Monday, 26 January 2015

A Weekend In North Hatley


Summer 1978...

Sleep was impossible. My thoughts kept returning to the letters from Indonesia that were arriving almost daily. More correctly, my thoughts kept returning to the person who was writing these letters to me. Pulling the photo of Kie out of my billfold I wistfully looked at her and silently wondered, “Could you possibly be the one God has chosen for me?”

Writing letters to Indonesia was occupying a great deal more of my time and I too was writing almost daily, wondering where our letter writing was leading. As I lay awake looking at the ceiling, counting the tiles and mentally arranging and rearranging the squares into larger squares and shapes, birds outside squawked and chattered, noisily sharing their morning gossip. A while later I heard a train in the distance. The steel on wood route of CP Rail’s Sherbrooke Subdivision was several miles away, but the throbbing sound of diesels carried far in the stillness of early dawn. The distinctive thudding song of passenger locomotives was unmistakable and I knew the train was the westbound Atlantic Limited faithfully following its rigid course between Sherbrooke and Magog.

After what had seemed like long enough, I finally crept out of bed to peek at the clock in the kitchen; a few minutes before 06:00. The carpeted wooden floor creaked, tattling about every step I made. Rather than needlessly awaken anyone by further stirring around and not wanting to waste any more time inside studying the ceiling, I ventured outside and walked down the steep hill to visit the lake. Standing at the water’s edge I recalled my previous visit to North Hatley.

A few years had passed since my last visit to North Hatley and Lake Massawippi. In late December 1972 I had traveled to Sherbrooke on CPR’s Atlantic Limited and my friend Jim met the train at the railway’s venerable red brick station. Thermometers that night were reading nearly minus thirty degrees Fahrenheit. Regardless of the cold temperature we intended to welcome in 1973 by celebrating, and we visited Jim’s neighbours in a nearby cottage. We began what remained of our late evening by drinking tequila, licking salt, biting into lemon wedges and puffing away on stinky stogies while sporadically playing hands of cribbage. Night quickly faded into a blur and I passed out into oblivion.

The following morning I awoke but could not recall anything about the previous evening. Scraping away part of the window’s frosted coating I peered at the sparkling white world outside. A light powdery snow had fallen sometime during the night and an erratic zigzagging trail of footprints across the open fields testified to our inebriated trek back in the wee hours of the morning. I stared at the footprints but could not recall anything about the night before, not even the bitter cold. Either luck or God’s intervention kept us from losing our way or passing out and freezing to death in the cold. I really do not believe luck was involved.

Jim’s family no longer resided in North Hatley but not much else had seemed to have changed during the intervening years.

Restless aspen and poplar leaves usually rustle incessantly from every little breeze that disturbs them but this morning the trees were silent. The lake’s entire surface was still and mirror like. This particular morning was the only time I had ever witnessed the lake’s surface absolutely flat and motionless, and truly a scene of tranquility in a hurried and impatient world. A most welcomed moment of calm to soothe my restless thoughts.

My brother had left his rubber dinghy and oars at the beach. Fortunately for him the dinghy had not been stolen but that moment I was glad he had neglected to put it away. Placing the inflated rubber conveyance into the lake, I climbed in and rowed out a considerable distance from shore.  Farther out I ceased rowing, pulled in the oars and allowed the dinghy to drift freely. Although light out, the sun was not yet peeking over the hilly horizon. After several minutes of aimless floating, I returned the oars to the water and rowed until almost crossing the lake to the stony cliffs of the opposite shore. Silently I drifted while scanning the tops of the cliffs for signs of wildlife.

Again my thoughts returned to events from the past. In summer 1972 Jim and I had visited North Hatley for a weekend escape. Jim had been itching to cruise the lake in his new boat, which was really an ancient cedar-strip punt powered by a beat-up looking six horsepower motor. That Saturday morning was cloudy and the darkening sky almost shouted a warning to us that a summer storm was blowing in. Undaunted, the two of us set out in the boat for downtown North Hatley to pick up a supply of vittles for our weekend stay. The inward cruise was uneventful with the wind on our backs. Minutes into our return voyage, however, a deluge of heavy rain driven by strong winds struck. We were quickly soaked. Defiantly, I puffed away on my faithful pipe and persisted in spewing out smoke and cinders in spite of the driving rain.

In spontaneous foolishness, I stood up, placed one foot on the bow, pointed toward shore and trying to imitate an old salt, hollered, “Land Ho! Land Ho!”

“What on earth are you doing?” Jim yelled.

“We’re not on earth, we’re on water!” I yelled back.

“You know what I mean.” Jim answered, barely loud enough to be heard over the sputtering motor and driving downpour.

“I’m practicing in case we get lost.” I answered, and again yelled, “Land Ho!”

“How the hell can we possibly get lost in sight of land?” Jim hollered back.

“Ya see! I’m good at this. Land Ho! Land over starboard bow!” I yelled again.

“That’s port bow.” Jim retorted.

“I stand corrected.” I admitted.

“Sit down you damn fool.” Jim hollered again. He swung the boat around toward shore, changing his heading almost into the direction we had come from.

“Land Ho! Over port bow!” I yelled once more.

“That’s starboard bow this time.” Jim corrected loudly.

“No Cap’n. It’s port bow this time. Our port’s over there.” I stated while pointing toward shore

“How do you know?” Jim questioned, sounding somewhat surprised.

“Easy! My trusty pipe’s gone out.” I explained.

“What’s your pipe got to do with where we are?” Jim asked.

“The first pipe lasted as long as the trip into town, so the trip back should be about as long.

“Bilge!” Jim retorted, making the word sound like a profanity.

“I’ve been out here on a boat before and I recognize those points of reference on the far side.” I confessed, while pointing toward the stony cliffs.

“Yes, I’ve been out here before.” I muttered wistfully, awakening from my reverie and returning to the present.

Lake Massawippi’s tranquility and the quiet beauty of mountain scenery were conducive to meditation and contemplation. Again my thoughts returned to the young lady on the other side of the world. Regardless of the fact that Kie and I had never met or seen each other in person I was slowly, and even somewhat reluctantly, beginning to realize that our letter writing had become deeper, far more than only a casual acquaintance and friendship by mail. At least to me it was. Not wanting any part of another journey into disappointment, heartache and despair, I seriously pondered whether or not I was reading too much into her letters. Repeatedly questioning my feelings and probing my deepest thoughts about what was happening, one question I could not answer kept persistently gnawing, “Why is she spending so much of her time writing to me?”

Lifelong residents of the area had told me that the lake’s depth at this point was probably about 300 feet. I was not going to dispute that fact. In spite of daylight and the water’s clarity, it had that deep darkness appearance. Whether 30 feet or 300 feet, if the dinghy was punctured and suddenly deflated, then I would be in over my head. As I lay back and relaxed, my hands splashed into the water. The cool surprise made me recall the story about Jesus and how he had walked on the water. No one, as far as I could recall from all that I had learned or read, had ever made such a claim. The account about Jesus walking on the water appealed to me because it was far too preposterous to be an exaggeration. The story had to be complete truth or a complete lie, but could not be anything less in that gray area between the two extremes. The choice was either believe or disbelieve but there was no middle ground.

While aimlessly floating about in the dinghy, I continued to contemplate my written relationship with my unseen friend in Indonesia. Finally I realized that first I would have to absolutely certain in my mind about how far I was prepared to go with our relationship before asking or expecting anything from Kie in return. If developing our relationship meant traveling to the far end of the earth to Indonesia to be with her, was I prepared to go? Yes, I was. I would never be content to go half way by only silently thinking about going. If deepening our relationship meant ignoring traditions, breaking long-established unwritten rules, and defying all conventional wisdom, was I prepared to do it? Yes, I was ready. If our relationship meant charging ahead with nothing other than a blind faith and trust in God, would I do it? Yes, that is exactly what I would do no matter how foolish my actions were going to appear. If the future or our relationship meant marriage, was I ready for it? Yes, I wanted her.

I wanted all or nothing at all; no uncommitted gray middle ground. In exchange I was prepared to give all or nothing at all; again, no uncommitted gray middle ground. For the first time in my life I was absolutely certain about what I wanted out of life and with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life. I was also acutely aware that my vision would all be for naught unless my friend in Indonesia was prepared to want all or nothing at all and join me. This risk was great and the stakes extreme but I believed the reward to be far greater. I was ready to give everything, convinced that I had at last found the far end of the rainbow.

While I had a clear picture in my mind about how I wanted our written relationship to develop, and while I had chosen to attempt to overcome an almost impossible barrier, I really did not know whether or not my never seen but often thought about friend felt any of the same feelings for me. I had never asked Kie directly or indirectly about what she thought or how she felt about our written relationship. Many times I asked myself, “Am I reading too much between the lines?”

Was my imagination slyly filling in blanks in spite of my best efforts not to allow it? Thinking about probing further and actually asking Kie if she cared anything for me was making me uncomfortably anxious. The palms of my hands were wet from perspiration, not lake water, and this was in spite of the fact Kie was half a world away. If the expression, “Once bitten twice shy” actually had a meaning, it did then. I did not want to be bitten a second time but I did not want to shy away in fear either. Wrestling with the very real possibility of being completely wrong and then having to face and live with the disappointment of failure and rejection kept me restless with indecision. Uncertainty and indecision are like listening to diminished seventh chords that resolve into more diminished seventh chords. Afraid, I selfishly craved for a single instant of absolute certainty in an uncertain world.

The sun had quietly appeared over the southeastern horizon and I realized that I was going to be sunburned very quickly. Also, a light breeze had come up unnoticed and the lake was no longer as calm as it had been earlier. I rowed the dinghy back across the lake and returned to the cottage. I was hoping that a cup of fresh coffee and possibly a hearty breakfast would be ready and waiting for me.

Dad was up and had already made the morning pot of coffee. He had also driven into downtown North Hatley to pick up a copy of the Montreal Gazette from Earl’s. Dad always starts his days with the Gazette and, as expected, he was sitting in a chair reading his morning paper. Many people take their work home from the office to work on during evenings, but Dad is probably one of those lucky few who can actually claim that he has someone else deliver his work to his home free of charge so he can look it over the next day after the work has been finished by someone else. Then again, I suppose employment with the Montreal Gazette did provide that unique benefit, except during vacations when Dad had to go out and buy his paper like everyone else.

Leaving Dad to his paper, I sat alone at the dining table and pensively stared through the window toward the grove of elderly cedar trees growing on the steep slopes of the ravine beside the cottage. On the outside of the glass barrier, a large black spider was patiently and motionlessly waiting in the center of its web which had been strung and spun across the upper left corner of the window frame. Inside, a blue-tailed fly noisily buzzed and persistently bumped against the same pane, oblivious to the deadly danger hanging on the on the other side. An eighth of an inch and nothing more, however, to the fly the glass was in impenetrable barrier. To me the glass was fragile and could have been shattered on a moment’s whim. Life is fragile and that which separates life and death is equally fragile.

With only a broken television to watch or constantly crackling radio to listen to, the cottage was certainly a peaceful place to spend the weekend. The relaxed atmosphere readily encouraged undisturbed daydreaming. Wistfully, I was wishing and hoping that one day I would be able to share a weekend here with Kie, not as my far away unseen friend in Indonesia, but here as my wife. Yes, here in North Hatley at Lake Massawippi. Yes, I was certain as I was ever going to be that I wanted marry Kie, but I had never once written to Kie to reveal to her how I felt about her. Opening my briefcase, I pulled out the latest letter and photograph of Kie that had arrived yesterday. As I read Kie’s words again and stared at her picture, I was certain that she had similar feelings about me.

“Can it really be possible?” I silently wondered, remembering only too well how wrong I had been about Phi Bang.

Returning Kie’s letter and photograph to the briefcase I removed a note pad. Hesitantly, I began writing to Kie, trying first to describe the cottage to her, and then trying to describe the mountains of the Eastern Townships, the town of North Hatley, Lake Massawippi and finally CP Rail’s rarely utilized route along the lake. Also, I shared with Kie some details about my morning float in the dinghy but deliberately did not mention all that I had been thinking about out there on the water.

“More than a month has passed since my visit to Pittsburgh, and by now you will know about those events. What you may not know though is that I don’t think that I’m the same person I was a month ago. I have walked away from what used to be my dreams. I do not feel any hurt and pain that always comes when everything dear is suddenly torn away by forces beyond our control. I know why too. I let go because I did no longer have the same dreams or wishes. I haven’t for a while now. I believe my visit to Pittsburgh was going back to bury what had already died.

For a while I thought my visit there was a mistake, but now I realize the events of that strange weekend removed any doubts I may have been carrying with me. Now I am free from the past. I am truly free!

Kie, I can clearly remember that Sunday morning in Pittsburgh, staring at the ceiling and thinking about you. Strange in a way. I was in Phi Bang’s home yet I was alone and thinking about you. Anyway, on that particular morning I felt closer to you than I ever did to her. I suppose this is a sad admission to make about a past relationship. During those few moments of reflection I truly understood that our letter writing is different, far more intense and intimate than I have ever known with anyone before. Maybe that’s because you aren’t here in America running around in a frenzy of activity trying to retain a Vietnamese identity and trying not to become Americanized.

As I sit here writing and occasionally glance up at the cedar trees covering the ravine, I remember two little boys who once explored in here years ago. I laugh now when I think back to that time when Ted and I were quite small and we stumbled across a rather overgrown trail that led into the dark damp cedar forest. The two of us fearlessly followed the mysterious route which quickly led us to a small weathered cabin that we thought was deep in the forest. For a moment Ted and I had been convinced we had found an ideal hideout, until we opened the door and discovered what an abandoned outhouse was.

North Hatley is a beautiful place. Kie, I am certain that you would fall in love with this place if you like quiet places in the mountains. I was out on Lake Massawippi early this morning. My brother forgot his dinghy on the beach, so I borrowed it and rowed out dangerously far, across to the other side of the lake. Perhaps a foolish thing to have done but the morning air was still, and I had much on my mind to think through.”

I wanted to tell Kie about my feelings for her but I did not think now was the right time. I did not know when the right time would come or if there ever would be a right time, but I knew the right time would not be this weekend.

Following breakfast I again trudged down the hill to the lake intending to relax on the rocks at the beach. Upon reaching the railway, however, I felt a tugging from that irresistible lure of having to know what was beyond the distant bend in the iron roadway which curved out of sight around the sloped shoreline. Hooked, I detoured along the route of the Massawippi Valley Railway. The steel strips were nicely rusted from a lack of trains to polish them. Just as well there were few trains because the railway was the only land route along the shore. Rather than moving freight over the rails, I suppose CP Rail was earning more revenue by leasing parcels of shoreline to cottage owners who wanted legal access to the lake. Stepping on each consecutive tie, I short-stepped southward along the neglected railway to the little bridge across Brown’s Brook.

Leaving the railway, I climbed over several large rocks and found a reasonably comfortable seat, that is, if sitting on rocks can ever be considered comfortable. Had one of those rare northbound trains appeared, the Brown’s Brook Bridge would have been an ideal setting for capturing an attractive branch line railway photograph. No train came. My camera had been left behind at the cottage anyway.

Concluding my leisurely session of undisturbed meditation a while later I short-stepped along the railway back to the beach for a swim. After a few refreshing minutes of cooling off in the lake, I left the water, stoked my pipe with one of my favourite Latakia mixtures, sat on a log in the shade and watched a parade of boats leisurely cruising up and down the lake. I began daydreaming and wondered if a day could come when Kie and I would be together here, so that we could rent a boat and cruise Lake Massawippi.

Early evening was spent scavenging the beach to gather reasonably dry pieces of driftwood and dead branches. Satisfied that a sufficient pile of shoreline debris had been accumulated, I soon had a blazing fire going beside the water, just beyond reach of the waves. Seated on a large weathered log that had long ago shed its bark, I looked down at the vacant space beside me and thought, “Kie, this space is reserved just for you. If you were here with me now, I would place my arm around you, around your shoulder, so that you could gently rest your head against my shoulder. Could a moment together like this ever happen with us? With you, I somehow believe it could.”

In dream-like thought I watched the evening sky slowly turn black while sunset faded into oblivion. Unlike in the city, evening air in the mountains quickly cooled. The warmth radiating from the fire was comfortably pleasing without being offensively hot or smoky. The moon eventually appeared above the horizon and cast a reflection that glittered like a sprinkling of stars across the lake’s surface.

The fire constantly crackled and spit out sparks as clouds of smoke swirled skyward. Content for the moment I nonetheless desired to share hours like these with that once-in-lifetime special person whom I had always had a deep longing to find and be with. I was now convinced that Kie was that one special person I had always been longing for and searching for, and wondered, “How will she know? How will I tell her? What will happen if I do tell her? What will she say?”

I spent half the night on the beach sitting in front of the fire, holding my notepad and wondering what to write and say to Kie and how to share my thoughts and feelings with her.

“My dear friend, you once mentioned to me in one of your letters that sometimes at night you silently shed your tears because your former beloved is no longer interested in you. During these last six months I have read and reread your many letters and I cannot imagine why your former beloved would cast you aside. I can only assume that he must be a fool. Rather ironic that we are both in similar situations. Neither of us wanted by our former loves.

If reality was not so painful to think about, then our situations would probably be amusing. Two unwanted cast-offs half a world apart commiserating with each other. For me though, enough time has passed and she is no longer a part of my life. I don’t know if you feel the same way about your situation but I’ve learned that time does allow the pain to pass. It will be the same for you also and this I can assure you.

Kie, it’s very late now. My eyelids feel very heavy and my thoughts have run dry. I used to hate Mondays because they always meant another week of work. Now I’m impatient for Monday mornings because almost always I find your letter waiting for me in box 1092. Kie, if you want someone to love you, then I shall love you.”

I signed my letter, intentionally ending it this way. First thing on Monday morning I would mail my letter to Kie and then wait for her response.

Three years later...

In life, sometimes that which seems impossible does become possible... and yes, some dreams too do come true.

Summer 1981 and Kie with me in North Hatley.

 The Oddblock Station Agent

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