Saturday, June 19, 2010

I Was Young Then

It was late January 1969; I was considerably younger then ... barely out of my teens and it was cold as hell in Manitoba. Hell of a combination. I had heard someplace or other that at its very center, Hell is frozen. I was positive I was there.

“There” in those days was Portage la Prairie Manitoba and as I recall, it was a Sunday night, and the local radio station (CFRY) had announced that we were at -42 F below zero plus wind chill. At that temperature it doesn’t matter Fahrenheit or Celsius (Centigrade) they are both the same reading at that temperature.

As an aside, in the summer of 1969 we stopped an American Tourist (a district attorney from Louisiana... I think Garrison was his name) in a speed trap on the Trans Canada Highway just past the junction of the Yellow Head near the big tree half way to Bagot. He asked us just how cold it got here in the winter ... Dell K piped up with, “I don’t rightly know sir, but if you have to pee outside in January then you have to back up to do it.” That’s how cold it was.

Basically on a night such as this, a member of the RCMP could get himself in trouble by simply driving around ... by being on patrol; so the rule was ... if there is nothing to do, don’t do it out in the middle of a snow storm. Thus we were gathered in the office of the Rural Detachment of the RCMP waiting out our shift, tending to things that needed tending to, playing cards, writing reports, tiding up the office—that sort of thing; basically not doing anything that would come back and bite us.

The phone rang and disturbed our evening. Cst Don C, senior man on duty took the call at the front counter. It took about 4 or 5 min for him to finish whatever it was he was discussing on the phone. Don told us that someone in St Ambroise (Man) wanted to report someone missing. Everyone looked up from what they were doing. This could be serious. Whoever it was that was missing, Don announced, had not been seen for 3 weeks or 4 weeks. Don said there was absolutely no urgency to this because of the time factor and particularly because of the weather; this could wait until the morning. Don was clear; whoever it was that was missing had been missing for weeks ... not hours ... but weeks. Not an urgent matter. So that was that and back to whatever it was that we were doing ... Don told whoever it was on the phone that someone would be in touch in the morning, when the storm had passed.

There was the strongest possibility that the missing man was out on his trap line someplace and that meant he was far away from civilization and deep in the bush. When these men go out on trap lines they often go for weeks if not a month or so at a time. All this could easily mean he was not lost at all but just off in the bush doing his thing.

With all that in hand, Don typed up a C-238 ... an initial complaint form ... to let the day shift know what happened ... and that it was his file to deal with later the next day when he got into the office. Shift change in those days was at 4pm...

We all got back to doing whatever it was that we were doing.

It was blowing like hell outside now ... with the temperature and the wind chill combined it was now affectively more than -60 below zero.

As it turned out, whoever it was that Don talked to on the phone was not a happy camper, so he called the RCMP City Detachment and rattled their cage.

The City Detachment was located in the basement of the City Hall, and a separate entity from the Rural Detachment. S/Sgt Bill M in charge. Whereas we, at the Rural Detachment did not share our space with any level of municipal authority, but instead with Head Office of Chicken Delight Canada at the West end of town and Sgt Chuck (two-gun) H was in charge.

Someone at the city office, probably the desk man, gave our boss’s home phone number out to whoever it was that had called and complained about the missing man ... which was definitely a “no... no.” This was absolutely underhanded and very passive aggressive on the City detachment’s behalf ... they knew that shit would hit the fan ... and it did ... but done is done. It really boiled down to them did not wanting to waste their time handling our stuff.

So in about 10 minutes after Don hung up, a second call came in. Sgt (Two-gun) was on the line and boy was he pissed. He was enquiring, understatement ... just “what the f_ck did we think we were doing?” And that enquiry was followed with a set of orders that were filled with explicative(s) such as “Get your asses the hell out of the office and heading the “f_ck” up to the St Ambroise ... NOW!”

It was further pointed out to us bluntly that we, all of us on duty that evening, would be in his office at 08:30 hours the next morning with a full written report on what the hell happened.

We all knew that Marg, our steno, did not get in until 9 am so it followed that upon our return from the frozen edges of Hades, whenever that was, we would have to sit in the office to the wee small hours of the morning and type out ... an error free by the way ... a report on what transpired.

The trip itself is about 30 km as the crow flies but about 58 km by road.

St Ambroise is dead north of Portage la Prairie on Lake Manitoba’s eastern shore. It is a M├ętis fishing village. What we were doing was appeasing the complainant, not furthering the cause of justice. It was apparent that Sgt (Two-gun) didn’t really give a dam about the missing person but for some reason he wanted us to kiss the ass of the complainant, so off we went into the night and the storm. This guy was someone important to Sgt (Two-gun) and we had to be seen to do what needed to be done.

One of the quirks about the Federal Civil Service is they don’t insure any of their vehicles ... the Crown is seen to be the underwriter. As a federal vehicle operator ... if you damage it ... you pay for it ... regardless.

So here we go out into a -60 white-out to chase after and try and find someone who is in all probability not lost ... and ... we are doing all this at our own peril. It wasn’t really a snow storm because it was too cold to snow. Actually it was ground drift being blown around by the wind that had come up. But it was a white-out, so basically we were driving by the Braille system. It took us about an hour or better to get to St Ambroise. We met the man who called the office who started this whole thing, standing on the edge of the hwy in the village. He looked about as cold and forlorn as I felt.

He pointed us toward the trapper’s shack up the road. It was in the center of a 10 or so acre open field with a willow bush surrounding on two sides with the shack about in the middle. First things first we searched inside the shack and very quickly it became apparent that he had not been here for some time. There was no heat in the place. It had a wood burning stove and it was frozen solid as was everything else in the cabin. It was obvious the place was empty and had been so for some time. There was a thermometer on the wall near the front and only door and it registered -40 inside the shack; just as cold inside the cabin as it was outside except no wind.

There was one consolation to all this as we headed north on PTH #430 we got ahead of the wind and it was as still as still could be ... the northern lights were alive and dancing in the sky and it was a new moon and in the clarity of the cold and crispness of the evening you could see the Milky Way. It was something Robert Service should have written about.

Anyway, after we searched the shack thoroughly, and by this time a number of villagers had come to see what all the fuss was about, we decided that with their help we would search the yard too. It was a fair sized piece of undisturbed ground/snow so we did it the same way mountain search and rescue search for avalanche victims. Long poles or sticks ... form a line and work our way around the yard using the shack as the center of the hub and until we reached the outside of the property and that was most clearly defined at the back of the property ... where the outhouse was. There were some animal tracks but that was it. So what we did was cut branches from the surrounding willow bush and formed a line and about twelve of us began poking holes in the snow to see what we could find. It was predetermined before we started that if we worked our way out through the yard to the outhouse and not found anything then the search would be called off until tomorrow ... and day light ... and the day shift.

It took about an hour and a half to work our way around the yard. We got to the front door of the outhouse. I had the shovel from the trunk of the PC so I dug it out and Don opened and looked in. No one there, nothing just a very frozen copy of last year’s Eaton’s Catalogue and a very frosty one “holer”.

It was at that point where we had all agreed to call it quits for the night. It was now well after mid night. It was cold as hell and the wind and ground drift had started up.

Don said, “Just a second.” and he waded his way through the waist deep snow, actually the snow was old and crusted so he broke through the crust step by step and then he waded his way to the backside of the outhouse.

All I heard was ... and clearly too was  ... “Oh F_ck!”

My turn, I waded through the snow, in his tracks because he broke the crust and there before us and seated on the wood pile behind the outhouse was our missing man, Mr Alfred D. Deader than a door nail and frozen solid ... I mean hard as a rock; eyes wide open and just staring off toward the western horizon. I commented something to the same effect as Don had done ... “Oh F_ck?” Mine was more a “now what do we do” “Oh F_ck” then it was anything else.

Don filled the space formed by my “Oh F_ck” with, “Call Portage City and get either an ambulance or hearse to come pick this guy up.”

City Detachment radioed back in about five minutes that the ambulance would not come to pick up the nearly departed in this weather because they may be needed for someone alive in Portage.

There were two funeral homes in Portage at the time and one of the owners was dead drunk and his wife would not let him out of house.

As an aside most of the single guys would spend part of their time off at that funeral home in the casket room with this particular proprietor because he was lonely and wanted drinking partners and we were young and broke and could not afford to drink but he could so he supplied it and we kept him company.

There are rumours afoot that a certain member of the Force who later rose high in the commissioned ranks (Assistant Commissioner) was actually locked in a coffin one evening as a practical joke while everyone else who was there got themselves well oiled.

The owner of the second funeral home had a brand new hearse and he was not taking his new hearse out on a night such as this for a 100 km jaunt.

It had come full circle now and we were back to my “Oh F_ck” and what do we do now?

Because of the intense cold and wind chill factor we had left the Police Car running ... standard practice in those days ... for fear if you shut it off and left it, it could freeze up and then you are royally f_cked ...

By the time I got back with the news that we were basically on our own with the dearly departed, Don had pried the gentleman off the wood pile with a crow bar he found in the shed. There he was laying there in a perfect sitting position. Now the solution was both obvious and simple ... if we are getting home this evening/morning this man was travelling with us.

Don said “go roll the windows down in the car,” ... cool it off basically. With the help of several of the villagers we got our man to the car and set him in the back seat ... sitting up of course and strapped in.

Now this is where it gets interesting.

The storm was blowing like hell south of us; raging was the term the dispatcher at the City Detachment called it. Winnipeg AM radio stations were reporting the main hwys closed ... XJL201 ... police radio in Winnipeg (RCMP D Div HQ) confirmed that all unnecessary police travel was to be curtailed forth with. Basically unless it was full blown emergency everyone was grounded. It was just beginning to blow where we were.

It didn’t take long ... everything was done ... the dearly departed was identified by those at the scene... we had his wallet and his out dated drivers licence that said he was who he was reported to be. A family member, his sister I think had identified him to us as being who he was.

There was no indication of foul play in anyway shape or form.

It was now a done deal.

Pictures had been taken ... the scene measured for a plan diagram or sketch should there be a need. “I dent” could come out in the morning if it were thought to be necessary; but like all other HQ vehicles they were grounded by the storm.

Now all we had to do was get our man to the morgue, write it up and go home and sleep a little, then deal with the boss in the morning.

The storm was raging south of us and the wind was picking up where we were. The ground drift was beginning to move the snow into drifts across the hwy. We loaded up and headed south and in a very few moments we were into the storm full force. You could feel the car bucking the snowdrifts across the hwy. The headlights in combination with driving snow made visibility nearly zero to the point it was hard to see the hood ornament of our car (a 1969 Plymouth as I recall). So our progress forward was being measured in speeds of less than 10 mph. The defroster had quit working and we had to keep scraping the frost off of the windshield on the inside of the car. When we got to St Marks corner an apparition jumped out of the snow storm at us. He was dressed in a too small bomber jacket, shoes with no socks ... No hat or toque or gloves but with a large paper bag in his left hand ... it, the bag and probably its contents, obviously came from the liquor store.

We missed him ... Thank God!

Don rolled down his window and had to yell to be heard over the wind, “Where are you goin’?”

Our new found friend said he was headed to Portage to the Native Friendship Center. The Native Friendship Center was still over 40 clicks away. Considering it was well beyond -60 ... and he was drunk and ill clad ... Don said, “Jump in! We’ll give you a ride.”

So the hitchhiker got in the back with his bottle of whatever in the bag. We were off into the storm. It took about an hour and a half to go the 40 clicks. All the way to town we could here our drunken friend mumbling to himself in the back seat.

Don pulled up in front of the Friendship Center. By now it was nearly 3:30 in the morning. Our passenger got out and said in his thick native teeth clinched drawl, “I’d like to thank you yellow stripped bastards for givin’ me a ride to town anyways ... But your friend over dare is no damned good ... he won’t speak to me ... anyways.”

He slammed the door and walked into the Friendship Center complete with his bag of whatever...

We laughed and headed to the hospital.

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