The following story is true. I love to tell it, and finally wrote it up this summer. Can’t concentrate enough to write something fresh today, so here is…
I have the distinction of being the only child in my family conceived in Saskatoon, where Dad spent his final two years of service in the Air Force. An extra two months would have seen me born there as well, but in late July my family hit the road. Dad bought a new Volkswagen Beetle and fitted out the back seat with a wooden platform so my three brothers would have space to play on during the day; at night the children slept while my father drove, Mum keeping him company, keeping him awake.
At first, the family headed for The Pas, Manitoba. Up in Thompson, the Inco nickel mine was hiring, and Dad figured he was a shoe-in. The little boys in the back seat crooned a conga chant of “Thompson, Manito-ba!”
There was no road to Thompson in 1961. The Transcanada Highway hadn’t even been finished yet, and to meet 18-wheelers in the pitch black, just one side or the other of skinny trestle bridges, filled my parents with awe. For his interview, my father would have to take a train and leave Mum and the boys overnight in The Pas. Although she looked forward to some repose free of tractor-trailers, my mother was still a little nervous about being left alone with three small boys and most of me. She chewed her lip as she pitched the tent beside Grace Lake, at the edge of town. That evening, a couple of Labrador Retrievers from a nearby resort came to romp and splash with my brothers. The following dawn, Mum found the dogs still there, sitting guard, one on either side of the tent.
Dad came back from his interview crestfallen. He had been turned down because he didn’t have 20-20 vision. He was worried now; the last of their savings had been spent on the new car, and he didn’t know where to go next. Mum asked Dad to make the fire. Then she cooked him the best camp-out meal she knew how. Then she said, “Let’s go home.”
Hometown for both my parents was Hamilton Ontario, still a ways from The Pas. On the last Friday night of July, my family was rolling through the Manitoba prairies under a full moon. The boys were slumbering on their platform, my parents were peering into the darkness, and the gas gauge was on E. In his despondency over not getting the mining job, my father had forgotten to fill the tank. The moon served only to light up the desolation: not a home to be seen, not a sideroad, nothing.
At three in the morning, my parents suddenly stared at each other. Yes, they had both seen the same thing: a hitch-hiker! He must have walked up from some sideroad, although they hadn’t seen any. He looked about 17.
“Well, we can’t leave him there!”
“No, of course not.” Dad stopped the car, Mum shuffled her bulk over the gearshift, and the lad squeezed in beside them.
“I hope you don’t have far to go,” my father apologized, “ because I’m almost out of gas.”
“No sir, I live just five miles down the road.”
Dad took those five miles slowly, getting every inch possible from his fuel, and considering whether he dare ask permission to park on the boy’s property until daylight. The hitch-hiker interrupted his thoughts. “That’s my house on the right. Just turn in for a sec, okay?”
My father pulled off the road. His mouth parted slightly, and my mother started giggling uncontrollably. The boy and his family ran a gas station.
“Just wait while I fill you up,” smiled the boy. He whistled as he threw a switch or two, topped up the tank, wiped the windshield, sang out, “No charge!” and skipped into his house.
The next night my family slept under a crazy quilt of stars on Manitoulin Island, having feasted on marshmallow-stuffed roasted apples. Two days later, my dad was hired on at Stelco.