Sunday, August 25, 2013

Snake Bit, Part One




For most of my life my father used to jokingly call me snake bit. I thought it to be an interesting term as he was the only one I had ever heard use it, but perhaps it was simply dated as he was 40 years old when I was born. I was sort of an afterthought. I don’t think I was really sure what it meant when I was very young so it is unlikely that it was responsible for any psychological damage developed during my formative years.

In retrospect, though, I now think I have a pretty good grip on the gist of being Snake Bit. As a kid growing up on the mostly unpopulated side of a mountain in North Vancouver, British Columbia I was always going hell bent for leather through the forest with my Irish setter, Roxy. To say that I was a little clumsy would be greatly understating the matter. My mother told me later that the first thing out of my mouth when entering the house as a small child was usually, “I fell in”. Even in the dead of summer when there had been no rain for a month ( it does happen in Vancouver occasionally ) I would find a wet muddy  spot to fall into.

Now this, in and of itself is not entirely uncommon and could be chocked up to my being a somewhat ungainly and clumsy kid. Somehow though I guess my father saw through it and realized that there was a whole other dynamic evolving there. By the time I was in elementary school a pattern had developed. If, for instance, in gym class the volley ball net was likely to fall on someone, the climbing rope slip out of the ring in the ceiling or the edge of the vaulting box to slip off the mat and send the gymnast careening ass over teakettle onto the wooden floor boards, that child was most likely to be me.

After such occurrences I think there was some relief among the other students in that they felt they would now probably make it through gym class unscathed, as the odds of these incidents repeating with someone else were astronomically high. In short, I was a good kid to hang out with. A lot of my childhood prior to school had been pretty solitary so this seemed like a good thing to me.

By junior high the trend had escalated. I was a pretty good baseball player but had certainly had more than my share of bruises and broken bones gaining that status. By senior high I had become a little aloof and didn’t fit in very well. I credit my best friends Gwen and Shelley (still in Vancouver) for my sanity during those years. I didn’t go to school very often, but always showed up to write exams so no one really missed me until the middle of my twelfth year when they decided that the best way to handle the fact that I had not been there for two and a half years was to expel me.

I spent the next two years in a cosmetology apprenticeship and liked the makeup end but realized early on that the hair and nails end of things (which was the majority of the program) was definitely not for me. I stuck it out and got my license and then headed off in early September across Canada with my friend Gwen in a bright yellow Volkswagen Van, which we quickly, and appropriately tagged “The Lemon”.

I believe it was our second day out, in the middle of the night in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, that our electrical system failed and we lost all our lights and our windshield wipers. It was dark and snowing and the road was narrow and treacherous. There was no safe place to pull over so we bundled up in sweaters, stuck flashlights out the windows and soldiered on. By morning we had made it safely out of the mountains and into the town of Golden where we had to stay a few days while the mechanic figured out what had happened to “The Lemon”.

With the electrical system repaired we drove on to Calgary where Gwen had relatives. On our second day there, with two of Gwen’s very young cousins in the van, a horrendous explosion emanated from the rear of “The Lemon”, followed by billowing black smoke. As we sat on the sidewalk contemplating the remains of our black and smoldering engine, I think Gwen was having second thoughts about having undertaken this trip with me. Gwen and I have known each other since we were nine or ten years old so she really should have known better.

We had to go to work for about 3 weeks in Calgary to pay for the new engine so it was now late September as we headed out across the prairies. Thankfully snow came late that year so we enjoyed a really beautiful fall. We were heading to Saskatoon and just before midnight we drove into town and noticed the sign said Moosejaw. I was navigating at that point and clearly map reading was not my strong suit. I was off by 224 km. At this point we noticed flashing lights behind us and Gwen pulled over. 

A young smiling policeman told us that he had about 15 minutes left on his shift and had noticed our license plates and pulled us over for a routine check. At 19 we knew nothing about our rights as citizens of Canada and as the smiling young policeman did his illegal search and seizure, all the while telling us about his pregnant wife who was about to “pop”, we just sat and listened. Very chagrined, he notified me that he had found marijuana seeds in the bottom of my purse and that he would have to arrest me.

We went to the police station where they called the circuit court judge. This being one of my very rare incidents of profound good luck, the man was actually in town which meant that I did not have to sit in jail for a couple of months waiting for his arrival. By about 2 am it was over, I had paid a fine for the misdemeanor and we were once again on our way, with Gwen navigating.  “The Lemon”, however was not finished. By the time we reached Halifax we had spent about 2,500 dollars, which was a lot of money in 1974 and also about 500 dollars more than we had originally paid for the beast.

This is how we came to find ourselves in a public park in Halifax with 35 cents between us and a nearly empty gas tank. While we sat in “The Lemon” contemplating our immediate future an old man approached the van and knocked on the window. When I rolled down the window and greeted him he said he had noticed our out of Province license plates and  proceeded to tell us the story of a young boy being recently murdered in that self same park and that we should be very very careful as this was “a dirty, dirty city”.

As it turned out we absolutely loved the “dirty dirty city” and stayed for a year and a half. But by then we were 21 and getting itchy feet again so we returned to Toronto and divested ourselves of “The Lemon”, getting about 2000 dollars, and feeling lucky to have passed on “The Lemon Torch” to someone else. We hoped they had deep pockets.

We had left Halifax with the intention of flying from Toronto to Florida and beginning a new adventure in the States. Our roommate Allen unbennounced to me, had left us a going away gift in a seldom used outside pocket of my carryon bag. He had rolled us a rather fat 12 inch joint. When it was discovered in airport security the agent removed it, held it up and asked me “what is this”? In my ultimate 21 year old wisdom, I grinned and said “it looks like a joint, why don’t we smoke it and find out”?

Everything we owned, which was admittedly little at that point, went on to Florida while we remained in Toronto to straighten out the mess. Thank you very much Allen. In about two weeks we had done so, and with the help of more of Gwen’s relatives in Florida who vouched for us (it was a different time then) we were able to catch up with our belongings. Thank goodness for Gwen’s prolific family.

After a few months of working our way across the southern USA  we wound up in San Diego. We had enough money to either go home to Vancouver or fly to Hawaii. Care to guess whether we went north or south? Yes we went to Hawaii. We had picked up another roommate in San Diego and between us we had enough money to get to Waikiki and rent an apartment for one month. It was two months before any of us found jobs and those to which we had originally turned up our noses were starting to look good.

To Be Continued…