We are four Canadian kids taking advantage of snow free roads by riding our bikes to the river. Summer is approaching and already the daylight is stretching well into the evening. We cross a bridge and stop at the top of a rare hill. I nervously survey the steep dirt track. My friend Tony can’t resist. He gives me a little shove. I zip down, panic pulsating, handle bars wobbly. I get to the bottom, relief in sight. Also in sight is a random rock jutting out of the soil. My front wheel hits it and I am airborne. I crash to the ground. Pain shoots down my thigh. “Ow – my leg, my leg!” I push myself into a sitting position. Then I see it. “Ahhh- my finger, my finger!” I’m shocked to see that my left middle finger has shape shifted. It’s bent and bumpy. My first broken bone. “Ahhh – I broke my finger, I broke my finger!” With cautious curiosity, Tony and the others negotiate the descent, avoid the rock and check out my finger. “Ha ha – that’s hilarious!” Tony is proud of his handy work. I want to kill him. “Look what you did!” Tears streaming down my dirty face, I start swinging my skinny freckled arms. Tony rides off, laughing. The others join him. I get on my bike, also slightly bent but still functioning. I slowly make my way home, feeling very sorry for myself (since no one else does). Finally, I make it home, a sobbing mess. My parents supply much needed sympathy and a lift to the hospital. The young doctor seems pretty casual as he puts my finger in a splint. Too casual, as it turns out. When I go to school the next day, I show off my trophy. As I slip off the splint, I soak up the oos and ahs. But Tony, unrepentant prick that he is, is unimpressed. “It’s still bent.” I fume. “I know – you bent it!” He shakes his head. “Nah – the doctor should have broke it again before he set it.” I am horrified at the thought. “But it’s already broke!” He shakes his head. “But it’s still bent. My brother had to have his re-broken so it was straight again”. I am terrified of having my finger snapped back into shape. Somehow I manage to avoid any follow up appointment where this might take place. Instead, I am destined to have a finger that’s not only rude but also rather bent.
I am enjoying an all too rare solo bushwalk. It’s a trail that’s becoming my favourite, not only for it’s natural beauty but also it’s convenience – a slice of heaven nestled in Sydney’s northern suburbs. During those moments where a plane’s not flying overhead or there are no echoes of an especially feisty picnic, I imagine that I’m all alone. Just me, the birds and unseen critters scurrying through the undergrowth. But, inevitably, I hear a plane or a picnic or pass other bushwalkers and the spell is broken. I reflect on my attraction towards solitariness and a memory drifts into focus. I am fifteen and working with my Dad in Canada’s vast North West Territories. Although we are there to dig and prod the earth in search of ancient artifacts, I am fascinated with the ruins of an old cabin, possibly less than a hundred years old. It is literally in the middle of nowhere – nothing but trees and water for miles and miles. We are there in summer and, apart from the never receding sunshine and mosquitoes the size of birds, it’s a stunning location. But in winter, when the sun has well and truly retired, the snow is piled high and the temperature’s never above minus twenty, it’d be one hell of a place to live. But, once upon a time, someone did. Probably a trapper. Just him and a magnificent but unyielding wilderness. I am envious. I imagine what it must be like to survive in such a place with no one but yourself to get you through. What happened to this recluse? Did he go mad in the end? Did he freeze? Starve? Who knows. The bits of broken plates and rusted pots don’t reveal much – even to my archeologist father (who’s not much interested in anything less than a thousand years old). And although I’ve always lived in cities, there still remains that urge to one day go bush and fend for myself. If anything, it’s growing stronger as the years slip away. But who knows if I’ll ever get the chance. In the meantime, going on solo bushwalks might be the only way to indulge my inner hermit.
9:56. Every time I glance at a clock displaying 9:56, I’m hurled back through the decades to the two years during which 956 was my number. I was the the nine hundredth and fifty sixth teenage boy to be admitted to the original St. John’s Cathedral Boys’ boarding school, located about an hour out of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Labels featuring 956 were sewn into every article of my school issue clothing – my lumberjack shirts, my black and gold sweaters and my quick drying army pants. Given every student had the same limited attire, these labels were crucial in assuring that the boys assigned to Laundry Crew put the correct clothing in the correct cubicle. But no clothes were washed during my first couple of weeks – at least not in a laundry. Every student starting St. John’s had to survive the ‘New Boy Trip’ – a three hundred and fifty mile canoe trip along routes once used by the ‘Voyagers’ to transport furs from the wilds of Canada to civilisation. It was a confronting and, at times, terrifying experience – boot camp with canoes, burnt porridge and wooden paddles: most used to propel us through water, one used to whack us on the backside. This was called getting ‘swats’ – sanctioned corporal punishment paid for by our parents. The most a boy could receive at one time was ten – usually reserved for the most extreme transgressions. But I was unlucky that my first ‘swats’ experience was for something I didn’t do. Perhaps the only pleasure during this hellish trip was occasionally getting a small square of chocolate. But when a thief (or thieves) stole all the chocolate rations, they were given a choice – fess up and get ten swats or keep quiet and everyone will get ten ass stinging smacks. He (or they) choose option two. Perhaps they figured that if they were going to get their butts smacked anyway, then doing so anonymously was preferable to also getting beaten by boys pissed off that there was no more chocolate. I did my best not to cry when I got my undeserved punishment, furious at the people who had put me in this position – my parents. Any relief at having survived the New Boy trip was short lived once we encountered Old Boys upon our return. Various ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenarios played out over the subsequent months – sadistic Old Boys dishing out cruelties they’d once suffered during their own time as New Boys. We were assigned to our various work crews and I soon discovered, to my surprise, that cleaning toilets was preferable to looking after chickens or making sausages. But there was no escape from selling these (dead) chickens and sausages door to door – the money from which helped to keep our school fees so low and attractive to parents. Also minimising fees were teachers (‘masters’) willing to work for just a dollar a day – plus their food and board. The temperature dived and the snow dumped. The rivers froze – making canoeing impossible but enabling us to walk on them with cow gut tennis rackets tethered to our feet (also known as show shoes – though nothing like the light as a feather modern day ones). Every Saturday afternoon in winter, despite the sub zero temperatures and howling winds, we would walk on rivers for hours. Before my time, a boy actually died of hypothermia. He then came back to life minutes later. Needless to say – he was a St. John’s legend. Eventually, spring shuffled along and the rivers flowed again. This meant it was back into the canoes for any boys returning the next year. Sadly, that included me. So, on my way to being an ‘Old Boy’, I started paddling the longest route the school tackled – the eight hundred and fifty mile ‘Grande Portage’. A ‘portage’ is when you have to carry the canoes across land – with the ‘Grandest’ being eight miles long – an ordeal which reduced me to a whimpering mess. But I had a smile on my face days later when we pulled into a small town and were given a bit of cash for a much desired sugar hit. When we returned to the canoes, babbling and carrying on, we were told that our trip leader (who happened to be our Head Master and founder of St. John’s and its two subsequent schools in Alberta and Ontario), had an announcement. The man was as white as a sheet. He told us that while checking in with the school via payphone (these were the days before mobiles or even satellite phones), he was told that an accident had occurred during one of the Ontario school trips. Thirteen boys and two masters were dead. They didn’t drown – their life jackets wouldn’t allow it. Instead, they had succumbed to hypothermia. Unlike the St. John’s legend, none came back to life. We were shocked – especially when I discovered that three boys on that trip had been in my canoe months earlier during our New Boy trip. One of them was now dead – one of a pair of identical twins. In a bizarre twist – that doomed group had three pairs of twins. One of each pair had perished. We got back into our canoes without our Head Master. He had been whisked off to face the media and defend a school that pushed boys to the extreme – and beyond. With each stroke of my paddle, I thought about those dead boys. I wondered if their parents regretted sending them to St. John’s.
It is the wrong side of minus thirty-five degrees. Nobody knows how cold it is with the wind chill factor. In Winnipeg Manitoba, you don’t want to know how much colder the perpetual winter wind is making things. It’s information that would befuddle your mind, making you wonder why anybody would live in such a place. It’s certainly not weather for trekking through the snow from house to house to deliver fliers for the local supermarket. So I do the sensible thing. I throw my heavy bundle of fliers in the rubbish bin and head home. After all – that’s where they will end up anyway – so I’m actually performing a public service. Less junk mail for the good citizens of Crescent Wood. It is about a week later when I get a phone call from my Scout Master. Did I throw out my fliers that I was delivering to raise money for our Scout troop to go to the National Summer Jamboree? Uh – no – of course not. Interesting. A large bundle of fliers was found in a bin on the street where I was meant to be delivering them. Oh. Oh yeah. Actually, I just remembered – I think I did throw out what was left of my bundle. It was such a cold day and who reads those fliers anyway. Not the point. We’ll deal with this at the next meeting. So at the meeting I endure the Scout version of a teen trial. I tell my side of the story. The Scout master and my fellow Scouts then confer. I’m brought back in and told that it’s been decided that, for this very unScout-like behaviour, I am to miss the upcoming Manitoba Jamboree that spring. On the upside, I am still permitted to attend the National Jamboree in Prince Edward Island that summer. I am both relieved and ashamed. Over the next few months, the allure of being a Scout fades. By the time my troop heads off to the Manitoba Jamboree, I am no longer part of that fraternity. Yet that following winter I am again trekking through the snow from door to door in minus thirty-five degree weather. Now, instead of paper fliers, I have an even heavier basket of frozen chickens and sausages. I am selling them for my new boarding school – aka ‘Canadian Concentration Camp’. But this time, should I decide to ditch my goods in a bin, the punishment will come via a wooden paddle making painful contact with my backside. Ouch. I keep on trekking.