O Canada

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.

A Lesson from the War…

…I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

—T.S. Eliot

I learned about what was happening on September 11 when I got a telephone call from my brother-in-law who was stuck in a hotel room in New Orleans. He knew that my daughter Elizabeth had spent the summer in Washington and was concerned that she might still be there. I didn’t understand what he was talking about.

“There are planes crashing into buildings–the Pentagon, the World Trade Center!” he said, “Every airport in the country is closed and every plane is grounded! For God’s sake, don’t you ever turn on the TV?”

Well, no. As a matter of fact, I hardly ever turn on the TV. I’ve just never thought of TV as a serious source of news. The events of 9/11, however, turned out to be an exception. I watched until I couldn’t bear to see the towers fall even once more.

In the days that followed I learned that an acquaintance of mine had been on Flight 175 when it crashed into the south tower. He wasn’t my dearest or oldest friend, but I knew him and I liked him. He was on his way to California to open what would have been a national law practice specializing in so-called toxic torts—”sick building” cases and such. We had even talked about my joining in the endeavor to build and run a database website that would have organized court documents, medical and insurance records and science and engineering reports. Had those talks gone any further than they did, I might well have been on the plane with him. I don’t like to think about that.

His death personalized the terrorist attacks for me and made me acutely aware that everyone who died in those attacks had hopes and dreams and plans for a wonderful “someday” that never came.

“Someday” is probably like that too often. That’s why the following spring Marge and I took the Caribbean cruise we had always talked about. “Someday” for us, we decided, had to become today right now, and we were right. A few bills from the trip lingered longer than they might have, but there are always bills.

Since that time, I have tried hard to remember not to enthrone caution and prudence above all else. Life is too sweet, too fragile, too brief.