June 22, 2017

On the Border Patrol with Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison at the border crossing with Canada

If you’re going to cross a border, Canada’s are more pleasant than most. Thomas Edison is the watchman on duty 24/7 here in Port Huron. There’s one sign near the park warning about protecting the borders. A border patrol number is posted on the sign to call if suspicious activity is observed. Bootleggers were notorious around here during Prohibition and Canadians might be called into action again to save the soft drink. Port Huron is Edison’s boyhood home, his “formative years,” as the literature from Chamber of Commerce types puts it, qualifying Port Huron to erect a modest statue and museum in Edison’s honor.It works for me. While the Statue of Liberty can make the claim for more footage, Edison has more wattage. Someone has to shine the light on border patrol, and none better qualified to do so than Thomas Edison.

The Canadians don’t seem particularly concerned with Supreme Court rulings in Washington. They see my camera and wave. Graham Greene’s whiskey priest and battlefields such as the Alamo are much farther south of Columbus, Ohio, a place regarded as foreign land for those from Ann Arbor, including Richard Ford whose latest novel Canada is a clear front runner for the literary prizes this season. Even the War of 1812 had a nicer time north than south. Detroit surrendered without a shot, although some in Columbus, the same types who hung a sign in Detroit a few years ago congratulating Michigan on the eight or ten year or whatever longtime anniversary of their last win over Ohio State, these Buckeyes would say Detroit has more than made up for its peaceful surrender in 1812. The War of 1812 began at Fort Mackinac and today Mackinac Island is the epicenter of the scenic, touristy Pure Michigan campaign.

Canada is about border crossings, explains Ford, and authenticity, and washing away the fake soot that the culture pumps out of its media pipes. Ford crosses all the familiar borders, from my experience. He drives up to Port Huron and follows M-25 around and then on to Oscoda, the air base up north where the tormented father character is based. Oscoda is also the “official” home of Paul Bunyan.┬áTake that, Davy Crockett. Driving from the home of Thomas Edison to the home of Paul Bunyan is a pretty damn good home run. Lewis Cass, the first governor of Michigan, was Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War. The Cass River carries his name well. Cass Corridor in Detroit is no-man’s land that can rival anything in the Middle East. Richard Ford writes of Detroit as the city that used to be here. Detroit’s borders remain unmoved in the dirt but the occupants have moved onto other borders where the light of Thomas Edison shines brighter. Detroit is planning on shutting off the lights in nearly a quarter of the city to save cash. No sense lighting vacant land.

To get to Port Huron from Detroit, Ford must drive past the home of Elmore Leonard. The Atlantic had an interview with Leonard recently in which Leonard echoes the same message as Ford- to peel off the falsehoods to reveal the true. Leonard hates the fake. His central character is always the real deal, while the characters around the main character are plagued with the superficial traits. Leonard has been around a long time, reaching the point in life where he isn’t afraid to tell the truth. A publisher sent him a manuscript by a promising writer. Leonard reads the first sentence, about the wind, and clips the pretentiousness. Perhaps more honest book blurbs could help everyone. Wars are never canceled due to bad starts. Why stories? The British tricked American soldiers into surrender at Fort Mackinac when they seized the fort and flew the American flag as a ruse. Communication wasn’t the greatest and no one heard the start gun to the war. Napoleon won the first half of his battle in Europe, seizing a vacant Moscow more dramatically than the Brits took Detroit. The second half wasn’t so good. Napoleon entered Russia with more than 800,000 and returned with around 100,000, chased away by Mother Nature. Elmore Leonard says never to write about the weather. Tolstoy and Napoleon might disagree. Richard Ford also gives more respect to the landscape. Mother Nature is a force in the second half. But the man made borders, both emotional and physical, have created enough conflict to keep everyone entertained.

Ford’s young narrator watches his parents be sent off to prison and must come to terms with crossing borders, into new towns, states, countries, and families. And everyone checks ID in their own way. Ford doesn’t mention Edison on the drive from Detroit to Port Huron and Oscoda. His presence is with the lights. Thomas Edison had only a few months of formal education. Taught by his mother, he believed in the importance of self-improvement throughout his life. A good requisite for the border patrol.

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