Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Maritime Reflections

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 06, 2009

Originally posted on Half an Hour, June 6, 2009.

Written in June, 1989, and never published anywhere until I scanned it today. There is also an MS-Word version available, and a PDF version as well.

My map of Cape Breton has been posted in the hallway and the line sketches of Quebec City are on the living room wall. I have sorted the papers and souvenirs into their respective piles, the mail has been answered, and it is now two weeks since my return. This is not a journal or a dairy, but a reflection, and if the spirit is sombre, it is because the image I see has been stripped of its gilt tinge, the colours are sharp and clear, and the forms are stark, too stark.

The train rolled through lush forest and farmland between Sackville, New Brunswick and Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia. The bar car was quiet: it was morning, and most travellers looked forward to a short trip. For me, it was two weeks into my vacation, and an escape from the frenzy of the conference I had just left. And the trees swept by, and Truro was warm and prosperous, and when the conductor called us to board, it was with a wistful wonder that I took my seat. Why is this land so poor?

She had taken her seat in Edmonton, and I parted from her with a warm hug in a darkened train at Ottawa Station. We wandered through some nameless town in Northern Ontario. She had been able to communicate with the predominately French community, and I was concerned about being left behind by the train's hasty departure. A man had been injured the day before; he had been caught under the train and his foot had been sliced off. It was the talk of the town. I understood the pain.

As the train streaked through the Ottawa Valley, whistle blaring at each darkened town it passed, I stood at the window between two cars, smoking a cigarette, and wondered why it felt as though I had taken this train before. The uneasiness grew. I recognized the towns, of course, for I had travelled by bus and car through the region. But never on a darkened train. We must have passed by the Scout camp where I had vacationed as a child. I didn't see it. But I remembered the train passing halfway up the hill at the far side of the lake, whistle blaring.

What had happened to her in Edmonton? She had been a student at Faculte St. Jean, it was her first year, and she was determined not to attend a second. She was in drama, and the two experiences she told me about were, first, having to do a strip tease and stand in her underwear with her grandmother in the audience, and second, of wearing an old Parisian gown with the whalebone girdle and low cut top. I asked her how it felt and she said she liked the tightness. I think she was running; her boyfriend was the director.

The place was Gowrie House, it was in Sydney Mines, and the proprietor worked as a schoolteacher in Louisburg. It was Sunday night when I arrived, and an elegant dinner was being served in three rooms of a restaurant on the main floor. I was hustled upstairs by this cultured gentleman. There was a professorial pair from Dalhousie staying at the bed and breakfast, and an older couple from somewhere in the States who were building a boathouse nearby in North Sydney. They were surprised to learn I taught logic, relieved to learn I was a graduate student. I remembered a philosophy professor I knew who was a communist and yearly would take several month vacations in Europe and the Caribbean. We talked about their travels over breakfast; they enjoyed Vancouver, and doesn't Edmonton have a very large mall?

Through New Brunswick the train rolled, through valleys of forest and over impossibly large rivers. I asked what town this was, and a man travelling to Campbelltown said it was Bathurst. I didn't notice, but now I know it is a seaport. We watched the final game of the Stanley Cup on a small portable screen. It was against regulations, but the conductor allowed it. The final few minutes were played as we left Campbelltown to traverse Gaspe and the screen faded. We could receive the game by radio in French, and while I heard it, it was second hand that I knew my Flames had won. A soft blush crept through me, a silent exaltation.

The train left Edmonton five hours late because of track construction near Hinton, and when it approached Winnipeg it was seven hours behind schedule. Two trains merge at Winnipeg: my own, and another from Calgary. If either train is late, the other must wait. The switching system broke down as we entered Winnipeg and a man ran before the train, checking the track. The train from Calgary had not waited seven hours. They had had a fire about a half hour out of Calgary and were themselves several hours delayed. They did not have a bar car of their own.

We walked on the dock at Trois Rivieres. The St. Lawrence was more like a lake. I had left her in Ottawa, and surprising her, had returned to visit her at home. She showed me an art bar, where patrons smoke pot in an open marquis at the back. She brought her own wine to the Vietnamese restaurant where we ate, but we split the tab. When she left, to hitch-hike to Cap-de-la-Madeline, she recommended another place, which turned out to be a cavern, a comfortable, soft and warm cavern. I wondered who these people were on a Friday Night in Trois Rivieres, a midnight after the day it rained, a wisp of fog in the air and the grass still wet.

The following day I left my bags at the train station when I ordered a ticket for Montreal. It threatened to rain as I walked through the town, and at one point the clouds burst. I sheltered in a narrow tunnel under the tracks, and melancholy, smoked what remained of my drugs. My spirits did improve, though I remained wistful. She had taught M2 something: and what an easy manner about her, a freshness and surprising naivety for someone who had hitch-hiked across the country. Yet I could feel her silent rage, and her puzzlement about my failing to press for advantage. And the town, too, seethed with rebellion, a silent desperation the only alternative to a quiet self-destruction.

Louisburg was nearly deserted, for it was a month before tourist season started and workers were at that point removing the twentieth century technology installed for the winter. There were five of us on the tour, two couples and myself. One of them, who I drove with briefly, was a Christian pair with uplifting music on their tape deck. When I walked back to the town to get a lift back to Gowrie, I smelled the fish plant, and when I waited on the lawn of the school for my ride, one of the children told his master that there was a wino near his car. Clifford told me that he always left his keys in the car in Louisburg, and I wondered how that was possible. In Sydney Mines, he said, he now had to lock the door. I told him of my home in Metcalfe, and how as I child I had never locked the door. My parents use a padlock now.

Albert Bouwers is the Mayor of Osgoode Township, within which Metcalfe is situated. He used to live next door, but has since built himself a large house in one of the town's many subdivisions. He owns land across the street, and plans are being completed for a hopping centre. Last fall there was a referendum concerning whether there should be a liquor store in the shopping centre. The results had never been released. When I was there in the fall, I went to an election meeting. Some senior citizens complained about the rent increases in their apartments and it became apparent that the Township inspector had passed faulty water supplies in a subdivision on Albert's other land.

A man on the train told me a story about Irving Oil. There was a recent graduate from Montreal who had come to work for one of their trucking companies. He was asked if he knew much about Irving and he replied, honestly, that he did not. The interviewer motioned toward a calendar with a picture of a truck on it. The truck, he said, belongs to the Irving subsidiary. It was manufactured by Irving and it was carrying produce for an Atlantic wholesaler, another Irving subsidiary. The truck had been manufactured by another Irving company, and the tires had been manufactured by yet another. All the land that could be seen in the photograph behind the truck belonged to Irving. The calendar was designed and printed by an Irving printshop, and the paper it was printed on was cut from Irving forests and processed at an Irving mill. I asked whether the man accepted the job.

I had only a few hours left in Quebec City and I was on my way from the upper city to the lower, where I would catch my train. I was thinking about a souvenir, for a pack of cigarettes and a postcard would not suffice. I chanced on an alley where some independent artists had set up. There was group of about ten of them. One of them wanted to sell me a small painting of the Chateau Frontenac by moonlight. When he offered the second line drawing I said he had sold me and bought the painting. Another artist had similar line drawings and had painted over the image in pastel watercolours. I almost bought one of those.

The man on the train was returning to his farm near Ottawa. He had just inspected some property in British Columbia, and if he could straighten out some murky details about the water rights, was set to buy the property. On his farm his youngest son had returned and was working the place. The day before, he said, he had been drinking with a group of young men in the bar car. He had bought them some drinks, and after a while, they started ordering for themselves and others without questioning whether he would pay. His sons, it seemed, had adopted a similar attitude, and he couldn't help wondering whether his youngest son was trying to earn a farm. 1 paid for my own beer, and when he insisted, allowed him to buy me one. And the man across the aisle bought Stephanie and I a beer. He thought we were lovers, but it was only two days out of Edmonton. And a man with no voice and no hearing wrote her a note asking if she would stay with him in Montreal.

There are two bars in Sackville. One is called Tantramarsh, and is the university bar. You have to have a pass to get in. The other is called the Golden Rail, and it is located near the tracks. We were at the Golden Rail and a young man talked with us for a while. Later, someone asked why it seemed that he was apologising for being a Maritime native. A few days later, a local band played for us at the university. The young man was there again, and he told me that his brother played bass. I asked him why he did not also play in the band and he said he had to work shiftwork at the factory. He kept asking me to comment on how good the band was; I said they sounded like Minglewood. I asked his friend, who was also watching the band, what he did, and he said he was unemployed. That's the Maritimes, I said, and immediately regretted it.

There was a woman on the train travelling to Edmonton with her young son Jason. She wore a tank top with nothing underneath, accompanied occasionally with an open nylon jacket. Another woman on the train complained that she had abused her child the previous evening. I had not seen this. Jason was a pest, and you could see that he wanted attention. His mother looked forward to visiting her sister. The other woman commented that it was just so she could go to the bar. Jason's mother was running from her husband, who she was sure was going to try to track her down. The other woman was distressed because she had thought she was going to bet in Edmonton a day earlier. I explained that the number beside Winnipeg in the schedule was the departure time, not the arrival time. She scolded the conductor. She was going to visit her daughter, whom she had not seen in four years. She wondered if they expected a gift. Several men eventually accompanied Jason's mother; I saw one of them waiting with her at Edmonton station.

Stephanie had wandered through the bar car several times that morning. I had spent the morning talking with a man from Ghana and with the farmer. He had smuggled some rye on board, and they laced their Coke. I was drinking coffee, for I had vowed not to drink before we got to Sault St. Marie. The train does not pass through Sault St. Marie, so I broke my vow around two o'clock. The black guy had run into another, in beads and dreadlocks, from Quebec. Later, the two of them shared a Sony Walkman. He snagged Stephanie, and told him that I was in love with her. He and she and I had talked the previous evening, and after she left, had talked about her. Later, he came back to me and said I must talk to her. I knew he was probably right, for I tend to be much to reticent. But later, Stephanie complained that the man had been rude.

I went to Amherst Sunday morning because I needed to go to the bank. Throughout the Maritimes the only banks one finds are Scotiabanks and the Royal. I walked from the train station to the mall and found the bank. I asked if I could cash a cheque for five hundred dollars. I must have looked honest, and I showed them ID. They asked whether I had a Green Card, and I said no, I didn't like the machines. I didn't mention that the machines had swallowed two of my cards without appeal. They cashed the cheque and said I should get a card for it's a long way to be away from home without any money. I agreed. I wondered how Amherst could support two shopping centres. And when I walked back to the station I walked on the tracks.

I was in a British pub in west Montreal watching the Canadians-Flyers game on the screen. Some regulars clustered by the bar and teased the bartender. She was so pleasant. I would have gone back there a week later, but I couldn't stand the thought of her being still there. As I drank my beer, some French guy asked if I wanted to play darts. We played, and I spoke English and he spoke French, and once in a while I would speak broken French and he would speak broken English. After three games I called it quits and he asked if I had any change so he could buy a pack of chips. I had seven cents, which wasn't enough, so I returned to the bar. A little while later I saw him eating some chips. Shortly after that, he left.

Mark and I were both graduate students. We had been in Tantramarsh, and when last call sounded I went quickly back to my room to get my beer before he arrived to sleep. I went up to the party on the fourth floor and there he was. We agreed that they had employed a clairvoyant to assign room partners. At the banquet on the last day, he left early, saying it was like being at a stranger's wedding. After a week of bitter fighting, the entire conference was singing songs and celebrating its own existence. A short while later, after the silly conference awards designed to designate peer status, I also left. I ran into Mark upstairs in the lobby and we went to Tantramarsh. The other graduate students had a meeting to discuss both my and Mark's complaints. The meeting was planned before the banquet, but the banquet had drawn a veil between ourselves and the student politicians. How can you just forget?

Tang was from China. After the first round of demonstrations in Beijing, Tang arranged an information session to discuss the events. It was poor competition for the party on the fourth floor. The conference later resolved to condemn the Beijing government and to stand in solidarity with the students of China. During the information session, another student from Hungary discussed the collapse of communism in general. On the second night we were walking toward the golden rail and someone commented that they were disappointed that Tang had missed the graduate student meeting. I explained that at that time Gorbachev was scheduled to speak at Tiananmen Square. She wondered why that was significant, and I explained that his arrival intensified the situation. Really, nobody was surprised by what happened, except for those delegates that had voted their support.

My brother Gord is an engineer and had an engineer's wedding. It was a large white wedding and I was asked to take photographs. I didn't wear a suit. There were four men who accompanied Gord and Lisa, his bride, now Mrs. Gordon Downes, had four bridesmaids. All eight had matching apparel, and Gord was dressed in regalia and splendour. The reception was at the Brockville Rowing Club, and my brother Bill and I were the only single people there. My mother asked if I would sit with the Dowsers, for they were the only family friends other than relatives and didn't want to feel alone. Lynn Dowser had had a stroke a few years earlier and wore one leather glove on his palsied hand. I took more pictures. And then, Bill and I went to a bar in the industrial park.

The sea breathed and the foghorn bayed from across the harbour. Seagulls screamed, skittering from their rock which jutted from the ocean as I approached the shore. The mist slightly parted, and I saw four lights shining, suspended in a sky of metallic blue, indistinguishable from the harbour water. Sunday, and I had just arrived at Gowrie. I sat carefully atop the seashore cliff and smoked a pipe. I wanted peace, but the chill wind blew in from the water and I shivered. A few days later, I saw a small boat checking the lobster traps below where I had sat.

I saw a bird in Sackville which had fallen from the sky. I picked it up; it was a swallow, and very weak. As I held it, a score of silvery insects crept in and out of its feathers. Poor bird, I thought, and lay it quietly under a bush. A few days later, I saw some bees moving silently from flower to flower in a Cape Breton park. Perhaps, I thought, instead of pity for the bird alone, I should also have felt happiness for the insects. I never did check on the bird again, and believe it died. The bees are probably dead now as well.

The train was not long out of Edmonton. We sat, about eight of us. For some reason, the children swarmed the car. Jason poked another child, and when the other child struck back, Jason cried. His mother told him that he should never hit somebody, and gave him a swat. The porter learned by accident that I am a philosopher and explained that he had graduate education in classical works. He discussed Cicero for awhile, and went to get a coffee. The man who had joined Jason's mother also studied philosophy, and spoke in earnest about somebody. They asked me when I was going to write my book, and I said I didn't know.

And when I returned home I saw my cats, who had been alone save for the occasional visit and feeding from a friend. They greeted me silently and showed me the landscaping they had completed over the month. I discovered via a note that Stewart was leaving for Calgary, and I went to get my hair cut and the hairdresser flirted with me as she trimmed my beard. It was a Thursday, and I went to Club Malibu with some friends. They were talking about something between the lines and they left early. I stood in Malibu with my beer; they hadn't noticed that I had been away a month. And, except for a windblown face, I didn't really look any different.

We always wonder what lies just beneath the surface. I was able to lift the cover and look, for people really want their flags to fly, if only they are not so scared. There is an anger in the land, an anger burning, and I don't know how much of that was my own projection, but it doesn't matter, for if I feel it then it is real, and the seething cannot be image only, and the quiet desperation must, in time, be heard.

And the next day I walked to campus and sat at a Board of Governor's meeting, and they worried about naming rooms in buildings and, in about ten minutes, spent about three million dollars. And later I went to a garden party in honour of the retiring president, and we drank shooters until they wouldn't let us have any more, and I wondered whether that was responsibility, and I wondered about the gravity of my role, and I wondered whether there really is any hope after all. And I thought about power and I thought about poverty and I thought about the human spirit crying in my country, and of human dignity crushed like flower beneath a tank.

And the next day in Beijing the students died.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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