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Working Man « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

Reflections: Working days
Transcripts of interviews with Douglas

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Central Patricia Mine, Pickle Lake 1938-39

The winter of 1939 opened with me newly arrived at home in Sioux Lookout from Central Patricia gold mine at Pickle Lake where I had been fired on Christmas Eve, allegedly for ignoring orders but really because I had organized a resistance among the underground miners at being docked pay to underwrite a somewhat private school that the company got going for the children of the staff.

I had almost a thousand dollars in the bank, mostly made by mucking contracts, so I was in no hurry to get back to work. Further, I had a serious crush on a Sioux Lookout girl, which made me want to stay there for the winter, so my excuse for remaining in town when I got home to my parents’ was a short night school course in typing and account keeping sponsored by the local high school.

Forestry fire ranger

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In the meantime I was arranging for a job throughout the summer with the Ontario Forestry Branch as a fire ranger. Because my father was a good Liberal, and the Liberals were in power at Queen’s Park, I was picked to be one and I wound up in the middle of May at a very remote place 100 miles north of Sioux Lookout called Swain’s Lake.

Swain’s Lake was between the Red Lake gold fields to the west and Woman Lake gold field to the east. Our station was midway down the shore of the lake.
Swain’s Lake’s total winter population was three people. In the summer time, with our posting, it jumped to a dozen.

Our boss was Norbert something or other, a veteran bushman, remarkably taciturn, but not mean and quite fair with us.

Two of my three fellow rangers were kids I’d known for years in Sioux Lookout, Roger Coltrin and Bill Little.

The cook was George Cartier, an elderly French Canadian bushman, who made marvelous beans and a great prune pie, but otherwise was a dunce at feeding people.

Also there were Tom Stroud and his new wife. Tom was a Sioux Lookout boy of rather remarkable genius in technical matters and he was the radio operator. He was also a photographer and had his own dark rooms, enlarger, and laboratory equipment for a good photo lab.

There was a trading post at one end of the lake. The boss of the trading post was George Swain. He had a small mink farm behind it, and a half-breed man and wife and their two kids who helped him out.

Our main chore for the summer was building a tower on a high ridge about half a mile north of the lake. Otherwise our chore was taking a big canoe and a kicker (an outboard motor) and working either east, west, or north to check prospectors and what they were doing about burning their slash.

The summer of ’39 was not a good one to be far from the railway tracks because the whole country was caught up in the visit of the King and Queen, and my father was one of the locomotive engineers who hauled the King’s train for the CNR, west from Armstrong to Redditt, on the way to Winnipeg.

The royal party stopped in Sioux Lookout. There was a big platform and they met local dignitaries, including some Indian chiefs, making it the biggest day in the town’s 27 year history. And there I was, 100 miles away. And not only Queen Elizabeth, but the girl I was crazy about, was in Sioux Lookout.

In August, the three fire rangers moved down to Uchi Lake, southeast of Swain’s Lake, where a new mine was just about to go into operation.

Our chore was cutting white pine into logs to be planed at a saw mill in Lost Bay, a few miles north of Uchi Gold. The lumber was to be used to build a number of towers, including two near Uchi Lake, with the rest to be built the next year. We cut the logs and floated them to the mill, waited till they were cut, then put them out to dry and weather at our campsite at Lost Bay.

Lost Bay held excitement for us because there was a whorehouse with a madam and five or six girls who made their income serving the miners at Uchi Gold. Roger Coltrin and I made friends with the madam, whose name was Daisy. She had a good cook and would reward us with good blueberry pies in exchange for the lake trout which we brought them.

Late in August, not long before we were to go home, I got a radio telegram from Sioux Lookout that my grandmother Mason had died in Toronto, after mistakenly taking some arsenic poison in her tea, thinking it was sugar. My mother wanted to know if I wanted to go to the funeral. I didn’t, but two days later I wished I had said I would because I cut my foot fairly badly with an axe when I was sharpening location stakes for one of the towers; the gash required 24 or 25 stitches.

They flew me out to Sioux Lookout a few days before the end of August for medical attention and I spent a couple of days in the hospital there for the stitching and the trimming of the wound. Afterwards, my leg was put into a cast and I was given crutches.

I was then sent back north to get my gear, in a Stinson Reliant flown by my favourite pilot, Bill Tweed.

When Bill reached altitude, he switched on the radio and tuned in the CBC in Winnipeg. They was presenting the British prime minister’s remarks declaring war on Germany for Germany’s invasion of Poland. This was a huge surprise. We heard that Mackenzie King, our prime minister, was saying that it was up to Parliament to decide whether Canada would join Britain in the war, and he had called for parliamentarians to come to Ottawa to make the decision on September 10th.

Naturally, both at Lost Bay and at Sioux Lookout, all the talk was about enlisting—would it be the army or the navy or the air force.

In Sioux Lookout, I found I had intense competition for the attention of the young woman I had a crush on, Ann Meadwell. I wasn’t quite sure what I would do, but was thinking of going to The Lakehead and trying to get a job at the Canadian Car and Foundry plant, which was already making fighter planes—Grumman fighters for the American navy.

Bridge guard, CNR mainline

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Just before leaving for Fort William, another opportunity arose. I got a chance to go as the senior lad of a group of seven who were being sent east to guard a CN Railway bridge north of Lake Nipigon from sabotage by Axis agents. The bridge was located about a mile and a half east of Jacobs, a water tower and station on the CN mainline.

The man recruiting us was Constable McQuaig of the CNR police, a great admirer of my father. I knew all the other fellows he had picked. We were going to be paid eight dollars a day, with our groceries supplied, and were to keep a 24 hour presence at the bridge.

To begin with, it was assumed we would live in small tents nearby the bridge, which was made of heavy iron and about 200 feet long, over a tumultuous river far below. A few well placed sticks of dynamite certainly could have taken the bridge down and held up the line for some time.

The crew was headed by Eddie Smith, a very good muskie and trout guide for American tourists. There was also Freddie Cole, a lifetime pal, who had applied to join the air force and was waiting for a call that didn’t come for several months. We also had two funny n’er-do-wells my age from Sioux Lookout—Joe Adams and Billy Gwilliams. And we had one of the Maxwell boys, Alfie, the second eldest of five brothers, whom I had known all my life. The last guy in the crew I can’t remember; he wasn’t from Sioux Lookout.

Late in October, CN in Winnipeg decided that the sabotage danger was less than expected and called off all the watch party but me. I was to stay the winter to keep an eye on things. CN brought down a bunk car and dropped it off beside the bridge, which was less than 25 feet away.

For November and almost three weeks in December I had a wonderful time. I spent most of the daytime hours hunting prairie chicken and partridge, and fishing for pickerel in the river.

This was a very lonely place. The trains went by and I knew most of the railroaders, but there was no other traffic. Even up at Jacob Station, there were only three section hands and their families.

I had a good radio and every night I listened to my favourite sports broadcaster from Des Moines, Iowa, named “Dutch” Reagan, the future president of the United States.

That late fall was unbelievably the finest, warmest on record. One day while hunting, I came upon a beautiful silver fox drinking at a creek. The wind was right for me. I got within 50 feet of him and shot him, later regretting how I could do that to such a beautiful creature. Nonetheless I decided to skin and preserve it, and did.

The weather turned very cold about the 10th of December, down to minus 30 or 40 degrees, and shortly thereafter, the section foreman from Jacobs told me they were putting on a special patrol by hand car because they had found two rails cracked by the frost and had realized there had been some great damage done to the rails during the warm weather.

The villain in the piece was an engineer from Sioux Lookout who was bringing his crew and a caboose from Armstrong, the divisional point to the east of me, to Sioux Lookout to the west.

He was unfortunately a speed demon and had a clear track. There were no trains on the mainline between him and home at Sioux Lookout so he had opened up his big 4000 locomotive.

It was designed to haul heavy coal loads in West Virginia and had many small wheels. When the engine went too fast, one of the wheels tended to jump and bang against the rail. This burned or scarred the rails; these burn or scar points then cracked in the severe cold.

Replacing these burned rails eventually cost the CNR millions of dollars. The engineer, the fireman, and the conductor and brakeman were eventually all fired.
In any case, the man on this new patrol stopped just after midnight one very cold night to ask if he could get warm at my stove. I said sure and told him he’d have to open up the flue a bit, but warned him to shut it before he left. He didn’t.

I woke up to find the bunk car in flames from the over-heated pipe. The car was a fire trap. About fifteen feet of the ceiling was burning. I had been sleeping in the raw, so dashed naked past the stove to grab a pail of water in the kitchen and threw it on the fire. This had little effect. I had to get out.

I threw on a pair of ski pants, a pair of heavy socks and overshoes and a parka. Knowing it would be hard to get out the door because of the fire, I smashed a window of the bunk car, pitched out my rifle and a camera and then squeezed out myself.

I couldn’t stay around for long because I was afraid of freezing, so I headed up the track, the flames still high behind me, hiking the mile and a half to Jacob Station.
As I got there, a freight train was coming in from the west. Who should be the engineer but my father. I looked a mess. My dad got off the engine as it was taking water and he and the section foreman got on the radio phone to Sioux Lookout and reported the fire. My father said he’d take me on to Armstrong, then bring me back to Sioux Lookout on his return leg the next day.

So, about 45 minutes after I got there, I was in the cab of the freight engine as it rolled over the bridge. The bunk car was now just a bed of glowing coals. When we got to Armstrong, the temperature, according to the people at the station, was 50 below Fahrenheit, as cold as I’ve ever experienced in my life. So ended my days as an anti-saboteur.

Construction 1940, Clayton Construction Company

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After spending Christmas at home in Sioux Lookout, I went to Fort William looking for work, staying at 125 North John Street, a boarding house owned by the Wiegands.
It was run by Mrs Robert Wiegand, whom everybody knew as Aunt Ede (EE-dee) (I had stayed there from the fall of 1937 till the spring of ’38 while going to high school).

A friend of my father’s from Sioux Lookout was a security guard at the aircraft plant, Canada Car and Foundry. He told me he could get me a job working for the Clayton Construction Company, which was building an addition to the assembly line. I took him up on this. It paid 0.30 cents an hour.

At first I was wheel-barrowing cement mix; after a fortnight, I was in good shape and the foreman decided to put me in charge of moving the cement from the mixer to the floor. In another part of the plant grounds, Clayton began to put up a new building.

At this point, the foreman asked whether I would undertake to stay and work for him for a year. He would give me a job as straw boss (unofficial boss) on the new building site. I said I thought I would but that I had my application in at Canada Car and Foundry to work in the plant. He gave me a week or so to decide but warned that after that, he would have to look elsewhere because it was an important job. He told me I could go a long way in the construction business. Just before I decided I should make him the promise, I got word from my security guard sponsor that I was accepted and could start the next day in the service department of the aircraft factory.

Manufacturing 1940-41, Canada Car and Foundry

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I was made a chaser – one of the women and men who moved parts around the plant, from where they were made or painted to their destinations in the production line.

Within a fortnight I was given the job of head chaser which I kept until Christmas time when I was promoted again and made clerk of the final assembly department. In a sense, this was a continuation of the head chaser’s work because it meant making sure that all the parts for final assembly of a plane were in the building and ready for use. I held this job until July, 1941.

While I was head chaser at Can Car, I was assigned for several days to escort two Boeing Aircraft executives from Seattle, experts on running an assembly line. Before they left, the senior man gave me his card and phone number at Boeing and invited me to call, to arrange to come down and work for Boeing. He said he would triple my income. I’d like to say I thought seriously about it, but I didn’t, because of the girl, Ann Meadwell. Seattle was too far from Sioux Lookout. I tried to get back to Sioux Lookout as often as possible, trying to see her.


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