The Immigrant’s Saga – Part One
Written by Admin in English -
Although individual stories are as different as individuals who lived them, first generation immigrants share many experiences that are common to most. These are: separation from family and friends, coming in contact with a new society, learning a new language, starting out a new life in a strange place facing various discriminations, entry level job experiences, to name a few. Theirs is a story repeated many times in Canada, which accepts large numbers of immigrants every year.
I feel an obligation to tell my story because few first generation immigrants master English well enough to tell theirs, and because I believe that these immigrants as a group are undervalued in our society, and their struggle to integrate into society is not well understood. Some regard immigrants as a threat. Yet Canada’s very existence is owed to such immigrants of the past and our continued well-being as a nation will depend on accepting such immigrants. I have done well by the country, and the country has done well by me. Integration into a new society, as every immigrant knows, is far from easy. Yet I am living proof that it can be done. We need to retool ourselves, but we can become what we chose to be.
May this poem serve to promote acceptance and understanding, and provide encouragement for other immigrants to know that they are not alone.
Kamloops, April 8, 1997.
Arriving to freedom
At the Austro-Hungarian border –
(the date was January 15th,
the year l957,
winds calm among the trees,
temperature minus 15 degrees Celsius I remember,
because it was the same as the date) –
I have been following the others who had heard shots, panicked,
and ran ahead amok.
I should have run too,
but was unable to keep up,
unable to run,
having walked for three nights,
sleeping little during the days,
trying to stay alert for far too long, condition: exhausted.
And so it is that I still
remember the snow-covered trees
holding out soft arms,
beckoning me to sleep.
Alone I closed my eyes but on I walked,
one numbed foot in front of another –
using the furrow left in the deep snow
where the others had run,
trusting my feet to guide me.
Nor did I open my eyes for quite a while,
and did not want to at all,
but I thought I should, for I could stumble –
and then I might not get up,
or a branch might poke me in the eye.
I remember my surprise,
for when I did open my eyes –
there were no trees.
“So this is no-man’s land” I thought, but did not halt,
not for anything,
not to look for guard towers or the barbed wires,
not even for the guards in the trees with rifles –
I just walked on in the open,
too tired to think of the mines.
Twelve kilometers later,
with feet frozen in city shoes that walked for days in deep snow,
unshaven and disheveled,
beyond fatigue, but still enduring, I was
because the official smelling of cologne,
dressed in a clean white shirt and wearing a tie,
had heard that I had a gun, and
would not believe that I had
thrown it away among the trees,
nor that its only bullet
was meant for me.
Having lived in communist Hungary for a decade,
I knew enough not to expect mercy and,
having heard of tortured executions
and of life in their gulags,
I was determined not to be captured alive.
Short weeks before, while the borders were open,
most of my fellow freedom fighters were encouraging me
to go with them, but I had said,
“The courageous don’t run.”
My courage had been bolstered by the belief that,
the communist system was so badly discredited,
the communists could never regain their former power.
I was wrong.
Weeks later, with most of my friends captured or killed,
I myself had to run or die.
Still, convincing my interrogator that I had thrown my gun away
was no easy matter.
Only after he himself became fatigued
did he release me to sleep.
And so it was that I
walked into freedom with my eyes closed,
and found it in my sleep.
Emigration does not begin with departure,
nor does it end with arrival.
I know my spirit left the country
days before my body did –
joining my countrymen before me
welcomed as heroes earlier.
Though I fought longer than they,
I would not be paraded like them,
but still welcomed with quiet dignity,
a free man among equals.
I imagined my new city well lighted,
streets filled with happy people smiling at me,
for this would now be my city also,
simply because I would be living here.
But when I arrived I found instead
that I was called a landed immigrant,
and nothing was as I had imagined.
To my surprise, though I was already here,
I could not see my new country at all for a long time,
despite constantly looking at it.
Instead, for months, I only came to see
my old country from new perspectives.
Although I was assimilating new information,
my standards were the old.
And we can’t digest information without measuring and sorting,
comparing the new with the old always,
reevaluating and reintegrating,
always seeking only to adjust, to repair,
feeling reluctant to destroy the house to put in a new window.
Yet the new, larger window demands a new, larger house.
And so the new perspectives gained
must be applied to the old,
for the old house cannot be rebuilt at once,
and one must patch it up,
having to live somewhere
while the new house is built.
All the new can not be learned all at once.
The volume is simply too overwhelming,
far too much to decipher,
blowing a fuse
even more difficult to comprehend
throwing up your arms
and quite impossible to digest
the struggle that lasts for years.
(It is indeed an unending process,
repeated and repeating,
forgotten and relearned,
forgotten and remembered:
a process not to be ever completed,
only abandoned when you die.
Luckily you have no inkling of this at the start,
or you would never begin.
Understand only this:
To comprehend the new, new tools have to be acquired:
a new language with rules impossible to comprehend,
possible only to accept –
laden with exceptions “that strengthen the rules”
by destroying confidence in them.
But it is really your own confidence that suffers.
And there are not just new words but new idioms:
twists of tongue and meaning, subtleties.
(I will speak not of the unspeakable English writing,
laden more with history than with sense
with its just extant if not extinct logic.)
New eyes are needed also,
to look for different things
and to perceive them differently;
and new ears are also required
for new accents, cadences,
vowels and digraphs unfamiliar,
just to discern sounds previously there but not heard.
And a new tongue has to be forged,
all the subtle flesh changed to create new sounds.
In my country only people with speech impediments used the “th”
so I had to develop a speech impediment in my mind
before I could pronounce it.
The closed vowels long remained a mystery like the glides,
and the double vowels were always a stab in the dark.
In the end I learned to speak English word by word,
like everyone must,
by trial and error, again and again.
But spelling I learned following Hungarian phonetic rules which,
by the way,
are much more useful than the English ones.
So learning to spell well before I learned to speak,
I astounded my English-speaking friends,
because I, who spoke no English,
who could not pronounce the words,
could spell them better than they could.
For my part, I could never understand their difficulties
until I taught their children to spell.
And that is not all: new tastes had to be acquired,
in food and clothing,
mindset and temperament,
manners and behavior, and
new codes in morals as well as social customs assimilated —
first without understanding a word,
later by guessing at what was being said,
later yet, without help because others were reluctant to correct you,
just being polite.
There are schools to be sure, even for adults —
(blessed be the society women who volunteer their time
in a valiant effort, for they speak much more clearly than their men,)
but you learn most of your English
in the School of Necessities.
You learn English in the shops, on the radio,
listening to people talk,
always on the outside looking in:
craving to understand,
yearning to be included.
At the workplace where your ilk will be employed
few speak English better than you,
and many speak it a lot worse.
Using my new vocabulary
acquired from my Ukrainian-Canadian boss,
(go koplo tyes, heev left)
I caused much merriment among my English-speaking friends.
Thus by and by a new language is learned,
and only by and by a new Canadian is forged.
Indeed, to become a new Canadian is a feat
of many accomplishments.
Let those who accomplished all this
throw stones at the immigrant,
and no stones shall be thrown.
Indeed immigration is a matter of degree, for years,
and a matter of dichotomy for a moment.
One becomes a Canadian when,
one is more Canadian than not.
I became one long after I could speak, read and write
with equal ease both English and Hungarian,
on one fine (but otherwise unpleasant), day,
when I said something in Hungarian
and thought, “Only a Canadian would think that!”
And so it is that now, at the end of my life,
I can tell a success story.
But let me begin.
Where are you from?
How many times have I heard this question,
posed by so many people,
asked in so many tones,
said in so many ways –
demurred by friend, demanded by foe,
yearned by the curious, yawned by the bored,
implored by the ignorant and delineated by the learned:
Where are you from? Where are you from?
Repeatedly, always: Where are you from?
Whenever I opened my mouth betraying my accent: Where are you from?
This question that is more than a question
even when it was meant to be a question,
because the conclusion precedes the question
that you do not belong here.
You are not from here, so where are you from?
It hits like a rejection.
It does not matter that you have lived here for years,
that you worked harder than most,
that you paid more taxes than the millionaires,
that you have become a homeowner and a citizen,
that you are brighter than most politicians,
that you have served this country well –
that you have raised children and grandchildren,
that you can speak without an accent for hours
before a single word pronounced with an accent gives notice
You speak with an accent, you are not from here,
you do not belong: “So where are you from?”
The rejection is always keenly felt,
because all we want to do who have left our native lands is
to find a place to which we may belong.
For wanting to belong is instinctive, primordial,
a craving like hunger, all-penetrating like sex,
our herd instinct’s hard drive for security.
This “Where are you from?” acts like a shot of adrenaline:
it triggers our glands, makes us tense,
puts us on our guard, and its blow
always catches us on the chin.
(Oh Canada, we “from far and wide” do stand on guard for Thee
more than anyone knows!)
“I love it here,” I say, quite contented.
Where are you from?
“I think the Canadians will win.” (I am into the game.)
Where are you from?
“I think Freud is a fraud.” (I am being clever.)
Where are you from?
“I love rock and roll.” (A blatant lie, I just want to belong.)
Where are you from?
“These are good doughnuts, don’t you think?” (Being hungry in a hurry.)
Where are you from?
Always, out of context, when you least expect it:
Where are you from?
When you thought you were home at last —
“Where are you from?”
How do you spell that?
The second most frequently asked question
in the English language must be:
“How do you spell that?”
For one, les anglais don’t know.
The English speaking people must be, thanks to their own language,
the poorest spellers in the world.
Then there are the visual learners,
who need to see your name
in order to remember it.
“How do you spell that?”
They number in the millions,
each asking the same question a thousand times.
“How do you spell that?”
“How do you spell that?”
Then there are the conscientious –
they just want to get it right.
“How do you spell that?”
Then there are those who can not believe their ears.
“How do you say you spell that?”
Add to them the hard of hearing.
“How did you say you spell that?”
And those who just want to verify it.
“How do you spell that again?”
If you think that’s bad, just try being an immigrant.
For then spelling it twice is not enough.
“How do you pronounce that?”
“I beg your pardon?”
The First Commandment
The first commandment for an Immigrant is
not “Thou shall not steal,” for we Canadians are wise enough.
The first commandment is: “Speak English!”
Even though you may speak only like a simpleton,
though you think “Wow, the second movement of that violin concerto was of such exquisite beauty that I was moved to tears,”
and you can only say: “Good music. I like. I cry.” –
“Us Canadians” say to them: “Don’t worry!
We don’t speak perfect either.
Just speak English!”
Most Canadians like to think all the immigrants are simpletons,
for they are not at all threatening in that way.
Besides, they all speak like simpletons, don’t they?
It must be natural to them.
Anyway, we want them to learn English so
they can understand our commands,
should we need to ask them to get out of our way,
and speaking well is not important to us in any case –
being that they are likely to find work
where little needs to be said.
Otherwise, you know,
there is no real need to speak with them.
And, should we feel like chatting to them,
we can always begin a conversation with:
“Where are you from?”
They are all from one blessed place or another, you know.
But we certainly don’t want them to speak in their own languages,
whatever they are,
for then we would be the ones who did not understand them,
and that would be a pity.
We don’t want pity now, do we?
And goodness gracious, they certainly would not expect us
to learn all their different languages, would they?
That simply would not be reasonable.
Besides, people the world over speak English nowadays, don’t they?
We didn’t make them do it, so they must be doing it naturally.
English is the most natural language in the world, you know.
And that is nice, because Canadians like to travel of course,
and it would be terrible not to be able to express ourselves.
Imagine, wanting something simple and not being able to ask for it!
Or looking at a menu and not knowing what you are ordering!
It’s awful not being understood,
so we must ask everyone to speak English in our presence, you see.
But we are not against other languages at all.
After all, we have allowed immigrants from all over the world
with all sorts of languages to come to Canada.
And a little French is okay.
We do have some French words in English, you know.
But please don’t talk to us in Latin.
That would be Greek to us.
So shut up and speak English, will you?
“Nothing personal about this, you understand –
I have to let someone go,
the business is slow.”
“Nothing personal about this, I tell you –
but I have a lot of applications,
and a lot of them are a lot more qualified.”
“Nothing personal about this, I assure you –
but you have to belong to the Union to get a job.
Oh no, you can’t join the Union now,
you have to have a job first.
Listen, have you tried to find a job
out of town? There are lots of jobs for you there!”
No, there is nothing personal about this at all.
Family and friends
When you are a young arrival in a new land
the last thing you miss is your family.
Later, you miss it the most.
There is a sense of freedom in cutting family ties,
and you feel a need to be independent when you are young.
I was more concerned of being homesick,
or of missing my friends, at first,
but having made my new land my home in my mind,
I was never homesick. Nor did I have a shortage of friends.
My friends in the old country missed me more
than I missed them.
One in particular, a genius of a poet
with four published books to his credit,
took to drugs and alcohol after I left and died young.
I had been his steadying influence. The loss was tragic.
But I missed my family at large.
I kept in touch with them the only way I could,
It was a second anchor line to me,
and it kept me easily bilingual.
And you need more than one anchor if you
want to settle when you feel your ship is tossed about.
Later I visited my relations as often as I could,
but I never brought any to live in Canada.
The life of a first generation immigrant is not easy.
For a long time they all led easier lives than I.
For a long time I could not afford to bring them.
And I dared not think of my mother’s suffering.
She missed me terribly, her only child.
But she had a gift for accepting calamities
with unruffled calm and wise judgment,
borne of suffering through years of war and a heartbreaking divorce.
As a child and through my formative years,
she filled me to the brim with love,
and I subsisted on it for years –
being able to give love myself without need of replenishment.
Later on I tried to pass on the same unconditional love
to our own child.
I believe she would say that I did.
So I saw my mother when I could and I did support her in her old age,
and helped the others in need
when and as I could.
I correspond with them regularly and help those in need still.
I have not bonded with my wife’s family as well as with my own,
though I feel close to some and like them all,
whether because they are not blood relations
or because we lived apart from them, I don’t know.
Maybe we are just waiting for a galvanizing event.
But I am getting ahead of my story.
The first two weeks in freedom you spend in a quarantine.
I spent mine in Montreal, dying to get out.
I was excited about this world city of two languages,
and the sight of the sparkling automobiles
gliding silently below our windows.
We would have shinnied down the drainpipe to see them up close,
but there were bars on the windows.
There are no laws against the landed immigrant in Canada.
There is no need for them. The various regulations work well enough.
In Montreal I was incarcerated by a health regulation,
later, I bumped into other regulations only slightly less restricting.
In the quarantine I tested positive for tuberculosis
but was let out with the others
after the two weeks were up.
Yet we never saw much of Montreal, for we were mustered
from quarantine to the railway station, destination: Winnipeg.
Our elders were wondering aloud if the purpose of the quarantine
was to condition us to a fettered existence in the land of freedom.
But most of us were optimistic.
After you are locked up in a room for two weeks,
being able to walk the length of a train is positively liberating.
We saw less of it when we got there than of Montreal.
We arrived at six p.m. and took over the floor of an office building,
waiting for directions.
At seven p.m. a list of names were read out,
which included mine.
We were embarked on another train that night,
destination: Fort William.
None of us had ever heard of Fort William.
Some other immigrants
who seemed to be residents in the building
ventured it could be all right to go there,
for they had not heard of anyone returning from there.
Somebody produced a map.
Fort William turned out to be 260 miles away
in the direction from where we had just come.
I managed to get hold of the interpreter.
He was busy, but I prevailed on him to tell the official
that another immigration official at the Viennese Consulate
had directed me to settle in Winnipeg,
promising me that I will find work there in a print shop,
until I can go to University.
Speaking through the interpreter
the official said he had no time to look into that now,
for my train will be leaving in an hour,
and our group must leave now or we will miss the train.
Then he said something I soon was to hear repeatedly
from many an official.
He said he was sorry.
Fort William or Port Arthur?
After the Winnipeg experience I was not surprised
that stepping off the train we were met by another official
who was also sorry.
He separated the married and the single,
and sent the single in a cab to the Salvation Army Hostel
in Port Arthur.
It was our first smooth ride in a comfortable American car,
and we were all impressed.
I still remember the dazzling dashboard lights,
and remember listening to the fluent flow of language
by the radio announcer.
The music was exciting as it was strange.
The contrast the hostel represented was remarkable.
You can still see the building from the train.
It was old then,
made of crumbling red bricks piled on one another,
just waiting for an excuse to fall.
It was a sorry place in its own right.
I spent the night with a hobo who coughed a lot,
spitting up blood,
and I kept opening the window all night
afraid of contracting his malaise.
For his part, he kept closing it because he was cold.
Neither of us slept much.
We took our meal passes to the designated restaurant.
It was a greasy spoon affair:
two rows of booths and a juke box.
We wanted to find out what was on the menu,
so we each ordered something different.
We found most of the food unpalatable,
except the ham and eggs.
We all looked for ham and eggs
even on the lunch and dinner menus thereafter,
but they were never there.
The next day I was on the train again.
I was to see a lot of Canada before I found a place to stay.
I never saw a heron at Heron Bay.
The bunkhouse did not look over the lake,
and I worked on the river at first,
clearing log jams,
retrieving stranded logs from the mud.
We walked on the logs in the middle of the stream
in high steel toed and caulked boots that cost thirty-three dollars
at the Company Store.
After a month’s work,
having paid for them and my room and board,
I had money left for two cartons of cigarettes.
Life was good, but I remember the mosquitoes.
The logs, jammed, covered the entire stream.
Work was an eight hour balancing act,
wielding the picaro, yanking at logs,
trying not to fall into the river,
because the logs would close over us then.
Joining the IWA took sixty-seven dollars,
deducted straight from our paychecks forty-two times over,
as there were forty-two Hungarians there.
We all could multiply.
Our Union collected 2800 dollars, plus change.
We could have bought a house in Nipigon for that much money then,
and have change left over.
We all paid our dues more ways than one.
After we had been unionized we were
taken off the river and put inside a ship.
The debarked logs, wet and shiny,
were transported in troughs and dumped from great height
into the hold.
They fell in a heap, forming a mound.
Standing on the wet logs, picaro in hand,
we yanked and yanked until they lay in rows.
We did this again and again,
dumping and yanking,
raising the floor beneath us until the hold was filled.
Walking on the slippery logs was tricky business,
for they turned under your feet,
and you had to be mindful of the steel beaks of the picaros swinging by
as work mates released their logs,
and be wary of the logs themselves
skidding your way at speed,
capable of snapping shin bone and tibia together
if the boots got jammed between the logs.
Sending the logs purposefully into each other’s direction was mandatory,
for we worked in a chain, passing the logs to each other.
I preferred the river to the hold, but we did not work there for long.
First one of us was laid off –
we thought unfairly.
He was working hurt, and the boss thought he was sloughing off.
We were upset. He was a popular fellow.
He kept us in stitches when we needed to laugh most.
Life would be sad without him. We had a conference.
There was strength in our numbers, we reasoned.
I was the most articulate Hungarian in the group, therefore they
assumed I must speak the best English.
So it was I who went to the office with the message: if they fire him,
they must fire us all.
They did, writing into our books under Reasons for Dismissal:
“Not trying to do work.”
If we had some rights, no one ever told us –
nor did the Union
come to our aid.
Surely, we did not ask it to.
Surely, the joining fees were much higher than the monthly dues.
Surely, the Company Store could sell forty-two pairs of new boots
after we left.
Surely, they both stood to profit from our departure,
and just as surely that’s where our money went.
Or did I forget the tobacco companies and the CPR?
We shared our last cigarettes, waiting for the train.
After two months and a bit of work,
we returned to Port Arthur
with our Union books in our pockets
and a pair of caulked boots dangling in our hands.
Half our group from Heron Bay wound up at Kakabeka Falls.
The others went back to the immigration office.
I could not blame them. We were broke.
There they were assured a meal ticket, a pack of smokes,
a breakfast of ham and eggs,
and a bed at the Salvation Army.
At the Union office, where the others had followed me,
we were assured of nothing.
But I had enough of the Immigration Office,
and I heard that jobs were to be had at the Union, so I said,
“We are Union members now. Let’s go to our Union.”
We all had our books stamped paid.
And sure enough, we lucked out –
we all got jobs.
After my successful translation
the others thought I must either speak English or I must be a genius –
and I became
“The Leader of the Band.”
This was undeserved. To this day I have no idea how
I made myself understood at the Company Office at Heron Bay.
I knew I only understood the boss’ reply
(who merely glanced at me and spoke only to the secretary
a few brief words I did not comprehend), when she –
the most beautiful and the only woman at the camp,
walked to the filing cabinet,
a high-heeled gait –
collected our books,
elegant grace –
piled them on her desk,
red polished fingernails –
wrote something into them,
long black eyelashes, lips moistened between books –
then came to the desk in a cloud of cologne
and handed the pile to me, smiling, saying
“I am sorry.”
My first act as leader was to
lose half my troops,
for I agreed to our group being split between two
nearby logging camps, forty miles apart,
some forty miles North of the falls.
Although we got our jobs through the Union,
I was not to earn union wages for years.
At camp we were paid by the piece,
and we saw a lot more pieces than wages.
We soon saw that at this camp
we would be sentenced to hard labor.
The place could have been in Siberia, except that the operation was
much more economical.
We felled, cleaned, cut up and stacked a tree
for small change.
Overhead expense was saved because there were no guards,
who would have wanted to live in houses
with their wives.
A cynic could say that we could eat better because we ate the food,
and not the guards.
We slept in a bunkhouse, thirty to a room like in Siberia,
and we lived in isolation.
Yet we felt neither isolated nor imprisoned there.
We could leave. To a Siberian this might have looked like a paradise.
We were a mixed lot, though none of us criminals:
tradesmen, students, farmers, intellectuals.
The latter suffered the most, for fatigue dulls the mind,
and they lived in their minds.
They also tended to be
the least fit.
They dragged weary bodies back to camp,
and fell in a heap, moaning. The others played cards.
But the job could be done, given a fair shake.
Nor did the work have to be
I remember a sixty-year-old Swede.
Using only his hand saw, aptly named after him, he cut
two cords of wood every day.
Some old hands who worked longer hours than he could cut three or four I heard.
Their strip was in the dry part of the forest,
where the trees grew densely without growing heavy
and without heavy side branches that needed to be cut.
The Swede worked six-hour days, eating his lunch on a stump,
and was finished before 2 p.m. every day.
From three to four he soaked in the sauna he had built.
At five he ate his meal, relaxed, then spent an hour
sharpening his saw.
He filed each edge meticulously,
testing it with his fingers appreciatively, fully absorbed in the task.
Then he lay on his bed, reading his well-worn books in Swedish.
He felt no need to converse with anyone while I was there.
On my first day at work I cut a cord and a half.
On the second day, half.
On the third morning, still needing to recuperate, I followed the Swede.
He walked to his strip in no hurry.
He lit his pipe.
He smoked, craning his neck this way and that.
He emptied his pipe, tapping it on a stump.
Then he stepped up to a pair of saplings, a cord’s width apart,
and topped them both, shoulder high.
Soon he walked to a tree, then to another,
toppling them between the saplings,
as if they had eyes.
The blade of his saw moved through the soft wood
smoothly, quickly, with no visible effort.
His breathing was as even as his strokes,
and I am sure both kept a beat to his heart.
He had no branches to clear like I,
and his saw was never caught in a cut.
He lifted light logs end over end,
seldom lifting one twice.
I saw his skill, but I also saw
that my strip was not at all like his.
My trees, much heavier, much farther apart,
landed in water with a slosh.
Some trees were saturated with crystallized sap,
dulling and grabbing at the saw,
and too heavy to push in the right direction as they fell,
therefore often getting caught leaning on other trees,
making the standing ones lean also.
Later, these had to be cut with one eye to the sky,
ready to jump away as the giant came down on top of you.
Or a tree could simply not fall,
just lean back and pinch your saw.
Then an iron wedge had to be driven into the cut with a sledge hammer
to free the bent blade.
Sometimes the tree would twist then or snap –
and fall in any direction.
I could see that much of my labor was not only hard
but unproductive and risky as well.
Others thought a chain saw would help, and they bought one on credit.
It made a lot of noise and smoke which kept away the bears,
but it did not make the work easier or improve their production,
since their strip was like mine.
And the trees leaned on the blades
whether they had a gas tank attached to them or not.
It looked as though the forest was outsmarting us.
The trees of course had no brains,
but they made more sense being there than we did.
In the meantime, at mealtimes I discovered that
every other word in English started with an “f”.
“Pass the f…ing salt you f…er. What a f…ing day!”
We had much fun with an old Pontiac we all learned to drive in,
which was cheaper than a saw.
Six of us would pile into it at once.
Once, giving wide birth to an oncoming vehicle
a student driver drove us into a ditch.
We pushed it out and drove on.
Life was good but still,
when I heard that there was an unemployment office in town,
I went there,
and when I came back to camp with the news
that the CPR paid a dollar an hour
and we can work twelve-hour shifts,
most of the troops followed me to town
from both camps.
We left our saws and the car in sympathy with those who stayed behind.
We were going to make more money than they, we knew.
We said our good-byes, shook hands.
A good thing, too,
for we never saw them again.
The C. P. R.
We thought we were getting out of the woods but found
that the section of the railway we worked east of Nipigon
ran by the forests that lined the shores of the only lake that was
equal to the forests in vastness –
We were working among beavers and marmots and
the cheerful chipmunks
who darted among the ties,
and saw white-gray seagulls
just hanging in the blue sky at the shoreline,
riding the drafts or the breeze.
Along the shore the trains moved slowly where we worked,
the rails being under repair,
and we saw women and children –
looking out of the windows, waving to us,
and we waved happily to them.
We slept on blankets in bunk beds without sheets,
in freight cars parked at remote sidings.
They were equipped with wood-burning stoves to dry our clothes by.
It must have been one of those high-level administrative decisions.
Just try drying twenty pairs of pants and boots,
soaked socks, shirts, jackets and caps
around a small stove at the end of a railway car!
After a wet day we donned our wet clothes back on at 4:30 a. m.,
had breakfast in a freight car buffet style
sitting on wooden benches,
then sat on the motor car in the cool breeze of the morning,
clutching our tools, riding out to the location half an hour away
teeth chattering in time to the rails –
vapor trailing behind.
We started work at six, and worked like the devil to keep warm
all day if it rained,
digging a trench in the gravel beside old ties,
knocking them into the trench with a sledge hammer,
pulling them out using short shovels with handles on their ends,
their edges wedged into the ties,
then stacking the old ties to be burned later by the section men.
The new ties, smelling of kerosene, were
dropped off the work trains going by –
and we replaced the old ones with the new,
driving in just enough spikes to hold them in place,
leaving the rest again to the section men.
Old rails were also replaced by our eight-man crews
walking the ties on tottering legs,
dropping the rail in place as they released the thongs.
After a gravel crew went by
they left the rails for us to straighten out.
The inch-thick steel bars, six feet long and
getting heavier and heavier as the day grew long
were wedged in the gravel under the rails
and we heaved in unison this way and that,
moving both rails and ties together as one –
until the foreman was satisfied that
the rails were straight enough.
We slacked off only in the warm sunshine –
the foreman out of sight behind a bend.
Or we stopped waiting for a train to pass.
They called us an Extra Gang,
and a gang we were,
looking ragged in oily clothes,
patched and torn jeans, filthy overalls
our numbers bolstered by bearded hobos.
They worked until payday then went to town,
some never to be seen or heard from again.
But some always returned –
bringing new hobos with them.
One of the hobos sang in the evenings,
sitting on his bunk,
Abdul the Bul-bul Kazar –
strumming a well-worn guitar.
An Old Timer who seldom went to town
was rumored to have owned a house there,
and would be living there
any year now.
All night the trains passed us on the siding,
going at full tilt.
At first I was startled out of sleep by their noise,
but soon got used to it.
all the time I slept on the siding,
I never heard a train go by.
When the Gang was dissolved in mid-October,
I thought I should see
what was at the end of the line.
None of my compatriots dispatched from Montreal to Winnipeg,
who followed me to the woods,
and who worked the rails at the Lakehead with me were
as curious as I,
or wanted to spend their savings
on a railway ticket.
They tried to dissuade me, but I
bought a one way ticket to Vancouver.
I heard it was milder there in the winter which it was,
but nobody told me about the rains.
So I left without them,
deserting my troops after the campaign –
just like a general.
Yet I thought about them often for quite a while,
and I wonder still
what became of them.
It’s the journey that matters, not the destination
I heard it said but did not believe it
before I went on the journey to Vancouver.
There is reputedly not much to see on the prairies,
but one can not appreciate Canada without seeing them,
of this I am certain.
Although the wild herds were no more,
I saw antelope and deer at dusk,
the Northern Lights flickering on the horizon.
Wolves and coyotes watched the train go by –
heads cocked askew like the bird’s,
and on a small pond surrounded by reeds,
standing erect on a muskrat’s lodge one-legged like a stork,
I saw my first heron.
Riding across a storm I saw clouds come down so low,
they almost touched the ground with sheet lightning
and electrified me as they sent sparks through the grass.
Reaching the Rockies
the vistas narrowed but rose up high and I saw
my first moose fording a fast-flowing stream,
elk grazing by the rails, along with wild sheep
surprising us behind the bends.
A black bear was hightailing it
out of the noise the train made
running up a slope scaring a herd of goats that hopped out of sight
sending an avalanche of rocks below.
Above the high peaks glistened,
sun sparkling on the fresh-fallen snow.
Emerging from the spiral tunnels under Cathedral Mountain
the stunning view of Field
drew everyone to the windows.
We navigated across the Selkirks with the
Kicking Horse River,
slowing down to a crawl in the passes.
We thundered along the Shuswap,
the rock faces echoing the train,
then into the canyons we plunged –
following the Thompson and the Fraser.
At night the trees
glowing faintly in the moonlight
lined the tracks like ghosts,
all dressed in white gowns,
emerging as a procession,
becoming individuals as we went by,
fading into the shadows again.
Nearing the coast I was amazed
at the size of the trees
piercing the sky.
At last we eased into Vancouver alongside Burrard Inlet,
then lined with picturesque boat houses
and a thicket of shacks moored on flat rafts
anchored to barnacle-speckled pilings,
smoke curling from bent stove pipes
into the salt-laden air.
Before I stepped off the train in Vancouver
I had fallen in love with the land.
I was to see these sights many times and
in all seasons and weather again and again,
and my love of the land only deepened.
I was disappointed with the city
for it was not much of a city then,
although it was set in a dream of a landscape
with uninhabited islands –
and it was less polluted then.
The Downtown was not particularly impressive,
the whole city presenting the sight of an overgrown village to my eyes.
The West End looked very much like
the worst of the East End does today,
jammed with garden houses without real gardens,
all not just storied but old,
most washed of paint by the rains,
mosses growing around the drains
and showing green-yellow between the tiles on the roofs.
The flowers in the parks were gorgeous and still blooming,
but the beaches were already deserted –
the air cool and damp.
In the sunshine the town would light up,
but in late fall bright days were exceptional.
It was usually more pleasant to be indoors –
it seemed to drizzle if not rain all the time.
That winter I boarded with a young Hungarian family
and made one Hungarian friend I recognized
as being a grade ahead of me in my high school in Budapest.
But I did not associate much with my compatriots.
I met some who had emigrated earlier,
spoke Hungarian laden with bastardized English
and made mistakes in English I would not have made, even then.
I did not want to become like them.
I spent the winter going to the YMCA.
Signed up for a two-week course of English that came with free swimming.
I continued only with the swimming after that.
I found that I could learn English
much faster on my own.
All the while I was fascinated by the sea,
and spent hours and days by its shores.
In the spring I joined a group of university students
training for a summer job
as Sleeping Car Porters for the CPR.
I passed the two week training course with them
and boarded the train again.
The Railway Years
I spent seven years on the railway,
working from May to the end of October,
and for two weeks at Christmas and Easter.
In-between I studied English and chess.
I mastered English sufficiently enough that later on
I was accepted at U.B.C.
In chess I found myself among the twelve from across the country
invited to contest a national championship.
My chess playing peaked then, but from then on
I would play in a chess tournament
whenever I felt the need
to blow the cobwebs off my brains.
I seemed to advance more during the months I had been laid off
than all the time I worked for the CPR.
Still, I could not have done it without the job.
It was not just that I earned money to survive on.
On the trains I could talk to people
who actually spoke English as their native tongue,
and I could listen to them when I could not talk.
I made English-speaking friends.
There were even times when I could read on the job.
We were on call for all but three-and-a-half hours
of every twenty-four on the train
until we reached Winnipeg on the third day,
but we worked like the devil was chasing us
for only five hours each day.
In those days people who had it made
took the trains to Banff and Lake Louise.
They brought their families.
They were contented people,
happy with their lot, friendly and relaxed –
being on holidays.
They thought I was a university student
and treated me that way.
For my part I did what I could to make their journey pleasant.
The obnoxious were there also, but not in numbers.
Some tourists were hilarious.
I had been asked some amazing questions on the job.
“Is North in the same direction in Canada as in the States?”
There are amazing patterns of light and dark on the mind.
Or: “Have you thought about the miracle that while there is
such tremendous pressure in the ocean
that submarines made of steel can be crushed by it,
the rivers, which have so much less pressure
can still flow into it?”
Others just wondered if they could have their shirts pressed
while they had their shoes shined.
“Porter, could you please bring us some ice?
My wife loves to suck on ice while playing cards.”
Ice yes, shirt no. But I could offer other suggestions.
I worked alongside many colored men on the train.
I still thought about them a long time
after I was no longer thinking about the train.
Some of them were truer gentlemen
than most of the ones whose shoes they shined.
One of them was raising nine children.
Three were his own, six were adopted from all races.
This was his way of dealing with racism.
Negroes in those days could rise to be Instructors
but never Inspectors on the trains.
The CN broke new ground and named
a colored man Inspector.
Sitting in a bar in Winnipeg, I met that man.
At the urging of the others he produced his inspector’s card.
It was passed around.
When the card came to me I passed it on.
It was thrust back into my hands instantly:
“No, no! Look at it! Look at it!”
Talking to one of them afterwards I said:
“You guys are a bunch of asses.
You behaved in the bar like you were inferior.
Why do you do this to yourselves?”
“I have asked myself that question many times,” he said,
“for I know damned well I am not inferior!”
I think I became accepted by him then.
Overnight, all the colored porters accepted me as well.
Ones I rarely spoke to before
were offering invitations to their homes.
And I could travel to see my mother in Sweden in ’62
when the man I called an ass co-signed a loan I needed,
putting his house up for a collateral for me.
When I left the railroad I drifted away from them.
The loss was mine.
Some of the university students I worked with on the CPR
became my first Canadian friends.
I learned a lot from them, and not just the language.
Through them I met other Canadians I liked.
I drifted away from them also,
but remember them fondly and with gratitude still.
I met some wonderful women on the train.
Some of them I dated for a while.
I did not have a girl in every town,
but I dated some from Montreal and Toronto –
Winnipeg and Los Angeles.
The Canadian girl I eventually married was from Calgary.
And all thanks to the C. P. R. !
Lastly, the job being a part time job,
it allowed much time to read, travel, and to play chess widely.
Chess provided me with intellectual challenge
and a place where I could play
on a level playing field.
The game is played by paupers and millionaires –
and I met both.
Bill Money (of Money’s Mushrooms fame),
himself as fond of Chess as John Prentice
(who owned Canadian Forest Products then),
became my sponsor for Canadian citizenship.
My circle of friends widened.
One of my chess playing friends was a university graduate.
I loaned him the money he needed to embark on a career in computers.
A couple of years later he returned the favor
by lending me money to go to university.
My seven years on the train have come to an end.
At U. B. C.
My university years sometimes seemed more like my taxi years to me.
I certainly spent more time in a cab than in the classroom.
I drove a taxi seven nights a week
and dozed off in my slow classes but managed all right.
Life was good.
The Registrar at U. B. C. took my
Senior Matriculation papers from Budapest
as sufficient to enter,
but wanted me to take high school level English instead of English 100.
I said I already taught myself that.
They gave me a test. I was enrolled in English 100.
It is possible not only to be self-made,
but to be self-taught also.
Before I went to university I thought one had to be bright to do it.
It helps to be bright all right, but not just at the university.
When I cut back my cab-driving days from seven to five I found that I
still earned the same amount of money.
I was more alert, less tired, and more willing to hustle.
At school I could get my papers in on time.
As for the universities – they are designed so that those
of average intelligence may still pass.
It is a good thing, too. I have met some very bright people with
very little common sense.
I found that driving a cab in Vancouver
also contributed to my education.
I certainly have much more vivid memories of some of my fares
than most of my professors.
I was almost thirty when I went to university.
Some of my professors were younger than I was.
Sometimes the lessons they taught in a classroom
seemed less important to me than what I
learned in a cab.
One of my fares taught me a lesson on independence I never forgot.
I usually had to go into a bar to find who called me to a hotel,
but he was waiting for me at the curb in a wheelchair.
He was bruised. There was dried blood on his face.
There were short stumps where his legs should have been,
and he had only one arm, but refused to be helped.
“You can handle the wheelchair,” he said,
“I will handle myself.”
He got into the cab grabbing onto the roof and
swinging his torso onto the seat.
a young woman drove her car in front of us from a side street.
With foot on the brake I tried to hold him with my arm, but his weight –
now transferred to the brake,
only accelerated my braking – and his fall.
He went face first into the metal meter case
and landed with a thump, his torso rolling back and forth
until it stopped, filling in the well in front of the seat.
“Not your fault,” was all he said,
and clawed himself back onto the seat,
still refusing help.
“I can’t charge you for the fare,” I said when we arrived.
“I will pay my way,” he said, and he did.
I stood at the curb, looking after him until he disappeared
wheeling himself among the crowd.
He was bruised and bleeding,
and just a little bit drunk.
But he was independent.
I was never as independent as he,
but I never took abuse lying down from anyone.
A middle-aged woman, well bedangled with gold
was showing her nephew from New York
her recent real-estate acquisitions.
She spoke with great affectations, meanwhile
suggesting that I was taking her from place to place
“the long way around.” I said,
“Madame, I don’t appreciate your insinuating that I am dishonest.”
She fell silent for a while, but then said in a meaningful tone,
“I know where we are, you know.”
I pulled over to the curb and opened her door.
“Madame, if you know where you are, you will find your way.”
Sometimes we have to be prepared to give lessons
as well as to take them.
We said “I do” and we did.
Mary and I were married in 1966
in a small Anglican church in Vancouver.
Neither of us is Anglican.
Her brother was to attend our wedding from Edmonton,
but the CN was ten hours late.
My lone Hungarian friend hosted a small reception in his home.
He was already married to a Canadian girl,
as I was now to be.
Half a dozen close friends were in attendance.
We moved into an unfurnished apartment in Kitsilano.
We bought furniture a year later.
Our wedding pictures have holes in them
for we could only pay for the proofs,
but we had beautiful wedding rings,
and we are still together.
I knew it as a three-minute stop on the C.P. line,
and never suspected it to become a three-decade-long station
in my life.
I graduated from U.B.C. in l969.
For years before that a new teacher could pick not just the district
but perhaps the school where he wanted to teach,
but the positions dried up suddenly and
I was lucky to be called for a job interview in Kamloops in 69.
Brown suit and tie I sat next to a fellow in janitors’ clothes
waiting in the lobby. We chatted for a while.
He told me about his fishing trip.
I said I was a city boy and rather play chess.
Later in the office the director said a principal was interested in me.
He will send him in and we can talk it over. He left.
The fisherman walked in, an