My friend Albert died a few weeks ago. He is gone much too soon. Abs and I met in grade-nine Study Hall. We were two of eight people relegated to a study class in the middle of the school day. In grade nine, Study Hall kids were not allowed off school property and were restricted to the school cafeteria or the library. We spent every day playing chess and telling each other our life stories. I don’t recall any studying being done.
After high school I may have run into Albert a dozen or so times when visiting home. We would hug, comment on how neither of us had changed in the past few years, give each other a rundown on kids, husbands, wives, and jobs, then promise that the next time we would get together for coffee and spend some quality time catching up. We never did.
Abs moved on with his life, as did I, and as these things happen we lost touch. That is until the advent of Facebook. And although we didn’t get that chance to spend some quality time together, we did have the chance to chat online.
The one thing I never told Albert in all the years I knew him was the role he played in one of the revelations I had about my nature.
I grew up in a small town in Northwestern Ontario, and when people talk about Canada being the melting pot of the world I always think about Atikokan. We lived in a subdivision called Lone Pine. I have no idea how it received its name because when I lived there it was lousy with pines. And spruce, and balsam, birch, ash, tamarack, aspen, poplar, cedar, etcetera. Of course not knowing the reason it was called Lone Pine never stopped me from making up stories about how that title came about. These stories sometimes ended in tragedy, where a lone surviving baby cried by the only tree left standing in a sooty field. Or sometimes it would be a love story where two star-crossed lovers kissed for the last time beneath a giant pine. Or at times a comedy, where five children sat perched in its branches as a near-sighted badger hunted them in an open field. I enjoyed the reactions of friends who laughed or cried along with each tale.
When my parents moved to this small town they were recent immigrants from the Old Country. They had no money, barely spoke the language, and often times were baffled by strange Canadian customs. A local Hungarian couple who had befriended them told them to expect ridicule, bigotry, and animosity from the townspeople. What they received was respect, acceptance, and goodwill. What their children found was paradise.
Lone Pine burgeoned with kids. Offspring of Canadians, Germans, Italians, Russians, First Nations, Dutch, English, Metis, almost every nationality roamed the streets. Kids of every age, every race, religion, and orientation. Most families consisted of four and five children, but some brave families ventured into the teens. In short, the town was infested with kids.
After school, weekends, and summer holidays were spent playing tag, hide and seek, kick the can, fort, climbing trees, tin can cricket, or just catching frogs. We laughed, cried, fought, made up, fought some more, slept outside in tents, had best friends, made new best friends and then old-new best friends.
When I went off to high school my circle of friends and acquaintances grew larger, but they weren’t much different. Kids were kids, and to me every strange face was a potential friend. My town was just a microcosm of the world, or so I thought.
I had just turned fifteen when my sheltered existence met the real world. It was summer break and I was spending it in my most favourite place in the world, Lake Windigostigwan. Sand beaches, clear waters, secluded forests, and lots of sun were the order of the day. I stayed with a couple who owned a lodge on the lake. It was used more as a summer holiday place to get their kids out of the city than as a lodge. During the day we waterskied, fished, swam, and played on the beach. At night we played cards, built bonfires, and played Truth or Dare. Occasionally we made beds, filled gas tanks, and cooked for the few tourists who made the perilous trek to the resort.
We went into town once a week to stock up on groceries, pick up mail, and stop in to say hi to my parents so they knew I was still alive. The day after one such outing I was sent on assignment across the lake to a cabin where a group of teenaged boys from Chicago were staying. I combed my hair, put on my best bandana, and cleanest pair of jeans. At fifteen I was desperate to be considered cool and wanted to make a good impression.
When I walked in I saw the cutest boy – ever. He was tall, had sun bleached hair, and bright blue eyes. I had butterflies in my stomach and giggled more often than was my wont. “I saw you in town,” the vision said to me.
I couldn’t believe that this Adonis even knew that I existed. I think I heard violins playing in the background. “Really,” I giggled. “Where?”
He looked around at his buddies before answering. “You were fawning all over some big buck,” he said.
He may as well have spoken to me in Martian because I had no idea what he was talking about. “Buck?” I asked. It wasn’t even hunting season.
“Yeah, some big, buck redskin,” he said. “Right in front of The Bay in the middle of town,” he said. He may even have sneered. “Were you just slumming, or do they make all Canadians hang out with Indians?”
I tried to remember who I had been talking to in front of The Bay then realized it was Albert. Tall, sweet, gentle Albert. Albert who played a thousand games of chess with me, who laughed at my stupid jokes, who was always looking out for everyone around him. This guy – this asshole – was trying to make it sound like Abs was beneath contempt because he was an Indian.
I didn’t just throw my drink in his face, I threw the can. It bounced off his forehead and hit the guy standing next to him. I called him every single offensive name I could think of in English and Hungarian. He was hiding behind two of his buddies before I was done.
I discovered racism that day, and instantly knew how wrong it was. I also discovered that you don’t mess with my friends. And it’s probably a good idea not to piss me off when I’m holding anything in my hands.
Goodbye Albert, I miss you, my friend. Thank you for helping to make me who I am today.
Image #1 “Lake Cottage” by pleasaantpointinn. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Image #2 “Native Drummers” by Tony Alter. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.