When you gotta go, you gotta go.
By: Skipper Anderson
June & Early July 1972
To say that Hurricane Agnes drenched Pennsylvania does not render justice to that storm. The greater portion of the Commonwealth received at least seven inches of rain. Some places in the northeastern quadrant got inundated with nineteen inches. I mention this because Agnes’s part in my story is like Jacob Marley’s death in Dickens’, A Christmas Carol. The difference being that nothing wonderful comes of it in this tale.
I was enjoying my first full year of being a soldier emeritus. Drafted in 1969, I had spent two years in uniform, including, as a matter of course, a year in the Republic of Vietnam. Though I did little to stop the communist dominoes from falling, I was competent enough to be promoted to sergeant before Uncle Sam and I parted company. As a bonus, I was discharged alive. I was living in high cotton until Agnes abruptly entered stage south.
The devastation following Agnes was nearly biblical. The Penn Central Railroad had sustained enough damage that Congress eventually stepped in and legislated Conrail into existence. Entire towns had been obliterated. A rumor arose: people in the inactive reserve —my military designation—might be called back to help with flood relief. I found this concept reprehensible, and took steps to avoid becoming, again, a soldier. I fled to Canada! Let me back up. It wasn’t lending a hand to my fellow Pennsylvanians, or shame of my prior efforts in the military that disturbed me, it was that the army might enjoy my services, and send me someplace other than, say, Antigua. How ironic; when I was inducted in May of 1969, I might have taken a trip to Canada, but it never crossed my mind. My dad, who was vehemently opposed to the war, offered to bankroll my escape, but I found the concept offensive and told him so. Imagine his bemusement when I decided to take it on the lam because of rain. But there you have it. Agnes made me a draft dodger!
Bob and Jimmy were chums from high school. In a copacetic conversation, Bob told me that not only was he part Indian, but he was also planning an extended visit to his indigenous relatives somewhere in Quebec. Ticketyboo! Thus, on Friday, June 30, 1972, we got in a car and turned north.
We drove all night. I know the last of our reefer was used well before crossing into Canada at the Thousand Islands. There would be no Cheech and Chong rush of smoke as doors were opened to greet the Mounties. Minutes before dawn we arrived at Kahnawake, a Mohawk village across the St Lawrence from Montreal. Had it been our intention to sneak into town, we failed. There to greet us were about six young, Mohawks finishing their night’s festivities. Bob, who looked and talked like James Stewart, got out of the car and approached them. He quickly established his bona fides as the cousin of not only the chief, but the head policeman. And thus began four days of excessive drinking with our indigenous Canadian brothers.
In Canada, tribal people are known as First Nation. I found these folks welcoming and friendly. In honor of our Independence Day, they threw an early party on Saturday. Cases of beer were placed under tarps to warm them up for consumption. I found this extremely gracious if somewhat hard, literally, to swallow. So, much of our four days was spent in debauchery. There are two incidents which should be mentioned.
First, Bob’s cousin did not appreciate the French. He told me that as a boy they would go to a Cowboy and Indian movie (his words), and the French would scream, “L’Savage,” when his people appeared. On the wave of a dozen warm Mooseheads, I assured him that I was also no fan of these arrogant snail eaters. Into the house he goes and returns with a scoped 30.06 rifle. We are on his deck, which looks out onto the St. Lawrence, and across the river —about 600 yards—lies a freighter at anchor. The chief raises his rifle and skips a shot into the hull of the boat with a distant, BONG. In an air of triumph, he says, “screw the French!” Then he hands me the rifle and tells me, “shoot the French,” which I gladly did, BONG. Tres magnifique! Screw the French, indeed.
The second incident of note is of much greater import. On that Saturday, as I staggered around Kahnawake, the need to relieve myself became immediate. Foregoing swine-like tendencies, I chose modesty, and ducked into a convenient, peaceful grotto and let nature have its way. As you shall see, there is, as Paul Harvey used to say, a rest of the story.
May 30, 1993
My wife, young son and infant daughter were distant promises when the Susquehanna left its banks twenty-one years prior to this date. Here we were visiting my mom on what the people in my home town referred to as, “Remorial Day.” We all sat on the front porch and watched the annual parade pass by: kids riding bikes with red, white, and blue crepe paper twined through the spokes, Little Leaguers marching on their way to play ball, old soldiers, including a 94-year-old veteran of the Great War, riding in stylish convertibles. My son, the little arsonist, was smitten with the fire trucks. We had a picnic, my wife and infant daughter took a nap, and I went off to the Legion for a beer with my comrades.
Later that afternoon, as it was Decoration Day, we drove to the cemetery where my dad and baby brother rest in peace to put flowers near the headstone. My mother will be buried here. Her name is on the stone with her birth date. All that is missing are those final few letters and numbers. I asked her how she felt about that. She said that she found comfort in the certainty of that final math. We talked about my little brother, who was a year younger than me, and had died of the flu caught from the child of people my parents had welcomed into their home after their house burned. We spoke of my dad and his gentle ways. We spoke of my brothers and sister, and family members here and gone. And at that moment I felt an almost painful kinship to my mom.
As we stood there pondering, in our own ways, eternity and the meaning of life, a childhood friend of my mother’s approached. Her name was Mary and her late husband resided just up the hill from my dad. They talked, as old friends do, of things ephemeral and precious, and I felt that in their periods of silence they communicated in a manner even they did not understand.
When it was time for Mary to leave, my mom asked me to walk her to her car. It was a short distance and I misremember much of the conversation on the journey. When we got to her car, I noticed she had a Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, (Lily of the Mohawks) decal on her car’s back window. When I told her that a Roman Catholic church dedicated to Kateri had just opened near where I now live, Mary just lit up. She told me that she was dedicated to Blessed Kateri, and she credited her prayers to her for intercession for curing her cancer. Mary told me that as a way of showing her gratitude, she had made a pilgrimage to a shrine erected in the saints honor. She told me, “ It’s in a lovely grotto in a town called Kahnawake in Quebec.” BONG!