Badges, Flags and Emblems
A Canadian flag hangs in the garage of the Crooked 9. It’s cheap, nylon. It arrived on the premises folded up inside a two-four of beer. I’m not a flag waver, but it seemed disrespectful to throw it in the garbage. I’ve always admired the design of my country’s flag, it’s simple, elegant and the maple leaf is slightly stylized in a thoroughly modern way. I was surprised these past months to find myself offended by the freedom drivers wrapping their convoys in our red and white ensign, sometimes defacing it in the name of some form of twisted patriotism. I worry too that should a casual passerby notice the Canadian flag fluttering in the garage they’ll assume Ann and I are lunatics of that ilk. But, kudos to those clowns for somehow managing to co-opt a relatively benign national symbol.
Neighbours across the street have draped a Ukrainian flag over their front porch railing. I know the couple by their first names only. In fact, we see so little of them that unlike The Borg, the Sex Offender, the Nosy Buddhist and la vache qui cri, they haven’t been assigned nicknames. Initially I dismissed the flag as just another blight of woke or cancel culture, a meaningless, knee-jerk and ultimately empty show of solidarity, not all that different from the ignorant libertarian honking in the cab of a Peterbilt semi. I’ve been contemplating that blue and yellow banner for a few weeks now.
The Ukraine was a region in the old Soviet Union. Ukraine is a recently minted country. Either is usually described in news reports or geography textbooks as “one of the world’s great breadbaskets.” The same may be said of America’s Midwestern states and the Canadian prairie, lands of big blue sky and yellow grain. Western Canada was settled by steel tied to government promises: immigrants could ride the transcontinental railway to somewhere sort of proximate to their new homesteads. For Ukrainians in Alberta the work would be no different, just as hard, but their efforts would not be overseen by the apparatchiks of Tsars, Bolsheviks or dictators. No five-year plans for the glory of the motherland here.
The jagged line on the horizon of Alberta’s shield is the Rockies and their green foothills. Above is blue sky. Below are golden sheaves of wheat. Erase the mountains and you’re left with a somewhat less abstract version of Ukraine’s flag. But I’d seen those bars of blue and yellow depicted even more realistically. It took a moment to remember where.
Our friend and former neighbour Forest is of Ukrainian heritage. We’ve not see him for two years. He resides in assisted living now and, as of the other day, recovering from covid. I hope he still has hair like Bob Dylan and glasses like John Lennon. Forest is a mystical minimalist, an aesthete. His younger self used to zip around Edmonton in a maroon Jaguar. He had one chair in his living room, the Platonic ideal of a chair. It was too low for him to actually sit on and get up from, but he could admire its design, its colours and how it sat by the fireplace in his disused living room. His eyesight was failing even then and so I believe a lot was left to his imagination.
I used to go next door fairly frequently. I always brought him a container of Ann’s cooking or baking. He’d call back and gush, Ann was so much better than Meals on Wheels. I changed out batteries, light bulbs and furnace filters as required and requested. Ann was once gracious enough to repair his toilet because my plumbing expertise amounts to jiggling the handle and hoping. She purged his fridge from time to time because he was unaware of the elementary school science projects blooming inside it. I carried his trash and recycling into our back alley for collection day. Ann and I read his correspondence aloud to him. He subscribed to New Scientist and so once a month or so I’d read the magazine’s table of contents to him and sometimes an entire piece that particularly intrigued him. Forest resented our intrusion even as he depended on it. We talked hockey.
The long wall of Forest’s living room was dominated by an oil painting whose dimensions demanded an entire wall. It was an Alberta scene, a yellow field of canola beneath a sheltering blue sky. In the middle distance providing the viewer some perspective on the immensity of the painting and the land it portrayed was a farmhouse. The structure’s scale reminded me of a thumbnail icon on a computer monitor. Its existence inside the frame indicated the wide bands of yellow and blue were not abstract stripes. I admired that painting.
I phoned Forest last week. I make an effort to check in with him regularly and I usually bone up on my hockey news beforehand because I know how our conservations must inevitably turn. I mentioned our neighbours displaying the Ukrainian flag.
“Oh yes, (he’s) Ukrainian. I don’t know about (her), she’s his second wife.” Forest never married.
“I was struck by the design of the flag. It reminded me of that prairie landscape you had hanging in your living room. I’d never realized the similarities.”
“I can’t remember the artist’s name. He was popular for a time. I think he had ties to Ukraine. But that’s all he painted, canola fields and sky, they were his subject. I bought it because the scene, especially the farmhouse, reminded me of where I grew up (south of Edmonton). But I broke with my family and my relatives, the old ways held no attraction for me. I sought enlightenment.” Young Forest drifted east to Toronto and confessed to me that he’d quite enjoyed being a hippie in Yorkville. Much more recently, he sold his family’s land.
“So,” I said, “covid aside, how are things generally?”
“I’ve had to isolate. It’s just as well. It’s impossible to have a conversation here. Everybody just wants to talk about their grandchildren. Hey, listen, what do you think about the Oilers’ chances? I’m worried their goaltending is sub-par.”
“Well, consider Montreal last year. They still lost with one of the best in the world. I think recent history has shown that you can win with strength from the blue line out and ‘average’ in nets.”
“I don’t know about that. But Saturday’s game against the Flames (Calgary) should be a good one, a real ‘Battle of Alberta.’ Both clubs are very good.” And so, we chatted further about local hockey matters, team grudges and ice dancing fights, stuff both of us at least understood, meaningless crests and uniform badges.
meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of heraldry since 2013. My novella Of Course You Did is my latest book. Visit www.megeoff.com to find your preferred format and retailer.