On a Sunday in January, 1954, the sun barely crawled up over the horizon to watch briefly over a day that was clear, cold, brittle, and brilliant. A blizzard the week before had turned the prairie countryside into a foot-deep desert of white. Only the windrows brought up by the snowplows and sidewalk shovels disturbed the astonishing beauty of the wind-sculpted landscape.
But it wasn’t too cold to cancel a kids’ hockey game in Chauvin, Alberta. Wainwright 12-year olds versus Chauvin’s 12-year olds. Game time was one o’clock. Small town excitement was where you found it and on a sunlit winter’s day like this, half the town of Chauvin would be crowding the boards of their weathered outdoor rink. But first, the Wainwright team had to get there.
The team of 12-year olds and a smattering of fathers met in the schoolyard parking lot; five cars each carrying 3 or 4 players. To save trunk space for skates and sticks, the boys dressed at home. Max Purcell, along with his best friend, Andy McGregor, joined Floyd Attwell and Arthur Donleavy in Arthur’s dad’s 1949 Ford for the 40 mile drive to Chauvin. Max, Floyd and Andy crowded into the back seat. Since coaxing the Ford to start in an expletive-fllled battle an hour earlier, Mr. Donleavy left the car running and it was now a sauna of stale cigarette smoke, gasoline fumes, and burning oil. In addition to being a stalwart, if inexpert, champion of all things Ford, Mr. Donleavy was the town’s patron saint of Buckingham cigarettes, an especially vile product, and devoted a considerable part of his income to allow himself to light one after another, even, his neighbors had little reason to disbelieve, at the dinner table.
‘Jesus Christ,’ exclaimed Max, waving his hand in front of his face. ‘Forty miles of a smoke cloud? I forgot about those goddam Buckinghams.’ Max found it easy to express his feelings. Max was the eldest of six siblings in a family that lived in a converted one-car garage. Waiting to be asked about how he felt about things got him nowhere in his house.
Mr. Donleavy was used to Max’ candour and snorted. “Purcell, you should be goddam glad to be getting a ride anywhere, seeing as how your old man don’t look like he plans to take the blocks out from under that sad old Merc any time soon.’
Max winced. His dad, a trained but unmotivated heavy-duty mechanic had, in late 1951, thrown a tattered brown tarp over an ailing 1948 Mercury and there it sat, taking up garden space in the back yard. Occasionally, his father talked about the car and what it would take to make it roadworthy again but that’s as far as things ever got.
‘ Leave my old man out of it, eh?’
Floyd was a last-minute replacement for a player who came down with the mumps. It was Floyd’s last year of playing hockey or so he said.
‘My dad makes me play,’ Floyd once said, ‘Says it’ll make me tougher. I don’t know. Says I can quit after this year.’ He was right to say he didn’t know because Floyd was always the most timid player on the ice. He seemed to have an exceptional sense of self-preservation and eschewed any contact on the ice, even with the puck. But, today, the team needed bodies.
‘Whatya gonna do, Floyd? Hockey’s all we got.’
‘I’m going to take care of myself and when I’m older I want to get married.’
‘That’s it? Get married?’
Maybe it was just as well that an inner voice was telling Floyd to quit the game.
After ten minutes on the road, the heat and smoke had the players all scratching vigorously. The heavy felt in the shoulder pads and knee pads now felt like thistle. Andy poked Arthur and gestured with a hand to his throat.
‘Dad, the boys are kinda warm. And a little smoky, eh?’
Arthur’s dad glared into the rear view mirror. ‘Whatta bunch of pansies! Jesus H. Christ!’ With a twist, he opened his vent window while, with his other hand, taking a drag on his Buckingham. A shotgun blast of freezing wind flattened Arthur against the seat. At the same time, the use of both hands for purposes other than driving allowed the Ford to explore some other parts of the road. The car slewed violently from one side of the road to the other, wiggling down the icy road like a chubby figure skater. Max and Andy reached for the straps over the windows. Floyd began to hum. In the sudden effort to regain control of the Ford, Mr. Donleavy dropped the Buckingham into his lap, swearing vigorously as the car continued to fishtail. He bobbed his head like a crazed woodpecker in the struggle to steady the car while preventing his crotch from igniting.
In the back seat, time was moving slowly. The boys’ brains raced to fathom whatever it was that was happening and what might happen. On the one hand, they were fairly sure the windrows would keep the car from sliding into a ditch or gully but what if an oncoming car couldn’t stop in time? What if the car overturned and caught fire? They lowered their heads behind the front seat to await the outcome and listen to the pounding of their hearts and Floyd’s humming dirge. Arthur, eschewing a chance to help his father help look for the wayward Buckingham, laid down under the dash.
It all ended quickly. The Ford turned 90 degrees and brushed against the windrow on the other side of the road. Mr. Donleavy managed to jam the gearshift back into second. The car bounced gently along the snowbank until coming to a stop. Save for the low uneven cough of the motor, Floyd’s humming-turned-sniffling and Arthur’s mumbled swearing, all was silent.
Mr. Donleavy, a seasoned prairie driver, eased the Ford around to face the proper direction and set himself to find the menacing Buckingham. The silence and mewling and praying gave way to giggles of relief. Hoisting himself up with one arm on the steering wheel, Mr. Donleavy began to scrabble for the cigarette. Smoke was now rising from the shiny seat fabric as his right hand thrashed about. ‘Yeeoww,’ he yelped. ‘Goddam it! Goddam it! Goddam it!’ The string of ‘goddam its’ continued for a short time until the lit-end of the elusive Buckingham, seemingly impervious to the fetid air supply, found Mr. Donleavy’s fingertip. ‘Jesus H. Keerist!’ squawked Mr Donleavy, carefully retrieving the object of his quest and jamming it back into his still curse-infused mouth. ‘There! You rat’s ass!’
‘That was interesting,’ said Max, ‘You rat’s ass!’
Soon, the car was back up to speed, with Mr. Donleavy’s left hand in charge. The right hand alternated between waving in pain and ushering the mangled Buckingham in and out of his mouth as quickly as his lungs could absorb a cloud of smoke. All the while, he scooched back and forth in his seat hoping to stifle any outbreak of fire under his derriere. Max and Floyd and Andy began to giggle. Arthur gaped at the road ahead, positive his father’s flailing would send the Ford into another spin.
Mr. Donleavy took a mighty puff on the cigarette and held it up as if to admire its will to live. ‘You little buggers back there okay?’ He jammed the butt back into his mouth and waved his burnt finger.
‘You want we should pour some snow on you, Mr. Donleavy?’
‘Don’t be a wise-ass, Purcell. It’s a long walk to anywheres from here.’ He flicked the butt out the vent window, pushed in the lighter, and lit another.
Max pressed on. ‘It’s a good thing we had our hockey equipment on. You coulda bounced this car down the road for a mile and we woulda been okay? Right?’ He turned to Andy and lowered his voice. ‘See why we don’t smoke? What a dumb-ass habit.’
‘What’dya say? Ptoo!.’ With practiced skill, Mr. Donleavy spat a piece of tobacco onto an already littered dashboard.
‘You’re a heckuva driver, Mr. D.’
“You’re goddam right, Purcell Ptooo!’
Andy whispered to Max. ‘You see that? Yuk. He scunners me, eh?’
Mr. Donleavy picked a piece of tobacco from his lip and wiped it onto the dashboard. ‘You talkin’ to me, McGregor?’ Compared to Max and Arthur, Andy was a quiet kid. Unfortunately, Mr. Donleavy interpreted this as being mentally challenged. Every so often Andy would catch Mr. Donleavy looking at him with a mixture of curiosity and pity. ‘You can talk to me, boy. I won’t bite.’
Up yours, thought Andy.
Max kept muttering ‘There, you rat’s ass!’. Giggles followed.
Mr. Donleavy switched on the radio. A blast of static filled the car, a Roy Acuff tune struggling to compete. ‘Shit,’ said Mr. Donleavy and switched it off. “Ya’d think in this day and age we could get more than one station. Jeez, there must be ten of ‘em in Edmonton.’
‘Maybe you just need one of them fancy whippy antennas, Mr. Donleavy. That one out there looks kinda beat up.’
‘Can it, Purcell. Nothin’ wrong with that aerial. Ford does it right.’
‘So does my dad’s Dodge,’ offered Floyd, seeming to have just recently connected to the conversation.
‘No offense, Fred, or whatever your name is, but your dad, who, I admit, I do not know, doesn’t know shit about cars if he drives a Dodge. And you can tell him I said that, eh?’
“Can I use the word ‘shit’?’
‘Hah. I’m guessing you won’t.’
Floyd sat back, contemplating the implications of using the word ‘shit’ in front of his father.
‘Ya know, Purcell, that old Merc’ of your pop’s needs about 300 bucks of repairs. I know. The ignition system is shot and the transmission isn’t worth the powder to blow it to hell.’ Mr. Donleavy, like most prairie men, considered himself an expert mechanic, conveniently overlooking the fact that his own Ford gobbled oil like it was a fuel, not a lubricant. ‘Where’s your old man gonna come up with money like that, eh?’
‘I think he plans to get it from Maggie and Jiggs.’
‘New couple in town. Rollin’ in dough.’
‘Never heard of them. Push the lighter in for me, Arty. That’s a boy.’ A spent Buckingham went out the vent window and another took its place.
Arthur was quickly succumbing to the freezing wind and flapped his arms at his sides in a vain effort to get his father to take pity on him. Mr. Donleavy concentrated on the road and the latest Buckingham. Every so often, he would hold the cigarette up before his eyes seemingly impressed with how well he and his cigarettes handled all the excitement.
It took 90 minutes to travel the 40 miles of icy road to Chauvin. Pulling in behind the dressing shack, the team piled out of the cars and inhaled the fresh air. Mr. Donleavy remained at the car, tapping a Buckingham ash onto the snow.
‘Aren’t you comin’ dad?’ asked Arthur.
‘Hey, Arty, can’t be smokin’ in the dressing room. Be there in a bit.’
Robert Alan Davidson