Over the last 20 odd years I spoke with my cousin Calvin only a handful of times. But as is often the case with cousins, early years have a special grip on memory.
I remember occasional Sundays, Gilbert, Calvin and me exploring the reaches of Uncle Bert’s farm. Perhaps tormenting the goat a bit too much. A round of hide-and-seek; some target practice—not the goat. I remember Calvin taking me on what probably was my first Skidoo ride—that was a bit of magic. And then coming in for supper, having deer sausage. I remember wrestling in the front room, impressing grandma.
But it was in high-school and through the 70’s, early 80’s, when Calvin and I became, as the saying has it, thick as thieves. Well, we were of a group. A half dozen of us, give or take, no fixed goals, dreams of no great account—except perhaps to experience life as something of an adventure. And Ox—for that is what Calvin came to be called—was in the midst of most every adventure.
It was in high school where we studied various methods of stealing into the Yorkton Drive-in Theatre. We succeeded, perhaps, half the time. One rather clever method which Calvin came up with was strapping a canoe to the top of the car, allowing two of us to slip up inside and bracing ourselves against the gunnels as we passed through the gates to watch The French Connection, or MASH, or Woodstock.
The escapades escalated. Then in 1971, Uncle Bert, with an air of concern, rounded us up, Gilbert included, and drove to Saskatoon. He’d heard of the Sutera twins and about a revival that was catching that city up like a bit of straw in a prairie gust.
We arrived at the church, and Calvin and I slipped out of the auditorium after the first hymn. This was the big city—not to be missed. We wandered the nearby streets and checked out the neon lights and tall buildings.
We had hoped that the revival meeting would be wrapping up when we returned—instead the place had gone electric. There was a rising tide of “Just as I am…then tributaries of people in pews moving to the aisles and moving to the front for prayer. I escaped outside and paced under a gas light.
In a few moments Calvin was in front of me not so much pleading but pulling me back through the high doors down a carpeted hall into a hot humid room. In a moment—feeling the weight of hands on our heads and shoulders—we were on our knees. In a moment we were up, smiling inexplicitly, invaded by a certain lightness.
Although the heady high of that night wore off, we also knew something had transpired that left us marked.
However, soon enough we were back testing the structures of social propriety…vehicular propriety as well. There was no lack of idiocy about this.
For example, I had a Viva Vauxhaul, made largely of tin and hope. The brakes went out frequently, something that would preclude the prudent from driving; however, as we prided ourselves of being anything but prudent, the lack of brakes was a minor encumbrance.
Come time to stop the Vauxhaul we would yard open the doors and simultaneously—Flinstone like—stick our feet out and bring the car to a stop with our heels. Ox was stronger than anyone in the group—one of the reasons for the moniker—certainly he was stronger than I, and invariably the Viva would lurch to the passenger side where he was bracing himself, leg ramrod straight, gravel flying up and spraying the side of the car. When the dust settled we’d find ourselves stationed not too far past the stop sign.
As I said, he had come to be known, affectionately enough, as Ox. Other reasons for this: He had an unhurried nature, a kind of tenacious will, meaning, as well, that he could be stubborn.
He had his eccentricities. And he had his appetites. Some got him into trouble. Some haunted him for years.
He was mentally alert. He pondered more than anyone I knew. When he spoke, you knew he had thought beforehand.
And he could detect bullshit when he heard it. And when he did he had no qualms about challenging it on the spot.
He had the ability of cocking his head to one side and questioning you without posing a question. It could be unnerving.
He had a droll sense of humour. There was a period when he dressed in leather, and rode a Norton. I can hear him say, with great affectation, "I and not a biker, I am a motorcycle enthusiast."
And when asked how he got his nickname, Ox; he would say it was short for Oxford.
He loved the cartoon strip, The Far Side. He’d be reading in his chair—for he had his chair wherever we resided—when he’d startle us with a great burst of laughter. That was his laugh—a kind of bursting forth that racked his body and made him slap his thigh.
He loved early Guess Who, Goose Creek Symphony and anything by Credence Clearwater.
He hated injustice, and he was loyal and protected his friends. And in this he was fearless. He got me out of some jams.
There was also a guarded side to him. And sometimes a sadness that came over him that he couldn’t express.
During the mid-70’s we lived, for a time, on Hornby Island, on the beach, in a hut built of driftwood. One evening, he and another member of our group, talked us into building a raft of driftwood, lighting it on fire, and swimming it out into the bay to watch it drift as the evening coalesced. It was a beautiful sight. But we blamed him the next day when the police came and tore down our house and escorted us off the island, and banished us for a year.
We lived on Salt Spring for part of a winter, outfitted in small tents and army surplus sleeping bags and entertained ourselves by having crab races and reading James Michener novels. Calvin read two to every one of mine.
We made a go of living free and untethered until free ran out. But we’d head back to the sawmills and put a stake together for another few months. But things wore thin, and we entered a kind of disappointed hippy phase.
We moved back to Calgary after a time. And in the late 70’s circumstances were such that we began moving in different circles.
In Calvin, there was warmth, hope, love of the moment, and there was restlessness, insecurity, at times instability. And of course, in this way he was very much like most of us.
I counted the different places Calvin lived in during the span of a decade plus and came up with about 11. And that’s only counting indoor places.
But in all those stops, the love of his family kept him. And over all those years, that mark, that touch of mercy—that he described as an encounter with the love of Jesus—that had cracked open a spiritual reality in him, never left him. He didn’t speak of it often, which made the times when he did, profound.
A memory I prefer over all others, is the time I visited him in Calgary in the late 80’s. Deb and I had been married a couple years and I wanted her to meet my cousin Ox. Yes, I had told her stories.
It was a sun filled afternoon and we just talked, and reminisced. At the time Calvin was working at the Mustard Seed, caring for homeless people—offering some of his own life lessons to others. And he was happy. I hadn’t seen him that happy. It’s a memory I cherish.
Good-bye cousin. Good-bye, for now.