Reading Room: Father's Son: A Memoir

When my father had his first heart attack, the winter I was fifteen, I felt relieved. I thought it might weaken him a little, even the scales between us.

He was still in the intensive care unit when a massive snowstorm shut down the city. As his only son, I thought it was my duty to ski across Montreal that night to see him. I felt like a coureur de bois, traversing our silent, boreal city. Stars sparked above Westmount summit. My skis left fresh, frail tracks on buried streets: The Boulevard, Côte-des-Neiges Road, Pine Avenue.

I found him on a narrow bed in the ICU, wires glued to his chest. A cardiac monitor basked green light in the room. An intravenous feeder was plugged into his forearm, plastic tubing shoved up his nose. He was so glad to see me! I don't think I had ever seen him unshaven before; the white beard rasped my lips when I leaned over to kiss him. At that moment, in his helplessness, I loved him as much as I ever had, or would.

The ICU nurses adored his elegant manners, weird ice-blue eyes, beautiful hands. In a hospital bed, my father looked nothing like what he was: an executive in a mid-sized conglomerate that manufactured industrial chemicals and newsprint. No. He was an old Viking. A comitatus elder. An ancient warrior, with the North Sea flowing in his veins—along with the IV glop.

He sprang from the ICU at the end of the week, and briskly set about dealing with office paperwork from his private room in the Royal Victoria Hospital. He bounced back, more fit, twenty pounds lighter, and I came to understand that I had to get away or he was going to eat my life. Nothing grisly, only a kind of painless ingestion. Afterwards I might be spat out at business school, or law school. If I was not sharp enough for the practice of law, I would doubtless prove capable of some position requiring a well-tailored suit. Something respectable, reliable, fixed.

*   *   *

The ranch was where my life started, when I was eighteen. Everything before that had felt like someone else's story.

On my first morning, I was introduced to the top hand, a loose-limbed, sun-flayed man by the name of Rick Bean. The first cowboy I ever met. I had expected a big hat, tooled leather boots, spurs. Rick Bean wore spurs, but they were strapped on over Canadian Tire rubber boots. Instead of a Stetson, he wore a nylon mesh cap from a farmequipment dealership in Red Deer.

He stood beside the corral, rolling a cigarette. We shook hands. His posture was awkward, tentative, as though he had broken bones that had never quite knitted back together. His hand felt big, bony, and dry. He hadn't shaved, and his chin was covered with silver stubble. He licked the cigarette and stuck it between his lips. I struck him a match. He asked to keep the matchbook, from a Montreal bar—Sweet Mama's. He wanted it to show to his kids.

Everything he did from horseback was done superbly, but Rick Bean, I learned, had no feel for machinery. He distrusted loud noises and gearshifts. Brake levers and starter buttons never seemed to work for him. When he was in the operator's seat of a swather—the machine buzzing and clattering like a giant insect—his eyes narrowed to worried slits. He had been a rodeo cowboy, had raced chuckwagons at the Calgary Stampede. He had won many events, taken some bad spills, and married a waitress he'd met in the Stampede beer tent. She bore six children, not all of them his.

The Beans wintered at Pincher Creek and came up to the ranch every spring. They arrived in a smoking Plymouth Belvedere crowded with skinny children, towing a horse trailer, car and trailer crusted with pale grey mud. They settled into an old square-timber cabin. The rancher advanced wages so Mrs. Bean could buy groceries. The local store did not extend credit to the Beans.

Rick Bean's horse was Prince Hal, a handsome chestnut gelding, a quarter horse with elegant thoroughbred lines. Prince Hal was by far the best cattle horse on the ranch, as Rick Bean was by far the best horseman, the only really skilled cowboy, the top hand.

A few days after the arrival of the Beans, we were to drive six hundred head of cattle from spring to summer grazing. The cattle belonged to three or four ranchers sharing a Crown lease. I had no experience with cattle drives, and no one had time to teach me. An old, slow, fat mare was cut out, a saddle thrown on. I was given a leg up, and that was that.

To reach summer pasture, the herd had to ford the James River—a tributary of the Red Deer—its waters milky green, chill, and silty with glacial runoff.


The cattle had been grazing in densely forested hills. Finding them was like a game of hide-andseek. I concentrated on staying aboard the mare—her name was "Buttercup"—and getting my legs out of the way whenever she chose to scrape her fat sides against a tree trunk. Buttercup was slow and greedy. She kept stopping to graze, and I had to jerk the reins and kick desperately with my heels to keep her moving.

We were a dozen riders advancing in a ragged line through the bush. I was thrilled, frightened, and anxious not to make a fool of myself. The strategy was to comb the hills slowly, gathering the cattle ahead of us, until we had collected the herd against a barbed wire fence. Then we would move them down the fence line, out through a gate, and down the road headed for the river. Once the cows were on the road, all we had to do was keep them moving. Parked at every crossroads, women and children would keep the animals trotting in the straight line that would eventually bring them to the James. With riders keeping up the pressure, the lead animals would take to the water and the rest would follow. After fording, they would pick up the road on the other side and peacefully walk another mile or so until sedans and station wagons blocked the route. Women waving willow sticks would turn the cows through a gate and into a pasture where wind rippled waves of silver-green grass with a noise like bedsheets tearing.

Anyway, that was how it was supposed to happen. But of course it did not.

*   *   *

The winter before, still living with my parents and my sisters in our Montreal apartment, I had obtained a list of ranchers from the Alberta Stockmen's Association. I wrote half-a-dozen letters begging for work. My father had no objection. I was trying to jump-start a life; he thought it was a mere matter of a summer job. And he had his own lurking fascination with the West, in some ways deeper and loonier than mine.

My father was born on the Isle of Wight in 1910. His mother was Anglo-Irish, his father German. Baptized Hermann Heinrich Behrens, an uncomfortable name in wartime England, my father's Irish grandmother started calling him "Billy." She had a son, also Billy, who had emigrated, joined the North-West Mounted Police, and disappeared into the wilds of Canada.

When war broke out in 1914, my grandfather was arrested and interned for four years in what was called a "concentration camp" for German husbands of British wives at Alexandra Palace, a failed exhibition hall in north London. My father left Great Britain for the first time in 1919, when my grandfather was deported to Germany, after the armistice. They went first to a borrowed apartment in a rat-infested castle in Saxony, then to an apartment in Frankfurt, where Hermann/Billy (the Anglo-Hiberno-Teutonic schoolboy) taught himself the language of Goethe by reading and rereading the bestselling Wild West stories of author Karl May. May never set foot outside Germany, but his best characters—Winnetou, Old Shatterhand—roamed the boiled plains of Texas, the painted deserts of the Southwest, ranging a passionately imagined country weirder and wilder than the West that Zane Grey's guns-for-hire drifted through. May wrote of tribes, quests, warrior codes—matters close to the German heart, transposed to a different key, transferred to a North American Wild West. He was Hitler's favourite author.

In Montreal, fifty years later, my father could still hear the song May had been singing. He could imagine that he understood my longing to go West. He thought the West would toughen me. So did I—we were both German Romantics, I suppose—and one May morning I finally left home, with a friend, in a battered Ford Pinto we had picked up at a drive-away agency and promised to deliver to a used-car dealer in Calgary. My father was happy to see me go. Did he ever comprehend that I was running away from him?

My bedroom at home was supposed to be the maid's room. Set apart, off the kitchen, it was the smallest room in our apartment. Pressing a button in the dining room sounded a buzzer in my room, but my parents never had a real maid to ring for, only a succession of part-time nursemaids and au pairs, and by the time my youngest sister was four, the last of the hired help was gone, and I inherited the room.

The morning I left home, my father handed me fifty dollars and warned me not to drive at night, "when all the nuts are all out on the road." My friend and I covered six hundred miles that first day, stopping long after midnight. We got a six-dollar room in a flophouse above a tavern. Lugging our rucksacks along the corridor, we passed doors open to dingy single-room-occupancy cells, inside which men sat on their beds, drinking rye whisky and playing cards with women who were, we imagined, whores. Pronounced hoo-ers in Canada. The women called out to us with scratched, boozy voices, but we were too shy to answer them. It was as far from home as I had ever been.

My father's beautiful suits were tailored in London. His shoes, handmade, were arrayed in his closet like a company of guardsmen, each shoe polished to a radiance and rammed with a wooden shoetree.

One of his rules was, Mass on Sunday. Another was, jacket and tie. He selected my tweed jackets and chose every tie, but on Sunday mornings I was still a peevish and unkempt teenager, in spite of his best efforts. As I slouched up the path to the church, he kept throwing me frustrated, compulsive, blue-eyed glances, and as I reached for the door handle, he'd make his move—he couldn't stop himself, he never could. My neck stiffened and my shoulders twitched as my father's hands turned down the collar of my overcoat, smoothing it flat. Humiliated, furious, I shuddered and twisted away from him. Hating his touch.

I do not remember much about the Canada we crossed that spring, only its emptiness and strangeness. And the cowboy boots and lime-green jeans worn by the men we saw at truck stops in southern Saskatchewan. The coolness of rubber floor mats against my bare feet. The litter of maps, torn and badly folded. My arm hung out the window, my palm cutting and planing on the seventy-mile-perhour breeze.

We slept the last night in a field outside Medicine Hat, reached Calgary the next day, delivered the Pinto, and split up, as planned. I caught a Greyhound up to Caroline, Alberta, where I had been promised a job.

The oil boom of the mid-seventies had created a labour shortage in western Canada, otherwise no rancher would have hired someone like me. Boys raised on farms and ranches were all in Calgary earning twelve dollars an hour as union carpenters on condominium projects, or up on the Athabasca tar sands, operating backhoes the size of buildings.

To say I was underprepared for the ranch would be an understatement. In our family, there was no masculine tradition of physical labour, craftsmanship, or even general handiness. I never saw my father grasp any tools except a pen and a cigar clipper. We lived in an apartment, with a janitor to fix anything that went wrong.

I had expected a mythic landscape: stark plains, vast skies, plateaus, knobs of red rock. A singing wind. I hadn't read Karl May yet, but I'd seen the John Ford movies, and the West I had constructed was a rite of passage, not a place. Get tough. It wasn't Alberta I was aiming for, it was manly independence. Separation. The freedom to make my own moves, even if they were disastrous.

I was disappointed that the foothills around Caroline were small and tight—forested demimountains, not unlike the Laurentian hills north of Montreal, where my father rented us a farmhouse every summer. I had come two thousand miles to be a cowboy in a landscape that could have passed for Quebec without the ski resorts or the joie de vivre.

But Caroline, Alberta, it turned out, wasn't much like home after all. The foothills were blanketed with aspen and lodgepole pine, not Laurentian birch and spruce. The James River—speeding, narrow—was heart-shocking cold, a liquefied glacier. Standing on the roof of the hay barn, looking west, I could see the limestone wall that was the Rocky Mountain front range.

The foothill ranches were small, and many of the ranchers were poor. The district had the classic, lawless flavour of marginal hill country. On remote sections we would find cattle dead on the road with their hindquarters butchered off. Anyone who hit a cow with his car and happened to be carrying an axe or knife would help himself to the free beef. Sometimes it wasn't even legitimate roadkill; hungry people lived in cabins with hungry families, and we'd come across the carcasses of animals that had been slaughtered and hastily butchered well inside the fence lines.

Handguns were rare, this being Canada, so people in the beer parlours felt safe to let off steam by brawling. I saw a woman walk up behind her husband, who was sitting at a table—provincial law forbade anyone to drink standing up—and crack his skull open with a bottle of Coca-Cola.There was little traffic on the roads, which were muddy and hazardous; cows roamed the secondary roads at night. Firebirds and Trans Ams, driven by nineteen-year-olds—rig pigs back from a season of drilling on the Beaufort Sea or catskinning at Fort McMurray—smashed into ditches, rolled, threw up brilliant scherzos of flame. Pickup trucks—known as half-tons—flew off bridges and bumped downstream on the current,crunching ashore upside down on gravel bars, spilling drowned cargoes of cowboys and their underage girlfriends.

Man with pipe

I saw an old man breaking a horse to the saddle by bucking it down the main street of Sundre, Alberta, while dragging a couple of truck tires tied to the pommel for ballast. This was the middle of the afternoon on an ordinary weekday, and I was the only person who bothered to watch.

*   *   *

My father worshipped order because his early life had been a scattering, a chaos. After the armistice in 1918, when he and his parents crossed France, heading into Germany, into exile, their suitcases and trunks were looted and smashed by the French railway workers. Everything—family silver, baptism certificates, clothes, books—was lost.

My father married a beautiful gambler, one of four famously gorgeous sisters, Montreal debutantes of the thirties. Raven-haired and devout, Mother had acquired a taste for cards and dice at her convent boarding school, Pensionnat Saint-Nom-de-Marie. She sharpened her skills by shooting barbotte, a Montreal dice game, and dealing blackjack hands with the redcaps, taxi drivers, and RAF pilots at Dorval Airport, where she had a wartime job booking VIP passengers on the transatlantic bomber shuttle. Years later, kicking back a corner of the living room carpet, hiking up her ballgown and kneeling down on the floor, she would persuade my sisters and me to gamble our allowances by rolling dice with her before she and my father headed out to the ball, or the poker game, or the dinner à deux in the downstairs bar at Café Martin. She loved tumbling dice, but she had married a man who would work for the same corporation for half a century. Who never bought a house because he thought owning real estate too risky. A man who counted the perfectly honed yellow Faber pencils arranged in the top drawer of the desk in his study, and interrogated his children if one was missing.

My father quit Germany the year after Hitler came to power, and arrived in Montreal on his British passport. He tried to join the Royal Canadian Navy in 1939 and was rejected for being "too damn German." In Montreal, his business colleagues and German-speaking friends called him Bill. To my mother and her Irish-Canadian family, he was Hermann, except when social circles overlapped. Then I often heard her make the shift.

"Bill," she'd say, "pour me another, would you?"

I don't know why he had to be "Bill" to the Montreal Germans, "Hermann" to the Montreal Irish. I read it as a sign. People usually found my father mildly exotic, slightly misplaced, some kind of elegant foreigner. Wherever he happened to be, it was pretty clear that he was from somewhere else.

*   *   *

The bush was so thick and tangled that our first sweep of the hills gathered less than half the herd, and each time we pressed a group of animals up against the barbed wire, the friskiest steers succeeded in jumping the fence and galloped off in all directions. Cold, thick rain began. Horses slipped and skidded, thrashing potholes so deep that we needed ropes and winches to extract the animals. We probably should have called it a day and gone home, but forage was very thin on the winter side of the river and the ranchers were unwilling to delay the drive on account of poor weather—which might last for weeks.

The rain had brought the James up quickly. By the time the first steers reached the ford, even I could see that the river was running so deep and fast that the animals would have to swim, or drown. The riders pushing at the rear didn't comprehend the danger, and so kept up the pressure. The lead steers were being pressed into a cold, fast current that started sweeping them downstream. I was on a flank near the front, staying as close as I could to Rick Bean, trying not to do anything to make things worse. Rick Bean spurred Prince Hal out into the river. Buttercup and I followed reluctantly. The horses struggled to keep their footing while drowning steers bumped past us. The faces of the cattle were tilted up, they were snorting plaintively, and their eyes showed how frightened they were.

The James, which had been the colour of melted pistachio ice cream, was grey and thick now, a suspension swirling with gravel, tree branches, and mud. The silty water rasped like sandpaper against my leg. The horses kept their feet, barely. Urging Prince Hal across, Rick Bean used his horse's strength to nudge one of the drowning steers to safety. He dropped a lariat over the stubby horns of another, and towed him. I did nothing helpful, just hung on to my mare while the river ripped by us and more bellowing, drowning steers were swept away.

*   *   *

My father returned to Germany in the summer of 1939 and tried to persuade his parents to leave. My grandfather, despising the Nazis but terrified of another internment in England, or Canada, declined. I still have the telegram my father received from the British consul in Cologne in late August 1939, urging him to leave Germany "in view of the present strained relations" between the two countries. He caught a train to Rotterdam the day war was declared. His parents would survive the war, but he did not hear anything from them for nearly six years.

Man in office

He'd been a refugee, his politics could be liberal, he was capable of tenderness. I remember arriving in Montreal at the end of a long cross-country car trip—coming in at two or three o'clock in the morning and finding him, in his pyjamas, dressing gown, and slippers, waiting up for me anxiously. And him saying nothing, only hugging me, kissing my cheek.

He was also domineering, unable to escape his obsession with loss and his need for punctuality, control, certainty. He was ill-suited to raising children aboard an entropic planet. When he thought he was shielding us, he was blocking us. We weren't getting any light.

My sisters tried to escape the pressure by becoming best friends with girls from large, warm, tolerant, rich families. My sisters, essentially, had themselves adopted. We were all searching for ways to begin ourselves.

*   *   *

The drownings had spooked the herd. They were shying from the dangerous river, turning, thrusting back up the road. The riders behind finally gave up trying to control them and got out of their way, and the cattle melted back into the bush like a successful guerrilla army.

I can remember my adolescence though not see myself in it. But I can see myself very clearly that afternoon: a thin boy, scared, on an old mare in a fast river. I didn't do anything brave or useful. I didn't panic, either. Aboard Buttercup, midstream in the James River, I stepped into my own life. The world, after all, did not belong to my father. It wasn't exactly mine either, but if I could hang on, learn a few things, I probably had as much of a claim on it as anyone.

Whatever happened from then on would matter. Whatever happened from then on would stick. I could start to accumulate my own history.

Buttercup and I made it across, but there was nothing much to do on the other side, since no cattle had made it over—except the two steers Rick Bean had rescued, and which were foraging in the red willows. The pelting rain had stopped, but it would take days to collect the rest of the herd and try again. Meanwhile Rick Bean rolled two cigarettes from an Export pouch kept dry in his shirt pocket. Then we swam our horses back across, and went home.

At the end of the season I went back to Montreal, but for the next couple of decades my life stayed focused on the West. My life had opened up like a book fallen off a shelf, splayed on the floor; and I had picked it up and started reading at the open page, and gone on from there. Until I was in my thirties, I made a living with physical work. Then I published a collection of short stories called Night Driving, and dedicated them to my father. After the book I moved on to—where else?—California, and had some adventures in the screen trade.

That tense warrior who was my father? He became older, and smaller, very quickly. As fathers do. In his last years he looked like an old eagle, tattered and fierce, with shaggy white eyebrows and wild eyes glaring out across the lives of his children.

*   *   *

In my late twenties I began spending winters on the coast of Maine. It was cheap and I could write there. In the spring I would drive back out to Alberta and go to work for seven or eight months at another harsh outdoor job where I could save up another chunk of money. One year I picked up my father in Montreal, and the old man made the long drive west with me.

He was well behaved. Not too grumpy, even when his knees—ruined in a violent skiing accident in 1940, swollen with scar tissue—were bothering him. I did all the driving. It was thirty years since he had used a standard shift.

By then I had crossed the continent so many times that all main highways bored me, so we took back roads almost all the way, across Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan.

Whenever my father travelled, even over the Great Plains in my beat-up car, he dressed like Prince Philip on a country weekend at Sandringham: tweed jacket, grey flannels, suede shoes, tattersall shirt. A different necktie every day.

On our next-to-last day, as we drove across south Saskatchewan, he spied a herd of small antelope, flickering like birds across that dryspring, burnt-yellow country, and he asked me to stop the car. There was no problem pulling over: we'd been the only car on the road for miles. He got out, opened the trunk, and took a pair of ancient, beautiful Zeiss eight-power military binoculars from his suitcase. They had belonged to his father, once a Prussian grenadier. Black metal barrels wrapped in black leather. My father used to bring them to football games.

I watched him remove his bifocals and slip them into his shirt pocket and then raise the heavy, old field glasses to his eyes. I saw him spin the rangefinder until he got what he wanted in focus—those tiny, hasty, delicate, finely tuned animals.

This is the picture of my father I have been given: an old man standing on an empty road, gazing at quick, faraway antelope. I believe the animals are my two sisters and me: the sister who is a visual artist; the sister who dies in a car wreck; the writer who has just become a papa himself. My father can watch us, but he never can catch us. The wind shunts through the shortgrass, tugs at his jacket, flips his necktie, blows through the wide-open doors of my car. Huge light of the West. The scent of sage. The possibility of rain. His father's binoculars. His son standing a few feet away. The car's engine beating softly, just below the noise of the wind.

Father and Son