When I was a teenager in Parry Sound, recreation was a pretty simple affair: on Friday and Saturday nights, we paid somebody to go to the beer store for us, and then we went out and drank to get drunk. Since it wasn’t legal for us to be drinking in the first place, we drank in hideaways, out of sight of the OPP, who cruised the streets of town on weekend nights just to catch kids like us.
One of those hideaways was an old Second World War-era concrete bunker of some kind, alongside the railway tracks, down a muddy road off Tower Hill, high above our little town. From there we could see most of the harbour and yet stay hidden from potentially prying eyes. There we would play drinking games, smoke cigarettes or Colt cigars, tell dirty jokes, and generally revel in the desperation of being bored teenaged boys in a northern town.
It was after a Friday night session like that once when my buddy Jim and I decided we should walk across the trestle. If you know Parry Sound, you know that’s not a good idea. Stretching from Tower Hill on the south side of town to Belvedere Heights across the harbour, the Parry Sound CPR trestle is one of the longest, highest train bridges in the country.
The idea of crossing it was preposterous. Even two drunk guys knew it was an incredibly dangerous thing to do. Trains holler through Parry Sound all day and all night. And there was no safe place to be on that bridge if a train came along. Nor was there a safe place to get OFF the bridge, except at both ends. Hundreds of feet across and over a hundred feet high, the trestle had claimed lives of others in similarly stupid situations before.
So, for all our bravado, we were reasonably cautious, in a drunken way. We decided to walk to the edge of the trestle, and if a train hadn’t come along by that point, we’d go for it. How that should have been the deciding factor I’m not sure, but that’s what we decided.
Somehow, on the way from our drinking spot to the edge of the trestle, walking along the ties two at a time, hopping onto and wobbling off the rails, the subject of Whitney Houston came up. She was at the top of the charts at that time, with “The Greatest Love of All” and as a teenage heavy metal fan I didn’t think much of her, or that song. I expected Jim felt the same. “Cool” was everything to us guys back then, as if you didn’t know that already from the nihilistic way we spent our time. Cool, I have since learned, kills. But I didn’t know it yet, and if I had, I would still have wanted to be cool.
So it was a surprise to me when Jim looked at me and said quite soberly, “Dave, have you ever listened to the words?” And he proceeded to recite these lines as we stood, momentarily paused along the railway tracks over Parry Sound, the sun just making its way slowly down toward the surface of Georgian Bay:
I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow…
No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity
No, I hadn’t listened to the words. But Jim had, and seriously. Those words meant a lot to Jim.
Just then we heard the train. It scared us. Even if you’re used to hearing 35 trains a day, you still get startled when a freight train rounds a rock cut and is suddenly bearing down with its whistle blaring.
We scrambled down off the tracks in time to avoid the train, but it was close and loud and heavy enough to shake us up. We watched it cross the bridge, westbound through Parry Sound and off into the hinterland.
Had we not stopped, we could easily have been edging out onto the trestle when the train came along. It was an unsettling feeling. We didn’t much feel like crossing the bridge after that, and we turned away and headed off down into town.
A few days later, another buddy showed up at my work with grim news. Jim had been rushed off to hospital, airlifted to Sudbury, then Toronto. He underwent major surgery to remove a brain tumour. It was one of those freak, surprise things, and it was very touch and go for a while. I thought a lot about those Whitney Houston lyrics when I was literally praying for Jim’s recovery.
Jim recovered and did fine. He got great care. He was in great shape. He had an excellent attitude. Both our lives went on, mine following the direction of the train, to the west coast and then on to a wild strange path around the world before settling back in Toronto. Jim lives in Barrie now, where he runs a shop and has a family. We hang around when we get a chance. He helped me out a lot when I moved back to Ontario.
This past fall, Jim showed up for my stag party, in spades. He was practically the spirit of the evening personified, harkening back to the way we used to drink and carry on.
This is one of those little anecdotes that doesn’t really have a beginning or an end. Just memories of a small town and our small town ways. But for the last couple of years, I’ve been meditating on the idea of ‘dignity.’ And when I heard last night that Whitney Houston had died, this story was what I thought of.
Everyone else has their memories of her brilliant career, her tragic decline. But that’s mine: Two guys walking drunk along the railway tracks, in Parry Sound, Ontario. My buddy Jim and the way he took cancer in stride. The bridges we cross, and the bridges we don’t cross. How small all our lives are.
That night up along the railway tracks may have been the first time I ever bothered to think about dignity, and what it might mean if I considered it.