Two long… one short… one long. Outside the window, the clouds fail at their attempt to make us uneasy. Too scattered to mount a coherent offense; their fluffy bottoms a wispy grey that doesn’t quite hide their whiter core.
Two long… one short… one long. A few rows forward, preoccupied parents seem to be avoiding all eye contact, as the two tiny humans they created attempt unlikely harmonies at 98 decibels. My parental memory database classifies these sounds as mere fussiness. “Let them wail”, I think to myself. “Don’t reward this amateur power play”, I think to myself. Of course, this is precisely the type of situation that, as a parent, I use to dread more than a root canal. The mere thought of my kids vocalizing their hunger, pain or simple displeasure while I have to face an audience of sixty trapped and weary travelers was enough to make me avoid trains and planes when the boys were babies. Now, with some distance, I still say… let them wail! It’s nothing a carefully selected playlist can’t drown out if need be.
Two long… one short… one long. This loud and repetitive warning announces the train’s imminent high-speed pass at your local railroad crossing. Best stay back when you hear the horn scream. It’s not that complicated. Despite this, I’ve heard stories from railroaders that just break my heart. One locomotive engineer recounted seeing a person at least one kilometer away, ambling their way slowly towards the track, listening to music and oblivious to their impeding demise as they continued on their path. No amount of whistle blowing was enough. An average length freight train will easily take well over a kilometer to come to a stop if it’s traveling at a speed of 80km/h or more. I can’t begin to imagine the grief, fear, anger, helplessness and dread the engineer must have experienced during these agonizing 30 seconds, racing toward the now inevitable ending. “Keep your head up!” is for more than avoiding a blindside body check. Awareness of our surroundings allows us to appreciate the moment, and live to appreciate the next one.
This, of course, is a bit tougher to do while sleeping. I would guess that my brain incorporated the voices into my dream for about five to ten minutes before I finally woke up to the sound of a woman crying for help. In a quaint and sleepy town, the campground that is our home for the summer is unbelievably quiet. It’s one of the things we love about our time there. Taking a moment to orient myself (awake or asleep? voices real or imagined? where am I? what the hell time is it?), I get dressed and grab my phone. As I nervously head outside, the green glow on the microwave informs me that it is 4:18am. The screaming has stopped. There are a few people out with flashlights closer to the action and trying to assess the situation. Moments later, three police cruisers arrive. I hang around in the dark for a few minutes to get my heart rate under control. An ambulance arrives and I go back inside, having convinced myself that it was a domestic disturbance and hoping everyone was ok. Full of judgment, I declare that I had an uncomfortable vibe – though not dangerously so – about the couple in question. Specially the man.
The man who, as it turned out, had just been killed. It still feels a bit unreal. A few hundred feet from where I sleep, a man was murdered. I didn’t hear it; I didn’t see it; I still don’t know what happened; and other than when I stepped outside in complete darkness at 4:18am with some trepidation, I feel quite detached and unaffected by it. Life goes on… just not for him. Shouldn’t there be something more to this? Shouldn’t I be scared? Shocked? Up in arms about the shattered peace? Hungry for justice? Brokenhearted? Something?
The next two days were both annoying and fascinating. A scene lifted from a TV crime drama. Instead of watching the news and shaking my head at the useless testimonials from neighbours and locals peppering the uninformative report, I was watching the reporters try to gather those hollow sound bites after telling them why I didn’t want to comment on camera because… well, just re-read the earlier part of this sentence!
My only tears came as I watched someone who appeared to be a friend or family member of the victim come to the scene. For them, it was not trivial. For them, it was incomprehensible and gut-wrenching. So from a distance, I cried with them.
Just a few weeks later, the screams of another dying man brought me to tears… repeatedly. How I chose to interpret his words on that night was likely far removed from what originally inspired them, though I know I was not alone in choosing these interpretations.
“Let me out! Let me out!”
“I gotta go, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”
“Courage… my word…”
One in three Canadians tuned into what was, and yet really wasn’t, a living wake for Gord Downie as he and his bandmates in The Tragically Hip played was is likely their last concert. Kick-ass rock and roll, frailty, lightness, beauty, vulnerability, determination… and love. All were present on this night that was about so much more than a man with a terminal illness. It felt to me like a quintessential Canadian moment, as corny as that may be. Wait! Maybe beautiful, quirky corniness is a key ingredient in the creation of a truly Canadian moment!?
Gord’s lyrics – poems, really – are filled with Canadiana. We bask in the pride that this band is all ours, though we resent our neighbours to the South for not embracing them. If you’ve played in a cover band in Canada, you’ve played some Hip songs. The boys from Kingston make us feel proud. Their songs make us move (think Twist My Arm, Fireworks and Blow at High Dough) and move us (think Bobcaygeon, 38 Years Old, Scared or Wheat Kings). In a recent interview, Geddy Lee managed to put into words my own experience with many Tragically Hip songs, when he described Ahead by a Century: “you don’t know what it’s about, but you feel like you know what it’s about”.
Gord Downie is no more important a man than my murdered neighbour. Yet while one’s life and art can bring me to tears, the other one’s cruel death at the hands of another human leaves me unfazed. I could just scream!
“We’re forced to bed
But we’re free to dream
All us human extras,
All us herded beings
And after a glimpse
Over the top
The rest of the world
Becomes a giftshop”
The Tragically Hip