My Friend Ray

thecabin.jpgWhen our family first moved to the Bulkley Valley in north central British Columbia in the early 1960s, we felt like how I imagine settlers of the frontier from an earlier generation met their new world, full of wonder and trepidation.

Instead of by covered wagon, though, we arrived in Canada at the Pacific Highway crossing in southern BC in a World War II vintage 2-ton Ford truck with a small building built on the back, pulling a fold-up camper trailer, driven by my father. It even had cattle skulls a la Georgia O’Keefe mounted on the grill and top canopy. This imposing vehicle was followed by a green and white Nash Rambler stuffed to the gills dragging another small trailer, driven by my mother. She was not a big fan of this move, and I remember her crying one time long after we arrived, still struggling with the change from our very modest suburban life around Bellingham and Sedro Woolley in Washington State.

Along for the ride were the three boys in their charge, me at 11 years old, and my two brothers, three and four years younger. I recall some heated disputes about who was riding where in this caravan, in the vociferous way of siblings.

On the same day this entourage pulled into Canada Customs at the border, we were accorded Landed Immigrant status. This just doesn’t happen anymore, but in those days, the Canadian government seemed eager to accept stray Americans.

We made our way north over several days to Prince George and the narrow gravel road of Highway 16 heading west for the Pacific coast at Prince Rupert. Halfway in between lay the Bulkley Valley, our destination. My father several years before, while we still lived on a small farm near Snohomish, Washington, had traded its 20 acres for roughly a section (640 acres) of land on the Bulkley River sight unseen. But he did see, and I think this must have been the big selling point for him, a photo of a clearing with a few dark cows standing around and a good-sized log cabin built about 1912. We had no money, but he loved wheeling and dealing with land, and this was the kind of deal that he lived for.

So the deal was struck, and my father’s desire to go to someplace where he could carve out his own way of life,  and have a good place to raise a family, led us north in 1962. He despised the U.S. Government and its ways, and often would mockingly sing of “the home of the free, and the land of the brave.” I think it had something to do with coming home from WWII and making a life in the aftermath, after killing for his country as a Marine in the Pacific War. This was also in the depth of the Cold War. Living not that far from Boeing in Seattle, the major military and civilian aircraft manufacturer where he worked for a time, the consequences of nuclear war were not restful thoughts.

He would die of a stroke about two years after we arrived in northern BC. In a way, although not as demented as that character becomes in the story, he reminds me a lot of the father in Paul Theroux’s book, The Mosquito Coast: determined to take life into his own hands and to make it better for his family. My father had his own brand of serious failings which I won’t go into here, but I am deeply thankful for where he took us.

Ma in time also accepted our move into the unknown as being for the best.

So we arrived in July at our new home, the log cabin, with its one rough-planked floor, shake roof, 16×24 feet, where we would spend the winter. Dad immediately began building an almost whimsical addition onto The Cabin (as we all referred to it for decades), consisting of a new kitchen area with swooping roofline from the original roof ridge to the ground. A new roof ridge ended up on the second story, as he built another level poking up out of the original roof silhouette. Looking at it from the outside after it was built, from one angle it looked like a creation you might see in some avant-garde West Coast architectural magazine. Walk around to the other end, and we’re back with the original 1912 log cabin, the old white chinking between the logs contrasting with their weathered darkness.

For many years, the large windows of the addition only had doubled clear plastic stapled to the frames. We couldn’t afford to put in glass.

As we moved in, we got to know our neighbours.  The first to make their way to us also lived along the creek.

Deep Creek, perhaps 50 feet from the cabin, defined our lives in many ways that first year, and for years after: it was the source of all our water and we fished it, especially me, for fun and food.

From beside the cabin, the creek turned and twisted its way downstream for about a mile, all on our land, into the Bulkley River.  Way upstream from us, it descended originally from Farewell Lake, and wound its way through forest and farmland to Highway 16, crossed through a very large culvert, lolly-gagged across a field, then hurtled under a bridge on an access road and onto our land. Just on the other side of Highway 16, where the creek dived into the culvert, were the neighbours we first got to know when we moved to the Bulkley Valley.

Les and Clara came by in a neighbourly and curious way to introduce themselves to the Americans who just installed themselves in their world. I remember being awe-struck by how Les could adjoin “Eh” (pronounced with the long “a”, as in “way”) to a sentence. As in, “We live just across the road, eh!” and “Whereabouts in the States you from, eh?” I know our pronunciation of roof, route and creek (“crick”) revealed us as foreigners to their ears.

Les was a tall skinny man who worked for the Canadian National Railroad and Clara was an overweight, cautiously friendly woman in a shapeless dress. They had a small farm and ran a few cattle on their place.

They had two boys, Ray and Ken. Ray was about a year older than me and Ken was perhaps two years older.

There eventually became some kind of friction between my parents and Les and Clara, whether internal judgements about the others that precluded closeness or one party taking too much for granted in borrowing tools, or something else minor and mundane.

But I continued to visit their place, and Ray and I became good friends. Ken was a little more older and more distant; he tolerated me. But Ray was a warmer hearted sort. He seemed to be amused by this bookish boy with glasses from the foreign country of the United States.

To my ectomorph he was a mesomorph, a strong boy and a natural athlete. I often think if we hadn’t moved to the north, and I hadn’t been forced to carry water, chop wood, load bales of hay, dig holes and all the other work of country life, I wouldn’t have the benefit of the good strength and constitution that I still enjoy today. But in Ray’s case, that physical life accentuated even more his natural talents in sports.

When I think of Ray, I think of that process that one sees sometimes in young children when they meet each other and in myself when I was very young. That emotion of liking: pure, uncomplicated and without cause. He was just a likeable guy.

We fished Deep Creek together, rode toboggans down icy hills together, drove their tractor crashing through the bush, watched TV at his place. We didn’t have TV or electricity or even a phone at The Cabin for quite a few years. So I would go over to Ray’s. Clara was a terrible housekeeper. One negotiated the interior of their house by following trails through the mess. Clara said she was allergic to dust and was often out visiting friends. Les was typically away for weeks at a time on the railroad. The two boys batched for themselves a lot. Ray’s specialty, and comfort food, was macaroons: lots of chocolate and coconut baked to perfection.

Writing this now, I realize how imperfect Ray’s early life was, continuing on into his teenage years; how almost certainly many aspects of his family life were painful and unsatisfactory.

He fell behind a year in school, so by high school we were in the same grade. I would take homework over to his place, and we studied together. I helped him write essays. He wasn’t very interested in school work. He still was a good high school athlete: he could run a fast 440. But he was starting to hang out with some of the high school toughs and got into fights. He started to think of himself as one of the tough guys.

On school mornings, on the highway not far from his place, we would meet and wait to be picked up in an orange Volkswagen bus driven by another neighbour and taken about three miles to Quick Elementary, a two-room school that served the local rural community. From there we could ride a school bus to high school in the small town of Smithers, about 23 miles away.

Ray started bringing jam jars with homemade wine to our wait for the neighbour’s VW. We would stand there on a cold morning, breath fogging the air, hanging onto briefcases and packs of schoolbooks, and Ray would swig down his wine. I had some the first few times, but I let him feel I wasn’t that interested. And the jars got larger.

The neighbour with the Volkswagen I think noticed the smell, and Ray’s increased effusiveness. The neighbour must have talked to my mother who took me aside one day and asked me point blank if Ray was drinking before school. In a fit of loyalty, I denied the accusation strongly. It wasn’t a reasoned response, just what I thought I owed him.

He moderated this activity or probably just hid it better, and we continued to make our way into school together. In 1969, in our last year of high school, Ray and I and Ken watched history on their television, munching macaroons, while Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

I don’t think Ray graduated high school; I seem to recall he dropped out to start working. I left for university and lost track of him, although very occasionally I might run into Ken who was studying to be an accountant.

One summer between university years, working at a geriatric psychiatric hospital in a neighbouring town, I ran into Ray again. He had put on a lot of weight. He lived in a trailer park there, and sold vacuum cleaners for a living. He still had a drinking problem. It was hard to find a lot to talk about.

I never ran into him or heard from him again. In later years I heard that he had had a bad car accident and was disabled, or perhaps dead, but was never able to confirm it.

Why do I think of Ray now? I think of him grinning at me, as the mischievous caring boy of our youth together. But more than that, I think of him as one of the rare ones who see you clear, and yet don’t seem to mind. He would occasionally tease me about my streak of coldness, which I have, although I like to think of it as my objectivity. And perhaps I gave him some welcome relief from the tough guy posturing and numb skull thinking he otherwise felt he had to present. Every friendship has these kinds of reciprocities. His friendship I miss.

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14 Comments on “My Friend Ray”

  1. bloglily Says:

    This is so beautiful. I felt completely inside this remarkable world –one you describe with so much compassion and love and clarity. Thank you.

  2. fencer Says:

    Thanks so much, Lily… for reading and getting it, despite my tendencies toward the long-winded!

    Regards.

  3. qazse Says:

    I have read this on two occasions and find the story sad and insightful. You have lead a relatively unique life. I would look forward to hearing more in posts to come.

    best

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    Yes, it does seem a little unusual looking back, although I’ve always taken the events of my life more or less for granted. I will no doubt return to those times for another reminisce or two… Thanks for reading this, and twice, at that!

    Regards

  5. Eliza D Says:

    For some reason, Fencer, the log cabin JPEG doesn’t appear today. This is a lovely story, thanks for sharing. Writing wise, I especially liked your description of your first home in Canada. On the story, I think you were just as much a friend to Ray as he was to you.

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi Eliza,

    Thanks for reading and commenting… I don’t know what happened to the jpeg… it’s there now, but maybe it’s a browser related thing for some reason.

    Regards
    Mike

  7. Eliza Says:

    Oh yes..it appears now. Didn’t when I was at my laptop. May I say: the log cabin looks like something out of a movie, to me. :-)

  8. fencer Says:

    Instead of Little House on the Prairie (if you were ever exposed to that rather saccharine television series), it was Little House in the Mountains, I suppose, with too many dogs and cutting moosemeat from a quarter at 20 below zero (F) with a chainsaw!

    Regards

  9. Eliza D Says:

    Fencer: Hey..I looked forward to Laura Ingalls! Anyway, Fencer, you’re talking to a city girl, and any kind of life outside of cities seem like big adventures to me. Hope the christmas is good for you and your family, wherever you are celebrating. Happy Holidays.

  10. fencer Says:

    Hi Eliza,

    Season’s Greetings to you as well! This is the first Christmas since I started blogging. I will have to make the rounds of my regular stops for reading to say Happy Holidays…

    Regards

  11. sputnki Says:

    Wow, a beautiful story and description of a moment in time. I remember our neighbors across the road had a boy my age and we hung out a lot together. We had little in common other than age but had a lot of adventures together anyway. Thanks so much for giving that sort of friendship such insightful revelation.

    Doug

  12. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,

    As I get older, my memories sort themselves out by their meaning, often more than I realized at the time.

    Regards


  13. Beautiful story – and I understand perfectly that last comment you’ve made to Doug.
    K

  14. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    Thanks… and yes, it’s funny and poignant how memory works as we age. I can still relive cringeworthy memories of embarrassment from the teenage years, for instance.

    Regards


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