Monday, April 30, 2007

Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part II: Five Million Years to Earl

The idea of going back to Leaf Rapids had been simmering at the back of my mind for years. My parents had done it in the early nineties, and they reported that the town, while still reasonably lively, had much diminished in the years since we’d left. Churchill Place, the crescent where our home had been, had been bulldozed, erased; so already there was one memory I could never physically recapture. And Leaf Rapids made national news more than once in the eighties and nineties when it was threatened by forest fires; one such blaze had killed several firefighters defending the town. The population kept shrinking; Ruttan Mine, which had prompted the town’s creation in the first place back in the early 70s, was being gradually abandoned, and without the mine to fuel Leaf Rapids’ economy, it threatened to become a ghost town. There were only 500 people left.

I had to go back before there was no one left at all – before this tiny outpost of humanity slid off the edge of nowhere and into the abyss of ill-remembered history.

So with a little trepidation – what kind of a holiday was a 19 hour drive to a nowhere town in northern Manitoba? – I asked Sylvia if she were up to the trip. I should have remembered that Sylvia likes adventure of all kinds, even unconventional ones; she said yes, and even looked forward to the journey.

I borrowed a couple of maps and a cooler from my parents, some camping gear from Sean, and loaded up the car with all the supplies I thought we’d need for our trek.

We left Edmonton on a sunny afternoon, CDs and maps at the ready. And as we journeyed together, travelling northwest into the future at that universal constant of one second per second, my thoughts sped backward at far greater speed…

Leaf Rapids’ movie theatre, like almost every other business in the little town, was housed in the Town Centre. It backed onto the stage of the school gymnasium, where I’d played the Wizard of Garbage in a school play on littering (a role won by draw – I was thrilled).
During the school year, the theatre owners screened free movies at lunch hour for the children. I don’t know how they did it, but they brought in movie serials from the 40s, replicating the moviegoing experience of generations long past. And there were double features, including a double-bill that would sear science fiction into my psyche forever: When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, both pretty intense films for a kid…

…but nothing, nothing compared to the horror that was Hammer Studio’s Five Million Years to Earth.

More properly known as Quatermass and the Pit, Five Million Years to Earth is the third of a series of British films detailing the exploits of an intrepid, eccentric rocket scientist. In this adventure, Quatermass is brought in to investigate a strange artifact uncovered during the expansion of a subway line in London. It’s an alien ship, filled with strange, insect-like corpses. And before the end of the film, the very nature of human identity will be forever changed, in ways utterly rational and utterly terrifying.

It’s vintage Hammer, a film of steadily mounting dread. And it was too much for the seven or eight year old boy I was. As the film approached its climax, the heroes fighting to stop a devastating psychic storm that threatened to destroy the world, a demon of our own making rose to put an end to us all, and I ran screaming from the theatre all the way home.

As an adult, I can appreciate the film for its intelligence and daring, overlooking the cheap special effects and sets. The low budget certainly didn’t interfere in my belief in the events of the film; I had nightmares for years.

One of those nightmares still gives me chills. In it, I’m having a run of the mill dream, which is interrupted by the steady thump-thump of a beating heart, presumably my own. I then tell the other occupants of the dream that my “nightmare alert” is going off, and that I have to wake up. I know what’s coming. Background details of the precursor dream fade away, the other people fading out last, leaving me in a sterile white void; and as the heartbeat grows louder and louder,
I start to cry, trying to wake myself up, but it’s no use.

I find myself on the path that led from our townhouse to the Town Centre, the path I followed to school and back every day. But it’s nighttime, and I can barely see the stars, for the woods have grown thick, branches folding inward, like bony fingers slowly descending to capture and crush little boys. I start to run, my beating heart so loud it’s painful, but I can’t wake up, not until events play themselves out.

I run as fast as I can, knowing that if I reach the Town Centre I’ll be safe, but the pathway goes on and on and then I feel the rumbling from deep within the earth, below and just behind me. A giant green hand erupts from the depths, and I can see it without turning, the yellowed nails, the closing fingers, the hairy wrist; and then it grabs me and pulls me all the way down to hell, and I can’t wake up until I see the hole above me closing forever.

Eventually I managed to endure this dream without running in tears to my parents, but it took awhile.

Of course, these days I delight in the grim atmosphere of Five Million Years to Earth, and the scientific literacy of the picture fills me with hope rather than horror. For better or worse, it influenced my development as a neurotic movie/sf geek. The film shaped me, just as Leaf Rapids shaped me, just as every moment in time shapes the course of our personal evolution, leading to that ephemeral moment we call the now.

And in the now that was then, Sylvia and I reached the first milestone of our journey, the first of two border towns on our route: Lloydminster, where we stopped at Tim Horton’s for refreshments. I took a moment to absorb how the place had changed since I’d last been there. It seemed to me that all North American cities looked much the same now, with the same restaurant chains and hardware stores, the same strip mall city planning, the same architecture.
I wondered if Leaf Rapids, even in its magnificent isolation, could have possibly remained untouched by the progress of market conformity. Could a trip like this end in anything but disappointment?

The child I was trying to recapture, lost in the inexorably receding wave of time, might as well have been five million years away as the few thousand kilometres we would soon cover. Chasing after a boy who no longer existed was probably a fool’s errand. Probably.

But we were going to find out in person. We headed east on the Yellowhead, the sun at our backs, slowly falling to earth, just as it would for another five thousand times a million years, once a day, heedless of the concerns of its human children, its light shining as brightly on the edge of nowhere as it did anywhere else, blind to prejudice, blind to history, blind to the fears its nightly absence inspired in little boys.

Read Part III. 

Friday, April 20, 2007

Lawnmower Man

Before the days when the valiant Shadow People warned unwary humans of the dangers of playing with power tools, children could be easily entertained by placing them atop a running lawnmower. Here, my mom demonstrates. This is sometime in 1971, in between our move from Flin Flon to Thompson; Dad was up in Thompson looking for a place for us to live, so Mom and I stayed with her parents near Virden, in southern Manitoba.

Back to the saga of our trip to Leaf Rapids soon...

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Happy 4th Anniversary, Sylvia!

It's been four years since Sylvia and I started dating, so here's an image that I think captures how I feel about her. Ooooooooo, she's so cute!

Also, Captain Kirk Takes a Seat

To celebrate our anniversary, Sylvia picked up this astonishing representation of Captain James T. Kirk sitting in his command chair. AWESOME