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Around the Kitchen Table

By Lloyd Ratzlaff


One summer Sunday when I was about 11, many of my relatives from the country came to the village of Laird for a family gathering at Grandpa Gliege’s house. After the usual great meal, our elders withdrew to the parlour to talk over their concerns, the young kids went out to play, and my cousins Jim and Jerold and I decided to visit the sportsgrounds across the street. For several days some tents had been pitched at the far end near the school principal’s house, and I’d heard that these were the headquarters for a gang led by the principal’s own son. I wouldn’t have ventured there on my own, but with two older and taller cousins joining me, it felt quite safe.

We crossed the road and cut through the ball diamond, crossed the path running between the school and the grain elevators, and as we neared the encampment a tall, spindly character crawled out from a tent and stood to his feet holding a javelin. We recognized him at once — he was also named Jim, and distantly related to some of our Alberta cousins, but we hardly knew each other so this didn’t work in our favour. Clearly he was now guarding the gang’s compound.

We heard him call to someone in the tent, and within seconds two other gangsters emerged carrying ropes, and the three surrounded and seized us. When they began hauling us into the tent my cousin Jim wriggled free, and the last we saw of him was his huge, bounding strides heading back toward Grandpa’s house for help.

The inside of the tent was nearly bare. Jerold and I were still writhing as the thugs set us on the ground and tied us to the centrepole. We didn’t know how many other goons there were in other tents, but in a minute someone yelled, “Jimmy! The Chief wants to see you!”

Jimmy opened the flap and called back, “Right!” He ducked out and with a flourish stuck his javelin in the ground, spat off to the side, and went away.

Jerold and I chafed at the ropes while the roughnecks sneered. I was sure we were in for a bad beating, or worse. In another minute Jimmy poked his head back into the tent and ordered, “Come with me!” The two hoods untied us, Jimmy held the flap open and led us to the Chief’s tent just a few steps away.

It was a bit bigger than the others, but the Chief himself wasn’t much older than we were, and in stature he was short like his father, the principal, and with a volume and a bluster to match. I wondered whether his father might have been looking from the house window, but inside the tent the son stood fearless and at full height on a rough platform, wearing a huge feathered Indian headdress and a leather jacket. His face was daubed with paint, and overhead he brandished a hunting knife. He began speaking as Jimmy went back outside, and I knew we were goners.

The Chief began a tirade. What did we think we were doing here? What business had we entering his territory? Who had given us the authority? He was in charge, and he had instructed his men to capture us, and he’d be the one to decide what should be done with us.

I can’t speak for Jerold, but I remember being on the verge of peeing my pants when suddenly the Chief’s harangue was cut short. Gangster Jimmy pulled the flap aside once more, meekly this time and without his javelin, and there at the door stood my father and Jerold’s (our cousin Jim hadn’t come back).

Now it was the men’s turn to make inquiries. What’s going on here? Why did you tie these boys up? The Chief had lowered his knife and was looking away, and already I was wishing that Dad and Henry would give those bullies the thrashing I had feared we’d get from them.

Our fathers took us back to Grandpa’s house, criticizing the thugs much of the way, but talking again of their own things, and so far as I know they never reported the Chief Gangster to the principal. But on Monday morning the tents had been taken down, the sportsgrounds were ready for another ball game, and at school that day, and for many days to come, the gang members and I had no occasion to cross paths.

I don’t know why today I wanted to tell this anecdote about fathers and sons and chiefs and principals. It’s just been stuck in my memory, like something to tell around the kitchen table.

Ratzlaff is a former minister, counsellor, and university lecturer. He has authored three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press, and edited an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. He has been short-listed for three Saskatchewan Books Awards, won two Saskatchewan Writers Guild literary non-fiction awards, and served on local, provincial, and national writing organization boards.