Friday, September 23, 2011

The exploding kid brother

In '79 I lived in Edmonton and worked in a shit-hole truck repair shop. Good money but the work sucked. Some of it was ok. We'd shorten up the frame rails on a tandem dump truck to make it into a highway tractor. Next job might be splicing fifteen feet into the frame rails of a highway tractor to turn it into a tanker truck. That was a common job. In those days they were still trucking the tar from the Alberta tar sands to the refineries on the east side of Edmonton. Today it all moves by pipeline.

So my kid brother comes out to stay with me awhile. Sixteen years old. Kicked out of school. Kicked out of the family abode. Loose ends. Can I hang out with you for a bit, till I get on my feet? Sure thing bro. Brotherly love and all that shit.

He Greyhounds in from Toronto and settles on the couch of the one-bedroom basement place I've got on Sixteenth Ave. When I say settles I mean he settles. Give him a few days to get over the bus lag, figure something's gonna happen soon. Something like him getting a job maybe.

That put me in a bit of an awkward quandry. "Get a job." Like, I'd only heard that from the old man a couple thousand times. Funny thing was, I almost always had a job. It was just one of the things dads had to say back in the day. It was right next to "get a haircut" in Dr. Spock's Guide to Being a Dorkshit Dad. I was the big brother who had to act like the dorkshit.

After a month there ain't much happening on the job front. Once a week or so I'd get a visit from the super in the building about the music being too loud in my place. At two in the afternoon, while I was at work. Then there was the business about the "radiation hazard" warning sign that showed up in the window of my apartment. Can't even imagine where he scared that up, but it scared the shit out of the other residents. I was starting to get a little pissed.

Meanwhile, some of the jobs I had to do were mighty unpleasant. The one that stands out to this day is when we had to do the repair on the offal tanker. Offal is the stuff that's left over at a slaughterhouse, the stuff they can't even make chicken fingers or hot dogs out of. They pump this bio-sludge into the tanker and it goes wherever offal goes. So this particular offal tanker has had some serious dings to the tank, and we have to go inside to do a partial re-skin.

The shop steam-cleaned every truck before it came through the door. You can't begin to imagine how much stuff was in that tanker that survived the steaming. There was about a two inch crust coating the entirety of the inside of that tanker. Semi-dried, semi-rotten, and fully steam-cleaned animal guts. And every square inch of the inside of that tanker was just teeming with maggots, even after the steam cleaning.

Since you're in there to peel away the stainless steel skin, you have to get rid of the maggot layer first. So you'd climb in there, pulling the oxy-acetylene hoses in behind you, hook up a good-size rose-bud, and sit there burning the fucking maggots off the walls of the tank. The one and only redeeming feature of that job was that the boss never climbed into the tank to check on your work. Once I learned to handle my gag reflex, I found I could take the Globe in there, take 500 page library books in there, nobody ever asked any questions.

Nevertheless it was a hellish job, and to come home after twelve hours of that to find The Kid chilling out on the couch got to be really stressful, and I was afraid sooner or later things were gonna blow up. In two months the only gesture he had made towards finding employment was to register at the Farm Labour Exchange. One visit to one office accomlished that, and meanwhile he's hanging at my apartment, playing my records too loud on my stereo, drinking my beer, eating my groceries, smoking my weed, waiting for my phone to ring. Brotherly love only goes so far.

Just when I thought it was all over, the phone rang. He got a job in Hinton, a couple hours east of Edmonton, on a ranch on the northern plains. Wheeehaaa! We partied hard that night, and I took the next day off to drive him to Hinton.

Couple of days later I come home from work and there's a note under my door. "Dear next of kin" it started out. Fuck me. I put the kid up, put up with the kid for two months, he finally gets a job, now what the fuck is this? I race out to the Hinton hospital. He's splayed out on a bed wrapped in bandages from head to foot, just his eyes peeking out. In the next room is his boss, splayed out on a hospital bed, wrapped up from head to foot, just his eyes peeking out.

Turned out that The Kid had been given a house trailer on the ranch to call his own. Second morning on the job, he's just waking up on his mattress on the floor of the trailer, and the boss opens the door. The Kid awakes, greets the boss, and lights a smoke.

They figure it was a leaky propane tank. When The Kid lit up, the trailer blew up. The boss landed a hundred yards away. The Kid was still lying on his mattress, but his trailer was gone, scattered over about forty acres. I saw it. It was inconceivable that anyone survived that. But they both did.

The Hinton hospital was a small place, but they brought burn specialists in from Edmonton and Calgary  to treat my brother. Two weeks later I was able to go and pick him up. They'd tried some experimental stuff. In two weeks his burned skin was looking more or less normal again, whereas the boss was still a deep red colour. He didn't get the experimental stuff.

On graduation day I figure I'll do something nice for The Kid, so I show up with a baggie and a twelve pack and we're rolling down the highway to Edmonton. The hospital had sent him off with a goodly supply of opiates for his pain. Don't know what the hell happened, but we completely overshot Edmonton and the next thing I know we're in the vicinity of Mt. Robson. When I say in the vicinity I mean we're on a logging road in the middle of a snow-storm about a quarter of the way up it.

It was already May or June, but May or June brings blizzards to these parts. And we're stuck on this logging road. Getting where we got involved a lot of hills and dales and hairpins. Like a lot of logging roads, it doesn't tell you at the outset what the driving conditions might be like. I was driving the '77 Impala, the one with the 350 Corvette motor. The further we went on the logging road the deeper the snow got. When we finally couldn't make it up the next hill, we figured we'd back up over the last one.

No can do. The 350 didn't have quite enough juice to get the speed required to get up the last hill in reverse. The snow kept falling. Eventually we managed to get the car turned around. This allowed a lot more speed, but we still couldn't get out of the valley we were in. We tried everything. Let a little air out of the tires for better traction. Not good enough.

Finally decided to put The Kid in the trunk for extra traction. Gave it for all she was worth. The 350 was just a-screaming. Must have hit a hundred miles an hour in the trough between the two hills. Got so damned close to the crest, and then we woulda been home free. But it was not to be. I put the car in neutral and called out to my brother in the trunk. Sorry man, I think we're fucked. No answer. Yo, Kid, you ok? No answer. I get out and walk around back. He's not in the trunk! I look down the hill. There he is, a tiny speck in the distance, heading my way.

He'd fallen out the trunk at the bottom of the hill, just as we'd hit our peak speed. Holy shit! I felt kinda bad. Backed up to meet him. He was none the worse for wear. We sat in the car and finished the last of the beers and pondered our options.

Out of beer. His two week supply of pain-killers getting dangerously low. Bag of weed the same. Stuck on a logging road on the lower flanks of Mt. Robson in a spring blizzard. We were fucked.

It was just getting dark when the miracle happened. Lights coming our way. Four wheel drive pick-up pulls up. We're sitting there, a little heap of empties on either side of the car. Guy gets out of the truck and walks over, surveying the scene. First thing he says is, "you guys wouldn't know anything about these empty beer bottles, would ya?"

No sir.
Nope.

Turns out he was checking on a gas well or something. He couldn't check his well with us in his way, so even though he seemed to have misgivings, he towed us to the top of the hill, and we were outa there. That was sheer euphoria! Within five minutes you go from certain death to the certainty of survival.

Well, that would have been the end of a busy busy day, except that when we reached Edmonton and drove by the Colliseum, which was about three blocks from the apartment, the sign out front  said "Tonight: Triumph in Concert." Triumph were a pretty hot band at the time. Hey man, wanna see if it's sold out? We got in the arena just as the headliners were coming on. Great show.

The Kid made a full recovery from his injuries. To this day he still refers to this day, the day I picked him up at the hospital, as the best day of his life.

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