Let the Games Begin
Until now it's been all about barefoot boy with cheek of tan chasing chickens from the barn. Plodding miles uphill to the school through the snow and all that. No electric and no telephone. Horses for helpers and wood stoves for heat.
But is there an implication of a simpler world when men were men and wives were helpmates and community mattered? If that's your takeaway, just know they were not more benevolent times. Life could be harsh and especially for women, and a perceived difference could be castigated, seldom subtly.
Then came the war and a broader world intruded. When the war ended, perspectives had escaped some of the old constraints and complacencies. In my universe, it coincided with graduation from grade school...high school was my new arena. So came a new playbook but there was still no blame chapter. From my parents, it just remained, 'Do your best'.
* * *
Almost half of Canada's population lived on farms in the early 40's. Rural teens wishing to attend high school had to secure their own transportation or lodge in town. That was the case with my sister Jean nine years older who lived with relatives to attend Bradford High, first with her grandmother in town and later with an aunt and uncle on their farm two miles away. Jean walked those two miles twice daily. By the war's end, though, many Ontario counties began to add high school bus transport for rural communities.
I completed grade eight at age eleven so my folks opted to keep me in our local school where our teacher was qualified to instruct grade nine. Out of options the following year, it was off to a regional school. Our assigned district school was in Alliston but my mother insisted on Orangeville because of its better academic record so, bus service for the first year was at our expense. Luckily school boundaries the next year were adjusted to our benefit.
May you live in interesting times is allegedly one English translation of an old Chinese curse. For this shy skinny nerd who was usually two years younger than most classmates and having zero sports' aptitude, the early months were interesting. Luckily my parents had given me a crutch by enrolling me in Grade Nine again. So, did I ever disclose why I aced exams that first year in the new school? Credit me with a few street smarts...top marks bought me a little grudging respect.
And a popular older farm boy and good athlete who rode my bus route had the grace and kindness to praise my grades...that also bought some relief in the hallways. They also earned me an occasional nod of existence from the chic uptown lasses...later one confessed to me that her mother had hinted approval of 'that Stych boy'. Apparently scholastic achievement scored well in some parental eyes.
However, mid-way through second year, Orangeville skies lit up on a cold Sunday night in February. To my knowledge the cause of the fire was never determined. The following Monday the rural buses made their rounds to advise those of us without phones we'd just scored a week's vacation.
For the next three years, teachers trudged between church basements. Without a gym, this tall boy's dream of basketball fame died prematurely that winter night.
Our farm was located near the end of the school bus route, thirteen miles by highway as the crow flies. But our bus ambled up and down township roads to collect students and total travel time was usually over an hour. That meant pick-up for me before seven-thirty. So a mother-mandated full breakfast plus a one mile trek to the highway dictated I be out of bed by six because the trek to the highway was not the proverbial walk in the park.
Minor township roads might not be snowplowed for several days or occasionally weeks after a major storm. Between storms, exposed sections could drift waist deep and the surface was often irregular with ruts. Add the curse of an active imagination...evenings were already dark as I tramped home through the swamp along the Humber River. Satchel Page's advice, "Don't look back...it might be gaining on you", was my mantra after the sharp crack of an exploding tree limb (sap in bitter weather can freeze and expand).
Our first bus may have been an earlier era troop transporter because of its rudimentary springs and a steel mesh protective screen behind the driver. So we guarded our personal parts because it was a rough ride over potholed and often poorly maintained township roads. Winter brought some relief because we were often a bit numb; the one lonely heater was directed at the driver's feet.
Miraculously we had only one mechanical mishap with this relic; the steering failed so we augured into the ditch, but very slowly so there was no damage nor injury. Fortunately after two years, our vehicle was finally upgraded to almost modern standards. One late afternoon, though, a bus-related personal misadventure gave a first hint of mortality. Better stated, it scared the hell out of me.
In mid-winter in Ontario, roadsides usually have substantial snow banks, and sunlight can create an icy veneer on top. So as I step out of the bus and turn to walk to the rear along this slippery snow bank, my feet slip and suddenly I'm flat on my back under the bus. Unluckily the driver was accelerating and wouldn't hear me yell—in those days there was no rule to wait until the student crossed the road.
My chest's now in line with an approaching rear wheel a few seconds away! Ever watch a crab cross a beach? That's me, using hands and boot heels to scrabble on my back just a few feet up the bank. But my left foot is still in the path of the wheel... and somehow I had the good sense to freeze the scrabble. Better foot than belly. My only injury was a bit of a bruise on my instep.
Were my parents relieved to hear of this miraculous escape? Did they contact their lawyer to sue the bus company? Not a chance. Profit from an error? Not in their lexicon. Mom would have told me to be more careful in the future. Dad would have cracked a joke. So why tell them? I didn't...nor the bus driver for that matter. But it did teach me that instinct can be bloody valuable if you don't panic.
Decades later came another proof. To set the stage, you need to know I have never learned to swim though I did labor mightily...lessons were mandatory for students at the University of Toronto. But two discouraging semesters persuaded the kindly coach that my natural habitat may be underwater so he signed me off. Ever since in a small boat I wear a life jacket—that is until a day in late autumn when fishing with a friend on a northern lake.
We were trolling for large pike. A fish hits my lure. Gerry kills the motor and I stand to reel it in...and promptly pitch backward into the lake. When I do manage to focus down there in my natural habitat, there's barely a glimpse of boat keel above me...it was dusk and the lake had high color. You know what? I must have learned to swim! At least to swim up to grab the side of the boat.
Gerry then slowly cruised us to shore so I could climb aboard safely. There I realized another miracle—the new moccasins Ursula had purchased for me before the trip were still on my feet! But it was a very brief think; I was cold. Air temperature was in the mid thirties or lower and there's always a breeze in an open boat at full throttle. And with our ten horsepower outboard, it was a twenty minute ride to the dock.
On arrival I'm shaking so badly Gerry had to practically carry me up to the cabin. Ursula is at the door and with her nurse's training promptly shoved me into the shower clothes and all, and turned on the hot water. An hour later, fortified by two cups of hot tea and a shot of whiskey, I have a still-trembling realization—hypothermia is not to be trifled with.
* * *
Admittedly my early years in high school were a social challenge, probably more of a challenge than memory recalls. I'd been raised a loner not by choice but by circumstance and a guarded personality is the first line of defense. The less others know, the less the chance for derision. And because I hung out with guys of similar temperament, we shared very few confidences. That tendency to privacy was in itself a bond.
One of these guys I'll call Patrick. He lived on the other side of the tracks...in other words was from a poorer community characterized by large families. Possibly he was the first of his family or even his neighborhood to attend secondary school. And since he boarded our bus a few miles from me and was also painfully shy, we became friends of a sort.
If I suffered discomfort in that first year, Patrick must have encountered it in spades. Mother had drilled me on the social graces and good grades were a bit of a shelter, whereas Patrick was a diamond in the rough. My parents, though, were always pleased to greet him when he occasionally hitched a ride with us to town on Saturdays. In fact, they were always so cordial that it surprised me a bit at the time...in retrospect, I believe they admired him.
Patrick's grades were average so my ugly competitive streak was never a complication and our bus route rapport persisted through grade nine. However, my precocity did gradually re-surface as the year progressed and peer pressure plus foxy classmates catalyzed a crash course in Salesmanship 101. So my interests during school hours gradually shifted to other pursuits and to other friends.
Notwithstanding, after the summer holidays and commencing grade ten, I still expected to see Patrick waiting at his bus stop. He wasn't. That evening when I told my folks, they weren't surprised, knowing the pressure Patrick would be under at home at age sixteen to help work the farm. I also sensed they were saddened, my mother especially.
Fast forward six years and I'm home for a weekend from university. It's a Saturday shopping day and we're on our way to town. As we pass the junction where Patrick once boarded the bus, memories kick in and I wonder conversationally what he's done with his life.
There's a pause...then my mother responds that one morning his parents woke and found he'd hanged himself in their barn. Dad was silent. John Donne can translate the silence for you.
* * *
Events that I most vividly recall from those years fall into three categories—grades, girls and cars. Good grades have simpler motives so we'll dispense with them first. It began in public school.
Because I was a shy kid, luckily my mother had instilled in me a thirst for learning. And as she tutored, her drudgery as a Depression farm wife probably spurred her to stress that book smarts must always serve a pragmatic purpose...such as a path to a satisfying livelihood. But at the same time she doubled down on her refusal to pamper me. Regardless the fairness of any difficulty, her response in essence was that crap will happen so learn to cope with it.
As a result, in my little country grade school the Stych kid had gradually become a legend in his own mind. But now he's in the big leagues with sixty classmates, at least half of whom are the town's grade school alumni, and they are already living an established pecking order. Among them was a tall skinny gal who'd already earned the aura of academic invincibility.
It could have been demoralizing—but remember my secret advantage of my now repeating grade nine. So in this first year in early classroom test skirmishes, the nerd from the boonies earned his first street creds, and the tall skinny gal began to take note of the tall skinny guy. The contest was on though neither of us ever voiced it. She was a formidable foe...wiped the floor with me spring semester grade ten when I was in unrequited lust for a busty brunette.
Early in grade eleven, the still tall but now not so skinny gal thankfully transferred out. So the bar dropped a notch for a bit, though others were coming up on the inside including my buddy Gerry who'd transferred in from another high school. Cut to the conclusion.
It's tempting to look back on my competitiveness as compensation for macho inferiority. Or as a lure for a girl's favor or in later years for some material gain. But that's the fluff on the cotton candy—the chocolate core taught by my parents is that personal gratification derives from challenge and complexity. Life is more interesting as you up your game.
And as a coach, your jokes are funnier.
* * *
My interest in cars shared the same starting block of inexperience. But not so for most farm boys who had worked with tractors for years before they climbed behind the wheel of the family jalopy. Fortunately I had a comparable confidence builder...few guys my age could work three horses on a gang plow. And Dad gave me plenty of opportunities to practice with our vehicle so at age sixteen I promptly applied for a driver's license .
Success meant circling a village block without serious accident or injury to pedestrians. But there were no age-graduated restrictions...it was assumed parents knew enough not to turn you loose in the big city. So I was almost seventeen when Dad finally handed me the keys for my first solo night out.
I wish I could say his confidence was justified. Two incidents unbeknownst to him would have shattered it...and possibly my life or that of my passengers. The first bit of idiocy involved trying to impress some guys in my class. So, racing down a long highway hill at night, we didn't realize until too late that at the bottom it had been restricted to only one lane lane marked by kerosene lanterns. We straddled the line of lanterns and snuffed out all!
Like I said, showing off. But visibility had been unrestricted and unless approaching traffic had been without lights, it was not complete idiocy, just recklessness. Most of my friends nor I for that matter didn't buy into sheer stupidity. But it required another incident to put the fear of God in me and end my occasional flirtations with risk taking on the roads.
It was a Saturday afternoon and I was in Orangeville with my folks. After concocting some excuse to borrow the car, I promptly hooked up with a buddy and decided to see how fast we could make the round trip to the next town. On the return and racing down a long hill with pedal to the metal...sparse traffic and clear visibility and dry road...I swing out to pass a car on a slight incline where the view is a bit restricted. And suddenly there's an oncoming half-ton truck that turned onto the highway from a farmer's lane.
How did we avoid a high speed head-on collision? You tell me. All that's etched in my memory is the squeal of rubber on dry pavement and the fight to gain control as we veer first toward a roadside fence on the left and then to a row of trees on the other. Maybe ten seconds elapsed, who knows. But by some miracle when we slow down, the car is still on the highway and we're travelling in the right direction in the correct lane.
Now some teens might credit this to extraordinary savvy. Not us...possibly there hung the implication of some larger meaning to what seemed at the time to be a miraculous escape. In any event, it was a very quiet drive to our destination.
You do know, though, that research polls do prove that eight out of ten drivers believe they're more competent than the average?
* * *
Now come the girls, the final frontier, where timidity and inexperience walked hand in hand. Having mostly interacted with older women and ancient aunts, I was absolutely tongue-tied with those my own age. The inner male was very much a child. Add to this we're miles from town so it wasn't until the summer entering my senior year and now with a driver's license that I finally asked a girl out on a date as described in Chapter 9.
So how did this green country yokel eventually date the cleverest and most attractive girl in our graduating class? Sheer luck. On the evening of our return bus trip from an overnight school excursion to the Ford plant in Detroit, somehow she chanced to sit beside me. An hour into the trip, she rested her head on my shoulder. And for the next two hours, I sat there stunned...with a screaming cramp in my shoulder...wondering how in the world did I merit this miracle!
We dated for the remainder of the school year and during the following summer when we both worked on Niagara fruit farms...me at my sister's and she at a farmerette camp a few miles away. But she entered university in the fall and my intermittent black moods soon gave her good cause to look elsewhere for a life partner...at the time I didn't have a clue what to do with my life.
My friend Gerry had been as attracted as I to this lass so he wasted no time in presenting his interest. I was the best man at their wedding a few years later and they recently celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary. Some love stories do have happy endings.
* * *
Now, it's finally time to toll the bell slowly. After pondering for months on whether to continue this my biographic commitment to family and friends, I've reached the reluctant decision to euthanize it. So let's give last rites with an explanation.
Until my late teens while living on a rural farm without electricity, my life was dissimilar to that of most. As a result I could recount details that some readers might enjoy...and some that a few others of similar background might appreciate. But in high school my world begins to modernize and dissimilarities abate. So how could I interest you in events of a later life that by plot-driven standards are not exactly riveting? And more to my self-interest, how could I endure the tedium to record them?
Finally I swallowed my pride and appealed to a friend who earns his livelihood as an author. His suggestion...I ignored his assisted death musing...was to return to my literary love of short fiction and use a character-driven narrative style. Possibly I could mine tales from my life encounters with so many remarkable people. But there were a few potential snags.
Some folk could well consider my depictions to be intrusive or inaccurate or unkind, and there's already far too much unkindness in print. No way do I wish to add to it however unintentionally. And libel ramifications did give me pause. So he and I finally settled on docufiction—it's popular in cinema where the caption states 'based on a true story'.
So if time or energy ever permits me to continue, pseudonyms will protect identities and veil my own misbehavior. Jazzing up the context can add spice and supporting cast can further disguise players. However the implied life lessons will reflect my personal ethics. Isn't that how we all manage to endure our realities?
* * *
For now I'll bid adieu with recall of my pledge to readers in Chapter 2...
Three years since her death. Two days out of California, four to home. Serious solitude, just me and Willie Nelson.
It was Interstate 80 and Laramie, my usual layover after a quick visit with friends in Utah. There's a decent hotel at the edge of town and a workingman's roadhouse two blocks over. Burger and beer at the bar, no hassle, conversation optional. My kind of joint when I indulge my addiction to long-haul driving.
Ursula's essence always rode shotgun on these long trips. But that night as I swung into the hotel parking lot, in the darkened November dusk came a raw awareness--her memory was abruptly muted. And later over a mostly sleepless night, possibly grief and reason merged, and began a realization. It may conclude this biography, if I should live so long.
Know that for me complexity is the vital ingredient in wine and relationships. And before you chastise, I'm not into promiscuity...but I can't imagine a life without the constant test of meeting and managing new perspectives. Ursula was challenge personified.
I once asked a psychologist and mutual friend what single adjective could best describe her and his response was immediate—intense. And that intense involvement in life and in our shared events sustained me for thirty-four years...it's not an exaggeration to say that my happiness derived from hers. Yet in the darkening dusk in Laramie, recalled emotions that had nourished me since her death seemed abruptly muted.
I closed the bar that evening. No answers there. But as I tossed my bag into the car the next morning and muttered something along the lines of what the hell do I do now, an inner voice surfaced. It's that same voice that used to reply when I dialed my complaint line—don't whine to me about the problem. Do something. Since Laramie, it has served me well.
* * *
For final thoughts, we'll call on Ursula again. Three months before her death from ALS and using two fingers and the assist of a word-predictive software program, she wrote a tribute to her life and to her loves and to her friends. Instructed to read it verbatim at her funeral service, I manged to finish it, though not without tears. But Ursula had reserved her very last words for someone else.
They derived from a trip thirty-four years earlier during our courtship when in a telephone conversation with her parents, I chose to include among my many virtues that I was very fond of their daughter. When I hung up, my soon-to-be-bride fixed me with a glare that could reverse climate change, "You're very fond of me?"
From that day forward, we had a standing joke—she would never say she loved me. And when I teased her about it, she’d flash that incredible smile, “Stash, you know I’m very fond of you”. So to noon the last day. As I cried and stroked her hair she summoned the strength to raise her head just a fraction and mouthed slowly and so very clearly, "I love you".
Ten hours later I drowsed for a moment and she tiptoed away. So I'll do the same. And as to my last words, hopefully they'll be as useful as Bogart's: "I should never have switched from scotch to martinis".
* * *