A Borderline Case
For a long time I was angry about the war in Vietnam. Now I think of it as hopeless. For several years I have thought that the Americans should not be there, not for the good of the country, not even for the good of the world. My demands are unreasonable. I think the Americans should get out. Altogether. They are interfering in a culture they don’t belong to and don’t understand. Defending Europe against Russia after 1945 was a policy that made sense because Europe and America had a lot in common; they were part of the same world, and the values defended were endemic and viable. To defend Africa against the Chinese may be a legitimate exercise of power on the grounds that the Chinese know no more of Africa than the Americans, and the African countries may need time to try out their new nations before committing them. But to defend Vietnam against the Vietnamese is an exercise in pointlessness.
So there I am; I have a position on the biggest fact of American political life.
And less than an hour’s drive away, just out of sight, is a northern corner of the United States. It’s been that way most of the time since I was ten. When I was a kid, I could walk two blocks, look across a mile of river, and see the U.S. The American Coast Guard Station was at the edge of the water, and at the old fort above, I could see the red and black storm warnings. Now and then on an American holiday, we would cross the river and see a parade. The way the American soldiers marched was comical. They didn’t lift their feet or swing their arms the way we’d been taught in the cadet corps at school. I suppose all the Americans in Vietnam march in the same comic way if they march at all.
For several years, the Niagara River was all that separated me from the Americans. We knew all about them, of course, that they were mouthy, rude, and not much as soldiers (everyone had Second World War stories to prove this). But in New York State you could see movies on Sunday, and every now and then, we did. We might even smuggle back a bit of something. I remember my grandfather, an argumentative Yorkshireman who claimed that the capitalists would call him a communist and that the Bolsheviks would call him a capitalist (and was probably right on both counts), once got involved in a fierce dispute about whether it was legal to bring back an open package of cigarettes.
It’s just as well the American immigration officials didn’t ask him what kind of political opinions he was bringing into their country, or we might have missed our movie.
Then, before long, I was eighteen, or thought I looked it, and you could drink beer in New York State at eighteen. We would go across after it was too dark to play golf to eat pizza and drink American beer — Miller’s High Life – and a pretty high old life it was, between Korea and Vietnam, and you didn’t get drafted in Canada anyway.
Over these years, I met a lot of Americans, those I met on trips across the river and the rich ones from Buffalo who spent the summer in town. Then I went away to school and met Henry. From Brooklyn. He was not exactly a patriot, was thankful that his draft status was low, but got irritated enough at complacent remarks about the superiority of Canadian education that now and then he made me realize that I was a foreigner on this continent too.
Once I went to visit him in Brooklyn, to spend a few days, not just a few hours, in the States. Just before the train got to New York, it went underground. When I phoned Henry from the station, there was some confusion about directions, and I didn’t see the sky again for about three hours. I wandered underground through unknown subway stations asking questions, but people either refused to answer (afraid of being mugged maybe?) or said, pretty rudely, that they didn’t know anything about it. I’m glad I wasn’t in real trouble.
I haven’t heard from Henry for a couple of years or so. As far as I know he’s living in California married to a Quaker … but then a man who claimed he could fart the Star-Spangled Banner might end up anywhere.
So I’ve known Americans, even though I can’t make much connection between the ones I’ve known and the acts of their government. Of course, I always have that trouble with politics; I can seldom relate the events of the big world to the people I know.
Aside from all this, the U.S.A. means TV. Since the ’40’s I have never been out of range of American television except for a couple of years I spent in England (and even there my wife and I would go downstairs every Saturday night to watch Perry Mason with our senile landlady). From Steve Allen and Father Knows Best to Johnny Carson and Get Smart, I’ve watched them all. That archetypal American, Richard Kimble, always got to me as he slouched along, innocent and misunderstood. I suppose Lyndon Johnson thinks of himself as a man like Richard Kimble, making painful decisions, blamed wrongly, a good man at heart.
Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?
* * *
When Kennedy was killed, I felt as though I had lost someone.
And watching a freedom march, while Joan Baez and others sang “We Shall Overcome,” I tried to explain to my young daughter what it was all about and found I couldn’t talk right.
* * *
One spring when I was about eighteen, the ice jammed at the mouth of the Niagara River. It jammed solid, heaped and bulged, strong enough to walk on. I started across one Sunday afternoon, just for the hell of it; I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to go ashore on the other side. When I got about halfway, my nose started to bleed for some unknown reason, and I had to turn back. Within a day or so the ice had cleared away, and there was no longer any chance to walk there. I couldn’t have gone ashore anyway.
Helwig, David. “A Borderline Case.” The New Romans: Candid Canadian Opinions of the U.S. Ed. Al Purdy. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1968. 153–55.
Copyright Estate of David Helwig. Reprinted with the permission of the Estate of David Helwig.