Positively 4th Street

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by Peter Johnson

My parents had the bad luck of being born in 1921. They experienced, firsthand, the 20’s and the dirty 30’s. My brothers and I had a much better childhood than they. The eldest was born during the war, my younger brother and I, a few years after it. My mother’s version of ‘Planned Parenthood’: put five years between each child. That way, each of us got her undivided attention until it was time to get swallowed up by the very strict, extremely regimented Ottawa Board of Education.  

Both my mother’s and my father’s parents came to Canada from other countries: my parental grandparents from Norway, my maternal grandparents from Scotland, via Ireland. Both of these generations knew hardships – hardships far beyond anything that my brothers and I ever experienced. My Norwegian grandfather, Rikard, at the tender age of 15, headed north to the Arctic Circle and worked in a gold mine. 15! He saved enough money to book passage to Canada: not the United States – Canada.

A characteristic of many Norwegians, most Highland Scots, and the tide of Irish immigrants to this country, when faced with adversity, was to put their heads down and plow ahead.  Complaining was not in their nature, as a rule. That was viewed as a character flaw, or a weakness. They most certainly never bleated, ‘That offends me’.

Back to 1921: people born in that year reached the age of majority in 1939. In September of that year, Canada declared war on Germany after it had invaded Poland. My father no sooner graduated from Ottawa Tech, than he took the train to Toronto and enlisted in the RCAF. He was all of 18. I found a letter he wrote to my mother on very old RCAF stationary. He didn’t think he was doing anything heroic; he was just doing what he thought he had to do.

The basketball team at his high school, which graduated the year before, signed up together, were tail-gunners in RAF bombers, and  were all dead before the year was out. (check out ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’, by W.H. Auden for a grizzly bit of poetry).

It was a very different time. We can read about it, but only they knew the horror of what life was like for them… and they had barely reached voting age. There was no bragging, no horror stories, only silence as those who returned kept their awful memories to themselves. Most impressively, there was no whining, no complaining about how life had treated them so poorly.  It is quite a contrast to what we are seeing today.

Fast forward to the present. It must be very confusing for the people who came here from Ukraine to see what little things can upset some Canadians. Another story: when I was teaching in Merrickville, a brother and sister showed up in my class one Monday morning. Their family had fled communist Poland. Their parents, both university professors, were targeted by the regime. They fled with their children to the safety of Canada. The younger sibling, an extremely bright young girl of about 12 or 13 years, told me a story, once she had developed some impressive English skills.

In her school in Poland, a large middle-school, the students had an expression that they used to describe a very good day for them: “Like a day in Canada”. That stopped me in my tracks. To this day, more than 40 years later, I can visualize her telling me this. In other countries around the world, Canada is looked upon as a safe haven, a sort of ‘paradise’. A place where every day must surely be simply wonderful.  

Back to the Ukrainians who have found refuge here: they must find it strange that we can get all worked up over the smallest things; getting angry because one has perceived that they have been slighted. Why bother? How much is your time worth to you? Do you not have better things to do with your time and creativity/productivity? Is that all that you have to contribute to society… to your community?

We have so much to be thankful for…but that sounds trite. In ‘Positively 4th Street’, Bob Dylan summed it up this way:

“I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is to see you.”

We don’t want to be that person, do we?

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