Inside Read is our sampler of new Canadian books we think merit your attention. In Cold Comfort, Colborne, Ontario poet and curator Gil McElroy uses a box of photographs left behind by his late father, a DEW line operator during the Cold War, to reconstruct that era and “come to terms with the mysterious photographer, a man better understood by his military compatriots than by his own family.”
Excerpted by kind permission of Talonbooks.
I remember fear. No, that’s not quite right. I remember terror.
A six-year-old kid is attuned enough to know when something is wrong by the change in behaviour of the adults around them. I remember it like this: my father’s absence, my mother’s elevated anxiety, the displaced normalcy of the small world within which I lived. I have only the haziest remembrance of the facts of the matter — the news reports of Soviet missiles spotted in Cuba, the sea blockage of the island by U.S. warships, the political posturing by both Soviets and Americans, President John F. Kennedy’s televised words to his nation (and by default, ours) . . . But I remember clearly the sensations of what not-normal felt like as the grown-ups around me responded emotionally (for how could they not?) to the very real possibility of war and the inevitability of nuclear annihilation to which it would lead. And I remember, of all things, the base bowling alley, located in the basement of a building, and how in my memory it doubled as a bomb shelter.
But searching through the records of the base I find no evidence of any such place. There was, of course, a recreation building — standard issue as would be found on any RCAF station of the period, with a pool, gymnasium, a small confectionary store, and post office — but there is no mention of a bowling alley.
So this, then, is an unreliable memory, no matter the clarity that it has for me. It seems to bear no absolute fidelity to fact. I’m shaken by this, by the realization that something so consequential could be so mis-remembered, mis-represented, and so wonder now about my memory of the air raid siren. It’s rising and falling wail, too, connects me inextricably to Beaverbank, to the same period of devastatingly intense brinksmanship that so very nearly cost us our existence. I can hear it still, feel the terror rise in my gorge as it did some 18 years later when, asleep in my apartment which had no telephone or television, I woke to the familiar wail as the air raid siren sounded atop the post-office building in downtown North Bay (at the time, the important centre of yet another nuclear bull’s eye), a block from where I lived. I threw on some clothing and ran down into the street and towards the art gallery where I then worked to use the telephone there, wondering as I ran why everyone else didn’t seem to be responding like me, then frantically dialled a friend’s number as a cold sweat poured off my face only to find out they knew of nothing happening of geopolitical consequence, and then learned much later that day that the siren was simply being tested.
Maybe the 1962 bowling alley wasn’t real, but the fear and anxiety most certainly were. This is the gift Beaverbank left me. This is what the stupidity of Cold War geopolitics gave to me.