Boreal

Amchitka

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ..."

I was crossing at the top of Canada Way on a misty January morning to take the bus to Simon Fraser when I noticed the activity at the bottom of the hill.

It was the first day of classes and I did not want to be late. Just another fender-bender, I thought, and paid it no further attention except to ask a young woman at the bus stop if she had seen what had happened. She had not. Her name was Margaret. And that is how we met.

It was only later that day that I learned that four young people had died that morning. A pickup truck, with perhaps half a dozen kids or more in the back, and a cement truck had collided at the bottom of Canada Way.

Joyce was a brunette, Margaret a blonde, a bit of a dirty blond (no pun intended). Such a beautiful girl! If it had not been for the collision at the bottom of Canada Way, I doubt if I would have had the nerve to even say hello.

With Margaret I experienced Dickens’ best and worst of times — minus the guillotine. Margaret had moved to Vancouver (Burnaby) from Windsor, Ontario. She had moved to escape her past. It would catch up to her.

She had rented a room with a bathroom and kitchenette across Canada Way from where I was staying. It wasn't long before I was spending many an evening at her place, lying on her bed, smoking one of her Craven M's while watching her strumming her guitar and humming the lyrics to Mr. Bojangles or Janice Joplin’s Me and Bobby McGee.

I never tired of hearing her sing out-of-tune, or watching her struggling with a difficult chord and never getting it quite right.

She started opening up to me in an almost schizophrenic sort of way; sometimes being extremely knowledgeable, then exceedingly naïve, especially when it came to sex.

She talked about the reason for her coming to Vancouver. She said she had been sexually assaulted while hitchhiking between Windsor and Toronto. One of the two men was about to be released from custody, and she did not want to be around when that happened.

When we first became intimate, she said that it was the first time she had been with a man since the assault.

We had been friends for maybe a month before the apparent glorious reawakening of Margaret to the joy of sex and, like with Joyce, it caught me completely by surprise.

Friday night was pub night at Simon Fraser or at Shakey’s Pizza Parlour and Pub in New Westminster. It was when were alone in the back of the bus returning from an evening at Shakey’s that she snuggled up to me, laid her head on my shoulder and whispered “is it okay if I fall in love with you?”

I was already in love with her, but did not dare admit it. Even after that unexpected vulnerable whisper all I could do was hold her even closer.

That night, as I was sprawled on on her bed, not knowing what to think, what to say or  what to expect when she left the room and returned a few minutes later, wearing a white bathrobe which she let fall to the floor or placed on a chair, I don't remember what she did with it exactly. It's not important. One moment it was on, the next it was off.

Naked, she walked to her side of the bed and opened the covers. She did not lie down, but sat on the side of the bed, watching and waiting while I took my clothes off.

Even the weather gods conspired to make this the best of times.

Spring comes early to the lower mainland. Winter has barely time to makes its presence known before it’s gone.

Springtime in Vancouver tends to be misty and grey, but not that spring. Even on days when the lower mainland was socked-in with low-lying clouds, mountaintop Simon Fraser was bathed in sunshine, and where that sunshine was most agreeable was in the legendary courtyard on the grass next to the pond in the middle of that great grey raised square that is Arthur Erickson’s tribute to the celebrated monasteries and early universities of Europe.

This is where we did what all college kids do: talk about how we were going to change the world, tell jokes and laugh at anything and everything. She thought I had a wonderful sense of humour. We talked about her favourite French male singer, Robert Charlebois. She did not understand all the words to his songs, but he was her type of guy. This should have been a hint.

Spring also meant the end of the winter semester. Time to head back up the Fraser Valley to Kamloops.

Margaret would come and visit me there, giving her small black dog Cricket some sleeping pills to keep him quiet during the five hour bus trip. It was during one of these visits that she met my mother who was confined to her bed, the result of a stroke. The doctors did not hold out much hope that she would survive more than a few months.

She asked to speak to Margaret in private.

What had my mother told her? How she was glad her son had found a girl like her; she told her that she worried about me and the usual stuff about looking after her boy after she was gone. A few weeks later, she was dead.

My mother died thinking that her sometimes weird, unpredictable boy was going to be okay because he had found the right girl. That was not a trivial thing. I don't know if Margaret ever understood that.

I returned to Simon Fraser in the fall. Some things had change. For one thing, the sex. She gave indications in the games that we played that she wanted to be taken the way she had been taken that night on that highway between Toronto and Windsor.

I tried, but it was not in my nature. It was also hard for me to be the rough-and-tough take-charge type of lover when I had difficulty keeping my emotions in check. Perhaps, I should have been more like the man who rocked the coffin, letting my emotions get the best of me in public then maybe, they would not have surfaced at the most inappropriate time.

More and more Margaret wasn’t home and one day, I found her with another man. Bring on the worst of times.

I saw less of her at Simon Fraser. She had discovered a cause, and that cause was Amchitka.

Amchitka is a volcanic, tectonically unstable island in the Aleutian Islands. Amchitka was the last great underground American test site for nuclear weapons. In 1971, the United States was planning the largest such test ever: the Cannikin test. This particular test was highly controversial. Environmental groups feared that the Cannikin explosion would cause earthquakes and tsunamis along the B.C. coast and large protests were held, some organized by Simon Fraser students and profs.

My last conversation with Margaret at Simon Fraser was about Amchitka. She did all the talking. It was a short conversation. I had run into her as I came out of the library. She talked about the massive demonstration against the Cannikin test at the Blaine border crossing and how exciting that had been, and continued on her way.

It had been some time since I had last seen her. I asked around, only to learn that she was in the hospital. I went to see her, picking a bunch of flowers on the way. It was the afternoon. She was asleep. There were no other visitors. I left the flowers on the table next to her bed and returned that evening. Again, I was the only visitor.

She asked about the flowers. It was like meeting again for the very first time.

We were just getting re-acquainted when a nurse appeared to say visiting hours were over. I hated to leave, and Margaret may not have wanted to see me go because I was not out the door when the nurse asked me to wait outside.

A few minutes later she came out of Margaret’s room and told me “you can go back in, but don’t tell anybody and be quiet.”

The nurse had dimmed the lights. For the first time in a long time we held hands and talked until she fell asleep.

The worst’s of times got a little less worst and then she left. She got better, got on a plane and went home. The Americans went ahead with the Cannikin test.

They said that the big explosion on Amchitka did not cause any collateral damage, but don’t tell me that.

Margaret was first attracted to me because I was none-threatening. I lost some of that appeal when I was not threatening enough.

The violence that was done to Margaret changed her in ways she may not have expected, in ways I did not expect and would only begin to understand when it was too late.

Did the violence — although not of the type and on the scale of the violence done to her — change me?

It may not have changed me, but it definitely marked me. If not, why am I writing about it as if it all happened yesterday?