66. Gitanmaax 1959-1960: Winter
When my father arrived for a visit at Christmas, I suspect if I had told him about my Grade Four teacher’s experiments in classroom apartheid, he would have taken me out of Hazelton on the next train to the coast. He wasn’t likely to tolerate abuse towards me of any sort, and what happened in that classroom qualified as such.
But our species has language and culture, great gifts which arrive with a price, and that price is the fatal faith which human young have in their elders. I was being judged racially by my teacher, yes, but how was I to distinguish that from all the judging and sorting that teachers did regardless? I was programmed to believe, not to question. So I didn’t, except in a ruminative way, a way you didn’t necessarily share. So I didn’t question, and I didn’t tell my father.
But my father was his own antidote to poisonous pedagogy. His Christmas present for me that year was a Disney educational book, of the kind which is all about math but with little actual math. A sort of cultural ode to math which has a value of its own, I agree.
My father said, “If you learn what’s in this book, then you’ll know more than me.”
The strange and heretofore unimagined idea that I could surpass my father in anything made me do something I don’t recall doing up to then. I studied. For a little bit anyway. I learned about cubits, Babylonians, counting by sixty, something about Pythagoras, perhaps rumours of Euclid. Then somewhere my resolution faltered. I don’t think I surpassed my father in mathematical knowledge that winter. But it was my first time since Grade One that I remember pushing the edges of my learning in anything.
Before my father came for Christmas that year, the snow and cold came to Gitanmaax. The winter of 1959-60 was unusual, someone once told me, colder, snowier than usual. I couldn’t say. It was my only winter there. However, the snow was plentiful, and it stayed. The landscape didn’t climb from underneath the white for several months.
The high steep banks on the side of the road opposite our log cabin accumulated deep drifts under them that I remember burrowing into. We buried each other in the snow all around town, which was fascinating partly because doing so accorded the buried party a curious invisibility. A mound of snow with a kid lurking under it looks just like a mound of snow.
The hills at the back of town also came into play for sledding and skidding. You didn’t need actual sleds or skates on some slopes. Shoes would do. Some of the slopes needed fewer bends for less nervous sledding, I thought.
After the first snowfalls, the snow on the roads quickly packed down into ice. Some students took advantage of that by skating to school. The cars that drove by the school, of course, did so slowly. This enabled daredevil skaters to catch on to their bumpers and steal a tow down the street. This was called “playing hooky.” (I never learned the term in Hazelton for skipping school.) I’ve seen similar tricks with later generations involving in-line skates or skateboards and conducted at much higher speeds, but even at nine years old, with the cars moving at a relative creep over the ice, it didn’t seem like a good idea to me.
But I couldn’t skate.
That winter was the first time in fact that I went skating. It was cold enough that winter that the Bulkley River froze over. I was led down there and I strapped on some borrowed skates at the foot of the river’s steep high sides, looking up at the slopes rather than down, my accustomed angle.
I felt a little wary of skating. I didn’t like the idea of falling all over the ice like Dicken’s foolish Mr. Winkle. But more importantly, I was skeptical of the ice itself. I couldn’t help but think of the river beneath it. But it really was a cold winter. The ice was safe. There were a lot of people down there with us, skating on that impromptu rink, and I didn’t see one of them crack the ice and disappear into the Bulkley.
The cold that winter did not only turn rivers and roads into ice. It also froze over the well. Instead of walking down the road with a bucket, pointless once the ice grew too thick to crack, fetching water became more of an event. We had a horse available to our establishment occasionally (I don’t know where it was stabled) and one late afternoon somebody brought out a sleigh, which the horse was harnessed into. The sleigh was loaded up with kids, barrels and buckets and we all skidded along behind the horse through the snow-whitened evening to the Skeena River’s edge. There we broke the ice along the banks with stones and boulders, then dipped in our buckets, filled the barrels and rode back home again in the sleigh.
It felt like living in a Christmas song.
However, there were also serious issues about living in Gitanmaax and not in Hazelton, two doors away from plumbing. Baths weren’t so bad. The corrugated iron bath tub was set up on the kitchen table and we all had to share the same bath water, but that was managed as fairly as it could be by allowing the adults to go first, and dusty children last. The water was kept hot by refreshers of boiling water from the kettle on the stove.
What dismayed my most was leaving the warmth in the middle of the frozen night to go to the outhouse. I envied the toddler who just sat on the floor and let the puddle of pee spread out around him. I would much rather do that, if I could get away with it, than wander out into the wintry dark.
And the cold and the conditions were not friendly if you were in a hurry either. You had to climb out of your sleeping bag behind the couch. You had to dress. You had to put on shoes. You had to find your coat. You had to gather together all your courage and your inner warmth to open that door and go out.
One time, I confess, with all that in the way, I didn’t quite make it to the outhouse. Panicked and embarrassed I buried the evidence under a snowdrift, where it hid all winter. When spring came, unfortunately, the snowdrift melted and my secret melted with it. The culprit was quickly identified. In disgrace, I had to sit by the washtub outside in the yard and wash my own undershorts.
Fortunately for me, months under a snowdrift had leeched much of the pungency from the job.