Tricky Time-Keeping At the Canadian Border

When I was young and good looking, I used to wear a suit and necktie to my glee club and art sessions and I was a handsome sight. But then all the sheep joined the union. So I was in Montreal on a non-diplomatic mission and I stepped into Ogilvy's, lured by a sale sign, bought me an elegant suit of British weave, and had the black-tie clerk put the time of day on my receipt. A 48-hour visit to Canada would let me wear my new suit home duty-free.

This trip had been by train; the Grand Trunk Line of the Canadian National, from Portland, Maine, by the sea through New Hampshire's sightly White Mountains to Coaticook and Sherbrooke, and into the largest free French city of collaborating World War II, Mo're-al. I was now on my way home, approaching the boundary at Norton's Mills, Vt. An inspector of the United States Customs Service approached me, and before I could inquire for his family, he said, ''Do you have anything to declare?''

I passed him the sales slip from Ogilvy, and he reached to feel the fine quality of my lapel. He said, ''I'll be back right away.'' He was gone but a moment and came back to say, ''Are you prepared to pay the duty?''

It thus came out that I had made a silly international error. Because I had enjoyed two days in Montreal, I had assumed 48 hours had elapsed. Not so. The officer had checked the train schedule, and I lacked eight minutes. At that time, along with ad valorem and all, the duty on a suit of woolen was more than the suit cost me. The inspector was sympathetic.

He said, ''If you were in an automobile, I'd tell you to pull up and park 10 minutes.'' Then he said, ''If you're not in a hurry, get off this train, ride back to Sherbrooke and spend the night, and cross the line tomorrow. I'll be on this same train and I'll have your papers all made out.'' This sounds unlikely today, but a hotel room and two hearty meals in Sherbrooke cost me a good deal less than the import tax on a woolen suit. When I got home, I wrote that Customs man a thank-you note, but was careful to call to his attention that federal law forbade him to accept a gratuity or honorarium.

That evening, having dined well at the Hotel Sherbrooke, I walked up to the city center and came to the publishing house of ''La Tribune,'' Sherbrooke's daily newspaper, and walked in to be greeted by a young man who asked if he could show me around. He was Jean-Louis Gauthier, nephew of Sen. Jacob Nicoll, who owned the newspaper and its related radio services. Senator Nicoll enjoyed a life sinecure in both the national parliament at Ottawa and the provincial parliament at Quebec City.

After a few minutes, Jean-Louis suggested we go to the apartment of Rene Caron where I met Marie-Paule Bergeron, the beautiful girl that Jean-Louis was to marry. That evening my French vocabulary was much extended.

Rene Caron proved interesting. He was more than a radio announcer and had a regular ''show'' with drama and songs. His style suggested Chevalier. Rene was looking ahead to television opportunities, and was to have a major role in a series about Radisson and Grosseilliers.

Radisson and Grosseilliers were two early Canadian pioneers, brothers-in-law, who first envisioned the opportunities for trade in Canada's arctic and sub-arctic regions. Their effort to form a trading company found no support in France, but they were listened to in England, and the Hudson's Bay Company was quickly financed. Radisson and Grosseilliers gave Rene Caron long employment as their adventures were put on film. I asked Rene which of the gentlemen he played, and he said, ''The one with the whiskers.''

The separatists who wish to remove Quebec Province from Canada have dwelt on the loss of their ''French heritage.'' It dwindles as they continue to be exposed to the English influences. I would say that this is largely a wild surmise; I think the French heritage of Canadians ceased about 300 years ago, about the time King Louis sent his shiploads of girls to become wives of the lonely colonists.

When President de Gaulle came to Quebec and made speeches about Free Quebec, there were those who wondered what he meant. Jean-Louis Gauthier and his friends would say, ''I'm not a Frenchman; I'm a Canadian!'' And it seemed to me that Rene Caron realized, and portrayed, that the Canadian's French heritage was close to home. When Canada was confederated, it was necessary to come to terms with two bear-grease ridge-runners, one of whom had whiskers. Rene said all the arctic scenes were filmed in July in a Montreal studio with celluloid snow. There's a French Connection for you!

My chum Bill and I have become acquainted with any number of French-speaking Canadians who live in Beauce and Dorchester Counties of Quebec. Every summer for 30 years, Bill and I have faithfully observed Bastille Day at our vacation camp close to the Maine-Quebec boundary. We have flown the Tricoleur and we play ''La Marsaillaise'' on our tape machine. We have French toast for breakfast.

In 30 summers we have not found a French-speaking Kaybecker who ever heard of the Bastille. And when Jean and Marie Gauthier had a son, I pushed him in his pram. Now he is married to a Danish girl, lives in Copenhagen, and his two sons are registered Canadian citizens. The family uses all three languages, but most Danes use English with an Oxford accent. Heritage, they say, going back to the Dane geld.

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