Last week, some of us took a Great Lakes cruise. What do I mean, “some of us”? I mean representatives of National Review; representatives of The American Spectator; readers and supporters of those magazines; and assorted other people. This was, by and large, “a floating right-wing conspiracy,” as someone said.
The speakers included John J. Miller, Bob Tyrell, John Fund, Grover Norquist, and George Gilder. JJM is my fellow Michigander. He is also an expert on Hemingway (among other people, and subjects). Hemingway, too, was our fellow Michigander, sort of. Bob, as you know, is the founder and editor of The American Spectator. A legend. John Fund is the renowned political journalist. Grover is the blue-chip activist, strategist, analyst, and reformer. And George is the all-around sage (and a wonderfully blithe spirit).
If it sounds like fun, it was.
Kind of odd to be cruising one’s home state. Kind of nice, too (when your home state is our fair peninsula — two of them, actually).
The cruise goes from Detroit to Chicago, counterclockwise. I must say, I’m surprised by the Detroit River. (I trust you don’t mind my slipping into the present tense.) I expect it to be a stinking swamp, almost something to walk over. But it’s actually rather pretty.
Our cruise director is a wonderful guy with a Mongolian first name. He’s from Mongolia? No, he’s my fellow Ann Arborite, actually. His Pakistani father and Canadian mother decided to give him neither a Muslim nor a Christian first name. They decided on a Mongolian one. Solomonic, you could say, and also quite American.
We disembark at Goderich, Ontario. A bagpiper plays “Scotland the Brave.” Must bagpipers always play “Scotland the Brave”? Don’t they know any other tunes? Of course they do, as does this one, but “Scotland the Brave” is such a good tune, isn’t it? You almost feel cheated when they don’t play it . . .
A guide takes us into downtown Goderich — into its square (which is actually a circle, I believe). A tornado ripped through here not long ago. The courthouse used to be surrounded by trees. Now there’s practically none. “We realized how ugly the courthouse is,” says the guide. A charming remark — and, unfortunately, absolutely true.
I believe the guide says Goderich has the world’s largest salt mine. Yeah? Eat your heart out, Salzburg (and other places). (“Salzburg,” you will recall, means “Salt City” or “Salt Castle” or “Salt Capital,” take your pick.)
I have always loved the way my neighbors, the people of Ontario — the Ontarians — talk. For one thing, they don’t exactly say “sorry,” when they apologize: They say “sore-y.” When I say “sorry,” I sound like I’m talking about an Indian lady’s dress.
There seems to be a Tim Horton’s on every block in Canada. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a ubiquitous store or outlet, including McDonald’s. Actually, Tim Horton’s calls itself “Tim Hortons.” Does McDonald’s call itself “McDonalds”? Have they, too, lost their apostrophe? I know there was some heartburn in Britain a few weeks ago when Waterstone’s, the bookstore chain, went “Waterstones.”
To me, that kind of thing looks a little dumb. I prefer “Tim Horton’s” to “Tim Hortons.” As usual, no one’s asking me . . .
Over in Amurrica, Kentucky Fried Chicken is strictly “KFC,” right? Didn’t they do away with the full name, to avoid the scary word “Fried”? Well, in Goderich, I see a bona-fide, honest-to-goodness Kentucky Fried Chicken — all three words. Makes me smile.
Our guide on the road from Goderich to Stratford is a young, pleasant Ontario lass. She talks about a regional dump, at which the garbage of various towns is deposited. Because she’s so pleasant, I listen to her more intently than I might your typical guide at the Louvre . . .
We pass a town called Clinton. Boy, are there a lot in America. I remember something a Democratic friend of mine said in 1992. She said that her party’s presidential nominee ought to do a Clinton tour — a tour of towns called Clinton. I thought it was a good idea. Kind of charmingly and winningly hokey. The nominee never did the tour, but he went on to win regardless, I’m sorry to say.
Our bus driver says, “Around here, it used to be rude to lock the door of your house. If someone wanted to borrow a chainsaw or a bottle of milk, you would shut him out? But more and more, they’re locking their houses, and their cars.” Kind of a shame — civilizational decline . . .
This same driver says, “For young people like our guide, signs in kilometers are no problem. She grew up with it. She’s never known anything else. But someone my age says, ‘What the hell’s a kilometer?’”
Stratford has, natch, an Avon river — not the purtiest body of water. The Detroit River seems cleaner, though it may be an illusion. (True, the Detroit River has fewer swans.)
I have always appreciated Canadian tidiness — the neat lawns, the smart farms, the just-so flower boxes. Even more, I have appreciated the friendliness of Canadians. Once, we were in the maritime provinces with Bill Buckley. He said, “Nova Scotians and New Zealanders are the friendliest people in the world.” He had traveled the world, a few times over. I find Canadians friendly everywhere.
No wisecracks about Quebeckers, please . . .
I see some red-roofed houses, with Canadian flags accompanying. Very smart. There are many, many flags in the Canadian towns I see. Our cruise began shortly after Canada Day, July 1. That will account for some of the flags. But all of them? The Canadians may be a more flag-waving people than I knew . . .
Back on the ship, I meet a man who lives in Dallas. I say, “Are you a native Texan?” He says, “You never have to ask that question. If the man is from Texas, he’ll tell you sooner or later, probably sooner. And if he’s not, you don’t want to embarrass him.”
A colleague tells me that he met a passenger who reads neither magazine — neither The American Spectator nor NR. In fact, she’s not a conservative at all. But she has noticed the list of speakers. “Is that Jay Nordlinger the same one who writes music criticism?” she asked. She was disappointed to learn that the music critic was, in another area of life, a right-winger.
When I enter a concert hall or opera house, I retract my horns and tail. Back at NR, I can let them safely hang out . . .
We glide into Manitoulin Island, billed as the largest freshwater island in all the world. Really? Well, someone’s got to be.
There is a war monument: “Heroes of the Great War, 1914 – 1918.” A poem is quoted: “We are the Dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved, and now we lie, / In Flanders fields.”
Lower on the monument, a plaque has been added: It says, simply, “Korea, 1950 – 1953.”
On a brick building, I see a sign: in big letters, “The Manitoulin Expositor”; in smaller letters, “published weekly on the largest freshwater island in the world.” Hmmm . . . maybe I could edit the obits page?
Regular readers — of mine, not the Expositor — have heard me grouse about bilingualism before. I mean dumb, mandatory bilingualism. My favorite example is the referendum ballot in America: It says “Yes / Sí,” “No / No.” The “No / No” gets me every time. Why don’t native Spanish speakers rise up and say, “Just because we’re native Spanish speakers, doesn’t mean we’re stupid. Quit insulting us!”
Anyway, the post office in Little Current says “Post Office” and “Bureau de Poste” — just so there’s no confusion . . .
Have you had enough of the Great Lakes Journal for one day? Want me to quit before I get crankier? Okay, we’ll continue and conclude tomorrow. See you.
To order Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.