I have always hated the “c” word.
Here is why.
It was a summer day when I was about 7 or 8 years old.
It would be a day of a lot of firsts.
I think Hammond, our small community on the mainland area of British Columbia, represented as rather rough in the 70s. A working class neighborhood, Devona and I have since joked that we were the rich kids in our neighborhood because our Dad’s had jobs. This is not true of course.
Yet, Hammond was certainly not all Beaver Cleaver. Despite all this, the Hemminger and Harty children from across the street lived sheltered existences.
Both Devona Harty, my best friend, and I lived on the corner of 207th Street and 114th Avenue. Her family lived on the south side and our family the north. Our side of 114th was buffered by a wide gravel shoulder. I just Google earthed it and that gravel shoulder is still there.
Each of our houses were old. the Hemminger house was built in the late 1800s and had survived the wear and tear of many families and many unfortunate renovations. The Harty house was also old, but restored.
Devona’s home was as different from the Hemminger household as a home could be. It was like our two home experiences were on the end of a wide-ranging continuum. Devona’s house being clean, spotless and shiny. Our house being, well, not.
Devona’s kitchen tile floors, despite being of the old linoleum sort, had a glossy sheen in a way that nobody and I mean nobody else’s did. The Harty’s immaculately tidy in the home extended not only to the Harty’s garage but to their yard. Their yard was probably vacuumed.
It was one of those endless summer afternoons. Because up until then I had only experienced summer on the typically rainy lower mainland and area of Haney and Hammond, I believed the sun to be extraordinarily hot. The unrelenting heat cooked up the sidewalks, the road, the gravel, and of course, our non-sun screened skin. The hot sun-baked air was breeze-less. The only sounds were that of the flies and the 70s music coming from the transistor radio in Devona’s garage. The flies buzzed while landing on piles of dog poop that littered our yard, the sidewalk, and gravel. The pretty dark green and black backs of the flies totally covering all of the droppings, of which there were many. Although it did not happen on this particular day, I can still distinctly remember in detail the feeling of warm, and at times, almost hot, dog poo as it squished between the toes of my bare feet when I failed to watch where I was running or walking.
Devona’s little brother, Jordan, a toddler at the time, had wandered out onto the middle of 114th Avenue between our two homes.
My Mom was in the kitchen, as usual, doing her Mom things. She never stopped. Throughout my entire childhood, I can only recall Elma in our kitchen and our living room. She almost never ventured into our back yard and the out of doors. These areas were not her domain whatsoever. She would often peek out of the kitchen window to supervise what was happening outside. If she saw any transgressions, we would be sure to hear the rapping of sharp knuckles against the window, and when we looked, we would see her mouth yelling at us. We could not, of course, hear what she was saying, but we could mostly guess that whatever we were doing at the time had to stop. Or else.
There were times when Elma would venture as far as the door threshold to our back porch, preferring to give instruction or reprimands directly from its step.
It was a quiet afternoon.
Then Terry Jorgenson, a neighborhood teenager, peeled around the corner from 207th in his car. He almost ran over Jordan.
As was the case on many sunny Saturday afternoons in Hammond, lots of drinking happened.
Drinking and driving did not hold the same kind of taboo that it does now. I remember my various uncles telling stories with pride about how they had cheated the cops and gotten away with driving while totally loaded. Drinking and driving creating bragging rights rather than shame.
I don’t recall much of anything about the Jorgenson family. I remember that they were friends with our next-door neighbors adjacent to us, the Klassen family. The Klassens’ home, pressed between our home and Mrs. Fawcett’s, was on our side of 114th. Mrs. Klassen was a single parent to numerous children.
Throughout the years, stories of Mrs. Klassen’s wayward children would cause much consternation amongst at least one of our neighbors, Mrs. Fawcett.
Mrs. Fawcett, an elderly woman, lived on her own the whole time I knew her, her husband residing in long-term care as a result of a stroke years before. She was always nice to me and fed me milky white sweet tea and biscuits. I remember sitting in her tiny, quiet kitchen, perched on the edge of a chair. The old linoleum-square tiles on the floor, long since dulled.
When I was in grade six, and grade seven and very interested in earning money Mrs. Fawcett would let me mow her lawn and would pay me $2.00 for doing so. Mrs. Fawcett did not like the Klassen children. She described them, without using such words, as hellions. The Klassen children were a barrier between her and everything good in life such as peace, happiness, and respect.
I remember listening to her, my eyes round, and mouth wide open. If a ball strayed from their yard to hers, she would simply pocket the ball and never give it back. She told me that she would keep their ball and “show them” for letting it get into her yard. I hung onto her every word, not understanding at all why she would keep someone else’s ball, even if it went into her yard. Even if the Klassens were terrible kids.
I, of course, did not have any direct experience of the Klassens being terrible. This was way before I learned about the power of gossip and that adults did not always say exactly what was true.
Devona’s Dad, a pile driver working for Fraser River Pile, would be gone for months at a time working. He was, however, in town on this day.
His name was Gordon, but everyone calls him Gordie, He and his brother Fred spent endless hours in the garage at Devona’s house. He had a passion for Harley Davidson motorcycles. He had socialist and hippie tendencies, despite his sometimes outward gruff appearance and demeanor. Compared to my Dad, who was soft-spoken and 5’2” Devona’s Dad was ginormous. I found him big and hairy and scary, despite him always being nice to me.
Gordie was in his garage working on a motorcycle. The garage door was wide open due to the heat.
The Harty’s garage gave the idea of Man-land a whole new meaning. Every tool had a specific location. Oil stains dripping from motorcycles immediately wiped clean. It smelled like oil and gas, and it smelled fresh and orderly at the same time.
Although my parents and Devona’s parents did not have much in common, they always got along well.
So, Terry comes peeling around the corner. After having almost run over Jordan, he pulls over in his vehicle. I am not sure if this was because Terry had become concerned, having almost killed a toddler, or if it was because he was at his destination at the Klassen residence.
Seeing Terry stumble out of his vehicle was one of my first good sighting of a dangerously unreasonable drunk person. I am not sure who started yelling and swearing first. Devona’s Dad, Gordie or Terry Jorgenson.
The source of the dispute related to Devona’s Dad saying Terry should watch how he was driving. Terry’s side was that the kid should not have been on the road in the first place. And so it went.
I knew the situation was serious when I saw my Mom on the sidewalk, having treked from her kitchen. The doors to our house were no doubt open due to the heat. The yelling and now cussing between the two men was likely quick to reach Elma’s horrified ears.
Devona also says that her Mom, at one point in the exchange, threw a broom at Terry’s car.
The dispute was eventually surrounded by not only my Mom but my Dad and other neighbors. There was a group joined in watching and hearing it all first-hand.
Then started my very first directly viewed real fist-fight. It was nothing like I had seen on television. After swearing and arguing, Devona’s Dad and Terry began shoving each other. Eventually, their shoving caused one of them to topple and next they were hitting each other when they could as they rolled around on the gravel. Along with the swear words flew spit and insults. I remember the blood being on their faces and the dust and pebbles from the gravel becoming streaked on their skin and clothes.
While this whole scene terrified me, it invigorated Devona. “Go Daddy” “You can take him!” she shouted from the side of the gravel. Her Dad would take care of it. She had that knowing. I, on the other hand, was panic-stricken. The fear I felt on that afternoon was something I had never experienced before.
Next thing there was Elma, engaged and yelling from the side and in close range to the fists. “Boys!” She yelled. “Excuse me! Boys! Stop that language right now! There are children about!”
And then came my next first. The words, “Shut up you fat C—NT!”
It was Terry Jorgenson. Yelling at her from behind a wall of kicked up dust and gravel and blood.
I am not sure who it then was that held my Dad back. I remember there were two young men or teenage boys doing so.
I remember seeing my Dad and how small he was next to Gordon Harty and Terry Jorgenson. I remember how he was pulling against the two guys holding him. I saw him taking his stand for the honor of his wife and his family.
It was my first time seeing my Dad as potentially vulnerable. It was the first time I felt, as a Hemminger, that the world, even close to our home could be unreliable. It was when I first noticed that life could change in an instant.
Then as so happens with most fist-fights, the men fighting would eventually lose their steam. Having exhausted their energy and their fight, they would eventually fall away from each other, swear a few more times and retreat to their domains.
I remember the look that passed between Devona’s Dad and mine. There was a profound respect passing between two men who each, in their way, had been the protectors of the people they loved.
Gordie, looking rough at the moment, with bruises, met my Dad’s eyes with a smile and said: “Geez, I am not as young as I used to be.”
A day of firsts.