Ah, there it comes. That aghast look. This time from a gaggle of my younger, hipper, nieces and nephews. A chuckle finds my lips when they say, looking at me like I was crazy I hadn’t thought of it at the time:

“Why didn’t you just get your dad to drive you?”

The source of their bewilderment: My twelve-year-old self rode my clunky 10-speed sixty miles to my Pop’s humble cabin on the stomach-shaped Sturgeon lake.

That Saturday morning I could hear my lanky Pops roaming about. As he is wont to do each morning. Rising at sun-up to poach his egg, warm his porridge and ready for his busy day at the barbershop. I still cannot comprehend how such a tired farming town could manage to keep one barber so busy each Saturday.

Pops gently woke me, knowing of my eagerness to travel. I jumped up, opened my window and found the best prairie weather: cirrus clouds, warm, windy. A musty odor? Rain? I can’t have rain! But the familiar whirl of the sprinkler relived me of this sudden conundrum.

Not sharing Pop’s love of porridge, I had white toast with butter and stole one of his eggs. Ewwww… that random chalky eggshell!

I dug out my orange backpack. The kind a European backpacker with a hording issue would use. In went a bottle of pop, a peanut butter sandwich, a change of clothes (in case it rains), a Mad magazine, and a jacket.

To the garage and my vehicle, a ram-horned ten-speed. Tire pressure okay, chain and wheel axles lubed from a long-nosed oilcan. Seat at good height. Ready!

Pops waved as he left for work, saying he’d see me at the cabin tonight, adding one last:

“Be careful.”

I put my foot on the pedal and set off! No, this wasn’t the first, nor last attempt at riding those sixty miles. I first tried it when I was ten on my banana bike. Not exactly made for highway travel let me tell you. Until this attempt Pops always caught up as I’d leave so late in the day.

This time was going to be different. I was leaving early so I could make it before Pops, and thus proving I could do it. Hoping to force chagrin on the face of my much-older, ever-taunting brother.

The graveled back roads would have saved me hours. But the thought of a teeth-jarring, dust choaking ride made it easy to stick to kinder asphalt. Onto highway and the long, low sloping hill leading to the outskirts of town. At a gregarious “Welcome to Grande Prairie” sign, I paused to look back at what I thought a sprawling metropolis (ah, the heady innocence of youth!).

I soon reached a white-on-green sign stating “Edmonton, 435” and signaling a turn due East. Then a wallop of “discouragement” as I looked up and saw this rising ribbon that stretched on, and on, and on up to my first peaked goal, a whitewashed rock with an elevation number written on it.

My morbid count: three crows, a gray gull and two squirrels. The last squirrel was still twitching. There’s something primal in this. Maybe a view into some hidden world, or a triggering link to our own past, when death was a daily occurrence. I was careful not to venture too close to the shoulder’s white line and my personal road kill zone. I considered riding on the other side so to see on-coming traffic, but it didn’t seem right.

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 10.16.25 AM

I reached the elevation rock and hopped off my bike. There, across the road on a high embankment, a rock imbued in my most distant memories. Usually no more than a flash in the car. Yet on my bike I could stop, feel the thickened paint on its surface, see the brush strokes of its creator. Astride the marker I looked over the quilt of fields that sloped toward town. And there! The mountains! How those vague, white-peaked mountains held a spell over me like a mystical creature that shied away from bad weather.

Off again. Down and up a small valley and I was at another crest, looking down on a falling ribbon of highway, my favourite of those sixty miles. A long slope to the hamlet of Bezanson.

I let gravity do its work, only pedaling if I had to. Aside from jumping out of a perfectly good plane, this was the closest to flying I’d ever get. As the wheels seemed to find their maximum revolutions, a type of joy struck me. Exhilaration? More like a feeling of the freedom only a skyward bird must take for granted.

Soon I passed Bezanson’s general store. Memories of out of reach counters, when all ice cream was either vanilla or chocolate.

The ribbon’s bend and a steep drop into the narrow Smoky River valley. For a flatlander, this slope was steep and curved. Again letting gravity have its way I took to flight, my speedometer hitting it’s maximum, and breaking. I was going nowhere near sixty miles an hour anyway.

At the bottom of the valley was a two-lane truss gauntlet spanning the Smoky. In my entire childhood, to cross that rusting hulk was to pass the gates of hell. The highway narrowed at its entrance and for a good football field or two there was little in the way of room for error. Stories I’d heard of deadly collisions surfaced to my awareness whenever I traveled this way. Not far from the mouth of the beast I stopped and waited. Pensive. Listening. When I was sure no more cars were heading down the hill behind me that I set off across. Peddling furiously in anxious desperation, ghosts chasing me.

How the vision narrowed, how the whizz of my tires sounded like a hornets nest. Made it! The spirits lose the race as my anxiety washes into the Smoky’s muddy flow.

Now the steep valley side without having to get off my bike and walk! To this point I’d gotten to within a few hundred yards of the top. Slow was my progress. As I reached my best mark, my lungs were aching. Then I looked down and saw I’ve two lower gears to go! I click into the easier gears and rocket to the top! Another triumphant battle!

I soon passed the turn off to the farm where Pops often picked up fresh eggs, honey, sometimes beef. Between home and the cabin Pops would make all kinds of barters or purchases. Usually in exchange for fish or money. I think. I never witnessed any actual transactions. I’d always stay in the truck to read or sleep, depending on the visit’s time of day. I always thought Pops possessed a far greater set of smarts than the surface of his profession typified. Maybe, but far more likely a result of culture and circumstance. Born on the edge of Russia during the time of a blood-gorged revolution. His parents barely escaping with three children. Ending their travels by growing dirt on the Canadian prairies. Was he cheap? No. Thrifty? Yes.

The Ribbon was now mostly flat and the progress good. I reached the village of Debolt and the roadside schoolyard I knew so well but never been in. Never saw a child on those swings. More than half way now!

Rounding a long bend the ribbon straightened in the distance to meet another set of challenging hills. A way off yet. Then Crooked Creek. It’s only sign of existence a lonely store at the side of the road. So many fireworks bought there before the government tightened their sale.

Not far on and there, a few hundred yards ahead, a black bear lumbered across the road. I slowed to keep my distance. Few were my encounters with them.

Yet one time sticks in my mind.

On our way home on Sunday nights we’d stop at the lake’s landfill to dump the weekend bones. On one particular rainy visit, Pops had just thrown the garbage into the pit when a small black bear comes over a dirt pile on the other side of the pit. My gooseflesh rose as Pops shouted:

“Go on! Get! Bugger off!”

The bear seemed to pause. Sizing up the loud human? Some form of curiosity? Maybe. The beast gave an audible snort, turned tail and was gone. My gooseflesh, on the other hand, took longer to subside.

Then I saw the bolt.

As we turned off the lake’s rutted road and onto the highway, a monsoon, of such I’d never seen before, struck out of the darkening skies. We drove a few hundred yards when Pops pulled over, unable to see. I, still agitated from the bear encounter, tried to focus on my comic. But nothing was permeating my worry so I turned my focus to the streaks of rain cleansing my side window. Then it happened.

A bone-white knife of light appeared and was gone. Flash-fried onto my cortex! It daggered between the tree-lined forest and my startled eyes, not more than a few yards away.

For the first time in my life I felt a kind of surreal eternity. The kind when you witness your first accident or death. The leisurely formation of my breath on the glass, a sour taste in my drying mouth, the frayed fabric on the door rest, with a rising odor of stale fish. The little hairs on the back of my neck stood and the voice of god spoke in a monstrous monosyllable! As the truck swayed a bee entered the truck.

I looked to Pops and he was lost in his own world out his window. Oblivious to the second coming or not, he showed no emotion. But, that was Pops. He’d seen much in his years, sixty-four at that point. Likely this flash of power from above registered far lower on his scale of life-changing moments.

Back to my ride, I had reached the bottom of a hill that even Pops truck found some issue with. Taking a run at it, the pedals a-blur, I made it past halfway and had to jump off. It was okay; I knew this would be a bit much, but again, a new climbing milestone for me.

At the top I arrive at the furthest point I’d ever gone! In only four and a half hours! It was down the other side to another, smaller hill climb and then a choice: turn onto the graveled, if not muddy, rutted road, or over another hill to the paved entrance of Williams Provincial Park.

I chose the smoother route and arrived at the park that was busy with campers, trucks and tents. I stopped at the payphone to call Pops, to boast, let him know I’d made it. But lacked enough change. Then this strange giddiness came over me that I’d later understand as a sense of accomplishment. Something infrequently suffered in my adolescence. I rode on to the cabin. Arriving there the journey’s thrill melted away. While I would strike out a few more times before hitting my age of motor vehicles, it was a time before I’d feel such a profound sense of accomplishment.

story by DC Lessoway (photo via Google Maps)

I took this picture today on my walk.  How it brought back an intense memory.

cabin-road-jul-16-2017

The fading light through the trees was soft owing to the smoke issuing from the line of lake-side cabins and adding to the vigorous smell of cooked pickerel. Sunday suppertime on Sturgeon Lake in North Western Alberta, 1973. My dad and I readied his red and white 1968 Chevrolet truck and headed home. It was Sunday and he had to get home (an hour West in Grande Prairie) to get ready for the week’s work.
My dad, by then 61, bone thin, just starting to stoop; yet, still towering over me. How after the truck was packed he’d take a moment, remove his cap, scratch his balding pate, then get in and off we’d go. Perhaps he was going over a mental checklist to ensure the cabin was locked up for the week.
It was always a quiet ride home, excepting for the radio. He wasn’t a conversationalist and thus, perhaps, is why I have an over-active imagination in having to keep myself occupied.
First stop, always, the garbage dump.
We are approaching the turn-off and suddenly it was like we were dive-bombed by a flying… something. Like an explosion of crazy in front of me. My heart was in my throat as it was on my side, by the tall steel radio antenna.
Dad laughed, “it’s a bat, caught on the aerial.”
My eyes were like saucers! A bat, mere feet from my head! Just waiting to get its chance to taste my blood!
We pulled into the dump and dad got out, gabbed a blanket from behind the truck seat, went around to my side, threw the blanket on the gyrating bat, pulled it up and off the antenna and snapped the blanket, like he was flicking off dust, and the bat, though hard to see in the twilight, screamed and flew off.
Dad folded up the blanket and put it behind the chair. He then threw out the garbage and again, we were on our way.
“The thing you should remember, never panic. Remember, early in the summer and that bear was in the dump? Keep your distance, yell and shout and he’ll go on his way. Never panic, you can’t think straight when you panic.”
He’d always give these, gems of wisdom to me. His favourite, “experience is the best teacher.” Loved that one.
Well, the excitement over, on the way again. We’d just turned off the dusty, noisy gravel and onto the soothing highway as it began to rain. Not much at first, but quickly grew into a monsoon with lightening and thunder.
“We’ll have to pull over, it’s too hard to see.” So we pulled off to the side of the highway.
That musty smell created by hard rain after a few, dusty, and hot days. I’ve never forgotten it; always cherish it as it instantly transports me to my youth.
Then more lightening, “one-thousand and one, one-thousand and…” boom!
That was close. Then. Oh but then.
This, imbued on my memory. I was looking out my window at the thick forest of birch and pine at the side of the road. A jagged bolt of pure white flashed in my vision. Like nothing I’d seen, but just like a kid drew a lightening bolt: sharp angles to a point. It seemed to linger there, a few feet above the ground; and then, it seemed like an eternity after the image, this, voice-of-god-like crash physically shook the truck.
I jumped over the side and grabbed dad. He laughed, “just lightening, we’ll be okay, we have rubber tires, we’re isolated from it.”
Immediately the rain subsided and we were off again. It was a few miles before I was back on my side of the truck.
Never forgot that moment and, I never looked at that blanket the same way again.

Photo and story © by DC Lessoway

 

pensive-bridge-dc-lessoway.jpg

An early fall Sunday, two men walk onto the Lions’ Gate Bridge on the west walk way from opposite sides.

Will, forty-five, looks sixty, gray haired, tall, limping due to a bad back, dressed in a thin, dirty suit jacket, no tie and his dirty shirt open, his suit pants ripped at the bottom, his once fine leather shoes worn and scuffed. He saunters onto the bridge deck from the Stanly Park side.

Brian, also forty-five, tall, fitter than a twenty-year-old, covered in lycra, only a peppering of gray betrays his age. He strides onto the bridge deck from the North Vancouver side. An old song he can’t remember the name of repeats in his head.

Will, who had been walking all night, is too exhausted to lift his head, until he reaches a yellow box on a pole. He just stares at the sign that states: “There is Help.” Nothing comes to him, his mind, a void.

Brian strides past the yellow box and wonders how many have used it. ‘Can’t be that many jumpers, they spent a lot of money on it I’d imagine. I high ratio likely.’

Will continues on, only the wind, bridge traffic in his ears, long ago numbed to the cold, stale coffee and aged donut haunts his breath. He has a sense he is floating upward.

Brian reaches the first pier and looks at his watch. Heart rate: 132. Good, right in the range. Around the park should do today. I have three hours, should be enough.

At the first pier from his side Will turns into the enclave wrapped around the pier and leans against the railing. The water below is fast with the out-going tide. He wonders if it’ll hurt. Suddenly he is hit by a wave of bleak emotion and tears streak his face and he doesn’t hear the lycraed cyclists streak past the pile.

The cyclists now fly towards Brian and as he steps out of the their way he says, “slow down a bit boys.” After they are gone he thinks, ‘maybe I should get a bike. Be a whole lot quicker to get around the park.’ He then reaches mid-point and looks at his watch, ‘if it weren’t for those bikers I’d beat my record.’

All Will sees is the water and all he feels is a dark pit. He forces his mind backward, to Tammy, he tries to see her smile, feel her kiss, smell her body, but it all returns to the arguments, fights, the last moment he saw her: closing the door to the house they bought together. Her words still in his ears: “Don’t come back. Ever!”

Brian carries on and in reaching the second bridge pile he ground around it to the right as several cyclists are heading his way. He looks over and sees a man staring down at the water. On the way down the final section of the bridge he realizes the man’s shoulders where shaking. The man was crying. Brian takes a look back. The man is still staring down at the water. He takes three more steps and stops, turns to look again at the man. He is too far away to really see anything so he takes hesitant steps forward. One thought stops him, ‘I shouldn’t get involved, what if he is violent? Has a gun?’

A chilled gust of wind brings Will out of his dark thoughts and he realizes his hands are gripping the icy railing. He can’t feel them, he can’t feel anything. It’s time. He prepares to climb over the railing but is startled by a voice behind him.

“Hi there.”

Will turns around to see a man, head to toe in lycra standing by the pier.

“Are you okay? Need me to get someone to help you?”

Will shakes his head. Brian takes a step forward and Will’s hand instinctively goes up, then down when he realizes he did this. Brian holds his place, trying to find words to say.

“There is help if you need it, those boxes…”

“No, just leave me alone, I’m fine here.”

“So, you weren’t going to jump?”

Will turns sideway to keep an eye on the man. He didn’t know whether to shake or nod his head. He honestly didn’t know.

Brian looks into Wills face and it strikes him he’d never seen anyone so sad before. Not even on his dad’s face when his mom died. He knew this man is ready to end his life. Brian looks around for the call box, but both are too far away.  He made a movement to reach for his cell phone.

“Don’t call. Please. I’m not worth it. Please.”

Brian realized, for the first time in years he’d forgotten his cell. Then he felt puzzled, remembered his own thoughts on suicide. A flashback to when a classmate took her life and how his feels where mixed, how he called her selfish, stupid, too scared to face life.  Later a casual hypothetical conversation on suicide with the same thoughts, feelings of how a person could through away their life, how it’s more a betrayal to themselves, leaving their family grieving. Selfish. The word repeated in his mind as he watched the man turn around. Brian took a step forward.

Will immediately spun around, a wild look on his face. Shouting: “Just leave me be! I’m not bothering anyone! Please go!”

Brian realized he will have to talk this man down. He thought, ‘negotiation is negotiation, whether for a car or a life? It’s the same basically.’

“What’s your name?”

Will seemed to have forgotten. His mind was blank.

“My name if Brian.” Instinctively his hand went for a handshake, but he lowered it quickly. “I live just over the bridge there in West Van. How about you?”

Will could only stare at the bridge deck.

“Well, it’s a beautiful day. Uh, not much traffic.” He cringed feeling he was going in the wrong direction. “Well, I’ll be honest with you, I’m not good at this, please let me call someone who…”

“Will.”

“Huh?”

“My name is Will.”

“Well that is good Will. Thank you for, uh, thank you. Well, now we are on first name basis. Maybe if I can ask why you’re here?”

Will shook his head and looked away.

“Lost your job? Your home? Maybe love?”

Will looked down and shook his head.

“Who was she?” Brain waited but knew an answer wasn’t coming. “I can relate. My first wife jumped ship. Left me with a two-year-old. Oh those were longs days.”

“She kicked me out.”

“Something you did? Sorry, she have a reason?”

“I lost my job about a year before, couldn’t find one.”

“Did you try…”

“Became depressed to the point I couldn’t leave the bed for a month. She got tired of doing everything. She was six month’s pregnant with our first. Three months ago she said to go, come back when I got a job. I tried, everything, everywhere, any job. Nothing was happening. I showed up at the house two weeks ago and found her mother there. My boy was born a week ago. I said the child needs a father. Her mother said not a father who can’t put bread on the table. Slammed the door in my face and locked it. I banged and kicked the door, I just wanted to see my boy. They called the cops and I was in jail for a night. They didn’t charge me.”

Brian watched as Will broke down and cried. He stepped closer. Will didn’t flinch this time, Brian took another step closer and Will suddenly jumped onto the railing. Brian lunged at him and grabbed his jacket. It tore as he pulled on it. He lunged again, caught Will’s leg and using a foot on the railing as leverage, pulled until Will and himself came flying backward. Brian struggled to hold tight to Will. Will started beating on Brian to get him off when suddenly several hands and arms came in and separated them. It was two police officers.

“What’s going on here?”

Brian, trying to catch is breath, “he tried to jump.”

Six months later, a bright spring day, Brian is striding over the bridge deck. As he reaches the second piling he sees a man standing at the railing. Something in him is tipped off that this is familiar. He stops, not wanting to be a bother, being however unlikely the same would happen to him again. But he went up to the man.

“Nice view.”

The man turned around and it was Will. “Well hello Brian.”

“Will!” They hesitated, not knowing whether to shake or hug.

“Good to see you’re still keeping up your bridge walking, saving people.” Will got a little misy-eyed. “I can’t say anything but thank you. Just, thank you.”

“You are most welcome. You are doing better?”

“Yes, great! Had a setting of thing with the ex, visitations every other week. I’m okay with that. Went back to university, social work.”

“Oh good for you. It’s fantastic…”

Will suddenly embraced Brian and whispered in his ear: “thank you for bringing me back to life.”

 

Photo and story (c) 2015 by DC Lessoway

Christmas Eve. A warm, silent snow falls in the darkness of a small prairie town. A town centered with one strip mall, two barbers and three bars surrounded by houses and beyond that, farmland.

At this hour, sixty-two year old Henry, single father and the town’s longest serving barber is closing. He takes off his smock, places it neatly on a worn brass door hanger beside his chair. As it happens each and every Christmas Eve, he turns towards the front and expects Madeline to be at the till counting money. It’s been ten Christmas’s and he still yearns for her embrace, flowery perfume, raspy voice, sharp wit, infectious laugh. A dull throb perches on his shoulders as he dresses for the cold. He reaches for the back door then remembers the gift. The one he brought last spring when prices on winter items were cheap. It’d been wrapped for months with wrapping he found on sale in July. Habits he’d learned from once having to count each penny and having little during the great depression. In the back room, he grunts as he moves a chair and lifts a loose floorboard. His secret hiding spot. A last resort to hide gifts from his far-too-curious son. Then it was out the door.

At a street lamp at the furthest reaches from town center Henry’s son, ten-year-old Wayne waits. He’d just walked the seven blocks from his sitters, in anticipation of his dad’s getting home and allowing the opening of at least one gift as was Christmas Eve tradition. Wayne stands at the streetlamp beside his house staring up into the kaleidoscope created by the snow falling through the light above him. He loved doing this and only when conditions were perfect: at night, the temperature just below freezing, low clouds, no wind, and the snow has to be falling in large flakes. And always with some trepidation: he was sure his friends would think he was crazy. But these moments made him feel good, warm.

Sitting in the idling car Henry’s mind wanders…

Madeline gets into the car. “We’re late! Let’s go, you know Wayne will be
waiting. What’s wrong?”

“I forgot to get the gift. Damn it!”

“Is it in the hiding spot?”

“No, I forgot to buy it.”

“I reminded you many times, not on me.”

“What will we get him?”

Madeline pulls out a small wrapped gift. “Always prepared.”

“Oh thanks. Saved my skin again. Did you mean to give him that?”

“Bought it for last year, remember, you misplaced the gift, but found it last second?”

“Oh yes.”

A car horn wakes him. As he drives through the intersection he looks over to the empty seat and smiles.

Henry steers the car through the maze of the new subdivision. His shoulders stop throbbing and he smiles again to see Wayne under the light, jumping up and down.

Brian couldn’t sleep.

He arrived late Friday night at the rustic cabin an hour’s drive from the blustery city. A spur of the moment thing. It was late August and he’d been to the cabin twice since May. Guilt the likely trigger. How could he not frequent such a quiet, sanctuary from the cruelty of the world. Too busy to go. Always too busy.

He flings away the covers, the cool air flushing over him, refreshing. How he used to leap out of bed, to catch the last few stars wink out in the deep violet sky. Age, must be age. His joints like popcorn as he flips his sinewy legs over the edge. Stretch. Ah. How easily the flexibility returns. A faint pressure in his bladder prompts him to get up.

He fumbles his way to the kitchen. Pausing to wonder aloud why he always bumps into things. The furniture in the rectangular, open-plan cabin hadn’t moved since 1975. A flick of the light brings stars to his mind’s eye. The external shutters on the windows might be closed, but likely not. A moonless night. Bodily functions cared too, coffee ready. He sinks quickly into a faraway reverie as the wakening elements of the toaster reflect on the glossy ceiling. His distant eyes brought back to focus by a faint flitter against the panel windows. Several large moths, attracted by the light, carelessly bump against the glass. Memories of bygone evening moth hunts bear a flush of youthful verve. Coffee and toast on the dock!

The creaking screen door echoes in the quiet. He struggles to keep the door from slamming while balancing his coffee and toast. A sweater and jeans might have been cozier than a tee-shirt and shorts. A faint hint of deep indigo hovers in the far east above the lapping, rippled waters. Late summer in this northern lake the sun appears later, cooler. Wet from the dewy grass, chilled sand sticks to his feet as he nearly stumbles onto the dock. A short walk out over the water and he finds an abandoned aluminum chair. In fleeting rush of anger he realizes his brilliant university student, but scatterbrained son, Tyler, the likely culprit.

Impressions of stifling summer afternoon: the course paper of a favored book, in the same chair, on the same dock, the waxing and waning roar of water craft, the ceaseless chatter of seven-year old Tyler splashing about. The calming timbre of her voice.

The gloom invades and expels the memory. A salty sting in his eyes rouse him in time to see his toast splash in the inky water. Returns the dry mouth, throbbing ache. He sets the coffee down, steps out of the chair and lies on his back on the plants of the dock.

Emblazoned stars of the Milky Way bring a sort of, relief. That maybe she, up there, possibly aches as well.

© 2013 by DC Lessoway