by Reg Peters from Calgary, Alberta
This is a story of regret. My regret is that I could have shared something that, I realized too late, would have meant something to a man whose name I never knew.
It was summer of 1954. I had been visiting my grandparents in Richmound, Saskatchewan. I was hitch-hiking back to my home in Cranbrook, British Columbia.
After spending the first night in Lethbridge, I struck out early the following morning, headed west.
A couple of rides later I was in the Crow’s Nest Pass a few miles west of Blairemore, Alberta.
The usual complement of vehicles passed me before I was offered a ride. The car that picked me up was a late model Buick, and was as posh a car as I had ever been in. The driver was wearing a charcoal-grey suit with a white shirt and a dark tie. To my 17 year old eyes, he appeared uncommonly old, but was, in fact, probably in his mid sixties.
We hadn't driven but a few miles when I realized that he was 'popping' little white pills that he was taking from the jacket pocket of his suit. After about the third gulp I asked if he was ok.
“Yeah, sure", he replied and then clammed up.
A few minutes later he began to talk. Haltingly at first, but then, the words began to flow from him.
He said he had just buried his best friend and that he'd had enough.
He told me he was the undertaker in the Crow’s Nest Pass area and had been for over 40 years. The decades of burying friends, acquaintances, and some family members had him in an awful state of sorrow, confusion and frustration. He said that he was “tired of it all' and that he was taking off for a cabin he had on a lake near Whitefish, Montana.
For an awful moment I thought he might crash the car in some sort of death-wish.
I asked him if he’d like me to drive.
"Would you?" he said." I'm so wound up I can hardly think straight."
I took over the wheel.
My passenger was, by this time, becoming talkative. He was telling me about his life, his many regrets, and the apparent futility of what lay ahead for him. As he spoke we were approaching the junction where he was to let me off and he was to continue south, to Whitefish.
I asked him if he would like me to drive him all the way. He protested that it wasn't necessary but that he truly appreciated the offer. I explained that the distance was not very great, and that it would likely add only three hours to my travelling time. Turns out that it didn’t take much persuasion before he relented. I soon pointed the Buick south.
As we approached the city limits of Whitefish he asked me to pull over in front of a service station/grocery store. We got out of the car, shook hands, and for the first time in my life I was hugged by an adult male.
We said our good-bye's, and I headed North again.
When I got home that evening I told this tale to my Mom. When I finished she got a very odd look on her face. She asked me if I was sure he was the undertaker for the Crows Nest Pass. I explained that he was the only undertaker in that area and had been for many years.
Then my mother told me that back in August of 1937, she, my Dad and I were driving back to 'the prairies' to visit my Dad's parents – my grandparents – the same people I had just returned from visiting.
When mom and dad got to the town of Blairemore, Alberta they stopped for gas, oil and water. While the attendant was checking our vehicle, Mom asked if he had something with which to heat my baby bottle. He was sorry, but said he had nothing to help her. We had a long ride ahead of us and Mom was frantic to feed me. The man suggested that she try the people who lived next door. She told me how she knocked and explained to the lady of the house what she needed. Not only did the family heat my bottle, but they filled my Dads' thermos with coffee and gave us sandwiches for our trip.
Mom then got teary-eyed and told me that the house belonged to the local undertaker.
It is my regret that I never took the time, nor made the effort to reach out to this man and let him know that his life did indeed mean something to someone who was very much alive.