Our story takes place in 1952 in an Alberta town called Wainwright. At that time, the town had a population of roughly 3000 people and was located 140 miles southeast of Edmonton on the CNR main line to Saskatoon. And our story begins on New year’s eve. New Year’ eve in rural Alberta was a big deal. The vagaries of an agricultural economy made official celebrations almost a duty, an obligation not to let the relentless assaults of hail storms, drought, floods, volatile commodity prices, and time get you down. Maybe when so much of your life is built on hope, days like New Year’s take on a lot of weight.
In Wainwright, the good citizens wishing to party in the new year – and that included pretty much everybody but the seriously bedridden and the evangelicals pre-occupied waiting for the Lord to reappear – had three basic choices: an invitation to one of the mess halls at the nearby army base, an invitation to a house party, or a ticket to the Elks Ball.
Generally speaking, people who showed up at the Elks’ Ball did so because they didn’t get an invitation to any of the other two venues which meant it was a kind of default party, the party of last resort. This was unfortunate in a way because the food was always good and the out of town band was at least one or two rungs above anything the town could deliver. But, for some reason, tickets were never coveted. Folks evidently aspired to higher things. The Ball’s modest prestige also meant it hosted a gaggle of folks with minimal social skills, a few with well-established drinking problems, some angry couples pondering an impending marital breakup, and those with odious personal habits, like the reclusive farmer from north of town who let his pet rooster feed on his forearm and then showed off his scars.
Next up on the social scale were the house parties, some more coveted than others but all at least with a like-minded crowd. Drinking was much like what one would expect, given the long lines at the government liquor stores. Intense and unadorned. Rye and ginger ale was the runaway drink of choice, big spenders opting for Seagram’s VO, not necessarily for its quality but for its distinctive purple bag. The bag was over to one of the drinker’s kids to hold his marble collection. This parties were generally fairly basic events, the hosts rarely extending themselves beyond a few sandwiches and some salted peanuts. Music was supplied either by the radio or 78’s on the record player. In either case, the pickings were slim. Every year it seemed that one of these house parties went off the rails, as they say, and someone entered the new year with a broken nose or dislocated shoulder. If there was an element of danger to partying on New Year’s eve, chances were it was at a house party.
At the top of the New Year’s most-coveted list were functions at the nearby Army base – specifically the officers’ mess and the sergeants’ mess. Contrary to what an outsider might think, it was the sergeants mess that was the prize invitation. The mayor, town council, and chamber of commerce received invitations to the officers’ mess, a sure tipoff that a deadly evening lay ahead. Throw in a platoon or two of Lord Mountbatten wannabes all wearing kilts, ceremonial swords, and blindingly brilliant uniforms and you could be sure a dose of harrumphing tedium was in order. It was the Raj all over again. All that was missing was a tiger skin and Sabu. Still, it was a nice place to spend a quiet evening toasting the King and invitees generally claimed to have had a happy time. I mean, that’s where my parents went and while they reputedly knew how to laugh, party hijinks weren’t in their repertoire. They felt, I guess, that this was where they belonged.
An invitation to the sergeants’ mess was as close to gold as anything got in Wainwright. As befits the personnel who actually made things happen in the military, the sergeants and their mess delivered the best food, the most ample and far-ranging supply of alcohol, and the best entertainment a small, dreary out-of-the-way prairie town could attract, orchestras that might otherwise have graced the Trocadero Ballroom in Edmonton. Those lucky enough to wangle invitations to the Sergeants’ mess tended to have a supply of one-upmanship anecdotes to last the month of January. Hell, even I, a normally disinterested 12-year-old, was jealous that my parents had to hang around the dreary old officers’ mess instead of whooping it up with the NCO’s.
But, on this New Year’s eve, celebrations everywhere were to be cut short.
Old Man winter had his own celebration planned. A giant, economy-sized blizzard. Wainwrighters knew it was coming – after all the radio told them it was – but they hoped it would tarry up north long enough for the festivities to take place. Well, it did and it didn’t. It lurked up by Slave Lake until shortly before midnight and then like a starving hawk with a fifty-mile wingspan, it swooped down on eastern Alberta. Party-goers had just enough time to lift a glass and sing a few bars of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ before being assailed by fierce winds, dense clouds of swirling white and plummeting temperatures.
Babysitters – I was one of them – were among the the first to feel the storm, houses suddenly rattling and shuddering, tree branches scraping windows, the wind moaning plaintively around the yards and fine grains of snow sifting through the woodwork. It was 11:45 I knew what was happening and, naturally, I worried. What if the parents can’t get home? How will I get paid? How will I get home? If they think I’m going to sit these brats through a blizzard, they’re nuts. That sort of worry. Soon, the town’s recently-installed dial phone system was grid-locked with babysitters trying to reach parents. Sylvia Thompson, the town’s long-serving telephone operator, now reduced to watching a bunch of switches do her job, cackled when she realized everything had come to a halt. Progress, she sniffed.
My name is Andy McGregor and I woke up when the back door slammed shut. I was sitting the two Carter boys in the east end of town. At first, I thought it was Mr. and Mrs. Carter coming home so I jumped up ready to testify I’d been alert all night and engrossed in reading ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ instead of dozing. It took a few moments before my mind and eyes cleared enough to realize it was only the wind, a wind that was sending me a message. Go on home or I’m going to trap you where you stand – or babysit, to be precise! I peered out the quivering living room window and could see snow, not yet heavy, swirling madly about the front yard. My parents and the Carters said they would both watch the weather closely and rush home if conditions became threatening. Part of me wouldn’t mind sitting out the storm in the Carter house. Their two boys, ages 5 and 3 weren’t complete dipsticks and would still pee their pants at hearing a good ghost story. Plus, the Carter house was larger, newer, and warmer than our McGregor house which wasn’t really a house at all, only four rooms carved out of an industrial building between a dairy, which my parents ran, and the Power Utility warehouse housing emergency steam generators.
The wind was getting stronger and its low whistle sounded like a tap running in a far corner of the house. I walked through the house checking on doors and windows. One window in the boy’s room was open a crack but Mrs. Carter inisisted her boys needed this fresh air if they were going to get adequate rest, so I left it open.
Robotically, I returned to the Carter’s fridge for the 17th time that night. Mrs. Carter’s snack of choice for me was rhubarb pie. I swiped my finger over the edge of the pie. To me, rhubarb pie was right up there with cooked cabbage, loathsome dishes that had somehow ingratiated themselves into mainstream prairie cuisine – not that there was a lot of opposition. It didn’t help that on the prairies both rhubarb and cabbage grew competitively with dandelions, wild clover, and quackgrass and that my mother, like most prairie mothers, excelled at finding new ways to prepare both plants. This year it had been rhubarb chutney. No one I knew that something called chutney even existed. I closed the fridge door.
Outside, the snow was falling more heavily. If the Carters were on top of all this, they should be home soon and I guess I’d rather be back at the dairy with my family, even if, in a storm like this, the dairy building made more noise than a motorcycle in a carnival velodrome. Who knew what crappy breakfasts might be served in the Carter household on New Year’s day? Probably something with rhubarb. Assuming our building didn’t cave in due to the storm, or was blown off the foundation and dumped in a next door slough, my mom would be making bacon and eggs and fried potatoes and sliced tomato. Maybe even waffles.
I thought about my best friend, Max, who was babysitting the unruly brood of Nesbitt brats next door to his house, an undertaking Max swore sharpened his street fighting skills, made him feel superhuman in the art of fending off attackers from multilple quarters. He wouldn’t want to have to stay the night at the Nesbitt’s unless he was given a whip and some sleeping pills but dashing back to his own house wasn’t exactly kings-x either, his house being even smaller than ours – a converted garage really – and he had an erratic father and four siblings – all younger – to contend with. Max and I had long ago both agreed that the first – no, the second – thing we would do after finishing high school would be to live somewhere where we had our own bedroom. The first thing we would do is get out of town.
A set of headlights swung dimly into the Carter’s back yard. Leaving the car running, the Carters, looking flushed and angry burst through the back door, wind and snow stampeding in with them.
‘The kids’ okay?’ wheezed Mrs. Carter, bending over to remove her galoshes, snow cascading off her head and shoulders. Mr. Carter stood silently by the door, stamping his feet and clapping his hands
‘They been sleeping since about 9, I guess.’ I lied. Mrs. Carter scuttled by me, her head turned away from me so I couldn’t smell liquor – as if – and into the kids’ bedroom. Mrs. Carter always behaved as if she expected me to beat her kids senseless and tie them to their beds. Maybe all moms acted that way.
I put on my parka and wedged my feet into a pair of flight boots. What can you say about flight boots except that your mother MAKES you wear them Each boot is about the size of an adult porcupine. In my world of macho 12-year-old boys, anyone wearing the wretched things was seen as some sort of cartoon character with outsized feet and subject to the appropriate ridicule. Tonight I was glad to have them.
‘You’ll be glad for those boots tonight, boy,’ observed Mr. Carter, red-faced from the cold and however many dozen highballs he’d thrown back earlier in the evening. ‘C’mon, let’s get you home. Oh, and here’s for tonight.’ He handed me 3 dollar bills.
‘Gee, thanks, Mr. Carter,’ I was planning on 4 and figured the storm’s early arrival cost me the extra buck. Normally, Mrs. Carter has to help her husband into the house, given as he was to staying at a party until he couldn’t hold a glass any more.
Mrs. Carter reappeared, led by a frown borrowed from some martinet schoolteacher.
‘You forgot to close the bedroom window, Andy. Little Freddy’s bed has an inch of snow on it, I swear. A wonder the boy could sleep at all, I’d say.’
I could see that one coming, the witch. ‘ Freddy’s a tough kid, Mrs. Carter. He’s gonna be a good hockey player some day.’ I knew she wanted him to be a curler, like her, and was determined never to buy the kid skates. His younger brother, Jeremy, could apprentice as a safe-cracker for all Mrs. Carter cared but a lot of parental crapola was being dumped on poor Freddy.
‘You bite your tongue, Andrew McGregor.’ I turned away from her glare and followed Mr. Carter to the door. ‘Night, Mrs. Carter.’
Mr. Carter opened the back door and lunged forward, bent at the waist and pulling mightily to keep the door from flying back against the side of the house.
‘Holy Mary Mother of God,’ he yowled, the words carried away by the violent wind and driving snow. I flipped up my parka hood and bent my head into the white wind. Sheesh, it’s 50 degrees colder than when I got here 6 hours ago.
Mr. Carter jammed the back door shut, took hold of my elbow and steered me to where his cream-colored ’49 Pontiac sat heaving and clacking on, at the most, 5 cylinders, complaining about what it still had to do this awful night. Mr. Carter shoved me into the passenger seat and began sweeping the snow from the windshield. The car was sweltering hot and smelled of burning oil. The heat on the windshield was just enough to melt the snow, let it exist as water for maybe a half second before turning it to ice. Mr. Carter clawed at the window. I could only see his finger tips but could hear him cursing vehemently.
Jeez, I thought, My dad said Mr. Carter is a tough man but he’s not wearing anything on his head and he’s using his bare hands. I’m impressed. Maybe I should offer him my mitts. Nah, no adult’s gonna take mitts from a kid. Shit, is this ever gonna be a fun ride home. If he gets stuck, I’m makin’ a run for it. I don’t care. I’m not pushing this heap. I sunk into the soiled front seat and fingered his 3 dollar bills. A new hockey stick and a puck. If I live.
Suddenly, the blade of a shovel swept across the windshield, the icy crust on the window shattering like glass. Soon I could see Mr. Carter, huge foggy billows shooting from his mouth, each one coming a second faster than the one before and each carrying a minimum of two expletives.
The driver’s side door opened and a short-handled shovel flew by my ear and into the back seat. ‘Goddam, it’s bloody cold,’ growled Mr. Carter as he wedged himself behind the wheel and shifted into low.
‘Cross your fingers, kid, we’re off like a turd of hurtles.’ The Pontiac lurched into the alley and out onto 6th avenue. A creature of clever clichés, Mr. Carter wasn’t about to abandon them just because he was drunk, angry, cold, and in the company of a 12-year-old boy when he could be home warming his feet on his wife’s calves.
I remained silent, my hands clasped between my legs, conserving heat in case the Pontiac succumbed to the storm and we had to make a run for it. The car slewed and whined and bucked its way through the drifts, Mr.Carter wrenching his arms this way and that, his enthusiasm for doing war with the storm apparently growing with each drift. Street lights came and went in a dim yellow haze, the sole intrusion into this whirling world of white. It was impossible to discern any specific landmarks and the Pontiac seemed to float on a limitless sea of white.
Mr. Carter leaned on his steering wheel, coaxing the car through another drift. ‘Why in hell won’t your old man join our Elks’ club, kid?’
I was not prepared for that question. Not at all. Decision paralysis set in. My parents were relentless about the need for their children to be honest, even when it hurt. Neither nuance nor circumstance ever mitigated this stricture but my brothers and me knew there were times when lying, fibbing, fabricating, dissembling were the only option. This was one of those times. Not two months earlier, I had asked my father the same question. Why not the Elks? My dad belonged to the Chamber of Commerce and the Town Council, and some of my friends were always blathering on about how much fun their dads were having as sworn-in Elks. How much fun could my dad be having with the Chamber and the Town council? These were organizations a man joined to find other men like himself to worry with. Fun wasn’t a word they ever used. Anyway, my father’s response to joining the Elks was ‘they’re just a bunch of drinkers. Not much else to say for them.’
How smart would that be to pass that on to a bone-fide Elk with a snootful of Rye and ginger, already pissed for having to be out at 2 in the morning in a blizzard with a wonky car?
‘Gee, Mr. Carter, I don’t really know. You’ll have to ask him, I guess.’
‘Fuckin’ A, I’ll ask him. You betcha. Excuse my French. Here you are kid.’ He pulled up in front of the dairy that doubled as the McGregor home. ‘When you get out, be sure to slam the door good and then run like hell. Can you see where you’re goin.?’
‘Yeah, sure, Mr. Carter. Thanks for the ride.’ I bolted from the car and almost fell over from the force of the wind and snow. With difficulty I slammed the Pontiac’s notoriously cranky door and crouching like someone dodging machine gun fire, scuttled into the loading dock of the dairy and out of the wind.
1952 had begun.
Robert Alan Davidson