Of Trees and Tripods: Christmas 2002
December 2, 2002
Writing a regular column is kind of a risky business. Writing a regular column for more than thirty-five years is just a blank wall looking to happen. And this year, with my life more quietly desperate than usual and all those Christmas columns been and done, I found myself reaching for just one more and coming up empty. With your kind permission, therefore, I would like to offer you an excerpt from my book, The Cinnamon Mine.
To set the stage a little… In October 1947, my father bought an abandoned construction camp and moved his family to Johnson’s Crossing, a wide place on the Alaska Highway about 80 miles south of Whitehorse. Here, my parents set up a temporary café while Dad prepared to build a tourist lodge, we, my brother Aksel, younger sister, Johanne, and I, attended the one-room school at Brook’s Brook, swelling
that population to about 15 students. Dad often knocked heads with the teacher, Alberta Cox, and she and I had a less-than-happy relationship. Christmas had a way of smoothing over the rough patches.
...All things considered, however, those Brook’s Brook school days were happy ones. The school society mirrored the structure of the larger highway community and as our family was welcomed as neighbours, so were we received as co-students and playmates, bringing with us
reasonable intelligence, vivid imaginations, and good arms, invaluable during
those winter months, in the Great Snowball Wars of ’47 – ’48, and later, in
softball contests between; the Brook’s Brook Beavers and the Teslin
Tigers. As well, I think that no matter
how Miss Cox felt about us, me in particular, and our recalcitrant father, she
must have been overjoyed to have our true and lusty voices for the Christmas
There was not much for entertainment on the Highway in those days. There was a dance once a month, with records for music, refreshments donated by each family and booze bought from the nearest liquor outlet (Whitehorse) with money collected for that purpose. Cribbage tournaments were organized from time to time, as were picnics and skating parties, depending on the season. And there was a weekly movie,
its procurement arranged co-operatively by the Northwest Highway System and CNT
and shown, more or less on a regular schedule, weather and road conditions
permitting its orderly advancement from camp to camp. But the high spot of the year was the Christmas Concert and it
was well attended.
of course, were front and center, ready with applause and cheers. But it also
drew anyone working in the area, including roving mechanics, CNT line crews,
public health nurses or any other government people staying over in the
vicinity. With that kind of interest in
the affair, it was incumbent upon the teacher to come up with a fairly
comprehensive program and the small school population didn’t always provide
much in the way of raw talent.
of the material for the concert was “homegrown” and local characters were
written into it, as in, “I want to be Peter Gorst’s Christmas dolly.” Pete, the CNT lineman, nearly fainted with
the pleasure and confusion of being this singled out. But that winter, Miss Cox produced a three-part operetta entitled
‘The Kidnapping of Santa Claus.’ It was
a lavish production featuring an assortment of fairies and gnomes, the Keepers
of the Northern Lights, Santa Claus and his cat, Socrates. Johanne, with her piquant little face, quick
memory and sweet clear voice, was Socrates to the whiskers in a costume sewn by
Marge Stevenson, made from an old grey blanket. It had a long narrow tail
controlled by a wire hooked over her shoulder and Jo twitched it with abandon
and sang her way to stardom that night. She gave a performance unequalled in subsequent concerts.
other major singing role was that of Titania, Queen of the Fairies. With a sardonic twist to her thin lips, Miss
Cox cast me in the role.
was pleased with the responsibility for I dearly loved to sing, but even at
that age, the irony of the casting was not lost on me. With my round, freckled face, scarred knees
and chubby figure, I was the least queenly, most un-fairylike girl in the
school. But I could sing, and with my
long blonde hair brushed free and shining and in my white crepe paper dress
trimmed with silver tinsel, I felt like Titania that night. Even miss Cox forgot herself and smiled at
me and I grinned back. That camaraderie
was short-lived, however, and when school resumed after the Christmas break, we
were back to our mutual disregard.
was always a major event in our year, too.
My parents went to a lot of trouble to make each one perfect and spared
themselves no effort. The house, in
this case, the roadhouse, was decorated inside and out with spruce boughs,
tinsel and crepe paper bells. A tree,
picked with utmost care and attention, was set up on Christmas Eve morning and
decorated with candles and Danish flags and kramehuse, small red and gold
baskets full of nuts and candies. This
Christmas, Dad decided that he would go one step further with the decorations
and after some figuring with paper and pencil, he and Aksel went outside. There was a rage of hammering and sawing and
presently, we heard the old White start up and drive out to the highway. As we stood watching from the window, with a
great deal of trouble and heroic effort our men erected over the width of the
highway and to the height of about twelve feet, a rather flimsy tripod. Suspended from this structure was a four by
eight sheet of plywood with the words “Merry Christmas” printed upon it in
bright blue letters. It was further enhanced
by a border of spruce boughs. We all
trooped out to admire it.
to greet those that haven’t time to stop,” Dad explained.
a friendly thought, Bubi.” Mom took his
hand as they stood looking. “Do you
think the trucks can pass under?”
sure,” Dad said confidently. “We built
it good and high.”
first truck through took it out.
is easy to imagine the conversation in that long-ago transport:
I musta fallen asleep. Where are we
just coming’ down the hill at JC. You
wanta stop for coffee?”
we better not if we’re gonna make it home in time for Christmas dinner.”
I guess you’re ri…JEE-SUS KEE-RIST, WHAT THE HELL IS THAT ACROSS THE ROAD,
GODDAM, WE’RE GONA HIT…SHEE-IT WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT, ANYHOW?”
if I know, looked like a buncha tree and somethin’ blue. That crazy Dane must be hard up for
business, throwin’ up some kinda barricade…”
of the foregoing happened fifty-five years ago but I can still see my Dad, tall
and stocky in his plaid shirt and bib overalls, thinning red hair waving in the
wind and blue eyes snapping with a fine mixture of rage and consternation, with
a modicum of mirth thrown in for good measure.
And Mom, sympathetic and practical by turn, patting Dad on the arm and
then, with some pleasure, beginning to pick up the splintered bits of two-by-four,
good material for her kindling pile. We
had many, many more Christmases at Johnson’s Crossing. None of them ever had quite the drama of our
now I’m going to leave you with my best wishes for a very merry Christmas of
your own and the hope of a great new year comin’ on. May your Christmas concerts be rewarding, your kramehuse
full of nuts and candies, and your
tripods high enough for the trucks to pass under.