Betty Gibson was where I attended school from grades 1 through 5. Yes, you guessed it, starting in ’79. I learned many things there, both inside and out.
I learned that in the winter if you are daring enough your tongue will in fact stick to the chain link at the southwest corner of the school grounds. I learned that you could “shoot your eye out” or at least that of your Principal if you could throw a snowball with enough velocity. I would take the leather strap once on each palm for that one. That belt was 12″ long and as thick as a porterhouse.
I love watching and performing in musical theatre, so small swatches will be woven into my posts frequently in this regard.
That latest quote is from the early 80’s movie, “A Christmas Story”. A couple of years ago I would be part of the chorus in a musical presentation of that show. I was pleased to at one point, portray a policeman tugging away on the character named Flick as I stretched out his frost welded tongue, so fun!
My school life went well in those grades other than the mischief that any average kid might find themselves in. My life from a social standpoint was in decent shape, save for my unhealthy hunger for financial acquisition which created a greater divide between my classmates and I.
At the end of grade 5 we had a family meeting. Dad was taking a position in Neepawa and I was devastated. Why so sad with a move to “Manitoba’s Most Beautiful Town” as it had been aptly referred to as in years gone by? What could be so bad about the World’s Lily Capital?
We were not just moving. I was losing all my contacts, all of my relationships, and friends. I was leaving behind my identity.
What would I do without my account at Erma’s grocery store. I visited that store every single day at the corner of 12th and Van Horne. I had been hired by Frank designing logos for his restaurant, the Tastee Spot on 1st Street. I was paid for my consulting services in deep fried perogies, that was the deal I had pitched and closed. My beloved Brandon Wheat Kings and the Keystone Centre would also be in the rear-view.
My friends were not easily remade, they were adults, business owners, men. Did Neepawa not have any of these types of people that I could connect with there? Men were there, and business owners too, but timing is everything.
The Brandonites that I had been serving in my lawn care operations, fence painting, and the like, knew me from the age of 6 or 7. I was cute when they had met me with a nice little collection of white baby teeth. There was something special about a young entrepreneur makin’ moves.
Now, in a new town at age 12, I had two off white, nearly lemon looking Chiclets for front teeth that made me look like I had a shrunken head. Throw a set of pigtails on that boy on the right and you would have Pippi Longstocking, Google it. Beyond that, every kid my age was trying to do odd jobs, the competition had become fierce.
We all go through that in-between stage and it is NOT cute unless your Mom is the audience. Look below; left cute, right…not so much. Same sized head, but the grill on the right was in full bloom.
After 6 months in Neepawa, Dad received an even better offer in Winkler and we were on our way. My first day of school in Winkler proved to me just how different this town really was.
During the first morning, many of the students looked at me funny. In the hallway I was being pushed around, nothing severe, but not all that welcoming. My teacher asked the class to pull out their German, I pulled mine out and told her it was Swiss. She wasn’t talking pocket knives though, I was about to begin a crash course in a new language.
After the bell rang I started on my way home across the football field. I think I inadvertently walked through the middle of a soccer game in progress. One kid told the others to “get him”. Once I could see it was me they were angry at, I ran as fast as I could. My time practising for the Olympic 100m sprint gave me the edge that day and I made it home unscathed.
I think that perhaps getting away the day before made things worse for me. I sure didn’t get away on day two, or any other day that I lived in Winkler. I was sad and lonely, and without any stimulation of my spirit which I had grown accustomed to. I rode my RM80 dirt bike most of the time as an escape. Eventually, one sweet girl did try to stand up for me. We are friends today and she has an ultra compassionate heart and has adopted a few children from undeveloped countries as proof of this trait.
There were many meetings with the Principal in those days, but the beatings didn’t stop until I returned home one day from school. Mom had to pick a couple of small rocks out of my lips with tweezers. They had mashed my face into the gutters outside the school. Mom would not allow my return.
I always wondered why they had called me “Mexican”? With blue eyes, strawberry blonde hair, and freckles, it wasn’t at all my idea of Mexican? I would find out years later when seeking an answer on the subject, that Mexican Mennonites had been resettling in Winkler. It was not uncommon for them to have a redish, almost orange blonde hair and freckles. Not sure what the locals had against these people, but it had to be rough on them all.
So that was the end of a 12 month period away from Brandon. I had not seen treatment like that in Betty Gibson and I was very excited that we were returning home.
We moved into the Green Acres area and Dad became the sales manager at European Auto at 10th & Queens. It really was nice to be home, but things were different. My long lost friends or at least the people I knew from the south end were heading to junior high at Earl Oxford, while I would be attending Harrison Junior High.
My self esteem was drastically lacking, my confidence was shaken and yet I was tasked with making new friends. Soon after I began grade 7 it started going downhill. Like blood in the water to a frenzy of sharks, my bullies could smell my cologne of the day, CK Fear a mile away. If I wasn’t being bullied, I was fearful of it, or mouthing off creating a vicious cycle.
Dad enrolled me in a 8 week introductory boxing program, if you did well you would advance to membership in the club. Four of us made it into the bigs within 6 weeks, we became roster members of the Brandon Boxing Club. My younger Brother would also graduate not long after and join in the fun.
In 1987, in Portage la Prairie, I would represent Manitoba and win the Provincial Championship in the Junior B division in a close split decision. The fighter’s coach opposite of me was bothered by the loss. He asked my coach for a rematch for the next night as it was a two day tourney. I met my opponent again the next night, my confidence from the previous evening carrying me to a unanimous decision in that bout.
My name had been in the newspaper a few times from matches and so on. At school my nickname was now “Champ”. Many guys still call me that today. You would think it would help to have a name like Champ. The namesake was not a blessing though, as every guy wanting to impress his buddy or a girl that had caught his eye needed only to sucker-punch me to win affection.
I completed grade 7 slugging all the way through. I would start grade eight fighting as well until a full-blown physical altercation with my art teacher ended with my expulsion just weeks into the year. It was over, school was done. I got my first job at the Keystone Centre in maintenance and joyfully entered the workforce at 13 with men instead of boys.
A year or two later, I went back to try high school, they allowed me to begin in grade 10. I had troubles right from the first day. Within a month I would be admitted into what is now Assiniboine Community College’s northern campus, and which then housed the Brandon Mental Health Centre (BMHC).
As we entered the Parkland Building pictured above as painted by Brandon’s amazing “en plein air” artist Weiming Zhao and as commissioned by me, I noticed how different this place was. There was an institutional smell that is a scent all to its’ self. The lead paint was monotone, and I noticed patients moving lethargically throughout the ward’s boundaries, all of them wearing slippers and blue housecoats. Usually their heads were slung low and their eye contact was firmly fixated on the asbestos laden flooring. More often than not they would be dragging their right hand along the hallway wall like a blind person might do without a white cane.
I had just finished hearing from my folks that I would be spending the night and that it would actually be a minimum of 21 nights as the professionals assessed my needs during a “three week assessment”. I remember being shocked and scared. The nurses forced me to shower, wash my hair with lice shampoo even though I had never had the condition, and then issued me my new wardrobe, a blue Velcro housecoat. Clothing was a privilege to be earned as were games and visitors from outside.
I resided with 12-15 adult people most of whom suffered from severe schizophrenia, I was the only child on the ward. Did I belong here? Was I the same as my new friends Rudy, Craig, Ray, and Stan? And if so, when would I begin saying the unreal things that they were saying?
Rudy was 6 and a half feet tall and likely close to if not more than 400lbs. He was a past railroader. He had a glass eye that he would remove. He would store enough tobacco in the empty eye socket to roll two cigarettes, Rudy was loved by all. He had a pair of mitts on him that looked like the boxing gloves I had once worn and they proved how hard he had worked in his life.
Ray asked me to never look into his eyes or I would be putting chicken bones into his back and hands. You have to understand how serious these conversations were, there were no lols behind them. It was scary at first but once I got to know them they were my family. I still know all of their first and last names and see Craig often. Craig was a long-haired rocker who was always playing the air guitar and drums. Stan collected pop and beer cans all over Brandon, he had privileges. Stan also played a large loon that he had made himself. All of these men, all with a story, all of them I loved.
At the three week mark I was ready and packed with my bed made, time to go home! That was until the Doctor informed me later that morning that he was in control of the situation and that it was his decision as to when I would leave, an argument/power struggle ensued that would find me in the “rubber room”, a 12’X12′ room with nothing but padded walls and a floor drain. I lived on 4 west for over 4 months, even spending Christmas in there. It was lonely, but Axl helped me through it though as I meditated on a far away, Paradise City.
The hardest part of this story is the part that has been untold, that is until now. My embarrassment has kept this secret for 30 years. I was mistreated while in care at BMHC. I am not talking about the 4 hours of “chair rest” at a time, which was a chair in the corner and you could not speak or 30 minutes would be added each time. I am also not talking about the padded room that you would be put into and left for hours for little more than talking back. Thankfully I never had donned the straitjacket.
There was one particular psyche nurse who will remain unnamed as my share is based on growth and not on revenge. One day I was told it was my turn to shower and so I gathered my belongings and headed to the shower area.
I was a private person and a late bloomer to boot. In gym class at school, I would wait until the last person left the change room before beginning to change my clothes.
I closed the plastic curtain behind me as always and this nurse yanked it back open. The other nurses didn’t do that and so I thought that was odd. This happened every time I showered that this nurse was on shift or at least when this nurse was observing me during a shower. I would turn so that only my backside could be seen.
I was becoming more comfortable with my surroundings though and more assertive too. The day of the extra inappropriate conduct, I was again informed of my shower time. I went into the shower, closed the curtain, and only then did I remove my underwear.
The curtain was forcefully ripped open, but this time I yanked it closed. The nurse left the room and I started shampooing my hair thinking that was that. The curtain opened again and before I could pull it closed again there was a loud swat followed by burning on my behind/thigh. The nurse had hit my wet rear end really hard with a ping-pong paddle. I freaked out and was restrained and put in the padded room, I was trapped and powerless.
I know the nurse’s first name and their last. I remember every single detail of the face as well. At that time I wanted to hurt this person, but I would learn to forgive as I too have been forgiven. The pain that was caused was not so much about the physical pain as much as it was about the power. I had found an obstacle I could not overcome, a mountain that I could not move and that was hard.
If I had shared my story with my parents one of two things would happen; If they didn’t believe me, I was stuck with this nurse who would now have even more power. If they believed me, I would be stuck with the nurse anyway because the Doctor was in control of my release. I thought I might live my days out in the BMHC. The lord knows I was in worse shape then when I was admitted.
I went back to four west one last time in 2015, this time as an extra in a feature film, “The Exorcism of Molly Hartley”. I accepted the gig prior to knowing the shooting location, it was uncomfortable and I cried throughout much of the 12 hour shift. I played a sad police officer.
Most of my stories have playful anecdotes, hidden life lessons, or at least they are generally positive in nature. There are stories that are just stories though too.
I did learn some good things throughout my time there though. I learned to be even more compassionate to others. I learned that we cannot always control the environment surrounding us but that we do get to decide on our responses. And finally, I learned that my story was not all that bad, and that the other patient’s stories made mine seem like a walk in the park.
Bullying is the result of broken people breaking other people. On one side a victim with little power who is lacking in confidence and self esteem. On the other side is a bully with little power who is lacking in confidence and self esteem. The bully and the bullied are one in the same, they just wear different costumes.
There is more going on with people behind the scenes than they let on. We ought to to be kind to one another and build eachother up. We are living in challenging times these days in an every man for himself world, love and kindness must be shared.
B E G O O D T O P E O P L E