Thursday, January 27, 2011

TIME CAPSULES (A small sort of memoir)

This all happened at a small cottage complex outside of the tiny town of Callender, Ontario, not far from North Bay. Our families vacationed together there for a few summers in a row while I was in my mid-teens, and, since we knew that we'd most likely be back once again only one year from then, us kids decided to stuff an empty glass jar full of knicknacks and notes, then bury it as far as we could underneath that small beach's soft sand. Relatively deep. Not so deep that we couldn't dig it up with our shovels and find it with ease.

It felt like an odd, safe adventure. I can't remember everything we put inside -- notes to ourselves, some chocolate and candy, a few pages of ads from the local newsweekly -- but I do vividly recall writing a short note on scrap paper, something about the young serial killer who, along with his wife, had recently haunted my hometown and destroyed many lives, while I studied for math tests and played house-league hockey. The whole sordid tragedy had seemed so unreal that by burying this news it might act as a talisman. Smother all that bad mojo, perhaps. Turn back time, even. Life had accelerated too much.

The next year we returned to the cottage, and somehow we managed to find the same spot where we'd buried our jar exactly twelve months before. I seem to recall a map of some kind that we'd kept for a year in a junk-drawer or used book. Perhaps we simply made a good guess, took a shot with our shovels and got ready to dig. It wasn't that big a beach. The point is, we found the treasure. Under an hour, it took us. After taking our turns, I can't remember which one of us finally struck with our spade that small, solid shape in the sand. Doesn't matter. We all laughed with a strange sort of joy, those carefree mad cackles that only adolescents can shout without any shame.

A whole year had passed in our lives. (Twelve months at age fourteen or fifteen is quite an ordeal.) A Canadian winter, endured. Two semesters of school, over and out. Hockey games and track meets. Novels read, essays written, trumpets blown, guitars plucked. Four whole seasons had passed over that Planters peanuts jar with our junk, stuck under the ground with no light to befriend. Dark. Quite cold, probably. I almost felt sorry for all of our stuff, stuck inside that small tomb. We'd all been through so much that year, and this jar had been jammed in a hole way down in the earth. At least we'd found it. Gave it a chance to bathe in some sun.

We took the jar inside to the kitchen, cleared off the main table, twisted off the tight top. We all felt like magicians, unveiling our new trick for the whole world to see. No fresh smell of peanuts emerged, just dry, airless must. No matter. All the same stuff as last year, those random trinkets of time, but now they seemed new, somehow reborn. So were we, briefly. Our selves from the past had given us a small gift. Tiny things we thought were important had now become valid once more. Completed some circle. It was a joyous ten, fifteen minutes.

One of our small gang from the cottage ended up dead, either that year or the next, or the one after that. Tony. Big, goofy, funny Tony. My friend's friend. Fell asleep at the wheel, bounced right into a tree. Coming back down the Boulevard late at night, on the way home from Casino Niagara. Him and his other buddy, gone. Both of them seventeen, eighteen? As we lived in two different towns a highway apart, I mostly knew Tony from the summers we'd all spent on that beach hanging out, but still. Beach volleyball bonds kids together, as do thick chocolate milkshakes served in big metal mixers served straight from the kitchen.

Another thing: There was a private house right next to the resort, with girls our own age who sometimes strolled over to our beachside campfire at night. (Were there two girls or three?) I remember one evening, when all of us guys stared straight up at their small, second-floor window, a tiny rectangle of light that lit up our darkness. Occasionally, one or two of those girls would slowly, casually, stroll in front of the window. Getting ready for bed, brushing their hair. Toying with us, or so we liked to think. I even exchanged letters with one of those girls, a shy, tiny blonde, for a few months after that summer and well into the fall. At some point, the letters ended. I'm not sure who stopped writing first.

We never buried another jar. A few years later, I went off to university. None of us have been back to that cottage since we all were seventeen. Tony died soon after that. My other friends from that time, almost my brothers, I've not seen much of in years. The occasional party, a wedding. Time does that. It buries us.

All of those moments: a malleable glass that forms my own mental time capsule. Us standing in sand, gazing up like young fools at that bedroom's soft glow. Us sitting on logs, roasting marshmallows, listening to Steve Miller on tape, the Space Cowboy's sweet voice. Looking into that fire. Talking about jackshit. Ribbing each other. Under a northern Ontario night, its stars bright, almost winking.