Sunday, June 29, 2008

Fort Churchill

Our nomadic years with Dad in the military gave us some very interesting experiences not shared by many. Among my most amazing memories are those we made while living in Churchill, Manitoba. Find it on the map. Go East and look for the Hudson Bay and follow it North. Further. Further. If you've seen the National Geographic special on Polar Bears, you're already familiar with Churchill. It was called Fort Churchill then.

Here's what we didn't have: cars, civilians, playgrounds, normal daylight and night hours. Here's what we did have: a husky, a toboggan, shovels, long johns, parkas, northern lights, three months where it never got lighter than twilight, and an equal number where it never got darker than twilight.

When we arrived, I was a preschooler. When we returned to the United States, I had started Kindergarten. I had learned to sing the Canadian National Anthem, not our own, since even though Daddy was in our military, he was attached to the Canadian forces while completing some kind of training for the nuclear program being set up in the U.S. He was part of the original training cadre the Army operated within the Atomic Energy Commission.

The dog sled was an important part of our life there, as Mom wouldn't have been able to walk all the way to the Commissary and return carrying groceries for a family of six. She'd load the four of us kids in the dog sled and hitch up the husky. He was not a pet. He was kept chained, and unless in harness could be quite scary. I don't think Pat was afraid of him, but I remember that he could be mean. Once when Ellen was asked to feed him, he jumped at her, teeth bared, and she hit him in the head with a ham bone. After that, none of us got too close. We kind of threw food in his direction, not getting within reach of the end of his chain. It's not the kind of life I'd choose for an animal today, but as a kid I didn't think of those things, and he was a bright-eyed creature who didn't seem unhappy. In fact, seeing his harness was all it took to make him go absolutely still, with a look of concentrated ecstasy. That animal loved to run.

We'd mush on down to the Commissary, load up on groceries, and pile back in the toboggan, each with a bag in our lap and Mom hanging onto the back to direct our progress. Sitting there with the wind whipping past my cheeks was wonderful. I always loved the cold, and this was definitely that! It got down to -40° (yes, you read that correctly. Minus forty degrees — I just checked the 1953 data for Churchill Manitoba). Snowfall for that winter was recorded as 44.9 inches "on the ground" in March. That's a lot of shoveling. It shows another 42 in April. Total annual "precipitation" was over 380 inches. That's a lot of wet stuff, and for half the year, what didn't come down as snow, froze when it hit the tundra.

You could skate with your boots on, and building snow caves was marvelous, since the outer shell would harden and become almost permanent, like an igloo. The inside would be much warmer than the outside, and we'd have wonderful times playing in them.

Now, as an adult, I can picture my poor mom trying to bundle up four little kids in long johns, several pair of socks, parkas, boots, mittens — and then, of course, someone would have to use the euphemism. Start all over with that one. And I just know we dripped all over her clean floors when we came back into the house. She's never liked the cold, either, but I don't remember her complaining. I'll have to ask her if she was a saint or a martyr. Maybe I'd better not. Some things I'm better off just remembering the way they sit in my mind now, with Mama smiling and me holding up a hand while she struggled to force on a mitten that I was outgrowing.

That's okay, Mama. You know Grandma's knitting us new ones to send for Christmas.


twoeyesopen said...

I like your tale of days gone by. I am writing as a kid born and partially raised in Fort Churchill, as was my sister. My family was resident from '62 to '74. I believe the base was flattened in '75.
The town of Churchill still chugs along.
Sorry to correct you, but the town of Churchill is entirely different from the base of Fort Churchill. They're about 4 miles apart, by car. Even though the airport remains today, the majority of the base is gone.

Kathleen said...

It's not surprising I got the town and the Fort muddled together in my mind. Look at how young I am in the photos... Thanks for clearing that up. Some of the memories are crystal clear, while some details blur together like drops of rain in a storm.