The man in the suit there is named Peter Willie, too. And Two. As in “The Second.” Peter Willie II. I am not the third, by the way, though we are named after the same person: his father, my maternal grandfather. A quick bit of logic will tell you that this makes him my uncle and you’ll understand why everyone in the family called him “Junior.”
Junior was also my Godfather. He looks not unlike the other, Ford Coppola-type of Godfather in this picture which, incidentally, was taken the day he officially became my Godfather; that is, the day I was baptized as a #Catholic. I really appreciate the Godparent-Godchild relationship and lament its disappearance in this generation of young ones. I always felt a closeness with Junior and my aunt Pep (his sister, my Godmother) because of their Godparent status, and my brothers and cousins would always have some special relationship with whomever their godparents were, even if it was just getting an extra gift on birthdays or at Christmas. Junior gave me my first Lego set, for instance, taught me to ride an ATV, and took me on fishing trips in the country with Pep and others: ice fishing in winter and reel-fishing in summer. We cooked beans on campfires, made tea, roasted trout, the whole deal. One time he wanted to take me river fishing for a full day in the fall, but my mother and father insisted that I not miss any school, so we had to go around 3:30pm in failing light and I fell into the river and we cut the trip short. (I’m certain I would have learnt far more that day if I had spent it in the country fishing instead of at school. Or maybe I would have slipped on some rock and died – who can ever know?).
I was told at some point that if my parents died, my Godparents would become my new parents, so I figured it would be good to get to know them, just in case. Through spending time with them, they instilled a good degree of fight in me. Neither Junior nor Pep took crap from anyone – they’re both fiery people with little tolerance for nonsense – and they passed on some of that take-no-crap attitude to me. It’s interesting, now that I give it some thought, that my parents chose people so different from themselves to be my Godparents. My own parents had this meekness and high-minded reasonableness, preferring to talk out disputes and avoid conflicts, especially physical violence; while my Godparents wouldn’t shy away from duking it out if someone offended them. I really appreciated this counterbalance. When some kid was giving me a hard time at school, Junior instructed me to just punch him in the face, and if he didn’t stop, to keep punching until he did. Simple. Straight-forward. I like it.
Junior himself had been pretty tiny and he was picked on throughout grade school. But he had a growth spurt between Grades 10 and 11 and then started lifting weights, so that he was about 6'2" and 260 pounds in his senior year. This probably caused some panic in his former aggressors. He developed a soft spot for the little guys getting picked on and would use his new-found stature to intervene and more-or-less beat the piss out of the bullies, to hear him tell it. I think he must have had a bit of a lasting chip on his shoulder, though, for when he was in his early twenties and I was an even Younger Tree, I recall that he would sometimes go out to bars seemingly looking for a reason to get into a brawl.
Junior always kept some fight in him, but he stopped such youthful shenanigans once he started a family of his own. He gave me a bit of insight into his life and his way of being one night during a Christmas party at my parents' house, telling me a story about when he started his family. He told me that when he and his future wife, Kelly, were expecting their first child, he had never had anything resembling a career, preferring instead to find work here and there, make hay while the sun was shining, and enjoy his leisure time in the country. Some of his peers and family doubted his ability to hold a job and provide properly, and they told him so, coaching him to find steady employment and settle down. But Junior didn’t care to fit into any sort of mold, and he told these folks that he was going to go into the woods and cut enough trees to build a house. They all laughed at him, he told me, as he had never built a house in his life. But he went into the woods, by himself, cut logs and dried them in his mother’s yard, bought more cheap lumber from old buildings being demolished on the American naval base, and checked out a book from the library with the illustrative title “How to Build a House.” With the help of some friends and family, he built a beautiful A-frame and he and Kelly made their family in it. It remains a warm and beautiful home to this day.
That story contains the crux of Junior’s life philosophy, I think: decide what you want to do, follow through with it, and for the most part, don’t listen to anybody else. It’s quite straightforward and it seeped into me over the years – and quite poignantly on the very night he told me that story. I was 23 at the time, and had just returned home after spending seven months traveling in the U.S. and Canada, and working building mountain biking trails in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Junior appreciated that I was spending my early twenties traveling around the country, working here and there, and acquiring new skills; he said I had the same spirit as him in that way. He told me about his own departure from his parents’ home when he was a teenager. He was 16, just finished high school, and his mother said “I don’t know where you’re going to live now, but it’s not here.” So he got on the ferry in Argentia and hitch-hiked to Toronto to find work. He talked about running out of money and sleeping on the sides of roads, but loving the sense of freedom such spontaneity gave him: the mystery of not knowing what was coming next and the sense of personal power in deciding everything for himself.
He was speaking my language. In the previous seven months, I had travelled about 20,000 kilometres on my own and had lived in Calgary, working in the mountains west of there, for three of those months. I had learned to read people and trust my intuitions, rely on the kindness of others, and go with the flow of things (I ran into the trail-building job by chance, after getting stuck outside of Calgary trying to hitch-hike to the Okanagan Valley). I was also developing a sense of agency that I hadn’t really possessed before, and was experiencing that my own attitude had real-life consequences. Though our circumstances were different, Junior and I had had some similar experiences, and he looked at me with perfect understanding and nodded his head as I told him that I was starting to realize that the biggest barrier for me in everything I had ever tried and failed to do was myself; that every time I was defeated it was because I had made a choice to be so. Junior then said, “Well, if you realizes that, then you can do whatever you wants.”
I paused. “What do you mean?”
“You can do whatever you wants,” he said again, more emphatically this time. “If you’ve only got yourself to answer to, then you’re the only one who’s going to decide what you can and can’t do. No one else. You don’t ever have to listen to what anyone else says you can or should do.” And, pushing his index finger into my chest, “You do whatever you wants to do.” I don’t know if it was at that exact moment, but sometime around then I remember having this strange sensation that my insides were made of wax, and that they were heating up, bubbling and shifting about, and then they hardened into some new and unexpected shape. I was entering into a new era of my life where my own sense of agency would be the guiding force. It was exhilarating.
Talking more about this, Junior told me that he really tries to instill this sense of self-direction into his own children, and that he doesn’t care what they do in their lives, so long as they are their own masters. I think his greatest desire was that his children grow up to be independent, free-thinking people who live on their own terms, and never have to answer to anyone they don’t respect. He told me that he wasn’t too concerned about it all, because he believed both of his children to be hard-headed individuals who were never going to be told what to do by anyone, including himself, which he was mostly okay with. He also wanted them to have practical skills – to be able to catch their own food, build their own shelters, and fix their own machines – which he taught them at every opportunity. He did fear for their future, though, as he told me at a different gathering a few years later, when only he and I remained, talking into the early morning. “It poisons me, Peter, to see my children with these phones and TVs and toys that are all being made by children like themselves. They don’t even realize that they only have them because other youngsters are working like slaves to make them. It’s not right.” He went on to lament our disposable society. “If something breaks, you should fix it. But these days if something breaks we just throw it into the garbage and don’t think twice about it. If my son's or daughter’s phone stops working, they’ll toss it away and buy a new one, because it’s easier to do that than to fix it.” (Junior had the same cell phone for about 15 years). “It sickens me to think of the plastics and electronics and other pollution in the forests and oceans and rivers. The young people don’t even realize that the way they live their lives causes it – my children might not even be able to fish in the same places as we do now. It poisons me. Poisons me.”
A few years after that, in the summer of 2016, Junior came to see myself and The Blooms play at The Ship Pub, but he wasn’t feeling well and made a trip to the hospital shortly after, where he found out that a misdiagnosed hernia he had been dealing with for some time was actually cancer. He went through all of the usual treatments, and some experimental ones, over the next year or so. We'd visit now and then. In September 2017, my mother called me to come home because Junior was in the hospital. About a dozen of us gathered around his bed there, saying our respective goodbyes. His wife and children were there, as were many of his siblings. I didn’t say much except “thank you,” as I held his hand and moved my face close to his, so he would hear and see me. Some people who lived elsewhere sent messages to be read out to him. The television was on in the room and advertisements played surreally in the background: Jim “The Hammer” Shapiro, personal injury lawyer, bleating out a sales pitch that seemed to become intermittently muffled and amplified by the thickness of emotion in the room. Everyone was crying.
It was known that Junior did not want to take his last breaths in front of his wife and children. A nurse came in to check on him and everyone left the room except his eldest sister, and it was in that moment that he died. His body was cremated and his ashes spread on Castle Hill, where he grew up. We raised glasses of liquor and threw all of the dust and bone into the wind, overlooking Placentia Bay. Some of those ashes sailed out into the bay, some went to the trees and ground around Castle Hill, some blew back onto us. Some went up my nose and, standing by myself later in the afternoon, I sneezed out small pieces of my godfather’s earthly body. Another brief union, another departure. “Thanks for the fishing trips,” I said to the dust.
Both man and master, in the night are one
Some things are equal when the day is done
The prince and the ploughman,
The slave and the free man
All find their comfort in old John o' Dreams.
- From "John O' Dreams" by Bill Caddick, a favourite song of Junior's, which I sang at his funeral service