Tuesday 10 May 2011

Oxygen Tank

Through the wonderful world of Twitter, I met Thea Atkinson recently who writes psychological and historical thrillers with a deep and dark exploration into the human spirit. She has no less than five novels published on Kindle available at Amazon, BN, Kobo, Diesel and Smashwords. 
We decided to ‘guest post’ on each other’s blogs and Thea’s going first. Please take a look at her thought provoking musings on ageing – you’ll be digging out your photo albums!  You can read Thea’s own blog and find out more about her books at http://theaatkinson.wordpress.com/ 
Me, I’m guest blogging over there on 13th June but I’ll remind you before then, don’t worry…

The ever-present hum of an oxygen machine fills in conversational gaps as Stan, a retired light keeper, and I sit in the bedroom he calls home. I sit on his bed holding his photo album while he and a small black poodle occupy the Lazy Boy chair. The summer sun hasn't yet set past the one window that filters light in on both of us. Even in the limited daylight, he looks weary, aged more than his cropped, white hair should allow.
We've both lived in the same community our entire lives: one historically dependent on fishing for survival. While he experienced our hometown through whatever light his small beacon managed, I've grown up in an age where every house has at least one car, one television set, and a phone that can easily call for pizza delivery.
I know my town has a history. That's why I've come; I fancy I can capture Stan's stories before they're lost. He catches me off guard by telling me about a circus ship that caught fire here in the harbour.
As he describes the event, the noise of the animals, the licking of the flames against the wooden hull, he struggles to pull in air from the oxygen tank and I imagine the elephants, the lions, the tigers onboard doing the same. 
I wonder how something so extraordinary could pass through a few decades and become an unknown entity to a new generation. A bit of history disappearing like condensed breath. I wonder what else I don't know....what I've forgotten.
As he drags in a breath and the oxygen machine gives a metallic exhale, he strokes the poodle curled on his lap. We look at his pictures of the town’s past. Besides being faded and brown, they're unfamiliar. Almost all of them are of boats. I point to one in particular, and he fumbles to take it from between its plastic sleeves. It's of his father's vessel, from when he ran passengers from Killam's wharf down to the MarkLand Hotel.
I know Killam's wharf; I've walked it. I replace his photo with an image of my own. I walk in my mind, over its wooden slats and smell the salty air. I remember standing beside the recent gazebo addition during SeaFest celebrations. Strains of popular music filter into the image from the memory of the live band that played. It's a good memory, a recent one. But it was with the knowledge that the historic property wasn't always historic. Once it was practical.
And what of the hotel he mentions--one that had to be reached by boat. I think of the main hotel now -- Rodd's Grand. An image creeps into my head of the red brick shell, the exterior, electronic marquee, the dining room bustling with waitresses hurrying to serve coffee. I think of the bar just around the corner from the dining area and the popular music it plays. Those images flip through my thoughts like Stan's photos, faded yet present.
He shows me the CNR station from July 28, 1916, tells me how the circus sometimes came by train and that he would jump in the dorey and row up underneath the station to watch them unload the animals.
Ah, yes. The train station. I study the photo and the odd look of it because the people are dressed differently. My mind takes me to the station of my youth and it overlays the photo of a station past. I traveled to University many times by train. The station of my day offered travel by bus too, and I'd expected a terminal like in the movies--with rows of seats, luggage everywhere. It turned out to be a cubbyhole. But it still had that sense of impending change--at least, for a young girl who got homesick just standing there waiting to leave town and family.
A few years back, they tore that station down, put up a Wendy's and Tim Horton's. Of course, to honor the era before, they styled the restaurant after an old-time train terminal.
Although I try to keep up with Stan and the shots he shows me, I can't help mentally wandering through my town, through my childhood, my present, and comparing it to his.
My Yarmouth has cars in every driveway. I realize his boyhood home had no driveway. He'd lived in a tiny lighthouse on a bit of land on the edge of an island: the Bug Light, it was called, remote enough to require dorey travel because it was dependent on the tides.
I think of how I hate to get into my car in the dead of winter and wait until the engine heats up enough to blow warm air onto my frigid fingers. I don't want to think of living in a beacon so small its only well for water in the winter is the dorey that caught snow as it fell.
The photos spark something within me. As my memory travels the main street, ducking into the drugstore, the magazine shop, Stan continues to flip his pictures. He's meandering down the path of memory, pulling me along with him through sepia images.
Stan mentions ships powered by sail. There are photos of schooners from the '30s loaded with salt and coal. I'd never before imagined that town supplies would come by boat. There are delivery trucks for that. He talks of lighting the darkness with kerosene, banging on bells to warn the boats.
If I close my eyes and pretend I'm not sitting in an ever-darkening room with the noise of an oxygen machine, I can actually begin to imagine a stormy coast lit by a red light. If I let my memory slip back to my childhood, I can actually hear the foghorn. At least we have that in common: remembering the long-abandoned horn.
I suppose technology has improved things, saved lives, but I miss the horn. It occurs to me that I never realized it had stopped calling to the fog until just now.
I try to jigsaw together his pieces of history, his photos, into my present and sometimes into my recent past. Sometimes it's easy. Other times, I shake my head in disbelief
My hometown bustles with impatience; it can't wait to grow into a city's shoes. His Yarmouth is younger than mine, it's a town made possible by a pinprick of light through foggy darkness. And yet, our community is the same community. Mine exists because of his.  
The sun sets further. The brief orange light against the wall has changed to a dull gray. It matches my mood. I feel I've lost something and only just rediscovered it. Stan is oblivious. He flips page after page. Photos move like a mini movie, but disjointed and silent.
The poodle stirs. I realize I've been sitting hunched over myself far too long, trying to make out faded photographs and the cadence of his words through the rhythmic inhale and exhale of his machine. I stretch. So does the dog. It peers through pebble eyes at the man whose white hair contrasts so nicely with the darkness of the room. Stan adjusts the tubes that supply his lungs with oxygen.
Through the guise of photos, I have been given a lesson. I've learned that this, my present, will one day be my past. I want to savor it. I want to breathe in Yarmouth, as he does, and capture it.


  1. Great blog. Enjoyed it to the last gasp.

  2. Toby: thanks for stopping by and reading my little ditty and taking the time to comment. It's appreciated. And many thanks to Jackie for lending me the spot. I agree: it is a great blog!

  3. That's kind, Thea, but Toby, a lovely and generous follower, was definitely referring to your post - and quite right too :)

  4. Wow! I imagined every moment! Thanks for a very vivid step into memory lane!


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