When I was seven years old, the thing that excited me the most about Ottawa was that it was the home to the Canadian Boy Scout Museum. The previous fall, my Dad and I became a part of the local scouting scene—I was a Beaver, my dad was a Cub leader—and my Dad took to Scouting like it was a religion. He was fascinated with everything to do with the history of the scouting movement and its founder Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell, and his enthusiasm rubbed off on me. The Boy Scout Museum was mentioned at the very end of The Cub Book (I had just gone through the "swimming up" ceremony—moving from Beavers to Wolf Cubs—a few months before and I read my brand-new copy from cover to cover) and when I found out the 1977 family vacation was going to include Ottawa I was so excited because it meant we could go there. Such was my excitement that I think we went to the Boy Scout Museum before we even checked into the motel. I suppose I was expecting a Cathedral for the Boy Scout Movement. What I found was a single-story example Centennial-era architecture. Inside were some display cases showing old uniforms.
I got a copy of comic book version of the life story of Baden-Powell though. That was enough to make me happy.
If major terminus stations are planets, then there are always stations like this orbiting them as suburban satellites. These are the train stations you get off at if you live in the burbs outside the urban core: Montreal has Dorval, Toronto has Guildwood, Ottawa has Fallowfield. Technically speaking, Fallowfield is located in the bedroom community of Barrhaven, but whoever names railway stations picked an infinitely better name. Fallowfield. It's so evocative. So haunting. Why did this place have a field left fallow? (Sure enough there's a giant farmer's field nearby, though it doesn't look fallow to me.) It's a name that makes you think there's a story of spilled blood and ghostly visitations in the back forty. And if there isn't one, then there should be.
One day I intend to write a novel with a character named Jane Fallowfield, because I like the ring of that.
I tend to notice Smiths Falls more on the way to Ottawa, as it's the half-way point of the second half of the journey there (presuming Kingston is the half-way point). Also, on the way there I'm more apt to notice the giant notice board indicating the number of days since an accident happened in the local CN Yards. I always find those signs a little bit creepy—it seems to be deliberately tempting fate. "Look at us. We're masters of our own destiny going without an accident." And perhaps they are. But I can't help hold my breath waiting for Karma to catch up.
I remember one trip they had gone 283 days. The next time I passed through they had gone four. I felt strangely sad at that.
At certain times of the day, VIA Rail combine the trains going from Toronto to Montreal and Ottawa. At Brockville, they uncouple the two trains and they go to face separate destinies.
I have come to believe from those occasions that "Brockville" is actually Serbo-Croatian for "The point in your travels where you're most likely to have an extra hour added onto your journey."
When I was in university, I once spent my reading week staying with family friends who lived near Kingston. Sometime during this visit we were on some errand and I saw a sign noting that Sir John A. MacDonald's gravesite was nearby. I pointed it out to my friend, who said "You know I've never understood the need to go see someone's gravestone. What could you possibly get out of doing that?"
"Well, I suppose it's a way of communing with the person in some way." I said.
"By standing over the place where their mortal remains are buried?"
I never forgot that discussion. As a result, during the two years I lived in Britain I never once went looking for George Orwell's grave even though I always really wanted to do so.
Possibly the most disastrous experience I had taking my then 11 year-old Goddaughter to a film was taking her to see The Triplets of Belleville. I thought it was grotesque but enormously inventive and fun. She found it simply grotesque. And it's not hard to see why that's the case. All the frog-eating is just mildly disturbing, though it was actually the bicyclists' massively muscular legs that really grossed her out. Looking back, I suppose it's possible that a film which references Jacques Tati, Django Reinhardt, Josephine Baker and Glenn Gould might fly over the head of an 11 year-old.
The actual town of Belleville, Ontario is actually picturesque in a 1950s small-town sort of way. If I were ever to adapt Beverly Cleary's Henry Huggins novels for TV, I'd shoot it in Belleville.
To this day, whenever I hear the word "Oshawa" I always think about a logo I can barely describe. Food City, which was a grocery store chain that existed in the ‘70s and ‘80s (I think it was absorbed by IGA eventually) were owned by or sold goods from the Oshawa Bakery Group, and they had some funky 1970s logo involving hexagonal and square shapes. I can't quite make it out, but it's always on the tip of my mind, like some seven-dimensional sigil out of Grant Morrison's The Invisibles.
My favourite cousin Lyndal also lives in Whitby, which is one GO train stop from Oshawa. During the summers when I visited my aunt and uncle in St. Catharines, she used to drive me to places like Niagara Falls and the Fantasy Island theme park. And she listened to me as though I were an interesting grown-up and laughed at all my jokes as though I was the funniest boy on earth. She still does these things, and she's still an absolute sweetheart.
Another suburban orbiting station like Fallowfield, only the name sounds more austere and pretentious. As a resident of Toronto, I am given to certain snobberies, particularly where the former city of Scarborough is concerned. I am sure it's that at work here.
I remember the first time I ever went to Toronto on my own. I was eleven and I came on the GO Train one afternoon to meet my Dad in the city to buy comic books at the Silver Snail. It was 1982 and a comic book shop was still a rarity, and I wanted to see if I could buy some particular comics from the 1960s.
My Dad made sure that I was safe—I was only alone until I got to Union Station, but I remember that train ride there vididly, watching the big city loom closer and closer until eventually we were passing by the base of the CN Tower. It was a thrill still lives with me when I travel to new places. I was going someplace big and fascinating and wild. I was going there on my own. No adult accompaniment. Me and an afternoon of possibilities in a city of endless possibilities.
At the Silver Snail, I found three issues of House of Mystery featuring Dial "H" For Hero from 1967. It was like finding impossible and unfathomable treasure.
Like the Boy Scout museum, only better.