It was Christmas, 1972.
Earlier that month and just out of university, I had started a position in Thunder Bay, at the Province’s newly formed Regional Archaeology program in Northwestern Ontario. I had been contracted to research and write the histories of three exotic sounding places: Kakabeka Falls – the “Niagara of the North”; the ancient pre-contact Manitou Mounds on the Rainy River boundary between Ontario and Minnesota, and Ouimet Canyon, an amazing geological feature – a deep and remote canyon east and north of Thunder Bay. It was a total thrill to start this work.
For the Christmas break that year, I wanted to go home to family in London, Ontario, via a quick visit to friends and the music scene in Toronto.
I had posted a notice on a bulletin board at Lakehead University inviting anyone who needed a rideshare to Toronto to give me a call. It was answered by a student who said he was travelling from Toronto to New York by air. He would not be ready to travel until noon on December 20th. I met Ravi that day. He had arrived from Pakistan in September, and when he came down the steps to the car he was resplendent in a traditional Pakistani robe and goat hat, smiling broadly. We headed out in a raging blizzard, Toronto some 900 miles to the south. It was slow going and I sensed it was going to be a very long night.
Five hours into the trip I pulled into a truck stop at White River. As we entered, the whole place stopped talking –staring at the two of us we took our seats. As I looked over the menu, to my surprise Ravi stood up and strode into the kitchen, and in seconds after the double doors swung shut, I heard loud exclamations and my new friend was rudely shoved back out into the restaurant by an angry looking cook. He yelled at me “He with you?”. I nodded yes and the cook said, “Well keep him out here, or leave!”. Again the whole place stopped talking. Ravi felt badly – he said “Jim, I thought it was like a cafeteria, like at Lakehead University. I am so sorry – this is my first restaurant in Canada!” The place calmed down, we quietly ordered and ate our food and went on our way.
As we drove through the night, the moon came out, illuminating the incredible coast of Lake Superior. I learned so much about Ravi’s life in Pakistan, of his culture, of his Muslim faith. It had not been an easy one. The previous year Pakistan and India had been at war, and his family had been dramatically, and directly affected.
The conversation and the brilliant moonlight took away the tediousness of driving through the night. The moon shining on fresh-fallen snow made it possible to see the landscape unfold gradually from Superior’s ruggedness, through the First Nations communities at Garden River near Sault Ste Marie, then on to the string of towns along Lake Huron’s north shore, through Sudbury’s hard-rock mining country, and descending down into the farmlands near Barrie’s Holland Marsh. I drove Ravi straight to the Toronto airport, arriving at 6 a.m. He was excited to see his relatives in New York City. Upon leaving him, I gave him a contact number in Toronto, and said – if you have any problems, call me.
I spent the day in downtown T.O, mostly at Sam The Record Man’s and hanging out with friends in the Kensington Market. When I got back to where I was staying, I had a message – my new friend Ravi had been denied entry into the U.S. He was still at the airport.
The airport was packed with throngs of very stressed travellers in various emotional states – some awaiting flights out, others jubilantly greeting arrivals. I spotted him amidst the chaos, sitting on his large suitcase, looking very sad, and uncertain.
The next day I took him to the U.S Consulate. The lobby was packed with people from all over the world, mostly all with the same story – their passage across the Canada-U.S border ,denied. A stern portrait of Richard Nixon on the wall stared down at us like an austere school head-master. There was much anxiety in the air. I “took a number” and an hour passed before it was called. I accompanied Ravi to the counter. A very harried-looking Consulate staff person reviewed his entry application and she exclaimed “ Oh – you ! You were denied entry yesterday, and I am sure you will be denied today ! Take a seat” Another ten minutes passed. The verdict was swift , and she almost enthusiastically pounded the Denied Entry stamp down onto Ravi’s application form, an act of finality which really meant no chance at re-uniting with family members in New York.
At this point I stepped forward and asked “ Can you explain why he is being denied” . The Consulate woman looked at me over her glasses and demanded “Who are you ?” . I explained I was a friend, and was trying to help Ravi re-unite with relatives. “Well” she said, “this man came into Canada in Winnipeg. His records are there and so he really should have flown out of Winnipeg. He will have to go back there if he ever wishes to gain entry into the U.S.” I leaned forward and said, ”If it is a matter of verifying records, could a long-distance call be made to your office in Winnipeg ? (Yep, the phone was the main technology of the day)
She stated firmly, “Well, yes, but he would have to pay for the call !” I turned to Ravi and said – “Sound okay to you ?” He shook his head affirmatively and shouted out “Yes !” She collected twenty dollars –seemingly a ransom amount “back then” but there was no negotiating this.
Another fifteen minutes passed. Finally his name was called. We stepped forward and she said “ You, sir, are very lucky”. His visa application had Approved stamped on it.
Ravi turned to me, his face transformed into one of sheer shocked joy. Twenty-four hours of anxiety had been lifted by this turn of events. He grabbed me and started leaping up and down. The entire waiting room of some hundred people or so, rose and applauded. Ravi’s success signified possibly a ray of hope for their situations. He yelled “Jim, I am going to write a poem for you“ . Did I detect a glimmer of a smile on the Consulate woman’s face ? I reached and shook her hand and blurted out “merry Christmas and thank you!”
Amidst a fleeting thought of trying to help all the others in that room, I knew we had to bolt for the airport. This time I saw him to the gate and waved as he made it onto the airplane, destination New York.
As that Christmas passed, me with my family – he, with his, the essence of that time of year – of the gift of connecting and being with those close to you – truly resonated with me, and has evermore.
Originally adapted from Millstone News