Having settled into a luxurious room in the Canadian Consulate in New Orleans, showered and dressed in clean gear untouched since they were washed and pressed in distant Ruleville, Mississippi, weeks before, I descended a grand staircase to a handsome but intimate dining room where my rescuer Gus Bisson, Consul General, graciously played mein host. We ate well on seafood and then after some small talk we retired to what might be described as a smoking room dominated by a red, black and brown decor. There we drank to three in the morning with me describing as much about the Mississippi situation as I could in response to his inexhaustible questions.
He was absent the next morning but said I could have use of the consular car and its driver, Wells. My intention was to contact and interview a former McGill professor, who my log identifies as Forrest Lalfoilliet. He wouldn't be available for months, which scotched hopes of getting a quick story on the fate of French in Louisiana.
Nonetheless, I felt very much the VIP zipping about with Wells, the uniformed black driver. I went to the CORE headquarters to find out what was going on and give them what information I had about the winding down of Freedom Summer, or the Long Hot Summer, as it was also called.
In hopes that something would turn up, and that I would not miss the approaching Hurricane Hilda, I rented a room where John Howard Griffin, the author of "Black Like Me," stayed before he wrote his book. The log book recalls it was much like a "Negro Limelight," a reference to a genteel teahouse in a converted coach house on Pierce Street in Montreal where intellectuals gathered to share views in the early '60s.
While in New Orleans, I saw a film that made a lifelong impression on me. It was a black and white documentary about the holocaust. I had seen photographs of skeletal concentration inmates live and dead before, but this was the first time I was exposed to a movie, which brought a greater sense of reality than I had experienced before. But what really brought it home were the cap badges on the guys driving the bulldozers pushing the naked bodies into common graves. They wore the badges of the Royal Engineers, like those of the Royal Canadian Engineers I knew at Camp Farnham.
Hurricane Hilda came and went but was little more than a blustery day where I was, which seems to be a common experience throughout my life. All I seem to get are tofu typhoons. But when it all cleared, I ran into a civilian driver who had to get two US Navy vehicles to Orange, Texas. His other driver had been injured in the hurricane and was recovering in hospital.
Could I drive, he asked. Yes, I said. Whether I had a driver's licence he did not ask. So westward we drove, he in a car and I in a large pickup truck all in US Navy grey. All went well with me following him, skirting Baton Rouge and then on through village and town to somewhere close to Lafayette, where my partner's habit of going through amber traffic lights came a cropper. I was getting used to tailgating through with him, when at one traffic light in the dark he stopped-- and I banged into him, managing to swerve to the outside, clipping his offside rear fender.
We pulled over, and I admitted I did not have a licence and said we had better skedaddle, so we did. The slight damage may well have been done by a hit-and-run motorist while parked, so it didn't look too serious for the quartermaster. We drove on to Texas, where we soon found a roadside parking lot and said our goodbyes, leaving him to figure out how to retrieve the truck later.
I hitched on, getting picked up by the only homosexual to give me a ride during the entire trip, even though I wore a kilt 70 per cent of the time--although not then. Most everyone who had an opinion on the subject said there would be scads of them. Not so. Only one. On the outskirts of Houston, having been turned down on the idea of going to his place, he said he was turning off at the next exit, where he left me to hitch on.
Thence to Del Rio, Texas, as I admitted to myself that I was not going south into Mexico but would head to San Francisco to meet my fellow civil rights workers. Telling that to the US Border Patrol who stopped me along the way seemed to make the decision final: my around-the-world quest was no more.
My log notes: "Locals took me a few towns. A deputy sheriff practically at gun point insisted I take a couple of dollars. I was picked up by a racist egg farmer. A car bearing California tags took me to San Antonio. He was a real hipster from San Francisco. He was the editor of a literary publication like Encore. He had quit high school but later attended university and had written texts on fiction writing. In our 100-mile trip we talked of Mississippi. He said it was good to be with fascists because you know what they are thinking. In many ways he was like Norm McBain [the glib, fasting talking friend of my father's] and had little of value to say."
I was then taken from San Antonio to Del Rio by a penitent alcoholic who spoke of God's impact on his life. I was a confirmed agnostic but had gone to Anglican confirmation classes at school to duck a math class that was held simultaneously. But as a Loyal Royal Canadian, I figured if it was okay with the Queen, it was okay with me. I have since reasoned that if settled scientific wisdom believes all started with a Big Bang, then it stood to reason there had to be Big Banger. But whether He loved me or regarded me as no more than a discarded toenail clipping, I could not say. Of course, that is now and that was then, and the Queen stuff is too much for Yankees to take, so I stuck with agnosticism.
Then things became interesting. The next ride even suggested a job and a new career. He was a racing car mechanic but could double as a driver if needs must, which they did from time to time. I knew nothing of that field and know little more to this day, despite my father's enthusiasm for auto racing. Dad owned a Jaguar XK140, which won the Le Mans several times. This seemed to settle it for my next sponsor, Leroy M. Gane, whom all called "Roy."
Roy took a liking to me simply because I knew what the Le Mans was and was familiar with the XK140 as my father's frequent passenger. He thought I would be of help at his next race in Riverside, California, doing things like ordering car parts and answering phones from people all over the States.
Not that I minded. It was a 1,500-mile free ride, all expenses paid, with breakfast, lunch, dinner and soft motel beds all the way there. The landscape changed in New Mexico and Arizona from near desert to total desert with what looked like chimneys, but was really air conditioners. Then there was an odd customs station at the Arizona border to ensure that no citrus fruit crossed into the state. On to Yuma, where the desert took on an Arabian look until we got to the mountains that brought on California.
At first, life was no different on arrival at Riverside. Another motel with lots to eat. But the motel soon turned out to be part of a cluster of similar establishments teeming with young men in their late 20s and early 30s, and lots of pretty girls who hung about and chattered among themselves. None was interested in a gofer like me as soon as they learned of my water-boy status in the international racing set.
Even so, I was part of the team with a "track pass," able to come and go within the restricted areas inside the track itself. Not that this was much of a blessing, and it was a toss-up whether it was better to endure the sight of men surrounding a revving engine as if the din were the strains of the New York Philharmonic, while I tried to read the last unread columns of the Christian Science Monitor, the only decent paper on sale locally, or the Orange County Register, the next best thing. I was peripherally touched by the rising volume of the drama of the US presidential election in its unique California form. Burt Lancaster would suddenly wag his finger at me from the motel TV set, urging all to "Vote No on Proposition 14", which I soon discovered from talks with the motel and restaurant staff would mean the nullification of the Rumford Fair Housing Act. That act denied property owners the right to discriminate against those with the money to buy or rent property on the grounds of race, sex or creed.
What few times I was engaged in doing something useful, I was content enough, ordering a car part from Chicago, locating an expert somewhere else for a consultation. But these tasks were few and far between. Often my job was to wait by the revving engine next to a host of revving engines in neighboring pits waiting for orders that never came. Or wait by the phone in the motel room and bring whatever news there was to the track. It was rather like being on the road. Going from the track to the motel or the motel to the track. Again, the process was far more enjoyable than the result.
Race day came and went, but as I was not required to be there, I was not. Other than learning that we had not won, I knew nothing of the outcome of the races. But my sponsor was oblivious to this; he saw our arrangement as ideal and was disappointed that I would not be coming with him to the races in Monterey, 17 miles south of San Francisco. And presumably to similar places around the world where I would be trekking from track to motel room in the company of people whose sole subject of conversation was the quality of cars and car parts. So after I helped him load a racing car onto a trailer at San Francisco Airport, he dropped me in San Francisco, where we parted.
I phoned Richard Pryor, the civil rights worker I had met in Jackson on my last trip through. He directed me to his aunt's place. After two nights there, Richard and Patrick Ellsworth rented a nice flat in Twin Peaks for $130 a month, but I did not know how I was to raise my $44 share. There was no mail day after day at the Canadian Consulate, much less a cheque from any of my supposed subscribers, not that I entertained much hope of that.
I walked into the editorial department of the San Francisco Examiner in hopes for a job, and was told to wait while an editor to whom I was briefly introduced went off to peruse my clipping books. The editorial offices were not unlike the Gazette's, looking battered but lived-in. One standout feature was the telephones at each desk. They did not sit on the desks as Rotary 500s do, but clung to the desk sides like wall phones. I wondered what advantage that would be other than saving desk surface space, of which there seemed no shortage.
At last the editor returned my clippings with a no-job response, telling me they were at their peak of hiring and expected to be cutting back with the presidential election only two weeks away. He added that he didn't know what I would have to do to make myself legal from an immigration point of view, but it was something I had better attend to because American newspapers would want that sorted out before hiring a Canadian.
Canadians may sound like Americans, or at least Californians, but the differences are far greater than those of similarly twinned cultures like Australia's and New Zealand's, where citizenships are virtually interchangeable. The American national anthem is about the War of 1812 between Canada, as part of the British Empire, and the United States. So things are not that chummy. Most of us still think of England as our primary ally in the world. In 1974, I interviewed Philip Agee for the Montreal Gazette. He wrote a tell-all book on the CIA called "Inside the Company" and told me that American intelligence operations in Canada were conducted from the London office and not from the United States.
It was only when I reached California that I noticed that people spoke like me, which I later took to be the result of the dominance of Hollywood movies, which standardised the English spoken not only in Canada but throughout the United States, which did not have substantial populations of a shared culture before the advent of talkies from the early '30s. This was compounded by the parallel popularity of commercial radio in North America from 1919, with national networks, NBC and CBS, being set up in the mid-'20s. So places like Boston and New York may have had distinct accents, as do Dixie and its border states, but regional accents faded fast into California-speak as one left Texas and went north and northwest. As I was just travelling from motel to motel crossing New Mexico and Arizona, meeting few people, I did not notice that they sounded like me. If was only after a time in California that I said to myself, "No one has an accent here."
The next mail arrived with money, which apart from a hamburger, went entirely on debt service. There was also mail with news that Alan Ritchie, my erstwhile partner on the trip, had extricated himself from McGill University with a rather arty BSc. He had heard about my situation and suggested I join him in Chatham, Ontario, where he was now a reporter on the Chatham Daily News.
So consumed was I with my own problems, my log makes no mention of Lyndon Johnson's victory over Barry Goldwater in the presidential election. Nor is much mention made of San Francisco, which I remember as a beautiful city with the sophistication of Boston and a chauvinistic self-regard that equaled the esteem Montreal had for itself. I remember walking down Market Street and back again to Twin Peaks in what had become a daily patrol route just to give myself something to do. There was only one Montreal newspaper readily available and that was the scandal sheet "Midnight" that later turned itself into "Globe." I also made an interesting discovery that strawberry yoghurt, for which I developed a craving, came from Brossard, Quebec.
Log entries reflect my gloom. "I have the feeling that something quite horrible must happen to me before I become an adult. If it doesn't, I am surely destined to remain an adolescent forever. I have noticed that since I have been in SF, the log has been devoted to me more than the trip. Perhaps that is because there is no longer a trip. I am no longer reporting. I am decaying waiting for something to happen. Disgusting, isn't it?
"I have always been happier travelling. The anticipation of a destination has always been of greater value to me than the destination itself. This leads me to question my psychological make up. There are no guidelines, no friend to talk to, only acquaintances. I wish I could talk to someone from home."
News came from Alan that there would be a job opening on the Chatham Daily News in a couple of weeks, so if I could, to present myself in a week. I said I would be there in four days. With that letter there also came a note from Ross Smith of the Ottawa Journal with the result of his bid to get me work at the paper after a bundle of out-of-date youth columns arrived from my mother, who finally got around to sending them. "He referred my material to the managing editor with the rather complimentary note saying I was 'presentable, enthusiastic and could write well'. To which there was another note attached from the managing editor saying they had enough juniors and were unlikely to need more."
So on November 18, Ellsworth dropped me off at the Bay Bridge. Donning my kilt again, I set off for Chatham, Ontario, via Reno, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Omaha, Des Moines, Chicago and Detroit.
The first to pick me up were six mirthlessly laughing girls, trying to cheer themselves up as they faced another day of selling educational books door to door in the cold in a town 80 miles outside Sacramento. Then a skier took me to Lake Tahoe in Nevada just over the state line. He had hitchhiked in Canada, and he and his fiancee expected to do the same next summer. A cosmetics salesman took me to Reno. He was to recruit a sales team to work the territory after putting advertisements in local newspapers, but he didn't know what to say. I got out my typewriter, we worked out two ads, and he paid me $5, which was a lot more than the $0 I had. Lucklessly, I put 25 cents into a slot machine and lost it, comforting myself that I was able to say I had gambled in Reno.
Outside it was now winter. The log notes on November 18: "I am waiting on the road in Reno and my hands are numb with the cold. From 55 degrees in the morning it is now 15. My morale is still good, but my hands are freezing. I was picked up by a man in his 60s who told me he had broken his back when he was 38, and had lived on $360 monthly pension ever since.
"After him came the first and last big rig to ever pick me out. I was frozen stiff as I approached the cab; I learned that he was heading south after 18 miles, shattering dreams that I had a straight-through ride to Chicago or Detroit.
"At Hearly, Nevada, I had most unusual ride of my life and perhaps the most dangerous and adventurous one too. Jamie Connolly, 41, and his wife Barbara, 38, of Alabama, said they would take me as far they could, which turned out to be as far as a half tank of gas would take them."
And so we ended up on our last teaspoonful of gas at Lovelock, Nevada, where I was introduced to the mechanised beggars' routine. By now I had learned that they had been living in their car, a worn-out 1954 Lincoln Capri in two-tone black and pink. Jamie said he had bought it for $15. He was also a proud member of the Ku Klux Klan, so I didn't mention how I had spent my summer.
The mechanised beggars' routine called for making an appeal to the sheriff or the police chief for a warm place to spend the night. In reality, what was supposedly desired was wanted by neither the recipient nor the donor. What was wanted by both, and invariably provided instead, was a full tank of gas. In this way both parties were served, one not having to deal with the indigent wayfarers the next morning and the other given the means of continuing on their way.
This we pulled off in three towns and had every expectation to hip-hop across the country this way. But it grew colder as time went on, hitting lows of 5 below zero Fahrenheit. It was at this point that I developed a lifelong prejudice against electric car windows, because this car's windows went down but not up more than a quarter way. We were now in Utah in the frozen Salt Desert 80 miles from Salt Lake City fearing that the engine would seize up, with wizened Jamie constantly repeating that his was a "Southern car and not used to the cold."
As the wind whistled through the open car window, with Barbara moaning under a heap of blankets in the back seat and Jamie grimly clinging to the wheel, he would suddenly depart from his "Southern car" refrain and declaim unprovoked: "They don't mess around with niggers and nigger-loving whites in Mississippi - they hang 'em!"
Jamie, under great stress, fell asleep at the wheel and nearly collided with a police car. We were pulled over, the car stopped, the engine stalled, and we were towed to a truck stop where there was a large relief map of North America with the mountains sticking out. It was there that I noticed my geographical misapprehension and, in the process, dispelled another geographical misapprehension. The first and most relevant was thinking that the Western mountain ranges are roughly the same in Canada and the US. Not so. In Canada, it is a short traverse from one side to the other, a comparatively short hop from Vancouver to Calgary (970 km) compared to the long haul between San Francisco and Denver (1,250 km). At the same time, I noticed unhappily that Chicago and Detroit, which I took to be in the middle of the country, were a lot farther east - that is, farther away than I took them to be.
Having no money, I decided not to linger at the truck stop beyond the time it took to warm up and returned to the dead car at the edge of parking lot where it had been towed, a mile or two from where we encountered the police.
"My hands are nearly frozen at and the temperature has gone down to 2 degrees. These bloody mountains!! I am now in my sleeping bag inside the car, but even with the doors shut, it is just as cold inside as it is outside.
"Oh!! the engine block is cracked. I hear the water sluicing out. Just talked to them in the store. Jamie has given up the car, says there's lots of food in it and plans to make it back to California."
The next ride was to Cheyenne, Wyoming, by another USAF technical sergeant. He was going to Sault Ste Marie, or what Americans call the Soo, which wasn't very useful, but by now anything that said Canada was emotionally welcome, though I knew it was not on the way to Chatham. But before I could decide, his car broke down in Cheyenne.
It was 8 p.m. and around zero degrees, and I had not slept or eaten for 48 hours. I was fearful of falling asleep on the road and never waking up. Visions of Robert Scott's expedition to the Antarctic danced in my head from a book I had read.
So I took the plunge and phoned home. "Dad was out. With some reservation I called Mum and she said she would wire the money today. Mum's reaction was good, almost indifferent and was not annoyed as I thought she would be and was willing to fork over $140 for the bus fare to Chatham."
I bought No-Doz pills to keep me awake, though there was little need to do so except for fear of missing the first bus. I could now sleep in safety on the bus, which seemed such an incredible luxury.
After that it was a series of seatmates on the bus. A black marine was unhappy with maltreatment in the corps, which I put down to being unhappy with military life rather than any racial prejudice. He certainly enjoyed the Canadian Army version of the Marine Hymn, to wit:
"From the shores of San Francisco
To the hills of Tennessee
There's a line of Yankee bullshit
Put there for all to see.
"If the Vandoos* and the Princess Pats**
Were to dig up their latrines,
They would find underneath a pile of shit
The United States Marines."
*Royal 22e Regiment (22 in French is "vingt-deux”)
** Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry
Another seatmate was a woman I called Mrs Backlash, after a Feiffer cartoon about Mr Backlash. "According to her, she was totally unprejudiced, but simply made up her mind that the Mississippi Summer project was a stupid effort perpetrated by communists and executed by idiots. She had no idea of what had been done. We are now moving into Chicago."
After waiting for two hours in the bus depot, having a conversation with black drug dealer about racial tensions,
to which he appeared indifferent if not immune, I headed to Detroit over the familiar ground of Michigan, where Alan and I had travelled 18 months before, when this expedition was in the planning stages.
While I cannot be proud of my first log entry on reaching Canadian soil, it certainly casts me in the role of a classic left-liberal in regard to the United States. My log notes on November 22: "When I crossed the border, I could not read the word CANADA too many times. I felt that I had escaped from a land of bigots and fools. If I had anything to say about it, I would saw off New York and San Francisco and let the rest sink into the sea."
Copyright © 2020 Journeyman's Journey in Journalism - All Rights Reserved.
Powered by GoDaddy Website Builder