The Salvagers


imagesMy father, a major restorer of order and tidiness to all things within his reach, had done an amazing thing for a man with his character traits. He had taken something built by someone else’s hands and torn it down. One day it stood as a testament to the hard work of the many hands that had made it, and the next day it was a scattered heap, lying across the ground.

The enormous elevated barrel— the water tower next to the CNR tracks, in nearby Strathroy, was where steam locomotives had filled their tanks with water for generations. It was no longer necessary when diesel engines took over. The tower was up for grabs, and our dad’s bid won. After careful planning and consultation with his Uncle Fred, a lifelong railroad man with many skills himself, the measurements were all worked out, and the distance of the fall was calculated. Key points were loosened or cut through; ropes were attached, and prayers were said under each one’s breath.

Then Dad gunned the motor of his faithful red pick up truck and took off! In a few seconds the tower was down and the ground was strewn with nearly all the building material he would need for a new barn.

The barn we had previously had burned down, leaving Dad in a terrible financial position.All of our livestock, our tractor and other equipment, was destroyed, as well as a large portion of the dried tobacco that we had recently begun growing as a cash crop.

At my father’s feet there was now a bounty of incredibly long, thick hardwood boards— the staves of the barrel like tank. There also were sturdy square beams, and even steel rods for concrete reinforcement. There was, in fact, so much lumber that when a particularly heavy load of it arrived at the newly graded site for the barn, the cab of the flat-bed truck rose off the ground, almost in protest, during the driver’s attempt to unload it!

My Mom told me that a neighbour of ours who had volunteered for the job, Frank Riczu, had to be rescued with a ladder! The cab only returned to the ground when some of the heavy wood that had slid backwards was unloaded. Our dad had salvaged enough wood to save a large portion of the cost of the new barn’s construction. Because of the frenzy of all the hard work being done by the adults in our lives, we kids were able to remain somewhat unaware of the tremendous trauma my parents had suffered. This was  particularly so for my dad, in the loss of his animals. Many of the cows were old and faithful friends, not just milkable money-makers.

While the adults in were incredibly busy working, we kids were working too, in the same way, but for a different reason. My father had salvaged perfectly good wood to reuse in the building of his barn, and now we were salvaging too, from what was left over from his project. Dad was a fastidiously tidy man, and the short pieces of lumber that were left over, after the wood had been cut for the barn, he had stacked under the spruce trees. They had once surrounded the old barn, in a wide horse shoe along a sandy ridge. Many of the longer pieces, Dad had arranged in tepee form, leaning up against the knobbly branchless trunks of those ancient trees, planted over a hundred years before. They  also continued in a straight line right up to the side yard of our big yellow brick farm-house, near to its wide veranda.

When we tired of playing on the rope swings, or on the shady veranda draped with its enormous Seven Sister rose-bush, or out on the teeter totter Daddy had made for us, when we tired of helping the younger ones make mud pies by the tap, or reading our Bobbsey Twins, or Lassie To the Rescue books, when we tired of playing hide and seek or climbing off the top of a fence post into a scratchy spruce tree to look down on our  siblings, Marsha, and Keith and I decided to go to work.

Fun at Kennywood Park

Fun at Kennywood Park

We had heard all about roller coasters from our mother, who had grown up in Pittsburgh with its world-famous wooden one,at Kennywood Park. We had never had a ride on one, but Mom’s enthusiasm about them, in her story telling, must have been contagious. Although we had never actually seen one, we were determined that we would make our own. After all,how hard could it be? We had the wood for it. As far as we could tell, the building of the new barn was finished, so now we could be the salvagers! “Waste Not! Want Not!” our parents would always say.

We didn’t have a measuring tape, but we didn’t need one. Piece after piece was pulled out of Daddy’s stacks, and knocked out of his tepees until we had what we needed. If we didn’t have the right size, after we had carried it to our building site, we could always go find another one. We began at the top of the hill that dropped down and away from the West side of the long spruce tree line, and levelled out as it crossed the pasture. Our horses, who, thankfully, had been out in the pasture when the barn fire happened, observed the commotion of our building project from a safe distance.

First we laid the cut-off sections from the beams across the incline. Then we took all the longest boards that we could find and laid them top to bottom, butted against one another, in two parallel elevated tracks over the beam pieces. Keith used a nail here and there, where he deemed it necessary, but as soon as anything was connected well enough to stay together he moved on.

(His over-enthusiasm when nailing had gotten him into trouble a few years earlier, when he was only five. He swung so furiously at a nail that he hit himself on the forehead with the claw part, on the rebound, giving himself the first of many childhood goose eggs.)

Our next step was to tightly fit the cross-ways boards on top, like an incredibly steep boardwalk. Nails were only used when wedging boards close enough together to stay put was unsuccessful. Finally, after a long day’s work, we were ready to roll! And roll we did!

We brought our red wooden wagon out to the field to give it a try. We flew down and ran up repeatedly, with wings on our feet! We were jubilant! We were ecstatic! We were the happiest children imaginable! …until supper time. Daddy had hurried in from the field at the last minute and had seen from a distance, in passing, his tepees of wood all askew, and his carefully stacked wood piles jumbled up— with pieces flung here and there on the East side of the tree line.

We could feel the threat of bad weather approaching in the house when Daddy said to Mummy rather forebodingly “Jeannie, do you know what these kids have been up to? Have you seen what they’ve done to all my wood?’’ And then as many of us who could talk at that time answered the question. “We made a roller coaster Daddy!” “A roller coaster!”  “A roady doaster!” one of the young ones echoed. In a moment or two the excitement had engulfed both of our parents too, because we had made a roller coaster! And because we were so proud!

Just about the age we all were when we built our roller coast. # 8 is on the way!

Just about the age we all were when we built our roller coast. # 8 is on the way!

Yes, we had made a big mess doing it, that’s for sure, but not so much that Daddy didn’t smile when he and Mummy went to the pasture with us to see our creation. He knew that we had been “working hard” all afternoon. His respect for fellow builders was firmly entrenched.

The next day, after school, the pasture was full of neighbourhood kids who had walked past our own amusement park ride that morning. Nobody seemed to have a bicycle in those years when we attended SS No.11, the one room school at the end of the gravel road; everybody walked— so they all climbed over the fence to take a turn in the wagon, riding down the hill in turn. The next day, the fun continued, despite the pitfalls of flying off, midway. Steering straight was difficult because of the speed, or the times when boards popped off unexpectedly.

There were bumps here and there, and scraped knees too— but not too many. Kids seemed to be a lot more thick-skinned in those years, and their parents were too— not coddling them or being over-protective. All went smoothly, until one day somebody went home crying— a lot more loudly than the rest of us thought  was necessary— over a minor injury. (It probably didn’t help that everyone was calling him “Cry Baby”. That usually just made things worse.)

That night, just after supper, my dad got the phone call. Well, everyone else on the party line got it too, I’m sure. That’s what usually happened whenever anyone’s phone rang— a lot of other people would grab it just to listen in. Daddy hung up and quietly left the house.

Once again, my father, a major restorer of order and tidiness to all things within his reach, did an amazing thing for a man with his character traits. He took something built by someone else’s hands and tore it down. One day it stood as a testament to the hard work of the many hands that had made it, and the next day it was a scattered heap, lying across the ground.

Mummy said that it would be a good idea if we would all go out to the pasture to help Daddy carry all the pieces up the hill again. She told us that he wasn’t any happier about it than we were, but that it had to be done, and that one day if we were good, and everything turned out alright we would get to ride on a real wooden roller coaster at Kennywood Park. How it could ever be any better than the one we had made ourselves I couldn’t imagine, but I went out to the pasture with the others anyway.

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