The Wild Boy of Waubamik

By Thom Ernst

The Wild Boy of Waubamik
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“An inspiring story of resilience, told with a vivid sense of character and humour. ” —RICHARD CROUSE, CTV host and film critic
Film critic, writer, and broadcaster Thom Ernst chronicles his life growing up with an abusive father in rural Ontario.
The residents of Waubamik ... Read more


“An inspiring story of resilience, told with a vivid sense of character and humour. ” —RICHARD CROUSE, CTV host and film critic
Film critic, writer, and broadcaster Thom Ernst chronicles his life growing up with an abusive father in rural Ontario.
The residents of Waubamik know about the Wild Boy, a somewhat feral child, standing nearly naked in a rusty playground of weeds and discarded metal, clutching a headless doll. They know the boy has been plucked from poverty and resettled into a middle-class family. But they don’t know that something worse awaits him there.
This is the story of a system that failed, a community that looked the other way, and a family that kept silent. It is also a record of the popular culture of the 1960s — a powerful set of myths that kept a boy comforted. But ultimately, The Wild Boy of Waubamik is a story of triumph, of a man who grew up to become a film critic and broadcaster despite his abusive childhood. It reminds us that life, even at its darkest, can surprise us with moments of joy and hope and dreams for the future.

Thom Ernst

Thom Ernst is a film writer, broadcaster, and critic. He was the former host and producer of TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies. Thom currently lives in Toronto with his wife, daughter, and a cat.

First chapter

Chapter 1
Dad didn’t care much for Catholics, but I wouldn’t know how much until my sister married one. Up until then I wasn’t even aware we had an opinion on Catholics. Although, looking back, I recall Dad being angry at Bing Crosby for starring as a kindly priest in the 1944 film Going My Way.
“There’s no such thing as a good Catholic priest,” Dad would say.
My sister Anna was marrying James in a Catholic church. On the day of the wedding, Dad announced that he’d be damned if he was going to set foot inside one of those priest-infested monstrosities and that Anna could walk herself down the aisle. Mom told Dad to stop being such a damn fool, get his suit on, and go. That’s when Dad stormed out of the house, taking Clancy, his beloved Irish Setter, with him. Uncle Quinnie was in town for the wedding. He called after Dad, but the door had already shut.
Mom said that suited her just fine. She would go to the church on her own. If he decided to show up, he showed up. But she wasn’t going to sit around and watch while he ruined their daughter’s wedding. Uncle Quinnie told Mom not to worry, that Dad would come around. Mom said she didn’t care if he did. But from what I could see from the glimpse I got of Anna in the dining room that had been converted into the bride’s dressing room, Anna cared, and so did the bridesmaids who gathered around her. I was just grateful that Mom was angrier with Dad than she was with me for falling and tearing a hole in the knee of my new dress pants.
Later, I was in the kitchen with Uncle Bob, Uncle Quinnie, and Aunt Jean. Valerie, my eldest sister, and her husband, Wayne, were also there. Dad still hadn’t come around. The kitchen was small, made smaller with all the aunts and uncles crowded in trying to keep our voices down — except Uncle Bob who, after adding a little extra something in his coffee so he could appropriately celebrate the day, said if something’s worth saying aloud, it was worth saying loud. I was the only one seated, having been commanded to stay put now that the hole in my pants had been mended. Mom walked in wearing a dress, a necklace, and bright-red lipstick. My uncle commented on how wonderful she looked. Mom offered up an exaggerated grin, meant, I suppose, to be a blushing acceptance. Then she mentioned that Dad’s hunting rifle was gone. This new revelation got no more weight than when Wayne had walked in announcing that Dad’s car was still in the garage.
Aunt Jean folded her arms. She shook her head and looked to the side where it was impossible for me to read her expression. Wayne, being the junior of the men in the room, seemed unsure of how much responsibility fell to him in coming up with a solution. But since making decisions is part of Wayne’s DNA, he told Valerie, who should have been with the bridesmaids comforting the bride, to go on ahead to the church without him. He suggested, but not with the same authority, that Mom do the same.
“We can’t go without him,” Valerie said.
“To hell, we can’t,” said Mom. ” “Watch me. ”
But I instead watched my uncles and Wayne take off their dress shoes and put on boots. As far as I knew, Mom was still calling the shots, but the division between male and female, if only by dress code, seemed clear, so I felt obligated to remove my dress shoes, too.
“What do you think you’re doing? Leave those on and get in the car. ” I was surprised by the sharpness in Mom’s voice. Perhaps she was still mad at having had to mend my pants. I was disappointed. I would have rather gone with Wayne and my uncles.
“Don’t worry, Marg,” Uncle Bob said, heading toward the back door. “I’ll drag him back by the balls if I have to. ”
“You can leave him where he is for all I care,” Mom yelled back.
In the driveway was a fancy, shiny black car decorated in paper flowers and ribbons. I must have looked quite the gentleman in my suit and tie and mended dress pants, for the man who stood beside the car opened the back door. It would have been rude had I not climbed in, but just as the smell of a clean and leathery interior took hold of me, I felt a tug at the back of my pants.
“Haul your butt out of there. We’re taking the Rambler. ” Mom again. The man holding the door laughed and said something about me looking so sharp he thought I was the groom. I wondered how many other people I would be able to fool into thinking I was the groom. “Get in the car, in the back. ” Mom pointed to the Rambler. “Aunt Jean is riding with us. ”
I sulked with enough intensity to leave no misunderstanding as to how unfair it was that I should not be allowed to go with Uncle Bob and look for the rifle.
I was told several times during the ride to sit down. It was an unusual request, given the number of road trips I spent standing with my head leaning between the driver and the front seat passenger. That way, I wouldn’t be left out of the conversation, plus I got a better view because I was that much closer to the front windshield.
I asked Mom if she had any gum in her purse, or perhaps a peppermint Life Saver. She said that if she had to tell me to sit properly in the back seat one more time, she’d stop the car and tie me in. I sat back, firing angry vibes into the rear-view mirror. Aunt Jean rooted through her purse and found a roll of fruit-flavour Life Savers and handed me the entire roll. She said I could keep them. The first one was red, the best flavour. I popped the red Life Saver into my mouth and watched as the landscape changed from farmland to suburb.
There wasn’t a lot of chatting between Mom and Aunt Jean, and then I heard Mom say that she hoped Dad didn’t do anything stupid, to which Aunt Jean replied, “It’s a bit late for that. ”
We arrived at the church where a young man, whom I recognized as one of James’s brothers, greeted us at the door, took Mom’s arm, and walked us to the front of the church. People stared as if they knew we didn’t belong in such an extravagant place and were whispering their disapproval as we passed. Indeed, I had never seen a place as extravagant as a Catholic church with its stained-glass windows, ornate lights hanging from high ceilings, painted statues of Jesus and his mother, altars covered in red-and-white satin, and a cross as big as a house. If this wasn’t where God lived, then it’s where he summered.
A man stood at the front of the church wearing white robes and a sash over his shoulders. I asked Mom if that was the minister, and she told me that he’s called a priest — a word that left her mouth with some disdain. Although he didn’t look friendly, I thought he looked important, and I couldn’t understand a word he said, even when he wasn’t speaking Catholic. A boy, also in a white robe, stood with him. I figured the boy must be the priest’s son. The boy held up a bowl in which the priest dipped his fingers then took them out, shaking off the excess water. The boy handed the priest a towel, the priest dried his hand and gave the towel back. I was annoyed that the priest’s son got to be part of my sister’s wedding
and I didn’t.
James — the groom — also stood at the front. He stood soldier-straight, rubbing one hand against his pant leg as if hopelessly trying to remove something damp and sticky off his palms. He looked sharp in a dark tuxedo, smiling awkwardly at whoever he made eye contact with.
Uncle Bob walked up to Mom and said something into her ear. Mom’s expression didn’t change. She whispered something back to Uncle Bob, which I didn’t hear. Uncle Bob nodded, placed his hand on Mom’s back, and left.
Soon after, the music started — a gentle, familiar melody that I couldn’t name. The congregation rose, which made it impossible for me to see anything past a forest of butts and beltlines. Mom whispered that a procession was coming down the aisle and Valerie was in the lead. A procession, I imagined, was something like a parade but with people you recognized. I saw Valerie once the procession reached the front of the church. Valerie walked arm-in-arm with her husband, Wayne. They moved slowly as though the next step they took was more important than the one that just passed. A sombre march, in contrast with their happy and nervous faces. Next came Anna’s friend Claudette with Don, James’s older brother. They, too, moved with precise, synchronized steps. The last in this procession of paired-off couples was my cousin Sue, who shared her arm with James’s youngest brother, the other Wayne.
The couples unlocked arms as they reached the front of the church, the women to the left and the men to the right. The music stopped. Someone in the congregation coughed. The priest looked down at James, then to the back of the church, and nodded. The music began again, filling the church with the elongated notes of the wedding march pumped from a pipe organ, as if announcing
the arrival of God.
People shifted to get a better look. A rumble of approving voices rolled like a summer storm behind the flash of cameras. Carol Chapman — the little girl who lived next door and my occasional playmate — four years old, diminutive, dressed in white with a tiara-like veil attached to her hair, moved down the aisle grasping a bouquet of flowers, keeping her head facing forward as she had been firmly instructed to do, while her eyes darted from side to side, catching glimpses of the smiles and camera lightning flashes along the way.
And then came the bride, my sister Anna, in a princess gown. A veil draped over her head, but one that left her teenage beauty, a face, stoic and uncertain, in full view.
On her arm was Dad, wearing the suit Mom laid out for him and the boutonniere reserved for the father of the bride.
Uncle Bob, Uncle Quinnie, and Wayne had found him standing with Clancy behind Montag’s barn. He said he was hunting rabbits. But the rabbits stayed hidden, and Dad hadn’t done anything stupid. I wondered if Uncle Bob had to drag him by the balls.
Dad did not smile. His eyes darted, not to catch the glimpses of friends and family, but to avoid them. He stopped at the front and handed Anna over to James like he was passing a cheque. Then he joined Mom and me in the front pew. Mom motioned for me to slide down and make room for Dad. Neither Mom nor Dad spoke.
The priest moved his hands over the congregation and mumbled a few incoherent Catholic words. He told the congregation to kneel, and they did, even the Protestants. I wanted to kneel, too, because how often do you get to kneel in church wearing your best suit, but my kneeling made Dad so angry that I thought he would reach over Mom and clout me a good one or, worse, yell at me right there in front of all these Catholics, so Mom hefted me up by the arm and shoved my butt back onto the pew. She sure didn’t need me getting Dad all riled up in front of everyone. Or maybe they were afraid I’d put another hole in the knee of my pants. The ceremony ended and with it the struggle to not be Catholic in a Catholic Church.
After, there was a party at the Blue Moon Tavern in Petersburg. Dad’s mood changed for the better — Uncle Bob said that he just needed to get a few drinks in him. The Catholics, except for James and his family, kept to themselves. I didn’t know who was a Catholic and who wasn’t, so when the music started, I danced with everyone. I discovered I had a natural groove, and all the attention I lost for not being part of the ceremony I got back from an unconscious display of my wicked dance moves.
The night ended with a strange and ominous occurrence: a meteorite streaked across the sky, then vanished in a burst of light that briefly turned night into day. A spectacle that stopped the party. The gasps and awes from the partiers rose above the sound of Tom Jones singing “Save the Last Dance for Me. ” I had no idea what it was that I had just seen. Wayne said it was a meteorite. Mom said it was a falling star, and I should have made a wish when I saw it, but it’s too late now. And Uncle Bob told me it was a flying saucer and that by morning we’d be overrun by martians.
Whatever it was, meteorite, falling star, or flying saucer, all I know is that it came from outer space.
I went to bed thinking that the world was about to end. It didn’t, at least not in any way I expected. But with Anna gone my world was about to get darker in ways too subtle to notice, too insidious to recognize.


Courageously honest, and emotionally shattering, The Wild Boy of Waubamik scratches the surface of complacency to dive into the deep, secret waters of childhood sexual abuse, giving a voice to those unheard. Beautifully written, this memoir is as illuminating as it is necessary.

An inspiring story of resilience, told with a vivid sense of character and humour.

Filters trauma through pop culture, the past through screens, whether they be silver, televisual, or the many varieties of emotional self-defence.

A refreshing and strange coming of age story that’s redolent with all the heavy stuff — mortality, impermanence, family — but also dances in the light. Thom Ernst has made his own confection, and the rewards are in the sugar of the language and the tart of the story.

Thom Ernst’s harrowing, heartfelt, fascinating and thoroughly original and readable memoir of adoption and abuse — and the art that can come of them.

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