|Yes, the prairies are very flat. Get over it and see the beauty.|
Ten days ago Roni and I escaped to Vancouver for just a short two day and overnight excursion. I had been invited to the 50th birthday of my oldest friend George who lives in the tony South Surrey suburb of Crescent Beach. It was pretty far from the home base of my Vancouver family and we were stretched for time, so we just booked a hotel next to the largest shopping mall I could find and planned for a visit with friends and a little retail therapy for Roni. I decided to visit with my family on our next trip to the city. We had a bit of a surprise in that one of Roni's young cousins, Katy, came into Powell River for some family time just a couple of days before, so we suddenly had a wing man for the Nevada Kid on a shopping mission. Young women are quite healing for Roni until they leave, but I can predict the post-parting depression and plan for it now.
The visit with George was great. His family is just so "family" you would think that he was the model for Ward Cleaver of the "Leave it to Beaver" show without the clip-on ties, sweater-vests and penny-loafers. My wife is still raving about the sweet potatoes and sweet pepper dish. Not so much about the parlour games; acting out in public is not her forte. It's amazing how much George's kids are a blend of both him and his wife Lynn. I find myself doing that a lot these days; critically assessing the children of my friends and family and,yes, coveting those kids just a little bit.
I have forgotten what driving in Vancouver at night in the pouring rain is like. I used to call it "Zen" driving because you feel the road more than you actually see it. I drove blind most of the way back to the Holiday Inn, staying on the road by faith and unfounded belief more than anything else. It's nice to know I still have faith in something, though my driving is hardly worthy of faith at the best of times. Forty-five minutes of misery driving back to the Holiday Inn adjoining the Metrotown Mall convinced me that I should forgo any plans to escape the shopping expedition with Roni and Katy and just resign myself to four hours of retail tedium in the biggest damn shopping mall in BC.(at least it feels like that).
Who said idle hands serve the devil? I would add that evil lurks in idle minds. Shopping may occupy Roni's mind and keep her from having walking nightmares, but it just gives me time to get sloppy. Less than five minutes into the mall trip I found myself staring at an expensive form-hugging dress in a shop window, thinking how the low-cut back would accentuate Calista's muscular back and the thigh length hem would compliment her toned legs. And it was pink, always popular with the princess. I found myself making a personal note to tell her all about the dress the next time I saw her. I guess my days of shopping for Calista are pretty much finished; perhaps someone should tell my brain.
|"Give me a home where the buffalo roam and the deer and the |
antelope play." Oh, and it will be darn cold most of the year.
I grew up a true son of the West Coast. Mountains towering above, oceans crashing below and beaches in between was all I knew until I finally saw the prairies when I was about fourteen. My first trip east of the Rockies was on a sports trip to Calgary in the early spring of '76. I was so unimpressed by the brown winter killed grass, the forever view in any direction and the bitter cold billowing off the nearby mountains that I just assumed people lived there in penance for past-life sins. I never really warmed to the prairies throughout my teens and twenties, but I certainly lived up to every cliche the flatlanders have for the lotus-land softies. On swim trips we always bitched about the cold, the flat, the heat, the dust, the mind-numbing "sameness" everywhere we looked. And yes, the prairie athletes did convince us that our spit would freeze before it hit the ground at minus forty Celsius, so we would all risk frostbite while standing around spitting, haplessly trying to get our spit to bounce. I am sure all the kids from from the local swim clubs just killed themselves laughing at us.
I attended the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, graduating after 4 long years in 1987. I visited Regina once during that time and I swore then that of all the places on Earth a man could settle down and live, Regina had to be at the very bottom of my preference list, somewhere
|Richardson Ground-squirrel. The most|
common wildlife seen in Regina. Except for
|The north half of Regina. That's the parliament buildings in|
the forground. Wascana Lake actually is very nice for a
dredged out slough. The ducks and geese love it.
|describe that day adequately.|
time, I was cold beyond all sensation. My feet were painful ice blocks, my hands were immobile prosthesis and my face was becoming a solid mask. Calista was comfortable and still had warm, rosy cheeks. She had no complaints other than how lazy her hard-driven father was while pulling her up the hill.
|The amazing GT racer|
|Winter Jackrabbit on the drainage berm|
behind the house in Regina.
The land immediately around Regina is billiard-table flat. You need to go several kilometres to the north and west before you find the respectable hills of the Qu'Appelle Valley. The less-daring city dwellers find their hills in other ways; Regina had retired garbage dumps and the artificial hills created by the dredging of the Wascana Slough to create Wascana Lake. The small hillocks that surround Wascana Lake are the result of two dredging efforts over a century. Those hills are steep and have busy roads or a muddy lake at their base; all the thrills that come from sledding down them come from the break-neck speeds you can reach on them and the fact you are never quite sure of surviving the landing at the bottom. The only relatively family-safe hill in Regina is up at "Mount Pleasant", which is actually the long-retired city dump complete with exhaust pipes to release methane gas from fermenting garbage. From the bottom of the "Mount", on a pleasant summer's day, the hill does not look like much of a challenge. From the top of the mount, on a icy winter day, from the eyes of a pair of hyper-vigilant parents, the sledding hill looked like an invitation to the emergency ward at the hospital.
|The front side of Mount Pleasant. The back-side is much |
shorter and steeper.The trees you see are a virtual forest for
I am not sure Calista forgave her cowardly parents for nixing the second run down that hill. Both Roni and I got the "stink-eye" all the way home from Mount Pleasant that day; we obviously just were not "fun" people. I am curious to know what they will name the current city dump when they finally retire that massive hill just north of Regina; "Prairie View Heights" or some such innocuous tag ready made for real estate developers I suspect.
Ten years later that speed-racer sled was one of the items that Calista sold at her garage sale to raise spending money for her European tour. It had sat practically unused over those ten years and was in "like-new" condition. The young grandson of our neighbours eyed it up that warm summer afternoon, diligently explaining to his doting Grandmother Dorothy how that sled was "just the right size" for him. I noticed the rabid interest in the lively little carrot-top, so I had Calista just put the sled quietly to the side, knowing that Dorothy would likely be back within minutes to claim the sled for the the four-year old boy. I think it sold for $5. It could not have gone to a better home; that little boy looked quite durable; I bet he bounced down Mount Pleasant without a blink the next winter.
Winter blizzards tend to develop a certain self-reliance in the prairie folk; the combination of wind and heavy snowfall can shut down entire cities in a few hours as towering snowbanks and glistening rinks of ice replace the normally high-speed city causeways. Regina and it's surrounding school districts never have "snow days"; it's against the law to close the schools during inclement weather simply because the schools may be the only safe refuge from the weather in some of the outlying school districts. Calista never missed a day of school due to winter storms. This caused problems a few times since it was common for Roni to get stranded at work by a sudden winter storm and there was at least once that I was over three hours late getting home from work, having taken over two hours to traverse the ten kilometres home from the clinic. Thanks goodness Calista was always pretty level headed.
My first year at Airport Animal Hospital, when Calista was all of twelve and still attending the elementary school about a kilometre from our house, a massive winter front moved through Regina, bringing with it about a foot of snow and gale force winds. The snow itself was no big deal, but combined with the winds it meant that snow drifts as high as ten feet were accumulating along the highways. There were stories of cars careening out of control and virtually disappearing into massive snow banks that blocked the Number One as it passed around Regina. The highway east was closed by 5 pm and Roni phoned me to say she was stuck in Balgonie. Calista had been home from school for an hour by that time and it never occurred to me that I would have trouble getting home, so I was not worried. Heck, I was only ten minutes away on a normal day.
|Three hours to go 12 kilometers to get home to my girl.|
"I'm yours..you have to feed me!" was her comment.
We were excellent parents in many ways, but Roni and I really failed our daughter in that we never did teach her how to cook for herself. Calista had been scavenging junk food since she arrived home at four and I am under the suspicion that the cat food was starting to look palatable by the time I broke through the snow banks blocking our garage doors.
The following day the schools opened as if nothing had happened, but there was no way the school buses were going anywhere through the city streets clogged with massive snow drifts and abandoned cars. I managed to get Calista to school on time but it took me nearly two hours to make it to work that day. I finally had to illegally skirt around the barriers blocking the Ring Road access and inch my way along the ice covered freeway, nearly sliding into the ditch several times as my car skidded down the banked speed corners. I was the first veterinarian to make it to the office and the third employee through the door at ten am. Roni did not make it home until late that night, exhausted and irritable after sleeping on the couch of one of her work-mates. After our experience, I had new respect for the fortitude of the original settlers of Regina, but no respect for their judgement in settling in such a barren and forsaken stretch of prairie. There was a reason the Indians never camped near "Pile of Bones" for very long; it was a death zone back in the day.
Certainly the speed limit in most of Regina is fifty kilometres per hour, but the majority of the drivers there consider it barely more than a suggested guideline. In fact, the law abiding driver is usually considered a road hazard preferably run off the road at the first opportunity. Bicyclists are considered slightly better than road hazards; they are coveted targets. I swear many of the younger drivers paint a new wheel on the side of their car for every biker successfully sidelined. Roni and I never embraced the idea of Calista learning to ride a bicycle; we envisioned her becoming a hood ornament on some bondo and primer refugee from a junk yard. It was just as well; Calista actually enjoyed driving everywhere; first in Dad's car, then with the boyfriend of the day, and finally by herself in the Smart Car. Of course, she had to learn how to drive first, and that is a real challenge in a city buried in snow and ice for six months a year.
|Good try Ann. With just a bit more time she might have got it;|
and then drove everywhere anyway. Love the smile though.
Calista actually dragged her heels when it came to getting her license. Certainly she got her learner's license at fifteen like every other Saskatchewan kid, and she took the required driver's education at school, but once all that was over she basically just sat on her laurels and avoided taking the actual road test. I asked her about it once and her flip reply was that there was always going to be some boy to chauffeur her wherever, whenever she wanted.....or daddy. It was only when I suggested I might get her a Smart Car for her own vehicle that she started making any effort to learn to drive. Teaching her to drive was the most frightening year of my life. That's right: she dawdled for over a year before finally taking her road test. That has to be some sort of record.
There was never any doubt that it was going to be my job to teach her how to drive. Roni never questioned that decision in the least; she barely lets me drive without her constant advice. Neither of us thought Calista would benefit from Roni's ongoing critique. The few times that Roni did take Calista out driving just underlined that fact; the two would last less than a minute before starting to snip at each other and usually Roni took over at the wheel on the trip home from wherever they had visited. From the way Roni tells it she narrowly escaped violent death on every excursion. Calista never drove with her mother in the car after getting her license. Not once.
People that know me find it hard to believe that I have the patience and self-control to be a good teacher. Frankly, I find it hard to believe too. On the other hand, I do seem to do a pretty good job of keeping my cool under stress, especially when doing so might preserve my life. I approached Calista's driving lessons exactly that way; I assumed losing my cool with her while she was driving would just make her flustered, and flustered leads to panic, and panic leads to crashes. I wanted to avoid panic. I mastered the "calm, cool and controlled voice" over that year, though there were definitely a few times my calm voice was high pitched, clipped and squeaky from fear.
|Dad's Loser-Cruiser. The Pontiac Vibe: it just looks sporty.|
Great car for swim-team transport though. Amazing
what you can fit in this car.
At that time Calista was still involved in competitive swimming, so those 4:30 am departures for the pool were perfect for driving lessons. The only people on the road at that time are police, criminals and madmen taking their kids to early morning sports training. All Calista had to do was get us out of the subdivision, drive in a straight line for 5 kilometres, periodically stopping for red lights, and drive peacefully into the empty parking lot at the pool. At least she had empty parking lots mastered from all our excursions to local church lots. Who would think that driving a straight line in your lane and judging the difference between a red light and a green light could be so challenging? It took several weeks before I could relax for the majority of the simple drive and even then I had to remind her that accelerating aggressively around corners made remaining on the road (and avoiding wild attacking telephone poles) a real challenge. Of course, I should have been more understanding; there are only a few inches between the break pedal and the accelerator pedal and those two really look so much alike. I think I wore a hole in the carpet where the imaginary break pedal on the passenger side might sit and I know there was a hand-print wedged into the dash board where I braced for impact (the same finger-print pattern that appeared on my father's car after I learnt how to drive).
There are some advantages to living in a geographic ice-box when it comes to driver training. You have all sorts of opportunity to teach snow driving and skid-control. For her first lessons on snow and ice, we decided to become Baptists since the local Baptist church was just a few blocks away from home. The white, modern evangelical church must have been strapped for cash since they had really poor snow removal on their large parking lot. On the other hand, since they had a huge congregation, that snow was packed down to create the largest open air hockey rink you can imagine. I would take Calista into that parking lot, tell her to stomp the pedal to the metal and just spin those wheels. We would lock the breaks up at fifty kilometres an hour or just crank the wheel without slowing in the least while circling that icy lot. I am sure that the neighbours thought we were just stunting and I am sure the police would have had some choice words for me if they had come by, but I had to make sure my baby knew what it felt like to lose control in a car. More importantly, she had to know how to regain control once she had lost it. I'm not sure those sessions really worked; Calista never really embraced the idea of purposefully reckless driving.
In the middle of winter in 2009, with snow piled high on the side streets and ruts to rival a wagon road on all but the main streets, Calista finally decided to attempt her road test. It meant that I had to take an afternoon off just for the test since Calista would only drive my car (she was terrified of crashing her Mom's VW Beatle, but the Vibe was expendible since it was Daddy's loser-cruiser). I am not sure I had ever seen her that nervous. We had done a crash-course (now there is an appropriate term in this context) in parallel parking and down-town driving since all the road tests in Regina are done in the down-town core and parallel parking is the most common cause for a fail. I knew Calista was as ready as she ever would be, but I guess I should have told her that (and maybe the DMV too). She failed her first time up at bat; that seems to be common if not expected in Regina. There were some choice words said about "stupid turn lanes", "stupid bike lanes" and "stupid male examiners". I guess there was an outbreak of stupid that day. We had four weeks to mull about it; there was a mandatory 14 day cooling off period after each fail and it would be at least another three weeks before I could get an afternoon free for the repeat. I got to know the down-town core of Regina like a seasoned taxi-driver over that month. She passed easily the next time around, but the "very nice" female examiner got all the credit for the pass. It had nothing to do with the many gallons of gasoline burned while circling the mean streets of Regina.
|She named it "Jude" as in "Hey Jude" from the Beatles.|
She knew all the lyrics to all the songs from the Beatles.
Go figure; they broke up 20 years before she was born.
I never really finished my driver training with Calista. My own father used to force all his children to do some long-haul highway driving with him riding shotgun before he really felt confident that we were capable drivers. There is a huge difference between puttering around a city in a Smart Car runabout and cruising through winding mountain roads at highway speeds. Kelvin Orr used to pound into us the mantra to slow down before the corner and accelerate out of the corner and as a result, to this day, even after decades of living in the flatland, I remain comfortable on the narrow, serpentine roads of BC. The closest Calista and I ever got to highway cruising was a short jaunt west to Moose Jaw, north from Moose Jaw to Chamberlain and home to Regina from there. Barely more than 200 kilometres of straight, flat and mostly divided four-lane freeway. It felt so insufficient that I never really felt Calista was truly road worthy for the hazards of the west coast highways. I just always assumed I would have time to fill in that gap with Calista. That was quite an assumption and we all know what they say about assumptions.
There are many things I miss about the prairies. Regina is a very comfortable city to live in; it has all the amenities of a big metropolis with hardly any congestion or pollution. I miss the freedom of travel that the wide, flat and straight highways afford the flatlanders. I miss people I have known for nearly twenty years, people who watched Calista grow up and know how much I doted on her. Most of all, I wonder if Calista would still be alive if I had not chosen to move the entire family out of our protected little cocoon of Regina and start anew 2000 kilometres from everybody and everything she grew up with. There is some real guilt about the big move; I abandoned people who depended and trusted me back in Regina, I brought my family west to the home province I had not really lived in for nearly thirty years, and then my girl just died. Are the two related? I don't know and I never will.
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.