Homesick and Sick of Home

When I was 8 or 9 years old, I got shipped off to a variety of relatives for the entire summer. I don’t know what was happening at home but in hindsight, I should probably have noticed something. My sisters stayed home and at 5 and 6, they didn’t notice or at least don’t remember anything unusual in the household or in our parent’s relationship. Maybe I had been a handful for my mom and she needed a break from me. Nonetheless. I spent the summer on the road, shuttling between my uncle’s farm, my grandmother’s house, an aunt with a huge family in the same town and between two aunts who were raising their families in Saskatoon. I have patches of clarity about that excursion and it seems that I stayed about two weeks in each home and then was shipped to the next arrangement.I haven’t a clue about the real itinerary but there would have been a logic to make the trip from south to north with a stop at the farm and then two stays in outlook and the final month in Saskatoon.

I imagine that my dad drove me to the first location and likely left me without much ceremony with my aunt and uncle and three older cousins. For the rest of the trip, I have a recollection of a solo bus ride and a trip alone on the dayliner that occurred about that age but can’t be sure it was the same tour.

The farm was like so many in Saskatchewan, in the early 1960’s – small (about 160 acres) fenced with a big coulee running east to west where the few head of cattle grazed during the day. I can hear my older cousin standing at the top of looking across to the sunset, placing his hands at his mouth like a megaphone and hollering ” Soiee, soiee”, a tradition from our Scandinavian roots; kulning, I think it was called. It was remarkable, and now I understand Pavlovian that the three or four cows made their way across the bottom land and up a trail straight to the barn. Chester always had a handful of oats for each of them as they passed into their stalls. He might have needed to milk them but that might be an image from another farm that I spent time at before I was 12. There were a dozen chickens; layers, that I shared responsibility for with my girl cousins. We needed to scramble into the coop, right after breakfast, and snatch up the eight to ten eggs that had been laid in the last day. It took some effort and fortitude to reach under an angry hen and steal away her creation, but there wasn’t any dillying because the air reeked of chicken poop and ammonia. I barfed a bit, in my mouth, almost everytime but I didn’t shirk my duties. The girls made fun of me for being a sissy and a city slicker and said: “we are going to make a chicken farmer out of you, yet.” There really weren’t any adverse childhood experiences. Even when Chester convinced me that it was Wednesday and we needed to let the chickens out of the enclosure so they could get some exercise, I didn’t resent the whooping my aunt gave me. We were able to corral all the birds before supper, and this became the story the three cousins told about me at all our family gatherings.

The day-to-day experience of waking to the smell of food cooking, eating a big, delicious breakfast, with strangers and being outside picking rocks, weeds, or some other chore became a refuge from a bit of homesickness. I didn’t know the strangers were boarders that my aunt had ‘taken in, who were building the hydro dam a few miles away and I didn’t know that what I was feeling in my heart and chest was about missing my sisters and my home.

After we got our morning chores done, we were on our own until lunch. I learned to swing in the hay loft and was coaxed into walking a ridge beam in the barn that seemed to be 50 feet above the ground. I snared gophers, and we cut off their tails. Supposedly there was a nickel bounty on each tail, and by how many my cousins had stuffed in old snuff cans, I thought they were going to be rich. I didn’t get or expect a share of the payment and don’t know if those cans are still lined up in the rafters waiting to be taken to the land agent.

The firmament of time leaves the impression that I ‘lived’ the farm life for a couple of weeks before it was time for an aunt in a neighbouring town to take me in. I had spent time in the chaos of their household before. An older girl and eight boys created more than enough drama and intrigue to make me forget about hearth and home. It likely wasn’t the schedule during the school year but when I was there at the end of July, the kids had settled into very late nights and sleeping until almost lunch time. I felt the jetlag from the transition from farm life and relished not having any real responsibilities. No one seemed to clean, do laundry or even wash dishes. A couple of us would venture to the regional park to toss rocks in the river or swim in the outdoor pool but nothing was scheduled and nothing was promised. For the five or six days I was there it was liberating to be free from internal and external expectations. I am sure that I would have gone stir crazy if the lack of routine and planning was permanent but it was fun while it lasted.

I grew up a bit that summer. I recall independence and my mom tells a story of having to come rescue me and take me home. Her detail of me standing alone sobbing with dust sticking to my face and her asking ” do you want to come home” sounds right but feels wrong. Did I want to be the big man who is okay when he feels alone? Do I still need to be that?

When I spend time with my mom, who is now 90, we talk about my childhood and her early years of marriage. My misremembered childhood may be more or less accurate than her nostalgic memories. My stories may be a compilation of experiences across time and distance and hers would have infinitely more variations.

But does it matter? If I remember my grandmother as important and caring and a cousin thinks she was dictatorial, does it change the world we both live in? Could he change his impression and would he be better for it?



Humiliation and Recognition are Twins

I had heard about Froshing; the first Friday of high school year where freshmen were hazed as part of an unofficially (but truly officially) school sanctioned initiation. Dread had been seeded as the stories filtered down to middle school and fear had bloomed over the summer. On that day no chance meeting, planned activity, hang out happened without raising the prospect of humiliation, embarrassment and maybe even injury.

Pushing pennies down a 300-foot hallway with your nose, wearing a diaper all day in class, following seniors on hands and knees like a dog seemed like mild expressions of Freshie Day by the time we allowed our imaginations to run wild. “ I heard that one boy was forced to run naked through the girl’s locker room”. “ A friend of a friend’s sister carried her books on her head all day and if she let them fall, they publicly spanked her”. “ Whatever you do – don’t cry. They made this kid stand sobbing at the front of the lunchroom for an hour.” “ You can’t go to teachers for help because they are in on it”.

From Monday to Thursday that first week, the tension mounted. Innuendos, suggestions, and statements of sworn intent swirled every time you passed a senior. “ I have been waiting 4 years for this day. You are going to get everything that I did times four” was scary in its lack of detail. I was spitless and shit less by Friday morning and considered faking sickness ( I could have vomited on cue by pushing my toothbrush down my throat until it triggered a gag reflex). It was the story, epic saga, of the boy who hid at home on Friday and then had his own private Frosh Hell for a week that tipped the scales in favour of getting it over with. “How bad can it really be?” Harvey asked me. I don’t know if he took my silence as an agreement but it was meant as apprehension. “ There is a dance at 7 tonight.” Was the only words I could find and those took ten minutes to discover.

Friday morning came and we trudged our way to school. Two became three and by the front entrance, there were six of us who hadn’t been allies until we faced a common foe.The trip had taken less than fifteen minutes the first four times and this one was more than double that. Five minutes before nine, five minutes before the start bell. I could feel eyes boring into me, glaring ravenously at me scrawny frame. I hope my demeanor was saying “ Not much to eat here.’ The safety of the first period was like a sanctuary where hunting wasn’t allowed but it became obvious that the seniors didn’t need to attend their scheduled classes as they prowled the halls looking for stragglers. They were positioning themselves outside classrooms for a five-minute blitz attack at class change. Should I let it happen to me ( and get it over with)? Will they get braver in their punishment as the day goes on or tire of the hunt?” Can I just stay here for the next class?” “ Can I run?”

The teachers wasted their time doling out their lessons but all attention was focused on the noise in the hallway and our imagination. The drone at the front of the room only served to emphasize the chaos awaiting us once the door opened. I chose a ‘be first’ strategy and had my hand on the door knob as the bell rang. I thrust myself into the abyss startling two grade 12 boys and a girl. “ You, freshie get over here”. I willingly and maybe excitedly obeyed. “ On your hands and knees”. I complied again “ Put your nose on this penny and push it down the hall. Don’t stop until I tell you”. I was quick to react and moved the coin faster than they expected, five feet, ten feet, I was way ahead of them. At fifteen feet there was a shout behind me “ Okay, stop’. They seemed relieved and disappointed. “ Here wear this ribbon to let others know that someone already got you”. A yellow piece of cloth was thrust at me and they were gone looking for another victim. It wasn’t a star or a badge of honor but that tiny piece of cloth saved me from more imaginative and vindictive seniors. Before the next class started I had the ribbon on the front of my shirt without considering similarity to other persecute groups, and felt all the tension evaporate from my stomach and shoulders. The impending headache was gone and decisions seemed clearer. The whole ordeal hadn’t lasted five minutes. I observed the hunt for the rest of the day, no one was hurt and I didn’t see anything that came close to all the hype.

That was the next three years with rare exception; big promises and expectations and small outcomes. Until my senior year it all blurs together; wake, shower; walk, droning teachers, walk, sleep and repeat. Uneventful was the norm. The rare exceptions; first drink, first smoke, first kiss weren’t monumental but just broke the monotony. In the fall of my junior year, I discovered the cross-country team; a group of misfits that couldn’t make the football team mostly because, like me, they still hadn’t had a growth spurt. I found comfort in accepting the misfit moniker and joined the team.

This time I was running towards something; the finish line and a reputation. Racing over a 3-mile course, I was also escaping the sameness of early teens. The distance ate up the aches of loneliness and winning won acceptance from the oddballs and eventually minor notoriety with the general population. Chicken and egg.

Uneven ground, twists and turns and elevation changes made cross country more interesting than circling a cinder track counter clockwise. For the meager spectators, there was surprise rather than anticipation because their view was limited to their vantage point. At the start/finish line, they saw the rush of arms and legs hurtling away in a clump and then the thrill of one or two competitors loping towards the end, nothing in between. The real race was meant to be a secret to the competitors. The strategy of leading out, building a lead and holding on was challenged by a steady pace and final burst. On any given day regardless of your tactics, you weren’t sure of how the others were playing. Three to four miles is a long enough distance to come from out of sight and overtake any leader. It is also far enough that a leader can get confidence by adding yards between himself and the competition at each checkpoint. I often charged ahead not considering the consequences of walls or wobbly legs. Most races came down to me or a lanky kid, 6 inches taller than me, from a south end school, in fancy cleats. In the first year I competed we split the 6 events finishing first and second. The City Championships would settle the score.

In late October that year, we had had snow once and temperatures were consistently in the 40,s F. Frozen ground was treacherous but the nip in the air made pounding out the 4.2-mile course seem less strenuous. I had actually trained for the past two weeks, following a regimen outlined by the track coach/math teacher. Sprints, intervals, over distance, and practicing running form. I had been running all my life and didn’t know anything about technique, I had never needed to think about it.
“ Racing is different than running but you need to practice your technique while running so it is good when you are racing” he instructed all of us one afternoon. It took some struggle to understand what he meant and then to follow his urgings about “lead with your knees”, “ keep our body over your feet”, you are striding too long”.

On the Thursday before the Saturday championships, my 4 mile run with better technique felt easy and natural. Friday at school was a blur except for the strange “attaboys” from other kids and teachers after the school announcements that included congratulations to competitors (three of us) who were representing the school on Saturday. I got to bed early and overslept leaving me just enough time to walk the five miles to the park where the race was being held but no time to really prepare physically or mentally. My nemesis was there, with an entourage from his school and family. He was sporting a new warm up suit from Adidas and a gleaming white headband. He looked like the competitors I had seen on TV from Wild World of Sports. My sweat pants and t-shirt seemed insignificant. He looked like a winner. His friends, family, and coach looked at him like a winner. My cheering section was just me. The other two kids from my school were already on the course running in their age group finals and I couldn’t find my coach anywhere.

A parent volunteer shouted, “all competitors in Senior City Final to the start line in five minutes”. Anxiety, panic, terror-linked in rapid succession in a few seconds. “What was I doing here?” “ I am feeling too sick to race.” “ His cleats look fast.” “ I am going to get clobbered in front of all these people, all twenty-five parents, and siblings of other racers.”

The twenty racers, all grade 12s except me, began moving towards the starting line. Some were striding with macho bravado, others timidly trying to find a spot away from the 40 elbows and knees. I always found a spot alone as far to the left as possible. This time Adidas boy broke tradition and sidled over to within a foot of my position. Trash talking without saying a word, he stretched one more time as to remind me that he was taller and faster. I couldn’t retreat any further left so I held my ground and ignored him out of the corner of my eye. No words were exchanged. I heard a somewhat familiar voice “ Bobby, you will be okay, just run your race and stay in form” instructed the coach, wearing a school jacket. I am now sure that he had said the same thing to me before and to the other teammates who were already racing but in the moment it was a voice of encouragement. A voice that I took to heart and a goofy smile swept across my face. Adidas boy saw the insane grin and his eyes panicked for a fleeting second. He regained his composure has he adjusted his headband. No victory for either of us but even though this course was hilly, we were starting on level ground.

Racing at a high pace is as much about your head as your legs and lungs. For me, the first mental wall was within the first 5 minutes, every time. “ I think I felt a twinge in my calf”, “ My ankle is really hurting”, “ This is too hard” scream inside me looking for an excuse to quit. I know the voice and know to expect it but it often is still unsettling. I had never obeyed the urging but there is always a temptation. At the start line, I steeled myself for the fatalist’s voice by imagining a fast break and a charge for the ¼ mile. If I could put distance between me and the others, they would hear their deserter urging them to give up.

“ Runners to the line, On your marks, Get set…” “ Bang” went the pistol that evoked the startle response in me, even though I had heard it dozens of times before.

I broke fast with Adidas boy on my right shoulder and two others further to my right. 440 yards down the course with just under 1 minute gone, there were just the two of us. I loped the next ½ mile in what I imagined was perfect form and he stayed within a yard of my shoulder. I could hear his cleats on the hard ground and occasionally his breathing matching my rhythm. The first mile was the fastest either of us had started, at just over 5:10 but I didn’t feel winded and the voice hadn’t appeared. Admiration for my competition began to develop as we moved through a treed section as if joined at the hip. I couldn’t tell if he was pacing me or just keeping up. Was this his strategy – to push the pace for as long as I could manage in an effort to spend my legs? Red flags on the left, blue on the right as the course marched forward through the hilliest portion and I remembered that over the next rise was a sharp right turn and then another which was the 2.1-mile turnaround. If I was going to dictate, I needed to make a decision. In retrospect, it was probably way to far from home to be making a second break but I did it. At the top of the second right, I surprised him with the jump and myself with the speed I had found. He definitely heard his defeatist voice in that moment and let a gasp and grunt come out as I was now 5 yards, 6 yards, 10 yards and stretching ahead. I was running toward the line like I was possessed by the wind. I knew my wild stride was terrible form but the freedom reminded me of innocence and naivete that I hadn’t felt for almost 10 years. “Red on left, blue on right” became a mantra rattling in my head. “ eeeh, eeh, eeh, eeh wooo, eeeh, eeh, eeh woo, “ was the tempo of my breathing. I didn’t feel the course beneath my feet or notice when I went through the wooded portion but suddenly heard cheering and looked ahead to see I was within 200 yards of the finish line and an organizer was frantically stringing the tape across the line. I was aware but not appreciative of the clapping hands as my chest broke the tape. I looked back up the course and there was no other competitor in sight. If you can feel elated and sad at the same time, this was it. I had won but somehow felt sorry for Adidas boy (who I learned at the presentation was really named Donald). “ 21:32, 21:32, unbelievable 21:32” as a distant cry from my coach as he raced towards me with his arms both raced in the air. It took ten seconds for it to register that he was telling me my race time – he had never done that before and had never done anything with such enthusiasm. I heard an unknown parent ask “ Is that a city record?” No one seemed to know but it didn’t seem to matter. I was being back patted and head rubbed by people I didn’t know. It felt like a hero’s welcome but by noon it was forgotten. Well not completely – the 10 am school announcements announced my win and record and gave me 15 minutes of additional fame.

To be fair, I did have a light glow around me in track and cross-country seasons for the next year when someone recalled that I had won something and my yearbook picture had a caption referring to the accomplishment. The fickle nature of high school and teenagers meant that the next shiny thing was the next shiny thing and I learned that was okay.

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.

Running Away

At the beginning of grade 7 , in 1966, my class moved to another school, not that far away but a world apart from what we knew. It had a reputation as a tough school with tough kids, ready to fight at a drop of a hat. Why dropping a hat would start a fight was a mystery to me but I didn’t dare ask for fear of starting an all out war. Twenty-five kids joining a new school gave us an awkward comfort. At least we knew each other and could rally together if we didn’t understand the rules de jour. I was sure from the first moment that one of the regular kids was waiting to pounce on one of us (me) with fists flying and feet kicking. It turned out that they were more curious and cautious than cranky and cruel. By mid-September, we were fitting in and I had a couple new east-side friends. We were all north end kids so we had that in common. Instead of twenty-five possible friends, there were now seventy-five candidates and I apparently was good at breaking the ice so I knew the names of about a dozen. The big surprise was that there were really more fish in the sea. For five years Patty had ignored and rejected my overtures and now there were thirty-two potential girlfriends. Early on Marion was the one who caused my heart to beat faster than after running 3 miles. I had never seen or met a redhead before but I managed to be in the same place as her, after watching for four days, at the morning recess. I used the ‘ we know each other but you don’t remember’ approach. Just join in and never let on that she hasn’t been introduced. Turned out she was gracious, kind and popular as well as stunning. She allowed my feigned attempt at nonchalance and it turned out that she did know my name. “ Bobby, what are you doing tonight? It’s Friday, any party plans?” I had never been to what could be described as a party or what I imagined she meant as a party. Boys and girls together, dim light basement rumpus room, music playing and some quiet necking. I wasn’t sure what or how necking happened but I was very interested, especially with Marion or even Patty. “No.” I stuttered. “Too bad.’ she replied letting me off the hook.

For the next week, I managed to be where she was for ten recesses. She went home for lunch like the rest of us and I didn’t dare follow as we lived on opposite sides of Broad Street. The weekend became painful as I anticipated 10:15 on Monday morning and our next contact. The first Monday in October something changed, Kevin appeared at our rendezvous. He had made a name for himself. I had heard about him, even before we made the move to the new school. One story was that he had been caught smoking cigarettes, that he had ‘lifted’ from the corner store. He wouldn’t have been caught at all except that smoking in the front entry of a public school still drew a crowd (even on 1966). They had been at a party together on Saturday and hooked up (whatever that meant). I don’t know the definition of hooked up but it was clear they were a couple now. I was devastated but optimistic. “He was sure to be sent back to Juvie.” was my expectation and hope. He wouldn’t be a threat for long and I just needed to stay below his radar.

Remembrance Day came and went; Kevin had stayed out of trouble and was still around Marion all the time, all the damn time. At Thursday afternoon recess, I saw a window open. There she was standing close to the wall on the west side of the school, shivering a bit and looking sad. “ Are you okay?” I tentatively offered. She looked me in the eye and started to cry. I couldn’t understand much of what she was saying between sobs. “ He…pushed .. I said no …love… rough… no … gone”. I pieced a story together that I still don’t know if any of it was accurate, and wrapped my arms around her in a consoling hug. She leaned in and sobbed harder and said “ grmpf …why…bph …snrk … Fankyou”. My imagination was too undeveloped to make a story from that but I didn’t care because here I was at 11 years old with the girl of my dreams in my arms. Life couldn’t get any better. My heart was racing, my brain was racing, I was on cloud nine. Thud. I felt a sharp pain on the right side of my head.” What the fuck are you doing?” rang as I fell to the ground. Pandemonium broke out as Marion tried to explain that we were friends and I was helping. I tried to insert that “ she was sad and crying ..” Kevin kept shouting “ what the fuck? I am going to kick your ass”. “ He pushed Marion away and kicked me in the ribs as he turned away. After two steps he swiveled towards me and said “ After school, you and me. Be there you chickenshit”.

Embarrassed, afraid, and with my ears ringing I spent the rest of the afternoon in panic mode. By four o’clock everyone in the school knew there would be a fight just outside the west gate. I was determined not to flee. I thought I could explain that nothing was going on and that Kevin and his gang would say okay and leave me alone. I didn’t understand that power could come from mindless violence and bravado.

At five after four, most of the grade 7 and eight kids were waiting by the fence. As I approached I couldn’t make out faces, the all blurred into a mass. I saw Kevin and a blob behind him and Marion standing just outside the blob. I had no blob with me. I was walking into this alone. I still fought to believe that I could use words to get out of this. Assuming a subservient posture, head down looking at the ground I started “ Kevin, you don’t understand” Boom he was on top of me, pummeling my shoulders and chest with punches working his way to my head. I wriggled and squirmed and made noises that shouldn’t come out of a boy becoming a man. “ Fight back, kick him, swing, do something” echoed in my head and yet I squirmed and squealed. I squeezed out from under him and in my head started with the explanation again. My brain said “if he comes at you again, kick him in the balls” I heard the blob chant “ fight, fight, fight” and one small voice say “ that’s enough”. My brain and body weren’t working under the same plan because as my brain was saying fight my legs were saying flight and I flew. I flew, like a chicken, west down 4th Avenue towards home with my assailant and two others following. I had a head start because my escape and choice to run had left them surprised. The other kids must have been too humiliated on my behalf to join the chase. I knew with the five-second lead I could out run them to home. No thought of tomorrow or the next day was in my brain just immediate survival. I added distance between us as my legs moved faster than ever before. Down the street, across the field with the three of them in pursuit. I could see the front of my house. There was someone looking out the window as I crossed the last street. I took the three steps to the stoop in one jump and didn’t look back until the door slammed behind me.

“ Get back out there and either fight like a man or take your lumps” shouted my dad. He was spitting his words and was visibly shaken by my retreat. “ But” started to go through my head but his eyes assured me that no logic or plea was going to change his mind. Resigned, I stepped back out into the cold.

I got in one or two punches and received a shiner, a bloody mouth, and bruised ribs and for the next month undying silent ridicule from my classmates, Marion, and my dad. Kevin did go back to juvenile detention and eventually, the vividness of my cowardice faded. I never waited for recess again. For the next two years, I lived in the shadows, alone. I didn’t relive the experience or dream about a different outcome. I went to school, did okay, went home, waited until the next morning and repeated yesterday.