Itsy Bitsy Part 2

First order of business; my title, Ma valise mal a l’aise, passed the French test of someone who knows the language much better than I. I was told it’s an unusual pairing, forcing the adverb—mal a l’aise—to be an adjective and modifying an inanimate object, putting the “ill at ease” beside the suitcase, but I’m okay with that. I like the title because it captures many things, not the least of which is my awful high school French. As well, it sounds to me like a pretentious title, and I was, despite my lack of formal education, a very pretentious young man. Since these essays are about my youth, the title is fitting.

In last week’s installment I told of a journey I undertook more than 30 years ago. The story ended with me in Alaska. I was working for a small construction company and I had discovered that my boss went by the name of Brian Hyland in his youth. He was the singer of such radio hits as “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and “Sealed With A Kiss.” I had seen the gold record awards in his home. But, lo these many years later, seeking to verify my memory, I could find no evidence that Brian Hyland was ever in Alaska. I wrote to the singer via his website, but that went unanswered.

I’ll now begin to fill in some of my personal back story. At the end of last week’s installment I said this week I would offer a possible explanation for my Brian Hyland mystery. I doubt if I will get to that this week. At any rate, in order to understand it, background is needed.

As I described previously, the trip began as a hitchhiking adventure from my hometown of Edmonton to California and back. I never made it to California. There were two reasons for this. First, I started running out of money. By the time I had made it to Portland it became obvious to me there was no way I could keep going and make it back with cash on hand. I would have had to either beg for money from home, not really an option, or I would have had to work somewhere, illegally. Since I wasn’t much of a lawbreaker back then, this wasn’t an option either.

I had crossed into the US at Osoyoos and there my plans had been altered. But first let me describe my drive up to border. I was taken there by a generous fruit farmer who had decided to go ten miles out of his way. As we bombed along in his old pickup truck, he had spent the previous 45 minutes describing to me in too graphic detail why he absolutely hated, detested, the young Quebecois who would drift through the Okanagan during the fruit picking season. I suspected this guy had driven the extra ten miles to the border because he really wanted to get this off his chest. According to this farmer, these ‘Frenchies’ as he called them were the most arrogant, the most ungrateful AND the filthiest creatures ever to walk upright on two legs. He described in great detail a set of outhouses that had been deliberately defaced and nearly destroyed, supposedly by these eastern demons. Just before the ride ended he calmed down, and as I got out of the truck, he looked at me rather sheepishly and said something like, “Hey, sorry about that. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no bigot. I love Mexicans. They’re great people.”

And so, with this fresh perspective on a new North American realignment, I walked up to the border station. The American border official seemed unfazed by seeing me on foot. I was expecting more of a reaction. As I answered his questions, he seemed pretty skeptical about my holiday plans.

Now, this official was quite memorable, which I suppose befits a gatekeeper to another world. An older fellow perhaps in his mid to late forties, he was the first person I had met in my life with a bona-fide flat-top crew cut. I had of course seen these haircuts on cartoon characters, and on astronauts and in pictures of football heroes from the 1950s. Up until that point I guess I had assumed that people didn’t get flat-top crew cuts anymore; after the groovy sixties and the shaggy seventies, I thought this style was just a cliche, scriptwriter shorthand for redneck hard-ass drill sergeant. But here was Flat-Top Crew Cut in the flesh… Mr. Flat-Top Crew Cut to you, sonny. And he was wearing sunglasses. And he was being a hard-ass.

He made me show him my travelers cheques. He asked me for the address of someone that I would visit in the States. This is all pretty standard, but it was all new to me and I was feeling a bit intimidated and unjustly picked on. And then, because I couldn’t give him the address of anyone I was visiting, he told me I could only stay in the US for two weeks. Two weeks? But California dot dot dot “Two weeks.” As it turned out, this border official was a lot more realistic than I was. I had a few hundred bucks in my pocket and felt like I could anywhere, anytime; pick a spot, point to it and I’d go. I was all youthful swagger and jaunty optimism. Mr. Flat-Top Crew Cut guy lived in The Real World. Screw that! But, a week and a half later, running out of cash, at the Oregon/Washington border, I had to turn around and head back to Canada.

Reason number two for my retreat is a bit nasty. Recall, from my first instrumental I had mentioned I had purchased rugged army surplus gear and cut my hair short. I did this, I adopted this look, for entirely practical reasons. I was sleeping rough, camping out by the side of the road, hobo-ing, so to speak. I needed tough clothing, tough gear. I wanted my hair cut short because it was easier to keep clean.

However, what I discovered almost immediately upon entering the United States is that there appeared to be some kind of unspoken assumption, at that period in history, in that part of the world, that if you were young and looked like you were either in the army or just out of the army, and you were hitchhiking, well then you were probably the kind of guy who was always on the lookout for some spontaneous roadside homosexual sex.

I hadn’t anticipated this. Why should I have? I’m not gay, so I don’t think about sex with men. I’m not sure why this didn’t become an issue in Canada as I made my way toward the U.S., but there it is.

I won’t go into this now. It’s probably a whole other chapter; men who tried to pick me up. I will say this. Recall, the time frame here, 1982: Aids was not in the news. Coincidentally, just around that time, end of June, 1982, there were reports just starting to come out about a new type of cancer affecting homosexual men. But the disease was here, there and everywhere in the gay population, though I would only realize this later when I remembered the ghastly pallor of some of these men I met while traveling.

So I was getting too many rides with too many weirdos. This was not fun. And if things were weird in Washington, well, who knows what kind of horrors awaited me further down the road closer to crazy California.

After a brief visit to picturesque Portland, I retraced my route back north, but then diverted west to the ferry at Port Angeles. There I would cross the water to Vancouver Island, Canada. It was while waiting for this boat, sitting on bench wondering if the grey sky that had been following me for the last few days was every going to start raining, that a young woman approached me. She noticed I was reading a book–I wasn’t really, I was just holding it. She was reading a book. What a coincidence! She was polite, well-spoken, confident. She seemed to be looking for a little idle chit-chat. What are you reading? Where you from? Where you going? Blah blah blah.

She was from Israel. Just finished her army service and was now on a vacation. That was interesting. After about 15 minutes of this idle back and forth, she suddenly asked me if I ever considered going to Alaska. She explained she was traveling with three other people in a van in that direction. A fifth person could really help out with the expenses. Besides herself, there was the driver and owner of the van from Chicago, a young woman from Texas, and a guy from New Zealand. Before this trip they were all unknown to each other, having assembled enroute. The driver of the van had put up notices in youth hostels as he drove to California, looking for anyone wanting to visit Alaska.

She explained the three other group members had decided to kill time waiting for the ferry by going to a movie. The Israeli girl couldn’t be bothered. She wasn’t interested in that particular film. Oh, what did they go see? E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

I told this Israeli girl that I would consider joining their troupe; I would at least meet the rest of the group on the ferry ride. In truth, I had already made up my mind to go along. They were probably a pretty safe bunch. I mean, E.T.? C’mon. And I kinda liked this girl. To a young man of my limited world experience, she seemed exotic. And yet we had so much in common. For instance, I had no interest in seeing E.T. either.

And that is how I ended up traveling to Alaska from Edmonton by way of California.

This installment appeared in the podcast Grace & Steel Episode 9, October 19, 2015.