AN OLD CANADIAN SUNSET
by Eddie Heywood & Norman Gimbel.
“Once, I was alone,
So, lonely and then,
You came, out of nowhere
Like the sun up from the hills.
Cold, cold was the wind
Out there on that ski trail
Where your kiss, filled me with thrills.
A weekend in Canada
A change of scene was the most I bargained for
And then I discovered you,
And in your eyes I found a love that I couldn't ignore
Down, down came the Sun.
Fast, fast beat my heart.
I knew, as the sunset from that day
we'd never part.”
In 1958, my father
earned a substantial amount of money contracting and building
houses in San Bernardino, California. So my parents decided
to take a long summer vacation in Rhode island, our home state,
and visit various relatives there and in upstate New York. Because
of my father’s financial success, he’d been able
to afford airplane tickets for us. We flew out of Burbank, California
on a rattle-trap Douglas DC–6 that belched its way east
while stopping at various airports to refuel. I was ten years
old, and to me, a cross-country flight of that magnitude taken
in 1959 seemed as exotic as a Sputnik launch. I was terribly
excited about taking my first airplane flight, even though my
father had low-balled the adventure by buying tickets from a
dubious company called United States Overseas Airlines, a non-scheduled
airline, which meant that we had to arrive at the airport early
in the morning and hang around the terminal until enough passengers
appeared to fill the plane.
recently discovered that a number of USOA’s planes had
been in use during the Berlin Airlift in 1948, so we weren’t
exactly styling. I can remember flames belching out of the engine
cowlings after dark, and all along the way needing my mother
to reassure me that we weren’t about to burst into a blazing
fireball. In those days, airports closely resembled bus stations,
and with the frequent stops pilots made to take on and let off
passengers, we didn’t land in Rhode island at Hillsgrove
Airport until well after 2 AM.. Upon landing we were instantly
surrounded by a crush of family members who were delighted to
see us, even though my father was fairly tipsy after draining
a pint of whiskey during the long flight.
in San Bernardino, California, where we’d moved to in
1955, my parents had undergone some rough spots in their marriage,
fueled by my father’s excessive drinking and my mother’s
need to free herself from the constraints of her own family.
They were both conflicted about the decisions that had led them
to Southern California. My mother yearned to escape the claustrophobia
of New England, and my father often wished he’d never
left Rhode island.
decided to extend their vacation into Quebec, and they both
seemed excited about our planned Canadian adventure. I’d
guess now that they were probably struggling to rediscover the
source of their romantic relationship. Judging from their guarded
yet intimate interactions, there was quite a bit of mutual unhappiness
and conflict between them, and they seemed always to be on the
verge of shouting at each other. But, as I later realized, my
mother couldn’t be made happy, and my father’s reaction
was to hide out at the Knights Of Columbus lodge and drink until
dawn, only to return home and find my mother wide awake, with
every light in the house glaring, wielding a flatiron and furiously
pressing her anger into our cloths.
despite their tensions, they were an adventurous couple, always
ready to explore New England’s farther reaches. I have
a photo of them, holding me, at Lake Sebek, Maine, taken in
1951, when I was only a few years old. They’d always claimed
that one day a bear wandered into the clearing in front of their
rented cabin, and my mother bravely snatched me out of danger.
When I recently consulted a map, I was stunned to discover Lake
Sebek’s deeply remote location, and I gained a new appreciation
for their willingness to travel so deeply into the far north.
we were headed towards Quebec City, directly into a fading Canadian
sunset, rocking along a two-lane highway, and gaining elevation
as the sun began to sink below the horizon, with, improbably,
a classic swing tune entitled “Canadian Sunset”
drifting from the dashboard radio. Whenever a road or bus trip
has carried me north, I could sense the curvature of the earth
and feel it flutter in my stomach, as though the car might simply
lift off and take wing. The memory of that sun-burnished afternoon
has forever haunted me, and it seems to me now that, for no
discernable reason that I could explain, a deep, inexplicable
melancholy had filled the car, as though it contained all the
frustrations and disappointments of everyone riding in it.
were crammed into a borrowed 1952 Chevy with horsehair seats
that made the car’s interior smell like a stable, my adoptive
mother and father, Josephine and Alfred Del Gigante, his sister
Melia, and her husband, who I can only remember as a slender,
raspy-voiced man Italian man named Gus, who was in the in process
of gaining American citizenship, and who in fact was briefly
detained by customs officers until he supplied the proper documents
to the chin-strapped Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the border.
If my parents were viewing their trip as a way to reignite their
love lives, hauling Gus, Amelia and me along for the ride must
surely have put a damper on love-making. But sexual deferral
seems to have run in the family. When my parents married in
1928, they had to take my paternal grandfather along with them
on their honeymoon. I don’t think my mother ever forgave
my father for dragging the old man along for the ride.
I was only ten years old, I began consulting my father’s
road maps, and I had somehow connected the dots that triangulated
the eastern Canadian provinces and gained a fundamental sense
of direction, so I began to offer occasional bits of navigational
advice to my astonished father. Consequently, he’d let
loose a quiet stream of Italian profanity under his breath.
I never let on that I could understand him. Like most of my
cousins, we’d learned to translate the saltiest Italian
curses, and we kept it to ourselves. Neither of my parents had
been fortunate enough to receive much education. Consequently,
I could read and write better than my father, and while it singed
his ego, he was also proud of my reading skills. But he was
no dummy. During his life he’d constructed immense fishing
vessels and dozens of classic Rhode island houses. If something
needed to be made from wood, he could build it. But a series
of ship construction accidents had severely reduced his ability
to engage in strenuous labor, and he wasn’t much at peace
with his limitations.
before we left for Rhode island, my parents had given me my
first record player, and a few bucks to buy some disks. I discovered
a tune called “Hang down your head, Tom Dooley,”
a folk tune popularized by the Kingston Trio bemoaning the execution
of an obscure hillbilly, but improbably performed with much
gusto and good cheer. Who cared if they hung Tom Dooley? It
sounded like a great way to meet your maker. But apparently,
my father took the song’s message to heart, because it
depressed him, and listening to it drove him crazy, so he permanently
banned me from playing the record while he was at home. And
now, along the road to Quebec, I kept humming it as we headed
north. My father must have resigned himself to it, because I
sung it incessantly. He probably had a few more nips from the
bottle just to keep himself from strangling me and throwing
me out of a car.
parents had their vacation, visiting family members in Providence
who looked as though they’d just stepped out of the 19th
Century, and barreling through quaint towns in upstate New York,
visiting more obscure relatives that I’d never meet again,
and examining the Baseball Hall of Fame, there to behold babe
Ruth’s locker, complete with his mitt, his uniform and
an impressive plaque citing his batting statistics. As a child,
I’d always been a faint-hearted sports fan, and I had
only played Little League baseball to make my parents happy.
I didn’t know who The Babe was, and I didn’t care,
but my father was thrilled by visiting the hall, and I was delighted
to see him so fulfilled. Years ago he’d seen the Babe
in action at Yankee Stadium, and he deeply cherished the memory,
an incident that he ranked just below the time he’d inadvertently
passed Al Capone walking down a stairway in Chicago, surrounded
by a phalanx of goons. In honor of this prestigious athletic
visit, I pretended to be enthralled.
father was astonished by the beautifully crafted bread ovens
along the Saint Lawrence river, and he had been pulling over
frequently and sampling the local wine, and the homemade bread
that was stacked in tottering piles near the road. By late afternoon
he’d drunk enough to become garrulous and quarrelsome,
the result, no doubt, of drinking on an empty stomach. A rain
storm suddenly burst open above us, and as soon as we arrived
in Quebec City, my father decided that it was time to get a
motel for the evening.
mother wanted Chinese food, but my father wasn’t going
for it. He became obstinate and demanded a steak dinner. Since
Chinese restaurants don’t typically serve T-bone steaks,
the hapless chef was forced to scramble along the street until
one could be located somewhere in the back of a cafe. By now,
most of the waiters had shot into the kitchen while my father
continued ranting. He’d made money and financed a two-month
summer vacation and he was going to have a goddamned steak.
I don’t remember him having ever acted that way before
. The Chinese cook delivered, my father ate his steak and then
passed out on a motel bed.
morning he’d recovered his sobriety, and we proceeded
across Quebec toward Montreal.
boned up on my child’s version of The Three Musketeers,
I had expected to encounter French castles and battlements along
the road, and since my father had furnished me with a book that
depicted various iconic Canadian images, I was prepared to inspect
pipe-smoking Canadian men wearing garish Mackinaws, skimming
lakes with sea planes, and paddling canoes across enormous rivers
that glinted in the distant sunlight, none of which materialized
on our journey. But I loved Quebec, and I found resonance there,
and decades later I would discover that my paternal birth family
migrated from Quebec to Rhode island.
Roman Catholics, we were honor-bound to visit various famous
churches, especially the cathedral of Sainte Anne de Beaupré,
where thousands of pairs of crutches hung from the pillars,
supposedly proving that prayers whispered and votive candles
lit in Saint Anne’s honor could miraculously cure the
sick of various ailments, an experience that always had me muttering
under my breathe about “that shit again.” I had
already served as an altar boy for a couple of years, and having
closely viewed the business end of the Catholic Church, I had
begun to view the entire operation with a great deal of skepticism,
no matter how many crutches and shrines we examined. I was interested
in French fries and gravy, and not the ghosts that seemed to
clog every basilica we entered. In Montreal we made an obligatory
stop in order to visit Saint Joseph’s Oratory, where a
long set of stairs had been constructed so especially devout
Catholics could climb them on their knees while praying, and
it seemed to me that, with all the bowing and scraping we submitted
ourselves to every Sunday at mass, the last thing I was inclined
to do was to grovel my way up the stairs, and no one else in
the car seemed inclined to make the climb.
father, a few of my uncles and seemingly half the Elks Club
members in Rhode Island engaged a charter bus and headed to
Fenway Park, there to watch the New York Yankees and the Boston
Red Sox duel through a double-header that featured the ongoing
saga of the great Maris-Mantle home run record duel. All I remember
about that day is that I ate a lot of frankfurters and the players
all looked disappointingly tiny. Later that night, various Elks
had gotten themselves thoroughly drunk and awash in cheap Narragansett
beer, and formed a long line to the toilet, merrily cackling
their way back to Providence.
truth, two years of living in Southern California had cured
me of ever wanting to live in Rhode island again. I loved the
mountains, the Mexican food and the endless mountain ranges,
and everything and everyone back in Rhode island seemed quaint
last destination before we headed back to California was an
obscure lake on the New York-Pennsylvania border, there to link
up with more distant relatives I’d never met. Both of
my parents seemed relaxed there, and I watched my father flirt
with my mother, the first evidence I’d ever seen of them
so deeply connected to each other in a very long time. I had
never realized that they shared a romantic life, and it pleased
me to see them enjoying each other’s romantic company.
My father seemed more sober then, and truly happy, tipped back
in an Adirondack chair and beaming softly. I distinctly remember
sitting on the ground behind them, watching them hold hands
and whisper to each other, and surrounded by the mysterious
lake’s deeply wooded edge, the setting seemed to have
animated them and drew them together, at peace with each other.
seems to me now that there was something propelling him to take
the trip back to Rhode Island, as though he was making the rounds
of the family and friends he knew best one last time, even if
he didn’t understand that himself. An air of finality
surrounded the whole trip, and once he’d gotten home,
he seemed unstable, and less cock-sure. Maybe he knew something
we didn’t, a doctor’s warning, some mysterious pains,
or just surrendering to the ghosts around him, because six months
later he died, and I never saw that Canadian sunset again. Hang
down your head, Tom Dooley.