Thursday, July 11, 2013

Sunshine On My Shoulders

In the 1970s, during Spring Break one year at what was then known as North Texas State University (NTSU), my boyfriend Kent and I drove to Canada to see his brother, an American draft dodger living near Toronto. Kent went to Vietnam as a Marine, but when his brother Bob was drafted, instead of taking the oath to serve, as a conscientious objector he took two steps backward and made his way to Canada. When I met Kent, Bob and his wife were living in Hamilton, Ontario.

A couple of our friends decided to join us for other destinations as we head north on spring break that year. Mary planned to ride as far as Springfield, Missouri, where her aunt lived. Shaheen, a Bangladeshi graduate student, wanted to go as far as Bowling Green, Ohio, where he had been an undergraduate. 

Shaheen had embraced the American lifestyle. He grew his hair long, drank alcohol, and slept with American women. He probably was Muslim. In those days, we didn't think too much about Muslims, especially Muslim fundamentalists. I’m not sure we knew what that was. Shaheen was just like us. He just happened to be from another part of the world.

Shaheen and Mary were dating. Mary and I had been friends since living in the “Old Ladies” dorm at NTSU (McConnell Hall). You had to be 21 to live in the dorm, thus the moniker. In the 1970s, dorms still had curfews and men and women lived in separate facilities. Residents at the Old Ladies dorm had keys to the outside doors and could come and go as they pleased. No curfew. I was a 21-year-old divorcee. I had married my high school sweetheart at 18 and left him after a couple of years of physical abuse. But that’s another story. Back to Mary. 

Mary was a philosophy student. Serious and quiet with a pixie haircut and wire rim glasses. A no-nonsense, no-makeup kind of girl. I can’t remember how she met Shaheen. It must have been through Kent since he and Shaheen were friends. Unknown to Mary, Shaheen was going back to Bowling Green to see a red-headed girlfriend.

The four of us headed north in my navy blue Toyota Corolla. We spent the night in Missouri at the home of Mary’s aunt. The next day, Kent, Shaheen, and I continued north. When we crossed the Mississippi River at St Louis, Shaheen smugly asked whether we knew the meaning of Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens’s pseudonym. Kent and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. Maybe he only asked us if we knew that it was a pseudonym. I can’t remember. I just recall the absurdity of being quizzed about Mark Twain by a fellow from Bangledesh.

When we dropped him off in Bowling Green, his red-headed girlfriend screamed with delight at seeing him and leaped into his arms. She was a lovely girl, but I kept thinking about Mary. Shaheen was equally thrilled at seeing her, with no apologies to us about Mary. We spent the night there. The next day Kent and I continued north to Detroit.

This Texas girl had never been any farther north than Kansas City. Driving through Detroit, I began to understand what the term row houses meant. I had never seen a row house. In Detroit, there they were, queued up, row after row. Lots of factories. And smokestacks. The Motor City.

We crossed the border at Detroit. In the 1970s, pre-9/11, border crossings into Canada were simple. The Canadian officer asked us where we born. Kent replied, “New Haven, Connecticut.” I told the officer I was born in Texas. He frowned, shook his head, and paused before he said, “I’m sorry, but we don’t allow Texans into Canada.” He paused long enough for me to start to worry. Then he broke into a huge grin and welcomed us to Canada.

Driving north from Detroit, I began to see patches of something white along the road. What was it? Cotton? Was there a cotton gin nearby? And why would they gin cotton in March? In West Texas where I grew up, cotton gins ran night and day in the fall, creating row after row of cotton bales, leaving roadsides near the gin dusted white with cotton. Kent laughed. It was snow. Snow? Snow in March? How can that be, wondered this Texan?

We arrived in Hamilton, just south of Toronto where Bob was a graduate student at McMaster University. He and Marsha lived in one of those lovely old row houses like the ones I marveled at driving through Detroit. Growing up in the wide expanses of West Texas, a row house was a foreign concept. Bob and Marsha lived in a narrow sliver of one of them. It was charming and novel to this first time visitor to Canada.

They were lovely hosts, feeding us well and taking us to see the sights. I particularly remember the student center at McMaster University. There was a painting or a mosaic of the phoenix on the wall. I made a mental note to myself to look up the story of the phoenix so I could better understand its wonderful depiction there. Ah, the days before we googled everything.

We drove into Toronto and ate at a wonderful Japanese restaurant where the food was prepared at our table. Not quite Benihana. It was more personal. The chef cooked our food right on the small table in our booth. It was delicious. We walked up and down the streets of downtown Toronto. It was cold enough to wear a coat. Another phenomenon for me. I had never worn a coat in March. We bought chestnuts from a street vendor, the only time I ever ate roasted chestnuts in my life. It was strange to eat chestnuts in March, not in December, a Christmas tradition (at least in song). The chestnuts, the cold, and the snow blurred the calendar for me. It seems that we were there in December, not March.

We spent three wonderful days with Bob and Marsha. We got up early on our last day, had breakfast, made our way down the three flights of the row house stairs, and sadly hugged them goodbye. As we drove away, the sun was shining brightly on the snow. The radio started playing John Denver’s “Sunshine on my Shoulders.” Tears came to my eyes. I’m sure Kent felt the same. He hadn’t seen his brother in years. And his brother couldn’t come home. As we rounded a curve to get on the main road, we saw Bob. He had raced through a neighborhood shortcut to wave one last goodbye.

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry . . .
If I had a day that I could give you
I'd give to you a day just like today . . .

It was a pre-VH1 moment. Every time I hear that song, I am in Hamilton, Ontario in my little navy blue Toyota with Kent, heading south to Texas. And my throat tightens.

Postscript: We drove on to Detroit, leaving the cotton-like snow on the roadsides. Soon after picking up Shaheen in Ohio, it started snowing. A lot. We had to exit the freeway and find a motel. The three of us barely had enough money to pay for one room. Nobody had a credit card. We parked the car so the motel clerk couldn’t see all of us and charge us for three. Kent and I slept on the bed while Shaheen made do on the floor.

We continued south the next day, picking up Mary in Missouri. Shaheen seemed different, and Mary noticed. I don’t think their relationship was ever the same. I don’t know what happened to Shaheen. I introduced Mary to my friend Joe, the graduate student, former Catholic monk who served as a bush pilot in Africa. But that, too, is another story.

Words by John Denver; music by John Denver, Mike Taylor and Dick Kniss

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high

If I had a day that I could give you
I'd give to you the day just like today
If I had a song that I could sing for you
I'd sing a song to make you feel this way

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high

If I had a tale that I could tell you
I'd tell a tale sure to make you smile
If I had a wish that I could wish for you
I'd make a wish for sunshine for all the while

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost all the time makes me high

Copyright 1971 by Cherry Lane Music

1 comment:

  1. Read this one too, Carolyn. Mary and I are in the writing. I didn't know about the trip. Of course Mary and I are still together since being married in 1976 = 37 years.