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Reaching for the Beaufort Sea is one of the most engaging and revealing autobiographies ever undertaken by a leading Canadian author. Writing in a relaxed, conversational style with ribald humour never far below the surface, Purdy shows himself no mercy as he exposes what surely must be one of the most unlikely literary apprenticeships ever served. He is equally merciless when it comes to providing uncensored glimpses of writers like Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, F.R. Scott, Earle Birney, Louis Dudek, Irving Layton, Hugh MacLennan, Leonard Cohen, and John Newlove, who worked, loved and brawled alongside Purdy during Canadian literature's coming of age.
Gossipy and lighthearted as it is at times, Reaching for the Beaufort Sea nevertheless makes an important contribution to the understanding of modern Canadian letters, and is essential reading for anyone hoping to appreciate fully a writer Dennis Lee has called "one of the substantial poets in English of the century."
The reasons for losing it were simple (or they seem so now). Bad management, on the part of both myself and my father-in-law, Jim Parkhurst. Bad drivers who kept crashing cars. Debts for both gas and repairs were beginning to overwhelm us. And our reputation was bad, since there was bootlegging on the part of both drivers and management.
And my marriage was falling apart. There was tension under and sometimes on the surface whenever Eurithe and I spoke to each other. I don't know why exactly. It was very painful for me. I see myself standing facing her in the little one-room apartment, which was also the taxi office. Her eyes said that she detested me. And how can a man understand that a woman whom lie has loved and cherished despises him - like a slug, like spittle underfoot? Like nothing.
So we busted up. That was maybe 1947. I don't know for sure. But living was at a high pitch then; there was no doubt about being alive; things hurt too much not to know. Writing about it now, the urgency and uncertainty and tension all seem to return to a degree . . . But details are vague in some areas; bright and clear in others.
The bailiffs were seizing everything on behalf of the garages, service stations and finance companies to whom we owed money. They had already taken nearly everything. I was driving the last unseized taxi, a tan-coloured 1946 Dodge, quite an unremarkable car in every way: but its tail lights winked when it caught sight of me, its seat comfortable to rny behind. It knew me, and would've wagged its tail if it had had one.
Belleville, Ontario, just after midnight in the fall of 1948. There's been rain earlier in the evening, still a trace of it remains on the pavement. I am driving the old Dodge down Bridge Street, going nowhere in particular, feeling very depressed about myself, about Eurithe, about the taxi business, and it was maybe just about to rain again ...
Then I spotted that car behind me. Couldn't see who was driving, half a block behind and going faster than my Dodge. Not a cop, not the look of a private citizen either, and not another taxi since there was no roof light. It made me uneasy to be followed, especially since I had nearly two full cases of beer in the car, with a few more stashed under the front seat where I could get at them easily.
I turned right on Pinnacle Street and headed east. The other car was still behind me and closing fast. It kept turning its bright lights up and down, as if I was meant to be terrified from being followed and pull over. Well, fuck him - or her, as the case might be. I zipped down Pinnacle at about seventy, turned left with a shriek of tires at a narrow lane that exited on the main drag. The guy - it was a man - was less than a hundred yards behind when I wheeled her right at Front Street, clipped an ornamental shrub on the curb, then whipped over the Moira Bridge to North Front and floored her on the way north.
The last bailiff, the last car, and me, the last human being on a dying planet. And sure, I felt melodramatic and histrionic, kind of excited too. This is the way to end things, a marriage, a business, maybe even a lifetime. Bullshit didn't occur to me. That damn car behind had gained and then lost ground, its driver a hunched shape, visible only if my rear vision mirror and street light coincided.
There were headlights behind me, but I think it was just someone who couldn't remember where he lived after a few beers. I saw the bailiff again on the way north, at least I think it was him. He'd stopped dimming his lights, hoping I'd stop. By that time my blood was racing too hard to pay attention to anything except what the voice in my brain was whispering, "Don't stop! Don't stop! Don't stop! ...
"Highway 62 in red October." I drove north on the new highway to Bancroft, went whispering through the little villages of Bannockburn and El Dorado with all windows dark at two a.m. This is my grandfather's country, or so I like to think of it. Swigging at the beer. (What kind?. . . I can't remember.) And where was the guy who intended to take my car away from me? Somewhere behind, far behind, I hope. Ex-wife back there too. And Jim Parkhurst as well - Wheeler-Dealer Jim couldn't deal his way out of this one. Dodge purring along at a steady eighty, no sweat, no worry, and have another beer.
Only a mile ahead Highway 62 branches off left: I make the turn onto the old Hastings Road just in time. It used to be the main highway to Bancroft and Maynooth, but now the roadbed is potholed and crumbling. It twists and turns, zigzags up and down hills, reverts to gravel then back to paved surface again, dense bush crowding in on either side. A road that seems to have a mind of its own, and decides every turn by itself. Once there were subsistence farms here, weathered log barns and cabins, a few more pretentious structures. All are crumbling back into earth. Animals and people, where are they?
I catch a glimpse of headlights a mile or so behind, then they dip under the crest of a hill. But I made the turn, off Highway 62 before those lights could reappear. It couldn't be the bailiff - miles and miles north of Madoc and a hundred thousand miles south of the moon.
Slow down to about twenty, then have to stop the car and move a dead tree fallen onto the road. Have a piss, off to one side of the road for modesty's sake, the moon a pale neutral onlooker. Another beer, and sling the empty bottle into the bush to await future archaeologists. Then migawd a beaver dam in front of me, its water crossing the road ahead. How far ahead? I maneouvre the Dodge until its headlights appear to illuminate a hill, which is maybe fifty yards farther on. A hill? That means the water in front can't be very deep? Well, does it mean that?
Very slowly I aim the old Dodge into shallow water, and slowly, slowly my sweating mind and body accompany the car. With a beer held tight in my crotch, peering intensely ahead where the road appears to go - or once went and now doesn't go at all. And maybe Grey Owl's favourite beaver family is eating willow and poplar soufflé on disposable plates ahead, and me about to interrupt their dinner?
Yep, it's a hill. And the car feels like it's working hard at the top. And there's a lake on my left. I pull off into a cleared place, once perhaps a scenic lookout, and look down on a white eye of water that stares up at the moon. Twenty feet below the lake appears deep; but I can't really tell for sure.
The Dodge is now sobbing in neutral for what is to come, emergency brake on. I find a fifteen-pound rock, adjusting it above the accelerator pedal until the motor is growling hard. Standing by the door, I smack the metal roof goodbye, release the emergency brake and stand back to watch. (Of course I haven't neglected to liberate what remains of the beer.)
The old Dodge hits the water and sinks, but slowly, as if it feels reluctant to go. Bubbles of air come popping up to the surface. Ifeel emotional about it, as if I've betrayed the poor beast. Well, better some nameless lake than nagging creditors. The car sits down there in maybe thirty feet of water, headlights still shining upward. I think they won't last long, and will die with the car.
I gather up the beer into an old windbreaker, sling it over my shoulder and start back toward Highway 62. At the beaver pond, I have to roll up my pantlegs and my shoes squish like wet cardboard wading through the moonlight.
Something ending. I mourn for that mechanical thing as if it were human flesh. And have another beer. Black Label. Walking toward my grandiose destiny, which is not Diamond Taxi, not Eurithe - and just what the hell is it then? South to Highway 40I in early dawn; drinking the last beer a bit north of Madoc, then catching six winks of sleep beside the road.
Hitchhike to Toronto? Sure. Well, how about writing a novel? Yep. And start a new life, leave the old one behind. And this is the way the world begins, not with a whimper but the bang of broken glass from my last Black Label empty. The novel? I shall dedicate it to my dead grandfather, Ridley Neville Purdy (miserable old bastard)? Why not? (He saw through all my pretences so well-) To Ol Rid, then.
• * *
When the Diamond Taxi came up for sale after the war (four cars and four licenses), Jim Parkhurst proposed that both of us should drive cab and manage the business together. And I supplied all the money to buy the outfit. Our arrangement was that Jim take no salary, not until we estimated that the amount of work he'd contributed amounted to the same value as my own cash investment. That seemed quite reasonable to me at the time, and I had no other plans for making a living. And my wife seemed to go along with the deal. I did have a few forebodings about it myself, since I had no management experience and quite a few doubts about myself. Anyway, the taxi business in that late summer of 1945, with Jim Parkhurst and I (supposedly) in charge, became my life for the next three years.
A sandy-haired man named Lorne Munro had owned the Diamond Taxi previously. Its cars were old and decrepit, none having been replaced or adequately repaired over six years of war. Of these cars only an old green Hudson, a now defunct species, had any attraction for me. The shock absorbers of all the cars gave passengers a bumpy ride; even the tires were unreliable; and wartime gas was still rationed. However, Jim Parkhurst seemed to have the answers, reassured my nervous queries, gave one and all the strong impression that things were going well and lie had the business under complete control.
Jim was a study in character contrasts. Born on a farm in the Bancroft area eighty miles north of Belleville, he joined the army at age fifteen during the first World War. A lanky six feet three inches in height with a mature manner and appearance: recruiting officers passed him with little more than a quizzical frown regarding his proof of age.
World War I and the Canadian Army were the big adventures of Jim's life. He loved the army, romanticized European places, was promoted to Sergeant, suffered serious shrapnel wounds, and was discharged with a pension in 1918. Disliking farm life, he became a door-to-door salesman for Maclean's magazine. He sold encyclopedias and whatever came to hand. Shortly after the war he married Ethel Ryan of Montreal. A production line of procreation was set up, and produced eleven children. They were still arriving when I met Eurithe in Belleville in 1941. She was the second oldest.
Somewhere along the line Jim Parkhurst had acquired small expertise in nearly everything imaginable. Hating to work for anyone but himself, he hauled cordwood from the north with an old truck when the sales jobs petered out. The wartime shrapnel wounds had never properly heaIed, remained suppurating and had to be treated and bandaged daily.
Our taxi office was an upstairs room with sink and small toilet, which doubled as Eurithe's and my apartment. It was at the south end of Belleville's main drag, right beside the London Lunch. There was also a phone in the downstairs hallway, where drivers took calls and reported in. Two doors away was another taxi office, Grotto's; this one much different in character from our flighty and sometimes irresponsible operation. Grotto's had been in existence for some forty years. It was owned by two brothers, both elderly, one with greyness showing under his skin even when closely shaved; the other you never saw at all.
I mention Grotto's because Diamond was such an opposite number, its drivers seemingly recruited from race tracks; bootlegging by all of them including the co-managers (booze was very scarce and continued to be rationed immediately after the war, a twenty-five-ounce bottle selling for ten bootleg bucks, a mickey for five). Still, I personally must have felt a great sense of freedom, of beginning to think for myself again after six years of close military supervision. In the midst of it, Eurithe and I were perceptibly drawing apart, a situation not of my choosing. And I suppose my mind was chaotic. I was drinking some beer at times - which translates to mean that I drank too much every couple of weeks. Above all, I had no plan or design for my life, as some people appear to possess. I had no confidant, or really close friends. I lived from day to day. One may call this pragmatic or existentialist, which is perhaps a way of dignifying chaos.
It was an era of clichés - I was a disorganized and lost soul. On the other hand, it's difficult to say that I wasn't actually "blossoming" in full possession of this unaccustomed freedom. Freedom despite drinking bouts and driving twelve-hour shifts seven days a week. I was writing some pretty awful poems. None survive now, scribbled frenziedly when the ideas came, sitting in rented rooms or idling taxis outside the taxi office, often just before sleep, at rare times in pubs on napkins and beer-splashed tables. I remember none of them, just the fact that they once existed and vanished quickly.
Lorne Munro didn't vanish, remaining in the offing after he sold his business. I'd run into him sometimes that late summer with girlfriend in tow; and occasionally picked him up at the Queen's Hotel, the Docter's Hotel, carting them to Munro's apartment on Belleville's west hill. He was obviously rootless and lost himself. About forty, a casual man with offhand conversation, waving his hand languidly to emphasize a point that nobody cared about anyway. His girlfriend, Edna, dark haired, spasmodic in speech, close to an alcoholic, as Lome was himself.
One day he hired me for an afternoon trip into Prince Edward County, taking me into his confidence about the project he had in mind. "She's an alcoholic," Lorne whispered in my ear confidentially, "and I gotta break her of the booze habit. I've got it all planned out, and this afternoon you and me, we're gonna make it happen."
I was fascinated and bemused by all this, also extremely curious. The husky alcoholic voice whispered in my ear from six feet away; the rehabilitation scenario unfolding, cause and effect, beneficial result a mere matter of time.
I took Lorne Munro and his Edna into Prince Edward for several miles. We stopped at a sunny farmer's field complete with grazing cows; we unloaded a trunk full of groceries, bottled water, Coleman lamp and sundries; we set up a tent in the middle of the field while cows watched in cow-wonder. . . And left her there. Edna said on our departure, "I have nothing to read," in a whiny voice.
"Ya can't read anyway," Lorne said.
Walking away from the tent in memory, I look back. Her forlorn little face stared after us, her expression saying better than words that she didn't know what was happening to her. And maybe she didn't.
In the car Lorne Munro said, "We'Il pick her up again two days from now." He glanced at me sharply. "You'Il see. She'Il be a new woman."
But I never saw Edna again, whether she was new or old. He must've got someone else to pick her up from where she was marooned in that farmer's field. Or perhaps he changed his mind and went back again the same day. There are some cold nights in Prince Edward County, even in the summer.
At war's end with men pouring out of the armed forces, eager for freedom and the fleshpots of "Civvy Street," the streets of Belleville were blue, brown and white with airmen, sailors and soldiers. All thirsty for booze and women, aching to spend money, wanting excitement and novelty, wanting, wanting, wanting . . .
Bootlegging flourished - I think all the taxis except Grotto's sold booze. Trains kept arriving from Toronto and Montreal jammed with discharged military heroes, some spreading out to northern towns, Madoc, Tweed, small villages and farms along the highway to Bancroft.
Undoubtedly there were scams and confidence operations; certainly a few of these people were cheated of something or other. Nearly everyone you met was good-humoured, eager to see again a face they loved, a place they remembered. I had felt much the same myself on retuming to Trenton to find my mother old (she would have been sixty-seven then, five years younger than I am now), and alone, turning more and more to religion for solace. (l have a twinge of guilt when I think of her.) Anyway, at Trenton I tried to find again all the old places mentally joined to my own youth - Weddell's tugs, B.W. Powers coal sheds on Front Street, ruins of the munitions factory east of the river. . . Not that I loved them as such, but they were part of my past, lost fragments of myself.
Jim Parkhurst's older sons, Gordon (the eldest) from the army, and Alvin from the navy, were also eventually discharged. When Mike's Taxi and LaMorre's Taxi (four cars and licenses each) came up for sale, Jim used his sons' military credits to add them to our growing fleet. Neither son possessed enough money to take over Mike's and LaMorre's on their own, but pyramided onto Diamond Taxi the wobbly financial structure was almost, viable. The two ex-military sons joined us as drivers, Jim and I remaining as managers. There were perhaps two dozen, or slightly more, taxi licenses in Belleville in 1945. Jim Parkhurst and I controlled nearly half of them.
One would think such percentages ought to ensure success; but it was a recipe for disaster. Jim and I got into more and more disagreements, struggles for control, under-the-surface wrestlings, out-and-out fights for simple domination. After Eurithe and I separated, around 1947, say, I don't think she was completely aware of the duel her father and I were waging. It wasn't very often obvious, only once or twice were there any shouting matches between us, just this continual slipping away of any power or influence in my own possession.
Of course it disturbed me. I was twenty-six, and had spent nearly six years having nearly every move I made dictated by superior officers. Then very suddenly I had to act on my own, make my own decisions with no help from any quarter. Neither previous experience nor my own psychological make-up was a preparation for this situation. I felt lost. And yet, on the outside I was brash, confident and sometimes overbearing - I think I was, I believe I was like that. Probably my outside character was fairly unattractive. (Think back on your own past selves: do any of us really know what we were like then, that misty and unresolved person long ago, from whom we have somehow evolved to what we are now?)
I was ex-military, and shared all the weaknesses of other ex-military personnel who thronged the streets in 1945. I had developed a taste for beer; I liked women, and found it difficult to meet any after the breakup with Eurithe. I was directionless, suddenly released froin, the confines of marriage. (That word "confines"? - yes, I think there are bonds and shackles attached to all relationships.) I am introspective now, not so much so then. At the time, I think I was - somehow - "panic-stricken" at being alive. Can that be understood? What does it entail to live in the world, alive in the solitary conning tower of the brain, pondering all the why and wherefore questions we must ponder? Of course, no answers at all present themselves.
THE IRON ROAD: PART ONE
THE IRON ROAD: PART TWO
PER ARDUA (ET CETERA)
THE TAXI BUSINESS
ON BEING A WAGE SLAVE
THE BAD TIMES