Boreal

Shooting the Messenger

1 - A Laudable Model of Behaviour

“Correct conduct”, according to Mencius [372–289 BC], “arises, not through external forces, but as a result of virtues developed internally through observation of laudable models of behaviour.”

A laudable model of behaviour for me was a priest. There would be others. I was particularly fond of the man for whom I was an altar boy, a cub scout and scout leader. My fondness for Father Tremblay was a mix of admiration and gratitude. The priest had saved my life.

I was twelve or thirteen when, with my brothers and a few friends we hitched a large flatbed trailer used to haul heavy equipment such as bulldozers to logging or constructions sites to a farm tractor and, except for the driver of the tractor, all jumped on the trailer and headed for a lake about seven miles down a solitary country road.

A short distance from Lake Pivabiska it started to rain. We had brought a tent. To shield ourselves from the rain we partially unfolded it and raised it about our heads. I was closest to one of the two large wheels between which the trailer bed was balanced like a long wide seesaw.

For only a fraction of a second, I saw the wheel closest to me spinning in my direction before I felt myself floating in the air, landing on my back somewhere by the side of the road looking up at the sky. The wheel had caught a corner of the partially unfolded tent and dragged it and me with it, crushing a few vertebrae and less valuable bones and organs.

Eventually, a car came by and the driver was sent into town to fetch an ambulance. The town’s only ambulance was out on another call. Rather than wait for it to return, Father Tremblay, hearing that his altar-boy was in trouble, jumped into his black station wagon and rushed to the site of the mishap.

They had laid me flat on my stomach on the trailer and everyone waited in the poring rain for the ambulance. When the priest got there, they wrapped me up in some blankets and slid me into the back of the station wagon and I was rushed to the hospital.

I thought we got there in plenty of time. I was still much aware of my surroundings as the hospital's nursing staff (nuns mostly) started taking off my clothing while complaining about boys playing with tractors.

I was later told that, if they had waited for the ambulance, I would have died from internal bleeding from a punctured spleen. Father Tremblay was the difference between life and death.

Father Tremblay always tried to do the right thing, even when it was not convenient — especially when it was not convenient, for that was the test — and so would his altar boy.

I may have gained a better appreciation of what is right, and what is wrong from Father Tremblay, but it was not a black and white appreciation. I understood that sometimes doing what the law required was not doing the right thing. The most famous example in literature is undoubtedly Jean Valjean in Les Misérables who steals a loaf of bread to feed his family.

My parents faced this type of choice, and like Jean Valjean, put the welfare of their family above the law.

I was born in Hearst, Ontario, a mostly French-speaking town about 150 miles south-west of James Bay on a northern leg of the Trans-Canada Highway. When the glaciers retreated they deposited a lump of clay in the middle of the great Canadian Shield, and on this lump of clay, in the middle of muskeg and stunted pine trees, grew the town of Hearst.

On this lump of clay, hardy farmers managed to grow some vegetables and enough forage to support some animal husbandry — mostly dairy cattle — but it is with the logging industry that Hearst is first and foremost associated.

Sawmills were the town’s primary economic growth engine. Whenever a new sawmill opened in or near the town, Hearst experienced a mini economic boom. Those who could profit from these periodic booms, by risking big and not going bust, would be set for life. Enough did, that it was said that Hearst had, at one point in time, more millionaires per capita than any other town in Ontario.

Many of the people who got rich were those who obtained the contracts to supply these sawmills with trees and, to a lesser extent, the vendors who sold and maintained the equipment to harvest the forest for these sawmills. My father was one of these vendors.

I was not yet a teenager when Hearst experienced another of these economic booms. This time it was not just another sawmill that was coming to town, but a plywood plant. A plywood plant whose appetite for trees would dwarf the demand of most of the sawmills that doted the Hearst landscape. The owners of the logging companies who would get the contracts to supply, what some claimed was destined to be become the largest plywood plant in the world, would be the new millionaires.

My father teamed up with one of the owners of a small logging operation. His company financed the purchase of the equipment the logger would need to make him a serious contender for these lucrative contracts.

The logger did not get the sought-after contracts and my father was left with having to pay for a large assortment of expensive logging equipment — only a portion of which could be resold to the successful bidders.

My parents might have been able to weather this setback if fate had not been particularly unkind and my father not used this setback as an excuse to drink more heavily than usual, leaving my mother with having to manage the company while raising eight children.

It was sometime in June, after midnight, when I was awaken by people shouting and the glow from a fire that illuminated the basement bedroom where I slept. The house next door was on fire.

The family home and most of its content was quickly reduced to a pile of smoldering ambers when the fire next door caused a rupture in the natural gas line where it entered our house, momentarily turning it into an impressive flame thrower that spewed fire into every corner of the basement where I, and three of my siblings, only a short time earlier, had been sound asleep.

My parents loved the nondescript little town floating on a lump of mud in the middle of a swamp. Hearst was home. They were middle-aged and the idea of being left homeless and penniless with six children still at home must have been frightening. They had rebuilt the family home after the fire, but not enough time had passed to build any equity when their worse fear became reality.

In the fall of 1967 Traders Finance forced them into bankruptcy.

In November, they received advance warning from the Sheriff that he would shortly be coming around to seize everything that they still owned to be sold at auction. He may have suggested that they might want to hold a small auction of their own before he showed up.

Word got around. Farmers, loggers, lifelong friends, relatives dropped by to say goodbye and to purchase a piece of what my parents had built or acquired during more than twenty years of hard work.

On a cold Sunday afternoon in November, in a scene reminiscent of The Grapes of Wrath, with a snow storm threatening, my mother at the wheel, my father nursing a bottle of gin or rye, the family set out on a journey of more than 2,000 miles to begin again. Would the small stake from the sale of mostly garage and office equipment that, legally, should have been surrendered to Traders Finance be enough?

A few hours into the journey the gently falling snow became a blizzard. Somehow we made it to Thunderbay where we spent the night.