Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A Yankee in the Canadian Bush - School


 Chapter 13

I went to school by correspondence from Grade 3 through Grade 8. This was part of the Ontario Department of Education system for kids like me who lived where there were no schools. It was nothing like home school is today.

Each month I received in the mail large manila envelopes filled with that month's lessons. At the start of the school year I would also get boxes with textbooks as well as art supplies and materials to do upcoming science experiments. The lessons were the same as the core curriculum in the schools.

The lessons were arranged for each day of the school week. For instance, I would have printed lessons that said: Monday -- Science, followed by Monday--Writing, followed by Monday -- Art and then Monday -- History, etc. There were chapters to read in the books, then questions to answer and problems to solve, maps to colour and sentences to parse.

It was so cool! I loved it! 

I would sit by the oil stove in the dining room at camp and would lose myself in all this new information. My mom soon learned that rather than push me to "go to school" she had to slow me down. I would get so engrossed in a subject I would ignore what day it was and just keep going. Within a few days I had done the whole month.

"Oh my goodness!" she would say. "You did it all! You're going way too fast. It's not a race, you know."

She would review what I had written and say, "You better go back and check your answers."

Mom thought it best if I maintained the same schedule as kids did in real school. So, I started at 8 a.m. and had recess at 10, lunch at noon, recess at 2 and finished for the day at 3:30. The only difference for me was that I took my .22 and went partridge hunting during recesses and would throw the whole schedule out the window when I heard a boat coming back to the dock.

"Tony's coming in with a moose!" I would yell as the screen door slammed behind me.

At the end of the month I would send off my completed work in the postage-paid envelopes provided. I had a teacher who would mark or grade my work and return it in the next mailing of lessons. She would make comments just as if she was in the room. 

"Danny, you have a great imagination and that comes through on your story about the red fox. You could make it more interesting to readers by thinking of different words for "fox" and "mouse" when you repeat these names. You can get some ideas by looking up these words in your dictionary. Keep up the good work! You have the makings of great writer!" -- signed Mrs. Peters.

Huh! Different words for fox and mouse? I got out the dictionary. Well, I'll be.

By erasing a little my story became, "The hungry fox stopped its long nighttime hunt when it found mouse holes on each side of the snowshoe trail. The vixen ..." no wait, "... the clever vixen knew it was just a matter of time before a rodent would appear and provide breakfast."

School became even more interesting when we moved into town for the winter. We lived at what was then called Ken's Lodge on the west side of the Forestry Point. Today this camp is called Sunset Lodge.

The lodge was on the western outskirts of town and was meant to be used just during the summer. We lived in the owners' quarter rent-free in exchange for my dad putting up ice in the camp's icehouse.

The arrangement worked pretty well except for the fact the building was uninsulated. That would prove interesting for us when the temperature dipped to forty below zero. For obvious reasons, the building's water system was disconnected in the winter. We got our water by walking down to the lake and chopping a hole in the ice. We quickly learned to cover the hole with a wooden box and tarps so there would only be two inches of new ice the next time we came instead of two feet.

There were two ways to heat the living quarters -- a DuoTherm oil stove that was identical to the one we had in the dining room at camp, and a tin airtight woodstove, just like we had in the camp cabins. Both systems ran full-out all winter.

The first time the deep cold hit in January, the oil stove quit working. Dad figured the problem was caused by "summer" oil which contained wax that would precipitate out when the temp was less than 20 below. He wrapped the oil line with an electric heat-trace wire and plugged it into an outside outlet. It worked.

The oil stove sat in the living room while the wood stove was in the walkway between the kitchen and the living room. There was a counter peninsula between the wood stove and the kitchen sink, 10 feet away. The dish cloth would freeze to the sink. The sink drain was disconnected and we collected the water in a five-gallon pail. When we dumped this outside the back door it instantly froze, making a little glacier that increased in height each day.

A stairs off the kitchen led to the bedrooms. My parent's room was right at the top of the stairs where heat from the stoves below would find its way. There was also a heat-collecting device on the wood stove chimney. The temperature in this room was usually above freezing but not by much. There was a cot in this room that I could use but I preferred a second bedroom which didn't get any heat from below. The temperature in there wasn't much different than outside. There were probably six blankets and sleeping bags spread open on this bed. I would get things warm by heating rocks atop the wood stove and then wrapping them in towels and putting them in the bed a half hour before I got in. I wore long underwear and two pair of socks. I pulled my head under the six inches of blankets to keep it from freezing. It sounds awful but actually I slept very well there. Sometimes though when it was near 50 below and the house was cracking, Mom insisted I sleep in their room. 

Our winter quarters had hydro (electricity) which was something we didn't have out at camp. There was no television in Red Lake in those days so people had to make their own entertainment. Churches held teas regularly, there were lots of dances and just about everybody was involved in hockey, curling or bowling.

"True Canadians like winter better than summer," my dad said one time. I don't know where he got that fact and it is disputed to this day by my wife, Brenda, who is about as Canadian as you can get but for me, those first winters were indeed what led to my Canadian citizenship. It started with learning to skate.

I had several friends that lived within a half-mile and every one of them could skate like the wind, or at least that's how it seemed to me. I couldn't take a step without falling on my butt or my face. I was determined to learn. So I took the snow shovel and cleared the snow off the lake in front of the cabin. It took days but eventually I had made a small rink. Mom got me a pair of used skates and watched as I walked out on the ice only to see me fall again and again and again, for days. I fell forward and backward and sideways. I did the splits. I hit the front of my head and the back of my head. I had bloody noses and split lips. One night I was taking a bath and Dad laughed, "Your bruises have bruises. Even your ears are swollen."

By the end of the week, I could skate, even backwards, at least a little.

There were no social functions on Saturday night. That was Hockey Night in Canada and we all had our ears glued to the radio to hear Foster Hewitt call the game. 

"Hello Canada and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland," he would always say.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were everybody's favourite but personally, I preferred the Chicago Blackhawks. I liked their logo better. It was a noble looking Indian man and reminded me of Tony Paishk.

Bobby Hull played for the Blackhawks and he was a sensation. He had a slap shot that traveled 100 miles an hour! Incredible. That would be faster than the eye could see, I thought. I wanted to practise my slap shot but that was difficult because there were no boards around my rink. If I whacked the puck at more than a few miles an hour it just disappeared in the snowbanks and was lost forever. But I found a piece of plywood and stood it at one end of my rink and shot at that. Mostly I missed and the pucks were never seen again. It would be two weeks before I could get another puck; so, in the meantime I would have to content myself with shooting chunks of ice around. 

I would often stay out on my rink after it got dark even though there were no lights. For one thing, it got dark about 6 p.m. In the winter, with everything white from the snow, you can see quite well at night. As I skated around, doing step-overs on the corners and picking up speed on the straightaways, the ice would rumble like thunder as it froze deeper and deeper. Northern lights would appear in the sky and crackle like tinfoil being shaken. Some people said they couldn't hear them but I swore I could.

Dad would park the car up at the garage at the top of the hill and walk the 100 yards down to the camp on a snowshoe trail we kept well-packed. Mom would then call me for supper and I would walk up the trail to the house where I would take off my skates and wince from the pain as feeling came back to my feet. What a great life, I would think.

I absolutely devoured my school work. There wasn't much else to do anyway. I wondered about other kids enrolled in the system. We all sent our pictures so others could see us and we were encouraged to become penpals. There were only a couple dozen of us. I got the impression that the kids all had white fathers and Indian mothers. We were spread out from Hudson's Bay to Red Lake. 

There were certainly more than two dozen Indian kids on traplines in Ontario's North, I guessed. Were they able to go to regular schools? My best friend was Stanley Keesic who lived over the hill from Ken's Lodge. We were in the same grade and he went to regular school in town, coming and going on the bus. Other Indian kids went to the Mennonite School on Forestry Road. It would be decades before I learned where most Indian kids in remote areas were sent -- the infamous residential schools.

My Mom, God love her, continually worried that I wasn't getting a good education. Knowing that I was breezing through my correspondence classes, she would also enroll me temporarily in local schools, including those in Ohio when we went to visit my sister and her family. So I might attend two schools -- Red Lake and Ohio -- plus do my correspondence work in a single school year. She also worried that I wasn't socializing enough. I don't know why she felt like this as I had many friends in Red Lake -- virtually all the kids in the vicinity of Ken's Lodge plus, eventually, several close friends at Red Lake Public School and the kids who came year after year with their families to camp.

By popping me in and out of schools, particularly in Ohio, I did indeed learn one thing: there were bullies in every school. I learned to recognize them immediately; they were the biggest boys who had failed several grades and were a head or two taller than everybody else. They had a universal routine --  humiliate and torture smaller boys. If you stood up to them, they would order you to meet them after school or on the weekend when they would be accompanied by two or three bullies-in-waiting.

I was no milquetoast but there wasn't a remote chance of winning these fights. Even though Dad had shown me how to box it was just impossible. The bully would be a foot taller and twice my weight. If ever I did get in a good lick, the bully lieutenants would grab my arms and let the big bully pummel me. Bullies only pick on people they know they can beat, the more helpless, the better. Why do they do this? Because they are sick sadists. And they aren't alone. There is an endless line of succession of little bullies waiting for the big bully to finally graduate, or get a job, or become president.

I thought and thought and couldn't see a solution. I didn't want to be bullied all my life. I was sick of it. And then, one day, the answer came "out of the blue." It was, I would learn decades later, a Superconscious answer. What is the Superconscious? It is when there is an answer to a problem that is a blinding flash of the obvious, that takes into account not just every known fact but, curiously, at least one thing you didn't know. It is always accompanied by a feeling of warmth, of elation, and you know in your heart that it is the right thing to do. There is another part of a Superconscious decision: it must be acted upon right away.

So, the next day, without hesitation, I did it. The school day was beginning and I had just gotten off the bus. As I walked down the corridor toward my locker I had to pass the big bully yucking it up with some bully wannabes. He was taking something out of his locker when I tapped him on the shoulder. As he turned I punched him with all my might in the face, a sucker punch. That was one part of the solution; bullies don't fight fair but they expect you to. Well, not this time and not ever again. 

Brutus went straight to the floor while blood spurted from his nose. I kicked him hard in the gut and he twisted away from me in the fetal position so I kicked him several times in the butt.

"Get up, fatso!" I yelled.

The junior bullies shielded him as he got on his feet.

"You're dead meat!" he yelled. "Meet me after school!"

That brought up another part of the Superconscious solution. Bullies are afraid of being thrown out of school. If they are expelled they will get a beating from their old man. Not my problem. And I couldn't care less if I got thrown out. This was my ace-in-the-hole.

"Hey, I'm here right now. Come and get it unless you're chicken."

Big Dummy didn't know what to do. I started clucking.

"The kid's a psycho," said Bully No. 2.

Yeah, that's it. Nobody can beat a psycho. Whatever.

The next day I was ready to repeat the performance, only this time the group saw me coming. I walked right up and started clucking. 

The day after that there was no group in the hall.

...to be continued

Others in this series

 Prologue

Bullies
Wolverine 

Roots

Animals

Mentors






1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Awesome addition! Hope I can get up to camp this summer and troll by your new home and have a chance to thank you for all the great content I look forward to reading each day.

M Seal

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