Note: All the names in this story have been changed. But the photograph above gives a clue to the identity of one of the towns mentioned.
No matter how hard we labor to make our homes more permanent, more stable, we never can truly achieve this goal. Land claims and buildings and borders may bind us to the earth, but they only do so, precariously. Deeds change hands, architecture crumbles, territories expand and contract and the stories and maps we make of these things can easily be distorted or ignored. This doesn’t mean that our homes are something vulnerable or fragile, prone to destruction or easy to break, but rather, that they are something dynamic, something mobile, something temporary, something alive.
It is perhaps this fact of home’s transience, of home’s mortality, that draws us to other people, that binds us into what social scientists call a community, a common way of living, a common way of life, that works to starve or sustain us whenever our homes prove unable to provide. Communities emerge out of the everyday routines of our homes, what sociologist Robert Park would have called its social ecology, those parts of the earth where people have settled in so deep that that their presence there seems almost natural.
I learned this the winter backwoods of Manitoba doing ethnographic field research for the Canadian Forest Service. Here was where I was actually able to bear witness to the ideas of Robert Park happening. For it was in this place where people would gather together for a community social every time there was some significant shift in their home’s passing, like a wedding or a retirement party, a birth or a graduation or perhaps even more importantly, some kind of emergency or crisis.
That was the reason behind the community social I saw happen there. Money was needed after a house caught fire in Forêt Bleu. Maurice Normandin’s old place. Nobody was really sure how the fire started. Some thought that it was arson. That Yves Bernard was to blame. But it was hard say for sure. The house was old and weathered, long abandoned by its owner and marked condemned by the state so it just as easily could have caught fire by accident.
“You never know,” Berthelette Hiebert said to me the morning after it happened. We had both pulled off the road to see what was left of the half charred house. “It could have been the wood stove or a bad wire,” she said. “But it sure looks more like a lover’s quarrel to me.”
However it happened, it left Crystal Wannemaker without a chimney, without a stove, and only part of her living room floor. That’s what it said on the flyers anyway, the ones posted to every telephone pole between St. Marc’s and Fort McVey. Meet Your Friends! Help Your Neighbors! Come To This Winter’s First Community Social! Cheap Drinks! Dancing! More! The flyers were photocopied on yellow paper and pasted under the handwritten plea were three small faces, the school photographs of each one of Crystal Wannemaker’s three young boys.
The Women’s Guild of St. Margaret’s Church was sponsoring the social. Nancy Chambers, Dorothy Frank, Marjorie O’Keefe. The Women’s Guild of St. Margaret’s Church was always sponsoring some social. They had to. As long as they were raising money to help the needy or the poor, they could bully the Mill into employing a part-time priest. And as long as they employed a part-time priest, they didn’t have to attend the Eucharist in Falls Bridge, the only other place along the Ozhaa River where you could attend a Catholic Mass in English, rather than Latin or French.
So the house fire in Forêt Bleu served The Women’s Guild of St. Margaret’s well. They would rent out the Falls Bridge Hockey Arena, have their husbands cart over kegs of beer and cases of rye and vodka bought cut-rate from the Liquor Store in Poplar Falls, hire the arena’s hockey referee Buckle McGee to hire a few others to sell the alcohol and spin the records and unlock and lock the arena’s front door, and consider their good deed done. None of the women ever actually went to any of the socials they sponsored. The kind of people who actually attended such things weren’t exactly their kind.
Which meant practically everyone else living in or around Falls Bridge. Most forest dwellers wouldn’t miss a community social. Especially in the dead of winter, on a night when there wasn’t a high school or Junior League hockey game. Some drove in from as far as two hundred miles away, through very heavy snow. Truckers and cutters working out in the northern bush camps; kids off attending university in the city; relatives and friends from neighboring townships and Indian territories, so small they were marked by numbers instead of names. They’d all venture out to the hockey arena in Falls Bridge, arriving from every possible direction, entering the traffic of people who traveled much shorter distances. Six miles. Four miles. Two miles. From Fort McVey, from Bunk Town, from Poplar Falls; from St. Marc’s, from the Moor, from Forêt Bleu; a steady stream of logging trucks and pick-ups, making the dark of the early night bright with light.
By seven the traffic slowed and the parking lot of the arena became full, then overflowing, and by nine someone from one of the houses across the street called in the police, since skirmishes between boys from rival high schools kept brewing. Some were students at the public high school located right next door to the hockey arena; others were students at nearby private schools, L’École de St. Marc’s and Mitag Industrial and Collegiate. Insults were shouted in Mitagwa or English and then returned in French, and punches were thrown between cousins who attended different schools.
The two police constables who arrived didn’t have to do too much to stop the fights. Just make their way through the crowds and beam their flashlights onto faces, threatening to call the offender’s parents, a punishment, they assured them, far worse than arrest. They made several laps around the parking lot, ignoring the swarms of people huddled around Len Charles’ pick-up, as well as Len Charles himself, who sold zip lock bags filled with cheap marijuana and very expensive hash oil doled out in old Coke bottle caps. “Janet bringing the kids over tonight?” one constable asked the other, pulling off his gloves, then tucking them along with his flashlight under his arm so he could dig for a cigarette.
“Yeah,” the other constable answered walking towards one of the parking lot garbage cans that some kids were using to stoke a small bon fire. “You going to put that out when you’re done?” he asked them, leaning forward slightly to see what they were burning to make the flames. “Yeah, we’re watching it,” one of the kids answered. He held a cigarette between his second and third fingers and a bottle of beer between his second finger and his thumb.
Eight dollars bought admission into the community social, where alcohol tickets were sold at a table away from a makeshift bar, temporarily set up in the arena’s concession stand. One dollar bought a beer, two dollars a shot of whiskey, and for an extra fifty cents you could mix your beer or whiskey with Orange Fanta or ginger ale. You could also buy coffee at the bar and hot chocolate, slices of banana bread wrapped in plastic and hot peanuts sold in paper coffee cups. A line of people stretched out all along the length of the concession stand, five and six bodies deep, and every so often someone would ask Joss McAdams or Carmen McClean, the two young women working the stand for Buckle McGee that night, if they were going to plug in the hot dog grill or popcorn machine.
“You two going to be making hot dogs tonight,” a voice would ask every so often, more often then the time it took for the song coming over the arena’s sound system to change. “Grill’s broken,” Joss or Carmen would shout back, and then sometimes you’d hear one of them ask the other, “Did Terry ever go and get that marker so we could write-up a sign?” “You two making popcorn tonight,” the next voice would rise up. “Machine’s broken,” Joss or Carmen would shout back, and then again, “Where the hell is Terry?”
The arena became packed. People filled the Home Side and the Away Side. They leaned up against the scuffed up walls of the covered ice rink or sat on them with their legs dangling over the walls worn out ledge. They crammed the bleachers and the dance floor, teenage girls and young couples, fathers and their daughters, old marrieds and the occasional ten-year old boy, who would try to break dance or slam dance or slide on his snow-panted knees across the entire length of plywood dance floor.
Mothers gathered in the empty penalty boxes to chat and nurse their babies. Some old men got Buckle to open up the Coaches Office so they could smoke and play cards. And all through the night little kids chased each other in and out of the locker rooms, their screeches slowly subsiding around eleven, when their parents called it night, rounded them up, and then ushered them, bright-eyed and exhausted, out the arena’s front doors.
With every family’s exit, the social grew more raucous and the air more thick with hash smoke, especially after the Rob Roy and Queen’s Crowne Local closed and the hockey arena in Falls Bridge suddenly became the only place along the Ozhaa River that night where you could come in from the cold and get a whiskey or a beer. But by three o’clock all of the alcohol was sold, so again there was another exodus of revelers and for a few minutes people’s shouts and laughter echoed through Falls Bridge, which was dark and quiet with the sleepiness of night.
But by two o’clock every last one of them was rounded up as their parents packed up their belongings to leave, the bleachers and covered hockey rink slowly emptying. With every family’s exit, the social grew more raucous, and the air, more thick with hash smoke. By three o’clock all of the alcohol was sold, so there was another exodus of revelers, and by four o’clock Buckle McGee turned the music off and the lights up, a signal to the very last few people who remained, mostly young women in vinyl miniskirts and men in dark green bush boots who, even without the music and the darkness, lingered on the covered hockey rink to make out, where, just moments before, they had been dancing.
End Note: I have also written of the Canadian backwoods here.