Legends of Myself 84

Posted on November 18, 2013

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84. Hobo

freight trainMy father enters for a single singing part in 1954 in my grandmother’s parlour in Port Essington, stands offstage and unnoticed while I tangled with the Roly Poly clown in that same parlour, remains offstage, but absent and missed, during the Prince Rupert Christmas of 1955.  That’s memory, which does not say much.  Yet feeling does.  When I moved in with my father in Vancouver in 1956, I was moving into home, not away from it. 

Living with Pop in Prince Rupert in 1958 was also like that.  Granny Alice, Pop, my father, all placed me at the centre of their emotional world, and that was me, not traveling alone.  That was me at home.

I was home with my father the summers of 1956 and 1957 and the spring of 1958 in Vancouver, during the summer of 1959 in Prince Rupert, and during summer and early fall 1960 in Prince Rupert, the Boneyard and the Inside Passage. 

It was 1961 when my first series of journeys concluded, and I had not within memory spent six months living continuously with my father.  That might have happened when I was an infant, before my family shattered in 1952 upon my mother’s death.  But not within memory.

It was illness which placed me in another family’s home in Mission in 1956, illness again which brought me under the temporary care of Children’s Aid in 1957.  But illness does not explain my stay in the house of Georgina in 1957-58, or my stay with Pop or Gus and Irene in 1958-59.  (Yes, Gus and Irene needed me to fill out the school in Port Essington, but no one but me relocated.)  No reasons were really given for my stay in Hazelton in 1959-60, though perhaps my recent stay overwinter in Hartley Bay was forced by circumstance.  A rowboat is a fragile home.

I don’t know how childcare was arranged in those days.  My impression is that you got married, or found relatives.  My father seriously disliked the idea of marriage, and his most promising alternative died with Granny Alice in 1956.

Which, not coincidentally, is when my solo journeys began.

Old Pop was already 71 when I stayed with him in Prince Rupert 1958.  For that era, for the life he had lived in that era, that was already quite old.  There were good reasons why I never went back to live with him.

But why wasn’t I more often with my father?  Sometimes he was working.  Often he was traveling. 

Hobos 40sHe was somewhere in America.  Somewhere south.  Somewhere the freight trains had carried him.

I don’t know how and when my father became a traveler.  Maybe it was seeded in his soul as a consequence of him being shut out of high school.  Travel is another kind of university; I know he believed that.  He treated travel that way, with a kind of high seriousness.

Maybe it began with his journeys overseas during the Second World War.  The old song says, “How’re you going to keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen Paree?”  My father never saw Paree that trip, I don’t think, but his descriptions of overseas always sounded more like tourism than a military campaign. 

However it happened, I believe that my father was already a traveler before I was born, something which helped shape his attitude towards marriage in the first place.  For him marriage wasn’t merely ties binding with invisible ties, but ropes which hogtied you to a chair. 

Because how could you be married and a hobo, too?

I can only imagine my father’s life on the road, riding the rods, sleeping in boxcars, camping in hobo jungles.  He took jobs sometimes, sweated, chased dust with a broom, stuck around in town awhile getting the flavour of a place.  One journey he had Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy to keep him company.  The scholar traveler.

My father provided maddeningly few details about his hobo life.  He had a beer one time on a hot day that went down very fine.  It must have been a fine beer indeed for a tea-totaller to mention it.  So when I had a similar experience on the waterfront in Genoa in 2001, I told him about it in a postcard.

He mentioned walking down a California street past palm trees.  Palm trees were impossibly exotic for a boy growing up in Port Essington, yet there they were simply growing on the street.  With lampposts in-between.

There is only one story that my father ever habitually retold about his traveling days.  Something that had happened more than once.  He would find himself wherever he was, steeping in the local flavour, listening to the local accents, enjoying himself, maybe enjoying southern sunshine, and then it would occur to him to remember little Teddy, wherever I was, and suddenly he would feel lonesome, and he would pack up what he had, donating what was too cumbersome to carry, and he’d hobo back home again.

That was when I would see him.

The homes that my father placed me in were good choices.  Their principle merit, speaking as a child who has traveled solo more than most, was their lightness of touch.  A light touch in child-rearing makes it easier to move in, adjust, which is what traveling solo is all about.  Somehow, amidst it all, I managed a happy childhood. 

Really.

But not without consequences. 

You can’t expect a childhood in constant motion, a childhood of constant adjustment, not to change you, not to change your way of relating to the world. 

To be always a stranger in your house.  To be always a stranger in the school.  To be always a stranger in the neighbourhood.  To know no one’s name.  To have no one know yours.  By 1961, my traveling was beginning to show in who I was, in who I was becoming.

I don’t think my father knew or understood.  I think that if he did, he would not have been gone so much.

Still, if that was all, if all that was going to disrupt my childhood had ended in 1961, I think that what I took away from my childhood would have been less than it turned out to be.  My years traveling alone left me vulnerable to disruptions that my father did not cause.  The time between, which I’ll talk about in the next chapters, showed me what might have been instead. 

 

 

Posted in: autobiography