An open shoe box with its lid tossed aside and contents scattered over the kitchen table waits.
“What’s all this?” I ask.
“It’s my army stuff. Come and see it.” Wanbdi encourages.
A Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry soft badge; a red, white and blue ribbon attached to a silver medal on a steel pin and a burgundy beret are reminders of his army days.
“I’m thinking of going on parade this year on Aboriginal Veteran’s Day.” He tells me.
“You are?” I ask with surprise. “I’ve never seen you do that before.”
“I used to.” Wanbdi answers. “Many times in fact. Once I went on parade with my dad over at St. Andrews Church. In 1970, on Manitoba’s 100th year birthday, Prince Philip paid a visit to Canada and he came to inspect the troops.”
“‘You look awfully young to be a Veteran, son. He said to me.”
“I told him, yes sir, I’m not a veteran of the war. I was a Peace Keeper in continental Europe.”
“I didn’t know you used to go on parade.” I tell him. “Why did you stop?”
“Well you know, it was the Oka Crisis. When the Canadian government sent our soldiers over there to fight against our own Indian people, I did not like it. Our own Indian people!” In shakes his head in disbelief. “I felt betrayed – ashamed even. After that I didn’t want to put this beret on again.”
He reaches for the hat, walks over to the mirror and places it on his head adjusting it carefully.
“Did something change?” I ask.
“Yes I think so. Me, I changed. I can let that go now. This year I’d like to honor my dad. When I march I’m going to think about my dad, my brother, my uncle Norman.”
“I used to have a white button shirt with long sleeves around here somewhere. Do you know where it is?”
“Yes, I do.” I answer him. “It’s packed away but I’ll iron it for you, Masoni. I know you army guys know how to iron your own stuff, but I want to support you. When your dad and the Tunkansida’s, the Sacred Spirits, look at you from the Spirit World, you’re going to look presentable.”
It was 1962. Wanbdi was overseas in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Hard steel blades slice cold ice as each hockey player explodes through the gate. Long strides push him effortlessly around the rink. Pucks fly into an empty net. Hockey bodies are warmed up, trained and ready.
Since Wanbdi’s plane touched down onto German soil, each moment has passed fresh, new and army. Mornings begin with a fifteen mile run before breakfast. Afternoon is for training. Evenings he plays hockey. Wanbdi cannot believe his good fortune; he has been assigned to the sports battalion. His full time job is to train and play sports for the army. His body is a human army machine. It feels as if he can do anything and he loves it.
Beads of sweat glisten on his brow as he stands hand on heart, eyes straight ahead. The Canadian national anthem plays over the loud speaker. Beside him in a long row stand his teammates.
“Here I am about to play against the Canadian National Team, and the only Indian on the team, but not one person from home knows.”
It was a lonely feeling.
The game was fast and exciting but in the end the army team lost to the Canadian Nationals 12 to 7. Wanbdi didn’t care that they lost; it was a thrill just to play against them.
“You’ve got a hard shot.” The goalie had said. “You hurt my hand.” Wanbdi smiles to himself remembering.
Army life challenges him to work hard and he does. He has to be ready. Once a year, to remain in the infantry, he has to pass an endurance test. Upon waking he dresses in all his gear complete with army boots, a rifle and a 27-pound backpack. The whole company lines up and with the Sergeant leading they run 26 miles. If anyone does not complete the test in the allotted time he is allowed to try again the next day. If he fails again, he’s transferred out of the infantry.
Wanbdi does not intend to fail. In fact, he is in the best shape of his life, running the 100 yard dash faster than the world record.
“With these times I could compete in the Olympics and win, if only the army would let me.” He tells himself.
In the quiet moments an ache for back home is ever present – even though he can’t say so. In the army you’ve got to hack it. The sacred events that had come so frequently and unexpected when he was growing up had stopped. He longs for them to return.
The church near the base is tiny. Unsure, Wanbdi steps through the door hesitating. He slips into the last pew and sits down quickly. At the front is a wooden podium with a white cloth that hangs from it, a gold cross embroidered on the front. Behind on the wall, Jesus suffers on a cross, bloody. Nearby stands a statue of Mary dressed in blue, her hand points to a sacred and fiery heart.
Wanbdi tries to make himself small, invisible. For the umpteenth time today he wonders if this is a good idea. He doesn’t know why but something has pulled him here. Maybe the sacredness he longs for can be found in this tiny church.
The parishioners file in one by one, take a seat and kneel promptly with bowed head and hands clasped in prayer. The sweet smell of incense announces the priest’s presence. His hand swings back and forth; the blessing of smoke spreads over the sinners. Wanbdi eyes him suspiciously.
The priest speaks in French, except when he speaks in Latin. His voice rises and falls but never reaches past Wanbdi’s ears. He doesn’t understand Latin. He doesn’t understand French. He watches carefully and tries to follow what the others are doing. Kneel and pray. Sit back on the pew. Make the sign of the cross. Kneel again. It goes on like this until finally the parishioners stand, genuflect towards the altar, then turn and leave the church. Wanbdi slips out as inconspicuously as he came in, disappointed.
Jesus and Mary had failed to talk.
Wanbdi was nervous. The office was an intimidating place to be for a lowly private.
Finally the Commanding Officer spoke, “Private, I understand your six year enlistment is about to end. Are you planning to re-enlist?”
“No sir.” Wanbdi answers.
The Commanding Officer frowns and rubs his chin. His eyes bare down on him hard.
“You’re not? Why not Private? Are you afraid?”
“No sir. I’m not afraid.” Wanbdi offers. “I want to think for myself, sir.”
The Officer was not about to accept an answer of no that easily.
“If you stay Private, I’m prepared to offer you a stripe.”
“No sir.” Wanbdi answers. “You’re just going to take it away from me, Sir.”
The Officer smiles and offers up one blunt chuckle. He knew it was true. One wrong move and a soldier can lose a stripe just like that.
The Officer nods his head, resigned.
“Private. You are dismissed.”
After six years in the army, Wanbdi is going home.
Join us next week for blog post # 9 They Want you Over There.