Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Stillwater: A Memoir of Boyhood

In many meditation techniques you are told to remember a place where you were happy. This always leaves me pondering and ignoring any further instruction. One day, after hundred of hours of thought, I finally realized the one place I was truly happy. What follows are my memories of those days when I was nine or 10, and lived in Stillwater, B.C., near Powell River. It should be considered a meditative blog. I hope it takes you away from your problems for a moment and that it will conjure up your own special place/time in spacetime.

Stillwater: A Memoir of a Boyhood

I remember back when I entered fourth grade. I would have been eight years old, nine in October. The year 1962.
My father worked for MacMillan Bloedel and we were used to being transferred around the province. This would be my fourth school in four years. The House the Company provided us was, in a word, spectacular. And it was there, in Stillwater, seventeen miles south of Powell River, that I had some of the happiest times of my life.
The house itself was really something. It seemed huge and antebellum to me. It was white frame or shiplap, had two stories and a veranda. One entered via a boardwalk through arbors covered in hops vines. Immediately one was in the living room and, oddly, off the living room there was a paneled door to the master bedroom. To the right through a coved archway was the dining room with a bay window facing the front yard and again, oddly, there was the door to the smaller bedroom which was to be mine --occasionally to be shared with my brother, Stan, when he returned from the sea.

This house would be responsible for some major obsessions in my life that would result in --with all due modesty-- a mind obsessed with the bizarre, macabre and morbid.
My parents were older. In 1962, my dad would have been 61, my mother, 51. I recall being obsessively afraid that they would die. I once horribly startled my mother by awakening her by placing a hand over her nose to see if she was still breathing. Man, was she freaked out and who could blame her, she probably thought I was trying to smother her. But, I was totally terrified that IT had happened and here I was left alone in this scary house. And it was a scary house. But to that later.
My fear of my parents demise instilled in me a fear that I could only take to God, and so each night I would pray: “Please God and Jesus: Please let my parents live to be well over 100 years old and at least please don’t let them pass away until I’m at least 21 years old.” At 21, you were supposed to be a grown-up and be able to handle whatever life handed you.
I was also plagued by nightmares and I would pray myself to sleep each night asking the Lord and His Son, to allow me not to dream. And I could not recall any of my dreams again until I was in my mid teens.
The house was stone scary. It seemed to me to be the archetypal haunted house. Prayer and my faithful, strong and true, stuffed lion, Lambert, were my protectors. Thirty-eight years later, I am still plagued by nightmares of haunted houses. I was afraid to get out of the sheets at night to use the toilet. However, I was able to hold on through the night until someone got up in the morning. Then, I really had to go. However, if someone was in the bathroom I was at my wits end. My mother would direct me outside. But, being a proper little boy, I would not just go in the wilderness. No, I had to have a wide-mouth Mason jar in which to micturate and then bring the product back into the house to be flushed down the toilet. A couple of times, I recall having to use the same method when I had to move my bowels. This did not particularly please my mother, who would just be handed the jar to dispense with.
When my brother stayed with us and he slept in the bottom bunk, I rested much easier.
My brother would have been 22 or so in 1962 or 1963. While sharing a bedroom was fine for visits, he required his own room when his term in the Navy was complete and he reentered civilian life. He took the second floor, which was accessed by a weathered, grey, wooden staircase at the rear of the house. There was a doorless doorway dividing the space under the peak of the roof in half. His room was at the front of the house and on the otherside of the doorway was a storage area with two beds covered in toys and camping equipment under the angled ceiling flanking the passageway to his room. In that half, I could play quietly, protected, as he slumbered in the next room, resting from the young man’s excesses that would see him join a twelve-step program twenty years later.
My parents had instilled in me a prodigious ego. I was generally the top student in my grade and they always assured me that I was incredibly intelligent. This, combined with an obsessive reading of super-hero comic books conspired to give me a sense that one day, I might become super-intelligent, like many super heroes, including Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic of Marvel Publishing’s Fantastic Four.
I used to perform experiments. One of these involved a dart gun game, I had been given. In those rougher days, a dart gun was a metal pistol with an incredibly strong steel spring. You inserted a dart with a suction cup on its end down the barrel until it locked. Then you had a fully loaded weapon that could actually put someone’s eye out. If you took the suction cup off the dart, you were essentially in possession of deadly force. As a paranoid kid, I usually went around armed, with a loaded dart gun, no suction cup, or a sword. Anyhow, the other component of this dart game was a target that featured a cardboard stand-up of an airforce commander urging me to shoot and a circular piece of cardboard featuring a UFO that was supported on a piece of spring steel. You set it in motion and it swung back and forth. If you hit the UFO, it fell over backward and the lever action pulled up a sign on the stand-up that said you had scored 100 points for the good guys.
Okay, so I had this disk that would swing back and forward. Hypnotically. Given my assumptions about my ability to become a mad scientist and rule the world, I covered the disk with shiny aluminum foil. Then I set the device on the table in front of my brother’s window so that it would catch the sunlight. Then I woulld set the amazing hypno-machine in motion, emanating its mesmerising, mind-crippling rays on the populace of Stillwater, B.C. I thoroughly expected that I would soon see the populace, blank eyed and drooling lumbering up the dirt road to converge on our front lawn to await instruction from their master --me.
I spent a lot of time keeping that disk waving back and forth and waiting to no avail. I also often tried a more close up application for the amazing Hypno-machine. I tried to hypnotize all my friends, Kim, Mousie and Penny, to bend them to my will. Sometimes they reported feeling somewhat odd after staring at the disk for five minutes or more. Kim had some vague idea that if we could hypnotize the girls, we could get them to take their clothes off. But, that was a bit advanced for one such as I who simply wanted to rule the world.
What a maroon!

Anyhow, on either side of the upstairs rooms, there were hatchways leading into... I never new what. But it was dark and dusty. My brother would terrify me with speculation that there might be rats or bats in there. I more favoured arcane trunks filled with evil and possibly small homunculuses, warped and malevolent. As you can see, I was like one of H.P. Lovecraft’s characters trapped in an ancient New England house while other worlds swirled about my perceptions full of forces and creatures out of space and time.
Now, I see that this fear of alternate dimensions coexisting with our reality is the primary theme in my fiction writing. Stillwater is certainly where some of it came from. Certainly my Christian upbringing was another source. And also at that time a show came on television that seemed directly for me. Its name was The Outer Limits.

* * * *

Out back there was an old ramshackle double car garage and workshop. The garage had a dirt floor. The shop was a place where my brother made cannons. He would take old pipes or rifle barrels and cut them off, put them in a handmade caisson, put in gunpower and wadding and a ball bearing and then he would call me in for the ignition. He would have drilled a fuse hole and then he would light it. Fkn thing would go off like an atomic bomb and blow a hole right through the walls of the old shop. The kickback would also blow the caisson back through another wall. We would stand there and stare at each other. I think that may be where I first hear the phrases, Holy s***, Holy fk, Fk me, and other such epithets. Shortly, Stan realized that if he put the barrel of the cannons in the workbench vice, it would make for less mayhem and he began blowing out the other wall of the shop. Serious chunks blew out of those walls, but behind us was only a compost heap and then acres of forest. Lord knows, there are probably a few alder trees still there with ball bearings deeply embedded in their trunks.
My brother was also notable for several other matters that are indelibly scorched into my brain. First, I have to say that my family was not into hockey or football. We watched All-Star Wrestling, which originated from CHEK studios in Burnaby, with congenial host Ron Morrier, ads done live with “your haberdasher, Fred Asher.” Thus, we were all conversant with the figure-four suplex, the flying dropkick, the claw, the sleeper hold and such. So, once when we were playfighting in the front yard, I, thinking I pretty much had the same fighting skills as Batman, Spider-Man or Thor, at very least Gene Kiniski, Whipper Billy Watson or “The Mormon Giant” Don Leo Jonathan, assaulted my brother with the aforementioned flying dropkick. Now, I was not a particularly long legged nine-year-old, so when I launched both my feet in the air with all my might, I became a horizontal missile aimed at my brother’s chest just as I had seen dozens of time in the squared circle. However, I had underestimated those fine grapplers and their strength. Thus, I became about a 90-pound missile vectoring right to my bro’s nards. I had launched myself full out and he went down like a stone. And he didn’t move. I freaked and tried to get him to speak. He didn’t speak. And he lay there like silent death for the longest time. I had killed my brother. How would I tell Mom and Dad this?
My brother lay there in a fetal position. I sweated, as far as that is possible for a nine-year-old. I cursed having spent so much time reading Bruce Tegner Teach Yourself Karate books. Eventually, I think my brother managed to croak out, “Go away.” Which I did -with dispatch.
I’ve never really found out what happened that day. I believe I was too afraid to ask him about it until another 15 years had passed. By that time he couldn’t even recall the incident. Thank God for small infirmities.

* * * *

Another time I was annoying my brother somehow and he suggested I go fishing. Sounded good, so off I went with a chunk of wood with some fishing line around it and a hook. I put a few worms from the compost heap in an Old Chum tobacco can. My dad was a pipe smoker and hence we always had tons of tobacco cans around. As a consequence, everything was much better organized in those days: checkers, marbles, bolts, screws, worms.
It can hardly be overstated how idyllic our setting was in Stillwater. Facing the house, the lot to the right had an old abandoned house on the back of the lot. The yard was essentially chest-high hay with a few massive blackberry brambles around the edges. A pipe had broken in the yard somewhere, so there was always a puddle like a small pond in the middle of the yard. No one would have ever thought of fixing it. It was only water in those days. I believe there was some sort of wire fence that was easily vaulted and the house stood unlocked and we kids would play there all the time. A real house for a playhouse.
Past that yard was woods. Just raw, untamed forest, primarily alder and bracken and sawtooth ferns. In those days, you would just tell your Mom, or whatever adult, that you were going to play in the woods. You would plunge into the forest and resurface for lunch and dinner. The rest of you time you were on your own and no one was ever afraid. There were cougars and bears in those woods, but we never saw one. One kid did see a bear when he was walking to school, but he just abruptly turned aboutface and walked home. The bear was never seen again. Though we were all warned that if we saw a bear cub that it’s mother was surely around somewhere and that we should get away. Scientists said to back quickly away while trying to make some loud noise. Loggers told us just back away and then run like hell. We figured the loggers had the more practical method.
And no one was worried about tramps or sex perverts in the woods. If we came across where someone had made a fire or a camp, we just gave them their privacy; there was lots of woods to go around. As for us being out there and our parents concerned about perverts or kidnapping, I think those things were just never even considered in 1962. We didn’t have the media coverage in those days. TV was Fun-O-Rama and bolo-bat championships. If you could hit the ball with you bolo bat 30 times you signed an affadavit to that effect and sent it on to KVOS-12 and in about six weeks you got a badge that said, “Bolo Bat Champion,” which you could wear proudly to all occasions but church.
So, off in the woods, there was an underground creek. Now, someone had dug a hole to reveal the creek and they had handily built a square frame from sticks to hold the hole open and you could lie on the forest floor and watch little trout from minnows to nine-inchers swimming down the creek. I dislike killing things, but in those days I toed the line and fishing was allegedly cool. So, I wormed the bait on the hook dropped it into the water and watched a nice little trout take it. Pulled him out and, as I was taught by my mother, I grabbed a stick and clubbed him on the head until dead. I did this twice more and walked back home. I brought the three fish up to my brother, who was working on his 57 Chevy. “Here,” I said. “I’ve been fishing. Now what should I do?”
I had been gone ten minutes.

* * * *

As you faced the house, to the left was an orchard of cherry trees, then a wall of blackberry brambles completely isolating us from the next door neighbors. At the very back of the yard, bordered again by interminable forest, was an old chicken coop. My father and brother cleaned it out and it became my fort. It had big doors that opened out, so it was a rather welcoming fort and soon it was coopted by my friends, the sisters Penny and Mouse. I can no longer remember their family names, but they lived up at the top of a big gravel-roaded hill. They were such good friends, that I used to knock on their door after dinner to ask if they could come out to play. Being an incredibly shy child this was some measure of how much I liked them. Penny was large-boned, round jawed with dusty-colored wavy hair kept close to her face. She always had a bit of a double chin and this may have contributed to her somewhat grumpy disposition. Mouse, whose real name may have been Joanne, however was a stone beauty. In those happy days, before puberty threw a spanner into the works, one could acknowledge the beauty of another kid without even conceiving of jumping their bones. She was thin and had long blonde hair, seemingly always tanned and was a tomboy. In other words, you could hang out with a sylphen beauty, a wood nymph if you will, and in the forest there was never the slightest brainflicker of impropriety. While you gain so much with the onset of sexuality, you also lose much -and looking back fondly from having passed the lion’s share of my allotted four score and 10, I wonder which was the happier state. I seem to be writing about this one.
I remember once climbing the hill and going to the door and asking for Mousie. She came to the door and said, she’d be a few minutes. They were just having dessert. “Minute Rice,” she said, “and you know how that only takes a minute to eat.” She was so pretty, so fun, that such a little joke as that has stuck to me throughout my life. It should be noted as well that dietary habits were much different in the early 1960s. White rice was often served as a dessert, topped with white sugar and milk. Maybe a few raisins. As an entrĂ©e or sidedish, it would not catch on for a few years. Fried rice was available at Chinese restaurants, but was frowned on as a bit of a waste of money. After all, it was only rice.
Anyhow, Penny soon commandeered my fort into a tea room. Little plastic cups and saucers started appearing, an old beat-up tablecloth, some comics.
What to serve though? We never for an instant considered real tea. And the idea of kids with kettles of boiling water was unsound. What we did have was a vast resource of blackberries. Great roiling walls, eight feet high of blackberries. Enough for our parents to make jams, jellies, pies and tarts to circle the world if laid end to end. And there were still more, great heavy vines, more like boughs, laden with the blue-black fruit.
Penny, being the practical one, got some clean cloth and we squeezed the fruit into juice, which went in to the tea pot and was then doled out in tiny cups by Penny the teamaster.
It wasn’t particularly thirst quenching, but that summer we were part of a secret society known only by the purple rings around our cupid’s bows and the purple fingers and palms we sported for the day, those summer days.

* * * *

1 comment:

Avinash Roy said...

Impressive New Year 2017 wishes for someone special.