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True Stories

From 1987–92 I hosted two different CBC radio shows, Summer Dayshift and Musical Friends. For Summer Dayshift I was asked to write a short, personal essay each week. The first summer the theme was my life as an air force brat; in the second summer, my personal experiences related to music.

The Bridge

©1987 Marie-Lynn Hammond

This is a story about geography – physical, cultural, emotional. To understand it you have to remember that Canada’s capital, Ottawa, is situated on the Ottawa River, which at that point, and for several miles in either direction, also forms the boundary between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Across the river from Ottawa is the city of Hull, but don’t be fooled by the name: Hull is French.

In the real old days, there was only one bridge between the two cities, the Interprovincial Bridge, and even I can remember a time when the Ontario side of the bridge was paved, and the Quebec side wasn’t. When you saw the sign halfway across saying “Bienvenue au Quebec,” and your car wheels hit those wooden planks, well – you knew something had changed. (more…)

A Moment Of Grace

©1987 Marie-Lynn Hammond

Now that a reunion is in the works for the high school I write about below, I’ve changed a few of the names in the story … don’t want to embarrass anyone from those days. But, Roger and Gordie, I didn’t change yours. 🙂

In 1962 my dad, an RCAF pilot, was posted to St. Hubert, Quebec, near Montreal. As often happened, there was no house available on the base, so we found ourselves living a few miles away. Beloeil was a pretty little town on the Richelieu river, but we ended up in one of those modern, faceless suburbs. Our subdivision was so new that from our backyard all you could see, besides one more row of houses, were farmers’ fields.

The surrounding landscape was flat and unremarkable – except for one feature. Scattered about at ten or fifteen mile intervals were mountains – or rather very large hills, that rose suddenly out of the level ground and just as suddenly fell back. To the north were the Laurentians, so to me these elevations looked like stragglers who’d been left behind by the main herd.

The closest, and most imposing of these mountains was Mont St. Hilaire. I had just started my second year of high school, and I spent a lot of time staring out the classroom window at it. I had reason to – no one was talking to me. To be fair, I wasn’t talking to anyone either. Not only was I the new kid in school, I was younger than my classmates, shy, plain, and a borderline nerd who got good marks. (more…)

Leaving Room for the
Holy Ghost

©1987 Marie-Lynn Hammond

The summer I turned fifteen my father, who was head of Intelligence for Northern NORAD, was posted to North Bay. We were living near Montreal and I liked it there. I did not want to move.

My distress grew with my first glimpse of North Bay. Back then it was much more rough and ready than it is today. We lived downtown, but our street wasn’t paved. Friday nights, teenage boys got drunk and brawled openly. But the really bad news was this: I would be going to – ugh! – a girl’s school run by nuns. Don’t get me wrong, I was a good Catholic kid. But I’d been in co-ed schools for the past four years. Though I wasn’t exactly popular with boys, as long as they were around, I could always dream.

Besides a serious lack of the opposite sex, St Joseph’s College also had the ugliest uniform I’d ever seen. The blouses were beige, the drab tunics with their big boxy pleats were brown – my two least favourite colours. Plus we had to wear the preposterous combination of nylon stockings and clunky Oxford shoes. If the aim of this get-up was to make us unappetizing to guys, then it succeeded in spades.  (more…)

Four Strong Canadian Winds

©1987 Marie-Lynn Hammond

When I was growing up I knew I was Canadian, but I had only a vague sense of what that meant. I had a much better sense of what it meant to be American, and I’m sure, back in the fifties, I wasn’t alone in that. For one thing, most of the television shows we watched were American. So were my comics and story books. And since this was pre-Raffi days, the records I had were American too. I knew all about Paul Revere and George Washington, but nothing about Riel or Sir John A. I knew “Yankee Doodle” by heart, but not “Un canadien errant.” And when I listened to Pete Seeger singing “I got a mule and her name is Sal / fifteen miles on the Erie Canal” – well, I was sure the Erie Canal was the most magical and exotic place ever. Already by the age of eight I desperately wanted to be a Yank. (more…)

The Chrysanthemum

In The mid-70s, my old band, Stringband, got to do a tour of Mexico. It was my very first trip anywhere southern and exotic. We left Toronto on a bone-chilling February morning; debarking in Mexico City, we entered another world, a world of contrasts and intensity. It hit me the moment we stepped off the plane – the hot humid air, palm trees shimmering in the distance, the dark, hungry eyes of the ragged boys already trying to sell us straw hats and ponchos.

That night we feasted guiltily in a fancy restaurant, while outside, beggars crouched on the sidewalk. Later we went to a huge square where dozens of mariachi bands milled about, all hoping to be hired that evening. I was spellbound by the melodious cacaphony as trumpets, violins, and guitars competed with car horns and the sharp cries of street vendors. The music echoed on through my dreams that night and for many nights to come. (more…)

The Dress (A Memoir)

© Marie-Lynn Hammond 2000

When I wrote the weekly air-force-childhood stories for the radio show, my producer asked me to keep most of the stories on the lighter side because it was a summer afternoon show, and the tone was fairly breezy. But there was more to tell than the lighter side, so a few years later I began this longer piece; I wrote and rewrote it off and on. It’s been shortlisted twice in the CBC Radio literary competition and is published here for the first time.

During the Korean war my air-force pilot father brought back from Japan a length of silk brocade the colour of peacock feathers. My mother had the fabric made into a glamorous, classic column of a dress, floor-length and strapless. The dress mesmerized me, especially the material itself. The blue-green silk was shot through with delicate gold and scarlet threads that sketched miniature Oriental scenes: pagodas on rolling hills, coolies pulling rickshaws, villagers in wide-brimmed hats. What these scenes did not show, of course, were planes flown by men like my father dropping bombs on those peaceable landscapes, or armed battalions advancing in the hills beyond the pagodas.

This irony, though, didn’t strike me until much later, when North American soldiers were once again dropping bombs in a land of rickshaws and rice paddies. As a child I made a game of getting lost in those fabric scenes. At some point I realized that they formed a repetitive pattern and felt disappointed—how much more interesting it would be, I thought, to have a dress like a painting, where every detail was different. (more…)