It was going to be the best one yet. That next Suzuki. It was to be our third vehicle branded with a big silver S. Personally it would be a chance to underscore my brilliance once again in hopes that like water on stone; the happy accidents that festoon all the trails I walk would make some discernible tracings on the obsidian common sense possessed by my wife. Here is some background on my relationship with Suzy.
After obtaining my second divorce on only thirty-four years on the planet, I found myself driving a beat-up dusty Volkswagen Van. It had no heater, questionable brakes, an insatiable appetite for clutch cables and a not so secret desire to help the mechanic down on Main St. retire early. Eventually I came to my senses and divorced that Teutonic embarrassment. I watched with a smile and proudly folded arms as the tow driver hauled its arthritic carcass far, far away.
I had been without wheels many times in my life and never found it that disconcerting especially when living in any urban area and gainfully employed. Houston and Baton Rouge excepted. In those two locations having a vehicle is not an option as it is in Vancouver and most Canadian cities. After a brief withdrawal, less intense than one would experience say when the video store across the street goes belly-up, I would always rally and become a transit riding fool, rent cars when needed and many times, cover more ground than before when I was in the driver’s seat.
A big part of my reasoning at that particular time was due to the fact I was going to have to pay out about fifteen years of child support. I had no qualms about doing this because the birth my first son was a planned and welcomed event. I hadn’t planned on nor welcomed the disharmonious relationship that had gone into free-fall soon afterwards.
I re-married when I was legally and emotionally disentangled and in possession of my gumption once again. Within a year I was the proud Papa of another blessed son. As my wife and I slowly moved from our first third floor walk up apartment in New Westminster to a succession of slightly larger and more well appointed apartments, I did some calculations.
As it turned out, I was amazed to find out that when all costs incurred by owning a car were considered and averaged to the month, that amount was equal within tens of dollars to what I was paying in child support. Thus, I reckoned that if we simply gave up having a vehicle that the money saved would practically exactly offset the extra expense of my child support. In this way, our new three person lifestyle as dictated by my mail man’s salary would be the same as if I had never divorced and was the breadwinner of my original family of three. I was motivated by not wanting my new family to suffer for my past miscalculations. It was nascent bobcat logic and it became our way of life for the next ten years.
My wife worked a variety of jobs and I tried working two full-time jobs for about six months. I carried mail from 6:30 to 3:00 and then slept in a booth till 4:00 at the Premier Café on Main and Broadway. The waitress would wake me to grab my bus back to New West and I would work in the kitchen of a restaurant at the New West Quay till 1:00. I’d be home at 2:00 and off to bed by 3:00. After paying my income tax that year, I saw the folly of my ways and stuck to just doing my post office gig. We provided daycare for two and sometimes three little boys which kept my son as busy and entertained as it did my wife. I got to enjoy a few hours with the gang each afternoon when I rolled in from the Skytrain. My wife had already raised a half dozen baby boys to adulthood by the time she had her own and she was a natural. It was like watching a horse whisperer. None of the little fellows wanted to leave when their parents came to carry them home.
I always approached by the back door of my ground floor apartment as it was near to the kitchen. One sunny day I encountered a biker-type dude setting on a folding chair in the back alley of our Agnes St. apartment. Right smack in the middle of where I had to walk. He regarded my postie uniform and asked me if I’d like to make some real money. He said he had been watching me work like an ant for about a year. I had never met him and asked him what exactly he had in mind. He said it would be pretty similar to what he figured I already did for Canada Post, that is, delivering the odd package to the odd place.
On the roof of the apartment complex across the alley, a herd of young skinheads had cranked up their music and begun to dive into some serious Wednesday afternoon drinking. I looked again at my prospective employer. He was about forty-five years old and wore an immaculate white tee-shirt, immaculate faded blue jeans and military spit-polished Doc Watson’s. He had an expensive haircut, clean nails, good teeth and a perfectly trimmed beard. I saw in my minds eye the perfect father figure to captain the crystal meth playpen on that rooftop of fatherless boys. I told him no but thanks anyhow for thinking of me and he folded up his lawn chair and gave me that look that father’s sometimes cast upon their sons. The one that says, “I’m not angry boy, I’m just disappointed in you.” He waddled back to his wolf-pack and I went in to greet Nisa’s boys.
There was Joey who always remarked that his little “yeggs” were tired from walking up and down the riverside hills of New West. His Chinese Mom kept a big turtle as a pet in a large tank in her kitchen. There was Terrance. His Brazilian Mom was always sleepy and late to pick him up. He had an incredible blond afro halo of hair and loved nothing better than sitting on his “manky” and drinking “chocomomo” from a sippy cup. My youngest, Miggy, liked to watch the “mototatos” rumble down the alley, bang on an old guitar and blow on the harmonica. My eldest, Daniel, liked to catch ants outside between the buildings and see the “hellcoppers” fly by. There was Samuel, the little Finn. Joey called him Namu and it stuck. His Scandinavian mother left orders for my wife to have him nap outdoors in the winter to acclimatize him to the cold. He was a robust, cheerful little man.
Once I brought a soccer ball home and when he saw it he did a dribble across the living room floor that had me wondering if his father was actually Diego Maradona. When his Mom picked him up that night and I told her about it, she said his grandfather had been a professional in the old country. He was so small they hadn’t given him a ball yet and I suggested it was now indeed time. As I write this I am aware that these little guys are very possibly fathers themselves by now. May the Great Spirit hold them in the hollow of his hand.
We walked and we walked. We bused and we bused. We dragged dozens grocery bags and babies up from Columbia St. At the time we all had legs like tree-trunks and hearts like hammers, including the little ones. Once I scored a big old Weber barbecue in Vancouver from a customer and ferried it home on the Skytrain. One joker said that if the train broke down he’d donate the meat if I’d light her up. A pretty young lady held up a six pack of vodka coolers. I carried Christmas trees, live birds and fifty pound sacks of rice on that New West run. Fortunately this was before the advent of i-phones and Facebook pages.
Days, months and years passed. Boys got tall and my beard started having more salt than pepper. One day my wife told me that in her considered opinion and expert calculations that we could now indeed afford the luxury of a car. I was skeptical at first but soon came to the same conclusion after running the numbers. I told her I would research what was out there to be had and what had changed in the past ten years that we had been without a private vehicle.
During this time and for some time preceding, the Suzuki Corporation had been conducting a rare TV commercial blitz on the Canadian broadcasts. The plots were usually the same. A family group out in a pristine wilderness, grooving to some funky tunes, diving off cliffs into swimming holes and turtling up impossible inclines. Then there was the classic Wolf Boy. The slogan at the time was something like, “You belong outdoors.” Much like last week’s, “Never sit still.” I am here to tell ya’ll that the first one worked on me like a charm back then but the latter one wouldn’t move me off my porch. I’ll sit still all I want, thank you very much.
Turned out that after a careful review of all the available vehicles within our price range and our desire to belong outdoors, Suzuki won fairly and squarely. The quality of their boat and motorcycle engines was an added reason to trust this outfit and their prices compared to the similar SUVs of the time (which were the Honda CRV and Toyota RAV4) were hard to argue with. I had been saving all the money from my junk mail deliveries for four years and this supplemented by other savings we had garnered was enough to pay cash for a lovely little four cylinder Suzuki Vitara. It had four-wheel shift on the fly which I preferred to the chip-controlled sensors for the other two candidates.
We had already moved closer to my workplace and were now ensconced near 41st and Main. My youngest son had only been in a car two or three times in his life and insisted that I drive him to school several blocks away to show the other kids. I understood and we proceeded the four blocks down a stately row of sycamore trees to Van Horne Elementary along which route he did the Royal wave with great pleasure like little Lord Fauntleroy.
It had a steel skid plate underneath to protect the gas tank from tree stumps and rocks. We bought a slew of camping gear at the Three Vets and started to really get into it. I washed, waxed and detailed the little red wagon whether it needed it or not. Once there was a slight problem of worn out bearings. As it predictably turned out, this was discovered several days after the warranty on these parts had expired. My friends at North Shore Suzuki made some calls and managed to fix them for free. There were no other problems with that vehicle except the time I parked under a horse-chestnut tree once and lost the windshield.
One day I went into the lunch room at the Mountainview Letter carrier depot on 6th & Yukon. Someone had left an interesting article on one of the tables and as I ate my adobong pusit, rice, apples and oranges; I read with growing interest. The article was the very first precursor to the Peak Oil myth. Some of the personages quoted within had bona fide oilman names like T. Boone Pickens and others were hyphenated experts on economics, the environment and transportation.
Maybe I was tired, maybe I was mentally exhausted from translating my web-site into three languages to the wee hours each night for the past year or so. At any rate, when I finished the article, I was bought, sold and headed down the river of fear, convinced that everyone else was wrong. On the way home from work I started to see all the vehicles on the road as if they were dinosaurs who had no inkling of their coming demise. As time went on, the feeling intensified. The rising insurance and fuel prices added to my anxiety. I figured for once, I’d stay ahead, well ahead of the curve of the inevitable. I reasoned that the sooner I ditched my wheels, the faster my family would adjust.
I told my wife and children and researched how much my Suzuki was worth on the open market. It was at this time I learned that a vehicle has a three thousand dollar spread between its trade-in and its private sale value. So, private sale it was. I have enough Scandinavian blood to find haggling in the marketplace abhorrent. Sellers should dispense with the bullshit and tag their wares with fair prices in the first instance, if they are proud to sell them. Buyers should not infer that their merchants are less than honest by questioning the tagged prices. It would have been well for me to have been born in Norway or Sweden several hundred years ago, for such is my natural inclination when buying or selling.
I wanted a fast sale, so I took about a thousand dollars off the fair price, printed a copy of the B. C. price guide and made an ad showing that this discount had been already applied and that the price was non-negotiable as a result. Did this work on the non-Vikings that came calling for test drives? Not at all. One Russian guy came three times and had me drive him up and down mountains to see what she could do and then complained that it didn’t have an air-conditioner. I finally told him he was a wimp of a Cossack and to go home. A Gujarati guy from Africa had me drive him to his house so his children and wife could sit inside and see if they liked the seats. I eventually sold it to him and even gave a slight discount on top of that already built in as he insisted that it was just contrary to his nature, upbringing and spirit to buy it otherwise.
It didn’t take too long after that for me to realize I had been had. There was a Welshman on my route that became interested in this story and had me bring him the original article. He was a private detective and was able to trace up all kinds of connections to reveal an entire planned campaign, designed to alter the way people thought about vehicles, fuel and transportation in general. Over time we discovered other bullshit campaigns to affect changes in how people banked, invested, ate food and just about any other human activity you could think of. I didn’t become cynical as a result of these rude awakenings but I did become about as easy as a coyote to get close enough to cheat in any way.
My wife bore all this nonsense with great dignity but did remind me from time to time of my folly. The twin towers came down, Patriot Acts got signed along with trade agreements, omnibus bills and treaties too numerous to count were entered into by groups of seven, groups of ten, groups of four and groups of three. Schools were shot up, animals were tagged and cameras were put in place. Some of these things went on out of sight and some were thrust upon the public. Therein lies a great clue as to which ones were bogus. Between researching on my computer at home, speed reading thousands of articles at the post office as well as my reading at home and talking to a myriad of folks daily from all over the globe, I found many more things to be concerned about of far greater magnitude than whether or not I drove a car.
My wife approached me while I was writing on my computer one day and asked me to go to the Suzuki website. I did so and she said to click on the little SX4. I did and she said to click on the little copper colored one. I did. She dropped a heavy envelope of cash on my keyboard and said, “Add to this Pop and we have enough to buy that one.” She was right.
I proudly parked it out back of our apartment and two days later a windstorm tore the rolled on roof off the building next door. The fly-by-nighters who installed it had decided that they could save some time and money by not using any fasteners. It first rolled into a tube weighing several tons and then flew off to just miss crushing the little copper car by several yards. I drove that second Suzy to San Diego to break in the engine on I-5. Along the way I saw all the military facilities that Bill Clinton and his successors had closed up.
One big Navy base in California was sold to COSCO or the China Overseas Shipping Company. It had a big gate and was off limits to US citizens. I wondered what they were bringing in besides 99 cent flyswatters and plastic dishes. I regarded the man-made water trough that tried to supply the thirsty plants, animals, swimming pools and people of L. A. It looked completely fragile and hopeful at best. I visited an old friend I hadn’t seen since I was twelve years old in Louisiana. He is a computer programmer and as smart, capable and friendly as they come.
I couldn’t tarry so I headed back North within 48 hours to see my son star in a school play. When I was climbing up the hills from L. A. to drop down into the San Fernando Valley, there was a freakish snowstorm and the little Suzy darted up and around all the six lanes of skidding Californians with the speed and accuracy of a rabbit. When I was next at the Suzuki dealer for an oil change I told the mechanic that I was so happy to have broken in the engine on such a long straight road as Highway 5. I had always been told that this would greatly lengthen the lifetime of a motor compared to a city bound break-in. He smiled like a Buddha and politely told me that I needn’t have done so as all modern cars are broken in prior to arriving at the dealerships. I slapped my forehead and said, “What’ll they think of next?”
When I knew we were moving to Lillooet, it became obvious that we’d need a bigger vehicle. I had a stroke of brilliance and decided that for the first time in my life, I’d use an auto broker to save me some money. I sold the SX4 to North Shore Suzuki and found a suitable broker on Main St. near my workplace. He was a friendly east Indian gentleman and after I told him I wanted a four cylinder, standard transmission Grand Vitara, he located four of these and negotiated a good price for me. I had undercoating, paint protection, snow mats, window trim and mud flaps added to the package.
We waited with great anticipation for the blessed day he had promised. Every time I phoned to inquire after that date had passed, I would be told, “It vill be ready definitely on Vensday. Bun hundred por tant! If not ready Vensday, definitely on Friday. Guaranteed, bun hundred por tant!”
This went on for about a month after the promised time and it became an in-joke at the post office when customers asked about their wayward packages.
Finally, the day came and it was raining cats and dogs when I went to pick up the new blue Suzy. I dropped a huge envelope of cash on the man’s desk and he looked at me with some surprise. This quickly changed to a knowing wink mixed in with some fatherly pride. Like the guy in the Lincoln commercial, I didn’t do it to be cool, I just liked to see the people’s faces when I did.
Within two days some idiots had dented and dinged it where it was parked at night behind the building I lived in. When my wife and I drove up to our trailer in December that year to fix some things up prior to my retirement, the oil light came on in Hope. I waited a bit and as the engine was purring like a kitten, I reckoned it was some malfunctioning computer chip and cautiously came on into Lillooet. The next morning when I checked the oil level at minus six Celsius, the reading was a quarter inch over the top limit.
I was perplexed and concerned. I decided to hazard a try back to Vancouver. It drove fine after some trouble getting it going. I dropped it off at North Shore Suzuki with a note and took a bus home. At home I wrote a long e-mail to the Suzuki family in Japan, the auto broker and the dealership in Langley where the vehicle had been prepped. I looked up the LinkedIn profiles of each man and from there was able to get the phone numbers of the cells that they carried in their pockets on the golf courses and actually answered.
Each e-mail contained the full contact information of each other man and the accurate description of what had happened. I also read up on the potential damage done by such elevated oil pressure which can cause havoc years into the future of the engine’s life. I identified myself as an avid Suzuki enthusiast who had purchased three of the vehicles and paid cash each time. I mentioned that I had a website, was a mailman and talked to thousands of people every day. The over all tone of my letter communicated an old fatherly favorite. You know, the one that says, “I’m not angry boy, I’m just disappointed in you.”
I tried to phone the dealer in Langley and he had his secretary trained to keep me at bay. When I promised to come in person and wait for him, he was magically found. He told me that he had been ordered by his bosses not to speak to me or deal with me. He said the whole affair had been given over to North Shore Suzuki although they were innocent of any involvement.
When I phoned those guys, I was told that the phone lines had been burning for days from back east and from Japan. I was informed that Suzuki was shipping a brand new engine from Japan and that when it arrived a single mechanic would be tasked with installing it. I thanked them and when the job was done I brought that man a Black Forest Cake in lieu of a bottle of Scotch. I never found out exactly what had occurred but the popular theories were that a robotic arm that drilled ports might have been slightly out of calibration. This necessitated the shutting down of the whole line of production to check and to correct.
I had to wait a long time but in the end, I felt I had been treated fairly and I was dismayed to find out that Mitsubishi had taken over operations in Canada. The parts will be available locally for ten years from the change. I received a letter last month that the gear-shift linkage for my year and model has been recalled and I am eagerly awaiting that adventure. As one of their slogans predicts, “It’s a way of life.” I’m now wondering if a horse and cart might be better in the long run from here on. After all, Lillooet's Main St. is wide enough to turn a rig around.
It was the last day of Grade Ten. I was the only guy in my circle who had his own wheels and my friend Dean asked me to give him a ride. I said sure and we motored out of Lynn Valley and over to Lonsdale. Dean was applying for a summer job at the Keg N Cleaver where his older brother worked as a bar-tender. I decided on the ride down the hill that I would also apply.
We filled up the required papers and were hired on the spot due to the connection to Dean's brother. It was my first brush with nepotism, something I hadn't encountered in my job searches in Texas prior to moving to Canada. I thought it was pretty cool at the time but I remember feeling that it wasn't quite fair. Then it occurred to me that they could always fire you if they didn't like you.
We both started as what was called at that time, dish-goats. The pay was around two dollars an hour. It was the most money I had ever made to that time and I was feeling good about that. After four horrible shifts of being slathered in sweat, grease, blue cheese dressing, teriyaki sauce, coagulated butter and crab juice; I was promoted to assistant broilerman. It was going to be a good summer.
My mentor at the grill was a French Canadian young man who was wise beyond his years due to the earlier than usual death of his father. He was four or five years older than me but this gap could have easily been ten years due to his fatherly bearing and life experience. His name was Dan and he was the man. We called him Bodine.
Bodine quickly taught me how to set up the big grill, to clean and scour it each night with vinegar and holy stones and soon had me warming the vats of onion soup and baking fifty pounds of potatoes at a time. He showed me how to broil steaks of all different thicknesses to perfection and have them all ready at the same time by exploiting the temperature difference on the slanted grill. Counter-intuitively, it is hotter the farther away from the fire you go.
I have an anomaly on the thumbnails. It is a concave depression and ridging which makes my thumbs look like I have endured repeated applications of the thumbscrews. I was very self conscious of this all my youth and the first thing I noticed about Bodine was that he had the exact same thumbs. He seemed relieved when I showed them off and really took me under his wing after that. Forty years later, after never having seen another human other than one of my sisters with this condition, I was riding the Main St. bus in Vancouver on my way to the Post Office, when a young carpenter called out to me across the aisle.
“Hey, Bud. I couldn't help but notice your thumbs.”
He held his own out with a grin. “Maybe we're related.”
I told him he was only the second person I had met with this distinguishing mark and he told me I was the first he had met except for his grandma. We discussed the topic and left our speculations at a draw between genetics and spiritual scars before arriving at the train station and parting ways.
Bodine had been saddled with the responsibilities of a man while yet a boy and subsequently set about trying to balance this with wine, women and song. The original Keg in those days of the early seventies was a rocking joint. The thick oak doors vibrated visibly from the booming sound system. The bar was as popular as the restaurant and was where parties sat awaiting their tables while quaffing drinks and yelling over the music.
Bodine liked to abide in the bar and I soon realized that he was teaching me so he could free up some time to go sit yonder and engage in some courting. Indeed, after a month or so I was cooking solo on many of his shifts. I still had to do the foul clean-up which took several hours at the end of the night but I was glad to have gained some practical experience.
There was another Dan, a cook whom I also worked as assistant to. He was a contemporary of the Frenchman and they were like ham and eggs. They planned and took an epic cross Canada road trip in my mentor's tricked out van. It was rigged with the best sound system I have heard thus far in my life and usually was wailing rare Jimi Hendrix recordings.
The broiler bar was set out in the open where the diners could watch the action as they shuffled down the forty item salad bar getting their greens. An old brass ship's bell was mounted at the broiler bar and was used to call the waiters when an order was ready. Each of the half dozen waiters had a unique call sign consisting of a pattern of clangs on the bell.
One night while Bodine was in the bar bird hunting, I decided to try something. I had been taught some blues harmonica down in Texas and at this time in my life I always carried an A harp in my pocket to vent on. I devised a set of unique blues licks and taught them to the waiters. It was an instant hit and after that I kept the harmonica in the cook's drawer. One night when I was working as an assistant to Dan the second, he found it and asked me to show him some licks.
After that first summer both Dans moved on down their personal roads and I was cooking forty hours a week. Harmonica Dan told me he was going down to Seattle to go to Bell helicopter school. I thought that sounded cool and I wrote for their brochure. When I saw what the tuition cost, I wondered why anyone who could afford to learn would bother troubling themselves. I wished him luck and never saw him again for fifteen years or so.
Later, when I was a postman I saw a full page local boy makes good story in the business section of the Province paper. It was about Dan and it turned out that he was the founder and owner of Helijet airways which plies between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. I phoned him that afternoon and we caught each other up on our lives. After flying logs to get his hours in he had had the great idea to get some Sikorskys and start his own business. He still remembered my old Hohner blues harmonica I had hand engraved with the epithet “Ain't life a bitch.”
I kept my job when school started and began a life of coming home at two to three AM five nights a week. My grades for the first time ever started to erode somewhat in that year. One Saturday night my manager was grumbling and cursing up a storm after we had closed on a very busy shift. It had been a five hundred steak night, the tips were fat and I couldn't imagine what he was upset about. He was a tall white guy who wore a massive fro and a perpetual grin. He had been with some friends and dignitaries all evening and really seemed to be having a great evening. I asked him what was amiss when he passed by my broiler bar.
He told me that a friend of his had just flown in from Bogata and had gifted him with a big dollop of the best cocaine then to be had on the planet and he had lost it. I knew that cocaine was for horses not for men and I only knew that because of a Taj Mahal song I had once heard. I also knew that it was expensive. I asked what it was packaged in. I was told that it was in a paper sugar packet and about twice the size. I told him I had uncanny scout abilities and not to worry. He muttered that it was hopeless.
He pointed out that the garbage cans had already been emptied. That is what I was counting on. My new cook's assistant was an incredibly efficient and motivated individual who would have polished the moon with a wet rag if he could have reached that high. I sent my boss back to his friends and went for a little walk. In the third pristine garbage can I reviewed, there in the bottom of a clean green bag was a small white sugar packet.
I scooped it out and brought it into the office. My manager looked like a man who has just been told that his baby is a healthy boy, his wife is fine and ready to go home and that he has just won the 649. I was clapped on the back and introduced to the other young squires. One fellow was introduced to me as the manager of ZZ Top, who were in town for their second gig since bursting onto the charts with La Grange. I was a fan and told him I was from Houston just like Billy Gibbons.
A wine glass was upturned and I was told to stick a rolled up twenty dollar bill in my nostril, cover the other one, not to sneeze and to snort two of the lines of powder that had been deftly prepared with a razor. I was seventeen and I did it. There was a long staircase running from the office to the street level out the back towards the waterfront of Burrard Inlet. I let out a James Brown whoop and bounded up those stairs like a scalded cat. I rounded the building to Esplanade Street and sprinted up Lonsdale's steep slope all the way to the Upper Levels Highway and all the way back down to my original spot in the office.
“Lawd have mercy,” I said.
It was one of the most curious things I had ever experienced. I felt absolutely no fatigue and was not aware that any time had passed. All hands had a good laugh and I remember being glad that this was a rich man's drug and thus out of my reach. A working man could get used to feeling that fresh.
The waiting staff were all university students and most were the sons and daughters of rich men. This is where I learned that it is in the best neighborhoods where the people have the most cash to spend that you will find the most drugs. On top of that it was only the beginning of the Seventies and much of the Sixties culture stubbornly refused to give way to double-knits and disco.
We had a rival restaurant several hundred yards to the west called the Hobbit House and our two establishments were constantly pranking each other. It started one Friday night in the middle of the dinner hour. The front doors burst asunder and a troop of a dozen stark naked Hobbit House employees made an impromptu conga line through the bar and dining area. They took their time, such was the shock factor on the diners and on our staff. When they calmly capered down the back stairs which led to the safety of the waterfront, we knew that they had cased the joint prior to undertaking the operation. A week later twenty of us retaliated with a similar raid.
Once when I had a rare night off, my mother's Danish boyfriend had come in with his drinking buddies from the St. Alice Pub. He had apparently arrived in a shopping cart with a red napkin tied to this head like a pirate. His entourage was singing a ribald Scandinavian song in which the only discernable word was “vaselina.” Informing the greeter that they were friends of Tex, they had been cordially invited into the bar to drop some coin. After a very wet wait, they had been shown to a table right up front by the broiler bar and had ordered their baseball steaks and lobster tails. A young fellow whom I had recently taught to cook was on shift.
Their unlucky waiter recounted to me on my next shift how the lad had been lifted bodily out of his station and threatened with his life in Swedish, Danish, German, French and English because of an overdone steak. Before the police arrived, the perpetrator told all those assembled who's step-father he was soon to be and was escorted out by three other Vikings, one of whom had ducked outside for the shopping cart during the commotion. He was told at the door that the meals were on the house and that he was barred for life.
The Keg didn't hold it against me and the staff became my family for a difficult period in my young life. I did my homework in the bar to avoid being in the maelstrom of chaos that was my parents' rental suite on Kilmer Road up Mountain Highway. I had all my hair then and wore it elbow length, perfectly combed and cleaner than a German dinner table. The restaurant's owner, George Tidball, took on one slick investor from California. By the time this new management came on board, I was a well established and deservedly famous cook.
The new fellow had a background of psychology from no less than Stanford University and a pretty pill-popping girlfriend. The way we met was him telling me I had to wear a woman's hairnet while I broiled. I told him that I would not dignify his order with compliance but that I would step down and hit the road if ever once a stray hair was found in any food I served. Cherokees are proud of their hair. After that he took to calling me Chief. I could tell he was going to Californicate the restaurant.
First up he decided to clamp down on the portions. Prior to him, all the cooking staff ate for free. I chowed on teriyaki baseball steaks, king crab and lobster tails on a daily basis. Now, we had to pay for our food. We used to throw a little extra on the plates of friends and relatives. Now this was forbidden and punishable. Tiny scales were purchased and even the mushrooms were to be carefully measured before gracing a steak. The bacon bits were metered in little ketchup cups. The spirit that had made the restaurant a North Vancouver legend was now in the hands of a man who seemed bent on tying a rope around its neck and milking it. What was worse, they put sour cream on their tacos out there in California.
After awhile, I had held every post except bartender, waiter and prep-cook. The first two positions didn't interest me and one day I was approached by California to see if I was interested to learn the prep cooking and take on that salaried position. The original man was heading to Lahaina to work in another steak joint. I said yes and was given training by our outgoing man and also had two weeks with a Japanese fellow at the Granville Island Keg who was a master of efficiency and cleanliness.
One of my first post graduate duties was to train another man for my replacement on my days off. I was told to pick him up one morning on my way to work. I drove in the pre-dawn fog to the address I had been given and a young man big enough to punch out a horse was waiting on the curb like a young Moses just before he started to smite things. I motioned him into my Beaumont Acadian and off we sped, tilted over like a fallen cake.
“They call me Mountain,” he said.
“I'm Mike, they call me Tex.”
When we got to the parking area behind the restaurant, I discovered that the PhD. had caused a telephone pole to be placed right across where I had always parked since the beginning. I swore and started to back up and look for some more inconvenient location. Mountain asked me to stop. I applied the brakes and he hefted his grizzly bear frame out of my toy car and squatted down by the barrier. He clasped it like a Highlander preparing to toss the caber and hoisted the twenty foot pole to chest height, walked over a few yards and let her drop. I smiled and parked in my old spot while Mountain dusted off his hands on his jeans. It was going to be a good day.
When we got inside the kitchen, we set to work straight away. Everything was prepared in gargantuan proportions. Five gallons each of Roquefort, Italian and French salad dressings. Five gallons of home-brewed teriyaki sauce. Forty quarts of onion soup. A dozen cheesecakes, baked in spring-form pans. Forty pounds each of lobster tails and King Crab legs thawed and split with shears. Twenty pounds of mushrooms sauteed in red wine and butter. Thirty quarts of gravy. All the vegetables for a forty item salad bar washed, chopped and arranged in crocks. Cases of lemons, limes and pineapples prepared for the bartender.
If one began at six AM sharp, one was lucky to be hauling the thirty gallons of ice just as the first customers were being shown to the bar at five PM. Mountain was a very fast learner, an agreeable fellow and particularly helpful in taking in the meat order from the back door to the walk-in cooler. When we grabbed a few moments to do an inventory for the next days deliveries, he lit a smoke. I had given mine to Jesus only a week prior and I was surprised how easily He gave them back.
Next day as I was showing Mountain the pantry for dry goods, one of the shelves broke free and spilled its contents on the floor. While I was returning to the scene with a screwdriver and hammer, it struck me that the place was an absolute pigsty. I looked up and down from the massive double sinks to the Hobart dishwasher to the mega-mixing machine and along the tiled floor. I decided that I might as well use the helping hands to get everything Navy clean. Mountain was obliging and we spent that day with one of us scrubbing, disinfecting, organizing and fixing while the other did the cooking. As the restaurant was empty, we could crank the expensive sound system up and play what we wanted.
It was bliss. We both got caught up in the spirit of the moment and to the strains of Jethro Tull, Rolling Stones and ZZ Top we went Catholic on that kitchen. By three you could have made a sandwich on the floor and used the wall for a plate. Everything broken was fixed and she gleamed white from ceiling to floor like an ice floe. The stainless surfaces were without blemish, the food was prepared and we were chatting with a Fijian delivery man by the door when the music faded to a whisper.
California came up the back stairs with an oily little man in a blue windbreaker in tow. Stanford looked like Chevy Chase in a cowboy shirt. He had that slightly pidgeon-toed walk of a man from El Cerritos who gets a flat tire in Bakersfield at night. The stranger looked like Colombo and had a small clipboard in his hand. I kept waiting for him to pull a boiled egg out of his pocket. Boss looked at Mountain then at me then at the dazzling kitchen. He turned red and laughed nervously like a man who had farted in church. The other man shrugged his rounded shoulders and rolled his eyes. They walked without a word back to the cooler and opened the door. Another nervous burst of laughter.
Presently, the boss said, “Dude, seen enough?”
“Yessir,” said Colombo.
They departed and we heard the music being turned back up. Ravi, the Fijian had just been explaining to me how a proper old time kava-kava ceremony was to be conducted and had promised to bring a bag of the best from Viti Levu next day when he delivered the lobster. I was eighteen and very interested in anthropology and psychotropic botanicals. It was set and we told him to pass by around two. He grinned and hurried off. While we packed away the delivery, the boss reappeared.
“How did you know?” he asked me accusingly.
“Know what?” I replied.
“That the freaking health inspector was coming. I didn't even know. These guys are random. I had to send the poor bastard off without any swag. It was intense.”
His eyes bugged out like grapes trying to give birth to riddles.
“It's a Cherokee thing,” I said, smoothing my pony tail and smiling up at Mountain who stood by beaming like Little John at a banquet in Nottingham Forest.
“Hey, do you want to come to a real Fijian kava-kava ceremony tomorrow with me and Mountain?” I asked.
“Uh, sure I'd be into that. Where and when?”
“Here at two. Ravi, the lobster guy is bringing some shit his grandma carried from Suva and he knows how to mix it and which gods to call on.”
“Bitchin. I'll be there.”
The next day went as smooth as a glass Cadillac on a Teflon turnpike. Mountain and me whistled while we worked and had everything set for Ravi's arrival. He showed a few minutes late and the boss a few minutes later. I introduced all hands and then Ravi set to work. He took a large plastic bag full of fine pepper colored powder and asked me for a large bowl. I brought one and he next asked for a clean cloth napkin. Mountain was sent for a large stainless steel bucket of clean cold water. California asked questions about how much it was worth and such like. We tried to ignore his calculator brain waves.
Soon the four of us were cross-legged on the floor of the kitchen and encircling the bowl. The cloth was stretched across the bowl and some powder was poured in. This was mixed with water and the mash was stirred by hand and allowed to percolate through the cloth into the bowl. This was repeated many times while Ravi spoke in his own language softly. From time to time he would look up at us and flash his impossibly white teeth in a friendly smile.
The only sound was the big overflow sink where a case of lobster tails was thawing prior to being scissored and butterflied. The water made a soft sound not unlike a mountain stream flowing down a volcanic slope on its way to a lagoon and the frozen lumps banging on the resonant sides of the huge sink sounded like a priest drumming on the bottom of his dugout calling sharks into the reef.
Presently, the bag was empty and the bowl was full of a liquid that looked like the water in a mud-puddle at a gas station in a town that God forgot. Ravi produced a half coconut shell from his gear and dipped it into the funky fluid. He filled it and solemnly walked over to a drain on the floor.
“You must offer the first one to Toki. This is highly critical. If men don't, you are not to drink grog with them.”
He poured it down the steel drain and returned to the circle. He filled it again and reached it across to me. Before I took it he instructed me to clap my hands three times and say Toki's name. I raised it to my lips and poured it down. It smelled earthy and as I realized that my lips were numb, it struck me that brand new blue jeans used to smell just like that before the pre-washed days. I refilled the shell and offered it to Mountain.
He clapped, said Toki's name and quaffed it.
“Oh, Momma!,” he said.
He refilled it and offered it to Stanford.
Boss clapped, Tokied and drank it down.
He offered it to Ravi and we went on in this manner until the bowl was drained. Our lips, tongues and innards were numb but our minds were crystal clear. We sat a while and California asked Ravi about what to expect. Ravi gently told him to be patient and he would see. He said it was different for different people and depended on Toki more than anything else. He politely rose to go after an appropriate time and gathered his bag of goodies and walked out the back door like a cat you thought you saw from the corner of your eye. California rose next and told us he was going to catch up on some paperwork downstairs in his office.
Mountain and I put on our music and set about finishing our work. I was to prepare the lobster and he was to fix up the salad bar. When I came to the sink to begin cutting the shells and pulling the meat out, I laughed like a child who has squished mud between his toes. My job was going to be interesting. The lobsters had left the bounds of the sink and were gently swimming to and fro through the air above the sink. I plucked one out of the air about a foot over my head as it swam toward the mixing machine.
Another rose from the cool water and started for the Hobart. I snatched it easily and put it back in the sink. Several more had become airborne in this time and I decided that I would have to take them from the air to be sure none managed to escape. It was like catching butterflies under water. I managed to snatch and cut them all without spooking the herd. Once lined up in their stainless steel trays they behaved and stayed put. While I worked I could hear Mountain chopping vegetables and giggling like a man with his hands tied getting his ears licked by a half dozen St. Bernard pups.
Next day California came into the kitchen just as me and Mountain were chucking our aprons into the Keefer Laundry bag and heading for the door. He asked if he could speak to me for a minute. Mountain stepped out and made way down the stairs. I pulled back into the kitchen.
“That was absolutely over the top yesterday. I had to phone Carmen to drive me home.”
“My lobsters tried to fly away and I had to chase them down one by one. Mountain said every time he cut a lettuce in half it grew back.”
“How much am I paying you?”
“Six hundred a month.”
“Well, you're making eight now, Chief. Come over tonight, Carmen's making Chili Colorado.”
Recently I had to take a sobering walk to the vet with Dusty Bones. He'd lost his baby fangs and the time had come to have him fixed for life in a trailer. He weighed in at eight pounds and although hungry, he was in good spirits. The kindly vet agreed to put his mojo in a little jar of alcohol so I could bury it in the garden here at home. I reckoned it's the least I could do. As I heard that last long meeeow before I strode home, it put me in mind of a day many years ago when it had been my turn to face the knife, albeit for a slightly different procedure.
I have two children and they are both boys. They have two different mothers. The first one was overdue and my wife and I eventually found ourselves in a room not unlike a hotel room, with a bed and a shower. That was after going to school to watch videos of childbirth to prepare us both. My wife was having trouble getting ready for the birth so we were told to chill out and try to relax. We followed the instructions and had several long hot showers and argued about names.
After one of the showers, my wife had to recline with lots of sensors and electronics attached to her belly. These fed into a large monitor which chirped, beeped and flashed green strobes and squiggles on a black screen covered with several different metrics. It was anything other than relaxing but the noises coming from the machine were all quite friendly sounding.
Presently, like an unexpected fire-alarm that triggers when you are by the water cooler in your office, the monitor went wild. The benign green graphics turned red and the pitch of the beeps took on a menacing tone. The doors flew open and three people burst into the room. One ran to the monitor and another began pulling wires off of my wife. I lost all track of time.
A lady approached me and in one long sentence told me that our baby was in distress and would have to be removed via c-section immediately. She asked if I was squeamish, told me I had one second to answer and that if I wasn't I could go in and observe the birth if I started to scrub up according to her instructions that very moment.
I answered her and was shown how to clean up and l put on the little paper overshoes and masks and such. Within moments we were joined in an operating room by our family doctor, a young Chinese woman. There was another monitor beeping and all hands who knew how to interpret its language bore very concerned looks on their faces.
My wife was anesthetized and I was told that my wife was fine and healthy but that the labor had gone too long and as a result, the little fellow was deeply in the danger zone. I nodded my understanding and watched as the personnel in attendance kindly adjusted the green cloths in such a way that I could not see their surgical handiwork.
In rather short order, they had extracted, Daniel and I heard him cry as a nurse squirted a load of silver nitrate into his new eyes. After weighing him and administering an Apgar test, she handed the blinded child to his mum and I hoped his sense of smell hadn't been affected so he could properly begin making external bonds since I was convinced he couldn't see with all that goop in his eyes.
My wife was stitched up and the baby was swaddled and soon I got to hold the little thing. Everyone came out OK and before long we were home and living our lives. Things went rough and after a few years we were divorced. Not long after a lengthy legal proceeding, I was remarried and within a year I was awaiting the birth of my second son.
My wife was tested for something called gestational diabetes. The procedure was curious to say the least. She was made to choke down a huge beaker of sugar syrup that would have turned the stomach of a ravenous hummingbird and then had her blood tested for sugar metabolites. Not being a doctor, I figured that if she hadn't had diabetes before the test, she certainly would afterward.
This procedure started everything down the wrong side of the road. My wife was a very healthy, strong woman and the more care she received, the more problems seemed to arise. One day we were at a regular check-up and the doctor phoned a cab and said that my wife would be going straight to the hospital at that moment.
It was alarming and sudden. We rode over and they took her in as if she was in a critical situation, told me not to worry and to just carry on. We were told that she must stay under observation until the birth which was supposed to be six weeks from that time. There was nothing to be done.
Some days later, I was met on my postal route by another mailman, who informed me that the hospital had phoned. My wife was going to be delivered of our baby by emergency c-section later that day. I went to a phone and asked to talk to my wife who was in shock and in tears. I told her to hang on and I'd be there soon.
I literally ran my route, jumping hedges, kicking dogs out of the way and tossing bundles of mail like newspapers. When I finished my work, I bussed over to the hospital in a soaking lather of sweat, still wearing my two satchels. Before long I was reunited with my wife and briefed by the hospital staff.
Now, it was a situation whereupon, my wife was deeply in the danger zone but the premature baby was fine and dandy. There was no time to ponder the irony and after the nurse showed me where to clean up a bit I was given a cot next to my wife. We were told that they intended to attempt inducing the birth via prostaglandin injections but the c-section would proceed if this failed.
I lay on a gurney holding her hand, stinking of anxious sweat and listened to my stomach howl for food. After many hours whereupon I again lost all track of time, I was woken by a nurse. She kindly told me that I smelled awful and ordered me to go home, take a shower, change clothes, eat and return. She promised that she would not let the baby be born before I got back. Then she looked at my wife's chart and suggested I hurry.
Outside on Oak Street it was below zero and I almost tripped over a very large frozen raccoon which lay directly in front of the walkway from the hospital. It had no visible wounds and a beautiful luxurious coat. I wasn't sure how to interpret the omen and rushed across town to my apartment.
On the return trip, I sat with a half dozen Australian guys who were up in Canada for a sports competition. When they heard what was going on, I was clapped on the back, showered with good will, entertained with rugby songs and injected with strength, happiness and congratulations by these perfect strangers. I remembered all the days on the same buses, riding to and fro with my pregnant wife and being amazed that I had to ask people to allow her to sit rather than have this courtesy extended.
I still hadn't eaten, so when I got to the hospital, I went walking and entered the first place I passed. It was a Greek joint and only I and the proprietor were present. He was a good man and a father. He fed me well and gave me a shot of ouzo to steady my nerves. I thanked him and with a belly full of avgolemono I strode past the frozen raccoon and on into the hospital.
Soon, we were all in the operating room. I was allowed to come in because of not having fainted during my first occasion. I was asked if I minded having a student do the sewing-up and some of the other surgical work. I said I certainly did mind. An experienced doctor was provided and as I stood there, the man discussed his golf game of the previous day while he casually sutured my wife like a man in a deli trussing up a chuck roast with string.
Our baby was tiny. He appeared to be on par with a stick of butter but in reality was about four pounds. After the usual procedures and some additional things done for premature infants he was swaddled and in our arms. I was given a shopping list of tiny bottles, miniature diapers and such to purchase. The boy was placed in a room with all the other early arrivals.
After only three days, he was released and we were told he was tiny, strong as a bull and guilty of causing a revolution of yowling in the preemie room. We were allowed to take him home and we did so with more joy than trepidation. I was met by our family doctor before leaving the hospital. She stood with another two doctors and in the most serious of tones told me that if I got my wife pregnant again, it could kill her.
This hit me like a two by four and I told her that with the current choices of birth control available that we were willing to employ, that it was impossible to promise this with any degree of certainty. She smiled and told me not to worry, that as soon as my wife's stitches were healed I could bring her back in to the hospital for another surgery to tie her tubes.
There was no way I was going to subject my wife to those additional horrors after what she'd already been through and I said so. A male doctor standing alongside piped in that I could have a vasectomy instead. I asked a few pertinent questions of this man and decided on the spot that I would submit to this procedure. I knew I couldn't afford to raise another child anyway on my salary and I had two offspring safe and sound. It was enough to ask of the universe, I figured.
My own family doctor spoke now in what I thought sounded like a spoiled teenage girl's voice. She said, “I'm not touching that!” Then she walked away. I asked the man how to sign up. He gave me a number to call and we shook on it. The thought of losing my wife was so terrible to contemplate, I was positively on-side to have myself fixed even though if a person would have asked me ten minutes prior what I thought of the subject, I would have quickly and vehemently told them that it was an unnatural abomination.
At home with the new baby we discovered that a mother raccoon and two kits were residing just outside the ground floor window of baby's bedroom. We gave them some Stoned Wheat Thins each night and they used to croot the baby to sleep. We could see the mum breast-feeding her young under some low-hanging cedar boughs while we bottle fed our own kit with a tiny device like the zoos use to feed baby animals.
The boy grew fat and big on his mother's milk and the coons did likewise and toddled off when they were fit to travel. By Spring I had a date marked on the calendar for my appointment with destiny. As things turned out, it was scheduled for April Fools Day. The irony wasn't lost on me and I prepared myself mentally and physically for the ordeal.
It was a windy, rainy, cold day that day and the sky hadn't decided what to do. There was patches of cobalt blue and great swathes of gray. Against this backdrop, puffy white clouds were shredded by the winds aloft and strewn across the troubled ceiling. It fit my mood perfectly. That morning I reviewed the little instruction sheet I had been given.
I was supposed to have removed the hair from the area to be worked on prior to coming in. I am the type of guy who brushes his teeth like a deck-hand chips rust on an old hull. I am little better on my face when shaving and many is the morning at my post office a friend would have to remind me to pull off all the toilet paper bits decorating my visage.
I was planning to do my route and walk over to the day surgery as soon as the last letter had been dropped. I was running late to get my train and bus, so I decided that the medical professionals would easily be able to accomplish the depilatory preparations. After all, I reasoned, they were bound by the Hippocratic oath to do no harm.
I finished up my route and strode over to the hospital grounds. I paused for a thoughtful smoke under some oaks outside and made my way in. I went to the reception and was directed to another location where I was to wait. After some time reading about re-modeling bathrooms and yoga classes for dogs, I was called on a speaker to come to another room.
I went and was told to wait. I sat on the little leather exam table and a man with a powder blue paper hat came in and chatted for a bit. He asked a few questions and seemed to be making sure that I had followed the sheet of instructions I had been given. I assured him I had and that I was ready except for one thing, which the sheet had said was optional.
He asked what that was with some interest in his voice and I told him that I had been running late that morning so I had decided to let the professionals cut the grass. I told him truthfully that I wasn't even sure exactly which spot had to be cleared. His countenance and his tone changed abruptly. “So, you haven't shaved?”
“I see. Michael, I am going to have to ask you to come to another room. This is very unusual.”
I followed the man to another smaller room. It had a chair, a sink and a chart of the male and female reproductive organs as Leonardo da Vinci would have drawn them had he worked in water colors. Presently another person came in. She was a middle-aged woman and she wore a pastel pink paper hat. She asked me a few questions while frowning at a chart in her hands. “I see here that you haven't prepped yourself.”
“No Ma'am,” I replied.
“Were you given the instruction sheet?”
“Yes, Ma'am, I was. It didn't say it was mandatory, so I figured you guys could do it better than me. Heck, I cut myself shaving my face every morning.”
“It is very unusual. Everyone preps themselves. I've never come across one who didn't. Could you follow me please?”
I was led to an area that resembled a waiter's station in a restaurant. A curtain had been rigged around a counter which had a sink, a coffee pot and cupboards full of things more domestic than medical. A man brought a gurney, I was told to climb aboard and the curtain was drawn around. From my spot, I could hear all the bustle and chatter of the busy floor.
From time to time, people in hospital gowns popped in and out to fill their coffee mugs. Some of them looked at my little chart.
“You didn't prep, eh?” said one young doctor with a grin.
He called a few colleagues over and shared this news with them. Everyone giggled and the first guy told me I had done well and to stick to my guns. I took it as a good sign. I was asked by another passer by just before I drifted off to sleep if I was the guy who hadn't shaved. I assured the man I was. This guy was in his fifties, tired and had the look of a high school janitor a few days away from retirement.
He sported a pale yellow paper hat and with a grunt he undid the brakes on the gurney and pushed me into a very tiny room. He set to work fairly quickly and was as professional in his methods as the last time I had been shaved by a Mexican barber in Monterrey. The difference was that during the entire procedure he bitched, kvetched and complained. He cursed his luck, the hospital and people like me. As he had the blade, I kept my peace.
Soon, he was done, I was prepped and after the reluctant attendant's footfalls disappeared, I was wheeled briskly into a well-lit room. It was a small office and the first thing I noticed was that surrounding the smiling young Chinese doctor were three pretty Chinese nurses. All of them were ten years my junior and the gals wore white hats. The doctor had a light rigged to his head like a mine worker.
I was put in position and given a local anesthetic. I couldn't see what they were up to but by watching the eyebrows of the three girls I could infer how things were going. I relaxed as best as I could and was doing fine until the doctor told one of the girls to stand by with a soldering iron in case he “hit a bleeder.”
I heard the several snicks as he worked and felt the tugs of his sewing. Soon it was over and I was wheeled into a recovery room. I had been under the impression that I would rise and walk out immediately and was somewhat dismayed by this turn of events. The room was large, had windows along the west wall and one could hear the rain beating against the panes.
They wheeled me into a slot marked thirteen. It was then, as the rain turned to hail and wet snow accompanied by thunder and lightening that I realized that I was the only male in the entire room. I was told that I had to remain for an hour or two before being allowed to go home. I felt a very bad energy in the room and it turned out that most of these women had just had abortions, hysterectomies or had had their tubes tied. None were in good spirits and all of them seemed unhappy to see a man.
I had a moment of truly wondering if the Great Spirit was angry at what I'd just done and I told him I did it for the sake of the woman he'd given me as wife. In the middle of these musings, a nurse came and checked my blood pressure and told me I could go home. I rose slowly and walked to collect my things at the desk like John Wayne heading down a dusty street at high noon to face off with a suicidal young gun-slinger. I continued this exaggerated bow-legged gait out toward the bus stop. It was as if any sudden movement would cause my spurs to come unhitched.
Halfway to the bench, I realized that I felt no pain whatsoever and that I needn't walk funny. I tried it out as I waited for the bus and it worked fine. This lightened my mood and I decided to hit the video store on the way home. This I did and armed with a stack of movies I bought a box of Wagon Wheels at a convenience store and then strode over to a gas station and got a big bag of ice.
In no time I was situated on the sofa, watching At Play In The Fields Of The Lord and learning the real meaning of the phrase, “ To chill out.” The pain came with morning as I had been warned. I had decided to go to work after asking the doctors if this was possible. They said that some people swelled up horribly and others did not, thus it was to be my call.
I commuted into Vancouver from New Westminster where I resided at the time. I wanted to tell the Superintendent that I intended to sort and deliver my route but also warn him that if I started to bleed, I would need some back up for the delivery portion for the next few days. I went in his office. I had some trepidation as I had tangled with him previously over some issues that neither of us would back down from. It had led to a truce of sorts whereupon we tried to avoid any future collisions.
He was a young man, not yet forty and I was on the same side of that fence. He was sitting behind his big oak desk and obviously preoccupied and in a strange mood, not to mention that he appeared to be sitting about four inches too high in his chair. I told him about my previous day's procedure and my own plans for recovery.
He unthreaded the clenched long fingers of his two soft hands and placed them on his desk top. He rose from his chair and shook my hand like a man who had just been liberated from a POW camp by an unanticipated allied soldier. Presently he spoke as he drilled me with eyes which were wide as an owl's on a moonless night in a field of tall grass.
“Mike, do whatever you want and take any time off that you want for as long as you want. It's up to you and I'll personally back you up with any paper work necessary. I just had mine done yesterday. My balls are purple, the size of grapefruits and I'm still on an ice bag right now. After my sixth child was born recently, my wife gave me an ultimatum. Son-of-a-bitch! I can't believe you're still walking around.”
There is a restaurant in North Vancouver called the Tomahawk Barbecue. I think it has been around since the 1940's and one may still find it there today. It was one of the first places my father took me to after we moved to Canada. The other one was The Only Seafood House on Hastings Street in downtown Vancouver. He remembered them from his old merchant sailor days and likely frequented them when on shore leave from the ship terminals. The Tomahawk was the last place I ever had a meal with my father and that occasion was the last time I ever heard him laugh or saw him smile.
It was a smallish place with a quaint stone front and a warm cozy interior. There was lots of cedar and log-cabin style architecture on the inside, a fireplace and a little fish pond. The ceiling and walls were festooned with a prodigious collection of First Nations artifacts. Carvings, totems, war bonnets, pipes, pots and many other items held your attention while you sipped one of the best cups of coffee to be had on that side of Burrard Inlet.
There was a bar with stools and a few snug booths as well as several small tables. The paper place mats depicted a comical map of Canada. It was from these mats I first got the physical lay of my new land and the psychological programming of the still popular stereotyping of the different provinces and cities.
The hamburgers were all named for authentic Indian Chiefs that had befriended or traded with the founder of the restaurant. The piece de la resistance was an item called the Yukon Breakfast. This plate would have inspired either a poem by Robert Service or a novel by Jack London had either of these men chanced upon it in their day. I had read both of these authors as a lad and my imagination was running wild when I first spied the menu back in 1969.
Just below the description of the meal, a bit of small print caught my eagle-eye. It was a challenge and to a boy like myself it was a challenge that I intended to meet. This plate was the most expensive and the most expansive on the menu and thus, the proprietor promised that any man who could finish it, could waive the fee. I smiled inwardly. I had been accused of having worms and a hollow leg by my grandfather for years. I figured this was going to be my lucky day. I asked my Dad if I could give it a go and he answered in the affirmative.
The waitress returned a few minutes later with everyone's meals and ten minutes later with mine. I sat regarding a platter the size of a hub-cap before me. I wore the same look I would wear many years later when negotiating the last few hundred feet of the ascent of the West Lion. First, I just admired the beauty of the mountain. Then I looked at the rock I had to climb.
On an oven-warmed ceramic platter had been placed four big squares of Texas toast dripping with real butter. On top of this base and completely covering it was a matrix of perfectly pan-fried hash-browns. The next ply was one of thick sliced Canadian back bacon and again, rather than following some food manager's rules of portioning, the number of pieces was dictated by how many it happened to take to completely cover the potatoes.
Lying on top of this platform of delectable pork protein was a roof of eggs, done over easy and four of which hid the bacon entirely. I had my coffee re-filled, doused the eggs with Tabasco and put a moat of Worcestershire around the rim, crossed it with maple syrup and put several strategic dabs of marmalade in case the going got rough. After dusting her down with salt and pepper, I attacked.
The toast was what thwarted me that day. I absolutely couldn't put that last piece down and have never been too fond of breads in the first place. It was the protein I was insatiable for. My father was a gentleman about it and kept his remarks in the realm of respect for my having done my best. I vowed to try again and again, until I could accomplish this Great White North rite of passage. I remember this as being the first time that I realized that perhaps not everything is bigger in Texas.
Years went by and my folks split up. I kept in touch with my estranged father. He had a girlfriend whom he claimed was the daughter of an old shipmate. She was my age and he had found her on the downtown east-side streets where she turned tricks for drug money. He was working hard to get her clean and eventually found her employment as a waitress on Lonsdale across from the Burrard Drydock and Shipyards at The Mayflower Cafe. They lived together in a succession of basement suites and I used to visit once in a while and play my guitar for them.
One Sunday morning my father phoned and asked me to accompany them to the Tomahawk for breakfast. I was seventeen and hadn't eaten there since I was twelve. I remembered my failed attempt at the Yukon and I knew that this time I could pull it off. I walked to his place and we drove over to the restaurant. It was a lovely sunny day and the house was packed.
Tourists, families and old North Shore hands filled every available seat. All the way over in the car we had been talking up the place to the gal and she was excited to see what a real lumberjack's breakfast looked like. I assured my Dad that he had definitely just saved some money this time because I was bigger and hungrier than ever before. He grinned and said, “We'll see.”
After joking around outside while waiting for our turn we were seated at a table right square in the middle of the dining area. We were all in our best jeans and shirts and I had never seen that girl looking better than on that day. She had gained enough weight to look nourished and the color was coming back into her skin with the returning strength of her youth. Her hair was nice and clean and she smelled good. She laughed a lot but it was a ladylike laugh now and the sarcastic edges were dissipating.
I immediately checked the menu to see if the deal was still in effect for the free Yukon Breakfast to anyone who could put one down. It was and I ordered and got ready to put on a show for my father and his girl. It had been about six years since I'd tangled with the Yukonator. This time, yours truly was going to win. I even contemplated having some apple pie after since the meal was going to be free. I set to eating like a bitch wolf after feeding ninety-nine pups.
We were having the best time any of the three of us had had in a long while and our happiness spread throughout the joint. Soon other people were offering jokes and encouragement to me to get the job done. In good time, I was rounding third and headed for home. Learning from past mistakes, I had cleverly eaten the toast first and rendered it down with several cups of coffee. The hash-browns were as easy to eat as air is to breathe. The back bacon and the eggs were taken alternately. In this way, each served as a reward for the other to the overwhelmed palate.
About an egg and one half plus the corresponding bacon away from a clean plate, two feet shot into my lap nearly knocking the stuffing out of me. The coffee mugs flew onto the floor and the water glasses tipped over, emptied and rolled to join them in pieces. My plate levitated but came down again intact with a solid thud. Directly across from me I could see that the girl was perfectly horizontal and stiff as a two by six. Her neck rested on her own chair which listed at a crazy angle.
My father told me in a clear soft voice to grab her ankles. As I gathered her shoes and gripped her legs, he dropped some cash on the table, pocketed a bottle of Tabasco Sauce and got a hold under her slim shoulders. We wove our way through a sea of wide-eyed, horrified Sunday morning diners. Like a crack first response team we trudged out to the small parking lot. As I was trying to form the words to ask what the precious hell had just happened, my Dad told me to put her feet down and lean her against the car.
He reached inside the car and pulled out a bottle of water and a small bottle of Valium. He poured a bunch of the pills into his hand and worked open her mouth. The gal swallowed them like a goldfish gulping cornmeal and as I stood watching she went from brick-hard to butter-soft right before my eyes. She apologized and with perfect lucid control of her faculties got into the car and explained to me what it's like coming down off that kind of addiction.
When my mother re-married, her and her new husband happened to rent a house directly across the street from the Tomahawk. My father had moved to another town and I never saw him again. When I was twenty I got married to a gal from the States and we occupied a spare bedroom in that rental. My young wife got her first Canadian job as a waitress at the Tomahawk. After a few months my wife got another waitress job at the Mayflower Cafe on Lonsdale. She never met my father and I never told her the story of those two establishments. Four months after the wedding, my father was dead.
Many decades later I found myself waiting for my Suzuki to be serviced a few blocks away from the old Tomahawk. I was in my fifties now and hadn't been in the place for over thirty years. Something drew me over that direction. I had a smoke in the parking lot and regarded the old house I'd lived in when I'd gotten married the first time. I went on in the restaurant and noticed how much smaller everything seemed. I smiled when I saw that the place mats were the same and that the Yukon was still on the menu.
Only two things were different. The prices would have raised the eyebrows of an attorney and the free deal challenge was gone. I decided to do what had to be done, irregardless. When my plate came, I saw that a third thing had changed. The dimensions of the legendary meal had dwindled to a point whereupon it no longer deserved to carry the name it bore. I scarfed up that Yukonette with only two cups of coffee as solvent. Most female letter-carriers I know would have needed two of those plates just to make it through to lunch in a good mood. It didn't really bother me though and as I paid the bill I remembered that bottle of Tabasco my father had scooped and I figured we were all square now.
People who go to sleep with empty stomachs rarely have nightmares. There have been times in my life when I was able to sleep quite comfortably on the floor or the bare ground without my flat stomach hurting me a bit. A ditch on Highway 99, a rocky beach on Honshu, a cliff in Spain, a Greyhound seat and a mat of pine needles up Jackass Mountain have all been beds to me.
Much is made of dreams and I have had some very important ones in my own estimation. I have learned to categorize them, however and there are many which are just dandelion fluff. Like a computer needs to flush its buffers, so does the human brain. I have noticed that the common anxiety dream is often triggered by nothing more than one too many slices of pizza.
I have never followed the logic of mankind, wherein people eat to excess in order to give thanks for having enough food. Feast is the handmaid of famine in my storybook. I also don't believe in hoarding vast quantities of anything, other than patience. To me it is like demonstrating that in spite of one's professed beliefs, that they just don't trust that their mother will see that they have enough to eat or to wear.
In ancient Egypt some of the first research was done into human nutrition. It was worked out over time exactly how much calorie intake of precisely which foods would yield a days work building pyramids, preserve basic health and not leave enough energy at the end of the day to cause any trouble to the boss but just enough to make more baby slaves. While the Pharaoh ate and drank copious quantities of imported delicacies and lay down to dreams so contorted that they would cross a Rabbi's eyes, the workers munched bread, salt, onions, a bit of fish and a beer or two before settling in to a dreamless sleep.
This history was not lost on me as I watched products in the grocery boast less and less of all nutrients and charge double for the lack. I look for salt, sugar and fat when I go hunting among the shelves. Don't mix any of those three with flour and you will have a shiny coat, lots of energy and a proper blood chemistry.
I was sleeping just now and in the clutches of a Kafkaesque dream. I had shown up at a new postal station for work in a strange part of town and when I got there I was informed that I would have to do some pipe-fitting instead. This was made difficult as I hadn't brought any of my tools and furthermore I was clad only in my bedroom slippers. I tried to make the best of it and William Shatner and I set off for the job in an old truck. The truck died and we walked the last few blocks.
Bill had never done sheet-metal before but was a quick wit and able to imagine the sort of tools one would need to actually conclude the assignment. I was intent on connecting the pipes to the appliance before us although it was anyone's guess what the contraption was. It had some pipes from prior to my birth and some that were of a technology beyond my ken. To further complicate the issue, my ex-wife showed up and began the most annoying and distracting behavior. As I tried to get Captain Kirk organized putting on the transition to the plenum, she began to lick me! It was nice at first when she confined herself to my arms but when she moved up to my face, I simply couldn't work any longer. Her tongue was like a belt sander.
In a stark instant, I snapped my eyes open and was confronted by Dusty Bones' deep eyes where he loomed over my chest playing with my necklace. A look to my right showed that the correct wife was breathing softly beside me and I was in the proper dream I have chosen to dream on this side of life. In an instant I knew it was the bionic chicken breast and mound of ampalaya she had fed me hours before and the half box of Windmill cookies I had polished off while watching Star Trek VI on the DVD that were the real authors of my discomfort. After a hot cup of chicory and a plug of halfzware shag, I was good to go.
The kitten's object of interest started me musing. It is a gold stylized rendition of kokopillau, aka kokopelli which I wear on my neck as a wedding token. I took the design from an illustration in a book about the Hopi I had read. A German anthropologist had taken rubbings from rocks he had found scattered from the Arctic to Tierra Del Fuego and from the Eastern seaboard to the coast of California. I have since seen many stylized versions of kokopillau but I prefer the most ancient.
The creature is actually a magical katydid and thus is supposed to look insectoid, not the humanistic version usually seen in “Real Indian” gift shops. I have drawn the little design for over forty years on all my correspondence and as a mark on many of my possessions. In Hopi myth, there was three worlds prior to this present one. Each was destroyed and in each case a remnant of mankind was saved from destruction and told to try a little harder to get along properly. A friend of mine said yesterday that if mankind was created yesterday at 9 AM, all the same color and language and culture, that they would be warring by noon.
In the last instance, the remnant emerged from underground shelters into what is now British Columbia. They were instructed by the Creator to travel to the North, West, East and South extremes of the continent and then to meet back in the middle of this cross. That rendezvous point is the Hopiland of today. Indeed, petroglyphs of kokopillau have been found all along this route. The journey was to take many, many generations and was only completed in fairly recent times.
The little being, it is told, felt sorry for humans and decided to go along as a helper. He had a magic flute and each night as the people camped, if seeds were put in a pot they carried, he would cause them to grow, flower and fruit in a matter of hours by playing music. The first mountain range they had to cross was guarded by an eagle. The eagle made the people agree to a challenge of their bravery before allowing them to pass. Kokopillau stepped up to take the challenge. The task was to stand without blinking as the eagle thrust an arrow point at his eyes. As his insect eyes were unblinking by nature, he passed the test.
From my understanding he was never worshiped as a deity, rather he embodied a connection to things magical or beyond our normal range of perception. This perception has waned in most humans with the passage of time and to their detriment. I am fortunate in this regards. It is in this spirit of understanding that I adopted kokopillau as a personal talisman of sorts. You could call him a helpful wanderer with a touch of mojo. How did he get to be around my neck? Therein, dear listener, hangs a tale.
When I was a young buck, I worked at a truck stop in the Fraser Canyon. On my time off I used to climb Jackass Mountain to sleep in the rocks and pines and watch the summer lightning, the trains and the moon. Once, I was sheltered in a rock overhang and saw a bolt strike a pine nearby. It shot down the trunk in a black streak and some smoldering pieces flew off in my direction. I went in the daylight to inspect and saw that it had a most curious shaped branch.
It was actually two branches grown together, then separated, then rejoined, then separated yet again. The shape spoke to something very deep inside me and I took the design as my own. It has formed part of my legal signature ever since that summer night so many decades ago. I revisited the tree throughout its life only to discover that it had been repeatedly struck and finally toppled. I still have a piece of the pitch-soaked wood blasted away from one of the strikes. In Cherokee medicine as well as in Chinese lore, this is very powerful stuff and to date I have never had a reason big enough to utilize its properties. The tree eventually went to earth but I was able to get a picture the second to last time I ever stood over it.
I had a relative in East Texas before I was born who was a wanderer. Felix G. Landers traveled on foot to points unknown and was always accompanied by two dogs. He was born in 1859 in Harrison County, Texas. He had three brothers and seven sisters. They grew up on a farm in Hallsville, Texas. He never married. No one knew where he went or what he did. From time to time he would show up at different relatives' farms to have a feed and carry on. He would eat and sleep on the porch with the dogs. He had a long gray beard and carried everything he owned in a backpack, save for a trunk which he left at one relative's house near Farmersville in Collin County. That trunk was never opened by anyone except him and no one knew what it contained.
It happened that he passed through one winter that was a particularly harsh one for this part of the world. He took up shelter in a cotton warehouse in a rare blizzard and his frozen body was discovered several days later by local farmers. The story made the local Texas papers and once I found a copy that a relative had sent to my mother which she had used as a bookmark in a book I had lent her.
Here are the two newspaper articles:
“Tuesday, 21 Jan 1930
DOG REFUSES TO LEAVE HIS DEAD MASTER
Loyalty of a dog to his master was described by Lansing citizens who reported to Longview, (Texas) officers today that they had found a dead man in a cotton house in their community Saturday morning. The man, Felix Landers, a wanderer, was frozen to death Friday night during the severe blizzard. He had started to Marshall, (Texas) from Longview, (Texas) and took refuge in the cotton house when the blizzard struck. Friday morning some farmers heard a dog barking in the cotton house, they investigated but the dog, a large collie, would not let them enter the shack. The men had to kill the collie before they could remove the man's body. Those who have known Landers said the collie was his best friend. They were inseparable at all times. Landers would not accept a ride from a motorist unless the dog was given the same privilege.”
“Friday, 14 March 1930
LANDERS APPEARS IN MARSHALL TO DENY HE IS DEAD
Felix Landers, like Rip Van Winkle, has returned to deny that he is dead. But unlike Rip, he found that nothing had changed, only the weather being a little warmer. The following article appeared in today's edition of the Dallas News under an Associated Press credit line. Furnishing a belated and unexpected denouncement to one of the many pathetic stories of Texas' extraordinary blizzard of January, Felix Landers, aged wanderer, came to Marshall, (Texas) Thursday expressly to deny he was frozen to death near Hallsville, (Texas) on 18 January. Since announcement of Mr. Landers' death, a number of relatives have tried to ascertain definitely how the rumor originated. They could not find their kin, but were told hundreds of times that he was dead. A report from Marshall, (Texas) this morning said Landers appeared at the sheriff's office yesterday, shook hands with Mr. Sanders and other officers, and told them “I am not dead.” A few minutes later he and his dog resumed their journey and were last seen on the Jefferson Road.”
The day I received the returned book from my mother by mail, I was busy researching the symbol I had taken from the pine tree so many tears ago. I had wanted to see if the form existed outside of nature, such was its resonance which never waned over the passing of many of my years of its use. I was using Google and after many hours of shooting in the dark, I came across an exact match! It was a bas-relief on the front of an ancient cotton warehouse in Northwest Cairo on the Nile Delta at a place called Sais. The building was thousands of years old and still standing in my lifetime.
Further hours of research showed the symbol to be one of the emblems of a female deity named Neith. A huntress and warrior woman much revered at the time and in that place. I had just re-filled my mug to ponder this when the mailman dropped the book through my door-slot containing the story of the cotton warehouse in East Texas thousands of years and an ocean away. I have had many days like this and though I am accustomed to it, I draw much inspiration and energy from contact with the numinous.
When I married the first time I made rings from hex nuts. When I could afford it, I had a sister-in-law make two rings with the motif from the pine tree on Jackass Mountain. Mine was lost in an attic while working as a gas-fitter in North Vancouver. The marriage didn't last long and I never found the ring in the blown-in insulation. My second set of wedding rings were custom-made and mine suffered a similar fate as did my second marriage. I lost that one in a crawl space doing gas-fitting. It had been made from a piece of my grandfather's ring. His fingers were of such a huge circumference that two rings and a further piece of jewelry were gotten from the one portion of gold.
My third set of wedding rings were store bought. I have big knuckles and slim joints close to my palms. Alas, to get a ring big enough to clear my knotty knuckles, means a loose fit on the other side. This ring was lost in another attic, that of my landlord at the time and I could not find it in the morass of fiberglass and vermiculite. My wife also worked with her hands all day and preferred to keep her ring in her pocket for fear of losing it down a drain. Thus we went about our daily affairs with no rings on.
I have never liked rings, watches and jewelry. I do not like the connotations to the ring in the bulls nose that is placed upon the married man's band by the unhappy husbands of the world. I don't like the ancient connections to Saturn, symbolized by the ring and the black square hats used by university graduates. Saturn was an asshole who ate his children. As Nisa and I are bonded like newly welded valve-flanges on a submarine, we do not feel the need to bother to wear physical reminders.
It has been clear to me for some time that one of the secrets of life is that of satisfaction. This simple principal escapes most of us for the best years of our lives and many of us do not comprehend it ever. What I mean is, if a person can accept their own reality of the time, place and circumstances they live in and hold this picture up against the totality of the world and all time at large, then and only then is one able to discern which times, events and places are the sweet times of their life. Thus, they are able to recognize a good situation and actually revel in it as it is happening, rather than look backwards with bitter tears of regret at the memory of what they now recognize as the good times.
When I was a letter-carrier, I had a lot of terrible routes and horrible assignments. One day at a Station called Mountainview, I bid on a new route. After the first day of sorting and walking it, I realized that it was the best I was ever going to get in my career. It had an AM portion that began across the street from the station at an outdoor gear outfitters store and did all the businesses for three blocks of a half-dozen streets. After a home-cooked lunch, which was taken in the station, I had six blocks of two streets far away next to the apartment where I lived. This portion took about an hour to complete and I would simply walk home.
At the time I had created a web-site of my writings called Follow The Lynx (pun intended) and was in the process of translating it into French, German and Spanish. This took many, many hours and several years to complete. I soon discovered that I could do my morning portion, go home for lunch, work for six hours of translating and then burst through he PM portion near my abode as a break from sitting. It was the cat's pajamas and I knew it! I enjoyed every mile of it and used the precious free time to further my own endeavors.
Over the years I had routes that took me progressively South on Cambie Street from the bridge downtown to 49th Avenue. The worst route I ever had was along this Avenue. One of my calls on Cambie Street was a jeweler's shop. The proprietors were a charming couple. The man was a German and his wife was a Swiss woman. She did the business and he made the jewelry. I got to know them well.
They had met as teenagers in Malaysia or Thailand as young travelers. After meeting, they decided to travel together and subsequently fell deep in love. Along their way, it happened one day that they were riding a motorcycle in very heavy chaotic traffic. An oncoming vehicle passed at high speed and part of its bumper swiped off the German boy's leg at the knee. The girl stuck with him in the sweltering filth and got him to treatment and eventually back to Switzerland where he received the very best care available at the time.
Her father, a jeweler, took the young man under his wing and told him that he had to get up off the bed, learn to walk on his plastic leg and learn a trade if he wanted to marry his daughter, which he very much wanted to do. The man taught the boy and he became an accomplished designer and maker of very fine jewelry. They were married and have been together everyday since that time.
One day as Christmas was approaching, I got the idea to forgo ever having a wedding ring to replace the one I had lost for the third time. I would have a piece made for my wife and one for me that we could wear around our necks. I talked to the German and gave him a drawing I had made of kokopillau. A few weeks later, he proudly placed the two pendants in my hand while his wife beamed goodwill from her eyes. I have never taken it off since and plan to be wearing it on the day I die. The design and the hands that made it carry a lot of power.
I grew up fishing summers with my Swedish grandpa when he wasn't at sea. He was a fair good fisherman, I can tell now but his expertise was limited to the salt water. He was a perfectionist, truth be told and thus was kind of a hard man to learn from. I got a little Zebco Spincaster and Eric had a nice Abu Garcia level-winder he attached to a stout little fiberglass rod he had fitted with a curved antler grip. Between summers, I was stuck in the suburbs of Houston, Beaumont or Baton Rouge with a father who didn't do those outdoor things.
The Swede and I fished the Gulf of Mexico between High Island and Galveston, Texas. We were gunning for golden croakers, hoping for a bull red-fish and in between we caught lots of drums, channel cats, cand charks, eels, blue crabs, flounders and angel fish. If we hooked a ray, the line was cut to save our small gear. We used fresh shrimp, cut fish, blood paste, earthworms and live minnows for bait but shrimp was the standby.
We had two folding canvas chairs, two rags, two long knives, a cooler, ice and usually a couple of Nehi Grape Sodas. Usually it was in the low one hundreds and so we got started at 5 AM. My Grandpa would grab my foot gently and shake it a few times to rouse me. About a year after he passed away I was in his house with my fiance sleeping on a couch-bed in the living room and the girl started awake suddenly. It was about 5 AM and I asked her with heavy eyes what was the matter. She said something had grabbed her foot and shook it three times. I told her not to worry, he was just saying hello.
The best fishing was down on the Intra-coastal Canal which runs from Florida to Mexico and my Grandpa knew most of the men on those boats by name and reputation. Big tugs drawing big barges would scare up all kinds of fish and set clouds of shrimp to jumping. Sometimes we were lucky to have some live ones splash out onto the gumbo mud banks into the saw grass. Their eyes were luminescent and blinked on and off like faulty head-lights.
Once my Grandpa heaved a mighty cast and caught himself a large sea-bird. It was surreal watching him reel it in from the gray-blue sky. It was a complicated affair to deal with and nearly gave Skipper, his beagle, a heart attack. I had read Coleridge's Rime Of The Ancient Mariner and was very relieved that the bird wasn't killed.
Because we never knew what we would catch, Eric used thirty pound braided line and I had twenty pound mono-filament. This was Texas and the object was to catch fish, so we used the barbed hooks. We were bottom fishing and believe me, we filled up many a cooler over the ten summers we fished together.
A croaker is so named because it makes an audible noise when out of the water. The Mexican guys called it a “piga” because it reminded them of the grunt of a pig. They could range in size from seven inches to twice that. I was honored with cleaning up the catch under the beach cabin's raised floor while Eric had a little nap. I reckon I cleaned a few hundred all told. I buried the guts under two palm tree sprouts which grew into thirty foot trees and survived many a hurricane.
My Grandma coated the fish with salted and peppered cornmeal and fried them in several inches of Crisco in a big iron skillet. We ate them with fresh squeezed lemon, ketchup, home fries and a crock of strong ice tea. I usually had about six and I couldn't tell if I liked the cornmeal or the fish best of all. Of course my Grandpa got the golly-whopper regardless of who caught it.
We only fished fresh water once, if you could call it that. It was a slow moving bayou near Beaumont. It was a thirty minute hike through palmettos, poison ivy and four kinds of poisonous snakes to get to the mosquito infested boggy, sulfurous muddy banks. We were going for catfish and we wanted big ones. Eric got a fine blue and white three or four-pounder and I got nothing.
On the way back through the jungle, I got nipped by a spider as big as both my hands. It was a beautiful thing, yellow and green in color. I had seen it's web and knocked it aside with a stick only to have it land on my knee. It was far more important to watch where your feet were in this country. I puffed up real good on the way home and my Grandma taped something on it and drew all the venom out.
So that was the extent of my fresh water fishing until reaching Lynn Valley in North Vancouver when I was twelve years old. Scottish and English immigrant kids were catching trout right on the corner of Lynn Valley Road and Mountain Highway back in those days but there was a slight language barrier and I had no equipment. I was horrified to see some of them using lures instead of bait. I figured that if I was a fish I'd sure know the difference between a chunk of metal and a nice shrimp or minnow.
After I saw another boy fly-fishing, I guess I just about gave up hope of ever learning how to catch fresh water fish. I knew from reading books that by the time you bought all the tweeds, creels, weighted line, flies, rod and reel, hip-waders, sweater, pipe and beret; you wouldn't have enough money left over to get a scone and a cup of tea. Then one day I was walking along a creek in Lynn Valley and I saw some Squamish Band boys my age. They just flipped a Zellers cart onto its side and these big old salmon swam right in. Then they flipped it up and carted it off home. A kid at school told me that only the Native boys could do that.
I figured over the ensuing years that I would learn the mysteries of the river fishing upon retirement. I am surrounded by lakes, creeks and near a big river. I have tried by all the methods known to me from salt water and over five years, I have managed only a miniscule trout. This is somewhat maddening in a place where you can walk along a creek as metric tons of spawning fish cruise upstream in the crystal water. Those are the non-resident fish, as it were and it boggles the mind to think that another population of resident fishes also share the same waters. My cowboy hat is off to all fresh water anglers, native and non-native. It is a skill-set in which there is much to learn.
One fine afternoon my wife and I were at the lake and saw a man fishing. We started to chat and he turned out to be one of the nicest people I have ever met. He taught me what he could as we stood there and next time I saw him in town, he invited me fishing with him. Within ten minutes of arriving at the spot he had chosen, my drought ended. I caught and released a too-small trout and then got a nice dolly varden of keeping size. This was followed by another too-small trout and then we went on home. I gobbled that dolly up as soon as I got home and it was sweeter than cotton candy.
Some time later, I was nursing a badly bruised vertebrae sustained on a solo fishing trip to the Fraser wherein I learned not to cross fallen logs with flip-flops. On that trip, I met an old St'at'imc man who tried to show me how to rig up for a big salmon. We were on Cayoosh Creek and he was too drunk to tie the knots, so I did that for him as he instructed me in which tackle to use. While I listened to his instructions and his life story, his little dog fell asleep in my lap.
We got one rod cast out into the strong current and as we worked on the second one, a couple appeared from upstream in little kayaks and put in on the rocks beside us. The commotion caused his gin bottle to capsize and I just managed to save it before it joined the torrent. As I was tying on a spark-plug weight and he was rolling some roe in his mahogany hands, a young woman appeared and started to clean up his empty beer cans. She was going to take him on home and as they gathered up his things, he shook my hand and cried. Turned out that he had found a friend of his cold and dead right on that creek side many bottles ago.
The next day, I went to the creek and rigged up as the old man had taught me. I fished to no avail. A young man across the creek asked me if I had fished on his side that day. I said no and decided to roll up my gear. I went to talk to him and soon found out that he had lost an expensive cell phone. I went to help him hunt for it, while his gal sweated and fretted in their car.
As I scanned the rocks, I saw a big patch of gore. It was fresh. I pointed it out to the man and he said that was where he had cleaned the twenty-seven pound salmon he had just caught an hour earlier. We never found the cell phone. That is, not that day. Next day, I was back at it and where the creek joins the river, there it was minus its SIM card. About a kilometer away down river I found the massive head and tail-fin of the salmon. I caught and released one more too-small trout.
I took a little break from fishing so as not to deepen the negative reinforcement at play. My chess computer came out and by the time I had clawed my way up to level six, a neighbor asked if I would help assemble his new storage shed. I gratefully accepted and we began next morning. My wife walked over in the early evening to tell me that I had a visitor who turned out to be my new fishing friend. We had a chat and I was invited to join him for a fishing trip on the coming Saturday. We would go early in the morning and would be gone all day. I was ready to go at it again.
In the following days, the bottom fell out of a blue sky and buckets came down for so many hours, I lost count. I got a phone call from my friend and he said we'd have to put the trip over til Sunday, due to some unexpected work he'd taken on. I decided to cut my grass and wax and polish the Suzuki. I finished up about 8 PM and decided to walk over to the Rec Center and listen to the band playing for the local festival.
Satisfied and looking forward to the coming day of fishing, I walked home. At just past mid-night, the lights went out. I went into the room where the panel is with a flashlight and saw that one wire had shorted and another one had its insulation melted. With a glance at the hand-written chart which had been edited by each previous owner of my trailer, I discovered that to ascertain which breaker controlled which circuit was going to prove as difficult as deciphering cuneiform tablets.
My main concerns were my freezers. Being a Sunday, I figured it would be Monday before someone qualified could come out and another day or two before the needed parts could be procured. I set my alarm and flipped off all the obvious circuits. When it got down to the porch freezer, I asked my wife to stand out on the porch and tell me when the little orange light went out as I flipped the switches. The process took several minutes and the door stayed open so we could hear each other without shouting.
After some trial and error we got everything sorted out. I made a big pot of coffee for the morning in case that circuit fizzed. I went off to a troubled one eye open sleep. Within an hour we heard sparks. Back in the breaker room, I could see a little Niagara of electrons cascading out over the keyboard where I write these missives. Behind this was a wicked blue arc steadily eating into the lug. That was it. Everything got shut down. I checked my watch and realized that my fishing buddy would be around in about three hours to pick me up.
I stared into the gloom like a character in a pulp novel and waited on the sunrise. At just past five, I phoned to cancel my participation in the fishing trip and apologized for the short notice. This done, I remembered the emergency coffee. On the way to the coffee pot, I stumbled on several apricots which were piled near the dishwasher on the floor. Then I saw the Marlboros my neighbor had given me for helping with his shed construction.
The packets were on the living room floor and only the filters remained in a little pile. That's how I like them but I trim them one at a time usually. Nearby were some leaves neatly clipped off of my wife's houseplants. I decided to drink caffeine before processing anything. This I did and as I scanned the rooms, I saw dozens of things out of place. The fishing trip was long forgotten and the electrical crisis was now being pushed back onto the back burner. I was under check, my opponent had a pawn one move away from queening and I was down to a bishop, a rook and a knight.
On my second mug, I heard it. A light thumping like a rabbit makes. It was coming from the dishwasher. I opened the door expecting a mouse to come scurrying out. We haven't had any for years and I am proud and happy of that. Nothing came out but I heard a bottle clink a few feet away inside the cupboards. I opened one door and there between a bottle of dish soap and the goose-neck of the drain were two big soft eyes and about seven inches of stiff whiskers looking right my way.
Judging by the size of the head, I thought I was looking at a possum. Then it ghosted across to the right side where the pots and Pyrex are stacked. It took a long time before the tail disappeared from view. Whatever it was it was about fifteen inches long, at least and had mighty back legs like a jack-rabbit. It was a beautiful healthy specimen and the fur was thick and gray with white, black and buff tones.
I opened all the cupboards and emptied some of the pots. I crawled inside with a flash-light to look for a hole. There was no hole. This perplexed me. Whatever it was, it could have easily chewed through an oak desk but as big as it was, it shouldn't be able to become invisible. I got my wrist-rocket and some ball-bearings from the coffee table where my wife had put them the morning before when dusting around the living room. Funny how that worked out.
I sat down the weapon and decided to look into the space behind the dishwasher. This sounds easy but it involved inserting the torso and only one arm, then turning the body into a ninety-degree angle. Once in, there was no guarantee one would make it out, particularly if one was in a hurry. I did the trick and once I was wedged in good and tight, I saw its long tail. I also found a pile of dried grass. Nestled together with these things were some Marlboros and a few apricots.
The beastie gave me the slip again as fast as a Tangiers taxi and as quiet as a Benedictine monk. I wormed my way back out of the trap and readied the sling-shot. As I scanned all the cupboards again, it reappeared behind the stack of Pyrex. It regarded me with some interest all the while remaining absolutely motionless. We both knew that there was no way I could get a clear shot. I aimed anyway and it disappeared.
I decided to check the living room for damage and let the fugitive calm down a bit. When I was picking up the cigarette filters from the floor, I heard the light thumping. It seemed to be coming from under the floor. Just bloody lovely, I thought. He's calling in reinforcements. I pictured beaver-sized holes chewed throughout my trailer's underside and hidden dramas taking place in the hollows of the walls. I knelt down to put my ear to the floor.
My glasses banged against the linoleum and I removed them. With my uncorrected vision I saw the interloper eyeballing me from under the couch and drumming its foot. It was only inches away and didn't bolt. I tip-toed back to the kitchen and got the sling and the shot. I turned it upside down so I could draw it back only an inch off the floor. When I got situated, it was gone. I looked at my watch. By now, my friend would have probably caught his first fish, I reckoned.
I had the rest of the cold coffee and a sawed-off Marlboro. Outside the day was coming on and I could hear my wife rousing herself up back in the bedroom. I didn't have the heart to tell her yet. I phoned the only electric company in the book and left a plaintive message. Then I heard a thumping coming from the fridge. The appliance stood in a little alcove and had only two inches of space on either side. The flashlight's beam revealed that indeed the mammal had somehow made it across open ground, under my gaze and was ensconced behind my food box.
Now it was a Mexican stand off. The bold devil stood defiant with its head turned around the corner and its body solidly planted behind the appliance. It was looking right at me and not budging an inch. As my wife stumbled into the kitchen, I told her to suspend her questions as to the last few hours of ruckus and to get a stick and hand me my weapon. She is a cool head in a crisis and without any fuss I had my sling-shot and she had a long stick.
I fired one off and missed. There was a commotion behind the fridge and as I loaded another shot into the leather, my quarry appeared in the gap, this time ready to bolt. My wife put the dining table leaf as a barrier across the other gap so it would have to jump to escape. I hoped that would give me time, if I botched the shot. I bit down on the flashlight I had been holding in my teeth and shined it right into the big eyes inside the dark narrow space.
I drew back like an archer in the Court of Xerxes. I released and hit it right smack between the eyes, killing it instantly. We pulled the fridge out and retrieved the animal by its ear. It was a foot and a half long from snout to tail. We figured it had sneaked in while we were trying the breakers for the freezer. The mess it made had taken only three hours give or take. I sure didn't want it sharing our living space. It looked like the love-child of a wharf rat who had put on an expensive fur coat, had a bath, rolled in sage and then courted a jack-rabbit.
Later that morning some neighbors told me it was a pack-rat. Everything may be big in Texas but I am here to tell you that everything is bigger yet in Texas Creek. That day was spent cleaning up the mess, disinfecting and inspecting the entire premises, inside and out. There wasn't a hole bigger than my little finger anywhere in the building and that included the dusty dark crawl space. This supported my idea that it had been a surprise attack when the door had hung open at night. It may have caused the electrical short but the jury is still out.
I crumbled some tobacco on the little carcass out of respect and bagged it up. My landlord helped me out with a extension cord to my freezer and provided me with the number of an electrician who promised that she would be around next morning. Two days later, I had new breakers, a fire extinguisher and a clean bill of electrical health. My new friend phoned to see how things were going and I told him that although I had missed our fishing trip that I had gotten to go hunting. A man told me once that Lillooet won't entertain you. I beg to differ.
Russell wanted to play my Mousetrap game and I wanted to see his farm. He asked his folks if I could spend the weekend at his place and I asked my folks if I could go. It was a win-win situation. A cultural exchange between suburbia and the grange. Russell and me couldn't wait for Friday to roll around. I brought my gear to school and his mom picked us up after and drove us a few miles outside Baton Rouge to their property. We were two happy ten year old boys.
It was a small mixed use operation, mainly focused on beef but there was poultry, swine and some dairy animals as well as horses and a few acres of garden. It was big enough that they had a permanent hired hand called Lercy. He was a mysterious, almost tubercular looking man and I remember wondering how he was physically strong enough to actually help. He drove a rusty blue tractor and it was all done up with pictures of naked women taped everywhere inside. Only he or the cat was allowed to sit in the seat.
Russell's dad was a tall, strong young man all dressed up like a cowboy, which was something I hadn't seen too much of in Louisiana. His wife was a sassy red-head brimming with good cheer, confidence, pride and freckles. There was an older brother who's purpose on this earth appeared to be keeping Russell sharp. Kinda reminded me of my own sister.
We got my stuff stowed away in the boys' room and were given a snack. It was time to tour the property. Russell led me around to where the chicken coops were and showed off the rooster who sat atop the little house with a kingly air. Not too far away was an enclosure for some big ole pigs. They were the pink skinned type with white fur. When I saw them they were slathered with black mud and blue clay. They were happily snuffling up what looked like kitchen scraps.
There was a small corral across the way with two horses and a few more wandered the property and came from time to tome to drink from a huge galvanized trough. The balance of the buildings other than the big house was a massive barn, a silo and some various sized pens for cows and an enigmatic turnstile affair, I couldn't figure out the purpose of. Also there was a big long concrete trough full of some nasty looking chemical brew.
Way off to the back was what seemed to me at the time, an endless stretch of good grassland and you could see the herd of cows ruminating under shady patches where some oaks grew by a pond. In addition there were two German Shepherd dogs and a big, dusty black cat. Presently, we heard a commotion from the barn. We stopped at the silo to talk to Lercy. He was busy with some kind of small metal cage. He stood up as straight as he could and answered my many questions about the silo.
“We store a whole lot of grain in there boy. To feed the animals. Also, tell you what, 'tween you and me and the fence-post, if a man puts one of them clay jugs all corked up in the bottom before it gets filled up, guess what you get later on?”
“I don't know”
“Corn squeezins boy, that's what. White lightning.”
“How can it get into a sealed up jar.”
“Boy, the pressure is so heavy that it just forces the juice of the silage through. Drop by drop, kinda like.”
“Yes, Sir. Thanks for teaching me.”
“Nothing to it, son. Now ya'll go on, I got a little job.”
Russell and I ran across to the big open door and wandered inside. The shadowy interior was much cooler and it felt good. The eyes took a moment to adjust. Russell's brother was swinging from a rope, strung from a ceiling beam and jumping off the hay loft to land in a pile of broken bales on the floor. Sunday afternoons were Tarzan movie days in Baton Rouge and every boy worth his salt could imitate the cry of the jungle lord.
We amused ourselves for hours trying to best each other in length of swing, volume of yodel and complexity of dismount. After quite some time, a tall gaunt shadow appeared at the door. It was Lercy and he was toting a big gunny-sack. He shifted his faded welders cap on his sweaty brow and whistled loudly. We turned our attention and saw the two Shepherds come running.
“Lookie here, boys,” he said holding forth the bag which was tied with a knot on top and clearly held something alive struggling to get out.
He swung the bag three times as the dogs jumped around his feet and then tossed it in our direction. The dogs went wild and began to attack the bag from different angles. Shrill squeaks issued forth from the burlap and one of the dogs grabbed the whole shebang and shook it violently. That dog yelped and dropped it immediately. The other hound had a try with the same results and as we watched the two attackers, they worked out a way to each grab one lump at each end of the bag and shake it like a gravel sorter. Soon, they dropped it on the dirt and made a few lunging bites. The bag lay still and the dogs sat, panting.
Lercy strode over and untied the sack. He lifted it up and shook out the contents. Two huge rats plopped out on the ground, quite dead and bloody. He gave a command and the little wolves trotted out the door with their prey and loped into the sultry heat of the day.
“Them dogs done opened up a big ole can of Whoop-Ass!” said Russell.
“Hot dang!” I said, somewhat shaken by the unexpected gladiatorial interlude.
“That's how you learn 'em to kill rats without getting hurt till they figure out the best way to go about it. Come on now, Missus says to call ya'll for supper, boys.”
We had a wonderful meat and potatoes meal in which every last thing down to the butter on the bread was home-made and brimming with goodness. It was no wonder some of those kids I went to elementary school with were so big and healthy. We all ate like farmhands, literally. Lercy went to do some early evening chores and the father went to prepare something for the morrow they had been discussing at dinner.
I wasn't familiar with the terminology they were using so it made no impact on me. The elder boy was sent to do some chores with the smaller animals and Russell and I were guided to clear up the table and go get our hides clean so we could play that dad-gummed game he was so anxious to try. He had talked incessantly of it ever since I had mentioned it at school one day. I could tell that the family was already weary of hearing about it. I also knew that it was the main reason I had been invited by Russell.
It was a crazy contraption wherein, a small ball bearing was put through a hap-hazard obstacle course of mechanical devices that each triggered another portion of the ball's progress. Eventually, if everything went right, a small basket came down on a mouse, trapping it to win the game. The full run of the machine when once set in motion ran for more than a full minute and appealed to the engineer and inventor inside every little boy. Being heavily promoted on TV, it was well known long before it became available.
We scrubbed up by turns and soon were laying with our feet under the bunk-beds and assembling the intricate structure. As soon as we had it built and set, Russell demanded to take it apart and rebuild it so he could learn how it went for when he got his. We did this and I enjoyed the building of it as much or more than the stupid rules and the long dance leading up to triggering the trap and catching the mouse. At lights out, we put it away and I spread out my sleeping bag where we had been playing. Russell's brother snored all night.
The farm was already going full-tilt when we got ourselves dressed next morning. Russell's Mom greeted us and listened to her son describe all the parts of the Mousetrap machine. She was busy making a whopping big breakfast as there were extra hands on deck this morning. There would be a few more men who had been hired for the day. She handed me a big colander and told us to go out where her husband was. Evidently we were going to bring part of the breakfast back with us in that bowl. I was intrigued and proud to be helpful.
“Are we having prairie oysters?” asked Russell with a grin.
“We sure are, hon.”
“What are prairie oysters?”
I reckoned they were some type of fresh-water species and we would gather them up at the pond. My mouth watered remembering my Grandma's Texas seafood gumbo chock full of fresh oysters.
“Come on. You'll see.”
We ran out the kitchen door to the turnstile thing I had seen the day before. Russell's father was relieving his bladder a few feet away from the contraption where a long handle jutted out to the side. He had hung his gloves on the handle and Lercy was there holding a pair of some kind of fancy pliers. There was a couple of men in one of the small pens with a fire going. I knew from watching Bonanza what was going on. They were branding calves.
Russell's father rolled a smoke and told him to show me around first. We went over to where a bunch of small calves had been separated out from the herd into a big pen. Men were leading them through a little walkway one by one to the cement trough where they were encouraged to walk through some kind of medicine dip. The little fellows seemed to want to do it no more than a young boy wants to bathe.
After a good splashing, they were led to the branding area. Here they were hobbled and laid down by a big black man while a Mexican looking fellow pulled an iron out of the little fire and burned in the tattoo on the animal's hind-quarters. The hair smoke stunk of sulfur but the calf didn't bleat any louder than he had when getting his medicine bath. He was let up and directed to another corridor of temporary fence which led right up to the turnstile. We ran back alongside. When the hoofer stepped into the turnstile, Russel's Pa pulled hard on the long handle. The two walls of welded pipe closed like a Venus flytrap onto the calf's sides, immobilizing it.
Lercy squatted down and after adjusting his cap, he reached a bony arm through the pipes and grabbed the calf by the testicles. The other hand came through the bars wielding the pliers and I heard a snick. There on the dusty ground were two longish blobs that resembled chicken livers. Lercy tossed them a few feet away, the lever was raised and the calf ran down to join his mates in a big pen where another man doctored the cut.
This I hadn't seen on TV and I said, “Gawd dawg!”
“It don't hurt 'em none, Mike. That's so they don't grow up and trample everybody. You see, that's the difference in a steer and a bull. Bull still has all his tackle. We keep a couple for breeding separate from the rest,” said Russel's Dad.
I was always thirsty to learn any and everything from anyone who would waste the time to talk to me and this aided my quick recovery from what I had just seen. Wanting to reciprocate, I asked the man where I could find those prairie oysters I was supposed to gather up for our breakfast. I had a white-knuckle grip on my colander and hoped to be sent to the pond yonder.
Before he could answer, Lercy grinned and motioned to the blobs in the dirt that had been hanging from the calf a moment ago.
I looked at Russell and then at his father to see if I was being fooled.
“He's telling you true, son. Ya'll stay right here till we get your bowl full and then bring it on in to my wife.”
I decided to make the best of it. I grabbed up the tissue and plopped it in the bowl. The next calf came and many more behind it. The process was like a well-oiled machine. I started to feel a pride at my infinitesimal part in garnering a living from the soil. The ancient spirit of gathering any kind of food came among us and we started to celebrate as the colander filled up. It was like picking black-berries or catching fish and watching the pile getting bigger.
“We gonna have us a big bunch of prairie oysters,” I chirped.
“Wait till you taste my momma's buttermilk biscuits,” said Russell.
“Goes mighty nice with that bacon, yeah boy,” said Lercy.
“How about we finish this nut-cutting before we start talking food,” said the Boss.
“Then we get to play Mousetrap,” chimed in Russell.
When our bowl was full we raced across to the kitchen and proudly handed over the prize. The lady of the house took the colander and rinsed all the dust off thoroughly. She looked over at me and said I didn't have to eat them if I didn't want to. I told her I sure did want to, if that's what they ate. She smiled and dried them off on a towel, dusted them with flour, salt and pepper and fried them up in a big black skillet. Russel's brother came in with a basket of fresh eggs.
It was one of the best breakfasts I have had down to this day. It was the first and last time I had prairie oysters. They were delicious as I recall. On Sunday morning I had to go home and after rolling up my sleeping bag, I gave the Mousetrap game to Russell. It was the least I could do after such a rarefied weekend. I would have swapped places with him if I could have figured out a way.
When I was a little boy in Baton Rouge, my Dad gave me a spanking new wooden shoeshine kit. It had a carrying handle and a place to keep the black, brown, oxblood and clear polishes. There was, in addition, a bottle of sole dressing for brown and black, some saddle soap, a soft brush, a stiff brush and several different kinds of flannel clothes. Built on top was a wooden footrest for the “customer” to step on.
My father was a sharp-dressed man and had his monogrammed white cotton shirts tailor-made in Hong Kong and he wore them with fancy cuff-links. His pants were also tailor-made and he had a flotilla of fine shoes. At any given time, in those days he had ten pairs of brown and ten pairs of black. Mostly, he preferred loafers with leather tassels. The leathers ranged from cowhide to Louisiana alligator.
I was patiently shown once and once only how to spit-polish a shoe to a military mirror sheen. It became another of my personal chores around the house to keep these twenty pairs in mint condition. My work would be inspected at the end of my labor and all the rejected shoes would be left on the newspaper to have another going over. I grew to hate the job in about twenty minutes and I had that job for several years.
The worst part was scraping off the clay which we called gumbo mud down there. It dried on as hard as mortar and he picked up a lot of it on his daily rounds providing for us. My personal taste was to be bare-footed or to have beat-up shoes that you didn't fret over, so you could concentrate on catching snakes and lizards and climbing trees. My grandfather didn't shine his shoes and he wore pants he made from old sail-cloth. As a child I figured my dad was a dandy and although I appreciated how fine he looked, I didn't plan to emulate his style.
Five months after I turned twenty my father died. That was up in Canada and the circumstances were sketchy. It was a violent death and he was only a few days one side of fifty years old. He never got to meet my wife. He had left home at fifteen years old with a ten dollar bill rolled up in his sleeve. That was in 1942. He first found work in Montreal as a cabin boy and sailed through the War in the Atlantic. He was self educated and self-made. He worked in the jungles of Colombia and the streets of Houston.
About five years after he passed I was divorced and courting my second wife. I had recently purchased my first ever new vehicle. It was a white Toyota short-box pick-up with a manual transmission. I camperized it and decided to take my fiancee on a journey through my past and show her the South land. We headed out one morning and used KOA campgrounds to spend the nights and save on expenses. The first such site was in Oregon and when I crossed the California line and got past Mt. Shasta, my left wrist began to itch.
The irritation was a small pimple under my watch-band. In another hour after noticing it, I had to remove the watch. The pimple was a boil within three hours of noticing it and by the time I pulled into Chinatown in San Francisco, I had a large open lesion weeping copiously. My entire arm was throbbing and a red line was extending along the nearest vein toward my elbow.
Over dim sum, my fiancee asked the waiter in Chinese where we could walk to a Chinese doctor and pay cash. The fellow scribbled instructions on a napkin and after a ten minute walk, we were in the small office. The doctor had a good long look and asked a few questions. He then consulted a book on his little shelf and pointed out a picture to me. It was of a small brown spider.
The article said it was a Brown Recluse and the doctor said, that while he couldn't be certain, he would be willing to bet that I had been bitten by this little devil while I slept. I was given a large jar of pills at a reasonable price and instructed to begin them immediately and not to miss one. We stayed for dinner at my uncle's place near Frisco and it was the last time I saw my cousin, my uncle and my dad's sister. By the time I got to the Tony Lama Factory outlet outside of El Paso, my wound was as small as a pimple again. I bought a pair of plain brown cowboy boots for a ridiculously low price and started to feel pretty sassy.
We next holed up at my grandma's place in Beaumont where she anxiously awaited seeing my new truck. My grandfather had recently passed and she had me pore over his books and personal effects in case there was anything I wanted. I loaded up some China dishes for my mother and declined to take anything else. I even turned down a pair of pearl-handled Navy Colt 45 revolvers that had been gifted to the old Swedish sailor during WWII by the US Government. I cherish things given by people when they are alive to do the giving but shun anything of a personal nature after a person has passed.
After a couple of days of the Beaumont humidity, it was time to head East. We bade farewell to my grandma and crossed the Sabine River into Louisiana. There is a long causeway on this route that straddles the Atchafalaya Swamp. For many miles, the motorist is three or four feet above an alligator soup with cottonmouths for noodles. As my poor heat-stricken companion lay in the back holding cold pop cans to her forehead, I got my first flat tire.
The right passenger side tried to wipe the guard-rail and I was fortunate to be able to bring everything to a safe stop. I explained to my gal there would be a slight delay and set to work. I moved a beer-cooler twenty yards away to warn the on comers and jacked up the truck to a chorus of crickets, alligators, frogs and cicadas. My woman looked out the back at the expanse of sweltering duck-weed covered stagnant water and old cypress stumps draped in Spanish Moss and nearly began to cry.
The repairs went as well as can be expected using stock tools. Ever since then I have carried my own tire irons. Not too much later we were crossing the Mississippi and cruising on into my old neighborhood in Baton Rouge. After one stop at a street corner for directions I found my old school and then my old street.
It was very strange to drive slow down the street I had learned to ride a bicycle on. I found my old house and just gazed awhile at it and recounted a few stories to my partner. After a bit, I drove down the end of the block to the house of my first friend. We had been inseparable for the five and a half years I had lived there. I had no idea if he was still there.
I smiled when I saw the pirogue in the driveway where his father always kept it. The small aluminum boat hadn't changed a bit. I rang the bell and got no answer. I decided to walk around the back and when I did, I saw a big stout young man sitting with a glass of ice tea studying a text book. It was my friend's little brother who had been about three feet tall when I left town.
We went inside the familiar house and I was told that we were welcome to await his parents arrival but that my friend was away at university in Texas. I was somewhat overwhelmed by the whole day and had planned on a lightening visit that maybe would last an hour and then I was taking my sugar to see New Orleans. The truth was that I was so attached to this man's parents, I wasn't sure if I could hold my tears if I did see them or if I could drag myself away from my bayou beginnings and go back to the cool blue North.
I made some excuse and after a brief chat we were on the road. My gal was somewhat revived and able to see the old antebellum mansions that line the back roads into the Big Easy. Just as the sun had lost its sting we pulled up at the football dome and got oriented as to how to get to the French Quarter. Before long, I had the truck stashed in an underground parking lot and a room booked. We cleaned up and sallied forth.
Our first stop was to be a famous bar called the Old Absinthe House. It was on Bourbon St. and was nearly two hundred years old. Oscar Wilde, P.T. Barnum, Mark Twain, Jenny Lind, Enrico Caruso, General Robert E Lee, Franklin Roosevelt, Liza Minelli and Frank Sinatra were just a few of the patrons of this bar. The pirate Jean Lafitte and President Andrew Jackson are said to have planned the action for the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 on the second floor. The ghost of Lafitte is said to linger yet.
I had never been there before and knew it from reputation and local legend. It is still said today that everyone you know or ever will know, will someday visit this bar. Two hundred years worth of business and calling cards are tacked to its walls by tradition.
We found the place at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville. It was still very light outside and it took a moment for our eyes to adjust to the dimly lit interior. I spent a long time perusing the business cards pinned to the historic walls and added my own Cherokee Gas card from my little one man gas-fitting enterprise in North Vancouver. Presently, I led my sweetheart to the bar. She didn't drink alcohol and I ordered her something cool and ordered myself the new legal variety of the house special.
It was then I noticed we weren't alone. As I took my first sip of the bitter astringent Herbsaint. A man sat two stools away and appeared to be quietly and completely drunk. He had a big conspiratorial grin on his face and leaned over as close to us as he could muster without falling off his stool. When my eyes met his, two things happened. He gestured with his glass a sort of salute that carried more goodwill and care not to spill than I had ever witnessed.
The second thing was that I instantly recognized Rod Stewart. He looked very tired and very drunk. I sure enjoyed his earlier music with the Faces and wasn't too fond of his latest endeavors. I was in a peculiar mood that afternoon and the way it manifested was in my instant decision not to ask for an autograph. I nodded politely as if I hadn't recognized him. I turned my attention to my girl and told her who it was and not to make any commotion about it.
She was also in a mood and it suited her just fine to ignore the star completely. We had been quarreling and the trip had taken an emotional toll on both of us for different reasons. Each time I peeked along the bar I was met by his eyes. Now they seemed to express surprise that we knew him not. He seemed to be on the verge of introducing himself. Sitting there with my Chinese fiancee, I recalled the lyrics of one of his songs.
Locked in our own selfish youthful passion, we snubbed him tag-team style. Half of me felt extremely rude for not acknowledging the minstrel and the other half of me reasoned that it was probably a relief to him to have a quiet drink away from fans and sycophants. I'll never know which was correct and we left after one drink to go to our next objective.
We walked the half dozen blocks to Jackson Square and there on the corner of Decatur and St. Ann we treated ourselves to coffee and chicory at the old Cafe Du Monde. This landmark has been in operation 24 -7 since 1862. I still drink their coffee and chicory today when I can get it. I'm sipping on it right now, as a matter of fact. When my lady finished her beignet we strode back to our hotel.
A few blocks from our objective we saw a black man shining shoes in a doorway. As we came down the sidewalk he began to shout out to us. Rather, he began to address my fiancee.
“Lord have mercy, Miss lady. Mmm-mmmm-mmm! I feels sorry for ya. Havin' to walk wit dat man wit him nasty scuffed up boots an all. Its a shameful thang, sho' nuff. Beautiful lady like you walking all embarrassed 'cause yo man ain't troubled hisself to put some shine on them fine Tony Lamas. I been to Vietnam and back agin' and I ain't never seen the like. Let me tell you what, Mista Boots come over hyeah and put you foot up. I am goin' to fix yo lil problem fo free, naw wut I'm sayin? Get on over now. It's fo the little lady's sake.”
I looked down at my scuffy “new” boots and became very self-conscious. I never could dress up very well and my wife to be always looked as if she'd just left a fashion show no matter what she wore. I remembered my shoeshine kit and how much I'd hated the job. There was nothing to do but comply. Another young man passed by as I received my military spit-polish shine and paused. He was dressed to kill and he bowed low like they do in parts of Europe.
“Sir, I commend you on your impeccable taste in women.”
Then he was gone.
“See what I'm sayin' Mista Boots? You got a mighty fine lady and this here is New Orleans.”
He flapped out a rhythm with his flannel and when the song ended I could see our reflections. Baby snapped a picture and glowed with her first brush of the genteel South. She was showered with compliments, all of them in good taste and earnestly spoken. Our moods lightened considerably. I paid the man double what he would have charged, if he would have charged. He accepted only the usual fee and then only after I firmly insisted.
I told him about my shoeshine box in Baton Rouge and the twenty pairs of shoes. I explained that this was why I was reluctant to have shiny shoes ever since or ask any man to shine them for me. He looked up and smiled like a Cajun sunrise.
“Mista Boots, might jus be dat yo Daddy wuz tryin ta learn you ta feed yo own self, naw wut I'm sayin?”
I didn't ponder that observation for a second. It wasn't what I wanted to hear. We parted company with the shoe-shine man and started to head back up to Vancouver the next morning. We spent ten years together, all told and we had a son. That son gave me a bundle of photos one day last year he had taken from his mother's collection. He was about the same age as I had been that time in New Orleans. The picture of that shoe-shine man was right on top of the pile.
I retired a few months later from the Post Office and moved to Lillooet. Last week I was walking to the Post Office and passed a new second hand store. There in the window was a plain brown pair of Justin cowboy boots from Ft. Worth. I stopped to look. I broke my foot about twenty years ago and it grew back a different size. I haven't been able to wear western boots ever since. I was drawn to at least try them on for nostalgia's sake.
I asked to borrow a pair of socks and the proprietor's wife found a suitable pair. I sat down and tugged them on. I expected to wince in pain at the first step and that wasn't the case. Somehow, the two boots were of a proper throat to hold my normal foot and of a sufficient width to accommodate my oversize foot. It was extraordinary and the price was right. They had less than two miles on them. I wore them home. A few days later I noticed that a hairline crack ran across the leather sole of one.
This explained the odd combination of low mileage and low price. Two applications of contact cement and they were good to go. The heels are relieving some back pains I have suffered since taking off my mail bags after thirty years. I don't know if I will polish them much. Probably I won't. While I was repairing them today I realized that it had never crossed my mind as a boy to take my shoe-shine kit out into the street and make some loot. It was never once suggested to me either. I was supposed to figure that out by myself. Roddy was right, I guess every picture does tell a story, don't it?
I used to have a neighborhood. In fact I was born in one. It was a little place called Oak Forest in Houston, Texas. My family lived there for about three years and then we began moving. We moved West, East and North. When I was about fourteen, I found myself back on the same street in the same neighborhood that I began in. This time we lived just across the street from the first house I ever knew.
All the same families still lived there and the only changes I could discern were that the parents were older and many of the boys were gone to Basic Training or were already in Vietnam. I was a mere four years away from my own draft notice. I was younger than any of the other boys in that neighborhood and although they all treated me as a little brother, I was too young to hang around with them.
I spent much time alone and walking the rails that ran nearby. I had a few friends from other parts of town that I had met in school and did most of my socializing there. The Sixties had come and gone while I watched all the people around me adopt strange new behaviors almost overnight. I was too young to join the hippie movement but I watched it all closely.
People were emulating characters they saw on popular TV shows and movies just like they do today. What had been taboo was made normal and then discarded for the next update, all without any conscious thought on the part of the general public, as far as I could see. Some of the changes were for the better and some were very deleterious.
It was a time of pharmaceuticals, relaxed sexual attitudes and drugs of all kinds. It also was a time of the best guitar solos in popular music composition I had ever heard. It didn't matter to anyone what you did because they were doing it too. Most of thirty-somethings were high on doctor prescribed relaxants and those over forty were drinking off their own war experiences.
Their children had been encouraged by the culture creators to try LSD and all types of psychoactive substances and derivatives. There was something for every type of individual. Cocaine for the players, hashish for the philosophical, speed for the poor, Robitussin for the shy, mescaline and peyote for the outdoorsy and psilocybin for the intellectuals. Everyone smoked weed.
As a backdrop to this was the zero-tolerance policy of the Texas law system and the educational component of this law. Young men were brought to the schools literally in shackles and orange coveralls with shaved heads to give serious sermons in auditoriums of how they had been arrested with three seeds or a roach in their pockets and had thus forfeited their futures.
I had been with a neighbor on a visit up to Huntsville Prison's Darrington Unit to see her son and though I had to wait outside the main gate and pass my time with an old guard, it left a lasting impression in my adolescent brain. The old fellow had showed me where Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker had blasted some friends out jail and had killed a guard.
Though it had been around certain parts since the early days, heroin invaded the suburban streets at this time. It was a two-pronged attack. Not a few of the soldiers who returned after their tours of duties brought their overseas acquired habits with them. Added to this were the usual business channels of organized gangs. The proximity to a porous international border meant that supplies were high.
Children used to see a salesman from the Duncan Yo-Yo Company hanging about the playground demonstrating Around The World and Walk The Dog and promising to return next day to fill all the orders. Now they saw new faces from other streets who showed them how to skin-pop Horse. It was free and the bold said it made you feel real good. Soon, the recruiters were the school-children themselves. That first crop became zombie purveyors very quickly to support their own unquenchable yens.
For me it was a very troubled time on the home-front and everywhere I looked, I saw blindness, denial and accidents waiting to happen. I felt that no one had any expectation of me except to not get caught doing anything wrong until I got my own Draft Notice. I did a lot of thinking and did not trust many of those around me. I did not seek council where I could see no wisdom. One day, quite unexpectedly, wisdom came to me.
I had chanced to pass a young man who lived across the street. He was years older than me and insisted that I spend the night at his house. I was perplexed, proud and shocked. It made no sense for him to want to spend time with someone so much younger. I hesitated and he became adamant. I accepted the invitation.
It was that evening I received a thorough education on heroin. My friend and neighbor had been tricked into the habit while still in high school and had managed to hide his addiction from all. He was a swimming athlete and one of the nicest most clean-cut soft-spoken individuals on our block. He told me that he did not want me to have to experience the hell that his life had become and that in his reckoning I was in great danger due to my naivety.
While he played Willie Nelson and Michael Murphy records on one of those suitcase style record players, he told me everything he knew. He showed me how it burned different colors on tin-foil according to what it was cut with. Comet, rat-poison and baking soda were prevalent at that time. He warned me of who would approach me, what they would say and where it was likely to occur.
He made it clear that there are some things under the sun that may not be tried and simply abandoned. Once you choose to ride on certain horses, you cannot ever get off. With a righteous anger, I have never heard since, he described his lifestyle of deceit, petty theft, permanent sniffles, shakes and sudden visits by pistol packing dealers. He knew deep-inside that it wasn't going to be alright someday.
As Willie sang Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain, my friend cooked his dose in a spoon with some water and a lighter. To my horror, he vacuumed up the liquid while it was still hot. He tied off his leg with a rubber hose, told me to call 911 if he didn't wake up and that if he did wake up to ignore him if he cussed me out for the first few hours.
He found a vein and plunged in the point with a deft hand. After injecting about half of the dose, he siphoned out his blood to mix with the remainder in the syringe and then hammered that all home. He collapsed instantly backwards onto his bunk and exhaled all the tension and worry that has existed since the beginning.
I pulled the needle out of his leg and undid the ligature. I watched his chest for breath and moved the phone over to the bedside. The record finished and I closed the lid. I smoked for a few hours listening to him breath deeply and evenly just like when a person does when they are having a good sleep. Eventually I curled up on the living room couch.
The phone jangled me awake and it was a call for my host. The caller was emotional and insisted I wake my friend. I woke him up to hail of curses just as he had forewarned me. He grunted a few questions in the phone and slammed down the receiver.
“Get dressed, Michael my boy. We gotta go to the funeral chapel. Friend of mine just OD'd last night. He ain't the first. Understand what I'm tellin' you?”
I rode along and saw the teenage body, then I was dropped off at home. My teacher left next day to move to another town. I visited him there a couple of times over the next few years and one of the times, I saw new goons come to collect. He had no cash and had to give them merchandise instead.
He drove an old black Ford F 150 pick-up and was always talking about getting around to changing the oil someday. I believe it had belonged to his father before and he loved it. I moved to Canada and passed through his town whenever I was in Texas. He was always dodging fists, knives, bats and bullets and trying to get clean.
Once I passed through his town on purpose on my way to Beaumont from Vancouver. I stopped at a gas-station and bought four quarts of 10 W-30. I had a crescent wrench in my backpack already. There in the parking lot of his apartment was the little black truck. I crawled underneath and began the job. I was just tightening up the drain-plug when he burst onto his balcony.
“Hey you, what in hell do you think you're doing to my truck?”
I slid out from under the vehicle and looked up at him, wrench in hand.
“I figured you probably hadn't gotten around to changing that oil yet, so I thought I'd do it.”
He grinned and just shook his head just like a big brother would have done. He found his peace above a couple of years later and every time I look around at the life I have made for myself, I can still hear his selfless tuition. God, I have been trying to honor the gift of your Angel in cowboy boots ever since.
I made a friend right about the time I quit high school. He was a few years older than me and was the host of many parties I attended in those days. He had lived most his life in the States and so had I. We liked the same music. He wrote poetry and so did I. He read several books a week and so did I. He drank, smoked and cussed and so did I. He wore long hair and so did I.
The more we compared notes, the more we found in common. I was in need of a place to hang out due to the chaos that was my shaking my own family tree. His parents had turned over their basement to my new friend and there was ample room for me to stay for days on end. We listened to music, read and had lengthy discussions on almost every conceivable topic.
This fellow had two brothers. The younger brother lived at home upstairs and the elder brother came over almost every night to sit for dinner with the family. I called my friend L.A., after his hometown. His folks were warm generous prairie folk and suffered me to also sit to dinner with the family until my epic appetite decimated their grocery bill.
L.A.'s father had been a reporter in Hollywood. He had interviewed every movie star I had ever heard of. The dinners were fascinating for this man's remembered stories. I was in heaven because I love stories and L.A.'s father was in heaven because his family had tired of the stories long before I showed up.
After many adventures, I found myself renting my first basement suite. I soon kicked out my first room-mate on account of his being too messy and my next room-mate was L.A. I had never experienced the perfect harmony of that household before nor did I after until I married my third wife. It was a peaceful happy place.
L.A. and I never ran out of things to talk about and we saw eye to eye on all of the things we discussed. We existed like this until I hit the road. I couldn't keep still. I began boomeranging from Texas to North Vancouver and sometimes L.A. accompanied me. Down in Texas we were called the Gold Dust Twins, such was our obvious bond.
I was too busy for steady girlfriends and I had no skill at flirting. L.A. had friends galore and more than half of them were girls. I was not one to talk about sex or sexual things from a conviction that it is a personal and private aspect of life. In a million hours of conversation, L.A. and I spoke not of those topics. I had the impression that he knew far more about it than I ever would.
One day after cashing in my chips from a cook job at a truck stop, I found L.A. hard at work at a bookstore in North Van. He let me borrow his bosses typewriter to type up some prose I had written, while the woman was away for a few hours. She returned early and I was routed from the premises.
Out on the sidewalk as L.A. was apologizing, I suggested he quit the lousy job then and there and that the two of us start for Mexico at first light. He looked at me, the way a dog looks at you when you are throwing sticks and the creature is expecting a feint. I wasn't kidding and I waited outside while he did an Al Pacino scene in the bookstore. Ten minutes later we were at his parents basement packing his rucksack.
His dear mother insisted that I bring him back alive and that we stay for supper. While he was upstairs trying to explain the sudden turn of events, I had a smoke and began reading my friend's latest writings. I got more than I expected.
I didn't have time to read all of it but enough time to learn that my friend was gay and that he was and had been deeply enamored with me. I figured I knew him better than any living person, due to the time we had spent together and the complete sharing of our minds and hearts. It rocked my hetero boat.
We set off for Mexico the next morning and had a long eventful trip. I couldn't speak to him about what I had learned because I had to process an awful lot of thoughts, feelings and emotion first. I did this silently and on the surface everything was as it had always been.
On the return north, we pulled into Beaumont, Texas to my grandma's for fattening up. I got up to about 180 in a week and L.A. wasn't far behind. My normal weight is closer to 160. Southern cooking can do that to a man. We rested up and got ready for the final jaunt back north.
One afternoon as we sat under a big oak tree at a schoolyard, I found I was able to speak my mind. Now it was L.A.'s turn to be rocked onto his heels. We had it sorted out before heading back for gumbo and we both learned a lot.
I learned of his terrible burden of living a secret life of unexpressed emotions. L.A. learned of my feeling of betrayal in consequence of my sharing everything with him and him choosing only bits of himself to share with me. I was righteously pissed off and he understood why. He had been too frightened to be open with me and I understood why.
It was made clear to him that it made no difference to me, I just like to know who I'm dealing with when I start sharing with someone to the degree in which we conducted our friendship. The trip to Vancouver was wonderful and I could see a huge burden had been left under the old oak in the bayous.
We discussed the pros and cons of him coming out of the closet. It had to be his decision and I told him I would support him either way. I also told him that my vote was for him to come out, let the chips fall where they would and that any person or family member that dropped out of his life as a result was of no real consequence. This I reasoned because if they only liked him for what they thought he was, he really didn't know who his friends and allies were. That is not a good way to conduct the battle of life.
He thought long and hard after we got to town and one day made up his mind. He found out that he was many times braver than he knew. He told all his friends, co-workers and his ex-employer. I was invited to the evening on which he was to tell his family. It was a momentous occasion and none of them saw it coming.
We gathered at the dinner table for a tremendous meal and everyone expected to be entertained with tales of the Mexican road. They were indulged a bit before L.A.'s father took up the slack with anecdotes from his Hollywood days. Sooner than we knew it, supper was over and we were gathered in the living room for coffee and smokes. It was now that my friend dropped his bomb.
“Mom, Dad, everyone... I have an important announcement to make.”
His tone was different from usual and this garnered just the right amount of attention from all hands. His father was lighting his pipe, his mother was stirring her coffee, his elder brother was sipping his coffee and I was breathing slowly and deeply. There was a pause and all hands looked at L.A.
No explosions went off. His mother didn't faint. His brother didn't spew coffee. His father began an immediate lengthy discourse on all the gay movie stars he had interviewed and his brother began to list all the famous scientists, writers and generals in whose company L.A. was now a declared member.
L.A.'s younger brother piped up from his bedroom down the hall, “Hey you guys, so am I!”
It was a magical evening to be sure. Reality is what it is. There was a certain percentage of “friends” who dropped out of L.A.'s life like full ticks off a cow's ear and the entourage at his famous parties got noticeably smaller. There were new friends whom he made by being himself. He encouraged many who had been in his former predicament to follow his example. I was damn proud of him.
Some people shunned me afterward because of my association with L.A. This I happily bore. L.A. and I drifted apart over the ensuing years and it took me a long time to understand why. A gay man I worked with framed it up in a way I could understand decades later. He told me that for L.A. to hang around me, would be like me hanging around a girl I was madly in love with while she conducted her marriage and family-building with someone else. Now, that ain't rocket science.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.