Legends of Myself 15

Posted on April 18, 2011

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Continued from Legends of Myself 14

17.  Prince Rupert Winter and Overwound Trains

Igloo.  It rains more than a hundred inches a year in Prince Rupert and in all the neighbourhood round.  According to the books, the sky in that northern coast clouds over about 255 days a year.  But such weather must have been as commonplace as breath and breakfast in Port Essington and Prince Rupert, and consequently my four- then five-year-old self failed to notice it.

I don’t remember it raining at all.

The first season to establish itself distinctly in my memory was winter.

The snow fell generously in Prince Rupert in the winter of 1955-56, and somebody had shovelled and gathered some of it together in a large pile in front of the Eighth Avenue apartment building where I lived.  There were several five year olds, I think four of us altogether, who hung about together there.  We saw potential in that pile of snow.

Although perhaps young, we were a worldly and ambitious group, visionary Arctic architects, who saw what others and adults failed to notice, that the pile of snow in front of our building could be converted into an igloo.  It was already the right shape.  All we had to do was hollow it out.

This we set about doing, first digging in from the side, removing snow inside, smoothing out the floor, thinning parts of the walls to let in more light and to stand in for windows.  When the project was finished we had quite the perfect igloo, better than any snowfort, and ready for occupation by visiting Inuit if any dropped by—so long as they stood no more than three feet tall.

Most people taller than three feet, if they looked at it at all, probably thought our igloo was still no more than a pile of snow.  For us it was a winter clubhouse.

One afternoon I remember climbing into the igloo, leaning back against one of the walls and daydreaming.  I was warmly dressed and so comfortable, I guess, that the daydream turned into sleep, and I woke up an unknown while later to my name being called.

“Ted-dee!  Ted-dee!”

My grandmother was outside of the igloo where I had just woken up, actually standing so close to where I was that I could see her shadow through the white snow walls.  Between shouted repetitions of my name, she was talking to a neighbour, exchanging worries.  Nobody had seen me.  I wasn’t answering.  She was deciding if she should call the police.

Then again, “Ted-dee!  Ted-dee!”

Those anxious words to a neighbour, her calling to me, were in fact the first and only distinct words I remember my grandmother saying.

And she stopped when I crawled out of the igloo a moment later, still sleepy-eyed probably, no more than two or three feet away from where she and the neighbour were standing.  A little surprise, and maybe a quick reassessment of my peril.

I think somebody laughed about that.

Fence and Fender.  The snow that winter led to another story as well.

I remember a fender lying beside the road near our apartment building.  It had been discarded there for more than one season, and must have been originally attached to a 1920- or 30s-era vehicle, although I have never been able to reconstruct exactly how the part fitted and what model vehicle it might have originated from.  I didn’t care at age five.  What I saw was a perfect toboggan perched conveniently on the top of a hill.

I’m not sure, but I may have been the instigator of that particular plan.  I was definitely sitting in front of the others when our gang of five year olds climbed aboard and started sliding down the hill.  And I was probably the first to see a central difficulty with the plan.

Somehow none of us had noticed that there was a barbwire fence further down the hill, at the foot of the incline.  When we did finally notice, it was too late to stop, even if we could have stopped that hurtling slab of steel.  Instead, everybody departed the makeshift toboggan at once, in simultaneous leaps to the left and right.  We lay there, helter skelter in the snow, while the fender continued on, slipping neatly beneath the barbwire and stopping a yard or two past.

I don’t think any adult witnessed that incident, which I guess was just as well for their mental health.

In any case I don’t suppose our gang needed much parental deconstruction .  Sometimes a thumping heart is all the lesson you need, even at five years old.

For my part to this day I still check what’s at the bottom of the hill before climbing aboard any fenders.

Doors and overwound trains.  The first winter in my history also brought the first Christmas to my memory.  Two things stick out about that event, a toy train and the hope that my father would make it home.  I guess it was Granny Alice who told me about my father.

I remember presents positioned in an alcove near the front window.  If there was a tree or decorations or any other festive theme in place, I do not recall it.  My present was a train fashioned of tin, powered with a coiled spring which wound-up with a key.  It ran on a small track which was perfectly round.  I think I sent that train round the circular track maybe half a dozen times that Christmas day before I overwound the spring.  That was fatal to it.  The train never ran again.

I suppose the broken train was a disappointment to me.  It was utterly unfixable.  Yet what I remember most about that day was looking towards the door, always glancing back, always hoping—as that Christmas wore on—for my father.

I have a vague notion that it was Vancouver he was supposed to be coming back from.  My father was in those times almost always somewhere gone.  But his absence was obviously far from absolute.  I can say that because he continued to be bound powerfully to me, wherever he was.  My heart—even when all my memories and days were of my grandmother—never forgot him.

I wasn’t alone that Christmas, with no more need to be unhappy than any other day.  I was with my grandmother, and probably Old Pop.  But I remember so often looking towards the door expecting, hoping that my father would walk in.  Granny had probably not made a promise at all.  My wish to see my father probably required no more than her bare suggestion to blossom.  Once planted there, I simply couldn’t get the hope of him out of my mind.

I had an overwound train that no longer ran, and a lonely loving heart that pulled my eyes again and again to search for him at the front door.  But my father never did come home that Christmas.

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Continued at Legends of Myself 16

Posted in: memoire