Growing up in rural Newfoundland back in the sixties was not easy task. We were dirt poor, and by dirt poor, I mean no electricity, no running water, etc. As much as a child of today would have no way of understanding how we made it without all the conveniences of today, we kids thought we had it pretty good.
As a child of the baby boom, I always had plenty of friends to play with when I was little. Living in a small community where everyone was related in some way, there were lots of family members my age.
Despite all the kids my age, I chose to hang out with Ricky. Ricky was a child in a household even poorer than mine. While I was an only child at the time, Ricky had six other brothers and sisters. His dad worked when he could find it, but overall, they lived pretty much well below the poverty line.
Ricky was a special child who never really got a fair chance in life. As a toddler, he got into his mother’s birth control pills (with seven children, she obviously did not use them much) and he ate every one of them. The doctors said that this may have been the reason for the learning disability he had to live with, and his stuttering, but I am not too sure.
Ricky could never finish a sentence without saying “I got ta…I got ta…I got ta”, and he could not pronounce his ‘R’s, which made the other kids laugh at him whenever he tried to speak. The kids put the nickname ‘Wabbit’ on poor Ricky, and that name stuck with him all his life. I never laughed, instead I became his friend and protector. When others poked fun at him and called him mean names, I got angry at them. I spent a great deal of my time angry at those kids, because they never stopped bullying poor Ricky.
Despite all the bullying, Ricky and I were great friends. He was always at my house, sometimes too much, but nonetheless, he was always welcome.
We made go carts. On one occasion, we made a go cart with two rope steering handles, and lying on the cart like a luge from the Olympics, we traveled quickly down one of the biggest hills in the community, and right under an oncoming pulp truck. I seen my short life flash before me as we went under the huge trailer. I still remember the rush of adrenalin we both received as we flew out the other side, and had the poor driver of the truck cuss loudly at us both. We were on cloud nine. If my parents seen that, I would have been grounded until I was 60. Ricky’s parents probably would not have even cared.
Ricky’s parents were very different than mine were. While my parents were kind and nurturing, Ricky’s parents were…well, they were different. His mom thought a lot of her kids, but his dad, he was different, real different. I think that due to the fact that his parents were so poor, and that there were so many of them, that their parenting skills were challenged to the point where they could not handle them. His parents were also uneducated. Neither of them could read or write.
Ricky’s dad was part of a very large family who grew up in a logging camp, miles away from civilization. Ricky’s dad never went to school, thus the reason why he could not read or write. His dad was not a stupid man, he could do carpenter work, weld, and do mechanic work quite well.
These kids knew only each other, and did not mix well with strangers. Ricky’s dad was a worker. He was a relatively small man, barely reaching five feet tall, but despite his small stature, he was strong, and quite the logger in his time. Work was important to Ricky’s dad, and the only other thing important to him (not his eight children) was camping and fishing, which he and Ricky’s mom did every weekend, rain, snow or shine. The kids virtually raised themselves.
As I said earlier, Ricky had a large family, whom of which grew up to be very different. Frankie was a very rude person who did well in school. His mother praised Frankie to be a genius, while she said Ricky was a dummy. Georgina was an outcast as a child and even more now as an adult. Della lacked social skills, Lavina was a trouble maker and a meddler. Shirley, she was just annoying, and so was Stanley.
In our community, Ricky’s family bore the jokes of the community. The other kids said that they were dirty (they were) and that their parents did gross things and if you ate there you would die. I am not sure if you would die, but I do remember on one occasion, Ricky’s dad stored his freshly caught salmon in the bathtub next to the toilet for a few days. Another occasion seen Ricky’s dad scrape moths from the butter that had been sitting on the table for the entire day, and butter a sandwich for one of his kids. So yeah, they were dirty.
On the bus, Ricky’s family were always accused of having head lice (they actually did have head lice) and having a particular odor. (the house they lived in had a particular odor, so I would imagine they would have smelled this way as well)
So just think about it. Poor Ricky had a learning disability. His family were made fun of by the entire community. They had head lice. They had a smell of their own. They were poor. But Ricky was nice, and he was my friend.
Ricky had very low esteem (are you surprised?) and when anyone paid attention to them, he stood high and did whatever they asked. Ricky also made poor choices and he was easy to take advantage of. This may be the reason why he went from living in my community to living out of a refrigerator box on the streets of Toronto.
The beginning of bad choices came when my uncle asked Ricky if he wanted to make a few extra dollars. (it is strange how a ‘few extra dollars’ always turns out to be a bad thing) My uncle, whom I hate and will never forgive) asked that Ricky take a few school days off to help him paint some cars that he had been working on. He agreed to pay Ricky $50 per week (not per car, and Ricky had to do lots to earn that money)
Although Ricky was no scholar, dropping out of school at 15 to work on old cars was not a great career choice, and was without a doubt the major factor of Ricky’s difficult adult life.
Ricky ended up working from morning until dark for $50 per week, and he did good work. He sanded cars (without a mask because my uncle was too cheap to buy him one), he painted the cars, in fact, he did everything while my uncle made the money and did nothing.
Despite all the work Ricky did, he was not making much money, which turned out to be no money when my uncle decided that instead of paying Ricky money, he would give him cigarettes and alcohol. I remember Ricky telling me that he began to smoke cigarettes. Ricky’s parents were chain smokers, and they saw nothing wrong with Ricky smoking if they didn’t have to buy them for him.
I worked hard to change Ricky’s mind, but he insisted on smoking and then, even worse, drinking. This decision spiraled into a life of alcoholism for poor Ricky, who was never really given a fair chance in life. Eventually, Ricky left home for the land of riches, Toronto. (This was back in the seventies, where the Gold Rush was in Ontario, and work was plentiful, even if you did not have your high school diploma)
I never heard from Ricky until about ten years after he left. His mom had died from Lung Cancer from her years of smoking. When he came home, he still wore the same shirt he left home with. This may seem like nonsense, but it is true. I visited my old friend, and tried to find out a little about what his new life was about, but he would not talk about it. In fact, he would not speak to me at all. The person who stood in front of me was not the little boy I played dinkies with, he was not the little boy who rode bicycle with me for hours on in, he was not the little boy who loved to go fishing in the creek behind my dad’s house. The man who stood in front of me was an addict. He used many dangerous drugs, he chain smoked, and he was an alcoholic. This broke my heart. I closed my eyes, and I imagined a time where things were very different. A time where the two of us went camping with our families, and where we ran in big fields behind my grandfather’s house, and where we talked about the future and how our dreams will come true.
He left soon after the funeral, and I never heard from him for another 15 years. He contacted me via Facebook to tell me that he was still living. I was surprised by this. Not because he contacted me, but because he was still alive. I figured that the last time I seen him, his life would soon be over, but apparently his daughters from many failed relationships found him, and made him part of their lives. He told me that he had five daughters, each from a different relationship, and that for once in his life, he felt needed. The girls have also contacted me, and thanked me for being their dad’s friend when he needed one. Each week, I check out his Facebook page, and get a chance to see what love can do for a person, how love can save a life.
I categorized this story as “Family Stuff” because even though Ricky was not a family member (he may have been a third or fourth cousin), he was very close to my heart, and always will be. I just thank God that when it came to making the choices he made, I chose differently.