Ellie Searl Stories


Canadian Landing

Ellie Searl

Dan’s laid-back attitude and grubby appearance made me skeptical - wrinkled, flannel shirt, frayed jeans, scruffy boots, yellowed fingers, and long, greasy hair oozing out of a ratty Montreal Expos cap. Would he pull out a pocketknife and scratch dirt from what was left of his fingernails? He lit a cigarette. Did he take drugs, too? Drink? The snob in me bubbled over. But then we couldn’t be choosy about who would escort us through this critical event. We either drove ourselves - with our own car, sporting our own license plate, risking arrest - or let someone else drive - someone like Dan – someone with experience sneaking people like us, American war resisters, back and forth across the Canadian-US border.

It was an underground operation. Dan, a Canadian Aid to Immigration and Draft volunteer, would pick us up at our safe house in Ottawa, Ontario, and drive us across the border into the US at Ogdensburg, New York. There, border guards would question us, and we would lie to them about who we were and where we were going. Then we would ride along the US side, hoping not to run into the police or anyone who might recognize us as war resisters, to another border, and cross back into Canada. At that border, Ed, Katie, and I would enter the Canadian Immigration Office and apply for Landed Immigrant status. On the spot. One chance. If we didn’t make it, we’d have to return to the States and face the consequences of the US court system. It was a big deal.

Time seemed to play favorites - moving along at a sweet, comfortable pace for everyone else, turtle-crawling for me. My head ached. I felt nauseous. Weary. I wanted to sleep. . . throw up . . . go to the bathroom . . . cry. Just get this day over with.

Ed handled the tension better than I did. He had stopped his banter with our housemates and stared at the kitchen floor, as though the worn tiles held wisdom from previous Vietnam War resisters who had ventured through the unknown territory we were about to enter. I didn’t want to push Ed’s emotional buttons, so I remained quiet. Only Katie was immune. She played in the living room with her new doll and the dogs. That she might be soiling Raggedy Ann and the red pinafore I had made for her second birthday a month before we left the States was the least of my worries.

“You guys all set?” Dan took a sip of coffee and sputter-coughed.

All set? What was all set? Calm? Excited? Ready for adventure? Packed with a picnic, bathing suit, and beach balls?

We headed to the driveway where Dan’s rusty green two-door Ford Falcon sat waiting for us. The front left fender, secured with rope and duct tape, heightened my anxiety. Katie riding in this junk heap? I quelled the urge to say forget it - I couldn’t go through with this - we’d take our chances and drive ourselves.

My digestive system spoke for me. Emotional turbulence caused a new cyclone in my belly – and a beeline to the toilet. Katie scooted after me. I let her pull toilet paper off the roll and yank towels to the floor. She made a mountain of white and jumped in it. Her delight in the simplicity of this amusement gave me hope - maybe she won’t be affected by all the havoc and instability in her life. Maybe she won’t even remember. I felt a little better, changed Katie’s diapers, and took her back to the car.

Dan opened the trunk and gave us blank, uncharacteristically clean, white legal envelopes. “Take all your identification out of your wallets or wherever it is, and put it in these - and seal them. All of it. Don’t forget anything. And put these in.” He took some documents out of a manila folder.

“What’s this for?” Ed asked.

Dan rolled his eyes and sighed. He’d answered the question before, many times. “Because you can’t cross the border as yourselves. You’re going as . . . uh . . .” He skimmed the papers. “. . . John and Martha Smith from Timmons, Ontario.” He looked up and handed each of us a credit card, driver’s license, library card, and birth certificate.

“When you get to the US border, you’re John and Martha Smith. Memorize your birthdays and where you were born. Can’t have the border guards catch you looking at your papers to prove who you are.” He laughed. “And we’ll tell them we’re going into the States for the day to . . . uh . . . to shop. That way it won’t look funny if you don’t have luggage or anything.”

“What about Katie?” I asked.

He tossed our sealed envelopes under some old newspapers and slammed the trunk. He waved his arm. “Oh, just tell them you forgot to bring her papers. Tell them she was born in Timmons. They’ll probably be satisfied with that.”

Probably? My mind reeled. What if they’re not? What if they catch us? What if . . .?

“Now, they might wanna search the car for drugs. Gotta expect that. So they could look in the trunk and see the envelopes. Don’t panic or make faces or say anything that attracts more attention. They’re not allowed to open the envelopes without a warrant. See, that’s why they’re sealed.” He sighed again and shook his head - like he was already irritated that we’d blow our cover. He turned his back to us, walked to the driver’s side of the car, and got in.

The harshness of it all. So raw. So real and frightening. Ed must have sensed the burn catch in my throat. He hugged me. “El, it’s going to be ok. Don’t worry. We’ll make it.”

All this intrigue. Like a CIA operation for the untrained. Our own personal “Mission Impossible.” Would Ed climb through heating vents? Should Katie and I be disguised as circus freaks?

I swiped aside car litter and flopped into the back seat beside Katie and Raggedy Ann.

Dan pulled out of the driveway and onto the main road south.

The car rose over the crest of the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge toward the New York side. Below the metal slats, the St. Lawrence River drifted to the gulf and then on into the Atlantic. I thought how restful it is for rivers and gulfs and oceans to have no worries as they venture to new lands and, in spite of logjams or sand bars or drops in elevation, they meander calmly, in relative freedom, knowing their destinations are long established and time-honored. Such peace.

I studied Ed as he watched the river snake around a small peninsula just south of Ogdensburg. Sturdy profile – straight nose, strong chin and cheekbones, hidden somewhat by a short, trim beard. And always a sparkle in his blue-green eyes. Confident. Optimistic. But now his almost six-foot frame slumped against the passenger seat door. He knew it was time.

Dan said, “We’re almost at the border. You guys ready?”

Ready? Hell no . . . I wanted to shout. And quit asking that.

My sweat glands had worked overtime since we started this journey from Ottawa, and blood thumped against my ear drums . Where did I put my fake papers? What was my name? Where was I born? And when? Who was this child – this little girl sleeping soundly beside me on the back seat, lulled by car-sways? I hoped Katie wouldn’t wake up when the border guards started asking questions. But then again, maybe she’d charm them into a kind-hearted “Welcome to the States.” I dug through my purse to find my wallet.

My dehydrated lips stuck together, and my tongue felt fat. What if this didn’t work? What if we were caught? The thought of Ed in handcuffs incited new commotion in my now-empty intestinal tract. Was there a term for dry-heave diarrhea?

“You ok?” I asked Ed. Stupid question. How could he be ok? He was responsible for seeing us successfully through this . . . this charade. The impending border inspection was only one of several twists, turns, and possible dead-ends in the maze of our becoming legally established in Canada.

Ed had a way of slowing my frenzied agitation to a steady calm. If my nervousness began speeding down a hill, he’d locate level ground to help the anxiety take a breather. I figured he was fighting his own nerves, but it wasn’t in his nature to let them win. “I’m fine, El.” Ed smiled. “It will all be fine.”

Dan slowed the car to a stop and rolled down the window. A uniformed US Border Patrol Officer bent over and peered in. He looked at each of us – for a second or two longer than necessary, it seemed. What was he thinking? Could he tell? Would our phony identities flash - Pretense! Pretense!?

Did Ed have - I didn’t show up for induction in the US Army because I don’t support the war in Vietnam and now I’m a wanted criminal in America and after we lie our way across this border we’re heading back across another border where we’ll apply for immediate Landed Immigrant status in Canada - because Canada, bless its heart, has taken us under its wing . . . written on his forehead?

The guard started with me.

“Names? Date and place of birth?”

“Martha Timmons . . .uh . . . Smith . . . born in Timmons . . . New Yo. . . Ontario . . . July . . . uh, 1945. . . . this is Katie, my dau. . . our daughter. . . I forg . . . I don’t ha . . . carry them with me.” Jesus what an idiot!

“What is your purpose for coming to the United States?”

My chest hurt. “Shopping . . . in Ogdensburg . . . for shoes.” Shoes? They don’t sell shoes in Canada?

“And you sir?” He looked at Ed.

Ed was a better imposter. Cool. Unruffled. Level.

The guard settled on Dan. “Sir?”

Dan didn’t have to lie, but his demeanor was devoid of deference to authority. He said his name over his shoulder as he mashed the butt of a cigarette into the ashtray.

“Please open the trunk.”

Dan got out and walked to the back of the car. I couldn’t look. I whispered to Ed that I thought Dan was behaving like a shifty ne'er-do-well.

“El - He knows what he’s doing. Remember, he’s done this before. He’s drawing attention to himself and away from us.”

I heard the trunk slam shut and the guard say, “Move on. Watch the speed limit.”

When we finished perjuring ourselves into the US, we entered the second phase of our scheme – getting to the next border crossing without incident. Every person in every car and on every sidewalk and on every park bench was a potential spy, a selective service tattle-tale.

Dan had insisted we stop and eat at some diner in Ogdensburg, stretching time once again, adding more fuel to my anxiety and frustration. I quietly seethed as he savored tomato soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, and fries, Ed managed coffee and toast while Katie blithely munched on peanut butter crackers. I was too nervous to eat.

After the prolonged lunch, we drove along the St. Lawrence River to Massena, a meandering thirty-five miles east. Our car and the river drifted together, it seemed, synchronized in purpose and speed. Each on its way into Canada – each traveling as slowly as clouds moving across the sky on a windless day. At least Dan didn’t speed and risk being stopped by New York State Troopers.

Half way across the Seaway Bridge, the song “Joanne” came on the radio. Ed hummed along. I watched the ripples in the water and wondered if all this effort, all this expended energy, all our work to establish ourselves in Canada during “the time that made them both run,” was just going to end up “a most hopeless situation.”

With our identifications back in our wallets, we could at least be ourselves again at the border crossing into Cornwall, Ontario, where the final twist in this life-changing maze would play out – convincing Canadian immigration officials we were worthy of legal status in their country.

We sat in the waiting room for over an hour, distracting ourselves by leafing through French editions of Life Magazines and recently discontinued Saturday Evening Posts. The ads were easy to figure out: Tide Détersif de Blanchisserie, Milky Way Bar de Bonbon, Crest Dentifrice avec Floride.

Actress and activist Candice Bergan graced the cover of the July 24 issue of Life, along with the heading “Dilemma of New Standards – The Draft Board Rules on a Conscientious Objector.” I didn’t read the article.

A few months earlier, we had been stuck on that Selective Service merry-go-round. I knew what the article said. And it still felt like an open wound to recall those months of waiting for the draft board to render a decision about Ed’s request for Conscientious Objector status. His request was denied - his religious, moral, and philosophical objections to the war deemed expedient. After all, they reasoned, how could a Catholic promote a liberal Unitarian Universalist belief system? But then, after Ed’s selective service standing was sealed and beyond appeal, and after he received his notice to report for induction into the US Army, the Supreme Court ruled that CO status could, in fact, be granted on moral and philosophical grounds, those very principles that were the foundation of Ed’s convictions.

Ed was snagged in the Vietnam War net just a few weeks prior to the one Supreme Court decision that could have changed the course of our lives, had the timing been different.

Katie ran up and down the long, dark hallway, trying unsuccessfully to turn knobs on office doors. The water fountain was just high enough and the on-button just loose enough for her to get a good spritz at her face, startling her into gawks and giggles. She was instantly fascinated by this mysterious gadget. I hoped her curious new toy would keep her busy until it was our turn. As long as she was occupied, it didn’t matter to me how wet she got. Office workers stooped to tickle her tummy and say hello. She tucked her chin into her chest and swayed with shy delight at the attention - then hid her face in my knees.

I felt a burst of optimism for adventures in an unfamiliar territory. We had an entire new nation to show Katie - and partly French at that. Memories of weekend excursions meandering through the Vermont hinterlands calmed my nerves. Saturdays and Sundays bumping along dirt roads, exploring back woods, eating in small-town diners, discovering better than good bakeries – and just reveling in the magnificence of mountainsides that sloped gracefully into the lush green lowlands dotted with wide-porched white houses, red barns, and grazing sheep, goats, Holsteins, and Morgan horses. I thought, too, about our recent camping trip from Quebec to Nova Scotia and how much I loved the special beauty of the Eastern Provinces. There would be so much more to discover when . . .if . . . we were settled in a new home, in a new land.

I joined Katie at the water fountain, got a drink, and wiped her off as best I could. She looked so sweet and normal in her red Stride Rite shoes, lace socks, and that sopping wet, hand-sewn pinafore. I wondered if I’d ever make another outfit for her. Or for me. I loved making clothes – the more complicated the better. My sewing machine was still in our Burlington town house. When would I be back to get our things? And then it hit me – hard. When would I be back . . . ? Not, we.

Ed might not be going back. Maybe not ever. Never again sleep in his old, growing-up bed. Never again debate world issues with his parents over pie and coffee in his family dining room. Never again help his dad take down storm windows in spring or put them back up in the fall. If Ed couldn’t go back, I probably wouldn’t either – at least not very often. The idea of going back home without Ed threatened to deplete what was left my energy.

The Registrar’s office door opened, and we were asked in by a tall, red-faced grandfather-type in a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves and an open gray vest. He was friendly enough, and tickled Katie under the chin. “Would you like something to play with?” He gave her a pad of paper, a pencil, and a big, pink eraser, reminding me of simple grade school days.

“Please, have a seat. Only one of you needs to fill out these forms.” He handed Ed a pen and a pile of papers written in English and French.

The interior of the office seemed so lackluster - so nondescript. Nothing about it suggested this room was the gateway to a new country. I don’t know what I expected – maybe a big sign that said “Welcome to Canada,” or maybe a huge Canadian map on the wall behind the desk with a big red pin stuck in Cornwall that said, “You Are Here” and a trail of green pins heading to Ottawa, saying, “And Here’s Where You Are Going.” But then this office was just an immigration holding place, where forms were completed and interviews held. There was no guarantee that this was the portal for everyone who wished to live and work Canada. Some were sent back to their homelands.

I watched Ed fill out the forms. So many locations to record for each of us: birth place, first family home, current home, all the homes in between, elementary school, high school, college, graduate school, occupation, other occupations, church affiliation, other church affiliations, and on and on – each with a complete address.

And at the end of every single address, Ed wrote “The United States of America.” All over the place - The United States of America. . . . The United States of America . . . The United States of America. The forms looked like a crazy quilt of protracted inky tributes to his country. It was as if Ed needed to prove to the Canadian officials that, although he was seeking asylum in their country, he still loved his homeland enough to splash its name all over the application – that he respected his nation, regardless of his desire to leave.

Either Ed was showing remarkable patriotism or he was procrastinating - because as soon as he finished the forms, our points would be tallied - and that would be that.

With two index fingers, the registrar pecked our interview answers on the manual typewriter..

“So, you both graduated from college?” He didn’t wait for an answer. He just clicked the keys. “Hmmm, hmmm . . . ok.” More typing. “And do you have a place to live in Ontario?” We gave him the address of our AID sponsors in Ottawa. “Hmmm, hmmm. . . ok.” Every now and then he flipped the carriage several times in a row – switching to new questions on the form.

Katie sat on the floor folding the pieces of paper into tiny squares, as if she, too, were trying to organize chaos into a manageable size.

“And what job to you expect to get, Mr. or Mrs. Searl?”

I spoke first. “I can get a job teaching. I’m a certified teacher. I taught in New York, Delaware, and Vermont. And I can teach swimming and canoeing - I have my Life Saver’s Certificate. I used to be a camp counselor . . . I’m a really good seamstress . . . ” Ed put his hand on my knee and tapped. I stopped.

“That’s fine. And you Mr. Searl? What will you do?”

“Whatever I can find to support my family. I’m not particular. I have talent in many areas, and I believe I’m quite hirable.” Cool. Unruffled. Level.

Two-Fingered Fred finished his form and yanked it from the typewriter. He looked it over, said a couple of “Hmmm, hmmms,” signed it, folded it, and put it in an envelope.

Then he stood up, expressionless, and gave Ed the envelope. My brain lost its balance. Please.

He bent down to Katie’s eye level. “You, sweetheart, are about the cutest, most well-behaved little lady I have ever seen. You take good care of your mommy and daddy, now.”

He stood back up shook Ed's hand. “Congratulations! You are now officially Landed Immigrants of Canada. Good luck to you.”

Tears of relief collected in the corners of my nose and made me sneeze.

“Thank you, thank you so much,” I choked. Did he know that my brain regained its equilibrium? That my anxiety dissipated and was floating along level ground? Did he know he had just saved our futures?

We walked out of the immigration office into the glory of the afternoon sun and over to our friend Dan, who waited for us beside his charming, green Ford Falcon, all nicely secured with rope and duct tape.

Katie, Raggedy Ann, and I settled into the comfort of the back seat as Dan pulled out of the parking lot and headed north to Ottawa. I wiped relief tears from my cheeks and thought about ways to sneak Ed home once in a while, Katie played with Raggedy Ann’s hair, and Ed scanned our Live-Work-Breathe-Eat-Shop-Explore-and-Enjoy-Life-in-Canada papers.

I made Dan stop at the first diner.

I was starving.

EVS 11/09