Mid-winter, January 1949, and we are on the road. Business matters had taken Sheldon to Edmonton and we took the opportunity to visit friends. Now the three of us—Sheldon, our one-year-old son Ralph, and I–are heading home.
This is not the ideal time for travelling. The roads are kept open but are not in great shape. Traffic is light; service places scarce. Travel is slow, as the roads can be icy. Even so we usually made it easily in one day to our home in McLennan, a little town north and west of Edmonton, and south of Peace River.
We started early this morning in order to finish the trip in daylight. The words “cold and crisp and even” come to my mind to describe the weather. Sunny and calm and cold. Ahead we see a truck about to pull onto our road. It is large, filled to the brim with debris from a building site. No tarpaulin covers the load, and bits and pieces fly off as it goes. Having no safe opportunity to pass, Sheldon drops back a bit and follows. Suddenly the truck hits some ice and shimmies around. A sudden gust of windy blows a big plank off the load directly in front of us.
Evasive action is impossible on the slippery road. We hit the plank as it slides. Twice we collide with bone-jarring bumps, and pull to a stop. The truck does not even slow down. In fact, it picks up speed and is gone. Sheldon jumps out and stares at the car in shock.
“Sheldon, what’s wrong?”
“We have two flat tires, there are nails sticking out of this plank,” he answers. “If I could catch that driver, I’d wring his neck!”
All of this wakens Ralph and he is crying. I try to calm him; Sheldon is still assessing the damage. Suddenly Sheldon runs to the other side of the road and waves his arms. A car heading south is approaching. The driver gets out of his car and comes over to look at the damage. I hear him say, “South of us about two miles is a gas pump and a service station. I’ll put my spare tire on one of your wheels, and you do the other. When we get to the station I’ll get my spare back, and go on my way.”
And so it was. No question at all. We are in trouble, and in this north country with its severe weather and sparse population you do not pass by someone in trouble. Hours later we are again ready to resume our trip. It has taken a long time to get us road-worthy again. We are far behind our schedule. The light is beginning to fade, and the temperature is falling. By now we know we can’t make it home tonight.
“We’ll be in Slave Lake soon,” Sheldon says. “It’s small, but has a little hotel. We’ll go there. If they have an empty room that’s great, but even their lounge would be safer and warmer than to continue on these roads.”
“How far is it to Slave Lake?”
“About ten miles I think, won’t take us long.”
I rock Ralph and watch the miles click off. It is getting so cold. Our car heater can’t keep us very warm, and the frost is building up on the inside of the windows. Suddenly there is a sound and a jerky feeling to the car.
“Sheldon, the gas line –“
“I know, Marjie – water in the gas and it’s trying to freeze. Put Ralph in the back. I’ll slow down and stop. You slide over and put your foot on the gas pedal when mine comes off. We have to keep the car going till I can get the rubbing alcohol into the gas tank. Hand me the bottle, it’s in the pocket on your side.”
A blast of frigid air hits me as Sheldon gets out. I nurse the hiccupping engine along with gentle pumps of gas, and pray, “Please keep going, please keep going.” Gradually the engine is working better. Sheldon is about to get back in the car, when someone driving south, stops and calls over, “Got trouble?”.
“Gas line was freezing. Got the alcohol into the tank, and I think we’re OK. Many thanks.”
“Good – but I’ll wait for a few minutes. This is no night to be stranded.”
And so he waits, until it is clear our car is fine. Sheldon waves his thanks again, and we both go our different ways. I think – the code of the North again.
In just a few miles we enter the little hamlet of Slave Lake. I hear the sound of motors as we get near the hotel. There they are, several large Imperial Oil trucks parked by the hotel.
“Why are they leaving the motors running, Sheldon?”
“So they can be sure of starting them in the morning. Probably have to leave for work early.”
“It will be OK. I’m quite sure, and if not we’ll get help. The truckers have to get back on the job on time.”
They do have a room for us in the hotel. We have food and hot coffee, Ralph has warm milk and cereal, and we go to our room. We tuck Ralph into a dresser-drawer bed and he goes fast asleep. Sheldon and I crawl into bed, near exhaustion.
During the night I wake up in a panic, thinking we are still on the road. Then the comforting drone of the trucks’ engines reaches my ears. I sink back into the warmth and comfort of our bed. We are safe. We will take to the road tomorrow and in a few hours will, finally, be home.