Friday, December 31, 2010

Oh Canada! - By Lee Y. Greene, Jr.

An installment story about my hometown in North Alabama.

Hartselle, Alabama is like most other places of 12,000 or fewer souls in the South. Most everyone is moderate to middle class, as the area prospered only when the Tennessee Valley Authority came in the 1930’s to change our area from an agrarian economy to a service economy. With the advent of the aerospace and defense industries in a nearby county, our hometown evolved into a bedroom community.

Folks live here, but work and spend their day elsewhere. Because of this suburban evolution, we have lost the days of porch sitting and story telling, now that we commute and no longer really know our next door neighbor. That doesn’t mean that funny things don’t happen here, but that fewer connections are available to tell them. This is a story from my hometown:

This really isn’t a story about Hartselle, but how a man from Hartselle got stuck in Windsor, Ontario, Canada last February.

Deep in the South, we see winter snow once every three or four years, if that much. If it does snow, we can only expect two or three inches, and then it melts away as quickly as it arrived. We do not play winter sports, like hockey, because ice is not for recreation, it is for sweet tea.

Last February, a pump manufacturer sent their salesman to our company to show us their range of products.
We design water and wastewater systems, so their lines were relevant to our interests. The company decided to send me and another engineer from Huntsville to Detroit, Michigan to see some water distribution equipment and see if we could use it in Alabama. This excursion was planned quickly and we departed the Huntsville airport in February. It was about 55 degrees when we left.
We flew across the central portion of our nation in rapid time, and saw breathtaking views of major midwestern cities.

As our flight droned on, I noticed the terrain looked like it had a sandy appearance. Upon closer inspection is was indeed, snow. Vast quantities of snow that someone like me had never seen. Covering farms, fields, cities, it was amazing to see. At this point I began to wonder if the jacket I had brought was going to be sufficient. I had good reason to worry when we landed, as the temperature was around 0, zip, nada.

We arrive in Detroit, and meet with the pump company officials. We all get into a van and drive away from the city, towards our first destination. After a nondescript inspection and much pointing and nodding at mundane pumps and apparatus, we depart for the next stop, which is over the international border into Windsor, Canada. As we drove along an interstate through the greater Detroit area, I see urban decay on a scale unimaginable. Block after block of abandoned, burned out houses and businesses. Not just two or three streets, but ten, twenty, as we raced by. Now, I know there are probably nice places in Detroit, but they have adequately hidden them from view of the route we took through the middle of the city. I think I saw a guy get killed, but that’s another story. A kind of shock overtakes you if you are not adequately conditioned for this scenery. Being from Hartselle, this was like being dropped on an alien planet.

We finally get to the international border with Canada, and our driver was Canadian, so we went right through the car lane into Ontario. Again, the scenery was a little different, as we crossed the Ambassador Bridge into what looked like a college campus on the Canadian side. I watched as the large ice floes, which looked like huge icebergs, floated rapidly along the Detroit River to the Great Lakes. You would never see this in the Tennessee River on any day, unless Hell had frozen over.

We ate lunch in a town that was the historical refuge for British loyalists fleeing the 13 colonies after we drove them out. We were apparently the entertainment for the locals, being asked to pronounce words in our Southern dialect that they enjoyed hearing. I noticed that the menu had something called Kentucky-style chicken. After a consultation with our waitress, and our explaining that we lived almost 100 miles south of Kentucky and had never heard of this, it was revealed that they meant “fried” chicken.

Lunch over, we saw some more pumps and controls, then began the drive back to the good old USA for our flight home. We approached the U.S. Border Patrol and Customs office, and were asked to produce our passports. Well, guess what none of us Americans had. A passport, as we did not know when we left that we would be crossing into another country.

Thinking this isn’t going to be a problem, I hand the officer my drivers license. Well this is a problem. A passport is needed to enter the United States she said, and I use “she” loosely, because, lets face it, women from the South are just easier on the eyes, so to speak. She got us out of the van and took us to an office, where we had to produce more identification or return to Canada until our passports could be MAILED to us, for us to enter the country. I asked again to the officer, would my valid Alabama Drivers License not be sufficient identification? To which I got a stern “No, you must have your passport to enter the country. We advertised this rule change on the radio, on billboards and TV for the last few months to let everyone know.” I replied, “Well, this just isn’t widely discussed in Alabama”.

Getting desperate, and seeing time slipping away from getting on the plane to come home, I went through my wallet searching for anything that would get me home. “Well, I’ve got a Drivers License, a Wheeler Basin Library Card, a Kroger Saver Card, and a valid Alabama Hunting and Fishing Combo License, any of that work for you?” I mean what terrorist is going to have these forms of I.D.? No, a passport only.
In total desperation, I said “Look ma’am, that’s all I’ve got. If these documents and our accent don’t convince you that we are Americans and rightfully belong in the USA, I’ve got a better deal. If you ever see my ass up here again, you can take that Glock 9mm out of your holster and shoot me right between the eyes.” She looked at us carefully and responded, “Welcome to the United States of America, citizens.”, and let us in. I knew that I was either going to jail in America or go back to Windsor, Canada, and both seemed about the same at the time. I never got the officer’s name, but I wanted to send her a fifth of Tennessee’s best whiskey for her discretion that day. I like to travel, but on that day in February, I just wanted to go home to Hartselle.