Legends of Myself 70

Posted on April 9, 2013

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freight train70. Boneyard, 1960: Trains, Ancient Storms and Fairy Tales

One thing about living next to the railroad tracks is that at first the night freights disturb your sleep with their thunder rattle, your walls shiver-shaking, cups and plates doing the two-step on the shelves, like living in a drum.  But with the days and weeks the night passages regulate to normal, become a part of your pattern of dreaming, that part perhaps where the dragons shift a little further back into their mountain lairs.  After awhile, when the trains rumble by, you don’t wake up at all.

Our little dynamite shack was set back maybe 15 or 20 feet from the tracks, sitting higher than the rail bed.  There was a porch of rock just in front of the shack; it overlooked the tracks, and if you stood on that porch the whole mouth of the Skeena widened out in front of you.  In the foreground, just offshore, was a time-smoothed, low-sitting rock which mud flats connected to the mainland at low tide.  It wasn’t a practical connection to the shore.  Anyone trying to traverse it would likely sink into the soft silty mud and disappear from this Earth.  At low tide, spreading out to the left of where the cabin looked out, the snag-imbedded mud and sandbars and sea grass meadows of the Boneyard dominated the lower landscapes on our side of the river.

Behind the shack, reached by a short path through the woods was a creek with water that always flowed amber, I suppose dyed by the leaves, moss and other vegetation it flowed through on the way down the mountain.  The woods behind the shack were old growth, dense and shadowed above, moss and pine needled below, with little bush and undergrowth except in corners where the sunlight could reach.  These were grounds easy for wandering, not much good for berry-picking.

Berry picking was always good along the tracks—particularly salmon berries—because the sun could reach its edges.  And the tracks were a ready road to all kinds of useful places, which, if you had the time and fancy, you could traverse along the shiny-topped rail itself.  Of course sometimes you had to dodge to the margins when a train went by.  Trains can be surprisingly quiet and sudden when coming around corners, which is why the warning high-pitched hum of the tracks, which starts just before the train arrives around the bend, can be useful—for ears young enough to hear it, which, in the 1960s, my ears were.

On the shore near the shack, between the track bed and the water, was a protrusion of mostly horizontal granite.  Sometime in the past a storm surge had tossed a large log onto that place, and no storm since had reached high enough to dislodge it.  There my father and Squires set up a beachside work station, using the log (which lying on its side was taller than my ten-year-old self) as a kind of prop in their workshop, hammering nails and spikes into it and attaching things to it as needed.  When fishing wasn’t ongoing, all of us spent a lot of time on that stony beach.

When I returned to visit my old summering place in 1996, the log was still there on that rocky beach, together with some lingering evidence of its use as part of a workshop.  So far as I know, unless some greater storm than what put it there has since come and fetched it away, it is lodged there still.

My playground in the Boneyard was as wide as I dared wander.  But night tended to creep in early there with the mountains and evergreens standing in back of us.  And even a west coast boy who greeted light rain as almost sunshine could be driven indoors by some of the rainfalls the Skeena mouth had to offer.  And my father would have known about all that and that there would be days fishing when he couldn’t be around very much.  So he provided for that by enrolling me in a book club.

northwindWas it a direct cause, or would it have happened anyway?  I don’t know.  But it’s during that Boneyard summer of 1960 that I became a reader.  That was notable in itself.  What I preferred to order through the club were books of fairy tales.  It’s hard with so many stories now collected in my head to sort through at this distance which stories I first encountered lying on my bunk, pages tilted towards the coal oil lamp, that summer so long ago.  I have continued to read fairy tales ever since, never inclining to give them up, and the later memories obscure and tangle with the earlier.  I remember thinking only that there could never be enough of them.

I suppose we picked up my regularly arriving bundle of books at Haysport, since it still had a post office in those days.  At the Back of the North Wind arrived in that bundle, which at least I wasn’t disappointed by.  The pamphlet that comes with the order and tells you which books are on special offer in the next mailing convinced me to buy Little Women, but no amount of freckles 1960effort could convince me to finish it.  Worse was Freckles, a 1904 novel with social values belonging to the century before, peddled to me in 1960 simply because (as I found out later) somebody had decided to make a movie about it that year.  My own woods were a lot more interesting than the Limberlost Freckles wandered in, and my own life a lot more interesting to me.  However, the bundles of books that arrived every few weeks were, overall, satisfactory and highly anticipated.

Nor was mail order—as delightful as that convenience is for anybody living in the sticks—my only source of reading material.  My father had a library card, and every time we went into Prince Rupert, we went to the library too as part of our regular rounds.  Like stores, movie theatres, cafés, people and the general air of urban excitement, the library was one of the reasons why it was fun to go into town.

Posted in: autobiography