Thursday, 15 July 2010

Tip O'Neill, the Dalai Lama and Picking up Hitchhikers.

My father always said that you could tell a lot about a person by whether or not they picked up hitchhikers. I think it’s true. 

One choice or the other is neither good nor bad but it has been my experience that I learned a great deal from the people that have rescued me from the side of the road and vice versa.
An interesting event happened on my way to meet the Dalai Lama in Fredericton, NB.

I believe it was just around my 16th birthday and my mother, who was the deputy mayor at the time, was representing the Town of Newcastle at a luncheon for the Dalai Lama.
He was receiving an Honourary Degree from Saint Thomas University.

Mum had asked me to go with her to Fredericton and attend the luncheon. Dad gave us a drive over and spent the day looking for the perfect wood stove.

I got a new suit for the occasion. I had a choice between a grey corduroy suit and a brown one. I chose the brown one and feel I looked pretty impressive in my first brand new suit.

On the way to Fredericton, we picked up a mother and daughter who were hitchhiking to Fredericton. They were from Zealand Station and had recently been “burnt out.” The mother did all of the talking and explaining and the daughter, who was pregnant, sat mostly in silence beside me.

I listened to the mother as she recounted a number of stories, plans and in many ways, hopes and dreams. They had a few parcels and I forget why they had to go to Fredericton, but I know it was important that they get there.

It may have been that they were carrying all that they now owned.

There was a sense of determination in the mother’s voice as she spoke. There was a matter of fact way she had of speaking that was in its own way full of pride. She had some interesting stories and I listened intently.

Somewhere along our route, the daughter indicated that she was going to be sick. She was sitting beside me and barely got out before she vomited, luckily not on my brand new suit. Those two ladies made an impression on me to this very day.

I didn’t know what to expect when meeting the Dalai Lama, but when I looked in his eyes I could see kindness. That day at the Lord Beaverbook, I had lunch with the Dalai Lama. There were a few hundred people there and I sat beside Doug Young’s wife.

We had a meal of beef Wellington and I remember the shrimp cocktail, but my mind went back to the two people that we had picked up hitchhiking. I thought to myself, that they would probably never have the opportunity to partake in this type of meal and, in terms the expense of our lavish feast, they probably could have replaced the burnt remains of their dwelling.

There was a certain sadness that came with that realization.

The previous year, 1979, near my 15th birthday, I had the opportunity to meet a couple of other people who had a profound impact on my social and political philosophy. They were Pierre Trudeau and Andy Scott.

I merely nodded to Trudeau and listened to him speak. He was in retirement at the time and I remember that a few of the young liberals had grown a beard to reflect that our former Prime Minister was canoeing and had grown one as well.

Trudeau showed up at the Young Liberal Convention in Fredericton without a beard and didn’t look like someone who was in retirement. A few months later, he said. “Welcome to the 1980’s.” 

His vision of a “just society” had never left him and he continued on his journey.

It was a vision that I share. Justice, equality and the balance to be found between collective and individual rights pervade my thoughts and I think that the dream of a just society is one that is within the grasp of human experience.

According to B. W. Powe in his book the Mystic Trudeau, the sometimes enigmatic Prime Minister stated in 1972, “Justice to me is a warm spirit, born of tolerance and wisdom, present everywhere.”

If justice is everywhere, how does it manifest itself? Is that “warm spirit” all around us waiting to be acted upon?

Justice, at least to me, involves human direction and choices in order to manifest itself.

A couple of days before my son was born I was traveling to Fredericton for some meetings. Sheila was being admitted the next day to the hospital and labour was going to be induced.

For some reason, we had been expecting a girl and didn’t have a name picked for a boy.
I picked up a hitchhiker in Renous. He was from the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia and was on his way to Ontario to find work. 

We stopped in Doaktown to get some sandwiches and continued on our way.

As it is in a bus station, or train or hitchhiking we got into personal conversations and shared personal experiences that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

It’s easy to do that with someone you don’t know and will never see again.

I had been dreading going to Fredericton, but the trip passed in almost an instant because of my new found confidant.

My sisters once joked that “Pete used to be an atheist but we got him knocked down to agnostic.” 

At that time, I never entertained the spiritual nature of things.

I felt so relieved and comfortable with that particular man that I asked him something that for me was extremely strange and totally out of character.

“Are you an angel?” I asked.

His answer struck me in a fashion that I can’t fully describe.

“You never know when you are being entertained by angels.” He replied, lapsing into silence and contemplation.

As he gathered up his things to get out of the car and continue on his journey, I noticed the name Bill on his work gloves.

That day, after my meetings, I was driving back to the Miramichi and was on the winding Kilarney road and phoned Sheila and simply said, “William Robert Melanson-O’Neill.”

“Perfect”, she replied.  

William arrived two days later. Our son is named after a hitchhiker, or an angel. 

Maybe both.