Put a Sock on it!

We’ve had a particularly snow-filled winter this year it seems to me. Okay, nothing like the blizzards I remember from my childhood in Winnipeg when even the snowbanks on the constantly plowed roads would rise far above my ten-year-old head, and when we routinely built snow-caves in drifts along the river dikes. But that was Manitoba, three time zones and a half-century way. And I do live in the lower mainland of British Columbia, for goodness sakes –a land where rain is queen, and snow discouraged everywhere except on the North shore mountains for tourists to photograph.

Vancouver does not like snow; there are too many streets that become luges, too many people in Lycra on bicycles -there’s an image to maintain after all. But every five or six years, we have to endure the derision of the unfortunately-located Eastern provinces who seem to think Canadians deserve snow and that Vancouver is somehow unpatriotic to settle for mere rain in the winter. And so whenever we do find ourselves saddled with a white Christmas, it’s suddenly national news about the weak-link, profligate rain-queen finally having to pay her dues -like we’re being audited or something.

Anyway, we’re all unwitting hostages to those Jekyll and Hyde twins el Nino and la Nina that seem to alternate every five years or so. Last year we apparently endured the intemperate clemency of an el Nino so I suppose we were about due for his colder sister to usurp the throne:  http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/ninonina.html  All fine and neatly retributive, perhaps, but it does wreak havoc on those who have never experienced a prairie winter, or on those who have but don’t want to anymore. Vancouver is the fabled Lotusland of Homer’s Odyssey and our tourists expect it. So do I.

But, like Brigadoon, the snow is only a once-upon-a-time here: a bedtime story told to naughty children, an advertising gimmick to sell ski passes for the nearby mountains. What we have more frequently is a thin veneer of ice masquerading as asphalt, or clinging like tired bats to the cables supporting major bridges. It hides, sidewalk-savvy, near retirement homes, waiting for un-caned feet, and walker-less arms; it preys on those whose eyes are wrapped in memories of other times, or stomachs aching for a change of menu at the Home. It is a dangerous time for the unwary -ice takes no prisoners.

I know the problem Brien usually has in this weather. A large man himself, he claims he was brought up by cautiously obese parents who instilled in him an inordinate fear of falling. An oft-told family legend has it that a distant, even larger relative, froze to death up north when he slipped on some ice as he returned from a nocturnal visit to the backyard privy. Neither legend nor Brien seemed willing to explain why the great-uncle-once-removed didn’t simply get up again, but I suppose the family needed a cautionary tale to scare the children. At any rate, Brien lived in small town Saskatchewan, and he says his fearful parents made him wear outsized rubber galoshes with snow-tire treads to school. They also made him promise he’d never drink alcohol when he grew up. So, as a result he hates hockey, and only drinks beer on his porch.

I had read an interesting, but silly article from New Zealand about wearing socks over shoes for walking on ice: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2010/mar/09/improbable-research-icy-socks-over-shoes and I thought I’d tell Brien about it. I even toyed with the idea of showing up in full kit, but after ruining two pairs of perfectly serviceable fancy woolen tube socks, I realized that nothing else in my drawer would likely fit over my rubber boots. A description of the article would have to do, and if he laughed at the idea, well, sometimes you just have to risk personal humiliation to help a friend.

It was a bitterly cold day (for the West Coast) in late January, with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark and threatening rain. Snow still clung stubbornly to the lawns and roads however, refusing to budge until it had first turned to ice and choked the stems off any daffodils foolish enough to attempt a pre-vernal dash for sunlight. Some considerate neighbours had salted the sidewalk in front of Brien’s house, but the fragmented concrete slabs that led to the steps of his porch were tiny ice rinks, their slanting surfaces seemingly Zambonied in anticipation of my imminent arrival.

Brien was organized, too. Despite the cold, he was sitting on the porch bundled up like an Inuit with a large Hudson’s Bay blanket over his lap, and his parka hood fully deployed. His hands were thickened with fur-lined leather mitts with opposable thumb tabs so he could hold the Sunday afternoon beer bottle comfortably and securely. Brien is nothing if not prepared.

“Brien,” I said, waving at him as I skated warily across rink after rink on my way to the porch.

He lifted his bottle in silent recognition of my arrival, and studied my careful little steps. “Watch out for that last rink, eh? It’s my rental dog.”

I stared at him for a moment before attempting the crossing. “Huh? What do you mean?” I said, suspecting a trap of some sort.

He shook his head slowly at my thickness. “Dogs warn you of people coming, right? Well so do people on that final bit of ice.” I could see him smiling in the cavern of his hood. “Never fails.”

“Come on, Brien, you just don’t want to have anything to do with ice… like everybody else,” I said, a little bit irritably, and pointed to the ice free sidewalk that ran past the outside edge of his yard. Then, I realized I’d been a bit harsh, so I softened my tone. “You keep telling me about that uncle in Saskatchewan…”

“NWT.”

“Huh?”

“North West Territories,” he explained, as if I were an American.

“It changes every time you tell it, Brien…” I couldn’t help chuckling.

He shrugged in reply, I think, but it was hard to tell through all his clothes. “I never met him,” he said once I had gained the steps without barking. He nodded towards a nearby chair equipped with both a large woolen blanket and a bottle of beer.

Why would I even think he’d want to sit inside? “Anyway, I read an interesting article about walking on ice,” I said as his face disappeared once again into his hood. “No more need for the legendary winter-tread galoshes of yours…” I added, wondering if I sounded too much like one of those fast-talking salesmen on TV.

But I must have seemed really excited, because I could see his teeth glimmering in the depths of the downy cavern. “Haven’t used those in years,” he said, obviously amused at the memory.

But I was determined now. “This is about an exciting, revolutionary idea from New Zealand, Brien: wearing socks over your shoes. Apparently you get better traction on ice, and…”

I heard, or rather saw, him sigh as his head emerged from the depths and he pulled the blanket up to uncover his feet. It was hard to miss the bright red argyle pattern of the plus-size socks that covered his size 12 shoes. They stared at me as much as anything. “All the kids at school used to wear socks over their shoes,” Brien said, smiling broadly. “I just had to remember to take mine off before I got home.”

“Where did you get big enough socks? I thought you said you had to wear…”

“My parents gave me a weekly allowance…” he interrupted with a grin.  “In Saskatchewan it was important to fit in with the group, eh?” He eyed me suspiciously for a moment wondering why I wouldn’t have known that. Then he slipped the blanket back over his feet and took a sip of his beer.

He seemed so pleased with himself that I didn’t dare tell him I’d only ever bought candy with my allowance.

Stories from the Past?

Being an elder is an important job; not everybody can do it. There are qualifications… In traditional societies, survival was key –if you made it past a certain age, it was assumed you must have been doing something right. Teeth didn’t matter –just the ability to explain why you were still around. A few exciting stories didn’t hurt, either.

But evolution demands new stuff, and pretty soon, people began to want more than just being told things like ‘a tuber a day keeps the lion away’, or ‘be careful what you eat from your friend’s hair’. As knowledge accumulated, new generations began to demand more than just homilies from their old folk. They wanted more than memory –although that helped- they wanted entertainment: spellbinding stories around the bonfire that would keep the kids off the paths; clever lies about each family that would make them laugh and then argue later in their caves. Artifice required talent and the clever selection of words: metaphor; wisdom, however -the other ingredient- only required the clever sorting of experience: an accountant. Elderhood had specialized.

But the difference between elder and fogey, is knife-edge: you have to be old enough to have lived through things the young have not, but you also have to pretend to remember enough of it so you can tell them about it. Accuracy is not as important as story. History, after all, is what we choose to recall; it is what somebody decides is worthy of reminiscence -even if it’s not.

It used to be that we older folk controlled history –it was hard to check our versions. Nowadays, though…

Allan didn’t believe in the internet. He got all his news either from television or paying attention to the next table at Starbuck’s. He would readily admit that he missed some things, but by and large felt he had an adequate command of the stock of tragedies accumulating around the world. He also felt comfortable in discussing what he felt were the root causes of all the troubles: history. Strangely enough, history had a distinctly Allanesque flavour to it, though; everything seemed to be mirrored in the small Saskatchewan town where he grew up –it was the global proxy.

I happened upon Allan one day, sitting all-ears at a little table in a busy Starbuck’s. As soon as he saw me, he stood up and signalled me to join him. He looked pleased to see me. Pleased to have someone to talk to.

“Allan,” I said as I walked over to join him. “I haven’t seen you in, what, two years…?”

“Three,” he said, waving his hand dismissively as if impatient to dispense with the usual formalities of greeting. “Have you heard?” he started, as soon as he saw my coffee was safely on the table. I raised an eyebrow. Allan hadn’t changed physically, over the years –he was still short; still bald; and he still seemed incapable of getting his shirt buttons in the correct holes. I mean, how could you trust someone like that? Anyway, something in his expression also told me that he was also still story-laden. Word heavy. His eyes twinkled and I could feel one coming.

“Heard what?” I said, and smiled to be polite.

He rolled his eyes, as if he had yet more evidence to impugn the use of the computers for anything other than Pac-man -his keyboard excursions had aborted at an particularly early gestation. “About the hostages!”

Although they had always looked artificial and falsified, I remembered his almost-visible exclamation marks. Allan had the uncanny ability to project his words as if they were illuminated on a screen in front of you. I think he anticipated PowerPoint presentations by at least a decade. I could not remember a hostage situation in the news, however, so I shrugged politely to suggest that maybe I had, maybe I hadn’t.

“But taking hostages is not new, you know,” he said, and stared at me as if there was a need to defend the thesis. And then he was silent for a moment, probably thinking I’d want to digest that important revelation. “Capturing people was perfected long ago…” he added slowly, and then stared quietly, patiently, at his coffee so I couldn’t see his eyes.

But the stillness became uncomfortable as he waited for me either to challenge or agree with him and I felt compelled to splash the surface. “No… I don’t suppose it…”

He jumped at the opportunity. “I remember back in the town where I grew up…” He hesitated, to make sure I was following him.

“Small town in south Saskatchewan, right?” I added helpfully to reassure him I hadn’t forgotten.

North Saskatchewan,” he corrected me, complete with visible italics, as if the information would have a profound bearing on what he was about to say. “Anyway, when I was about eight… No, I think I was in Mr. Spencer’s class because my friend Janice had just developed smallpox, so I might have been seven.” When my eyes opened wide in surprise, he thought about it for a minute. “Well, maybe it was chickenpox –I forget, now…” but he shook his head when he realized where his confusion might have arisen. “There was a big chickenpox outbreak in the town some time around then. People blamed it on the eggs from McIver’s farm because they’d started to feed their chickens grain they couldn’t sell because of the fungus…” He stopped for a moment, shrugged, and looked at me. “Well, that’s what people said, anyway. Science hadn’t worked its way that far north yet, so people pretty well believed everything the old folks told them.” He smiled, as if to assure me that they’re much smarter in northern Saskatchewan nowadays.

“Anyway…” He hesitated, and then slowly sipped at his coffee, obviously wondering what he had been talking about.

“Chickenpox?” I suggested, helpfully.

“Oh yes. Well, Mr. Spencer was no fool.” Another pause. “Actually, no, it was Miss Alliman.” He started nodding his head at the memory. “She taught us arithmetic and geography…” He glanced at the ceiling for confirmation. “Health, too.” He smiled, evidently pleased with himself for finally nailing it down. “Anyway, Miss Alliman thought it was smallpox. She said she was pretty sure that Janice didn’t have chickenpox… or measles, or whatever. She had us all come over so she could point out what was happening on Janice’s face.” He tossed a cautionary glance at me. “Not to touch her, of course. ‘You must never touch someone with smallpox’, I remember her saying and slapping John Simcoe’s hand as he reached for her.”

I have to admit that the Starbuck’s, faded around me as I found myself in the little classroom crowding around Janice somewhere in the north. “How did Janice…?”

“Oh, she loved the attention,” he jumped in, anticipating the question. “You have to remember that Janice was shy –but only because she was taller than the rest of us and we used to make fun of her because her clothes never fit -she was growing so fast, I guess. But now, finally, she had something to show off other than the wart on the side of her nose. She used to charge new kids a candy during recess if they wanted to touch it…  She’d meet them out by the swings near the pump if the weather was good. Otherwise it was behind the little green outhouse –it had a bit of an overhang on the roof there for some reason. When she couldn’t get a candy, sometimes she’d settle for jam sandwiches, but when the new store opened in town, most of the kids spent their allowance there on candy so they were easy pickings…” A serious look appeared on his face. “She didn’t like peanut butter, she told me once when I tried to touch it.” He shrugged, embarrassed at the memory. “I was kind of fat then and I wasn’t allowed candy.”

It suddenly occurred to me that Allan was going nowhere with his story, but even though I couldn’t remember why he’d started, I have to admit that I was curious about the smallpox diagnosis in Janice. “Did Janice have…”

He chuckled loudly before I could finish -something else had occurred to him. “Miss Alliman took Janice to the doctor as soon as we’d looked at her poxes. It caused quite a commotion in town.”

I looked at Allan, expecting to hear that the doctor had needed to quarantine everybody. And then it occurred to me –maybe they’d been the hostages Allan had started to talk about. But, as with all of Allan’s stories, there was a twist.

“No, she didn’t have smallpox, or chickenpox, or anything like that…” He smiled at me, waiting for me to ask what she did have. But I was too confused to take it further and so he shrugged. Reluctantly. He hated to give stuff away without a struggle. “Impetigo,” he italicized finally. “It’s a skin infection,” he added, on the outside chance I didn’t recognize the word.

He sat back in his chair, pleased as Punch and massaged me gently with his eyes while he waited for me to process everything and come up for air.

I succumbed to the increasing pressure in spite of myself. “So what has all that to do with hostages?” I asked, finally deciding to confront him about the reason for his story.

For a moment, he seemed puzzled; the story had just kind of gotten away on him. And then his face brightened with a justification: “Uhmm…” He was stalling while he organized his excuse. “I just took you hostage didn’t I?” He downed the coffee, glanced at his watch, and stood up. “For about five minutes, I’d say…”

But he was wrong; hostages are unwilling prisoners; I’m still wondering about the eggs…