One Friday night, the fall before he died, we all helped Eddie into his car, staggering down the bar steps and slipping on the loose gravel. Five minutes later he drove it into the end of the bridge, down by the farm. The bridge sign smashed his windshield, and the concrete guardrail busted the radiator. I remember slipping in the engine coolant that had sprayed over the road. When we got there, half drunk ourselves, his headlights were shining down into the water and he was still struggling to get out of his seatbelt with blood running down his face. We had to help him out of his car too, cutting through his seatbelt with pocket knives and dragging him out through the passenger door. God knows how he got the belt on in the first place, but he would have went right through the windshield without it. Or he would have stumbled out of the car and right off the edge of the bridge into the water below.
We had long given up trying to convince Eddie not to drive, or offering him a bed for the night. I suppose we should have done something. But of course we never did.
Eddie wrecked two cars over the course of that year, and the RCMP impounded his third. So that winter Eddie started taking his boat to the bar instead, pulling it up on the beach next to the empty shipbuilding cradles and rusting scrap steel. At closing time we’d help him shove off, stumbling and laughing at the water’s edge, and watch him head for home, fighting against the current.
But once the bay was mostly frozen over, Eddie had to take his ATV to the bar instead. Driving across the ice and weaving through the wood paths, avoiding the cops and, thankfully I suppose, most of the other traffic on the roads. Ever since the Hydro project the tailrace current is so strong that it keeps the bay open until well after Christmas, and there are places where it never freezes properly. Out beyond the headlands there would always be patches of open water, slush and yellow ice. But Eddie knew that water like nobody else.
I can barely remember when they started talking about the Hydro, back in the sixties. The radio kept talking about the power of the water, harnessing a force of nature, and I remember thinking that we were all part of some larger struggle, a battle between us and the environment and that by damming the river we were somehow winning. In a big speech before the whole town, Smallwood said the same thing, talked about the power of the watershed, about the dams we were going to build and the pipes and the surge tanks and the turbines that would not only light half the island but turn our overlooked little bay into a hub of industrial activity. The little man was exaggerating of course, like he always did. But I was down on the wharf when the boat brought in the huge turbines, and I remember the flatbed trucks blew out their tires under the weight.
I was fifteen then, still too young to get a job on the Hydro project. But Eddie helped build the roads, working with the Highways, clearing the survey lines for the heavy equipment that cut through the hills and trees, leveled the right of way, and laid the crushed stone and asphalt a hundred miles through the country to the Trans Canada Highway that was just finished the year before. Finish the drive in ’65 – another of Smallwood’s sayings.
Eddie took me and his son to Gander to see a movie that summer. It was the first time I ate popcorn, sitting in the dark among the uniformed American airmen with the Newfoundland girlfriends. This was before they finished the paving, and I remember the sound of the gravel in the wheel wells as we drove home in the dark, all those miles through the bogs and forest. By the time Eddie’s son traveled the same road twenty years later, heading for Gander and a westbound Air Canada flight, the asphalt road was cracked and potholed. A few years after that his wife took the same road out in the back of the ambulance, Eddie hunched in the back while the paramedic went through the motions.
My own son traveled that road enough, visiting the bars and the girls in Grand Falls, or driving to Green Bay or Argentia for work. The last time I saw him he was pulling out of the driveway in his old Ford pickup, garbage bags in the back stuffed full of his clothes and his tools. Everybody was proud of that road, our link to civilization – Smallwood and his catchphrases again – but I don’t think anybody ever considered the fact that, for all the modern conveniences the road would let into the bay, it would finally let people out as well.
My father worked 20 years in the lumber woods, cutting pulpwood for Bowater’s and running a sawmill, selling lumber locally and sawing on the halves. His sawmill was just a low roof covering an engine and drive train out of an old Chevy, connected by an exposed drive belt to a big saw blade. It had a small cabin next to it, and sometimes he stayed there for weeks at a time.
He kept it up for ten years after the Hydro project started, even after the first stage of the dam flooded most of his wood supply. By then people were using their steady Hydro paycheques to build new houses with back decks and front bridges, and my father did well, sawing spruce and pine into two-by-fours and rough planking. When the second stage of the dam flooded the sawmill itself, he finally took a job as a company cook. For years after I’d notice him in other people’s houses, staring at their floors or carefully examining the exposed studs in their basement, checking the grain of the wood as if it still bore his fingerprints.
The night Eddie died was a cold night at the end of February, and everybody assumes he just didn’t see the open water. Too dark, too drunk, driving too fast, drove his ATV right into it. I think he simply forgot that the bay didn’t freeze anymore, forgot that this wasn’t the same water he had grown up with.
We were at the bar that night, drinking rum and cokes and beer, playing darts, shooting pool. Eddie had just gotten a big cheque from the Department of Forestry for helping fight a forest fire the summer before, and he bought a few rounds and talked about getting a new truck. When the bar closed we saw him down to the edge of the ice, watched as the red taillight of his ATV grew dimmer in the distance and then disappeared around the point. I wonder now if that really was him going around the point, or if we all watched Eddie die without realizing what we were seeing. The RCMP searched for a day or two, but nobody expected to find him, not in that current. The Coast Guard actually did find his ATV in the spring, 30 miles away, almost in the open ocean. Carried along under the ice by the current, hanging upside down from its buoyant tires.
I know what going through the ice feels like, the shock of icy water that numbs you so fast your fingers are stiff before you know that you’re wet, and the searing pain that comes moments later. On winter nights I can see the current still rippling out there beyond the headlands where the water doesn’t freeze anymore, surrounded by smooth looking ice that’s rotten underneath. I try to imagine what Eddie felt as that current pulled him under. I wonder could he still see the streetlights, streetlights powered by that same current, distant and blurred through the ice above.
Eddie was a logger, a boat builder, sometimes a government worker, sometimes a fisherman. He could fix anything with an engine, and collected broken snowmobiles and lawnmowers and chainsaws like some people collect hockey cards. But this new world of mechanical engineers and steady paycheques and helicopters was something Eddie never really understood.
Somewhere back there behind the concrete dams, through the turbines and the pipes and the surge tanks, my father’s sawmill is still there, the abandoned equipment slowly rusting away underwater. I imagine the cabin is still standing exactly as it was when the water came relentlessly seeping through the trees, creeping up the threshold and the windowpanes and past the tin chimney to the level of the treetops.
Everybody’s got fancy new cabins up there now, propane refrigerators and satellite dishes. They spend their weekends waterskiing on the reservoir, fishing for trout they can’t eat because of the mercury. But every weekend somebody ruins their outboard motor on the tops of those dead trees, still standing there just beneath the surface. I imagine they’ll be there for the next hundred years.