The second of three linked stories, Red River Valley Trilogy. Read the first story. Check back for the third and last story tomorrow. Copyright is held by the author.
I SAT on a picnic table in the beer garden. The ball tournament was over and we had lost in the final to a team from the States. My head spun a bit and my lips and cheeks felt numb — too much July sun followed by too much beer.
“Manna from heaven!” a voice behind me said as four plastic cups of beer arrived on the table top. It was Marty, the do-it-all shortstop from the other team. He had been buying beer for our table all evening, using the bundle of tens and singles that had been his winner’s share. He reminded me of Mark Belanger from the Orioles — big and tall, a smooth infielder.
“Marty the party,” I said, sliding one of the foamy cups back towards him. “I have to drive, you know. All the way to Hartplatz.” We were near the U.S. border, in Vita, Manitoba.
“Nothing to it,” he said. “Ain’t no bulls on the highway from here to Hartplatz.”
“True. And once we get there, my cousin is on patrol. As long as the RCs are not cruisin’ around, I should be OK.”
“Roman Catholics?” he asked, his face screwed up. “You Mennonites take adult baptism seriously!”
Our shortstop, Cornie Driedger, did an exaggerated spit take, misting the table with malty spray.
“Hey! Quit wasting beer there, Milton Berle! It don’t grow on trees,” Marty said, pulling out his thick wallet.
“RCs are police — Royal Canadian Mounted Police. R-C-M-P or RCs for short,” Cornie explained. “In our town, we have both town cops and RCs. The RCs are jerks; the town cops are guys we know. The town cops stop us and confiscate our beer. The RCs stop us and steal our beer.”
Marty stopped fiddling with his wallet. “Why does one ‘confiscate’ and the other ‘steal?’” he asked.
“Because the town cops share the beer with us later and the RCs don’t,” I answered.
Cornie chiming in with a loud, “Right on!”
Marty chuckled and went through his wallet. “Well, dudn’t matter anyhow — the bank is about empty.” He flipped assorted cards and pictures out as he searched for another dollar bill.
“It dudn’t, dud it?” said Cornie, an eyebrow arched theatrically. “I got a buck but I think Zehen is gonna need that for gas. Right, Matt?”
“Don’t ask me those complicated mechanical questions, Corn-pone. I am just a lowly driver, not an oil-change caddy and part-time service technician trainee,” I replied.
“OK, Zehen. I accept your limitations. And also, kleiwe de!” Cornie replied, a bit drunkenly, staring at me over a poised cup of Labatt’s Light.
Marty finished lighting one of my DuMauriers and tossed the Bic back at me. (I was smoking his Marlies, so it was an even trade.) “Aww Geez, what the hell is KLIVE DEE?” he asked.
Cornie laughed. “OK, you Yankee Martin Luther, here’s what: ‘Kliewe de’ is ‘Plautdietsch’ — low German. It is my way of suggesting politely to Mattheus here, our stoic backcatcher and fearless late-night chauffeur, that he go scratch himself. It further insinuates to claw oneself in an inappropriate place and manner. Fe’stone? Verstanden sie?” (Understand?)
Marty, with a straight face, answered. “Kliewe de, hunt!”
We all laughed. Marty — his last name was Schroeder, not Luther — then admitted that his Mom was a Mennonite, a Fast, originally from Winkler in Manitoba and that he spoke a few words of God’s own language. Like hunt (dog). We nodded appreciatively, toasting him into the brethren, “with sacramental suds,” Cornie offered, gravely. As always, his spotte (scornful banter) was mildly over-the-top, but entertaining.
“What do you call it when you have too much sacramental wine?” I asked, riffing off of Cornie’s comment. They shrugged. “Being in an altar-ed state,” I deadpanned.
Cornie did another loud spit take and Marty began cleaning up the cards strewn on the beery table top.
Another teammate of ours, Cornie’s brother Abe, joined our table. “You guys going soon?” he asked.
“Yeah, I am huntmeed — dog-tired,” I said, directing the translation at Marty.
“What’s that?” Abe asked, pointing at a paper form on the tabletop, folded in half. “Selective Service System STATUS CARD,” he read aloud. The big first baseman stood beside me, harshly backlit by a string of naked 100-watt bulbs.
“That is President Nixon’s draft lottery,” Marty said, squinting up at Big Abe from where he sat.
“How old are you, Marty?” I asked him.
“I turn 19 next month, August 16,” he said.
“Me too — August 22. So what does that all mean?” asked Cornie, leaning forward to study the card.
Marty pointed at a printed number near the centre of the card. “Forty-four is my all-important lottery number. That means my birthday has drawn ‘Random Sequence Number’ 44. So everyone born on that day who’s eligible to be drafted is going to go — be inducted — once Selective Services get to the forty-fourth birthday on the list. You are eligible once you turn 19.” He sipped his beer, holding the card in one hand and staring at it.
“Right now, they are projectin’ that they will call up until about RSN 130, this year,” he concluded.
I lit one of Marty’s Marlboros. “So . . . all those born on August 16 have the 44th pick in the lottery,” I began.
“So, it’s a low draft number. I’m going to Vietnam, unless the war ends, ya know.” Marty finished the thought, and his beer. “They are already in the 80s now. I’ll be called up almost right away after my birthday. You betcha’.”
We were quiet for a minute. “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple drifted across the beer garden from a boom box near the bar.
“What song is that?” said Marty.
“You said your Mom was a Menno from Winkler, right?” Cornie asked, ignoring Marty’s question.
Marty sat up a bit, regarding Cornie. He did not answer.
“No doubt you’ve thought of this, but why don’t you claim C.O. status?” Cornie continued. “If your Mom is a member of the church, maybe you can use that.”
Marty flicked his cigarette butt across the table, past Cornie. He exhaled smoke and stood up, looking over at Abe who was about the same height as him.
“Conscientious Objectors ain’t popular where I’m from. Besides, my Mom already looked into it, and because I don’t go to a Mennonite church — I’m not baptized and all — so it wouldn’t work. Anyhow, it’s not what I want,” he said, folding the draft card carefully and putting it into his wallet.
“Your Mom’s a Canuck. Yer in Canada now — just stay here,” said Abe, in his deep Brer Bear voice.
Marty looked at him soberly and shook his head. “Nah, man. I’m an American, plain and simple. Besides, I gotta tell you something about my birthday. You guys are the deep thinkers,” he said, looking at Cornie. “So you should know that I was born at exactly 11:59 p.m. on the 16th. I don’t know about fate or karma and I sure as heck don’t know about the will of God. For me, it’s just a random draw — a lottery. See, the funny thing is that August 17 drew draft number 360.”
Marty reached down and picked up his glove and spikes, stuffing the cigarette pack into his jacket pocket. He walked out of the light, waving at players from his team as he receded into the forest towards the parking lot, ambling loosely across the sandy ground and through the White Spruce and stunted Jack Pine.
* * *
We drove slowly along the highway, heading north. Every few miles another deer would appear, eyes reflecting in the headlights, head surrounded by a cloud of mosquitoes; tail and ears twitching.
It was quiet, the radio being no good this far away from Winnipeg. The only sound was the humming of the pick-up truck’s tires on the frost-heaved road.
“If not for the grace of God,” said Big Abe, uncharacteristically philosophical.
Cornie sniffed. “Mmmmm. Deep.”
“Kliewe de, hunt!” I said, drawing tired snickers from the brothers.
“If not for the grace of the Delegates who came from Russia to choose where us Mennos were gonna wind up, actually,” Cornie said, from the middle seat. “If Zehen’s Great-Great Opa had chosen to live in North Dakota, instead of Manitoba, we would have been in that Vietnam lottery with Marty too.”
“From Russia with love,” Abe said.
“A lot of the new Canadian Mennonites left for the U.S. after they got to Manitoba,” said Cornie. “Our Opa said that the people from our church who left for the States did it because the land around Hartplatz was so poor,” he continued. “They left big established farms over there and could not stand the idea of mucking around in the stumps and stones here. So when the U.S. offered citizenship, a bunch of them headed stateside and now they have huge farms. Sugar beets, probably some of the places right on the highway on the way to Grand Forks and Fargo.”
“I heard that was baloney,” I said, just before spitting a bulging cheek’s worth of knackzote (sunflower seed) shells out of my open window. “I heard those people were kicked out because of some bickering and mainly because they only came to Canada in the 20s, when so many had come earlier. The early ones left everything they had in Russia.”
We were quiet for a while. “There was resentment,” I added, looking at the two brothers who sat beside me, their faces dimly lit by the dashboard lights.
“Things happen for a reason, they say,” Abe said, implicitly agreeing with his brother.
We drove in silence again. Cornie worked to repair a torn leather lace on his ball glove, concentrating and breathing noisily through his mouth as he pulled the fingers back together. He looked up as we came towards a pair of deer, who stood chewing cow-like on the shoulder of the highway. They stared at the truck as we approached and then the smaller of the two gathered its legs and suddenly stotted straight up in the air, like an African gazelle.
“They do that to dissuade predators,” Cornie said. “It’s like — Hey, I’m small and agile, hard to catch! Don’t bother with me — take the bigger, slower one.”
“Hmm,” Big Abe mumbled, “don’t think that’d work for me.”
“Nor Marty,” I said, staring into the yellow light of the headlights on the straight road before us.