Train Whistles and Nightmares

January 1951, Shoal Lake, Manitoba, and a perfectly normal working day.  The crew had left for their work in the country.  Sheldon, now party chief, was in his office, located in a trailer near by. Everything was “near by”.  The crew house trailers and the crew equipment were all parked in the town’s vacant fair grounds.  I was in our trailer with Ralph, just over three, and his sister Lorna who was 11 months old.  The washing was frozen stiff on an outside line, and I was bringing in a few pieces at a time to dry over our heater.  Suddenly Sheldon was at the door, knocking the snow off his boots.  He was greeted with excited squeals from the kids, who did not often see Daddy mid-morning.  He laughed and scooped them up, looking over their heads, and said, “I got a call from head office.”  My heart started to race as I asked, “And what did they want?”  “I’ve been promoted and have to report to the Divisional Office in Peace River as soon as possible.”

So five and a half years after we joined the seismic crews as a couple of newlyweds, another big change was underway.  In the middle of a Prairie winter we found ourselves in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, glad to be off the snowy roads and in a warm hotel.  The trip from Shoal Lake had been taxing.  The provincial roads were not well graded or maintained.  We cheered when we finally made it to the TransCanada Highway.  This should be better!  Well, it was but only marginally. It was not graded up high as roads are today.  It wandered across the prairies following the contours of land, gravelled not paved.   

After we were all fed and the children asleep, I expressed my concern to Sheldon.  The snowy weather seemed to be getting worse.  The temperature was dropping.  What about tomorrow?  Sheldon tried to reassure me and said he would check with the bus station in the morning to see if the busses were getting through.  We awoke in the morning to a grey, overcast day.  A stiff breeze was blowing and the hotel thermometer read -30 F.  Sheldon used the phone in the lobby and talked to an employee at the bus station, who reported that the busses were getting through on time.  With that reassurance we decide to push on – a decision we were soon to regret.

The children rode in the back seat which was well built up with extra clothes, blankets, baby bottles, toys and snacks.  Ralph and Lorna alternated between peering over our shoulders and chattering away, playing with toys or scrapping frost off the windows so they could look out.  Sheldon and I were not very attentive: we were concentrating on the road ahead.  Not many cars seemed to have travelled the road before us.  The road was getting heavier with snow.  The wind was blowing surface snow across the road in a sheet.  The railway tracks paralleled the highway, and at one point we saw a freight train parked on a siding.  Sheldon noted it and said it must be waiting for another train to pass before it could use the tracks.

We plowed on and the tension grew.  Coming around a curve the road suddenly plunged down through a gully.  Sheldon slammed on the brakes but could not stop in time to prevent us plowing into a big drift which covered the road.  We were thoroughly and without doubt stuck.  One try proved that.  Sheldon’s reaction was immediate.  “Marj – get me your red sweater,” he barked, “”I’m going over to the tracks.  That train may be coming soon and I’ll try to flag it down”.  I grabbed the sweater, and he pulled on a toque and a heavy jacket and was off.  We watched him plow his way through the shallow ditch, snow almost up to his knees, as he made the 50 or so feet over to the tracks.  I calmed the children as best I could.  Then, after 15 minutes I pulled on more clothes and told them I had to go up to the tracks so Daddy could come back and get warm.  I sat them down and gave them each a cookie, and told Ralph not to touch any of the door locks, and NOT to let Lorna do so either.  He nodded, and I took off.

It was all I could do to reach the tracks.  Sheldon saw me coming and understood.  He met me and pulled me up the slight incline to the rail bed and handed me the sweater.  “I’ll get some more clothes on and warmed up a bit, and relieve you,” he said.  It was almost unbearable out there.  The wind blowing, – 30 degrees, and surface snow thrown against your face and stinging it.  Sheldon was not in the car very long before he came back, and we changed places again.  Just a few minutes after I got back to the car I heard a train whistle – and there it was – coming around the bend.  Sheldon was waving the red sweater madly.  To my utter horror, the train went by!  That undoubtedly was one of the worst moments of my life.  “We’ll all die,” I remember thinking. Then suddenly I saw the train had come to a halt about a quarter mile away.  Trains, it appears, cannot stop on a dime.  A trainman was getting off the platform at the back of the train and starting back along the rails towards us.

Sheldon came racing back.  We frantically bundled up the kids, stuffed a few things in a bag, and got out.  Ralph was carried by his Dad, and I carried Lorna and off we went along the path we had made, and met up with the trainman at the train tracks.  He took Lorna and we started back towards the train.  When we got there many hands helped us on, and we all needed the help.  We had stopped a passenger train, carrying, among others, some bonspielers who had been celebrating. I was near collapse, crying, shaking, cold and exhausted.  The children clung to me.  One of the curlers handed me a paper cup and said, “Drink this, it will help”.  I did – and gasped – straight whisky.  Warm me up it did!  A woman sat down beside me and took Lorna and rocked her.  A man patted Ralph on the head, gave him a candy and told him what a big boy he was!  Sympathy and help encircled us.  I gradually regained my control as the train rushed on.

Sheldon reappeared and told me that the train would stop at the next small town and he would get off.  When possible he would hire a tow truck to retrieve our car.  He would also phone his mother in Lethbridge, and she would meet the three of us at the station.  We had been rescued by a train whose destination was the city where his mother lived!  “You’ll be there later today,” he said, “and I’ll join you as soon as I can.”  Seeing the panic returning to my face, he added, “Don’t worry, Marjorie, I’ll be sure the roads are open before I come.”  At the Lethbridge station the children and I were met by Mother Gibson and her cousin, Dr. Arthur Haig.  They magically produced everything we needed and put us to bed.  Late the next day Sheldon rejoined us.  He had been in touch with the office in Peace River and had been told in no uncertain way not to proceed further until travelling conditions were completely safe!  The weather cleared, and a few days later we were on our way again.

Good fortune had indeed been with us during our frightening experience, and we grew a little older and wiser in the process.  The youthful feeling of invincibility was gone forever.  For a long time I had nightmares, waking up in a panic because the train isn’t stopping!  Yet through it all, no one–not the trainmen, the curlers, the train passengers or even our family members –ever said, “Why in the world were you out on the roads in those conditions?”  Instead they comforted, helped, and loved us and then picked us up and sent us on our way.  We felt a deep appreciation and respect both for the help and how it was given.

Over the years most of us have moments of poor judgement that reflect sadly on the decisions we make.  Reflecting on this experience over the years shaped my attitude somewhat.  I came to believe that often when faced with people in trouble, the best thing to do is to stick to warmth, comfort and love.  Indeed it may be the best and only help possible!  Tempting as it may be to offer advice, that can come later if at all.  That is hard for me to do, and I certainly do not always rise to my own standards!  Funny though, sometimes I think I hear a train whistle blowing — and I remember.


Filed under Seismic Life - The Womens' View

20 Responses to Train Whistles and Nightmares

  1. Well, this one is an award winner for sure (if THEY were giving out awards)! Well done.

    • Marjorie

      Mary – Thank you for your comment, I’m pleased that you liked this post. Regarding “awards” – I suspects these comments fill that spot. MMG

  2. Michael Taschuk

    Gram; please, please, please keep these coming. I can’t express how valuable these are to me, and I expect the rest of us.

    • Marjorie

      Yes – it strikes me too, Mike – how different things are now. Our roads were very poor, and absolutely no communication devices to carry with us – and on it goes! You will be interested to know that in all the travelling around we did after that, with Sheldon in the oil business, we somehow never got caught that way again. Do you suppose we learned something? Gram PS Not that there were not some interesting events – all in winter of course – running over a plank that had nails sticking up and getting two flat tires at once, or having our gas line starting to freeze up etc., but those are other stories!

  3. Barry

    “Over the years most of us have moments of poor judgement that reflect sadly on the decisions we make. ”

    So true!

    • Marjorie

      Barry – Yep! There are some things that are sort of universal, and making mistakes is one of them. Remember that quotation “To err is human, to forgive, divine”? I’m well in tune with the erring part – and glad forgiving is alloted to a diety for that one is a toughy! Take care – MMG

  4. Doreen

    Wow, you were lucky. I have to congratulate the conductor and his crew and the passengers for their help.

    • Marjorie

      Doreen – Everyone was helpful, once we got on that train. I believe they made a special stop so Sheldon could get help and go back for the car. Makes one very appreciative of the goodness of ordinary people. MMG

  5. Ralph

    Very well done, Mom, in all respects.

    • Marjorie

      Ralph – Good to get your approval! ‘Bye the way, Ralph, do you have any memory at all of that incident? You were only three, of course Can you let me know? MMG

      • Ralph

        Not “approval” – more like admiration for a nice piece of writing, nice writing in more than one way.

        I suspect my memories are of what I was told, rather than of the incident itself, but I don’t know. The picture in my head has the train tracks on our left, and not immediately beside the road but not far either. I have no memory of being in the car or of the train ride.

        Glad you’re enjoying this Mom, ’cause it’s clear a bunch of others are too.

        • Marjorie

          Ralph – The picture in your head is completely correct! The tracks were off to our left, and the distance as you say, not right beside the road but not far either. Interesting to hear that you may have sketchy memories – and at least you were too young to have the fear that we had. Thank you for the encouragement regarding my “readers”. I hope you are correct. MMG

  6. A wonderfully-told story — I was riveted to the thankfully warm end. A -30C with a wind is terrifying enough without two kiddies in a stuck car and a train that you don’t think has stopped. Canadian winters would be untenable without its warm people.

    I saw a few chips of snow yesterday and know what’s coming, but John can’t wait. Eager to get out in it and paint winter. We did a show over the weekend in Metcalfe’s Old Town Hall and John sold 20 paintings. 🙂 Five or six of them were of snow scenes. It’s an appealing subject to look at, eh?

    • Marjorie

      Barbara – Yes, it was quite an experience, and not pleasant for me to look back on even now! We were fortunate indeed to pull through that one. It is also comforting to know that the world has its share of kindness and love. Do you think that fact gets overshadowed by the publicity on all the ills that exist? MMG

      • The one percent of evil-doing people hog the news, making us think the 99% are the same. We live in a culture of fear, to be sure. We must stay strong and trust that most people are decent.

        • Marjorie

          Barbara – I have no idea if your percentages are correct, but I agreed that a “culture of fear” exists, and the importance of emphasizing the actual good that we encounter. Guess it comes back, as it so often does, to doing what we can where we are. It may not make the world holy, but it beats doing nothing!

  7. Alison Uhrbach

    Wow! Marjorie… I could certainly learn from you! You are SO right about holding the advice, and giving the love and assistance. I too fall short in doing that (just ask my kids!) but it’s a good mantra to repeat. Our days living in St. Brieux, Saskatchewan gave us opportunity to see many roads like you describe. One trip to the airport we went in and out of the ditch three times (it was early in the season so the snow wasn’t too deep… we just couldn’t see the road!) and another time we did just what you describe… drove straight into a drift in the middle of the road so deep we couldn’t move. We had a car full of teachers on the way to a convention, but we ended up spending the day in a farm house we walked back to along the road… and even spring gave little respite… I got mired down in slush on the road home from working in Melfort and ended up staying overnight, along with several other travellers at yet another farmer’s welcoming home. It’s -30C here today.. but I’m inside my warm home.. and not planning to go anywhere!

    • Marjorie

      Alison – Fun to hear from one (so young) who has experienced similiar roads, weather, and problems! It was the severity of the weather that made our mishap so dangerous. With those temperatures we could not have walked in search of a farm house, one would not have survived very long, and there was nothing in sight. Our farm house where I grew up was on a rise which looked down on a particulary bad strip of road. Every winter we housed travellers who were in the ditch or stuck, could see our house, and made for it. Mom filled beds, gave pillows and blankets for sleeping in chairs, fed people — and when daylight came, or the weather improved Dad would get out his tractor and rescure the traveller’s cars. It was just part of doing what was necessary. MMG

  8. Rosemary

    Gram, what a story! So beautifully written and evocative as always. Thank you for sharing it. Growing up, my sister and I were always amused when we would discover that my father had stocked the trunk of the car with blankets, a shovel, candles and food even for (what we considered) short trips. This story really puts those actions in context! Silly us.
    Much love, Rosemary

    • Marjorie

      Rosemary – Yes – his precautions were not out of order – but it is hard to understand what one has not experienced. Sheldon and I did not have that excuse. We did have warm clothes, etc., in quantities, but none of that would have saved us if the train really had not stopped. Your Granddad’s quick decision to get out to the tracks in a hurry certainly was a vital factor in making this episode have a happy ending! Funny how emotional it was for me to write this blog. The mind’s ability to store not just memories, but emotions, fascinates me. It makes such things as post traumatic stress syndrome something more easily understood. What do you think? Gram