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  • Writer's pictureEmmett Grogan

War Balloons

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

We were in the air, on a bombing run over the Big Rock, when the call was made to divert the mission to Glenda Clearwater’s burn barrel: this spastic kid we nicknamed Shakey had spotted the flames in her backyard, and the old woman’s burn barrel would make a good dry run for our eventual assault on Turk Morgan’s base camp, behind the high school parking lot.

Turk Morgan had disappeared into the woods behind our school, but we all knew he ran the high school bullies, down the road from St. Mary’s. He was only fourteen, but even the high school bullies were afraid of Turk Morgan. We weren’t supposed to leave school property, but Turk Morgan didn’t play by the rules. If we wanted to hit Turk Morgan with our water balloons, we needed to follow him deep into the forest. But first, we needed to put out the flames behind Glenda Clearwater’s house, before her shed caught on fire.

It was the Wednesday Smokey Bear had visited our school, so we were all civic-minded. If Smokey Bear hadn’t visited our school that morning we probably would have left well-enough alone, and not water-bombed Glenda Clearwater’s backyard.

She’d been burning yard waste: it was just after Easter, 1983, first week of April, and there was still snow on the ground, unmelted in the shade of the burn barrel.

It was a complete disaster: somehow, we knocked a few tree branches out of the barrel, sending sparks into the sky. The snow caught on fire, burning the grass, causing a woodpile to catch on fire, engulfing her backyard shed in flames. We used every single water balloon at our disposal, holding nothing back, but each water bomb we tossed on the fire exploded without any effect on the flames. By the time the school lunch-bell rang, we were scooping handfuls of snow into chip bags, and tossing those at the fire, desperate. As the roof of Glenda Clearwater’s garden shed collapsed, it was all we could do to evacuate the scene, and get out of the rain.

Not our finest hour, despite the RCAF wedge caps we’d folded out of coloured paper.

I didn’t expect Smokey Bear to hand us a gold medal, but for all we did, a t-shirt or a button would have been a nice gesture of appreciation. Maybe a pen, with the slogan, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires” would have been appropriate compensation.

The problem was, we had used up all of our water balloons, chasing Kerwin and Geoff Schmidt (Turk’s lone henchmen) through the forest. They still had control of the Big Rock, and we couldn’t follow Turk Morgan across the street to the high school parking lot, and then behind the high school parking lot, without capturing the Big Rock first.

We controlled the Little Rock, but strategically, it wasn’t worth shit.

We had burned off $10 worth of water balloons, and not even engaged our secondary targets, let alone our primary target. Glenda Clearwater’s burn barrel had been a diversion from a diversion, and in the grand scheme of things, an incredible waste of resources.

During afternoon recess, as we stood around staring at Glenda Clearwater’s smouldering garden shed, the boys turned to me for a plan to replenish our water balloon arsenal: we needed at least twenty bags of water balloons, 25 balloons per bag. As war materiel, water balloons were not just something we could steal from Hebert’s Grocery: the old man kept the good stuff behind his cash desk, and refused to sell us fireworks, eggs, spray paint, or even water balloons. What if we got the old man to put a roll of quarters ($10!) on a tab for us, and then quietly purchased the balloons across town at Manilla’s Confectionary, not all at once, but a bag at a time? They could be for a birthday party, or a backyard wedding, if anybody asked what we were doing.

“My dad says the old man charges 52% annual interest on overdue accounts, 1% interest per week. We could get a mortgage at 18%! Leave it to me: I can get $10 together like falling off the back of a truck. There’s always some work going around at the arena, or the curling rink.”

Except there wasn’t any work going around at the arena, or the curling rink; not even behind the counter at the bowling alley.

It was too late in the season to shovel snow, too early to cut grass: having sold 22 pounds of copper for $14 at the scrapyard in Thunder Bay, then misplacing the $14 in the toy department at Zellers, that didn’t leave me a lot of options for earning money: the retarded girl who’d moved to town in January to become the inaugural client of the new Life Skills program already had the empty beer bottles business all locked up, sweeping the entire community each garbage day for returnable beer and pop bottles.

I had this idea of dressing up my sister Jackie as a girl and charging Mrs. Kochan to babysit her for a few hours, but Jackie was no dummy: she would have insisted we split the cash.

Without water balloons, it would have been another long hot summer of hand-to-hand combat against Turk Morgan in the ravine behind David Locker’s house, but almost immediately I came to regret my bravado, boasting to my friends about the ease of pulling together $10.

Derf had figured out a foolproof method of winning free bags of chips from Hostess, but I needed $10, not a bag of potato chips crushed flat and held against a light bulb by some weirdo.

By the time St. Mary’s and George O’Neill Public School got together for our annual inter-school badminton tournament, I still hadn’t come up with the $10 the boys and I needed for a fresh supply of water balloons to capture the Big Rock, and I was rapidly losing face.

The boys: me and Duke, the four Kochan brothers, Mouse, Chum, Baggie, Beano, Derf, Smiley, Chuck-Chuck, Shack, Pepsi, Gump, Gay Jay, Shakey, Mannimoe, and the class burn-out we called Plutoman, because the kid always seemed to be spaced out on cough syrup.

That year, George O’Neill Public School hosted the tournament, up the hill on Brennan Drive. We could have walked from St. Mary’s to George O’Neill in less than five minutes, but Sister Margaret insisted we take the school bus to our rival school: Sister Margaret was all about enforcing discipline. Sister Margaret wasn’t a teacher: she was just this old broad who set you up early in life to trip over your own shoes later on, like most authority figures.

My mom forgot to leave me money for hot dogs, so I had to borrow $2 from Shakey for lunch. I found out later, my mom had put the money in a bowl on top of the refrigerator, thinking I wouldn’t check her purse for the money: Shakey’s dad owned the local Petro-Canada franchise, so Shakey always had an extra $20 in his sock, in case of an emergency.

Until you’ve pried a set of nickels out of your mom’s decorative coffee coasters (the 1967 centennial rabbits!), just to have a little walking-around money, you’ve never really been poor.

It was a ladder tournament, with each pairing playing at least three games of badminton, but mostly we sat in the bleachers waiting to be called to the floor. I swept my first opponent, but then got eliminated from the tournament in the second round. At the end of the day, the final was a match-up between two girls, both from George O’Neill Public School, so I guess you could say the public school won our annual tournament, beating out the inferior kids from “St. Remy’s”, as usual.

Before we boarded our bus to return to St. Mary’s, Sister Margaret sent me and Andy Bickle back to the gymnasium, to collect a badminton birdie that had gone missing. She knew we had brought two dozen badminton birdies to the tournament, and would not permit us to return to our school with anything less than that: the way Sister Margaret acted, you’d think the money for gym supplies came out of her own pocket (or wherever it is nuns keep their money tucked, when out in the world.)

By the time we re-entered George O’Neill, the school was empty for the day.

Pickles and I searched the gym from top to bottom, inspecting the basketball nets; the grills covering the ceiling lights; the floor; all four corners of the room. We crawled behind the piano, then went up on the gymnasium stage and pushed through the velvet curtains, stumbling around in the dark. We unlocked the sports equipment supply closet, and searched in there. We didn’t find anything, but decided to search the gym lobby; both change rooms; the washrooms in the change rooms; the toilets in both washrooms; even the toilet tanks behind both toilets.

We went into the school library, and started pulling books off the shelves, tossing them on the floor, one-upping each other for silliness. “Check the window: maybe somebody knocked the birdie outside the library. It could be hidden in the snow: we better search the sidewalk.”

We were dragging it out, having fun with the search before heading back to the bus and being forced to admit to Sister Margaret that we couldn’t find the birdie, despite searching damn near everywhere in George O’Neill Public School, even the teachers’ lounge.

“Is this our classroom?” Andy came stumbling out of a janitor’s closet, cracking me up.

As Pickles went into the special education room to tear it apart, tossing pillows around, and chewing carpet, I found a $20 bill, folded up like a cross, sitting on the water fountain. That was kind of weird, I thought, but convinced myself that I was just lucky. Like the son-of-a-bitch who found my $14 on the ground, in the toy department at Zellers, and took off without saying a word: the lucky guy just pocketed the cash, and disappeared, wounding me for life.

I didn’t say anything to Andy, because finding that folded-up $20 bill, I honestly felt as if I had been touched by the hand of God. (Years later, at the dog park, I found a loonie on the edge of a trash can, while depositing a broken wine bottle. The gold coin hadn’t been there a moment earlier, when I deposited my bag of poo, so I felt like God was bumping fists with me, personally blessing me with the gift of $1 cash for keeping broken glass out of the park: Go with dog.)

I could use the $20 to pay back Shakey the $2 I borrowed for lunch, purchase 500 water balloons from Manilla’s Confectionary, and still have enough money left over to return to the toy department at Zellers for the new Super Powers action figures I had seen back in February.

Andy had me in hysterics, bent double laughing, like we’d been farting at each other in a five-star restaurant, but when we returned to the parking lot, we saw the rest of our class lined up against the school bus looking like they were about to be executed by firing squad.

Most of the kids were in tears: something really bad had happened, and it didn’t take too long for me and Pickles to figure out why Sister Margaret had kept everyone off the bus, lined up in the parking lot for over an hour: it wasn’t about the missing badminton birdie.

We were told to empty the pockets of our gym shorts, and hand the contents to Sister Margaret.

Andy’s pockets were empty, but I had forgotten about the folded-up cross in the back pocket of my track pants.

Seeing the folded-up $20 bill, Sister Margaret looked like she was about to hit me with a yardstick, but then thought better of it: like a crown attorney, she wanted to be absolutely certain of one last detail, before I tried to talk my way out of the situation, outfoxing her.

She turned to Shakey for corroboration of a fact she already knew: “Walter, did you give Emmett your sock money? Answer the question: this is important.” But for God’s sake! The kid was so scared, his glasses were sliding off his face, and it just wasn’t fair to make Shakey act as a witness against me, in front of pretty much our whole school: nobody wants to be remembered as a snitch, even if they didn’t have a choice but to put the obvious facts on the record.

“N-n-n-n-no! H-h-he doesn’t h-h-have any m-m-money! I-I-I-I-I h-h-h-had to l-l-loan Emmett t-t-t-two d-d-d-d-dollars for l-l-l-l-lunch!” Shakey stammered.

“You lent Emmett two dollars for lunch, because Emmett came to school without money for hot dogs today? And you didn’t touch your emergency money? Is the money still folded up in your sock?” Sister Margaret confirmed Shakey’s testimony, gesturing toward his ankle.

“Y-y-yes!” Shakey started to cry, exhausted and confused from standing in the sun for so long without water, sunscreen or even a baseball cap, immediately understanding that he had said something significant, but not quite knowing what it was: the poor nervous bastard.

Sister Margaret turned to me: the cracks in her face were pulsing with anger, like the wrath of God made flesh.

I’d have been no worse off, caught trading nickels for dimes with the retarded girl.

“Emmett Grogan, you’re a thief! You took that $20 out of my purse, and tried to hide it by folded it up in the shape of a cross! You’re a lying sneak, and there’s nothing I despise more!”

I didn’t say anything, paralyzed by the malevolence of her accusation.

She didn’t even ask me where I’d found the money, or if I wanted to give it back, let alone when I’d become such an expert at origami.

The old broad just jumped to the conclusion that I’d ripped her off, and put her boot on my neck in front of all my friends: Duke, three of the four Kochan brothers (Boyd wasn’t there; the baby had scabies), Mouse, Chum, Baggie, Beano, Derf, Smiley, Chuck-Chuck, Shack, Pepsi, Gump, Gay Jay, Shakey, Mannimoe, Plutoman; even Bubba Tosset: and none of those guys ever again gave me the benefit of the doubt, because what else could they do, but assume I had stolen the money to buy something as childish as candy-coloured war balloons, for our gang.

It’s tragic how a single event can define your entire life, the way you are perceived for years to come. Often, it’s a moment you don’t even remember, some insignificant action (even a joke uttered in a split-second of rage!) that becomes your identity. Like a woman with big tits, or a dude with a harelip, once you are marked by the world, it’s hard to change how you are looked at, no matter what’s in your heart, whether it’s heart full of sorrow, or a heart full of ambition.

That afternoon, less than two weeks before our grade six class trip to Thunder Bay, Sister Margaret branded me a thief in front of all my friends.

Do you know what that does to a kid?


I’ve told you what that does to a kid: I just wish I could have figured out who folded that $20 bill into the shape of a cross, and left it for me to find on the water fountain: either it was the devil, or God: or maybe both God and the devil were there that afternoon, placing a wager on my immortal soul. Would the humiliation of being labelled a thief either save me, or ruin me? And if that’s the case, then I have to ask: who won the bet? The devil?

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