Ten years gone, holdin' on, ten years gone.
Sitting here working at the computer and looking out at the wind and rain got me thinking about the upcoming anniversary of Hurricane Juan. It's hard to believe that 10 years have passed since that storm swept into our lives, physically changing the landscape forever. Juan left a lot of destruction and heartbreak in its path. It took months for the physical damage to be cleaned up and repaired. For Krista and I the effects were not so direct. Those days surrounding Juan stand out in my mind for more than one reason. Just two days previous I had left my job in anticipation of moving back to Wallace from downtown Halifax. Krista's job was supposed to come to an end at Thanksgiving. Much of our non-essentials were already wrapped up or packed away. The end date was pushed back more than once. It all worked out in the end but at the time it was an uncertain but exciting to me. It wasn't that anything seemed possible. It felt like we were spinning our wheels, paying high rent and working at jobs that didn't leave a lot of room for upward mobility. Those things that many of us take for granted like owning a home, or a car, or starting a family felt like they were out of reach. We had recently made the decision to starting down a new path. A path that had a few detours along the way. That path would lead us back to Wallace, with no jobs or concrete plan. "Living in a van down by the river" was humorous to me but too close to a real possibility for Krista. A decade later we are living by the river. No van was ever part of the story. Wouldn't that have made a helluva lot more tellable though? I'm sure when Krista reads this that she will be shaking her head.
The flip side of living in a modern apartment building was that it suffered no damage from the storm. We lost our power for about 4 hours. Many people went without for weeks. The local news was telling people in our area to evacuate if possible and go to. That was an awfully long walk in high winds. We decided to walk down 15 flights of stairs to see if anyone was in the lobby to give further instructions. There wasn't. As we looked out the lobby doors wondering what to do we watched a cedar bush travel horizontally past the door at high speed. Our minds were made up. We stayed put and began a very humid slog back up 15 flights of stairs. With the power about to go out at any time we decided not to risk the elevator.
Watching the news and looking out our taped up window I could see that one edge of the eye was set to pass right over us. The only thing that I miss about that apartment was the excellent view of the part of the downtown, taking in the Casino, Purdy's Wharf much of the harbour and Dartmouth. I could see sections of Dartmouth going black before the worst of the storm hit. It was so hot and clammy in our apartment we opened the smallest window that we could against our better judgment. The water in the toilet was sloshing back and forth. Lying down on the bed and closing my eyes I knew that sleep would not be an option. It felt like being on a rocking boat, only about 150 ft higher. It wasn't terrifying so much as it was unsettling. After the swaying finally stopped the air was calm and very cool, the silence broken by sirens. Our lights finally went out too. With nothing else to do I went to bed hoping that no one was hurt. Everything else was secondary.
The morning was sunny and cool. The city at a standstill. Our only casualty was a barbecue cover that I placed under a tank of propane. The cover was gone, save a scrap of it still under the propane tank. We brought the barbecue inside the night before so at least there wasn't that flying around. Not wanting to stay cooped up inside, we ventured down to the waterfront, then up to the North End. You have seen the photos. It was more than I expected in a way. Much of the waterfront was gouged away. Leaving the boardwalks heaved or gone completely. Countless dead birds littered the waterfront. There was the roof of building in the middle of the street, so many downed trees, all of those downed trees. It really showed the cities age. Many of those trees likely post Halifax Explosion era. These trees not nearly as pliable as in their early days lay broken and twisted over much of the city. The aerial photos of the hurricane's path could be easily found by the splintered path across Nova Scotia. It wasn't even 12 hours after the hurricane and people were rallying the best way that they could. We walked past an impromptu dance in a street shut down by fallen trees and power lines. Restaurants were cooking up food on sidewalk barbecues and passing it out for free before it spoiled. Others were relaying word of passable routes out of the city. No one seemed to be panicking. But wasn't it too late for that anyway?
Like any natural disaster, many of the fatalities seemed arbitrary, tragically random. Everything else was an inconvenience, albeit a huge one. Many people had no power or water for weeks. The day after the storm I saw people were hitching rides to Lower Sackville, the nearest place with ATMs, groceries, etc. It was a wake-up call to me to always have a bit of cash and extra food and water on hand. In many ways that hurricane changed the way I think about storms. No old trees beside my house, thank you. I get no thrill from watching a hurricane set its sights on us. Katrina was almost too much to comprehend. Last fall, my stomach clenched as Sandy barreled up the coast, taking dozens of people and Bounty with it. At times like that I often think of Juan and despite all the damage, all the loss, I think that we got off pretty easily. I truly hope it was a once in a century storm (or more), but the way things are changing I doubt it.
We sailed away at the break of day to pull traps in oilskin trousers
Last summer, you may remember seeing the news article about the bridge in Northport, Nova Scotia that was named in honor of Larry Brander. Larry was a fixture of the community. A life-long resident, Larry was always interested in the people who he lived alongside. Larry was always there to lend a hand or drop by to visit. Seldom did he go away without a few dollars in his pocket or a satisfied sweet tooth. Most of my memories of Larry involved the Northport wharf back in the late 80’s, early 90’s. My father bought lobsters from several of the fishermen, many Larry’s brothers. So needless to say Larry was there to see how things were going, lending a hand filling bait bags for fishermen or going out to help sort and band lobsters. Sometimes, he would help out with the weighing of the lobsters and loading of ice onto boats. A hard worker until the clock struck noon or 5 PM. Larry was always interested in whatever was in your lunchbox or on the supper table. Nothing ever went home or in the garbage. A man with a firm sense of priorities. Larry liked to help out in many, many ways. Until it was time to eat.
Larry loved people. Often you would be greeted with a friendly handshake. The ladies usually received one of his warm hugs. As gentle and as friendly as Larry was he was also an avid wrestling fan who liked to challenge you when there was a lull between unloading boats. If you were lucky it would be an arm wrestling match on the crates. If not, the elevated platform for weighing lobsters became a squared circle and the match was on. More than once I was the victim of one of his sleeper holds. Often inspired by Atlantic Grand Prix wrestling's Killer Karl Krupp, Larry would have you in the claw hold and crying "uncle". It was always in good fun.
You can’t fish lobsters without bait. So sometimes I would go on a bait run with Steve Russell, who worked for my father at the time. If you happened to be passing through Northport and Larry was around, you better stop and take him along on a trip, or you would be on the receiving end of one of those claws. Now a couple of things that you need to know about Larry that two of his absolute favorite things were the Toronto Maple Leafs and Stompin’ Tom Connors. More than one trip to New Brunswick involved Stompin' Tom on heavy rotation in the tape deck. Yes, tape deck. It was 25 years or so ago you have to remember. If you were lucky, Larry would grab 2 or 3 Stompin' Tom tapes. If not, it was the same single tape over and over again. The only break from the marathon was the stop at the fish plant and at Fred's in Cap Pele for a hot hamburger sandwich, washed down with diet pop. Dessert was usually another serving of Stompin' Tom. Understandably, it would be many years before I listened to his music again.
This is how I remember Larry. Stompin' Tom always makes me think of him. And he makes me think of Northport. Larry has been gone for years. Many of the fishermen from that time are gone too. So other than memories there really isn’t much left for me to hang onto. Visiting the wharf just isn’t the same. The day that they officially renamed the bridge in Larry’s honor I walked down along the wharf with Steve, his son and my parents. It just isn’t the same now.
So last night I received this photo in my inbox. I was absolutely thrilled. Not nearly as thrilled as Larry likely was at the time. I don’t know who took the photo but it is a gem. I wonder if he and Larry sang Gumboot Cloggeroo? When Larry sang that song on the wharf I usually had a front row crate. Look at Larry with his arm around Stompin' Tom, the glass of beer. This is how I want to remember. I am smiling looking at this photo. It sums up my experiences with Larry to a T. Often when I think of Larry it makes me sad that someone with such a huge personality is now gone. If only all of us could live our lives as honestly, compassionately and unabashedly as he did. Now if you excuse me, YouTube is calling. I have one more walk down memory lane. O.K YouTube, take me to the Gumboot Cloggeroo.
"There is no refuge from memory and remorse in this world. The spirits of our foolish deeds haunt us, with or without repentance." - Gilbert Parker
Tonight I am thinking about Hurricane Isaac and New Orleans and hoping for the best. It has me thinking about Christchurch again. The whole thing haunts me. In the last 18 months of so my mind has wandered countless times to a place I haven't been to in 15 years. Often the significance of many of the things we experience is not hammered home until years later. Can you recall a day that at the time seemed fairly ordinary? It is only months or years after that the significance of it begins to appear. It can either be a moment of quiet elation or perdition. Mine was somewhere in between.
Let's go back to 1997. Not that I always want to but this is where the story begins. It was an overcast spring day in Christchurch, New Zealand. Spring being November in the southern hemisphere. I had arrived the day before with the intention of seeing as much as I could in 2 or 3 days before heading up the east coast. Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island of New Zealand. The city was laid out with the iconic Cathedral Square as a focal point. If you have been in Adelaide or Philadelphia you will see similarities in the layout. Many of the buildings are of the Gothic Revival time period giving the city a distinctive English feel. Christchurch has earned the name of "The Garden City". Numerous, lush parks dot the landscape and the Avon River meanders across the city. I found myself meandering around the city as well. During my time there I spent much of my time near the Avon and Cathedral Square.
It isn't my intention to tell this story to be dramatic or to seek pity. It does serve as a form of catharsis though. I cannot even begin to comprehend what is is like to survive a devastating earthquakes, tornado, bombing. etc. Losing everything in the process, then picking yourself up dusting yourself off and trying to get your life back to a sense a normal that it will never quite be.
You see there is a more to this story but I am only willing to share so much of it. Some things are never old enough to talk about. Not completely. If you ask me to elaborate I won't. I can't. Sorry, but this is all you get and most days that feels like way too much. Even speaking her name out loud feels like too much sometimes. I started this post in September of last year so you get the picture. Anyways, that dreary day in Christchurch was spent with someone that I had met in Queenstown and was surprised to run into her again 500 km away. It was spontaneous. The Lonely Planet guide was tossed aside for a day of random wandering. Many stops were made at cafes and pubs and shops along Manchester Street. We spent that day not thinking of the future. Not worrying. Just enjoying the moment. That is the part of this that is hauntingly beautiful. We meandered along the Avon, past the Pyne Gould Building where 18 people would die in the earthquake many years later. Then back up Columbo Street with many more stops. Finally, arriving back at Cathedral Square.
Now leap forward to a year and half ago there was an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. My wife saw the news online long before it was on TV. Twitter told me much more than world news agencies did that evening. The news of that quake was quickly eclipsed by the huge earthquake in Japan 3 weeks later. Among the flurry of large, violent quakes in the last few years it might seem like a small one. Less than 200 people were killed. 1000s of buildings were destroyed.It wasn't just the older historic ones that suffered. One building less than 40 years old was the site of over half of the fatalities that day.
The first sights that I saw that dark February night were of the many buildings broken and collapsed into the streets. I had only spent a few days in Christchurch but quickly recognized many of the destroyed buildings. They were pulling bodies out of the YHA hostel on Manchester Street where I had stayed so many years before. The square was surrounded by beautiful examples of historic architecture. Much of it doomed. The Press Building with half of its iconic sign and upper floor missing. Nearby in Latimer Square survivors regrouped, tried to call loved ones and waited amongst white tarps with shoes and sneakers sticking out from under them. Deaths from earthquakes are known in New Zealand but had been a rarity in recent years. Looking back at it now I am surprised that there were not more deaths. Once you see all of the buildings that have now been demolished you would agree. Up to date photos of Christchurch show several blocks of the city completely cleared. People lost family, friends, neighbors, homes, places of worship, local hang outs, entire neighborhoods. Then I saw the Christchurch Cathedral.
The most recognizable icon of the city, the very heart of Christchurch itself for everyone regardless of faith, lay ruined. The spire was gone. The same spire that we stood in all those years ago taking in the sites of Cathedral Square. At the time there were reports that people went down with the spire. This later proved to be false. Luckily no one was found in the rubble. My stomach clenched so hard that I physically gagged. The next thought that popped into my head has occasionally haunted my thoughts ever since. Many of the buildings that Zoe and I saw that day in 1997 would be gone in 13 years or so. Worse to me, less than 5 months after our day in Christchurch, Zoe would be gone too. It would another 5 months or so before I found out. They say that ignorance is bliss. I can honestly say that I wish this were the case.
Maybe I have to think about the day for what is was, not what it would become. When you think of a great meal you don't think about what it looks like, what it becomes after you eat it. If you did you would go around thinking about everything slowly turning to shit.
T.S. Eliot wrote it much more eloquently if a bit more obtusely in his poem The Waste Land.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
“Man's mind clumsily and tediously and laboriously patches little trivialities together and gets a result - such as it is.” - Mark Twain
I started this site with the idea of exploring both the physical geography around me and the mental geography (and invariably history) that gets tied to it. This year has left me feeling a strong sense of loss in this regard. Not a personal tragedy, not a death, but passages in your life coming to end. One was anticipated, one was not. In many ways they may seem trivial but they left me with a feeling that I had never expected nor experienced before. The next few post are going to explore memories, loss and the places around us.
One thing that you learn quickly in life is that nothing lasts forever. As a child, losing a family member or a pet becomes the first in many lessons. There are always many questions following a death. Adults will do their best to explain the loss in the form of a logical explanation, spiritual reasoning or some nonsense about Skippy the Goldfish going to live in the country with all of the other goldfish. Wait.... what??? The one that you end up staying behind will become part of your own personal dogma. If you chose the goldfish you are probably a lot happier than the rest of us. Those beliefs and ideas that take shape at an early age are the hardest to shake off. The thoughts that have been with you as long as you can remember are in many ways like the people and places around us. Try imaging your life without them. Try to do anything without thinking about them. You can't. You can't because they are as much a part of you as your blood and bones. They are stuck in your head as firm as your first memories. Mine are of my paternal grandfather who died when I was 3. I don't remember a lot about being 3 but I do remember him very clearly. The two things that stick out the most are his strong hands and his gentle words. That might not sound like much to you, but to me it is quite a lot.
We take all of these memories and attach them to the people and places around us. Losing one of those places, losing someone who shared the memory makes the memory seem less real. On the surface it feels threatening and makes you realize that these memories are as mortal as you. Underneath it is another little jab to the gut reminding you how finite everything and everybody really is. You don't believe me? Have you ever stumbled across a photo of a loved one who has died? Did it stop you in your tracks for a moment? Did it remind of you of something you had nearly forgotten? In many ways the places around us are the same.
Many of you have probably experienced that amnesia that occurs when driving over a stretch of road that you have been on a thousand times. All of the curves, dips, bridges, side roads might be mapped out in your head. Trying to remember one uneventful drive from the next is an exercise in futility. Then one day you are on your routine drive, half of your brain on something else when all of a sudden you come around the corner and exclaim "Woah! When did they tear down the old service station?" Or, "How long has the former Co-op building been a call center?", etc. A constant in your life has become a variable. I am not sure how the math works but I do know that takes some getting used you. Your eyes will fall on this change every time you travel past it until you finally get used to it. Just like your tongue seeking out the newly vacant lot that used to house a now extracted tooth. Once the novelty has passed it becomes part of the scenery.
In a few cases the destruction of a place may be viewed favorably. Something like a P.O.W. camp or the Berlin Wall, or a house where a violent crime was committed are a few examples that first come to mind. That isn't what I am trying to touch upon here. As I glance at the calender and see a very big anniversary less than 2 weeks away I realize that this whole topic of place and loss is timely. I hadn't planned it that way but I guess it is on all of our minds at some level. The sight of two larger than life towers burning and falling into the streets of Lower Manhattan is unforgettable and still, somehow unfathomable. A loss on that scale is hard to accept. They say that New Yorkers never look up. That day everyone was and wished that they hadn't. I wonder how long it took or will take the most jaded of New Yorkers to stop looking for two phantoms looming over the place that they once stood.
My phantoms aren't nearly as big or as tragic but they are around. I'm sure that you know of a few too. Next time I will discuss some of the shake ups to my physical landscape. One of them gone but still so strong in my memory I can hardly believe that it is gone. The other half a world away lying broken and silently awaiting its fate.
Sometimes I want to write more about certain things that I experienced in New Zealand. I was nowhere near New Zealand when the Christchurch quake happened yesterday. The destruction and death have filled me with sadness for a place that I love. And also a place that has painful memories as well. I'd love to be able to put more into words. That might make it feel too real. I have no idea. Most days I've got nothing to say.