Is there a finer place to see humanity at its best than Braemore Avenue at 8:30 a.m.? The bridge over the Brierly Brook, the bright green artificial turf of the athletic field, cool digital message board, its half-dozen intersecting streets, pathways and turnabouts, and a third of Antigonish picking up and delivering kids.
At 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. each weekday, it is a mad rush of kids, teachers, cars, bicycles, and yellow buses; trucks, and kids, on foot, parents bringing other kids, and a crossing guard.
This is as close as Antigonish comes to rush hour.
The crossing guard is Bill Ryan. He raises a hand in salute to every car. He calls out the names of students, teachers, bus drivers and parents. He keeps up a continuing conversation with the students he escorts across the streets, driveways and bus stops.
“How’d you do on the math test?” he asked one student on the afternoon I was there.
“Hope you’re feeling better, Kathleen?” he said to a student who was absent the day before.
He serenades another cluster of students as he leads them slowly across Xavier Drive.
“Dance, dance, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the dance said he.”
"I try to do the job with love and care. It is a treasured occupation." Bill Ryan
He sang the whole song, as he and his young charges slowly cross Xavier Drive. Most seem to enjoy the song. Some roll their eyes. Grade 5s can be a tough audience.
Bill has been an Antigonish crossing guard for 14 years - doing it in his unique way.
He figures he owes it to the job to learn all his students’ names and to remember what they tell him.
For all the vehicular confusion, no child has ever been hit by a car or hurt in an accident on his watch, though Bill was once hit by a car.
That happened on a typically busy afternoon a few years back. In the usual confusion: a couple hundred cars and buses, pulling up and loading kids, and departing, a couple score of parents doing the same thing in their cars.
Suddenly, a car squirted through the crowd and struck him on the side of his hip. Bill didn’t go down, but he felt the pain for a while.
Protocol calls for getting the name of the driver, make of the car and licence plate number of offending vehicles.
Bill let it pass.
“She was confused,” he said.
“Cars were going every which way. What good would it do anyone to turn her in and make trouble? I try to do the job with love and care. It is a treasured occupation.”
Bill is 71 years old. He has issues with his legs and hips. He has an easy chair near one of his crossings and rests in it when things are quiet.
The road to recovery
His life has not been easy.
He has related to Antigonish better than any other community during his three score and 11 years.
Bill grew up on Durrell Island - a small island a few hundred metres off the coast at Canso.
He was one of 10 children (interestingly, all boys) in a house with wood heat, no plumbing and electricity.
His father was sick and alcoholic.
His mother, apparently, was a model of generous love. She held the family together and made every sacrifice for her children.
bill left the island as a young adult - living in Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax, Cape Breton and elsewhere.
He became addicted to alcohol and what he calls “prescription drugs.” He slept in hotels and rented rooms when he could; on the streets, when he didn’t have money.
Bill tried Alcoholics Anonymous.
“AA is a fine program but, for me, it was the church that helped me get myself straightened out,” he said.
It was the church and his mother’s love. He was saved not by a rational program, but by his mother’s love and examples of love the church provides.
He put alcohol and prescription drugs behind him in 1986.
Ten years later, he quit smoking.
“Once you get cleaned up one or two places, you want to change everything for the better,” Bill explained.
The simple truth
Once a week or more, for going on 10 years, I have appeared at Bill's apartment door, with a hot meal in a plastic box.
H thanks me, as though I cooked it myself, although I neither cook nor pay for the meal.
I’m running against the clock, but I knock on his door, and we compare notes on the ravages of old age, talk weather, and St. Ninian’s ever-revising Mass schedules.
Once, I met his brother and sister-in-law from Prince Edward Island.
Bill asks about my wife, my kids and my grandkids.
"I was a nuisance for a lot of years." Bill Ryan
Marriage is a sacrament that Bill never received. He regrets never finding a loving partner to share life’s pain and joy with.
I asked why he never married.
“I was a nuisance for a lot of years,” he offered in partial explanation and we talked about other things.
There are areas of experience from his time in the wilderness he doesn’t tell me about.
“I was a nuisance,” Bill said.
He leaves it at that. He seldom mentions his former life without the word “nuisance” coming up. It means he was guilty and wrong and nobody needs chapter and verse.
One day he asked me to write this story. He asked that I tell the simple truth, so others can learn.
This might be Bill’s last year as the Braemore Avenue crossing guard.
Spring and warm weather brought more students on foot. Fewer parents driving, more kids needing escort across the half-dozen crossings he looks after. He feels the increased pressure in his legs and hips. His heart is stronger than his body.
Bill has been guarding intersections and getting the children of Antigonish happily across the streets or into the car with a parent for 14 years. It will be a sad September for us all, if Bill isn’t on the job on the day after Labour Day, two months from now.
Driving up Braemore Avenue in the early morning on school days and not seeing Bill: tam on his head and a red stop sign in hand, working his peculiar brand of love and duty, offering a big smile, an enormous wave and a calling out of your name.
Who in Antigonish won’t miss that?