Firmly drawn lines
Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Highway Patrolman’ was played on the radio as the last light of the evening slowly faded. It seemed fitting music for driving Midland roads on the last night of summer; a sense of something having been lost, of something gone beyond recovery, in the song’s case the end of a friendship, in the calendar’s case, another season forever gone beyond recall.
The end in the ‘Highway Patrolman’ is more than an emotional separation, it is a physical parting, made possible through the line on a map, the border between the United States and Canada:
Well, the night was like any other, I got a call `bout quarter to nine
There was trouble in a roadhouse out on the Michigan line
There was a kid lyin’ on the floor lookin’ bad bleedin’ hard from his head
There was a girl cry’n’ at a table and it was Frank, they said
Well, I went out and I jumped in my car and I hit the lights
Well, I musta done one hundred and ten through Michigan county that night
It was out at the crossroads, down `round Willow bank
Seen a Buick with Ohio plates; behind the wheel was Frank
Well, I chased him through them county roads
Till a sign said “Canadian border five miles from here”
I pulled over the side of the highway and watched his tail-lights disappear.
Borders are strange an arbitrary things, defying rational explanation. Used to living on a small island where politics on one side of the border was defined by a sectarian head count, while that on the other arose from a short and nasty civil war, there was always a sense that while there might be a political boundary, other ties were such that the line on the map could never be absolute. The churches never acknowledged the border in diocesan or parochial organization; most of the sporting organizations remained all-Ireland bodies; even banks and businesses were cross border entities.
Ireland’s border was never the international frontier of Springsteen’s ‘Highway Patrolman’, nor was it ever comparable to the cultural borders drawn along random lines in Europe. Staying in 2009 just south of the Belgian border, we drove the few miles to Ypres to attend the nightly ceremony at the Menin Gate commemorating soldiers who had died in Flanders. Speaking no Flemish and not wishing to give offence, I tried to buy fish and chips in the town square by speaking French, the woman at the counter snapped at me, ‘I am not French and you are not French, you will speak English, please’.
Crossing a line drawn on a map where on one side one language is spoken, and on the other a language entirely different, is strange; what rational explanation is there for such borders? Until 1914, it was possible to travel through Europe without even a passport; the requirement for the passport may have disappeared from most of the lines on the map, but the borders in the mind are still very firm, and are deepening with the hostility towards the burgeoning power of the European institutions. Frank driving for the Canadian border was likely to cross a frontier far less enduring than those within our supposed Union.
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