Suburban Richmond, British Columbia, in 1960 is just a few steps from the great marsh separating a community of newly built split level houses, and row upon row of almost identical buildings, built all at once, in a great big hurry, from the roaring Gulf of Georgia.
In the spring of that year, the harbour seals, giving birth to their pups, awakened my neighbourhood every night with barking, giving way only to the Canada Geese when they flew in from points far south in the United States a little later in the season.
The tidal marsh was both endlessly attractive and terrifying, luring young children into danger, trapping a child ever so often and drowning them in a tidal surge. It was home to the muskrat, ducks, rats, frogs and many other denizens of the marsh. In was only occasionally tidal, only the biggest tides of the spring would flood the marsh right up to the dyke. The rest of the year the marshes were mostly drier, kept damp by the water table, only inches below the surface.
Picture me, very small, grinning widely.
Five or six years old, wearing shorts and a checkered t-shirt, slightly muddy. Short buzzsaw haircut, in the style of the times, the late 1950’s.
No sensible fears nor optimistic hopes, living in the ever-present now of childhood. Smiling so widely for no particular reason except that I was unbelievably happy, just to be alive, and in front of a camera. Caught in a moment of stillness, between running around like mad on the back lawn, riding my bicycle up and down the street in front of the house, teasing my sister and making her laugh or cry, or fighting the desire to go down the street and play in the marshes beyond the dyke.
This is a snapshot of a brief moment in time, that seems to stretch out endlessly in front of me. The distance I could travel was between the front porch and the little ditch under the driveway bridge, the little ditch that in my imagination stretched to Kingdom Come, without end, Amen. An endless little ditch where fleets of dinky toy trucks had sunk beneath the waves and paper ships had sailed into the endless time after lunch.
Crossing the ditch was a mighty step, for beyond it was the forbidden land, where giant cars raced up and down the street, just excited by the possibility that a small happy lad would step out in front of them, and be gobbled up in an instant. Don’t cross the ditch, boy, I was promised, it would be awful and bad things would happen, for sure.
Despite the wide grin on my face, and being as happy as I have ever been in my life, what that picture from my early childhood reminds me most of all was to be happy within a circle, outside of which I was to be afraid, very afraid. And, as things turned out in the end, with good reason.
I was the middle kid, between two older sisters, one and two years older, and a younger sister and brother. We were all born within a ten-year span, basically one every two years, like a biological assembly line punching out kids, all basically the same, except in two flavours, boys and girls. Our mother, a blousy blond, was the fifties pretty, not like the sticks they call girls later in the 1960’s, in the days of Twiggy and the mod bodies of the Twist generation. My dad, a salesman, worked almost every night selling mysterious stuff to janitors. Bottles of cleaners and giant floor polishing machines were his products, but to me, they seemed magical.
Sometimes he would take me along with him on an appointment where he would show off one of the floor machines, giant polishing machines. And once in a while, he’d let me sit on one of the polishers, as he used it to polish a floor. What a ride it was, and I’d feel pretty special, just for being there. Once in a while, my dad was a great guy and really knew how to make me feel pretty special.
This is me, and this was my home growing up until I was much older, fourteen. Idyllic in appearance, and placid on the surface, childhood was anything but placid underneath that skin. But there were many good days, and good times, to throw away all of the memories just because most of the time that I lived there I lived in fear, would be wrong, although that’s what my mind tried to do. Make me forget.
In trying to make sense of my life after growing up, it’s helpful to understand who I started out to be, and what influences changed me into the man I eventually became.