Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In Memorium: Karl Staats 1962-1983

I was overcome with an unaccountable melancholy when I woke up this morning and soon came to realize it was because of the weather. This kind of weather always reminds me of that March day so long ago when my mother called me to tell me that my friend, Karl, had been murdered when his car broke down and he gone to a house to ask for help. He was shot in the head because he asked for help. It was March 21, 1983.

Karl and I first met each other in Grade 7 and went on to be very tight friends by the time we were in Grade 13. We at first had competed against each other for grades, especially in English – which I find really ironic for two Mohawk kids to be excelling at. My competitive nature didn't want to be friends but he won me over -- he was slyly funny and whip-smart. We both loved fiction and wrote reams of poetry and used to try and outdo each other with our short stories and poems, competing for prizes and then later collaborating on work together because we admired each other’s turn of phrase and mindset so well. It was really the first time in my life I had realized that you could be friends with a member of the opposite sex and love them thoroughly without any kind of messy sex tension rising between you. It was because deep down we were brother and sister, tuned into the same kind of cosmic interests and a bone-deep conviction that our lives were going to take us far from the reserve. By the time we were in Grade 13 – he was the only guy with me, Lynx and Lorrie the last remaining Indian kids with our sights on university (when I started at that school there were over 100 kids from the reserve in Grade 9; by the time we graduated Grade 13 there was just the four of us. Goes to show you how hard it is for aboriginal kids to get into higher education). By then our interests had expanded into music, both of us freaks for Motorhead, the Ramones, Judas Priest – any kind of loud, thrashy stuff that jarred with our classmates who wanted to listen to Journey and Styx. We also liked bizarre movies, the two of us quoting A Clockwork Orange and Monty Python’s Holy Grail much to the eye-rolling of everyone else, or breaking into spontaneous song from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. We were forbidden after a while from being partners when we would play euchre in our Grade 13 spares because we had a psychic connection which meant we could guess what each other was holding in their hand – and clean everyone else out for their lunch money. We hung out on weekends and traded music back and forth, along with books and bits of writing, poetry, critiquing each other’s work with suggestions that were only meant to make it better. We would skip school when the weather got better and smoke joints on the beach at Port Dover and talk about music and poetry. Karl played guitar so it was inevitable he would start a band and I would get invited to band practice, allowed to hang out and offer suggestions. God it sounds like some kind of teen movie and I guess in a way it was.

After graduation I went to York University because I had delusions of being a writer. Karl went to Fanshawe in London were he was studying sound engineering. Our contact started falling off because our lives were just going in different directions. Back then there was no internet, no email, no cellphone to make it easy to keep in contact. We tried making the effort to hang out but our schedules were just so radically different. It wasn’t because we hated each other or that there was a dramatic falling-out, it was just the reality of being in different cities with contact getting increasingly infrequent when we managed to be at home on the Rez at the same time. And you know – it is with great sadness that I don’t even remember the last time I saw him. But I remember him playing guitar, and headbanging, and I know utterly that we would still have been friends especially in light of the music that was starting to come out – Husker Du and the Replacements, Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black Flag, Sonic Youth – all of those bands that were fusing thrashing, angry guitars with thoughtful, poetic lyrics and intense melodies – and also because of the books and films and theatre and art we were both being exposed to.

That horrible morning...I remember the numbing shock and the taste of ashes in my mouth, my knees buckling and sliding down the wall of the phone booth on my dorm floor, hearing what my mother was telling me but not comprehending, not understanding that Karl was dead, that he had been shot. In the head. Because his car had broken down and he had gone to a house to ask for help. And I couldn’t cry. I didn’t cry at the funeral, or at the horrible visitation at the funeral home where they had an open casket and he was as pale as only a corpse can be with a ghastly putty thing over his forehead that was supposed to mask the bullet wound. I’ve never been able to cry about it, for him, until now. And now I weep as I write this, remembering it as vividly as if it had been last week.

It was a bad footnote. Indian kid gets shot by a white man. White man claims he was defending his property. White man gets sentenced to ten years involuntary manslaughter (whatever the fuck that means) and gets out in three years (for good behaviour). Wonder what would have happened had it been the other way around? You tell me.

Three years and this murderer got his life back.

Karl is dead and the potential for who and what he could have become – god I feel so desolate in thinking about that.

In 1983 we were 20 years old, with our lives ahead of us and a future so bright it was blinding. And for Karl, it was snuffed out in an instant and only the memory remains, and some of us in mourning for all the might have beens.