The Battle River

“May the countryside and the gliding valley streams content me.  Lost to fame, let me love river and woodland.”   Virgil

The Battle River begins in west-central Alberta, southeast of Wetaskiwin, and winds its leisurely way for roughly 350 miles before emptying into the North Saskatchewan river at North Battleford, Saskatchewan.  A key word is “winds” as it twists and turns like a demented garter snake all the way from source to destination. Although the distance covered is 350 miles, the struggle to carve out a river bed on the prairie suggests the water course itself is more like 1000 miles long.

There is a old scientific theory about river lengths. It goes like this: If you compared the lengths of ALL the natural  water courses of the globe with the total of ALL their straight line lengths from start to finish, the resulting ratio would be Pior 3.14.  In other words, the average natural water course of a river (the scientific term is sinuosity) is roughly 3 times its straight-line length.  Some rivers would be less (i.e. the MacKenzie) and some would be more (the Assiniboine).  With that in mind, I think the Battle might be the perfect example of 3.14 to 1.  Of course, the theory is unproven.  There are a lot of rivers in this world and Google Earth can only help so much.  Still, it’s an intriguing theory.

History tells us Anthony Henday followed the river back in 1750’s but did not name it.  That happened when Peter Fidler came through 40 years later.  The Battle probably referred to an ongoing friction between the Cree and the Blackfoot.  Given the age-old enmities shown by those two aboriginal groups, it’s no surprise that some skirmishes took place in the river valley.  I’m sure the bounty and the shelter provided by the “Battle”, was coveted by both sides.

The Battle is described as a “prairie-fed river” which means it doesn’t own its origin to glaciers or mountain-generated snow melt. This humble river relies totally on rain and snow melt from its watershed and drainage basin.  The good thing is it rarely floods, the bad it is frequently moribund and overtaken by microbes and pollutants.

It’s the river of my youth and played an important part in my life’s lessons, starting with it was the place I learned to swim. Most of us learned to swim by watching each other and exchanging suspect tips on what we thought we knew. There were no swimming teachers. What resulted was a flailing dog paddle designed primarily to keep the river’s gentle flow from carrying us into the fearsome rapids 20 yards downstream. In truth, those rapids weren’t fearsome at all, simply a slow-moving river moving a little quicker to pass over a submerged ridge but when you’re nine years old, the sudden increase in current takes on the appearance of the Niagara rapids.

The Battle river may sound a tad underwhelming, an overgrown creek perhaps. Yet I can always hear the river’s imagined voice pleading “Do not sell me short.  I may look like a tired small river but look on what a beautiful valley I forged”.The roughly one-kilometer wide valley carved out on route to Battleford is one the prairie’s great views.  When you travel frequently on the prairie and become numbed to the monotony, it is thrilling to suddenly encounter this broad deep valley.

At Fabyan, a hamlet roughly 7 miles from my home town of Wainwright, The Grand Trunk Pacific railroad built an 800-meter long trestle over the valley (70 meters high) and was, for a brief time, the longest railway trestle in North America. One hundred-plus years later, the bridge still functions on the Canadian National’s main line stretching from Moncton, New Brunswick, to Vancouver. The trestle crossing was often frightening to rail passengers as the train slowed to inch across with nothing but air to support it.  Maybe that’s the reason the trans-continental trains always passed through in the night.

Before my parents rented, then purchased, a cabin at Clear Lake, east of Wainwright, the Battle River valley at Fabyan was the recreational destination of choice. Highway 14 also crossed the river here and before the highway was moved a half-mile to the west in the mid-1950’s, the bridge was immediately adjacent to the recreation area. There were no parks as we know them today but three decades of recreation picnickers and swimmers had carved out of the river bottom by the bridge a labyrinth of narrow car tracks and small clearings where picnics could be enjoyed.

A small beach was the centre of the recreation area and on a warm Sunday was jammed with people wading and swimming.  The image in today’s world would be jarring.  Dozens of people of all ages dressed in mostly woollen swimwear all sloshing about in this dark brown water.  Battle river was very susceptible to metallic impurities that turned the water the color of a rusting drainpipe. No one seemed to mind.

There were fish in the river – Northern Pike, Walleye, and Goldeneye but I don’t recall seeing anyone ever catch a fish or even claim to catch a fish. Still, a few Sunday visitors persisted.

Sunday was the only day the recreational area was busy.  In those days, people generally worked 5 and 1/2 days a week.   On other summer days, the only visitors were kids who hiked, bike or hitchhiked the seven miles from Wainwright.

Because the Battle was fed solely by rain and spring snow melt, its levels could fluctuate year to year depending on the weather.  I can remember it flooding only once in the 1950’s and it very nearly took out the bridge.

In the 1950’s, there was very little wildlife roaming the valley.  Deer, elk, bears, and wolves had all been eradicated  and what few bison remained were confined to a paddock east of Wainwright (and soon to be shipped to Wood Buffalo Park).  A few coyotes remained and we once spotted a bobcat or lynx at the swimming hole.

One summer Saturday when I was 13, my friend, Donny, and I packed lunches, took our .22 rifles and hiked to the Battle River north of Wainwright, a hike of about 10 miles one way.  We thought we might find a stretch of the valley less trampled by humans than the Fabyan valley.  The .22’s were for shooting gophers but if a badger or coyote materialized, they would be considered targets.  That’s how we thought in those days.  No apologies.

Anyway, it was a long, hot hike only to find a river valley swarming with grazing Herefords.  No sign of any critters not even gophers. What we came upon was every bit as beautiful as the Fabyan valley but even more heavily farmed.  We hiked along the crest and were preparing to return home when we spotted some debris in the undergrowth of a poplar grove.  It was the remains of a small cabin or lean-to and we were excited to find a small quantity of square nails, something that had not been made for a very long time.  We then turned up a leather pouch, a smallish purse similar in size to a Scottish sporran.  Such a discovery would pique any kid’s interest.

We packed the nails in the pouch and walked back to town with what we hoped were historical artifacts.  Both our families were less than interested in our discovery so we planned to show them to the district agriculturalist (Officialdom’s usual representative in farming communities) on Monday morning.  He was much more interested than our families and excitedly said he would forward the pouch and nails on to Edmonton for analysis. “Who knows”, he said, “Anthony Henday was supposed to have traveled that route.  Maybe these belonged to him”. Now we were excited.  As it turned out, we never did hear back from Edmonton and were stuck with our “Maybe Anthony Henday” story.

On summer Sundays, our family, all five of us plus Paddy the collie cross, would pile into the cab of the Fargo pickup and find a picnic spot at the river. After a swim, my brothers and I would hike the valley, often climbing to the top of the valley to look for exotic plants and signs of wildlife.   Occasionally, we’d encounter a tiny spring dribbling out of the side of the hill and dare each other to drink the water.  No one became ill. These pleasant excursions stopped in 1950 when we rented a cabin on Clear Lake.

Everyone has their own favorite river valley and the Battle River valley is just one of hundreds in America.  It doesn’t have breath-taking cliffs carved from stone and no deep gorges to entice the canoeist.  There’s no white water to speak of; rather the water is a slow-moving brown ribbon that is quite uninviting to the eye.  But with its broad-shouldered hills and varied botanical growth, its occasional tilled field, and its open vista that draws the eye miles down the valley to absorb the green hills dappled with poplar, willow, aspen groves and small thickets of rose bushes  It is a pleasant landscape, one that quiets the mind, and delivers a modest prairie beauty inviting all who experience it to return.

Robert Alan Davidson

March, 2018

The Great Southern Prairie

Back in the 1990’s, two friends and I undertook a short hunting trip to Milk River in Southern Alberta just north of the US border. Officially, we were hunting the wily pheasant but, unofficially – now being in our fifties – the real goal was simply trekking the prairie, enjoying the crisp, clean air and marvelling at the wonders that water and wind and time had created in the sandstone and clay of the countryside.

We had never hunted this area before and had no idea where any good hunting spots might exist. So the plan was to simply head east toward the vast mostly-treeless expanse of prairie between Milk River and the Cypress Hills. Maybe we would surprise ourselves with what we found. Good company and interesting country were the main ingredients for a rewarding day. A rooster or two would be a bonus.

The first day’s walk brought some surprises. We were east of the Milk River townsite and north of the Milk River ridge, a nearly 2,000 square-kilometer height of land that extends through much of the southern border region.

We noticed the farms tended toward the very large, multiple thousand-acre spreads with huge swaths of cultivation next to large grazing tracts, most of which were home to Aberdeen Angus cattle, the beef industry’s flavor of the month in the 1990’s.

Many of these immense spreads were Hutterite colonies, many were owned by Mormons. Their vast agri-business operations had all the latest in farm gadgetry and looked for all the world like sizeable industrial complexes.   Both might have invited criticism for their insularity but they were exceptionally efficient farmers and ranchers

One thing they both did was to eagerly acquire more land and as the small operator had to sell there were ready buyers. Whatever the quality of the land, whatever lax stewardship may have abused it, the land had a buyer. It’s difficult to witness the loss of any small farm but if you are that farmer drowning in debt, the Hutterites amd Mormons might be considered saviours. I guess it’s all in the perspective.

Anyway, in one afternoon, we saw or visited a dozen deserted farmsteads, some vacated very recently. We found it difficult to witness these deserted sites, some with elaborate and beautiful windbreaks, arboreal beauty and utility that took as long as 40 years to create. Now they lay abandoned to await the bulldozer as the new owners prepared to put the site under cultivation.

We wondered what was to become of Alberta’s long history of family farms and ranches when economies of scale turned so many of them into liabilities that could not be endured.

Two farmsteads were particularly hard to accept. One featured a small 4-room house heated by steam. Imagine a small house heated by steam, the water coming from a large cistern buried in a shed outside the kitchen. The northeast corner of the house even boasted a small patio. A workshop behind the house was superbly outfitted with a furnace, a forge, a mechanics wall and hoists. This was one very resourceful and capable farmer.   He was obviously a consummate craftsman and we liked to think a neighbour any community would welcome. Surely, he did all he could to make a success of this farm. That he could not was a particularly discouraging message.

Yet, this visit left us with two positive takeaways. One, scaring up a good-sized rooster kept us from being shutout on the bird hunting front. Two, we could not help being awed by the skill and determination of our early settlers. This place, for all its evocation of hope and failure, was one we were glad to have had a chance to visit.

The second farmstead was home to an original cabin, a tiny ramshackle affair that remained barely erect. It’s interior was strewn with garbage, rusted tin cans, dusty bottles and a large 2.5 gallon jug of oil. For whatever reason, the owners did not destroy this simple crude abode when they moved to a larger home. Close by lay the remains of the foundation to this new house. We could only assume the new house had been towed away or torn down. Given the damage to the foundation, it was likely moved. Inside the foundation lay the detritus of a once-functioning home, a stove, several household effects, and a rusting birdcage. Thoughts of a hard-working beleaguered housewife being soothed by a canary or other songbird had us shaking our heads. Mixed in with all the effects were pieces of concrete, too many to just be broken off the foundation. Where would they come from?

It was an angry site, visions of a frustrated family ridding itself of so much that made their hard lives more manageable. The home quarter also boasted beautiful topiary, a prairie emulation of the grand estates of Europe – willows, spruce, poplar, and carigana laid out with geometric precision and grown to maturity, a pleasing oasis in a land of wind, dust, heat, bitter cold, and, always, more wind. Silos and outbuildings were set in logical fashion leading away into a willow thicket that must have, at one time, been home to a slough. Drought may have robbed it of its water or maybe the farmer simply got tired of living cheek-by jowl to a mosquito-breeding factory.

We marvelled at the thought and work that went into creating this homestead. And for what? In the end the house was placed onto a flatbed and hauled away. Small wonder the air of rage lingers in the air. We know all farmers live with the vagaries of the weather but the feeling was this was not weather-related. Rather, it reeked of skewed economics, of values that undercut the nobility and perspiration and perseverance of a farm family’s work.

It’s likely the three of us had some idea as to how the prairie economy evolved the way it did just as we may have had some understanding of the ecology of this distinctive prairie. But the real surprise of that first day was just how varied and visceral both of them were.   The deserted farms told a very vivid and sad story of hope and resolve and predatory economics. The land was simply bigger than we could imagine.

Whenever we entered an area where no farms or power lines appeared and we were left to scan pure prairie, my thoughts conjured up visions of the historic aboriginal life. For centuries, the many plains aboriginal communities roved through this area, following the buffalo or attending some celebration that might be hundreds of miles from their homes. It was near here that Sitting Bull’s Lakota tribe found a short-lived sanctuary after Little Big Horn. The closer we got to the Cypress Hills the more desolate was the short-grass prairie and it was easy to imagine the vast herds of buffalo wandering and roving tribes traversing the immense open spaces.

We knew that for centuries the grassland was home to vast herds of bison. And, while the bison may be gone, wildlife flourished where one may initially think it could not. Deer, both whitetail and mule, antelope in good-sized herds, coyotes, foxes, badgers, raccoons, weasels, gophers, squirrels, hawks and owls (including the rare burrowing owl) in some variety, waterfowl, songbirds, shore birds, upland birds, and eagles. An astounding variety for what at first glance seems a lifeless terrain. Walking, as opposed to driving, helps reveal this abundance of life.

I keep saying the prairie is full of surprises. Maybe it’s because we’re expecting tedium, like the passenger train fares who cross the prairie at night and think only of the mountains. They miss much of what makes North America great. The familiar images of farmhouses, outbuildings, pastures, and cultivated expanses are all well represented, only not as frequently as they were when we grew up used to quarter-section farms. Some of the cultivated fields are seemingly endless and we joke that a man could spend his entire career swathing one field. Yet we also encounter many shallow lakes and sudden valleys cut by small streams and the main watercourses of Southern Alberta – the Bow, the Oldman, and the Milk. Where we were, Willow Creek meandered eastward carving a beautiful valley with impressively sharp cliffs. The valley hosted a variety of willows and stubby thickets of rose bushes. And it is here that the prairie of history, the one sloshing about in our imagination, continues to exist. We believe we’re seeing the country in its unadulterated state. Alas, it is not so. Fences still extend into the valleys, rusting farm equipment lies half hidden by the bushes, and decades of grazing cattle have cut durable paths through the rose thickets. Man’s pushy nature continues to alter these wonderful sites but it is not without some pushback – the foxes raid the chicken coop, the deer and antelope ignore fences, geese and cranes eat the crops, coyotes lure dogs away from the homestead. But mostly the animals accommodate and adapt.

The surprise comes when the visitor realizes the richness of life on this treeless prairie and rejoices, as the native cultures and settlers might have on a summer night, to be part of such a beautiful and endless world.

One lone pheasant after three days of hunting and walking. And not one complaint.

Robert Alan Davidson

February, 2017

The War Years

I was born in 1941.   That makes me NOT a Baby Boomer, even if the chronically lazy media lumps our age group in with them on those occasions when specious generalizations are needed to describe a certain age group. Personally, I dislike the Boomers, not intensely, but avidly, and for what I think are reasons definitely unspecious. They are a spoiled generation given to hogging the wealth, the good jobs, and while doing so, never missing an opportunity to ravage the planet and thumb their noses at succeeding generations. Not that our generation was blameless but our numbers were considerably fewer. The Boomers had a rich and optimistic world very literally handed to them and they promptly became vicious ingrates. If you look closely at a crowd of Trump supporters, there is a preponderance of white 50+ year-olds.

So, to repeat, I am not a Boomer. Boomer fathers were mostly war veterans.

We pre-Boomers came from fathers who were home on leave, were exempted from the war for good reason or had important war-time jobs. My father was a butter maker. Okay, so making butter wasn’t crucial – except, of course, to him – but he was a good man and eventually did play a role in the war effort by working with Northwest Airlines on supplying the Aleutian Islands.   Don’t ask me how that came about because he either didn’t tell me or I was listening to the radio when he did. My father’s been dead for over 40 years and I still miss him and his sly smile.   And seldom does a week go by when I don’t think of something I wished I asked him.   Or my mother for that matter. How come we couldn’t think of all the questions when we might have had some answers instead of sitting here slack-jawed and guessing what happened?

More about that sly smile. You know when bombastic people make a pronouncement and bark ‘Right?‘ at the end of it? Like, “The fucking world is flat, RIGHT?” as they park their foul breath inches from your face.   Well, not all people are so aggressive but they, too, would like their listeners to agree with what they are saying. So, instead, they proffer a sly smile while staring intently, hoping their disarming warmth will convince the listener to agree with whatever was said.

Once you know this, the mannerism can be just as annoying as the “Right?” bellower, but it’s decidedly more civilized.   That was my father.   Unfortunately, he also passed this trait on to his three sons, thereby assuring the world that none of the Davidson boys would try too strenuously to convince you of their thoughts. Instead, we would smile and stare intently until you either nodded or chose to dismiss us as witless. Some things can’t be helped.

Anyway I began life in WW2 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, but have little memory of the war – or Edmonton for that matter.   There were no air raid sirens screaming in the middle of the Canadian prairie. I do recall going to the butcher shop with my older brother and him brandishing a ration card. I remember our house on 92 street, south of 107 avenue and just north of the CNR passenger rail line into the downtown (It’s now a rapid transit line). I don’t know if we owned this house or rented it (pre-schoolers tend not to care about such things) but it was the standard 2-story wooden house, painted white with a green trim and a nice-sized porch. In the war years, the street faced an open field of some size, ending several hundred yards away at a box factory. Who knew boxes had their own factories?   After the war, the field disappeared under the hideously long and drab Coutts Machinery work shop complex, bestowing on the neighborhood a noxious mix of flux, burnt welding rod and acetylene fumes.

I still have pictures of the house which is probably why I remember it. The house finally succumbed to a wrecking ball about ten years ago, a long overdue meeting. When I last saw the place it was an exceptional eyesore in a neighborhood of run-of-the-mill eyesores. If its neighboring houses were so-called ‘fixer-uppers’ our old home was a “Only-dynamite-could-fix-this-up’ house. One might suspect it had become a meth lab or a grow op or a neglected cash cow for some slum landlord.   The MacCauley district had suffered from bad PR and deteriorating values for several decades.   No one was surprised when the house’s next-to-worthless carcass was consumed by urban vultures. Now the neighborhood is awash in modern infill eyesores, occupied by people driving Range Rovers and devoutly hoping for aggressive civic action to rid the area of any remaining immigrants or aborigines.

I do remember my parents taking in boarders. Either they needed the money or the war effort required everyone make space available for people who came to your city to help out. See, there’s another one of those pesky questions.   At four years of age, I was sent to a convent kindergarten for half-days. I don’t know if I learned anything but those nice nuns won my heart by laying out a daily snack of milk and Oreo cookies. I don’t know if they were called Oreo cookies in 1945 (they’ve been around since 1912) but they were 2 chocolate wafers separated by a white icing. Maybe because it was a convent, they were called St. Anselmo cookies, or Advent cookies. I have no idea.   Anyway, what can you say about a man who can’t remember 5% of his childhood but can recall Oreo cookies on the menu?

My parents obviously had a live-and-let-live attitude toward Roman Catholics, which was not always the case in mid-century Alberta. Actually, they were pretty tolerant toward all religions until later when they both developed a great antipathy to fundamentalist religions of any configuration, but especially Protestants.

Edmonton had a population of about 90,000 at the start of the war and just 110,000 after the war. It wasn’t until the early 1950’s that its growth accelerated.   Other than being the provincial capital, the city didn’t have much to recommend it, other than it was a cold but friendly place to live.

Still, the war, excepting the poor men who enlisted to fight Hitler, was good for Edmonton. The local airport, Blatchford field was quickly recognized as a valuable connection to Alaska and the Aleutians. Later, when the decision was made to build the Alaska Highway, Edmonton became ground zero for its start and as a conduit for supplies and materials. The sleepy city was beginning to awaken.

Until he went to work for Northwest Airlines, my father worked for Woodland Dairy up on 95 street. He evidently liked being a butter maker because he forever after slathered it on his meal-time bread in quantities that dared his arteries to cramp. My mother, during the war years, was a house mother or whatever they called them in those days. She was trained as a teacher but having 3 boys in 5 years occupied her time, as one might imagine. That was another question I never got around to asking. Didn’t you resent so much motherhood in such a short period of time?   I don’t know what this says about those years but she did seem reluctant to talk about it. Having gotten to know her better after we were both a lot older, I suspect the answer would have been ‘yes’.

My mother had three sisters and one brother, as did my father. My maternal grandparents lived three blocks away and the paternal pair somewhere in King Edward Park. Family was a big deal then, even with so many off fighting the war.   I think this was when my mother’s clan began the Saturday night poker game.   We seemed to see a lot of all them not in the service but I have few specific memories. They are all gone now. I do recall my paternal grandmother, a human force with a scottish brogue so thick I rarely got past her standard opening phrase, “Mmm, wee Bobbie . . . “.   I was very intimidated as I was meant to be, I think. All you need to know about her is that later in life, as a widow, she decided to move to Vancouver, taking the Greyhound bus and carrying a tote bag and her favorite mop. You can’t make these things up.

I do have a fuzzy memory of Clark Stadium, only slightly more than a block away. The football Eskimos were yet to be born but I recall clinging to the wire fence to watch some game – maybe soccer or junior football – were the Wildcats and Huskies around then?   I remember being as bored with whatever game was being played then as I would be watching the Eskimos today, a throng of over-active thyroids taking perpetual selfies in their minds as they cavort about smacking each other like freshman frat boys.   You’d think mediocre play would generate some humility.

Lastly, I remember my brother, with some friends, roasting potatoes in a garbage can. I have no idea whether this was normal entertainment for the neighborhood or whether a food shortage was in progress. My brother, rest his soul, always eschewed any knowledge of such an unappetizing event. But I know what I saw.

By the time I was ready for the first grade in school, our parents decided to move to a small town and open their own business. But my older brother did get to go to MacCauley public school on 107th avenue for 2 years and the experience prepared him to endure all manner of degradation later in life. What a heritage for a public school.

In 1946, we moved to Wainwright, Alberta and put up a big sign over a small building on the southwest edge of town – ‘Davidson Dairy’.   I was 5, my younger brother, Jack, was 4, and Harvey, the older one, was 8. A new adventure was about to begin, helped along with 2 dray horses, Babe and Bess to pull the milk wagon, and a brand new Fargo pick-up truck.

And those first Baby Boomers were only 2 years old.

Robert Alan Davidson

September, 2017

The Sunday Afternoon Hockey Game

Let’s talk hockey. Hockey in 1963. I know, I know. It was a long time ago. But it was an interesting time and maybe in a way that could never happen again.   The world has become too sophisticated, too fast, to embrace what happened then. The NHL has expanded, salaries have skyrocketed, and millions of hockey moms and dads have became rude and surly agents for their kids.

But it was different in 1963. Take the Edmonton Oil Kings and the Edmonton Gardens where they played their games. The Oil Kings were a great hockey team.   They won the Memorial Cup – the best under 20 hockey team in Canada – but they prepared for it by playing the entire year against senior Intermediate ‘A’ teams, teams that were competing for the Allan Cup, symbolic of the best amateur team in Canada. Teams included the Drumheller Miners, Lacombe Rockets, Red Deer Rustlers, Olds Elks, and, at one time, the Ponoka Stampeders. Needless to say, the situation was highly unusual. It was boys against men.

The miracle is the Oil Kings seemed to thrive on it.

But this story isn’t about how good the Oil Kings were (well, maybe a little bit) but of the environment in which they played – the Edmonton Gardens – and , specifically, Sunday afternoon games. It’s about the mystique of being an Oil King in a country where hockey was, for so many, the hope for the future. In rural Alberta, a young man’s choices were few (a young woman’s even less): Go to University (few did); get a job doing something agricultural, or play hockey. If you made it to the Oil Kings, you had a chance. If you didn’t, well, as Judge Smayles said in Caddyshack, “The world needs ditchdiggers too!”.

Remember, this was not a time when a journeyman defenceman could sign a 5-year contract for 10 million dollars. Even if you were good enough to play at the professional level, chances were you would still have to shovel manure in the summer just to make ends meet. After all, there were still only 140 or so that made it to the NHL. No one told these young men just how grungy life in the minors could be with its low pay, brutal schedules, heavy drinking, and precarious future (The movie “Slaphot” had a lot of things right).

As mentioned, Oil King home games were played in the Edmonton Gardens. Descriptions of the Gardens always seemed to begin with the adjective, ‘cavernous’. It was big for its day, seating over 5000 people and boasting the largest ice surface in the country (Jokes about playing an entire game in the abnormally large area behind the nets, were common).   It was a husky brick building that resembled an over-sized Amish barn or a twentieth century church for some fundamentalist sect that believed God really only cared about size, not architectural aesthetics. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Cow Barn’ it frequently played host to a variety of livestock-related productions. Nevertheless, in early 1963, a lot of hockey was being played even if the rich aroma of the farmyard had worked its way into every board, girder, seat, and floor.

The Oil Kings shared the Gardens with the Edmonton Flyers, a professional Western Hockey League team.   Sharing for the amateur team meant taking whatever dates the professional team didn’t need or want. The Flyers didn’t care for Sunday afternoon games. For good reason. At the time, God’s earthly minions were still very active in law-making circles and one of those laws was you couldn’t operate for-profit businesses on Sundays. I.e., you couldn’t charge people admission.   Pro hockey teams, like their street-walking cousins, didn’t “give it away for nuthin’”. So the amateur Oil Kings played on Sunday afternoons.

Yet they turned this unpopular time into a money-maker with one simple remedy that even the churches – especially the churches – could not argue with – the collection plate. So began a short-lived but enormously popular Edmonton Gardens custom – a Sunday afternoon hockey game paid for by a silver collection (Bills were welcome, of course, but were reportedly difficult to retrieve from one’s pocket or wallet). The city’s hockey patrons seemed to embrace the notion of a good hockey game funded by a volunteer contribution and Gardens management never complained.

The majority of fans were hockey players, under-25 hockey players, some of them squiring gum-chewing girlfriends. And what did they all wear?   Of course -hockey jackets, bomber jackets with leather sleeves, team logo on the chest and the player’s number and crossed hockey sticks on one sleeve. The proudest accoutrement in a limited wardrobe.   If a girl friend was really special, she might even get to wear the jacket.

The action of the game itself was fierce and brutal and sometimes wondrously creative.   Everyone was energized by the beauty and speed and intensity of each game, no matter the opposition. The Oil Kings big line of Butch Paul, Max Mestinsek, and Glen Sather (yes, that Glen Sather) was a marvelous trio gifted with talent, speed, and orneriness.   And opposing teams always seemed to have at least one line of ex-pros possessing matching talent and orneriness. As the period wound down, the high action left the crowd spent but pumped.

But there was something else that made these afternoon games special.   It was the crowd and, specifically, the crowd during intermission.

Intermissions lasted longer in 1963, mainly because it took longer to clean and resurface the ice between periods.   The Zamboni may have been invented by 1963, but the Gardens stuck with tradition, men with scrapers followed by men pulling barrels of water.

So now there were dozens and dozens of spectator hockey players leaving their seats at the end of each period and entering the concourse.   And what they did was always interesting.

There were two basic camps in this crowd. One, a younger one made up of city kids with their Maple Leaf and K of C jackets and hopes for an Oil King future and, two, an older crowd of men who had missed the Oil King boat and played hockey for recreation and, for some, a small playing stipend. The younger ones tended to crowd the walls in the concourse, there to watch the older ones and see, if by chance, some forgotten hero of a bygone hockey era might walk by. The rural teams featured on the oldster’s jackets meant nothing to them.

The first item on the between-periods agenda was lining up at the concessions.   These were the days before the marketing gurus discovered that selling over-priced junk food at sporting events could be the proverbial mother lode. The Gardens concession menu was basic, cheap, and edible. Coffee, soft drinks, hot dogs, hamburgers, popcorn, and chocolate bars pretty much exhausted the list of choices. Lineups moved quickly and calmly. And the drinks came in manageable sizes.

Then the older crowd began to do something very strange and wonderful.

In bull fighting, there is an associated dance called the paso doble (literally, double step). The dance was created to evoke the sound, the drama, and the movement of the bullfight; in other words, a dance inseparable from the sport.

In between periods at the Sunday afternoon Oil King games, a slower – much, much slower! – version of this dance took place and it was meant to honor the game of hockey. It, too, was inseparable from the sport.   It wasn’t so much a dance as it was a promenade but it’s intent was the same as the paso doble – to honor the sport.

Between the first and second period, a wintry, prairie version of the paso doble began. Each of those hockey jackets began walking around the concourse, maybe a girl hanging from one arm or maybe a friend following.   A sea of hockey jackets and assorted fans circulating around the rink. They didn’t so much walk as they strutted, ever so slightly, evoking a sang froid they associated with their on-ice persona. The movements were deliberate, almost nonchalant, with cool eyes searching the crowd coming the other way.

This slow-moving wave of fans was nothing less than a macho display by hockey players of every type. Maybe we met on the ice, maybe we didn’t, but if we did, you would remember, surely, how good and rugged I was.   Actual greetings were rarely exchanged. Maybe the occasional nod of recognition.   But make no mistake, it was a male mating display without the mating.   The thing was, you didn’t have to do anything else – just walk slowly around the concourse and let the opposition soak up your special aura of skill and toughness. And on it went, for twenty or so minutes, twice a game.   Oh, what a stately hockey paso doble it was.   You could see girlfriends flushing with pride.  The hockey jackets virtually glowed in the yellow light of the concourse. The kids leaning on the wall watched closely.

There was rarely any animosity or belligerence associated with the concourse walk, only strutting males emitting the unmistakable message, “I may never have played for the Oil Kings but I could have – or should have – and you all know it!” Participants would eye each carefully, surrepititiously scanning the jacket for recognition while rifling through their mental filing cabinet of places played and games remembered. It was all choreographed carefully and seriously. A celebration, of sorts, of the game of hockey by men who loved and lived the game set against a backdrop of a game featuring the best young players in the country.

Who were some of these promenaders? Most played in Intermediate ‘B’ and Intermediate ‘C’ Leagues in Northern Alberta, leagues one rung – or more – below the Senior players against which the Oil Kings were pitted. Some were young enough to still entertain dreams of the Oil Kings but most were simply hockey players who couldn’t give up the game, not yet.

The strollers swirled around each other in a stately walk of mutual admiration and/or loathing. Many of them wished fervently that such days would never end and they could forever wander the bowels of the “Cow Barn” to see and be seen.

The langorous between-periods hockey version of the paso doble ended as the Oil Kings and their opponents returned to the ice.

If everything went well, the Oil Kings won.

Robert Alan Davidson

(April, 2015)

My Alberta Prairie

It’s mid-morning, early June when I climb the short rise that leads from the road to the ribstones. The wind has yet to come up and the sky is cloudless. The world holds its breath. I am the only visitor but several coins sit in the “ribs” of the stones, pleas for intercession to someone or something evidently impressed by the coin of the realm. I find it curious.

I try to visit the ribstones every year and like, I imagine, millenia of aborigines before me, it has a salutary effect. For what reason, I do not know.   I was never good at dealing with anything that wasn’t literal and I thought only that the ancient stones were a genuine mystery, what with the panoramic 360 degree view, the odd location for such large stones, and the curious ribs. For me, the mystery deepens with the opaque history that preceded the arrival of the white man. So much gets mashed in the attempt to peer into the past, the geology and anthropology and zoology and the conventional wisdom that says things were this way when you suspect they likely weren’t. The visit puts me in touch with the prairie I love and forces me to think about the land in ways those who preceded me might have.

It wasn’t always so. I grew up in eastern Alberta and couldn’t wait to escape. I left my small town 15 minutes after finishing my last senior exam. To anyone who would listen I’d say something like “I’ll never have to hear another Ernest Tubb or Kitty Wells song in my life.”

The origins of that antipathy to rural Alberta are both deep-seated and shallow. The “shallow” comes thanks largely to American movies and magazines and the paucity and bias of history as taught in Alberta in the fifties. Like many Western Canadian youths, I defaulted to the movie myths of America, an America that was presented to us as shiny clean towns and a stalwart truth-loving people. Hollywood at its propaganda best. We were fed a steady dose of American exceptionalism and my love for my own country became an alter ego to that myth – we’re different but really the same. Any warmth for our British heritage never had a chance, something our parents would not have understood . My choice of the US as a place to identify with had a few silly manifestations. While I would always sing ‘O Canada’ lustily, I would not stand for ‘God Save the Queen’ and six years before Canada adopted its own flag, I would not willingly salute the red ensign. The US was OUR influence, our history shared, not Great Britain and Europe. Maybe the reverse was true for people east of the Manitoba border but not on the prairies.   The British patria folks overlooked one very important fact. We in the West really had NO history to draw upon, even though it was obviously there. Sadly, however, it went either unrecorded or deliberately erased (A common fate for all American Aboriginal cultures). The Prairies had a rich past with the plains Indians, the French fur traders, the Hudson Bay and Northwest trading companies, the Metis, the whisky traders, the surveyors, and the settlers.   But so little of it was preserved, physically or literarily, and what there was had an ethnocentric bias so dramatic as to render the non-white population as mere temporary obstacles to a new nation. The sun may “never have set” on the British Empire but neither did it ever rise to any understanding of the wonder and value of different cultures.

To gain any sense our past, we either absorbed the mythological west that Hollywood was peddling or listened to history sermons on CBC radio. It was no contest.

The deep-seated antipathy was harder to articulate. Some of it came from the wilful ignorance encountered in small towns.   The yokel population was always part of your life, whether you wanted it or not, and in spite of the presence in every town of truly interesting and accomplished people whose wisdom was generally available for the asking. But for teenagers, contacts were more likely to be snickering, snuffling, snorting yahoos driving vehicles with gaudily-decorated interiors and drinking rye whisky. Then there was the dirt and mud. Everywhere and inescapable.   Any white picket fence would be grey and brown in two weeks. As well, there were the Christian fundamentalists who came in many denominations and sects, each claiming a pipeline to heaven, and each spreading a cloud of censure and gloom to non-believers (There were so many of these fringe groups that a separate history ought to be written some day to examine why so many struck out for the prairies to find a home for their home-brewed version of Christianity. It does say something about the freedom that existed at the time).   Their demeanor about town was stern and judgmental and they eschewed any part of the social fabric – no sports, dances, rallies, or parades. They boycotted businesses with whom they disagreed and if they attended a town meeting it was to draw attention to someone’s moral lassitude. At times, the combined affect of the three – fundamentalists, mud, and yahoos – could be claustrophobic.

And so I left Canada in September of 1959, headed for Spokane Washington and the chance to fulfill the American dream. I loved Canada but it could wait. Goodbye boring prairie and hello mountains and clear blue lakes, and pine trees and white picket fences.   Spokane was beautiful although if you bothered to travel west 30 miles, the prairie came back even balder than central Alberta. But the C&W music was suitably subdued and the mountain lakes were spectacular.

I came home to Edmonton at Christmas but winter being what it was, I recall little of it other than realizing we were lucky to make it home, what with a beer diet and 700 miles of icy roads. The luck of the stupid.

But a funny thing happened when I came home in late May with three fellow students. We’d driven all night and came out of the Crow’s Nest Pass around 5 in the morning. I was driving and, all of a sudden, it was as if someone had slapped me into another level of consciousness. Coming out of the foothills at an excessive speed (You’re driving downhill and the ever-ferocious winds of the pass are at your back) I’m struck by the thought I’d just been tossed into an ocean. I could see forever. The vast emptiness of the prairie spread out before me, canopied by the biggest sky this small planet could muster.

So what was a prairie boy – born and raised – doing acting as if he’d never seen grass before? I have no explanation other than I came to my senses in the fullest sense of the phrase. In Charles Portis’ wonderful term, maybe I lacked the “Escape Velocity”, the energy needed to leave one’s rural roots permanently. How many young women or men fled small towns only to return for reasons they couldn’t fathom? It was home. I came back to my province, not the town, so I suppose the difference is only a matter of degree.

Soon I was doing everything I could to recapture the sights and sounds and smells of my youth in Eastern Alberta. I even learned to sing a Hank Snow song. This wasn’t a youthful nostalgia. No, the antipathy memories were too fresh. This was a discovery. Maybe it’s something everyone feels for their homeland. I mean, realistically, my prairie doesn’t compare with many beauty spots in the world – the Pacific Coast in Oregon and California, the islands of the Pacific, and the rugged fiords of Norway. But something resonated.   And I wanted to know more.

Spring on the prairies brings the meadowlark, the crow and the robin, the raucous call of the red-wing blackbird, and the puzzling honking of geese, as they unpack from their long trip home and begin their nests, reluctant to take two steps without first telling their neighbor what they were up to. All manner of ducks and teals and shorebirds suddenly appear in the snow-melt swollen sloughs. Underfoot, the crocus blooms briefly, and overhead, the trees begin to bud.   The grass on the railway right-of-way, singed to prevent wild fires, turns green weeks ahead of anywhere else and provides a welcoming home for crocuses.

Four-footed wildlife was scant in eastern Alberta in the 1950’s. Hunters and poisons had pretty much eliminated any bison, deer, elk, moose, bear, or wolf. Coyotes were struggling to maintain their habitat and numbers. Porcupines, skunks, raccoons, weasels, and badgers remained in very small numbers. Only the lowly gopher seemed to thrive and that was largely due to DDT eliminating its main predator, the raptor.   Still, as kids, we couldn’t believe the wildlife weren’t hidden in the next poplar grove and, if we were quiet and alert, would show themselves. It all seems like yesterday.

Now I sit, in my advancing years, contemplating these strange boulders high on a hill in eastern Alberta. What significance did they have for the plains Cree?   A place to watch for migrating buffalo herds?   Who carved those ribs – and how – and when? Were they an aboriginal chapel of sorts? Were they an emblem of the mystery of life when something like ribbed boulders rested in a part of the world where such things ought not to be?   Aboriginals tend to use the word ‘sacred’ in ways I can’t often follow and it is applied to these ribstones.   I suspect it has more to do with having some culturual significance rather than being sacred as we understand it. But then, “as we understand it” is too often just a polite phrase for “you really don’t get it”. And, so I wonder.

And, after all these years have passed and my homes in other parts of the world fade into memory, I live once again on the prairie.   My heart swells when I see it in full bloom in June and I never tire of its bird calls and brisk winds and racing white clouds. Health permitting, I will set out yet again next to visit the ribstones and wonder.

Robert Alan Davidson

(February. 2016)

The Painted Wagon

[This event actually happened but the characters are fictitious. The only official interaction with the town was likely a stern letter telling the ladies to hit the road. But, in my memory, this was more fun.]

The good citizens of Wainwright weren’t ready for it, of that we may be sure.   And why would they? This was 1952 rural Alberta and the raciest thing to happen anywhere was a divorce dripping with infidelities and surprise participants.

One morning in early July, a colorful wagon was discovered parked in the west end near the town’s dairy. It wasn’t there the night before. It looked like a tinker’s wagon. Gaudily painted as if to advertise a freak show, the lettering, in a showy scrawl, read “lnvisible Mending.” It was as if one part of a circus got lost and ended up in Wainwright.   The contraption was pulled by a 1948 Ford 3/4-ton that was as plain as the wagon was showy. Questions arose.   Immediately.

“What on earth IS that?”

“Who are those two women stepping in and out of it?”

“They look like gypsies. Am I right?”

“Why park there and not at the fairgrounds where drifters are supposed to go?”

“What the heck is Invisible Mending anyway?”

“Whatever it is, my old lady could use some help. These brown socks with white darning wool stick out like a 100-watt bulb in an outhouse at midnight”

“They can’t park there. Why won’t anyone tell them?”

And so on. People were perplexed. It was all so unusual. The two women settled in quickly. A picnic table was “borrowed” from an adjacent ball park and served as a dinner table – weather permitting.

The two wagon owners did look like gypsies, not that anyone was sure what a gypsy actually looked like.   The women wore colorful full-length dresses and had big hair, the tall one blond, the short one raven-haired. They walked around the wagon like they didn’t have a care in the world, laughing and pointing at the vehicles passing by, or smoking cigarettes at the picnic table and sipping from large mugs.

Over the next few days, dozens of cars and trucks eased by, windows down, and eyes ignoring the road. As if they’d just come upon a UFO. Nobody approached the wagon. The neighborhood kids were captivated and spent hours in a nearby willow grove watching every move.

It turned out the wagon had a lot to do with the nearby army camp.

Starting in June, the camp hosted ‘The Concentration”. Battalions and Regiments from across Canada showed up to do mock battle in the scrubland that was Camp Wainwright. Soldiers arrived by convoys, skirting the edge of town in impressively long lines of jeeps, lorries, and bored soldiers. The convoys also submerged the area in a cloud of dust that could be seen for twenty miles in any direction.

It wasn’t long before the townsfolk put two and two together – in this case, one and one together. Soldiers with nothing to do when getting a pass into town and two earthy-looking ladies with their own portable business premises?   Was there a connection?

Well. This was something new, most definitely new.   The world’s oldest profession in one of Canada’s youngest towns.   It reminded some of Hollywood’s mining camp portrayals. Except this was 1952, not 1852.

One of the brasher kids, a newly-minted teenager, approached the ladies one noon hour as they sat casually noshing on chicken legs.

“Whatya want, kid? Need something mended?” This from the brunette.

Nothin’, I guess, I just wanted to see how you’re doing. Bein’ neighborly, I guess.”

“Bullshit, kid, whatya really want?”

“A lot of people don’t think you ladies have anything to do with mending. Am I right? Are they right?’

“Depends on your point of view.   What do they think we’re doing?”

The kid hesitated and looked around, as if to see he wasn’t being followed.   “Um, they say you ladies are whatcha call it, prosecutes?

Following a brief silence, “Yeah, kid, we’re, uh, prosecutes. Tell your teacher. Now bugger off. We’re busy.” The ladies rose and climbed back into the wagon.

The church guilds were aghast. How could this be happening in a God-fearing town like Wainwright?  Several self-appointed guardians of town morals paraded up and down the street by the wagon, arms akimbo and lips pursed in a scowls so fierce they would have turned Jack the Ripper into a community outreach worker. But that’s all they did, apparently bereft of any ideas of where to go from there.   After a time, they retired to Mac’s Newsstand to order a half-pound of cashews while at the same time surreptitiously scouring the lurid headlines, the bulging biceps, and heaving bosoms of the Police Gazette, Stag, For Men Only, and True magazines.

Meanwhile, it didn’t take long before the “Invisible Mending” operation was doing a brisk business. Lineups were frequent and tongues wagged all across town. Rumors of husbands straying into wagon territory began to circulate.

A town official was sent to “look into things”. In general, small town officials had a fairly easy time of things. It was their job to make sure stray dogs didn’t bite anyone, that outhouses didn’t overflow or become too redolent, that the town hall lawn got mowed regularly, and that the hobos stayed on the other side of the tracks. They might spend many days driving around trying to look busy.

The town official parked his new IH half-ton with the fancy dual rear windows and sauntered up to the wagon.

As kids watched from the willowgrove, he and the blonde lady chatted amiably for a few minutes and then she apparently invited him inside. To his credit, he hesitated, as if weighing the consequences, but then doffed his cap and ascended the two steps.

Of course, no one was privy to what went on in those few brief minutes, but he came flying out of that trailer with a face the color of a cherry tomato, one hand waving his cap ferociously as if to dispel a bad odor. Behind him, the blonde and the brunette stood at the door smiling.

Whatever did happen in those few intriguing minutes, the official was transformed from a lethargic clock watcher into a raging crusader against the evil represented by the colorful wagon. He must have spun an impressive story to the town council because they gave him carte blanche to fight the “scourge” of the invisible menders. Carte Blanche, in this case, meant no more than “look into things to your heart’s content and we won’t scrutinize your time sheet too closely.”

The exercised town official took to the road with uncharacteristic vigor. First, the army camp to argue for a ban on town visits by its troops. The Commanding Colonel was a third generation military man who instinctively hated all civilians. With news of the wagon, he was seriously conflicted. “I don’t want to piss the town off but soldiers have always had camp followers.   Just ask Alexander the Great and Napoleon!” In the end, he did what many Commanding Colonels did when faced with community relations questions – nothing.

Undeterred, the town official visited the various chaplains at the camp and urged them to remember what Jesus said about “fallen women” and to exhort the troops to celibacy. Unfortunately, none of the chaplains could recall Jesus ever using the phrase “fallen women” and settled for shrugging their shoulders while saying they’d do what they could.

The official drove to three other similar-sized towns to see if they’d experienced the problem. None had, but one town admitted it had had a strange bachelor lady show up one year. The poor woman set tongues wagging when it was discovered she was a librarian with a fondness for Erskine Caldwell and Mark Twain.   The concerned townsfolk were able to rid the community of her toxic influence by sneaking out in the still of the night to torch the library. The startled librarian retired to a more urban locale. Was this of any help?

Perplexed, the official even thought of burning down the wagon. That would work but the ladies never left the wagon together. One was always there and he wasn’t about to risk a murder charge just to clean up his town.

He attempted to talk three smaller towns into taking the ladies and their wagon (“It’s good for business!”) but was rebuffed soundly by canny ruralites who knew a mixed blessing when they saw it (After all, they were the ones who crowed the loudest when the automobile replaced the horse only to see their towns wither when people now drove to shop in the bigger towns). Who knew what the downside to this ‘mixed blessing’ could be?\

Discouraged, the town official reported his failures to the town council who were displeased with the lack of success but thrilled to see how much energy the man could muster when properly motivated. Maybe, they thought, the ladies should be hired for a human resources seminar.

Meanwhile, business remained strong at the wagon and not every customer was wearing a khaki uniform. Mrs. Gunderson, one of the town’s moral guardians and a frequent visitor to the road adjacent to the wagon, took note, relieved none of her Gunderson clan were in evidence.   She knew a back sliding town when she saw it but was kept at bay by town fathers who claimed to be too busy preparing next year’s budget to deal with the wagon issue. Mrs. Gunderson, after seething in relative silence for a week, found the opening she needed after one of her brood of sullen kids came home to complain that he needed to buy a business license if he was going to continue to sell the family’s inventory of illustrated bibles.

Confronting town council, Mrs. Gunderson demanded ‘Where is their business license? My bible-selling 12 year-old needs a business license. Why don’t they?”

The town official slapped his forehead. Business License! How could he have overlooked that? The Mayor and councilmen slapped their foreheads. How could they not have made sure this wasn’t a problem?

The ladies were sent a letter. “We have it on good authority that you don’t appear to be properly licensed to be operating an invisible mending business, so we’d appreciate it if you packed up and moved to another jurisdiction (i.e. town)” signed, the Mayor.

“How much is a license?” The tall blonde asked the city clerk while flashing a wad of large bills so thick it made the clerk swallow very hard while pondering her choice of careers.

“Uh, fifteen dollars for one year.”

“We plan to be here no more than four months. Can you pro-rate that?”

“Huh? Pro – what?”

“Forget it kid. Here’s a twenty. Keep the five and buy yourself a Packard. Just give me the piece of paper.”

“Huh?” The clerk thought she might faint from sensory overload.

Later, Mrs. Gunderson fumed. “I didn’t mean for you to sell them a license, you ninnies. I want them out of my town. GET THEM OUT OF MY TOWN!’

I thought it might work,” lamented the Mayor. “Whatya say we adjourn early tonight?”

So began a sort of Mexican standoff with Mrs. Gunderson and her loyal thin lipped brigade parading in front of town hall bearing semi-literate placards deploring the grievous sin of co-habiting with Jezebels. The Mayor and town council dragged their proverbial feet, hoping, as politicians are wont to do, that the crisis would resolve itself without their help.

After three days, the crisis did resolve itself when the town woke to find the wagon gone. While there was obvious regret displayed in some circles, relief was generally widespread, if only to see the end of Mrs. Gunderson and her poorly made signs on the streets. But two basic questions remained. Why did they decamp so suddenly and where did they go?

The second question remained forever in the realm of rumour but the first one would appear to have a connection with a report from the army camp.   The army medics reported an unusual spike in STD’s, all the more unusual for occurring in a camp where access to women was so limited. This report, of course, spoke eloquently to the popularity of the two ladies and to the danger of letting something other than the brain make decisions. It also sparked a sharp increase in demand for medical services in the town.

The entire affair lasted less than 2 months and only a large garbage bag full of items, best kept away from the prying eyes of neighborhood kids, proved they’d ever been there. The yellowing grass beneath the wagon site sprang back to life and within a week, no one could have guessed what had happened in that small prairie town.

And no one ever came up with an acceptable definition of what was meant by “Invisible Mending”.   The most popular conclusion was if someone is conducting an illegal business, advertising itself as something not remotely connected to the “business”, was just, uh, good business.

Robert Alan Davidson

(January 2016)

Take This Job And . . .

Remember the first job you landed that accomplished one thing and one thing only? It was the job that illustrated, all too clearly and quickly, that you weren’t capable of doing everything you set your mind to.

It started with riding the bus from Edmonton to Pincher Creek in deep Southern Alberta. It was early June, 1961, and I’d wangled a job with a pipeline company building lines from the field to a new gas plant north of Waterton Lakes National Park.   I was excited. For college students, all construction jobs were coveted for their higher pay and long hours. By today’s standards, the pay wasn’t great ($1.70 an hour) but it was better than what I would get driving a moving van in Edmonton and the hours were definitely long, as befits an operation that relies upon the weather – 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, overtime after 44 hours.

There weren’t a lot of openings for inexperienced workers on a pipeline and my job was a variation on ditch-digging.   The pipeline was a fairly large one, 18-inch pipe, and large backhoes dug the ditches, roughly five feet deep and four feet across. The ditch-diggers job was to ‘pad’ the ditch. Using shovels and pick-axes, we would smooth the ditch so that the pipe could, more or less, lie evenly.

I recall little of that first night in Pincher Creek, other than an aging and grubby aluminum shack with stained mattresses flung about the floor and one slightly-used bathroom.   I was the only guest.   I remember no windows, the smell of oil and dust and thinking three months of this luxury might be more than I could take.

Earlier, a foreman signed me up and told me where I was expected to be at 6:00 the next morning. Someone would pick me up to drive me to work. He then offered some advice.

“You don’t want to be living in that shack the whole summer, boy. See if you can’t rent a place.   Unfortunately for you, the town is swamped with construction companies right now. Six of them, I believe. So getting a place to live and getting something to eat isn’t easy. But maybe you’ll get lucky.”

I didn’t sleep much and, at six am, groggily piled into a disheveled van with 3 other men plus the driver. A mile north of town was a place called Pincher Crossing.   It boasted an Esso gas station and a restaurant. We straggled in for breakfast. Apparently so had half the town.   The restaurant was crammed with workmen.   The driver told us to order breakfast to go, lunch, too, if we needed it.   After practically tackling a harried waitress, I managed to garner a doughnut for breakfast and a roast beef sandwich and Pepsi for lunch.   The bill? $2.00. My second rude shock, the first being my palatial digs.

The four of us were taken high up into the Rockies southwest of Pincher Creek and dropped in the middle of a long scar of ditch leading into more alpine heights.   I found it all a bit jarring, this once-pristine mountain scene with this ugly ditch ripped into it. The contrast of wilderness beauty and the prospect of long hours of manual labour was making me queasy. We were handed 3 shovels and a pick. A D7 cat waited to take us to the worksite. Fortunately there was enough room for the four of us beside and behind the cat operator but we were left to our own devices to find something to hold onto as the cat lurched heavily down the right-of-way. This may have looked a bit like kids riding with Dad on the tractor. It wasn’t.

For the next two days, a shovel conspired with dirt to create a dozen calluses on my unsuspecting hands. Here I was in one of the prettiest places on earth spending 12 hours a day with my head down in a ditch, staring at the earth, dining on gristly roast beef sandwiches without butter or mustard, and lamenting the fragility of my hands. The work was as boring as one can imagine, and mental relief was elusive. School, girlfriends, and friends seem impossibly far away. Perhaps because they were. Partial escape came whenever a foreman drove by to tell us to a) work harder/faster/better or b) what a nice job we were doing.   Thanks to this fatuous commentary, my mind could wander briefly to contemplate the merits of burying a shovel in his skull.

My loathing for the job is tempered on the second day when one of my co-workers, an older man, gave me the name of another welder who might rent me a room, or at least a bed and his wife might even provide me with a hot breakfast and lunch.   That second night, I tracked down a vintage trailer and am given an upper bunk in a second bedroom. I share the room and a bathroom with an older welder. I feel I’ve returned to civilization and take a long, long shower.

The next morning, the wife prepares a hot breakfast, oatmeal and toast, an act that would forever place me in the camp of those favoring living with a good woman.   And a lunch. With fresh bread. And butter and mustard.   I am fawningly grateful.

With decent food and a comfortable bed, work becomes considerably more tolerable but more adversity is never far away. The older man – he’s probably 45 but to a 20-year-old, he’s ready for retirement – takes pity on my painful grappling with the shovel.

‘You know,’ he says, careful that the other two do not hear, ‘when those foremen who come by want to find someone to promote, they look for the guy using the pick. I guess they figure he’s the hardest worker.   Just telling you . . . .’

‘If that’s true,’ I reply, ‘Why don’t you use it?’

‘I like padding ditches. It’s what I do.’

Obviously the man’s lofty ambition was to be applauded but I had to gather myself to wheedle the pick out of one of my ‘ditch associates’ hands and test the theory. Wheedling was minimal, my associate concluding I was even dumber than he for wanting to use this instrument of torture. He smiled at the prospect of a day with just the shovel.

IF those foremen bastards DO pick the guy using the pick, they’re right about the user being the hardest worker. Shoulder muscles I never knew I had start screaming for respite. My lower back feels like someone kicked me. Within hours, I am whining.   Sweet Jesus, how long can I keep this up?

Will we run out of ditch before someone notices me?   Not bloody likely. There’s something hugely discouraging after spending 12 hours pampering 2 or 3 hundred yards of a slash in the earth to look up and see 3 more miles of the same.   Sisyphus had it easy.

Just as I was preparing to hurl the pick at a nearby grazing whitetail doe, a pickup truck bounces down the right of way and stops at our work site.

A man jumps out and points at me. ‘Hey kid, get up here.’

I can tell he is impressed by the speed with which I drop the pick and vault out of the ditch.

‘You ever been an oiler on a backhoe?’

I had a rep for quick thinking but this question nailed me. ‘Uh, no, I don’t think so,’ I stammered.

He stared at me. Shit, I thought. Was this it? One question? Wrong answer? Don’t you know what an oiler on a backhoe is? After too long a time, he growled ‘Well, no problem, I guess. Jump in.’

Much later, I would remember that fateful qualifier, ‘I guess’.

The next day, I was picked up by Ed the backhoe operator in his new Ford ¾ ton. We weren’t formally introduced. Ed simply pointed to the passenger door.

‘My name is Ed. I operate the backhoe you’re gonna be working on. You do what I tell ya, when I tell ya. Got it?   That’s all you gotta remember. What I tell ya, when I tell ya. What’s your name?’


‘Bob. That’s fuckin’ original. This a summer job or you lookin’ for a career?’

‘Summer. I’m going into my 3rd year university. I – ‘

‘Fuckin’ lovely. A college kid. ‘   He slid the ¾ ton around a tight corner with unseemly haste, I thought. ‘Well, college kid, this isn’t the classroom. Didja bring your gloves? You got a problem with dark small spaces? Understand you can’t bend a piece of pipe twice?’

I mmm’ed my way through it. It’d all become clear soon enough.

‘Ya won’t mind if I call you stupid instead of Bob, will ya?’

“Well, actually I’d mind a lot.’

‘Well, actually, get fuckin’ used to it.’

And so it began. Me and Ed. Team Backhoe.  To borrow a phrase unheard of in 1961, Ed had ‘issues’. Being the easy-going kid I was, I usually explored ways to make friends with new acquaintances, but something about Ed’s seething style told me to not waste my time.

Oiler on a backhoe. The job paid 15 cents an hour more than padding the ditch and sounded easy; keep the backhoe greased, replace teeth in the bucket when required, set pegs in a straight line to show the operator where to dig, lay out large wooden mats when the ground got too soggy for the backhoe.   I was up for this.

The backhoe was a large Bucyrus Erie with a 30-inch bucket and six ‘teeth’. These teeth were attached by a cotter pin to six shanks fixed on the bucket.   The teeth wore down irregularly and it was my job to remove the cotter pin, replace the worn tooth with a new one and re-attach the cotter pin.

The backhoe worked on a pipeline right of way prepared by D8 cats. A 50-foot wide swath of mountain forest was cleared of all trees and leveled. When we showed up for work in the morning, our first glance was to the seemingly endless swath of roadbed stretching off into the mountains.

My first task in the morning, after listening to Ed bitch about his job for the 30 minute drive to the job site, was to place the wooden pegs that gave him his guide for digging. The rules were; a straight line, set the pegs as close to the middle of the right of way as possible and when you come to a bend make sure you set the pegs so the pipe has to bend only once.

Then I had to grease the backhoe. This is what Ed meant when he said something about being afraid of small dark spaces. Three times a day, I had to crawl underneath that backhoe. Carrying a grease gun I had to put fresh grease in 6 nipples, 3 on each track.   I didn’t think it would bother me at first, probably because I didn’t think much about it at all, but this was dicey work, crawling on your belly underneath a 20-ton piece of equipment and hoping that soft mud wasn’t masquerading as hard ground.

As the backhoe edged its way down the right-of-way, it dragged two large wooden rafts behind it – the mats. Whenever the ground got too soft, the backhoe would reach back and grab those mats and throw them on the ground in front. It was my job to place them so the tracks could climb aboard and keep the backhoe from sinking into the mud.   This wasn’t a hard job but Ed usually found something wrong with the way I did it. Fact was, Ed didn’t much like anything I did – or me, for that matter.

But his special venom was saved for my inability to set the pegs on a curve.

‘How many fuckin’ times to I have to tell ya, ya can’t bend a pipe twice. Jesus, will you look at that?’   He’d point to my peg layout and even to me it was obvious the pipe would have to bend twice. Why did I not see that? I think I was just following the right of way curve, instead of thinking how the pipe might actually change directions.

Everybody makes mistakes, right? Unfortunately, I made this mistake not once, not twice, but three times, and each time Ed’s vitriol got worse.

‘Dumb fuckin’ college kids,’ was his favorite.

If 12 hours of slugging it out at the backhoe wasn’t painful enough, the ride out at night was terrifying.   We quit work at 7 at a spot inaccessible to anything but another track vehicle, a tow cat, so named for its job of, well, towing things around.   Ed, naturally, got to sit with the operator. I, along with any other hitch-hiking workers had to ride on the front bumper.   And hold on by gripping the radiator cap. Everyone was in a hurry to get home so the cat operator pushed that mechanical monster as hard as he could. This lead to some roller coaster rides over rough terrain where one slip could cost a man his life. Evidently, no one but those of us who were forced to ride that way gave this extreme peril a second thought. Like the Comanchero observed in ‘Lonesome Dove’, ‘Life is cheap up here on the Canadian.’ After what seemed an eternity, we huffed our way into the drop-off spot. Prying my frozen fingers from the radiator cap, I dismounted the tow cat. My fingers asked me how many more times I was going to make them save my life. Another 30 minute Ed-bitching ride to town was still ahead of me.

I was beginning to wonder how much longer I could stay employed.   The money was great but at what cost. Would he have me fired? Would I quit?

The problem resolved itself about two weeks after I became an oiler. I was moving a mat and hooking up a cable to the bucket when a sliver of loose cable pierced my middle finger at its base. It was nothing but a pinprick. I had gloves on and didn’t even stop to look.

The next morning my entire right arm was swollen. The foreman took one look and ordered me to the hospital in Pincher Creek. Blood poisoning.

I was in that small hospital for a week. I should have been hospitalized for guilt, feeling ecstatic at being given a break from work, being fed three meals a day, sleeping in a clean bed while fretting about my need to make enough money for year four at college. When I finally went back to work, there was no work. The oiler job was gone. So were the ditch jobs.   Part of me was relieved and I’m sure Ed was happier. Back to driving the moving van.

I left those beautiful mountains the next day.

And crossed ‘backhoe oiler’ off my list of things I would do – or could do – for money.

(March, 2014)