My brother and I grew up in the rainforest—then we left. To make it sound Romantic, say: Snow Falling on Cedars, which is the title of a splendid book and movie. Less romantic, say: Rain Dripping off Hemlock. I’ve no love for hemlock: Instead of needles it has flattened fronds. And when someone finally found a way to straighten its (then) useless warping wood, he had to market it as “Alaskan pine.” I’m not going back. And neither is my brother. Sayonara to the neon lights of coastal Vancouver.
To Canadians in the great white north, the Pacific Northwest is as close to sunny California as they will ever get. To them, their warmer west coast is “lotus land.” I won’t argue, but I won’t go west, either.
Eventually I settled down to seek my fortune here on the Great Plains: The total opposite of lotus land. Older Canadians tell stories of childhood on the lonesome prairies and of having to walk miles to school in deep snow. But out here what brands your soul is not the great distances—measured, as in Texas, by hours, not miles—and not the great snow, but the great cold. As the poet recited, “Talk of your cold! Through the parka’s fold, it stamped like a driven nail.” (Robert Service, The Cremation of Sam Magee)
As for folks along the west and east coasts—or by the coast of a so-called “lake” as Buffalo is—they can experience mighty dumps of snow, but it’s not very cold, being below freezing by only five or ten or fifteen degrees. Buffalo’s snow soon thawed. It’s far worse back here when we get a foot of snow, coating the cement-hard ground like dry white sugar, far from any ocean heat sink. To sound flat, say: Blizzards flowing for miles.
As a young man out in Calgary, under a pale sun in icy blue skies, I attended Mount Royal College, earning my diploma in Rehabilitation Services. Back then the diploma wasn’t offered back west. The campus was all one building: All day long you could cheerfully wear your student uniform of blue jeans and T-shirt. One of my classmates was a tall confident local guy who’d been the president of his high school student council. Two or three times he told me a story of finding a green army surplus winter scarf with a large panel of instructions: not for laundry, but for various uses, such as covering your face at night. He couldn’t believe the army would print such obvious-to-him advice. He always told me this with great derision, and I never had the nerve to tell him of my great delight when I discovered that panel on my own scarf.
I remember a pretty lady out in Vancouver, recently from the Philippines, telling me of how strange it felt to have to wear a long coat and hood with only her face showing. On the prairies life is even stranger: At the bus stop I laugh to hold a travel mug, coffee steaming from the drinking hole, with sloshed coffee frozen solid on the lid. Luckily for me, back when I was a boy my mother had gone to the Queen’s Printer and come back with A Soldier’s Guide to the North. Memories of the guide sure came in handy in my new hometown.
As for the Philippine Islands, (P.I.) that’s where my brother finally ended up after leaving the rainforest. He’s been at Subic Bay for decades, with a wife his own age, among Vietnam veterans who ALL believe that post-traumatic stress disorder exists, although the goddam government would deny it, and half the vets are on medication for PTSD. My school president buddy says the suicide numbers among vets now exceed the casualties in Nam. I haven’t had the nerve to go check the numbers for myself. As for my brother, I’m confident that when he passes upward to that great climate controlled cloud in the sky his death will be from old age. Recently he e-mailed me of his vision of retirement, while lounging in the shade in the P.I. wearing his straw cowboy hat with the side brims folded up to defeat the wind. He gets a new hat every year because of the mildew in his hometown.
Mildew? I used the word in my writer’s group and people leaned forward with interest. Such a nostalgic word back here as our scrubby grass is khaki colored in summer—a short summer. During the winter my plain-as-Stephen-King writer friends don’t exactly dress like Eskimos, and no one wears ski pants or the equivalent. Just as the folks in Los Angeles—at least on TV—don’t dress in bathing suits or Bermuda shorts, even if they should. And all over North America, of course, junior high kids will be especially silly. A writer laughed to tell us of a boy who got on the bus, sped to the back, hurried to stuff his outer jacket into his pack, and then sat up looking cool, just two seconds before other kids boarded the bus. Nobody in my group writes about the cold; we take it for granted.
I remember one afternoon after college playing with a young woman and her husky downtown on an island park in the river. It was so frigid we had the pretty park all to ourselves in the virgin snow. That evening the front of her legs were red, and I was spared a similar fate only because under my jeans I was wearing stout bicycle shorts. Some folks decide to wear long johns. Me too. I once went with some university students to a conference in the city of Saskatoon, one time zone further east, even deeper into the freeze-dried heart of the continent. This was in February. A lady in our party looked at people on the sidewalk, and said, “Wow, they dress just as stupidly as we do.” In jeans and running shoes. If you go yet another time zone east then, according to my Winnipegger best friend, long underwear is sexy, a sure sign of indoor intimacy.
My brother has adjusted. With more free time and calories than the locals have, he and his wife are exploring hill trails that link up although the paths are intended to be local. He keeps in good shape. That he was once a medic, and still treats folks, provides him enough protection from the bad guys. Also, his wife’s a healer.
I’ve adjusted; I’ve come to like my hometown. In a tough climate my neighbors tend to be tough rednecks. Meanwhile, some of my best friends are bleeding heart liberals, yet they aren’t the majority—My brother-in-law says that when some Hells Angels came through a small town a police escort was provided, to protect them from us.
Off in metropolitan Vancouver the citizens tolerate a vast congregation of flea-bitten lotus eaters on Main Street, enough losers to populate a prairie town. One of those long-haired addicts thought he could slowly jaywalk in front of me as I steadily motored down the hill—until he noticed my car front showed I was a frugal redneck: no license plate. He hurried up.
The rainforest is still there. If my brother ever left his sun-drenched P.I. for Vancouver drizzle he’d have to wear a parka: Even so, he’d still feel a hades-horrible chill right into his very marrow. And me, if I ever went back to the coast, I’d walk around feeling twisted up from the high costs and cramped living.
As a boy, growing up 25 miles inland, I would safely move cows across the Surrey freeway to graze the grassy median. And now? The freeway is a solid train of cars, past Surrey and through Langley, miles and miles of vehicles in first and second gear during a “rush hour” that is hours longer than you would believe. I’m not exaggerating: I drive a manual shift, I know which gears I was in—for miles. They tell me you can’t just impulsively phone a friend to come visit: the crowded traffic means socializing must be planned in advance. I wouldn’t like it. As the poet says, “you can’t go home again.”
I believe a good man assimilates. He goes to where the jobs are, and then he plays the cards he’s dealt.
Softly, snow is falling on cedars… and two brothers are gone...
~ 25 miles is 40 kilometers.
~In elementary school our teacher showed us a photograph taken through the porthole of a ship on a great lake. We all gasped—the lake had no shoreline.
~I reviewed a useful book for the armed forces community on post-traumatic stress disorder, archived June 2012. Needless to say, civilians can have PTSD too.
~My old best friend has her own essay, archived June 2014 called God, Guns and a Gay Mother.
~In everyday urban life, nobody wears ski pants, quilted pants or zippered-up-the leg fleece. Meanwhile, common waist-length ski jackets are like kilts: wearable for all levels of formality.
~The Fine Man, Fine Writer whom I wrote about in October is from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He owns six parkas. I asked.
~Hells Angels has no apostrophe. I once declined to buy a used British nonfiction book on the gang, when I noticed the book put the apostrophe where it didn’t belong.
~In the incorporated “city” of Greenwood, on the #3 Crows Nest Pass Highway, I went to city hall to ask why the little town was so affluent, as I had noticed the paint on the buildings along the main highway-street was so new, only a few years old. Turns it out it was a movie set for Snow Falling on Cedars. The library front window still has guilt writing for the fake town, but the banner over the street had to be removed: Too many people were asking when the Strawberry Festival was on.
~Today’s prairie kid will ride to school in a yellow bus with a strobe light on top.