Monday, March 23, 2009

The Multi-Colored Jacket

In 1950’s there was great concern for the Russian Menace so the United States and Canada built a “Distant Early Warning Line.” They called it the DEW line for short.

The Russians had built long-range bombers and exploded a hydrogen bomb, so a series of radar stations were built across the Canadian arctic, Alaska, Greenland etc. The whole idea was to detect incoming Soviet planes. The radar stations were scattered across frozen tundra and spaced so that each station covered an area plus over lapped the next station to make sure that there were no empty spots.

We who worked up there were from all walks of life. It drew Canadians, Irish, Scottish, Americans, and Denmark etc. The lead guys were the radar techs, electricians and other technical trades.

I was on the office staff at that time. Which in itself is peculiar because I had no skills except the ones that were self-taught like typing.

The radar stations were of different sizes. Some had up to 150 men while others a mere 25 or so. The stations had airstrips and were mostly served by the workhorse aircraft DC-3. They were totally reliable and our life line to the outside world.

When the weather was good we had a plane come in with supplies at least every two weeks and sometimes every week. You can imagine how we looked forward to getting mail and movies.

We were at a place called Tucktoyatuck. It was a peninsula with gravel base in the summer and hard frozen snow and ice in the winter. The fishing was Arctic Char and the small lakes were teaming with them and other species. So in the summer the fishermen amongst us had a ball. The rest of us stayed up too late in the constant daylight of the summer and in the winter found the darkness a little heavy on our moods.

There were amongst us Indians and Eskimos who lived off base in housing provided for them and managed, at the time, by the Federal Electric Corporation who had the contract for the stations.

So there we were, a small group living in modules lined up and connected by corridors with wide spots for kitchens, dining and recreation.

There was a bar and I was assigned to be the bartender by the Crew Chief who said it was best if I did it because I was the only one who didn’t drink. I was paid a small extra sum for it and, along with cutting guys’ hair, I made a little extra money. The Bar was opened at night after all the work was done and, as you can expect, it drew a number of people like a pin to a magnet.

One Saturday afternoon a DC –3 had come in and dropped off one passenger and picked up another who was leaving for “outside world.”

As was the custom, the new guy got himself settled and when the bar opened that evening he came in wearing a jacket that was multicolored. It had three colors -- blue, white and red. The lines on the jacket were fitting. The arms were red, the main body blue with a white collar and a white stripe down the center and around the base. It was a sight to behold.

The new guy was Irish and had quite a way with words, entertaining us with news from the outside and just generally having a good time. Through the evening, he took off his coat and placed it over a chair. In time he was a little drunk as he had been imbibing before he got to our base. He left to go to his room and forgot his jacket on the chair.

Meanwhile, another Irishmen had come in who was known as the practical joker amongst us. He noticed the jacket and asked me whom it belonged to, but before I could say anything one of the guys interrupted and said it belonged to him. I looked up rather startled but kept quiet.

The guy said to the Irishman: “I bought that jacket a while back and paid $60 for it but I hate the colors and I was half sloshed when I bought it.”

The Irishman said: “Why, that is a fine looking coat to be sure.”

The other fellow said: “I would sell it for $10 and be done with it.”

The Irishmen said: “Look lad, if your serious I’ll buy it from you.”

Sure, he wanted to sell the coat but he had to appear not to be too anxious. The fellow selling the coat hemmed and hawed. He sat straight up and looked the Irishman straight in the eye and said: “I want to sell it alright but you won’t change your mind tomorrow will you?”

The Irishmen said: “What do you take me for? I’ll give you my word and that’s the end of it.”

Just to make the deal stick, the Irishman spat lightly on his hand and offered it. The exchange was made and the Irishman went off with his new jacket.

The very next day the other Irishman was looking for his multi colored jacket and couldn’t find it. That evening when the bar was open the Irishman who bought the jacket came in wearing it. Of course the other Irishman said: “That’s my jacket!” and an argument ensued.

The two of them, being Irish, soon had their dukes up and ready to fight. It was getting quite heated when finally one of the people in the bar stepped between them and said: “Let’s sort this out.”

It was agreed and after much talk, the explanation was with the fellow who sold it. The two of them went looking for the fellow who sold the jacket. Pretty soon the two of them were back at the bar with the fellow that sold the jacket between them. They made him fess up to the trick of selling the jacket. After some explanation, the jacket was back in the original owner’s hands and all three of them were getting on ok and the $10 was back in the hands of the Irishman who bought the jacket.

Finally, the fellow who sold the jacket said to Ryan, the other Irishmen: “You had that coming, Ryan. You have played more tricks on all of us and it was about time you got your come up pence.” They all laughed good-naturedly and those in the room roared with laughter.

It was a moment of relief from the cares and isolation and being away from home was forgot for a moment.

The following morning a new episode came about but my laughter got me in trouble. The superintendent told me to grab a notebook and come with him. I did so and he said he was going to inspect the housing they had built for some of the regular Eskimos and Indians. It had been a year since they were finished and the families had moved in.

No one was notified; we just knocked on the doors and proceeded with our inspections. The first few places were pretty dirty and the walls were in bad shape. I was busy taking notes as the Superintendent muttered under his breath and made sure I had noticed what he noticed.

There were six houses in all and the last one made me laugh. We knocked on the door and a woman opened the door. There was her Eskimo husband skinning out a seal on the front room floor.

Why, I don’t know. Yes, it was bitterly cold outside but it didn’t make sense to make that mess when it could have been done outside.

The superintendent sputtered out to the Eskimo: “Why are you skinning the seal inside your house?” He replied: “Sure was a good idea at the time. Should I take it out now and finish outside?”

I broke out laughing and the Superintendent, who was from the south, said: “Ah don’t know what you find so funny, Mr. Granger, but this is no laughing matter.”

We started back and the Superintendent asked me again what I found so funny. I replied: “Well, the Eskimos have been here a couple of thousand years. I can’t see how a few years would change their habits.” He barked some unkind things at me and I was on his list after that no matter what I did.


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