April 30, 2008

You sometimes get a second chance to make a first impression.

If the other night had been my first exposure to a northern community, and if I had been a different person, I might have left and never come back - telling all, near and far, just how horribly awful it is in the North. This story could take place in just about any small town north of 60, so I won't bother to name it.

You see, I was in the community's little hotel (which is small enough that it goes unstaffed in the evenings), when one of the guests came in drunk and loaded for bear and was being about as insulting as he could possibly get. He was in town to do some work for the government, either on contract or as an employee - it doesn't matter which. He had been into a bottle that was provided to him by someone in town who had just received a significant residential school pay-out. (I would like to point out that many people have used their residential school pay-outs wisely, but it has had some tragic and disastrous consequences in far too many communities.)

So he came in drunk and needed to spew his drunken insights at someone and I was the only one around. Normally, I have a pretty long temper in situations like that, but he was also being viciously insulting. In the confines of the small hotel, I was approaching the end of my rope and I let him know it. I said it calmly and patiently, but I let him know it.

It worked and he went outside, but he was back within moments and continued his personal attacks (I didn't even know the guy), insulting me pretty much every way you can imagine. Some of it was graphic. Some of it was disgusting. Some of it was the kind of stuff that could make even the world's most media-exposed teenager blush.

Less calmly and less patiently, but caged in a shield of self-control, I let him know that he was making me angry.

After a few rounds of slow departures and rapid returns, I wasn't willing to put up with his insults and his aggressiveness any longer. He was becoming increasingly aggressive and belligerent and started getting closer and closer to me. I was backed into a corner and it was rapidly approaching the point where things might come to blows.

Had the situation been different - had I been able to tactfully leave him to his raging - I would have, but he was blocking my path and, therefore, my exit. I achieved a deep understanding of what a cornered animal feels like and why it is so inclined to attack.

I was fully prepared to deck the guy if I needed to (but didn't let him know that) if he got much worse. Sometimes, in spite of what you imagine, you can never really tell how you might react in any given situation. Here I was, moments away from going to blows with a fairly large guy that I didn't know, and I felt suddenly, remarkably... calm, clear headed, and ready. Not eager, but ready.

I decided to try a little yelling. You know, the surprise kind that they don't expect (I had spoken very calmly up until that point) - nothing insulting that might push him over the edge, but enough to, maybe, put him off-guard and let something sink into his booze-riddled brain that he was treading on dangerous ground. It has worked for me before.

It didn't work this time. He was too far gone.

He started shouting, roaring, and spewing semi-coherent streams of subconscious thought. And none of it was pretty.

And now I was genuinely mad and fully prepared to lay into the guy. I think violence is, well, absolutely stupid, but there truly are times when you aren't left with another choice but to fight your way out.

If you're not familiar with remote, northern communities, you might be asking, "Why didn't you call the cops?" The thought crossed my mind at the time, but it wasn't an option because:
  1. I wasn't in a situation where I could reach a phone.
  2. The closest RCMP detachment was an hundred kilometres or more away which makes for a slow response time.
  3. Even if the RCMP were called, there is no all-season road access. At this time of year, (spring) they wouldn't be able to drive across any river or lake ice bridges that they might be able to drive across in the winter on a winter road, making it impossible (and insanely stupid to try) to reach the community by vehicle.
  4. And even though the community has an airport that the police could fly into, all of the planes in the area that they'd have to use aren't allowed to fly at night.
In short, if you're in one of the many remote northern communities and you need emergency police assistance, you're plain outta luck.

Fortunately, and finally, and in the nick of time, the drunk's boss came out of his room and ordered the drunk to take-off and go for a walk. Offended, the drunk guy left, albeit slowly and with much protest. We were both lucky that he had listened to his boss.

The boss said something to me like, "Sounded like it was going to get a bit messy."

He was right. I don't think he knew just how close I was to walloping the guy. It was just a few milliseconds closer that the drunk guy was to walloping me.

I agreed and thanked him, deciding to avoid the annoying drunk by turning into my room before he came back.

He was back within a minute, but was turned out again by a very skillful, "What is wrong with you?" from the boss.

It took me a long time to get to sleep that night because I was waiting for the 4:00 am drunken pounding on my hotel room door. There aren't very many rooms in the place so it wouldn't be hard for him to find mine.

The drunken pounding never came, and my night was filled by a restless sleep. (Meanwhile, my wife is in Whitehorse having harlequinesque dreams of Brent Bambury.)

The next morning, I told a couple of people in the community about my rough night. I mentioned it just as part of the casual morning conversation. I was blown away by what happened next.

They said to each other, "We need to fix this. He needs to make things right." I said that they didn't have to and that it wasn't their problem nor was it their responsibility, but one of them went to do whatever it was he was going to do about it.

I should point out here, that he was not going to beat the guy up and "teach him a lesson". It's just not the way that these guys roll. But it also wasn't their responsibility. It wasn't something they needed to do anything about, but they instantly went to work "making things right."

Later that afternoon, while I was walking down the road, my antagonist approached me. He said that he couldn't remember much of the previous night but was told that he was being insulting, attempting to start a fight, etc. And then he apologized. I reached out and shook his hand.

It took a lot of courage to make that apology and it was obvious that he meant it.

We talked a little bit more and shook hands again. I had forgiven him pretty much the second I saw him come to talk to me. I knew what he was coming to do and it took a lot of courage for him to do it. Tonight, we talked with each other as though it had never happened and the only reason I'm writing this story out is to make a small point.

They say that you never come to the North twice; you either come once and you hate it, or you just keep coming back.

The thing with the north is that it's not always pretty. That's why it tends to attract the adventurous. The persistent. The hardy. It attracts these kinds people and these people stay because they know that the North can be ugly and tough and even deadly. But that it also has moments of indescribable beauty.

And that's why I just can't leave it.


Anonymous said...

Nicely said, Michael.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you're alright.