June 15, 1917 Last Night in Huntsville

June 15, 1917

I wasn’t expecting to be staying here. I’m at the Dominion Hotel here in Huntsville. I can’t really afford it, but here I am nonetheless. After the way the day turned out, the only place that would put me up for the night was the hotel. For a price, of course. I got one of the cheap rooms. I stayed here once back in 1912 with Alex, before I knew the Trainors.

In the novels I’ve read, a day like this is called the point of no return. Like two trains on the same track hurtling at full speed toward each other. It’s like one of those points in your life when nothing is going to go back to normal. You just hope to pick up what you can from the wreckage and carry on as best you can.

I’ll write about what happened, but first I’ll write about what I hoped to happen. I caught the morning freight train at Canoe Lake Station. The train usually has second class passengers coming in from Madawaska. Rarely does anyone ever get off this train and Shannon never bothers to bring his hearse up that early. “People in second class never tip, and if they want to stay at the Lodge, they can walk down.” Those were Shannon’s words of wisdom. These words of wisdom turned out to be really sad when a consumptive unexpectedly came on second class, and had to wait for three hours before Shannon would pick them up.

This morning, the station master wasn’t there and Mark Robinson was away in Barrie (he tries to greet each train to check  for for poachers). I had to wave the train down myself. No one saw me board, so no one knew where I was. “I’m going camping,” was the lie I had put about over the previous days.

The train is perilously slow going through the Park. If you’re lucky, the train reaches a top speed of 15 miles per hour. This train was empty, so it was going a bit faster than usual. It was probably going to pick up grain from a laker at Depot Harbour. At each trestle, the train would stop, the trestle was inspected by the engineer, and then a crawl across the trestle at an old man’s walking pace. At Brule Lake we stopped to fill up for water. Shortly after we reached the summit – 1,607 feet – it was downhill from here to Georgian Bay. We made it past the washout, several section men were there, and we passed through Rainy Lake Station; we didn’t stop, nobody flagged the train. We didn’t reach Scotia Junction until well after noon. I was the only one to get off and I had to find the conductor to let me off train. Otherwise I would have ended in Depot Harbour. If that happened, I probably would have boarded the laker upon its return and kept on heading West.

At Scotia Junction, I didn’t have to wait long. Within minutes a southbound train came from North Bay and I was on my way to Huntsville. I got there around 2 pm. My plan was to surprise Winnie at work but I decided kill some time and go to the barber. There’s nothing better than a professional shave from a barber. I decided to buy a new shirt from the men’s clothing shop and put it on right away. I felt clean and crisp – like a million bucks, as they say.

Winnie works as the bookkeeper at Stephenson & Anderson’s Grocery Store on Main Street. I came in and said hi to the girls and walked to the back of the store. Winnie works in the office in the back near where the shipments come in. I made sure I came as close to 5 pm as possible because that’s when her hours end and I didn’t want to distract from her work if I came earlier. I hoped to set things right between us. Something you can’t do with letters. And then make plans for the future.

I opened the door and I saw her. Her back was facing me. She was bent over tallying up receipts. “Hello, Winnie,” I said quietly.

She whirled around in her chair, “Tom, what on earth are you doing here?” I could see the shock and surprise on her face. My sudden presence was like a lightning bolt out of the blue sky.

“I came to see you, Winnie,” I stepped into the office so the stock boys couldn’t hear us. I left the door open, so as not to arouse any speculation. “We need to talk and make plans. We can’t do this by letter.”

Winnie stood up, I could see the tiredness in her eyes. Somehow, I knew this wasn’t just from emotional strain. I had seen other women with the same look when they were early.

“I know, Tom. We must. But I wish you had let me know you were coming.” She started to gather her things up. It was near 5 o’clock. The end of the workday.

“Let’s go outside first, then let’s talk.” I knew there were attentive ears in the store. One of the girls from out front came into the back. The girls never come into the back  so I knew exactly what she was after. We had to go out the front door. I wanted to go out the back but Winnie had to check out at the the employee board to show she was leaving at the appointed time. The exit routine in its entirety was really uncomfortable, because every set of eyes was on both us, including the eyes of the customers.

Outside, the late afternoon sun was still bright. I noticed in the sunlight that Winnie was pale. She had only been to the cottage once this spring, when the weather was bad, so there was not much chance to catch a tan from the sun. But like the tiredness in her eyes, the paleness of her skin was not explained away by poor summer weather and lack of sun.

“Tom, I’m sure my mother knows now. I’ve been ill in the mornings. And I think my sister knows too. She’s training to become a nurse.”

“How about your father?”

“He doesn’t know anything. He’s been away walking the cutting lines for a week now. Did you  see him in the Park?”

“Yes, I did. Earlier this week. I thought he’d be back by now.” I didn’t bother to elaborate that Hugh went away for more than just work. He need a place to drink in peace, too. Nor did I mention to Winnie that Hugh  attempted to give me some roundabout advice on the very matter we were about to discuss.

“Father’s supposed to be back this evening. I’m supposed to be home before 6 o’clock to help Mother with dinner. If he’s not home by then, we’ll keep it warm for him.”

Up until a year ago, the trains ran a pretty tight schedule. You could predict the arrival of a train to the minute and make plans. But the growing fear of saboteurs on the trestles wreaked havoc on the schedules. Once the schedules got so screwed up that two trains met head-on a single track. Thank goodness there was no crash, but it took the better part of the day to sort it out by backing one of the trains up  almost 20 miles to a station that had a long enough siding.

“Well, I’ll come home with you to dinner.” I could see Winnie blanch. There was going to be a train wreck tonight and no backing out. I immediately realized that I had put events into motion and they were no longer under my control.

“Yes, please come for dinner.” Winnie had to invite me, and I had to accept. Now I wished I had never come in the first place. I had become an unwilling participant in the events that were about to unfold.

The walk to Minerva street was only a few short minutes. The talk of our plans was moot now, because we both knew that what was about to happen needed no plan. We came to Winnie’s house. The screen door on the porch was open and we could smell dinner being prepared. Something was being fried on the stove. Probably a poor cut of beef, because beef was so expensive now. But it smelled good.

We went into the house, and there was Mrs. Trainor. She looked at me and politely smiled, “Here for one of your visits, Tom?” She saw that I had my pack with me.

“Yes, Ma’am. I had to come into town to go to the bank. I thought I’d drop by for visit.” I lied.

“Fine, then. I’ll set an extra plate out. You’ll have to wait. We’re expecting Hugh any moment now.”

The trains were now heading full speed towards each other. It was too late for the engineers to do anything. All they could pray for was a quick resolution to whatever fate could bring them. Maybe some would walk away from the wreckage.

I heard the screen door. It was Hugh. He came in. He was dirty and unkempt. He saw me. I was clean and crisp. I must have smelled of aftershave. He smelled of whisky.

“What in hell’s name is he doing here?” Hugh didn’t greet me. He didn’t even look at me. “Winnie, go upstairs. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect this. I need to deal with this situation.”

Winnie was white before. Now she was positively ghost-like. She froze. She did not go anywhere. Hugh promptly forgot she was there to witness it all.

“I heard it all from the Frasers!” Hugh growled in a low tone so that the neighbours couldn’t hear. “If you don’t leave now, I’ll send you on your way with stars in your head.” That meant he was about throw his fists. It was going to be a bad scene, unless I did what I was told. I picked up my pack, said nothing, and walked out front.

“Someone should teach you a lesson!” Hugh yelled at my back on my way out. The neighbours heard this. It was dead quiet. He started to say something else, but I only heard the slap of the screen door and creak of hinge as it settled back into the door frame. I stepped off the verandah and went into the street.  The sun was going down and the shadows were starting to get  longer. It was going to be one the first beautiful evenings of summer. There was no reason to be inside anywhere.

I walked a few paces before the screen door burst open again. Winnie ran out. She went down the verandah stairs and with a brisk walking pace, caught up with me on the street. To the casual observer (and nosy neighbour) she tried to make it look like we were going for a regular walk and having a casual conversation. If there ever was a situation where outward appearances were completely at odds with what was actually going, this was it.

“Tom, stop! What are we going to do?”

I kept going, “I’m never coming back to Huntsville. That’s one thing for sure.”

“Tom!” I could hear it all in her voice. Her life was crashing all around her. So was mine.

“I’m going back to the Park first and then I’ll think what’s best next. Winnie, there’s nothing here any more.  People would only gossip and the shame would be unbearable here. We need to leave.”

“What?” Winnie gasped. The shock of having a child was one thing, but seeing your whole life come crashing down, that was another.

I wasn’t looking at Winnie, I was looking straight ahead, as if I knew exactly where I was going. “We need to go out West. Or South. I’m thinking Denver.” The train wreck was now complete. I was now picking myself out of the wreckage and planning amongst the strewn remnants.

“We’ll go to Billie Bear Lodge. I’ll write and set a date. I’ll go from the Park. You from here. I’ll get my friend, Tom Wattie, to help me out.” Tom Wattie, a Park Ranger, was a trusted friend of mine. He lived in the northwestern part of the Park.

“Tom, I can’t leave”

“Winnie, you have to. Otherwise your life is done here.” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a figure exiting the Trainor household. It was Hugh, of course. “I need to go before you father makes a scene on the street.”

We walked a few more paces, then I stopped. She stopped too. I turned and faced her. She turned too. After a brief frozen moment, I turned back, and began walking quickly up the street.  Winnie didn’t come after me. She knew there were eyes on her and her father was quickly approaching. It’s one thing to have a family scene in your home, it’s another thing to have the scene on the street. The shame would be absolute. I didn’t kiss her goodbye. I didn’t even squeeze her hand. I just walked up the street and out of sight.

The evening was beautiful. It was only a week from the summer solstice and the longest day of the year. I walked around the town in a daze. The fresh evening breeze made no difference. I felt I had been spit out and there was nowhere to go but out of this town, but it was too late to leave unless I started walking by the rail going north.

I don’t know exactly how I ended up at the Dominion Hotel but that’s where I decided to stay the night. It’s funny how things come full circle. The first night I ever stayed in Huntsville was at the Dominion. Now five years later, the last night I would ever stay in Huntsville was at the Dominion too. Like all of Huntsville, it was dry as a bone at the hotel. I’m never staying another night in this town again.