Bottles on a Vast Sea:
Letters to the Radio
I listen to thoughtful radio. Sometimes, unavoidably, I listen to thoughtless radio, too, and sometimes that’s even fun. But mostly if I am going to fill my head with sound I like it to be thought-provoking, informative, hopeful perhaps—I want it to feed me, heart, mind, and soul, in some way.
Of course, this leads to responsive thoughts in my own private cranium, and the odd time I want to express them to the speaker. The obvious way to do that is to write a note to the radio program, an email or a comment on their website or even a tweet. Seldom do I get a reply, though occasionally a producer will say something brief and encouraging. My thoughts go bobbing off on the vast internet sea, to be read or ignored, but there is something useful in doing it even without the response, so I carry on, a little sheepishly, my one-way correspondence with the mute unknown.
After some time of doing this I suddenly thought, somebody might actually be interested in these thoughts of mine. So I am collecting a few together to toss off into the sea again, messages in bottles, on their own solitary journeys once again.
CBCRewind with Michael Enright
ON THE ROAD 1972 (3 July 2013)
I have written before to say how much I love this program. I'll say it again. So rich.
It was strange to listen today to the boys interviewed so close in time to when I myself left home and hitch-hiked around the countryside. So familiar: the slang, the inquisitiveness, the delight. I wonder, if there had been any girls interviewed (I am using the words we used then, not the ones—Men and Women—I would apply now) if they would have been any more honest about life on the road. Which is not to say these fellows were lying, only that they were leaving out an awful lot, cleaning things up terribly for the interviewer. Or maybe they were a different class of traveller than I generally met.
That sounds like I have some sour grapes but I don’t, though I must say along with the wonders of the road that they describe, which I, too, experienced and still treasure, it was an often frightening and sometimes very painful time. I was younger than any of the interviewees. I climbed out my East Vancouver bedroom window one night three months before I turned fourteen and set out on an adventure that was nothing like what I expected and which I would not have had the nerve to embark on had I had an inkling of what I was about to do.
I wasn’t a successful student or cold weather employee bent on exploring Canada or a young philosopher out to discover life. I was a grade eight dropout and runaway who discovered a mass of young people who were almost adults compared to me, who alternately aided and exploited me, shared their wisdom and their flea-bitten puppies and a world I had hardly suspected. Of marijuana, hashish, belladonna koolaid, and self-appointed gurus who set my adolescent teeth on edge. Of young pregnant women abandoned by boyfriends and trying to use sex to attract a “father” for their unborn children. Of bikers whose sense of humour was frightening and degrading to me. Of guys my dad’s age who had wives and daughters at home but who thought it would be great to be given comfort by a castaway like me. Of gentle First Nations girls who tried to help me after I'd been hurt once more. Drop-in medical clinics, social workers and Christians with a mission to save me, old rubbies who taught me about logging camps and rolling cigarettes and what it was like to live on the street. Well-meaning doctors, disinterested cops, kindly farmers, prurient young men who I thought “liked” me but that wasn’t quite it.
Being on the road taught me about the intense beauty of the West, the towns and orchards and ditches and fields, the southern mountains and the northern taiga. They taught me about history, about European immigrants whose view of the world was so different from mine, about hippies and their ideologies. Jesus freaks, Kraft dinner, panhandling, throwing up, lice. I relaxed a little, started wearing a dog collar (not done in those days), discovered how hard it was for me to risk displeasing anyone, no matter who or what a wanker, realized how comfortable I was with wilderness, how unalike I felt with people, though I loved or though I loathed them.
It’s difficult to express in a few words how enriching those awe-filled times were, despite the hardships. I don’t know who I would have become without that unparalleled opportunity to see a thousand different perspectives all at once, a literal kaleidoscope of eyes, minds, histories, obstacles, and aspirations. I had emerged from the parental home with some creativity and little confidence intact. Crushed by a milieu that thought me weird and my ideas dangerous, being among idealists, however flawed, among people who at least thought it was okay to try new things, be wild, take risks, be unconventional (even though underneath they were as girdled by conformity as their parents were) gave me the first outside world confirmation of my mother’s strange philosophy. That we could be other than what the world tried to force us into. That we were good and alive and valuable. That somewhere in life we might find permission to be truly free.
If one of my nieces or nephews were to take to the road now, I would die of fear for them. I look back affectionately on streets that had no drug more dangerous than heroin, at a country that didn’t yet know mass murderers, where one thirteen year old, anyway, was never forced into prostitution. It was dangerous, gloomy, greedy, and often stupid then. It is a world far more terrifying and cynical now.
And yes, I do pick up hitch-hikers now and then, when I have a car and am travelling. They are younger than I ever learned to be, and every bit as eager to be alive. I wish them well.
On This Rare Occasion I Got a Response
Marieke Meyer (5 July 2013)
Thanks so much for your great letter and for telling us about your experience. Very thoughtful. You should write a book (or at least an article) about it!
Note: Unfortunately, the episode I was responding to is no longer on the website. At least, I can't find it. You might try writing them a letter!