Saturday, December 5, 2015

Sunday School and more Part 2

    After his discharge, my father became a logger. We moved to an island sixty miles north of Vancouver, where he first worked for a small outfit, and then he bought a horse, a power saw and some land and worked until the policies of the tug-boat operators put him out of business in the fall of 1947. There was no Sunday school on the island, but the teacher of my one room school gave me an introduction to grammar that was probably as important as anything else to my training as a writer, and during times when my mother was ill or away, I learned to cook, I also taught my five-year old brother to read before he went to school.
    By November my mother and smallest brother and myself were back in town, living in an uncle's basement apartment. I changed schools, of course, and after Christmas, by which time my father and middle brother had come down, there was not enough room in the basement suite for me, so I went to live out the rest of the year with my father's sister, in another part of Vancouver. Sunday school was sporadic at best, but I was much impressed by my grade seven teacher and finished the year at the head of the class. There was a girl in that class, a blonde who sat up at the front, whose mother took an axe to her, not quite killing her, but damaging her spine for life.
    By the time I was to start grade eight, and barely in time, Central Mortgage and Housing had finished some of the five hundred veteran's rental houses it was building at the corner of Boundary Road and the Lougheed Highway. I had been set up to live with a family near my uncle's, but the new construction gave us a house of our own. We moved into acres of dirt and lumber and carpenters' equipment but we were all under one roof and I enrolled in a school that gave me another first rate teacher. My father had been for some months working for what was then the B.C. Electric Company.
    We lived at Renfrew Heights, among the streets named for generals and battles of the two wars, for eight years. Again I headed the class, actually a class-and-a-half, of eighth-graders, and living within hiking or easy bicycle distance from my father's parents and the church where I had been dedicated, I sometimes went to Sunday school, although somewhere in grade eight or nine I decided that Christ, rather than dying on the cross, should have been rescued by the fifth cavalry, as in the movies. I also found it difficult to believe that Jesus, had He come in our time, would have drunk coffee instead of wine and I was frightened by the suggestion that the best young Christians were those who went to Africa. For years, though, I faithfully read and thoroughly enjoyed the weekly "Northern Messenger" my grandparents gave me for my birthday.
    In grade eight, also, I joined a scout troop sponsored by the Salvation Army. In grade nine or ten, I became an army cadet, in a corps, both boys and girls, where there were a lot of Catholics, and one of my best friends in the scout troop and all through high school was a much loved and very well brought up boy from a Salvation Army family. In grade nine I tied another boy for academic honours, at Britannia High, but after that, involved in scouts, cadets, my friends and a refusal to let studying interfere with my leisure reading, I had to be content with a lesser status, until the end of grade twelve. Scholarship money was involved at that point, so I studies hard enough to get the top average again, although I was a long way from the provincial winner achievement.
    In the spring of grade eleven, reading Hemingway I did not understand, I realized that I was to be a writer. I had spent the autumn of that year thinking about Royal Roads military college and had also begun to think about the law, so the thought of writing was awesome. A little earlier than that insight, I was also deeply moved by a folk music single on the radio, with consequences, for all my campfire singing, I could not have imagined at the time.
    By the end of grade twelve, through some overwhelming meditations, I knew that I was to be a Christian writer, and not only a novelist, but that I would have to write an autobiography. In the fall of my grade twelve year, on a hunting trip with my father and grandfather, I had experienced at least three distinct encounters with the Holy Spirit, each one more telling than the last, and throughout that year I found myself paying genuine attention to the words of the Lord's Prayer as we recited it every morning in our home class room. I was unrequited in love twice that year, quite profoundly, I thought, and I made the unforgettable discovery, in the high school library, of my next home, the campus newspaper of the University of British Columbia.
    That year the Ubyssey editor was Joe Schlesinger, now a CBC broadcaster. The paper was as iconoclastic as ever, and to me, wonderfully funny. I knew it was the place for me when I went on to UBC, although I suspected even then that a lot of my friends and relatives would think my choice indolent and even dangerous to my future and my virtue.
    I expected a great deal from the university and the student paper, and in neither, at that point, was I disappointed. Ubyssey has often been called the best journalism school in Canada, whether it is or not I neither know nor care, but I know that her basement offices were the best possible place for me to be at that time, and , as I was by then a mystic, I knew that God knew it too. For the next six years, the university was my city and the Ubyssey was my house in that city. I never felt the need to join a Greek letter fraternity, or any other club, for that matter, and I felt sorry for people without the talent to belong to the intellectual fraternity I knew.
    But as interesting as the university was, and the company at the Ubyssey, I was restless by November, and one rainy Sunday afternoon I fought my way through a severe case of nerves to write the first few paragraphs of my first novel. It was write or start to go backwards, I was convinced, and though I had very little of the experience I needed for the novel I was writing, I had not read the Saturday Evening Post for nothing. I knew what the "public" wanted, and I wanted to see if I could give it to them.
    The discovery that I could write was the same kind of thing as the discovery that I could read, and it also taught me something I have never forgotten, that a certain kind of ennui and self-disgust means that it is time to learn a new art or science, or take up bringing some old dream into reality. When I say that I learned that I could write I mean that I found out that I could plot, create characters that were distinct from each other, roll out dialogue in quantity. Exposition was difficult, and I knew that I was a poor substitute for de Maupassant or Ring Lardner, but I had also realized that the happy boy that I had almost always been would have to keep writing, when the mood was on him, to become a happy man. I had started out my journalism career as a hunt -and-peck man, in the accepted tradition of reporters, but as a rising novelist I started teaching myself to touch-type.
    I wrote steadily through the winter dark, damp coastal winter and remained in love with the university, although I was enough of a conservative, living ten miles away from the campus, to decline joining in the effigy burning of Bertie McCormack. Geography was not the only factor; I was not sure that I wanted to be a radical. By February the book was half-finished and I as dry of inspiration. After all, my book was a romance, hand-guns, dope-smuggling and marine disasters. My own romance was still in my imagination, my guns had all been military rifles or .22's in the woods, the only thing I knew about dope was that some kid in the neighbourhood used it and that a student I knew had found some once in a coast freighter's heating system, and my sailing record, with small craft only, was impeccable.
    What also happened with my novel, though, was a student named Sandy Ross, now famous as a journalist, who arrived at the Ubyssey offices with a remarkable gift for writing satirical songs and playing them on the ukulele. My adventurous inventions felt a little silly, and I was fascinated by someone being able to get so much music out of half-a-dozen chords and a five dollar instrument. I had not known much music theory, although both my mother and father sang well, and I knew nothing of chords. In my novel, the hero had played the guitar, and in writing that, I was somewhat resentful that I did not know how.
    Sandy also knew some blues, and I became committed forever to folk music. I bought a five-dollar wonder, made of plastic, and a chord book. I think the first song I learned, plunking away in the bedroom, was "Casey Jones". For the rest of the academic year learning music replaced writing fiction. I had an inkling that it might be years before I dared show my writing to anyone, whereas being able to perform and contribute with my ukulele was only months away. Even if no one wanted my music, I loved making it. God was there, as he had been in my father's discipline, my grandfather's quiet tenderness, the wonder of the wilderness, and the solitude of my typewriter.
    I was still a movie buff, and somewhat prejudiced against live theatre, but I went, by myself to the Players' Club performance of "The Barret's of Wimple Street", and had to respect it. I had no conception of my own guardian angel, nor anyone else's for that matter, but it was probably that creature of my future wife's who sent me. I realized that I would one day like to try some acting, but although I had found music a safe place to reveal my emotions, I was not so sure about the stage.
    I had finished my cadet days as regimental sergeant-major and thoroughly enjoyed two full summers at the Vernon camp for cadets from Albera and B.C., so I joined the UBC detachment of the Canadian Officers' Training Corps. As joining the Ubyssey had alienated some of my high school friends a little, so my belonging to the COTC puzzled some of my Ubyssey cronies, but I was determined to spread myself as wide as possible. Moreover, although my story-teller's ambitions may have preferred a job in a logging camp or a fish-boat, that was not as secure as the guaranteed summer in an army camp. Another side of the writer, of course, was moved by the chance to go back to the Picton area of part of my childhood, for my corps was anti-aircraft, and the training ground at Point Petrie was still in operation.
    Another of my ambitions, inspired in my last months of high school, was to get to know the thinking of the "left", which I knew I would find on the campus. Stalin had just died, and like any well-indoctrinated North American school-boy, I thought of the Soviets as the enemy, but I preferred peace to war, and I wanted to know how the enemy thought, through the minds of his sympathizers in my own country. I sought out students who were known members of the Communist party, or close to it, and found them all likable as individuals, but the one I became closest to, paradoxically enough, had earlier been drummed out of the National Federation of Labour Youth for speaking against the use of violence in the eventual chance of a leftest thrust for power.
    The only direct church influence throughout my first three years on the campus was an organization called The Older Boy's Parliament of British Columbia, The COTC, to allow students study time for Christmas exams, held no Monday night parades in December, and being no lover of exam swatting I was open to an old neighbourhood friend's invitation to drop in on the Monday night youth group. None of the other members of the group were university students. They all worked, and I was the only one with the time to attend the "Parliament" meetings that took place over four days between Christmas and New Year's. The minister of our local United Church was insistent that I go, probably stimulated by my pseudo-scientific attack on revelation that had turned up at a youth group discussion, and I loved gatherings. Furthermore, it suited my writer's intentions. It seemed a straight forward opportunity to keep in touch with organized Christianity, even if I felt that its comfort was too seductive for an aggressive young intellect that needed to learn about suffering.
    A much more important influence, actually, in helping me keep open the straight and narrow path was the generally affable policy of the university in regards to class attendance. The calendar very properly advised students that they could be denied the opportunity to write exams if they attended less than four-fifths of their lectures. Few professors enforced the rule. The university motto, "Tuum Est" after all, translated into "It's up to you". I had come to the campus with only two intentions, to learn to write, and to make good friends, some of which I hoped would remain such all my life. I took off class time to be with my friends, and perhaps even more important, I took off class time to be by myself to let my mind do something I did not really have a word for, although I might, with self-conscious laughter, have called it meditation. There was an activity in my mind which tried to make me think I was guilty for skipping classes, but I could never feel guilty, and even at exam time as I studied to make up the difference, I had no real regrets. Those leisurely hours, peculiarly mine, were perhaps my deepest moments of tranquil self-esteem, and in those first couple of years when the excitement of the campus were an overwhelming challenge to my love of the wilderness-as-paradise, they guaranteed me the same sense of contemplation the woods had given. In those hours I knew myself, and to the best of my limited instruction in spirituality, I knew God. This necessary knowledge is not always present in a university classroom, neither public, as I knew then, nor Catholic, as I came to learn some years later.
    In spite of my casual approach to classes I came out of my first year, with its maximum load of subjects, with a high second class average. I had the old twinges of puzzle as to why I was not up in the heights of the highest percentages, but I was not going to change my schedule of friends, writing, and reading as I wanted for a few moments of honour. Once in a while I would try out some extra study, as I thought of it, but never with any profit. My head could not accommodate something my heart denied.
    In my first year I think that there was only one clear cut inspiration which I rejected. The circumstances of the denial are significant, presenting clearly my state of mind at that time, and arguing considerable darkness for the future.
    It was my second direct refusal of Aristotle in six months, and I think it was much more vicious than the first one, for although the suggestion was the same - to give over my exaggerated trust in my own opinion - the reward offered at the second wooing was plainly much sweeter. My first rejection was from arrogance, my second from something even more insidious: false humility.
    I was also being moved to formally admit that I preferred virtue to vice, that I was a Christian and that in fact I preferred my religion organized, authoritative, and traditional. By the process know to mathematicians as reductio ad absurbam I had exhausted, I felt, the thought system of my university's skeptics, rationalists, and Freudian's and I was looking for an honest route back to some commitments I had been inspired to make before I left high school.
    Quite early in a book by Adler, sent to me by a friend, tone pleasant sunny morning, I ran into St. Thomas Aquinas and his philosophy of the passions, as related by Adler from a classroom anecdote. It seemed that St. Thomas had much to say about the primacy of love, and he was therefor my man of antiquity, which also meant, thanks to my suspicion of the moderns, that he was my chart for the future.

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