Two-Man Tent

The Southern Gazette - - EDITORIAL - Harold Wal­ters

For my birth­day last year I re­ceived four — count ‘em, four — lovely plaid flan­nel L. L. Bean shirts. I was tick­led to death to have four more of my favourite shirts in the world.

Yes­ter­day, pray­ing they would find good homes, I stuffed them into a re­cy­cling bag for the Cana­dian Di­a­betes As­so­ci­a­tion’s Clothes­line folks. It was Robert Chafe’s fault. I had read this line about Grant, a char­ac­ter in Chafe’s col­lec­tion of short sto­ries TwoMan Tent (Break­wa­ter Books): “His gut was test­ing his shirt, an un­fair re­spon­si­bil­ity to put on a few but­tons.”

Since my birth­day my own manly flab had in­creased — as it had done since many birthdays past — and ex­erted un­due re­spon­si­bil­ity on my L. L. Bean but­tons. I de­cided to act re­spon­si­bly and of­fer my shirts a chance to find less de­mand­ing own­ers.

I called Clothes­lines — 1-800505-5525.

Of course, Two-Man Tent isn’t re­ally about portly gen­tle­men and the stress ex­erted on but­ton-bind­ing sewing cot­ton.

Among other things, it’s about the dis­tances be­tween peo­ple.

And, to some de­gree, it’s about bears.

The young nar­ra­tor of “No Swim­ming” strug­gles to come to grips with the death of a friend’s mother and in the process dis­cov­ers it’s time to dis­tance him­self from his own mother, to let go of restrainin­g apron strings, so to speak. He finds it’s time to grow past the quo­tid­ian rules of child­hood and dis­obey mother. He de­cides to speak to a stranger, old Ber­tie the her­mit.

Ad­dress­ing his friend, he says, “I wanted to tell you all that, but I couldn’t. And so I told old Ber­tie in­stead.”

Life cre­ates dis­tances that aren’t mea­sured in miles. Yes, miles. Frig kilo­me­ters, “mea­sured in kms” doesn’t have the same ring, eh b’ys?

In the ti­tle story a fam­ily tragedy has cre­ated the dis­tance be­tween the char­ac­ters, along with the im­pend­ing phys­i­cal dis­tance — in miles — that will ex­ist when the nar­ra­tor moves to Hal­i­fax for school.

An aside: I wish sto­ry­tellers would im­i­tate ol’ Her­man Melville and name their char­ac­ters from the shuff-off, whether they are called Ish­mael or not. Then I wouldn’t have to won­der if I missed a name and have to go root­ing around back-track­ing in search of it, or say­ing “the nar­ra­tor” and per­haps sound­ing more stund — stun­der? — than I am ac­tu­ally.

Frig, what was about?

Okay, “Two-Man Tent”, the story that con­tains the best line in the whole col­lec­tion: “Mom cursed the whole idea of camp­ing and who­ever’s idea it was in I talk­ing the first place.”

Like Mom, I curse the whole idea of camp­ing. Along with the bru­tal dis­com­fort of sleep­ing in a lumpy-bot­tomed tent when one has a com­fort­able bed at home, there is al­ways the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing eaten by bears. Truly. The cover of Robert Chafe’s Two-Man Tent is ba­si­cally a sketch of a bloody great griz­zly, or some such gar­gan­tuan car­ni­vore.

An­other aside — kinda. When I was a wee bay-boy child Pappy in­vari­ably used bears as sym­bols of Some­thing- BadThat-Would-Hap­pen if Daddy’s Lit­tle Boy mis­be­haved.

For ex­am­ple, if DLB went deeper into the woods — for a pic­nic, or what­ever — than was per­mit­ted … well, the bears would eat him.

So, pa­ter­nal con­di­tion­ing still strong in my nog­gin, the moment I saw the hu­mon­gous Ko­diak [?] on the cover, I thought, “Oh my, the bears surely will eat folks in these sto­ries.”

Okay, no real bears eat any­one, but there are dire sit­u­a­tions well able to devour peo­ple.

The fi­nal story, for in­stance — “The Pi­geon Caves”.

A teenage cou­ple — no, I couldn’t find any names — skip school, go roam­ing around Sig­nal Hill and even­tu­ally wan­der into some caves where they are al­most im­me­di­ately trapped by a cave-in.

The story’s — and the book’s — fi­nal line is heart­break­ingly scary: “The darkness not so dark be­cause they were walk­ing into it to­gether.”

The line is sad be­cause the young­sters are obliv­i­ous to the dan­ger in the caves … in which there are bears. Per­haps not tooth and claw car­ni­vores, but bears nonethe­less, eh b’ys?

My favourite funny bit is in “Way­gook”.

Joanne and the nar­ra­tor — ya, ya — have put some mile (!) dis­tance be­tween them­selves and home and gone teach­ing in Korea. In their Korean lodg­ings Joanne is soon shriek­ing be­cause she spots a cock-a-roach “the size of a New­found­land pony.”

Now that’s a cock-a-roach, eh b’ys?

Thank you for read­ing.

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