There are many kinds of snow. I have heard that there are dozens of words in Inuit languages to describe the many different kinds of snow and ice with incredible nuance and accuracy and this seems altogether reasonable for a people who spend most of their time in such an environment. Likely, there is a corresponding wealth of words describing sand, dunes and wind in the desert regions of the world.
This Texan knows only two kinds of snow. Wet snow or cole snass as it is referred to in Chinook jargon and the lovely delicate powder which travels great distances sideways before ever falling, which we have here in Lillooet. It can be so fine that you have to look at a light pole and block the bulb with your hand to be able to discern the crystalline shower which is revealed in the aurora.
Wet snow accumulates directly in a place like Vancouver, while here in the canyon, it drifts in the wind until anchored by an obstruction. When I first came to North Vancouver as a boy from Louisiana, it was December and the snow was a couple of feet deep in Lynn Valley. The chain link fence surrounding the elementary school was completely hidden under the combination of drifted and plowed snow. I remember the thrill of walking up and over the top with my sister in our first pairs of wellies from Zellers.
I got acquainted with shoveling snow that first winter due to having lost one too many snooker games with my apartment manager’s son. In those years, the winters were fairly consistent and by the time I reached high school and began my drivers training, there were components of that instruction specific to winter driving. A nice man would come to the front of the old Argyle Senior Secondary right after school in a small car with two steering wheels and pick up the waiting student.
My Dad had recently issued orders for me to take that driver training and to buy a vehicle from the proceeds of my night job. According to him, I was to be fully ready to leave home by the age of seventeen. While I was growing up he used to ask me from time to time how old I was and when I answered, he would subtract my answer from seventeen and say, “Well there’s only that many years left until I want you out of here.” I never figured out the significance of that number other than it was two years later than he had gone out into the wide world.
The Driving School instructor was a jolly confidant middle aged man and a very different teacher than my father. The first thing he showed me in order to relax the situation was that if I screwed up, he could steer and brake for both of us. This made me immensely grateful and he demonstrated this a few times as we cruised out of the school zone. We pulled over again and he briefed me like a pilot on the function of all the controls of that particular vehicle. When he figured I had absorbed as much as I could for the moment he did something unexpected. He told me a joke.
“A man from the Government had to go to River View Asylum to assess the progress they were making with their patients. He was to file a report which would recommend either increased funding or closure of the facility. He arrived, grabbed his briefcase and entered the massive complex. There were a few inmates outdoors on the green sward that looked over the Fraser River, apparently tending some scraggly sheep which bleated as he passed indoors."
"The Director was expecting him and greeted him before he had walked ten feet toward the reception desk. The tall balding man pumped his hand, offered him coffee and grinned like a used truck salesman. The old battleship linoleum floor had a hard wax shine that would have done justice to a bowling alley and everywhere staff members in a variety of color coded uniforms strode to and fro with the purpose of pastel Corporals delivering messages to the War Room."
"Suitably impressed, the Government man smiled and accepted the offer of refreshments. He was escorted into a spotless cafeteria and given a piping hot mug of coffee and a fresh bran muffin studded with fat juicy raisins. While he sipped and chewed, the Director fleshed out the work carried on at his facility with special attention given to his new initiatives that had yielded such promising results after decades of failure. It was these new initiatives that had prompted the call for increased funding and the subsequent assessment."
"After a chat, the Government man smiled and said that he would like to have a tour of the different floors and see the inmates and patients for himself. The Director said he would be delighted and proud to accommodate that request. First they walked down the hall of a lower floor. All the doors were open and there was a happy racket coming from a set of double doors. They approached and the Director pushed the panic bars open to reveal a gleaming gymnasium where about twenty adults both male and female were having games of indoor soccer. They were so obviously having a wonderful time that they didn’t even look up."
"Next, they went to the second floor where people suffering from slightly more serious forms of mental illness were housed. This hall had several medium sized rooms at the end and as they peeked into each one, it was revealed that these inmates were busily and happily engaged in playing pool, table tennis, shuffleboard and Foosball. They looked up briefly at the two gentlemen and grinned."
"At the next floor up, the room doors had little windows with sliding shutters and the Director had to use a special card to activate the elevator. They strolled down to a series of smaller rooms and peered into each one. There were people playing cribbage, chess and other board games. Most of these were elderly and the Director elaborated on his vision of using physical activity, sports and such as the way to rehabilitate the psyches of the unfortunates."
"With only one floor left to tour, the Government man followed his guide up the elevator, almost like an old friend, such was the respect that he had developed for the brilliant showing. He was already composing a favorable report in his head when the Director broke into his thoughts. He explained that they were now on the maximum security floor with the most dangerous and difficult population of the facility. With a firm squeeze on the shoulder, he steered the Government man into the corridor and added that he would likely be surprised how well his strategy had worked even there on that floor."
"The first inmate they encountered stood a few yards away down the hall and was miming the action of a man serving a tennis ball. The Government man asked if he could speak to the inmate. With no hesitation, the Director said, “Yes by all means.”
“Hi,” said the Government man. “What are you doing today?”
“Oh Hi,” said a frail old man in a stained blue bathrobe. “I’m on the sports therapy program. I’m practicing my serve. Soon I’ll go down to the lower floors and get to play in the gym. When I get out of here next year, I want to go on to be a tennis pro.”
“That’s incred…, I mean that’s wonderful!” gushed the Government man and with a grin he continued down the hall to another figure. It was a middle-aged woman. She was dressed in faded pink pajamas and fuzzy slippers. She appeared to be swinging an invisible stick and had on a huge visor cap and plastic sunglasses."
“Hi Ann, why don’t you tell our guest what you are doing today,” said the Director.
“Hi you guys. I am getting out of here in the Fall. Right now I am on the sports rehabilitation program and I am practicing my golf swing. When I go home, I am going pro, what ever it takes.”
"The Director thanked her and smiled at the Government man. His guest smiled back and said he had seen quite enough. As they strolled down toward the elevator, the Government man wiped a tear from the corner of his eye and intimated to the Director that this tour had indeed changed his viewpoint on mental illness and his perspective as to its treatment. He said that he had been deeply touched in an almost religious sense. Arms thrown over each others shoulders, they walked down the tiles like brothers on a fishing pier. Over by the elevator, silhouetted by the light from a small reinforced window they saw another man."
"He was perhaps thirty, of average height and barefooted. He was wearing a pale green hospital gown turned backwards. He spun around to face the two approaching men but kept his attention focused on his own hands. He gripped a peanut, still in its shell, between his thumbs and forefingers. He held it tightly onto the tip of a massive erection."
"The Director let out a small groan when the Government man broke stride and approached the figure alone."
“Hi, friend. Can you tell me what you are doing today?”
“Sure can, dude. I’m fucking nuts and I’m going to be here for a long, long time.”
When we finished laughing, we took off and began driving lesson number one. Over the course of that Winter, my instructor took me up to the parking lot of Mt. Seymour to learn skid control and other techniques for Winter driving. He would barrel us into a skid and let me pull us out of it.
I can still hear him shouting, “Steer into it Mike, don’t hit the binders or we’re gonna be here for a long, long time.”
Just as my father had excelled at throwing mountains in my path and then ordering me to go up the slippery roads, my driving instructor showed me how to regain and to maintain control while navigating them. His other gift to me was the exposition of the power of humor by example. I just turned sixty yesterday and I still think of him.
On the final day’s road test we had been up the mountain, on the highway, into Vancouver, over both bridges and were finally coming West down Lynn Valley Road approaching Mountain Highway. I licked my lips involuntarily when I spied the Cockney Kings Fish and Chips booth up ahead. There in a small structure, the size of a generous phone booth, the man with the funny accent would fry you up two fat pieces of cod, roll a cone of old newspapers, fill it with steaming chips and deposit the beer-battered fish on top for less than two bucks. A shake of salt and a dowsing of malt vinegar and you were impervious to the cold for hours to come.
I cruised down the hill and thought of the joy of the open road. The road was hard-packed salted frozen snow and had turned the color of ash. I eased off the gas when I judged that I was close enough to the approaching stop signal. Just as I did so, an unseen cat leaped over the snow bank on the passenger side and bee-lined for the Jack and Jill Superette across the street. The creature sprinted like a cheetah and its path, speed and angle were perfectly timed to meet my right front wheel.
There was a horrifying crunch, a small bump and then another. I kept straight as an arrow and gently braked for the red light. I remember looking in the rear view mirror and hearing my instructor say that it was surely dead. Snow had already started to cover the carcass and soon it would be frozen stiff. I immediately imagined some rarely used paper that barred me from driving in all British Commonwealth Countries, Territories or Colonies.
“I...I didn’t see it in time,” I stammered.
“Pull over after the light, Mike.”
I pulled over in the little strip mall in front of a Mac’s Milk Store. My face was white and my ears were red. The instructor told me that we were done for the day, done for the lessons and done for the test. I waited for the bad news and tried to figure out what I would tell my father. After making some marks on his clipboard, my teacher turned and spoke to me.
“Mike, listen to me carefully. You did exactly the right thing back there. On a road such as this one on this day in this weather, it would have been foolhardy to attempt to swerve or brake for such a small creature. We would have wound up in the opposite lane and maybe even the intersection itself. Now, a moose or a deer, that is a different story. I’m sorry for the poor kitty and I’m sorry for you but I would have failed you right then and there if you had swerved. Congratulations. Now take me back to the school.”
Astonished, I asked, “Should we go back and get it?” “Try to find the owner?”
“I think not, I have another test to give today and there isn’t much left but crow bait anyhow.”
When I had my paperwork in order I bought my mother’s 1957 Morris Minor and bombed around in it for several months. The engine was the size of a Singer sewing machine and the turn signals flapped out like turkey wings from the side of the chassis. I had paid 75 dollars for the piece of British whimsy and if I recall correctly, I sold it for fifty. I next bought a 1967 Beaumont Acadian from the brother of a school mate, who belonged to a gang. We settled on four hundred dollars as the price.
It was a flat silver with a matte finish as if primed and ready to be painted. The interior was hand-painted with dragons, daggers, swords, big-breasted elf maidens, gang tags and lightening bolts. It sported a Holly four-barrel carburetor and small red Christmas lights were strung through the interior for ambiance when driving at night. Almquist had thought of everything. I proudly drove it home after the Swede promised me it would make it to Texas and back with no problems.
That evening, my father forbid me to park my mirth mobile in the driveway of our rental on Kilmer Road. I asked why and by way of answer, he ordered me to keep it at least a block away from his gold Oldsmobile Delta 98. I was perplexed, especially as I hadn’t been keen on getting a car anyway. Grudgingly, I backed out of the drive and found a nice spot under some cedar trees on the other side of Kilmer and about ten houses down.
The very next morning, I was looking forward to a drive through the hood to show off my ride to the boys and girls. Halfway to the silver stallion, my knees went weak. There it stood, covered in eggs, spray paint, the tail light lenses shattered and the tires slashed and flat. One window was smashed and crystals of safety glass festooned the back seat which was also slashed. It took me a few weeks to get it up and running, paint over the graffiti with silver-gray primer, replace the tires, duct-tape the upholstery and have a new glass put in. I was allowed to park it somewhat closer to home after that but not on our side of the street.
I eventually learned that the perpetrators were a rival gang which operated in my little section of the Valley. I was always in a gang of one, so I had little time for such fraternal organizations. Besides we moved too often to make joining one a practical enterprise. Except for the Baden-Powell gang which I had become a member of in Baton Rouge, I considered them cowardly and dishonorable. Over the next year, I accidentally found a philosophical gal who liked to skip school and we spent a lot of Algebra classes in Lynn Canyon, listening to the radio, munching fish and chips and chatting about the universe while the snow fell through the cedars.
When I was a Vancouver mailman, I got very acquainted with coastal snow. In the thirty years I delivered the post, there were perhaps four exceptionally snowy Winters. On these occasions when the usual melting rain did not materialize, the snow would build up quite high, quite fast. The first day after a big snowfall caused me to rise an hour or two earlier than usual to shovel the sidewalk in front of my own apartment. Then, I would ride the bus or train until it inevitably broke down and walk the rest of the way to my station.
After a very late start sorting, we would bag out our mail only to be told by the Supervisors that the couriers couldn’t drop any bundles on side streets due to the snow. We would be encouraged to put multiple bundles in relay boxes that sat on main streets and to walk back and forth to them rather than follow the regular line of travel. This added hours of what we call in the trade “dead-walking” to an already gnarly day.
It was always a blessed relief to be out in the bracing air, however. After the stuffiness of the depot’s monoxide, wet paper and moldy woolen smells, it was medicine. The first job on the route was the breaking of the trail. This consisted of stomping big boot prints and connecting drag lines through the hundreds of front yards and doing the same for the yet to be shoveled steps. In this way, a person could follow easily on the next day, burning far fewer calories.
Because we carried our sandwiches with us, this was important if one was to have enough gas to get through the slog without burning out. Those few times when it snowed each night for three or four consecutive days, the trail breaking had to be repeated each new day. By the third day, I used to pack two massive meat sandwiches, two frozen apples, two oranges, two liters of salted water, a quarter pound of chocolate and a half dozen Jägermeister sausages. I had no room in my two overflowing pouches for this feast, so I rigged a mesh bag to the back hasp of one of my satchels.
Once I fell on some ice and clattered down a flight of concrete steps. Usually in such a situation I would be up and swearing faster than a German soccer player prior to the 1990s. This time I lay for a while staring into the snow globe scene and trying to wiggle all my parts before attempting to rise. Across the street, I saw a man pulling on his boots and gloves and doing the old man shuffle to cross over to where I was prone. His wife peered through the kitchen window with a dish rag in her hand. He waddled over just as I regained my footing and was doing some stretches to lessen the pain that was sure to follow that night and the next morning.
“My wife saw you, Mike. You OK? She said that you usually get back up quicker and that I should check you out.”
“Thanks, man. I’m OK. She’s right you know. That’s the longest I ever stayed down.”
There was one house that I delivered to for about five years that got buried in snow one particularly bad winter. It was on a side street with no snow removal and the properties were set back from the road with large front yards. This house had a big Alpine style balcony which fronted a master bedroom upstairs. Every day, I would see a huge man in his striped gray and black pajama bottoms standing there, regardless of the weather. He never wore a shirt. There was no need. He was one of those individuals you come across from time to time when you attend a spa or mineral water bath with your wife or girlfriend. Hairy as a sasquatch. He could have parted the hair on his shoulders with a comb and they paled in comparison to his back.
He would make a sour face, glance at his watch through the fur of his wrist and remind me that according to his schedule, I was late. After a year or two, I got used to it. I never liked it but I got used to it. I heard through the grapevine that he was the very man who had begun one of Vancouver’s first successful pizza franchises. He had sold the company and retired at a very young age and in very comfortable circumstances. He was a Greek. The reason he wore pajamas all day was the same as that of a Chinese stock trading customer of mine. Because he could.
One terrible wet Winter a few days before Christmas I kicked my way into Shaggy’s yard and stomped across the drifted snow that hid his driveway, walkway and steps. I glanced up just in time to see him check his watch and give me the face. I folded the wad of mail in two and pressed the bundle through the slot with some effort and as it clunked on the hardwood floor I turned and picked my way along my old footprints.
As I neared the street, he beckoned in a booming bass, “Hey Buddy! My wife wantsh to talk to you.”
I stopped, turned and began to trudge back to the door, wondering what the woman I had never seen was going to complain about. I knocked crisply on the door with numb knuckles. The door swung open and a pretty woman in a checkered apron adjusted her graying hair and asked me to wait a minute. She padded off to the kitchen and returned swiftly with a metal tray, which she held in mitts. On top were four of the most beautiful spanakopitas I had ever seen.
“I made thish for you. Itsh khold out there.”
I thanked her profusely and she closed the door against the chill wind. I stood for a moment deciding what to do. I turned about, marched into the front yard and made a snow table and bench. I sat the tray on the snow where I could face the balcony and began to devour the sumptuous green manna in its cigarette paper thin flake pastry. I looked up at the sasquatch and thanked him heartily and gave a thumbs up. He stared for a moment and then went inside and slid the door closed. When I was done, I returned the tray to the front door and forgave all mankind for all the sins ever committed, happier than a porpoise.
Many years went by and I met another Greek man on a different route. He was a widower and was raising his daughter alone. Sammy the Barber’s nephew rented the basement. I never met the college aged daughter but the old man would chat once in a while if he happened to be home when I passed by.
He was a friendly guy and from what I could tell, a great father. Their house sat on a corner with a view of the back-side of Grace Hospital. After about a year, it happened one Spring that I heard a wonderful lusty singing coming from the little bathroom window that communicated to the front yard. I had permission of the old man to use their steps for a lunching platform and I was entertained by the mystery male vocalist many times. Sometimes it was country western but mostly top 40 songs.
One day after this had been going on for several months I was greeted in the yard by the old man, who rushed out and asked me if I could stay to have my lunch on the steps that day and do him a favor. I said of course I could. I sat on the concrete steps and rolled a smoke. There was an intoxicating aroma wafting out of the house and washing over me. I was just about to put my finger on it when the old man and a young woman came out of the house carrying metal trays with mitts. They each placed a tray on the stoop. His tray had small spanakopitas and hers had large ones.
“Thish my daughter. You never shee kher. She go to khallege. Look, she gonna get married in a khople weeksh. Her mother passh away before teach kher to khook. If you will be sho khind, would you pleashe try theshe spanakopitas and tell kher the trute khwat you tink. She will be the khook for the wedding.”
I shook hands with the dark haired lass as we were introduced and said that it would be my honor and a privilege. She stood nervously clasping her hands to her checkered apron as her and her father watched me like doctors waiting for a patient to regain consciousness after a particularly sketchy surgery. I ate a small one slowly. Then I ate another a little faster. They asked me to try the second tray. I did so.
“Well, khwat do you tink?” asked the old man.
“I think your daughter is an exceptional cook. The second tray, the bigger size ones, are the best. The seasoning is exact. The smaller ones have too much pastry and don’t feel right in the mouth. No offense. Not enough spinaka. I can also tell you that the bride groom is a nice boy and very much in love. He sings like a canary.”
“I told you Papa,” said the young woman. “The big onesh are IT. They are the pomb, jusht like Mama’sh!”
We all sat on the steps and gobbled them up and talked of marriage and life. I told them how I had gotten married for the third time in a Greek restaurant which I had purposely chosen for its spanakopitas. I told them of my wife who could cook Italian, Chinese, Western and Filipino cuisine.
“I told you khirl, food ish very important,” said the old man to his daughter.
The other day I was watching the snow blow like icing sugar out my office window. Dusty Bones was playing soccer with a walnut on the floor. Those times and places I have spoken of came to mind like a parade. At length I decided to distract myself with a little Google search for an obscure piece of music. Somehow, I found myself viewing a taped live session of eN-Kriya. This is a modern brand of old Vedic traditions concerned with awakening the Kundalini. A young guru in a saffron robe with a leopard print vest and massive gold necklace spoke for quite some time to a rapt audience of European and North American disciples.
He wore a beatific smile and had an array of facial expressions and voice tones that ranged from a doting mother to a stern grandfather. Using these voices and the corresponding expressions he explained in glacial detail how to do breathing exercises that are very similar to those taught in Pa Kua. In one nostril and out the other. After a set of these, some deep breaths which are held and slowly released. The empty lungs are held and then slowly refilled.
Next came the Sat Nam. This was basically, a rhythmic, forceful pulling in and up of the diaphragm, which serves to physically massage all the internal organs. There are some further breathing techniques employed afterward as well as a chanting and a visualization of the Master, who ever that was, showering one with his Holy energy. This gift of energy was now to be shared out to all the world in the minds eye. At the end of the lesson, the camera man panned the audience of devotees.
They were mostly middle-aged women with a sprinkling of bald younger males. They were all Caucasian and were seated in the lotus position on old mattresses likely borrowed from the Tantra classes. The guru now spoke of levitation. I had just replaced the old kitchen chair I used at my desk with an adjustable computer chair from the Canadian Tire Store in West Bank and I worked the lever and slid up a few inches as I watched.
After forty-five minutes of meaningful pauses peppered with admonitions that it was indeed possible, the guru said he would give the class a chance to try levitating. First, he said, he wanted to tell them a story.
“There vas vonce an old voman”, he began. “Her family vas no longer able to take care of har at home because abry von vas busily vorking many jobs. They decided to all chip in and pay for her a nice room in a care facility. Understand. The daughter found a suitable place and the sons negotiated a fair price for the sarvices after carefully inwestigating the company. They drove the old voman there next day and settled her into her room. It vas small but clean and comfortable. After many tears they left her and told her they vad be bek next morning to make sure the staff var treating her very good and kind."
"That afternoon as the old voman sat at her chair by the vindow looking the beautiful flowers outside, she began to lean over slowly to the right side. The narse on duty passed by her room and as all the doors were kept open as a policy, she noticed the old voman tilting in har chair. The narse came in quickly and gently sat the lady up straight in har chair, combed har hair and left again."
"After ten minutes, the nurse passed by again. The old voman vas now leaning very far to the left side. Understand. The dutiful narse came in again and straightened the poor old voman in the chair and massaged har shoulders for a moment and asked har vat she vanted for her suppar."
"The vary next day, as they had promised, the family arrived to check on their Mom. They all went to har room and found her again by the vindow in har chair. The daughter asked har Mom if the narses var kind to har and if the food vas OK.”
"The old voman turned slowly to har daughters face. “Yes,” she said, “They are vary kind to me here and the food is vary good.” Abry one smiled. “There is only bon problem”, said the old voman. “They von’t let me fart!” Understand. Now you may try to levitate.”
The camera man turned away from the guru and panned across the devotees who were in deep rapt concentration, over oxygenated and likely undernourished. None were laughing. One fellow that looked like the manager of a mid-west shoe store was using his lotus-folded knees to spring repeatedly into the air a few inches and the bounce of the mattress to keep it going. A woman who looked like a bookstore owner from Portland began to emulate him and soon dozens were popping up and down like amputated frogs, each one expecting to be the one to stay aloft.
“Steer into it, baby,” I thought out loud, “Or we’re going to be here for a long, long time.”
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.