Aside from removing the name of the village where this incident occurred, this is a verbatim report from a section in my weekly rural newspaper, The Coast Guard. “From the Cruiser: A Weekly Update with Sgt. Barry MacLellan” is a column that summarizes in mercilessly truncated prose the calls received at the local RCMP detachment.
The report is mostly a humdrum collection of false alarms, minor complaints, threats and reports of vaguely “suspicious people”. Only occasionally does a petty crime show up to add some spice. This is a very safe rural community.
But every so often, a nugget like the item above comes along, making the weekly scan of Sgt. MacLellan’s column worthwhile. For one thing, there’s the challenge of working out what exactly happened. Assuming a “law mower” is meant to cut grass and not trim lawyer’s bills, assuming the number 80 refers to the speed at which the mower was travelling “at the time of offence”, assuming that such a speed is even possible on a “law mower” and assuming this man is a repeat offender who has to resort to speeding around drunk on a mower instead of in a car, this single paragraph conjures quite a picture.
Quite a picture, even if you haven’t seen that great little movie The Straight Story in which an old man subtly played by Richard Farnsworth drives his old ride-on mower across state lines to see a friend.
As unlikely as it seems, this bitter sweet tale was directed by none other than a favourite of mine, David Lynch, king of creep and maker of movies like Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet and Eraserhead. I love this movie, so naturally I imagine our local hero taking a sip of courage and heading on down the road in quiet but firm defiance of those forces of oppression that we believe bind us all – petty legalities, small-mindedness, the general over-regulation of our lives. These are the kinds of heroes I admire, these understated, Hollywood heroes so nonchalant about the inherent justness of their own values.
Quite another picture if, like me, you know the setting intimately. If I forget Lynch’s character and stop using my Hollywood movie vocabulary to romanticize the RCMP account and instead imagine our hero putt-putting down the roads that wind along our rocky coast here in this economically depressed corner of Nova Scotia, I know very well our hero is no hero at all. He’s probably just another stubborn old cuss, independent as all get out because that’s how fishing communities make ‘em.
There was the man called Jell-O Head banned from his local doughnut shop for riding his horse up to the drive-thru window. When he failed to comply, the RCMP arrested him and impounded his horse.
Then there’s this report from the same column in which Sgt. MacLellan reported that high-speed lawnmower chase:
“A[n] 18-year-old male from… charged with Underage Drinking and Failing to comply with an undertaking order x 2.”
In the villages along this shore, we fail to comply from an early age and we do it repeatedly. Really, is it any wonder the young male in question failed to comply? Given that he was only months away from the legal drinking age of 19, you can imagine his indignation at being charged with the offence. I can see it now, this otherwise upstanding young man quenching his thirst on a hot day with a cold can of beer, innocently minding his own business when along comes Sgt. MacLellan or one of his by-the-book colleagues to harass the boy. Twice, the boy tries to explain that all he wants to do is finish his beer. Twice the officer undertakes to dump it out. They frown at each other in a standoff. Quite a picture.
Fishermen here have always been the independent types, like my father, my uncles and my grandfathers, scraping a bare living from the sea and sometimes scrapping with each to do it. There’s never been much desire to unionize, for example. Fishermen work together and support each other for sure, but in the end, all they want to do is to fish when the fish are there and otherwise do as they please. They don’t time their work to determine its value. They don’t appreciate rules. They can’t abide bosses.
I don’t know Ohio very well, but it may be that Elvin Ray Straight, the character Farnsworth played with such insight, is remarkable because there he’s exceptional. Here, Elvin Straits ride around drunk on mowers and fail to comply as a way of life. There’s nothing malicious about their intentions. They just want to be left alone to live the way they wish. And if they wish to drown their fishing-life poverty and hardships in a bottle, then that’s what they want to be left alone to do. News nuggets like those in Sgt. MacLellan’s column remind me why I love living where I live among the people I live with – this isn’t Hollywood, we don’t act out of universally admirable values, it’s just us stubbornly living our lives together.
I was once one of those 18-year-old males who fail to comply. Now that I’m reaching toward my senior years, I sometimes think I might be turning into an Elvin Strait, living my life in a place and profession both conducive to loneliness, self-righteousness and perhaps even alcoholism. I don’t like measuring the value of my work by a clock. I don’t appreciate rules that tell me I can tell a story one way but not another. I can’t abide bosses. I sometimes drown my frustrations in booze, and often I fail to comply. I’m no Malcolm Lowry writing Under the Volcano between glasses of whiskey, but I could one day be the guy on that ride-on.
“From the Cruiser,” which appeared in The Coast Guard, July 27, 2010, page 5
“Don’t drink and drive… lawnmowers” © Darcy Rhyno
DVD cover from The Straight Story
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