Jack and I walked our normal morning loop down at the waterfront and around the old coal terminal here in Ladysmith. I call it the “Black Beach” because of all the coal left over from that era. Jack loves it there. Blackberries and rabbits thrive and he often gets to socialize with other wonderful dogs. The sun hung as a huge white ball low over the glassy waters of the harbour. No boat stirred its surface. There was not a breath of wind. The morning air was cool in the shade and warm in the light. A heavy dew had settled this morning. The seasons progress.
For some reason I recalled a labour day sixty-two years ago today. It was 1957, I was five years old. My father was a manic gardener and could produce amazing heaps of vegetables out of the red clay soil of Southern Ontario where we lived. Across the street from where we rented a tiny house there sprawled a large playing field. Several games of soccer often went on at the same time. I can still hear shouts in Italian and Portuguese as flashing balls ricocheted back and forth on the broad field and see swarthy men pelting about in pursuit. Every spring a circus came to the Oakville arena on the far side of that expanse. When it left town there remained warm pungent heaps of manure. Elephant, camel, horse, monkey, lion, tiger; dad swore by the properties of these exotic mounds and he would trot with his wheel barrow back and forth across the park with his freely-acquired aromatic garden elixir late into the night. He certainly could conjure monstrous vegetables out of that brick clay mixed with circus dung.
On the particular Labour Day I’m recalling, he built a fire in the backyard and installed a cauldron over it. We harvested from the garden and mom boiled and canned a large part of our winter’s preserves. We were living in town, newcomers from dairy farms, but even then, in post-war suburban Canada, it was an unusual thing for folks to do. Dad had survived the war in rural England, mother grew up on a prairie homestead through the depression and survivalist sensibilities came naturally to them. They possessed and taught me skills which I now take pride in when most people around me live in a push-button culture. It was hot, dirty work but even at that tender age I was expected to work like a little man. A friend from up the street wandered by to ask me to come play but was told I had to stay home until the day-long job was done. I complained that it was a holiday and dad responded that on Labour Day everyone was expected to work, no matter what other folks were doing. I believe he was serious.
The very next day was my first ever at school. I walked, on my own, the better part of a mile to find my way to kindergarten. When, years later, I visited these old haunts as an adult, I could not believe that my parents had pushed me out into the world like that. I suppose that is how baby birds learn to fly, flap or crash. I learned skills which have served me well throughout my existence. My parents were martially strict yet would allow me great latitudes in how far and how long I wandered. Apparently, when I was outside of their presence, God was expected to babysit. When I pass a high-school and see the parade of vehicles transporting teenage students I wonder at these kids and their skills to go out into a digital world and cope with basics like food and shelter. I cannot even operate a modern mobile phone competently but I do know how to survive without one.
A few weeks later that fall, Sputnik orbited over our house. I recall, even now, how everyone stood out in their backyards staring up at the clear night sky not sure what they were looking for. Suddenly someone cried, “There it is!” and soon we all spotted, in muted awe, a very bright star hurtling across the darkening cosmos. The world changed forever that night. We seldom look up now to count all the satellites stitching across the sky in all directions. We don’t even look up from our texting as we step into the traffic.
My parents, consummate fundamentalist evangelical Christians had been indoctrinated that Soviet Communism was the epitome of Satanic evil and surely the mark of the “end of days.” This mysterious Russian weapon (or whatever Khrushchev was scheming) now violating God’s heaven and spying down on us surely heralded Armageddon. We were living through the era leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis and paranoia of being fried to a crisp was rampant. I recall the air-raid sirens and the drills at school when we would all crawl under our desks and kiss our little asses goodbye, again. A gas explosion destroyed a house a few blocks away that winter. There was a huge thump, everything rattled horrifically. I can still remember my deep terror that this was IT. The Pinkos had struck!
Well, here I am well over a half-century later. I survived it all including my high-school years which is a fabulous story in itself. All I’ll offer of those days is that there was grave concern for a few years about the next encroaching ice age. Yes really! Then Ralph Nader came along and the tiger crap really hit the fan. The profit of paranoia is still imposed on us as never before history began to be recorded.
It is now a beautiful, flawless late summer day. I need to get up from this desk and do something. Despite backyard burning being illegal in this town I am tempted to find some beets to boil and go make a fire. I could explain to the volunteer fire department that I was following a cultural tradition. Yeah right. There is a rising breeze and if I turned on my marine radio I’d hear a string of Maydays. It happens every summer long -weekend. Yachters from mainland Canada must return across the Strait Of Georgia and as soon as a tiny whitecap appears, panic sets in among the Tupperware armada. It used to amuse me but now that I’m boatless a dull knife twists in my gut. I know that all those millions of dollars of nautica, which never leave sight of land, belong to most folks for nearly every reason other than a love of the sea. Once in the home marina most of these “look at me possessions” will languish abandoned until Easter. Money isn’t everything but I sure could stand a change of problems.
“C’mon Jack, let’s go for a walk.”
…”The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
… Annie Dillard, from ‘The Abundance’