Thursday, 23 August 2012

Go west young man........

A lady living in the Dominion of Canada (Oh bring back the British Empire) has written to me a couple of times saying my writing is a credit to my English teacher* and asking what happened between Sault St. Marie and the return to New York.


It’s a long long time ago, but I can still remember how the journey used to make me smile………….


Returning to meeting sister and her friend Mary in Albany we spent the night in a motel. The most interesting thing about it was the old Morris Minor parked outside. I must go into the loft and find those old photographs that were taken on a camera that may well have been swopped for a packet of cigarettes in Berlin in 1945. It was the first time I had been in a motel, there not being many in Britain, we’re only a little country,  but I had seen them in FILMS so knew what was likely to happen in American motels. I was very careful in the shower, always facing the curtain just in case.                                                                                                                                                                          We were in my sister’s Mercury Meteor which had a cracked muffler (how easy it is to slip into a different language) and a faulty parking brake, by far the biggest car I had driven.

Next day we crossed into Canada (eventually) at Niagara and set off to drive west.

We drove close to Toronto and across the peninsula between lakes Ontario and Huron. The most memorable thing about this region was the fruit. I had my first nectarine, and was it good. Slightly more than halfway between Toronto and Sault St. Marie we drove by Sudbury which I recall was a centre for nickel mining.

And on round the north shore of Lake Superior to what is now called Thunder Bay. I’m sure it had a different name then Port Arthur or maybe Port Sunlight. Anyway you had to change your clocks by an hour, strange thing to do in one country.

 Somewhere in this region another first; a  Drive in Movie. I can’t remember the film, it was one of a series Ma and Pa Kettle and was rubbish. However we drove away forgetting to unhook the speaker from the car window and it was torn off its stand. I suppose today the sound is picked up by a wifi ipad or something in true Dolby surround sound. At some point we picked up a young man who was hitching. He was useful, he took his turn at the wheel so we could press on to Winnipeg. We were however, stopped by a policeman wearing reflective sunglasses. Turned out a young man had escaped from the local jail, it wasn’t  ours, fortunately.

Finally we left the province of Ontario which I think is Canada’s biggest and leaving the endless forests behind drove into the endless prairie, starting with Manitoba. After another motel night  near Winnipeg we left Mary to fly home to Australia to watch cricket and chase kangaroos.

 The province west of Manitoba is Saskatchewan, capital Regina and then into Alberta, only one of two provinces with a British sounding name, and even then he was a German.

We finished up in Lethbridge which has a huge trestle bridge carrying the railway across a valley, and a large brewery. I think in this area we picked up Grace, friend of sisters but I’m not too sure of the details.

From Lethbridge to Calgary, just missing the stampede and then to the Rockies.

 I think I can say without boasting I have done my share of English Lakes walking, a good bit of Scotland, some in the Alps and some in the Polish Tatras, but the Rockies are in a different league. A mountain range stretching the length of the continent, makes you want to be a Geographer. We visited Banff and Jasper .  Another first, we stopped to look at the Athabaska Glacier. Not surprisingly it was cold and I was surprised at how dirty the snout was. (Technical term) Now that I am allowed to don the jacket I know why it was so dirty, I also know that it has retreated considerably, like most glaciers in the world. (One or two are growing, much to the surprise of glaciologists who really can’t explain it. Any expert reading this can let me know.

  At some point we went to a wedding, my sister’s  colleague. The couple belonged to a rather strict branch of the Baptists(?) but the service had borrowed much from the Cof E solemnisation of Marriage ceremony. However, there was no music. The choir were given a single note from a pitch pipe and just sang, beautifully. There was no alcohol either, not allowed. I joined a middle aged couple for the post wedding meal. They told me that the only music they could listen to on a record player was hymns. And this in the sixties, with all that fantastic music coming out of Britain!


 On to Edmonton, capital of Alberta and then north to Fort McMurray.


Fort McMurray is a two hundred miles north of Edmonton, the road was not much more than dirt and the provincial government had promised to keep it open. There had been some heavy rain and we had to be towed at least twice but at last we made it to the town. It might have been a trading post once but it was then the centre of the world for extracting oil from the tar sands. The process involved the use of huge machines like the ones used in Czech mines (See  A Gadgie Abroad) which dug out the oil bearing sand. The oil is then extracted by a heat process. At the time it was an expensive way of producing oil but I think that now it is economically viable. If you look atb the area on Google Earth it isn’t pretty and there are environmental concerns but oil is oil!

In those distant days McMurray was a small town now it has a large population, mostly workers in the tar sands.

My sister had worked as a teacher in McMurray but had resigned to do social work with the First Nations (PC!). We had borrowed a house for a few weeks from an oil worker who came from Wigan, Lancashire. I can’t remember his name but he was very friendly, pretty kind too, to lend his house out.

The town had a few shops, a bar, a cinema and a large cold river, the Athabaska which flows to a lake of the same name.


And what is a young man meant to do, not too far south of the Arctic Circle, surrounded by forests full of bears and wolves and things and with little money ?
Get a job! So with a little help from friends of sisters I was taken on as a labourer by a gas company called Cigas. The local boss was an American from North Dakota. He had been an engineer in the American army in World War II, stationed in Europe and probably finding McMurray a haven of peace.  I can't remember his name, I'll call him Tom. He needed a general labourer and driver. My UK licence caused much amusement. For those of you old enough to remember it was the little red notebook type. Apart from cars I was licensed to drive powered lawn mowers. There were three others working for Tom, a man who reputedly lived with his family in a garage, a man who had just got out of prison and a teenager working for the summer. he taught me the rules of baseball, I beat him at soccer.
 The company was busy piping Liquid Petroleum Gas into a new housing development. The gas arrived by rail (at the depot!) in tanks and was piped to the Cigas yard and stored. Gigas were laying pipes to houses and my job was to dig trenches. Occasionally, if I was good, I got to drive the small trench digger, a tiny "sit on" tractor with a sort of chain saw attachment that dug a narrow trench deep enough for the plastic  coated pipes that went from the main to the houses.  The job of welding the pipes was in the safe hands of a French Canadian, if I was really good I got to hold the torch. I became quite skilled at using the device for bending pipes too. On some days my job was to take the trucks down to a creek (!) and give them a good wash. The trucks were years ahead of their time, burning either petrol or LPG. I think the LPG systems had been installed by Tom.
But Tom's great invention was the gas toilet. The prototype model sat in the office, not connected to waste pipes, but frequently demonstrated. When you put the seat down a blast of flame from an LPG tank burnt, in theory, any waste matter in the bowl. It didn't catch on, but the thought of any accidental ignition still makes me laugh. Do wonders for your piles.
The last summer job I had had in England before going to Canada was driving a small van for a wholesale fruit and vegetable merchant. It was a brilliant job, delivering small quantities of greens to shops in north Lancashire and the south lakes. The pay was 5s an hour in old money.25p in today's terms. In Canada I was paid the equivalent of 12s and 6d an hour (62.5p) so I was pretty well off. I think that today my UK wage would be about £10 an hour for driving a van but a packet of cigarettes was about 20p and I am told that today they cost about £7.50  which equates roughly to $12. Glad I gave up.
Anyway this brings me to slightly  embarrassing tale  no 1. I went to the local store and asked the lady for  ten Players (The good thing about Canada w)as English cigarettes). She said they didn't sell tens. Twenty then please, I asked and was told they didn't sell them either. So what do you sell?. They come in twentyfives! I can't remember the price but I expect they were cheap.
  There was one bar in the town as far as I remember, the barman dipped the rim of the glass in salt before filling it. This is obviously to make you thirsty. If you wanted alcohol for home consumption there was a provincial liquor store. Purchases to be wrapped and kept out of sight in the trunk (!) on your way home. If stopped by the police and foundm to have an open bottle in your car you were thrown to the wolves.
The townspeople I met, friends of sisters, were very kind and hospitable. One family invited me round for lunch. Looking forward to burgers and steaks I turned up. Lunch was a cup of coffee and a slice of cake!
This same family offered to take me bear hunting. First I was allowed to shoot a rifle at a can, cowboy style, and of course I missed. Then next morning we made an early start and went into the forest to find us a bear. You could smell, them, a bit like wet dog, but we never even saw one. Secretly I was glad.  They took me fishing too, I caught some looked a bit like a trout.
There were some First Nations living in the area, I think they were Crees but am not sure. Slightly embarrassing tale no 2.
I was talking to one of the First Nations who was doing some work for Cigas. He asked me when I was going home and I answered in a fortnight. Heeplied that nowadays F. Ns don't talk like that.
Perplexed I repeated I was going home in a fortnight and got a similar reply. It turned out that in this part of the world the word fortnight is not used and he thought I was saying "four nights" White man speak strange words.
Because Fort McMurray was remote radio reception was poor and I do not remember ever watching TV. So every house had a stack of records. My favourite in  Bill's house was Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears, songs of the American Indian (whoops, sorry) It changed my views and led to me reading many seious books on American expansion.
The town cinema was part of the entertainment, I saw severl films there, including The Searchers.
(See The Searchers... June14th).
One evening my sister, in her role of saviour of FN children needed to fly to Lake Chipewyan to rescue a poor young girl who was suffering from appendicitis or something. The plane was a small float plane and as there was a spare seat I went along. Navigation was simple, we followed the river.
Having piocked up the child we set off back in the dusk. The pilot told me he was not really supposed to fly in the dark and when we reached McMurray the night had descended. Hitting the water the left float dipped under the surface and the plane slewed round but remained safely upright and coasted to the dock. Quite exciting.
But all good thingsw come to an end and when my fortnight wqas up I had at least earned the money to fly back to New York. From McMurray to Edmonton on a Dakota! Edmonton to Toronto and then on to New York, London, home. But not all in one day.
Perhaps I should have returned but I didn't. I got married, got a mortgage and got daughters. And even if the first international cricket match was played between the US and Canada in about 1850, they don't play now!
Must go in the loft for  pictures

 * Miss Buck. This lady was my English teacher and form mistress. (Home Room?) She was a brilliant teacher who taught us such useful skills as Clause Analysis and how to compare and contrast. She produced the annual school play usually Shakespeare and she organised the yearly trip to Stratford upon Avon. I won't pretend she was the teacher who inspired me to read Shakespeare though. That person was Marlon Brando. When I was about 10 a film of Julius Caesar had just come out, Mark Anthony was played by Marlon B. My little gang of friends decided we should see the film and although we were told by parents it would be difficult to follow and wasn't all  sword fights and blood spilling we went. When Marlon did the Friends, Romans and Countrymen bit I was hooked. I learned the whole speech, as did Rosemary Varty, the girl I sat next to in class. We recited it to each other, and progressed to other speeches from other plays.Don't know what happened to Rosemary.
In 1995 my class had a school reunion and Miss Buck, now into her nineties turned up. She could not remember us but we had to tell her which play we had been in. Then she remembered! She made us all write down our names, what we did, how many children we had and we all complied like good pupils.
She died shortly after getting the Queen's congratualations for making it to a hundred.
And she loved cricket.