by John Dunn
Christmas Day proved that winter hit the arrival board right on the mark. Twenty-two below zero, Fahrenheit.
That evening, three only were gathered around the fireplace in the dining room, my father, my mother, and myself. At eight o’clock, the telephone rang and of course my father went to answer the summons.
“Surely, he won’t have to go out on Christmas Night,” Mother said, thinking out loud.
Little could be learned from listening in on the phone conversation. My father’s contribution was “Yes”, “Yes”, “Yes” with a closing “All right.”
When he returned to the dining room fireplace, mother had one query: “Will you have to go out?”“
“Yes” he replied.
That Yes set all three of us in motion. Mother went to the kitchen to prepare hot soup for the driver’s stomach and set two bricks in the oven to be heated and placed on the floor of the cutter for the driver’s feet to settle on.
The doctor checked his crushed black leather satchel to make sure it contained whatever might be needful.
I went out to the stable to prepare Frank, our horse, for a night on the road. First, a pail of oats. Shantymen at the blacksmith shop said that a pail of oats would “set fire in the horse’s blood.” Into Frank’s manger box went a generous ration of oats for him to work on. He’d need twenty minutes for that. I went back into the house.
Mother’s idea for “fire in the blood” was hot soup and Parker House rolls. My father was working on that when the telephone rang.
“Oh dear,” said mother, and turning to me said, “Your father can’t really take that call at this moment. Would you answer the phone and find out if you can who is calling?”
I went inside, picked up the telephone and said “Hello.”
“Oh! Is the doctor in?” a man’s voice asked.
“Yes, but he’s just finishing a bowl of soup before going out on a call. Can I take a message for him?”
“Oh yes,” the man on the phone said. “I’m glad I caught him before he hit the road. Would you just tell him that the snow is heavy on the road, and wind has blown and mounded it. His horse would find it heavy going. I’m sure he knows the road through the bush to our place. Would you tell him he might take it, the shortcut through the bush? The snow hasn’t drifted in the bush. And we’ll send someone to meet him with the lantern.”
“Thank you, I’ll be sure to tell him.”
Half an hour after the phone call, I brought Frank, harnessed and in the shafts of the cutter to the office door.
My father came out from his office in his buffalo coat, hat, gauntlets, carrying his satchel and two bricks wrapped in newspaper. I drew the buffalo blanket over his knees, handed him the lines, slapped Frank on the rump and they were off.
Two days later, the doctor returned in the continuing cold spell. I happened to look out the window and saw him drive up to the office door, and step out of the cutter. Step out is a poor description: a frozen mass rolled from the cutter, and went stumbling through frost to the door.
Frank couldn’t wait. He kept going ahead, past the garage, down the slope, and stopped at the stable door. I caught up with him there, loosed the traces from the cutter, brought Frank inside the stable where I unharnessed and blanketed him and brought water. Glad to be back home, he drank two full pails of water and half of another.
In the kitchen, as my father gradually threw off the chill of a real Canadian winter, my curiosity about his two-day trip raised the question of distance, the sole criterion for any first-former to measure any trip.
“How far did you have to go?” I asked.“
“It would be twenty-five or twenty-six miles,” he estimated.
His own interest though had nothing to do with miles: rather he was thoroughly awed by a family twenty-five miles from Almonte, and how admirably that family happily was coping with the difficulties everyone was experiencing during the great Depression of the nineteen-thirties.
“Everything on the table was home-grown”, said he. “Except for the tea and the salt.”
“And the sugar?” I asked.
“No. They made their own maple sugar,” he said, and added that the meat on the table came from their own sheep, and the woollen mitts worn by everyone were home-knit as well.
“What about the reason for your trip?” asked Mother. “Did everything turn out all right?”
“Yes, a boy. Everything is just fine.”
“You must have had to wait some.”
“Yes. Nature takes its course.”