Untitled Louse Story

Illustration by Liz Syrnick.

Illustration by Liz Syrnick.

This “story” is really just a compilation of some anecdotes dad picked up in his first year living in Poplar River, Manitoba, a fly-in native reserve on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg. This was probably written in late 1969 or early 1970.

“Jim! C’mon in. When’d you get back? I thought you were in Winnipeg all this month.”

“Ah, that city! I couldn’t take it anymore. Left yesterday. All that hurry-hurry and noise they can have, I don’t want it.”

“Sit down. Coffee? Sorry I can’t give you anything stronger.”

“Coffee’s fine. I tied on a real doozer last night when we got back to Big Black. Another drop would probably kill me.”

“Or cure you.”

“That’s possible. So what’s new around here? Anyone die?”

“Been rather quiet. The mountie was in. Caught John-John running his still, took him back up to Norway with him. Margaret is back living with Sammy. There’s no meat in the Bay. There’s only eight of us out cutting pulp-wood, the other men say it’s too darn cold. Mail service stinks as always, we’ve only hed one delivery since you and Christine went out. And some rotten so-and-so is robbing my snares. Here’s your coffee.”

“Thanks. Well, it’s good to be back anyways. Where’s Jo?”

“I think she’s in the washroom cleaning out the lice comb. Jo!”

“Yeah.”

“Jim’s here.”

“So I hear. Be out in a minute.”

“Still checking for lice, huh?”

“Jo said four or five kids today were running a hotel for the things.”

“Thought they got rid of all the cases before Christmas.”

“But then Christmas break. The kids all slept at different houses and now it’s as bad as it was at the start of the year. The prime spreaders are…”

“Hi, Jim. When did you get back?”

“Jo. You’re looking well.”

“Thanks. I’m not feeling that well. I had a lousy day.”

“So Bill was just saying. Pretty bad, eh?”

“That’s putting it mildly. If one more little monster shows up tomorrow with lice I swear I’ll shave his head.”

“No need to get that drastic.”

“Well, it’s maddening. Just when you think you’ve got it all cleaned up somebody goes to Berens or Norway or somewhere, comes back with a full head of the little uglies, and the whole cycle starts over again. And the business of shaving the kids has been done.”

“Where?”

“Ann was saying today when she was at Big Trout in Ontario they shaved the head of any kid who showed up at school with lice. Apparently it worked in two ways. The ones that had their head shaved, that eliminated that problem. And the ones who wanted to keep their hair made sure their parents got rid of the lice at home. Ann says in a month there wasn’t a louse in the village.”

“Well, maybe it would work. But then again it probably wouldn’t, as long as there’s kids like the Dinora kid, eh, Jim?”

“Haw haw, that’s right.”

“What’s this about?”

“Remember last winter, Jim and I went down to Berens? Well, while we were there Marcel Dinora told us about his youngest daughter, she came home one day with a louse in her hair, just one single louse. She didn’t bother telling anybody, but that night her mother was washing her hair and found it. I guess she really hit the ceiling. I mean, I’ve been in their house and it’s spotless, and so are the kids. So Marcel told his daughter she was to tell them soon as she ever felt a louse in her hair. And by way of encouragement, he said he’d give her a dollar for every louse she turned in.”

“Oh, no, she didn’t…”

“She sure did. Over the next few weeks Marcel spent something like twenty-two dollars buying his own personal collection of lice. Then one day he saw the kid’s teacher and she asked Marcel what sort of new game the kids were playing. She told him during recess his daughter and the other kids were going into a corner at the back of the room and rubbing heads!”

“Ooooh, how horrible!”

“You gotta give the girl credit for her entrepreneurial spirit.”

“Say, Bill, speaking of lice. I ever tell you and Jo about the time – the only time – I was ever lousy?”

“No, go on.”

“We were heading south for Riverton one evening from Black River. My brother was fishing with me and we had along some old guy from Fish River who’d been dressing fish at the station, just coming along for the ride.

“‘Bout eight that night we were a mile or two past Poplar Point when we run into some real choppy weather. From the looks of things the weather wasn’t going to improve any so we decided to head back to the station at Poplar and sit the night out there. So the three of us tied down the boat, headed into the cook shack for a quick meal, then tried to find someplace to bunk down.

“In those days the station was a real going concern and there was only one bunk free. You know my brother, he’s quite a bit bigger than me, so I told him he could take the free bunk and the guy from Fish and I would share my sleeping bag. Which was fine till about three the next morning, when I woke up, found my head just crawling with lice. I jump out of the bag and kick that guy from Fish River. He wakes up and I say to him, ‘Hey, you got lice?’ He scratches his head for a minute or two, says, ‘Reckon so.’ I spent the rest of the night down at the dock, washing my hair.”

“You got rid of them?”

“I think so. But the next day when we got to Riverton I went out, bought a complete new set of clothes, had my brother shave off my hair, then I walked down the bank a ways, stripped off all my clothes, had a good bath, and then changed. I threw my old clothes plus my sleeping bag, which was one of those Arctic Three-Stars and worth about a hundred, into a big bonfire.”

“Did you make the guy from Fish River buy you a new bag?”

“No, I just wanted him out of my sight as quick as possible. The last I saw of him he was walking down the dock, scratching his chest.”

“That reminds me of just about the first thing Jo and I saw when we came to Poplar River. Remember?”

“Ooooh, that was sort of funny. Though I didn’t think so at the time. In fact it was almost enough to make me want to head back south.”

“Picture this. Start of the school year four years ago. A Norseman lands at the government dock, bringing in all the new teachers. On the dock, as usual, the whole village. We can see all this as we taxi up and we’re about as nervous as all get-out. I mean, we’d never been north, never lived anywhere other than a big city. We didn’t know if the Indians could speak English. We didn’t know if they got along with whites or just put up with them cause they had to. All of this is going through our minds as we climb out of the plane.

“Nobody says anything. They just look and look and look. I had to help throw the things out of the plane, which kept me busy, but Jo and the other new teacher just stood on the dock getting looked at. Finally the nurse shows up and invites us all over for a bite to eat. She tells me to leave the luggage on the dock because we were living on the RC island and would have to cross over later.

“So we start up the dock. As we’re walking along, we notice this one old guy, this white guy, who seems to be scratching all over. Then, just as we get alongside him, his hand reaches into his shirt, under what looks like yellow long-johns, they’re that filthy. He pulls out something, holds it like this. He looks at it for a second or two, shakes his head. He goes, ‘Aw, you’re too young to leave home’ – and he puts the darn louse back in his shirt again!”

“Haw, haw, haw…you know who the guy was?”

“Never met him again. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to number him among my friends.”

“It sorta sounds like old Toby Smith. He probably did it on purpose, he’s that type of guy. He likes to tease the mawmawnieu. The greenhorns.”

“You’re saying it was a put-on? He didn’t have lice?”

“No, he has lice alright. In fact, him and his lice scared away all the moose around the first rapids at Big Black.”

“How’s that?”

“A couple years ago, old Toby came over, said he wanted to get a moose for the winter, wondered if I wanted to go out with him. I didn’t have anything to do so I went along.

“The first day we spotted some sign that wasn’t too old. We followed the freshest tracks till dark, then camped. Next morning we got up first light and picked up some good tracks right off. Old Toby knows that area pretty well, so he suggested we try and circle around the first rapids and get upwind of it.

“We made the circle okay, and we’re sitting in a clump of aspen, waiting for the moose to cross this little clearing. We knew if it didn’t cross in the next half-hour we’d made a bad guess and we’d probably lose it, but sometimes you have to take a chance like that.

“Bout fifteen minutes after we settle down, old Toby suddenly motions me to keep quiet. I look over at whatever he’s raising his rifle at, but I can’t see anything. But old Toby, he’s just squinting down his rifle barrel and finally, Kapow!

“Well, I can see where the 30-30 kicked up a pile of snow, but I still can’t see any moose. Meanwhile, old Toby lets out a shout. I ask him what the heck he figures he shot. Well, sir, he looks out across the clearing and his eyes get bigger and bigger. Can’t see anything. He squints across the clearing again and, Bam! Lets off another round. I still can’t see anything and, after he takes another look, neither can he.

“Poor old Toby. He doesn’t know what to make of it. Every time he squints, he sees a moose, but when he opens his eyes wider, it’s gone. And then suddenly he lets out with a laugh. I mean, a real laugh. He drops his rifle and rolls around in the snow, hanging on to his belly. Bout this time I’m figuring he’s maybe crazy, what with shooting at moose that aren’t there, and now this crazy laughing. Finally, he stops and I ask him what was so blamed funny.

“‘Just this,’ he says, and he throws off his mitts and pulls a louse off his eyelid, ‘Here’s my moose,’ and starts in laughing again.”

“You mean, he’d been…”

“He’d been firing at a louse. Every time he squinted, he could make out an old bull moose standing across the clearing.”

“So, thanks to a lousy hunter, the moose managed to escape, eh?”

“Yup, and since then anytime he and I are going hunting, I make him take a bath.”

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