I was at Carlingwood Mall today signing books at Coles and as always, I met some really lovely people. One was an elderly gentleman who came over to chat with me – he was having trouble walking and shuffled about with a cane, but he was the kind of man who cared about his appearance, with his white hair and his carefully coordinated, neatly pressed suit and tie.
He told me he had worked on the first computer in Canada back in 1951 and that it was almost the size of Coles itself, but that it wasn’t much more than a glorified slide rule.
As we chatted, I learned he had been an engineer, that he had travelled to China, that he spoke six languages, including Ojibway and Inuktitut, and that he had once sailed the Atlantic steering only by the stars.
Getting old was horrible, he said, and shook his head: he couldn’t remember things the way he used to, and he just wanted a book to escape with. He’d done enough thinking, he said; he’d done nothing but think for a lifetime.
“It sounds like you’ve had an amazing life,” I said, and he agreed, but he thought it was ironic that a man who used to steer by the stars — an astro-navigator, he called it– couldn’t make his way around a shopping mall. He’d taken off all his clothes one night last week, he said, “I can do that, since I live alone” — and lay on the grass and looked up at the stars. He couldn’t remember their names anymore but he still recognized them, and I had the sense of the stars, of the sky, as being his companion over the decades.
He decided to buy a book, and I signed it for him, and he left, and then he came back a few minutes later and said his name was John, and that it translated into Chong in Chinese, and that the person who had told him that — “a travel guide, or Chinese espionage agent, as they all are” had joked with him that they must be related. “It is one of 100 family names in China,” he said. “It meant I was related to millions of people,” and he laughed at the thought of being their cousin.
He pointed out the banner across from Coles that said “Welcome to China” and taught me how to read the Chinese symbols beneath the words that meant “Middle” and “Jade” and said because Jade was imperial that meant “Middle Kingdom,” because that’s how the Chinese see themselves.
And then he thanked me in several different languages, including Ojibway, and said he was sure he’d enjoy reading UMBRELLA MAN, and went on his way.
He was a fascinating man with the kind of effortless brilliance and humour that made me wish I’d met him in some other parallel universe when he was younger or I was older, the kind of man who makes you think about ageing and loneliness and the power of stars. I think — I hope– he’ll like Hector Apiro.
Before I left Coles, shortly after the book signing ended, Keith, one of the employees there handed me this letter that was sent by a Vancouver reader named Frank back at the end of September . It made the rest of my day memorable too– all in all, a very nice day.