Legends of Myself 41

Posted on March 24, 2012


Continued from Legends of Myself 40

41.  Prince Rupert, 1958:  Woodlots and Bullies

When I was growing up there, Prince Rupert considered itself a maturing town, not yet filled out, still in development.  A town with great expectations.  I remember reading in my elementary school social studies book—I’m not sure which year, although it was a Prince Rupert classroom—that the population of Prince Rupert was 12,000 and growing.

Today, because of intervening development (some of that growth of which my textbooks were so confident) I can only obscurely recognize the block where I used to live.  There were gaps along 8th Avenue which are no longer there, lots where houses had not yet been built in 1958.  And, the next block over from mine, there was a woodlot which hadn’t been developed at all.

While the contours of the land are still more or less familiar, I can no longer clearly identify where Old Pop and I lived on our block.  Those apartments are long gone and the houses around unrecognizably altered.  The block itself extends perhaps an eighth of a mile—200 or so metres—from the woodlot that bordered on Lotbiniere Street to the ancient intersection at the south end of 8th Avenue where I had once lived with my grandmother.  (Pop lived with me and Granny Alice, too, I suppose, but he might as well have been invisible.)  My grandmother’s corner on 8th Avenue was twice or three times as far away from Old Pop’s as the woodlot corner—that’s as close as I can estimate from memory alone.

As suggested, in the time since I attended elementary school there in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Prince Rupert did indeed grow.  It reached 18,000 people by the early ‘90s.  However as early as the 1980s—when the town lost its proud designation (posted on a sign at the waterfront) “Halibut Capital of the World” to some bewilderingly obscure dots on the map in Alaska—there were already indications of slow-down.  And when the logging industry collapsed and the local pulp mill at nearby Port Edward shut down also, the population began an active shrinkage.

Today, just a little past its centenary, the Prince Rupert population has again fallen to 12,000.  When the town held its centennial celebrations in 2010, the main event was called a Homecoming, tellingly so-called for a town whose residents, so many of them, have moved away.  Well, I moved away too, I guess.

One of the casualties of Prince Rupert’s ephemeral spurt of population growth was the woodlot that fronted Lotbiniere Street.  It was my favourite urban playground from anytime in my childhood, and I remember wandering over there frequently with a friend.  However it has since been replaced with a housing development of ticky-tacky, willfully bland rowhouses.

The brain has a thousand or ten thousand compartments where memories are filed.  It has a compartment for the room I sit in now, and another for the next room over.  When I pass through one door into the other, the file for one room is put aside and the file for the other is opened.  The reality of this is why we often forget what we are doing when we enter another room.

I have lost the names of childhood friends in rooms I have never re-entered, so I no longer remember the name of the friend with whom I went to visit the woodlot.  I recall stopping in the bush-lined driveway at the corner of 8th and Lotbiniere Street to engage in my first experience with smoking.  My friend and I didn’t use cigarettes, just some dry hollow-stemmed reed or bush which I was familiar with at one time but now can’t really call to mind.  At first I thought you blew the smoke, but when I finally inhaled it set off so much coughing and choking that I was cured of wanting to try actual cigarettes for the balance of my childhood.  (My later relapse into temporary tobacco abuse is a story from a different era, not applicable here.)

The woodlot itself was composed, I would guess, of the same trees that had been there when Prince Rupert was founded, which was then less than half a century before.  The light under the trees was dim, too dim to allow many bushes to grow except along the edges of the lot.  Thus, it was an open and easy passage under the trees.

My friend and I, of course, didn’t confine ourselves to merely walking under them.  We also climbed them, and having scouted out a suitable location, even constructed what passed for us as a treehouse, even though it was really only a couple of boards nailed to branches which formed part of a floor.  It didn’t matter to us.

What was already, at noon, nearly twilight under the trees would have darkened into frightening obscurity if we had been there even in early dusk, but my friend and I were never there so late.  And in the heart of the woodlot, the trees didn’t obscure the sky at all because the land opened up there into a patch of wetlands.

My friend must have been there, although I don’t quite remember him, as we explored on a path near and beside the pond.  I remember dragonflies, fascinating but mildly frightening, as they zipped by, their wings rattling like paper motors.  I remember frogs, tadpoles, minnows swimming in the pond, little spiders stepping delicately on the water, surface tension preventing them from sinking.  I remember yellow-leafed skunk cabbages, the moss as it squished down under my feet, huckleberry bushes and swamp grasses and the ever-present chorus of crickets.

That woodlot and that pond were my first nature lesson, and when I encountered some of that lesson in school, it is to that pond and woodlot that my imagination took me in illustration.  When I think of dragonflies, I imagine them rattling above that pond.

Returning from the woodlot one time with my friend, I also encountered another sort of lesson.  On Eighth Avenue across from the woodlot, there was a clump of houses that I associated with tough kids.  One day, two of these tough kids cornered my friend and me and decided that it would be fun to make one of us hit the other.  At first one of the bullies held my friend, his hands twisted behind his back while the other bully tried to intimidate me into doing the hitting.  I refused, and after awhile the bullies switched positions.  One bully held me with my hands behind my back, and the other tried to force my friend to hit me.  This tactic was more successful.

I remember my friend crying, upset, frightened, and I remember him hitting me while he cried.  He was only eight years old, just like I was.  His punches didn’t hurt much, and I don’t even remember blaming him after the bullies let us go.  But I did think about that incident a lot in the years that followed.

Some kids are fast.  Some are strong.  Some can really hit a ball or clean up at jumping jacks.  I was a kid who wouldn’t hit his friend no matter how hard you tried to make me.

That was how I was strong.

I remember many years later reading about a test where people were persuaded (they thought) to hurt some other people in a scientific experiment.  Many people who learned about it were disturbed by that experiment because it showed how easily supposedly-decent people could be persuaded to hurt others. And, while everybody liked to think that they wouldn’t have been among those so easily persuaded, nobody could, deep down, really be sure.  History, after all, is filled with atrocities committed by supposedly decent people following orders.

But I, I was sure.  I wasn’t worried about how I might have done in that experiment.  I consider that a couple of bullies had administered that test to me and a friend in 1958, when I was eight years old.

And I had passed.

Continued @ Legends of Myself 42

Posted in: autobiography