Postcard from the Exile

Postcard from the Exile

Michael Loyd Gray

      Aaron often sent postcards to his parents in America, Alice and Randall Wahlgren. The family traced quite a ways back to Sweden. They weren’t famers but lived in a two-story farmhouse five miles south of town at a crossroads. The postcards cost a quarter at a Winnipeg Texaco station and a Queen Elizabeth stamp cost six cents. It was easier than writing letters, didn’t require envelopes, and postcards were too small for explaining much, which was a relief to him. 

     He never quite knew what to say in his postcards and always jotted a few breezy lines about seeing the sights and even mentioned he had picked up some French. He vaguely wondered whether anyone in the two postal services read his postcards. Did they guess he was a draft dodger? He supposed there could be many postcards flowing back to the States.

     He sometimes included French expressions in the postcards but stopped after a while when he figured it would just confuse them. And he worried it might make him seem pretentious. His father mistrusted the French, even though he’d never met any. The French were certainly a rung or two above the Japanese on his ladder, but it was a ladder with many rungs. 

     Aaron never said anything in the postcards about coming home. Or when. When he could, he once wrote. But just that once, fearing it would be seen as a commitment. He always wrote that he was okay and working hard and they shouldn’t worry, but he knew they did. Mostly, he knew they didn’t quite understand why he was gone. He ended each postcard with “Your loving son Aaron.”

     Mostly, the postcards were photos taken in le Vieux Saint-Boniface, but a few times, he mailed photos of The Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers mingled at the heart of the city. He liked going to The Forks on a Saturday for lunch in a café along the riverfront. He could get lost in the milling crowds and pretend he was Canadian. It was easier than pretending to be French. 

     One day he lingered in The Forks until evening and went to a bar with a stage and saw a band he’d heard of – The Guess Who. The song that made him reflect on his life so far was “No Time Left for You.” He hadn’t known the band was from Winnipeg. The song stayed in his head for days and he heard it on the radio. Sometimes he sang the lyrics to himself.

     But on Saturdays when he felt like being alone, when maybe a little homesickness crept in, and uncertainty, too, he would walk across the Esplanade Riel bridge spanning the Red River and stop to look down and wave to himself reflected in the water. If the river was rippled from a breeze, he would look wavy, indistinct – rubbery. Faceless, too. The Red River, he learned, was deceptive: it looked placid – tame — but had dangerous, swift undercurrents. 

     Once, he sent his parents a postcard of Lake Manitoba, a large lake northwest of Winnipeg. Quite a hike out from the city. But he’d never been there. He didn’t have a car, didn’t need one, and figured he’d never get up to the lake anyway. But the lake’s water was deep blue in the postcard, and he thought his mother would appreciate the color. He could picture it fastened on her fridge with a magnet. She collected them. Her favorite was a road runner magnet she got in Phoenix, Arizona, when she was a teenager on a school trip. 

     Aaron believed that his mother understood his absence better than his father, a World War II Navy veteran who was at the Battle of Iron Bottom Sound off Guadalcanal. He had the ribbons to prove his patriotism, kept in shiny cases on the mantle. The ribbons and medals rested in velvet, and he often showed them to guests. He’d won the Navy Cross and even Aaron knew that was a big deal. He kept the Navy Cross in a case on an end table next to his favorite easy chair, within reach. His father once absently said the Navy Cross was the biggest thing that would ever happen in his whole life. 

     His father’s dress unform, neatly pressed, still hung in a closet, and he kept several empty 20mm shell casings on the mantle. The casing came from rounds fired from his destroyer at a Japanese Zero. His father had manned the gun and the crew cheered, he said, when he brought the plane down. It was not the first one he’d shot down. There was a framed photo of the ship on the mantle. The words “Dead Jap” were painted on each casing. Aaron assumed his father painted them, but he never asked. He didn’t think it would be useful to know. Or desirable.

     His father’s destroyer had passed by the Zero’s floating wreckage and the red meatball insignia was still visible on the plane’s sinking fuselage. It was a story Aaron heard his father tell guests many times. Some of the ship’s crew lined up at the railing and saw the Japanese pilot floating face down in the ocean, his flying cap still on his head. His father said they felt nothing but contempt for him. He got what was coming to him. The sharks were welcome to the maggot bastard. He was just a damn Jap. A dead damn Jap. The best kind. The only kind worth a tinker’s damn. 

      Aaron had never met any Japanese, but he always hated his father’s story about the pilot. He knew the war had been just, necessary, but he couldn’t connect to the hatred. He figured part of that was because there had been no Pearl Harbor for Vietnam. Vietnam seemed more like a campfire no one paid attention to until it somehow grew into a forest fire, and no one could quite explain why. 

     During good weather, his father made a point every morning of running the stars and stripes up a small flagpole next to the front door of their house. He would stand very erect and salute it instead of merely placing his hand over his heart. But sometimes, he did both. He didn’t allow his family to speak during the ceremony. His father wasn’t a churchgoer, but Aaron suspected the flag ceremony was worship.

     He retrieved the flag at dusk and made Aaron help him fold it according to proper regulations. It was always a solemn ceremony, taking down the colors. It reminded his father of serving aboard his destroyer. He said he preferred the regimented life aboard ship. Things were clear-cut. Black and white. Civilian life had too many gray areas for him. He had the same factory job making farm equipment since he got out of the Navy in 1945. But to Aaron it always seemed like he’d never left his ship. Aaron and his mother were his crew. His father wore gray overhauls with his name on a breast pocket to work every day. It was a uniform.   

     Aaron’s mother respected the flag ceremony but was otherwise indifferent. To Aaron, folding the flag was like mowing the lawn, a task he had to do and disliked, but his father saw it as essential elements to building his character. He had a teacher, Mr. Small, who said people were born with whatever character they were capable of. He didn’t much believe in character building. Mr. Small had never gone to war, his father said, and there was a lesson in that. Aaron never knew just what the lesson was. It wasn’t like his father to explain things. It was always his way or the highway.

     Aaron’s mother sent him handwritten letters instead of postcards, explaining that the few postcards at the drug store were mostly about barns and farmland, or flocks of geese and ducks, things he had already seen and knew, and anyway she preferred the extra space of a letter. She kept him abreast of family doings, of what his favorite cousin, Jack, was up to — farming. She said she wasn’t sure what hippies were, but they sounded like mostly gentle people who didn’t shower enough. The year before there had been a big concert in New York, she said, at a place called Woodstock. People still missed The Beatles. 

     She said she did, too.

mage coutesy The Forks (Manitoba) image gallery

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