Shooting the Messenger

Till Death Do Us Part

 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. 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 construction sites to a farm tractor and all, except for the driver, jumped onto 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 above our heads. I was closest to one of the two large wheels between which the trailer bed was balanced like 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 pouring rain for the ambulance. When the priest got there, he decided there was no time to waste. They wrapped me in some blankets and slid me into the back of his station wagon, then I was rushed to the hospital.

I thought we got there in plenty of time. I was still aware of my surroundings as the hospital's nursing staff (nuns, mostly) started taking off my clothing; I could hear them complain about boys playing with tractors before I finally passed out. I was later told that, if they had waited for the ambulance, I would have died of 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; it was a test I would always try not to fail.

Father Tremblay may have taught me right from wrong as the church saw it, but it was my parents who taught me that doing what the law requires is not always doing the right thing, long before I became acquainted with the character Jean Valjean in Les Misérables who steals a loaf of bread to feed his family. My mother and father faced this type of choice.

I was born in Hearst, Ontario, a mostly French-speaking town about 150 miles southwest 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 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 if my father had not used this setback as an excuse to drink more heavily than usual.

It was sometime in June after midnight when I was awoken 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, along with most of its contents, was quickly reduced to a pile of smoldering embers when the fire next door caused a rupture in the natural gas line where it entered our house. This momentarily turned the gas line into an impressive flame thrower that spewed fire into every corner of the basement where three of my siblings and I, only a short time earlier, had been sound asleep.

My parents loved this 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 rebuilt the family home after the fire, but not enough time had passed to build any equity when their worst fear became reality. In the fall of 1967, Traders Finance forced them into bankruptcy.

In November, they received advanced warning from the Sheriff that he would shortly be coming around to seize everything 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, and relatives dropped by to say goodbye and 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 snowstorm threatening, my mother at the wheel, and 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 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 Thunder Bay where we spent the night.