Monday, August 8 2011
This is a preview from Marc Emery’s autobiography that he has been working on in prison. (Read the first chapter, “The Prophecy”, here.) His life-changing high school trip to the Middle East at age 17 ended with Marc dropping out of grade 12 to open his first bookstore. Here, he describes the incredible journey.
In November 1974, Don McQueen, my favorite teacher at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School in London, Ontario, announced to my history class that there was a Board of Education sponsored trip to the Middle East in March 1975 for select students in London high schools.
It would be a two-week trip, flying from Toronto to London, England, staying there for two days, and then flying to Dubrovnik (later changed to Split) Yugoslavia (and now Croatia). Next we boarded the S.S. Nevasa, a Pacific & Orient (P&O) ship under British flag. We students stayed in what was called fourth class, in bunks at the bottom of the ship. Except for the time the ship spent crossing the Mediterranean for 36 hours, we were on shore during the daytime, while the ship traveled the Mediterranean at night. Once departed from Split, we cut across to Alexandria, Egypt, boarded busses to Cairo to see the Great Pyramids, returned to ship by nightfall, traveled over to Beirut, Lebanon at night, and stayed one day in Beirut. Then the ship traveled down the coast to Tel Aviv, where we boarded busses in the morning to go to Jerusalem and Bethlehem for the day. Returning to the ship, it went north to Izmir, Turkey, where we spent the day visiting the Roman aqueducts at Ephesus. Returning at nightfall, the ship went to Piraeus, the port city adjacent to Athens, where we stayed for three days, exploring the Acropolis and the Parthenon in Athens, and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion. Then we flew back to Toronto via London, England.
The total cost, Mr. McQueen announced, for three weeks abroad, was $800. A bargain, I immediately understood.
I was excited. I was 16, turning 17 in February, and had only ever left Canada to see the Detroit Tigers play, or go to comic book conventions in Buffalo or Detroit. I had not seen any of the world as a young adult beyond a 150-kilometer radius of my hometown of London, Ontario.
When I told Dad and Mom about this trip, I was making good money, as much as $100-$300 profit weekly, which I did tend to reinvest in my thriving comic book business, Marc’s Comic Room. Dad proposed that if I would pay half, he would pay the other $400. My Dad, Alfred, was thinking that in many aspects, this trip mirrored his own fond recollections of these places he traveled in the Mediterranean theatre of war during WW2. Dad had medals indicating service in the Suez (Egypt), Palestine (Israel), Italy, France, and North Africa, and he had been in Jerusalem, Cairo, and Alexandria. Dad was a voracious reader of history and military books, and I too imitated him in reading many of the same books when I wasn’t working on Marc’s Comic Room. By this time I had already read dozens of books on ancient history and military histories including William Shirer’s 1,000-page tome The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich — the seminal book on WW2 in its day.
The trip was to take place in March, and although I regarded grade 12 as a pointless waste of my time, stealing valuable energy and focus from my burgeoning comic book business, this trip was compelling as I imagined it.
BUYING A BOOKSTORE
“Marc’s Comic Room” catalogIn mid-February, two weeks before the trip, I was making my rounds of the used book shops in downtown London, combing them, as I had for five years now, for whatever vintage Marvel comic books they had at a good price for me to add to my inventory. By February, 1975, I had 29,000 comic books, all bagged in plastic, in 259 boxes on over five hundred feet of shelving, taking up the entire unfinished basement area of my parents’ home at 27 Parliament Crescent. I would acquire whole collections from collectors, buy complete inventories of competitors getting out of business, and advertise to purchase comics from individuals by mail in The Comics Journal and any comic fanzine or publication.
I even had my own counter on weekends from 1972 to 1974 in one of the used bookshops in London, The Book Bin. My catalog to sell the comics had 500 printed up every three months. Prices rose consistently, and as the 70’s progressed, the hobby grew, and comic books began to be considered a good investment. I had Amazing Fantasy #15 (the first appearance of Spider-Man) about eight times in the four and a half years from 1971 to 1975. In my first catalog, I sold it for $120, and by the final catalog it was $380. Today, a copy in fine condition is worth over $10,000.
I went into the London Used Book Market on what I recall was a weekday in mid-February, as I had skipped school, and Ernie Rentz, the owner, stunned me upon my entrance by saying “I’m selling the shop, Marc, so if you want it, it’s all yours for $10,000.” That was it. No introduction. “If you are interested, you have to let me know. I want to move it real soon.”
Ernie Rentz always struck me somehow as a former KGB-agent turned bookseller. He had come from Thunder Bay in 1973 and set up a used book shop-military paraphernalia-art gallery mishmash of a shop that reeked of my favorite smell, dusty old books. By now, I had just about finished wading through over a thousand bound newspaper volumes from 1905 to 1955, stripping the colour Sunday comics out of them, and the daily black and white strips too. I had seen the history of the century through the daily screaming headlines of the Sacramento Union, the Boston Globe, The New Jersey Ledger, turning each page by hand, seeing 50 years of history through multiple US newspapers. Old paper smells were ambrosia to me. My comic books that I had lived with daily had a nice pulpy smell, but not like Ernie’s shop.
Ernie promised me he’d tutor me how to run the shop if I bought it. “Two weeks is all it’ll take”. Though I felt unsure of that at the time he said it, he turned out to be right. He wanted to get more into the antiques game; Victorian furniture was reaching its peak at the time. He wanted to spend his days and nights at auction houses in London, Aylmer, Strathroy, and the neighbouring towns, where family estates were being liquidated almost daily. This was an era before Internet and eBay, and I myself would spend many nights in the late 1970’s bidding at local auction houses on collections or books, bookshelves, and ephemera from the 1850- 1930 periods. Auction houses specializing in old estate furniture were far busier and more relevant than you’d find today; the market has dropped out of Victorian or old furniture in the modern era, as it doesn’t blend with the modern condominium or apartment architecture, or even modern housing architecture. Prices are significantly less in 2011 that they were in 1980 for quality furniture of bygone eras. Not all commodities increased in value over time.
Ernie was adamant about me taking over his store. “I can’t wait too long,” he said. I told him almost immediately, “I’m interested.”
What I liked about Ernie’s unpretentious shop, aside from smells and the exciting expectation of old treasure (and flotsam and jetsam) coming through the front door every day was that Ernie ran his shop his way. When a woman customer impressed him, he’d say, overtly flirtatiously, “Marry me, and half this will be all yours.” It always got a laugh. Some approaches were more risky, and I met a few woman who called him a sexist pig after he gave out a card that read, “You are hereby awarded this card, which entitles you to 20% off your next purchase, because you are so lovely and beautiful and because you do not wear a bra, thereby making the world a more perfect place in your own wonderful way.” This was in the era when, in fact, many attractive women did not wear a bra, but Ernie was very blunt about his appreciation of that matter, and, as far as I could tell, gave that card out a fair bit.
“Marc’s Comic Room” catalogHis store took on his personality. I liked that. I had already developed a fairly iconoclastic approach to selling my comic books, a carnival barker’s flair for theatre, and I thought, “I would love this lifestyle”.
“Okay, I’ll talk to my father,” I said.
So I went home, feeling like I wanted Ernie’s shop badly, but for $10,000 I did not have, nor could I get unless I sold my comic book business. My first thought was to merge my comic book business into Ernie’s book shop, get out of military memorabilia (all that Hitler and German military stuff kind of creeped me out) and the art gallery part, straighten the place out, add my comic books, and … paradise.
I told Dad, “Ernie wants to sell his bookshop. He wants $10,000 for it. I think it’s worth it. I’d have to quit school, because he wants to sell it by March and be out by April.” Ernie would not budge on the deadline.
The location was 100 feet long by 18 feet wide. It was cramped, crowded, and confusing, but in an era when people still read and collected books — long before Kindle, long before the Internet, before EBay, before amazon.com — it was a place patronized by enough book hounds to be viable. I figured with Dad it would need to sell $300 a day to break even, to cover its costs of operation. The monthly rent was only $500 for a 2,000 square foot place in downtown London, when it was thriving. A good deal in 1975, before downtown experienced a precipitous slide in prestige with the rapacious development of the suburbs and over-development of malls that caused a collapse downtown in 1988 and worsening thereafter.
Dad told Mom, but Mom was adamant, “No, no, no.” For three days and nights they argued like I had never before seen. In fact, I had never seen them argue; Dad didn’t believe in it. At least, they never argued around me. I could overhear them and Dad channeled himself, saying, “If I deny him this, it may be the opportunity he’ll regret losing for the rest of his life. I never got the chance to go my own way. I’m terribly reluctant to take this one chance away from him. He’s a bright boy. He thinks he can do it.”
I remember Mom said, “He should go to Harvard. He’s brilliant. He can’t be a shopkeeper!” Dad was proud of his working class roots, and I’m sure he’d wonder how he would ever pay to put me through Harvard — and I had never expressed any interest in school, period, and certainly never university. I had dreamed of owning a shop since I was 11, when I started Marc’s Comic Room out of my bedroom. It was all I had ever dreamed of. There was no other alternative to me. Dad knew this. I was really astonished Dad stood up for what must have surely seemed like an extraordinary risk and a long shot, talented as I was.
He looked me in the eye, and said, “Do you really want this Marc? And can you do it?” And I said I could, I simply would. I had no doubt.
So for three days and nights Mom & Dad argued, and on the fourth day, Dad said. “You can do it, Marc.” More incredibly, when we spoke about financing it, he said, “I can borrow $5,000 from the credit union. I can redeem my life insurance policy for a $5,000 loan. Together that’s $10,000 I can loan you. You’ll have to pay me back $250 each month for four years, and that includes interest.”
At this point, the plan was to merge my comic books with the bookshop. I went back to Ernie the following week, and he said, “I think I’ve got someone interested in buying the shop. What about you?”
I was nervous he’d already committed. “My Dad says I can buy the shop from you.”
“Good,” he said. “I want to close the deal April 15th. You’ll need to sign a new lease with the landlord, Gus Koloufis.”
I couldn’t legally sign anything, as I had just turned 17. My Dad would have to co-sign the lease, guaranteeing payment. My dad’s family had never had any businesspeople in it, ever, and I knew these debts and obligations weighed heavy on him, he who was so necessarily cautious in all financial dealings — a man of working-class background with few maneuverable options, raising four children, a wife, and himself. My Dad, though nervous, never wavered in his confidence in me. And though I have always loved my dad, I loved him even more with this beautiful, touching leap of faith in me, something I would never assume would or could happen, but it did. Dad plunged in with everything he had to give me, co-signing a lease, borrowing from his credit union, borrowing on his life insurance even.
I was due to leave on the Middle Eastern trip in just two weeks, from March 2nd to March 17th. On April 1st, Ernie would train me for two weeks, and then on April 15th, the store would be mine, and I would be on my own. A shopkeeper. A bookseller. A small-businessman. And, according to my disgraced Mom, a dropout. Ten years after I became a success almost immediately — but not quite immediately — in the book trade, Mom would still plead with me, “When are you going to get your Grade 12?” and I heard that plea at least once a year for over a decade.
[Note: In July 2011, Marc officially got his GED grade 12 equivalency in Mississippi’s Yazoo City medium-security federal prison. Read about it in his blog post here.]
LONDON & YUGOSLAVIA
It was March 1st, the big day. Late in the afternoon we boarded a bus to take us to Toronto International Airport (called Malton Airport in those days, maybe Pearson by then). We took off near midnight, and I flew my first transatlantic flight in the dark, with the sun coming up as we approached Ireland. It was probably the first flight over an ocean for all of the 40 students from London, Ontario secondary schools. I was one of only 6 or 7 from my school.
We arrived in London, England, at Gatwick airport, and were shuttled to a closeted number of rooms in a part of London. There was no time to rest; we were expected to do that on the plane. After the continental breakfast of muffins, pastries and tea, we visited Westminster Abbey, and I marveled at the graves of some many famous icons of English literature and history. Then we bussed over to Buckingham Palace, and spent three hours at the British Museum, where I remember seeing Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, disturbingly grafittied by magic markers. The British Museum was wonderful, but in three hours, you can see very little of it — though it was certainly enough to fascinate me.
In that very crowded day we were allowed to visit some shops for a few hours, and I remember thinking, in that brief time, that there was something backwards about England, a malaise of some kind, a quaintness of the 1950s somehow still intact. It didn’t seem like Swinging London of 1967-1969; it seemed stagnant, for 1975, though I couldn’t put my finger on why it seemed that way. Both my parents came from England in 1951 and I remember this only trip I ever had to England, for preciously few hours at that, made me grateful I was raised in Canada.
By 10:00am the next day we were taken to the airport and quickly boarded a plane (BOAC, as I recall, now British Airways), and flew over Europe to land in the seaside port of Split, Yugoslavia. Before we boarded the ship at 6:00pm, we walked around this city for about an hour and a half. I remember all the local people seemed very handsome, very blond and blue-eyed. The local women all held each other’s hands when walking, as if to mutually ward off the predations of the local men, who oozed licentiousness. In the first of many lectures on looking after the women in our midst, we were told never to let the young females in our group out of our sight, preferably hold their hand, and always claim they were our girlfriends and they were absolutely not single. This proved conveniently romantic for me the entire trip, but the British tour organizers (who were often military-bearing individuals) were dead serious and made us aware of the fact that local men were untrustworthy everywhere we were going.
Once on board, crowds of local men called up to the young women of our group on the ship, throwing change up to them, calling out phrases, in Croat I believe, that were no doubt suggestive and along the lines of ‘come down and be with us’ or ‘take me with you’. I thought it was a strange place, this gothic old port city with its handsome, horny, male-dominated quasi-Communist society. At least, that’s what I gleamed from the three or four hours before we were ensconced on board and pulling out into the Adriatic Sea, where we crossed the eastern Mediterranean for the next 30 hours.
17-year-old Marc inside the ship with friend JulieWe were the cheapest paying customers. At $800 per student, much of that must have gone to our flights from Toronto to London, London to Split, and the return trip from Athens to London, then London to Toronto. So we were packed pretty tightly on board, on the very bottom of the ship — hundreds of us, 40 Canadians, but hundreds of British schoolboys and girls too, although their itinerary was entirely separate from ours. The real cost of this ship was being paid for by the third-class, but especially the second-class and first-class passengers. It was necessary that first-class and second-class never see us, so when we were on board, we had specific times to be in any particular spot. We ate in a big dining room on the bottom deck, served with military/prison efficiency, gathered up, and ready to disembark at 8:00am to whatever detailed and meticulous plan had been made for us, and brought back usually around nightfall, around 7:00pm. Each night we could dance in a dancing room from 8:00 to 9:00pm, and then we had to be in our bunks and lights out by 9:30pm.
Now what was odd, and interesting, is there was no age limit on drinking alcohol on this trip. The limit was 4 Dubonnets (sweet) per person, sold to us in the dance hall for 50 cents an ounce glass, from 8:00pm to 9:00pm only. After that, we were cleared out and the real paying passengers had run of it from 9:30 to whenever it closed down. At sea, it seemed also there were no taxes on alcohol, so it was very cheap, and plentiful. This was the first time I tried Dubonnet dry (white) and sweet (burgundy coloured). What was clear and strict is that we had to be out of that dance bar by 9:00pm, so drink up!
I suppose the teachers must have decided, “what the hell, they may as well learn the perils of alcohol under our supervision”, it would be as best as any education into the pitfalls of alcohol. (In fact, the school never had a trip that fun, adventurous or amazing ever again, and there were reprimands upon our return when word got around about the 4 Dubonnets per student per night rule.) So this went on every evening, except the night in Turkey we went to see belly dancing at a local restaurant in Izmir, where I discovered Ouzo — and that’s when I really saw the perils of alcohol. But more on that later.
The first trip out of Split was the only time we were aboard ship during the day. We awoke to see the daylight on top, and the Mediterranean looked endless and dark blue, with no other ship or island to be seen until we pulled into Alexandria around 10:00pm. Throughout the night we heard explosions every 15-minute interval, at the water line above us. Apparently, to my disconcert, the Egyptian navy was testing out detonations of mines in the harbour. The 1973 war with Israel was clear in the minds of Egypt’s naval defense, but hardly something to make those young ones at the bottom of a very resonant metal ship’s hull feel secure.
After getting thoroughly acquainted with our new prerogative to get drunk very cheap and very fast at night, we packed it in, and thanks to the alcohol we slept like the lucky buggers we were.
That morning, on March 5th, we awoke, quickly ate and dressed, and went on top to disembark. There was a large 20-piece brass band, in full blue, gold, and red uniforms, all to greet the 40 of us. The impressive musical greeting may well have been intended for the several hundred tourists on board the ship, but I recall no others to witness it — though I may have been so dazzled by simply being in Egypt to notice.
Camels in Cairo, EgyptAs we marched off double file from the ship to waiting busses, the ocean-swept breeze over the heat was delicious and welcome. I felt in a foreign land, indeed. We boarded a bus and it drove three hours down a road that ran parallel to the Nile River, which we could often see clearly through the windows. On the other side of the river we saw farmers working laboriously. I have never witnessed that before: tilling fields using a hand plow and an ox to pull it. The farmer wore what appeared to be a single sweat-soaked piece of cloth. To us, this was a shocking thing to observe, and we were much quieter than I would have expected, but we were witnessing poverty like we had never seen before. The job looked futile and hopeless; one man here and one there, tilling a field in this blazing sun. It was snowing when we left Canada, cloudy and cool in London, and now it was very, very hot and dry in the interior away from the Mediterranean.
In class we learned that the Nile River floods annually and distributes silt, a fertilizer, over the arable areas adjacent to the Nile River. Only about 25 miles from the River inland does anything grow; the rest of Egypt is the desert. There are irrigation projects that divert the waters of the Nile to outlying farmland. Most of Egypt’s 39 million people lived within 25 miles of the Nile at that time. 35 years later, Egypt has 83 million people, and still has so much poverty.
When we arrived in Cairo, it was noon, so we went to the Cairo museum and looked at the many artifacts of ancient Egypt. I remember Mr. McQueen remarking that the place was poorly lit for exhibition and “that’s why the museums in London, Paris and Berlin won’t let them be exhibited here, they don’t do it right.” Later on, the Egyptian guide reprimanded the Europeans for absconding with some many artifacts in the century after Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798. In the time afterward, British, French, German excavations and archaeological digs had unearthed and returned to Europe thousands of previous buried or entombed mummies, artifacts, and treasures hidden among the pyramids, mausoleums, and buried civilizations past.
Then we were given the necessary commercial detour — that is, we were taken to a perfumery shop, which was very nice, but it was a side-trip that was clearly aimed at the first- and second-class passengers who had the money, inclination and interest in extracts, essences and perfumes. I did like the idea of the tea and cakes offered to all of us as a charming Middle Eastern ritual of social etiquette before business, but the owner was out of luck as far as sales went. We did get a nice history and explanation of how perfumes were made, and the ones made and sold there were pure plant extracts and essences, not chemical formulas. I did find that fascinating, though to this day I have never enjoyed perfumes.
After a quick lunch, which we brought with us, around 5:00pm we went first to the great pyramids, as the day was cooling by then and we would have expired from the heat earlier, as we had come out into what was still desert back in 1975. The Sphinx’s nose was blown off, we were told, by the Australian troops massed here in 1916 who used it as target practice, preparing for the ill-fated campaigns against the Turks at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles. I have no idea if it was true, but we sure didn’t think highly of the Australians after Mr. McQueen told us that.
The Sphinx at duskWe were able to wander about the pyramids relatively unsupervised, except for the permanent caveat that the women in our group were to be accompanied by a male at all times. It was really hot, and as the sun was blazing. I bought a Coca-Cola for five cents, but when the young 8-year-old soda seller sold it to us, he followed me around repeating something, and then realized he had to get the bottle back. So I gulped those Coca-Colas immediately thereafter, realizing what the arrangement had to be. Coca-Cola was the only beverage I remember being offered.
I tried to climb one of the pyramids, but those blocks of rock measured, as I recall, 4 feet by four feet by four feet, and after getting up about 40 feet, I gave up on that exhausting prospect and climbed back down. (It was still a nice view!) Camels and their drivers offered rides, and I took one brief five-minute ride for a few dollars. I found it very uncomfortable and dangerous, and I was glad to get off — then the camel spit right in my face. I somehow thought that was the experience: discomfort and then insult, $2 please.
The sun was setting, and we admired the lovely effect it had on the silhouette of the pyramids and took our photographs before boarding the bus to return to Alexandria.
At the time, the slums of Cairo were visible only a few miles away, but their encroachment on the pyramids moves further out each year, and now I’m told that people live by the pyramids, which would, alas, sully the experience, as even in 1975, the begging of children and supplicant mothers was a bit trying, and despite being taught by the military-like English chaperone how to say “Im-shee” (a rough translation of “bugger off”) in a firm tone, it did no good at all.
I recall our stunned, muted wonderment that came with us again on the bus trip north along the Nile to our ship. None of us had seen poverty before. The pyramids were impressive, but our privilege as white Canadians grown up in relative affluence (we had never, ever thought of it before, ever) was the dominant thought we had. That’s what we talked about. “Those people are poor!” “Did you see how they live?!” We were beatific. This trip had already taught us about our tremendous good fortune in being born in Canada, on our first day in Egypt. Considering this trip thus far would be the greatest experience of our lives, and we were to love almost every minute of the entire experience (I’ll get to the “almost” when I talk about Turkey). I wasn’t the only one who kissed the tarmac on our return to Toronto, and I would never forget my incredible fortune in being born white, Canadian and modern.
We fell asleep on the bus and were roused at the dock. We quickly hurried on, Mr. McQueen was worried that we wouldn’t be allowed on as the ship pulled up the ramp at 11 pm, but we just made it. Once on board, we slept soundly, mines detonating every 15 minutes and all, and the ship pulled out and moved northeast to Beirut.
When we awoke, we were brought on top of the ship and saw we were in a very elegant, handsome city, much different than Egypt. This was the ‘Paris of the Middle east’: Beirut, Lebanon.
We toured the long boulevards, the handsome center of the city, mostly on foot, and visited shops. Beirut was considered safe, educated and sophisticated, so we were given more freedom to go in groups (always with an adult chaperone in our group, a teacher or a parent who had come along) throughout the city. I spoke to students at Beirut university, learned that many of them spoke English, French and Lebanese. Their clothing was more affluent, their manner more western, and I thought the city was marvelous.
But there was tension in the air, and the students there made note of us. Tanks roamed the city, though my understanding of Lebanese politics was nil, so I didn’t know why they were out. Routine, I maybe thought. Mr. McQueen was somewhat guarded and ominous about the tanks in the city. It didn’t seem that odd to me; after all, the Egyptians were detonating mines in Alexandria harbour like clockwork, and that still was okay. But he was concerned. It was March 7th.
We had to come to Beirut first because if we visited Israel first, our next port of call, Egypt and Lebanon would refuse us entry with an Israeli stamp in our passport, so our ship had chugged up the coast today, only to double back the next door down the coast to Tel Aviv.
Streets of BeirutI recall the least about Beirut of all the stops on my trip, simply because it was a lovely day without any specific landmarks. We ate at roadside cafes, walked along the waterfront and wide boulevards, spoke to forthcoming university students, observed the beautiful city, and had a leisurely day.
By 7:00pm, we were gathered back on board, and the shipped headed out to sea and south for the four-hour journey to Tel Aviv. At 8:00pm we filled the bar/dance room quickly, many ordered their 4-drink limit at once, and I remember the ship swaying quite considerably while the disco music of the time played. The floor would angle quite noticeably, and we all had great fun dancing, drinking and swaying down on the angles as the ship rocked in what I could only assume were furious seas outside.
After one hour of this entertaining and unusual partying — I had never experienced anything like it — we were packed off to our male and female dorms. By this time, I had been assigned to escort a young woman names Patsy Hinton, who went to another Secondary school in London. Patsy was very sweet, and naive — and in many ways, I was naive, I had never had sex at this point, and had never even dated a girl since Lorrie Cartwright at age 11. Patsy was brought up by her blueblood parents in a lovely old home on Commissioners Drive. Her father was a well-liked and established doctor. Patsy and I had spent time together at the pyramids, and now in Beirut, and I saw myself smitten by her; she enjoyed my company but probably, at this point, had no idea I was becoming romantically inclined to her.
Once back in the dorm, others remarked that I seemed to be attracted to Patsy. “Why don’t you sneak in her dorm and get in her bed with her?” they dared me. They meant that innocently, if it can be said like that. After hearing this for 20 minutes, and after a teacher had confirmed we were all in our bunks and lights were out, I slipped out of my bed, went up to the floor and corridor where I understood the female dorm was, and slipped into the girl’s dorm. Once in, it was pitch dark. So I said, “Where is Patsy?” And a few girls agreeably responded and directed me, “She’s right there!”
So while Patsy was shocked and exclaimed, “What are you doing here?” I slipped under the covers beside her, in my own pajamas. She was mortified. I could hear the giggles of the other girls. “I came here to be with you,” I said bravely, my pulse racing at my wildness. “Oh my God, you can’t stay here. We’ll get into so much trouble. You have to go!” she insisted. I said, “I’ll just stay here with you a while,” and didn’t move. Patsy was dumbstruck. And I noticed she was lovely smelling and warm. It was cozy, but she was clearly perturbed and silent. Every minute or so she’d whisper, “You have to go back. What will everyone think?!” It seemed a long time, but it was probably only ten minutes.
Then a door opened and Mr. McQueen walked through the dorm clearly looking for someone. Patsy was dead silent. Mr. McQueen, without turning the light on, left the room. “Oh my God,” Patsy gasped, “You have to go, now they’re searching for you!” I can’t believe my nerve, but I said, “No, not yet. I want to stay a while with you.”
“You can’t stay any more with me. This is so dangerous,” she hissed. Other girls nearby giggled, but I don’t remember them saying anything. Within minutes, after combing other parts of the ship, Mr. McQueen entered the girls dorm again, walked directly towards us in Patsy’s bunk, and said, “You, back to your dorm,” with stern authority. Hiding under the covers, I quickly leapt out and made off like a bandit back to my bed and dorm. Minutes later, Mr. McQueen, coming to my bunk, was serious. “I’m disappointed in you. We’ll talk about this later.”
When he left, all my fellow male students gave me a great cheer and clapped and hooted, and were delighted when I said, “I was in Patsy’s bed that whole time!” I was in heaven, impressed by my own daring. Patsy would have another opinion.
The next morning, when I saw her in the dining hall, her face was beet red. “I’m not talking to you. That was scandalous. You shouldn’t have done that.” Of course, nothing happened under those sheets, other than her shocked gasps and my devil-may-care delight in being beside her, but she turned her head away and said, “I got into trouble for that. Mr. McQueen came to me and said he expects things like that of you, but I… me, I should know better. He blamed me! That’s all your fault. I’m not talking to you.”
For most of that day, she did her best to rebuff me, but she was in a bind once we disembarked, because remarkably, she was still in my care, as she really was gentle and naive, and I was alert, a gentleman, and clearly cared enough for her to let no harm come her way.
We were in Tel Aviv, Israel, which was an uninspiring city of white blocky high-rises, all relatively new, in that ’70s architecture that’s ugly and practical. Apparently, that’s all gone now, and 35 years later, Tel Aviv is a handsome, happening metropolis on the sea, but then it was derogatorily referred to as a ‘dirty port city’ of no interest to us.
We boarded a bus and went to this communal farm, called a moshav. A moshav differed from a kibbutz in that in a kibbutz, all property and responsibilities were communally owned and shared. In a moshav, property was possessed individually, and responsibilities shared. I remember these Israelis were smart marketers; when we left their farm after a 90-minute tour, they brought us this great bushel basket of these incredible, perfect oranges. It was hot and sunny and dusty, and we each had two or three oranges out of that basket. We started to devour them right away, and we were saying, “Yum, these are great!” and then the Israeli man, bearded as almost all of them were, asked us all aloud, “What are the best oranges in the world?” and in unison we replied, “JAFFA ORANGES!”
And indeed, they were the best oranges I have had, before or since. Mr. McQueen remarked, “These are smart people,” observing how loyal we were to the idea of Israel now, after just a basket of oranges. McQueen understood the subtleties of Middle Eastern politics that we didn’t, and he implied to me there was a subtle propaganda value in giving us the oranges, but he could see we loved them and such political nuances were for another time, another day.
Around 1:00pm we arrived in Jerusalem, and we first went to a lookout point where you could see a great view of the old city, the Muslim Dome of Rock, the Wailing Wall, and the labyrinthine streets. It was the most breathtaking sight I had beheld in my life. I was stunned at its ancientness, its pure Biblical antiquity. And I was there, in it — part of it.
Looking at JerusalemWhen we got into the city, and off the bus, we immediately walked through streets that seemed cut out of sheer rock, streets I knew to be at least 2,000 years old. We went to the Wailing Wall, the dome of the Rock, we saw the Garden of Gethsemane, where the Messiah allegedly prayed regularly and on the night before his crucifixion. We walked the path where Christ had taken his last walk — and it was Easter, too — and we had to be quick, as various believers would come running through these ancient narrow streets carrying huge crosses on their shoulders shouting benedictions in languages I didn’t recognize or understand, Greek Orthodox perhaps, in commemoration of Christ’s final torturous journey to the crucifixion site. I was in awe like no time before or since in my whole life. I have never been to Jerusalem after that trip, but that day put the zap on me. I was boggled by the historical importance of this amazing place, its perfect maintenance as though I were back in the ancient period itself. I was agog.
Then we went to Bethlehem and saw not one, but two places where Jesus was born. At the time (and this may still be so) two churches competed for the honor, privilege of saying “Christ was born here” — a Greek Orthodox Church, and another. The floor marking the exact spot where Christ was born had this magnificent inlaid star on an extremely beautiful marble or tile surface. It was spectacular, though not holy to me, just magnificent. But for other pilgrims, it had tremendous gravity, and the church was stunning and appropriately somber.
Contrasting the striking decor and fastidiousness of Christ’s birthplace was the public washroom we next went to. I don’t know where we went to pee prior to this on our time in Egypt and Beirut (I don’t recall the bus having a toilet, but upon reconsideration, perhaps it had to), but in Israel we stopped at a public washroom, and for the first time in my life I came upon the ubiquitous Asian/Middle Eastern hole in the floor with two foot impressions as to where you were to put your feet while performing urination or defecation. This particular toilet was unlit, dark, rank smelling and unpleasant, but while I was a little leery, I nonetheless had to pee. The women in our entourage were much more alienated by this, squatting in the dark, going local for the first time in their lives. (When I lived in Asia almost twenty years later, from 1992 to 1994, I got quite used to the squat toilets and all-in-one bathroom — called a ‘mandi’ in Indonesia — where you washed and excreted using the same hole in the floor, but that was my own washroom in a home I was renting, so it was clean and bright.)
After this fabulous experience of our day in Israel, we traveled from Bethlehem to Tel Aviv and boarded the ship around 7:00pm, ate dinner, danced and drank the sweet Dubonnets, and passed out in a glorious sleep by 9:30pm, thinking I had the best day of my life thus far.
While we slept, the SS Nevasa left Tel Aviv for Izmir, Turkey, and by the time we awoke next morning, we were just pulling into the harbour.
The big attraction from a historical perspective that we were going to see was the Roman-built aqueducts at Ephesus. Built during the Roman occupation, sometime around the first century, this was supposed to illustrate how the Romans were great engineers (military conquerors notwithstanding), particularly in the use of water distribution. I really can’t remember what the aqueducts were used for when we were there, but I was impressed that they were still largely preserved over 2,000 years later. Not much in the world lasts 2,000 years, and there was a surprising amount of architecture and engineering from the Roman period still around in the world. Coming from a new continent like North America, where very little construction or engineering was over 150 years old, this perspective was sobering.
It was in Turkey particularly I was advised to keep a good eye on the women, as we were told local people would try to pull at blond hair and be particularly forward. What I didn’t necessarily pay attention to was another admonition to be careful with local food, and in the late afternoon I bought a sandwich in a bread loaf that gave me terrible runs for much of the rest of the day, and stomach pains and cramps to go with it.
At 5:00pm we boarded the bus and went into Izmir proper, and were all seated at a restaurant, where we had Middle Eastern food, probably for the first time in our lives: falafel, hummus, tabulleh, couscous, and were entertained with belly dancing, which was quite the eye-opener. Although it was neither too risquÃ© or two chaste, it was completely new to us. What was also very novel was our newfound ability to have alcohol with our meal, and we were all served up to two glasses of this licorice/anise-flavoured alcohol called “Ouzo”, Turkish liquor. I sipped it and enjoyed the flavour, but I already had the runs from the dubious bread thing earlier, so I asked my new friend Mike if he would like my Ouzo, and he eagerly accepted, with flushed face and broad smile.
In the next 90 minutes, we were entertained, fed, and had a wonderful time. I was given some Imodium and told to drink lots of fluids throughout the night, Mike enjoyed four shots of Ouzo, and many seemed to enjoy this wonderful new privilege.
We returned to our bus and brought back to the ship around 8:30pm, and many of my fellow students were sleepy from the sun of the day and the Ouzo of the night. Mike lay down and muttered something to me. He had the lower bunk, and I was on the upper bunk, with other bunks around us. Suddenly, Mike threw up all over himself, completely covering his entire torso and pants and bedding with the fetid, hot stink of Ouzo-soaked vomit. It was more horrific a mess from drunkenness than I have ever seen, even to this day. After this massive purge, Mike passed out, covered in this slimy hot filth, and then a long farting purge at the other end took place — Mike was unconscious now, and all around me, students gathered round, eyes wide open, their noses assaulted with a gross smell, and we realized Mike had defecated in his pants. This is also something I have never seen to this day!
Mr. McQueen was called, and he looked around for a few seconds, eyeing me for my previous indulgence with Patsy Hinton, and stated clearly, “He’s your friend, your bunk-mate, so you have to clean him up, wash his clothes and bedding. Get to it.”
Oh my God. Mr. McQueen left the dorm. I had no idea how to clean up this mess. Finding a volunteer helper was difficult, but if I didn’t move Mike, who could be barely awoken, the smell infected the whole area. No one could sleep until he was cleaned.
This is when I discovered the phenomenon that people passed out from alcohol weigh a thousand pounds when you try to move them! I stripped down to my underwear, did the “Jesus on the cross”, one arm over my shoulder, the other arm over another’s shoulder, and we dragged him, literally, to a shower. There I peeled off all his clothes. Inside his pants was a dump of immense, disgusting proportions. Across the outside of his shirt and trousers (we had dressed up for the restaurant) was the rank dizzying stench of Ouzo-and-food vomit. I stripped him of his clothes and turned on the water, warm at first; he still didn’t even stir or wake-up, and it was hard in that slippery shower to hold him upright. Then I realized I couldn’t hold him upright, and didn’t need to, so I sat him down on the floor and aimed the shower head at him and washed him all down with soap, cleaning him in places I have never cleaned since. He still did not awake much, deep in a drunken stupor. I dumped the solid waste out of his pants, superficially washed his pants and shirt and took them over to a washer basin, where I would thoroughly wash them later by hand with soap and detergent.
Once Mike was cleaned, and snoring away contentedly, I gave him a blast of cold water in a perhaps sadistic bit of revenge, but also to wake him up so I could dry and dress him. He came to enough so he could dry his own private parts (I had already had to wash his ass!) and then he passed back out again, and I put a clean pair of his pajamas on him, dragged him to his bunk, and he was out like a light. Then I washed his clothes by hand in the sink and hung them to dry, and finally I fell asleep.
The next morning, Mike remembered nothing of the ordeal except what he was told from the lurid stories we regaled him with. I have seen Mike seven or eight times over the last 35 years, and much to his embarrassment, I never cease to mention this incident, though I haven’t seen Mike since the 1990s.
The Nevasa pulled out of Izmir harbour and moved north on the Mediterranean to the port city of Piraeus, next to Greece’s capital city of Athens. We arrived on a misty, cool spring morning, mysterious and beautiful, a shroud of fog like a poem by Byron, which I had read earlier at Mr. McQueen’s suggestion to get in the mood for one of the most romantic days of my life.
Mr. McQueen came up to me and asked how Mike was. I said fine, that he had a splitting hangover and had taken aspirin. My history teacher looked concerned. “Civil war has broken out in Beirut and Lebanon. There is fighting all over.” He looked grave. In fact, a civil war had broken out right after we left, and fighting would continue for the next decade, destroying the tranquility, buildings, infrastructure, tourism and beauty of ‘Paris of the Middle East.’ In the years following, I found it hard to believe I was in beautiful, elegant, sophisticated Beirut three days before a conflagration destroyed almost all of it, impacting on Lebanon’s politics and history to this day. I saw it in the twilight of its glory days, and it hasn’t risen from the ashes of conflict since that March day in 1975.
But that moist morning pulling into Piraeus, I didn’t have the foresight to think of all that. We were in Greece!
The morning was to see the Acropolis, which is an ancient Athenian structure high above the rest of the city. It is magnificent and awe-inspiring. We toured the few ancient ruins of Athens and explored the modern city too, with its train stations, its streets, and its cafes. It felt marvelous. Mr. McQueen warned me not to discuss politics with anyone though, as Greece was still under martial law, having been ruled by a military junta since a coup in 1967.
Train station in AthensThat night Patsy and I were together, as we often were. She had forgiven me (mostly) for the sneaking in her bed incident, and had come to like me. Although we were supposed to return to the ship by 8:00pm sharp, we had precise directions on how to get a taxi or train to the port where the ship was docked. She and I had a lovely conversation walking the winding streets of Athens, exploring our budding relationship, finally alone to do so. As night fell at 7:00pm, she nervously suggested, “we should go back now”, but I deferred doing that, wanting to extract more precious alone time with her, despite her growing anxiousness about being late for the boat.
We continued to wander about, and finally at 8:30pm I relented and agreed to return to the ship. But we were lost, or, at least, I couldn’t find a taxi or a train station. And then I got worried. Finally we got to a train station, figured out how to take it to Piraeus, and took a taxi and arrived at the ship at 10:15pm, very late. Mr. McQueen was very upset. Apparently, they had put out requests to the local constabulary to look out for us, the Captain of the ship was notified, and we got back just before alarms went out. I had overdone it, but all I got was a glowering look by Mr. McQueen.
Next morning, we were to board a bus to travel the coastline to get to a place called The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, out by the Aegean Sea, a 90-minute trip. When I saw Patsy, her eyes flared. “I should never talk to you again! Mr. McQueen said he expected you to try something like that, but that I should know better. He blamed me again! You get me into so much trouble!” I did. I apologized. I was crazy about her by now, though.
Mike had struggled through the previous day of sightseeing in Athens, but this morning he was his energetic, funny, excited self. It was our last day in Europe. In the morning we would fly out of Athens to London, England and back home to Toronto and then by bus to London.
The bus took us through charming small towns and beautiful vistas along the shore on the way to Sounion. When we got there, it was breathtaking. Those ancient Greeks sure knew how to worship nature. Poseidon is the God of the Sea, and this temple, a massive structure of pillars, is on the most beautiful outcrop of brilliant orange soil, seemingly honey-kissed by the sun itself — perhaps the most romantic view of the sea I have ever seen. As we looked out, several islands were visible over the distance out to the horizon. It was a perfect 75 degrees, an ocean breeze coming in, and Patsy even came up, forgiving me, and shared this time at my side.
When Lord Byron visited this shrine to the God of the Sea in 1810-1811 during his romantic trip to Greece to witness Greek Independence from the Ottoman Turkish empire, he apparently etched his name in one of the pillars, which seemed very odd that a distinguished British poet, the most famous of the Romantic poets, grafittied his name into this ancient structure; however, there is no direct evidence that he did it himself. Surely though, he would have been swept away by the immense beauty of the Temple and the vista out at sea.
We spent the afternoon hours sitting looking out to sea, mesmerized by the radiant orange soil I have not seen anything like since and the mythical seas of the Aegean. Many of us realized our trip, our grand magnificent two weeks, was ending. Many of us began to cry, “I don’t want to go… ever…” and tears began to stream down many of the female and male students’ faces. I cried too. I said, “I want to be buried here one day. This is the most beautiful place on earth.” We were becoming overwrought with the significance and privilege of what our trip meant to us, each one of us experiencing the greatest adventure of our lives thus far.
When Mr. McQueen called us all to board the bus, most of us were in tears, tremendously aware of how incredible this trip was, beyond anything we could have imagined when we signed up for it. This was likely the greatest bargain — $800 total for it all — that we would ever get in our lives. We departed Sounion, returning to our ship, and the next morning flew out of Athens airport on a long journey back home.
BACK AT HOME
I did indeed kiss the tarmac when I got off the plane in Toronto. I was so grateful to be Canadian. I had seen stupefying poverty in Egypt, the precipice of civil war in Beirut, Jerusalem in its ancient glory, the Acropolis, the Temple of Poseidon, the Great Pyramids, the mighty Mediterranean, the medieval-seeming town of Split, and the once-glorious capital of the British Empire, London. When I returned to Canada, I felt I had grown up. Become a man. I was ready now to run my bookshop, only two weeks away.
The day after we arrived very late at night in London, Ontario, I was at school. I had never felt a greater sense of alienation. I never liked school, never felt it necessary. I was only three months from graduation. But listening to the math teacher, I had a terrible sense of not belonging, that this was child’s desk, and I was a man now — that school was not for me, nor could it ever be.
At noon lunch, I left school and never returned again. I was beyond school. I was ready for adulthood and all it entailed. This trip profoundly affected me; I had changed. I was ready for the world.
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