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Travel / Adventure / Nonfiction
Wanderlusting: A Collection of Travel Stories by Gary McWilliams
ISBN number: 978-0-578-07507-5    LCCN: 2011924970

FIRST TRAVELS: THE BIG WOODS

Francis, a Canadian of Irish descent, was reared in a fervently political family. While at Penn State, he maintained an active interest in Canada's left-leaning New Democratic Party. He loved his home country and never entertained any thought of becoming an American. He had a great sense of humor and loved my referral to his country as the "Big Woods," a name I must have picked up as a child from my hunting and fishing father. Francis also had an exemplary command of the English language—that Irish love of language. I had never been around such an articulate person. He always had the perfect words, the right expression, right at his fingertips. I liked Francis because he always inserted a heavy dose of humor into the otherwise oh-so serious seminar discussions. Physically, Francis was as skinny as the cigarettes he smoked. Even his Levis hung loose, in stark contrast to the fit of the times. Above the denims, he wore a barrister vest with watch pockets, and a wooly sports coat with sleeves too short for his lanky arms. Below, he wore cowboy boots. The boots made sense to him, however incongruous with the rest of his attire, however novel at Penn State, because he was from the Canadian West—Alberta. In the seminars—hard to believe now that the air of the seminar rooms was blue with cigarette smoke—he had the eye-catching habit of flicking his cigarette ashes into the top of his cowboy boots. He would use his ever-ready ashtray with perfect ease while delivering a paper or while someone else was in the middle of doing so. It was such splendid counter to the gravity.

Together, Francis and I enjoyed too much beer, and a general hell-raising that well ought to have had us thrown out of the place. Although we were in fact reprimanded by the reigning powers in the political science department, it seemed that they found it far easier to turn a blind eye to our shenanigans. Perhaps we were their token non-conformists—proof of both their ideologically obligatory open-mindedness and of their being hip to the era.

The approbation against alcohol was not so strong then. One time, after a good bout, I loaned Francis my 55 Chevy and within five minutes he side-swiped the town's only police car. No major damage was done but he was summoned before the local Justice of the Peace—a white-haired, small-town, Pennsylvania Republican who held court beneath a grand portrait of Abraham Lincoln. When asked if he had anything to say, Francis, still, or perhaps again, a wee-bit tipsy, went into an hour's oration, with thumbs tucked into vest, about the rights of the accused under the American constitution. The magistrate even enjoyed the show. It was always—always—great theater with Francis. Another time, in similar condition, he proposed that we drive to Canada, to see the "Big Woods." Without further ado, we got in the old Chevy and headed north.

Our first stop was Toronto, where his friend was getting married. An interesting affair, a study in contrasts, the groom's family and friends were all raving socialists, while the bride's were all starchy military. Part of the dress code for Canadian military officers was then, in copy of their British mentors, the short, clipped mustache; all the officers looked like David Niven in a World War Two movie.

The next city north was Ottawa, where, by chance, the Canadian Conservative Party was holding its national convention. It was the big day, the day the party formally presented its candidate for the coming election for the premiership of Canada. Francis, deeply interested in all Canadian politics, suggested that we, since in the neighborhood, should drop in.

Standing in front of the convention center, we observed that people with "Press" badges simply walked through the security at the main door without having to show anything more. Remember this was Canada and in the sixties. The attending Press Corps, we also noted, were headquartered in a hotel across the street. Francis thought that if we went inside the hotel, he would find someone he knew. He did—an old college mate—and we acquired "Press" badges. With these pinned to our lapels, and with ball-point pens and note pads appropriately placed in our shirt pockets, we casually walked through the door of the convention center.

Once inside the huge building, we did not know where to go and somehow got off the route to the main convention floor. We were walking alone down a side corridor, not knowing where we were and discussing turning back, when a door in front of us opened. Out stepped Robert Stanfield, the man who had just secured the candidacy of his party for the premiership of Canada. He was on his way to the convention floor to give his all important acceptance speech. Duly, he was straightening his tie as he stepped out the door. The four or five men exiting in train behind him were also all straightening their ties. Seeing our "Press" badges, the candidate stopped, flashed a ready-made grin, and chirped: "Well, I suppose you boys have a few questions."

Francis, a master of the quick response if there ever was one, popped out with one concerning some currently controversial economic program. The two of us scribbled the answer. I followed with what I knew to be another national hot potato. Something like: "Will a Canadian Government under your direction, Sir, continue the present policy of placing all army units stationed in Europe under direct NATO command?" Again, we scribbled. The candidate and his coterie—ties all straight now—then hastened on. (Mr. Stanfield was an underwear magnate from Nova Scotia. Look at the label on your Canadian undershirt! He later lost the election to Pierre Elliot Trudeau.)

Entering Quebec the following day, Francis and I drove north. We went all the way to where the pavement ended, and then on to as far as we could go on a dirt road. We camped by a lake for a few glorious days of fishing and rafting. One day, we managed to get lost in the fog on the lake and on another to lose the car keys. After considerable experimentation, we succeeded in hot-wiring the old Chevy to get out. We stopped at the first town we came to for a beer. It was a week-end night and a band was playing at the bar. A few young women were there. I wanted to ask one to dance but knew only "yes" and "no" in French and these folks spoke no English at all. I asked Francis, who retained some of the language from public school, how to say "Would you like to dance?" He gave me Danse vou. I practiced it until I got it just right. Those words, augmented with an occasional oui and no, got me very nicely through the night. We arose late the next morning, in a house we did not remember, and discovered that we had partied all our money away.

We had enough gas to get to Montreal, where Francis hit up yet another friend for thirty dollars. That all went for gas. We ate apples, appropriated from roadside orchards, back to Penn State.

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Copyright © 2011 by Gary McWilliams
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