A Place to Stand
On Green Island
"Had we," said he, "a place to stand upon, we might raise the world."
- Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man (pt II)
"AIEEE!!!" the muted sound of scattered screams as if from a distant television drifted into the cockpit as once again the Green Island Air Enviro-A322E felt like it was dropping out of the sky before catching up with a stomach-wrenching jolt. A bolt of lighting visible through the darkened passenger cabin windows off ahead to the right illuminated the upcoming shore of their destination through the dark day beneath the clouds, the Northumberland Strait under them flecked white with breaking waves like ghostly dancing deformed sheep in a dark field stretching as far as the eye could see. Angus Abraham Gabriel, flying right seat for only the second time in his new career, swallowed the saliva that had flooded his mouth and looked out his side window through the driving rain to see if the wing was still attached on his side of the plane. It appeared to be, but it also seemed to be irregularly teeter-tottering through quite a substantial vertical arc. After twisting his head a bit more for a look at the Pratt-Whitney engine a few feet out from the body on the wing to make sure it was secure, he glanced over at Captain Plane, swallowing again, forgetting to wonder for the first time how a man with such a name could wind up with a job like this. Not to mention Dr Root the dentist. Not to mention he was beginning to hyperventilate.
The Captain caught the look of his new copilot from the corner of his eye, and reached over to pat Gabriel reassuringly on the shoulder, grinning.
"Don't worry, lad, you'll get used to it soon enough flying around the Maritimes in Canada here - and this is just a summer squall! Wait until you're doing this in the opening bars of a January gale that snuck in from Cape Breton when you weren't looking hoho!!"
The aircraft lurched to the right as if kicked on a left buttock, once again eliciting a few screams from the passenger section, as Plane turned his attention back from his copilot, calmly pulling back and rotating the steering column just a bit to bring his craft back to level flight, lining up once again with the Point Prim lighthouse beacons flashing through the grey skies ahead, watching the radio beacon as well to make sure they were on course to their destination a few minutes ahead. "Level" as sort of a theoretical concept taught in flight school, at any rate, reflected Gabriel somewhat crankily, but not having a lot of relevance to this particular aircraft, which was still bounding up and down and around and sideways with no warning about anything, like a fresh bull just turned from the chute in the rodeos of his home province. Gabriel was an Alberta boy and knew a lot more about riding bulls on the ground than riding A322s through Maritime squalls, and was finding that he considered the former to be a safer proposition. This was nothing like the simulator hours he had done, nothing what-so-freaking-ever. He KNEW the simulator was bolted firmly to the cement floor of the hanger no matter how much they jumped it around. This aircraft, he also knew, was not. He was beginning to feel that he'd better find a new dream. He couldn't imagine how one would ever have the confidence to believe you would ever get this huge bucking hulk of metal onto a cement runway several thousand feet below and some miles ahead of one's current altitude in one piece under such conditions, a confidence Captain Plane seemed to have a goodish supply of.
There was a "ding-ding" from the small PA that allowed the cabin attendants to communicate with the cockpit, and a female voice, shaking a bit from the bouncing, said "Captain, would you mind saying something to the passengers? They're getting a bit worried back here..."
Plane reached up to his headset, and pushed a button.
"Sure, love," Plane responded brightly, "I'll have my new copilot here give them a word - we're only a couple of minutes from touchdown."
And so some of the passengers, not all having done the flight before under such conditions, were indeed a bit worried. All were strapped firmly in, seatback trays raised into the upright position and firmly locked in obedience to the cabin attendant's request a few minutes ago when they entered the sudden squall, and most of the passengers in the three-quarters full aircraft were sitting stiffly, hands gripping armrests or a companion's hand or arm, some looking out a window, some with head back and eyes closed, shuddering and gripping more tightly at each bounce. White faces and few smiles. Lots of frowns, a few apparently praying to their gods, lips moving silently. In the center of it all, perhaps a third of the way back in the cramped rows of seats, next to a window just over the leading edge of the wing, sat a man whom one might notice in passing were one to suspend the entire passage of time for a few moments and examine the contents of this particular aircraft. An older man, wrinkles around his forehead and eyes, longish, full white hair, steel-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose enlarging the intelligent black eyes just a bit. The heightened light from a flash of lightning seemed to have stuck to him, giving him the look of having a low-voltage halo of some sort all around him, making him stand out just a bit from his fellow passengers, although the seat beside him was empty. He was also one of the few who seemed to be taking things calmly during the turbulence, looking out the window with some interest at a large bridge some miles off to the north spanning the 15 or so km between their destination island and the mainland (a bridge not a few of the plane's occupants were swearing they would be using forever after), and some fishing boats and a larger ferry-type vessel tossing on the waves below, then turning away from his perusal of what lay to the side and below, and looking ahead to the red sandstone cliffs and rolling green hills of his destination, through the sheeting rain, a small speculative smile on his face.
"I'm so very glad you could make it, Mr. More," I said, reaching out to shake his hand as a somewhat portly gentleman stepped through the sliding door leading from the runway into the spacious lobby of the small Green Island airport in the midst of a group of chatting and laughing people, shaking a bit of rain from his sleeve and turning with a gracious smile and nod to the Green Island Air attendant who had escorted him from the plane through the blowing rain of a short squall that had sprung out of nowhere as he arrived with a large umbrella (our new terminal with modern jetways right from the aircraft to the interior was under construction, but for now it was down the portastairs and walk in, rain or shine or snow); "It's certainly a pleasure to meet a man of such renown as yourself!"
"Oh, come, now," he replied, laughing a little self-consciously as he took my hand in his somewhat smaller one, but still with a strong enough grip, "I'm not that well known at all in this day and age! Why, my books are hardly selling at all anymore, you know!"
I smiled in return, "Ah, but interest in your dream of Utopia has never waned, and with some rather modern communications methods, where people read and think what they want, and more importantly share their ideas widely and freely, you might be surprised at the interest in your work. Indeed, that's why we've invited you here, with a few others, to see what you all think of our rather different versions of the same idea - I think you will find some changes, some quite profound really, as many ideas have grown over the centuries, but I hope you will not find them too objectionable, overall."
He smiled a bit as he reached out to pat me on the shoulder reassuringly, "Yes, well, it is a bit of an unrealistic sort of Utopian idea that I should be here at all, of course, but aside from that I should make no promises, other than I will try to approach it all with an open mind and an understanding that things do indeed change from one time to another."
I couldn't help but chuckle with him at his dry humor as I looked into his slightly squinting grey eyes, and felt an immediate liking for the smallish, white-haired man. There is a thing that often happens when the eyes of two people meet - there can be openness, or blankness, or hostility, or friendliness, or avoidance, many things depending on the participants, in one notable case I recall physically recoiling as I briefly met the eyes of a man which reflected actual reptilian, non-human malicious evil from their dark depths - but with More I felt an immediate comradeship as our eyes met and held for a few seconds this first meeting. There was an honesty, and strength and intelligence, a sort of experienced wisdom really, in his eyes, a man who had long ago left behind any fear of things either inside or outside. I don't know what he saw in mine, but I felt a silent acceptance and perhaps approval from him also, as we released our handshake. A good beginning, for which I was grateful - it is very true, the old line about first impressions being important.
We turned together and he took my arm as I led him across the grey marbled floor of the quite busy airport reception area to the nearby luggage carousel to await his bags. His garb was that of an English gentleman of the 16th century, and he looked quite elegant in his burgundy frock coat over a white ruffled shirt, striped trousers and black tricorner, and black buckled shoes, leaning only slightly on his solid oaken walking stick. We came to a stop amidst the clutter of passengers - the Green Island International airport was still only big enough for smaller planes, although we were getting lots of them - and chatted idly for a few moments until the carousel began to lazily spin, the various items slipping smoothly through the curtained opening in the wall onto the worn black rubber (no bouncing and falling luggage here, one of the many 'little things' we had taken care of, as 'doing things right' was actually how we tried to live, rather than a cynical advertising slogan), boxes big and small, sports bags of many colors, red FRAGILE stickers here and there, the usual variety of luggage one sees from international air travellers. He received the odd curious look, I suppose at his apparel, but he was not that out of place in the now eclectic land of Green Island, formerly the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, which even before the Revolution (or Revelation, as some preferred, although the religious overtones did not sit well with many) had for decades been a rustic haven for many hardy, independent beyond-the-fringe types who were uncomfortable in the modern urban areas of Canada and other parts of the world, with their malls and freeways and increasingly Americanised ratrace lifestyle, and was now attracting many others looking for a different sort of society than the capitalist dystopia that had taken over most of the world during the last 100 years.
"Rather busy," he remarked, turning to me, raising his voice just a little to reach me over the small din, as we turned towards the sound of another commuter plane taxiing up to the terminal, "for what I thought was rather a small island!"
"Oh, well, yes, small indeed we are, at least in physical size, but we do keep quite busy," I replied, "This is an average sort of day, especially in the nicer weather of the short summer we have that's just got under way, and as you see, we have a large number of visitors at all times who have heard about us and are coming to see for themselves, and then we also have begun a regular exchange sort of program with a number of other countries in the world through our university, where our young people go - and many older ones too! - to gain experience and see what other places and people are like, the different ways of doing things, to get ideas about what to do or not to do here on Green Island. Just part of the whole improvement package, really!" I finished with a grin, "but it seems quite popular."
"Oh, I would think so," said More, looking around with apparent approval, "travel and meeting others and seeing other places is one of the essential ingredients of a good education, of a full life - it is quite essential for one to not only understand that there are other ways of thinking and of doing things, but actually experiencing them, and not think that one's own little box is the way it is everywhere. It's a bit of a different scale with these flying machines covering distances in a few hours that might take days or months in earlier times, but the principle is still the same - going where you have not gone before to where they do things differently, to see how the people live there."
"Very much so," I answered, " - as long as you learn from the experience, of course! There is nothing quite the same for opening the mind as being exposed to new ideas and seeing how people live in other places, and how they do things differently. Speaking of differently - I see you got a not unusual Island welcome - not half an hour ago the sun was shining everywhere and I was thinking you would have a smooth flight in as I left my office in Charlottetown, and then seemingly from nowhere that noisy little squall appeared just a few minutes before your touchdown! I hope it wasn't too rough?" I inquired, smiling.
"Oh, it was a bit bumpy and a few of the people seemed a bit disconcerted, they did, although most were not too bad at all!" he replied, chuckling a bit at the memory, looking up at me (looking up since his height of perhaps five feet and three or four inches was considerably less than my own six feet two inches); "But for myself, I have travelled quite widely in my time, and I've never believed those in command of large passenger vessels on land or sea, or now even in the air, to be suicidal, at least in general, and since the weather is apt to be a bit squally at anytime, it always being somewhat unpredictable, I supposed they must deal with that sort of thing regularly and didn't see much to be concerned about. Not to mention that in such situations, all the concern of a lowly passenger such as myself isn't going to help a bit anyway, and so why fret? And then third as well - the small bumps we were experiencing were really quite mild compared to the tossing one receives on a ship plying the English Channel on a good day - so really, I didn't give it a great deal of thought, you see!"
I reached over and gave him a comradely pat on the shoulder, feeling I was already getting to know him a bit, and comfortable in the presence of his courage and overall attitude towards life, smiling.
"Indeed," I said, "I am glad you were not disturbed by the arrival. I think you should have many more interesting and enjoyable experiences ahead of you in the coming days, and I would not want them colored unfavorably by an unfortunate arrival."
"No need to fear, Bigelow, no need to fear! One does learn in time not to let inconsequential things influence one's behavior or opinions!"
"Great!" I answered. "I think you'll find some of our other people interesting as well - we have quite a number of people with us on Green Island, one way and another, who have spent time reflecting on how we might improve our societies."
"Ah, I see, I see," he said, nodding his head, "This sounds interesting, to be sure; most interesting. And - oh, I say! There's my bag -" and he gestured and thumped the black rubber of the revolving carrier with his cane.
I looked where he pointed, and reached over and plucked a large, dark green carpetbag from the carousel. The well worn brocade had gold trim and a polished wooden grip, and although it bulged at the seams a bit did not weigh a great deal.
"Good then!" I said, turning to my companion, "Is that all?" He nodded. "Let us be off, then, shall we? We might as well get you settled, and continue our talk as we can, eh?"
He nodded, then again took my arm companionably in the manner of older folk everywhere. I led him through the door and the connecting covered walkway (there were more hours with rain or snow than without during the course of a year on our lovely little Island here, or so it often seemed) to the nearby airport GRIS-RT platform - the Green Island Rapid Transit rail line, which we had constructed the last few years and now, although not complete, connected the handful of major points of the small Island. A pleasant breeze greeted us as we emerged into the open area of the platform - in just a few short minutes the squall that had greeted my guest had passed, and the sun was breaking through and showing us one of those lovely Island summer late mornings that contributed so heavily to the former tourist advertising of the place. The dark clouds were racing off like noisy exuberant children to the north with their gusty winds, and now ahead of us we could see a bright blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, with a lingering small breeze keeping the temperature pleasant, even though temperatures all around the world, including here, had been rising rather alarmingly the last few years.
"Well, a train should be along shortly," I said as we settled ourselves on one of the benches that ran along the center of the platform in two back-to-back rows, "On a busy route like this, there's usually one every fifteen minutes or so through the main part of the day, either a regular from the east part of the Island or a special to-and-fro City Commuter."
"Oh, no hurry, no hurry," he said, making himself comfortable with his cane between his spread legs and hands resting atop, "No hurry at all! Why, in my time we'd be flagging a coach-and-four, and trying to avoid soiling our shoes! This seems much more civilized altogether - quite unbelievable, actually," he finished, turning to look back over the terminal where still another commuter jet was floating in over the runway just before touchdown - our new Green Island experiment had certainly picked up the international tourist trade the last couple of years, with people coming from all over the world to study what we had done in only a few short years, and how we had managed to do it.
"I say! What's that thing?!!" More suddenly exclaimed, pointing off to the west where a rather large zeppelin had just come into view from where it had been hidden behind the ATC tower, angling down for a docking at the airport, coming in crosswise to the main runway to keep out of the flight path of the jets. It was something of an impressive sight, being a good hundred meters long and twenty-five or so in diameter, painted a light red color with some pastel swirls for decoration to make sure no circling airplanes would miss it, with the large GI logo on the side and the passenger basket hanging underneath, where we could see faces lining the windows - our experimental models carried only around 100 passengers comfortably, but several times that number were possible.
"Ah," I said, smiling as I answered, "That is the Great Green Blimp, as it has become popularly known. It's an experiment we are conducting in sort-of mass transit using alternatives to carbon-based fuels, which are becoming somewhat scarce on the planet, and are also causing all kinds of environmental problems. Our Athenia scientists have developed a hydrogen-based gas that is essentially non-explosive, which was the primary argument against these great airships in earlier years when there were a couple of spectacular explosions, and also of course now we have efficient electric motors with batteries that can be recharged at every stop - nowhere is too far away on Green Island. For a small island we thought this mode of travel might be a good alternative, although how they would fare in larger population areas with greater distances is still something of an open question. We just try different things, to see what works and what doesn't."
"My, my," said More with a smile, "I really do hope we get a chance to go for a ride on that someday!"
"Well, I am sure we can arrange that - it is quite popular just as a tourist thing now, and since we don't have many of them in service just yet getting a reservation sometimes takes a few days, but we can probably manage something before you leave. I've only been up a couple of times myself, and it is a memorable sort of experience - none of the great noise of jet engines, and g-forces on takeoff - more like a sailing ship, with the silent wind pushing you around."
"Heh heh," smiled More again, poking me lightly in the arm, "it's plain to see you haven't done much sailing, my friend - the wind can be very much not silent at times!"
"Haha!" I laughed along with him, "Oh, yes, of course - but just in general, my friend, just in general - it's nice to have a peaceful skysail sometimes at a lower sort of altitude rather than inside the metal body of the big jets with their constant noise. Still, plane or balloon, you have just completed a trip in a matter of hours which would have taken weeks or months in your day. Have you any thoughts on it all?"
"Thoughts on it all?" he repeated, looking first at me and then off into the distance, over the golden fields of yellow daisies and other early summer wildflowers mixed in with potato and early corn and hay and other crops, and green hedgerows, down to the blue Northumberland Strait just visible in the distance, leaning forward over his cane and nodding his head for several seconds; "Thoughts on it all? Well, I suppose I must admit that I never thought for a minute that my little works of satire and fantasy would be remembered so long after my own time - they were, after all, written simply to try to knock some sense into the fossils of my own day! - and, I guess, to show the people of my time as well, those whose minds seemed to be enclosed in the constrictive box constructed for them by the leaders of the day, that other worlds were at least conceivable. And I've always believed, you know, that if we can conceive it, why, maybe we can do it!"
He looked over to me and, with a little grin and wink and chuckle that I would soon recognize as habitual, said, "I suppose that's not what you mean, however, eh? You wonder what I think of all this -" gesturing with a broad sweep of his arm to the airport to our side and the rail track in front, "- and my own presence too, after a rather abrupt parting from my previous existence here, a certain parting of the ideas and the physical representation heh heh! Passing strange, I'll give you! Passing strange indeed! But when you've spent your life in the company of philosophers and their thoughts, and writing of unworldly affairs, and in service to God (although I'll allow I had a lot of questions about all that towards the end, and have - ah - changed my views on the entire thing somewhat since), I guess by the time you reach my age you realize that all things are possible, and a few short years on this small planet do not encompass more than but a small portion of the wonders of the universe. So - strange indeed, and wondrous - but I must confess, you know, my thoughts in general are much the same as they were yesterday, or last week or times long before - at times indeed on the metaphysics, but then more often than not on rather more mundane things, you see, the tiny but irritating ache in my shinbone or the hunger pangs in my belly - or even - " and he turned to me with a grin and a wink again, gesturing with his chin to where a rather lovely young summer Island lady was passing by - "to the pleasures I once knew but alas know no longer!"
I laughed aloud with St. Thomas More as he finished speaking, and again felt that I was going to enjoy our week together, or however long it turned out to be.
He settled his frame a little more comfortably into the platform bench and reached for a newspaper that some earlier traveller had left. I checked my watch, and looked up and down the train tracks for a sign of our ride.
To my right, the GRIS-RT line stretched off into the distance, eventually passing near Greenways, the farm where I lived with my wife Brittany Forrest, whose property it actually was, and on to Souris, some 60 miles away at the northeast end of the somewhat crescent-shaped Island. On my left, the track began a long slow turn into Charlottetown, historically and still the capital city of the Island, only 4 miles or so away, passing through Athenia University about halfway from here to the city center (city in the Island sense of "the biggest place here", rather than the metropolis sense of megamillions of people - the whole Island still had somewhat under 150,000 residents, with perhaps 25,000 of them in the greater Charlottetown area, most of the rest in or around small hamlets and villages of no more than a few hundred). As I looked, the red and black engine of an Airport Express Special appeared from behind a small woodlot, and the crowd of passengers along the platform from the recent flight arrival around us began to gather along the trackside, luggage in hand.
I looked over to More, and saw him with a small frown of concentration as he looked over the paper. I leaned over to see the nameplate, and saw it to be the Prince Edward Island Colonial - the paper was, as it had always been, the organ of the old Island gentry, and among many other things they were not willingly accepting the new name of the province, regardless of the overwhelming popular approval of the changes that we had made over the last few years - popular approval again being something that had never been much of a factor in the decisions of the gentry here, there or anywhere else for that matter. I could well imagine what More was reading. He looked up at me even as the thought crossed my mind.
With the frown still on his face, he spoke.
"I say, old chap," he queried, in a neutral sort of voice, "can this be you that they're referring to in here?"
I smiled with rather grim humor back at him.
"Oh, I expect so," I replied; "The Colonial and I aren't exactly the best of friends these days. I don't believe I've seen today's issue yet - I was tied up with some meetings this morning - what is it they're saying now?"
More looked at me with his mouth turned slightly down, and shifted ever so slightly away from me on the bench.
"Hhrrmpphh," he snorted, looking from me to the paper he held, then frowning somewhat, and rolling his eyes up so they peered at me over his round spectacles. He finally looked back down to the paper he held and read.
" 'Bigelow Vows End To Democracy' reads the headline here," More began, looking up over his spectacles once again with his lips slightly pursed, up to me to see if I was listening, or perhaps to gauge my reaction. I smiled and nodded to him.
"Yes, I've heard this sort of thing before," I said; "Please do continue....."
" 'In a speech yesterday on the steps of the Prince Edward Island legislature,' " More read on, " 'Stephen Bigelow, the revolutionary Marxist communist with alleged terrorist ties...' “
"Ha ha ha haaa.....,” I couldn't help myself, I laughed out loud - the writers of the Colonial rarely ceased to amuse me with their lack of imagination, the repetitive use of their somewhat limited supply of derogatory adjectives. More frowned a bit as he stopped reading at my interruption; "No no, please go on," I said, controlling my mirth, "we can talk about it all later."
"Hmmmmph," snorted More once again, turning back to the paper, "..... whose small band of followers has taken over the Island government these last few years, by means widely suspected to be illegal and currently under court challenge, vowed once again that he will put an end to the rights of all Island citizens to own their own land....
"In a speech as full of anti-democratic propaganda as anything this writer ever wishes to be subjected to again, Mr. Bigelow also promised that many other Island traditions would once and for all be thrust into the trash can of history - our schools, churches, legal system, market-driven economy - these and much else would go the way of the dinosaur should he and his 'comrades' have their way.
"It is no secret that the staff of the Colonial, along with many other highly respected citizens of Prince Edward Island, are very much opposed to these measures, which will effectively bring an end to a way of life cherished by all of us for, it is not an exaggeration to say, hundreds of years. Please see the special supplement in this issue of the Colonial for a full exposition of Mr. Bigelow and his 'comrades', and in-depth explanations from our leading citizens as to why his proposals in next week's so-called 'People's Referendum' must be soundly defeated if we are to return to our cherished way of life, and put Mr. Bigelow and his kind to pasture once and for all!'"
As More finished reading and looked up for my reaction, the Airport Express glided into the station. The electrically-powered motors were relatively quiet, and the whooshing of the air brakes was the loudest thing about it. As the large doors slid back, a dozen or so passengers stepped down, and the crowd from the recent arrival gathered around and started to board. There were lots of spaces on the four full-size cars, however - our computer people coordinating such things had a very good command of arrival times and passenger numbers, and could predict quite accurately the number of seats needed for new arrivals to be seated comfortably with no crowding - here on Green Island, people comfort and convenience was our priority, rather than maxing profit for some investors somewhere by squeezing the max possible number of bodies into the minimum possible space for the max profit, screw the comfort factor. Don't get me started.
I looked at More, who was regarding me with a slight frown, and rose to my feet.
"Please, Thomas, if I may, I can assure you that the picture is nowhere near as bleak as the Colonial likes to paint it," I said, smiling; "Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact - as with all modern mainstream media, as I think you will learn here, of which the Colonial is the charter Island member, the truth has never been a particular consideration in what they print, their underlying goals being somewhat different and considerably darker than the simple dissemination of news for we the people. But one of the reasons I have invited you here is so that you can have a good look around and judge the situation for yourself. Please," I finished, reaching a hand to help him to his feet, "withhold your judgement for a few days until you have seen for yourself what we are doing, and talked to others and read other points of view, which you will have full freedom to pursue, I assure you. And now we really should board the train..."
"Yes, yes, of course, Bigelow," replied More, folding the paper and sticking it in his pocket as he leaned forward to get to his feet, taking my offered hand to pull himself up, "I really should not let myself be unduly influenced by a few comments in the press. Lord knows I've had my share of slanderously unfair, biased comments directed at me! And what I have seen so far of you certainly has not led me to thinking you are a bad person - and I've already commented on my first impressions of this Green Island, which certainly seems a fine place - I suppose it remains to be seen whether in spite of you, as they imply here, or because of you, as were my first impressions when I learned of this place..."
We walked the few steps over to the train, where most of the others had already boarded. I waved him up the steps ahead of me, and, with his bag in hand, followed him into the car. We easily found a couple of empty seats, and I heaved More's bag into the luggage rack overhead before settling down in a seat across from him.
"So what is our schedule, then?" he began as I sat, looking over at me; "I hope there is not a lot on for today, as I am rather tired after the journey, and would like to get settled in first?"
"Yes, I had thought that you might like a quiet first day," I answered, "and we are in no great hurry - indeed, we try to avoid hurrying here as much as we can! - so I had just planned to take you to your accommodation at the university, and show you around there a bit along the way. The real look at our little experiment here will get under way tomorrow, when we are off to a lovely little seaside town called Georgetown for a visit, and then another nearby called Montague."
"Georgetown and Montague!" he said, smiling, "You capture my imagination already! I look forward to it."
The train began to pull away from the airport station with just the slightest of jolts as the electric motors engaged, and More turned his attention outside the window, watching with interest the outskirts of Charlottetown rolling by as we slowly made our way in from the airport - the old, well-treed Sherwood Cemetery, various building and construction businesses, the Community Garden for city apartment dwellers who liked to dig in the dirt a bit, a large shopping mall with its parking lot only showing a few cars - a dying breed, both the malls and cars, at least on Green Island, with our support for both public transportation as much as possible, and also small businesses, and the increased understanding of people that large malls and box stores and brand-name franchises owned by investors thousands of miles away were not good for local people or local economics.
"Well, it is certainly a lovely spot," More said after a few minutes, turning to me with a smile. We were just entering the university grounds, and I nodded with pleasure at his approval.
"It is indeed," I replied; "Some of us are very proud of what we've accomplished the last few years - it's always been quite beautiful here, of course, but we have, I think, added to it considerably, by turning back some of the less pleasant aspects of modern industrial society."
The GRIS-RT tracks passed through a hedgerow of spruce and wild apple trees, which separated the shopping mall property from the university grounds. Just inside the hedgerow, a low, rectangular reddish sandstone monument - the bedrock of the Island - had imprinted the name of the university - ATHENIA. As always, the sight of it brought back a host of memories, generally pleasant, as when one recollects the lengthy struggles leading to an achieved goal.
The grounds of Athenia - originally the University of Prince Edward Island - now covered several hundred acres, in keeping with our central philosophy that a civilized community depends upon a fully educated and engaged citizenry, and the tools for providing this must be a priority. The well-kept lawns which surrounded the buildings and walkways were liberally shaded by a wide variety of native trees, and a small pond nestled in the valley which lay between the mall and the older part of the campus. I pointed out a number of students working on the grounds, cutting grass, painting some older buildings, doing the general upkeep work that was constantly required in such a large institution, being engaged in their community and lives in a practical way. Where we now entered the grounds was the newer section of Athenia, all built within the preceding few years. The centerpiece of this section was the College of Social Economics, a four-story, semi-circular building made of Island sandstone, set partially into the valley slope and fronting on the pond. Its appearance was based somewhat on the classical Greek style as a testament to our past, but adapted very much to our local conditions and situation and ideas, with red sandstone and dark hardwood giving it a distinctive Island appearance. Its many classrooms and halls were well lit and open, yet there was a sturdiness about it which foretold and reflected both the long Island winters and the stability of its ideas.
As the train slowed for the Athenia stop, we had a minute or so to watch as the CSE slowly passed alongside the train. There were many people around the pleasantly landscaped grounds, sitting in small groups or strolling along the pond or purposefully striding between buildings, taking advantage of the pleasant sunny summer weather, which was one of the things in short supply on Green Island. On the far side of the campus University Avenue, the main road connecting Charlottetown to the western part of the Island, could be seen, with a few automobiles passing, although traffic had much diminished everywhere since the inception of the GRIS-RT and the embracing of a good, reliable public transit system by the ecologically-conscious citizens of Green Island. The train slid gently to a stop, and the doors hissed open. Over the PA system a soft, pleasant androgynous voice announced, "Athenia Station; Athenia; the time is eleven twenty-two am; Athenia Station; this train will leave in two minutes; next stop will be Hillsborough, and then Charlottetown Centre. Don't do anything I wouldn't do. Have a nice day."
I saw More look from the side of his eyes at the last comment, and grinned. We tried not to be too serious about things on Green Island while maintaining a pretty reliable schedule for things like the GRIS-RT - serious was for bureaucrazies and capitalist beancounters out to max profit and keep people's noses to grindstones of one sort or another, and we felt that although there were times when precision and due care and concern were necessary, life in general was, as Mr Vonnegut said, for farting around and enjoying yourself. As long as you didn't hurt anyone and the necessary wheels kept turning, we were fine with that outlook. Most people who want others to be serious about things have ulterior motives - such as increasing their bank accounts. Most Green Islanders, these days, after finding that one could actually be free and prosperous without being chained to a capitalist assembly line, didn't do very well on that score. And didn't much care. Oddly enough, the less we concentrated on making money for others, the more we made and had for ourselves.
More saw my grin and grinned back, in the spirit of things. It was, after all, a new society with new ways of doing things.
I stood and reached to the overhead shelf and pulled down More's bag, then held out my free hand once again to assist my guest from his seat. "Well, here we are - your home for the next little while - I think you'll enjoy it here."
"Already!" He grunted as he pulled himself upright, and balanced with his stick. "Too many hours in a cold and wet prison cell," he said, looking at me with a rueful smile, "Now these old bones are a little stiff. Still, it doesn't stop me - just slows me down a mite! Onward, then, Bigelow, I'll be right behind you!"
The few others who had been disembarking at Athenia had already left the car, so there was no-one to jostle us as we made our way down the shallow steps from the train to the station. Hardly a station, actually, more of a shelter where travellers could wait for the train out of the frequent summer rain or winter snow. A station was not really needed - the wide doors at the back through which I led More opened into the main hall of Athenia Central - gathered under the one large roof were such things as the bookstore and news stand, the main campus dining hall, bread-and-basics market, drug store and health centre - the campus was small enough to make this practical. Tables were scattered throughout the central foyer where people could meet for coffee and conversation, or sit and read or relax a bit. At either end of the concourse wide doors opened into the campus proper, with smaller doors here and there leading to the sheltered walkways which connected the major Athenia centres with protected paths for stormy days - we had made many strides in improving life for the people of Green Island, but doing something to shorten the winters or induce a Camelotian rain regime was not yet achievable.
We stepped to the side as More gently held me back while he had a look around at the many students and others going about their business of shopping or meeting friends or studying or changing classes or whatever.
"My, my," he said, "So many people, so young and healthy, so alive and happy looking! It looks like a very good place!"
I grinned back at him; "We certainly like to think so - true learning, and searching for knowledge, is certainly one of the most rewarding human activities - and a lot of fun as well, and we encourage it all as much as we can!" I answered; "Shall we carry on to your home away from home then?"
"Yes, of course," he replied, "only ..." I looked over at him, wondering at the hesitation in his voice.
"Is there something you'd like?" I asked; "Do you need to use the washroom? Would you like a drink ...?"
"Well," he said, "Do you suppose we could sit for a minute at one of these tables here? It is so full of life - I would just like to take it in for a minute."
"Why, of course we can," I replied, "That is what we're here for, after all! We won't be able to dally for long, I'm afraid, as I said I do have some things I have to do today, but we can certainly stop for a few minutes, perhaps a cup of the very good coffee one of the shops here has."
I led him over to an empty table near the middle of the hall, where he lowered himself somewhat carefully into one of the chairs. As he settled himself, after inquiring as to his preference, I went over to a nearby beverage bar and got us both a cup of hot, fresh Island FTA (FairTradeAid) coffee. As I set the cups down on the table upon my return, More was in the act of waving over a young student, who was soon standing beside him.
"Good morning," she said, looking at the old gentleman with a smile, "Is there something you'd like, Sir?"
I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, sitting back and lighting one to have with my coffee while More spoke to the young lady - I didn't smoke a lot, but there were times one went well with a coffee during the day, or a cold beer in the evening.
"Yes," he said, looking from her to me, "There is, dear, there is. First I'd like to know your name, and then I'd like to hear what you think of young Bigelow here and the article I just read from this morning's paper calling him all sorts of nasty things."
His comments took me a little by surprise, although he gave a smile and nod towards me as he spoke to the young woman, showing, I took it, that he was not being unfriendly, as he pulled the paper from his pocket and showed it to the girl, whose name, she soon informed us, was Sharon. As she looked from the paper to me, and recognized me, her eyes widened a bit.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, "It is you, Mr. Bigelow! I - I -"
She seemed a bit flustered, but I smiled at her in a friendly way, encouraging her.
She looked at me, then spoke to More. "Well, Mr. - ah -"
"More is my name, Thomas More," More said to her, realizing what she was looking for; "Call me Tom, if you like - I don't believe in too much formality."
She frowned, as if she'd heard his name before, when he mentioned it, but she quickly carried on.
"Well, Mr. More, or Tom," she said, "I saw the Colonial this morning, and it's the same sort of bullsh - that is, ah, garbage - they've been saying about Mr. Bigelow for years. You shouldn't believe a word of what they say! Why, if it wasn't for Mr. Bigelow and the people around him, Prince Edward Island would still be the backwater of Canada and North America, whose main industry was unemployment and poverty, with a government of puppets whose main interest was kowtowing to the powerful and getting itself reelected! Why, just look around you! Without Mr. Bigelow, there'd be no Athenia, no GRIS-RT, no dream, I know I'd be waitressing somewhere as there was no way our family could afford university for me with the huge tuition fees there used to be and related expenses ...."
As Sharon spoke, looking over towards me occasionally from the sides of her eyes, I could feel my face flushing a bit. It wasn't long before I held up my hands and interrupted.
"That's all very nice of you to say," I finally said quietly, although with a small smile to thank her for her compliment, as Sharon stopped speaking, looking at me as students tended to look at a senior lecturer, "but there are an awful lot more people than me involved with all of this, and don't forget that in the end, really, we only do what the entire populace of the province has discussed at length, and agreed on and supported. We .."
"Oh, I'm so very sorry to interrupt, Mr Bigelow, but I have to be going!" said Sharon, rising from her seat while looking at her wristwatch, "I have a class in five minutes and I'm leading the discussion on 'Economies in Transition' and Mr. Leslie is a bit cranky if we're late. But here, Mr. More, or Tom," she finished, as she reached into her collection of books and papers and pulled out a newspaper of her own after pawing around a bit, "I think you should read some of this before you make any judgements about Mr. Bigelow based on that Colonial crap. It's the real Green Island newspaper, and is much more indicative of how the majority of people feel around here. It's been so nice meeting you too, Mr. Bigelow - and I'm very much looking forward to your seminars next semester!"
So saying, she set the paper on the table, and, with a final smile to both of us, turned and half-trotted back through the hall towards the main doors. As More looked down in front of him, I saw that Sharon had left this morning's copy of the 'Island Voice', the Island's other major daily newspaper - which had been originally funded by the government (but was now entirely self-sufficient) to give space to the many interests and voices - a majority, really - which were not represented by the major newspaper chains in the country, one of which owned the Colonial. (Such things used to be called 'alternative' newspapers, but here they were mainstream - it was the likes of the Colonial and the other Canadian mainstream dailies that were still available that were the real 'alternatives', speaking for a privileged minority as they did - but we welcomed all debate on Green Island, being mainly of the view that the radicals of any sort, as that small minority who believed that because of their ill-gotten wealth they had some right to rule everyone else surely were, were better known than sneaking around behind the scenes).
More picked up the 'Voice', and looked over his spectacles at the front page. I had seen the headlines while waiting for him at the airport, and recalled that they dealt primarily with the upcoming referendum. The 'Colonial' and the 'Voice' were very different papers, in philosophy, style and content which, in my opinion at least, was good for everyone. The people of our community got strong arguments on each side of the controversies of the day, which gave them most of the information they required to make decisions on the issues they encountered in their lives. They also got differing coverage of the 'news' of the country and world, and with differing emphasis. And they also, after determining what was actually factual after a lot of checking around, got some fairly relevant, practical information on the presence and use of propaganda and such things in modern society - a lesson that can do a lot to help people get out of the Box.
More finished his quick scan, and put the paper in his pocket with the copy of the 'Colonial' he already carried there.
"So sorry, Bigelow," he said, looking over to me, "Quite rude of me to read while you're sitting there. Just curious, though - I'll be certain to read both of these papers carefully when I have a little free time - I presume they will be pertinent to our discussions throughout the coming days. Quite a nice young lady, I say - she seemed to have quite a different view of you and your work than the 'Colonial', hmmm? And also I noticed that while she obviously respected you, she had no hesitation in leaving for her class - indicating she does not fear you or anything, which is a good sign, I think ..."
"Well, yes, of course, there's no reason at all to 'fear' me," I replied with a bit of a smile, following his glance to where Sharon was just going through the doors at the far end of the concourse; "and as for the newspapers, well, the Colonial for years was the main paper of the Island, and it was run essentially by the ruling classes - oh, yes, I know, it's not supposed to be a 'class' society, but the facts indicated otherwise, as I'm sure you are aware. In any event, the 'Colonial' had - and has - a certain world view which it supports, and I and the present government do not fit that worldview, so it is quite outraged and has been trying for years to undermine us, since the very beginning, really - and when they can't find anything truthful to use against us, they simply lie a lot, as they always have. Frankly, I'm glad it is doing this - it keeps us honest and on our toes and also, as more and more people understand what it is doing, it helps them to understand how much their lives have been shaped by the propaganda of earlier times, and how important it is to be very, very careful in what things you believe."
"Well, yes, but should such papers be allowed to publish what are often gross exaggerations bordering on outright lies? - I speak, I note once again, from some rather bitter experience..."
"Yes, I think so - freedom of speech has to be one of the paramount freedoms in any truly democratic society, and with an educated citizenry, obvious nonsense or lies will do more damage to the reputation of those who propagate them than to those they are attempting to discredit through such things - as long, of course, as there is another paper or media outlet which publishes, with the same frequency and coverage, the opposing point or points of view and the citizens are challenged to think for themselves, and to sort among the various things offered, talk with their neighbors, evaluate actions as well as words, and eventually come to their own conclusions - which, for many years, has not been the case here or in most of the western world, for that matter, as most of the major media were lecturing from a common pulpit - although since about 1990 a rather strong alternative media was made possible by the internet, and has contributed quite significantly to our accomplishments through educating the people - actually, here on Green Island what used to be an 'alternative' media is pretty much what people consider mainstream now, and vice versa. I think a well-educated people can distinguish for themselves which point of view holds more credibility, when there are competing stories provided by different outlets. The real danger, I think, is when there is only one point of view constantly placed before the public, and a certain course of action pushed on people based on that point of view, as was the case when the 'Colonial' was the only paper here - and Colonial clones are still the norm now in most of Canada, for instance, owned by the wealthy and pushing the point of view desired by the wealthy. I think that you're going to find our people here on Green Island are now very well educated in almost every way about our world and society - and a great deal of that education has come from the media, which on Green Island play just such a role, as opposed to the largely propagandistic role they have been playing in most so-called western democracies the last few decades, and doing their best to stop people from thinking rather than encouraging it. However, Mr. More," I finished with a bit of a rueful smile, looking up at the large clock on the north wall of the hall, "Although I usually can talk for hours about such things, as many of my friends will probably tell you!, I am afraid I do not have the time for a long talk now, much as I am looking forward to many of them in the near future. I have promised my wife I will meet her this afternoon about some urgent business, and the appointed time is quickly approaching. I would like to get you settled in without a big rush, so perhaps we could be on our way?"
"Oh, certainly," More replied, lifting his cup and drinking the last of his coffee, "Quite a delicious coffee! I did not mean to detain you, but I am the kind of person who likes to take action as required, and I did want to get a second opinion on the piece I read in the 'Colonial' at the earliest possible time - and that has been accomplished! With the added bonus of the sound and sight of a lovely young woman speaking to me! I am content - and yours to command, Bigelow!" he finished, rising from his chair.
I was smiling once again with him as I crushed out my cigarette in the ashtray on the table, then rose and picked up his bag from beside the chair.
I am sure we made an odd couple as we strolled down the hall - the short, aged More with walking stick and tricorner, with his hand holding the arm of a tall, slim younger man, chatting and laughing companionably together as we slowly passed the length of the hall and exited the doors into the bright noonday sunlight of Athenia of Green Island. Perhaps not so much, however - Athenia had students from all over the world, and there were many colorful individuals busy with their own affairs around us.
As we stepped through the large glass doors, More stopped at the edge of the cement walkway and took a look around, and a deep breath, nodding his head approvingly.
"Ah, such beautiful, clean, fresh air, such a lovely setting, and such lovely people around. Utopian indeed!"
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