Thursday, 31 December 2009

The number of our years.

The twenty-first century seemed like such a far off time when I was a boy. As each New Year's Day came and went, it crept ever nearer. Now we're celebrating the coming of 2010. In my Deliverance From Jericho (Six Years in a Blind School) book, I wrote about the first time I realized that years were numbered. Here is an excerpt that tells how it happened.
A point arrives in every child's life when time is no longer an undefined stream of experiences but becomes quantified and labelled. That point came for me during that first holiday after being away from home.

"It's New Year's Eve tonight," Mom announced to me as I sat at the kitchen table.

"What's that mean?"

"That's when the old year ends and the new one begins," Mom explained. "This year is 1964 and the new one is 1965."

I had no idea that years were numbered. My mind began sorting out memories as this amazing lesson dawned on me. Events in my past suddenly took on an historical hierarchy. The time Diane brought home a white kitten and Mom made her return it was 1963. I inadvertently set the brand new clothes dryer on fire in 1962. Our family vacation at Sylvan Lake happened in 1961. The time Diane and I gave our large teddy bear a bath in the washtub and we had to throw him out must have been 1960. My mind raced with recollections as I sat in the kitchen pondering my past that evening.

I suspect that my inability to easily recall how old I was during each year started then. Most folks remember the incidents of their lives relative to their birthdays. For no reason I can fathom, I still think of occasions like that as happening in 1964 and not the Christmas after I turned eight.
Deliverance from Jericho contains many more vignettes of what life was like in that government-run institution. These range from poignant experiences of homesickness to hilarious incidents of mischief. This 196-page paperback, containing 6 black and white photos, sells for $25.00 through the PayPal-equipped Inscribe writers group website. E-mail me for further information or if you don't have PayPal and still wish to place an order.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

If you can, have a tropical Christmas.

If you ever have the opportunity to spend December in the tropics, I suggest that you take it. I vacationed in Trinidad during the holiday season in 1982 and it was a singular experience to say the least.

An immigrant family from that Caribbean island became members of the house church which I attended in Edmonton. When their father visited the city, he was so impressed with our congregation that he started his own home-based church upon returning to the hamlet of Diamond Village. Two women from our congregation visited their's and were thrilled by their experience. I felt pleased when I received permission from Stephen, the son of the man who founded the Diamond Village church, to stay at his home for a month. A hotel would have cost too much and I wanted to live with the people, experiencing their way of life.

As I travelled by plane to Toronto, where I would connect with my flight to Trinidad's capital, Port of Spain, I wondered if I would have to sleep in a hut or similar primitive structure. I knew they spoke English there but not much else about the country. I had a lot of time to wonder about my host's village during the twelve hour flight.

The first thing I noticed as I exited the aircraft was the strong smell of grass. I've heard that people who live in the Arctic often have the same experience when they visit southern Canadian cities during spring. Then Stephen introduced himself. As he left to fetch his car, I sat on the curb in front of the terminal and soaked up the warm sunshine while admiring the palm trees.

Houses in Trinidad were not primitive hovels, as I feared, but modern brick and wooden structures. Stephen lived in a two-story home which was divided up into three suites. The residents had electricity, though a truck did knock down the line to the house and we were without power for three weeks. Apart from buying ice from an ice factory to keep the fridge cool, and though the children missed watching television, we managed quite well with candles and oil lamps. In addition, I bought a battery-powered wall light for my bedroom.

I noticed early on that there was no hot water tap in the shower. When Stephen said the cold water was warm enough, I discovered that he was right. It felt like when a person first steps into a public swimming pool. I grew accustomed to the bracing temperature, feeling invigorated by the time I finished.

Staying with my friend and his family meant that I had to adapt to his schedule. He worked as a contractor so we only went places during his down time. These were often church-related events. Stephen and his relatives took me along to do mundane chores such as shopping as well. I found the latter to be fascinating. The various towns and cities we visited had both modern shopping malls and outdoor booths, often side by side. The decorations inside the mall had me scratching my head. It seemed most incongruous to have displays of reindeer and snow in a land which had no experience of either. Seeing beer sold in the grocery store was also a shock. That was never allowed in Canada. We did go to a few tourist places, such as the beach at Los Iros Bay, but our trips were mainly to local shops.

Since Trinidadians drive on the left side of the street, I kept walking to the wrong side of the car. After three weeks, I finally became accustomed to sitting in the left front seat. I soon felt as if I actually lived in Diamond Village instead of being a mere tourist.

I also adjusted to the accents of my friends and their different expressions. When I arrived in late November, I needed to concentrate or I would lose the gist of the conversation. By Boxing Day, when I left for home, I could follow their discussions easily. My friends also used sayings such as "just now" differently. That meant immediately to them, not recently. When the water supply was interrupted for maintenance, Stephen told me that the pipe was, "locked off." They also said that the ice in the cooler was "burning" my hand. I suppose that makes sense if one has never felt cold as we do.

Instead of lights and tinsel, some Christmas trees had coloured cotton ribbons draped on their branches. Many families had artificial trees since shipping Evergreens to the caribbean was expensive. Whether they were decorated Trinidad style or as in North America, presents were always left under them.

After the Christmas morning service, my friend's family and I opened our gifts. I received a lovely short-sleeved carnival shirt, complete with drawings of steel drum players, printed all over it. I wore my present, which fit well, all that day as we feasted.

Everybody ate the family's traditional Indian cuisine but the spices were placed next to the dishes instead of being mixed in. My hosts understood that I would appreciate not having my tongue catch fire. As a result, I had no difficulty with what I was served. The oddest thing that I ate during that vacation was shark meet. It tasted a bit like beef and had a grainy texture. I also thought it a treat to eat coconut meat out of the shell and drink its milk. Though the bananas on Stephen's tree in the backyard weren't ripe, I was amazed that they grew upwards, not hanging down as I had imagined. Stephen also kept ducks and we ate both them and their eggs. With the variety of tropical fruits and unusual soda pop flavours, I never lacked for interesting refreshments.

The sunlight seemed strangely dim when I returned to Edmonton. When a friend drove me home from the MacDonald Hotel, I absent-mindedly walked toward the driver's side before realizing my mistake. I soon adapted again to living in Alberta but I never forgot how nice it felt to wake up in summer-like conditions, to enjoy the warm breeze wafting through the windows, and the exotic scent of Trinidad's foliage after a sudden downpour.

I wrote more about that vacation in my upcoming memoir, How I Was Razed, which should be in print next November. I have previously published When a Man Loves a Rabbit (Learning and Living With Bunnies) and Deliverance from Jericho (Six Years in a Blind School) which you can read more about at the Inscribe writers group website. E-mail me too if you want more information on my memoirs.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Being home felt like going to heaven.

Being "home for Christmas" has become a worn-out cliche in today's commercials, yet the words have a much deeper meaning than a dictionary could ever provide. For me in 1964, returning home after three months at an impersonal institution for the blind was like going to heaven. From my Deliverance From Jericho (Six Years in a Blind School) memoir, here is how the timeworn tradition felt like pure happiness to me.
Diane felt ecstatic when I came through the side door. She practically jumped into my arms and hugged me, nearly knocking me down the basement steps.

Because both parents brought me home, we ate only sandwiches for supper. I ate mine heartily. For the first time in three months, I was not eating institutional fare. "I hope you don't mind," Mom apologized. I was too busy wolfing down my supper to answer. Food never tasted as good to me as that impromptu meal did.

"I didn't have time to make your bed downstairs so you can sleep upstairs in your old bedroom," Mom apologized again. I did not mind that either. I was back home where I belonged and that was all that mattered.

I felt perfectly secure and totally content as I lay in the bed which Diane and I shared for our first few years of life. Being home was a dream-come-true for me. I delighted in the wonder of finally being with my family.

"Is this what it's like to go to heaven?" I asked Mom sleepily. She chuckled and said, "Maybe. I'm so glad you're home." Mom tucked me in and kissed my forehead. I drifted off feeling happier than I had been since summer.

Getting back to the old family routine was pure joy. For example, I could eat cereal again. Mom made toast which was not soggy. I had missed drinking Postum, a type of coffee substitute. Mom made me as many cups of that beverage as I wanted. The greatest joy of all was finally dining with my family. Playing with my own toys again and being with Diane felt like having sunshine after weeks of rain.
Deliverance from Jericho contains many more vignettes of what life was like in that government-run institution. These range from poignant experiences of homesickness to hilarious incidents of mischief. This 196-page paperback sells for $25.00 through the PayPal-equipped Inscribe writers group website. It also contains 6 black and white photographs.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Scotty is gone but not forgotten.

The fact that parents must be constantly vigilant these days breaks my heart. Children once wandered where they pleased without fear of paedophile predation. It did happen occasionally but at nowhere near the rate it seems to now. In my Deliverance From Jericho (Six Years in a Blind School) memoir, I recount the death of an elderly friend at Christmas as well as how he treated my sister and me as his own grandchildren.
"I've got some bad news for you," Mom announced. "Your friend Scotty froze to death in his sleep. His door blew open during a storm one night and the fire in the stove went out." My heart broke as I struggled to hold back the tears. The man who became the grandfather I never had was gone.

When Diane and I were both attending Park Elementary School, she introduced me to a senior citizen who everybody called Scotty. This man, whose real name was Frank, lived in a one-room tar-paper shack on an undeveloped lot in the town. On our weekend wanderings and trips home from classes, we often visited this amiable gentleman. He was generally pleased to see us, although we did occasionally try his patience. In spite of that, we grew fond of him and he became our surrogate grandfather.

Diane and I thought it was "really neat" that Scotty owned such a unique dwelling. It made our two-bedroom middle-class home appear humdrum in comparison.

While everybody else used natural gas, our friend cooked on a coal stove which also served as his furnace. I loved to warm my hands by it on cold winter afternoons and watch the glowing embers. As Scotty had no electricity, he burned candles and lit kerosene lamps. We wished we could have such exotic lighting in our house.

Many aspects of Scotty's home and life captivated us. His hand-operated water pump, for example, fascinated us. He used a real outhouse instead of an ordinary flush toilet. Scotty burned his own garbage as well. I envied him since Mom reprimanded me regularly for burning paper in the basement. He had his own rain barrel too. I felt astonished that the water ran down a stick, hanging from the roof, and how it flowed without needing a downspout into the barrel.

Since our elderly friend was somewhat feeble, we gladly helped him with his chores. Carrying in buckets of coal from his rickety storage shed, pumping water, and hauling it to the house made us feel virtuous. Working for Scotty seemed like such a fun way to pass the time until supper. Diane and I would frequently debate regarding who would do which chore, believing that the other was having more fun.

Mom claimed she received a premonition that she should visit Scotty on the evening he passed away but Dad vetoed the suggestion. Whether Mom was right or not, Scotty died the way he wanted to live, surrounded by his few possessions in his own one- room home.
Deliverance from Jericho contains many more vignettes of what life was like in that government-run institution. These range from poignant experiences of homesickness to hilarious incidents of mischief. This 196-page paperback sells for $25.00 through the PayPal-equipped Inscribe writers group website. It also contains 6 black and white photographs.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Is decorating a "green" thing to do?

When I think of all the time and money expended on Christmas by people, I can't help but wonder why we bother with it. In fact, I believe Mr. Scrooge was right in the first place. Some will argue that activities such as decorating are fun. I certainly enjoyed it when I was a child but that was because I didn't have to pay for all the paper we wasted. In my Deliverance From Jericho (Six Years in a Blind School) memoir, I wrote the following about this topic.
After the excitement of the prince's visit subsided, my dorm mates introduced me to the Tyler House tradition of Christmas decorating. With crepe paper and an abundance of enthusiasm, we each decked our bedrooms. The seasonal adornments added colour to the drab grey floor tiles and pale yellow walls of our quarters. Unfortunately, we were unable to attach anything to the ceiling. It was crisscrossed by concrete beams which were covered in a type of flaky grey stippling material. We attached the crepe paper to the wardrobes and walls instead.

I also learned the hard way that crepe paper has the distressing ability of stretching. Franklin, suspecting nothing, became entangled in my work. I took down the sagging streamers and hung fresh ones all over again, apologizing to Franklin all the while, who good-naturedly forgave me. On our last evening at Jericho, we gleefully tore down our decorations. Though it may seem like an insignificant act of rebellion, it was one way of expressing our opinion about being held in that institution.
In the following chapter, I wrote about how an argument happened between me and my dorm mates regarding sprucing up our quarters.
While everybody decorated their dorm rooms that December, I had a disagreement with the other boys. After arguing for approximately a half hour, I said, "How about you decorating your part of the room your way and I'll decorate my corner the way I want to?" My roommates agreed, ending the argument but not the bad feelings. I must admit that I over-decorated to compensate for only having my little area to work in.

On the night before we left for home, we did our usual ripping down of decorations. Gripped by the excitement of the moment, I decided to climb on top of the wardrobe and jump through the streamers over my bed. Fortunately, the springs were strong and I did not injure myself. No supervisor saw what I did either.
Though we now have recycling programs for many waste products, I feel that decorating is wasteful in itself unless the decorations can be reused year after year. Had all the money people spent over the decades on this holiday been used to feed and employ the poor, I'm sure this world would be better off.

Deliverance from Jericho contains many more vignettes of what life was like in that government-run institution. These range from poignant experiences of homesickness to hilarious incidents of mischief. This 196-page paperback sells for $25.00 through the PayPal-equipped Inscribe writers group website. It also contains 6 black and white photographs.