From Caribbean Roots in Canadian Soil
Memoirs of a Child
Kingston, Jamaica to Ontario, Canada
At the beginning of my fifteenth year I was granted a significant symbolic promotion. With money sent from Canada I was given permission to go to the tailor and have long pants made. I was delighted that my transition to adulthood was acknowledged to be underway and that I was now to be recognized as having some potential after all for manhood.
My putative adulthood was however to last only a short time. Later that year after I underwent a growth spurt which left the cuffs of my khaki long pants migrating upwards towards mid-calf and cut me off at the crotch, I was sent again to the tailor for new pants, but this time I was demoted once again to short pants. This, in my world was tantamount to a vote of non-confidence in my progress toward adulthood. I sulked and fumed a lot, threatened never again to go to school and mourned the loss of respect which long pants had afforded me. I had eventually to swallow my new found, long pants induced pride, go to school and listen to the taunts of my classmates, especially those who had not yet been granted the symbolic rights to wear long pants. I was never quite sure if the orders to buy short pants were the results of an economic downturn, my supporters from Canada not being able to afford the increased quantity of fabric for long pants, or if my behavior had played a part in my abortive first attempt to reach manhood.
I survived the shame of short pants and toward the end of my last year in Jamaica, the tailor was again called to play a part in my life. This time I was fitted for a suit and long pants and not with khaki for school and play but with fabric good enough for travel, a ‘going-away’ suit. With this development it became painfully evident that the world that I had recently discovered and had started to take for granted was not viable in the long run. The rug was again going to be pulled out from under my feet. It was not with great expectations that I contemplated the changes which were about to take place in my uncertain life.
In fact, I had just started to feel a sense of comfort in the rhythms of the year, the reassuring return of the annual cycles, Manning Cup football, Sunlight Cup cricket, track and field championships, school and summer holidays. Periodically interspersed with these yearly routines were the international test cricket matches which took place in a variety of countries of the Commonwealth. To abandon all this richness for a capricious future in a far away land seemed a travesty.
My schoolmates expressed more excitement and curiosity than I about my imminent departure for Canada, although they would probably have been more impressed had I told them that I was destined for one of the shining American metropolises of New York or Chicago instead of a small city in the environs of Toronto. As I recall only one of my classmates had even heard of the city called “Toronto.” This classmate also left Kingston College for Canada shortly before my departure. In my last week at Kingston College I was instructed to go to the Headmaster of the school to request a letter stating that I was leaving the school to rejoin my family in Canada.
With some trepidation I approached Bishop Gibson, the small dynamo of a man who had the dual function of Headmaster of K.C. and Anglican Bishop of Jamaica at the time. The notarized letter that I received from Bishop Gibson was to be of singular importance in resolving a tricky impasse in my first encounter in Canada. Unlike my farewell at church however, I left K.C. with no good-byes. I simply stepped nonchalantly out of that world as one steps down from a bus.
As I dressed for the flight to Toronto in my new olive green suit, for the first time I began to feel a sense of excitement and some apprehension about what was happening to me. A car ride to the airport in Kingston, some last minute instructions and an appeal by the adult accompanying me to the airport to the flight attendant to monitor the concerns of an unaccompanied minor.
Recalling my bus ride from Kellits to Kingston a decade before, I said a few goodbyes to family and I boarded a plane of the fleet of Trans Canada Airlines. As I sat down and the flight attendant buckled the seat belt around me, I had an involuntary recollection of a recent crash of a B.O.A.C. airliner into the sea near Kingston airport. I remembered reading the accounts of eyewitnesses and of fishermen who reported the debris strewn from the wreckage and the bloated fully dressed bodies, complete with dress suits and ties, of the late passengers, strange bits of human flotsam washed ashore near Port Royal.
The roar of engines, a feeling of heaviness followed by a sensation of floating and then for the next eight hours the impossible came to pass. A huge metal object filled with close to sixty people and their possessions lifted off from the earth and defying gravity, as well as the logic that I knew, was catapulted by forces beyond my 15 year old’s comprehension in a northerly direction such that in a few hours my world would be so totally changed, so utterly unrecognizable. I might have marveled at this miraculous journey in this aircraft had I been able to muster up the requisite faith in the technology, already commonplace for much of humanity. But I was a naive sceptic from a remote village in the third world. And I was a worrier. I was sceptical of this flight thing.
I was worried, this being my first foray into altitudes greater than a mango tree, that the initial impetus that thrust this object called Trans Canada Airlines into the air would peter out eventually and that we would be deposited unceremoniously in some part of the Caribbean Sea or the Atlantic Ocean, there to be eaten by foraging schools of tiger sharks. After about an hour into the trip I was not sure that this flying boarding house had enough fuel to keep us airborne. With darkness I fretted that we could become lost since up here in the clouds there seemed to be a total absence of sign posts or directional aids or lights to guide the people controlling the plane. In the dark isolation up here in the night sky there seemed also to be a distressing frequency of sparks and a worrisome quantity of smoke emanating from a place behind the engine. I remembered that where there was smoke there was fire. Burned to a crisp, I thought, that was my fate; to be burned to a crisp then deposited unceremoniously into the Caribbean Sea or more likely by now five hours into the flight into the mid-Atlantic, there to have my ashes sucked up by some bottom dwelling mollusc or the other.
I could have asked the flight attendant to respond to some of my fears except that I did not want to appear an unsophisticated ignoramus or worse yet, a coward. After all no on else on the aircraft seemed concerned that we were headed for a watery grave and destined with our bodies to furnish nourishment for marine organisms.
Seven hours into the flight, a new worry surfaced. Little swirling white flecks noiselessly bombarded the plane. The barrage of white dust continued until approaching Toronto, the plane penetrated the clouds and a diffuse halo of light over the city illuminated an unreal bleached white, spectral landscape, interspersed liberally with pinpoints of multi-coloured twinkles. The February night over the city sparkled in spite of dreary overcast skies.
“So this is snow!” I thought. A blast of cold air and then a short walk on a surface cushioned with the accumulated white flecks of stuff that had been floating past the plane and I was led into an area with uniformed employes who were checking the documents of the passengers who had left my flight. I was singled out for special attention, shunted aside from the main stream of passengers to a tributary. I was a single exception, a tributary of one.
My documents, clearly insufficient or unacceptable to the uniformed people, were examined repeatedly and then passed on to others to render more judgements. I sat for more than an hour in a small room by myself waiting for other uniformed officials to arrive. More heads shake making negative appraisals of my papers. By now the flight attendant who had been asked to supervise the unaccompanied minor was long gone. I am left to fend for myself. I am interrogated in a small room away from the general area for incoming passengers by other officials. Unsure of myself and unaccustomed to dealing with adults, especially those wearing uniforms, I can give only the scarce details that I know. Although I am not totally sure that the people interrogating me understand everything that I say, I repeat bits of information to the uniformed men who look at my passport. “I am joining my parents.” “Who are your parents?” “Lloyd and Gloria A…”. “Why is the name on your passport Girvan and their name A….?” “I am adopted”. “Where are your adoption papers?” “I don’t have any.” “Where do Lloyd and Gloria A…. live?” “Oshawa”. “No one is waiting for you, young man, and the plane landed two hours ago! We will have to send you back to Jamaica on the next flight”.
At 11:00 p.m, after the two hour detention with immigration officials at Malton Airport a return to Jamaica did not seem to be such an undesirable prospect. The only inconvenience to this possibility was the return plane trip. I had survived, but barely, eight hours of terror in a craft which several times in my imagination in the flight from Kingston to Toronto had threatened to become my colourful, highly mobile, well upholstered flying coffin.
Shortly after 11 p.m. my adoptive parents are led into the room where I have been detained. Drained emotionally, I greet them not with the joy that I should have felt but with a kind of philosophical indifference. I feel unwelcome in my new environment. The alienation which had characterized my early years after the move from rural village to urban Kingston had returned. This time I had only to look at the people around me to confirm my alien status. I crawled back within myself.
The notarized letter from Bishop Gibson was the basis on which the immigration officials finally granted me provisory status as a student since there were no documents to prove to the authorities that Gloria and Lloyd A…. had indeed been my parents although they had not officially adopted me. My conditional student status was to be confirmed when I registered at a secondary school and forwarded a letter from the administration of the school to the immigration department, otherwise I would be sent back to Jamaica.
The hour long car ride from Toronto’s Malton Airport to Oshawa was a welcome break in the tension which had lasted close to fourteen hours from the time of early apprehension the morning of departure, dressing in my new suit in Kingston and going to the airport, to the time of frustration and repressed anger at my isolation and detention at Malton Airport in Toronto. We slipped silently over wet streets in the city, floating between the shining asphalt reflecting beneath us the multi coloured mosaic of neon signs above us advertising cars, new and used. The tensions, the fatigue, the insecurity and possibly the regrets of immigrants rendered us speechless. Once out of the city, the steady drone of the motor and the tires on the highway reinforced the silence among us.
Communicating the discomfort among us was impossible on many levels. A persistent, monotonous, fine grained snow was falling as we left the car and set our feet carefully on to the cold, white surface covering the frozen earth outside the car. The next few weeks were spent in surreal wonder at the changed world that I was now to inhabit. All perception about the world outside the small shelter of our rented half of a house was now suddenly changed. Sounds previously sharp in tropical ambiance now muffled through windows closed against the winter chill, dulled by the insulating snow. Sights once clear, now distorted periodically behind showers of snow or curtains of fog. Smells deodorized, rendered neutral by low temperatures. Touch desensitized inside gloves or mitts. Life suspended, living delayed, or so it seemed.
Although for the rest of the winter I had the distinct impression that I had died and gone to an arctic hell called Ontario, April mercifully did arrive on time, and the lengthening days and strengthening sun helped to arrest the gloom of immigration. Spring of 1955 presented me with the reassurance of transformations. I watched amazed as moribund nature became revitalized: the bony skeletons of apparently dead trees appeared embroidered with the freshness of new green; the recent hard brown earth releasing sustenance for growth.
That spring I discovered that Oshawa, Ontario had a cricket club. I needed something recognizable as a transition from my recent Caribbean past to mitigate the stresses of emigration. My own transformation, my new growth could now begin.
Cricket lovely cricket, at Lord’s where I saw it.
Calypso by Lord Kitchener celebrating West Indian test match victories against England