Melvin Arbuckle' first course in shock therapy
LAST YEAR like thousands of other former Khartoumians, I returned to Khartoum, Saskatchewan, to help her celebrate her Diamond Jubilee year. In the Elks' Bar, on the actual anniversary date, September 26, the Chamber of Commerce held a birthday gettogether, and it was here that Roddy Montgomery, Khartoum’s mayor, introduced me to a man whose face had elusive familiarity.
“One of Khartoum’s most famous native sons," Roddy said with an anticipatory smile. “Psychiatrist on the West Coast. Portland.”
I shook hands; I knew that I should remember him from the litmus years of my prairie childhood. As soon as he spoke I remembered: Miss Cold-
tart first, then Pippa Passes — then Melvin Arbuckle.
1 was tolled back forty years: Melvin Arbuckle, only son of Khartoum’s electrician, the boy who had successfully frustrated Miss Coldtart through all our Grade Four reading classes. Then, and today it seemed, he was unable to say a declarative sentence; he couldn't manage an exclamatory or imperative one either. A gentle-spoken and utterly stubborn woman with cream skin and dyed hair, Miss Cold-
tart called upon Melvin to read aloud every day of that school year, hoping against hope that one of his sentences would not turn up at the end like the sandal toes of an Arabian Nights sultan. The very last day of Grade Four she had him read Pippa Passes line for line after her. FIc did — interrogatively down to the last “God's in His Heaven? — All’s right with the world?”
And forty years later it seemed quite fitting to me that Melvin was a psychiatrist, especially when I recalled Melvin’s grandfather who lived with the Arbuckles, a long ropey octogenarian with buttermilk eyes, the sad and equine face of William S. Hart.
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] liked Melvin’s grandfather. He claimed that he had been imprisoned by Louis Riel in Fort Garry when the Red River Rebellion started, that he was a close friend of Scott whom Riel executed in 1870. He said that he was the first man to enter Batoche after it fell, that he'd sat on the jury that condemned Riel to hang in ’85.
By arithmetic he could have been and done these things, hut Melvin said his grandfather was an historical liar.
Melvin’s grandfather had another distinction: saliva trouble. He would gather it, shake it back and forth from check to cheek, the way you might rattle dice in your hand before making a pass — then spit. He did this every twenty seconds. Also he wandered a great deal, wearing a pyramid peaked hat of RCMP or boy scout issue, the thongs hanging down cither
cheek, a lumpy knapsack high between his shoulder blades, a peeled and varnished willow root cane in his hand. Since the Arbuckles' house stood an eighth of a mile apart from the eastern edge of Khartoum, it was remarkable that the old man never got lost on the empty prairie flung round three sides. Years of wilderness travel must have drawn him naturally towards habitation; Melvin's afterfours were ruined with the mortification of having to knock on front
doors in our end of town, asking people if ti.ey'd seen anything of his lost grandfather. AII his Saturdays were unforgivably spoiled too. for on these days Melvin's mother went down to the store to help his father, and Melvin had to stay home to see that his grandfather didn’t get lost.
No one was ever able to get behind Melvin's grandfather: he sat always in a corner with two walls at his back; this was so in the house or in the Soo Beer Parlor. Melvin's mother had to cut her father's hair, for he refused to sit in Leon's barber chair out in the unprotected centre of the shop. If he met someone on the street and stopped to talk, he would circle uneasily until he had a building wall or a hedge or a fence at his back: sometimes he would have to settle for a tree. He had a very sensible reason for this; they were coming to get him one day, he said. It was never quite clear who was coming to get him one day, but 1 suspected revengeful friends of the halfbreed renegade, Dumont. He may have been an historical liar as Melvin said, but there was no doubting that he was afraid — afraid for his life.
I sincerely believed that someone was after him: nobody could have spent as much time as he did in the Arbuckle privy if somebody weren't after him. From mid-April when the sun had got high and strong to harvest he spent more time out there with four walls closing safe around him than he did in the house. 1 can hardly recall a visit to Melvin's place that there wasn't blue smoke threading from the diamond cutout in the back house door. Melvin's grandfather smoked natural leaf Quebec tobacco that scratched with the pepper bitterness of burning willow root. He had the wildest smell of any man 1 had ever known, compounded of wine and iron tonic, beer, natural leaf, wood smoke, buckskin and horses. I didn't mind it at all.
He was a braggartv sort of old man. his words hurrying out after each other as though he were afraid that if he stopped he wouldn’t be permitted to start up again and also as though he knew that no one was paying attention to what he was saying anyway, so that he might just as well settle for getting it said as quickly as possible. Even Miss Coldtart would have found many of his expressions colorful: “she couldn’t cook guts for a bear;’’ “spinnin’ in the wind like the button on a back house door:” “so stubborn she was to drown'd you'd find her body upstream;” “when he was horned they set him on the porch to see if he barked or cried.” Even though you felt he w'as about to embarrass you by spitting or lying, 1 found Melvin’s grandfather interesting.
Yet 1 was glad that he was Melvin’s grandfather and not mine. Even though he kept dragging his grandfather into conversation, Melvin was ashamed of him. He was always reminding us of his grandfather, not because he wanted to talk about him but just as though he were tossing the old man at our feet for a dare. I can't remember any of us taking him up on it. Perhaps now that he is an alienist out on the West Coast, he has decided what compelled him to remind us continually of the grandfather he was ashamed of.
The summer that I have in mind was the year that Peanuts moved to Khartoum from Estevan, where his father was an engineer for a coal strip-mining company. Some sort of cousin of the Sweeneys, Peanuts had migrated to Canada from England just a year before. He'd only had three months in Khartoum to pick up the nickname, Peanuts. He was not a Peanuts sort of boy, quite blocky. very full red cheeks, hemp fair hair and flax blue eyes. At ten years of age. I suppose John Bull must have looked a great deal like Peanuts. His given name was actually Geoffrey.
He was quite practical, fertile for all kinds of reasons that a project could not work; this unwillingness to suspend disbelief tore illusion and spoiled pretend games. He had no sense of humor at all, for he seldom laughed at anything Fat said; English into the bargain, he should have been the most unpopular boy in Khartoum. However, he had piano-wire nerves which made up for his shortcomings. When we held our circus that July, he slipped snake after snake down the throat of his blouse, squirmed them past his belt and extricated them one by one from the legs of his stovepipe British woolen pants. They were only garter snakes, but a week later to settle a horticultural argument in Ashford's Grove, he ate a toadstool raw. Just because he didn't die was not proof that he was right and that we were wrong, for immediately after he pulled up and ate two bouquets of wild horse-radish with instantaneous emetic effect.
Now that I think back to a late August day that year, I can see that Peanuts has to share with Melvin's grandfather the credit or the responsibility for Melvin's being today a leading West Coast psychiatrist. It was a day that promised no excitement. The Khartoum Fair was past; Johnny J. Jones' circus had come and gone a month before, posters already nostalgic and wind-tattered on shed and fence and barn walls. We couldn't duck or bottom it in the little Souris River, for it was filled with rusty bloodsuckers and violet-colored algae that caused prairie itch. The bounty was off gopher tails for the rest of the year so there was no point in hunting them.
There was simply nothing to do but sprawl in the adequate shade of McGoogan's hedge, eat clover heads and caragana flowers. With bored languor we looked out over Sixth Street lifting and drifting in the shimmering heat. Without interest we saw the town wagon roll by, darkening the talcum fine dust with spray; moments later the street was thirsty again, smoking under the desultory August wind.
Fin pulled out the thick glass from a flashlight, focused it to a glowing bead on his pant leg. A thin streamer of smoke was born and we idly watched a fusing spark eat through the cloth until its ant sting bit Fin’s knee. He put the glass back into his pocket and said let's go down to the new creamery and chew tar. Someone said let’s go look for beer bottles and lead instead; someone else said how about fooling around in the loft of Fat’s uncle’s livery stable; someone else said the hell with it.
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About that time we all got 10 our feet, for an ice dray came down the street, piled high with frozen geometry. When the leather-chapped driver had chipped and hoisted a cake of ice over his shoulder and left for delivery. we went to the back of the dray. We knew we were welcome to the chips on the floor, and as we always did we popped into our mouths chunks too big for them. The trick was to suck in warm air around the ice until you could stand it no longer,
then lower your head, eject and catch.
Someone said let's go over and see Melvin stuck with his grandfather; inhibited by ice and the cool drool of it, no one agreed or disagreed. We wandered up Sixth Street, past the McKinnon girls and Noreen Robins darting in and out of a skipping rope, chanting: “Charlie Chaplin—went to —France—teach the—ladies—how to —dance . . .’’At the corner of Bison and Sixth we turned east and in two blocks reached the prairie. I
think it was the tar-papered and deserted shack between the town’s edge and Arbuckles' house that gave us the idea of building a hut. By the time we had reached Melvin's, we had decided it might be more fun to dig a cave which would be lovely and cool.
Melvin was quite agreeable to our building the cave in his back yard; there were plenty of boards for covering it over; if we all pitched in and started right away, we might even have it finished before his grandfather had
wakened from his nap. Shovel and spade and fonc plunged easily through the eighteen inches of top soil; but the clay subsoil in this dry year was heart and back breaking. Rock-hard, it loosened under pick and bar in reluctant sugar lumps. Stinging with sweat, our shoulder sockets aching, we rested often, reclining at the lip of our shallow excavation. We idly wished: “If a fellow only had a fresno and team, he could really scoop her out ...”
“If a fellow could soak her good . . . run her full of water — soften her up — easy digging then.”
“If a fellow could only blow her out ...”
“Stumping powder—dynamite . . .” “Oh.” Peanuts said, “yes—dynamite.”
“Whumph and she'd blow our cave for us,” Fin said.
“She sure would,” Fat said.
Melvin said, “Only place I know where they got dynamite — C'PR sheds.”
“I have dynamite,” Peanuts said. “I can get dynamite.”
We looked at each other; we looked at Peanuts. Knowing Peanuts, I felt a little sick; Fat and Fin and Melvin didn’t look so happy either. We had never even seen a stick of dynamite; it simply did not belong in our world. It had been quite imaginary dynamite that we had been tossing about in conversation.
Fat said, “We can't go swiping dynamite.”
Fin said, “We don’t know a thing about handling dynamite.”
“I do,” Peanuts said.
“Isn’t our yard,” Fat said. “We can’t set off dynamite in Mel’s yard.” Peanuts got up purposefully. “Can we, Mel?”
“The cave’s a hundred yards from the house,” Peanuts said. “Nothing dangerously near it at all.” He turned to Melvin. “Are you frightened?” “Well—no,” Melvin said.
“My father has a whole case of sixty percent,” Peanuts said. “From the mine. While I get it you have them do the hole.”
“What hole?” Melvin said.
“For the dynamite—with the bar— straight down about four feet, I should say.”
“The whole goddam case!” Fin said.
“Dead centre, the hole,” Peanuts said and started for his house.
“He bringing back the whole case?” Fin said.
Fat got up. “I guess I better be getting on my way ...” His voice fainted as he looked down at us and we looked up at him. “I guess I better — we better — start punching —down that hole,” he finished up. “Like Peanuts said.” It was not what Fat had started out to say at all.
Peanuts brought back only three sticks of dynamite, and until his return the hole went down rather slowly. He tossed the sticks on the ground by the woodpile and took over authority. He did twice his share of digging the dynamite hole; from time to time he estimated how much further we had to go down. When it seemed to suit him he dropped two of the sticks down, one on top of the
other. There was no tenderness in the way he handled that dynamite, inserted the fuse end into the copper tube detonator, crimped it with his teeth, used a spike to work a hole into the third stick to receive the cap and fuse. He certainly knew how to handle dynamite. We watched him shove loose clay soil in around the sticks, tamp it firm with the bar. With his jackknife he split the free end of the fuse protruding from the ground. He took a match from his pocket.
"Hold on a minute,*' Melvin said. "Where do we—what do we—how long do we ...”
"Once it’s going there'll be three minutes.” Peanuts said. “Plenty of time to take cover."
"What cover?” Fat said.
"Round the corner of the house,*’ Peanuts said. “You may go there now it you wish. I'll come w'hen the fuse is started. They're hard to start—it will take several matches.”
W'e stayed. The fuse took life at the third match. Fat and Fin and Melvin and I ran the hundred yards to the house. We looked around the corner to Peanuts coming towards us. He did it by strolling. 1 had begun to count to myself so that 1 could have a rough notion of when the fuse was near the end of its three minutes. 1 had reached fifty-nine when 1 heard the Arbuckle screen slap the stillness.
Fin said, ‘Judas Priest!”
Melvin said. "He’s headed for the back house!”
Fat said. “He's got his knapsack and his hat and his cane on—maybe he's just going out to get lost."
Melvin started round the corner of the house but Fin grabbed him. “Let him keep goin’, Mel! Let him keep goin’ so's he'll get in the clear!”
"I'll get him,” Peanuts said.
"He's my grandfather!*’ Melvin said.
Fin said, "There ain't even a minute left!” 1 had no way of telling for I'd stopped counting.
The site of our proposed cave and, therefore, of the dynamite with its burning fuse, was halfway between the back of the Arbuckle house and the privy. Melvin's grandfather stopped by the woodpile. He shook his head and he spat. Peanuts launched himself around the corner of the house, belly to the ground towards the old' man. Melvin's grandfather must have thought the running footsteps behind him w'ere those of either Louis Riel or Gabriel Dumont, for without looking back he covered the open ground to the privy in ten seconds, jumped inside and slammed the door. Right in stride, Peanuts pounded past and out to the prairie beyond. There he was still running with his head back, chin out, arms pumping, knees high, when the dynamite let go.
1 he very first effect was not of sound at all. Initially the Arbuckle yard was taken by one giant and subterranean hiccough, an earth fountain spouted; four cords of wood took flight; the privy leaped straight up almost six feet; two clothes line posts javelined into the air, their wires still stretched between them in an incredible aerial cat’s cradle. Not until then did the lambasting explosion seem to come. For several elastic seconds all the air-borne things hung indecisively
between the thrust of dynamite and the pull of gravity. Gravity won.
At the back of the house we looked at each other wildly: we swallowed to unbung our ears, heard the Japanese chiming of glass shards dropping from Arbuckle windows, the thud of wood chunks returning to earth. 1 saw Melvin lick with the tip of his tongue at tw'in blood yarns coming down from his nostrils. No one said anything: we simply moved as a confused body in the direction of the
privy. We skirted the great shallow saucer the dynamite had blown, and 1 remember thinking they would never fill it in: the dirt was gone forever. At the very centre it was perhaps ten feet deep: it would have taken all the lumber from a grain elevator to roof it over for a cave.
"Grampa — Grampa —” Melvin was calling—"Please, Grampa. Please, Grampa."
"We'll have to tip it up,” Fin said, “so's we can open the door.”
“You’re not supposed to move injured people," Fat said.
Melvin squatted down and put his face to the hole and his frightened voice sounded cistern hollow. “Grampa!” Then he really yelled as the varnished willow cane caught him across the bridge of the nose. He straightened up and he said, “He’s still alive. Give me a hand."
It took all of us to upright the privy and Melvin's grandfather. He swung at us a couple of times when we open-
eil the door, then he let us help him to the house and into his own room off the kitchen. Seated there on a Winnipeg couch, he stared straight ahead of himself as Melvin removed the hoy scout hat. slipped off the packsack. With an arm around the old man's shoulders, Melvin eased him down on the pillow, then motioned us out of the room. Before we got to the door the old man spoke.
"Sure they're all cleared out now?" "Yes. Grampa.”
He released a long sigh. “(íet word to Cieneral Middleton."
“For help, Grampa?”
“Not help.” The old man shook his head. "Sharply engaged enemy. Routed the barstards!”
We were all whipped that evening, and the balance of our merciful catharsis was earned over a month's quarantine. each in his own yard. When his month's isolation was up, Melvin
gained a freedom he'd never known before; he didn't have to knock on another door for his grandfather never wandered again. He sat at the Arbuckle living room window for the next three years, then died.
One of Khartoum's most famous native sons, Roddy Montgomery had called him at the Chamber of Commerce birthday party in the Elks' Bar; Dr. Melvin Arbuckle, Portland psychiatrist and mental health trail blazer—in shock therapy—of course. ★