As I Was Saying…

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O Canada

June 20, 2008

I like Canadians.
They are so unlike Americans.
They go home at night.
Their cigarets don’t smell bad.
Their hats fit.
They really believe that they won the war.
They don’t believe in Literature.
They think Art has been exaggerated.
But they are wonderful on ice skates.
A few of them are very rich.
But when they are rich they buy more horses
Than motor cars.

—Ernest Hemingway

I didn’t know that Ernest Hemingway ever turned his hand to poetry, and on the basis of this I’m still not sure he ever succeeded at it. Nevertheless, for everyone who lives in Maine, coming to terms with Canada is a central fact of life. We border only one state, after all, but two Canadian provinces, French-speaking Quebec and English-speaking New Brunswick.

For most of my life Maine and its Canadian neighbors have gotten along reasonably well, and the border has been, as government officials now say, “porous.” I remember family trips 50 years ago to visit relatives in Fort Kent, where we crossed the St. John River into Clair, New Brunswick, with little ceremony. My uncle Carl was on a first-name basis with border guards on both sides.

People tried to maintain that same neighborliness along the border in the aftermath of 9/11, but our government just wouldn’t have it. Poor Michel Jalbert, a Canadian hunter, crossed a border-spanning driveway in order to fill up his gas tank at lower U.S. prices. He had his deer rifle with him, and U.S. border guards went ballistic. Jalbert was jailed and held for more than a month until a suitable plea arrangement could be worked out in U.S. District Court in Bangor. The story got considerable ink in Canada but was effectively buried here in the U.S.

My own closest brush with Canada was when Marge and I were newlyweds. It was 1968, and I had just graduated from college. My draft notice arrived days after the wedding. Marge’s father was born in New Brunswick and retained lifelong Canadian citizenship, although he lived in Maine from infancy.

This fact, as Marge and I understood the law, gave her the opportunity to declare Canadian citizenship. Like practically every other college student in America at the time, we were opposed to the Vietnam War. Her citizenship option would have given us the right to go to Canada legally, to live there legally. But somehow I couldn’t do it.

God knows, I was frightened enough of what might happen to me in the military. And I really did believe that the war was wrong. But a piece of family history stood in the way. During World War II, my father had tried to enlist. In those days, he was a great bull of a man, physically powerful and bursting with vitality. He had, however, suffered from asthma as a child That was all the military needed to hear.

He was classified 4-F: physically unfit to serve. I remember hearing him tell the story of those war years when he walked to work every day (to save rationed gas) and passed by the wives and girlfriends and mothers and sisters of servicemen. In every face, he saw the same question: why aren’t you there?

The story didn’t mean much to me when I was a boy, but by 1968 I felt that I understood it. I tried to imagine myself in Canada, but all my mind’s eye could see was my father—still going to work every day, still avoiding the faces that now said, “Your son is a draft dodger.” Whatever my problems with him were in those days, I couldn’t do that do him—or to myself.

I joined the Air Force and spent four more or less uneventful years of stateside duty maintaining aircraft survival equipment. Marge and I visited Montreal a couple of time in the 1970’s, but we haven’t been there since. This past January marked the 35th anniversary of my discharge from the military.

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