Legends of Myself 26

Posted on August 29, 2011


Continued from Legends of Myself 25

26.  1957:  A Schoolyard in Cloverdale

 Touch, Tap, Toe.  Cloverdale, 1957, is the first time I was ever asked to touch my toes.  The reason I remember it is because I was the only one in the room who could not do it without bending at the knees.  It was one of those moments, one of those bits of critical evidence, which shaped my image of myself.

There was a boy down that row of exercising 7-year-olds who could put his palms flat on the floor, while my own fingertips couldn’t reach my toes without a bouncing stretch.  I was different, I saw, from the other kids around me.  It didn’t particularly upset me at the time.  It was just an observation.  But that observation remained there in my head.  For much of the rest of my life, when I took an accounting of who I was, my experience in that long ago touch-toe exercise was part of the accounting.

The trouble is—and here you see the reason why children shouldn’t jump to conclusions without a full battery of scientific testing—I think I may have been wrong about that incident.  You see—and follow me on this—I can’t tap my foot.  I watch people do it.  I’m a musician.  I see my bandmates do it all the time.  But my foot just doesn’t work that way, as if a hinge was missing from the kit.  Actually it appears to have something to do with the way my leg is structured.  It refuses to do even one degree of backward bend.  Extreme backward bend, you see, creates the double-jointed, and normal backward bend is the secret of grade twos bending over to put their palms on the floor.

And of course the mastery of the mystery of tapping your toe.

The thing was, except at the knee-joint, I may not have been any less flexible than any other person my age.  Or later ages.  Until I began, in the way these things work, to resemble who I thought I already was.  Strange that because of a slight, mostly-irrelevant variation of physiology, I have gone through most of my life thinking I was constructed somehow of rusty parts.  It’s an arbitrary sort of thing to add a long slow poison to a life, but perhaps, whether we ever become aware of them or not, every life has similar errors.

Nobody ever plays every card right.

Softball in a China Shop.  One thing I also became aware of in Cloverdale, and here I’m sure I wasn’t mistaken, was my lack of hand-eye co-ordination.  Myself and another friend from grade two strayed near some older kids playing softball.  I think they decided it would be cute to involve us in the game.  They brought my friend up to bat first, and tossed him pitch after baby pitch until he managed to hit the ball.  Then it was my turn.

And yes, they tried.  If they could have put brakes on the ball to make it fall slower through the air, they would have done that.  Their efforts fell only slightly short of violating the laws of physics, but they still weren’t good enough to permit me to hit that ball.  It might as well have been a hologram.  I couldn’t touch, hit, tip or even foul it.  I swung empty until they finally gave up.  Or maybe the bell rang.  Or maybe the sun dipped down beneath the western sea.

It was the first in a lifetime of baseball fiascos, before I banished the game from my life forever.

Although again I may have misjudged the incident, misdiagnosed.  I am clumsy.  The bull in the china shop learned the cha-cha from me.  But I may also have a slight problem with depth perception.  I wasn’t to learn until much later—and certainly wouldn’t have realized the significance in grade two—that one of my eyes actually had better-than-normal vision, the other slightly worse than normal, a situation which could rationally undermine my ability to assess depth.  The point is that unlike an idea like ‘I can’t play baseball,’ depth perception is a real problem, identifiable, solvable.  Like co-ordination it can be worked on and overcome.

I probably could have gotten better at baseball if I had a notion what the issue was.  Instead, a childhood’s worth of later experiences—very few as benign as my first one—convinced me that baseball was not worth that devotion.  Perhaps other things were, though.

Life seemed to be sending me evidence about myself that I was intended to misinterpret.

Not to worry.  Baseball and me have a long time ago agreed to disagree.  It’s not you, it’s me, I say.  We haven’t had an incident for decades.

Not so what else I was to meet on that playground in Cloverdale.

Siwash Talk.  I remember walking out the door of school to the playground, a friend with me, when another boy planted himself in front of us, feet apart, and pointed.

“I know what you are,” he said to me, “you’re an injun.”

From the way he said it, I could tell he thought there was something wrong with that.

“I’m not an injun,” I explained to him.  “I’m an In-di-an.  An engine,” I explained further, and for the benefit of my friend beside me, “pulls a train.”

While the other fashioned his retort, I tried to get straight in my mind the proper spelling of engine.  It was spelled with a ‘g’, I decided

“Siwash!” said my self-appointed enemy, and adopted a musical tone, “Siwash, shy-wash.”

Racial slurs don’t get their sting from originality but from repetition.  It was my first encounter with either of these two, so they had no power to hurt me.

In fact, the term Siwash had no more meaning to me in that schoolyard than it does now to most people living.  If you’re familiar with Vancouver, the word may evoke Siwash Rock in Stanley Park, and, if you ever asked yourself where the name of that rock came from, you probably imagined it was borrowed from a local Aboriginal language.  In fact the language is French, which, if you know anything about Northwest Coast history, shouldn’t be a surprise.

British Columbia was institutionally established under British law as a fur trade colony, with the Hudson’s Bay Company in charge.  Many of the early land-based fur traders spoke French and had originally traded out of Quebec and Montreal before the HBCo swallowed all competitors.  The word I had been confronted with in the schoolyard was a corruption of one the French-speaking traders used to refer to their principal trading-partners—savages, in meaning exactly as notorious as it seems  Add French pronunciation to Anglo mispronunciation, and savages comes out as Siwash.

(Yes, boys and girls, that finger of stone in Vancouver harbour is a racial insult.)

But, as I mentioned, the slur was too new to me to have any meaning in 1957.  In fact that particular insult was to gain no traction in my life at all, because when I encountered it, it was near the sputtering finish of its life already.  By the 1960s the number of people who even remembered it were becoming fewer and fewer.  Even racism has its passing fads and fashions.  Siwash has long-since been white-washed and pronounced (almost) clean.

The shy-wash insult still has currency, however.  It didn’t bother me then, though, since it was, as I said, far too novel and original.  And where I was living in the dairy farm, they had already impressed on me the vital importance of washing behind my ears.

There weren’t no flies on me, uh-uh.

As I strolled away from my neophyte encounter with race hatred, I remember explaining to the friend I had with me how exceptionally fine it was to be an Indian.  How could there be a problem with it?  I looked at my arm and across at his arm.

“Look,” I said, “you can touch and see how smooth my skin is.  See how yours is rough and mine is smooth.”

My friend was unoffended.  It was quite true my skin was smoother than his.  He nodded and smiled.

I was clean. I was smooth.  I was brown.  I was sarcastic.  I was proud or maybe cocky.

There was no damage done to our Teddy’s soul on that high noon in Cloverdale.


Continued at Legends of Myself 27

Posted in: autobiography