Sharp Edges

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at rewrite@shaw.ca

Today happens to be my old schoolmate David Bryson’s birthday. It prompts me to venture deep into nostalgia.

Our childhoods were so different from anything anyone might experience today, that occasionally I have to write my memories down. Otherwise, I fear, the day may come when I won’t believe them myself.

For one thing, we went to school in India. In one of the hill stations where the British Civil Service and other expatriates fled to escape the heat and humidity of an Indian summer.

Ours was Mussoorie, which shared with Simla the benefit of being closest to the capital of British India, New Delhi.

The school was — and still is — Woodstock, 7,000 feet up in the foothills of the Himalayas. Expatriates from North America favoured it for their children’s education, because it taught an American curriculum. If the parents ever got sent home, their children could theoretically transfer directly into a North American education system without losing a year.

It was also a boarding school. In Canada, think of the infamous residential schools for indigenous children. Unless our parents came up to the hills for a holiday, we children lived the entire school year in dormitories.

Unlike the residential schools, though, I don’t recall ever suffering violence or abuse. There was discipline, certainly -- but never malice or cruelty that I can recall. Punishment typically consisted of memorizing a poem, chosen at random from the library.

The school believed in the virtues of memorization. Multiplication tables. Chemistry formulas. Soliloquys from English literature. And Bible verses. At dinner, the headmaster would wander among the tables, pick a table at random, and demand a verse.

I found, and practiced, the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.”

So did we, when hit by bouts of homesickness. But weekly letters, and occasional packages of chocolate and cookies, eased the pain.

When I think back, I’m astonished at the freedom the school granted us. This, in a world where tigers still roamed free and pythons hung from tree branches. Even so, older students could go for week-long hikes into the remote fastnesses of the highest Himalayas. Younger boys could roam free, most of the day.

David and I played marbles on the dorm playground, unsupervised. Or spun tops, endlessly. In season, we collected horse chestnuts, strung them on a string, and took turns trying to smash other boys’ chestnuts.

Or we trekked through the forest down to the sports field, a miniscule triangle of flat earth dug out of the hillside and levelled. We ran races — the 100-yard dash took up the full width of the field.

We practiced the broad jump, and then discovered we could jump much farther if we leaped off the edge of the field. A good running jump could land us 30 feet down the slope.

In the dry season, the boys collected beetles. Three-inch long rhinoceros and stag beetles. We kept them in our pockets, to scare the girls with.

In the monsoon season, everyone collected leeches. The leeches balanced on their hind ends on leaves, poised, waiting for a warm body to pass by. One of us collected a record 23 leeches on a hike, but I can’t remember whether it was David or me.

We were a multi-cultural group. About half white, the others mostly brown. Of all religions. The Christians included everything from fundamentalist to Quaker; the others Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Parsee… No Chinese kids in my time -- they came later, after the Communist revolution drove wealthy Chinese families to seek safer fields.

There were accidents and injuries, inevitably. One boy in my class got hit on the head by a rock falling down the hillside. It gashed his scalp to the bone. One girl slid down a slope slick with pine needles and off a cliff. She died.

Bigger boys bullied smaller ones by pushing them into beds of stinging nettles, growing wild. Fortunately, the remedy was always at hand — a plant with big leaves like rhubarb. Rubbed on nettle stings, it anesthetized the pain.

David and I both left India shortly before Independence. His father was a civil magistrate, mine a missionary; both felt it was time to leave, for differing reasons.

David and I thought the other had continued at Woodstock. We didn’t discover that we had both left the same winter until we met again by pure chance on a back-country camping trip in Banff National Park, 50 years later. But that’s another story.

Happy birthday, David. Soak yourself in memories!

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at rewrite@shaw.ca

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