FLIRTING WITH DEATH ON THE WAY TO HALIFAX

We almost died.

The lazy rental car people almost killed us.

Here’s what happened. We woke up to find Antigonish in a deep freeze.  A foot of snow had fallen, and the schools were closed. At The Maritime Inn we fuelled up with a big breakfast, preparing for a long drive all the way to Halifax, where Alexander MacLeod awaited us. We wearily checked out of our hotel room (“I’ll bring the bags, while you clear the snow off the car”), then Jane drove carefully out of the snowy town.

We were on the main highway, driving cautiously, when a truck passed us, flinging lots of dirty snow on our windshield. Jane hit the wipers, which began to scrape noisily, and very messily, across the glass. She hit the button to squirt wiper fluid to clear the windshield….and NOTHING HAPPENED. We were driving blind, with only faint streaks of light across the solid streaks of frozen snow on the squeaking glass.

Whenever a car or truck passed us, the process repeated itself. Soon we knew to slow right down when we were passed, to stop the passing car throwing more junk on our windshield. But as we inched along, the highway had no turn-offs, kilometer after kilometer, minute after scary minute. Even pulling the car to the side, to rub clean snow on our blocked front windshield, was very risky. So we edged forward, noses to the smeared glass.

Eventually we did find a turn-off, and quickly rubbed fresh snow on the front, to let us see. At the first gas station we got the hood up, to find that the windshield fluid container had FROZEN SOLID. We bought some new fluid, guaranteed to operate at temperatures well below zero, and a tube of emergency winter fluid that opened up the frozen sprinklers on the hood. Then, still badly shaken, we went back on the Highway.

You’ll notice that I have not named the car company. Yet. When we returned the car eventually, and made our complaint, the cheerful man at the desk admitted that  they were “still transitioning” from summer grade wiper fluid to winter grade. In late November! In the frozen Maritimes! Which meant that to save a cent or two on summer-weight fluid, they were risking the lives of their customers.

Apart from all that, we drove without incident down 102 from Truro ( where in NO GREAT MISCHIEF a muttered Gaelic curse produces warm hospitality from an old Cape Breton householder) then across the main bridge to Halifax and all the way east on Barrington Street, to The Waverley Hotel. To relax , I took Jane around some of my old haunts in Halifax, including the lobby of The Lord Nelson Hotel. There, as I’ve told before, Don Harron (not in his Charlie Farquharson garb, but dolled up as “Valerie Rosedale”) was waiting for our Publicist to take him around the local media when an alert House Detective sternly told him to move on from the hotel’s lobby. Jane, in no danger of being asked to move on, although excessive shivering might have been misinterpreted as wild dancing, chose to stay inside while I sought out the Park Street site of Hugh MacLennan’s house, where as a boy he had experienced the 1917 Explosion.

True to his promise, Alexander picked us up at the Waverley ( a name that was to feature in my GREAT SCOTS show, when I discussed Sir Walter Scott’s influence on Joseph-Aubert de Gaspe’s great classic, Les Anciens Canadiens). He was still the same lively Alexander, a little greyer than I remembered, and it was great to be back in touch with the beloved MacLeod family. He set us up without fuss or delay at The Sobey Building at St. Mary’s.

And as the crowd rolled in, it contained many old friends. There was Graham Pilsworth, with Jamie and their book-selling daughter. When I spoke of Charles Gordon/Ralph Connor I mentioned the classic AT THE COTTAGE by my contemporary, Charles Gordon. And…TADA!…. the fine, funny illustrations were by Graham Pilsworth! (Applause).

Also present was James Houston’s son John, and his wife Bree. It was John who kindly introduced us to the Adventure Canada world ten years ago, and he’s a very good, Inuktitut-speaking, friend.

And, amazingly, fresh from her Biology-teaching role at St. Michael’s was Brenna, W.O. MITCHELL’S GRAND-DAUGHTER. When she introduced herself and we chatted beforehand, I couldn’t help telling her excitedly that she had her grandfather’s eyes.

After the show, after further chat and some book signing, Alexander and the mediaevalist, Stehanie Morely, swept us off to a late-night dinner at 2 Doors Down, on Barrington Street. Happy conversation surged around us, and good food zoomed into us, until it was time for us to part. I’m (mostly) glad to report that, unlike some nights at The Waverley, Oscar Wilde’s ghost did not put in an appearance.

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W.O.MITCHELL AT MABEL LAKE

We know that W.O., (1914-1998) the beloved author of Who Has Seen The Wind, and many other books and radio plays including Jake and The Kid, was a remarkable character. In fact my chapter on him in Stories About Storytellers has the sub-title “Character, and Creator of Characters.”

He and Merna were also creators of children, who have proved to be interesting  writers. The prime example is Orm, who with his wife Barbara wrote the fascinating two-part biography of his father. I proudly published them with Volume One simply called “W.O.”, and Volume Two grandly entitled “Mitchell”. But second son Hugh, a former teacher, has now come forward as a writer. Thanks to Alan Twigg’s B.C Bookworld, I came across an essay from Hugh that appears in a new book called Flowing Through Time: Stories of Kingfisher and Mabel Lake.

First, the location. Mabel Lake is in eastern B.C., just south of the Trans-Canada highway, near Enderby, north of Vernon. Its location made it easy for Albertans like W.O. (based in High River, then Calgary) to drive west into the mountains, through Banff,  find a spot for a cottage beside a lake, then build a summer retreat. That was what W.O. did in 1963, on Mabel Lake.

And that’s the subject of Hugh’s fond essay, called simply “The Mitchell Family at Mabel Lake”. But nothing to do with Bill was simple. As Hugh puts it, gently, “Summers at ‘the lake’ were pretty exciting. Life with W.O. Mitchell was never dull….”

For example, people on the lake used to honk for someone to come in a boat to the parking lot to bring them across to their cabin. Each cabin devised a ritual honk (short-short-long, for instance). On this occasion , Hugh tells us, “W.O. was up on the roof trying to finish mortaring  the chimney cap for the fireplace that he had built that summer. He was engrossed in the delicate finishing touches of the chimney cap with a small triangular trowel. Doing delicate finishing work on anything except writing was not one of his fortes.”

Hugh goes on:  “Across the river mouth , Mrs Van Fossen had just arrived from shopping in Enderby and started the ritual honking to get a ride to her cabin.”The honking went on and on. “Dad was just reaching inside the chimney cap to smooth out a grout line as Mrs. Van Fossen laid on the horn. Startled, W.O. dropped the little trowel down the chimney and it settled on top of the damper plate. He looked up and screamed across the river mouth, “Shit! Shit! Shit! Get off that God-damned horn!”

The crisis continued, producing a very memorable image. Hugh tells us: “He could not reach the trowel from inside the fireplace hearth, and thus it became another extended delicate operation to retrieve the trowel from inside the chimney USING HIS FISHING ROD (my emphasis). Mabel Lake cabin owners were not surprised to see W.O. Mitchell up on the roof fishing in his chimney”.

The stories go on, many dealing with W.O.’s fishing and boating adventures. One of them I heard him tell to my Publishing Workshop at The Banff Centre, around 1985. For reasons that made sense to him, W.O. was alone in his boat on the empty lake when spilled gasoline on his pants made it necessary for him to tinker with the engine stark naked. When he stood up and arched to ease his acing back, he found that a silent sailboat had drifted alongside him, full of pop-eyed sailors of both sexes. W.O. told us that he instantly called out. “What class is that boat?”

Hugh tells the story of how W.O.s love of a bargain let him down: “Dad was always exclaiming what a great deal he got. He paid $5.00 per 100 board feet for the 2×4 deck boards. It didn’t turn out to be such a great deal, as the deck boards started rotting out within five years and culminated in George McClelland, former Chief Superintendent of the RCMP, plunging through an especially rotten section of the deck, getting stuck up to his midriff.” George McClelland, Hugh recalls” wasn’t a small man….We had some difficulty extracting him.”

Great stories. Somehow they make W.O.’s stories about blowing up Grandpa in the outhouse seem less amazing. Just everyday stuff.

Many thanks for sharing all this, Hugh.