Dispatches

Devil’s Night

John Patterson

I must have been eleven or twelve in 1966, when my old man decided to burn Martha Jones’s house down. At the time he was restless and figured the neighbourhood kids needed a thrill. We lived at St. George and 23rd Avenue in east Vancouver, in a forty-year-old three-storey house that my dad stuccoed in green and white rock and glass when I was about eight. He converted the attic into two bedrooms when he saw that his two young sons couldn’t share a ten-by-six pantry any more with their baby sister Cindy. My older brother Steve got first pick and the back bedroom, and I was stuck with the front bedroom overlooking the street and Sir Charles Tupper Secondary School. My brother’s logic was that back bedrooms were more dark and mysterious and farther away from the prying eyes of adults. It was here that he could secretly smoke Players’ cigarettes and view the women of Playboy. As the younger child by three years, I took it upon myself to inspect the room when he wasn’t there and blab to the parental authorities—also, of course, when he wasn’t there.

When the school wished to expand its recreational facilities, the city expropriated every lot on flat land in the tiny valley to the east of our house. Despite my father’s attempt to get the school board and the city to buy our nondescript abode, we were the first house on the rise west so his pleas went nowhere. Even his calls to Mayor Tom Campbell, a business associate, ended in failure. He must have felt that his connections to the mayor and his status as a major contractor would get him what he wanted—an excuse to move out of the neighbourhood so he could buy the Prince George Hotel, which had just gone up for sale and which he had wanted to own ever since his buddy Gord moved north. Later, he backed off and abandoned his dream when he realized that he would be hung from our backyard apple tree had we moved any farther north than Broadway.

Eventually the school board built a short alley beside our home and a tennis court next to that. In the years that followed, these two life-altering events really irked my father and further defined his role in the neighbourhood. The combination of tennis balls being batted back and forth by scrawny, foul-mouthed grade nine jerks and the noisy, screeching GTOs and Harley motorcycles that tore down the alley drove my father to wage a five-year fight with city hall and the police department. It never occurred to him that Steve’s souped-up Beaumont coupe and the speakers that spit out the Beach Boys from eight-track tapes were responsible for the increased police presence. Later, he was content to keep all the fuzzy yellow balls that landed in our yard and came through our basement windows and to accept, after intense lobbying with the city, the new speed bumps the city installed in the lane.

In order to build the lane and the play yard for the school, the city expropriated twenty-some-odd houses in all. Eventually every family and tenant moved out, and Martha Jones’s house kitty corner to ours became vacant. Martha and her kids—Jerry, Art and Sharon—moved to 28th Avenue in late August, and the old shingled two-storey dwelling stood vacant to the last day in October. During those eight weeks my father, always with a lit Camel cigarette in hand, would occasionally point out from our kitchen window that the house was a firetrap and an eyesore, and if you weren’t careful, a candle or a match would bring it down in a New York minute. “What the hell is taking the city so long?” he grumbled. “It only takes a minute to tear the goddamn thing down.” For two months he held off, but finally he couldn’t take it any more. My father was a man of action.

I had played in that house right up until the time I was too old for Jerry and Sharon to baby-sit me. My parents were good friends with Martha, especially after her no-good husband divorced her and left her alone with three small kids. She would never think that a fellow card-playing, smoking, rum-and-Coke drinker would just get up and think, “Socrates, you my man have a great idea,” and douse the old dame with accelerant.

In 1966, kids still dressed up for Halloween as Macbeth’s haggard witches, albeit in hand-me-downs and cheap plastic masks, and the night air was afoul and fit for toil and trouble. No one knew that trouble would be my father: Earl Patterson, father of three, respected builder of schools, hospitals and West End high-rises—Samhain, Celtic lord of death.

Yeah, my father was gruff and he swore, but he had to. Three kids under fourteen and 12 employees in the construction business can bring out the sailor in a man, and if that is true, my dad was a combination of Ahab and Bligh. He even wore a captain’s hat, like the one Elvis wore in Girls, Girls, Girls.

My father was born after World War I, but before the Great Depression. He left home when he was fourteen with a grade-eight education, determined to eke out a decent living. In the thirties he married, had two sons, got divorced and became a plasterer. In the forties he was the owner of two or three taxi fleets, which came in handy to his more profitable sideline—bootlegging. Much, much later, and only once, did he quietly show me a black leather doctor’s satchel that contained small steel instruments, which he said were used in that same era to help young, desperate women in need. By the fifties he was remarried, had two more sons and was caught up in the biggest scandal of the decade—the corrupt chief of police Walter Mulligan affair. For not testifying against Mulligan, my father spent a week in jail. He was involved in other things, enough to fill a Raymond Chandler novel, but in time he mellowed, settled down and had a daughter, and life got easier. In fact, lighting a match would be the easiest thing I ever saw him not do.

I remember the night. Around seven o’clock, just around the time trick-or-treating was ending, my father went missing. “Just goin’ to the garage,” he announced. “Yep, gonna do some welding.” Nobody thought twice about what he was up to. Well, not for an hour or so.

Sometime after that hour or so was up, I was sitting by our kitchen window when my father, at the foot of the back stairs, yelled, “Holy Christ, fire! Roxie, kids, the Joneses’ house is on fire!” When my mother and I saw the flames licking the outer walls from our kitchen window, we rushed outside without coats or sweaters, leaving my baby sister crying in her crib, and over to the carnage, eager to get front-row seats to the best event a kid could witness. My father and brother and the rest of the neighbourhood followed. Steve and I circled the house in awe, while the old man stood smiling at the excitement of the children. Their eyes flickered red from the flames and the flashing lights of the fire trucks. Hundreds gathered as black waves of smoke stormed out from the little wood house on St. George. It was the best treat of all on the night of treats.

We stood there in the cool autumn air until every last hose was coiled and loaded and every last potential witness had been interviewed. “Nope,” my father said to an unsuspecting officer. “Never saw a thing. Can’t imagine what happened. Was home welding at the time.” It was like Satan talking to God.

For the next week or so, he could be seen outside talking to neighbours, even Old Man Krussen, his arch enemy. “Hell of a thing,” he’d say. “Wonder who did it? Can’t say I’m sorry to see it go, though. Bloody thing was an eyesore. The city should have knocked it down a month ago. Somebody did the neighbourhood a favour.” “Well, I’ll grant you that,” Krussen would reply. “I’ll bet it was one of those damn kids who cut through my yard to get to school.”

For twenty years my father never admitted to lighting Martha Jones’s house on fire. Life carried on, and although he knew we knew—or at least heavily suspected—he proclaimed his innocence. Come to think about it, it was the old man who first alerted us to the blaze. It wasn’t until he’d had a few bouts in the hospital and a bleak prognosis that he got around to admitting it. Well, sort of. He said that when no one was looking he went to the garage, filled a jerry can with gasoline and headed over to Martha’s weed- and dandelion-tarped yard. He had slipped in through the basement door and tried to set the place on fire a couple of times, he said, but had failed. “I was just trying to liven up Halloween, that’s all. You know, for the kids. Besides, I was getting bored.” A man can’t just sit around.

To my pot-bellied, white-haired father, the fact that the Jones house had burned to the ground about thirty minutes later was coincidence. To the rest of us, it wasn’t. With a lot of needling, and great skepticism and laughter, we questioned him for weeks. We were convinced that if anyone had the guts to burn down the elderly abode, he did, and we knew that he, like the missing Nixon tapes, had been unaccounted for at the time. The fire department said it was arson, the police said they had no leads, but everyone in our little family knew the culprit: my father the arsonist, grinning and laughing in the flickering red and yellow flames, on our own private Devil’s Night.

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John Patterson

John Patterson is head of the Humanities Department of the School of Arts and Sciences at Vancouver Community College.


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