by John Dunn
The telephone rang while we were at the breakfast table. My father got up from his place and went to the inside office to answer the call. Only a few moments later he returned, and, of course, Mother’s wondering came to the surface: “Will you have to go out?” she asked.
“No. That was one of the neighbours. Lizzie has died.”
So Lizzie had died too. That fact, little surprise in itself, matched what had happened to Old Tom, and George, and Aunt Hannah, since whenever I had asked my father what Tom or George had died from, his answer was “Old Age”. Lizzie’s passing, then, was likely caused by “Old Age” too. Old Age seemed to take off many of my father’s patients.
Lizzie’s death though meant something more to me: it meant that my trips with my father to her place at Blakeney had also ended. I had been six when we first went to Lizzie’s place, me on the front seat of the 1926 Huppmobile sedan, the first automobile at our place with real glass windows instead of the isinglass curtains of the earlier Gray Dort and Whippet and Studebaker. I felt glad, sitting on the front seat beside the black crushed valise that held scissors and tape and cotton batting, and had the rubber arms of the stethoscope hanging out over the lip, like someone leaning out from the third floor window of a hotel to see what was going on in the street below.
I’d been at Lizzie’s place a hundred times, I suppose, since my father’s first “Would you like to go for a drive out in the country?”, but, in all those occasions, I’d never once set eyes on Lizzie. Not once. Never.
Just past the store in the village the road begins a circuitous descent along the fringe of the gorge formed by the river, and I could look out the window of the Huppmobile and right down into the “Devil’s Punch Bowl”, and wonder about its terrors and mysteries. Lizzie’s cabin was half-way down, on the edge of the abyss. My father’s advice fell on my ears: “Try to keep away from the steep bank at the back of the house. You could lose your footing and tumble into the pit.”
I didn’t care to explore the back anyway; evidently little used, it had become a tangle of wild cucumber. At the front though, in the ditch beside the road, wild roses bloomed in the fence line, and ox-eye daisies and clusters of toadflax in the ditch. Visits to Lizzie’s place could have been features for “The Boy’s Own Magazine”.
Well, Lizzie had died, and as men at the blacksmith shop said, “Time marches on!”. The 1926 Hupp gave way to another automobile, a second cousin Huppmobile, a 1932 ‘phaeton’, a vehicle fit for royalty, a carriage for a king. It too had the same square-built outline as its 1926 predecessor, as if the Hupp family had begun building automobiles with a carpenter’s square in hand. From my advances in learning both physics and chemistry in high school, however, I discovered the second Hupp had a straight eight engine, a cast-iron block and gear-driven generator. Massive chromium-plated headlights, as big and round as milking pails, led its forward charge, and, for the final touches of elegance, it carried a pair of beautifully-turned coach lamps, two spare tires fitted into wells in the front fenders, and a rear trunk with silver buckles and hasps on the lid.
As time marched forward, it brought another surprise. Lizzie’s will revealed that she had bequeathed a lot she had owned in the village to the doctor.
A beautiful lot, a quarter acre in size, a marvellous sandy loam. The lot called out to the farmer in my father as potato ground.
A friend of his ploughed and harrowed the ground, readying it for planting potatoes. On a Saturday in June, he and I took seed potatoes to the lot and planted all day. That summer, I travelled back and forth on my bicycle to hoe the growing potatoes, and learning, in the hot time of day too that Charlie Hutt, the cheesemaker at the far end of the bridge below Lizzie’s cabin, would have salted the fresh cheese curd in the vat at eleven-fifteen, and Charlie welcomed one of the doctor’s family as the occasional visitor stopping to ask for a drink of cold water!
September came, and the last Friday of the month of my last year in high school. At lunch time, my father asked if I would be busy at school during the afternoon. “”I’ve only one class on Friday afternoon,” said I, “The rest of the time is spare.”
“In that case, do you think you could get away?. We’re getting to the time of year when there’s danger of frost, and I’d like to get the potatoes out of the ground at Blakeney. Two of us could probably finish the job this afternoon.”
We took the Hupp with the coach lamps on the wings and the massive headlights down to the potato ground. My father wanted to dig. With a six-tine grape, he upended the tubers from the hills, ten to twelve fine big potatoes tumbling to the surface one after the other. That Friday afternoon in September left me with the notion of potato as a most generous discovery in the history of man and plants, as my father lifted the plants one by one and shook out ten or twelve fine big tubers, grown from the two seeds we had planted in early summer. I collected the potatoes into mounds to give them a chance to dry out in the sun, before bagging them.
By four o’clock, we had finished. I had seventeen bags ready to take home. We were able to load ten bags only in the Hupp, and with these we set off for home.
“I have to make a quick trip to Carleton Place,” my father said. “Could you unload these potatoes we have now, and get them put away in the basement and when I get back from Carleton Place, I think there’ll be enough time left that we could go back to Blakeney and pick up the remaining seven bags.”
Certainly. My father left immediately, without even changing from the khaki coveralls he’d been wearing in the potato patch. So his visit would certainly be a short one to Carleton Place. I got the ten bags of potatoes put away in storage.
Then I sat waiting on the level at the top of the verandah steps, looking out over the lawn beside the house.
Mother, and my two aunts, Clare and Mardie, were out on the verandah also. The whistle from the locomotive of the Ottawa-Pembroke local screeched for the Church Street crossing, a hundred yards before Almonte station. We expected to see the Huppmobile any moment come up the street, turn the corner to the street on the other side of the house and stop outside my father’s office door.
Five o’clock passed. Mother became a little edgy. “I wonder what’s keeping your father,” she remarked.
“Hard to say,” I ventured, and then “Oops, here he is now, but he’s walking.” Yes, and four pairs of eyes on the verandah stared at him walking across the grass from the street to the verandah.
De Church Street in Almonte approaches the CPR right of way, and falls sharply down to the crossing at track level. It is a crossing which my father would never have used in ordinary circumstances. On this occasion, however, he did, probably thinking that, at five minutes before five, the train would be standing in the station. He could slide across at Church Street crossing without delay, whereas if he took his usual route, he would be delayed at the Bridge Street crossing.
I went down on my bicycle to examine the crash scene. I didn’t have to ask about “Old Age”. That elegant phaeton, Huppmobile 2, lay in crumpled wreckage beside the tracks. A layer of sandy loam from Lizzie’s lot, our potato patch, had been disturbed from the rear seat and trunk and covered the remains. Three of the four doors had been demolished. One remained, untouched by fate, unharmed, still working, the driver’s door. Both elegant coach lamps had been torn off, the headlights smashed.
I had no trouble reconstructing the incident: my father had evidently started down the steep incline from Church Street to track level, and, at the last instant, noticed the locomotive. Presence of mind caused him to swing the wheel hard left to put the car in line with the direction of the train. The locomotive sliced through one-half of the Huppmobile, the half away from the driver.
“You should have seen the doctor,” a chum who had been waiting for the train to arrive said to me. “He never waited one minute, never even looked back at the engine. He just stepped across the tracks in front of the locomotive, and walked away. Fast. One of the express fellows told me he saw him going flat out across the bridge and up the hill to the house. He must have been in a desperate hurry to get home.”
Mother and the aunts were still on the verandah when I got back to the house. They were trying to sort out the how and the why and the how about details of the Hupp and the Train. One of mother’s friends phoned to tell her that she had seen my father walking, and thought it so unusual for him to be hurrying on foot, and with such a determined purposeful look in his face, and him in coveralls yet, that she had to wonder if everything was all right at our place.
Mother brought this telephone message out to the verandah, and concluded with “Now, why in the world would have made him just race away without even looking back? Just walk across the tracks in front of the locomotive without saying a word to anybody?”
“Ha, you don’t need to ask. He did that just because of you,” said Clare.