Snap Shot #63 – My Number

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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.

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Snap Shot #59 – Why I Love Huskies

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Nitro the Two Toned Cavoodle is a goofy, happy go lucky dog and I love him. But every time we encounter a Husky on one of our walks, I’m reminded that these majestic wolf-like creatures remain my favourite breed. The downside for their owners is having to endure my well rehearsed spiel each time I see one. “Oh – I love huskies. They’re my favourite dogs. When I was a teenager in Canada, I went to a school where I helped to raise them for dog sledding.” The reactions vary but most owners are at least mildly interested in my ramblings. And so, briefly, I am transported back to my second year at St John’s Cathedral Boy’s School (aka ‘Canadian Concentration School’) where, as a reward for decent grades and good behavior, I was assigned to ‘Dog Crew’. Every second day, for an hour after each meal, I helped feed the dogs and clean the kennels that housed about forty Huskies and Malamutes (the Husky’s bigger, stronger and generally dumber sled pulling cousin). Oddly enough, the cleaning was less stinky and generally easier in winter when the sub zero temperatures froze solid the chocolate like chunks of poo that could then be easily shovel scooped and discarded. The same shovels were then used to chip away at yellow slabs of ice from the kennel floors. At other times of the year, a hose was used to wash away the piss and softer mounds of poo – a considerably sloppier process. The other highlight in winter was the puppy house, which had to be kept warm with an old wooden stove – a nice place to be when it was thirty degrees below outside. It also proved to be especially fun when we used ether dipped gauze to wrap around their little ears to keep them from being floppy. Ether fumes within a warm confined space full of cute puppies facilitated a few of my more enjoyable moments at Canadian Concentration School. But it wasn’t all about looking after these magnificent beasts. I was also lucky enough to go on a couple of overnight sledding trips. This meant sleeping outside – without a tent but around a campfire, nestled inside two sleeping bags. Although this seems a bit crazy now, especially as we were unaccompanied by any adults, at the time it was a real buzz. Somehow the fact that the dogs were able to cope with just their thick fur coats made it seem an almost normal thing to do on a freezing midwinter’s night. One of the other upsides of dog sledding was Gloop – a mixture of chocolate, peanut butter, honey and nuts that was then frozen into fist sized balls and gnawed on throughout the journey. My team of three soon discovered that Gloop wasn’t only coveted by teenage boys but was also popular with dogs. We had a very cunning female lead with ice blue eyes who would stop every so often and could only be persuaded to take off again after a couple of licks of Gloop (this was before I knew that chocolate is in fact ‘Doggy Death’ – though fortunately that didn’t prove to the case in this instance). Once she did get going, leading the pack behind her, it was exhilarating to ride on the back of that dog powered sled. For over half a century, I’ve been lucky enough to experience a number of amazing things all over the world. But zipping along a frozen lake behind a pack of happy Huskies remains one of the most special.

Snap Shot #52: Worst Haircut Ever

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When my son returns from the barber, I’m expecting to see the usual short back and sides. At first glance, this seems to be the case. But something’s different. “Turn around.” He does. And there’s the difference. Instead of the back smoothly tapering off, there’s a defiant tuft at the top of a cliff like edge. It reminds me of Dennis the Menace. “That bit at the top looks weird.” “I like it” is the defiant reply (though later he will admit that he in fact hates it). As dumb as it looks, it’s not even in the same league as my worst ever haircut. I was a year or two older than him and having a much anticipated Sunday weekly visit home from boarding school (aka ‘Canadian Concentration School”). What I wasn’t looking forward to was returning to school for the upcoming haircut day. Every couple of months they would dig up this old bespectacled fossil named Steve. He had been cutting hair at St. John’s Cathedral Boy’s School since its inception in the early sixties. Obviously not one to move with the times, Steve had been dishing out the same two styles for the good part of a couple of decades. There was the ‘page boy’ and the ‘buzz cut’ (which has made a resurgence – though my son refers to it as ‘the shaved testicle’). My ears are too big for ‘buzz cuts’, making me look like a chimp. So I reluctantly always went for a ‘page boy’. I must of shared my dread with my family because to everyone’s surprise, my dad volunteered ,“I’ll cut it for you.” Everyone was pretty dubious about the offer – especially the one whose hair was on the line. “Really? But you’ve never cut hair.” My dad shrugged. “Up to you. Go back and let Steve do it then.” And that was the bait that got me. I knew what the alternative was. But I didn’t know what the possibility was. By some miracle of hidden talent could my father actually give me a better haircut than Steve the Butcher? Was it worth the risk? Yes. Yes it was. I could imagine the looks on the faces of my fellow inmates when they saw that I had come back with a stylish cut that still managed to sneak within the archaic guidelines. “Ok – go for it.” So he did. His tongue poked out slightly as his brow furrowed with concentration. I’m not sure I’d ever seen him so focused. I watched chunks of my hair fall into the my sheet covered lap. I must admit, I was hopeful. The only mildly disconcerting thing was the looks that the rest of my family were giving me as the cutting progressed. Still, what would they know? At last, my dad seemed satisfied. “Ok – go have a look.” I brushed the hair onto the floor, took off the sheet and hurried into the bathroom, my family close behind. I opened the door. Looking straight back at me was…me. Except not really. This version of me still had a freckled face and big ears. But something was wrong. Where there once had been straight brown hair sculpted to resemble a page boy, it now looked as if Picasso himself had decided to paint a page boy – after a few too many. Symmetry – who needs symmetry? Certainly not my dad. Evenness? Boring! Having short bits surrounded by long bits was much more daring. I stared. My family held their breath. And then it started. Tears. Lots of them. “What have you done?” Apart from my father, who was looking a little wounded, the other three members of my family were doing their best not to burst out laughing. “I can try to fix it if you like.” I was horrified. “NO! Don’t touch it! Ever again!” I ran off, tearfully searching for a hat. Of course this head gear was immediately yanked off on the bus back to Concentration School. I’ll spare you the jibes but they were appropriately cruel – my hair a gift from the gods to a bunch of sadistic teenage ratbags. So, after days of hell, Steve finally hobbled into the library to wipe the smile off of faces. But not mine. I had never been so glad to see him in my life. I threw myself onto the chair. “Hi Steve. A page boy please. Or a buzz cut. Just whatever it takes.” He looked at me a moment, startled. He took off his glasses, gave them a wipe and put them back on. And then, for the first time ever, I saw him smile. “Dad cut your hair, did he?” Now, in all fairness to my father and with the gift of hindsight, I can see now that what he did that day was just simply ahead of its time, that’s all. About ten years later, as a post punk student in Sydney, I not only would have paid someone a fair whack of money for such a cut, I would have also got them to squirt a bit of red and black dye into the mix. Maybe my dad missed his true calling…