hands on the bar in front of him, looked him dead in the eye and asked in the sweetest of voices, “And what can I get for you young man?”
The boy returned her steely gaze and replied immediately, “You can bet your fat ass I ain't askin' for no Cheerios.”
I had been a letter-carrier for about eight years and finally had my own route. It was a maze of rusty gates, rotten stairs and dogs named “Blade”, “Major” or “King.” None of the occupants owned the houses and so nothing ever got fixed. The racial mix was across the map from Sri Lanka to Portugal, from Capetown to Newfoundland. Every so often a grow op was busted, a person stabbed or a house shot up in a drive-by. The bushes were thick, the trees were old and the sidewalks were broken up by their ancient roots.
I nick-named it “The Trail of Tears”, until I got to know it intimately. Then I dubbed it, “The Widow Maker.” This mailman's attitude to his routes is like his attitude towards his spouse. She is mine and I cherish her. I held this route for about seven years. In the first years of having it, I went through a divorce that stretched over two years. I then remarried and continued building a family on this same beat. I suffered broken bones and also had life-changing revelations on this route.
The house were old stucco-covered, wood-framed affairs with dank basements. The yards all had old gates with several busted concrete steps to an overgrown yard and another set of rotten wooden stairs leading to the front porches. After putting my foot through several rotten front stairs I asked the occupants to have them fixed. I waited weeks to no avail. So, I simply removed the offending planks and tossed them into the front yard making ingress to the front door impossible. The turn-around time for new stairs was about two days.
This also worked for front gates, long rusted shut and hung from fences with posts rotted at the soil-line. One of these gates could squander several hundred calories by itself leaving one weak to deal with the other obstacles of the day. Snapping the posts off with well-placed kicks and laying the whole affair flat in the lawn was satisfying, easy to walk over and the turn-around time to a new fence was about a week. No paper work was involved, necessary nor was language a barrier.
The frustrations were ubiquitous and the hazards were many and very real. The people were the lower-middle class workers and the welfare recipients. Some had been children of the first wave immigrants and were determined to succeed after watching their parent's Herculean efforts come to naught. Some of these turned to the easy money offered by crime. There were pimps, dealers, gangsters of every stripe, illegal aliens, junkies, alcoholics and schizophrenics. Everyday was a new adventure.
As they come to mind, I will tell of some of these adventures from that Trail of Tears. Check back once in a while for new stories under this heading. The territory is Vancouver's East-side in the decade of the nineties. The stories are true and I only omit enough details to protect those still living in the hood. I am still walking a beat as I write, but a different route and I yet have many others behind me. I may write of them in future. Don't let my choice of names for this collection give the impression that all was negative. Far from it. There were moments of perfect bliss, satori, shibumi and enlightenment.
Here's a road trip back to the mid seventies. The Viet Nam War has just concluded. The protagonist is eighteen. These word sketches were written on paper place mats at a truck stop. Like rocks in a creek they slept for thirty-seven years. I recently wiped them off and placed them here for you to look at. -with a tip of the hat to J.P Donleavy.
Up from the basement like a catfish gulping for air. Eyes stuck together from last night's drinking. Stocking-footed stumbles through halls to greet my step-father's cat. Thunderpussy is haughty but wants me to stroke his slate gray fur. Dreaming of his next catch while digesting his last. Bathroom mirror. Which archetype am I this morning? The spiritual road self? Coffee addict? Cigarette fiend? Emptier of bottles? The coffee maker's final runny-nosed note summons me into the kitchen. Filling a huge brown mug decorated with a fireplace scene. Stepfather's first wife had given it to him.
Plastered therunto like a wet leaf. The Want Ads. Narrow columns of "Must Be's". Not really wanting a job. My apple eye heading straight for RESTAURANTS. An ad for a full-time, live-in, short-order grill-cook at a 24 hour truck stop! The Tumbleweed Cafe on Maui Ridge. Imaginary reels of of holy Zen truck stop life. Solitude in the mountains. Elder-father oneness of the highway. Holding black plastic in my paw. Somewhere in the mist-shrouded mountains, a down-trodden waitress shuffles words into the other end. The lady to talk to isn't in.
await her call.
Answering the phone. Sooner than is decent. Asking questions. Fewer than is wise. Her husband can bring me this very night! A job in the mountains. Food around the clock. Bottomless coffee mugs. 24 hour pancakes. Downstairs again. Taking toothbrush, socks and guitar. Bounding upstairs. Colliding with Mum just in from her work. A hearty knock. Bud O'Bannion is on the stoop. Ready to spirit my happy ass up country. Quickly out the door. Eager to put some miles behind me. Thunderpussy like a granite lion in the passenger seat. Said feline refusing all coaxing to vacate. Finally handing the hissing ball of indignation down to little sister. All hands laughing nervously.
on the blind.
Chugging past Lam's grocery. Trying to remember if the window was open before I got in. North Shore small streets in sundown orange light. Bud speaking intimately of the road. Stylish leather shoes, fuzzy socks and green plaid pants. Nylon shirt sleeves gaping at the circumference of his arms. These tapering into thick cow-milking wrists. Angling out again into wide, big-fingered hands. Laying one on his face and rubbing its entirety while talking. Replacing a strand of fallen hair on his eyebrow with two fingers. Cleanest truck driver I ever saw. Telling his story from when he was my age. Asking about his latest venture.
Driving across the bridge to skidrow. Cruising narrow funky streets. Pulling into a huge produce depot. Trailers lined up. Termites with their heads in harmonica holes. Bud pointing out his rig. An orange White Freightliner. Up the long ladder. Depositing my gear in the cab. Bud strolling into the cavernous building. Chinese guy lashing out wristwatch hands. Flinging crates into the open ends of trailers. Laughing mouth full of dirty teeth like busted boxcars. Me glad to be a cowboy cook on my way North. Trucker next to me occasionally flashing a 38 caliber smile. Gaze wandering over the dials, buttons, knobs, clocks, odometers, swithches, handles, levers, slides, pulls and bars.
on the intructions
of the Jacob Brakes.
Bud telling me the lettuce will be four hours late. Down the ladder to join him. Chicano trucker on the grimy pavement grinning and spitting on his tee-shirt. Wiping his license plate. Revealing the word TEXAS in white caps on a field of blue with grasshoppers rampant. Lifting a cantaloupe from his load. Dissecting it with a five inch pearl-handled fruit knife. Spilling the seeds like guts on the cement. Bits landing on his boots. A limping man coming toward us. Steely blue eyes and clothes shiny with his own grease. Tejano se dice, "Jijo de la gran puta del mundo,
surely a Devil
Bantering about their sexual exploits, these two. Bud and I fading away to an Irish joint he favoured. Learning that the Tumbleweed had its Christmas parties there. Some gals even danced on the table. Fine old linen, mandolin music and a whiskey mist coming into Bud's eyes. Sitting at the very table. Telling Bud I've already eaten. Fingering my last seven dollars. Sipping several gifted beers. Tapping toes to an Irish trio. Telling Bud about my seven dollars. Chowing on the savoury stew that got the railroads built.
to the rig
like old friends.
Four A.M. A weak pool of yellow light on the cold shoulder of the highway. A bank of bug lights atop a battered sign giving the mileage to Katmandu, Anchorage and Lima. Bud pecking his wife on the cheek. Rushing out to the remaining five hundred miles of his lettuce loop. Strange laughter floating like dirigibles across the tables and booths. One Jiminy Cricket look-alike pointing out a cheery blonde who is laughing like a fiddle reel. "Watch out for her. She's the troublemaker."
Gales of mirth
A massive boar's head mounted on the wall. The physical graffitti of a cigarette protrudes from its jaw. Further adornments are bop plastic sunglasses and a red ball cap. Tilted at a rakish angle. Missus O'Reilly showing me to my motel unit without further ado. Stretching out on the swaybacked bed. Trying the shower. Unpacking my alarm clock and tobacco can. Leaning guitar on the wall furthest from the heat register. Rolling a smoke. Winding the time-piece.
they could all
see me now.
Waking to the klaxon of my alarm clock. Watching it dance off the desk to quiver spastically on the floor. Lurching out of the sack. Rubbing face and brushing teeth with water hard as a banker's heart. Remembering I am "on" at twelve noon. Figuring I had best get down to the kitchen early and scope out the menu. Striding into the fray in my best jeans and cleanest tee-shirt. Long hair flowing down my shoulders. A holy faced local St'át'imc woman surveying me from the griddle. Agreeing to show me the ropes immediately.
is the eye
of my storm.
A walk-in cooler clad in shelf-paper. A quasi-wood panneling pattern. Adding more prints to the chrome handle. Discovering apples, pears, peaches, oranges, lemons and boxes of lettuce. Celery, carrots, potatoes and parsley. Another door opening to a freezer. Frozen stacks of autistic hamburger patties sulking in dirty metal boxes. Silent hordes of bacon sleeping in salty stacks. Guarded by cords of homemade sausages. Two plastic breastfulls of pancake batter with spoons protruding. Buckwheat and buttermilk. Salisbury steaks, tubs of yogurt and bins of mushrooms. Plastic cottage cheese containers choc-a-block with sliced tomatoes. Pickles 'n' onions 'n' relish 'n' the Works. Pots of mustard, mayonnaise and ketchup. A broad low pan of congealed gravy.
brown jelly waves.
A wall of horrific fly-blown shelving. A three gallon can of powdered soup base is holding court. The jury: one gallon cans of ketchup stare down at the accused. A green plastic bag of sandy white refined sugar. A shiny metal scoop juts out like a smoking gun in an evidence room. The deputy, a big paperboard can marked "Spud White" dominates the space. Next to the shelf is a potato guillotine. "Fry-cutter" is the accepted euphemism. Below, an empty five gallon bucket awaits the guilty. Cans of salt, pepper and oil are the audience. God's own can-opener mounted next to the cutter. A trace of ketchup on the wall.
A vinegar trinity:
Guiding me to the griddle. The kang. The teppan. Der stahltafel. A mighty fine tablet of heated stainless steel on four legs. Canals running down all sides carry the poor gone fritters to the infinity hole. Polished to a mirror and wiped with a miniature mop which lives in a can of clean oil like a pet octopus. A burnt wood handled spatula perching on the edge like a favourite pipe. Two tin pots capitulating. One speaking of peas and the other of gravy. Murmuring to the stained canopy suspended by four globby grease-blackened chains. Exhaust fan ceasing long ago. Peering through the stilled blades.
day lit pines,
rocks and clouds.
Right of the griddle hamburger fixings arrayed in little metal boxes. Oak-handled spatula projecting from each. Center-stage a mustard-spattered, crumb-festooned cutting board of maple. Outfield stacks of pre-buttered soft white bread waiting for sandwiches. Lifting my gaze over the bar, out the window and across the highway. Trucks basking like lizards on the hot edge of a surging ravine. The river is long and the road tortuous. After threading through seven tunnels, the truckers gather to rest at this place before another uphill push.
also bunch up.
Left of the griddle against the south wall, a big chrome Hobart dishwasher and a deep stainless-steel double sink. Both faucets chronically drizzling. Eyes front . A set of old-time swinging doors. One tied open unreligiously with a dirty gray string and the other closed. From certain of the seats at the trucker's bar one may peep into the secrets of the kitchen. Taking a menu to study. Bidding my gracious teacher adieu. Giving my order for breakfast.
to a table
near the back.
Opposite a small banquet room furnished in knotty-pine. On one wall a massive bearskin. Claws splayed and fangs grimacing at a dark blue Mexican velvet painting. A cowboy brujo pausing near a creek to water his horse and light a smoke. Silver creek water matching the stars overhead. A group of English ladies sitting underneath the painting. Cups of tea and platters of crumpets daintily disappearing. Animated chatter.
by wary glances
at the grizzly.
Grub arriving quick from Marie's capable hands. Hot, black, strong, long-haul coffee. A plate of the best easy-overs I've encountered. A stack of buckwheats groaning under the weight of butter. I add a thick swatch of marmalade. Hand-shredded hashbrowns. Dry gold seared then smothered on the onion-side of the griddle. Greedily soaking up Tobasco splashes. Three rashers of farm-cut bacon stretch out like drying socks. Alongside a pair of pompous sausages. Fully cooked yet swollen with juices. Making the wolf clan a proud new record for food inhalation. Handing Bud's wife Carla my seven dollars. Smiling to learn that employees don't pay for food and board. Toddling off to the kitchen for a chunk of Carla's apple pie.
after two pieces
that I don't eat pie.
Asking corps of waitresses the subtleties of an "open" or "closed" Denver. Local variations of properly poaching an egg. Struggling to decipher the scrawl of order tickets on the spinner. Realizing these poor pearls are hidden deep within shells. Shells exuded by a jukebox in the flickering red neon night. Within a cafe whirling steadily toward the millenium. A blonde, dimple-cheeked lass with an attractive mark under her left eye is teaching me. Fries go on the hot stuff and potato salad goes on the cold stuff. Checking her name-tag and thus meeting Jenna.
Marvel of God's
presence of mind
All goes well for a time. September adds a discernable nip to the air in spite of the hot sun. Tourist busses come and go. All-a-ma-sudden, a serious fire is raging on the mountain just behind my kitchen. Flames sprint across soft pine needles and jump from trunk to trunk. An ancient ritual. Looking out the backdoor screen at thirty smoke-jumpers. Single file up the steep trail. Characters from an old sepiatone photograph swagger forth. Old hard-faced St'át'imc men born under salmon skies. Raised on spruce tea and venison. Strapping long-haired country boys from towns far and wide. Climbing with shovels, pails and mattocks.
powders and liquids.
Old truck stop hands creasing their wrinkles in apprehension of the inevitable rush. The first shift is at the door. Pushing past busloads of tourists. Smelling of pine smoke, sweat and tobacco. Hungry boys and men order all at once. Eggs to soup to Denvers to DeeLuxes. Carla buzzes around making pies. Keeping a weather eye on me. Feeling that I'm losing the battle under extraordinary circumstances. Smiling when Marie appears in silent moccasins. Without a word deals out two dozen DeeLuxe patties.
that I chop
Alone again. After the storm. Here is a laugh that would make cats dance on the ceiling. Meet Dusty, the Jiminy Cricket man. Pushing through the swinging door. A St'át'imc man about five feet tall with eyes like a baby seal. A heart hard as a pine knot. A fine black western shirt with red piping and pearl snaps. His little hands are black from working the gas station next door. An accomplished cee-bee operator, electronic technician, mechanic, ladies man and the fastest mop in the canyon. My new friend has a jumbo corned beef with extra gravy on the fries.
Long day passing into night. Sun disappearing behind the west wall of the canyon. Wind warns of evening. Washing the pots and pushing a mop across the floor. Punching the clock and gathering fresh goodies for my sanctum. Only thirty feet from where I have toiled. Out the front door and past the laundromat. North toward the gas station. East to a row of motel rooms. Pausing at number 17.
of the mountain.
Clock dancing again. Frenetic discord of passing vehicles. Silent mountains run down to the sea blocking out new ideas. Dressing fireman style. Enjoying a smoke at the backdoor to the kitchen. A stranger washing dishes peers through the torn screen. Jet hair and eyes. Coffee skin and a Mayan nose. Paco is from Peru. For the several weeks of his employ his conversations had been limited to the words yes and no. I am fairly fluent in present tense Spanish. We work around that handicap.
almas del Sur
en el Norte.
Jenna comes on shift. Silken hair confined in a tight bun. Conch shell cheeks and cotton boll eyes behind serious glasses. Busying herself as Paco and I talk of fishing. Gulf of Mexico VS the South Pacific. Talk of variations of ceviche. Jenna coming and going. Our eyes meeting and beginning to wander up through the trees and rocks. Only to fall off the cliff of love. Days and nights pass in a flow of three different shifts. Forty hours a week followed by forty eight contiguous hours that begin and end at the oddest hours imaginable. Encountering the balance of employees.
All the classic
Jung and Freud.
One waitress is dubbed MacBlight. A Scots descended bitch who wears three abortions like Purple Hearts. A body long ago vacated. Currently rented to swine that stare out of her bloodshot eyes. Using her mouth to issue words of ruin to all that is good and pure. Grabbing my ass and laughing like nails on a chalkboard. "She", my grandma would have said,
in your ass
if your guts was on fire."
There's Davy Stoneboy. Wine guzzling mascot of the O'Bannions. What the St'át'imc might call an apple. Face in a perpetual yassuh smile. Fawning over the bosses and absolutely caustic the rest of humanity. One handsome son of a bitch. He drives a faded blue tractor to the dump each day. "Maybe", a Newfie would have said,
"He's like the Devil,
Not half as bad
as he's cracked up to be."
Bernita Horsechild is a wild-eyed, black haired St'át'imc gal. Laughs easily from deep inside. Hardened just enough. Deflects emotional erosion, spiritual vampirism, glassy stares and morning character assassination with the panacea, "FUCK YOU." Sitting in a booth playing Rhinestone Cowboy on the juke and kissing her boyfriend. J. J. is a young Navy vet. Friendly as a guide dog. He works the gas station with Dusty.
on the side.
Chatting with Jenna in the afternoons. She's a German scholar, a poetess and very fond of Goethe. Halfway into the cap and gown, four-square world of one's betters. Trys to conceal her surprise at hearing philosophical concepts spoken with a drawl from behind a griddle. Carla's brood spill into their kitchen with schoolmates in tow. Jacketed and cocky. Making fries for all. Big sister fondling Mom's car keys and munching on a Deluxe.
not to talk
to the help.
Trying to engage J. J. and Bernita in conversation between shifts. Give up and play guitar and sing to them instead. Jenna watches and thinks, "Now he's with his hillbilly kind." Tilting her head like a dog that hears a perplexing sound. I may interact with her, but she will never raise cups with any of these peons, save Paco. As she watches,
Enjoying a hot bath in my room. Contemplating a missing tile. Reading Gargantua and Pantagruel. Imagining Rabelais spending a night in this truck stop. Feeling a need to gather some belongings that are strong in my magic. Writing these words on the back sides of cheap paper place mats.
type them up
three decades later.
Putting orange peel in my tobacco can to hydrate it in the arid climate. Dreaming of my books, awaiting retrieval one hundred and fifty miles away. Writing long letters to a friend in town. Horsechild brings me stamps. She's seen this before. Her and J. J. roar off on his motorbike to mail them. Days already a stifling routine. Three shift changes per week. 4-12, 12-8 and 8-4. I meet some of the regular long haul truckers.
on so many stumps.
Pen sliding across paper like a ski on good snow. Veering off track. Imperceptibly out of bounds. Writing on love. A poem for Jenna. Back to reality to answer a knock on my door. Jenna walks in and hands me a blueberry muffin and a root beer. Back to the dream like a spark from a bonfire. Our conversation becomes nervous. Playing my guitar and singing for her.
not having to talk
still being listened to.
Beginning my forty-eight hours off. Convincing a reluctant trucker to transport me to town. A steady stream of disaster stories on the way. "See that big patch there. Whole busload of school kids head-on into an an eighteen wheeler. Big ole mess." Says the canyon regularly fell in on itself, as well. "Had a three day layover at Maui Ridge just last year." Bidding the man goodbye when we get to town. Walking through a sore throat fog toward a bridge that connects me with my things.
for a steamy piss
in a pastel dawn.
Walking the windy bridge through shrouds of fog into the city. Soon at Lam's grocery for a snack. First I saw the grocery man half a year ago. He was dangling his son out the window by one ankle. Admonishing the child in Toi Sanese. Lam was a man of principal. One principal. Which he constantly repeated. Nothing is free. I buy some yogurt, smokes and a lighter and tell him to keep the change.
He eyes me
like a rooster
sizing up a cricket.
Greeting my Stepfather in Danglish. He is cutting tiles to make a coffee table. "Hvordan har du dej?" "Jag er bra" "Du gammel Svenska Skraeling. Vil du hae en ol, fur helvena?" "Nej tak." Bounding upstairs to phone several friends. Soon we have packed my books, albums and stereo components. Off to the Greyhound station with three incredibly beat boxes of treasure. Standing in the cold waiting for the big dog. Stowing the boxes.
a window seat.
Falling into an exhausted sleep. Replete with a nightmare of missing my stop. My dream self trudges up the canyon with three Muranawa Farms radish boxes on my back. Almost living the dream. Starting awake exactly one bend in the road before the wooden shelter that serves as the stop for Maui Ridge. Watching the bus get smaller. Humping the boxes across the asphalt to my room.
9000 feet above.
Listening to Bo Hansson while unpacking the books. I can make it now, come what may. Jenna drops in for a visit. Hands behind her head on the old bed. Talking of our backgrounds. Handing her a few of Richard Brautigan's books. Jenna disappears with this literary prescription. Falling into a better sleep. Wandering my soul path until the bell.
is upon me
like killer butterflies.
Days pass and the river roars. White furies of foam carving jade sculptures under denim skies. Each day made unique by a random collection of vehicles passing and pausing. The back door hammered by a dry wind sounds like an old man's fingers drumming a table top. Suggesting that winter is surely on its way. Looking at the moon and feeling it bend the earth beneath my feet. There is a lithograph on my grandma's wall in Texas. A jet-braided native woman under such a moon. She is stretching to pick wild grapes that hang in gnarled clusters from an oak. An inquisitive deer monitors her efforts from the soft dark trees beyond. She has many names in many lands.
Waddling over to the cafe from the safety of my room one such night. Drifting past the coffee makers into the kitchen. To swim in the eyes of Jenna. She is wearing braids instead of the bun. Gives me a faux angry look awhile opening a gallon can of ketchup. Daintily filling the rank and file of newly washed bottles. Filling up the salt and pepper shakers and three kinds of vinegar bottles.
into test tubes.
After her shift Jenna suggests bowls of fresh yogurt with black berries. Taking our food in the banquet room. In the soft babble of simultaneous conversations we overhear our names. Returning to the kitchen to drop our spoons and bowls a jangle into the sink. One side of which is kept half full by utilizing a cut-down overflow pipe. Constant leaking keeps it fresh. Our utensils flutter to the bottom.
en la manana.
Horsechild trots in. Adding her dishes to the underwater collection. Giving Jenna a knowing eye. An approving toss of her pony-tail for me. We gather by the sink to chat. Horsechild intimates that the cook I replaced committed suicide in this very sink. "Stabbed himself in the stomach with one of his carving tools. Bled to death before Marie found him." Yogurt rising in my gorge. Horsechild scampers out. Pauses at the swinging door,
his old room."
Simultaneously suggesting a walk. In the moonlight. Up the mountain behind the truck stop. Just the medicine we need at this time. Climbing past an old water-wheel. Night wind blows our hair. The wooden wheel speaks of another day, another dream. Uphill slipping on dusty pebbles and pine needles. Both feeling we had done this long before. Both feeling we were in a party of three.
accounts for ghosts,
the world is very crowded.
A stiff north wind tearing sheets of darkness and polishing heavenly bodies. Jenna loses purchase on the hill. Hand shooting out across a thousand ages. Touching for the first time. Picking our way like goats past hamburger neons and truck headlights. Way up where trees are small. Alighting on a lichen-spattered rock for a shared smoke. One-eyed light of a freight below snakes through the canyon.
Our thoughts flit
round a yellow light.
Suddenly a sweet light illumines the ground at our feet. Silver edge of the moon attains the east ridge behind us. Two actors on this stage watch pine shadows grow in the lunar light. The mammoth orb rises rapidly and pauses to clear the ridge. Wobbling and shuddering. A newly blown soap bubble. Hoping it won't pop. It floats across the sky.
and grow opposite.
Jenna contemplating the play of light and shadow. I dream a cabin of fragrant timbers for the two of us. Planning midnight raids on the Tumbleweed. Eventually we're shivering noticeably. Time to descend. Highway roar increasing steadily. Blundering in poor light after the moon falls over the west wall. Scrabbling through a burnt area. Charcoaled from ankle to knee.
in from their play.
Jenna fetches two mugs of hot tea. We pass Dusty on the way. He has moved into the unit next to mine. Anticipating Cee-Bee static, short-wave whine and the bang of his headboard. Surely Carla's guiding hand in this. Unlocking the door to admit Jenna. A demented rooster who lives on one of the gas pumps crows loudly. Flies down to the porch near my feet and starts pecking one of my boxes. Three black kittens mewling lustily inside. Tilting the box slowly.
A feline trio
under my bed.
Putting on a record and joining Jenna already propped up on the bed. Chewing gum and smoking. Blood flutters through my ears like hummingbirds working an azalea bush. Telling her I want to be her friend. Being told that first it's friends, then it's lovers, then it's you know what.
moves us to stage two
of her trivium.
Reaching out for her many times in my sleep. Sun in the window brings music and when my eyes clear, Jenna smiles at me from a chair across the room. Three kittens adorn her lap. We sit awhile on the beer bottle brown porch. I play guitar and tighten my suspenders. Showing my collection of snapshots. Palming under the ones she need not see. Old rooster crowing at random moments. Carla strides by and casts a glance. My arm is around Jenna's waist.
back with a heart
two sizes too big.
Returning to the kitchen routine. Putting in my eight while Jenna camps out in my room playing records. Tempo increasing. Cooking and talking to Paco in Spanglish. Fine tuning my work skills. Dusty starts to hang out in the warm kitchen. Talks of his parents and of Mary Sparrow, his latest lover. Little Mary has a good cry once a day. Keeps her whole. Dusty drinks and talks on the radio each evening. Having coffee with Marie each shift-end just before hers.
Her smile is genuine
and she only speaks
when spoken to.
Returning to my room. Showering. Reading. Sleeping til the door opens and life begins again. Clomp of Jenna's boots. Depositing muffins, juice, cigarettes and gum on the desk. Sits across the room chewing and relating all the shop talk of the eight hours I missed. Playing with the kittens.
not to hear
A note on the wall near the washrooms. MacBlight's tortured script. Pertaining to myself, Jenna, our work habits and sleeping arrangements. Rolls off my back. I see Jenna trembling with rage and indignation. Her anger becomes a Lincoln double parked in my mind. Searching for an intellectual retaliation. Something to bring the authoress to her cringing knees. Poring over books by great men for just the right axiom. Concluding that even if found, it would have no effect on her calloused soul. Flames of anger subside.
smoke of revenge
Feeling like sailors in the desert. Knowing we couldn't let ourselves submerge. Talking with the others who are soon pulling for our side. They admit not liking the stone hearted water witch. Confronting MacBlight one day. Her aggression shrinks into indifference and feigned friendliness.
to make us strong.
Reading Whitman in bed. Jenna starts awake and cries out. Embracing me like the whole of humanity was in imminent peril. Tells me that a drunken man had entered her sleep and sat on the edge of the bed weeping and cursing over the mess that was his life. My neck hairs stand up like antennae. Beginning to feel a lingering presence. Sometimes I cannot sleep either.
I found in the room.
One copper penny day an old man appears. Horsechild says he's a new cook. Takes a seat under the kitchen calendar. Impeccable in full cook's whites. Says he's Moe and grabs my elbow. Whispers that he is in secret negotiations to buy the cafe. Has already owned and run several. Bigger than this. Takes me outside to meet his friends. Two snaggly ass poodles pacing the back of his muddy Rambler. There are pine needles in tufts behind the wipers and in all the fenders. I invite Moe to my room for a beer.
It is auspicious
a new boss.
All around are the signs of a woman. To me lighthouses on a storm-wracked coast. To Moe they are caution signs. Snapping open beers like I was entertaining relatives. Having a big time. Feeling like Abraham Lincoln for befriending the old man. Lighting the pilot-light of his room heater. Playing my guitar. Showing my various skills. Moe slaps his knees at my jokes and agrees with all my beliefs. Then the beer runs out. Before going to his room, my future employer proves to be an intolerable fuck-wit.
on a waffle iron.
Next day Jenna reports the bastard can't make toast or fry an egg. My ego drops like an elevator. Even here in the piney woods? On the night streets of San Antonio, San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Portland, Denver, Dallas, Vancouver, Monterrey and every other city; jabbering fire-tongued, drug-fueled piranhas will strip one of innocence. Sculpting us all into world worthy people by leaving only the bones.
named for saints
are the worst.
Moe disappears in about three days. Full of beer and pie. Looking for the next ship of fools. Routine back to normal. Cooking, loving, reading, writing and doing the laundry. J. J. and Horsechild kissing in the booth. Dusty laughing up mountains and Little Mary crying out rivers. Jenna leaves to visit her parents for three days. Marie goes up country to see her mum. All this diminishing me considerably. Eating less and the others sense weakness. All but Dusty and Paco angling around for the kill.
hard to talk to,
one hard to take.
Second day of solitude. Wondering what Jenna's folks were like and when I would meet them. Carla's children bring their schoolmates to the kitchen for a round of fries. After gorging like seagulls, they blindfold one of their friends and begin to play a game. Guess what you're touching? A little girl is led to the electric meat slicer and her hand is placed on the tray. I explode in fury. Giggling, they run out the back door when I banished them. Sarcastic gurgling of the sink the only sound til Dusty comes in to order and asks if I miss Jenna.
I really do.
On late shift the fourth night. It's slow and I sit by the fireplace under the hatted boar. In walks Jenna wearing a long flowing gown and a homespun peasant blouse. Her flaxen hair radiant white gold in the firelight. When she leaves the room time stops. Hurriedly walking the frigid steps to my room. Jenna inside proudly displaying three joints of homegrown on the table. Putting down the kittens she has been cuddling. Opening a drawer she indicates I look inside. Among the letters and Marlboros is a packet of birth control pills.
a ghost ship
in Pearl Harbor.
We are living an old Bogart movie. We laugh, chatter and listen to records. We smoke and read to each other from poetry books. Feeling happy and ready for some romance. Suddenly, like snow falling off a branch, she's up staring out the window. Her silence is tortuous and absolute. My words bounce off and lie scattered on the floor. Thought itself becomes impossible. Being in my company becomes intolerable. My door slams shut. Turning on the radio and crashing in a heap.
"Take it easy.
Don't let the sound
of your own wheels
drive you crazy."
Several hours later she's at my door with coffee mugs and a big smile. Rising up and putting on my suspenders. Both acting like nothing happened. Walking up past the water wheel with the guitar in a cool wind. A frigid blast spilling down from the alpine sends us shivering to bed. Sunlight illuminating the venetians, heater ticking and kittens mewing. A pure good tumble of tangled hair and laughter. Young lives again made worthwhile.
Time set free,
taking new shape.
One evening a trucker drops off two young gals. Big city east coasters fresh in from a trek to the salt grass mobile home jungles of Florida. Debbie is sweet and packs around her math and sociology texts to study at night. Christie is tough and looks out for both of them on their journey through the hair-matted drain of humanity. They pull me out the screen door constantly to get high. Dusty admonishes us between pulls on his whiskey bottle. We invent cannabis inspired recipes for ourselves. Jenna takes poached eggs and perfectly buttered toast to a higher level of perfection. Within a week, Dusty is bragging about adding Debbie to his trophies. Little Mary cries alone no more.
Oh, dark hallways
of this world
let no man breathe peace
til you crumble in the light of truth.
Marie makes an outline of my feet on a paper bag. Her mum will make me the best pair of chewed-moosehide, beaded, fur-lined moccasins possible to get. She is my best friend and confidant when Jenna is away. Next time they are both gone I get Carla to buy me a bottle of red. I polish it off alone in my room in an hour. Sadness and lonliness overiding any feeling of being drunk. Out the window across the highway a comet shoots across my teary field of vision. Six months later in Mexico, I saw it again.
a maiden's eye.
Some days are like silly putty. Distorting our faces, stretching our truths. Spirit smouldering like coffee left on the burner all day. Delicate as the dust on moth's wings. Pewter-coloured afternoons flux into vacuum nights. Standing on cold dusty pavement by the gas pumps watching J.J. fix flat tires. Looking hillside at three rusty cars disappearing under a mantilla of sacred brown pine needles. Huddled together like junkies in a bathtub listening to Benny Goodman. Frost puffing out my nostrils dances in the wash of headlights. Feeling no hope, yet no dispair. Turtle-breath in the morning may be all there is. The wind pushes me back down trail.
that got me here.
Debbie invites me into her room for a smoke. We sit on chairs covered with crumpled piles of girl clothes. Out her window Davy chugs by on the blue tractor. Pulling another load of spent grease, old fries and coffee grounds out of the reach of hungry bears. Hungry bears.... I get a notion. It was simple deductive reasoning. Truckers have all been to Texas. I'm from Texas. I like to eat. Truckers like to eat. Truckers like gumbo. Carla authorizes immediately. Jenna, Debbie, Christie, and Marie form up the work detail.
We set to
with five big
Christie draws on the chalk-board to advertise. Carla sets the price. Dusty hits the short wave and cee-bee. First in was a short-haul man who hated my long hair. Red bellies up to the swinging door. Sees me and orders Carla's pie. Before long we hear trucks gearing down across the highway. In a few hours there are a steady half dozen long-haulers at the bar. Some are wearing cowboy hats, some are wearing ball caps. Everyone of them is chomping bowl after bowl of gumbo and spinning every Texas yarn in their repertoire. The forty quart stock pot drains in one shift. Red has two bowls. Bellies up to the swinging door again.
you look like girl
but you can cook!"
Conjured by the gumbo, a new waitress appears a couple of days later. Dale has soft brown eyes and washed-out bee-hive hair. She wears her anguish in defensive speech and fickleness. I feel sorry for her without knowing exactly why. Forcing myself to stay friendly under her barrage of petty bitching. Our first mutual shift grinding on. Eventually she confines herself to helpful advice. From her I receive my second professional secret poached egg recipe. There are a million Dales in a million cafes.
all that lives
Thick cold foggy morning. Dale's husband, Tim comes in for breakfast. Nervous blue eyes and thin sweaty hands. Sits in the corner like Christopher Robin just in from killing tadpoles with corn-cob holders and wanting his toast. Clean jeans, green suspenders and shiny little boots. Dale drops down a plate of eggs without sound, emotion or feeling. Just a function she performs. Taking my coffee over to his table. Talking trout fishing, sawmills, rockslides and tobacco. Finishes his breakfast and rises to leave. A lumberjack with a cotton-candy handshake.
is like a tornado
in a vacuum cleaner.
Watching the truckers being entertained by Dusty at the truckers bar after my shift. Talking how he's gonna stick his you know what into you know who tonight. Demonstrating by clasping air with two hands and drawing it up to his chest, while ramming his buttocks forward. Head to one side like a war horse, snorting with each thrust. Six or so thrusts and he's done. Looking each trucker in the eye then exploding with laughter.
A tree falls
In the forest
as Dusty walks away.
Watching TV. Tells me to send powdered milk to the starving infant on the screen and deliver a hoe into the hands of his father. Next telling me to buy a microwave oven, take a trip to Mexico, get some tooth whitener and a remote garage door opener. A white anorexic woman cries and kisses the scab covered baby. Asks for donations between sobs. Hands the doomed child to its starving mother when its little hand becomes entangled in her pearl necklace. I snap off the set.
to send books
if I send anything.
About to cry again. The Greyhound just took my reason around the bend. She is gone for good. Looked deeper into her heart. Found no room for me. Only unfathomable sorrow, which I was welcome to share. Walking up out of the pit. Sitting in her room. The others had already picked it clean of her memory. Love waited restless behind her eyes, in her fingertips and her words came out like scattered birds squeezing past the big lump in her throat. She never let that dam burst.
that the river
would run dry.
Rising each morning like the sun in these parts. Starting all over again. Every yesterday is a poem to savour or rue or laugh at. Our paths only lead to us. We all share the road. Life is a spiral not a circle. I sing constantly in the kitchen. I have a reputation for being a good whistler as well. Sounds like a pedal steel guitar and just about covers up the sound of the sink.
live in the pines
and visit once in a while.
One summer I was down in Beaumont, Texas. My grandpa was away at sea, bringing oil to Asia. He was due back in port before I had to start school again and I was looking forward to seeing him. I was greeted at the bus station by my grandma.
First up we headed out to the Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store to stock up on things that a sprouting boy likes to eat and came back home with four big brown bags of vittles. After chowing down on a ham sandwich big enough to choke a pony, a can of spiced cling-stone peaches, a cool Pearl Beer and several Moon Pies, my grandma asked me out to the back-yard under the pecan trees.
She motioned toward the garage which stood silent and locked tight til her husband was back from overseas. The dull gray paint was a sixteenth of an inch thick and peeling away in big nasty flakes. The wood underneath was trying to turn to “punk-wood” which is only good for smudge pots and smoking hides. The galvanized corrugated roof was blossoming out into a half-dozen new oxides and compounds starting from the nail-holes.
The back side was chipping and peeling badly. I was partly responsible. That was where I practiced throwing knives when my grandpa was a few thousand nautical miles away. I knew the state of the interior from many long hours “standing watch” while my grandfather performed Swedish magic on a wide variety of motors and other projects ranging from building rabbit cages to making fishing knives from old spring-steel crosscut saws. I still have one of those knives.
The only things I coveted inside were three in number. An old twenty pound chunk of iron used as a smithy tool for striking hot metal on, which I tried each summer to lift until I eventually could do it with one hand. The second was a beige and maroon Bakelite plastic radio tuned to KYKR, that played Tall Dark Stranger by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos every time my grandpa turned it on. Right next to that radio was a RIGID PIPE TOOLS Calendar with my older cousin Deborah Kay on the cover wearing an itsy-bitsy teenie-weenie polka-dot bikini. I remember asking my grandma after the first time I saw it if folks could marry their cousins. She said it wasn't too usual or necessary anymore. My grandpa smiled behind his coffee cup.
The thought of scraping, sanding, priming and sloshing gallons of gray while swatting skeeters turned my mood sour. My grandma told me she reckoned it was a big job and that my grandpa would pay me for it when he returned. She said I was only to do it if I clearly wanted to from my heart. I hated the smell of paint and I told her I clearly didn't.
She then told me that my grandpa expected me to do something useful before he returned to earn my keep and that I could figure out something else more suitable to my temperament. I looked over at their garden. They hadn't planted yet because of the rain and the whole patch needed turning and weeding. I asked if I could do that and she said yes.
Same hundred plus heat, donkey killing humidity, giant skeeters and horseflies but a happier boy you never saw. The difference was working with natural things and good old dirt instead of chemicals. I chopped, forked and shoveled. In about two full days I was forming up the rows for the pintos, tomatoes, okras, crooked-neck squash, string beans, lettuces, carrots, green onions and such. My grandma fed me like a Saudi prince and when I was done, she showed me how to plant old-style.
My grandpa arrived at the docks a few days late and when he got home he walked straight to the back yard to see what I'd done. He looked at the shed first and lingered awhile. My grandma then directed his attention to the garden. A big smile pulled across his face and he dug into his pocket and gave me ten bucks. That was just under a days pay in those days. I walked a little taller that summer.
About ten years later I was between employment, newly married and poor. I answered an ad in a North Shore paper. It was for a painting job. According to the boss on the phone, there was weeks and weeks of work piled up and if I was up to their standard, I would be only limited to how much I could take.
I met the man and his partner at an apartment address in Burnaby for an on the job orientation and training session. I had honestly told them that I had never painted commercially before. I got to the place and met my new boss and his partner. They were surprisingly young and I figured that was a lesson to me that if I applied myself I could be running an outfit instead of being the hired hand.
We got introduced and shook hands. I could hear from their accents that these fellows were from at least Alberta if not Saskatchewan. The fellows showed me exactly how they wanted the jobs to be done. Everything removable from the walls was to be removed, the entire surfaces were to be washed with TSP and the fridges and stoves were to be pulled all the way out and the whole wall behind was to be painted.
The trays, brushes for cutting-in, rollers, sponges, rags, drop-clothes, buckets, masking tape, long poles and wall and ceiling paint were all provided by the boss. All I had to provide was my step-ladder and screwdrivers. It was a real class act. The young men said they'd be back to check my first job and if I passed muster, I would get more addresses by phoning the office. Each job would be set up with the paint and supplies in advance.
I scrubbed and painted like a deck-hand. When I was done, I phoned the office and the boss came out within half an hour and gave it the white glove. He pointed out a few details that needed improvement but at the end he said I had passed my probation and asked if I wanted one or two bedroom apartments to paint from then on. He told me the piece-rate he paid for each. I said two because they paid more. I figured I could do three of those a day.
We shook hands on it and I asked about paydays. He said that he paid once a week on Saturdays and that I just had to phone the office before-hand, list all the addresses I had done that week and they would cut the check after squaring it with their records. I could then swing by the office and pick up the check. It was understood that this first one was not to be paid as I was in training.
He gave me two more addresses, all in Burnaby, for the balance of that day. I set to with gusto and by that night, reeling from the fumes, soaking sore arms in a hot bath, I figured I could paint as good as any man. Now I would work on my speed. I did three apartments the second day and by Thursday or so I was getting fast without being sloppy. I was dizzy from the fumes and relished my beer at days end to kill the taste in my throat.
I started extra early on Friday, so I could wrap up during office hours. I worked without lunch to make that happen, raced to my own apartment in Lynn valley and showered up. I phoned the office to read off my week's list. The operator said that the number wasn't in service. I figured my eyes had been affected by the damn paint. I remembered by the third day that sometimes I would see other colours instead of the steady white as if my brain was trying to save itself from the monotony of a monochrome world.
I dialed again. Same message. I made several other calls and then drove to the office address to have a little pow-wow with the boss. I was halfway through a smoke in the empty lot that bore the address I sought before I allowed myself to realize I had been diddled. My inquiries to the RCMP led to my discovering that the gentlemen I whom had painted thirteen apartments for had started in Manitoba and worked this scam all the way to Vancouver. It was expected they would turn up on the Island in a week or two. They collected the cash up front from the landlords and managers, dropped the paint and supplies and hustled new jobs. Each week they changed towns.
There was nothing I could do and words cannot do justice to the anger I felt. I could have slapped a six foot six Greek palace guard with my left hand and stole his wooden shoes before he landed. Anyway there wasn't time to process these emotions, I had a pretty wife to feed.
A couple of wives later, I was renting a half of a duplex from a fellow I worked with. It became time to cheer the place up with some new paint. I had long buried the above fiasco and had no conscious recollection of the event. My subconscious hadn't dropped the matter though. I didn't know exactly why, but I told my wife and children to go and stay with some friends for about two days while I painted.
This proved to be the right thing to do. About two hours in to the painting job and the full memory came flooding back in perfect detail. I cursed and swore in a multitude of languages and was not fit for the company of anything but a wolverine with a cut on its front pad. I saddled up the rage and turned it in to the best paint-job I'd done up to that time. Two years later, I did her again, this time with no need to send the bairns away with their Mum. I still didn't like the fumes though.
The other morning I was talking to a Guatemalan commercial painter on the bus. He had just finished painting a massive new laboratory at a local university where weird experiments are conducted on truck-loads of animals. He said they came in on a ramp into the underground so as not to alarm the public. Before that he had painted a huge old cathedral in the downtown. He had painted for more than thirty years in several countries. We chatted about different paints and different applications. He spoke of the chemicals that are in paints especially designed to coat metal surfaces.
He asked if I knew the average lifespan of a professional painter. I said I didn't and was told that they were lucky to make fifty-five years old. The leads and heavy metals build up in the system. I told him that when I was a pipe-fitter, I had been handling lead paste daily. It has been working its way out of my hands for the past three years or so. I showed him one of the lesions and he regarded it with a knowing look. In a true Cachiquel manner, he leaned in close and whispered to me to eat tons of cilantro. He held out his hand and showed that it was smooth and unblemished.
A few weeks prior I was clearing some brush up-country and a man came from across the road. I had never met him but he had seen me out his window on several occasions. He was wiry, tough, sun-browned and only his beard gave away his age.
He introduced himself, shook my hand and said, “Every man is a bastard and every woman is a bitch. And I love every one of them.”
“I know exactly what you mean and my investigations up to this point in my life have yielded the same conclusion and personal conviction,” I replied with no hesitation.
As he helped me lift a piece of equipment out of the back of the Suzuki and set it down, he looked right at me and said, “ I knew it! I knew it when I seen you the first time!”
“Ready?” He asked and then he raised his leathery face to the boundless blue and hollered, “God Bless Every Single One of You Sons of Bitches!”
We spent the balance of the afternoon swapping important dreams and talking about the seven different kinds of choke-cherries. That night I finished a four year painting project I'd been working on.
Much study has been conducted into the realm of accidents. Primarily for the insurance industry. Ask any actuary and they will probably tell you that most accidents occur at home. It is safer to fly third-class with grizzly bears than it is to get your breakfast each morning. Perhaps it is because at home we are safe and our defenses are down. I have come safely through more dangers than I care to recall from the jungles of Guatemala to the Coastal Range. But none of this made me wary of a rocking chair on a warm evening.
Recently, I have been studying to obtain a Canadian Outdoor Recreation Education certificate. The course book is about three hundred pages and there are other booklets of a couple of hundred pages to learn as well. After a period of study at home, I was to attend classes on two different occasions for two different aspects of the training. It is interesting material and covers many different fields.
There is a section on orienteering and map and compass work, a section on firearms, ballistics and such, a section on the classification of fishes, birds and mammals, a section on ethics, ecology, sustainability, conservation, a section on survival, a section on camping, a section on emergency first aid in a wilderness setting, a big section on the laws of this land and its many facets and interpretations, be it Provincial, Municipal, Federal or Aboriginal. Next time you see a guy or gal in a blaze-orange vest, resist your urge to stereotype them according to popular media. Chances are they might surprise the hell out of you with their rich store of very practical knowledge.
In my case, I had read the books fully through and was on the second reading when my turn came up for the classroom sessions and the final exam. It was a Friday after work and I was cramming in the Ikea Poang chair in my living room. I remember reviewing that the wattle over the eye of the Blue Grouse is yellow while that of the Spruce Grouse is red. That is, in the males of both species only. I thanked the Great Spirit that he made them without adipose fins, just before falling very fast asleep.
My wife was also passed out on the couch after watching her stories in the humid eighty degree evening. Presently I came to. It was the lack of Alex Trebec's dulcet tones that snatched me unceremoniously from the embrace of Morpheus. Now I was hearing a trans-gender forensic pathologist cracking jokes with a purple-haired NSA type around a stainless-steel table. I knew I would likely hear the catch-phrases in their banter on a mass transit vehicle within a week and decided I could do myself a big favor by turning the TV off.
The remote was on the coffee table where my wife had put it. My book was in my lap and I am proud to say that my mug of tea was still in my fist, albeit long cold but not spilled. My legs were crossed and if you had passed by a window you would have never figured me as being asleep at all. I closed the book after dog-earing the page with the Grouse wattle data. (I can recognize the raw material for a trick question.)
I sat the mug gently down on a coaster on a doily and moved it away from the edge of the little coffee table. I was refreshed from my nap. I planned study the Gallinaceous birds again at breakfast before class and so the only logical place to leave the tome was on the dining table immediately behind my chair.
After all, there was the matter of introduced birds having no feathers on their legs, while our native birds are equipped with feathers right down to their toe-nails. I felt confident about distinguishing a puddle duck from a diving duck by their manner of flight and leg placement in relation to the body but it wouldn't hurt to memorize the silhouettes one more time.
I rose like the sun over a canyon rim, still clutching my book. I turned to the table behind my chair and noticed that my body was at a 60 degree angle to the floor. Realizing instantly that I had no justification for such a saucy cant, I attempted to straighten up di di mao. Now I was 80 degrees off the perpendicular and my head was on a collision course with a hard wood arrow-backed chair. As I traveled toward the aforementioned meeting I took the opportunity afforded by the wonderful slowing of time usually present in such circumstances of looking at my legs. Could they be the culprits? Aha! My right foot was turned over 65 degrees and I had been standing on my ankle-bone. As I had felt no pain nor pins and needles, there was no indication prior to being physically out of my normal plane of locomotion to indicate any problem whatsoever.
With great relief at having solved a mystery, I grabbed the chair with both hands and pulled it down as I fell backwards. I recollected the only other time in my life that I had experienced complete lack of feeling in a limb. It was after my first kava-kava ceremony of which I will tell the tale in another post. It all happened because I had crossed my legs. As I processed these memories and revelations, I simultaneously realized that I could not afford to let that chair break my glasses so I thrust the offending furniture away.
Twisting like an ocelot, I latched onto the Poang chair just before I would have hit the floor and caused the laminated bent-birch to creak in pain. At the apex of the weight loading, the Poang released its potential energy like a long English bow at the Battle of Agincourt and launched me, Parthian-style in the direction of the coffee table.
As I flew backwards my mind searched for yet a new reference. All I could come up with was Jerry Lewis in the Disorderly Orderly or perhaps Geisha Boy. I spun around like the rear wheel of a motorcycle on a dirt-track and landed with both hands on top of the coffee table on either side of my tea and my face inches from my wife's sweet face. Just as the Poang came to rest on my back, she opened one eye.
“Tchh, do not try to kees me. It is very hot. My neck eeso esticky. Why is the foornitour down?'”
I gave a her a brief explanation and when the feeling returned to my leg, I began a process of thawing everything I could find in the freezer on the eggplant that used to be my right foot. I went onto the front steps outside and brought the book and my tobacco pouch. In an hour, my wife came out to water her flowers and beans. She expressed her concern and condolences and offered to refresh my stock of frozen foodstuffs. Being practical, she realized that in my weakened condition I might be more suggestible than usual. She came near with the hose and drizzled water on some potted plants. I rolled another smoke as I watched her.
“Papi, can you not lessen your esmoking. You are conshooming tobacco like a ca-tair-pee-lar. Tchh.”
“No te precupes, mi amor. Alles ist gut. It's a Cherokee thing.”
When my second son was in Grade two there was an occasion for the parents to meet the teacher one evening. We lived only two blocks away from the school so my wife, the boy and I waddled through the sycamore leaves to the elementary after supper. The students had to take their parents on a little tour of the classroom before the one on one session with the teacher.
My son's teacher was a pleasant young Chinese woman and I remember that she smiled often and genuinely. When I asked how the boy was doing she asked if she could tell me a little story of an event that had happened at the beginning of the year during the inaugural show and tell. My wife and I drew our chairs closer to her desk with great interest.
It seems that after a long parade of stuffed animals and action figures, it was my son's turn. He had brought one of his books. It was called The Amazing Egg. There were audible groans of boredom from the other children. According to the teacher, my son waited, like Cicero and let the crowd revel in their abandon.
After precisely the right delay, he stretched to his full three feet of height and in a strong clear voice asked, “How many of you think that you came from an egg? Raise your hands.”
The teacher riveted her attention on both the audience and the orator and the children laughed in derision and kept their hands lowered.
“How many of you think you didn't come from an egg? Raise your hands.” The children vigorously raised their hands in unison.
The boy cast his gaze around the room as if counting and said curtly, “You're ALL wrong!”
He then explained from memory the reproductive cycles of everything from sponges, trees, birds, reptiles, mammals in general and humans in particular. The teacher said she wouldn't have dreamed of stopping him. According to her, about thirty children from at least half a dozen different ethnic backgrounds and several cultures went home knowing much more than they did that morning when they arrived. Wasn't that the purpose of education?
We giggled as we contemplated the supper table discussions that must have ensued. After that my reward for both my boys every report card time was a trip to a bookstore with no spending limit on a single volume of their own choice. I tossed a few dictionaries around the coffee table and their bedroom and let nature take her course.
When I was a young buck gas-fitter I fell in love. The object of my affections later became the mother of my number one son. There were obstacles in our path, one of which was racial discrimination. My girlfriend was Chinese and I wasn't. Things were different in those days. My way was to meet her family and she was terrified at what might happen if I did.
I often said to her that if they met me, they would like me. One day, as chance would have it, I found myself working a job two blocks away from the girl's home. I didn't have my side-kick with me that day and I decided to introduce myself. I scrubbed off the worst of the cutting oil and grease from my mitts and smoothed my dirty boiler-suit and walked over.
I tapped on the door and it opened in less than a minute. A little boy said hello in the friendliest of tones and called his Ma. A woman came to the door and smiled. I introduced myself as her third daughter's boyfriend and she invited me in for tea.
We hit it off, speaking in Cantonglish and polished off a plate of cookies and several cups of tea. She told me to follow her instructions as to introducing myself to her husband and that it may take some time. I agreed. My fiancee was somewhat shocked and possibly angry at my move, but I knew it was the right thing to do.
Thus began a ten year relationship with one of the kindest and most gentle women I have ever known. Her name was Chun Ying which I came to understand meant Spring Moon. We became fast tea buddies and ninety percent of everything I know about Chinese culture came directly from her.
My interest in herbs, folklore and practical matters seemed to delight her, as I was young and didn't quite fit the mold for my generation. She had a deep love of flowers and houseplants and we chatted a lot about these things. She told me stories of Hon Woo Village in Canton as I had no interest in Hong Kong or any big cities for that matter.
If I stayed too long talking, she always said, “My-ko go home. Seep.”
She scolded me for drinking coffee at the same time as eating fruit and for letting the wind into my shirt. She warned me against too much cold food, too much hot food and bad fung soi in general. When at last I was introduced to the Ba and sat at the big table, Chun Ying kept my bowl loaded while I learned to deal with the chop-sticks.
After I married her daughter, we remained close and visited often with each other. Once I remember her telling me that she couldn't get some of her flowering plants in the house to make seeds. I came over with a soft paint brush and we went around the rooms on stools and took turns doing the absent bee's work, gathering pollen and shaking it on the stamens. It worked.
When my son was born, I asked Chun Ying to come to my apartment and perform the oldest traditional Southern Chinese ceremonies that she could remember. She appeared at the door on the proper day and hour according to her knowledge and we spent hours rolling boiled eggs across the boys brow and holding him up to the sun and moon and bathing him in the water that certain leaves had been boiled in. I know that his Cherokee ancestors would have done something similar had the knowledge not been shot up and run out of town.
I remember going to her workplace once. It was a sweat-shop laundry and my wife wanted to bring her some lunch. As we stood in the alley at the back door, two young supervisory punks inside watched her like hawks so she wouldn't stop work for any longer than it took to grab the little bag. Her oppressors were of the same tribe and this really ticked me off. She just said, “My-ko go home. Seep.”
Life went along its track and a day came a decade or so after meeting my mother-in-law that I parted ways with her daughter. She was very sad but we were able to stay close. When I had re-married and had just brought home my number two son, Chun Ying was hospitalized.
My new wife and I were eating dinner one evening and the baby was in a small basket on the table. Suddenly Miggy began to howl and cry with such vigor that he could not and would not be consoled. I thought of all the usual possibilities and ruled them out just as fast as they came. Then I felt it. The gentle presence of an old friend. It was then I knew Chun Ying had passed away.
I knew she had come to say good-bye to me and to say hello to my second son. What I felt as a warm tingly glow was a scary overwhelming perception of a stranger to the unfiltered sensibilities of a newborn. I picked up Mig and performed my own version of a Cherokee welcome dance in the living room while the supper got cold. The baby stopped crying within seconds and I said in my mind, “Thank you for everything Chun Ying, meet my new baby and my new wife. I promise to do my best for your grandson.” The next day or so I phoned and got confirmation that what I had suspected was true.
Today, I woke up at three AM and knew that I had to finally visit Chun Ying's grave. The days are getting late, my hair is silvering and my number one son is contemplating marriage. I had just had a big pow-wow with my son on the subject the day before and it was time to tell his Po-Po my thoughts on the prospective union.
I drove to the cemetery and parked fifty steps from the grave without ever having been there before. I brought her some flowers from my apartment yard that my wife had grown. I brought her a little bottle of Yunnan Pai Yao that she had given me over thirty years ago, in case I was ever shot or stabbed. I sat to tell her about her grandson and myself and thank her for all the boundless kindness she had shown this Texan. When I finished my second smoke, I heard her clear sweet voice in my head, “My-ko go home. Seep!”
I did as told and when I woke up I dressed up the picture I took of her grave and wrote this story.
There are two ways to fix your brakes and neither one works. When I was in high school in Lynn Valley, I had the chance to take auto mechanics. It was a fun class and my teacher was a great guy. That was in 1973. We got to wear boiler suits and get our hands greasy. Mr. G was confident enough in our talents by the middle of the year to let us work on teacher's cars. The teacher's liked having the work done for free and we students blossomed in the bestowed trust and voluntary responsibility.
My partner, whose name escapes me now was an amenable fellow and one Friday we were honored with being given the task of doing the brakes on an algebra teacher's sedan. We were careful as could be. The elements of the job which I had forgotten from our prior instruction my partner remembered and my memory equally filled in his blank spots.
We retracted the calipers, changed the front pads and the rear shoes. We adjusted the hand-brake. We bled the lines and replaced the water-logged brake fluid. We shined everything up and moved her off the hoist for the next job. We were both changed young men that afternoon as we dipped our paws in the big bucket of Go-Jo and wiped off the grime on faded red shop rags. We were no longer brake-job virgins. We both knew that there were many men much older than us who couldn't make that claim. We waddled a bit when we walked away into our week-end as if something twixt our bell-bottoms was impeding our forward ambulation.
Monday morning I was greeted at the front walk of the school by a gaggle of chattering students. One guy asked me if I'd heard the word. I said I hadn't.
"Oh man, some grease-monkeys did the brakes on Mr. ****'s car last Friday. They bunned it up and he took out a mailbox on his way home. It was WEAK!”
“Was he hurt?”
“Negative, but his front bumper's had the biscuit and he pissed his Wellies.”
Later that day, Mr. G took me and my partner aside and discreetly told us that we must have forgotten to bleed the air out of the hydraulic lines after replacing the fluid. Just a tiny bubble, he said could take all the magic out of the of manipulation of compressed fluids. His tone was fatherly, stern and dead serious. When he saw the effect of the whole ordeal on us and how shaken we were at the horror that may have occurred, he pointed out with the faintest shadow of a smile, that it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy than Mr. ****.
I never did my own brakes after that, down to this day. A few weeks ago when I had my Suzuki serviced, it was pointed out to me that my rotors were Jurassic, my pads were squeal-worthy and the only discernible tread on my rubber were the wear bars. But, I'd be OK for a while yet.
As it turned out, I was scheduled to move a cargo of near 1500 lbs, comprising of books and shelving, for the most part. There was just going to be enough room left over for myself and my wife. I decided to get the vehicle brought up to a good safe condition prior to the mission. I purchased four good tires with “aggressive” treads for a good price and made a mental note not to eat out for the next few years.
My window of opportunity was shrinking rapidly so next I went to a certain corner in Vancouver where five different garages that all service brakes share a block. My reasoning was that the only variable could possibly be their respective labor rates and those would be tightly grouped due to their physical proximity to each other and the magic of the informed consumer in a free market.
I entered an establishment that I used to be the letter-carrier for, before the current boss took over operations. I introduced myself and my vehicle and was shown my choice of three rotors and two brake pads. I quickly zeroed in on the middle quality rotors and the good pads. I was shown the price and told that all the parts were in stock and the work could be done right away. This suited me as I was due to move the goods in only forty-eight hours time.
I looked the man square in the eye and told him that although I didn't know him, I was going to extend my trust to his shop. I gave him the keys and walked around the back for a smoke. I saw a small man in a white lab coat hoist my car up and begin removing the wheels. Another guy was working on another car on the opposite side of the shop while he chatted in Spanish to a fat woman.
I walked around the area for an hour or so and came back to the office for a cup of bad coffee. I began to read a book I'd brought and within a few pages the little lab coat popped upstairs and told me my Suzi was ready. I paid the bill and wondered how I'd make next month's rent.
I loaded up the vehicle a day early so I could test drive the new brakes and tires. I wanted to get the feel of the ceramic brakes which are noted for not being too grabby when cold and improving as they heat up. Perfect, I thought for the mountainous canyon roads that I would be hauling on.
As luck would have it, a thunder storm brewed up just as I went for the test run. The brakes were great and the tires superb. I was used to the initial slippy ceramic feeling within minutes. It was like cruising a mall in a brand new pair of Birkenstocks. I drove down some steep hills and measured my stopping ability. Soon I was ready and confident that there would be no learning curve on the coming trip.
Next morning my wife and I pulled out of town and headed east. It was a work day so the traffic was coming against us and we made good time. I had snagged a day off work before a long weekend and was feeling mighty fine. We had breakfast a hundred miles down river and turned north. The road was mostly deserted once we got on Highway 12. This stretch of road has a chasm on the port-side and a rock-face to starboard. There are free-range cattle, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, mule deer, black bears, grizzly bears and falling rocks to watch out for along the way.
Not far from Jackass Mountain we heard a mighty thud. I figured that our aggressive treads had picked up a rock and slung it under the floorboards. It sounded like a .38 fired into a bucket of sand. As we whistled around a curve and down a decline, I applied a light touch to the brake pedal.
If you've ever heard a train braking in a switch-yard you could approximate the screech that came from my passenger-side front wheel. It was metal on metal, it was angry and accompanied by a vibration that would churn milk to butter. Worse, there was no braking action on the hurtling ton of literature and shelving.
I tried a few more times, gingerly, like a man testing a sore tooth with the tip of his tongue. If anything, it seemed to be getting worse. I was able to downshift and use the aptly named emergency brake to make the approach to Jackass Mountain. Climbing was OK. It was coming down that was tricky and it was several kilometers before we could find enough shoulder to pull over on.
A visual inspection revealed that the wheel was bolted on just fine but one of two bolts that held the caliper assembly was missing. It was the rearward bolt, so when the brakes were applied, the pads grabbed the disk and the whole shebang pivoted on the remaining bolt and came to rest on the rim creating the hellish sounds and obscene vibrations. The icing on the cake was that each one of these operations served to unscrew the remaining bolt.
There was no traffic, no phone and no way I was abandoning my books nor my wife. I figured I could do the remaining forty-odd kilometers to one of my favourite little towns and if I didn't delay I could possibly find a mechanic before quitting time. I put on the four-way flashers and pulled my hat down tight. I hand-braked like a sled driver and down-shifted like an Italian boy.
We pulled into town about an hour past lunch and found all the mechanics gone for their long weekend, save two. There was a line up and my wife went across the road to the grocery while I waited my turn on the hoist. The mechanic showed me the tortured rim, the bolt-hole and the loose remaining bolt. There was fortunately no damage to the disk or pads.
He said that we were lucky to get there and unlucky that he didn't have the needed bolt, nor did the local parts supplier. While I digested this information, the young man disappeared. I thought he went to the phone. My wife returned from the store and we tried to figure out how we'd get back to town in time for our jobs.
A young woman came up to the remaining mechanic and inquired as to the whereabouts of her husband, the owner of the garage. The answer was that he had gone home for a bit. We all stood under the hoist and a few moments later the mechanic drove up. He was holding a bolt in his right hand. He greeted his wife and told me he had gone home to dig through his personal stash of spare parts to find a fine thread metric bolt. I was coming down off the adrenaline rush, feeling the warmth of the Great Spirit and wondering how anyone could doubt the presence of God.
He installed the bolt, tightened the other one and we both checked the other six. A greasy radio on a wooden bench squawked out Neil Young's Rocking In The Free World. As he worked, I remembered the algebra teacher's car. I remembered that time a doctor sewed up a sponge in my brother-in-laws back by accident. I spoke these thoughts aloud and the mechanic paused.
“Mike, it's happened to me before. In my case, the guy's wheel fell off!”
"I'm not going to bar-b-que the guy in the lab coat,” I said. “I will phone the owner and tell him what has happened and that he better talk to his mechanic and tighten up his shop routine. My way of acknowledging the twin gifts of getting here alive and of finding you three hours before a long weekend.”
When I got back to the big city, I presented the bill from the country and was paid in cash and apologized to twice. As I left I was handed a business card with “Free Oil Change” scrawled on the front above a pair of initials. As if. I walked around back to the shop door and watched the man in the lab coat for a while. I wanted to have a word with him but he was bolting on the front passenger-side wheel of some poor sucker's car at that moment and I certainly didn't want to be a distraction.
Once I found myself employed as a carpenter. I had never done any carpentry except building a rabbit hutch for my wife's bunny. Now I had a pair of Gorilla boots, a double sided leather carpenter's pouch, a twenty ounce Swedish hammer, a plumb line, a chalk line, a square, a tape measure, a flat pencil and a very big lunch pail.
I was working on the North Vancouver waterfront on a piece of ground that is today leased by a company from Texas. It was right next to a sulfur dock and the yellow mountain became a familiar sight. I told them at Manpower that I wasn't a carpenter, but in good times, they will always tell you to try anyway. In bad times, they will demand previous experience if you apply to wash cars.
I began to work in the summer and worked with a young man who was putting himself through law school. He was a few years older than me and very friendly. We got along well and he quickly taught me what I needed to know. The company was a newly created then and is still around today.
It's business at the time was crating up fourteen sawmills and shipping them to the Soviet Union. I had been born into the Cold War, so I remember scratching my head over the endless trains of prairie wheat and new sawmills being shipped to those Communists.
The foreman was a stubby German man about five feet tall. He smoked small cigars and could have stopped a locomotive with a single glance. He was fair, firm and knew his business. The man had gravity, guts and goodwill. The other fellows were a mix of Swedes, Danes, Canadians and Englishmen. They were, on the whole, a great bunch. We had a main shed where we stored our lunch pails and jackets before heading to our various sections on the huge property.
The German had worked out every detail of the operation and it was a beautiful, smooth running factory. There were other sheds about the grounds where different parts of the massive crates were constructed. One team built walls, another made ends, another constructed the the pallets (floors), another placed strong steel bands or straps around the machinery, another shrunk-wrapped this assembly. At this point a whistle would sound and all hands came up to heft the thirty-foot long finished walls into place alongside the pallets. A couple of dozen hammers would ring in unison as we hammered home eight-inch spikes we kept in our pouches for this purpose.
The ends would be put on by a smaller crew and then the roofers would take over and fabricate a sea-proof covering for the box. Lastly, a guy would come with a Cyrillic stencil and paint all the necessary Russian markings on the outside. When this was done our own trucker would appear honking the horn of his rig and hoist the monstrosity onto his long trailer and buckle it down. Two toots of his horn and he would hurry to the docks with his load.
The pay was seven dollars an hour and that stretched real far back in the day. I was eating lapin chasseur and drinking Rose d'Anjou in a French restaurant about five nights a week. I was on the wall building crew with the law student. He went back to school in September and I took over the shed as number one and got a new guy as assistant. This fellow was in from Ontario. I showed him the routine.
We first went to the huge lumber piles out front to choose straight 2 x 4s and clean ¾" marine plywood sheets. These we humped back to our shack and then using drawings provided by the German, we laid out the frame, cut it with skill-saws and nailed it together with nail-guns. Then we sheathed the frame with plywood, chalk marked where it was to be trimmed and did so with the saws. There were six different wall sizes. If we kept a steady supply of constructed ones of each size in reserve, the German allowed us an unscheduled day off from time to time.
My new partner figured kindness meant stupidity and patience meant weakness. He began telling fabricated prison stories while we toiled. All designed to scare me off the walls and into another unit, so as to have the shed to himself and a new buddy he'd made among the crew. I ignored him and this really got him animated. He began to get very vocal and erratic. No response was forthcoming from me.
Once he nailed my lunch pail down to the bench in the storage shed. When I went to grab it for lunch, I nearly ripped my arm out of the socket. Next day, I nailed his tool belt to the wall. Took him a half hour to get it undone. He realized that his body was going to have to cash the cheques his mouth had written in order to get me out of the shed. He began drinking heavy to get up his courage over the next few days.
One day the German walked by. It was rare because once you knew what you were doing, he left you alone. I hadn't seen him round my shed for months. He called Ontario over to the entrance and spoke something soft and short and then disappeared. To this day, I don't know what he said, but Ontario was offering to make me pancakes and darn my socks the next morning.
Work became a joy and the place ran like a sewing machine. There was recreation at lunch. We usually sat out on the piles of lumber to eat if it wasn't raining. After our sandwiches, we would take turns trying to shoot sea-gull with the nail-guns. No one ever got a bulls-eye. Our continuum was broken intermittently by the odd car or boat that needed crating. It was a chance to show off and construct something custom-size. We could make a Cadillac disappear in about two hours.
I only saw one bad accident, when a fellow who was standing on top of a crate of gears drilling air holes, slipped and fell in. The fall was about eight feet down and when we got up the ladder to haul him out he was perforated in a dozen places on his arms and legs with the steel teeth poking through. He lived but didn't return to work. I saw and got many a bashed thumb.
Months rolled on and I was really enjoying myself. One day, I saw the German walking the grounds with a new guy. This fellow was about three inches shorter than the German and had a shiny new white hardhat. He was Asian and turned out to be from Japan. He had expensive hiking boots without a speck of dust on them. He wore an Oxford shirt and spotless Levis.
Turned out he was now the part-owner of the operation. He took up residence in a shiny new Atco trailer where he loafed over coffee. Within a week he was smoking small cigars, very similar to the German. It was clear that he had pull from the interaction between the two. He was privileged, prejudiced and petty. In the second week, he began to make forays around the yard on his own.
He went from shed to shed and stopped a worker and demanded his name. This being given, he cast his eyes around til they lighted upon an object no bigger than a watermelon. In a voice worthy of a samurai he ordered the unfortunate to, "Put it on a pallet and strap it." The worker, who was already part of a team, had to stop his work, construct a pallet, and then haul the strapping machine away from the strapping crew.
This sent ripples through the yard. The next day and the next and the next this scene was repeated. The German had been let go and we were in the samurai's hands. Morale fell out of the grumpy tree and hit every branch on the way down. A perfectly designed, constructed and manned operation had been taken and forced to crawl between the legs of a joker with a big bank account. I detected petty bullshit!
You can take the Swede out of the country, but you cannot take the Cherokee out of the Swede. I went home one night and let my mind roll over the predicament. I had an idea. I told some fellows at work and they spread the word. By next day it was unanimous and all hands were willing. I collected a certain small sum from every man over the next day or two. On the weekend, I visited a tee-shirt printing booth at a local market.
Monday morning in the tool shed, I handed out stacks of brand new custom tee-shirts. Everyone knew what to do. That afternoon when the whistle blew for lunch we gathered as usual on top of the lumber stacks. Every man donned his tee-shirt and began to eat lunch. All hands watched the door of the Atco, waiting to see if the samurai would come out. One fellow couldn't wait.
He took his hammer and started pounding out the rhythm of a then popular song. The song was Queen's "We Will Rock You." Boom-Boom-Bap, Boom-Boom-Bap, Boom-Boom-Bap. Soon, close to thirty hammers were beating out this familiar tattoo on stacks of lumber and the noise was delicious. The trailer door flew open. Ontario started singing, "We Will We Will Strap You Strap You!" Everybody joined in singing immediately.
The samurai staggered out and rushed forward a few paces. He saw the tee-shirts. On front was written "Put It On A Pallet" and on the back was written, "And Strap It." The veins in his neck started to twist around like snakes in a pillowcase. His nostrils got huge. He clenched his fists and searched the crowd desperately for someone to hang. We sang louder. The crucial time for him to react passed and he was warrior enough to know it.
He walked back to his trailer and I cannot remember seeing him again, although he continued to run the place, if not own it. Shortly thereafter, I got an offer for a job gas-fitting for four dollars an hour more and I took it. Six weeks later I was laid off. I returned to the factory and learned from Ontario that the German had come back, the samurai was gone, the fellows had been given a seven dollar per hour raise and the samurai had reduced the workforce before he left and there were no vacancies.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.