Shooting the Messenger

Till Death Do Us Part

Glenna and the French Connection

I was packing groceries when a well-dressed, polite, middle-aged woman approached me. She introduced herself and asked if I knew her daughter Glenna. The name didn’t mean anything until she described the head-turner who had almost caused me a minor neck injury when she first walked by the big Red and White supermarket on Railroad Avenue, Ashcroft's main street, where I worked after school and on weekends.

If you were a French Canadian family moving to an English-speaking province, Ashcroft would probably not have been your first choice as a place to settle. How welcoming would a town that catered to miners, ranchers and cowboys be to people who spoke English with an accent and were responsible for that foreign language on cereal boxes?

The hoped-for final destination had been the city of Kamloops where my oldest sister, my adopted sister Lea and her husband Ray had moved a few years earlier. It was not to be, but this was a blessing in disguise.

After a few months of searching, my parents realized they could not afford a business in Kamloops that would allow them to raise the kids. They found such an opportunity in Ashcroft, a small town about 50 miles from Kamloops, 3 miles or so off the highway to Vancouver at the bottom of another valley carved by the Thompson River. They purchased a small supermarket from a very British owner, Mr. Parson. The people of Ashcroft not only made my family feel at home with words and deeds, but with dollars, almost doubling sales in the first year and forcing one of the other two supermarkets to adopt a new line of business.

The passage of the Official Languages Act (1969) was still at least a year away and its guiding principles, still more than a decade away from being incorporated into the Canadian Constitution as Section 16 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982). Constitutional amendment or no constitutional amendment, at Ashcroft High, learning French was not an option if you wanted to graduate. Nobody seemed to mind; it was all part of being Canadian. Even Americans who moved here expected to learn French. I was very impressed with my classmates doing their best to learn a language that most of them would never have the opportunity to use.

My parents were not the activist type, and the kids were probably too young to care. There was really nothing to be upset about. When we moved to British Columbia, my parents expected the kids to fit in, and when in Rome... That meant speaking English, going to school in English, working in English. There was nothing wrong with that then and there is nothing wrong with that today. My parents made a choice to move to a predominantly English-speaking province; it was up to us to adapt, and we did.

The woman who had asked if I knew her daughter explained that they had recently moved to Canada from the United States and her daughter could use some tutoring in French. Glenna had recently enrolled in the same high school as me—the town's only high school, Ashcroft High—and would be in grade 10. I was in grade 11.

The tutoring did not last long, my understanding of French grammar being inadequate to the task, but I did get to know Glenna better, as well as her wonderful mother, her stepfather and later, her brother when he returned from Vietnam, a very troubled individual who had great difficulty living with the memories.

They were Mormons from Salt Lake City, Utah. Glenna's parents may have come to Canada to establish a sanctuary for her brother. He was part of a maintenance team that met the helicopters when they returned from combat missions or raids on Vietnamese villages to pick up suspected collaborators. On a few occasions, when alone with me, he would break down and cry as he described helicopters returning with prisoners who were simply lined up on the tarmac and shot. He would raise his arm and make a “bang-bang” motion as if he was shooting off a revolver, and, between sobs, say over and over, “They just shot them, they just shot them…” That is when I suspected that he may have been the reason for the family relocating to Canada.

These truly disturbing stories left me strangely unmoved. At the time, my faith in my government—in the government of the United States, in the government of democracies of the Western mode—was steadfast. They just did not do that sort of thing. The My Lai massacre of 300 unarmed Vietnamese civilians including women, children, and the elderly on March 16, 1968, carried out by soldiers of Charlie Company under the command of Lt. William Calley, was still not common knowledge. Glenna’s brother had to be wrong about what he saw, what he experienced. Today, I realize that this conscientious American was probably accurately relating events he had witnessed. It is unfortunate that I was not more compassionate when compassion was what was called for.

My faith in democracies like the United States is still unequivocal, but I am more realistic as to what war does to ordinarily decent human beings; that war—like religion, like money—can make good people do bad things, and this is something we have to guard against.

I would join Glenna and her family to go fishing on a small, secluded lake just off the winding road that links the Caribou Highway (Hwy 97) to Lillooet, Mile 0 of the Gold Rush Trail. I don't remember catching anything. All I remember is sitting with Glenna at one end of the boat, her mother and stepfather at the other, fishing lines dangling in the water and being rocked by gentle waves on a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon, all silently hoping the fish wouldn’t bite and spoil the moment.

On other occasions, we went hunting in the hills above Ashcroft. We never shot at anything. It was more of an excuse to go on a picnic and get to know each other better. A short distance into the forest, Glenna’s mother and stepfather would go off on their own with a simple request that we not shoot at anything in their general direction.

Glenna and I had a favourite spot high up on the mountain where, if conditions were just right, as the sun rose (these hunting picnics were early-morning affairs), you could just make out the snow-capped coastal mountains in the distance. A few hours into this make-believe hunt, we would all meet at a pre-arranged rendezvous to enjoy whatever was in the picnic basket.

I would also join Glenna, her family and coreligionists for picnics and softball games. When someone decided it was time to bring out the bats and mitts, just like Moses parting the red sea, everyone on one side of an imaginary line was on one team and everyone on the other side, members of the opposing team. There was none of the (sometimes humiliating) public display of team captains handpicking the best players, then arguing who would be saddled with the less talented. Except for perhaps tennis, I was not particularly gifted when it came to sports. I never felt they were trying to convert me; they were just making me a part of their family activities, and I appreciated that.

It was Glenna’s stepfather who introduced me to a variation of “intelligent design” decades before it became the subject of controversy. On that same winding road to Lillooet there is a red exposed cliff. One day, Glenna’s stepfather stopped and parked by the side of the road a few metres from the cliff face. I was following with the beautiful Glenna in my car and so I did the same.

We all walked up to the red cliff. After rummaging around the loose stones, Glenna’s stepfather picked a sliver of rock and handed it to me. On the surface of the rock was the outline of a trilobite, a snail-like creature from the Cambrian Period, 570-505 million years ago. We spent perhaps an hour searching the cliff face, finding maybe another dozen fossilized creatures from Earth's distant past, mostly more trilobites. For Glenna's stepfather, they may not have been put there 6,000 years ago but they were all part of God’s creation, all part of His plan.

I prided myself in being able to look at both sides of an argument before coming to a conclusion. I also did not like confrontations. This may explain my penchant for looking at any situation from the other person’s perspective, hoping to find in that perspective a reason to agree or at least a reason why I should respect the other's point of view. I respected Glenna’s stepfather’s argument, in part because I respected him and knew him to be an honest man. To this day, I am still undecided about teaching “intelligent design” in schools for fear that Darwin will get short-changed.

It’s never too late to apologize or make amends for past transgressions or thoughtlessness, and I would like to make such an apology now, though many will consider it completely out of place. It's perhaps even silly, as someone said, because Glenna’s parents—Glenna, even—may no longer be with us. It may be silly, but we only have so much time left to make fools of ourselves and we should use that time wisely; that includes taking the time to say we’re sorry to people we may have hurt, deliberately or inadvertently. If they are no longer with us, the more reason to honour their memory by recognizing their impact on our lives.

I said goodbye to Glenna twice. The first time was when her family left Ashcroft for Vancouver. The evening before she left, she gave me the most innocent, warm and unexpected of kisses. Her family lived at one end of town and at the other end was the old gold rush era cemetery. I walked the length of the town to wander among the headstones and crosses in the moonlight and reflect on the end of things. I wanted to write about this first goodbye, and this memorable kiss, to apologize for how we parted the second time and to thank her, her mother, and her stepfather for countless kindnesses not forgotten.