91. The Boneyard, 1961: Peter Visits
Of course, I knew nothing about my brother Don in 1961. The only one of Squires’ sons I recall meeting those days wasn’t Don but his brother Peter, who was about the same age as I. He came to stay at the Boneyard for a few days that summer, the only visitor of any age that I remember staying over, and, aside from a few passers-by on the railroad tracks, the only kid beside myself who was ever found in the Boneyard during my seasons there.
My first impression of Peter was of him lying in his bunk after the adults had gone out, talking to himself. I always suspected he was putting it on. Faux sleeptalking to give himself a bit of glamour. Boys ever since Tom Sawyer, and probably forever, have been hungry for glamour.
Two particular incidents stand out from Peter’s stay in the Boneyard. One was the time we caught a humpback. He and I spotted the salmon paddling through a shallow part of a stream just a little way up the tracks from the cabin. It was low tide. High tides brought silted Skeena waters to the banks of the stream, even on the landward side of the tracks, leaving a muddy ditch at the stream mouth when the tide receded. Standing on the railroad tracks, we could see the salmon’s back sticking out of the water as it attempted to negotiate the shallows of the stream.
That was too much temptation for us. We leapt into that muddy ditch after it and pursued it hilariously to and fro.
That slippery, determined and unamused fish escaped from our grasp several times before we finally maneuvered it so far from the water that it could not get back. Our technique was to chase it. Its technique was to flip flop this way and that in the mud or shallow water, relying on its slipperiness to do the rest. It was great sport for the two boys who pursued, unlucky and fatal for the fish. We came back to the cabin in triumph, our 4 or 5 pound humpback in hand, requiring that it be cooked for supper. Which it was.
I don’t know what Peter thought, but somehow I expected a few more expressions of pride than we encountered when we brought the fish. Of course, I was not viewing us with adult eyes. We saw only the fish, felt only our triumph. My father saw two boys carrying a fish who had just spent the last ten or fifteen minutes in Skeena River mud catching it. I don’t remember noticing the mud at the time.
And the salmon tasted surprisingly like every other humpback salmon I’d ever eaten—which is all very well, of course, but somehow less than I expected. Still, to this day, that fish retains the distinction of being the largest fish I ever caught (or helped catch) without benefit of gillnet.
Bears can do it. Sometimes boys can too.
Peter may not have conjured the hump, but without him I might not have leapt into the muddy stream after it. He kept things interesting during his brief stay. One day he made the following proposal:
“I’m going to run away. You tell them when they get back that I’ve run away, and that I’ve gone over this way.”
The adults were off somewhere working. When they returned, I told them, “Peter’s gone.” I didn’t add any details because somehow I didn’t feel comfortable with saying what Peter had told me to say. He wasn’t really running away, was he? It was just a game played with the adults for no reason that I could see. To play it exactly as he said felt like manipulation, and I was uncomfortable with that.
Simple telling the adults that Peter was gone was enough to galvanize a search and didn’t involve me in the game.
Now running away in the Boneyard is pretty much a binary affair. There are mountains covered in evergreens and thick brush confining your choices on one side. There is the Skeena Estuary, muddy, chill, and several miles wide inundating your choices on the other. The railroad track is the only road and there are no crossroads. The track led either through Haysport, a mile away south, where any passer-by of any height would be noted, or past Cassiar Cannery, ten miles away north on the Skeena Slough, which Peter would be unlikely to reach even if he was serious about running away.
Our still nameless third partner, he of Seagull engine and shortwave radio distinction, thought he saw disturbances in the vegetation on the side of the tracks (see that, see there) which indicated that Peter had wandered north, which indeed Peter had, although the disturbances in the vegetation had nothing to do with it.
Following our illusory trail north, the whole party set off. If the indications in the grass had pointed wrongly towards Haysport, I would have said more of what I knew. But since we were searching in the right direction anyway, corrections were unnecessary.
The rescue party discovered Peter about half a mile down the tracks, where, I suppose, he’d been awaiting our arrival. The adults were duly relieved, and we all returned back to the cabin, all children safe and gathered near.
Peter later asked me, after figuring out how I’d played it, which wasn’t the way I was supposed to play it, “Why didn’t you tell them which way I’d gone?”
I couldn’t have said. If I were to attempt an answer now, I’d say it was because I wasn’t motivated. Peter was. He’d grown up like most children, in a home with his family, with a mother and father and siblings. He expected that like he expected the sun to rise in the morning and the Prince Rupert rain to fall, because he never had to face any alternatives. In other words, he grew up more or less like most other people, with an iron sense of where he belonged and what he was entitled to.
When his father went off to summer in Boneyard, leaving his children with their mother in town—that was less than what Peter expected. Perhaps, missing his father more that he wanted to, he felt entitled to a little extra attention when it was available, and so he stage-managed an event to give him just that.
But I was already home. I was with my father, exactly where I belonged. Peter’s intentions, whatever they were, meant exactly nothing to me. “Peter is gone,” therefore, was the most neutral thing I could say without involving myself too deeply in his game.
I never met Peter again after our few days together in the Boneyard, that I am aware of. According to my brother Don, he died in his late forties of the same flawed heart which had killed his and Don’s father—Squires, as I knew him—in his early forties. By the time I got around to discussing any of these events with Don, both Peter and father were already gone. If my calculations are correct, the elder Squires never lived past the 1960s, and Peter must have died in the 1990s.
What had happened in the Boneyard had happened out of Don’s sight, of course. When I finally got around to telling him about it, Peter had already been dead for more than a decade.
Now part of the pain of death is that the dead will never more share a story or a moment with you. That is why there are so many stories at funerals, I think. The stories are part of why such events are important. And why they heal. They help us face the absoluteness of death, because with new stories come new moments.
Because with a new story, not all is gone, not every memory lost, after all. I was glad to give Don a story, a little bit more of his brother Peter, vintage The Boneyard, 1961.
11 years old. Faking an escape down the railroad tracks. Arranging a posse to track him down.
“Sounds like Peter,” said Don, smiling broadly.