It was on a cool spring day the first time Eric and I ever ditched class. It was 1979 and I was in grade four, and attending Pouce Coupe Elementary School, and by that point in my short academic career I realised school was not for me. It was something about sitting down and having to pay attention to things that, at the time, didn’t seem to matter to me. Like learning, A.E.I.O.U., and sometimes Y. I’d ask, “Why Y?” My teacher would say, “Because Y has a long tail, that’s why!”
No one has really explained why, and I suppose maybe that was part of it. I understand the rhyme, i before e except after c or when sounding like a, as in neighbour or weigh, but I still didn’t understand how this helped. I still failed all my spelling tests and math was lost on me, the only thing I was good at was gym class, typical. I looked forward to the end of each school day.
One day after meeting with my friend, Eric, where the school bus dropped off kids, we lamented about how tired we were of school and that we needed a day off, I told him of something that my older siblings did called ditching class. We didn’t understand the analogy but we had a firm strangle hold of the appeal of being somewhere else other than school.
Eric said, “Than it’s settled eh? We meet at the visitor’s dugout tomorrow morning before the school bus gets here, and then we sneak off to the woods and ditch class.”
I said, “Okay, let’s do it!” and continued, “I’ll see you tomorrow morning, and bring some extra lunch, my mom’s been on a drunk the last few days and I’ve got nama mitchwin!” In Cree it means no food, I’ve heard my mother always use the word nama with her friends, she says things like, ni nama-soniyaw, which means no money. Every time I try to speak Cree to my mom tells me, and that I should practice my spelling instead of trying to learn the Cree language.
When Eric and I parted ways we always went through a series of long goodbyes. I yelled, “See ya later alligator!”
Then Eric answered back, “In a while crocodile!”
“Not too soon Baboon…” I said.
And so on, and so on until we both arrive at home and closed our perspective doors.
That evening on my bedroom floor, I single-handedly neglected my math and grammar homework, and drew up plans for a submarine I was planning to build. Mom was MIA again and hadn’t been seen in days. With nothing in the cupboards or fridge, making dinner was not an option, so I set my alarm, and dialed the transistor to the Grand Prairie radio station. The last song I heard before I fell asleep was Elton John and Kiki Dee’s, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.
When my alarm went off and it felt like I hadn’t slept. I dragged myself out of bed, and then remembered today was the big day. I dressed in the same clothes for the third consecutive day, hungry I was out the door and looking forward to my day. For the first time in my young life, I was running to school, so I could ditch class.
Eric waited for me, and from a distance we nodded to each other, Eric and I waited and sat in silence for a minute. He opened his school bag and pulled out a bologna sandwich and an extra lunch made by his big sister -our sisters were good friends. I gave him a wink and thanked him as I wolfed down the sandwich. Eric looked back and saw the school bus leave, we waited a bit longer and when the five-minute warning bell rang, that was our queue. As we stood in unison I dusted crumbs off my shirt and gave Eric a final nod; we bolted across the ball field toward the closest treeline. Wind in our hair we ran for our lives and jumped the wire fence that bordered the school yard. The moment we were in the bushes we dove into waist high grasses, Eric and I watched all the kids in the playground file into the school for the day. He reached in his pocket for his inhaler, shook it then popped the blue lid off and breathed deep as he pressed his lips around the open end, “Oh my god. I’ve never ran so fast. Not even during participation week.” Eric wheezed heavy and took another hit off his puffer.
The last bell rang, the schoolyard emptied. Eric looked at me, “Now what?”
I said, “I don’t know, this is my first time…”
No one ever said that ditching class was so hard, but when you lived in a town of three-hundred, ditching class was even harder. There was not much for a couple of 10-year-old kids to do. All we could do was to hang out in the forest and horse around. It took about three hours of horse play to take our minds off the reality we were being bad. We defied the rules. Behaved like teenagers.
For hours Eric and I pretended to be hiding from Nazis. With our stick rifles we skirted the tree line south, dove into bushes at the slightest sign of people. We relayed hand signals to each other, like in a baseball game, Eric motioned that he was tired. I crawled toward him like a soldier and said, “I’ll take first watch.” And Eric curled up and fell fast asleep.
On my stomach I scanned the surroundings with all my senses, last summer’s ground cover crunched under my elbows as I looked through tall grasses. The highway through the village was always busy with the comings and goings of big trucks, engine breaks rattled and decelerated with their heavy loads down the hill, while conversely, others were slowed by the steep incline and laboured at a snail’s pace up the hill. A loud horn sounded and Eric was startled awake, “It was him!” arms jerked up like a boxer and his fists and jaw clenched.
I asked, “It was who?”
“Huh? Nothing, nobody. You hungry?” He changed the subject.
We broke out a lunch of bologna sandwiches and Waggon Wheels for desert. I ate in silence while Raven’s caught my attention and Eric went on about, his new Motocross bicycle, “Aw, you should see it Hunter. It looks liker a motorbike! I’ll let you ride it.”
“I think it’s going to rain eh?” I changed the subject. Eric and I decided to use the rest of our day to build a fort to shelter us from the weather. Eric suggested we lay tree snags across a small deep depression in the ground, “Yea, and then we cover this with pine bows and anything else that we can use as cover.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
By the time we finished our makeshift shelter the rain was coming down pretty hard, and before the rain stopped Eric and I were knee deep in ground water and our shelter was a veritable bridge. This was our first lesson in the notion of a water table.
We abandoned the shelter once the rain eased and walked to the Bissette River just outside of town. From his bag Eric pulled out a collapsible fishing rod his dad bought him last summer. While Eric assembled the rod.
I said, “Should I look for bait?” Eric nodded yes.
It took about two minutes. I flipped stones and kicked over dead leaves and found a few juicy worms and a couple moths. Eric tried one of the moths first and within the first few casts, he got a good bite but lost it just before he could land it.
“Shit! Enjoy your breakfast fishy!” Eric complained.
“Second times the charm” I said.
Eric set a worm to the hook. After five or six casts Eric cried, “Fish on!” It was a short struggle but a fair one as Eric landed a nice pan fry trout. Eric preformed the coup de grace with a cobble then handed me the fish.
I said, “Best make a fire Kemosabe.” And with my jackknife, I started at the fin and gutted the fish.
It took about fifteen minutes to build a small fire because of all the rain that fell, but Eric and I were no slouches when it came to making a campfire. I found a small green branch that would serve as the skewer and Eric and I took turns minding the fish. Anyone who’s cooked a fish knows they don’t take too long and so before too long Eric and I have cooked the fish and eaten it. I took what was left of the fish and made an offering to Creator.
Smoking a cigarette I stole from my oldest sister Deb, and on my feet and with my palms up and looking up to the heavens I made the offering and then thanked Creator for the life given to us, I told Eric, “It’s something my Uncle Angus told me to do after taking any animal for food. The words are carried on the smoke to Creator. And that the spirit who fed us will know where to come back, so it can feed us again, and so we also won’t offend the Creator or the spirit.”
Eric said, “Heathen”
I shook my head and looked back up to the heavens and gave a prayer for my white friend and let the tobacco smoke deliver my hope, “Good Creator, have sympathy for this ignorant soul, keep him safe from himself…”
Eric reminded me in a matter of fact tone, “You’re not even a full-blooded Indian, remember you are half Austrian too!”
I said, “When Christopher Columbus bumped into North America he thought he found India, so the first people he met he called them Indians. My Uncle Angus told me last summer. So to be called Indian is incorrect.” I finished, “Besides I like First Peoples anyways.”
As Eric licked the last of the fish from his fingers and said, “First Peoples? Yah, like that will ever stick.”