He was born October 16, 1946, at home in the farmhouse, Domville, Ontario. When he couldn’t hold his head up too steady by the time he was six months old, Sadie and Lawrence started to get a little concerned. He was still pretty wobbly and not too focussed when I was born on his first birthday in the Fall of ‘47.
“You were my birthday present,” he would repeat to me on October 16th every year. As I got older, it started to irritate me, the repetition, but it also made me feel special, cherished.
The story goes that he wasn’t saying too much by the time I started talking and that it was me that got him going. The family sometimes holds that against me.
A black and white picture of him at three reveals a beautiful, round-faced boy with huge dark eyes and a cascade of dark curls on his forehead. I was quite the opposite, with platinum straight hair and light blue eyes, standing, beaming beside him, our fraternal bonding for life beginning.
When he was in grade one, at a Wellington, Ontario public school, he would return home after classes with the peanut butter sandwiches still in his honey can lunch bucket because he was too shy to eat in front of the other children.
When I was in grade one, at Bird’s Creek Public School, I would cringe with embarrassment on hearing Art, out in the hallway, beyond the closed door of the classroom, braying like a donkey -- in anticipation of the punishment to come -- being led by his grade two teacher to the principal’s office for his weekly (it seemed) appointment with a 14 inch leather strap. The braying would turn into outright howling, heard throughout the school, as his teacher reddened both of Arthur’s hands with a half dozen strokes each. I would feel a confliction of mortification, sympathy and anger and then fight back the tears, wishing I could be with him, to comfort him as he was returned, weeping and snuffling to his classroom.
And our corporal punishment started at home. Dad used various straps, slippers and belts to mete out summary justice at our witting or unwitting breaking of the rules, written and unwritten. One spring Bird’s Creek day, Arthur and I made a game of running up and down lengths of used lumber we pulled down and propped individually against a pile Dad had stacked in the yard. Even though we were pretty little, we managed to break three or four pieces before moving on to play at something else. When Dad came home he saw the broken pieces lying strewn around the lumber pile and went ballistic. He found us in the house and, after establishing that it was us who had busted his lumber, he yanked off his belt and, starting with me and finishing with Art, gave us the licking of our lives. He whipped me all over the body and when he was finished, I stumbled crying, in pain, terrorized to the opposite side of the main living room area. He then started on Arthur and, it seemed, his fury went up a notch as he beat him unmercifully. Even though I had just suffered a severe beating, I stopped crying and started wincing at the belt lashes that Art was enduring. At one point the metal buckle of the belt hit my brother in the mouth causing it to bleed profusely. Dad kept on swinging the belt, in spite of Arthur’s screams until our oldest (teenage) brother, Gerald -- sitting silently with the rest of our siblings and Mother watching the spectacle, his hand on a recently finished cup of tea, -- could take it no more, and yelled at Dad, loudly and evenly, “If you don’t stop hitting him, you’ll get this fucking cup in the head!”
No one ever swore in our house, let alone ever use the “F” word, let alone stand up so dramatically to Father. It was the heaviest moment of our family chronicle, and stands frozen and pivotal in my memories of that time. Dad stopped swinging, released his grip on Arthur’s arm, glared briefly at Gerald, then turned and stalked out of the house, threading the belt back into his waistband. Arthur staggered to his feet from where he had fallen and we both rushed to Mother who said not a word, fixed Arthur’s (by now grossly swollen) lip and then cuddled us both in her bed, humming hymns to us until our sobbing finally subsided.
I remember thinking that Gerald’s goose must have been cooked, that he’d be kicked out of the house, cursing at dad and standing up to him like he did. But, Dad never said anything and the event was never spoken of or acknowledged as having ever happened, except in whispered remembrances among us children.
The nicknames for Arthur started early. One of our three older brothers called him “Dudley”, after some slow local soul, as soon as it was discerned that Arthur’s delayed intellectual capacity had ripened to the point where a sarcastic name could reach in and twist his little heart. “Dudley” was soon abbreviated to “Dud” and that mean, dismissive word became Arthur’s flash point, as his seven brothers and sisters (including me) took turns letting him know that he was: a bullet that wouldn’t fire; a bomb that wouldn’t go off; a brain that didn’t work.
(He hated and feared the word “retarded”. We all seemed to have enough sensitivity -- or was it shame? -- to not use the word against him.)
Someone noticed a slight deformation of the top of one of his ears and called him “Lopped Ear” (or, alternatively, in a cruel creative combination: “Lopped Ear Dud”) which soon became shortened to “Lopty”. One of our young nephews, when Art was just into his teens, was unable, because of his young years, to properly pronounce the moniker he heard being used, and the name “Opty” made it into the family lexicon.
Two of the names he was called were so obtuse they never seemed to upset him too much. “Ratmire” was a simple bastardization of the family name; and “Short-legged Buck” was intended to insult him by way of the fact that our father had a pronounced limp caused by childhood polio. (Have no idea where the ”Buck” part of it came from.)
Children, the vicious little buggers they can be, quickly smelled the blood in the water around Art and would surround him when he would be upset or in a dispute in the schoolyard. I would find him, encircled by a pack of tormentors, taunting him, calling him a baby, laughing at his tears. I would burst into the group and stand beside my brother, glaring menacingly at the mob of malefactors until they dispersed.
Once, when we were both in grade two, at L’Amable Public School (we had moved to a small countryside collection of houses called the Maxwell Settlement in the mid 1950s and we children were bussed 10 miles to L’Amable) I came across Art, crying, with his face in his hands, a smirking stout boy from our class named Kyle standing four feet away, with his hands on his hips. It was my first physical schoolyard altercation. I didn’t ask what had happened; I didn’t say a word... I just walked right up to Kyle and punched him in the mouth. His face registered a shocked, crumpled look and, even though he outweighed me by thirty pounds (that’s ninety versus sixty), he simply turned and walked away, tears welling from the corners of his eyes.
We moved often and one school we ended up attending was Cardiff P.S., in a town site built to accommodate workers at one of the uranium mines near Bancroft. The children were all scions of mine labourers, carpenters, mill workers, etc. who were shuttled from various tough living quarters appendaged to mines all over Ontario and Quebec. And for that reason, many of them were damaged, rough and mean. And the toughest, meanest one of all the boys of my age was a pathological nine year-old bully named Billy Albright.
He was from a family of bullies: the father, a big rawboned underground worker, loved to get drunk and "hammer the piss out of" (as it was always reported) anybody who happened to be standing close by.
The mother got cheesed off at the lady next door and blackened both her eyes.
The oldest son (in his early twenties) drifted around just looking so scary that no one messed with him.
The fun bully of the family was an overweight teenage charmer nicknamed "Bubbles" who smiled as he slapped people around. I once saw him take 25 strides from one end of a hockey rink and demolish some skinny fart against the far end boards (they had to carry the guy off) and then go apoplectic when the referee gave him a two minute charging penalty.
And the youngest child, Nancy terrorized my sister, Edith's seven year-old set of schoolgirls, on a regular basis. Nice family…
Billy's absolutely favourite target was, of course, Arthur. With a few cronies, who would accompany him just to stand around and watch the fun, he would hide out between the houses on the street we had to walk to get home from school, then run out and jump us. I was thin and small at that age and would be just shoved aside as Billy grabbed Art, who would already be whimpering in fear. Billy would laugh as he whacked Art about the head and then push him to the ground where he would kick at him and knee him till he was howling loud, curled up in the fetal position, with his hands over his head. The cronies would smirk with perverse pleasure and then the crew of them would saunter off laughing, leaving both of us crying -- Art, roughed up and hurting and me standing rooted there in frustration and mortification that I couldn't help my hapless brother.
I remember feeling overwhelming anxiety as the school day wound down, knowing what Art and I had to face from Billy. We eventually started going home through a swamp that bordered the street, creeping through the scrub trees, jumping from hummock to hummock over pools of fetid water. One day Dad noticed our wet and muddy shoes, and we blurted out the whole story of Billy's terrorization of us. Saying not a word he retrieved a ten-gauge shotgun that belonged to one of my older brothers. Draping it over his arm, he strolled toward the school, asking the kids straggling towards him, "Who's Billy Albright?.. Where's Billy Albright?.. " Arthur and I followed wide-eyed behind him, at a respectful distance, wondering if he would really kill Billy if the bully happened to be in the area. When Dad reached the school, he turned and headed back to our house, passing Art and me, a mild look on his face, not even acknowledging our presence. Art and I were somewhat disappointed that Billy wasn't lying dead in the street, but Dad's stratagem worked: word must have got out to Billy and he never bothered us again.
Every Fall, back in the Maxwell Settlement, from the time I was about nine or so, Dad would enlist Art and I to help him with the trucking of “slab wood” (the bark-covered trimmings from logs in the milling process – it was trash wood and was usually burned in an incinerator on site) from lumber mills who gave us permission to take it away, for free. We would show up at a lumberyard and fill our 1948 Mercury panel truck with a “jag” of the 10 to 12 foot boards and cart them back to our place. Six or seven loads later, we would be ready to cut the wood down to size for out kitchen range and Quebec heater.
Dad would set up his ancient “buzz saw”, a scary-looking appliance with a 30 inch circular blade on an armature that was driven by an 8 inch wide rubber belt linked to an electric motor he would bolt to the bed of the Mercury truck. The belt was about 20 feet long – from truck to saw – and was configured in a figure 8 to keep it from flying off the drive shaft. Dad would warm up a bottle of molasses and, once the belt was humming good, he would pour the black, sticky liquid onto the inside of the belt, to assist in keeping it from flying off. Every so often, however, the belt would slip off and we’d duck and run away, to keep from getting hit by it. Dad would be the operator of the contraption, taking the boards from either Art or I, laying them on the hinged table of the saw, pushing them into the blade, and cutting appropriate length pieces for our stoves. The choice of jobs for Arthur and me was either carrying the slab boards to Dad or standing right up next to the saw blade and taking the cut pieces off the table. Carrying the pieces to Dad was obviously the preferred function. Standing next to the unguarded, whirling saw blade was a terrifying experience for both of us.. we hated it. When he was ready to roll, Dad would turn to the two of us standing, fidgeting, side by side and nod to the one he wanted to assist him by the blade. Art or I would move shakily into position, turn and scowl at the lucky stiff who wasn’t chosen and then endure hours, on a cold Saturday in October, gathering the stove wood from the saw and stacking it, by Dad’s rigid standards, in 5 foot high rows added to the existing wood pile.
When I got to be 12, Father decided I could be the operator and stood me up to the table where I was required to put my hands on the slabs, on either side of the fearsome blade, scared shitless as I pushed the table forward, wood chips flying (we had no eye protection, of course), the one inch teeth slicing through the boards, coming unnervingly close to my face and chest. Dad never got Art to do this; and Art never expressed any jealousy at not being asked.
There were two major boy’s chores in our family: bringing 24 hour’s worth of wood for the stoves into the house every evening; and carrying in enough water in pails from the well for the same time frame. Carrying the wood was the more strenuous of the two, and more trips had to be made, but the woodpiles were close by the house and wood was only required from early Fall to late Spring. In our first few years at the Maxwell Settlement, there was a hand-operated water pump in the front yard, but at some point it quit working and, instead of getting a new one, Dad dug -- and built a shelter for -- a dip well, across the road and down an embankment by the lake, a full one hundred feet or so from our front porch. Carrying water up from the well in warmer seasons was not so problematic, but during the winter, a path had to be dug through the snow and the pails of water had to be lugged, in the dark, up a slippery path that only got slicker when the carrier slipped and fell, dumping the contents of the pails and making an icy chute out of the walkway. Art and I wrangled endlessly over which was the worst job and angled with our parents to swap chores when we felt the task was too onerous. I shamefully confess that there were times when I would promise to play some game with him or do some other minor favour if he would double up on the chores and do mine too. He invariably complied.
A snowy evening in February in the Maxwell Settlement and thirteen year-old Art comes into the house crying and winded.
“Dale McCormick beat me up and I told him you would come and get him,” he said, weeping and gasping, blood on his lower lip.
“Where is he?” I asked, with resignation.
“He’s out in the middle of the field.. He’s waiting for you,” Art wheezed, brightening a little.
I pulled on my parka coat and purposely left my mitts in my pocket, then crunched resolutely through the dark snow, Art stumbling along behind, three hundred yards or so out into the 40-acre field behind the house, towards two indistinct figures, waiting stiffly in the cold air. I walked right up close to the one I recognized as Dale and asked if he had hit Arthur.
The twelve year-old tough stuck his jaw out and said, “Yeah, so what, asshole?”
My second oldest brother, Cecil – the scrapper in the family -- told me: “If you know you’re going to be in a fight, hit first, hit once, hit hard.”
I put all I had into one roundhouse punch that, to my startled adversary, came out of nowhere. He lay on his back, in the snow, hands on his nose, as I turned to face his buddy, a skinny, mean little shit named Herman Roy. Herman glared at me, but didn’t move. I stepped around Dale and headed back to the house.
“That’ll teach you a lesson,” Arthur yelled over his shoulder.
“Shut up,” I said to him through clenched teeth.
And we fought too, of course, Art and me: usually no real punch ups, just mostly pushing and shoving and slapping and rolling around on the ground -- often egged on by our older brothers. Once when we were playing hockey, one-on-one on the lake in front of the house, we bumped and fell together onto the ice and he bit me.. bit me!.. on the right thigh.. Had teeth marks there for days... Another time on the lake, just the two of us, he got really mad at me, dropped his stick on the ice, and skated up close.
“Hit me!” he said, “I dare you to hit me!”
O.K., I said to myself, and punched him in the head hard enough to knock him down, skates-a-flailing.
He scrambled to his feet and skated up close again.
“I dare you to do that again.” he said, surprise and challenge in his eyes.
So I obliged him. And down he went one more time. But as he got back to his feet the second time, he scooped up his hockey stick (he was less of a coward / more of a warrior with a weapon in his hands) and came at me, the stick cocked high over his head. I turned and lit out across the ice, vaulted the snow bank on the edge of the rink and ran, skates not hindering my progress, to the shore, up over the road and pell mell through the foot deep snow across the field adjoining the house, the windmill named Arthur losing ground as I made it to the house and safety.
We became fanatical supporters of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team starting in the early 60’s and exulted as our boys won the Stanley Cup four times that decade. Dad wouldn’t have a TV in the house, so we slipped out on Saturday nights to watch the Leafs on Hockey Night In Canada at our older brother, Gerald’s house across the lake, or at the home of one of several obliging neighbours. Following a playoff game one March evening, Arthur and I were returning from Gerald’s, along the dark road bordering the lake when we heard a ruckus and saw headlights swivel oddly as a car approached from behind us. The car stopped for thirty seconds or so and then came on. It pulled up to a stop beside us, the driver rolled down his window and exclaimed that he had just hit a bear that had come out of the left ditch -- a spot we had just passed -- and the bear had rolled over a couple of times, then ran off across a field. The hair rose a little on the backs of our necks and we hurried home to tell the family about our dramatic near-encounter.
The next night, Art and I spoke theatrically about our brush with wilderness danger to the assembled hockey fans at neighbour, Eldon McCormick’s house as the Maple Leafs downed the Detroit Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup. Arthur and I walked home, reliving the magic moments, shied away a little bit from the ditch where the bear had been loitering the night before, then walked on up a slight incline of the barely discernable road to a spot that was bordered on the right by a stand of tag alders. Suddenly the bushes started shaking and we could just make out a dark figure lurching upright through the trees. Bear!! We both took off running, but within a few strides, Art, unaccountably, fell heavily to the road and lay there groaning piteously.
“Come on! Get up!” I screamed at him, then ran back and yanked him to his feet. He limped as fast as he could and we were soon back at our house, a quarter of a mile away, breathlessly recounting our harrowing tale. Dad got into the car and drove to the stand of small trees. What he found was a length of wire that someone had tied across the road, about two feet off the ground, from a tree on one side to a tree on the other. I had cleared it somehow, but, poor Art had hit it and gone for a painful roll in the gravel.
Months later, one of Eldon’s boys told us that Charlie Marois, a boarder at their house and a renowned alcoholic “reprobate” (Mother’s term), sneaked out before the end of the hockey game and set the “bear” ambush up for us. And laughed himself silly over the fright he had given us, a foolhardy act that could have meant serious injuries, had either one of us tumbled badly and broke something falling over the wire.
We spent our winters on the lake and our summers in it. Even at water activities we were fiercely competitive. I could swim farther underwater but he seemed to be able to hold his breath longer squatting down, holding his nose closed with his fingers. But, I would always scam him on that one -- and he never once caught on. We would drop down under the water, Art holding his nose, eyes closed, me not holding my nose, watching him floating gently in the rippling light for fifteen seconds or so. Then I would pop up out of the water and stay there until he started to emerge through the solarized surface. I would quickly drop under again and thirty seconds later, burst gasping into the air. Poor Art would be chagrinned that, once again, I had beaten him.
The lake contained nothing but trash fish: perch, sunfish and mudcat, but we fished religiously from the time the ice left in March until it returned in late November. One year Arthur kept a running total of the fish he caught over the course of our fishing season and was well over two thousand -- probably catching and re-catching many of the same fish -- when we put away our fishing gear for the year.
One summer evening, brother Gerald drove up to the front of the house, got out of his car and handed Arthur and, I standing there gaping in the western light, brand new fishing rods he had purchased for us at Canadian Tire. To this day I’ve never understood his largesse. He had never given anything to us before; he never had too much to do with us. I guess he must have been aware of our enthusiasm for fishing and noticed our pathetic tackle (stripped alder branches, string, fishhooks and wing nut sinkers) and felt flush enough to rectify the situation. Anyway it was the most exciting, and the most appropriate gift I had ever received in my young life.
The next morning was a classic central Ontario day: the lake in front of the house was still and calm, perfectly mirroring the cobalt sky and the green hills on the opposite shore. Arthur and I filled a tin can with earthworms from the garden and headed off to a favourite fishing spot of ours, in the secluded back bay of the lake, where a huge elm had been brought down by beavers years before and provided a perch well out into the lake where we could cast our lines into the deeper water. The deer flies had been bugging us pretty good as we had been making our way to the tree, so before we got down to fishing, we took out our bottle of insect repellent and slathered our arms and heads with a generous amount of the pungent liquid. We had just cast our baited hooks into the water when, unaccountably, Arthur’s reel disengaged from the rod and toppled into the water. A look of annoyance clouded his features; he put the rod on the tree trunk and knelt down to peer into the blue depths, his hands cupped on either side of his face. The reel was about five feet down, snagged on an algae-covered branch of the ancient tree.
“How am I going to get that up out of there?” he whined.
“Try hooking it with the tip of your rod,” I suggested.
Art picked up his rod, thrust it into the water and merely succeeded in nudging the reel even deeper down among the gnarled branches. I next suggested that he pull the line until it was all unwound from the spool and then tug the reel up by the tied-on end. He followed my instructions but before long the line was tangled around him and other branches of our fishing ramp. And when the line went taut, he reefed on it so hard that it broke and he toppled, backwards – in slo-mo – into the lake. He floundered around a bit, encumbered by the fishing line encircling his body, bellowing angrily, then hauled himself up onto the tree and crouched there, sobbing pitifully, water draining from his clothes and shoes.
Suddenly he raised both arms into the air, threw his head back and screamed at the sky: “I’m going to drown myself…!”
“Drown myself, drown myself!” mocked the surrounding hills.
He got down on his knees, grasped a knot with his left hand, to steady himself, and plunged his crewcut head into the lake up to his neck, holding his nose with his right hand (he might have been drowning himself, but he wasn’t going to get water in his nose). I had put down my rod, intending on assisting him, but the humour of the situation became apparent to me and I sat back, grinning and waiting for him to come to his senses and re-surface. Thirty seconds passed and a twinge of concern over his determination to end it all sobered me. I waited another fifteen or twenty seconds, then, prodding him with my outstretched foot, I laughingly, nervously yelled at him to pull his head out of the water and stop being so ridiculous. A minute passed.. a minute and a quarter.. a minute and a half…
“Art!” I yelled, “Get up out of there!”
One minute forty-five seconds.. I was starting to panic. Crawling to him on hands and knees, I grabbed his shoulders and attempted to pull him up. He resisted.
“Come on,” I said through clenched teeth, pulling harder.. His body was trembling, but still he resisted.
In desperation, now, I wrapped my arms around his upper body and gave a mighty tug. Slowly his head came up out of the water. He expelled a great gasp of air, then panting heavily, he slumped against me.
“You stupid goof!” I said with some anger, “You scared me..” I clung to him, unsure of what he would do next. Suddenly, he jerked in my arms and began to wail and rub wildly at his eyes with the knuckles of his clenched fists. The insect repellent, that he had applied generously to his face ten minutes earlier, had run into his eyes and was now burning and causing him tremendous discomfort.
The deer flies buzzed in tight, looping orbits about our heads, Art sobbed disconsolately and I alternately laughed and cried as I sat on the elm tree cradling my brother’s wet, pathetic body.
Arthur would sit for hours shooting crocinole “cookies” (shooting the button into the center hole). He shot something like 49 in a row one time -- a family record. But I, (shit that I was), could “psyche him out” effectively when we would play a game: if he had a tough shot or a chance at a cookie, I would stare intently at his quivering finger and he would invariably blow the shot.. and ultimately I would win the game. He would glare up at me and then.. wham! the octagonal board with its red and black game pieces would fly over my head as he would flip it into the air in a rage over losing once again.
“I’m never going to play crocinole with you again!” I would announce, indignantly and stalk away.
The very next evening he would beg / cajole me to return to the board and, taking pity / believing he might reform I would join him, warning that if there was any repetition of his shenanigans from the night before, that would be it -- no more, ever again... But, the board and buttons would go flying over my head again, and the cycle would start all over.
He was placed in the “Opportunity Class” (“..for dummies” the unkind, slightly less-challenged school population added to the designation) after floundering several years in grade four. And there he stayed until they decided to move him on to high school, a year after I made it to grade nine. The “Opportunity class teacher was a thick man in a navy blazer named Mr. Glaser. He was in a pioneer area of education, teaching dummies, but, in spite of his special training, Art reported that his teacher would join in the merciless teasing of him, right there in the classroom, during class -- and this, of course, pissed me off. I approached Glaser one recess, while he was on yard duty and gave him “what for” for his unprofessional treatment of my brother (that kind of “lip” to a teacher pretty much unheard of back in the conformist 50’s). If what I had said to him hadn’t been true, the thick one might have led me to the office by my ear. Instead, he started treating Art nicer and he started chatting to me like a colleague whenever he ran into me in the yard.
Arthur and I threw stones. We lived beside a gravel road and no walk anywhere happened without each of us throwing a rock for every ten feet of walking. Into the lake, into the woods, straight up into the air as far as possible (and then run like heck to avoid getting hit). We pegged rocks at groundhogs beside their holes, chipmunks on fence rows and birds on the hydro wires. Every now and then we’d hit something – a swallow would come tumbling down from a hydro line – and we’d feel, at first, exultant at our marksmanship, then dreadful as we peered down at the quivering, expiring clump of shiny feathers.
When our sister, Edith was about five, cute as a button with a halo of fuzzy, blonde hair, Arthur hit her on the temple with a fair size rock, cutting an artery and causing a major bit of bleeding. Dad eschewed taking her for medical care, stanching the blood flow with an ice cube and then tying a tea towel around her head. It was a while before Art’s butt stopped aching after that one. He heaved a three-pound stone over a sand pile and all I remembered was hearing a loud hollow sound and seeing thousands of pinprick stars as I fell to the ground. He hit me, as well, with a bottle thrown at an enemy taunting him somewhere in the dark, leaving me with a crescent moon scar in the cowlick just above my forehead. And a jagged tin can found my head, and left its mark, when he lofted it over a stand of lilacs, one bright May morning. “I didn’t know anybody was there,” he said, by way of defense. A tour of my scalp will reveal a network of scars, the record of Art’s projectile-inflicted handiwork.
He and I were clambering over piles of rocks, deep in the woods, looking for mineral samples (another of our shared passions), when there was an explosion of loud fluttering and without a thought, Art flung his hammer at the physical manifestation of the sound and struck a partridge fair on the neck, killing it instantly. Dad plucked it and roasted it and we had it for dinner. Tasted like the cedar buds that constituted its last meal.
Our last “licking” from Dad happened when we were in our early teens. We had been insubordinate to Mother and she arranged for the punishment. Dad ordered the two of us into our shared bedroom, told us to lower our pants and underwear and lie side-by-side on our stomachs across the bed. He then proceeded to whack us, in turn, across the buttocks with a flat, rough piece of slab wood. Art responded with his obligatory howling, but I silently endured several blows, then looking back over my shoulder, I caught Dad’s eye and shook my head slightly in disgust at the inglorious spectacle he was making of himself. He stopped in mid-swing, lowered the board and strode out of the room. He never physically punished either of us again.
The summer Arthur and I were sixteen and fifteen, Dad turned us over to an elderly entrepreneur acquaintance of his to help out with his peat and sphagnum moss business for the duration of our summer holidays. A large, gaunt, humourless senior citizen we had never met before picked us up in late June and ferried us in a smelly ‘56 Ford station wagon to his small acreage near Norland, Ontario. He had been granted a concession to harvest the mosses from a local swamp and, unfit anymore to do the work himself, put Arthur and I at providing the raw material with which he hoped to increase his meager fortune. We would be dropped off at the edge of the highway bordering the bog every morning, rain or shine, with a bag of baloney sandwiches and a couple of pieces of fruit, axes and shovels, and be required to put in eight hours, either: clearing off small trees and removing the top twelve inches, or so, of muddy soil, then digging out squares of the revealed dark brown peat moss and piling them by the side of the highway to dry; or making our way through the swamp, plucking handfuls of pale green sphagnum -- used to house dew worms until it was time for the fishhook and in the greenhouse business to nurture seedlings -- and stuffing it into burlap bags which we would carry on our backs -- with swarms of horse flies, deer flies, mosquitoes and sand flies making us mental -- as we carried the 50 pound bags over hummocks, under branches and around pools of dank water to the ditches by the roadway. It may not have been Hell but, it sure as hell was Purgatory. Our benefactor would appear sporadically with a jug of Freshie to help slake our thirst, and load the moss into the station wagon and haul it off to some depot somewhere.
The smell in the station wagon was so nauseating that, within a week or so of the beginning of our indenture, I decided it was high time I did something about it. After supper, one evening, I climbed around inside the rickety vehicle, sniffing like a beagle and realized the scent wafted from under the back seat. I pulled it up and was repulsed, but pleased to discovered the remains of three fourteen inch suckers (fish) that had, evidently, slipped down behind the seat in early May and had spent the intervening months decomposing in the man’s car. I scraped them up and tossed them out and one serious irritant of the Summer from Hell was dealt with.
At the end of our dog day gulag, Dad showed up and Art and I gracelessly fell over each other getting into the family car. Moss man gave father $75 cash -- his reckoning of our value to him for eight weeks of slug labour, given, he easily convinced Lawrence, that he had fed us (a whack of casseroles and hot dogs) and housed us (an abandoned shack in a pine grove in the back of his property) and thus was doing us a favour to pay us anything. Dear old Dad pocketed the money (to help pay our way at home) and delivered us back to our mother.
Things didn’t pick up for Art in high school. He plugged away at the two year course of mainly practical training: sheet metal, woodworking, auto mechanics, etc. that they offered to slow learners, but floundered with the few academic classes he was required to take. The Phys Ed instructor, a little Cockney banty rooster named Don Baldock said, famously, “When the Lord was passing out brains, Art thought he said ‘rain’ and ran for cover.”
Adolescence being such a minefield for maintaining one’s “cool”, Art was a trial for me, as I would run into him in the hallways between classes and he would greet me loudly and proudly, pointing me out to his classmates, while my “friends” looked at me with condescending smirks.
The altercations with boys in his class took place in areas of the school I didn’t frequent, so I mostly heard about them after the fact, as he would describe yet another set-too in which he was on the receiving end of a series of blows to the head. He surprised us once when he glowingly reported punching out his one good friend, a timid, mild-mannered farm boy who crossed him up over some minor matter -- a small payback, I’m sure Art felt, for all the physical and verbal abuse he endured on an ongoing basis.
The most serious attack Arthur suffered occurred right after last class one day: someone ran onto the bus, where we were assembling to be taken home, yelling that Art was in a fight (an inaccurate report, as Art’s scuffles were mostly too one-sided to be termed a fight). I jumped to my feet and followed the messenger down the row of buses to a knot of teens watching Art taking a rain of punches to the face from a tall muscular native Indian tough guy who squared around to face me when one of his buddies warned him of my fleet approach. I stopped a few feet away and made do with the biggest scowl I could muster (I wasn’t so foolhardy as to take on that veteran of countless brawls) and knelt to minister to the hapless Arthur, who’s face was already starting to look different, from the blows he had taken. Curiously, I didn’t feel my usual mixture of emotions for my fallen sibling -- Art had crossed a line of sympathy by tangling with a lethal wild man who he had no business pissing off. The upshot of the event was that a teacher who had witnessed the fracas called the police and Art was required to climb into the back of an OPP cruiser with his assailant; the two were taken to the police station where charges were laid; and the pictures of Arthur’s face and his testimony later in court put the chronic offender in jail for a period of time for the assault.
After I left home for good, to attend the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, I saw a lot less of Arthur -- on trips home a half dozen or so times a year. He joined Mom and Dad, working on the two rural mail delivery routes out of Bancroft until Dad gave up the service in the mid eighties. Art also helped around the quite substantial property Dad had acquired in the late sixties: a 165-acre farm that surrounded the original schoolhouse lot, with a 40-acre field, a swamp and a goodly chunk of forest-covered hills.
One day Arthur told me his maple syrup story. He had put a lot of work into rounding up the equipment for some “sugaring off” in the maple stand of the family property: spiles and buckets for collecting the sap; a large galvanized wash tub, wood and fire fixings. And spent the better part of two days in the bush in the hills on the south side of the property, hand collecting the sap in the buckets and bringing it back to the tub, stoking the fire, back out for more sap, etc. In the end he had a gallon of thick syrup ready to be proudly taken home. He poured the hot liquid into a glass bottle, then set it in a nearby snow bank to cool. It exploded (hot liquid, cold snow, dont‘cha know) and his hard won maple syrup flowed down the embankment and turned into glass-shard-encrusted taffy right before his eyes. He howled, hard and long, his face in his hands, standing there on a sunny March hilltop.
“Smile!” Mother would say to him when he was down. “You look handsome when you smile…” He would grin crookedly, self-consciously, handsomely at her and soon be humming and about his business.
At one point Dad purchased a small house in Bancroft and set Art up there to live by himself – primarily to get him out of their (Mom’s and Dad’s) daily hair. They also negotiated with the local authorities to provide him with a disability pension -- he was, basically, unemployable: he had no marketable skills and he had developed chronic back problems that prohibited him from any heavy manual labour, the only type of work that would be available to him.
He flushed out his pension income with earnings gleaned from delivering the Toronto Star, walking miles a day, crisscrossing the streets of the little village. I have a picture from the Bancroft Times of the proudly smiling Art: “Toronto Star Carrier of the Year” (at the age of 43).
He was a hard core fan of a Bancroft midget hockey team that was the scourge of their tier in Ontario, taking the provincial finals several years in a row. Arthur was their unofficial mascot, cheering and booing vociferously from his special roost in the stands, traveling with the team to the arenas of the hated competitors and being carried around the rink by the victorious champions after an especially tough series in which Arthur’s continual presence was deemed the charm that did the trick.
He seemed quite content with his life throughout the period of residence in the house on Cleak Street. He attended the Pentecostal church, sang in the choir and worked very hard at being a “born again” Christian – although, quite often, his stratospheric temper would get the better of him and he would curse a blue streak, thus contravening the Commandment regarding the “Lord’s Name”. However, his contrition would be instantaneous, once the temper tantrum was over. And he would beg his Lord’s forgiveness.
He indulged himself in golf, with a number of church and post office buddies, but his temper would often overwhelm him with that most-frustrating-of-all-games and he would sell or trade his clubs for something (an 8-track tape deck or whatever) and be out of golf for a while. But, always (being Art) he would drift back into the game again. And the cycle would start all over. He bowled (his most successful sport), loving the posting of his scores in the Bancroft Times, purchasing and donating a league trophy – and winning the damn thing! -- much to his immense pleasure.
He went to ALL of the innumerable yard sales he passed in his meanderings around the GBA (Greater Bancroft Area). And bought whatever he fancied, and cost a pittance. Then, by mid-summer, he would have collected enough quantity of the detritus of others to have his own sale. Never made back what he spent, but sure had fun trying.
He and I were natural-born collectors and spent our childhood amassing all the varieties of butterflies that fluttered about the Settlement fields and ditches, samples of the rocks and minerals for which the Bancroft area is famous, hockey cards from Beehive Corn Syrup, hockey coins from bags of Hostess potato chips, bird cards from Red Rose Tea, and on and on.
Art began finding trophies at yard sales and, at one point, every inch of every windowsill, shelf and wainscoting ledge held examples of the triumphs of others in sports, the culinary arts and academic achievement. Then it was antique bottles. He found old pop bottles and medicine bottles in ancient garbage dumps and in buildings he helped tear down, then started purchasing them at yard sales. The trophies got the heave ho and you couldn’t move around his house without bumping into bottles. With antique bottles he got serious: swapping and purchasing pedigree bottles from other collectors. Then, as swiftly as it began, it ended. I showed up for a visit one day and the bottles had been remorselessly traded to a collector acquaintance for a used stereo system. Bye, bye bottles..
For the first forty-two years of his life, poor Arthur suffered with a blockage in his penis, caused by a physical malformation (which resulted in another mean nickname, probably coined by one of our older brothers: Hookstick). When he would urinate, the head would swell up considerably from the blockage; and he told me that the brief sex life he had – during his first (12 week) marriage, was a fiasco. He finally had it checked out by a doctor who sent him to the hospital for repairs. He was circumcised and the blockage cleared and the next time I saw him he was exultant at the difference in the look and performance of his plumbing. He hiked down his pants to proudly show me his new weapon as I spun away, not wishing to see, saying, “It’s OK, Art.. really.. I believe you.. that it’s perfect now…”
His first marriage ended up being the unmitigated disaster we all forecasted. Arthur was living comfortably in the house in Bancroft when he met a (to be uncharitable) hillbilly woman named Wendy. They dated for a short while, then conspired to marry. Mom and Dad, after meeting Wendy, were quite frank with Art about their resistance to the plan: they felt that his quite apparent lack of interpersonal skills combined with her (quickly evident) sub-standard emotional- and general- intelligence – let alone the complication of her hyperactive, disordered 6-year old son -- would result in a catastrophe. Dad warned Art that he wouldn’t be able to stay in the house if he married. He had picked up that Wendy (or, at least, her handler: her mother) was smart enough to have designs on making a permanent house out of Art's home. Art and Wendy went ahead with their plans anyway. On an early June Saturday they exchanged vows in front of us witnesses and embarked on a 3-month crash and burn. There were problems with money; problems with vehicles; problems with her family; problems with the boy; problems with sex; and serious interpersonal problems.
In late August, Arthur phoned me from somewhere in north Toronto, asking me to come and get him. He had been kicked out by Wendy, with threats of serious bodily harm being leveled at him by her hardcase brothers; he was sleeping beside someone’s furnace; and his truck had broken down. I called a buddy to come with me to assess the problem with the vehicle; we took the plates off the truck and convinced Art to abandon it on the street where it sat (it was an ancient clunker and its transmission was shot). Then we took him to Oshawa, to the public housing apartment where he and Wendy had ended up, to retrieve his few belongings.
My friend pulled an axe handle out from under the van seat and left it on the floor -- "just in case". Wendy opened the door of the ground floor apartment and glared darkly; a shadowy brother hovered in the dim interior. She stood aside when Art told her he was there for "his things". She and her brother had stacked them in the middle of the living room floor. No words were spoken, as we assisted Arthur in ferrying his few personal effects to the truck. Realizing that some item was missing, Arthur placed his personal safety at risk and sidled by the "brother", entered the bedroom, and returned with the item (forget precisely what it was), a moderate triumphal look on his face. We climbed into the truck to depart and Arthur's last exchange with the love of his life was to shake his fist at her from the passenger side window as Wendy sat in the living room window sticking her tongue out at him -- an exchange of gestures, I suppose, that officially closed out their marriage. We headed west on the 401 and Art began to angrily verbalize his pent-up frustrations for the treatment he had received at Wendy's hands. I reached past him and rolled down the window telling him to put his head out of the truck and let it all out. He turned the air blue on a dismal stretch of highway near Whitby, as we drove him on to the beginning of the next chapter of his life
He was re-installed in the Cleak Avenue mansion and made it his home until Mother and Father picked up pretty well everything and moved to Morrisburg, in 1994, to be near my sister Edith in their declining years -- to go home to die, as Dad quite bluntly put it (the family originated in Eastern Ontario). Arthur migrated with them, not wishing to be left behind, on his own. Edith invested in a house in the town for him, but it wasn’t very long before he duplicated (somewhat) the spurning of familial largesse -- as he had done with Mom and Dad -- and left the house to marry and live elsewhere with a woman almost the precise age as our mother, a septuagenarian widow named Annabelle. Art and her got friendly at the Pentecostal church, hung out a lot together and decided to take the big plunge into holy matrimony. Art’s new bride soon revealed a vicious paranoia, believing that Mother and Edith were ‘talking about her”, conspiring against her, trying to get between her and Arthur, and succeeded in dominating his frail ego to the point where she had him screaming obscenities at our saint-of-a-mother when he would run into her at the supermarket; and he would join Annabelle in scowling at Mom during Sunday morning service. Over the course of the past few years, the poor bugger has broken out of the hideous spell she casts over him for short periods of time – at the certain expense of domestic bliss – and then fallen back into periods of avoiding his mother and glowering at her any time he happens to run into her.
And that’s pretty much where things presently stand. I see very little of him, and have been advised that I’m not welcome to call him at home – ever since I told Annabelle that I wouldn’t take the ever-lovely Wendy, Art’s first better half, out of the family tree I compiled, as Annabelle had demanded. So I send him a card once in a while with a 20 dollar bill taped into it (he’s always broke), telling him I miss him and love him. And wait for God and Nature to deliver him back to us from the source of his imprisonment.
Family get-together, Maxwell Settlement, July, 1999. I’m standing by the road in front of the house when a white Jeep pulls up. Out climbs a familiar-looking man who says, “Hi, Al,” as he walks toward me with outstretched hand. Just as I take the proffered hand, I recognize him -- it's Steve Bruce, a childhood neighbour whom I hadn’t seen since he was a teen. Looked like the ghost of his dead father: same sharp features, fur crowding out of the neck of his T-shirt. As we chatted, Arthur approached from across the yard. “There’s Art,” Steve says to me. “God, we used to throw stones at that guy and tease the b'Jeezus out of him.”
Something about Art…
I once listed my three favourite movies and realized that all three of them had a “slow” character: “Boo” (played by Robert Duval), who hovers in the background and protects Gregory Peck’s children in To Kill a Mockingbird; the retarded uncle who cries piteously, “I want a woman...” from the upper branches of a tree, after getting away from the family while on a day pass picnic, in Fellini’s Amarcord; Dustin Hoffman’s idiot savant in the excellent Rainman.
Only fitting, since a central character in the movie of my life has been the slightly slow and ever-vulnerable Arthur.
Having been his lifelong protector has left an indelible mark on me. I have an acute sense of fair play and an abiding drive to see that justice is served. I’ve been recording my dreams in journals since 1979 and a remarkably consistent theme is that of me charging in to help out people in danger, being the white knight for folks being hard done by.
Being Arthur’s protector has made me sensitive and compassionate towards the fragile people, the people who do not have the wit or the guile to handle the meanies in this world who confront them, taunt them, hurt them – make them feel less than human. It’s made me aware that it’s the fragile people who show us what it’s really like to be human.