It was night in the mountain valley of Merritt, British Columbia, the heat of the day still alive in the dust and char from the sawmills. The smut covered everything like rust covers iron. The desiccated leaves of poplars and willows stirred by the creek where a young man sat and watched an oil streak on the water, the way it swirled in the eddies by the broken clay bank at his feet. Logging trucks and pickups passed by, their headlights stuttering in the dark. The young man sat on a rock and gazed out upon the waters. For a long time he stared at nothing, but a single leaf floating among a tangle of roots caught his eye as a truck’s lights briefly touched the bank. It was night and the valley was asleep except for the passing trucks and the far-off screams of the chains in the mills. The creek moved on as it always had, except for the leaf. The leaf went nowhere, turning and turning in upon itself.
That twenty-one-year-old man was me. Standing here tonight I look out at you and at the same time see the leaf in that place behind my eyes where the images of a lifetime reside. The leaf moves in circles as it tries to follow the water away. I do not know now if the leaf finally escaped the tangle. What I do remember is the moment it caught on a broken bit of root. I can see the leaf trembling there. Fifty-six years ago I watched the creek as it made its way past me down to the Nicola River, flowing west along a twisted, narrow valley to the Fraser river near Spences Bridge where the scar of the canyon carried it to the sea.
Behind me in a thirty-foot trailer slept my two small boys and my young wife, pregnant with our third child. I was working as a first-aid-man at a sawmill in town. I barely made enough to get by. Every nickel I made disappeared into the poverty of our young lives. Many nights I was unable to sleep. I would go out then into the dark and stare at the creek. But the night the image of the leaf caught in my memory was different than other nights. A few hours before I had agreed to blow up the bridge that crossed the Fraser River to stop anyone from travelling east up the Nicola Valley to our town.
Five years before that night I had a job driving a TD18 tractor, building bush road in a forest cut-block high above Sugar Lake at the edge of the Monashee Mountains. I was sixteen years old. One Monday morning I was given a case of rotting dynamite, nitroglycerin crystals leached wet on the sticks, a roll of old fuse, and a box of blasting caps. I was told to blow up a rock bluff that was blocking the logging road I was building. I knew nothing about dynamite, but the boss briefly explained how to use it and then left me alone to learn how. That I didn’t blow my hands off crimping blasting caps with pliers or die from rocks falling out of the sky after an explosion was nothing more than luck. Sitting by the creek I had remembered a Saturday night the year before drinking at the Nicola Hotel beer parlour. After three or four beers I told the older men sitting at the table I knew about dynamite. My story was mostly boyish bragging. The men listened without saying much. What I didn’t realize was they would remember what I had said.
Two of those men had knocked at my trailer door around nine o’clock earlier that night. They asked me to come outside and talk. One of them was the foreman at the sawmill and the other ran the planer at another sawmill east of town. The foreman was an important man at my mill. When I stood with them by their pickup trucks he asked me if I had read the nuclear circular the government had issued the week before. I said i had. The circular outlined what would happen in the event of a nuclear attack on North America by the Russians. It said that after the bombs dropped on Seattle and Vancouver we would have to take in 50,000 of the refugees who would flee up the Fraser canyon into the Interior to escape the destruction.
The foreman told me there was no way our town could look after that many people. He said the refugees would have to be stopped before they could get to Merritt. He said when the nuclear war happened my job would be to stop the refugees by blowing up the bridge over the Fraser. The foreman said there wouldn’t be enough food or shelter for that many people. There were only two doctors in town a few nurses, and first-aid-men like me. He said most of the refugees would have radiation. He said there was no way they could take the chance our own children might catch radiation and get sick and die. He said that after the nuclear war we were on our own.
It was 1960, fifteen years after the Second World War and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, seven years after the Korean War, six years after the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the defeat of the French army, and the beginning of the American involvement that led to the Vietnam War. In the narrow closet in our trailer was a case of Campbell’s tomato soup. It had been our survival kit for the past year. The soup was what we would have to eat when the nuclear war began. That and whatever animal I might kill with the old First World War Lee-Enfield rifle I had bought from the Eaton’s catalogue for thirty dollars. A moose kill maybe or a deer or bear. The soup was all I could afford. On top of the box of soup was a case of dynamite and two rolls of fuse. The box of blasting caps was in the back of the high shelf in the kitchen behind the soup bowls. The next Sunday the men were going to drive with me down to the bridge and see what needed to be done to blow it up.
It is hard to think of those years now, the terrible fear everyone suffered, the long days and longer nights when a nuclear attack seemed inevitable, the building of bomb shelters, the survival kits. The wars of the 20th Century had scarred three generations with the destruction of cities and countries, the deaths of tens of millions of people. I have never forgotten those times. I have told the story of that night in the small town of Merritt in the heart of the Nicola Valley when I told the foreman of the sawmill that i would blow up the bridge. That I never had to do it does not change the fact that it is what was going to be done. We did go down to the bridge and I did walk around and under the bridge as I figured out what would be needed to make it collapse. I was afraid of the war and I was also afraid might lose my job and jeopardize the lives of my children if I didn’t do what they wanted. Work was not easy to come by in 1960 for a working-class kid with no education. Or was it that simple? Did I fear the refugees too? I was so young. Fear can take us to dark places and sometimes there seems to be no way out of the traps people set for us, the traps we set for ourselves.
What I remember most clearly is not the far-off glow of the trailer park yard light, the mutter of their pickup truck engines, the short, one-sided conversation whose inevitable answer from me was a hesitant, terrible, yes. And it was not the look of fear on my wife’s face when I placed the dynamite in the closet on top of the soup. No, it was the leaf in the creek. Over the years I have thought back to those times, have written about them, talked about them, but when I sat down to write this piece for you it was the leaf in the creek. I can see it so clearly. Even now, standing here, it is in my mind’s eye, the water with its slick of oil, the crusted clay banks, the dying trees, and the leaf turning and turning in the trap of the roots.
Today I know I am the leaf and I am the roots, I am the water and i am the rock, I am twenty-one years old and I am seventy-seven years old, and I remain so even as i tell this story. The old fears remain in me, the Nuclear Circular, the atomic bomb, and the war that would surely come. The poet, Weldon Kees, committed suicide by jumping off the Golden gate Bridge in San Francisco. One of his last poems has the line, whatever it is that a wound remembers after the healing ends. It is a line that has stayed with me for fifty years. I tell it to you now so that you do not forget why we are here. Yes, whatever it is that a wound remembers after the healing ends.