I’m getting the distinct impression that my steadfast reading public is getting antsy with all the “re-blogs” and expecting a bit more of the up front and personal from me. In short, give us another story, or give up! So, I’m thinking, OK, I better give in than give up. For your reading pleasure, a bit long, but still a short story. Let me know if it was worth your time reading, hey?
[a short story by ~Sha’Tara~ ]
I’d been at “The Paper” in New West for just over two years, covering trials, sentences, and following the more newsworthy “criminals” incarcerated in what was then known as the B. C. Penitentiary or “The Pen” or “Skookum House.” I was in a car accident on one icy morning crossing one of those quasi-perpendicular streets common to both San Francisco and our own down town New Westminster. I ended up in the Royal Columbian Hospital where a student nurse was assigned to my medical needs. After I was released in a convalescent state, she came to see me and we hit it off quite well, so I assured myself. Alas, her interest in me was more on the professional level, mine in her more on the romantic side. I thought these two sides of one coin made a pretty good whole so I took her to dinner one evening and had a dozen red roses delivered for her at our table, as a gesture, you understand.
And a grand gesture it was, I thought. I’d read about that move in a Harlequin novel.
She didn’t take it well. She viciously dumped the roses in a vase the Maître-d’ brought to the table at her request, and proceeded to tell me that I’d read her all wrong.
Me? How could I? I was twenty-two, single and male. A girl enters my life: to me that was a foregone conclusion what she wanted. She wanted what I wanted, what else?
Not so, apparently. She was of a staunch Baptist family and her goal was to become a missionary nurse to Morocco. Morocco? I almost hit my forehead with my right hand – the ritual, you know – Why in hell Morocco? I realised then, as a complete Devil-may-care agnostic non-believer whatever that I would not be able to compete with her baggage, as much as I knew I never would agree to carry it for myself. That simply was not me. I had been raised to believe that believing in nothing was in itself a sacred trust and a duty to the new breed of mankind that was inexorably, with the benevolent help of science, pulling itself out of a long dark religiously superstitious tunnel. I was sure I’d seen the proverbial light at the end of it too.
We had a lovely disagreeing, if not totally disagreeable, discussion and she took a taxi home. Believe me, when a date takes a taxi home from a restaurant and leaves, not only her red roses behind, but her dessert untouched, she’s saying, I’m moving to a different universe. Don’t bother trying to find me.
I never saw her again. I could have traced her, sure, I know about alternate universes, but I figured she knew where I lived and if she changed her mind she knew where to find me, so pushed down the temptation, resumed my work and within a year I was completely burned out. I had covered an extended case involving mob money, Longshoremen’s unions, a thoroughly crooked city council member and a double murder on the Vancouver waterfront. The story kept unravelling around me, with more twists in it than a mile of chicken wire fence. I made some assumptions and a fool of myself. I asked for an extended leave of absence which my editor reluctantly, change that to grudgingly, granted by telling me that “I had potential” and was throwing it away. Of course my “potential” was that I worked like a fiend from hell covering my stories, sometimes round the clock, certainly at it seven days a week, burned more gas chasing leads than a fleet of taxis on New Years Eve in New York and got minimum pay as an apprentice.
I didn’t want “potential,” I wanted more, and I wanted it now. Fortunately new pastures were easy to find in the late Fifties if you weren’t too particular and not saddled with a large brood as so many post-war veterans had gotten into. Sure the nice little half-basement stucco-sided bungalow on a quiet street with a half-dozen kids in bathing suits or underwear jumping over sprinklers; raking up leaves and throwing the cat in the piles under a waning Autumn sun or making snowmen on those rare winters when it actually snowed, had some appeal (you can take a breath now). But not at the moment.
My Austin A-40 had been totalled in the accident and I had invested in a “new” Chevy six-cylinder pickup truck in anticipation of big changes in my life. Note: a writer never makes small changes, that’s a no-no. Regular people, small people, ordinary people, they make the small changes. When they take a step forward, we’ve already taken that proverbial ten-foot leap where angels fear to tread the winepress of God’s wrath. I’m not bragging, I’m simply biased, and really, what’s the use of having read the Bible if you can’t quote from it?
I took stock of my savings, sold my meagre furniture, stuffed whatever I could, or thought I’d need, in the back of my pickup truck. It had a decent canopy that could be used for a sleeper and emergency shelter in inclement weather when stopped in some out of the way somewhere or nowhere. After sub-letting my cosy apartment on Colborne Street, I got in my truck at day break on the first day of May, crossed the Patullo bridge south-east (not that you could cross a bridge in any other direction than the one it goes in, a peculiarity of bridges) and after a breakfast of eggs over easy, hash browns and toast at a truck stop on what was then the main highway to BC’s interior and the rest of Canada for that matter, decided on the next leg of my journey.
I would head for the Okanagan, or perhaps the semi-arid Cariboo country. I’d make that decision when I got to Cache Creek, my first goal. Then I thought, as the static-filled, scratchy, fading AM radio played current hits by Elvis and Sinatra that maybe I’d drive all the way to Prince George and find a job as a reporter there. There’s always a job for a reporter in any boom town if you don’t mind roughing it and have a nose for those stories that keep people more entertained than informed. Callous? Sure. You have to have lived before you can develop empathy. I had yet to live. I cradled my callousness as a five year old girl cradles the doll she just unwrapped on Christmas morning.
Meanwhile it was a beautiful bright sunny day without a cloud in the sky, five AM and traffic was almost non-existent as I drove through the string of Lower Mainland towns: Cloverdale, Langley, Aldergrove, Abbotsford, Yarrow, Chilliwack, Rosedale and finally little Popkum which casually pointed its thumb in the direction of tall, dark mountains that ate my last radio signal, and on to Hope where the number 1 highway makes a sudden 90 degree turn to snake along the famous Fraser River canyon replete with dark rabbit holes they called tunnels.
Stopping at Hope at the time was de-rigueur. Gas, food, lodgings (if you planned to stay overnight), with logging and industrial logging supplies as its main industry apart from tourism, that was Hope. A clean, colourful little town tucked against the Fraser River to the west and basically dark rising mountains on all three other sides. A typical mountain town which had been, so I gathered, a centre for gold miners some decades before and even had had a landing for steam powered paddle-wheelers that plied between Yale and the coast, bringing in supplies and contingents of rail workers, loggers and miners before the railway was completed .
As a first impression, I liked Hope but it was expensive and not my destination – not far enough from the coast. After a hamburger, fries and a Coke at a busy drive-in just before the single lane bridge crossing the Fraser I was on the road again. Soon I was crawling in a long line of logging trucks, buses and campers carrying expectant American tourists from as far south as California, snaking through the canyon, not daring to even stop to take pictures as I didn’t want to lose my place in the queue which stretched as far behind me as it did in front. Clogging dust rose from unfinished windless stretches of the ever-being-built-and-in-constant-state-of-repair Trans Canada highway. Inevitable long stops happened at regular intervals as tunnels were being blasted and widened. How I wanted to stop somewhere to write a story about it all!
Fortunately there was no decent place to stay and my portable typewriter was packed somewhere in my assorted chaos of boxed and bagged possessions in the back. As was the custom of smart locals then, I had a couple of two-gallon canvas bags or bladders filled with water hanging in front of the radiator to keep the water cool. That was a blessing. Tourists of course used plastic Coleman coolers but water from the bladders did not take on the plastic taste I hated. Fresh water gathered from small water cascades tumbling from cliffs overhanging the canyon road was enough to keep the bags full, and good thing too as many overloaded vehicles required radiator refills.
I did my boy scout thing, refilling rads, patching busted hoses with pieces of blue jeans which young boys happily tore from their pant legs, changing flats and sharing water and some groceries I’d taken the trouble to load up on in Hope. I fully intended to write a book about my experiences when I got to wherever, so I asked for names, destinations, hopes and dreams. I had a few silly conversations with some very attractive California girls who would be immortalised by the Beach Boys in 1965. They’d pour or slink out of the tourist caravans whose air-conditioning had failed and readily obliged me as I asked them to pose along the side of the road with bluish mountains as background, or in front of tunnels when possible. Strangers in a strange land always give rise to powerful romantic interests, even if meeting only for a few moments. I took more notes and surreptitiously, took down addresses or thereabouts of destinations, especially if they were going in my general direction and might be spending some weeks in some lake resort in the Okanagan.
Is seems quite silly now, of course, but at the time it was a wonderful game. What was my main thought? “Who knows?” Indeed, “Who knows?” would have made a great title if I had ever written my Great Canadian Novel to surpass Farley Mowatt and even beat Pierre Burton at the game. Well, if you are going to day-dream, do it in style, why not? Costs nothing and makes the long journeys seem shorter. I had dreams enough to fill an entire train in those idyllic days. Yes, I know that’s a cliché, but wait until I get into the corny jokes and the clichés will become a relief.
An interminable wait at Hells Gate over, our collective dusty, noisy, smelly motorized snake had begun to slither forward once more. But now things were a bit more personally interesting. A precocious and daring seventeen year old in tight pink pedal-pushers, bursting black top, large blue eyes and blonde bouffant made up of a half and half combination of hair and hair spray is sitting beside me, having convinced her folks that it was not only safe since I’d be one vehicle ahead of their camper, but she was utterly bored and needed someone interesting to talk too.
She was from Oregon and they were on their way to Alaska – still a somewhat daring enterprise in those days. In any case, we had the moment to ourselves. She had a smile to light up the night sky and a voice to charm apples from the tree of knowledge. And of her hairdo – I thought that with a small wattage light bulb inserted in it, it would have made a passable lava lamp, considering how often she turned her head. Never mind, she was of those girls that give the word “cute” its full meaning, and effect.
Predictably and without the least apology, I declare here and now that I was immediately in lust with her. Careful, from previous embarrassing experience, of female negative reaction to my well-meant and non-hypocritical advances, I kept my feelings to myself. She on the other hand was entirely free and at home. She talked two miles a minute, sometimes three as the need arose, making our crawling pace seem even slower, not that I minded. If the department of highways had announced that we would be stopped for a week I would have welcomed it. She laughed and commented on everything, from my apparel which consisted of a scuffed pair of leather work boots, a pair of faded jeans and an old plaid shirt with cut-off sleeves, to the condition of the pick-up’s cab to the giant machinery that kept rumbling past us, shaking the ground in minor quakes and raising enough dust to rival an Oklahoma twister. She played with the radio and frowned disdainfully when all she could get was static. She wrote her name in the dust on the dash: Ginger. Not very original but under the circumstances, what’s in a name?
I heard all about Ginger’s escapades which really did not amount to much, her boyfriends and girlfriends, the school she’d just graduated from and the crush she had on her math teacher who was only in his second year of teaching. She talked of sock-hops and drive-in rallies, that is, whose boyfriend could drive the fastest from one A&W to another and order first. Then she went on to beach parties, illegal liquor and daring skinny dipping under a full moon. Well, what can I say? Although I didn’t much care for her rather cheap outlook on life, my lust increased. I fancied myself at those skinny dipping festivities, eagerly running stark raving naked out into the bushes to consummate what had so naturally and easily begun. Whew…! I let out a very deep, very loud sigh which she queried. She asked if she was boring me. No, I said as nonchalantly as I could. Not at all. I’m enjoying it. And I was, I really was. It wasn’t what she said so much as what I imagined she said that kept the one-sided conversation going so well.
Suddenly and for no reason I can think of, she looked at me sort of quizzical-like and went off on a totally unexpected tangent. First of all she asked me for a smoke. My parents don’t let me smoke, they’re so square, she said with a very expressive shrug. I had to explain that I didn’t smoke. Somehow she seemed to have a difficult time with the concept. I suppose to her it would have sounded like me saying, I don’t drink Coke. She swivelled her head again a few times, then, do you like me? she asked, adding, I know you being an older man and all, you probably find me quite silly and childish. Say what? I thought, me an “older” man? Jeez, some people sure know how to hurt a guy. That’s it, I’m done for, over the hill, fit for the retirement home. So I said to her by way of meek defence, I’m probably younger than your math teacher. Really, she replied, well that’s interesting. Must be the beard that makes you look older. I thought you were a beatnik. You seem pretty smart but you don’t have a home, or family or job. Tell me more about yourself.
Tell her more, well, as I’d hardly got a word in edgewise since she’d come aboard, there was quite a bit of more to tell actually. So I do a recap. Home and family? I’d been adopted, no other kids in the house to interact with, so became a loner. Read a lot. Left the home at fifteen to discover the world and got as far as ten blocks away. Found odd jobs, taught myself to type and started writing stuff. Oh yeah, I lived in the basement of a house and paid my room and board by doing jobs for the upstairs folks, chopping wood, feeding the old wood furnace in the basement in winter, mowing the lawn and trimming the shrubs in the summer. Sometimes painting the white picket fence, doing the lube, oil and filter stuff and other general maintenance like changing or tightening V-belts on their ’47 Dodge Coupe, or driving it to the shop for full tune ups and new tires when needed. I’d gotten my driver’s license by then. Easy, fun life. And I kept going to the same school. My adoptive parents were OK with the set up – they didn’t need me and I certainly didn’t miss them. I sort of considered myself a modern day Tom Sawyer while wishing I’d been more of a Huckleberry Finn.
When I finished high school with pretty good grades which could have been really good grades had I bothered to work at it, I called it quits with higher academia and began writing stuff for any and all papers going that would print it. I was good at it too, twisting ideas around with thesaurus researched words and adding word-colour from a 64 crayon box rather than the standard approved 8 crayon one. And that’s how I ended up at “The Paper” and on this road.
Wow, she says, neat! So now what? Well, I said, drawing it out in importance, I am a reporter so I have to find a paper to write for, you know. People need to have access to what is really going on. I need to find someplace that will print my stories and pay me for it. And of course I intend to write a novel about my experiences and about this country – making it sound like I actually knew the country and I already had some deep and abiding life experiences. No wonder she thinks I’m Methuselah, I muttered to myself.
What’s that place called you said you might go to? She babbles on. You mean Prince George? I said. Yeah, is that after Alaska and can I ride with you all the way? ?…!…? What the…? Did she actually ask me if Prince George was located after Alaska? Does she think Alaska is a town in BC? Yes, I said, hiding as much of my sarcasm as I could and trying hard not to burst out laughing, it actually is located in central BC, which is a Canadian province, the one you’re in right now – she looks around outside, I’m thinking, to find a billboard that would validate my claim: “This is British Columbia: Believe It.” Alaska is a state of the US Union, your own country, I continue, and it’s actually north of BC and you’ll have to cross through the Yukon Territory to get there. Yukon is Canadian land, you understand.
She nodded her head, frowned in a rather serious manner this time, then reached for her purse, pulling out an assortment of bottles that would have made a chemist green with envy, and an assortment of tiny levers and pins and other weird implements designed by Houdini. She began the laborious, painstaking and endless task of nail cleaning, cuticle trimming, colouring and polishing which for some unfathomable reason seemed to absorb her completely. I thought, I must have pushed her brain understanding storage beyond its absorbing capability with my geography lesson.
For better or worse I noticed that my highly activated state of lustfulness had actually diminished in waves. Any wonder she’s bored, I thought. A tree leads a more exciting life and would have a better grasp of geography, if not history and sport a more appealing hairdo. I was defeated. I thought, as I cast several sidewise glances in her direction, she is destined by all that’s holy to give birth to a male child who will become president of the United States. I am only sure on one point: it won’t be a virgin birth.
Finally, Boston Bar. Not much to look at but a great relief nevertheless. The Charles Hotel beckons to tourists and they flock to it as pigeons to a handful of bread crumbs. This is where Ginger and I would part company. I did get a nice, full-on-the-lips kiss, with the comment, your beard is scratchy, from the maiden while her full-blown front avidly sought to vacuum-seal itself onto my chest. So it wasn’t a total loss, beside the fact that she acquainted me with a hairstyle that was to become very popular in coming years and make a millionaire of anyone who could successfully combine crazy glue, air freshener and dichlorodifluoromethane (Freon R-12) in a pressure container and from there, proceed to wipe out the ozone layer.
This story would be incomplete without a bit about the exciting story of the Charles Hotel. To begin, it was the brainchild of old Walter “Cog” Harrington. First built in 1917, it had burned down in 1949 and been rebuilt as a thoroughly modern structure – for its day, don’t be so critical. A very important piece of Canadian history proudly states that “’Cog’ Harrington operated the Charles Hotel and the Shell service (Harrington Shell, that is, located across a side street from the hotel). His wrecker service rescued many a wreck along the treacherous old Fraser Canyon Highway during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.”
Well, that’s the brochure. All I have to say to that is I am glad I am not one of the recks wrescued, or vice versa, the rescued wrecks or vice-inversa, the wrecks rescued.
Enough day dreaming. With Ginger standing beside her family camper in a total state of incomprehension and despondency which I assessed would last at least until the next encounter in the lobby of the Harrington, I happily pushed on to Cache Creek, thoroughly enjoying the fresh sage-scented air, breathing in my newly-discovered freedom. The rest, as they say, is history, and what a history it would have made if someone had taken it down and written it.
Would you care to know what really happened after that? Isn’t it the same as what happens to all of us? Remember that Sixties song made popular by Mary Hopkins: Those were the days? Here’s the whole point of the story, not the end line, but this one: “We lost our starry notions on the way.”
I took up a whole bunch of odd jobs throughout this personal Odyssey which was little more than my last chance at a childish tantrum it turned out. I did make it to the Okanagan but didn’t get to spend a glorious summer on the beaches ogling and dating American beauties who thought they were in a baked Alaska, giving them both geography and Canadian history lessons while they gave me California-style beach massages, or maniacally banging out the great Canadian novel on my portable typewriter under the shade of an apple tree.
Well, why not an apple tree? You never know if an apple isn’t going to drop on your head and activate a whole different part of your brains, sending you off to be ensconced forever into history. Besides, apple trees are special.
Think of sweet, innocently naked Eve in the garden filled with visions of apple pie which touches the palate with the unmistakable taste of the knowledge of good and evil, especially when heated and heaped over with ice-cream.
Think of little George Washington trying to be a simple logger but in choosing to chop down an apple tree became the very first president of these United States because he couldn’t lie about it – I certainly would have in order to be spared the ordeal but they say hindsight is 20/20. What? It wasn’t an apple tree you say? It had to be, that’s all there is to it. It goes all the way back to Eden. The very idea that a famous personage would chop down a cherry tree and still become famous: it simply can’t work, don’t you see?
Think of what’s his name, Sir Isaac Newton who, after being hit squarely between the eyes, yes, right smack dead centre on the third eye with an apple, discovered and invented a whole bunch of things no one had thought of before.
And didn’t God say that some of us (them) were the apple of his eye?
It can only be the apple, no doubt of that and you can take my word for it.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I had to get a job in a local garage entombed in smeared and spilled grease and oil, and painted liberally with at least thirty years of fumes from un-vented tune-ups. The job: to pay for a re-built six in my ’52 Chevy pickup which by the time I had climbed the last hill into Kelowna was using more oil than gas. So, while I earned the money and while the front end was kept up by an overhead winch on a wooden tripod awaiting its rebuilt engine, I lived in the back. Truly romantic. There was a dog in that garage’s back yard where I resided. I looked into his doghouse once or twice trying to figure out a way I could get him to trade rooms with me. His would have been more comfortable by a stretch. Plus he rated fresh straw and didn’t have to pay for his meals.
But as you already know, all good things must end. September rolled in, the motor was re-installed and actually running quite well, I wouldn’t have to buy 30 weight oil by the case for a while. Changing temperatures began to chase away the tourists and to bring out the ripe smells of cabbages minus their kings.
Each colder morning gave me an itch and a longing for “back home” became more insistent. So I packed what was left of my travelling heritage back in boxes and bags in back of the pick-up. Then I entered into a five-minute termination negotiation with the oil-smeared garage manager who was spreadeagled under an Oldsmobile trying to remove an oil pan with a hole in it. Having been assured that any remaining pay would be sent to me, and I wasn’t holding my breath for that, nor was I born last night, I headed back down the canyon, stopping only when absolutely necessary. I retraced my steps while barely noticing the countryside and drove straight to “The Paper” to ask when I could resume my “potential.” There was no hesitation from the editor and within two days I was back slamming down “stories” to make people weep, laugh and/or yawn, take your pick.
I didn’t even care that I had to find a new apartment because my sub-renter had gotten a “live in” and they were established, you might say. It became incumbent upon me to not break up the love nest, held tentatively together by the smell of burning weed and stale beer, not to dwell on the bare feet, tie-dyed clothes and frizzy hair that made Ginger’s blonde bowl look quite presentable in retrospect. Surely those crazy dizzy Hippy days were not far into the future now. And the age of Aquarius was just as surely going to follow. It was fated and one should never argue with that, as one does not argue with a date who takes a taxi home from the restaurant. Well, it stuck in my craw, that’s all. (*note to self: look up craw)
A niece from Quebec came to visit my old friends, “the people upstairs” where I’d spent my Tom Sawyer years and they invited me to dinner and to meet her. She was of those dark French Canadian beauties, with shoulder length dark brown hair worn loosely, brown eyed, vivacious, slim, overall pretty and as a bonus, serious and extremely well educated.
Well, she needed a guide and translator since her English was rather shaky and someone to help her in the learning to speak English department. I did know a bit of locally scented and accented French, having been raised in the entourage of Maillardville where French was still predominant, if not prominent, which came in handy. She accompanied me on many lead hunts (not head hunts though at times the difference is moot) and even did typing and editing for me. I’ve nothing much else to do, she said. So began a tryst that blossomed into a full-blown romance that ended up in marriage, a half-basement stucco-sided bungalow and two kids, and even a cat to toss in the leaf pile in Autumn.
The two kids are long gone to experiment and experience life on their own. The cat, Rosie, whose body was buried with all proper pomp and ceremony amongst the roots of the walnut tree, presumably has found happier, longer-lived hunting grounds where there are not, also presumably, piles of leaves to be thrown in. I’m still a reporter; the novel remains in unsorted notes in my office desk drawer. I would be starting on it tomorrow, May first, the beginning of a three week vacation. Such was the carefully made plan per my new year’s resolution, but I just found out from Lilianne that we’re heading for the Okanagan in the motor home. I meant it to be a surprise, it’s all packed and I’m driving the first leg to Hope, she says. Who knew?