Fire building

🕔Jun 13, 2011

For three glorious summer weeks Daniel has listened to radio shows and read Hardy Boys books. He has stayed up late and slept in. Every evening he has left his quiet house and slowly bicycled the streets of his neighbourhood. He waves to Mrs. Harris at her laundry line with a mouthful of wooden clothespegs. He passes Widow Sousa’s where she is cooking at her stove by the window. Outside the Ribeiros’ he stops and pretends to fiddle with a stubborn chain, but really he is listening to the noise from their full house: nine children talking and banging, a booming father’s voice and a non-stop Portuguese mother’s voice; sometimes a baby crying.

He fills himself up with the sounds of people talking and pots clanging, then pedals by Widow Sousa’s again where she often calls him in to share dinner. She pinches his arms and pokes his ribs. “Too skinny!” she exclaims. Later, back at home, he listens to more radio then crawls into bed when he’s tired.

But Daniel knows, as sure as Widow Sousa’s marshmallow salad solidifying in her refrigerator, that his freedom will soon end. There have been signs.

The first sign is the overtime shifts. Harv has taken every available overtime shift at the smelter. Days and nights go by when Daniel doesn’t see Harv at all; the only evidence that he lives in the same house is the growing number of folded cigarette butts in the ashtray on the kitchen table and the occasional pale parboiled pork chop in a pan. When Harv isn’t at the smelter, his sharp-finned Chev is parked at George’s Tavern, and then Daniel knows Harv is getting his gambling in.

After the overtime shifts and the card-playing, the next sign is the woodpile. Daniel bicycles up the driveway and, no matter what time of day or night, there is a helter-skelter pile of split wood around the chopping block. He never sees Harv lift the axe. It is lodged in the cutting block so deep that Daniel can heave all his weight against the handle and it won’t budge. The facts of firewood have been drilled into Daniel; Harv splits it during the summer and Daniel stacks it up in neat, tall, straight rows against the garage wall. He is careful to leave a peephole between the chunks of wood so the air can circulate.

The last sign is the woodpile, and Daniel’s dread grows with it: with every piece of wood that he stacks he knows he is getting closer to their annual summer camp-out.

Tin plates and bedrolls
Harv whistles a happy tune as he drags the camping trunk down the hallway and begins clanging tin plates and sorting bedrolls on the kitchen table. The smell of musty canvas, mothballs and woollen blankets wafts to Daniel, who wishes he could make himself really small on the couch behind his book in hopes that Harv might walk out the front door and forget him. But Harv snaps open a hand-drawn map of the Kitimat Range and booms from behind it, “Get your rucksack packed, boy. We depart at first light!”

Daniel drifts into the kitchen. Harv looks up at him, studies his face as if estimating the weight of a salmon dangling off a fishhook, then nods his chin in recognition. It is the first time they have been in the same room since the snow went off Robson Ridge. Harv notices the boy has grown again; Daniel’s trousers are revealing his ankles, and an Adam’s apple now bobs on his throat.

Daniel pours himself a Kool-Aid and studies a patch of black mould on the canvas that will be their roof for the next three weeks. Harv is wiping the jackknife with his undershirt. Daniel says, “In the mall, at The Bay, I saw a tent that has a sewn-in floor and zipper doors and…”

Harv interrupts the sales pitch, “No dice, Daniel.” He shakes his head. “Tents don’t need bottoms sewed in them. To think, a man goes camping and doesn’t want to lie on the ground! A few logs short of a full load, I say.”

Daniel picks up a stack of typewritten pages and leafs through them. Harv is writing an outdoor manual for the Kitimat valley. Every year since Daniel can remember, while other families from Kitimat ventured away for city experiences—to see traffic congestion and ride escalators—he and Harv have trekked through the undergrowth with a compass, paraffin-dipped matches and four-inch blades bound to their belts.

Into the bush
These “vacations” spent slogging through the bush lead to chapter revisions for Harv. 1961: “Touch that plant Daniel—let’s see if it’s poisonous.” Or, in 1962: “See how close you can get to that porcupine, boy.” Last year, 1963, was their Navigation chapter. They left their compasses at home and were to use the stars and streams for navigation. With 10 days of rain and low cloud and nary a star to be glimpsed, they tried following the meandering Kitimat River back to town but became lost fording the confluence creeks. They scaled shale cliffs searching for the telltale industrial smoke plumes of Kitimat. The Kitimat Boy Scout league had formed while they were in the woods and overzealous pack-leader Clark marched the troop out on their first-ever search-and-rescue mission, their knee socks pulled up and red cravats fluttering through the skunk cabbages.

Harv and Daniel, who had climbed onto a rocky outcrop, spotted the troop marching toward a mosquito-infested bog. Harv pounded the blunt end of his axe against a hollow tree, a signal the scout leader recognized and found instantly unnerving. By sheer authority of his grizzled appearance, Harv was able to convince the troop that it was he who had rescued them. The Kitimat Sentinel covered the story and featured a front-page photo of Harv and Daniel. Harv’s chest was puffed out and his thick mitt of a hand rested on Daniel’s thin shoulder. If you look closely you can see the scouts in the background, but you can’t tell from the photo if their eyes are swollen from crying or from their mosquito bites.

Harv’s wilderness book has grown like a poison-ivy rash, yet he is always in search of another, better chapter. Standing in the kitchen while Harv lays out two forks, two tin plates and one blackened cast-iron frying pan, Daniel dares to ask what this year’s chapter will be. Harv looks up with a twinkle in his brown eyes, lights a cigarette and pulls his ashtray over. Exhaling a cloud of smoke, he leans his chair back and says, “Fire building!” The Hardy Boys supposedly made fires by rubbing sticks together, and torches from branches, but Daniel doesn’t think any of their adventures have been in a rainforest.

Harv squints one eye against the smoke from the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth and shuffles his hand-sketched maps. Daniel fiddles with the brass rings on his canvas pack and thinks about his one change of underwear, socks and trousers, all that Harv allows him to bring. Harv says, to no one in particular, “We’ll try the Claque Mountain side this year. Hike up here, behind the paper mill and explore this other side. We could make it lickety-split around the snow-caps and back to saltwater.” When Daniel leaves the kitchen Harv is talking about saving grouse bones to make fish-hooks.

Last week, Widow Sousa put out a fire in her kitchen with a box of powder from her cupboards. Daniel will bicycle over there now and ask to have a box of that. He doesn’t want to make the front page again.