Thursday, 23 February 2012

Letters from Afar

Chapter 7

A reply did come from South Vietnam, a small envelope with several stamps spread around the address. I studiously examined the stamps and postmarks for a few minutes to savour the moment and then wondered about the scenes depicted; a war-torn country still locked in an incomprehensible civil war. I almost did not want to tear open and destroy the envelope but I did.

Inside was a short one-page letter on green newsprint paper written entirely in French. Receiving a letter in French was not a complete surprise because in my letter I had mentioned I was originally from Montreal and did know a little French. Lien Huong apologized for not writing in English because she knew very little. She was a student and had been studying French for a number of years. I learned that Vietnam had been a colony of France and the third most commonly spoken language in Vietnam was French. Chinese was second. She enclosed a black and white postcard of a building that was known as the Cao Dai Pagoda. It was definitely Asian pagoda-like architecture but in some strange way the pagoda reminded me of the Notre Dame church facing Place d'Armes square in downtown Montreal.

I was disappointed that Lien Huong did not enclose a picture of herself but I had not sent her a photograph of me. With the help of an English-French dictionary I wrote again but in French. I told Lien Huong about Thanksgiving Day in Canada and about my plans for the approaching long weekend. Immediately afterward, I mailed my letter with the hope that another reply would soon come. 

After spending an evening digging through books at the library I discovered that either little had been written about Vietnam or little was available in the library other than left-wing anti-war protest literature. I managed to discover, however, that Cao Dai was a religion. Tay Ninh was the birthplace of the Cao Dai religion and much to my surprise, the religion was established in only 1926 by Le Van Trung. The photograph of the religion's founder portrayed a man who looked more like an elderly grandfather. This revelation thoroughly distorted my assumptions about far eastern religions being thousands of years old and steeped in generations of Asian traditions. This far eastern religion could at best only be measured in decades. Older followers and adherents could probably even personally remember their religion's founder, founding and raison d'etre.

The following evening I scribbled down some sketches for a new piano work. Although a step in a new direction, I was dissatisfied with the harmonic structure because the written music was not producing the sounds I wanted to hear. In frustration I took a few pages of the sketches with me and travelled downtown to one of the major department stores that sold pianos. While I really wanted to purchase a piano I just could not afford one now. Nonetheless, I sat down at a piano and began fiddling with my music. Wishing to avoid attracting attention right away, I moved from one piano to another to appear as if I was making comparisons. 

About half an hour later a salesman finally came over and started asking questions about my interest in music. After mentioning a few musical works to the gentlemen I quickly realized that he knew almost nothing about music dated before the 1960’s. He did not even know how to play the piano. His job I suppose was to sell pianos and not play them. I had probably overstayed my welcome there but the half-hour did allow me to hear enough of the sketches to know that revisions would have to be made. The time spent also acutely reminded me that if I was going to compose and work on music, then I was going to have to buy a piano.

Early Saturday afternoon and sixty-five minutes late, CP Rail's eastbound Canadian squealed to a stop in front of the train station at Field, British Columbia. I descended to the platform and set my pack down. For a few minutes I stood beside the steaming stainless steel streamliner that had effortlessly carried me the five hundred miles to this tiny settlement that had no reason for existence other than being a CP Rail division point, even the Trans-Canada Highway by-passed Field on the opposite side of the Kicking Horse River. The remaining sixteen miles to Lake Louise I would traverse under my own power. For many years the dream of hiking up the Big Hill and over the Great Divide of the Canadian Rockies had been one of my childhood ambitions since I first learned in school about the history of the CPR and Van Horne's building of the railway across Canada. Finally I was here to do that trek. 

Looking eastward, Kicking Horse Canyon was covered by dark grey clouds that were threatening to release a deluge of water into the canyon. I pulled a pipe out of my pack, stuffed the tobacco tighter than usual into the bowl then set it alight. Satisfied the pipe was burning well, I lifted my pack, heaved it on to my back, slipped my arms through the straps, fiddled a bit to adjust the balance of my load and headed forward in a cloud of smoke to tackle the Big Hill. Not to be outdone, the train's diesels throbbed to life and began spewing up clouds of black smoke as the Canadian pulled out of Field, also to tackle the Big Hill. CP Rail's train would make the climb in about an hour. I was hoping to do it in a day.

Leaving the railway and Field, I crossed over the river to the Trans-Canada Highway and headed eastward into the canyon. I could not have been plodding on for more than thirty or forty minutes before encountering another traveller. As I neared, he climbed the embankment from the ditch and called out, "How long since your last ride?"

"I'm not looking for any rides." I replied.

"Where did you come from?" he asked me, somewhat curious about my reply. I figured he was probably about the same age as I was although he was rather dishevelled and looked very weary. His pack was on the shoulder of the highway and he was limply holding a guitar case in his left hand.

"Over there." I answered and pointed in the direction of Field.

"I’ve been here three days and no one stops. Nights are awful cold. Should go home but goin' on to Seattle." He mumbled.

"Where are you from?" I asked inquisitively.

"Georgia. You know that place? Bad place here. No rides and too cold." he mumbled somewhat incoherently.

"What are you doing up here?" I queried further.

"Don't really know. Just travellin' but can't get outta here." he replied in frustration.

After a few more moments of conversation I surmised that he was cold, hungry, disoriented and discouraged about not being able to hitch a ride. Much of his conversation was incoherent but I was able to glean enough information to learn that he had spent three nights in the Kicking Horse Canyon sleeping under the highway bridges. He refused my offer of food. I suggested that if he was cold and desperate for shelter, then he should think about going over to the train station in town. He was surprised to learn there was a town and train station so near. I wished him well and then continued onward.

Two hours later, and now truly in the middle of nowhere, I was alone and isolated from everyone except for the people in the cars and trucks that raced by. Here I was in this craggy corner of British Columbia that I had often dreamed about one day visiting. This day had arrived but I had not expected a cool, damp, overcast October weekend because I had always visualized a warm, sunny, late August summer day. My temporary resting place was beneath the Trans-Canada Highway on the concrete bridge support footing, a sheltered front row seat facing the famed Canadian Pacific route through Kicking Horse Pass. 

The highway overpass was a perfect location to break my trek, rest and celebrate Thanksgiving Weekend with the special meal I had brought along just for this occasion. My meal consisted of English muffins, cheese slices and a tiny bottle of red wine. To provide some atmosphere of elegance, other than the scenery, I brought along a few paper cups I had picked up from train's water cooler. At least a paper cup was a step above having to drink out of the bottle. I would have preferred a hot turkey dinner with my family in Montreal, which I was certain they would be having this weekend. 

After opening the bottle of wine and filling a paper cup, I stretched out and raised my arm then exclaimed aloud, "Here's to you Canada!" and then as an afterthought added aloud, “Here's to you CPR!” 

I had officially toasted Canada, my favourite railway and the fulfillment my dream of walking through Kicking Horse Canyon and up the famous Big Hill. Pensively I devoured my humble Thanksgiving dinner amidst the stark stony silence of three towering giants, Mount Field, Mount Stephen and Cathedral Mountain, truly grateful to God for this unique Canadian experience. I was also thankful for my new friend in South Vietnam. Through dinner I had remained hopeful that a train would pass but the only entertainment was the overhead thumps and roars of cars and trucks banging over the bridge expansion joints. After my meal I packed up what was left over, climbed back up the embankment to the highway and resumed my foot-journey.

The steepest stretch Canadian Pacific Railway’s original Kicking Horse Pass alignment had been abandoned after the Spiral Tunnels were completed in 1911. Decades later the Trans-Canada Highway was constructed over most of the abandoned rail route. I was amazed to think that trains could have climbed the original route’s four and a half percent grade up to the Great Divide. Just walking with a light load in my backpack was strenuous enough. Eventually I passed a piece of the original route that had been preserved beside the highway, an aged stone bridge over one of the tumbling torrents near the source of the Kicking Horse River. 

Standing at the edge of the Trans-Canada Highway and looking at the remains of the first man-made route through these mountains, I silently wondered about the thousands of anonymous and forgotten labourers who struggled valiantly and toiled triumphantly to carve out this route for Van Horne some ninety years earlier. I wished that I could go back in time and watch the work in progress, but I would not have had the luxury of CP Rail's Canadian and the Trans-Canada Highway to allow me so easy an access.

The sky remained dark grey, overcast and periodically spit down large drops of very cold water to remind me that I was an uninvited intruder and at nature's mercy and whim. In a matter of minutes I could very easily be drenched in a flood of ice water from the hostile clouds above. Rushing to get ready and catch the train last evening, I had neglected to pack any rainwear. Whether optimist or fool, I had been expecting clear weather. Those cold wet minuscule missiles were a constant "I told you so." 

At what age does the desire for self-preservation begin to outweigh the desire for excitement and adventure? I do not know but I had not yet reached that point in life. With train travel and hiking I could still be reckless and carefree. Anyway, I had ample opportunity to contemplate the consequences of recklessness while I persisted in my trudge up that hill. My immediate concern was to reach Lake Louise before dark and hopefully dry. The train station would provide me with shelter even if I did not arrive early enough to connect with the westbound Canadian.

I had almost arrived at Wapta Lake when a car stopped. The driver asked me if I wanted a ride as far as Calgary. I have no idea what compelled the driver to stop because I had not made any attempt at hitchhiking. Of course my instinctive first response was to say no, but I accepted his offer for a ride only as far as Lake Louise. An easy minute later we skirted around the northern side of Wapta Lake. The Van Horne Route curved away from the Trans-Canada Highway and around the lake along the opposite shore. Wapta Lake was more like a large pond than a lake, although a very deep one. The lake's surface was grey and choppy instead of the tranquil mirror-smooth turquoise shade that I remembered seeing on a previous journey. As the car topped the Big Hill and passed by the large sign welcoming us into Alberta, the sky finally made good on its threat and released a heavy deluge of rain.

By the time we arrived at Lake Louise, the rain had stopped. Grateful for a dry arrival, I thanked the motorist for his kindness, said good-bye and then headed toward the train station. CP Rail's Lake Louise station is a beautiful large building constructed entirely from logs. Inside was a massive red brick fireplace. The hearth’s perimeter was made with a discarded track rail that had been bent into a semi-circle. Benches faced the fire place and I chose the spot nearest the hearth. The hearth was spotless and had probably not seen a fire in many years. I imagined scenes of long ago when cold and weary travellers in the dead of winter huddled around the fireplace for warmth while waiting for trains delayed by snow and avalanches. The station had seen busier times in an earlier era but today the building was only a silent empty shell. I was the lone would-be passenger with the entire building to myself. The Canadian was not due for at least an hour and that was assuming the train would arrive on time. While waiting, I wrote to Lien Huong and told her about my journey on the train and my trek up the Big Hill. I also shared with her the two lessons I had learned from my foolhardiness; prepare for all types of weather and start a hike at the top of a hill rather than at the bottom.

Another envelope arrived a few weeks later. This letter was longer than the first and was written in English, a very fractured English. I realized that Lien Huong’s knowledge of my language was limited and she appeared to have laboured just to write the two short pages. Some sentences were challenging because I had difficulty interpreting and understanding their meaning, but I certainly was not going to complain or make any comments in my reply. I was gratefully pleased that someone was taking the time to write to me, even if she was half a world away. Friends that I had left behind in eastern Canada had forgotten how to write.

We exchanged several letters during the next few weeks but after reading the latest letter I was surprised when she asked me,

"Why you write Lien Huong? My name not Lien Huong. Lien my friend. My name is Vinh thi Phi Bang. You write to me please. Lien have too many friends to write to. She gave your letter to me to write to friend in Canada. Please don’t be angry for that change."

Phi Bang apologized because she must have thought I would not have written if I had known that someone else rather than Lien Huong was writing the letters. Phi Bang went on to explain that Lien Huong had received many letters from all over the world and was not able to reply to all of them. Lien Huong had chosen to pass some of the letters on to her friends and Phi Bang had been given my second letter. Phi Bang had continued replying to my letters. No, I was not angry about the change because I was grateful that someone was writing to me. Phi Bang’s explanation answered one aspect that I had been curious about; the handwriting in all the letters had differed from the first. Now I understood why.

I replied and told Phi Bang that it did not matter to me if I was writing to her and not to Lien Huong. I promised Phi Bang that I would continue to write to her if she would continue to write to me. After completing my letter, I darted up the hill to the box to mail the letter and then headed over to Kitsilano Beach for a leisurely stroll along the waterfront. 

After returning from my visit to the beach I sat down at the desk and re-read Phi Bang's letter. Placing her letter aside, I picked up the new CP Rail timetable that had taken effect with the change to Standard Time at the end of October. Reading a new timetable was often akin to reading the obituary page in a newspaper. Who died? In this case, which passenger train service had passed away into history and was absent from the new schedule?

Phi Bang's following letter contained a pleasant surprise, a photograph of her. In the photo, Phi Bang was standing beneath tall trees that resembled pine trees. The background behind her was still water like a pond or lake. She told me that the photo had been taken when she had visited Dalat. Phi Bang mentioned that Dalat was very beautiful and her favourite place. The scene portrayed a peaceful tranquil park and did not in any way betray the reality of a war ravaged country. Phi Bang also told me she was seventeen years old. As far as I was concerned, the photo pictured a very pretty young woman rather than a teenager. I placed Phi Bang's photo on my desk, standing the photo up against the backs of the music books. I wondered, “Why on earth would a pretty young lady on the far side of the world be interested in writing to me?” 

The following Tuesday was one of those rare November evenings in Vancouver that I had learned to be grateful for, wet but not raining. Time to do the laundry. More than the usual accumulation of clothing was in need of washing and the bulky load had reached the limit of what I could comfortably carry. The steep uphill walk along Arbutus Street from First to Fourth Avenue was a chore in itself while carrying an awkward load. Arbutus Street was deserted and I deliberately walked slower than normal, pausing occasionally to glance at the sky. Stars were not visible but I was certain the clouds were clearing out.

I was not paying all that much attention to the sidewalk but something had caught my attention, a dollar bill. I stopped and picked it up. The banknote was almost new and had been perfectly double-folded into fourths. The person who lost the money had very carefully folded it in this manner. Perhaps my find was a child's allowance that had inadvertently been dropped. I would preferred to have been able to return my find to the rightful owner, but doing so was impossible. While continuing up the hill I thought about the dollar. It certainly would not buy me very much so I decided to save it, determined to make that particular dollar the symbolic first dollar in my savings for travel to a far distant place some day. Perhaps the resources would eventually be necessary.

Later, I was opening the door to my three-room closet when the telephone started ringing. "Oh no." I groaned aloud.

Throwing the laundry bags on to the couch I grabbed the telephone receiver before the caller gave up, and I half shouted, "Yes?"

"Is that any way to answer the phone?" Martha admonished.

"Martha, I'm sorry.” I said.

"Did I get you at the wrong time?" she asked.

"No. I just got back from the Laundromat, and of course the phone started ringing as soon as I put the key in the lock." I said.

"You sound as if you're expecting another caller." she commented.

"No. I was expecting you to be another one of the those contest callers.” I stated.

“Did you win anything?” Martha asked, sounding very curious.

“About two weeks ago someone called me and told me that if I could correctly answer a skill testing question I would win six weeks of free dance lessons at some dance studio.” I revealed.

“Really? Did you win?” she asked

“I deliberately answered the question wrong and I still won.” I admitted.

“Great! When do you start?” Martha asked sounding rather excited.

“I refused the prize." I said.

"What? You should have taken it!" Martha commented in a tone that betrayed a trace of disdain for my decision.

"Actually, I did accept it after some badgering from the caller and they mailed me a certificate." I said. 

"So what happened?" Martha asked, now sounding very curious.

I went there out of curiosity, but after taking one look I handed the envelope to the receptionist and ran out." I confessed.

"I can't believe you did that!" she exclaimed.

"That was really not for me." I emphasized. 

How are you ever going to meet anyone, especially that special person you keep telling me you hope to find?" she asked.

"There’re other ways than at a dance studio. Six weeks free and then what? They’d have pestered me to no end just to sign me up for six months of expensive dance lessons.” I answered.

“It might have been fun.” she interjected.

“Yeah! Sure! About as much fun as an encyclopedia salesman pushing you to buy the whole set after you have taken Volume One for free. I don't need that kind of nonsense." I pointed out.

“You should have given dancing a try.” She insisted.

"Martha, I don't know how to dance. I don’t even like it." I protested. 

"Anyway, I called you to find out what you've been up to. We haven't seen you or heard from you for a while." Martha stated.

"I visited Field and Lake Louise at Thanksgiving." I mentioned.

"Where’s Field?" she asked.

"In the middle of nowhere." I replied informatively.

"Oh? Sounds exciting...I just wanted to know that everything’s okay with you.” she explained.

"It is, but I've been busy." I assured her.

"Doing what? Did you find a girlfriend?" Martha probed in staccato succession.

"No. I began working on a new composition. Something different from what I’ve done before but I need a piano to develop it further." I revealed hesitantly.

"You can go to Mom's place anytime to do that." Martha pointed out.

"Yeah, I know, but I also know your mom doesn't want to hear me plinking way at the keyboard all the time I'm there." I replied.

"Have you had any hot dates since the last time we talked?" Martha threw at me.

"What?... No!” I replied, obviously sounding flustered.

“Too bad, but I keep hoping for you.” She remarked.

“Martha, there’re times when you can ask the most unexpected questions when they’re least expected." I commented in exasperation.

"Well that's why they're unexpected." she quipped without missing a beat.

"I’ve also been doing some research at the library." I added hoping to redirect the conversation.

"Have you tried asking someone out?" she questioned, ignoring my comment about the library.

"Martha, have you ever found yourself searching for something but not knowing what it is you’re searching for, yet if you ever found it, you’d know right away that it’s exactly what you’ve been searching for?" I asked in a somewhat hypothetical manner and not really expecting her to give me an answer.

"What are you talking about now?” Martha wondered. 

“That special person I've been looking for.” I commented.

"Did you finally meet someone?" Martha probed, now sounding very interested.

"No. I've just been having those strange dreams again...about meeting a Chinese girl." I revealed.

“Is that why you've been at the library?” she asked.

"No. I've been trying to find out more about South Vietnam." I stated flatly.

"Vietnam? All you have to do is read the newspapers or turn on the TV if you want to know about Vietnam." she stated informatively.

"No, I don't mean the war. I want to know more about the people and their country. There’s surprisingly little information available in the library and yet the country has dominated the news headlines for so many years." I mentioned.

"Does this have anything to do with your music?" Martha inquired.

"It sort of does now that you mention it." I answered while thinking about my new composition in progress and glancing at the photograph of Phi Bang on the desk.

"I'm going to Mom's on Saturday afternoon. Why don't you plan to go too and we can talk more there. I'll even stay quiet long enough to listen to your new music. I promise!" she offered.

"Yeah...alright...I could use some critical input." I responded thoughtfully.

"You forgot! I don't know anything about music." Martha responded facetiously.

"I could use some critical input from a music critic that doesn't know anything about music." I commented light-heartedly.

"With a compliment like that coming from you, maybe I should become a professional music critic. What do the real one's know anyway? I'll see you Saturday." Martha countered.

"You might have something there. Anyway, thanks for calling and I’ll see you Saturday." I said, and then hung up the phone.

Again, I stared at the photograph of Phi Bang then said aloud, "Maybe on Saturday I'll tell Martha about you. Why am I talking to you? You can't even hear me. What am I doing?"

I picked Phi Bang's photo up off the desk, looked at her closely for a moment, and then returned the photo to the envelope with her letter and then challenged myself again, " What am I doing?"

One early December evening I had just finished trudging home in the darkness and rain after another frustrating day at work. My umbrella had been placed into dutiful active service but a slight breeze had been blowing against the direction I had to travel. The result left me soaked from my waist down. Only silence and darkness greeted me upon arrival at my living quarters, dreary and depressing to say the least. Removing the photo once more from the envelope, I again stood Phi Bang's photo against the backs of the books on my desk. Arriving home to a silent photo was better than arriving home to nothing at all. Before changing into dry clothes I first filled a pot with water and set it on the stove to boil to make coffee.

Upstairs in the foyer another letter from Phi Bang was waiting for me. At that moment her letter truly felt like a badly needed moment of sunshine in a discouraging day that had rained continuously from the dark of morning through to the dark of night. Inside the envelope was a lengthy letter. Hidden among the pages was another photo and a strange looking leaf, which Phi Bang explained, was a Salon leaf. The leaf had been changed by first placing it in mud for several weeks. Later, the mud had been washed off and with it the decayed parts of the leaf were washed away, leaving behind only the stem and the network of veins. 

This second image of Phi Bang was a black and white school photo. She detailed in her letter that she was wearing white in the photo because her mother had died. I wondered if her mother had been a war casualty, but in reading on I learned that her mother had died from stomach cancer. I also learned that Phi Bang came from a large family and was the second eldest of ten children. She had two sisters and seven brothers, but sadly her youngest brother had died at birth.

Phi Bang also revealed to me that she desired to continue her studies but expressed a concern that she was uncertain if she would be able to. She did not state any reasons why. She also talked about improving her English language skills but I already knew from her letters that she wrote in English with difficulty. In turn I acknowledged that I could not speak even so much as a single word in Vietnamese. In fact, I had never heard spoken Vietnamese.

The following evening after work, I stopped in at one of my favourite bookstores to see if I could find an easy-to-understand English grammar book that I could send to Phi Bang. After browsing around for an hour or so, I chose two books. One dealt with English grammar and the other only with vocabulary. Christmas was only four weeks away and I was hoping that Phi Bang would receive the books before Christmas.

The Oddblock Station Agent

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