THURSDAY: Safety On, Safety Off, Safety On . . .

BY JAMES BARKER

Copyright is held by the author.

IT WAS after 5:00 p.m., and the Rig Office was officially closed, although there were as many guys in the trailer now as there was during the day. I was a newbie at this site. When Pete came to my desk, I suspected we would be discussing a Rig Safety issue or some problem (certainly, all off the record).

Pete looked at me. James, he said, you’re new, and if you’re going to live in Alberta, you gotta understand what Albertans are all about — what’s important to us. We don’t sit in an office 24/7, like city folk. We get out in the bush. We hunt, every fall and winter. If you don’t hunt, you’ll never understand what we are. And we don’t take kindly to those folks. We have a camp day coming up, and you gotta be there to meet the guys, and do the camp work. Get out. Do the camp.

I shrugged and bobbed my head. Why not? I realized that almost all these guys worked outside, on the Rigs. I, on the other hand, was never outside, unless there was an accident. I needed to be accepted by these guys, if they were going to listen to my message. A Rig Safety Supervisor survived if the workers listened to him. Otherwise, another posting, somewhere, and not as good as this one.

I had to fit in.

Camp day was unlike anything I expected. When Pete pushed open the cabin door, I was faced with a bunch of big guys sitting around a table in a hot little room, shirtless, drinking and playing cards. Guns hung on the wall. The guys all looked at me in dead silence. After a mess of names, one of the guys asked me if I knew about guns. Thankfully, I was raised on a farm, and before I even had the words out, a beer was in my hand and I was being dealt into a game that I knew nothing about. We played for a few hours, and I lost, naturally.

I was just starting to ease into this new environment, when the door to the cabin burst open, and a new guy, breathless, yelled that Derrick’s machine had been stolen. He stood there, panting, and Pete asked him a whole bunch of questions. It became clear that Derrick had a brand new blue and white Polaris snowmobile, and he was getting ready to come to camp, and it was stolen. Derrick was out trying to track his stolen machine on his old four-wheeler, but the snow was deep. The person or persons who took his machine had left on the “Lake Trail.”

“WE’VE GOT HIM!” Pete shouted. “WE’VE GOT HIM! He’s on the Lake Trail! We’ll cut him off!” And chaos ensued. Everyone in the cabin grabbed sweaters, jackets, snow suits, and then, guns. Pete yanked me up and shoved a rifle into my hands. “COME ON! We’ll get this guy! COME ON!”

In seconds, I was hanging on to Pete, seated on the back of his roaring machine. I had a gun slung over my shoulder, and my face was banging against Pete’s shouldered gun as we charged and bumped along the trail. (In a weird moment, it occurred to me that if the trail got any rougher, I could lose my front teeth against Pete’s gun. Then I might fit in because at least I would look like these guys.) All of a sudden, Pete stopped, and physically grabbed and placed me on a trail junction, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. He mounted his machine to leave, and then stopped, came over to me, and rummaged around in his snow suit until he found a metal clip, with what looked like shiny bullets in it. Without a word, he jammed the clip into “my” gun, yanked the bolt back and forth, and said to me “you’re good to go.” He then mounted his machine, and was gone.

Good to go? Good to go do what? Christ! What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to shoot a thief stealing a bloody snow machine?

I looked around. I was literally in the middle of the forest, on a deserted trail junction. I could see the frozen lake, off to the west. Dead quiet. The forest around me felt threatening. It felt like a living thing, watching me and holding its breath. It was waiting for me to move, waiting for me to do something. What is happening on the trail? Is there a plan? Standing there, I fingered the gun. Safety on, safety off, safety on . . . I slowly realized THAT THERE IS NO PLAN. I AM ON MY OWN. These guys have expectations that are damn well not going to be realized, at least by me.

Or are they?

I started to shake with the cold.

Suddenly, I heard a faint sound, coming my way. The thief? A snow machine, roaring. (It had better not be blue and white.)  I could see the headlight. There was no doubt, this guy was really coming fast towards me. He was wearing a helmet. I could not see his face.

What to do?  What to do?

As he got closer, my heart rose into my mouth. The machine was blue and white! BLUE AND WHITE! The thief was coming right at me! He was going to hit me, knock me down, and kill me. KILL ME!

I braced myself, holding my gun, and stood there in some sort of suicidal trance.

He stopped his machine, right against my leg. He leaned close to me and flipped open his visor. “False alarm!” he said, laughing. “Derrick’s cousin told Derrick’s wife that he had to check his lines today. She said take the new machine. And Derrick’s wife don’t talk to Derrick. Ever. That’s why the screw-up. Ha-Ha. Get on, and we’ll go back to camp.”

If I was shaking before, I was really shaking now. A fury was rising in me. A thousand words came to my lips, but none came out. I moved toward this guy’s machine, and then stopped. The blood was rushing in my ears and my body swayed back and forth. I looked at him, backed away and started fumbling with the gun.

He watched me with expressionless eyes.

I swung the gun up, then down, and he just watched me.

Finally, the clip released into the snow. I jerked the bolt back and forth, and the shell flipped out. I picked them up, slung the unloaded rifle on my shoulder, and got on his machine.

Camp day continued on into the night. Sometime before dawn, I found myself crawling in the snow, hacking and throwing up. I felt sick and stupid, and my ribs were aching. I flopped on my back, and closed my eyes. I just wanted to go to sleep, to dream about somewhere far from this cold place. I visualized a warm beach. The sun was hot. People were playing volleyball. I had sand all over me. Laying there in the snow, I started to smile. Then I opened my eyes and looked up at the cold, dark sky. After a moment, I started to laugh. My ribs hurt, but I was laughing.

With a half-smile on my face, I decided to learn something about card playing.

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