Saturday, 11 February 2012

Last Weekend of Summer

Chapter 6

On Sunday afternoon I was scanning the classified advertisements in the newspapers hoping to find a reasonably priced, good condition piano for sale. By chance a different advertisement had caught my attention. It read, "Men and women around the world seeking friendship and romance through correspondence. For details send $20.00 in United States funds to Mercury..." The address was in Europe. 

"Is this for real?" I wondered aloud. 

An interesting name though, was not Mercury the mythological Roman messenger? Try as I might to ignore it, the advertisement in the newspaper had captured my imagination and somehow seemed to be offering me a possible way out of the quagmire of solitude and silence I disliked but was very reluctantly living nonetheless. The advertisement inspired an introverted unspoken debate. Was I going to be stupid enough send $20.00 to a box address in Europe? Was I so desperate that I had finally sunk to this level? Or would writing letters provide me with a means that would be more to my liking, a style that I could possibly be more comfortable with? Both arguments were inconclusive. I clipped the advertisement out and set it aside on the bed, my usual filing place, to return to later. No further thought was given to finding a piano and having finished with the newspapers I placed them aside. Most of the afternoon had been frittered away and I wanted to take a walk along the shores of Kitsilano Beach before sunset.

The Kitsilano waterfront had become my favourite retreat at any time. Going there did not solve my problems but walking and thinking would put me in a better frame of mind to deal with them. Upon reaching the highest bluffs along the point I stood and gazed out toward the farthest limit of the horizon. Across English Bay the coastal mountains slowly but constantly changed in appearance as the sun moved and shadows shifted. Even from quite a distance I noticed a lot of smoke rising from one of the treed slopes. Soon an aircraft began circling and shortly afterward it dropped a load of what appeared to be water. The aircraft made several more trips and the smoke began to slowly dissipate. I later heard on the radio news about a small forest fire and what I had witnessed was the airborne part of the fight against the flames. 

Far out in the bay ocean freighters were anchored waiting to be berthed to load or unload their cargo. Some days English Bay looked like a parking lot for ships. Later in the afternoon a small powered white boat resembling a lifeboat slowly made its way shoreward. As the vessel passed near the shoreline on its way into the False Creek channel beneath Burrard Bridge I could see that boat was filled with people. Not to be outdone by the drone of the motor, shouts of men talking to each other could be heard. I did not know what language they were speaking but it definitely was not English. The passengers were probably from one of the freighters, crewmembers going ashore for a visit in Vancouver. The small vessel continued inward and slowly disappeared from sight.

Water began to cover the lower rocks on the point as the tide moved in. Compared to the tides of the Atlantic shores of eastern Canada Vancouver does not have much of a tide, but the rising and receding is noticeable when one takes the time to watch and observe. Small pieces of wood that had been driven ashore by the waves were bouncing against the rocks. Seeing this made me recall having read somewhere, that centuries ago off the northwestern island coast of Scotland, my ancestors were shipwrecked and saved from drowning by clinging to pieces of wood and drifting ashore.

Perhaps an innate inherited trait of highland ancestry from the Hebrides attracted me to the edge of the sea in this mountainous province. I loved walking along the beach and shoreline at any hour in all seasons and any type of weather, the windier, the better, the stormier, all the more alluring. Finding one of my favourite spots vacant that calm day, I rested upon a large boulder near the shoreline intent upon staying for a long visit.

The evening air remained unusually warm even after the sun had disappeared and the horizons made their eye soothing transitions from pale yellow, to fiery orange, to burning red, to dark purple, and finally to black. This was Labour Day weekend and the first weekend of September. I had always regarded the first weekend of September as the last weekend of summer because school always unfailingly resumed after Labour Day. The weather always seemed different after this particular weekend. Maybe the reason was the promise of cooler autumn temperatures that September’s first weekend heralded. September had always been my favourite month and with a trace of respect, I silently greeted, "Aye, this is September and here's to it!"

Spending the late afternoon and evening watching couples strolling along the walkway made me jealously conscious about being alone. My thoughts shifted back to the advertisement I had seen and cut out of the newspaper. Using advertisements in newspapers to make contacts with other people was a practice unheard of here in Canada but not completely unfamiliar to me. I had first seen these types of advertisements in the German newspapers that I used to have to read once in a while when I was studying German. Those ads had seemed bizarre and I dismissed them as perhaps a cultural difference unique to Germans. But the more I thought about the means, the less ridiculous the idea seemed.

As Watson may have written about what Holmes might have remarked, I imagined, "This is a three-pipe problem."

The idea was probably going to take me a few pipes more than three to think through as I commenced stuffing the bowl of my favourite bent pipe with a mixture of pungent Latakia tobacco, and suitably, the mixture had been imported from Great Britain. After lighting the pipe and puffing away like a steam engine with a full head of steam, I vacated my seat on the rocks at the water's edge and slowly ambled back toward home, deep in thought about the advertisement and wondering about the possibilities I thought letter writing could provide me with. 

By the time I had reached the entrance to my humble three-room closet I had made up my mind to risk the twenty dollars. During Tuesday’s lunch hour I would visit the post office and purchase a money order. Surprisingly enough, only a single pipe was needed to decide. "Holmes would have been pleased." I thought smugly, but reconsidering, wondered, "Would he?"

Tuesday evening I placed my letter and money order into an envelope and sealed it. Not allowing myself any more time to think it over again and possibly change my mind, I immediately walked along West 1st Avenue to the box on the corner to mail the letter. At the letterbox I paused momentarily with a last thought about what I was doing, and then thrust the envelope in to end any further indecision. The proverbial first die was cast.

Within two weeks an anonymous looking envelope arrived in the mail. The small package was post-marked from Europe. Inside was a magazine-like booklet that contained pages and pages of photographs of women and men, young and old, from many countries all around the world. Under each photo was the person's name and address together with a list of code numbers. The purpose of the code numbers was to list the person's interests in short-form. From the information contained on the inside cover; which doubled as an advertisement, it was apparent that every person who was pictured and listed in the magazine had paid for their entry. 

Mercury's magazine was not what I had expected but then I had not really known what to expect. I was dumbfounded! So many attractive looking young ladies of every nationality from every country imaginable were seeking correspondence with other people. My guess had been that almost seventy-five percent of the listings were young ladies. Why? Had I stumbled through the entranceway to a completely different world previously unknown to me? Were there really so many other people out there, all over the world, as lonely as I was? I had no way of knowing but I am certain that if told, every story would have been different.

From the hundreds of possible candidates to choose from I thought choosing would have been easy. It wasn't. The booklet was literally a catalogue, and instead of being a list of articles, it was a list of people. Picking people out of a catalogue seemed so cold and impersonal yet strangely enough there would be no hurt feelings. After hours of looking and wondering, I narrowed down my selection of possible candidates to three people and in the end chose to write to a young lady in South Vietnam. 

Having finally made my decision, I had no guarantee I would ever receive a reply. Even though this was only a catalogue of photographs, I still felt a twinge of guilt eliminating the other possible future friends, and having done so, would never know if my choice had been right or wrong. I do not know why I decided to write to someone in South Vietnam. Perhaps the reason was because recently the conflict there had dominated the news stories here. The young lady's name was Tran thi Lien Huong. The booklet said Lien Huong was 18 years of age, a student and lived in a city or town called Tay Ninh. I had no idea where Tay Ninh was other than it was in South Vietnam.

Making up my mind about who to write to was confusing enough, but sitting down and actually writing was far more difficult. After writing my name, address and date at the top of the page I was stuck. I spent a long time looking at an almost blank page. After many starts and numerous revisions, I had managed to write a complete paragraph. Trying to write to a complete stranger in another country, a person who may or may not know much English, was different and certainly not the same as writing home.

"What do I write about?" I wondered. 

Mercury's booklet offered no advice at all. Already after midnight I was still stuck at the end of the first paragraph. In frustration I tore the sheet from the pad, crumpled it tightly into a ball and threw it into the basket. That projectile followed a dozen or more previous attempts at writing a letter. Giving up, I placed the booklet and pad aside and turned in for the night. Tomorrow, I always had tomorrow evening to try again.

On my way home from work the following evening I detoured to a bookstore and purchased a world atlas. The previous evening's experience showed me how little I knew about the world and how unfamiliar I was with geographic locations. I figured the atlas would prove useful for locating some of the countries and cities where all the people in Mercury's catalogue lived. If nothing else, I was determined to obtain a lesson in geography. The map of Indochina was tiny but Tay Ninh was important enough to be shown. From the data given, my guess was that Tay Ninh was situated about fifty miles northwest of Saigon and near the border with Cambodia.

Following a second detour that developed into a lengthy walk along Kitsilano Beach I returned with a determination to sit down, write a complete letter and have it ready to mail the next morning. Again I faced an almost blank sheet of paper. Writing was not much easier than talking but the medium did allow me to see and change my words before they were given out. While words on paper did reveal a certain amount about who I was and what I thought, writing also permitted me a certain degree of safety behind a wall of anonymity. Several agonizing hours later I had actually managed to write a two-page letter. I was pleased with my small accomplishment and rather than wait for morning, I mailed the letter right away. The second proverbial second die was cast and all that remained now was to wait and hope that a reply would come.

The Oddblock Station Agent

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