In memory of “In Flanders Fields”

I feel a strong but sort of irrational connection to John McCrae, the Canadian artilleryman, doctor and poet who left us “In Flanders Fields” and the poppy as a symbol of remembrance.  As a boy I spent two years in John McCrae Elementary School in Windsor.  That school has been gone now for about three decades, demolished, a casualty of changing demographics, and replaced with apparently childless houses.  But I have so many vignettes of childhood memory from my time at John McCrae in the early seventies . . .

But what I’m writing about now  is a very nice little volume I picked up a few months ago: a 1919 edition of In Flanders Fields and Other Poems by Lieut. -Col. John McCrae, M.D. with An Essay in Character by Sir Andrew MacPhail. I’m quite sure the text is available online and as publish on demand — neither, of course, a substitute for a century old hardcover copy — and I would recommend a reading.  “In Flanders Fields” is the finest poem in the collection, although I would single out “Slumber Songs” and “Mine Host” for attention, the first a pair of lullabies for a world at it’s end, longing for rest, and the other a brief journey to the Underworld without return.  “Disarmament”, like “In Flanders Fields” is a poetic suggestion that the work of soldiers is not finished, here clearly stated:

“If ye have righted all the wrongs of earth
Lay by the sword! Its work and ours is done.”

Looking at the poems back across a century and its horrible wars is fascinating. McCrae stood at the jagged and shattered meeting place of two worlds.  He, around forty years old, was the product of a quiet, structured colony of old, ordered imperial Europe. As he stood with his artillery company he looked out across the morass of opposing trenches and no man’s land at a future chaos. The world we live in today, chaotic in its own way, is in no way visible to McCrae. His poems are of complete loss, of Death being the only hope for Rest.

Attached to the poems, indeed, making up most of the book, is Sir Andrew’s “Essay in Character”. The “Essay” is made up largely of McCrae’s own writing, letters home to his mother for the most part.  Here we see McCrae valiantly maintaining the old imagination of war as a bit of a boxing match between gentlemen with a cup of tea in the evening. But the image cannot be maintained. The big guns are firing constantly, farmhouses are shattered and burning, in a world made of mud, noise and the screams of wounded men and horses. McCrae’s worlds, both the old order and the chaos of the trenches, are foreign lands to us. On the one hand we have no illusions of the nobility of any social class, and on the other, war today is something very different from the artillery duels and routine poison gas attacks on the trenches of the Great War.

In the poems and the Essay we see the decay and destruction of the old order in the mind and body of a single man.  McCrae was a brilliant man, a great physician, an inspiring teacher, a talented artist and poet and by all accounts an exceptional soldier and officer. Watching his struggle to remain cheerful, to encourage family at home, to send notes to children is painful. He constantly writes of his horse and his dogs who seem such a great comfort to him.  But, as his poems and MacPhail tell us, McCrae’s inner world is no longer a place of sunshine and pleasant company.  Like shattered Europe, McCrae sees only chaos and death.

When Death comes for John McCrae it is an almost pathetic contrast to the horrifying convulsions which destroyed the old order. McCrae’s is no heroic death in battle, no titanic struggle.  A telegram dated January 27th, 1918 declares McCrae to be seriously ill with pneumonia. The next day another announces his death that morning. On the 18th he had been healthy and preparing to accept a major promotion. No bang. No wimper. Just a rapid whithering to the Rest of which he so often wrote.

The Great War produced many works describing the great historical, social and psychic break that conflict became. I would suggest that In Flanders Fields, although — or perhaps because — it is cobbled together from disparate bits in different hands, deserves a place in the canon of great works on the Great War.

A Blue River Odyssey


His truck broken down in Blue River, British Columbia, Charlie had decided to walk over to the Husky, a few minutes through the little town, to get himself a little supper on a Saturday night. Ron pulled into the parking lot and jumped out of his vehicle saying “Hey, Charlie, listen: Norma’s got some frozen hamburger patties in the freezer left over from her sixtieth birthday party a couple of weeks ago. We’re just going to cook ‘em up. You interested in joining us?”

“We-e-e-ell, what else have I got going?  Sure I’ll join you.”

Ron pulled out a propane tank to fill up but the folks at the Husky said “Sorry, the only fella that can fill up that tank isn’t here right now and we don’t know where he is so sorry we can’t fill your tank.”

Ron borrowed the station phone to call over to Norma asking if she had some propane.  She said she had a tank that’s probably about half full but it’s been about 8 to 10 years since she’s refilled it. Charlie and Ron thought “okay let’s give it a whirl.”

They went back to Norma’s place got her propane tank and brought it back to the tattoo parlour (“Hollywood and Main”) where Charlie had parked his holiday trailer.  They hooked the tank up to Ron’s barbecue and the old propane just couldn’t keep a flame going.  After a few tries, Charlie said “Hey, Ron: I’ve got a propane tank — a full tank in my trailer. Let me go and unhook it and I’ll bring it over here so we can get these burgers cooked.”  After they sparked it up it made a  great flame and they barbecued the burgers. A few beers later, at about eight or nine o’clock Barb, the waitress from the Husky came by and showed off a few of her tattoos and, as the summer light dimmed in the sky and the streetlights came on in the little town, Charlie sat back, his legs crossed beneath him, and told the story of how he came to be eating a burger in Blue River. . . .


“Are we stopping for gas?” Céline asked.

About a minute earlier I had noticed with worry a slight hesitation from our truck as we drove north on the Yellowhead Highway an hour or so out of Kamloops.  “The engine’s stopped working” and with it power steering and power brakes.  I armstrong steered our truck and trailer into the only apparent refuge, the Husky station half a mile ahead on the Highway next to Blue River,  population 260 – not one of those 260 a professional mechanic.

When the engine quit we were going about eighty km/h which gave the truck and the trailer enough momentum to pull slowly onto the service road and even more slowly up to the gas pumps.  Céline was still concerned, of course, and continued asking what was wrong.

“We’re having some truck problems and we’re going to have to deal with it,” I told her, although I didn’t quite know what we had to deal with or how.  I got out of the truck, popped the hood and looked into the engine compartment just like any guy would do, whether or not he knew what to look at.

I didn’t.


After a minute or two of watching this motionless lump of metal, I went into the service station side of the Husky and asked the attendant in her little booth beside the door whether there was a mechanic at the station.  She looked at me strangely and didn’t say a word.

“Uh oh”, I thought.

“Look, is there a mechanic in this town?”

She gave me the same look and shook her head from side to side.  “No.  We don’t have a mechanic in this town.  But there’s a fella with a tow truck.”

“Okay.  Can we call him?”

While she called the fella with the tow truck, I went back outside where Céline waited in our truck, the hood still up.  A trucker was looking over at our truck.  He called over “What seems to be the problem?”

“We stalled coming into town.  No lights came on on the dashboard.  It just seems like the engine’s getting no fuel.  It’s turning over but not catching.”

“Hey I’ve heard of that sort of thing happening,” the trucker said.  “Lots of times it’s the fuel pump.  These days they put the fuel pump inside the gas tank so if you just hit on your gas tank sometimes it’s enough to jar that fuel pump to get going again.”

So, feeling excited, we tried hitting the fuel tank a few times and it worked!  The truck started!

It ran for about ten seconds and then stalled again.  It would take a lot of banging on the gas tank to get home to Edmonton.


Our family of five had spent a holiday in British Columbia, mostly on Saltspring Island (where some tremendous cheese is made).  Early on our way home to Edmonton we had stopped at the Abbotsford airport so my son Alain and his mother Nicole could catch a flight home.  Alain was due to go to Air Cadet camp so we had planned all along for the two of them to take the fast way home.  By the Thursday morning at the Abbotsford airport, my youngest daughter Dominique had been sick for a couple of days so we decided to send her home by air as well.  Céline and I were left to travel on our own back to Edmonton with our truck and trailer, expecting  to be home a day later than the rest of the family.  The two of us continued on eastward and made it nearly as far as Kamloops that Thursday night.  The trip thus far was a rather uneventful Coquihalla drive.  We set up our trailer for the night in a spot at Lac le Jeune Provincial Park campground just south of Kamloops. It was a nice, quiet spot much like it must have been fifty years ago when there was probably not much more than a fishing lodge.  Some good stories around that lake if the loons could talk.

On Friday morning we got up to a beautiful day if somewhat overcast.  We went into Kamloops, filled the gas tank and got a little bit of breakfast.  Then we continued north on the Yellowhead Highway along the North Branch of the Thompson River.  Earlier in the year we had gone to the Sunpeaks Ski Resort to do some skiing; we thought it would be nice to see it without snow, so we took a little side trip.  We took a few pictures despite being caught in the rain and then came back down to the highway to continue northward through Clearwater, population many thousands, maybe a whole lot of them professional mechanics.


The fella with the tow truck – Paul is his name, I think – showed up and I explained situation. Paul’s first suggestion was “hit that gas tank with something.” So he comes out of his truck with a rubber mallet and hits the fuel tank a couple of times.  Sure enough we got the truck going again.  A little bit.  Until it stalled after half a minute.

Paul looked at my truck and asked what size the engine was.  I told him and he said, looking a little hopeful “I just bought a fuel pump for my brother’s truck that’s got the same engine and looks like the same kinda gas tank and we ended up not using it because the problem with his truck was something else so I’ve got this brand new fuel pump still in a box – I think it might work in your truck.”

I thought (ignoring for a moment the facts that I was broken down in Blue River and rain had started falling)  “Wow, this looks like my lucky day!  What a stroke of luck that somebody in this little town of 150 people has a brand new fuel pump.”  He convinced me to bring the truck to his backyard workshop.  After a few attempts of starting the truck and stalling and starting it again we finally got I through town to his shop, which was next to the Hollywood and Main Tattoo Parlour.  He’d set up a little shop under a lean-to roof between two steel sea cans.   As well as driving the town’s only tow truck, Paul is a bit of a backyard mechanic, as is his friend and neighbour, Ron.  I was counting on these two fellas to get us back on the road again.

Around noon Céline and I unhooked the holiday trailer in Paul’s front yard and then we got the truck out of the rain underneath the lean-to.   Ron lamented the state of his equipment as we jacked up the truck: a bear had come through his shop the other night, scattering tools and making a mess.  In spite of the reorganized tool kit,  Ron and Paul worked on removing the fuel tank.  After about three hours the gas tank dropped out and they had a look at the faulty fuel pump.  At about four o’clock in the afternoon we knew we’d have to order a part: Paul’s spare wasn’t going to fit.

Paul got on the telephone and managed to find one parts store with one matching fuel pump in stock – in Kamloops, about two and a half hours away, where we’d had breakfast that morning.  “Great,” I thought, “let’s order that fuel pump!”

Unfortunately Paul did not have an account with the Kamloops parts shop, but he said he could put it onto the account of a friend of his in Clearwater.  The thing would arrive on a Greyhound bus as it’s doing its milk run from Kamloops to Edmonton.  The next Greyhound would be coming through Blue River at about two in the morning: when we got up next morning we would have our part.  “Okay,” we thought “fine. Let’s do that.”

They wouldn’t accept a credit card over the phone.

We had to get money to Kamloops somehow and this fuel pump up to Blue River.


By now it was about supper time on Friday afternoon. Céline has been very patient this whole time.  “Let’s just go eat at the restaurant at the Husky station.”  Over dinner we came to the realization that we were stuck in Blue River for the night.

The holiday trailer we were pulling is a hybrid type.  On the road it looks like a normal boxy holiday trailer, but in camp the ends open up like a tent railer making extra sleeping space.  Having heard there was at least one bear in the area, we decided to leave the ends closed and sleep a little more securely on the drop-down dining table.  So, Friday night was supper at the Husky and cards until nine or ten and then sleep.  The front lawn of Hollywood and Main Tattoo Parlour in Blue River is about a hundred yards from the Canadian National main line.  It seemed like every hour through that night a long freight would pass, blowing its whistle all the way.


Saturday morning when we got up was still overcast so I thought I’d take a walk over to the Husky, which is about  ten minutes from where we were, to check on our package.   I got to the gas station and asked the attendant if the Greyhound had come through during the night and dropped off packages, she said “Yeah.”

I said “is there a package there for Paul?”

She kinda shook her head.

“How about Ron?”

She shook her head again and I looked at the packages that were there and there was nothing that would resemble our fuel pump.

I wandered back to our trailer and waited for the locals to get up.  About ten o’clock Ron came out of this old blue school bus that was parked out behind the shed.  I asked him if that was his office or his little shop and he said, no, he lived in that bus.  I let Ron know that our package had not arrived and he just sort of shrugged and said “Maybe it will be on the next Greyhound”  which would be coming through Blue River about three in the afternoon.  I asked whether we could call and make sure the package was going to be on the bus.  He didn’t really answer, just saying the package “would get here when it got here”.


I was feeling a little frustrated.

I just walked back to the trailer and played cards with Céline for a while longer.  Then we decided to go for a little walk out to the tracks maybe to place a coin or two on the rail and wait for the next train to come along and flatten it as a little souvenir.  As we’re hanging around the dusty rail line I said to Céline “Hey, come take a look down the tracks over there,” and about two hundred yards away a big black bear was wandering around on the tracks.

While it was an exciting sight, Céline was a little concerned, saying “well, we can’t walk any closer to it!”

I said “Look we’re right in front of the old general store.  If the bear comes wandering or charging towards us we can just go inside the store.”  So we watched the bear for a while.  He was eating grain off the tracks from all the rail cars that spill some of their load. We watched the bear for about twenty minutes and he wasn’t really moving much – just nibbling on the grain, and he just lay there for a while so we decided to move on.

We walked north along the tracks, away from town.  The local baseball diamond was on our left, between us and the lake.  A ball and a couple of gloves would have been helpful for passing the time.  We turned away from the tracks and strolled along the east and north shores of the little lake, stopping to explore a little log cabin resort we found.  It was pretty much empty at this season.  As we walked back toward town on the west shore, I thought that if this package didn’t arrive on the 3 o’clock Greyhound we’d have to get Céline home somehow.  When we got back to the trailer, I asked her to pack a bag and explained to her that one way or another if we didn’t have our part “you’re going to be home Saturday night”. Either we have the part and we get the truck fixed and we’re driving home or she’s getting on that bus.


About two o’clock I offered to buy Ron a piece of pie and an ice cream at the Husky and we’d wait together for the Greyhound.  Céline had her bag packed and came with us.  Just like clockwork the bus showed up about three o’clock. The bus driver comes out of the bus into the gas station with a couple of packages — neither one for us.  We asked him if there were any more packages and he replied that no, “that’s it.”

Disappointed that our package hadn’t come in we went back into the Husky and I bought Céline a Greyhound bus ticket to Edmonton.  She was rather excited about this new adventure.  The bus would be leaving about three thirty and arriving in Edmonton roughly eight hours later.   Céline said she had all kinds of snacks and drinks in her bag and she wouldn’t really need anything more so I told her that the bus would likely make a few stops along the way and I explained to her very clearly: “Do Not Get Off the Bus at any of these stops.  Very important, don’t get off the bus.”  I expect she figured that by getting off the bus there was the chance that she might not get back onto it in time but I was more concerned that you just don’t know what sort of people are going to be at these stops along the way.  But I didn’t scare her with that.  Very apprehensively,  I put her on the bus and gave her a big hug and a kiss and said “I’ll see you soon, I’m not sure exactly when but it’ll be soon.  I’ll call mom and let her know you’re on the way.”


There was no cell phone service in Blue River.  For about a hundred kilometres in each side of the town the North Thompson River Valley was a cell phone dead zone.  I had to be making collect phone calls from the little outdoor payphone in front of the general store and I had to time my calls to fit  between the trains.  Trying to talk on that phone while a freight was going by was impossible.

After having watched  Céline leave on the Greyhound, Ron and I went to Paul’s house.  We said to Paul, “Hey, listen our part didn’t come in.  Do you think we can make a phone call to find out where it is?”     Again he just nonchalantly shrugged his shoulders and said “Well you know the part might come in Monday or Tuesday now, you know, being that it’s Saturday afternoon.”   I tried to explain to him that nobody seemed to be feeling any sense of urgency about trying to find this part.  Here I was stuck in this little town with no idea how long I was going to be cooling my heels.  I had no way of getting around as my truck was out of commission.  I had no cell phone service.  I was totally dependent on these locals that I had met.

Paul’s wife Pam was busy preparing supper in their modest little house full of cats and dogs and stuff.  With no room to sit down, I just stood in the doorway watching all the activity.  In the middle of it all sat their friend Norma and she seemed to be to only one sensing my worry and urgency.  Norma pipe up and said “Listen, I’ll make a few calls.”  So, between her and Paul they found out that the fuel pump hadn’t left Kamloops and was still sitting in the parts store.  It was a bit of a relief to know where the part was, but we still had no idea how we were going to get it.

Norma came up with the idea of phoning a friend of hers in Kamloops.  By this time it’s about five o’clock Saturday afternoon. The parts store closes at six so even if we had left at that moment we could not have made it in time to pick up this part.  Norma got on the phone to her friend Dave in Kamloops but there was some sort of  problem with the line.  She said “lets just go to my place and use my phone, it works better.” Hey, I’m not going anywhere, so I got a ride with Norma to her place.  Norma apologized for the mess her house is in saying she’s doing renovations.  She took a chair and knocked off all the stuff that was on it, offering it to me.  I sat down and she called her friend in Kamloops.


“Dave listen can you do me a big favour here? We’re in a bit of a pickle here we need to get a part from this parts store in Kamloops and it’s $400 and I know it’s a lot of money but can you just go and buy it and we’ll be there later in the evening and we’ll pay you the $400 plus a little bit extra for your trouble and we really need this favour . . .”

Her friend Dave was very hesitant asking “well who is this guy we’re doing it for?  How do we know him? How can we trust him?”

And Norma’s looking at me and says “oh well he looks like a regular guy you know just a regular guy he looks okay you know he kinda looks like a lawyer.”

I tell Norma “Don’t tell your friend I look like a lawyer!”  This fella was quite hesitant about doing us a favour.  You can’t really blame him cause he didn’t know me and for that matter neither did Norma. And Dave mentioned that the parts store was open on Sundays which we hadn’t expected.

We thought “well that’s great!”  We hung up and called the parts place. Sure enough it was open on Sunday at nine o’clock.  We thought “okay there’s our plan. We’ll drive out there tomorrow, Sunday morning.”

At about 5:30 Saturday evening, after a few minutes of chatting and a beer in Paul’s driveway, everyone went off in their own directions.  I decided to walk over to the Husky for a little dinner, but as I arrived, Ron pulled into the parking lot, jumped out of his truck and said “Hey, Charlie, listen . . . Norma’s got some frozen hamburger patties in the freezer left over from her sixtieth birthday party a couple of weeks ago.  You want to join us for a barbecue?”


“So that” Charlie concluded, sipping is Carlesburg, “Is how I came to be eating burgers and drinking beer in front of the Hollywood and Main tattoo parlour in Blue River, British Columbia.”

The conversation turned to tattoos and Barb got up to  proudly show off the tattoo Scotty, who ran the tattoo parlour, had done for her.  She just had to tug down on the waistband of her pants a bit and turned around to show it to everyone.  Charlie said “Oh.  Well, that’s – that’s interesting.” Then of course she had to show another one.  Barb pulled the shoulder down on her shirt and Charlie thought “Okay that’s enough for me. They’re nice tattoos.”

A few more beers and it was close to eleven o’clock.  Charlie announced “Okay guys, listen, it’s an hour later for me than it is for you guys so I’m going to get to bed and I’ll see you in the morning.” Norma had earlier offered to get up at seven or seven thirty to drive Charlie to Kamloops.  Charlie thought “well that’s a great offer but seeing how many beers Norma had she’s probably not going to be getting up at seven or seven thirty but I’m not going to complain she’s offering me a ride.  I’ll take it. It doesn’t matter what time.”

Charlie retired into his trailer for the evening.  He didn’t hear the bear snuffling right outside or Ron’s dogs barking at the bear or the sound of  pebbles bouncing off the bear’s head as Ron took aim with his slingshot outside his little blue school bus home.   The bear ambled off.  Ron and the dogs went back to the bus.  And Charlie slept on on the dining room table.


I stand outside the gas station while dad buys the bus ticket.

I put my bags in the baggage compartment and say “bye” to dad.

Dad says “Do Not get off the bus!”

I get on a half empty bus and sit on the window seat on the left side of the bus.

We leave Blue River. I’m listening to my ipod

An hour later, I call my mom from Valemont.  Still on the bus with my cell phone.

After that I watch the kilometres go by.

In Jasper, the bus makes a stop.  An old lady comes to my seat and says “Hi.”

She said “Hi, how are you? Where are you from?”

I say “Edmonton.

She responds “Ohhhh, Edmonton.  That’s such a big place.  I don’t know how you can live in such a big place.”

I sort of laugh and end the conversation.

Before we leave Jasper, I switch seats.  I sit in the window seat on the right side of the bus.

Left Jasper.  Stopped in Hinton.  The old lady got off the bus there.

Left Hinton.  Stopped in Edson.

Starting to get dark.

Starting to feel sick.

It was pitch black outside and really feeling sick now.

Stopped in Spruce Grove.  A Crying Teenager came on the bus.  It’s about 11:00 pm.

Arrived in Edmonton City Centre Depot at 11:45 pm.  Got my bags, found my mom and left, in pain, right away.

Got home and went to bed late.


Charlie got up about seven o’clock on Sunday morning to blue sky and sunshine.

“It looks like a good day,” he thought.

He wandered over to the general store to make a call to Nicole, both to let her know what was going on and to find out that Céline had made it home safe and sound.  After having explained to Nicole that they were going to drive into Kamloops to go get the part, he walked back to the trailer and sat on the step watching Norma’s house.  And her car.  Small town. Shortly after seven-thirty he saw Norma coming out of her house, getting into her car and driving on over.

“Wow,” he thought, “this is great!  7:30!  This has turned out good, so far.”  Norma was perky, looked great and was ready to go.  They stopped at the Husky for coffee and as they headed into the building, Norma found a penny on the ground.

“Oh, lucky penny!” she said and she rubbed that penny and stuck it in her pocket.

They got their coffee and Charlie offered to buy some fuel for the car but Norma said “you know, let’s just buy it in the next town cause it’s cheaper.”

“Okay, she’s the boss, she’s driving,” thought Charlie.

Away they went, driving 140 kilometres an hour down highway 5 to the next town.  About ten minutes away from Clearwater Norma told Charlie, “Jeez, I don’t know if we’re gonna make it.  Gas is getting really low here in the tank.”  They just made it into town at about 8:30 on a Sunday morning in a very small town with only one gas station.

“I sure hope this place is open,” Charlie said as they pulled up to the pumps. They got lucky. Norma’s claimed it was her penny that helped them out this far and  she was rubbing that penny.  So they filled up, Charlie paid and away they went.


Heading on down towards Kamloops, nothing stopping them now!  They had a full tank of gas and were going anywhere between 120 and 125. As they were approaching Kamloops the road became two lanes in each direction and they were easily able to pass  people.  About ten miles north of Kamloops Norma passed one vehicle that was going a little bit slower and then there was another vehicle ahead of them in the left lane.  If they were to pass this fellow, it would be on the right.  As they approached this car Charlie noticed it was a Crown Victoria with tinted windows.   Charlie was watching this car as they approached him on the right side going about 125.   As they  pass he realized it was a police car with two Mounties inside.

“Hey Norma, you know what, you just blew right by a police car.”


“Yeah, yeah.”

She looked in her mirrors and the flashing lights came on.  Norma slowed right down and as luck would have it the Mounties had the radar on but they were catching speeders going in the other direction.  The flashing lights pulled a u-turn and started chasing somebody northbound.  Norma pulled out that lucky penny again and she started rubbing it, just thrilled and impressed with herself and with this penny.


Charlie was just happy to be in Kamloops.

They found the parts store with no problem.   At about ten o’clock Sunday morning they got to the counter and the fella said “Yeah we got this part here waiting for you.”   They opened up the box and compared the new pump to the one Charlie had brought with them from Blue River.  Convinced that it is the same part Charlie did a little happy dance as he went to the cashier to pay the $400.  He was half way to having a vehicle again.

But Norma had more plans for Kamloops. She wanted to go to a place called “Surplus Herbie’s”, a discount store that sells new and used items.  In this store Norma had seen some time earlier a natural gas stove that was for sale. It was quite the bargain: a $2200 stove that dropped in price every week or so by ten percent.   Now it was down to 600 and some odd dollars and Norma was quite happy no one had bought it yet.  She grabbed one of the sales clerks and said “Listen, I want to buy this stove!”   With the taxes and all it worked out to $777 and change.  Norma figured this was an omen. She said “Wow! Seven seven seven.  Those are great numbers!”  Out came that lucky penny!  She rubbed it a bit and then she pulled out her credit card.  “Oh my gosh! I sure hope I have room on the credit card!”

When the approval came through, Norma did her own happy dance.  The stove was far too big to fit into her little 1990 Chevy Celebrity station wagon but she said she would find a friend with a truck to pick it up later in the week. They got back into her car and were  heading north through Kamloops when Norma said that she was really hungry.  “I can’t make it back to Blue River without having something to eat!”

“Listen” said Charlie, “you pick a place and I’ll buy you lunch.”


On the north edge of Kamloops Norma pulled into a pub and said “Yeah, this is a great spot! We’ll have lunch here.”

“Who am I to complain?” thought Charlie.

Norma  ordered a soup and a sandwich and a pint of beer.  To make her feel good Charlie ordered an omelette and a glass of beer as well.  After about an hour they were done their lunch and some beer.  Charlie thought it good to be finished a nice lunch by high noon.

Outside the pub they were about to get into the car again but right next door is a little liquor store.  “What kinda beer  you like, Charlie? Carlsberg?”

“Well, you know Norma, I’m not gonna be drinking beer in the car”

So Norma walked into the liquor store and came out a minute later with a six pack of Pilsner.  She got into the car,  cracked a beer and put the car in drive and away they went.


Norma had the idea of driving on the west side of the Thompson river out of Kamloops, intending to take the ferry across about twenty miles north, and from there back to Highway 5.  Charlie saw no harm in this plan.  At about 12:30 they got to the ferry crossing were a sign told them to honk their horn if the ferryman was on the other side of the river.

So, they honked.  They could see the ferryman sitting on the ferry on the other side, but he was not moving.  So they honked the horn again.  Still no movement.   Back to the sign:  at the bottom it reads “hours of operation: 7am-noon and then 1pm till 7″.  12:30.  Charlie thinks: “alright we’re going to lose another half hour here.”

They waited with various degrees of patience – Norma cracked another beer – for the ferryman to finish his lunch break.   At one, like clockwork the fellow gets up, uncrosses his arms and lets the truck on the far side come onto his ferry.  He slowly comes across and a few minutes later it’s their turn.  Another ten minutes to get across and it’s almost 1:30, and finally back on the number 5 northbound.   Charlie is thinking “okay lets go!  We got another three hours before we get to Blue River.”


As they approached Blackpool, a village just south of Clearwater,  traffic on the highway came to a dead stop at a big sign on the side of the road saying “accident scene ahead”.  The flag person at the front was speaking to everybody, one vehicle at a time, and most of the vehicles were pulling a u-turn or pulling into the truck stop but they were not continuing on.  Finally, when Norma and Charlie had made their way to the front of the line the flag person asked how far they were going. Norma pipes up “Oh, we’re only going as far as Clearwater!”

The flagperson says “The accident is on the north side of Clearwater so you guys should be okay.  You guys go ahead.”  So off they went not knowing what was involved in the accident. They thought that by the time they got to Clearwater an hour later the accident scene might be cleared up or their luck could hold and they might talk their way around another flagman.  Out came that lucky penny, Norma rubbing it as she drove.


Norma pulled into the grocery store in Clearwater,  explaining that they had to buy some one percent milk for Pam.  Rumour was there was no more one percent milk in Blue River so Charlie offered to buy two gallons of milk.  In the store they asked the manager what he knew about the accident on the north side of town.  “All I know is it was a pretty serious accident.  There was a tanker truck involved – flipped over – completely blocking the highway and whatever he’s got he’s got a toxic load on board and some of his load was leaking.”

They got back on the highway and the traffic was at a standstill again.  Norma says “Hey there’s this other road that kinda follows the river and it comes back out and maybe it’ll come back up to highway 5 past the accident scene.”

They went into the little town and worked their way around to come back up onto the highway.   The accident was still ahead of them.  Here there was another flagperson at another barricade and another explanation  that  nobody was getting through.  The highway was completely closed for anywhere between eight and twenty-four hours.  This final roadblock at Clearwater was the low point of Charlie’s discouragement.  They had no choice but to turn around.


So, they turned around.

There was a fella in a half-ton truck right behind them and through their rolled down windows they heard the fella yell “Hey Norma!  You got lots of gas?”

Norma looked at her fuel gauge and called back “Yeah, about three quarters of a tank.”

The fella explained “Look, I know a way around this thing. It’s an old abandoned forestry trunk road but I know the road and we can get through on it but it’s going to take us about two and a half hours of driving on this road.”

With limited options, Charlie and Norma decided to follow the fella in the truck.

They drove off the paved highway onto a gravel road which was not too bad for the first mile or two but quickly deteriorated to nothing more than a goat trail.  The fella was right when he said it was an abandoned forestry trunk road: the trees had overgrown this thing; the branches were actually hitting both sides of the vehicles.  This fella in front of them had a brand new GMC pickup that was getting somewhat scratched up from all the branches.  And there were rocks on the road the size of basketballs. They bottomed out a few times and the road became nothing more than an overgrown trail.  Small trees had fallen across the way and they had to drive over them hoping they didn’t come across a big fallen tree or punch a hole in an oil pan.  Even turning around on the narrow trail would be nearly impossible.  Trying to get passed oncoming traffic was also a worry.


The road had some pretty steep grades.  About an hour into the ride they had to climb over a mountain to get into the Raft River valley, which was at least equally as hilly.  As they were climbing up the ridge, Charlie was saying to Norma “Man, I sure hope this guy knows where he’s going cause we’re so far off the main highway and we don’t have cell service and if something were to happen we’d be screwed.”   Just then,  the temperature light came on on Norma’s dashboard.  Charlie said “Hey,  Norma,  does that come on very often?”

Norma had a very worried look on her face. “No.  It’s never come on before.  This isn’t good, Charlie.’

They had to stop to let the engine cool.  The fella leading them saw they had stopped and stopped as well.  They chatted for about twenty minutes while the engine cooled off a bit and then made another go of it.  After five minutes the temperature light came on again.  Norma suddenly came up with a good – or at least, effective idea.   She turned on the car heater and fan full blast so it might take heat off the radiator and the engine.  The temperature light went out.  The engine was still warm but the light went out.  And it was hot enough inside the car to bake bread.  It felt like two hundred degrees inside the car and they we’re being  beaten by branches through the open windows. Charlie was reaching out the window regularly to remove broken branches from the windshield.


Three hours after they started on the detour,  they made it back to the main highway, six miles south of Blue River, refreshed after their bumpy sauna.  Soon the Mounties closed the forestry trunk road as other people were trying to use it. People could see the road on a GPS unit but the unit would not show what kind of road it really was.  Charlie and Norma and their guide were fortunate to get through before the Mounties clapped it closed at both ends.

Lucky penny.

Sunday evening about 5 o’clock they pulled into Paul’s driveway. Pam came running out and said “Oh my Gosh!  I didn’t expect to see you guys until tomorrow.   Did you know the highway’s closed?”

They said, “Yeah we kinda figured that,”  and briefly told her the story of their journey.


Although it was dinner time on Sunday evening, Paul and Ron were kind enough to drop whatever they were doing and start working on installing the new fuel pump.  With everything back together again by about eight o’clock, Charlie put the key in the ignition, hoping and praying the engine would start.  The engine turned over but was not catching, not firing up,  not starting. Ron and Paul found a few choice words: “how come this f’n thing isn’t going and blah blah blah” The disappointment was crushing for Charlie.

He walked over to the old general store next to the railway tracks to make another collect call to Nicole, letting her know that he was not coming home tonight.  After his call he walked back toward the tattoo parlour and there was Norma,  driving her car toward him and calling out “Hey, listen!  Ron got your truck going, he took out that rubber mallet and just kinda beat on your fuel tank again and it was enough to jolt that fuel pump that new pump and it’s going it’s running.”


Charlie took his truck out for a little test drive to make sure it wasn’t just a temporary fix.  It seemed to be working fine.  By now it was almost 10 o’clock on Sunday evening, the town was full of people because of the highway closure and every hotel room was booked up, the campground was full.  Charlie’s trailer was still parked in front of the tattoo parlour, so he could have stayed another night.  But he just wanted to get home.  After paying the good folks of Blue River for their labour and thanking them for their time and for their hospitality, Charlie hooked up the trailer and was heading north on Highway Five.

Passing through Jasper around 1:30 in the morning Charlie just could not keep his eyes open any longer.  He pulled over to the side of the highway, crawled into the trailer and slept until about six in the morning.  In dawn light, still in Jasper National Park, Charlie passed a great big moose and a little later he could see something on the road in the distance.  He slowed down to about twenty km per hour as he got closer and saw it was a wolf about twice the size of a German Shepherd, watching. Charlie looked at the wolf and the wolf looked at Charlie.  Charlie kept on going, stopping at Tim Hortons in Hinton for a donut and coffee.  He called Nicole about ten thirty saying that he was within an hour of being home.  Nicole  was relieved the moment she saw the call display on the phone showing Charlie’s cell phone number instead of the  Blue River payphone.

Charlie arrived home from a quite unexpected adventure in time for lunch on Monday, and then a nice afternoon nap.