On June 29, two days before Canada Day, I took the Amtrak Cascades from Seattle to Vancouver. Homeland.
It leaves in the middle of the night, 7.45a. I usually doze off. Pretty scenery aside, the ride’s uneventful.
But I was awake an hour away from Vancouver when the conductor announced, “You’re in for a special treat.” After a brief silence, a woman – apparently an employee of Amtrak – proceeded to sing O Canada over the speaker system. I rolled my eyes, but it was clear that, despite the tinny speakers, she had a lovely voice. I absently mulled over how the American passengers felt about this unabashed display of patriotism from their northern neighbors, whether they thought it impolite – the conductor announced a contest:
The first passenger to sing the anthem will win their car the right to disembark immediately after the business class passengers; and the winner will be the first to disembark from that car.
I groaned. When you take the train up to Vancouver from the States, you clear immigration at the train station in Vancouver, where you’ll be processed in the order of leaving the train. You can end up waiting in line for a half hour before you’ve wended your way to the desk. That’s a good reason to buy a business class ticket – you’re among the first off the train. Totally worth nineteen bucks.
But this time around, business class was sold out. I sat with the paupers, despondent. Time’s money, time’s vacation.
Yet: here was a chance to short circuit all that.
Yet: surely someone had already dashed over to the bistro car. Surely someone knew the lyrics to O Canada, even if no decent Canadian, myself included, remembers off hand any of the words beyond the first line. We tend to la la la our way to the very end, when we declaim our pride in the “summer of ’69”.
There was a long silence. I sat, confused. Really? No one? Finally, another woman came on:
O Canada. Our home and native land.
You guys are so nice, and it would be great
To get off the train first.
La la la laaaaa laaaaaa
The conductor coughed. “Yes, thank you, but if someone can sing the actual lyrics, they can still win the prize.”
I stood up.
Suddenly, there was silence. Everyone in the car looked up at me. “Are you going to do it?” someone asked.
I reddened. (Given my skin tone, it was scarcely visible.) “Um. Yeah,” I whispered.
He was from Burnaby and he beat me to the bistro car. Rats. He began nicely enough. But after several lines, he stopped abruptly. “I forget the ending,” he said, abashed.
“Very good,” the conductor nodded. “Ahsan from Car Five is next.” I heard cheering in the distance. He handed me the handset. I took a deep breath and briefly debated beat-boxing it. Or perhaps a dramatic reading was in order…
I clutched my iPad to my chest as I sang the anthem, reading the lyrics from the Wikipedia, trying to modulate my natural screechiness into something deeper. In short: Badly, out of tune, but still in rough approximation of the melody.
Like any good Canadian.
I walked back to Car Five. As I entered, people clapped and cheered. I stared at the floor and went straight to my seat. “Well done,” said the man sitting opposite me. I smiled weakly.
The train arrived at the station. The baggage was unloaded. The business class passengers disembarked. The conductor arrived at our car and asked, “Where’s our hero?”
To final applause and cheers, I stepped off.