LONDON, ONTARIO – My first excursion off Canadian soil took place in my sixth or seventh summer when our parents packed up the four Goodden boys and took us down to Detroit to visit my mother’s Aunt Bea and her husband Ern. I remember certain moments from that trip with astonishing clarity; particularly two little side trips we made. One of these was to the Detroit Zoo which had an amazing reptile house where all kinds of slithery, cool-skinned creatures could be seen face to face with a sheet of thick glass intermediating the encounter.
I had developed a near-hysterical fear of snakes at that time. They frequently turned up in my nightmares even before that day when my older brothers decided it would be a splendidly amusing joke to toss me into a sandbox where they’d collected about a dozen garters and water snakes into a coiled, writhing herd. I smacked my upper lip against the wall of the box on the way in, then scrambled out one and a half seconds later and ran bawling home to Mom, batting imaginary snakes out of my hair and off my arms.
I’m sure it did me some psychological good to face down my greatest fear in that Detroit reptile house though any confidence I’d gained crumbled a little when we came outside to a glowering sky and a gusting wind as a major storm approached and I morbidly imagined what a pickle I’d be in if the building blew down and those glass walls shattered and a pack of pythons, cobras and rattlers came looking for that little Canadian twerp who’d been poking his tongue at them.
When the storm had passed and we got back to Bea and Ern’s, I walked down to the end of their block and back, savouring the cool, rain-sluiced sweetness of the air and admiring the glittering green lawns in front of all these handsome, two-storey houses, every other one of which seemed to have an American flag affixed to its front porch. (A triumphalist touch that Canadians didn’t much go in for in those days when the closest thing we had to a national flag was the red ensign.) It’s a vision and a moment that pops into my head to this day whenever I step outside after a heat wave has finally broken.
Our other side trip from Bea and Ern’s was to Boblo Amusement Park, just above the mouth of the Detroit River. Regarded as Detroit’s Coney Island, Boblo operated from 1898 to 1993 and had an enormous dance hall that attracted big bands throughout the year and a midway that operated from May through September. The only access to the island was by ferry boat and the ride over from Detroit, including time to load cars on and off, took about an hour and oozed its way through some alarmingly coloured patches of oily water.
On the way over I struck up an instant friendship with a black kid about my age and we spent our time running around the boat’s three decks and checking everything out (sliding down steep and narrow metal staircases using just our hands on the rails; talking and laughing into these rubber hose thingees that constituted the boat’s intercom system) as well as charming our way into the wheelhouse for the best view of the prow of the ship as it ploughed its way through scummy water the colour of limes. We had a splendid time and pledged to continue our games if it happened that our families returned to Detroit on the same boat.
During the drive to the amusement park, my dad – with the best intentions in the world – told me how glad he was to see me playing with that ‘negro’ and explained that my new friend belonged to a race that had suffered horrible privations and been enslaved and victimized by white folks like us for hundreds of years and it was past time for any such ill treatment to stop. Dad pointed out that our family and most Canadians had never gone in for slave-holding but a lot of white people had and it was an inexcusable wrong that caused great and lasting harm. Seeing us play so naturally like that gave him real hope that perhaps a corner could be turned in inter-racial relations and that both races would be able to leave those awful times in the past and move on to a better future.
While actually trying to praise me for something I’d done that he thought was wonderful, my kind and generous old man had just dumped a lethal load of guilt on top of my head. Blacks were few and far between in London circa 1959. There were none at my school and none in my neighbourhood. I’d seen Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan on the jackets of records in my parents’ collection. Louis Armstrong would occasionally pop up on The Ed Sullivan Show and Mom would make us turn it up. But that hour with that kid on the Boblo ferry had been my first live interaction with a non-white human being on this earth. I must’ve noticed that his skin was considerably darker than mine but that didn’t mean a thing next to the fact that he was a friendly kid about my age who wanted to play and away we went.
What was I supposed to do with this sudden avalanche of woe? How could I take it in and carry on like before? If he happened to travel back to Detroit on the same boat as us, would we be able to pick up where we left off? Or would all that half-digested history, all that second-hand knowledge of iniquitous behaviour, fatally poison the atmosphere between us? As it turned out, I wasn’t sure if he was on the return trip or not. I didn’t have the strength to find out. My first and last and near-simultaneous encounters with both a bottle of Vernor’s Ginger Ale and a ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl made me as sick as a dog and I spent the entire trip back nestled in the crook of my mother’s arm, weaving in and out of groggy sleep.
They sold off the last of the Boblo ferries in 1996 but in a way I still find myself riding on it all too often today and not enjoying the experience one jot more; feeling that very same mixture of coerced shame and spontaneously-generated anger and nausea whenever someone representing this or that group tells me what I (not as an individual but as a member of another group) owe his group for historical wrongs that I never committed.
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