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American Coming of Age Creative Nonfiction

September ’76 found me as the new kid in town and the foreigner, an American teenager in a Canadian high school. Gordon Bell High School in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I can still clearly remember my first day, down to what I was wearing; a red and green plaid western shirt with pearl snap buttons, light green bell-bottom jeans, and the red Adidas Gazelles that I loved so much. During the first recess I saw a tall dark-haired boy from my class having a smoke alone in a corner and went to introduce myself, pulling a pack of Craven “A” menthols out of my right front shirt pocket. Like me, his hair was long and his shirt was open down the front. He spoke first, with an easy-going manner.

“Hi, I’m Rick, Rick Blake Knox. You’re American aren’t you?”

“That’s right. Tony Bell.”

“No relation to Gordon Bell I suppose. Where are you from?”

“Chicago.” It seemed a lot cooler than saying that I’d spent the last year in Salt Lake City. I pulled out my Zippo and lit my cigarette, doing a French inhale through my nose.

“You look like you came straight from Texas.”

“Oh yeah, the shirt, it was my grandfather’s, he’s a Texan, but I’ve never lived there, I can’t stand Texas, full of rednecks.”

“Love your shoes! Red but not redneck!”

“Me too.” Of course I couldn’t tell him that they were charity.

“I’ve heard Chicago is rough.”

“Yeah, it was a bitch. I hope I never have to go back. The school was really easy though.”

“You got good grades then?”

I decided to tell the truth. “I could have passed easily, but I skipped school all the time, so I failed almost all my classes. I was in Salt Lake City last year and they didn’t check my school records from Chicago. Same thing here, I told the school that I had passed to 11th grade but I skipped school all last year too.”

“You move around a lot! It’s for your Dad’s work?”

“You could say that, but my Dad’s not here, he’s in North Dakota on the Standing Rock Reservation.” I decided not to say anything more about my parents’ work for the moment, I had already shared one big secret with him and I didn’t even know him yet.

“Cool, I’m a Métis.”

“What’s that?”

“Mixed, my mother’s Assiniboine.”

“I was born on a Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, and I have two adopted sisters that are Assiniboine. They were from the Fort Peck Reservation.”

“You said you were from Chicago.”

“Yeah, that’s right, but I was born in Montana, and I’ve lived a lot of other places. When people ask me where I come from I don’t give them a whole list.”

“You don’t have any Indian blood, do you?”

“No, we just lived on the Rez for my dad’s work. He’s a preacher. I have a Blackfoot name, “Kristucky”, it means Little Beaver, but it’s only my child’s name. We left the Res when I was young, so I never did the Vision Quest. Say, I heard the weather forecast this morning and they said it would be 22° and sunny, they sure made a mistake about the temperature! Everyone told me that the weather was really cold here and I thought it would be freezing.”

Rick cracked up “No, that’s right, it’s 22°, but we don’t use Fahrenheit in Canada! It gets really cold but not below freezing on the first day of school!”

I got along really well with Rick and he became my best friend straight away. Some of our musical tastes were different, he loved Kiss and Queen, both of which groups I didn’t care for. But we had a lot of groups we liked in common, like Aerosmith, Led Zep, Deep Purple, The Stones, The Who…He had a pool table in his basement, and before I knew him I had rarely played. He was an expert, and I learned a lot about the game. He knew all the girls, and knew when and where all the parties were held. I discovered the Canadian habit of eating French fries either with vinegar and salt or with gravy instead of ketchup, and in fact I liked both better. I never really liked ketchup. I had already had Canadian beer the year before at Christmas in Edmonton Alberta, and my favorite was Labatt’s Blue. No American beer can compare.

Unlike in the USA, I didn’t have any trouble getting dates with girls. I was different. I was American, and Rick’s best friend. I started dating a howlingly cute girl named Cyndi with freckles and a short blond bob haircut. On our first date I was getting excited as we kissed on the couch in her living room and her fingers boldly reached between my legs without the slightest hesitation. Her parents were out so we made out in her bedroom. The next day Rick told me that I should drop her because she was a tart and I’d probably catch something from her. I took his advice. There were a lot of girls who were ready to date.

In school I excelled in Art again, and I painted a canvas with an enlaced pentagram and the silhouettes of a man and a woman embracing against a sunset (or sunrise). I enjoyed history for once and discovered that the Canadians had their own version which didn’t always agree with the American History. It’s at that moment that I realized that people write history as they want to. We had to do a research project and essay about a historical figure and I chose Louis Riel, a Métis leader and the founder of the province of Manitoba. It was fascinating for me and I spent a sleepless night writing the final version for the deadline. I drank a whole pot of coffee and got a caffeine buzz for the first time. It was also the first, but not the last time that I missed out on a night’s sleep for a school assignment. That wouldn’t happen again until college though.

We went to a lot of parties, drank and smoked a lot, but didn’t do a lot of drugs, mostly only grass and hash. Hash was a lot more common than in the states. Sometimes I wonder if maybe I have a child or two that I don’t know of, because we didn’t take any precautions. At that time in my life I never even bothered to ask if the girls I went with took the pill or not. One night I was outside a house where we were having a big party and someone called me from an upstairs window. Instead of going upstairs like normal, I decided to climb the drain pipe which went up to the gutter on the second floor. When I started to pull myself up onto the roof of the porch the gutter broke and I fell to the ground, landing on my back. It dazed me a bit, but everyone was shocked because I had blood all over me and it was oozing out of my face. The zinc gutter had spit my chin open. One of the girls played the nurse but I had to get stitches at the hospital. I’ve always carried the scar. When I started shaving I had to be careful not to cut myself on it.

Brent Winstone, my roommate at the Winnipeg Religious House, agreed to pay for a pound of hash for me to sell ounces at school, and he was to share in the profit. When I went to score the pound, the dealers were in a furnished motel room that they had completely destroyed. They were throwing hunting knives, doing target practice on just about everything in the room. Their rowdiness made me feel lucky to get away with my life, and when the pound they sold me was light, I didn’t say a thing about it. I passed the rip-off on to the other kids I sold to, and every ounce I sold was a bit light to make up for the difference. I ended up smoking a lot of the pound myself with friends, and my roommate at the religious house never saw the profit from our deal. I had decided to run away from the Order. My sisters had already run away the spring before, returning to the reservation where they were born. Many other youth had either run away or tried to. What was so bad about that? We all felt that our parents had abandoned us when they had joined the Order. I prepared my escape without telling anyone except Rick. We had a common friend, Charley Whitehorse, “Chuck” a small Assiniboine boy our age who more or less lived in the street, and I paired up with him. I packed what little I was taking in a canvas and leather rucksack and strapped a mummy-bag to the top. Then I snuck out of the house at night and met up with Chuck. He took me to his squat of the moment, which was an old burnt-out house that had been abandoned with a lot of things inside. The windows were broken and it everything smelled of smoke. Early November in Winnipeg means snow, ice, and freezing temperatures. The gas stove and the gas line still functioned so we lit the stove and huddled in front of it fully dressed to warm ourselves. 

Chuck told me I should change my looks to make it harder for the police to find me. I hadn’t thought of it before, but it seemed like a good idea. He knew an Indian girl that knew how to cut hair and didn’t charge me anything, as she loved doing the transformation for me. Before my hair was shoulder long and brown. Now it was short and blond. I never thought I would dye my hair, and it was the only time in my life that I did, but the result was surprising. I was a different person. According to the girl who cut my hair I actually looked a lot more attractive from a girl’s point-of-view, more masculine.

There was a small grocery store in the neighborhood of our squat that paid back deposit on bottles. The old man that owned it stored the bottles in a shed next to the store. We broke into the shed using a crowbar and returned his returned bottles to him for cash. Another time we were in a modern convenience store shoplifting when Chuck did something strange. He took an aerosol can of whipping cream and inhaled the gas inside, after that he put it back on the shelf. I had never seen this before and he told me to try it. “Don’t shake it, just breathe in the gas.” He told me. I tried…it was cold and it made me light headed. “It’s N2O, that’s laughing gas! A free high!”

I found a shirt in the house that I had to have, even if it smelled like smoke. It was almost the same as my favorite shirt from my childhood in Montana and sent me back in time. It was a thick soft light blue cotton flannel cowboy shirt with pearl buttons and horses embroidered over the front pockets. I got some other clothes I loved too, including a beautiful dark blue leather bomber’s jacket that the owner had already fitted with military 3-star shoulder pins, and warm socks and most importantly, winter hiking boots that fit! My red Gazelles were too small and my feet had been freezing. Chuck was smaller than me and had already taken what he wanted.

One late night near the end of November we were really drunk. Using the crowbar, we started hitting holes in the tin garbage cans that lined the snow covered sidewalks in front of each house, put there for pick up in the early morning. Bang! Bang! Bang! Rang out in the night! Suddenly, we both spotted something and we turned to each other with gleams in our eyes, we had had the same idea (and it wasn’t a good one). In front of us stood a large garden shed made entirely out of corrugated tin sheets. We were busy tearing it to shreds when the police showed up.

At the station, one of the officers questioned me about my identity and I made one up. He went away, leaving me handcuffed to my chair. Not much time passed before he came back and asked me my name again. I told him the same thing. He slapped me hard in the face and repeated the question. I told them everything. When they asked me why I had run away, I told them everything about the religious sect that I lived in. I assured them that I was not lying. They left me for awhile and then came back to give me a choice. I could return to the Religious House, or they could put me in detention until the judgment in court. I chose detention. I didn’t know yet what I had signed up for. I spent the rest of that night alone in a jail cell before they took me to the center the next day. On the way they let me stop at the old burnt-out house to pick up my rucksack and mummy bag. They were nice guys for cops, not at all like the pigs in Chicago.

Chuck was in the center with me, but everyone had his own cell. He let me know that I would have to be tough and never show any fear, or things could get really bad. The first day I got kicked straight in my chest by one of the guys and it knocked the wind out of me as I fell backwards on the pavement of the “recreation” area. Later that day I tackled the same guy in the corridor and we fought like cats. I scraped my right arm on the harsh carpet and it got infected. After a few days a greenish puss was seeping out and I had to douse it with alcohol from time to time. I carry the scar to this day. At least everyone left me alone after that. The judge saw us in court in mid December, and we were sentenced simply to pay for the damage we had done. Since it was almost Christmas, I was put on a flight to Bismark North Dakota, where my dad and brothers Jim Ed and Ben picked me up at the airport and brought me to Cannonball on the Northern tip of the Standing Rock Reservation. My parents had been deployed by the Order to work at the Inyan Wakagapi Human Development project there. Dad was drunk and constantly swerving on the road as he sang Christmas songs at the top of his lungs, so Jim had to take the wheel. Our sisters weren’t there this year, only our parents, my two brothers who had also come for our rare family time, and I. We were in a big one-story house outside of town. We boys slept in a large common area with sheets draped like curtains to make separations. I was the last one to show up.

My brother Jim had started an oil painting, which was something new for him. It was a hawk flying over a forest landscape in the light of eventide with a crescent moon. He asked me to finish it because I had more experience, and I refused. We were out drinking one night when he stopped the car and told me to get out. We fought in the snow, and he pinned me down. “Now you’re going to finish the painting, right!” I continued to refuse for a while but finally gave in. It was all fun, he hadn’t really hurt me, just a few bruises. I finished the painting and signed it, but not with my name. Instead, I used an acronym made with the combination of our first names “Jim Ed, Tony”, so, “JET”.

I met a native girl, Hana, a cheerleader for the High School basketball team, “The Chieftains”, and there was an immediate mutual fascination between us. Again, I was “different”, a blue-eyed blond with a blue leather bomber’s jacket who had just been released from detention for running away. All of the boys she knew were a lot bigger and stronger, but maybe not as attractive to her. As for me, her long silky black hair and lovely legs drove me crazy. It was a short affair because I only stayed there a few weeks. She asked me to keep in touch and gave me a photo of herself holding pom-poms in her cheerleader outfit: a white t-shirt, orange mini-skirt, and high black stockings. She wrote a note on the back “To Tony my blue-eyed angel, from Hana. So you won’t forget my cheerleader legs”. I felt like a star.

Joe Slicker, A cheerful man from the “Troika” of the Order, one of the elected officials the top of the pyramid just under the Guru, was visiting the Human Development Project for a meeting with my parents, and he took the time to talk to me.

“Why did you run away from the Winnipeg Religious House Tony?”

“Because it was too cold in Canada. I wanted to go someplace warmer.” (A big lie spoken like it was the sincere truth.)

“So, if we deploy you to a Religious House in a warm place you won’t try to run away again?”

“Yes, that would be OK.”

“How about San José, does that suit you?”

I did my best not to show my excitement…San José! California! It sounded like heaven. “Yes, that suits me, thank you Mr. Slicker.”

A few days later I found myself on a Greyhound bus, crossing the country, going west to new adventures!

November 17, 2020 01:06

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1 comment

Lamiae El Harti
21:47 Jan 08, 2021

Very impressive, each detail cought my attention, I could put myself in the shoes of little Tony, life can be difficult, but patience can lead us to what we always dreamed of when we least expect it!


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