Powerful to Powerless

Did the silence mean it was going to happen again? If I held my breath, would time stop?

After hours of clinking glasses and men laughing, the party, upstairs, came to a sudden halt. He was visiting from wherever he came from and the Pilsner or Bohemian and cigarettes always came with him. Crude jokes, a couple of punches and arm twists, a dollar and the big bottle of red wine followed. The man made my father laugh – no one did that anymore. His visits were the highlight of his year.

Darkness covered the corner of the basement where a curtain defined my bedroom. What time was it? Midnight? Would he be too drunk? Too tired? Tonight? I pressed myself against the concrete wall and pulled the covers over my ears. The cocoon was so small, maybe I could disappear tonight. Maybe I could transform into a superhero.

Superheroes didn’t feel this much fear. Superheroes fought back regardless of a 100 pound weight difference. Superheroes didn’t need their parents to fight their battles, even when they are 9 years old. Tonight I was going to fight back. I was going to say “No, no, no”. Tonight I was going to scream. Tonight I was going to stab him through his heart.

A light at the top of the stairs went out and the shadows crept away. The steps on the treads shifted from stomps to tiptoes. The sanctuary curtain was torn open and disappeared. Not in the world but in my head. I wasn’t here. I wasn’t helpless. I wasn’t abandoned. This didn’t happen again.

I was 6 the first time I remember Roy visiting Regina or the first time I remember him at our house. He was always around my aunt’s house in Saskatoon. “Wanna play catch?” “Let’s go to the park” ”Would you like a chocolate bar?” My cousins never went with him. They were always busy or out of sight or in the bathroom. O’Henry, baseballs and swings. Roy always had time for me. “ “You are becoming a little man, aren’t you”. “ Climb up on my lap and I will tell you another story”. One gold tooth, sweat, and tales of headless horsemen.

I think he did some kind of work with my uncle, maybe painting, or pounding, or lifting or grunting. Something for those sausage fingers and rough hands to squeeze and pull and push and caress. Man work where you didn’t need to ask if you could, you just knew you could. Start a job, finish it. “ money in your pocket let you do whatever you wanted to do”.

My dad didn’t really like anyone but he seemed to really like Roy. He didn’t talk about much other than football. “ If God made cows then we are supposed to eat them – with mashed potatoes and gravy”. “The government needs to teach kids reading, writing and rules”. “ We have a little bit set aside to buy a truck but things are tough”. Roy drew him out. They shared something from their past but I never knew what it could possibly be. Mutt and Jeff, Laurel and Hardy, Jeckyll and Hyde and yet they fell into each other’s company, bear hugging, catcalling and baboon laughing. Between visits, my dad sank back into a silent stupor with occasional outbursts and roars. Work, beer, sleep, work, beer, sleep, … until Roy graced the back door with chaos and mayhem on his shoulder. I loved the light he brought. Garlic, sweat, dirt, shone from his pores and everything was instantly and temporarily brighter, lighter. Twinkle, twinkle eyes, crooked man smile, and always a secret to be shared or never to be told.

In those days, everyone looked back with nostalgia. “ Will it ever be a simple as when we were kids?” “Remember the time we went swimming at the Red Bank and Charlie got caught skinny dipping by Sister Anna.” “ A deck of smokes used to be 35 cents”. Safety, sanity, silliness and no responsibilities. Life was better then and wouldn’t be better tomorrow. Things could never be the same.

Breakfast, school, cartoons and lunch, school, playground, supper, back alley, sleep, breakfast, school, cartoons and lunch, school, playground, supper, back alley, sleep …. Me and Brian Bushe.

When you don’t know what poor is, you aren’t. Ladders turned into sailing ships, trees into fortresses, sticks were swords or guns or spears and playgrounds were where kids shared secrets, surprises and challenges. Street lights coming on signaled something different – no need for shouting “Billy”, no cell phones, no worried parents. Just streetlights coming on and dozens of kids racing home.

Dreams were simple, sweet, safe and if scary not so scary as to make you wet the bed. Exhaustion, growth and youth brought 8 hours of sinking deeply into a soft mattress, cool sheets, warm blanket and a new day – much like the others but with a promise of adventure and unknown.

Once you stop being curious, once you know too much, the promise fades and then is gone. Night just brings morning and day brings more of the same. Stealing candy, curiousity and dreams. Hope glimmers for a while. Trust tries to press through. Love is seen but not felt. “I need to get up every morning and get out into the world and keep looking for the secret, keep looking for a time to share it, keep hoping that someone will ask. Running helps, rhythm and breathing stops my brain from returning. When my legs are churning forward, I can’t go back. At 1 mile the veil lifts and light peeks in. 2 miles and heat rises from inside and warmth on my face is understood. Beyond 3 miles anxiety returns as the awareness of the end gets closer. I can’t run forever but maybe for an hour. I can pull a Houdini again this afternoon or this evening and on Thursday. Keep running.

He would catch me some day. I knew the bastard was behind me, getting closer. He was near enough that I could feel his breath chasing me down. His panting wasn’t laboured but enjoyed. His body was strong and soon he would reach the end. 1 mile, 2 miles 3 miles – darkness. Powerful to powerless.

Running Toward

I could already run faster than all the kids my age, in short bursts of fifty yards or at distances over two miles. I ran everywhere, all the time, so it was never a stretch for me to just break into stride. At eleven years old, I was a skinny kid with chicken legs and a terrible nickname; Pinhead, but when it came to running I had some prowess. In a pinch, I could out run bikes or cars for at least a block, even without the blue cape and gold S.
Playing football with neighbourhood kids, a fake to the left and a move to the right and I could burst past any defender even the teenagers and if the quarterback would have thrown in my direction more often, we would have scored more often. My delusions of grandeur were pretty strong, even then, as I imagined leading team after team in game after game to victory.There was the occasional pass thrown my way and with average hands, I held onto more than half the attempts. My memories are clouded by the silver lining of my imagination so I’m not sure if I scored 5 touchdowns that summer or fifty.
I appreciated my running ability and mostly I remember it was grudgingly admired by my dad. He didn’t say much to make me feel good, nothing really, but he didn’t make fun of me on this subject. Three incidents in 1965 made me believe that he was at least aware that I ran.
You have already heard the Kevin punching bag story – so here are two more.
I was playing organized football with the Demolay Knights, – uniforms, helmets, yard markers and referees meant it was organized and real. I was a real football player. Practice was every second evening and I ran or biked the three miles across Coronation Park to join the coaches and team. On Monday and Wednesday, the coaches tried to get all of us to play most of the positions in practice, except quarterback, and then assign us to a spot for the Friday games. It was surprising that I was often assigned to a lineman’s position – center or tight end. Surprising because of the skinny chicken leg thing and skinny little arms to match. There were a few kids that played both sides of the ball in important spots. The QB, Garnet, doubled as a linebacker, the safety was a wide receiver and I got into the games as a linebacker, either corner or middle for about half the defensive plays. I asked myself hopefully “Did this mean I was one of the important players?”

One Friday, we had a game at a field in the south against some kids from Lakeview – while we didn’t spit when we said their name, there wasn’t any love lost between Northenders and Southies. I was thrilled to hear my number called for offence, defense, and kick return. There was a chance that my speed might be put to use and the dream of crossing the goal line and hearing cheers would be real. On the opening kickoff, the Knights won the toss and were to receive the ball and my anticipation turned to dread. I willed the kicker to drive the ball to the players on the opposite side of the field. I wasn’t ready. Behind my face mask, my eyes were wide, my nostrils were flaring and hearing my heart beating inside my head was new. My worst fear didn’t happen until the third quarter. After Lakeview scored to go ahead the kicker booted the ball directly at me. Jumping out of the way wasn’t a serious option so I caught it. Considering that I had darted and deked my way down the playground field in tag football without even being touched, it was disconcerting to not know what I should do after I caught the kick. Frozen, deafened, panicked I saw a wall of blue charging towards me. There didn’t appear to be any other gold jerseys on the field. I was alone, it was up to me alone. The sea raced closer and just as the wave was about to smother me my body took over in rebellion to my brain. Out of instinct and distinct imaginings, my chicken legs started pumping. Left loop, shuttle step, deke right, fake left, jump, dance the sidelines and the roar stopped. My head became clear, I was in the end zone with the referee signaling touchdown. Have you noticed how that signal looks like the Internet shorthand lol? But it wasn’t a joke it was for real. The ball dropped to the turf and I nonchalantly jogged to the bench. Two back slaps and a swat on the butt and the game went on.

‘Beast’ would be the best description of me for the rest of the game. Confidence borne out of success had me knocking kids down blocking and tackling like a madman. The QB threw three passes my way, as tight end, for long gains and I ended up in the end zone one more time. It felt like I had arrived. I belonged. I was an important kid. Nothing gushy, or over the top happened. I wasn’t carried off the field by my teammates and sadly I don’t remember the score or the outcome. I like to think we kicked some Lakeview butt.

On Monday afternoon, my mom shouted out the back door. “ Bobby, Bobby”. It wasn’t near supper time. What did she need me to run and get from the corner store? Cigarettes? Can you imagine that I could buy cigarettes just by saying “my mom sent me” for Player’s Filter or Buckingham if my dad was out.No avoiding her voice or her beckoning or there would be a reckoning. I was at the door in a flash and ready to dash to wherever was needed. “ Come in, your dad and I have to tell you something.” An immature mind can concoct a story from a few facts and suspicious tone but in the next three seconds, my brain couldn’t even imagine what was coming. ” Had they discovered something that I had done or not done?” Did my sister rat me out and tell them that I had punched her on the arm?”

“ Your coach called and invited you and your dad to attend a Saskatchewan Roughriders’ luncheon on Friday. Some of the players and coaches will be there and you are going to receive an autographed football and a trophy for your play in the game last week” Stunned, all I could think was ‘dad won’t be able to go, he was at work, he had never seen me play so mom would need to take me’. That would be okay, I guess. Suprisingly, he smiled and said, “ I am going to talk to my foreman and arrange to take a long lunch so I will meet you at the hall”.
Was this going to be a turning point in father/son relations? No. Was he proud of me? I think so? Did he make it to the luncheon? Yes. Running had opened a door that never quite seemed wide enough for either of us to go through. I was running towards something but had no clue what the destination looked like.

The fall of 1965 stretched summer even as the leaves changed – Indian Summer we called it. At 11, Mom added some responsibility to my week. I was in charge of the feeding, walking, and cleanup for Scamp, a lovable if headstrong Cocker Spaniel. For the most part, I fit Scamp into my day when it was convenient for me not him. One Friday, I was supposed to get to MacLeod’s Department store about 10 blocks from home to pick up food and then do the pooper scooper duty in the back yard. Harvey, Brian, Gary and I ducked behind the school to talk about girls and plot our Saturday adventure. Time evaporated and it was 5:30 when I felt the money tucked deep in the front pocket of my jeans. In those days, the sidewalks were rolled up at 6, on the dot and didn’t open again until 9 the next morning. “ Gotta run” I blurted as I bolted across the school yard, hoping I could get the dog food before it closed and all the while planning my excuse for not doing what I was supposed to do. “ I twisted my ankle and couldn’t walk. Harvey’s mom needed me to help her. We were working on a school project” would all be susceptible to interrogation and simple investigation. My pace increased. Running against two deadlines store closure and supper, was exhilarating or it would have been if the tension of disappointing my mom wasn’t so high.

The fretting was unwarranted. I was at the till dog food and change in hand with ten minutes to spare. Now to race the supper clock which was easier to explain away when I was carrying the big bag. Still, the urgency compelled me to hurry. Through the inside door of MacLeod’s and a quick turn to exit through the outside doors. My head stung, my ribs hurt, my eyes were closed and I was outside with a 20-foot high glass window shattered around me. I had walked through the window without slowing down. Two shoppers; mothers I didn’t recognize, stared agape at my stunned face. Anxiousness leaped to panic and I swung the bag to my shoulder and raced, faster than I had ever run, across the parking lot. My right foot hit the top of the back step before I thought of anything but escape. “ What the hell.” Was my dad’s first response as I burst through the door and then “ what’s wrong?” My face and the blood dripping down my forehead had betrayed me and all the facts of the past 30 minutes poured itself out.
“ I forgot to get Scamp’s food. Ran to MacLeod’s and got the bag. Was thinking about supper. Walked through a window. Ran home.” I huffed realizing that I was red-faced from embarrassment and winded from the tension.

“ What did the manager say?” my dad demanded. What was he thinking? The manager didn’t say anything because I got the hell out of there before I was recognized. “ I didn’t stick around to find out” I boasted and realized immediately that instead, it should have sounded like a confession. “We have to go back. You need to tell him what happened”. New panic swelled. I don’t remember the long walk with my dad beside me or what the manager said except “ I am glad you are okay. We were worried that you were injured”. Running away from the fear of reprisal lead to running away from fear of getting caught, both deeply rooted in my imagination alone.