(dedicated to all cowboys)
It’s the beginning of the seventies, and I’m eight while my little sister Shirley is six. In the middle of July, the old man is playing a ball tournament in the Eskasoni Indian Reservation. The Steel City Sixpax are playing three games against a Mi’qmac team at the same provincial skill level. And even though the reservation is an isolating half-hour drive from any white suburbs, the Rotary Club calls this a community-building activity. I guess the idea is to build community by beeping your car horn whenever a white guy scores a homer against the injuns.
Baseball has always been an important part of my childhood. My earliest childhood memory is of being punished because I wouldn’t “sit still and watch my father play” when I was three and a half.
Back in those days, people used to say that male homosexuality was caused by having an invisible father and a bitch mother. Unfortunately, I had both of those things, but the stories about what caused homosexuality changed before I came out of the closet. By the time I turned 17, gays were supposed to embrace their diversity, and not question why they got such a poor upbringing or try to overcome it to start a family. The 80s were a decade of abortions and permanent bachelorhood, and having been told to “sit still while other men play” was probably my own personal abortion moment.
One of my dad’s ballplayer friends is a skinny and talkative goon type named Victor Armstrong. He’s visited our suburban bungalow a few times, and once, when I was six, he showed me how to do card tricks and some easy magic. Victor’s not the best ballplayer on the team, but the Sixpax keep him around for morale and because he organizes off-season poker tournaments.
Hard times in the Maritimes
Like many other economically-depressed small towns, Steel City has hundreds of baseball diamonds that are the result of Recreation grants that were designed to help locals get enough weeks to qualify for Employment Insurance. Most of these pogey parks don’t have drinking fountains because outdoor plumbing is too expensive. And it’s the same in Eskasoni: four diamonds, zero drinking fountains. So both teams resourcefully bring their own water coolers.
Exploring the land around Eskasoni Ballfield, Shirley and I find grassy meadows, beaches, and woodlands, and run so much that we get tired and thirsty. So we decide to get a drink of cold water from the orange water cooler on my dad’s team bench.
Shirley goes first. She carefully separates one of the conical white cups from the pile, and places it under the spout. But before she can get any water to come out, Victor Armstrong is standing over us, menacingly frowning with his forehead crunched up. “Shoo!” he yells at us, as if we were wild dogs. Shirley looks at him confused and scared, but he just repeats “Shoo! Get the hell out of here!” even more loudly, and motions violently with his hands for us to scram while flashing his shiny white shark teeth. Shirley starts to cry, so I grab her arm and we run away.
Shirley says between sobs that she wants to see Ma, so we find the playground where Ma’s smoking with another player’s wife, and tell her what happened. When Victor sees us chatting with a white woman, he comes over and explains: “Oh my God. I thought they were two little squaws. I didn’t know they were yours. Sorry ‘bout that, Kass.”
Ma takes a long drag from her DuMaurier King Size, and shakes her head: “That’s what youze get for getting’ so dark this summer. He’s right.” Embarrassed, she tells Victor not to worry, and then tells us to go sit in the car until the game’s over. I suddenly realize that our Acadian skin tans deeper than most of the Scottish and Irish people who play on my dad’s team, and that this is a liability.
““Steee-rike Threeee! Yuuuuu’re out!!”
My sister and I liked to think of ourselves as Malibu Barbie tanned, rather than as two little squaws. See, Steel City summer is usually two months of rain which is perfect for playing Barbies and watching TV, but this summer’s been sunny for a change. I guess that’s why we were ethnic-cleansed by Victor Armstrong. No hard feelings. We chose to tan, after all.
Talking in the car
On our way back to the car, we meet up with two Mi’qmac kids our age -a brother and sister – and ask them to come with us to talk privately in our parent’s massive Ford Gran Torino. They tell us that they saw what happened, so we sit and share personal stories about growing up. We learn a few words of Mi’kmaq, and share a few words of our remnants of French. The girl – Pamela – tells us we can drink water from the Mi’qmac cooler if we want to. But after what’s happened, we decide to just hang tight and wait until we get home.
Even though my mother agreed with him that day, Victor Armstrong never visited our house again after the ball tournament. And the Steel City Fruit will live his entire life without enjoying a card trick, a magic act, or playing in any kind of poker tournament because, well, those are ethnic-cleanser activities.
(Note. Any resemblance to real human beings is unintentional. This story – like other Steel City Fruit stories – is purely fictional.)