I often wonder why my dad bothered giving up alcohol as he did, officially, when I was just zero. I hope it wasn’t on my account, and anyway it would be vain to imagine it was. He clearly missed the stuff, with good reason in my view, because he was a lot nicer to be around when on one of his sporadic lapses. I had the privilege and pleasure to be with him during the odd bender before he got back on the wagon for once and for all just before turning fifty.
As head of Manitoba’s country library network he was often required to travel around the wilds, occasionally with me in tow and making a bit of a holiday of it. Completely out of character, he took me camping in the woods near the Minnesota border when I was nine or ten, taught me how use a low-powered rifle on targets and a full-sized ax on firewood and on a couple of perfectly innocent garter snakes. We had bacon & eggs, buttery toast and perked coffee just before daybreak at a diner in Sprague. To this day I’ve never quite managed to recreate that heavenly scent of hot breakfast mingled with crisp and pungent autumn air.
He pointed to the Canada/US crossing just a few yards away, and explained that south of that line the people were soft, the weather benign, and life so easy as to turn your body to flab and your mind to mush. And sure enough, I could just make out on the horizon a couple of pudgy Minnesotans scratching their heads as they gawped uncomprehendingly across the frontier at the true north strong and free.
The summer before, we got a bit closer to the real true north when we steamed to the top of Lake Winnipeg and back again (which took the best part of a week) on the beautiful, long since retired—some say haunted—MS Keenora.
The afternoon before the big storm I came into money. Big money. A buck-and-a-half, which my dad pressed into my little hand, suggesting that I go up to the promenade deck and fill my face with a hot dog or two, apple pie à la mode and as much Seven-Up as I thought I could handle. “Take your time. We’re on holiday, Billy!” This had never happened before, and never would again: not the pressing of the money and certainly not the taking of the time. I was bemused, but happy to oblige.
After my large snack and an edifying chat with the rehearsing resident jazz band, I went back to our cabin, but there was nowhere to sit, as by now two lady teachers had arrived to share a bottle of what they insisted was “Chinese Tea” with my dad. From memory I think it was Ballantine’s Chinese Tea, or possibly Famous Old Grouse Chinese Tea. And when I say “lady teachers”, well, in hindsight I guess “fresh-out-of-college girl teachers” would be closer to the mark. Odd, because my dad was not normally known for his patience with the young. There was some giggling, the odd baritone chortle, and a few more coins being pressed into my hand. “Have a second slice!” I was happy to oblige all over again, thinking, “What a nice daddy you are…” and years later adding, “you dirty dawg…”
Later, having of course skipped dinner, I was finally able to reclaim my bunk, but I was bounced right back out of it when the big storm came, and for most of the night I was bent over a bucket crying, shuddering and still heaving long after the last bits of hot dog and pie had come back up. This was my first intimation of death, and remains the most palpable. All through the night my dad was solicitous, comforting and, well, fatherly and in control: the guy could hold his Chinese tea. He told me there was no way the Keenora could sink, and if he had his doubts he didn’t let on, not even when two holes were being ripped in the hull below the waterline. The captain managed to find safe haven before a third rupture, which, he told us in the morning, would surely have sent Keenora to the bottom. What I didn’t know at the time was that for all Lake Winnipeg’s massive area it’s actually quite shallow – thirty feet or so at its deepest. So maybe the worst case was that Keenora would just wind up sitting on the floor, with her superstructure and parts of the top deck poking above water, feeling a bit stupid. Kind of like that famous and ill-fated pontoon boat down on Lake Wobegon in Minnesota, land of swaying palms and head-scratchers.
We were laid up for an unscheduled day in Grand Rapids while a crew was flown in from Flin Flon to fix the hull. Passengers were talking about thirty-foot waves, which would have been quite a trick from a lake thirty feet deep, and like myself they will have dined out on that figure ever since. I don’t recall seeing the teachers again for the rest of the trip; perhaps they fell overboard and no one told me. Perhaps they’re still out there, sunning themselves on the rocks, lying in wait for the next errant librarian to wander by.