When Al got a fish hook in the white of his eye on the Bowron Lakes Circuit in central B.C., our expedition needed to respond quickly to an unexpected and difficult challenge. Nightfall was only 2 hours away and we were in a remote wilderness with no means of calling for help. For me this crises became a reminder that in unfamiliar, even dangerous circumstances, we are able to call on reserves of physical and inner strength we didn’t know existed.
As Expedition Leader for the One Way Adventure Foundation, I had assigned our 3 groups of leaders and young offenders to separate campsites on a bay on Isaac Lake. Less interaction between them meant less trouble. I had elected to travel with the girls group because their workers had little wilderness experience. After paddling all day, we had just set up our tents at the Betty Wendle site when we saw a canoe racing furiously toward us from Al’s camp, paddles flashing in the late sun.
As they drew near, the 2 youths in the canoe shouted, “Al’s got a fish hook in his eye!” I called to Sandy, our nurse, “Let’s go!”
We found Al propped against a tree. He had been fishing with one of the boys. The boy’s hook had got caught on something and when he pulled hard, it snapped free and lodged in Al’s eye. I left Al in Sandy’s care, a short length of line dangling from the hook. At the fire pit, his assistant was talking quietly to the 6 boys. I told them I’d be going for help and Arnet was now their leader.
I knew there was a Rangers cabin a considerable distance ahead. This was the most dangerous section of the circuit. There was also a cabin some distance back on Isaac Lake. No guarantee of a Ranger at either point though, and night among the mountains would be totally dark. I decided to return to the cabin we had passed that afternoon.
A young man of about 20 from another group told me he was rested and offered to go with me. Concerned about the approaching darkness, we paddled hard across the bay to where Gordie was camped with 5 boys.
My volunteer paddler now lost heart and I arranged for two of Gordie’s boys to return him. Ben, a sturdy young member of Gordie’s crew, volunteered to paddle with me.
Ben was robust and resolute. Exchanging only occasional words, we paddled with determination, not sparing ourselves. Fortunately I had known that if an emergency arose, I’d need to be fit and had trained rigorously.
After well over an hour of driving ourselves relentlessly, Ben gasped, “I think I see a motor boat!” The light was fading but as we drew closer, the cabin and boat came into focus. We had found a Ranger!
I explained the crises and the Ranger said, “I’ll go right away. I can’t take your canoe though. It would slow me down.”
With exhausted bodies we paddled in the growing darkness. At about 10 pm we saw the fire in Gordie’s camp.
After a brief chat, I returned alone to the canoe. In total darkness, I forgot the canoe wasn’t loaded. Higher in the water and less stable, it flipped in an instant as I was getting in. I was suddenly standing in frigid water up to my chest. Gordie and his boys rushed down from their camp and rescued me and the canoe. They loaned me clothes, including a jacket, and I set out again.
The girls had retired to their sleeping bags and had let the campfire die. It was only because I recognized debris in the dark water that I found our camp.
Meanwhile, Al, Sandy, and the Ranger talked all night, and Al became reconciled to the possible loss of his eye. By the time a helicopter dropped down to pick him up in the morning, he was understandably shaky.
A week later, back in Hedley, I saw Al. The helicopter had flown him to Prince George. Here a physician took one look and said, “Oh, this one will be easy.”
I’ve reflected back many times on this Bowron Lakes episode. Both Ben and I found unrealized physical and inner strength . I hope that for Ben, it also helped him understand he has immense potential to accomplish much more than he had previously believed.
When we celebrated Brandon’s 16th birthday at the end of June, the major event was the presentation of a gift by his other grandfather. Grampa Axel, now in his early 80’s, has always been pretty generous toward both Brandon and Alexa. When one has a birthday, the other receives a gift as well.
On this day, Grampa Axel didn’t arrive in his Dorango as usual. He owns 3 classic cars, all Chryslers, but rarely drives them, certainly never in rain. For this reason I was surprised when he pulled up in his immaculate green, 1966 Chrysler. The car has been meticulously maintained and cared for. Except for an occasional road trip to Manitoba, it has spent most of its life in a garage, along with the other two classics.
On this day, Grampa Axel backed the Chrysler carefully onto the front lawn and parked near the entrance of the house. The vehicle has an enormous trunk and I quickly concluded it must contain a large, very special gift. A gift too heavy to carry far. Cars aren’t usually permitted on the lawn, but he obviously believed the indiscretion would be overlooked this time.
I waited with considerable anticipation for Grampa Axel to open the trunk. I was disappointed and at least a little mystified when he got out and walked to the front door of the house, as though nothing of consequence was happening. Apparently I was the only one curious about what the trunk contained. No one asked why he had parked there or why he didn’t open the trunk.
From a conversation I overheard a little later between our daughter Vivian, son-in-law Troy, and Alexa and Brandon, I began to understand that they already knew what the very special gift in the trunk was. Actually, the gift was not in the trunk. The gift was the car.
“I had the entire brake system re-done,” Grampa Axel told us. “It cost me $2,000.” He wouldn’t give his grandson an unsafe car.
Brandon has just applied for his driver’s licence and has an “N”. Unlike most youths his age, he now possesses 2 cars. The other car is a 1981 Camero, given to him by Mike, the next door neighbour. He apparently is a magnet for cars. Or maybe it’s just that people like him and want to do something that will make him happy.
Brandon and his dad have devoted several months to restoring the Camero. It definitely isn’t in the extraordinary condition of the Chrysler. Mike has a gregarious, over powering personality that leans more to fast driving, with little attention to the vehicle’s upkeep. Both cars have powerful engines. Fortunately Brandon has demonstrated exceptionally sound judgment to this time. Although some friends will likely attempt to persuade him to speed or engage in other foolishness with his cars, Linda and I feel he is strong enough to resist much of this.
The Chrysler is monstrously large, not the type of car a young man would readily choose. I sensed though that Brandon understands the depth of this gesture by Grampa Axel. He knows his grandfather has long prized the Chrysler, and that for him it is no ordinary car. I observed them talking and saw Brandon several times put an arm around Grampa Axel.
He understands that in Grampa Axel’s mind, the car is like a precious heirloom. He is passing it on to a responsible member of a younger generation, in the hope it will continue to be cared for and preserved. He knows, of course, that it won’t be stored in a garage. No, he hopes Brandon will drive the car and enjoy it. The Chrysler is a gift given with a lot of forethought and a great measure of love.
I knew attempting to persuade Howie Smith to do anything was a lot like playing poker with a professional gambler. Before being sent to our camp in Hedley, he’d been in foster homes and group homes. Although only 15, he had decided that every worker’s goal was to change him. He had become adept at resisting change. His goal was to one day be sentenced to Matsqui Institution, a federal penitentiary where he’d heard his Dad was doing time.
On this July day, with the temperature in the high 30’s, a one inch thick steak placed on the hood of a car would have broiled in minutes. As I walked toward the Lodge where our students ate lunch, I felt certain Howie would be waiting. His group was planning to swim in the Similkameen River. Howie though, was assigned to kitchen duty in the Lodge today and I knew he’d resist this tenaciously. I knew also the others would be keen observers as he argued his case. If Howie contrived to avoid kitchen duty they would employ his tactics when they wished to avoid an assignment. As program coordinator, the weight of this fell on me.
The Probation Officer’s background notes indicated no one had been able to control Howie to this time – not his mother, the school
system, the probation officer, or the police.
He was too smart, focused and stubborn to be bribed. Too tough to feel threatened. And seemingly too insulated, at least to this time, to respond to love.
Walking briskly along the path to the Lodge, Howie and the others came into view. They had finished lunch and were lounging languidly around the picnic tables under the tall pines, trying to escape the intense Hedley heat. Their equally over-heated leaders were talking quietly at another table.
Howie’s white kitchen garb contrasted sharply with his shiny black hair and dark skin. I plunked myself down on a table top and, as I had anticipated, he detached himself from the little group and parked himself resolutely in front of me. Feet spread apart and arms folded across his chest, it seemed he wanted to intimidate me. Like most students, he had arrived here already a committed smoker. Without shifting his intent gaze from my face, he inhaled deeply from his cigarette, gathering courage. He knew I wouldn’t roll over easily.
“I need to talk to ya!” he said, a distinct note of challenge already in his voice.
“Yes Howie, that’s why l came.”
For a moment my response disconcerted him. Then, jerking his head toward the Lodge, he said “I don’t want to go back in there. Everyone’s going swimming in the river.”
Aware an attempt to persuade him would be frustrating and a waste of time for us both, I decided to take a calculated risk.
“Howie,” I said.
“If your dad was here, I think there’s something he’d really want to say to you.”
His eyes widened perceptibly. I was playing an unexpected card.
I had his attention, but, not wanting to be conned, he silently scrutinized me with great intensity. After an uncomfortable silence, I said quietly, “Howie, do you want to know what your dad would say?”
Brushing a fly from his arm, he relented. “Ya,” he said, “I do.”
Placing a hand on his shoulder, I lowered my voice and spoke as though to my own son. “Howie, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. The one I regret most is walking away from the family. If I had been there when you needed me, your life would have been better.’’
A single tear trickled down Howie’s cheek. I continued, “Son, I always turned from the hard things. Never got strong. When I grew up, I was afraid. Don’t be like me. The hard stuff will make you strong. For you there’s still time.” I paused, then said, “Howie, I haven’t told you this before, but I really do love you.”
Howie’s shoulder’s twitched involuntarily, as though the words had touched his soul. There was a straightening of the shoulders, an almost imperceptible nod.
“Thanks,” he said, then turned and walked back into the Lodge.
You could say Howie lost the poker game, but I’m pretty sure if you’d asked him, he would have said, “I won big.”
I had just been hired by the One Way Adventure Foundation to run a program for Young Offenders. At breakfast in the Colonial Lodge the first day, Beth, a Wilderness Skills instructor, came to my table. “I’m taking three girls rappelling this morning,” she said. “It’s their first time. Len wants you to join us.” I didn’t feel at ease around heights and the reality of what I’d signed up for now set in.
Ten minutes later I reluctantly joined Beth and 3 skittish teenage girls, Vicki, Nancy and Sue, all sent here by a judge, and not feeling any joy about it. Clad in faded jeans, well worn runners and tight blouses, they affected indifference to whatever fate awaited them. These were city girls, now far from their usual familiar haunts where they felt at least somewhat in control of their destiny. Their tanned faces testified of much time on the streets and of more bitter experience than most women twice their age.
Hiding behind a tough, street smart façade, they had always managed to fend off attempts by those in authority to get to know them. By depriving them of their familiar terrain and exposing them to wilderness experience, the OWAF hoped to induce the masks to slip.
Beth, in superb physical condition and imbued with a sense of purpose, strode decisively across a field of dry wild grass. The girls chatted idly about cute boys and wild parties. Bringing up the rear, for them I didn’t exist. In a week I’d be working with youths much like these young girls. I wondered if I’d be able to develop the necessary rapport.
We arrived at a large rock and Beth announced, “last smoke girls.” Each hurriedly produced a plastic bag with thin hand rolled smokes. It was all they could afford on their weekly allowance.
“Beth, where is the rappell site?” Sue asked, trying to conceal her anxiety. She inserted a cigarette between her lips, lit it and inhaled deeply, as though this precious moment might be one of her last ever. In spite of being young and petite, she had already proved to be feisty. She was gifted with a face and figure that attracted the attention of men older than herself.
“There it is,” Beth said, pointing to the top of a sheer rock face.
Silently the 3 girls gazed upward, as though in awe of a new, unfamiliar deity. With the cigarette at the corner of her mouth, Sue muttered something incomprehensible, except to the two girls. They glanced at Beth and laughed nervously. It was then that this clever, edgy girl understood I was also apprehensive. “You’re scared too, huh?” she said. They began including me in their distracted chatter.
“Time to kill your smokes,” Beth said firmly. We proceeded to the top of the cliff, where Beth placed a helmet over Sue’s black hair and created a rope sling to hold her body. This young, rule-testing girl would be the first to battle fear.
With Sue outfitted, Beth said, “step to the edge of the cliff. Art will pay out the rope as you go down. The rope over your shoulder is your brake. Don’t let go of it.”
Sue stepped closer to the edge and looked down at the valley below. She froze. Her previous cool, challenging façade had dissipated.
“Now I want you to lean back,” Beth said patiently.
“Beth,” she protested, “ I don’t think this rope will hold me. I can’t lean back. I’m too scared”.
Putting a hand on her shoulder, Beth spoke with a soothing voice. “Sue, lots of girls your age have done this. Once you lean back and step down, it will get real easy. This will make you strong.”
Sue leaned back slightly and hesitantly placed a foot over the edge, seeking solid rock. “Lean back,” Beth urged. “The rope will hold you.”
With much encouragement, Sue leaned back and made the descent. When she had climbed back up, she was laughing.
It was my turn next, followed by the other two girls. Each of us fully experienced Sue’s reluctance to lean back. It required every ounce of faith we could muster.
That day, by accepting the challenge of rappelling, we became stronger. Also, the chasm that had separated us was gone.
Born and raised in a remote, sparsely populated area of rural Manitoba, my Mom had to share Christmas with 13 siblings. Large
families were common at that time. With so many to provide for, my grandma and grandpa Funk had little money to buy gifts. On the morning of December 25th, each child awoke to a plate of hard candies, several varieties of nuts, home made cookies and possibly an orange. After chores and breakfast, if there wasn’t a raging blizzard, grandpa and the older boys hitched horses to the sleigh.
With heated rocks and heavy blankets to warm them, they’d set off to a small Mennonite church. Usually a shortage of space on the sleigh required the hardy older boys to run behind in the snow. Later the girls would help grandmother prepare a simple, nourishing meal. If a stranger knocked on their door requesting food or a place to sleep, grandpa always said, “come in. My boys will put your horses in the barn and feed them.”
This simple upbringing and the example of sharing out of meagre resources instilled in the children a deep appreciation for Christmas. I’m convinced that for Mom, Christmas had a magical quality. I believe it approached on tiptoes, like an elf carrying a mystical gift. Even in her senior years her excitement soared as December drew near. She anticipated the season with the exuberance and infectious delight of a dancing 5 year old.
After I had grown up, Mom’s enthusiasm for Christmas at times astonished me. One year, at the beginning of December she announced, “this month Dad and I are going to celebrate Christmas every day. I have casseroles in the freezer. I have baked dozens of white buns, squares, three kinds of pies and lots of sugar cookies. My freezer is full. There isn’t room for even one more cookie” To us it was a novel concept but we certainly didn’t doubt that Mom and Dad would celebrate every day.
Each day that December she phoned someone and said, “come for lunch or dinner.” She reached out to single people living alone. If they went to the home of friends, she brought food.
Mom’s celebration reached its climax on Christmas Eve. My sisters and I, and our families joined Mom and Dad at a neighbourhood church. The lights were turned down and a skit depicted the story of the infant Jesus lying in a manger, attended by Mary and Joseph. There were shepherds with canes, the 3 Magi bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Angels sang “Silent Night.” The hour in church was a welcome reprieve from the intense commercial atmosphere dominating society even then.
In Mom and Dad’s home after the program, there was inevitably one discordant note. Mom always invited a retired couple whose company my sisters and I, and our families didn’t enjoy. These people had money, but they had learned only to take, not to give. Never did they bring a gift for Mom, even though she had devoted many hours to preparing for this evening. Their lives apparently had been mainly about the acquisition of wealth. They seemed not to understand the deep satisfaction that comes from genuine friendship. Fortunately Mom’s cheer and good will and Dad’s quiet positive demeanour lifted our spirits. The couple ate hurriedly and then, in spite of Mom’s urging to stay, rushed out with the haste of fire fighters off to douse a 7 alarm blaze.
I didn’t comprehend at that time why Mom wanted them at the table with her family, especially on Christmas Eve. I wasn’t prepared to take responsibility for their unwillingness to give time to developing friendships. But Mom had grown up in a remote area where people were valued and a stranger was never turned away from the door of her family’s home. Only later did I understand she took seriously the angels’ refrain about “good will toward men.” She chose to love people and to bless them with the warmth of friendship. It was her gift to them, and the example was a wonderful gift to her children and grand children. She showed us how to celebrate Christmas with joy.
Our rural location near the Canada-U.S. border was ideal for Simon, in fact for anyone hoping to avoid notice by the authorities. The local police rarely made even a token appearance on Defehr Rd. We were a clean living, hard working, law abiding lot. Grant, a loner renting the adjacent 5 acres, almost at the end of the road, was not a problem for neighbours.
On a sunny afternoon in early spring, I saw a stranger outside at Grant’s place and went over and introduced myself.
His name was Simon. I guessed he was nearing 30, although a mildly receding hairline may have added a few years to his appearance. His blue eyes were exceptionally vigilant and I sensed he was carefully assessing me. For the next 2 weeks, we talked at length several times. His quick mind looked at things from unusual angles.
There was one puzzling aspect to him. For reasons I did not yet understand, he invariably turned aside personal questions. In spite of this, he was an interesting, engaging conversationalist.
After about two weeks, he disappeared as quietly as he had come.“He ran into a little trouble a while ago,” Grant told me. “They put him in Matsqui Institution.” From experience with the prison I knew “a little trouble” didn’t land anyone in Matsqui.
Disappointed at this news, I wrote Simon a note asking him to put me on his visitors list. He agreed and I learned that the “little trouble” Grant had mentioned was a parole violation. He was doing time for possession and trafficking of heroin. Prisons had been home for him much of his adult life.
Being confined behind the double fences along Matsqui’s perimeter, Simon could no longer hide his past from me. Still, he spoke of his life only reluctantly. I sensed confusion and despair within him, as though there was an inner conflict between the reality of his dreary circumstances and the more positive vision he was trying to nurture and project.
“I’m done with heroin,” he said. “I have a few friends here who want to stay clean. They’re the only ones from inside I’ll see when I get out.” I’d heard similar words from others, but certainly if Simon could avoid the lure of drugs and quick money, he might have the determination and character to stay clean.
When he was released from Matsqui, he again disappeared. Two years later he called from Revelstoke. “I’m staying clean,” he said. “Everything is good. I came here to get away from the street.”
Accustomed to taking risks, Simon had become an elite fire fighter, parachuting into rugged terrain to extinguish small blazes.
“This might surprise you,” he said with a note of satisfaction, “I’m married now. We’ve got a kid.”
After that Simon drew a veil over his life for 25 years. A proud man, he hoped to release himself from the tentacles of his tainted history. For him, this apparently meant leaving people behind.
We had moved twice, and I had retired when the phone rang one dark October day. Clouds were threatening a deluge.
“Hi, this is Simon,” a subdued voice said. “I’m in Abbotsford. Can I come over?” It was a delight to know my friend was still alive.
I watched through the living room window as he pulled into our driveway in a near new blue chevy pickup, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Same old Simon, I thought. But I was to learn that some things had changed. Much of the earlier swagger had fallen away and he needed to talk. Lowering himself into the chesterfield, the expression on his deeply tanned face remained sombre.
He began to talk and I felt that he was picking up part way through a conversation that had been bedeviling his mind for some time. “Like I told you on the phone when we talked a while ago,” he began, “I got married and we had a kid. The woman I married is a paralegal. Everything was great. I liked my job.” His serious tone and downcast expression suggested a desperate despair somewhere in the hidden depth of his soul. Uncharacteristically, he made no attempt to conceal his inner turmoil. This puzzled me. In the past he had hidden behind a mask that allowed no one to glimplse the demons tormenting him.
“Between my wife and myself, we were making decent money,” he said. “We had holidays in Mexico and a home with a pool. She liked to spend money, and I wanted to please her.”
He was distracted by the laughter of children on the street. When he rose from the couch, I realized he had lost much of the robust strength of earlier years. From my vantage point, I could see the pre-school age children, a boy and a girl running ahead of their mother. She was a pretty young woman with black hair, smiling at her children’s antics. The children saw Simon and waved enthusiastically, as though he was a dear friend. He waved too, and lingered at the window, watching them.
“She’s a lucky woman,” he said. “I hope the kids have a dad.”
His spirits seemed to have been momentarily lifted by their attention. He turned to face me and pushed a hand through his greying hair. There was considerably less of it than I remembered. His mind was still reflecting on the woman and her children. “All the years in jail before I met Tanya,” he said, “a family is what I really wanted.” It was the first time he had mentioned his wife’s name.
His hand rose to the pack of cigarettes showing in the breast pocket of his shirt. Seeming to remember he was in a home, he let it drop again.
“A few years ago I went to see a doctor,” he said, as though in his mind the conversation had not been interrupted. “Pain in my chest.” His voice slipped almost to a whisper. “After the tests, he told me I had lung cancer.”
Apparently thinking I must be wondering why he still smoked he said, “I should have quit years ago. It’s going to kill me. I’ll probably lose my right lung first.” He paused and looked down. “The chemo and radiation put it in remission.”
He checked the time on his wrist watch. “I need to go soon,“ he said. But he made no move to leave. I remained silent. “After I got the diagnoses, my wife divorced me. Her friend told me later she’d been working on it 3 years. By conniving she managed to get the house and everything except my pickup truck.” His hand reached for the pack of smokes again but once more he dropped it.
“It wasn’t all her fault,“ he said, “I made some mistakes. The last few years it’s been all down hill.”
He had been stripped of family, home and health. His existence was in a state of shambles and despair, but Simon wasn’t a quitter. He possessed an inner resolve to start over and rebuild his life. He rented a room in Abbotsford, not far from where Linda and I lived. Because his health no longer permitted him to do physical work, he began delivering pizzas. Even in this his luck continued to spiral downward. He sold the truck, which he prized, so he could buy a car.
In a moment of inattention, Simon rear ended a vehicle, totaling his car. Not having insurance, he had no choice but to buy another car with the small amount of money remaining from the sale of his truck. Shortly after, he damaged the second car. Still without insurance, he accepted a loan from me to repair the car. Once again he resumed delivering pizzas. Sometimes late at night, a few undelivered pizzas remained. He looked for street people who were eager to receive them.
Although Simon had never been appreciated or treated well at home, when he learned his 91 year old father was seriously ill, he drove into Vancouver many times to visit and help. During this time, while his father was living out his final days, Simon’s own health was again deteriorating.
One day I received a call from him. “Hi, this is Simon,” he said. “I’m in the Vancouver General. I’m going to lose a lung.” Conversation was difficult for him and he seemed to feel he had told me what I needed to know.
Several weeks after the operation, he called again and Linda and I went to visit him at the VGH. Sitting on the edge of his bed, he appeared weak, pale and very thin, scarcely a shadow of the Simon we had known. It was a brief visit, our last with him. When I spoke with him by phone a week later, he was waiting for a doctor to see him. Breathing had become difficult.
“Simon,” I said, “have you made peace with your Maker?”
“Yes,” he said, “I have.”
It was our last contact with him. Not long afterward, a brief obituary in the Vancouver Sun confirmed he had passed away. He had never been able to exorcise his demons or to completely trust those closest to him. But Simon had been a special friend. Even now, Linda and I miss him.
On my first visit to the B.C. Penitentiary, Mr. Gowler had evidently not been impressed by my beard, long black hair, jeans and runners. I wasn’t yet prepared to part with the beard and hair, but I pondered the idea of a partial image upgrade. My goal was to persuade Mr. Gowler to provide a more suitable place to interview men who applied for a sponsor with our organization. To this end I purchased a casual blue business suit and matching tie.
A few days later under a grey sky and in a light rain I drove to the penitentiary in my long ago primered Volkswagen van. My income wasn’t yet allowing me to have it painted.
Wearing my newly acquired light blue suit, a conservative tie and dress shoes, I appeared at the door to Visits & Correspondence. The high grey wall again loomed over me, as though still challenging my bid to enter. Mr. Gowler opened the door, spent a brief moment assessing my new image and invited me to enter. I thought I detected a hint of cordiality in his voice.
He led me in another direction, not toward the detested place where I’d visited through the glass last time. “You can conduct your interview in here Mr. Martens,” he said, opening the door to a small room. Except for a desk and 2 chairs, it was completely bare. Not even a picture on any of the walls. “This is where lawyers conduct interviews,” Mr. Gowler said. “Press that button when you’re done.” I thanked him and when the door closed I heard the click of a lock.
A few minutes later an elderly custody officer with a thick moustache ushered in Jim through another door. I stood up, shook hands with Jim and introduced myself. He was thirty two, wide shouldered with a muscular physique a wrestler might envy. His brown hair was cropped short. I thought I detected a sadness lingering around his eyes and mouth. He didn’t smile.
Being a big man, he needed to pull the chair farther from the desk to sit down. After a few minutes of preliminary small talk I said, “are you getting visits from family or friends?” The focus of our organization was to provide a friend to prisoners who were friendless.
“No,” he said, “my family is scattered across the country. No one visits me. My friends are in Nova Scotia. I don’t want them to know about this.” I knew he was in for murder, but I didn’t ask for details. Eventually he might want to talk about that with his sponsor.
He rolled up the sleeves of his grey shirt to the elbows, like a man getting set to do strenuous physical labour. Placing his large forearms on the desk, he leaned toward me. I wondered if he felt a need to be near another human, one not doing time or guarding him. Although we had been in this room together only a few minutes, it occurred to me that he might want to talk with someone he could trust. Possibly he had never spoken about his crime to anyone other than his lawyer.
For a moment he looked up at the ceiling, then around the room, even turning to inspect the wall behind him.
In a high security prison, only an unsophisticated, guileless inmate would not suspect the room might be outfitted with a listening device. I said, “this is the room the lawyers use Jim, I don’t think anyone would mess with them. They’d be in court with it the next day.” He relaxed and leaned forward again.
“I’m a truck driver,” he said. “Highway rigs. Never graduated from high school. My Old Man drove too. From the day I came into this world, he wanted me to follow in his footsteps. When I was a kid, every Christmas he bought me a different kind of truck to play with. Same on birthdays. Slapped me around some if I didn’t pay attention when he talked about trucks. I was just a kid.”
He paused to do up a button that had popped out of its hole in the grey shirt. “Once I was old enough, I wanted out of the house. I found a pretty woman and we moved in together. We had a kid pretty quick, a boy. He’s 4 now. She wanted more kids but the company was busy and they wanted me on the road a lot.” Lines of wrinkles appeared on his forehead, adding 10 years to his face. “Maybe the sperm were as tired as I was. Anyway, it wasn’t happening.” His massive chest was preventing the errant button from staying in place. He stopped talking for a moment and gave it his full attention.
“Like I said,” he continued, his right hand holding the button in place, “I was on the road a lot, mostly in the U.S. She begged me to get into another line of work, but that’s how it is with us truckers. I needed to be behind the wheel of a rig.”
“She got lonely without you there?” I felt I needed to say something to indicate my interest.
He covered his face with both large hands for a moment, then looked at me. “Guess so. It’s the old story of a guy coming home when the little woman isn’t expecting him. It was her birthday. I got the dispatcher to give me a short run so I could get back quick and surprise her. Had a dozen red roses for her.”
He paused again. I sensed that his words were stirring up a terrifying memory.
“An unfamiliar car was parked in the driveway. Out of province plates.” He paused as though reliving the memory.
“Driving a rig in the states, you have to expect trouble. Had a hand gun stashed in my bag. Never used it. I wasn’t really suspecting anything but I did think it odd she locked the door when she had company. It was a small town, and we never saw the need for locking the door during the day. I used my key. They didn’t hear me come in.”
Jim’s breath was coming in gasps, his grey eyes staring intently into my face. “ When I saw what was goin’ on in the bedroom, I grabbed the pistol from my bag. The guy was down on his knees by then, completely naked and blubbering. Must have gone crazy in my head. He was so close, I couldn’t miss. When I turned around and walked out, he was lying dead in a pool of blood.”
Jim shared a few more details, and then I could see his energy was spent. I stood up and shook hands with him, promising to visit next week.
As I was about to leave, he said, “I don’t know if I can handle this. What do I have to live for? She won’t let me see our son.”
He seemed entirely genuine and I liked him. “Hang in there until next week, Jim,” I said, “we’ll work through this with you.” I pressed the button Mr. Gowler had pointed to. In less than a minute the moustached custody officer opened the door. Jim gave me a little nod, his face still serious. I didn’t know then that it would be the last time I’d see him.
One week later I called in to the BC Penitentiary to arrange a visit with Jim. Mr. Gowler’s assistant answered the phone. She said, “I’m sorry, but he is no more.”
The next day a rehabilitation officer told me Jim had managed to hang himself. He was a man I’d gladly have gotten to know better, even to have as a friend. I felt devastated.
The ominous grey perimeter wall of the BC Penitentiary towered
high above me as I stood uncertainly at the massive door to the “Visits and Correspondence” section. I was keenly aware that these walls confined some of the most dangerous, desperate men in Canada. They cast a sombre shadow not only over the prison grounds, but also over the lives of the inmates. From the beginning, in the minds of people driving by, this prison had been shrouded in mystique and secrecy. What kind of reception would I receive on my first visit to this maximum security penitentiary? I knew that many prison staff harbour a deep suspicion toward newcomers to their stringently regulated domain.
I pressed the button that alerted staff to my presence. After waiting a long minute, Mr. Gowler opened the door and stepped aside so I could enter. I had made an appointment to interview an inmate, but even so he asked about the purpose of my visit. I explained that Cal, the inmate I wanted to visit, had applied for an M/2 sponsor. His next question concerned the nature and purpose of M/2. He already had this information on file but apparently had not read it. Rehabilitation of inmates was not on the prison’s top 10 list of priorities.
“Follow me,” he said. He led me to a narrow room with partitions to allow each visitor and inmate a minimum of privacy. I despaired when I realized Cal would be on the other side of a glass partition. A small metal aperture in the glass would permit the flow of our voices.
After a few minutes a man in grey prison garb appeared, accompanied by a young custody officer. The officer withdrew out of my sight and the man lowered himself into the wooden chair on the other side of the glass. Short and lean, I guessed he was at least 50. It was evident from the lack of colour on his face he had not seen much sun in years. Lined, expressionless and haggard, the face told of virtually a lifetime sacrificed to crime and prison. His scant strands of dark brown hair were flecked with grey. For an awkward moment he studied me. I sensed he didn’t believe anything good would come from this visit.
Thinking that an attempt to lighten the mood with small talk might just irritate him, I introduced myself, then said, “I have read your application for a man-to-man sponsor. Knowing some things about you will help me match you with someone from the community. Is it ok if I ask you a few questions?” His face remained impassive. Only a slight nod indicated assent.
“Do any family members visit you?” I asked.
“First time in jail they came,” he said, shifting uncomfortably in the hard wooden chair. “Not now.”
I found the glass between us a distinct impediment. It didn’t surprise me that his family had long ago chosen to avoid this ordeal.
“Do you have any interests, like reading or playing chess?”
He shrugged as though this really wasn’t a useful question. “No. Just a game of cards with a few guys before dinner.” He turned in the direction where the guard had gone, probably not wanting the man to hear anything he said.
“Do you follow politics?”
“Why would I do that when I’m in here?” It wasn’t said with impatience, but rather with a note of resignation.
My next question elicited a reprimand from whoever was monitoring conversations between visitors and inmates. A disembodied voice broke in from an overhead speaker and said, “you are not permitted to ask that question.” I apologized for having stepped over this unseen line and continued.
From memory, I went through a list of 10 questions, some of them about his early years. I then finished with, “is there a particular reason why you applied for a sponsor?”
“I need help getting out of here,” he said very matter of factly. Then, rubbing his forehead with one hand, his voice dropped to a whisper. “Can you help me?”
It was the plea of a man deeply immersed in the quicksand of prison life, grasping for a hand. A disastrous upbringing and a succession of unfortunate choices on his part had set his life on an uncontrolled downward trajectory. He was now in the fickle hands of uncaring fate.
I had been there for about 20 minutes and I sensed that Cal had given more than he had planned to. His inner turmoil had exhausted him.
“I’ll look for a sponsor for you,” I promised, rising. “He’ll visit you about every two weeks. I’ll try to get back and touch base with you.”
He nodded and the young custody officer appeared.
The desolation of Cal’s inner life troubled me. How many other men hidden behind these grey walls had sunk into the morass of hopelessness that was sucking the life out of him? Our prison system was adding to the despair of these lost men, many of whom would one day return to our communities.
Once outside the doors of the Visits Office, I breathed deeply, grateful to be a free man. Our sponsors visiting men in the BC Penitentiary would face extraordinary hurdles.
During my time at Community Services, I continued in my
volunteer role with M2/W2 at the Matsqui prison. I also remained on the M2/W2 Board.
At about the same time the government pulled the Community Services contract enabling me to work with seniors, Cal Chambers , chairman of the M2/W2 Board made an unexpected announcement. “Ray Coles, our Executive Director and Al, his assistant, have both given notice of their resignation. Both men had come from the Salvation Army and were friends. It was not entirely surprising they had decided to leave at the same time.
This development came as a shock to Board members. Who would replace them? The path ahead suddenly seemed uncertain, and the faces of the men around the table became sombre and troubled. We were not given a reason for their departure, but we knew the organization’s income was meagre. Possibly there had not been sufficient funds for their needs. The work needed to carry on, but who would take on their responsibilities? Most qualified individuals would expect more than the organization could pay.
Within the past year Ray Coles, with the approval of the Board, had applied for funding to create 4 new positions. I had been interested in working for M2/W2. The organization’s approach to re-claiming the lives of prisoners appealed to me. However, Ray Coles had not considered me for any of the proposed positions. He had promised them to individuals who were close to him. When the application for funding was turned down, the whole idea came to nothing.
I wondered now if the resignations might provide an opportunity to come on board as a staff member. I felt drawn to a role that would enable me to have more personal contact with inmates and prison workers. It seemed to me that my degree in sociology, the time at Community Services, being on the Board of M2/W2, and guiding our program at Matsqui Institution had prepared me at least somewhat for this. While the disheartened discussion went on around me, I arrived at a decision.
A pause in the dialogue provided me with an opportunity to speak of my interest. “I have thought for some time that if the opportunity ever came,” I said, “I’d be interested in having a full-time role with M2/W2.”
I didn’t attempt to sell them on the idea. They already had a sense of my character and they were aware of the work I was doing at Matsqui, running our program there. The decision should be based on their evaluation of me and whatever abilities they saw in me.
Vern Reimer, Executive Director for the Mennonite Central Committee in B.C. spoke first. “MCC could take you on under our Voluntary Service program,” he said. “We would pay all your living expenses and there would be something for extras. It wouldn‘t be great pay but you would always be able to count on it.” With Linda not working anymore, I knew this would make for a somewhat lean family economy. Still, I felt it was an idea we should consider. The example of our parents had taught us to be prudent in the realm of finances.
Les Pritchert, a pastor and very capable Board member said, “If Art agrees to take a full-time position, I’d be willing to assume the role of Executive Director on a part-time basis, until we find a permanent replacement.”
I knew Les only as a Board member. He had an incisive mind and a determined “let’s get things done” approach. He was experienced, focused, tenacious and driven. I was intimidated by the thought of working with him. The challenge intrigued and enticed me, though. After a discussion with Linda, I agreed to the arrangement.
Within a short time, Linda, 9 month old Vivian and I were on a plane to Akron, Pennsylvania for the MCC orientation. Here we met volunteers going to various places around the globe, mostly to developing countries in desperate need of skills in trades, medicine and teaching. I recall particularly a bus trip to Washington, D.C. where we met MCC personnel who sought to positively influence government policy. By the end of the orientation, Linda and I felt great respect for what this fairly small but effective organization was accomplishing. We were pleased to be sponsored by MCC.
At that time the M2/W2 office was at 533 Clarkson Street in New Westminster. Most days I drove in from our little 5 acre farm in what was then Matsqui Municipality, near the Canada-U.S. border. In addition to Oakalla and Matsqui Insitituion, the organization had made contact with the BC Penitentiary and also Mountain Prison near Agassiz.
Fortunately, I learned that Les had a wonderfully congenial side. Although he was extremely immersed in other roles, he found the time to fully support and encourage me. Maybe he sensed that he would not live into deep old age and that he must not allow himself to be diverted from the objectives he considered most important. Although our time together was too brief, I was blessed to have him as a role model.
For me it was the beginning of an exciting, challenging chapter of my work life. My responsibilities would take me into virtually every prison on the Lower Mainland and in the Fraser Valley. I would interact with wardens, parole and probation officers, counsellors and security officers. I would deal with men doing time for murder, robbery, trafficking in heroin and cocaine, etc. And I would see citizen sponsors bring a ray of light into lives that had been darkened by crime, substance abuse, dysfunctional relationships and unfortunate choices. It would be an opportunity to work with sponsors to make a significant difference in the lives of men who had long ago lost their way.
It was a sunny afternoon and Matsqui Institution’s Citizens
Advisory Committee was on a tour of the prison’s skills training shops. Walter Paetkau, Executive Director of what was then MSA Community Services was walking with me. I respected Walter and his organization highly. He had my immediate attention when he said, “we are getting a government grant to do some projects in the community. You could apply if you’re interested.” Two weeks later I was working for Community Services.
When Walter assigned me to work on a project with seniors, I wasn’t excited initially. For several months I had a partner. Joan was a fun loving red head who laughed easily. She had the looks and personality to be on stage. We organized two town hall meetings that stirred considerable interest among seniors. They liked us and were ecstatic that Community Services was taking an interest in them. When we asked if they would like to have a centre where they could drink coffee, play games and meet people, they quickly said “yes.”
We enlisted several seniors to work on the idea of creating a centre. When we learned there might be money available from the provincial government, I took three senior ladies along to Vancouver to talk with the official who had the power to provide funding. The ladies loved the excursion. One of them insisted on buying my lunch.
We named the centre Friendship House and to my amazement, the seniors persuaded family and friends to donate all the furniture, including a piano. I could plunk a little and Joan had a good voice. For several months we visited the centre once each week. I played the piano and Joan, with her uplifting personality and strong voice quickly created an atmosphere of excitement. The people loved it and I learned that it’s possible to grow old and still be enthusiastic about life.
Knowing I had an interest in writing, Walter began asking me to accompany him to meetings about issues important to the work of the organization. He had a growing vision and the ability to attract people to it. Personal media attention seemed unimportant to him. However, he understood that the media could play a critical role in alerting the community to needs and issues that required attention. In pursuing goals he could be relentless, but he was also able to work patiently at putting pieces in place.
Walter accepted two capable Matsqui Institution inmates as volunteers. One had been successful in a Vancouver radio station until a judge sentenced him to prison for murder. Several individuals on social assistance made a substantive contribution through participation in a work experience program. Walter was able to discern the potential in people, even if their track record was dismal. Observing the blossoming of some of these individuals, I came to realize that through encouragement, guidance and support, a life of failure can be turned into a life of productivity and fulfilment.
Unfortunately, one of the inmates fell in love with a young female volunteer. Desperate to be with her, he persuaded her to run away to Mexico with him. He had concocted a clever scheme to gain control of some Community Services funds. He used the money to finance this poorly thought through plan. His girlfriend returned after a week. He phoned the prison a few days later to say he was coming back. For him it meant no more temporary absences.
The media created a huge uproar and the government withdrew funding for some projects, including the one I was working on. Fortunately, I had learned a lot and felt ready to move on.
Looking back now, I realize it was a stroke of ultimate good fortune to begin this phase of my work life in a position to observe Walter in action. The Community Services experience and the personal influence of Walter Paetkau altered my attitude, outlook and thinking. Walter’s unassuming but forceful leadership style, his values, compassion and perseverance continue to impact my life to this time.
A small town perspective on people, community, politics and environment.