Writer’s Block: Prairie Knights

When dis­as­ter strikes, these brave souls an­swer the call

Our Canada - - Features | Departments - By Gord Young, Peter­bor­ough

When tragedy strikes, this band of brave souls can be counted on to come to the res­cue.

The wind moaned in the eaves and, from the up­stairs win­dow, I watched the grainy snow sift­ing into the pock­ets of the fence­lines. The sil­ver moon hung high in an inkblack night sky— a most typ­i­cal mid­win­ter’s night on the Prairies.

En­gi­neer Gabe Pot­ter was al­ready whistling for the Mccabe Road cross­ing to the east; he had the all mail-ex­press train that nor­mally roared by the sta­tion at 11:15 p.m.

Down­stairs, Fa­ther was dili­gently lis­ten­ing to the tele­graph, ready to re­port Pot­ter as be­ing on time. I should have been in bed, but it turns out that some­times be­ing dis­obe­di­ent can be help­ful.

I watched as the train swiftly emerged from “the cut,” its head­light pierc­ing the hall­way win­dow. Sud­denly, with­out warn­ing, I no­ticed the un­manned mail-ex­press car be­hind the en­gine be­gin to wob­ble. I knew it must be a bro­ken wheel, and that was not good.

I yelled to the whole house for ev­ery­one to get out. This time, they did not ar­gue with me.

Mother, wrapped in her thread­bare win­ter coat, took Meg­gie in her arms while I grabbed Sam and we hur­ried down the stairs. Fa­ther, shiv­er­ing, waited at the open door as we came down.

The five of us turned and ran and ran, sec­onds be­fore a loud crash­ing and splin­ter­ing of wood sig­nalled the ex­press driv­ing into the sta­tion where fa­ther had been sit­ting mo­ments ago.

The cold air burned our lungs as we watched the cars be­gan to pile up and scat­ter in a gen­er­ally good smash-up.

Within min­utes, the grand old sta­tion that was our home be­gan to burn as the train hit the pot­belly stoves up­stairs and be­low.

Meg­gie be­gan to wail, as her pre­cious dol­lies would be no more. Sam just looked be­wil­dered, un­able to com­pre­hend what was happening.

Towns­folk soon gath­ered, along with the vol­un­teer fire de­part­ment and their two nearly new Fargo fire trucks. Gar­dener’s drug­store was warm and toasty—we stood in­side, quite un­able to un­der­stand what ex­actly would hap­pen to us.

As more train cars caught fire, it was ob­vi­ous it would be a nasty night’s work out there.

Kelly Gar­dener gave me a pair of his snow boots and a warm parka so that I could fol­low Fa­ther back to the burn­ing sta­tion.

We were met by Pot­ter the en­gi­neer, who had a bloody gash on his head and was cry­ing for his young fire­man, Hec Robb, who was se­ri­ously burned, ly­ing on the en­gine’s cab floor. Doc­tor Petr Fo­doski had been sum­moned and was on his way.

The ex­press en­gine was prop­erly jack­knifed around the steel bridge that crossed Wil­low Creek—it would take a lot of work to get things back to nor­mal.

While Pot­ter was be­ing ban­daged by Mr. Gar­dener, others were out on the bridge try­ing to help

young Hec Robb.

Fa­ther was help­ing the crew, so I crossed the bridge and headed for the tele­graph box by the switch that led into the cream­ery sid­ing, to tele­graph Regina about the wreck and ad­vise them to halt all trains.

Phil Vesh­ski had his cream­ery truck backed over the east­bound tracks so they could put Robb and Pot­ter on the truck bed and run them to the hospi­tal some 20 miles east. Blan­kets had ap­peared out of nowhere to make a proper bed and cov­ers. The left side of Robb’s face had been badly scalded when he was thrown for­ward, break­ing one of the many steam feed pipes. Sev­eral wide planks were hastily ham­mered into a makeshift stretcher for Robb. Where did all these men ap­pear from so sud­denly?

I had never seen the lo­cal farm­ers all to­gether in our town, all at the same time— ex­cept for the Thanks­giv­ing Fall Fair din­ner held at the ice rink over in Wadensk.

Men of Pol­ish and Ukrainian de­scent spoke in gut­tural Ger­man while help­ing to lift Robb out of the en­gine cab or gin­gerly lead­ing en­gi­neer Pot­ter to Vesh­ski’s truck. Once both en­gine crew mem­bers were taken care of and had been rushed to hospi­tal, the men turned to help the fire­men.

The many vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers were hav­ing a dif­fi­cult time try­ing to con­tain the grow­ing blaze fanned by the bit­ter breeze in bru­tal sub- zero weather. I head sirens scream­ing as more vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers were com­ing from Waverly in the east and Wy­d­mark in the west.

Back at the Gar­den­ers’ drug­store, Jean Melchuk brought over a cou­ple of still-boxed dolls to help com­fort Meg­gie. The cream­ery then opened its va­cant em­ployee house for us to use in­def­i­nitely, and clothes, blan­kets and es­sen­tials seemed to come from ev­ery­where all of a sud­den. How kind the en­tire com­mu­nity was to my fam­ily.

Mother wept openly when sev­eral Waverly fire­fight­ers brought her boxes loaded with her grand­mother’s china, which had been stored in the cor­ner of the freight shed along with a few other pre­cious, ir­re­place­able heir­looms. Fam­ily photos were sooty but safe, and that brought a few tears to my oth­er­wise stoic fa­ther. They also gave Mother a roll of bills, but I never knew the amount.

That night I saw for my­self why these brave, self­less vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers are truly the knights of the Prairies.

By morn­ing, the fires were out and the dam­age was ev­i­dent. The two-storey sta­tion was a to­tal loss and the freight shed would have to be re­built. The rail­way brought in wreck­ing crews with two mas­sive hooks (cranes) and huge jacks to try and get the en­gine off the bridge.

It took two days and a lot of curs­ing to get the lo­co­mo­tive out and traf­fic back to nor­mal, but that morn­ing af­ter the fire, the kind­ness of the Prairies kept us warm as the sky shone a bright blue and the snow crys­tals daz­zled—a prom­ise of a bet­ter fu­ture. n

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