Sunday, August 25, 2019

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On Learning To Cruise

Like a handful of gumbooted kids in Langley, I learned to drive when I was ten. In 1982, the town was undergoing its dispiriting transformation from a farming valley to a subrban fatty deposit beside the Trans-Canada artery. We weren’t trying to hitch ourselves to Vancouver, nothing quite that ambitious. We wanted to be like Guildford! This means we simply wanted a bloated mall and plenty of parking. I think I wished that had come true when I was thirteen and learning to cruise the mall with my friends, ritually making goo-goo-eye contact with a cute girl, then looking back after passing to see if she was doing the same. If that happened, then you had "eye contract," as we coined it, which meant ritual permission to talk it up on the next pass, probably in front of Bootlegger or Dee Jays Records. Kids like us, arrested in our pick-up customs, filled the Guildford Mall promenades. We didn’t buy anything, of course, so there clearly wasn’t enough of a market to support a sister mall in Langley. What’s worse is Langley got the booby prize. Because we couldn’t support another boutique warehouse of epic scale, our dinky town played foster parent to a littering of ugly cousin plazas and mini-malls with "No Loitering" signs. By their very nature, if you couldn’t drive, you couldn’t cruise the mall either. But I’m ten in 1982 and not alert to the shifting geography at that time. All I knew was we’d drive about ten minutes from my family’s cul-de-sac to my grandparents’ farm every Sunday for dinner. On a summer day that year my father taught me to drive on my grandfather’s 1952 Ford 9N tractor. At ten there is no distinction between a tractor or a car. This wasn’t Knight Rider by a long shot, but it had an engine, a gear shift (two gears and reverse) and I got to steer the works. "What’s this for?" I asked, pointing to a red ball on the steering wheel. "That’s the suicide grip," my father prophesized. We drove slowly in low gear towards the wooded back acrage with me behind the wheel and my father standing behind me on the tractor’s hitch. Comforted I could steer a straight line, he allowed me to depress the clutch and shift into high gear. The clutch went down down down under my short suburban leg. Feeling for the clutch bottom, I must have looked like I was pedalling this four-wheeled antique, leaning precariously to one side of the seat.. In high gear on a raised dirt trail we approached the bridge across my grandparents’ pond. The bridge wasn’t there and now the pond was fenced off. "Brake and we’ll turn around," my father said. I leaned and pressed again looking for the bottom of the clutch. "Brake!" he ordered but I couldn’t reach the bottom of the clutch on one side and the bottom of the brake on the other. Think of an iron horse with the stirrups too low. Now, some poets claim the shift into modernity happened when art ceased to attempt copies of nature, instead imitating nature in the act of composition itself. In 1982 I didn’t know much about nature, but I knew Knight Rider, and in that show you stopped a speeding car by veering hard on the wheel, which apparently causes a car to skid to a very cool hault. So I did just that. I veered hard to the left, spinning the suicide grip with veteran ease and consequently sped grandpa’s 1952 9N directly into a sturdy tree. My driving impressed the tractor’s grill into the tree’s trunk. I looked back at the image with secret pride while dad drove us home to Sunday dinner. Eventually that tree grew over my first contact with modernity and something like art.

640 w. October 30, 2001

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Ryan Knighton

Ryan Knighton lives in Vancouver, teaches at a college in North Vancouver, and peers at the world with a strange but distinctive focus. He just signed a whopping book contract based on a series of pieces that appeared on this site, and his publisher made us erase them.

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