Stan Vandale And Me


This is a tale of simultaneous stories.  It’s a tale of a single night, isolated in time and space, that’s merely one fold in an unfolded old map – weathered, creased and torn.  It’s a tale of mystics and spirits as ordinary as a couple of boys full of adolescent adventures.  It’s a tale that’s true.  It’s a tale that’s unbelievable.  It’s a tale of two kids with an indelible bond who grew up, grew apart and remain friends and strangers.  It’s a complicated tale, but this is the simplest way I can tell it.

When I lived in Arizona, one rare long weekend, I drove deep into the desert over relentless miles of further horizons, seeking a place where the city feared to go.  North from Payson, north from Winslow, north into the Navajo nation — as if I were an eager pilgrim gathering miles like holy relics.  But I ended up just being a tourist, cameraed and sandaled, sitting on a wooden bench, watching drumbeat dancers in the dying afternoon…

One time, in the long ago, Stan had a raft, and he and I and his little brother Dan decided (no, we didn’t decide – Stan convinced us) to Huck Finn ourselves down to the Pitt River, or out to the ocean or all the way to Hawaii if we got the chance.  We didn’t; the ship went down with all hands before we got 50 metres, and 1,000 years from now, archeologists are going to find my wallet buried in the mud and wonder how a foolish boy didn’t drown that day…

In the long shadows, the drums stopped and everyone clapped and snapped maybe just one more flash photo, and then it was time to exit through the gift shop, please.  But, I didn’t exit; I couldn’t exit.  One of the wordless dancers (for no reason I’ll ever understand) came and led me away — away from the crowd and the cars and the buzzing noisy neon — into the desert and the creeping night.  And there — with the first stars — I sat on a woven blanket with the women and the kids who spoke to me in guttural syllables and exaggerated gestures.  And I wondered … what?  And then I heard the drums again…

One time, in a teenage hot summer day, when the adults were full of picnic, Stan and I and his little brother and sister found a cliff face and we decided (no, we didn’t decide – Stan convinced us) to climb it — just to see what we could see.  And we climbed into the scared and the sky, crawling on the vertical rock, our minds and muscles shivering with gravity.  And I stopped once to steady Melody’s elbow and once to capture more courage and once just to curse the madness.  Then we popped over the top — a surprise of dirty children, frightening the tourists…

These were the old dances, now — the grandfather dances.  And the darkness chanted with fire — its flames touching the paint on the dancers’ faces, its light in the winking eyes of the snakes they carried, and its tongue flicking and licking sparks into the sky.  And the drums were the night’s heart, beating and breathing with the murmured rhythm of tall moccasins.  And in the night and light, the dancers slowly dusted away, swallowing themselves in the shadows — until only their spirits remained.  And time and earth and sky disappeared, and there was only now.  And for hours or minutes or days, the spirits saw me and we travelled together.  And that’s what happened.
Later, sometime, in the morning I think, the wordless dancer found me again and said, “You remember this thing.  You’re gonna need those guys.”

I don’t see Stan much anymore – weddings and funerals — but I still count him as more than a friend.  As a boy, I learned how the world works, and Stan was part of that experience.  He certainly had a confidence that didn’t rub off, and he was always fun to be around.  A couple of weeks ago, I heard that Stan was sick – really sick — and I thought about that night in Arizona.  It’s odd how that came to mind after all these years, but it made me think: maybe those spirits weren’t for me at all; maybe I was just keeping them for a friend.

So, for what it’s worth, Stan, I know this is a difficult journey, but if you want, you can walk with the spirits I found one star-dark night in Arizona for a while.  I’m absolutely certain they’ll show you the way.

Ken Watt 1943 – 2018

When I was a kid, all the best stories started with “Once upon a time” and ended with “happily ever after.”  Most people call such stories fairy tales and say the real world doesn’t work that way.  Most people say the dragons are too dangerous, the fairy princesses all get old, and the armour, no matter how shiny, always turns to rust.  That’s what most people say.  But there are some people who, quite frankly, aren’t convinced that most people know what they’re talkin’ about.  I knew a man like that.  His name was Ken, and he married my sister.


Ken was nobody’s saint.  In fact, given some of the stories I could tell, he wasn’t even a choirboy.  He was just an average guy.  He got up in the morning and went to work every day.  He did the best he could with what he had, and sometimes that wasn’t good enough.  He worried too much.  He raised his children without an Instruction Manual and loved his grandchildren just because.  On occasion, he was a round peg, trying desperately to fit into one of life’s unforgiving square holes — and on occasion, he didn’t try.  In short, Ken was remarkably ordinary — except he wasn’t.

Here’s the real story:

Once upon a time, my sister lived in a basement apartment.  It was cold and it was dark, and when it rained, it was as damp as a dungeon,  One day, a handsome knight drove up in a shiny blue pickup truck, and when he saw my sister, he held out his hand and said, “I have something I want you to see.”  And my sister came out of the basement and went with the handsome knight.  And sometime later, on a night so beautiful even the moon blushed behind the clouds, the handsome knight pointed to the sky and said, “I’m going there: the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.  Will you come with me?”  And my sister said yes.  And for so many years, they travelled together, laughed and cried and played in the sunshine.  And when there were dragons, they slayed them, and when there were rainbows, they chased them, and when it was cold, they clung to each other against the wind.  And time on, later they had children who grew up and flourished and had children of their own.  And for my sister and her handsome knight summers and winters came and went.  And when there were dragons, they slayed them, and when there were rainbows, they chased them, and when it was cold, they clung to each other against the wind.  And for all their years, they lived happily ever after.

Bonnie Vandale 1946 – 2017

When I was a kid, my sister taught me how to play baseball.  She loved the game.  Then, when I got older, I got to play.  I wasn’t very good but my sister was, and the neighbourhood knew we came as a package.  (FYI, in our ‘hood, we had tons of gender equality before it was fashionable.)  The result was my sister played second base and I was stuck in left field.  Anybody who’s familiar with baseball knows that there’s not a whole hell of a lot to do in left field.  So I’ve had more than my share of time to think about the game and how my sister taught me how to play.


Lesson One — You have to try.  You have to step up to the plate and you have to try.  You can’t say “I don’t wanna” ’cause nobody else is going to do it for you.

Lesson Two — Swing for the fences!  Always give it your best shot — every time.  Every time!

Lesson Three — Play to win.  No matter what the score, no matter how difficult it is, no matter if it’s the bottom of the 9th and you’re down 5 runs — never give up.  Never!  Always remember, “It ain’t over, ’til it’s over.”

Lesson Four — Winning is fun, but winning doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t fair.  If you’re not going to play by the rules, don’t play.

Lesson Five — No sore losers.  Sometimes you strike out, sometimes you fumble a grounder and sometimes you lose.  We have to accept that.  We don’t have to like it — but we have to accept it.

And finally and most importantly:

Lesson Six — It’s a game.  It’s supposed to be fun.  Have fun!

It’s been a lot of years since I played sandlot baseball with my sister.  But to this day, whenever I step up to the plate, I swing for the fences.  That’s what my sister did her whole life — right up until the very end.  And that’s what she taught me to do.  Thanks, Bon. I love you.