Ten Cents a Blister

John Callaghan:

I’ve been honoured with doing a guest post for Wayfarer at A Holistic Journey. So go on over and check it out.

Originally posted on A Holistic Journey:

He was the survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. His parents and sisters perished there.

I met Robert Walker when I was about eleven years old.

I’m not sure if Robert felt sorry for me, genuinely liked me, or thought I needed a break, but he had me home for a weekend. It was a rare opportunity to spend time in the city. Living on a farm, a religious commune, my brother and I worked hard as we had next to no mechanization.

“After the camp, when the war was over, I came to Canada. I was only ten years old. The family I lived with had a farm. I was paid by the blister.” He held out his hands, palms facing me. “Ten cents a blister. I made sure I had ten blisters. I needed that money.”

Robert showed me his coin collection and his stamp collection. He demonstrated…

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Red Sled Toboggan Head

I was eight. I woke up to find a red plastic snow sled under the tree, shaped like a boat, with thick white handles on the sides. It was too big to wrap but it might have had a bow on it. I picked it up and placed it over my head and walked around our hovel of an apartment until I could go outside and hit the hill behind our building.

Doug, a kid who was in the same grade as me, ran over his little brother’s head while tobogganing down the hill. I mean he full on mashed the little guy’s head into the snow as he was barrelling down the hill. The brother popped up screaming bloody Mary and ran home to tell his parents. To that point in my life it was perhaps one of the most awesome events I had witnessed.

It was a magical, merry Christmas.

Witchcraft!

It appears that for most of the blogs I follow, I am unable to post comments. I have tried posting several times on several blogs over the past few days but they are not registering. I can “like” a post but cannot comment. A.D. Martin has said that my recent comment on his post went straight to spam. I contacted Akismet and inquired about this. If anyone has a useful suggestion, I’m all ears. So for those of you that have been denied my awesome wit and brilliant prose I want to assure you I haven’t been eaten by a dragon. Not yet, anyway. And I hope to have this problem resolved in the next couple of days.

One theory I have is that this is witchcraft and, rest assured, the guilty parties (and you know who you are) will be found and punished. I will not suffer those who lie with the devil!

Disney Has Everything

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I’m not sure if there is a more accurate or all-encompassing benchmark to measure the quantity and and quality of all I did not have than a visit to the Disney Store. We went to West Edmonton Mall on Monday. This place is massive, sporting a water park, amusement park, mini-golf, just about every chain restaurant known to man, and, of course, a Disney Store.

It seemed to have everything from tiny, intricately detailed figures from the movie Frozen, to pyjamas from Cars, to R2D2 waste paper baskets, to full-on Spider Man costumes complete with muscles and everything. I knew the store would have a plethora of items but I was astonished at the quality, imagination, and ingenuity that have gone into the manufacturing of all these toys and paraphernalia solely dedicated to the child.

When examined through the Mickey-Mouse-coloured goggles, my childhood was a barren wasteland. I don’t begrudge kids anything that they might get from this store; I’m much more inclined to astonishment at seeing so many items that I had never concieved of, or knew were possible. The gulf between what was available and what was affordable 30-40 years ago and what is actually available, and somewhat affordable, today is stupifying.

My brother and I had a dart board when I was 10 and he was 7. We played some darts for sure, but mostly we threw the darts at each other. Not the face (we weren’t animals), but the lower body was completely in bounds. In fact whatever we had we weaponized because a paddle with rubber ball attached by an elastic is lame. But a ball and a paddle used as weapons was kind of fun.

Maybe Disney is onto something. Peace among siblings through a higher quality of toy. Who knows how different my life would have been if I was able to play with a Mickey Mouse fireman set? And where is the ceiling? That’s what I really want to know. How sophisticated will marketing get? How much industry will be supported by the child consumer dollar, and how specialized will it become?

I know I should, on some level, be concerned about all this blatant marketing and consumerism that sort of goes against the Christmas spirit. But, honestly, all I wanted to do was turn myself 10 again and spend some serious money buying, and then playing with, just about everything in that small spot of magic in the mall.

Sheltering Ghosts

In honour of Remembrance Day I thought I’d repost this bit about family, war, and my gratitude for the veterans who sacrificed so much.

 

“You remember your Uncle Leonard, right?” My father asked. “Oh, yeah,” I replied.

“Well, he was in Belgium during the war. He was wounded, shot in the arm. He lay there for six hours before they came and got him. He almost bled to death. His arm was never the same; he had a piece of the bullet in him for the rest of his life. The field doctor did a pretty good job, though,” my father said.

On that day

he was a bard,

a soothsayer,

and a hedge-school teacher.

He was seventy-five.

 We were in a Calgary hotel room, on the fourteenth floor. It was Sunday of the May long weekend. The rain had been coming down in fat, hard drops most of the afternoon; during supper we heard thunder. This was ghost story weather.

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My father continued: “After he was wounded he was taken to England to recover in a hospital. They had no windows, just cardboard where glass should be. And the Germans–Uncle Leonard thought they made their bombs a certain way to terrify the enemy. They’d make a loud noise coming in”–my father arched his hand smoothly through the damp air–“and then there’d be silence for a few seconds. Then the bomb would land. But in those few seconds of silence you didn’t know where exactly the bomb would land. He told me that men would hide under their beds terrified.”

We were there for a wedding.

Our room was clean;

our towels were changed every day

and had a mild bleach smell.

Someone made our beds.

“Is it true,” I asked, “that they had to fight the Hitler Youth? Am I remembering that right? I think I remember Uncle Leonard saying that. Were they really young, like eight or nine?”

“Well, no they weren’t that young, but they were in their early teens. The officers would beg them to surrender but they wouldn’t. They didn’t know the word.” The rain outside was pounding but our room was warm, almost hot, so we had the balcony door open.

I bought a leather coat

the morning before,

at a mall downtown.

“Jesus, that must have been awful, to have to kill kids like that,” I whispered.

“Yeah, well, they didn’t have any choice, the kids would stand in front of the tanks and get rolled over. They were absolutely fanatical. But Leonard said it was worse for the Americans.”  My father paused for a moment and I could hear the sound of cars drive by on saturated asphalt. “The Americans went at them with flamethrowers. It was the only way to rout them from the Leopold Canal. They wouldn’t go any other way, they’d been indoctrinated since they were this high.” My father held out his hand about three feet of the carpeted floor. We sat on hotel furniture, quietly taking this in, as bulging drops of water bounced off the concrete balcony and low thunder rumbled in the distance, more a cry than a growl.

I thought about the kind of mental gymnastics that would be required to have someone that age, going against such a primal instinct, and sacrificing his life. And I wondered about history and the randomness of time and place.

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“He joined a Western regiment, the Regina Rifles, so he would be sent overseas right away,” my father says, and I receive this bit of information with reverence and awe.

We visited the zoo

on the afternoon

before the wedding.

I saw a brown bear

up close.

He was a city bear.

If such a thing could be.

“Leonard was never the same when he got back. Neither was Tommy or Frank.” My father was talking about the other men I came from, my other uncles.

“Frank, he had a real bad experience.” He didn’t elaborate. I’m not sure if that was because he didn’t know what the bad thing was or he didn’t want to talk about it. Uncle Tommy shot himself in the head before I was born; he drank too much. He tried to quit (they all tried to quit) but it didn’t stick. When I was about ten, Uncle Frank walked into Lake Nipissing and drowned himself. We had visited him that summer at his retirement home in North Bay. The home had a pool table. It was in the fall when he took his last walk so they couldn’t recover his body until after the winter when the ice thawed. He left a note. I’ve never read it.

I was thinking

about that note

as I looked at the new suitcase

that I bought

at the same mall where I bought my new coat.

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Uncle Leonard was one of those anonymous old drunks you see every day, a part of the urban landscape we take for granted, like an abandoned machine shop in the middle of an industrial park. After the war, under a burning and humid Hamilton sun, he worked in a steel mill. He lived in a small bachelor apartment, had a penchant for thick steaks, and drank discounted liquor at the local Legion. We visited him once. I think it was in July; everything was sticky. I managed to impress Uncle Leonard because, though I was only ten, and small for my age, I managed to eat a whole T-bone steak and half of the one my brother couldn’t finish.

Uncle Leonard was an alcoholic. He drank all day, every day, whiskey, sometimes mixed, sometimes straight from the bottle, gallons of it. At night he went to bed with a 26 or 48 ounce bottle and straw and he’d lie down like a nursing baby, ensuring that night would not snatch the drunk from him. He went years without drawing a sober breath.

When Grandma Callaghan died

we all walked slowly to the grave

behind a big black car.

Uncle Leonard was crying.

Hard.

It was the first time

I had seen

a man cry.

One summer Uncle Leonard came to visit us in our tiny apartment on Raglen Street in the small town of Renfrew. He brought me an orange the size of a strongman’s bicep. He peeled that orange for me, with powerful, patient hands that moved slowly and forcefully, like the hydraulics on a backhoe. The rind didn’t stand a chance.

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He showed  us how to salute, march in formation, and address an officer. He pulled up his sleeve to show us the scar, inside just below the armpit. It was an ugly, messy star, and it was frightening to know that a piece of the bullet that  got him was still somewhere inside his arm.

He was the only man

I ever knew

who had been shot.

I was seven when he visited that summer. I’m not sure if my parents were still in the bottle or had sobered up by then. Two blocks from our apartment was a store my brother and I referred to as the “candy store” because it had candy, lots of candy. I would gather pennies that I found, often lying at the bottom of my mother’s purse, and head off to buy. The ritual was to dump the change on the counter and declare how much I had, and then ask to turn those pennies into a bag of mixed-up candy. The person behind the counter would grab a small paper bag and pick randomly, placing an assortment of candy, from the small display boxes that were lined up behind the counter. Bill was the owner of the store and could sometimes be crabby. He was bald, and wore thick glasses and a dark olive janitor’s uniform. His voice was deep and scary, so when he talked it sounded like a growling dog.

Uncle Leonard had pockets filled with change, and while he was visiting he gave us handfuls. Sometimes he’d even give us paper money which we’d stare at and treat with the reverence of a sacred scroll. During those days of plenty I’d sometimes make three or four trips to the “candy store,” stuffing myself with bubble-gum, Swedish Raspberries, and the odd piece of licorice. I had no idea if my luck would ever be this good again, so I got while the gettin’ was good. It must have been on about my third visit one day that Bill shoved the small brown bag of good fortune toward me and spoke terrifying words: “Here. Now don’t you come back.” I cried all the way home , trying to eat my candy as best I could through choking tears.

“Bill told me I couldn’t go back,” I blurted to the adults gathered in the kitchen.

“What?” my father asked. He likely couldn’t understand me because I was crying and had a mouthful of gum.

I took a deep breath and explained, “I went to the candy store and Bill said I couldn’t come back no more.” As I said this I began to cry even harder.

Uncle Leonard stood up and, quietly, angrily, said, “We’ll see about that.” The next thing I remember is walking to the “candy store” with my uncle. I came up to his waist and remember looking at his bulging belly that was evened out by his thick, bulging forearms. Even his fingers seemed to burst with muscle. Those were Nazi-choking hands. I looked up at his face and it was determined and fearless. He looked straight ahead as we marched to the store.

We stood at the counter for three seconds before Uncle Leonard said, “Where’s Bill? I want to see Bill.” The hair on the back of my neck was standing at attention.

Bill sauntered out from the back room. He appeared confident and unafraid as he looked at me, but his face changed when he saw that it wasn’t Father standing there, but a stranger. A stranger with a head that looked like it could endure many, many forceful blows.

“Did you tell my nephew he couldn’t come back here?” Technically this was a question but it was stated like a warning or even a threat.

Bill was suddenly preoccupied with arranging the candy boxes on the shelf. In a small voice that was cracking just a tiny bit, Bill said, “No, no, nothing like that.” He had his back to us and talked into the floor. “I just meant he shouldn’t come back today.” This was a lie. Uncle Leonard stood tall and straight and stared at the back of Bill’s head. I’m the dog now, I thought, and I could smell Bill’s fear. His hands shook slightly as he adjusted the straws on the counter, still unable to look at the fire in my uncle’s face. We left.

That was

the safest moment

of my

childhood.

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We take the Red Arrow home, back to Edmonton, and the prairie sky is like a hanging ceiling of grey cotton candy. The rain continues, cleansing away the remnants of a Western winter. As we pass by field after field I stare out the window and I think of young men like Uncle Leonard who fought in fields like the ones I see now. I try to put myself there, to make myself feel the bullet hit my arm. To watch what keeps me alive seep into the soil. Did he smell copper and earth, smoke and fire? In those six hours did he make deals with God as he lay among dead friends in an old-time Catholic hell?

Our people farmed in the summer and felled trees in the winter. I suspect that joining the army, and going overseas, was an attractive alternative to being a poor Irish man-tractor, feeding the forest with blood and sweat to fill the coffers of the English and Scottish landowners.

I think about Tommy and Frank and Leonard, and how the drink killed what the war could not. But the drink couldn’t take away what they had been: soldiers. Boys who dropped their axes and plows, walked off the farm and out of the bush and went to foreign fields, to suffer and bleed and die.

There is a bit of snow on the ground as we make our way past Bowden. What would a May long weekend in Alberta be without a little snow. I am warm, and happy, and safe. I will likely go the rest of my life never having been shot in the arm fighting in a war, and part of me is ashamed for this soft life I have.

At my feet

are two

pieces of art

we bought at the gallery

where the wedding was

held.

The best I can do is shelter the ghosts of these men that I miss, though I never really knew them. I keep them in a room marked “Death by Alcohol.” They aren’t lonely because the room is full of family. I visit them often and sometimes I strap one of these ghosts to my back, like Uncle Leonard, and carry the cross of his memory around for a while, and then I’ll put him back.

I am hitching my breath and fighting back tears as I remember all over again how much I miss these men I came from, and how the ghost of a man is not the same as the life of a man. These are the bombs that terrify me because they land in the most unexpected places, with no set time, and I have no choice but to honour what these men did, and who they were, by telling a story. So, right here in the Red Arrow, my face is in danger of becoming as smear-streaked as the window I look out of, as I think of Uncle Leonard and the heroic things he did without being asked: The War, The Orange, and The Candy Store, and I am regretful, and I am sorry, that I never had the chance to at least whisper:

thank you

thank you

thank you

My Wife Scares Me

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I love a good scare. Or, more accurately, I love to give a good scare. For the length of our marriage, something my wife and I have done consistently is scare the shit out of each other. We often do this while or after watching a horror movie. But the trick to keeping things effective is to make it a seldom and random experience.

My preferred method of affliction is to stand statue-still in a dark room and either jump out at my wife as she passes by or make a sudden jerky movement. This is effective in that when she gets that feeling she saw something out of the corner of her eye, and then quickly dismisses that feeling, she’s terrified when I make my sudden jerky movements. On occasion, if the setting is right I’ll stand completely still hugging the wall just around a corner and when my wife comes around said corner she practically runs into my giant Irish melon. This inevitably causes a howl.

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But my wife probably has the best method. She will stand in the tub, with the shower curtain drawn, and because the curtain is always drawn I suspect nothing. I stroll into the bathroom, usually singing a song that’s nonsense but written (music and lyrics) by yours truly. As I get ready to do my business, my wife whips the curtain open, yells, and lunges at me.

BITCH ON TOAST!

I stumble back and usually fall on the floor, scrambling backwards as I make the sound I suspect I will make at the moment of my death: “UUUUUUH” (this really doesn’t do it justice). And once my body realizes that today is not the day I will die, my wife and I both laugh like maniacal children who have just discovered the joys of setting fires. And it is at times like these I could not love my wife more and feel like the luckiest man in the world.

If I’m found dead in my bathroom, with my pants down, covered in my own urine, and a stricken look upon my face, please know I died doing what I love: having the piss scared out of me. Literally.

Happy Halloween, everyone.

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The Frog Days of Summer

Facebook is much maligned for being a giant time suck. But I appreciate Facebook for allowing me to keep in touch with friends who live thousands of miles from my home. And sometimes I get a reminder about how little, in some ways, I’ve changed. Here is an edited exchange I had last week:

Change Room

Rob: Anyone recognize this in Renfrew?

Tracey: Change room from the beach?

Rob: Yep. I think it’s the only thing left at the beach.

Me: What happened to the beach?

Rob: They closed it several years ago.

Me: Oh, explain please.

Rob: That’s all I got.

Me: Hahaha. Okay.

Ann: It was closed years ago because of a high ecoli count. There was a recent article in the Mercury saying the town had retested the water and was still too high to swim in. I still remember the musty smell in the change room. Wasn’t pleasant.

Me: Thanks Ann. And ewwww. I don’t think I ever used the change room.

Ann: I hated biking all the way across town with a wet bathing suit.

Me: I never minded. But I was a weird kid and pretty oblivious. I probably swam in my clothes.

Ann: You weren’t that weird. Except when you used to tell me the picture of me in my locket looked like a frog. I thought it was a boy thing. LOL.

Me: Hahahaha. What a little turd I was. Yes I was weird, and if that’s all I said then I am grateful. Sorry by the way. I’m sure you looked perfectly nice.

Ann: I think it was an inside joke that you never let me in on. LOL. Mrs. Amell’s  split grade 2-3 class. Good times!

 

It’s wonderful to still be friends with the people who knew me when I was such a weird little turd.

 

 

Canadian Thanksgiving (Gobble Gobble)

Today is Thanksgiving in Canada. Here are some things I am grateful for that, normally, I just take for granted:

1. Coffee Filters: The usefulness to cost ratio is immense. Making coffee without these perfectly shaped manufactured items would be a pain.

2. Cotton: From t-shirts to pyjamas, cotton is nature’s way of giving us a hug.

3. The Printing Press: The invention of this magnificent tool, and its offspring, has given me more pleasure than any human is entitled to.

4. Debit Cards: I remember when I was young (cue old man voice) and the panic for everyone to get to the bank on Friday and withdraw enough cash to see you through the weekend. This was a pain and especially so if you miscalculated how much you would need.

5. Sewage System: Poopy go bye-bye and with it so have many diseases.

6. Toilet Paper: Although I think this is still a method that could use some improvement, it’s better than going all day with “mud butt.”

7. The Internet: I can play Words With Friends and Scrabble with my brother-in-law who lives a half a world away in England, and partake in some trash talking in real time. This is as close to magic as I think I’ve ever come.

8. Science: From vaccinations to engineering, almost every modern convenience we enjoy today exists because someone asked, “How does this work?”

The first Canadian Thanksgiving dates back to 1578 when Martin Frobisher led an expedition to the Canadian North in the hopes of establishing a small settlement. Yikes!

Here is the area:

Frobisher Bay 1

After his ships were separated, battered by severe weather, some sunk by icebergs, and many of the sailors killed, they did manage to meet up in an inlet that is now known as Frobisher Bay. A mass was held to give thanks they had survived. The settlement never happened.

Martin Frobisher

I suppose if Frobisher turned that collar up he would have a hell of a wind-breaker.

 

Frobisher returned to England later that year with what he thought was a thousand tons of gold ore that turned out to be totally worthless. Sigh. I guess naming a bay after the poor man was the least Canada could do.