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 Letter to the Last Surviving Boomer

June 18, 2008

Dear Fellow Boomer,

I expect you’ll be reading this somewhere around the year 2084. We’ve been told for years that those of us with the greatest longevity will live to be 120. Our generation includes people born from 1946 to 1964. I was born in 1946 myself, and maybe that’s why I’m taking it upon myself to write this letter. I’m guessing that you, as the last of us, were probably born in 1964. One hundred twenty years takes you to 2084.

The odd thing is that if you and I remember our childhoods, we turn out to have more in common than we thought along the way. After all, I graduated from high school the year you were born. That year, by the way, was pretty amazing. I’m sorry that you don’t remember it, although you probably read the books, saw the movies and listened to the music.

The year you were born was just about the time that the generation before us really began to get unhappy with us. No, we didn’t remember the Great Depression. No, we didn’t remember World War II. Our inability to know instinctively about things that happened before we were born somehow made us seem self-absorbed and ungrateful. We were told that we were spoiled, that we didn’t appreciate anything, that we were lazy, that we were going to hell because of the music we listened to.

The reality of our supposedly idyllic childhoods was somewhat different because too many of our parents (the so-called “Greatest Generation”) were emotional cripples. When we were born, child-rearing “experts” advised our parents to ignore us when we cried, to demand rigid conformity and not to be “demonstrative.” They were more than ready to comply. There were so many us, more of us that there had ever been in any generation before, that our parents and teachers must have felt overwhelmed. The result was that too many of us grew up alone because the older generation simply wouldn’t engage with us.

By the time we were in second or third grade, we were being prepped for nuclear attack. “What are these metal name tags for?” I asked. The answer was grim. “The tags will be used to identify your remains in the event you are burned beyond recognition in a nuclear holocaust. Always wear your tags.”

Around that same time Joe McCarthy and his pals started accusing everyone of being Communists. “Commie” hunters of all stripes were in their heyday, pointing fingers and making wild accusations without concern for the lives and careers they destroyed with their paranoid ranting.

When John Kennedy became president, a lot of people told us he would make a difference. But he was assassinated. Worse, his assassin was assassinated on live TV.

Our parents told us we couldn’t tell the difference between phony movie violence and real violence because of the the movies and TV shows we watched, but they were wrong. When Jack Ruby gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald, it was real enough; and we all knew it. It was real-life murder, and the TV stations broadcast it again and again.

In 1964, much of America was segregated, and the Jim Crow laws were in force. Interracial marriage was illegal all across the South. American industries fouled our air and water with impunity. Women were second-class citizens. Gays and lesbians were reviled. The handicapped were on their own. Among the poorest Americans, people were starving to death in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” With all of this going on, we just couldn’t understand why our parents were more concerned about the way Elvis Presley swung his hips or how the Beatles went around in need of haircuts.

Of the births that took place in 1964, at least two were to girls in my high school senior class. Those Woodstock Postergirls were hauled out of school summarily and sent in disgrace to what were called “homes for unwed mothers.” The only way for a girl to avoid this humiliating confinement was to break the law with an illegal (and possibly lethal) abortion. Meanwhile, the boys who fathered the babies suffered no consequences at all. They stayed in school. They even received admiring looks from older guys who shook their hands and called them “real he-men.”

The comeuppance for the boys was the absurd horror of Vietnam and a war that no one could explain or defend conhesively.

The details of your experience on the tail end of the Boomer generation may have been a bit different, but as a Boomer you were still subject to endless criticism and disapproval. You were too young to go to Woodstock. The truth is I didn’t go either. Maybe at the time you didn’t pay any attention to Dick Nixon and Watergate. Whether anyone else likes it or not, however, we Boomers did change the world. Others are busy deciding whether the changes we made were good or bad, but the world that was handed to us needed to be changed in so many ways.

In the year 2084, or thereabouts, you are the last Boomer still alive. The events I’m calling to your attention happened more than 100 years ago. Probably no one around you even remembers what the term Boomer stood for. When you pass on, it will mark the end of an amazing 140 year run for our generation, from the first baby’s cry on January 1, 1946, to your own last breath. I hope you think it was worth it.

Frankly, I wish I were there with you.