CPR Section House

CPR Section House

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bears and Blueberries

A blessing in Canadian Shield country was the blueberry . From the end of June until mid-August , depending on where the patch was located , delicate white flowers on short,woody shrubs transformed in blueberries . Full , juicy and free for the picking !

Along the railway line , blueberries were quicker to ripen because the extra heat absorbed by steel rails and the railway bed created a microclimate that allowed the berries to develop earlier .
Away from the tracks , the tops of granite outcrops
and hills lay exposed to the warming sun . The soil was not deep enough to support tree growth , but there was enough for blueberries to flourish . Heading to these places in July would yeild more pails of nature's soul food .
 Hot days in July were filled with the spicy scent of sweetfern , a clue to the presence of blueberries . Its distinctive aroma was 'the smell of the blueberry patch' , making it easier to locate along miles of track . Where there was Sweetfern , there were blueberries ! - as well as the cure for overindulgence .

Dad introduced Mum to the blueberry . " A blueberry pie would be nice !" he said when he opened his lunch pail one day to display the prize he had picked along the track at lunchtime . Mum tasted them and was hooked . Fresh fruit and vegetables were a rare luxury in the North . She became hooked on their distinctive fresh flavour . Once Dad and Mum devoured handfuls , they soon realized that there were no longer enough berries to make a pie . But, there were enough for them to have a bowlful - doused in Carnation canned milk - decadent indulgence .

The next day , Dad brought home his lunchpail full . This time , they made it to 'Baking Day' when Mum baked her bread for the week . A single blueberry pie was added to the work load . Eight loaves of bread and one blueberry pie ! Supper that night was fresh baked bread slathered in butter ( another indulgence for the celebration ) , blueberry pie with a little milk atop and a 'cuppa' (tea). It was agreed that one pie a week was not going to be enough .
Three or four were more appropriate since one pie in the oven was a waste of heat . Besides , Dad would want to share a little with the guys on the line . That evening , they began a nightly routine of picking for an hour . " They were like grapes , " Mum told us ," so it didn't take long to fill the water pail everyday ." The next baking day included 4 pies .

During picking , Mum learned that the bounty had to be shared with blackbears . They also were out for an evening of picking everyday during blueberry season . The bears quickly got used to Mum and Dad turning up each evening at the same time , and accepted them into the patch , as long as a reasonable distance between was maintained . If my parents they came too close , the bears ran into the bush at the side of the track only to emerge a bit further down the line . (Bush bears are easily startled and always head for cover first.) As readily agreed upon by both bears and humans , everyone left the patch if a Mother Bear and her cubs came . She would aggressively defend her cubs at any perceived threat . Unlike other bears , she was never scared off of her task to protect . The only thing everyone watched for was a cub wandering into the patch . Mother would not be far behind. Mum learned to watch the other bears for signs . Bears would quietly but quickly take to the bush having picked up the scent or sounds long before either Mum or Dad .

When Mum had completed her bread and pie baking that week , she placed the pies to cool on the back step . It was cooler outside than in the kitchen which was well over 100F , since the wood cookstove had been going all day . Her habit (except in winter) was to fling open the front and backdoor to get a good cross-breeze to take the built up heat out of the kitchen . The tantalizing aroma of fresh bread and pies drifted into the world outside , while Mum used the remaining fire to make supper and heat washing-up water .

 She was drawn to the backdoor by the sound of metal crashing on the back step . At the door , she came face to face with ' a good sized bear ' who was happily eating pie . The pan had been cast aside as inedible . Mum yelled as much in startled shock as in annoyance that the bear was dis-appearing her pies . The bear , taken by surprise , turned to see a 'wild' woman weilding a broom in the air roaring and threatening its existence . As a young girl , I always imagined the Bear screaming," Aa-aaa! Mother Bear! Run ! " as it took off into the bush to warn others . Mom was willing to share the patch but not the pies .

Dad brought this story to the men , along with a pie to share . He proudly accepted all compliments on his wife's skill which he relayed to Mum after work . When a locomotive pulled to a stop outside the house the next day , the trainmen politely knocked on the door and asked for a piece of her pie . The train could be delayed at this halfway point on the line for a good reason . Blueberry pie was always a good reason . On the next Bake Day , the train stopped again... this time with 50lbs of flour and 10lbs of sugar . The men took a quarter hour to have tea and pie , drop off lightly used magazines and papers , and bring news of happenings along the line . Mum knew that she would have to increase pie output .

Unfortunately (and most fortunately as it later worked out ), the Road Master heard of the teabreak stop and fifteen minute delay . As with many petty officials , he liked to bully and coerce section families to do his bidding , often to the detriment of many section wives along the line . Section men were verbally threatened with loss of their job unless they treated him as 'God of the Line', and catered to his every whim , good or bad . He was extremely displeased that Dad's wife was 'stopping trains' and 'entertaining men' without his specific permission . One day , he burst suddenly into the section house , stomped into the kitchen and ordered Mum to give him tea and pie .

 Bad move 1- he didn't knock ; bad move 2- he hadn't introduced himself ; bad move 3 - this was her territory ; bad move 4 - he had just tracked CPR soot onto her freshly cleaned floor . HE WAS DOOMED !

Here is the scene as I imagined it :

(Mum , getting coldly quiet and looking him directly in the eye): And who are you?

RM ( puffing up announces) I ...am the Road MASTER !

Mum: (expertly containing herself) ...and what is a road master ?

RM: The BOSS... woman...Now do as I said !

Mum: ( hand strategically placed on her broom , with the freeze-your-blood-in-your-veins stare and an ice cold soft voice )

You sir ...are not welcome in... MY... home until you have apologized for... YOUR... unwarranted behaviour... AND... until you have learned to act like a gentleman . Please leave ...NOW... and don't come back until you have been ...INVITED. ( stressing her key words , a cue to be remembered )

RM: ( enraged but fearful of this unreadable , unintimidated woman ) You can't
treat ME like that . You'll pay for this . ( As he races for the door )

Mum: (to herself) We'll see...we'll see .

That day Mum wrote a letter to Head Office in Montreal explaining what the Road Master had done , his reputation and explained how such behaviour reflected badly on the Company that had the loyalty of section families across the country...many of whom included WW II veterans such as Dad . She gave the letter to the engineer on the next train , which she flagged down with her teatowel . It was delivered . Dad didn't know about the letter or the 'visitation' until much later .

The following week , Mum noticed that some pies had disappeared . She knew it wasn't the bears because the pans had disappeared , too .  She lay in wait the next pie day for the culprit , broom at the ready .  When she heard whispers outside the backdoor , she launched herself through the doorway screaming and waving her broom in the air . Two pies flew skyward as the Road Master and his motorcar driver ran for their vehicle hidden down the track . Mum told Dad of this day's visit , and he roared in laughter despite the concern that the RM would make his life miserable for sure . It was a story that he was glad to pass along the line (...one that wouldn't seem so funny at other times) .

 No more pies disappeared .

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