Hell on wheels

Thirty-six years ago today, this American became what was called a “landed” immigrant in Canada. (It’s now called a permanent resident.)

My expatriation came after my wife Linda and I had a brief sojourn in Maine, where I worked on the Waterville Morning Sentinel; after our son Sean was born there and died two days later; after we found a house in Toronto.

All I had to do was go to Maine, pick up our stuff, and drive back. But, as I recount in this excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files, the journey proved painful.

I rented a big mother truck, not as big as an Allied Van Line but not exactly a U-Haul either. Drove the Trans-Canada Highway to Montreal, followed the freeway to Sherbrooke, crossed the border at Woburn, Quebec-Coburn Gore, Maine, and followed a familiar route through mountains, past lakes, down to Waterville. The ten-hour drive took more than twelve hours in the big mother truck.

That night, I slept in the truck, in the driveway of the three-bedroom house of a former Sentinel colleague and his wife. “Thanks for the hospitality,” I said before turning in …

When I awoke with the sun in the cab of the truck, I could hardly breathe. Or, more accurately, I could breathe just fine but every breath hurt like hell. Can you break a rib sleeping?

The host of the driveway was kind enough to let me use the phone. I’d never been to a doctor in the area. The only ones I knew were Linda’s obstetrician and Sean’s pediatrician for the day and a half he was alive in Waterville.

I called the pediatrician, Dorothy Eisengart. We had corresponded after Sean’s death and she knew I was going to be in town. She had asked that I stop by. When I phoned her office that morning I was told to come right over.

Dr. Eisengart was still awaiting the final post-mortem report on Sean. But she diagnosed my ailment in a few minutes – pleurisy, an inflammation of the lung tissue. She gave me a prescription, and enough antibiotics and painkillers to get me home.

Properly doped up, a couple of kids helped me load the truck at the house in the woods in Clinton. I was okay to lift and carry, as long as breathing wasn’t involved. I hauled pillows and blankets and the like. They did the rest.

I was on the road in early afternoon. Followed the same route back through the Maine woods, about three hours to the Quebec border at Woburn, a shack and two customs’ guys.

I had all my papers ready, an inventory of our belongings and my immigration documents … All I had to do was drive the big mother truck a few more feet and I was landed.

“You cannot cross here,” said the border guard, a young skinny guy with a moustache and a French accent.

“Whattaya mean?”

“We cannot process your papers here.”

“Why not?”

“There are only so many ports of entry for immigration.”

“Why the fuck didn’t somebody tell me that before I drove all the way up here?” I was steamed. My chest hurt. I wanted a cigarette, but knew inhaling would make it hurt more. I climbed down from the cab of the truck and leaned back against the door.

The French-Canadian’s customs’ sidekick had wandered over to watch the show. I’d caught him smirking from the door of the border shack.

“Is there a problem here?” he asked. No two solitudes at this remote corner of Quebec. English and French working in concert.

“I’m just explaining to this gentleman that he cannot immigrate here,” said Officer French.

“Then what’s the problem?” said Officer English.

They appeared entertained. I was in pain and dreading my next question. “Where do I have to go?”

“The closest port of entry for immigration is Saint Stephen,” said Officer English.

“Why the hell would I want to go to New Brunswick?” Saint Stephen is where we entered Canada from Calais, Maine, on our trip earlier that summer.

“Where is it that you are going?” asked Officer French.

“Toronto.”

“Ah,” he said, “then the nearest port of entry would be Rock Island.”

“Where the hell is that?”

“Vermont,” Officer English said. He was smirking again.

“Vermont!” I walked off, a few paces, back in the direction of the United States. I was breathing heavily and hurting badly. The concept of taking deep breaths to calm down didn’t work with pleurisy. I tried to clear my head, not think about how far I was from home, how many more hours I’d be at the wheel of the big mother truck.

I didn’t want to talk to these guys anymore. I climbed back into the cab and started to roll. It took four tries, forward and back, to complete a U-turn. I worked my way through the gears, got up some speed and stopped at the first gas station. Bought a map. Plotted a route that would take me to the border at Derby Line, Vermont-Rock Island, Quebec.

It turned out to be a six-hour detour across northern New England, mostly on two-lane roads, in the dark, washing down painkillers with Coke, to the border crossing. I arrived just before 10 p.m.

Unlike the narrow goat track where I met Officer French and Officer English, here were several lanes feeding into booths staffed by border agents.

I got in a lane reserved for big mother trucks, waited my turn, and presented my documents to a young woman in a crisp uniform with a starchy demeanor. “Pull over there,” she ordered, pointing to a long, one-story building, “and give your papers to the immigration officer inside.”

Déjà vu. Surrey, B.C., 1973 (when I first came to Canada). But this time I was prepared. Or so I thought.

The immigration officer stamped my passport. Did the same with the appropriate form to seal my landing. “Are you bringing any goods into Canada?”

I laughed. It hurt. I told him I had a truck filled with stuff. He summoned a customs’ officer. I met the guy outside. We walked over to the truck.

“Take everything out for inspection,” he instructed.

“You’re fucking kidding me.”

He glared at me. Tough guy. I glared back. Mexican standoff. Wrong border. Canadian standoff.

I opened the back double-doors of the truck. Extended my arm toward the jumble of furniture and boxes inside. “Be my guest, but there’s no fucking way I’m taking anything out.”

I stood my ground. He blinked first, turned on a flashlight and climbed into the truck.

I succumbed to a cigarette. Coughed. Cringed. Coughed. Cringed. I stamped out the smoke and sat on a curb. The bastard took his time.

It was nearly midnight when I was on the road again. More than seven hours later, after dawn, more than twenty-four hours after I awakened in Waterville, I arrived in Toronto.

The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism is available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

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