THE KING KONG FENCE

The day Jody broke her ankle, we’d walked the King Kong fence twice each, but only one side. Our legs already ached, but we’d wanted those shorter runs to prepare for the real challenge.

Let’s do both sides now,” said Jody at last, wiping a sweaty brow with her sleeve. Her freckles stood out like brown glitter and her homely face shone.

Ok!” I said. “You go first.” I knew at the time that it should have been me, as the more athletic one, but my politeness got in the way. I would soon regret it.

Jody’s family boasted the highest log fence in Camp. It rose six feet high opposite my own home. If we sat on the wooden stairs at my u-shaped house, we saw only that massive log fence in front of Jody’s place. A dirt road separated the two houses, but nothing travelled on that except cats, bikes, or kids. Once a month, Marcel’s one-ton truck rumbled by, delivering crated groceries shipped up by steamer from Vancouver.

The year was 1956. We were eight, and we loved to scramble up slats in the gate to the top of the first log and then wobble along, stepping from one perch to the next with arms outstretched, like high-wire performers.

Composed of D-logs — whole logs cut flat on one side but still round on the other– the fence loomed in our eyes like the fortress in the movie King Kong. It stood impenetrable, strong. All the kids wanted to climb it, walk it, master it. It called to us in our dreams and at school. That fence tested the outer limits of our physicality. Gollum’s ring held no greater temptation; that fence begged us to walk it, and walk it we did, despite dangers or warnings.

Now, flushed with excitement, Jody stuck a foot in the lower gate hinge and hoisted herself up the gate slats once more. I held my breath and hoped for the best. Could we make it around two sides without falling off? Adrenalin pumped through us; we always started with the side bordering the dirt road, then moved on to the second stretch, which faced a windowless side of Jody’s house. That way, we couldn’t be spotted by Jody’s mother.

She had reached the third log when the sun split the clouds to brighten the way. I craned my neck, walking nervously below, skirting the large sandbox built for the Yaroslavs’ four kids, Jody’s two sisters and a brother. Jody moved slowly as I watched, carefully balancing her small frame. Now a wobble on the fourth log, but she righted herself, pausing until her equilibrium returned. Only ten more steps to go. She made it to five, then six, then wobbled on seven. She paused again. Now eight and nine. Soon she was at ten, ready to make the right turn to head down the second length. We both felt triumphant.

Here I go!” she trumpeted. “Hey! I can see the train yards from here!”

Be careful! Don’t fall off!” As if it was her plan.

Swivelling like a gymnast on a balance beam, Jody faltered a bit but bent forward to compensate. Her arms flailed and I saw her tip slightly sideways. She looked so small that I wished all the more that I stood there instead. My heart lurched, but she righted herself once more and set out along the final leg. One step, two steps, three steps. My neck began to ache from staring up. I felt sweat trickling down my back.

At the sixth log, two things happened. Mrs. Yaroslav opened her front door to let the two dogs out. They were friendly Labs, but they came out barking because Mrs. Boseman from next door chose that precise moment to clatter at the fence gate, coming in for morning coffee. She couldn’t see us for the trees and bushes dotting the yard.

This untimely confluence of events proved too exciting for the two dogs, who bounded toward the gate with barks and howls. Poor Jody turned too far to look over her shoulder.

Jody! Don’t look!” I warned. As if she could prevent herself.

It was too late. Jody lost her balance and fell at the sixth marker. I ran forward to try to catch her, with no luck. She landed mostly on her feet, but the impact proved too much for her tired legs, and one ankle went out from under her. A small cracking sound caused her to shriek in pain. Then her ankle began to swell. She lay on one side, holding her leg above the break and wailing like a banshee. I rushed to her side.

“Jody! Are you okay?” My voice was tearful, joining hers.

The two mothers came running out of the house at the sound of Jody’s shrieks and sobs.

Oh my gosh!” said Jody’s mother. “She’s broken her ankle! You kids and that fence! Honestly!”

“I’ll run to the Dispatch tower!” said Mrs. Boseman, seeing the crooked bend in Jody’s ballooning foot. “You get some ice. She’ll have to be flown out.” And off she dashed.

The Dispatch tower had walkie-talkies and telephones. It was the communication centre for the camp and the outside world. Being “flown out” meant being taken by float plane to Alert Bay, the only hospital site in the area. Woss Camp had a medic, but not for serious injuries.

Luckily, Chuck Yaroslav’s speeder hadn’t yet left the train yards for the bush, due to the lateness of Speeder 121. He arrived home by foot twenty minutes later. Jody’s ankle, now bathed in ice, was lifted with the rest of her and rushed back to the Dispatch Tower by several neighbours. There she was deposited onto a two-passenger speeder and borne three miles south to Woss Lake, where a float plain awaited. Chuck rode along, muttering reassurances. We later heard that the painkillers kicked in about halfway there, and that Jody enjoyed the flight in a foggy haze.  

speeder 121 at Woss Camp
Speeder 121

Back at Camp, kids came running from all directions, keen to hear the gory details of Jody’s fall.

“What happened?” cried Gary and Sammy from down the road.

“She was almost across the second side when she fell! It was the farthest she ever got, but then the dogs came out and scared her! You should have seen it!”

“What happened?” shrieked school pals Mary and Leslie, arriving two minutes later. Then we’d have to explain it all over again. Not that we minded. While sympathetic to Jody’s plight, everyone secretly enjoyed the shivers of shock and horror experienced upon telling and hearing the tale. It was the most exciting thing that had happened in Camp for ages.

Jody returned all smiles the next day, hobbling on crutches, her foot immobilized in a white cast and signed by hospital staff, railway engineers and loggers. She became an instant heroine, all the kids clustering around to hear about the Great Fall and the float plane to the hospital in Alert Bay. Everybody wanted to sign her cast. There wasn’t a kid in Camp who didn’t envy her that plane ride. And, of course, we all got fresh lectures from our folks about camp safety.

As a result of all the fuss, at least three weeks passed before any of us dared to walk the King Kong fence again.

Three whole weeks! That was a feat as amazing as walking the fence itself.

Remembering Woss

For three years in the 1950s, I was the luckiest child alive. From the ages of five to eight, I lived where eagles dared, where huckleberries clung to the hills, where white Mayflowers splashed over the roots of old-growth forests, and ‘bleeding heart’ flowers poked out of trail moss. This was the Pacific Northwest, but for me, life centered around a remote logging camp in the north-central part of Vancouver Island. From 1954 to 1957, my family lived in a vast, old-growth forest which was being logged off without a murmur then. We lived in the remote logging community of Woss Camp, a tiny inland settlement an hour’s “crummy” ride south of Nimpkish Lake.

My mother hated it.

“There’s no doctor! The nearest hospital is in Alert Bay. We’ll have to fly by float plane, bleeding!”

My father loved it. So did we kids; my mother was outnumbered. I can understand now how she felt; she later told me she had anxiety attacks the whole three years we lived there, fearing for the lives of her children. Who could blame her?

The Nimpkish Valley had known loggers since about 1917. Woss sprang up in 1954 for one purpose alone: to act as the centre for Canadian Forest Product’s locomotives, the “lokies” which pulled endless rail cars piled with logs from the virgin forest north to the lake. CANFOR monopolized logging on the Island, harvesting the fir, hemlock, spruce and yellow cedar that covered the vast mountainous terrain. With no road access anywhere, they ran their own dedicated railroad about 32 miles into the heart of the wilderness from their log dump at Englewood in Beaver Cove, a small settlement southeast of Port McNeill on the Queen Charlotte Strait, at the very northern edge of Vancouver Island. Across a short stretch of water lay Alert Bay, an island community containing the hospital so valued by my mother.

Besides massive log loads on flatcars, pulled by Seattle-built Shay locomotives, makeshift “speeders” and crummies ran back and forth from Woss – and other small camps – to Englewood twice a day, carryingshipped-in goods, new arrivals, or weary residents keen to escape to the bright lights of Vancouver. The mimeographed local newsletter – which my father edited – kept track of the comings and goings. Bulletins such as the following regularly appeared:

“The Patton family will be visiting family in Prince George in May.” or “The Holosney family are expecting a new baby soon. Chuck and Rita Holosney will travel to Alert Bay next week to await the delivery.”

After our family left Woss in 1957, Englewood was abandoned as a log dump, though naturally the two events were not related. In fact, I don’t recall being aware of the closure, so excited were we all to resume our lives in Vancouver. However, I do remember Englewood well, as it made a stunning impression on my arriving five-year-old brain. That oil-slicked pier filled with crates and barrels and discarded spar trees; those crazy loggers in the deep water with their peaveys, risking life and limb as they hopped around, unjamming logs in the booms and setting them right. Englewood was a madhouse of activity. Today’s Cirque de Soleil performance can barely compare.

I would give anything to revisit Englewood in its original glory, the way I remember it. I did revisit Woss twice as an adult, but it had changed almost beyond recognition, being now accessible by road. This rather spoiled the dream for me, though the old Woss will always lie like a once-discovered kingdom in my mind. It’s my own Secret Garden, my Narnia, where magical things happen and life excited me to the very marrow. In trying times now, I call up Woss and relive old adventures, meet wonderful friends and walk with them the dusty roads of our former happiness. Woss was the place where kids ran free, reveling in dirt roads, building rafts on ponds, and gathering buckets of huckleberries and salmonberries for pies. It was where we climbed on discarded trucks, rolled on empty oil barrels, and risked death just by crossing the busy railway tracks. We visited the dispatch tower and picked wild strawberries on a hill above the school. The fun was endless, with not a television or a Game Boy in sight.

As I said, I was the luckiest kid alive.

A FRIEND IS COMING…

walker

This is not primarily a funny piece – quite the opposite. But I’m adding it here anyway, as I have nowhere else to put it. (mn)

…………………………………………………………………………………………..

He sits in his four-wheeled walker, facing the facility entrance. His wander-alert bracelet sets off the alarm if he comes closer, and after many breaches, my husband knows this. So he waits just out of range, beyond the lobby carpet.

As I approach the glass doors from outside, I see him, twenty feet back, where the linoleum starts. He’s bouncing up and down a little and waving. His vulnerability pains me. I’m all he has, and we both know it.

There’s no question that I’ll always be there. He is my once-strong partner, my manly trucker, a legend on Vancouver’s docks for solving truck-loading problems for his company. Like the oversized glass panels that had to be mounted on specially-designed racks. He designed those racks, and they’re still used today by local trucking companies.

You should have patented those,” I told him.

Nah…I just did it to help out the guys.” And he had.

Now that inventive mind can no longer think logically or remember what he just said or what he had for lunch half an hour ago.

How can he bear it?

How can I?

The automatic doors swing open for me and I feel guilty; he can’t understand why he cannot come and go as I do. But he endures it, as he endures all else in this place. He is a marvel of adaptation, sunny and cheerful, never blaming me for putting him here.

Why isn’t he angry at this sudden turn of fate? How can he remain so forbearing with me and others? Why doesn’t he resent being so frail? He’s not completely befuddled, so why is he not depressed? My theory is that he feels safe here. And he doesn’t think about himself much. It’s a wonderful quality.

The friendly, young receptionist smiles as I pass by her desk by the entrance door. I can see that she has something to tell me.

He told me ‘a friend’ was coming,” she chuckles. It’s a small joke, unwanted, perhaps, but bearable. He’s never referred to me as “a friend” before.

It’s alright, I tell myself. But it hurts a little. After 45 years together, it hurts.

It’s another measure of how I’m losing him.

I’m 75 years old!” he tells people proudly.

Yes, you are. And you’re frail, too. These are my thoughts.

Right now, I hurry forward, in case impatience makes him cross the alarm barrier. He’s already standing, bobbing up and down with arms outstretched. I wrap my arms around him and we hold each other tight for a long moment, whispering sweet nothings, reassuring one another and ourselves. Only twenty-four hours have passed.

After disarming the wander-alert, I call him forward and we exit together. He pushes the walker while waving to the receptionist. He’s out of ‘San Quentin’ at last, as he calls it, and for the next two hours, we’ll drive around, laughing and talking nonsense, stopping off at Tim Horton’s for a hot chocolate in the car. Best of all, for him, will be smoking two or three cigarettes in the motorized warmth. It’s a complete luxury for him, as the “home” allows only ten per day, taken outside in the freezing cold. The car is much better; it has become his refuge, a cozy place where he can smoke at will, travel the city streets and be with me. It has become our gypsy caravan.

I just love driving around like this!” he often exclaims. “I could do it all afternoon.”

And if it weren’t for my sciatica, so could I.

Lottery Ticket Sales – Do It Better!

I was standing at the Customer Service counter in a large grocery store watching a slope-shouldered man argue with the sole clerk about the ‘free pick’ he felt he was owed. The clerk was trying to be patient, but the conversation was bogging down.

“No, you don’t get a free pick with this one,” she said, holding up a recent purchase. “Your free pick came with this one.” She fanned out a sheaf of older paper tickets and pointed at a middle one.

All I wanted was a shopping basket with wheels, so I interrupted.

“This looks as if it’ll take awhile,” I smiled. “Can I just get a rolling cart?”

The young clerk obliged, and I went on my merry way.

This lottery ticket holdup has happened too often  for me to put up with it. Counters full of the damned things roost beside most cash registers in mini-marts, convenience stores, malls, supermarkets and gas stations. The glass-covered chits line up like cards in a game of Solitaire, only more colourful. Neon hues encourage customers who once pondered choices at the candy counter to drool over lottery tickets in same way.  Sadly, it’s usually when I have one item to buy and I’m late for an appointment. They start with the hemming and hawing until I could scream.

“Let’s see,” I almost hear them think. “There’s the 6/49, the Quik-Pick, the Super Loto, and the Lotto Max, Which one shall I choose?”

“Just pick any of them!” I feel like shouting.

There must be a better way. Could venues not set up special lottery kiosks so that us non-buyers can zip through the checkout process? Must we wait for ten minutes while some woman in sweats and Crocs mulls over which colour 6/49 she wants and then – after 5 full minutes – opts for something else entirely?

Could stores not sell tickets through machines? Spit them out like gumballs, I say. Just don’t keep the rest of us waiting.

 

 

Elevated Thoughts: Writers’ Festival

book

I enter the elevator, heading for the writers’ event in an Arts District studio. More than my anticipation of hearing live authors, I’m thrilled to find a lift, since my heart – not to mention hips and legs – had quailed at the prospect of a long, slow climb up the two sets of stairs which had thrown themselves at me as I’d walked in the door. There they’d loomed, gleaming in a metallic, cobalt blue, an industrial-chic effect not totally lost on me despite my dismay (I’m a writer, after all, and ergo, a keen observer). I’d detected them in the blink of an eye, noting the droves of cultured young things scampering up and down them like springbok.

Were I to attempt the ascent, I would have to first grip the handrail like a drowning person grasping at rope around a lifeboat. Then I’d place one foot heavily on the bottom step and pull up the other one to join it. I’d move the gripping hand along and repeat the arduous process for the second step, and so on, twenty times. Stairs, for my age and weight, are no longer to be taken lightly. Indeed, the physical layout of a venue becomes a central concern, far more important than the event itself. Ben Heppner or Pavarotti would take back seats, as ’twere.

In the elevator, I stand near the door. Behind me is a gaggle of young women, laughing and shrieking. Not one or two, but six! It’s like a frat party in that cramped space. I’m just about to turn around and frown them down, old-lady-like, when one voice rises above the others.

“Yes, it’s true! They can’t start without us, even if we’re a bit late.” More squealing laughter.

I’m stunned. This is clearly the event’s welcome guide and the gaggle of gigglers are – incredibly – the writers! She-who-spoke has that welcome-guide look about her; older than the others, with a commanding presence. She may even be in her forties.

I do a reality-check.

“Are these the writers?” I ask, all my preconceptions blown.

“They are,” she replies.

“All of them??”

She cocks her head, brows furrowed.

I don’t mean to be rude; I’m just incredulous. These young women certainly hadn’t been acting like writers, or the way I imagined serious writers would act. Is this how being a thirty-something writer manifests itself? To my aging eyes, the group is barely discernible from a herd of millennials at the mall.

Seemingly, my preconceived notions about writers is entirely false. I’ve noticed before that my 68 years hamper me from distinguishing between ages 20 and 40. This group may as well have been teenagers, so young did they seem. These days, I feel the same about groups of off-duty young teachers. Or nurses. Or lawyers.

Hearing their guide’s louder voice, the young women take the hint and settle down. Most of them make eye contact as their guide speaks with me, but three avert their eyes. Am I just another overweight old lady to them, with pretensions to literature? Have I ever written anything in my life? Can I even read? Do I adore Danielle Steele at home and Hello magazine in the beauty parlour? (um….I do like that last option).

As we exit the elevator, I stand aside to let the giggling herd pass. I have excellent seats in the front row of the small theatre, but somehow it doesn’t matter. The event feels ruined for me, and I make a plan to leave early. I cannot imagine what this group of young people can have yet experienced that would be of interest to me.

Turns out I’m wrong. Their books are brilliant. I stay on and even buy one of the novels on the way out. An autographed copy.

Paved with Good Intentions: Ruth Lake (1967)

ruth-lake-bc
Ruth Lake fishing cabin. Main lodge behind.

For about 20 years, my uncle owned Ruth Lake Lodge, an off-road fishing place, rural and inconvenient. It had four spartan cabins and a warm kitchen in the main building, which was always under construction. Despite my relatives’ warm hospitality, I didn’t enjoy our visits much, as we sometimes had to camp out or sleep under bare roof beams in some half-built room.

Also, the Lodge was difficult to get to. Set half-a-mile off Forest Grove Road,  just north of tiny 100 Mile House, the lodge’s only vehicle access was a hand-hewn path through the bush, a path barely wide enough for one car. It was a veritable  obstacle course.

One spring stands out. There we sat, a family of four, in our low-slung Rambler Rebel, halfway down Forest Grove Road, with no habitation in sight, just an endless line of birch and alder lining the gravel road to the far horizon. Cowboy country lay beyond, sprawling ranches rife with cattle. Roads were dusty in summer but muddy at spring breakup. In short, we were 400 miles north of Vancouver in the heart of BC’s Cariboo region.

1967-amc-rebel-sst-2
Rambler Rebel ’67

Luckily – score one for us – we had found the turn-off to my uncle’s property, which was always difficult to spot. Now all we had to do was hit a couple of planks and squeeze our two-door over a muddy trench and through a small gap in the brush. No small wonder we hesitated.

“Looks fine!” said Dad, putting on a good face.

“Yes!” agreed Mom. “He’s even put some boards down to cover the mud.”

In the back seat, my younger brother and I exchanged looks.

Dad cranked the wheel left and eased the car onto the first muddy plank. There was a loud squooshing sound. I held my breath. Would we get the second wheel onto the other plank? We did, barely. The boards knocked crazily, and I had visions of sinking into a mucky bog.

My father hunched over the dash as he inched over the boards and into unknown territory. I gripped my door handle and saw my brother do the same. This was edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Squelch went the tires agaipn, the brown ooze kissing our mud flaps. Any moment now we’d be axle-dee, I figured. But somehow we inched along, creeping and crawling until the cow path grew hard beneath us.

Our troubles were far from over, however. In counterpoint to the mud behind us, the trail itself was hard and rocky. The car pitched like a theme park jalopy as we picked our way along, the speedometer barely registering.

The convex surface wound through the brush, threatening to high-centre us at every moment. Branches scraped the windows while huge boulders nestled into our whitewalls. We heard hubcaps scraping on stone. Puddles came and went, both large and small. Potholes abounded, and at times, the back seat seemed higher than the front.

Still, we pressed on.  As I lurched left and right, I remember wondering why anyone would buy a fishing lodge with such poor road access. My uncle had four children, any one of whom might lop off a foot or a finger chopping firewood. Had he not thought of this?

Thwack!

Swak!

It was death by a thousand cuts for our poor, low-slung Rambler. Without our rolled-up windows, those branches could have taken our eyes out.Still, we persevered. When we finally limped through the last pothole and bounced over the last sharp boulder, the lodge was a welcome sight indeed. My father threw the Rambler into park and sat for a minute in the makeshift parking area. None of the rest of us moved. We just sat there.

After a minute, we saw my uncle striding towards us from the lake, surrounded by dogs and full of his usual good humour. It always surprised me to see this shorter version of my father.

“‘Hello!” he cried as we eased ourselves out of the car and found our footing. “We’ve been waiting for you!”

“Sorry we’re late,” grinned Dad. “We ran into a bit of traffic through Hundred Mile.”

“Well, no matter. You’re here now. C’mon in and see the family.”

He stopped halfway up the stairs and turned suddenly toward us.

“Oh, by the way!” he said. “How did you like my road improvements?”

-30-

I Should Have Listened to Dear Old Auntie

 

mink-stole-grannyWhen one is eighteen, who thinks the elderly know anything? Very few, and certainly not me. Turns out they do know a thing or two. But back then, I looked askance at the aged. And because I didn’t listen to my dear old aunt, I now have terrible posture, muscle pulls and occasional neck problems.

“Such a lovely girl!” she would say to my mother, while pressing her fingers deep into into my lower back, “Stand up tall, dear. You’ll be sorry later on if you don’t. There now! Tuck in that tummy!” She herself stood ramrod straight and wore elegant below-the-knee pencil skirts with matching jackets. She also wore “fascinator” hats, high heels and clever little mink stoles, the kind with pointy faces and beady eyes still attached. She and my uncle lived in the then-very-elegant West End, among chock-a-block apartment buildings (highest density in Vancouver). He was a dredging foreman until he retired, at which time he played cards for money once a week (He once played poker with Elvis Presley….no lie!). Auntie always made sure Uncle was well-turned-out, and in her copious free time, maintained an avid membership with the “ladies who lunch” set. An elegant pair, to be sure.

But about posture, she was right. Now 68, my spine curves where it shouldn’t, stemming from years of unregulated slouching, and my sciatica flares up like a brush fire. And since computers, the slouching has only worsened. Because I didn’t listen, not only do I have bouts of sciatica, but I frequently get a pulled hamstring from weak core muscles. Why not? I’m not using them to maintain good posture, so of course they go slack! In fact, I figure the only reason I can still walk is that I swim several times a week. The time it takes to dress and undress at the pool, to shower and shampoo, to pack and unpack, drive and organize….all this is bearable only due to the increased sense of well-being I feel after pounding out 20 or more laps (er….lengths, I’m told, not laps. There’s a difference). Not to mention the glory of the hot tub afterward and the blasting of strong water jets onto that sciatic devil nerve. I come out of the pool feeling supported. My legs feel strong and foundational.

Still, I’m a champion sloucher in the off times. Never gave it a thought when young – never had to. I was athletic, enough said. That seems to have changed a tad. Now I must counter the effects of my bad slouching habit. Every morning I must ease my aching bod onto the floor and coax those hamstrings into relaxation; I must stretch those quads, work the adductors and build those abs so that I may be afforded the great privilege of continuing to walk. And believe me, at 68, it IS a privilege.

Who knew it would come to this?