the true stories
Some say it takes a village to raise a child. Some send their children out to raze villages. On the Trail of Tears I tried to take a responsible role in the fabric of my beat. Old folks and little children are special resources in our world. For them that retain it, old folks are to be treasured for their store of memories and experience. The young are to be treasured for their potential, their close relations to the Great Spirit and to meet the trust which they place in their elders with the dignity thus bestowed.
Some mistakenly worship and revere age itself with no consideration of the aged item in question. This is a naive view. A lousy book is still lousy regardless of how many centuries of dust have settled on its covers. Ride a rapid transit sometime and look around at the people. Think of the other people you see through your day. Go back in time in your imagination to any location you wish. To any period, era or event that you have read about, heard about or find yourself in awe of.
Got it? Good. Now, people this event, era or historical place with those people you had seen throughout your day. Leave off the portraits painted by official historians who wrote for the victors after the facts. The same bunch you rub shoulders with on the bus are the same types you would have encountered if you had a time machine.
They would speak, dress and behave with differences but you would find that their personalities, abilities and foibles would be represented in roughly the same percentages. The same twisters and jokers you put up with here and now were conning people there and then. Children were children, ladies were ladies, old folks were old folks and men were men. You were there too. A system was in operation then as now.
The was a dear old man who lived on the Trail. He was a Sikh man and I would put his age at the time of this story at around ninety years. He wore the same gray slacks, turquoise turban, white shirt, black belt and running shoes every day. In the winter he had an old umbrella and cloak. His beard was snow-white, long and impeccably groomed. His features were fine rather than coarse and he had a face with stories written into every teak-coloured wrinkle.
His routine was to walk to the nearest McDonald's on the busy commercial street four blocks from his house and take tea. He would peruse the paper, chat with the other old men so gathered and walk home. It was a daily ritual which he never made excuses to miss. I passed him countless times over the years.
He had a strange gait, even for an old man. He walked without lifting his shoes from the pavement. There was no scraping or stumbling. Only a smooth, tortuously slow shuffle which netted him a half foot-length in progress with every step. His way never varied nor did his stride or pace. I called him Babaji and he always smiled.
One day in the late summer when the sun was bright but had already lost its intensity I passed Babaji as he sallied forth on his sojourn.
“Ki hal he, Babaji? Sassa dikol.”
Ki hal changa, Mikalala. Sassa dikol.”
He smiled gently and politely and never broke his glacial stride. I turned back after a few more calls to see his progress of a few feet. Earlier I had passed a group of four. They were not from the hood. There were two young ladies who looked to be from recently in from China and two young men for whom shaving was an unnecessary part of their morning ritual. The gals were dressed in knee-length pleated blue skirts with crisp white blouses and sensible black shoes. The guys wore black trousers, white long sleeve shirts. All hands carried small black backpacks and each had a plastic name-tag pinned to their shirts.
If you haven't guessed, they were Mormons. I had greeted them good morning and watched with some annoyance as they tried every door. Soon after they were several streets behind me. On this part of the route I traveled five blocks down and back on each street that came off the big street. This pattern kept me returning to the commercial street with every ten blocks walked in loops.
On one such loop I had seen Babaji in the restaurant window safe and sound, sipping his tea. On another loop-end I saw him back on his side street and headed for home. Only this time there were four people standing in a semi-circle around him, clutching notebooks and papers. Joseph Smith meet Guru Gobind Singh, I chuckled to myself.
In a time-scale which I dubbed “religious half-lives” we find the following rough dates. Christianity appeared about 2000 years ago, Islam appeared about 1000 years ago and Sikhism appeared about 500 years ago. Joseph Smith began his Mormon religion in the 1820's in New York and is next in line. Hot on his heels were the Jehovah's Witnesses who got underway with Charles Taze Russell in 1870 in Pittsburgh and the Seventh Day Adventists who began in 1863 after branching off from the followers of William Miller, a farmer of New York. Mormonism is less than 200 years old.
I figured the Latter Day people would call it a tie and go on about proselytizing to the non-pedestrians after a brief exchange with Babaji. I couldn't have been more wrong. As I came up to the big street for another loop-end, the group was still where I had seen them last. It was annoying.
I approached the ambush briskly and sized up the situation. Babaji was shuffling from side to side flanked by the two young men while the ladies stood off to the side like apprentices learning the craft. I reckoned they had been at it at least a half hour. Babaji had a pained look on his face that betrayed a desperate need to urinate. He was sweating and nearly shaking from the effort of holding his water. He was out-gunned and too polite to break away abruptly from the psycholinguistics.
I looked at the name tag of the Mormon spokesman. It said Elder Tom. This annoyed me further. I stood near and asked if I could join in. Elder Tom said yes with a sparkle in his eye like a fisherman astonished at his own good luck. He was clearly enjoying himself.
I asked Tom how old he was and whether he was from Utah. He replied that he was 19 and his male cohort was 17. They were both from Salt Lake. The ladies were from Shanghai and were in their twenties. I asked them how old they thought Babaji was. They guessed eighty or so. This established, I began addressing a series of questions to Tom that ran like this:
“Have you ever been a father?”
“Have you ever been to war?”
“Have you ever delivered a baby?”
“Of course not,” Tom answered betraying his annoyance.
The ladies moved away and stood clutching their notebooks and half bowing in a very Buddhist manner. The other lad tensed up and fidgeted in anticipation. I told Babaji to go home and that good manners should not be squandered on people such as these. He blessed me with his eyes as he shuffled off. I don't know if he made it indoors without the indignity of pissing himself. My attention was on Tom whom I continued to question.
“Have you ever gone hungry?”
“Have you ever been married and known a woman?”
“Have you ever built a house?”
“Then what makes you think that you are an Elder and what the precious hell do you think that you could possibly teach this old man who has been and has done all of these things and much more before your father was courting your mother?”
Tom's face was red as a tomato. His partner was a paler shade of pink and the two girls were bent nearly double with giggle fits. There was nothing else to say so I left.
A few months ago I was having my Suzuki serviced. I was sitting out on some baseball bleachers reading while the mechanics went over the vehicle. It was twenty years after my run in with Elder Tom and I was in North Vancouver. Two young fellows came up to me with white shirts, Elder tags and backpacks. One was taller and very clean-cut. The other was dressed in ill-fitting borrowed clothes and a black toque. I put down my E-reader.
“Do you think there will ever be world peace?”, the toque asked.
“First, how old are you fellows and what part of Utah are you from,” I asked.
“I'm 19 and he is 17,” the tall Elder replied. “I'm from Salt Lake and he's from Lynn Valley here in North Van.”
I told them that I wanted to turn things around a bit and that I would rather tell them a story than to answer their ice-breaker question. Otherwise, I was busy. The 19 year old agreed with some trepidation and the 17 year old grinned at the prospect of a break in the monotony of the day. I rolled a smoke and told the boys the story you have just read. I spent a good hour doing it because I was sitting comfortably and they were standing into the sun. I was enjoying it and Salt Lake was greatly annoyed. I held out hope that my tuition might put a dent in the poor lad's blinders. I bore them no ill will.
I finished the tale and rolled a new smoke. Salt Lake looked at his watch and said they had to get going. He curtly thanked me for the story and his look threw daggers. I looked at Lynn Valley to see his expression. He stood like a boy who had just seen a raccoon and a coyote scrapping. He was both entertained by the spectacle and satisfied at the outcome.
“How about you then Lynn Valley? Did you learn anything just now?” I asked.
“Ch'yeah,” he said, “Let 'em pee before we pitch 'em. Thanks, old dude.”
Copyright © 2015 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.