Posted tagged ‘remembering’

A Novel Is A D-9 Cat

February 19, 2021

Once upon a time, in the north-central part of the province of British Columbia, I worked in a coal mine.

(I will get to the nub of this post encapsulated in the title, but it will take me a little while.)

British Columbia is not particularly well-known for its coal, but in their day coal mines on Vancouver Island and in the north in the Telkwa area supplied home stoves and wider industry too.  At Telkwa where I worked one high-school summer at a small mine in the last half of the 1960s, some coal was hard enough to be considered metallurgical and all types were exported through the port of Prince Rupert in the post-World War II era.  Of course, there are modern-day large coal producers in the eastern part of this province.

But when I went to work at Bulkley Valley Collieries for $1.87 an hour that one summer, the old mine, once underground but now open pit, was barely supplying local coal stove needs.  Most people had wood stoves, and even then coal was considered too dirty for widespread use.  And trees were much more plentiful and accessible than coal.

I was looking for summer work, and we knew Les Hatfield, who hired me on.  Les was a neighbour who lived with his family way back in the woods around Walcott, a barely-there old railroad station on the Bulkley River.

Les was an interesting guy.  In most weather, he liked to wear vests made out of shirts with the sleeves cut off, revealing impressively tanned and muscular arms.  He and his family emigrated from Oregon to the Bulkley Valley not long after our family had done the same from Washington state.  He was an ex-race car driver, in the lower circuits, who claimed that he had once raced alongside A.J. Foyt.  He was a Bible-thumper, obsessive about the Book of Daniel.  He was also a hard-working, genuinely decent man.

So Les – Mr. Hatfield to me – hired me on at the coal mine for 10-hour days when he ran things for the manager for awhile.  He seemed to love to work outdoors and with machinery. At least those were the jobs easily accessible to him, whether in logging or mining.

The mine could only support a few workers at that time.  So mainly it was Les and me, occasionally his son Terry, whoever up on the hill was excavating coal with machinery – often Les no doubt – and an old German guy with a nose like a potato who was my immediate boss.

At the coal mine years before the conveyor belt there was a track for underground workings.. I identify with that guy with the smudged face.

The coal mining worked as follows.  An excavator would claw coal out of the ground well up in the foothill surrounding the mine buildings below.  That coal would be dropped in a waiting dump truck, which then trundled a ways down the hill to deposit its load on the top of the widely spaced iron grill of a large hopper.

My mission, which I accepted, was to then use a heavy pick to break up the large pieces of coal so that they could pass through the approximately eighteen-inch squares of the grid, and fill the hopper.

The other part of my job, after dealing with the truck load, was then to race below under a long canopy covering a conveyor belt where the old German fellow sat next to the hopper outlet.  I remember him as being extremely grumpy.  He plucked out pieces of clay and dirt from the coal as it passed by on the slow-moving conveyor.  He gruffly pointed out my mistakes as I occasionally missed a clump of clay covered with coal dust.

It was a job, but not one I particularly liked.  The 10-hour days seemed to go on forever, although Les would usually drive me home to our cabin on the way to his more remote farm.

One day, I think he must have taken pity on me during a lull in production.  The mine had a monster of a bulldozer, a D-9 cat, rarely seen in our environs down below.  For some reason, probably for Les to work on during a weekend, it sat at the beginning of the long gravel grade leading past the hopper and up the hill to the coal face.  Les explained he needed to go up and clear off overburden so the excavator could get at the coal.  We were going to “walk” the machine up.

A D-9

He climbed on and fired it up with a roar, the cover of the diesel stack fluttering as black smoke puffed and belched.  He beckoned me over.  It was too noisy to talk, but he gestured me on board.  The 49-ton machine seemed huge, its tank-like tracks a chest-high hurdle to climb up over and into the covered cab.

We started to move slowly, in an amazingly loud cacophony, grinding over the gravel, Les at the controls.  Walking was an apt metaphor.  I could have jumped off and kept up easily.

I have a vague recollection of the controls, but there was no steering wheel, just a collection of vertical and horizontal metal sticks to grab — clutches and throttles, chokes and hydraulics.  Les had me turn the beast by standing on one of the track brakes, like a car brake, but on either side of the operator’s seat.  This enormous clanking pile of metal, smelling of oil and iron and diesel smoke moved up-slope.  It was fun, but too soon it was back to breaking big ones into little ones again at the hopper.

So, a novel is like a D-9 cat?  Really?  It struck me, as I got 8000 or so words into the first draft of this second science-fiction effort that a novel is a bulky, clanking thing.  A bit of a behemoth to even think of directing.  Lots of moving parts with an uncertain driver at what he thinks are the controls.  The shaking noise of it like thoughts banging around about characters, and plot, and meaning.  It moves at a slow speed, unduly slow it seems often as the operator strains to get to the imagined sweet terrain ahead.

Or perhaps the process of a novel is more like what that lone teenager did, trying to keep balance on crossing metal struts, swinging that pick up and smashing down into the large pieces of coal.  Getting into the nitty-gritty of each scene, emerging finally with a smear of hard-earned dust on a forehead.  Maybe it’s like that.

[Home]

Four Guys Living On the Telkwa High Road

March 7, 2020

When I returned to the Bulkley Valley after completing journalism school, it was an act of failure.

I’d sent resumés to so many newspapers across Canada, most of the dailies, from my student room near the University of Western Ontario, in London.  (It’s a great old-style university by the way, which doesn’t get that much recognition.)

But nary a peep in response.  In the early seventies there was a downturn in the economy just as I finished school. I often gave that as my mumbled excuse.

Hudson Bay Mt at SmithersBack I came to the Bulkley Valley in northern British Columbia, with its far-off mountains running up close to loom over the small town of Smithers.  The just-off-Main-Street Hudson Bay Mountain towered, its glacier and ski-runs gleaming in the sun.

My home, the home of my heart, a log cabin where three boys and their widowed mother all grew up, lay 20 miles or so farther east from the Town of Smithers, out past Telkwa and Quick to what we called Deep Creek in those days.

After my disappointment at the lack of clamoring for my services, I returned to the home place.  But all the available work seemed to be in Smithers, so I took a room there.

I found employment as a Child Care Worker at the Ministry of Human Resources or whatever its name was then, for the provincial government.  Child Care Workers were a definite step down from Social Workers’ positions, but that was the best I could do with just a psychology degree (prior to the journalism diploma, don’t you know).

Not quite sure what to do with me, the ministry put me in charge of the town’s teenage drop-in centre.  This was basically a two-room shack at the edge of a park a few blocks from the centre of town.

Provider of life wisdom

Of introverted and easily annoyed character, I was not really the best type to ride herd while distributing life wisdom to boisterous, even out-of-control young bucks.

There were a few girls drifting about, but most who frequented the drop-in were guys.  They were mainly there for the ratty pool table and the rock music emanating from a worn but nicely loud phonograph system.  One of those combo phonograph and AM-FM radio furniture units. The high-decibel band Nazareth was a big favorite.

At 23 years old, I was only seven, eight years older than these kids.  And, like, I’m really mature.  And I was supposed to do what with these juvenile delinquents?

I want to write more about them someday, but I’m trying to get to the Telkwa High Road!

Telkwa High Road 1Let me give you a brief layout.  Highway 16 runs its ribbon of asphalt two-lanes roughly east and west.  West to Prince Rupert.  East to Prince George. In our most frequented part of that road, we’d drive through the rolling terrain of trees and farms and fields, from Quick up over to Telkwa, where the Telkwa and Bulkley Rivers combine, than through that brief dip in the road to Smithers.  If you kept going for quite a few hours, you’d run into Terrace and eventually the sun setting over the port of Prince Rupert.

Heading towards Smithers, turn right in downtown Telkwa to get on what we called the Maclure Lake Road.  Maclure or Tyee Lake lies close above Telkwa.

And that’s the start of the Telkwa High Road, so-called because it parallels Highway 16 at an upland altitude, from Telkwa across various Babine Lake Roads and keeping on well past Smithers to the native village of Moricetown, famous for the precariousness of the old-time fishermen spearing salmon from the cliffs of its narrow river canyon.

At one turn along the way, you can head off to Driftwood Canyon and its 50-million year old fossils of redwood and gingko, ichneumon wasps and prehistoric trout and salmon.

Since the High Road ran in the uplands, often the views at sunset or from certain over-the-valley vistas opened onto a magnificence of sky and mountains and weather.

A farm on the High Road

In that year of my discontent as the manager of the drop-in center, I joined three other fellows roughly in my age group as we rented a farm on the Telkwa High Road above Smithers.

We only rented the farmhouse.  The outbuildings and barn were there, but not for our use.

The four of us knew each other from the ministry social circles in town, or from parties, or through my mother who was deep in the social whirl.  Two, Eric and Ron, were social workers.  Rick was a slightly younger guy with long black hair who mostly went to parties, played guitar and tried to charm the ladies.  He was an ingratiating and probably smart young man, doing what he wanted to do, and the other three of us weren’t that picky, we kind of liked him, and we needed somebody to share the rent.

One of the social workers I think had the relationship with the farmer which enabled the rental, and we found ourselves living in this ramshackle farmhouse on a knoll overlooking wide sloping fields of hay.

All four of us seemed to be between girlfriends or in dysfunctional relationships.

I had a broken down car of some kind. I commuted from the farmhouse to the drop-in centre every weekday, a 10-15 minute drive.

Memories

I remember two things the most from our time there.  One was the great parties we managed to have.  I’m not really a party guy, but the four of us worked together to put on these shindigs.  The music was loud and rocking, and that was my department.

R.Watts; Telkwa High Road, Bulkley Valley, Prince George Region, BcAt one of these parties, I remember in late afternoon walking towards the barn with a group of people, smoking a variety of substances.  I remember discussion of cocaine, which at that time in the early seventies was often considered innocuous, its addictive qualities thought to be exaggerations by the anti-marijuana crowd.  There was no cocaine at this party, that I knew about anyway.  But I find its mention interesting because although we lived far, far away from the centers of anything, in a rural place called a High Road, we were still connected to the impact of distant North American culture.

The other prominent memory I have, which still makes me grin at our youth and interests, were the tense team chess sessions the four of us had, while smoking whatever strong weed young Rick came across.

Ripped out of our minds, somehow we could really focus on these games.  In teams of two we debated and bickered with each other about the next move, while giving the other team the gears about the quality of their previous one.  Occasionally we would separate and whisper so our devious plans could not be overheard and then we would return to the table, confident.

We very formally recorded each move under our names and the date.  I wish I had just one of those old game scores.  That would be fun to play over….

Of course, sometimes we didn’t complete the games, distracted by animated discussions or just wanting to chill with the rock music we all liked.  Pink Floyd’s Meddle was often played.

A dream fragment

Oh, there’s one other memory, almost like a dream fragment.  It was a golden summer afternoon, late in our sojourn at the farmhouse, just before I found a job as a reporter/photographer with the town’s weekly newspaper.  I read a book while propped up on the mowed lawn. I listened through speakers brought outdoors to the Beatles’ Abbey Road album.

Eric, the cooler one of the pair of social workers, came and sat outside not far away, and listened too.

My favorite part of the album is the second half of the second half, from “Golden Slumbers” onward.  I put down my book.

Once there was a way to get back homeward
Once there was a way to get back home

Boy, you’re going to carry that weight, carry that weight a long time

And in the middle of the celebrations, I break down

On to the drumming and guitar solos of “The End” which always electrify me and then the song glides quietly onto

The love you take
is equal to the love you make

My companion rose up and against a leg dusted the wide-brimmed hat he always wore.  “That will last.”

We shared a moment, with that music, and then I agreed.

[Home]

Boyhood in the North

May 17, 2018

In the late Sixties

the Vietnam War years

in our

log cabin in a

northern place

the tinny nighttime music from

AM radio

came in from

Portland or Seattle

during the midnight hours

Piles of snow outside

and the icy forest all around

cracking

We could hear the distant

shouts of war all the way

up there while

the music

arrived –

The Doors

Buffalo Springfield

Donovan

Who dares to forget

Jennifer Juniper

or, yes, Mellow Yellow

and the accompanying rumours

about baking

banana strings in the oven

So many Donovan songs

I forgot how much he was the soundtrack

of those years

Catch the Wind

Season of the Witch

Sunshine Superman

Wear Your Love Like Heaven

Baharajagal

Hurdy Gurdy Man

Universal Soldier

music shaping us while

kerosene light bounced

from snow crystals

at the window

 

Canadian Summer III

April 18, 2018

We were older then

suddenly

The three boys

growing into men

although very young ones

Our mother

long widowed and

independent

Always ready for a

loud happy party

She loved to

hold court at the

fire pit

a  few yards from our cabin

on the hillside

over the creek

in a balding grove of poplars

The fire pit was half an old cast iron

boiler or other contraption

Go on – stick a log into the open end

into the fire’s hot coals

it saves making firewood

Sparks fly!

Summer twilight

Far enough north to be uncommonly late

our neighbours, friends and

townfolk who knew my mother

pick-ups and sedans in the yard

the noise of the creek

in the oncoming night

All gathered ’round the flames

bright yellow and orange

shimmering white deep down

We sat on logs or planks

Some standing

beer in hand

the firelight gleaming from our eyes and glasses

Chatting and teasing, disputing and agreeing

or not speaking, taking in the summer night

Waving away the firesmoke and mosquitos

Not quite knowing that

This is what endures

 

[Home]

Canadian Summer II

April 14, 2018

See

there’s the Old Wagon Road

that went up over our land and

ran off to who knows where

Grassed over

it was a road to nowhere

a remnant of another time

deep into the forest

of our imaginations

cowboys and indians

cops and robbers

no super heroes though

My brothers built

a little house

in the woods

out of poles

by the Old Wagon Road

an echo of

the log cabin in the clearing below us

The little house framed a collection

of cast-off plates spoons and pots

old rusting tools

and a broken down chair

From outside take a look

between

the little green poplar logs

all the wonderful clutter within

I don’t know what it was

But that pretend cabin

stood proud along

the old road

 

[Home]