Monday Apr 16 2007
By Stu Whitley
This is the fourth in a four-part series.
During his entire life, my father has adhered to a habit of truth—‘truth’ in that he has not been afraid to question the ‘why’ of a thing. This included the way in which the past influences the future, and his determination to manage events to the extent that it has been possible.
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it,” he’d say.
This was nowhere more apparent than in his decision to emigrate to Canada to seek a better future for all of us. Three homes in three countries within the span of a decade:
below the horizon of the grey Atlantic
en route to a different life in a new world
well I remember a worn train groaning
to a halt for us in a remote northern town
of tarred felt paper, clapboard and tin
two brothers and I jostled our way
to the smoke green Pullman cars
only to be yanked back sharply
by a skinny old man in a pillbox cap
declaiming ‘Canadian National Railway’
no boys, your car is at the front of these
it wouldn’t do: you don’t belong in there
much later, on that long trip, bored
we three made our boyish way through
swaying seats and lurching platforms
breathless with the hint of danger wrought
by clattering track that passed by angry cliffs
and furious streams and forests full of mystery
then through a window’d door
the last car, un-upholstered seats
of sickly green, and silently sat upon by –
Indians! and better yet: children, boys
of our age and state of boredom
we made to pass, but lanky leg of
authority barred our way. same old man
brass-buttoned and watch-and-fob:
no boys: you don’t belong in there:
Indian cars is for Indians only
years later, recounting this to disbelievers
I complained to my father: child warrior he,
survivor of Nazi slave camp and unspoken horror
hmmm. says he. I do remember. isn’t it something
… what we do to one another?
Old world, new world. War-time, post-war. Some of the same measures of cruelty by which humans can diminish, isolate and otherwise mistreat one another replay themselves infinitely, it seems. The lessons of past generations do not seem to take hold with us. Perhaps that is a function of our scientific age, which dismisses anything which is not provable or measurable. It is a frustration that was felt by Bertrand Russell, who wrote in his autobiography in 1967:
The Poles have it right, I think. By maintaining the close relationship with the past through ritual and remembrance, a stronger bond with the values that bind them as a people is forged. Our collective fate, which flows in the hidden dimensions of events, seems to involve forces beyond our perception or, worse, our control.
The three fates of Greek mythology had but one eye between them, which they passed around to each other. Like them, we are not blind all of the time, but now and then, it becomes possible to see into the order of things, the why of things. One of those instances occurs when we take the time to pay attention to the experiences and lessons of our ancestors.
© 2007 Stuart James Whitley. All rights reserved.