It should have been the happiest day – but it wasn’t. It was a defining day, the kind that changes the course of one’s life and embeds a memory of hurt, piercing deeply. It was the day Wanbdi ran away from Indian Residential School for the last time.
The screen door slammed loudly followed by footsteps on wooden floor. Wanbdi’s father cleared his throat, reached for the dipper and plunged it into the water pail sitting within easy reach. Drinking loudly, sweat dripped from his forehead. His eyes rested on a small brown suitcase abandoned by the door.
Abruptly he looked up to see his son sitting at the table. In front of him was an empty bowl of soup, bannock crumbs and a half finished cup of sweet tea.
“What are you doing here?” he questioned, barely covering the disdain he felt.
Wanbdi’s face froze. He shrugged his shoulders, looking down at his hands.
“I came home.” He said. With all the strength of his fifteen years he added. “I don’t like school and I’m not going back.”
His father shook his head in disgust as he bent over to remove his boots. He took his time, loosening each lace carefully before pulling them off his aching feet. He took a deep breath and faced his son.
“Well, if you are not going to school, you can’t stay here.” He announced with conviction.
Just then a plate hit the floor shattering on impact. Wanbdi’s mother turned from the table where she was washing dishes. She dried her hands on her apron and with effort bent down to the floor. If only she could find each broken piece perhaps she could put it all back together again.
Wanbdi’s shoulders tightened. He reached for the tea downing it in one gulp. Standing, his large frame seemed to fill the empty space between them. He resisted the temptation to look at his mother’s face. He didn’t want to see the familiar hurt he knew he would find there.
Instead, he kept his head down, grabbed his suitcase and left. He hadn’t even opened it once.
Adrenaline fuelled footsteps pounded out a fast drum beat on the snow covered road. To anyone watching he looked like someone on a mission, hurrying to an important task. The truth was he didn’t have anywhere to go. It just knew he had to – he had to go somewhere.
Brooding and lost in thought, Wanbdi did not hear the farm truck until it was almost on top of him.
Farmer Joe, never a man to ignore someone in need, slowed the truck, rolled down the passenger side window and offered, “Do you need a ride?”
Without a thought, Wanbdi threw his suitcase in the truck box and slipped into the seat beside him. He noticed the comforting smell of horses and straw bedding.
“Where you headed?” Farmer Joe inquired.
“Um, not sure exactly. I’m looking for work.” Wanbdi answered.
“By golly, I was going to hire someone next month, but I’ll hire you now if you know how to do farm work. You look strong enough. I’ve got a sore back and I can’t manage the farm like I used to do.”
“Yes, sir, I do. I am. I know how to milk cows and drive a tractor and everything.”
Farmer Joe laughed at that and hit the steering wheel with one hand.
“Well, would you look at that? You got yourself a job boy. I can’t pay you much but I can give you a place to sleep and three square meals a day.”
Wanbdi nodded and the deal was made.
That night, after a delicious home cooked meal prepared by Farmer Joe’s aunt, Wanbdi climbed the stairs to a tiny bedroom on the second floor in the simple farm house. The room was chilly but the bed comfortable and the blankets plenty. He lay awake staring at the cracks in the ceiling. It was the first time he had ever been inside a wasicu’s house – a white person’s house. It felt awkward, strange and smelled funny. The events of the day intruded his thoughts.
“I’m not going to tell them where I am.” he promised himself.
And, he didn’t. For two years, Wanbdi did not visit his parents or talk to them once. He was too hurt.
Six days a week he worked for Farmer Joe sunrise to sunset. Sundays he spent on the reserve visiting with his brother and cousins, singing pow wow songs, playing hockey and drinking – always drinking.
The train ticket fell to the floor. He stood for a moment staring at it. The Canadian Armed Forces recruitment office had answered his letter. They invited him to apply in person. They wanted him! At 17 and a half years old, he was the perfect recruit – young, athletic, hard working and with a desperate need for them to want him. When he left the farm that day and stepped up into the train, Wanbdi knew he wasn’t going back. Like his dad before him, he was joining the Army.
Join us next week for Blog post # 6 Just Let Go!