Once upon a time in the Northland the river was the road, the wheels were paddles and time stretched long.
They were called “the good old days.” Time, war and technology pushed them aside with a chain of airports, and thousands of warplanes heading to Russia. A road followed the next year, with vehicles galore, bringing some new good old days, and new people with new stories.
Dust came with the Alcan, the Alaska Highway – or The Road, as we usually called it. Eighteen-wheelers kicking up dust clouds reminded us of the Dirty Thirties as we picked the grit from our teeth.
The truckers kept us on their side, flashing rear-facing lights, signaling it was safe to pass – a trust which never failed. But they couldn’t stop the gravel, which came with the dust, from meeting windshields where cracks and curses came together.
It wasn’t long after V-J Day (Victory over Japan Day), August 15, 1945, when post war ads were promising nylons for the gals, and no more flat tires for the guys. Tubeless tires would do it they said, and they were soon on our ’41 Olds.
Aha, post war-good old days are upon us, eh?
Well, those tubeless tires were great until they met a forty below morning, and then these bloody new tires went flat. One morning I began the day with two flats, but one spare. Cracked windshield cursing was Sunday school teacher talk that morning as I put tubes back in all of them.
The post-war era brought all kinds of new things in addition to nylons and tubeless tires. Instant coffee in a jar, a new food fashion, with new tailor-made fags, replaced perked coffee, and twisted cigarettes.
Smoking was in then. From Grandma to me, our family puffed. Father, mother, aunts, uncles and spouses – it was a shock to my fiancé. But she loved Grandma Dewey who smoked Millbank and hoisted her ankle length skirt almost to her waist to get ’em from the top of her stocking, where she kept that bright yellow package.
My friend Vic Johnson smoked a pipe, a pipe putterer, waving it like a baton while praising the North country, which was his true addiction. He went Outside once, maybe twice in two decades. And he grieved for anyone who had to, or heaven forbid, wanted to move Outside.
Vic Johnson’s strength became legend, lifting 45-gallon drums of fuel. He had moral strength, too. Once, when a bully, big enough to challenge him was hassling a friend, Gentleman Vic, who seldom cursed, said to the man politely, “I think you should stop bothering my friend.”
The usual retort came, “Yeh, you and who else will stop me?”
Friends told me Vic reached forward, with his right arm, grasped the bully by his shirt and tie simply lifted him off the floor, held him there a few moments and set him down.
The stranger said, “Yes, sir,” and left.
Vic fits well into this tribute from an unnamed sourdough:
“This is a hard, demanding country. For the most part it has always attracted the more self-reliant, individualistic and adventurous type of people. Most asked little of others but gave freely of themselves. They were people worth knowing and people worth remembering.”
Vic was happiest with a puzzle to solve, a machine to free from a bog, or maybe a 50-mile walk to his friend’s place.
He approached his final hours the same way. He left the good old days behind for a new challenge, a new adventure.