Continued from Legends of Myself 44
45. Prince Rupert, 1958: Sunday School, Firecrackers and Halloween
Day school and Sunday school. I lived in my grandfather’s rooms until the autumn of 1958. That tells me that I must have begun grade three in Prince Rupert, attending Roosevelt School on Roosevelt Hill for the first of what would be four occasions.
In my first decade of schooling, Roosevelt was to be the only school I returned to.
However, I have no individual or datable memory from my first time there. Perhaps returning at miscellaneous times later stole some of the uniqueness of beginning grade three there. Memories from 1958 have jumbled higgledy-piggledy with the rest and can no longer be disentangled.
I can remember attending Sunday school, though, at a small church perched on the eastward side of Roosevelt Hill. It was I who requested to go because it allowed me to follow my friends, who otherwise all disappeared into an old bus and away on Sunday afternoons.
Old Pop was agnostic, as I’ve said, but he granted my request to go to Sunday school without a notion of dispute, not one to impose ideology for its own sake, I guess, or even bring it up. And there was already family precedent—Pop’s free-thinking father (who, unlike Pop in that particular, would bring the matter up) had sent him to Catholic school.
Regardless—as with Pop’s father, as with Pop himself, as with my own father—I was not evangelized. Religion didn’t stick, and maybe, contemplating my precedents, it never had a chance, either from nurture or nature.
I suspect I learned a little about the Bible, though—at this and other spells of Sunday school. Without specifically recalling when or how, I unexpectedly find myself remembering Biblical words and stories. This is good and well. As Norththrop Frye pointed out, the Bible provides the “mythological frame of our culture”, and even for infidels like me it’s important to understand something about it, that is, if you don’t want to be left out of every conversation. But stories and cultural references are all I got. Spiritually speaking, I can hardly distinguish what I learned in Sunday school from the already magical thinking of childhood where I hoped, really hoped, magic would work.
I remember singing, “Jesus loves me,yes, I know.” Yes, I always liked to sing along.
And on the church basement wall, there were pictures of Jesus largely identical—outside of African-American churches, I guess—to depictions of him everywhere our side of the Rio Grande: long-haired, sandaled, wearing robes, often riding donkeys and posing with children and lambs. From these pictures I learned that Jesus was a pale-skinned—our little group of children, White and Tsimshian, all of us learned—as pale as normal is, as pale as Dick and Jane and Sally, as pale as the heroes in cowboy movies. As pale as divinity…
At Sunday school I also learned the Lord’s Prayer, and the spooky psalm about the valley of the shadow of death, (in the mountainous, high-treed landscapes of the West Coast, we knew about shadowy valleys) and the verse about “If I die before I wake.”
I don’t think I paid much attention to the subject of the latter, still being unable to imagine death, but “Now I lay me down to sleep” regardless became a kind of occasional bedtime incantation. Speaking it was similar to, but, on my neo-pagan scale of things, somewhat less potent and useful than, say, “Star light, star bright,” a verse which came into my sorcerous repertoire at about the same time. Any rhyme or spell that allowed you to wish on stars was always worth a try, I thought.
Stars were common, four leaf clovers hard to find. And wishing wells? Couldn’t be found at all.
Beans, gifts and backscratchers. Old Pop taught me a rhyme then, too, not conventionally magical: “Beans, beans, the musical fruit/The more you eat, the more you toot,” a rhyme which irresistibly plays in my head whenever I open a can of beans, often as not with Old Pop himself reciting it.
Like conjuring rhymes and musical foodstuffs, much of the rest of what I remember of living with Pop are random bits of this and that. He whittled a backscratcher out of stick of yellow cedar one time with his pocketknife. I thought the little scratching fingers were interesting, but the backscratcher itself was of small utility to someone who, at 8 years old, was considerably more bendy, with a back more reachable, than I imagine my 71-year-old back will be.
I could use one occasionally now.
Much more interesting—and mysterious—was a present which Old Pop kept on a shelf near the window. It had been given to him by some—to me—unknown party in 1951, and in 1958 remained with its wrappings intact. In fact, owing to a fire a few years later, it was lost or destroyed before it was ever opened.
As an 8 year old, I found that sealed gift vaguely disturbing. I could appreciate a fey attitude, especially when it issued from my grandfather. But I never really approved, not really, not fully, of not opening presents. Surely there was a rule about it somewhere. A rule being broken.
Firecrackers. With fall and the approach of Halloween came firecrackers. of course. Miniature dynamite sticks with fuses sparking like the tense dangerous fuses in movie serials. Arriving in bars of wrapped red tissue paper in graduated sizes, from lady-fingers, which, if brave, you could explode while holding with the tips of your fingers, to other much larger, more dangerous sizes, which you didn’t want near your fingers at all when they exploded.
The ladyfingers came with their fuses strung together, as they still come today, so that you could set off a whole series of bangs like a machine gun rattle. Only adults and Chinatown festivals could afford to set off whole packages that way. Every kid I knew unstrung the ladyfingers, separated, lit and exploded them one by one.
Of course, giving kids miniature red dynamite sticks was probably not a very good idea ever. Kids are clever and incredibly dumb. They experiment and dare. They forget to think twice (or even once) and lose fingers and fingertips and eyes, and suffer burns and scarring injuries and temporary deafness, and sometimes come home smelling of burnt hair.
Mothers and other friends of children were horrified and indignant and got up petitions to mayors and prime ministers and eventually got them banned, all except the ladyfingers. That was a good thing, yes, it was, though I myself howled and complained when it happened.
I remember it as wonderful fun for some kids (and I can’t remember whether I was one of them) to explode a firecracker behind someone, near their feet.
Made you jump, hah!
Or toss ladyfingers or worse through the air, sometimes right toward someone (if danger and mayhem was your preference) timed to explode before reaching the target.
That was the theory.
As a kid who was there, firecrackers were loud, perilous, peerless and glorious fun. If we could have gotten hold of almost grenades and nearly flame-throwers, kind-of land mines and just-about mortar shells, and dusted it over with poison-ish gas, we would have played with those, too. And had a slam-bang time.
Most of us survivors from then still have both eyes and enough fingers to tie our shoes with anyway.
What’s the problem?
Halloween. Climaxing the season, Halloween in Prince Rupert attained a kind of perfection which that occasion never reached again in my childhood. Those were the days before anonymous random evil and middle-class paranoia had wrung most of the juice from the door-to-door tradition.
I trick or treated with my usual best friend; the specifics of our costuming I can no longer remember. We took pillow cases for the loot, and knocked on every door on 8th and adjacent avenues. “Treat or treat!”—in that age of hooligans even more than it was later—was a real threat then, but I don’t remember ever having to follow through. I was really only interested in the candy anyway; the lawlessness and protection-racket side of the holiday was for other tastes.
We filled our pillow cases, my friend and I, went home and went out again, moving well beyond our immediate neighbourhood, expanding our foraging grounds continuously until advancing evening and changing attitudes at the doors finally chased us home. Our second-stage pillow cases were half full by then.
Perhaps Halloween as it was then in small town Prince Rupert—wide-open, naïve, trusting—was an inevitable casualty of modernity. It’s a rarity now, in my experience. But I regret it as a fine and equalizing holiday, not as much dependent on social class as birthdays and Christmas can be, or on social status like Valentine’s Day. (If no one knows you in your classroom, no one gives you a Valentine.)
With Halloween, every kid had an equal right to knock at the door and ask. With Halloween, every kid was invited to the party.
It was a delectable time, even for me, Tat, the famous kid who lived with Candy George.
Continued @ Legends of Myself 46