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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

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 concert.

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.  

Parents, 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.

Much 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.

The 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.

I 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.

Christmas 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.

“It’s to greet those that haven’t time to stop,” Dad explained.

“It’s a friendly thought, Bubi.”   Mom took his hand as they stood looking.   “Do you think the trucks can pass under?”

“Oh sure,” Dad said confidently.   “We built it good and high.”

The first truck through took it out.

It is easy to imagine the conversation in that long-ago transport:

“Jeez, I musta fallen asleep.   Where are we anyway, Mike?”

“We’re just coming’ down the hill at JC.   You wanta stop for coffee?”

“Naw, we better not if we’re gonna make it home in time for Christmas dinner.”


“Damn 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…”

All 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 first.

And 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.

Love and kisses,



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