Submitted by: Murray Pound
I am standing, alone, in the dark. I couldn’t tell you what time it is if you asked, somewhere between half past one and breakfast. January has been cold and it has been snowing for days. The crew from Station 1 have been out in a snow storm tonight cleaning up the remnants of a collision involving a semi loaded with 20mm rebar versus a half ton truck. As I turn my face away from the wind to get a brief reprieve from the cold, I widen my eyes and catch my first glimpse of death.
Through the flashing red and white lights that glare off the frozen asphalt like an oil slick, I can see the paramedics loading the smaller truck’s single occupant into the back of their ambulance. He doesn’t make it.
I live in a bedroom town where people move to when things get too lousy where they are. I have lived here most of my life. My father was a businessman and moved us here when I was nine. I attended and graduated from the county school. Time for university came, and I went. I didn’t get much out of it though. I felt lost, disassociated. The buildings were big and the people were not familiar. I left there with a paper in hand that stated I had finished a degree. During the summers in between semesters I worked for my father and various other jobs. For a few years I worked as a salesman in Calgary, then Winnipeg. On hot summer nights alone in a hotel bed with no familiar sounds of a mid-night train whistle, I found it hard to sleep. I moved back home after my Father called me up one day and asked if I would like to help with the family business. Mom must have told him my voice sounded lonely and it would do me good to return to things familiar. I don’t remember the trip home save for the last ten minutes.
As you approach Carstairs from the south, you crest a hill about seven kilometres out. The secondary highway I’m on parallels the rail line and the two snake there way towards town. From here you can see the town site. You can recognize it as a town because it’s green with trees, (there are few trees in the prairies). Grain elevators (now torn down) poke through the canopy, dividing the town into two parts. The fields roll with green and the bright yellow of canola. They used to call it rape seed, but some nice Christian ladies found the name offensive, so they changed it.
Our little town borders several busy highways, the largest of which is the Queen Elizabeth II highway. Thousands of people and millions of tones of vehicles travel along it each day. We are in the parklands of Alberta, and the weather is unpredictable. They say that if you don’t like the weather in Alberta, wait a minute. Congested traffic plus high rates of speed plus rapid changes in road conditions equals regular carnage. We call them MVC’s (motor vehicle collisions). We used to call them MVA’s, A standing for accident, but a few years ago someone convinced the fire service to change the acronym because there is no such thing as an accident.
It was no accident that I have found myself out on that highway tonight. A few hours ago my pager scared me awake. Minutes later I am in the back of an old yellow Thiebault engine screaming east through the country side en-route to a two vehicle collision. I love this truck, it looks and sounds like the trucks from the Hollywood movies I watched as a kid. It is configured for a driver and officer up in the cab and behind is room for four ‘men’, two on either side of a large pump, each facing the other. It is much like sitting at a table in a restaurant. You can see everyone’s face and if you talk loud enough over the sirens and the sound of the engine you can share a joke or catch up on last night’s hockey game. Several minutes later our driver has stopped and positioned us behind what looks like a tractor trailer unit that is jackknifed into the meridian that separates north and southbound traffic. We pile out of the engine and our officer points us in various directions. I have no extrication or medical experience yet so he hands me a stop/slow lollipop sign and tells me to walk up the highway and get people to slow down. I head off into the snow.
Two months before, soon after returning to Carstairs, I joined the Volunteer Fire Department with two of my friends. They are somewhere else down the road, out of sight. Because of Claude’s size the Captain probably has him hauling equipment back and forth between emergency vehicles and the crash site. Claude is a large man, just over six feet and built like a linebacker or maybe more like a retired linebacker. His girlfriend Lyne is somewhere out of sight, probably holding a traffic sign like me on the other side. They moved here from Quebec about the same time I returned. To me their English is good, but sometimes the boys at the hall give Claude a hard time with his accent. None of them have the balls to tease Lyne. If you did she would likely tear them off.
I am a volunteer firefighter. And I even though at the time I didn’t know much about fire, blood, fear, or the pain this new path will bring me, I was at the time proud to be part of something. Proud to be wearing a hand me down helmet and fire coat. Proud to be freezing my feet and ears. Proud to tell my girlfriend what we did that night. I am still proud. But not about myself anymore. I am proud of my family for putting up with the missed dinners. Proud of my coworkers for covering for me in the middle of the day so I can run off at the sound of my pager. Proud of the other men and women who join me on the cold roads at night, the hot, dusty grassfires, the long hours cleaning and drying hose. I am proud of the people in my little town that support our efforts at our Christmas fundraisers. The transition from realizing that these things are more important than the single contribution I make has taken several years.
Thank you to all my brothers and sisters who lay it on the line 24-7 and expect nothing in return.