On being radical.
The summer when I am six years old, my family moves to a new farm. New as in bald and virgin prairie, not a building or a fence or anything in sight, just two hundred acres of prairie wool, and colonies of curious gophers. No neighbours, no roads, a little trail winding around sloughs and rocks.
The summer when I am six years old, I start Grade 2, start at a new school, a new school without those friends and relatives that had made Grade 1 familiar.
The summer when I am six years old we are a mile across country from the nearest neighbour, but almost three miles by road, if those trails can be called roads, and we are the farthest on the north bus route from the new school we will begin attending in the village of Superb.
The summer when I am six years old, the bus comes to pick us up on that first day of school, Uncle Oscar is the bus driver, at least something is familiar, and my two older brothers and I get on, get on in our mother made clothes, and our mother made haircuts, and lunches and book bags, our shoes that have seen miles of new pastures full of cow manure and acres of weeding gardens and all the places to explore when you are six and everything is exciting.
But this day isn’t exciting, it is frightening, and so these young boys huddle together, at least the youngest one huddles to his older brothers, eyes wide with apprehension, as the big orange bus carries him to his date with the huge and intimidating world.
Down the hill to the Ereiser farm, and the family is waiting by the road. There are four children, as I remember, but as they get on, I realize that they are not all children at all. Jimmy is a year younger than I, starting Grade 1, and is a tiny little guy. Linda is the same age as my brother Eric, so that’s an age that I can at least understand. But those other two, much older, certainly grown-up.
Over the days and weeks and months that follow, I learn that their names are Betty and Paulette. Betty is tall and has brown hair, Paulette is petite, and blonde, and beautiful, and something about her excites me in a way that words can’t come close to. At six years old, hormones have not yet begun to give me a way to think of the older sisters of my friends, as Jimmy becomes, and so I am left with only feelings of awe. “Paulette!” What a name! Isn’t there a movie star with a name like that? Without being quite sure what a movie star is, it only adds to the mystique! For a boy who assumed that the bank of useable names consists of variations of Peter and Henry and Tina, “Paulette” is from another world.
Occasionally, when the bus rolls down the hill to a stop, Paulette and Betty are finishing a cigarette. That simply adds to the wonder. Old men smoke, all the old men that I can think of, including my dad, who must be approaching 40. But I don’t know anyone young who smokes, certainly not females.
Paulette wears makeup and perfume. Coming from a family of boys, I don’t know what those things are. I stare at her face, I gawk at the redness of her lips, with all the social skills of a country six year old. As I get a whiff of the aroma of this vision of the gods walking by on the bus, as I glimpse at the covers of the shiny magazines Paulette and Betty carry everywhere, glimpse lipstick tubes and silver containers with mirrors, white dust in them, I start to grasp that there is a radical way of being in this world that makes no sense to this grader “two’er” from the pasture to the north.
I don’t think that I ever speak to Paulette. Not that she doesn’t try, every once in a while she or Betty tries to engage this wide-eyed boy in a conversation, tries to find something out about the naive place where he comes from. I can’t speak. They are kind, they are funny and confident, but all of these qualities only add to their mystique.
In those memories, I find my definition for “radical.” “Radical” as extreme, “radical” as drastic, “radical” as so different that it demands a new paradigm for being and thinking. Paulette Ereiser was radical to me. A kind of radical that continues to make my life exciting.