While I was visiting Calgary, Canada, a minor international incident reared its head. (This time, I didn’t cause it.) Walt Wawra, a policeman from Kalamazoo, Michigan, had been visiting during the Calgary Stampede, an annual event that is possibly the world’s largest rodeo. He and his wife were strolling on Nose Hill, a beautiful park a mere 15-minute walk from my girlfriend’s parents’ house. They were approached by two men who asked, “Have you been to the Stampede yet?” Unless they’re later identified, we’ll never know if it was out of friendliness or business interest (it’s been suggested they were promoters giving away tickets, but that seems unlikely), but Officer Wawra assumed they meant harm. He interposed himself between the men and his wife, and told them to back off, or something to that effect, “We have no wish to speak to you.” Bewildered, presumably by the unexpected hostility with which he met their neighborliness, they slunk away.
The real incident occurred when Officer Wawra, safely back home, wrote a snippy letter to the editor of the Calgary Herald, bemoaning Canada’s gun control laws that meant he couldn’t defend himself from people being friendly.
This column in the Calgary Herald was one of the kinder responses. Gawker had an apt headline: ‘American Becomes Laughingstock of Canada over Letter.’ And rightly so. The man’s batshit paranoia could have killed two innocent people.
People shouldn’t underestimate just how unsafe America is. Whereas you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to get killed minding your own business in a public park in Canada, the sad thing is that it’s not unthinkable in the USA. And that knowledge changes your behavior whether you want it to or not. Walt Wawra overreacted in the most ridiculous way possible, but I felt an uncomfortable twinge of recognition.
During our visit to Calgary we had our own incident. Coming back from the Calgary Folk Music Festival at night, part of the metro line was closed for repair and we had to take a replacement bus. We had the bad luck to sit across from a drunk woman who, for some reason, took offense at my girlfriend’s bag and started a slurred diatribe: “Hey! That bag! It’s all because of that bag! You owe me money! Where’s my money, bitch? Gimme my money! I’m gonna fuck you up when we get off the bus!”
A far cry from “Have you been to the Stampede yet?” If this had happened in the Netherlands, we probably would have been laughing at how ridiculous it was, but perhaps being in an English-speaking environment triggered my ‘America survival mode.’ She was obviously too drunk even to get up, so we had nothing to fear, but I found myself sizing her up, wondering if I’d be able to throw a punch if need be, and — yes — wondering if she was armed. Even now, after having lived outside the USA for 18 years.
I’m no Walt Wawra, but America can make you into one if you’re not careful.