By Accidents and Sagacity

Photo of Passamaquoddy Bay, taken at Holt’s Point, New Brunswick, Canada. By the author. September 2, 2019.

In January 1754, Horace Walpole, the English writer, art historian, and politician, sent a letter to Sir Horace Mann, a British diplomat and long-time resident of Florence, Italy. The letter contained the following attempt to explain the meaning of the word “serendipity.”

Serendipity… you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of…. Now do you understand serendipity?”

Horace Walpole, Letters. To Sir Horace Mann [January 28, 1754]

In the summer of 1972, in my early twenties, I traveled outside the United States for the first time. I was to spend the summer with friends in the Canadian Atlantic Province of New Brunswick. I was excited about my summer. Not only had I not traveled to a foreign country before, but it was rare that I traveled even outside of Mississippi. 

I remember visiting New Orleans on one of those infrequent “outside of Mississippi” trips. When I returned, I told my father that I thought the people of New Orleans were rude. I said this because of an experience with a bus driver. I was waiting for a bus on Canal street, sipping a Coca-Cola. When the bus arrived, the driver told me, “You can’t get on the bus with that.” I reluctantly set my coke down on the ground at the stop and got on the bus, all the time thinking of how I had wasted some money and what a rough fellow the driver was. Now, what the driver said may not seem rude to most people. However, I believe that if a similar incident had happened to me in Jackson, the driver would have said something along these lines. “Excuse me, sir, but drinks are not allowed on the bus. If you like, you can set it in the holder here next to me, and I will return it to you at your destination. If you prefer to wait, another bus will be along in about fifteen minutes.” Well, that’s what I imagined, anyway.

My father’s interpretation of the bus driver’s statement was quite different. People in big cities are often busy and don’t have sufficient time to be as polite as I had come to expect, he said. The population of New Orleans in 1970 was approximately 590,000 people. On the other hand, Jackson’s population in 1970 was about 150,000 people. My dad knew what he was talking about; Chicago, his favorite US city, had a population of over 3 million when he lived there in the 30s and 40s. So I took what my father told me seriously and have remembered it ever since. Today, when people treat me rudely, in my opinion, I think that they must be busy. My understanding may not be accurate, but it does help cool me down a bit.

I traveled to Canada that summer, driving a bright red AMC Javelin. My biggest problem occurred in driving through New York City. As I have found out on many subsequent occasions, several lanes in New York may sometimes converge into one, with little or no notice. So two things happened: first, since I was running the air conditioning in the car to keep out the at times pungent odors of New York’s city streets, because of the constant stops and starts, the engine began to overheat. Second, my arms started to itch terribly because of my nervousness from driving through a town the size of New York. The city had about 7,800,000 residents at the time, much larger than any place I had ever been to before. I switched off the air conditioner and sadly rolled the car windows down. I quickly learned how to ease my Javelin into a long line of aggressive, impatient drivers while trying not to breathe too deeply. Meanwhile, my arms turned bright fiery red.

In God’s mercy, I survived the NYC drive, and in time got to Maine. What a blessing! To me, it felt kind of like a Yankee version of Mississippi – rural, relaxed, beautiful. I did not require the air conditioner any longer. I eagerly rolled the windows down and deeply inhaled the wonderful aroma of pine wafting in from the great Maine woods.

I spent a night in Maine and crossed the International Bridge from Calais, Maine into St. Stephen, New Brunswick the next day. Little did I know then that this would be the first of about thirty summers I’d cross this bridge into St. Stephens. After crossing the bridge, I felt like I had suddenly become a world traveler, a sophisticated man, somewhat along the lines of Phileas Fogg. As I drove down Milltown Boulevard in St. Stephen, I passed the Ganong Chocolate Factory, now The Chocolate Museum. The various chocolates available in Canada, different from those I was used to in Mississippi, have proven to be an enduring gourmet memory of my first trip out of the US.

As I turned from Milltown Boulevard onto King Street, I noticed the St. Stephen Lighthouse on my right, but then I saw something I didn’t understand at first at all. It was a cemetery with an iron banner over the entrance saying, Loyalist Burial Ground. What could that possibly mean, I wondered? Later I learned that the people buried in the graveyard had fled the US in the 18th century and remained loyal to Great Britain after the American Revolution. They were, as I understand it, the founders of St. Stephen.

Plaque at Loyalist Burial Ground, St. Stephen, NB, Canada

For me, this was a watershed moment. It was the first glimmering of my understanding that the United States wasn’t the only country in the world. It came as a bit of a shock. That understanding is not meant to be disrespectful to the United States by any means, but just to acknowledge some significant personal growth.

I had a great summer in 1972. At the end of it, I returned to Mississippi. Shortly after my return, I boarded a bus that took me to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for my basic training in the United States Army. After basic, I went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for advanced training. I was back home in Jackson briefly for holidays in December, after which I traveled to Fort Dix, New Jersey. I was there for only a few days. I traveled from Fort Dix by plane to Frankfurt, Germany. It was my first commercial flight. I would spend two and a half years in southern Germany stationed in Schwäbisch Gmünd, a small town in eastern Baden-Württemberg. Using Germany as my base, I applied all of my leave to traveling around Europe: Italy, Austria, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Holland, England, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Years later, I would visit Spain, Portugal, and Belgium with my family. During my time in the Army, the lesson to which I was first introduced in Canada, quite by chance, that the US wasn’t the only country in the world, was thoroughly absorbed.

Today, as an American-Israeli, I live with my wife and Kulfi, our wonder-dog, in Beersheba, the city of Abraham, in the Southern District of Israel. It was Abraham, the father of three faiths, who was told by God: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.” (Genesis, 12:1)

Over the years, I’ve learned that doing what God commanded Abraham to do often means changing your state of mind rather than changing your country. Both tasks can be equally challenging. So it seems to me.

All these years later, I am immensely grateful for the summer of ’72 and the serendipitous event of passing the Loyalist Burial Ground in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada.

All the best,
Gershon

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham holds an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics). His writing has appeared in Big Muddy, Gravel, Image, Jewish Literary Journal, Poetica, The Rappahannock Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and others. His short story “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) earned “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition.

One thought

  1. Loved this post! My ancestors were forced to leave the colonies for Canada after the War of Independence – but to Ontario, where they were granted land by the English on Lake Erie. It took another 120 year or so before they came back into the United States.

    Liked by 1 person

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