© 2021 jaron summers
Before Facebook, before Twitter, before chat rooms, when Google was only a l-o-o-o-o-o-n-g number and Amazon … a rainforest river, there was The Royal Crown Hotel lobby in Coronation, Alberta.
The old timers gathered in its lobby.
A fellow, who lost a thumb when he was a tool push on an oil derrick at the edge of town, remembered the Yukon Territory in 1947 when temperatures dropped to -63 C.
A nonagenarian recounted tales of his childhood when his family witnessed millions of Canada Geese winging south, blotting out the sun for half a day.
Remaining geezers chattered about lost loves, and brilliant grand-children. They yelled because they were mostly deaf and figured everyone else was deaf. A few yelled so loud that those with hearing aids had to turn them off.
Two of them dropped their hearing aids and started swearing and then the others double-cussed them back … God fearing citizens of the town forbad their children to walk past the hotel. The Lobby Lunatics as they called themselves had the place to themselves.
The Wolf Walker never said much, just listened.
Yep. Good old Oliver.
He sat in the cracked leather armchair on the east side of the lobby, puffing from a tobacco-stained pipe, nodding in agreement.
Most of the Norwegean’s thick hair was silver grey and the few times he spoke was when the other old men ran out of talk and Oliver would ask a question to jump start the memories again.
When my parents and I moved to Coronation in 1951 we lived in the Royal Crown Hotel while my folks looked for a home to rent and an office to set up my father’s dental practice. Dad had already scouted out Coronation and discovered that the town was desperate for a dentist.
I was lonely and missed my friends in British Columbia … so it was no wonder I was drawn to the chuckles and teasing that went on among the old timers as they chewed the fat, gossiped, and contemplated their lives. Their ancient lives and the world of Coronation were brand new to a city boy like me, even ‘though I must admit that at first the Alberta town seemed it was on another planet — distant, alien and foreign where nothing of significance happened.
But after I got my prairie legs and looked at what the town was really all about, I realized there might be hope for our little family.
This was taken in 1911, about the time the three-story edifice was built. It burned down in 1982, the work many say of an arsonist.
In the mid-1950s there were two main streets in Coronation: Main Street and the other Street. The two streets intersected at the Royal Crown Hotel, the largest building in a downtown area.
In those days the town had a population of exactly 950 because each time a single gal had a baby a man would leave town that night.
Steam locomotives tugged carloads of grain and passenger cars through Coronation.
The station master operated a telegraph that sat on an oak desk, its grain branded by a thousand cigarette burns.
Tapety-tap — letters became words, and words became sentences and that often meant a soul was coming into the world or leaving, or lovers had met halfway between that journey of birth and leaving and decided to have a wedding.
The messages moved with the speed of light to New York or Paris, or maybe Sydney. And the station master could often identify who sent the message by the cadence of the way the other operator tapped his telegraph key halfway around the world.
The town featured a telephone system run by Betsy from behind a maze of wires and relays that allowed her to connect and unconnect about a hundred different phones in the town.
Folks said Betsy knew everything that was going to happen about an hour before even angels could figure it out.
And Betsy herself? Think of Facebook with a human at the controls instead of today’s algorithm. Betsy could identify almost everybody in town by a snippet of their voice. And you thought voice recognition was new?
No one in Coronation dreamed of anything like modern websites. If you had asked them, they’d probably would have said websites were places spiders lived.
People gossiped and read books, and showed up on Friday night to watch Humphrey Bogart in his latest movie at the Avalon Theatre. Everyone agreed that On The Waterfront was Brando at his finest — although, most of the kids in Coronation had never seen the Atlantic or Pacific ocean.
Fifty miles from Coronation a group of investors erected a television station tower to fling the new medium of TV at our little town. We were lucky to get a couple of stations but on rare occasions the black and white picture came in clear.
No one dreamed it would someday be in color and compete with the movies at the Avalon Theatre.
Once we picked up some TV signals from Asia but only once and the consortium that put together the TV tower went bust. Everyone pondered what to do with the antennas they had tacked to the top of wooden poles to catch the distant TV transmissions.
The mid-1900s were before Zoom, Facebook or instant messaging on a phone or anything else. You could do two things with a phone. Make calls and answer them. You changed phones if they broke. They never did. If you told people we call phones, cells, they’d probably try to have you committed to a padded cell.
We not only relied on but we depended on each other for our amusement and insights.
No wonder I was drawn to the Royal Crown Hotel lobby and Oliver.
I had never heard of a wolf walker. I figured Oliver might have the best stories but he was reluctant to talk about himself and he did not have much use for kids.
I was nice to him and smiled and flattered him and maybe because he was alone in the world, he finally took me into his confidence. But it could have been triggered by Mother’s chocolates that she ordered from Montreal. I’d gobble down one chocolate in a single bite. Oliver took twenty tiny bites and savored every flake and chocolate crumb. He loved the slight scent and subtle taste of lime that was infused with the bits and pieces of chocolate.
That’s the way he told me his life story in minute bits and pieces … he was a teenager in 1910 and his family was poor, they had a rifle but not enough money to buy bullets to hunt the game in the area.
The Norwegian became a wolf walker since it was the only skill he had — a strange vocation his father, who was also a wolf walker, had taught him.
Oliver said he could walk a wolf to death in about 36 hours. “At first they run away, but if you keep following them, and you can if you know how to read tracks; after a day, wolves realize you’re serious.
“At first they bound off and get a couple of miles lead on a fellow but you keep plogging along and after about a day the wolves’ll slow down to a trot, ‘cause they’re winded. Keep walking after them … they’ll be hungry ‘cause they’re tired and you’ve worried them so much they won’t stop to eat.”
“Don’t you get hungry?” I asked.
“Packed some jerky and dried bread to nibble on. Sure I get tired. But I just keep going in the last twelve hours the wolf just gives up and lies down.
“Wolves beat themselves ‘cause they think I’m going to walk after them forever. In that state of mind, the wolf’ll just roll over and offers me its throat.”
“And you kill it. Huh?”
“My folks and us kids were hungry. I never wanted to harm a wolf but the bounty for an adult was $25. We could feed our family of six on that for three winter months. I cut the poor thing’s throat. Happens fast.”
“Couldn’t the wolf hide?”
“I wait until after the first snow when a rancher reports that a wolf got into their livestock. The wolf leaves tracks.”
“Could you teach me how to be a wolf walker?”
“That’s a nice way of saying a wolf killer. Why in the world would you want to learn something like that?
“I want to know how to survive with only my wits and a knife,” I said. “I need to learn how to kill.”
“My father lied to me about having no money. We didn’t have much but we certainly had enough to buy bullets.”
“Why would he lie to you?”
He held that a person should never kill anything — man or beast — until he’s walked in their tracks for a least a day. That’s why my father wanted me to be a real wolf walker, like the ancient ones. They only used knives. So you got to get close.”
“Who are the ancient ones?” I asked.
“So you’re part Indian?”
“Yeah but don’t ask me how much.”
“Wow,” I said.
“Think about it for awhile, Boy. Tomorrow we’ll talk again, if you want.”
I didn’t like to be called a boy when I was so close to being a man but I said okay. After all, I was about to become a man as a wolf walker.
The following day I hurried to the hotel lobby. Oliver was there, smoking his pipe.
The fellow without the thumb had brought two friends with him. All three were the victims of mishaps on oil rigs when they underestimated the peculiarities of drill collars. Each man was short a thumb.
On Saturday nights when the stores remained open in the evening for the farmers, the three thumbless buddies would bump, in the same instant, clenched fists at “the focus” of their gathering. They would shout: “The No Thumb Club!” Laugh uproariously and head for the beer parlour.
I asked Oliver if I could buy him a coffee and he said that would be fine so we went into the hotel cafe and Oliver ordered coffee and I had a Coke. He bought each of us a piece of pie smothered with ice cream.
“Did you think about what my father said about … you should never kill anything until you’ve walked in its tracks for a least a day?” he asked.
“It’s a metaphor,” I said.
“Yeah, what’s a metaphor?” he asked.
“A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.” I was quite proud of my explanation.
“Jeez, you’re a smart little bastard,” Oliver said.
“I’m going to be a writer. Writers have to know about figures of speech.” I let that sink in. “I think what your father was getting at was that a man should see things from the victim’s point.”
“I think you’re a metaphor,” he said.
“For what?” I asked.
“A man. I can hardly wait,” he said. “My father told me to get close enough to look the wolf in the eye before I killed it … was that a metaphor too?”
“No,” I said. “I think your dad meant that literally.”
He finished his coffee, “Why don’t you find something to kill and look it in the eye before you end its life?”
“What should I kill?”
“A bird. A mouse. A gopher. Don’t go shooting cows or horses. And don’t plug any people, Mr. Hemingway.”
For a week I looked for something to kill but I couldn’t find anything suitable except an old yellow cat with a torn ear. I walked after him but he wouldn’t play the game. He scampered up a wooden pole that was the mast for an abandoned TV antenna.
I hid behind a tree but the yellow cat either went to sleep or could see me, or maybe it smelled me.
I walked to the town’s only butcher shop and found what looked like a piece of liver in a scrap box behind the place. The butcher, a giant of a man with a blood stained apron, opened the back door and asked me what I was doing.
“Just getting an old bone for my puppy, Sir, hope it’s all right.”
He scowled and went back inside his shop.
The cat watched me return. I waved the liver at it and placed it on the ground and hid behind a tree. I gripped a steak knife I had liberated from the Royal Crown Hotel cafe.
After half an hour a cold breeze turned to gusts and that drove me to shelter — there was a garage across from the Avalon Theatre and an old Dodge sedan perched atop a pneumatic hoist. The garage just had one bay and the door was open. That looked interesting so I walked in and stood under the car, and inspected the sedan undercarriage.
A man in overalls noticed me right away. “What are you doing under that car, kid?”
He seemed annoyed. Obviously he did not realize that it might serve him well to be respectful toward me as my father was going to be the only dentist for a hundred miles and it just might be a good idea to stay on the right side of our family if you ever had planned to have a toothache. Obviously he didn’t have a clue who my father was. “I’m just looking at the oil pan on the bottom of this vehicle. You dripped oil all over the place.”
“Yeah? Well get you ass outta my shop.”
“Why?” I asked and I stood my ground.
The man reached over and pushed a lever. The car dropped six inches and stopped. The sudden stop caused some grease to hit me in my cheek.
“‘Cause if you don’t get your ass out of there your old man’ll be yanking your teeth out of your shoe leather.”
Well, I guess the guy did know who I was. Just proves how fast news travels in a one horse town. I hurried away. At least it was comforting to know that our arrival in town was being noticed by the locals.
And, that grease monkey was pretty funny even if I was the butt of his joke and I had to admit he could probably spin a metaphor .
A few nights later when I walked into the hotel lobby and the old CPR railway clock on the wall registered nine, Sam, the night clerk, said Betsy, the switchboard operator, wanted to show me something and to get over there.
The telephone office was only a block away and I was surprised that Oliver was there talking to her. They had a cardboard box with a single baby porcupine in it.
“I heard you were offering a dollar for an old cat to some of the kids,” said Betsy.
My mouth must have fallen open.
“People in Coronation don’t miss much and they talk on the phone way too much,” Betsy said.
“That cat you were trying to catch with liver belongs to the butcher, and if he found out you were going to kill his treasured pet, he’d draw and quarter you. The reason that cat didn’t come down from the TV antenna was that the butcher only feeds it prime steak,” said Oliver.
Apparently Coronation was brimming with spies and they had been watching me. What had my parents gotten us into? This was a dangerous town.
“That porcupette doesn’t have a mother any more,” said Oliver. “So we decided to do the humane thing and destroy it before it starved. Since you need to learn how to survive in the wilderness and kill things, here you go.”
He handed me an eight-inch hunting knife. “It’s sharp. It won’t feel any pain. Just look it in the eye and kill it. Put it out of its misery.“
The knife felt like it weighed a ton. The porcupette, which was a new word for me, considered me with tiny eyes, wiggled a bit and huddled down. It shrunk in fear and was now only the size of a tennis ball, if that.
I must have appeared the size of King Kong to the tiny porcupine. I moved in closer and it never took its eyes from mine. I had to admit that enfant with a nose half the size of a peppercorn was one of the cutest and bravest creatures I had ever seen.
And then it made a noise. The porcupette cried just like a human newborn. Any nearby human mother in hearing distance would have come to the creature’s defence.
Betsy didn’t make a move. Oliver looked impatient.
“I can’t kill it until I track it for at least a day. Isn’t that what your father said?”
“The exception is a mercy kill. That’s what we’re faced with here,” said Oliver.
I looked at Betsy and she nodded in agreement. What were these two people up to? They might be part of a secret Coronation capal composed of witches and warlocks.
The porcupette opened its mouth to cry but remained silent.
“I can’t kill it,” I said.
“Then you might as well take it back to the hotel and raise it,” said Oliver.
“They don’t allow pets.”
“Sam said it would be okay. He’s got some milk for you to feed it.”
Prickly, my first porcupine pet. He ended up thinking I was his mother and even waited on our porch for me to come home after school.
A few weeks later I asked Oliver if I could write the story of me not becoming a Wolf Walker.
“When I’m dead.”
I asked why he wanted to keep it a secret.
“Some of the old dames in Coronation might think I was off my bean to tell a metaphor to kill things. I’m too old to get run out of this place. Besides, I’ve become addicted to your mother’s chocolate.”
That was a long time ago.
Now I’m almost as old as Oliver was. Between naps I think of The Royal Crown Hotel lobby and meeting the Norweigan 70 years ago in Coronation — under ice blue skies that made your eyes ache, and outside the first snowfall, so white it would persuade you that the whole universe was pure….