BY NICK SALTARELLI
Special to the VOICE
My father, and especially my father-in-law, wouldn’t talk about it. They’d both served during WWII but in different theatres. My dad’s was the North Atlantic chasing U-boats in the corvette HMCS Thorlock, named after Lock 7 on the Welland Canal. Her place in history is having accepted the surrender of the infamous U-190. Major action was otherwise sparse. A torpedo near-miss. A probable submarine sinking. Ninety-foot hurricane waves north of Bermuda.
My father-in-law was a junior officer in the West Nova Scotia regiment. Italy and Holland. Imagine these two places in 1944-45 and you know why he couldn’t bring himself to talk about it, though it would have been better for him if he had. I never once saw him cry.
Talking about it is cathartic but comes at a cost to the teller and, to an extent, to the listener too. Letting it all out triggers a flood of cortisol and adrenaline and causes one to re-live what he might rather forget. If it would stay out, well, that would be a good thing. An exorcism of sorts. But memory demons are tenacious. They cling like burdock to winter wool. When you think you’ve got them all pulled off there remain dark little hooks that don’t ever come out.
I’ll turn 65 next month. If I were to count on my fingers the number of times I’ve wept as an adult I’d have digits to spare. I think I’m proud of that. Don’t know. My wife says I can be a bit of a hard-case sometimes and I suppose she’s right
Unlike the Greatest Generation, mine was spared the wars. Shell shock is not generally a part of our lexicon. Still, we have experienced things that brand the brain.
My entire post-university career was on the front lines of the forest products industry. First logging and forestry, then mill maintenance and manufacturing, finally management. I saw terrible mutilations along the way but the worst were the fatalities. I was sheltered from seeing most incidents by first responders. There was a late-night suicide in one of my departments. My eyes were spared that one, too, by the senior manager on call.
As I type this, I realize bringing these events to mind doesn’t bother me anymore. Forgetting is a rare dividend of growing old, something younger folks can look forward to. These things were mostly a long time ago. It sounds callous, but I no longer remember most of the names of those dead and damaged men, but there’s one in particular I carry.
A pause, please. My fingers are poised over this keyboard and I’m seeing my words forming up there on the monitor, and I am about to go back to that dark place once again. Do I really want to do this? Do you really want to read on? Is this for my benefit or yours? Or neither?
Here then is the point of no return. We’ve both been cautioned.
It’s the 27th of January, 2005, three weeks since my mother’s funeral in Welland, where I saw my dad cry for only the second time in five decades. My wife and I are back home in a small British Columbia town of 5,000 north of the 55th parallel—simultaneously the centre of the province and the middle of nowhere. If everybody knows most everybody else then everybody must know Patti and me. We’re the general manager couple of the local pulp and newsprint mill, a 24/7 operation. 250 employees. It’s 10 minutes past shift change and I’m heading home for dinner, intending to come back later to the mill to check on the progress of a red-line equipment change-out. But that evening I would remain at home, sobbing in my wife’s arms, blood in my hair and under my fingernails and caked in my shirt.
The early evening is dark, as it is in January up here.
I’m halfway down the mill road when I come to the accident scene. What had been a Toyota Corolla has ploughed through a snow bank into a ditch and there’s a Chevy 4×4 sideways in the road, its grille and hood pushed in. Behind the wheel sits Teri Barker, who works in logistics. She’s in shock, trembling, otherwise unhurt.
“Please tell me he isn’t dead” she says.
I push through the snow to the wreck, look inside and see Paul Henson. Paul’s a gentle soul, a happy and energetic 30-something. Three young daughters. His wife, Elaine, is pregnant with their fourth. Both are deeply involved with one another and their church.
It isn’t difficult to piece together what’s happened.
It’s a 60 km/h road but everybody, staff included, routinely does 70 to 80. Paul’s super conscientious and he’s late for shift change. He was speeding and hit a patch of black ice. His Corolla slid sideways and was t-boned by Teri’s big 4×4, going in the opposite direction.
There are now a dozen vehicles at the scene, headlights illuminating the wreck. It’s mostly quiet. There’s the intoxicating reek of gasoline and the incongruously peaceful whisper of breeze in the pines.
The windows are smashed, the doors won’t open and the roof‘s pushed halfway to the seats.
Larry Tompkins, a young mill worker, and I tear off our bulky parkas and crawl through what had been the windshield to administer to Paul. He’s mercifully unconscious.
His breathing is shallow and his pulse is at first thready then absent entirely. Larry and I go to work. He’s doing the chest compressions, I the artificial respiration. There are now some 40 employees at the scene.
I cradle Paul’s head in my hands and feel the shattered bones in his face and skull grind together as they move. I push my breath into his lungs and they gurgle. Paul’s body lurches and he vomits blood into my mouth. I spit it out through the broken side window and continue to force my life-giving air into him. Larry perseveres too. Pump. Blow. Spit. We’re going to save this guy.
The faces of the mill workers who’re gathered around are a study in hope and horror.
A few turn away. Some can’t help but stare. Others sob.
Then sirens in the distance. A fire truck and ambulance arrive minutes later and the paramedics take over. The one in charge throws me a concerned look and tells me I’m going to have to come back with him to the hospital, and asks if I’m okay to drive. I’m the General Manager. A big- shot in a one-horse town, in absolute control of myself before the very people who look to me for strength and leadership. Of course I can drive.
I follow the ambulance to our tiny hospital. A nurse escorts me to an examination room while another wheels Paul into the one adjacent. A paramedic is perched over him on the gurney doing chest compressions, another’s standing alongside squeezing the bag of a valve mask. The nurse gives me a thick wad of wet wipes and some dry towels. A doctor comes in a few minutes later to speak with me.
Paul is dead. He puts his hand on my shoulder and assures me I’d done everything possible, it wasn’t my fault, he didn’t stand a chance.
Then he says, “I have to examine your mouth, face and hands and anywhere else you’ve been exposed. Any gingivitis? Cuts? Open sores?”
“Did you ingest any blood.”
“Yes. I think so.”
“Ah. We’re going to take blood samples from you and Paul for analysis,” he said. “The testing is done in Victoria. I’ll put an urgent rush on it but this being Thursday night we’ll likely not get the results back till Monday, too late for prophylactic measures.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“There are several potential exposures, but HIV is the most serious. If — and it’s a big if — if you’ve been exposed you have 24 hours to take a cocktail of drugs that will kill it. The cocktail will cause your liver and kidneys to shut down and you will become very ill. If you’ve been exposed to the virus and don’t take the cocktail you will almost certainly develop AIDS.”
“Paul’s a lay preacher,” I stammer. “He’s a family man. I can’t believe he’s infected with anything.”
The doctor sits down and tells me that my exposure to Paul’s blood tops the chart. Whatever this man may have carried in him is now carried in me, he says. The incidence of HIV/AIDS in this middle-of-nowhere town is greater than one in 90. Among 5,000 people, 58 are either HIV-positive or have developed AIDS. That they know of. There will be a dozen others who are HIV-positive who don’t yet know it themselves. The blood samples will also be tested for STDs and hepatitis.
“How long have you known Paul?”
“You didn’t know him when he was a teenager and maybe wild young adult, before becoming a good family man and preacher. In any event, you can’t be sure.”
There comes a knock on the door and the nurse whispers that Mrs. Henson has arrived. She’s waiting just outside in the hall. The doctor asks me not to leave just yet, excuses himself, gets up from his chair and exits the room. He leaves the door open. I clearly see him talking to Elaine, a slender woman with auburn hair, big with her fourth child. And I see her drop to her knees in a silent scream, a mountain of grief piled onto her young shoulders. I avert my eyes but hear her shaking sobs as she cries out for her mother. She’s gently lifted up by a pair of nurses and taken into the next room. Her shrieks pierce the wall between us. She is shattered like a dropped vase. Then silence. I swallow hard, blow out my breath. I retain my composure. That hard-case thing.
The doctor returns with a ziplock bag containing three large vials of pills and a typed set of instructions.
“I don’t know what I should do,” I say.
“And I can’t advise what you should do,” he answers.
“Then please tell me, what would you do if it was you sitting on this gurney?”
“When I was an intern in Johannesburg, I was bitten by a terminal AIDS patient. No question I’d been infected. I took the cocktail and got very, very sick. I’m alive, HIV-negative, but my liver is permanently damaged. The experience was very bad. I would not go through it a second time, would likely not survive it anyway, but I cannot advise you either way.”
I thanked him, took the bag of pills home and was met at the door by Patti, whose compassionate face I so desperately needed to see. We embraced and I broke down and I wept long and hard in her arms, much as I had done just three weeks before at my mother’s funeral.
I showered, changed clothing and got myself together. Patti prepared a late dinner for the two of us and we shared a bottle of wine. We talked through the evening, about what had happened and about how we should and shouldn’t react.
It was a decision to make together.
Neither of us knew the Hensons on a personal level. I knew Paul only as an earnest employee and a lay preacher who wanted lots of kids. During one of our conversations on the machine floor he’d invited me to visit his church, an evangelical Christian denomination, but I’d politely declined. He’d smiled and said the invitation was always open. No expiry.
I did end up visiting it the one time, when I attended his funeral service.
The machine floor was always hot and humid, even in winter. Paul was short and stubby and prematurely bald and he wore a blue polka dot bandana to keep the sweat out of his eyes. It made him look a little goofy. But his eyes were always smiling. Always eager to please. Always wanting to do a good job. To be respected for the good man he was.
This was not a man who would father four children while knowingly putting them on a collision course with his past, with any contagion he carried in his veins.
The 24-four hour window closed with the ziplock bag never opened. It sat on the kitchen counter, the typed instructions never read.
When they came back from Victoria on Monday morning, the blood results were clear. ♦