Monday, January 22, 2018

19. Gettysburg

As foretold by the CBC report, the one repeatedly and with no mercy showing William battling the camera man, the prepubescent Jesus of the East arrived at Burnaby Lake Regional Park.  It was a brilliant summer morning and the invasive foreign plants that dominated the lakeside and lake itself were in full, vibrant bloom.   Much to everyone’s disappointment, at least to those who were aware of the story, Jesus was indistinguishable from any typical 11-yr-old Taiwanese boy.  He was accompanied by an entourage — his younger siblings, his parents, a monk who resembled the James Bond henchman, Odd Job, and other devotees.  He arrived unannounced in one of several identical green Dodge Caravans, evidently rented locally.   Very quickly a procession was organized, headed by Odd Job.  It went past the Nature House and down to the boardwalk that parallels sluggish Eagle Creek as it flows into the north side of the lake.  The group stopped at the viewing platform at the boardwalk’s far end where canoes were launched when the water in Eagle Creek was low, as it happened to be that day.  The only thing truly remarkable about the group was a splendid golden hat.

“Check out the hat,” said Bob.  Bob and Scott and William had been outside the Nature House, checking the rivets and recent recaulks of the cracked seams on the worst of the old warhorse aluminum canoes.  Scott and William looked up.  The Jesus of the East was carrying a red velvet cushion across his forearms, on top of which was a hat, round and umbrella-like, what a labourer in a rice paddy might wear —except this one appeared to be made of 24 carat gold.   

“What’s the deal?” said Scott.

“That would be the Jesus of the East,” William said.

“Cool,” said Bob.             

The Canada geese and other waterfowl grudgingly moved aside to let them pass.  The geese hissed, but seemed somewhat cowed.  The story hadn’t yet caught the imagination of the general public, and those park visitors who witnessed the Coming merely glanced askance in the Canadian fashion of puzzled acceptance.

Once finished their inspections, William and his charges carried the canoes down the boardwalk to test the accuracy of their appraisal .  They needed to float the boats, and check for leaks.  This required they briefly displace the Jesus of the East and his family, who seemed deep in meditation, presumably summoning the Jesus of the West, who perhaps had not watched the news and was continuing his secular existence unaware he was this hemisphere’s Chosen One.

They waited, each carrying an 80-pound aluminum canoe.  Bob and Scott were leaning backward uncomfortably, holding the canoes by the gunwales, braced across their thighs.   William was using the classic Mr. Canoehead method, as taught at Camp Ohmeemaw.  The centre thwart was across his shoulders, compressing his spine.   The Jesus group did not comprehend their intent and didn’t move aside.  They may not have noticed them.

“Can we just nudge them a bit?” asked Bob.  For some reason, standing still holding a canoe was more strenuous than walking with one.

“No,” William said, pivoting slowly.  “I’m in enough trouble already because of this.  We’ll have to put in up the creek and drag into deeper water.”  They backtracked and dropped the canoes into the few inches of water among the exposed rocks.  Bob and Scott didn’t want to get their shoes wet, but William advised them not to remove them.  Wading barefoot in that water was an invitation to serious injury and potential amputation.  The stream bed was strewn with broken bottles and lost fish hooks.  William ended up tying the canoes bow to stern as a chain and in his hiking boots waded them out into two feet of water.  Then he pressed down on each in turn to look for squirts of dirty Burnaby Lake through the seams.  While doing this William watched the Jesus of the East through the veil of purple loosestrife that was daily becoming thicker and purpler around the tip of the spit.  Jesus wasn’t taking part in the meditation.  He was bored.  He smacked his younger brother on the shoulder with a cat-tail head.  The brother didn’t protest and the adults didn’t intervene.

As William was lifting the final canoe back onto dry land, Tracy appeared from a forest path that ended behind the Nature House.  She was leading a group of hyperactive six to eight year-olds and walked on past with barely an acknowledgement, as though the boys and William were untouchables.   Stacey was at the tail end, shooing the slowpokes along.  She smiled cheerfully and stopped.  “Keep going, go with Tracy!” she shouted to the children.  Her uniform shirt was crisp and clean.  William looked at his own.  It was shapeless and muddy.

Stacey asked who the people were on the end of the spit.   William told her the Jesus of the East had arrived.

“Oh, I want to go see,” she said, and darted off down the boardwalk.

“He’s wearing a green-striped shirt,” William called.

A few minutes later she returned with a shrug.

“That was my reaction too.”

“I’m sorry you got demoted,” she said.

“Who, me?  Look.  I have a posse now.”   William extended his arm.  Bob and Scott scarcely reacted, back in dummy-up mode.

She looked toward the Nature House.  “I better go help Tracy with clean up, before she has another nervous breakdown.”

“Oh?”

Stacey rolled her eyes.
                                                               
“You must tell me about this.”

“Later.”  She stepped up to William and brushed his cheek, which was a bit frazzling, but he held his ground.   “You have mud specks,” she said.

Her blond ponytail bobbed out the back of her cap as she walked away.  Her legs were brown and smooth.   William had thought harshly of her.   He turned to Bob and Scott.  They looked at each other, and then at him.

“What?”  William asked.

“She’s hot,” said Bob.

Scott said, “You’re living the life, Will-man.”
               
This stopped him in his tracks.  How to possibly explain how wrong they were?   He had lost his soul-destroying interpreter’s job, almost.  His soul-destroying career as a field biologist was at best moribund.  His rediscovered friend was a wounded scoundrel in search of his dead wife,  and presently was spending time with a brain-damaged man in a neck brace and an insane ice cream truck driver who lived in fear of squirrels running up his pants—who were now part of William’s life too.  He treated his parents as though they were dead and they treated him almost the same.  He was still in love with his illicit high school sweetheart who was long gone, who had children and a productive professional life.   William would have loved to be living the life, Will-man.  Besides, Stacey was just another of Ed’s hopes and dreams drifting past his bow, albeit this one had briefly lounged in it, flashing her totally distracting orange toenails.  It was all a matter of perception.
               
One consistent feature of William’s romantic history, if it rated being called that, had been his inability to recognize when a woman was interested in him.  It hadn’t even been his idea to approach Becky Pang.  Despite years of attending school with her, and chatting with her at every possible chance about safe topics—homework and test scores and so on—William had had no clue what she felt about him.  They were match-made, in a way, on the high school American history class trip to Washington D.C.  It happened at Gettysburg.

It was a bus trip led by two teachers, Mr. Neill and Miss Crandall.  Mr. Neill was a charismatic teacher who made history into interesting stories about personalities.  He taught American history and was recently divorced, and rumor had it he was dating Miss Crandall, who had never taught William but had taught Becky in Canadian history the previous year.  At school they kept a professional distance, but once on the bus down to the states held hands unashamedly, which the students found sweet rather than laughable.  Both were very popular teachers, and the students were charmed by their willingness to be candid about their feelings in their company.

Becky sat near the front of the bus on the driver’s side with her friend Lindsey McCrae.   William sat at the very back on the passenger side with David Schneider, who was the only kid in his grade to outrank him as a science geek.  David was the captain of the Reach for the Top quiz show team, of which William also was a member.  David had to sit at the back because if he sat in front of other guys they threw things at his head.   Out of pity William sat with him, but then wished he hadn’t.  David was an adolescent slow to discover deodorant.           

As they hummed down the interstate William would look longingly up the aisle to the front of the bus where he could see the crown of Becky’s fine black hair and her pretty hand on the armrest of her seat.  It would disappear as she talked — he knew from years of observing Becky that she talked with her hands — and he would watch, waiting for it to appear again.  Sometimes her laugh rose above the engine of the bus, which was directly below his seat.  It was a hearty laugh, out of sync with her otherwise quiet nature.  William dearly wished he was sitting next to her, the source of her mirth.   He wanted to make her laugh.  Once or twice she leaned into the aisle and looked back, maybe at William, and he looked away.

The night before they reached Washington, they stopped in Gettysburg to stay at a motel that backed onto the famous battlefield.  They were to start the following day with a tour.  William was sharing a room with three other boys, including stinky David Schneider, and they were talking about how to spend what was left of the evening in a small foreign town when Mr. Neill appeared in the open door.  He didn’t say anything, but summoned William into the hall with a jerk of his head.

“Hello?”  William said.

He said, “William, what say you and I go have a quick look at the battlefield?

“In the dark?”  It was past sunset.

“C’mon.  This is an amazing place.  I can’t wait until tomorrow.”  Mr. Neill had taken two full classroom sessions to run through the Battle of Gettysburg, starting with the surrounding of the well-positioned Union lines by the superior Confederate forces, and then running headlong in an exhausting, chaotic, and somewhat hilarious performance that ended with the fateful Pickett’s Charge.  William had never seen a teacher more excited by his own material.  He used only a chalk board to depict the battle, running back and forth, scrawling and erasing, his hands sometimes shaking.  By the ends of the lessons his shirt was untucked, his glasses were smudged, and he was covered in dust, looking more battered soldier than history teacher.  It was easy for William to believe he couldn’t wait to set foot on the real thing.  He was flattered that of all the students, Mr. Neill had chosen him for company.  William wondered where Miss Crandall was.

He soon found out.  They wandered out onto the battlefield without a light.  Once beyond the sweeping glare of the floodlights of the back of motel, William could make out thickets of trees on the ridges and scattered monuments on the hillsides.  It was humid, and the air smelled like a thunderstorm.  They walked without talking, until Mr. Neill stopped.  “I hear them,” he said.  William thought he was going to claim to hear the soldiers marching, or the horses, or the cannons setting up, or other imagined sounds of the lead-up to the carnage.  He was that much in love with this place.   But then William heard them too — female voices.  “Where are you...?” Mr. Neill sang softly.

“Over he-re...”  William recognized Miss Crandall’s voice.  She was under a large oak, barely visible in the shadow.  As they got closer William saw that the person with her was Becky Pang.  It was a year in which day-glo colours were in fashion, and Becky’s t-shirt had brilliant chartreuse stripes that caught the meager light.

“Well, look who’s here,” said Mr. Neill.  “Good evening, ladies.”

Miss Crandall immediately stepped forward to loop her arm in his, leaving Becky and William staring at each other.

And then the teachers were gone, vanished into the blackness.

“Oh, so this was what this was all about,” Becky said. 

William said, “ I guess so.”

Then Becky Pang said, in a place where thousands of dreams died, “ I want you to hold my hand.” 

William never asked Mr. Neill or Miss Crandall why they set them up.  He would later guess that high school teachers watched their students struggling with the onset of adulthood, and sometimes feel the need to help move things along.  Or maybe they were having so much fun in their own young romance that they wanted to spread the happiness, and for some reason William and Becky were a test project.

Without knowing where they were going, they wandered among the monuments.   In the dark, the Gettysburg Battlefield was a challenging landscape of unforgiving granite obstacles topped by metal men and horses.

“Won’t we get lost?” she asked.

“Maybe we will,” William said, but he knew as long as they could see the lights of the motel they would be able to find their way back.

They didn’t walk so much as waft.  The ground had no discernable slope or texture.  They weren’t touching it.  William was holding hands with Becky Pang, oblivious to all else, including the gusting wind and approaching rumbles of thunder.   He couldn’t remember what they talked about —only that they had no shortage of things to say to each other.  They already knew so much of each other, having lived their lives in each other’s peripheral vision. 

“How did they know?” Becky asked.

“I don’t know, but I’m glad they knew,”  William answered.  They started kissing and sank to the ground behind the monument to a state militia.  In a pause to catch his breath, William said, “Maybe now they’re introducing Lindsey to David Schneider.”

Beck Pang laughed her big laugh.  “Poor David,” she said.  Then there was a thunderclap and the sky opened on them.  They sprang up to run back to the hotel, but lightning had knocked out the town’s power.  There were no lights anywhere.  They stumbled in circles getting wetter and wetter, laughing.  Another big clap of thunder scared them back to the ground.  Although yet to have been struck by lightning, William had a sense that standing upright at that moment might not be wise.  They huddled behind a substantial granite slab, checking first that there wasn’t a metal horseman on top, and kissed and talked, and kissed and talked some more.  William was trembling, from cold, from excitement.  Becky trembled too.  He would always remember their teeth chattering against each other, and their nervous apologies.  As the storm rumbled away the rain stopped, and then the lights of the motel popped open.  It was only two hundred yards away.

They entered the motel, sopping wet.  Their hands fell apart, too late.  Half of the class was in the lobby, having just been expelled from the bar for being underage.  They were seen, and within a day were known to be a couple.  Thanks to phone calls home by others in the class, the gossip would beat them back to Toronto.  From then on, they didn’t have a chance.               

The next day Becky and William sat together in the middle of the bus, across the aisle from Mr. Neill and Miss Crandall.  William didn’t know which couple was happier.  It seemed to William to be a very happy bus, apart from lonely David Schneider, glowering, betrayed and smelly, by himself at the back.  Lindsey McCrae was very excited for Becky and sat with a new partner, someone other than David.

What followed was five days of unrepeatable happiness.  They were alone together as much as possible, despite day trips to Old Williamsburg and Antietam and tightly scripted visits to the Capital Building, several Smithsonian museums, the new, blindingly white Canadian Embassy, and the White House.  They were given half a day to run amok.  Alone they walked the Mall and climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  There they immortalized their happiness by standing next to, and slightly behind, tourists as they posed for pictures in front of the statue.  In shoe boxes, drawers, and closets, all over the world, there would be photographs of Becky and William, holding hands, young and in love.                                                                                                         

They marvelled at the weirdness of Washington, which made their extended first date both magical and unreal.  Becky noticed it first, that all the buildings had been built to exactly the same maximum height, about eight stories, except for the Capitol, which rose above all else except, of course, the Washington Monument.  She declared the monument itself strange in its size and starkness, and later pointed out how at night it became creepy.  The red aircraft avoidance lights that pulsed slowly, up where the viewing ports are, turned the triangular top into The All-Seeing Eye.  At some point Becky said, “If you made the most bizarre theme-park in the world and called it Washingtonland, it would be indistinguishable from this place.”   

William knew exactly what she meant.   William always knew exactly what she meant, even when she hadn’t said anything.            

He took a picture of Becky standing on the bald spot on the Mall, with the Washington Monument and its ring of flags behind her.  She was standing on the very spot where one evening, ten years later, while a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, William would suddenly have the urge to say her name out loud.  For that, he was struck almost dead by lightning.

Next

                                                                                                                                                                

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