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A Child’s Christmas at Canoe Lake, 1931

As told by Don Corbett to S. Bernard Shaw

Don originally told this story to his nieces, who wanted to know more about their deceased father's early life.

I thought you might like to hear a story about another Christmas—a long time ago, and in a far different place, Canoe Lake, in the heart of Algonquin Park, at Christmas 1931. There was no store, nothing but bush and a half dozen houses scattered over a mile or so. No roads came to Canoe Lake, only the railway—one through track and a siding. One train a week stopped and brought the groceries ordered from Pembroke by bush telephone.

At night in clear, cold air, with the stars so bright and close you thought you could reach up and touch them, the shifting colours of the northern lights flowed across the sky. Now blue, now green, sometimes pulsing bands of yellow or pink, and the clear, faint sizzle and crackle as the lights made their music for you.

The chorus of wolves made their music too, as the packs roamed the forest hunting down their food. Many's the night Howard, seven years old, and I, at five, went to sleep with their song fading and growing in our little bedroom above the station. We would pull the covers over our heads and tell each other stories so as not to hear the blood-chilling sounds. When the wolves were quiet there was nothing but a great stillness and a bitter, bone-cracking cold. Sometimes we would wake in the night to the rifle shot crack of a tree bursting from the frost.

At night, Mother would place a glass of water by our bed in case we wanted a drink. By morning, it would be frozen solid. There was no electricity, no radio, no TV, no newspaper, no automobile. It was a hundred miles to the dentist and doctor in Pembroke. Mother kept a bottle of brandy hidden under a stump behind the station because liquor was illegal in the Park. That was our emergency medicine.

We had a one-room, tarpaper shack school where a few children were introduced to the opportunities of education. Wrapped up like walking welfare bundles, five-year-olds and seven-year-olds, we trudged the mile or so to school every morning, carrying our sandwiches, often walking backwards to keep from freezing our faces if the wind was in front of us. We ate the sandwiches at noon with a drink from the communal dipper, and, so fortified, made our way back home in the afternoon-along the path, through the trees and the drifts and the blowing snow.

Miss Colson stood at the front of the class, God bless her. I don't know how much she was paid, or why in the name of Heaven she would go to such a place and there teach the offspring of the people who inhabited it. There was a pail of water and a communal dipper on the stand at the back of the classroom, a grey enamel washbasin, a roller towel none too clean, and a slop pail under the stand. The lavatory was an outdoor privy a hundred yards from the school door. No one dawdled over their natural functions at 25 below, and the youngest child could do up his clothes with record-breaking speed. Sometimes I look at the fine schools, the school buses, and the incredibly sophisticated children of the television and the computer age and I smile a little wryly to myself, remembering us. Truly, simple survival was our major task in that place where there was a swift and certain end to child or adult who made a mistake or allowed an accident to happen.

It was Christmas 1931. We had a concert at the school. Miss Colson had, over weeks of effort, taught her pupils a few songs and a hymn, and each of us had something to do. The scarred and battered iron-frame desks, each about six feet wide and seating four children, were moved back to leave a space at the front. The room was only about fifteen feet wide by twenty long, anyway. The school had been a machine shed at the sawmill. It had been pulled up on skids to the side of the path and put up on a couple of timbers. Earth was heaped up around the side to keep the cold out. It didn't help much. You had to put your sandwiches on the desk, for they would freeze if you put them on the floor.

In the dusk of the late afternoon, parents came walking through the snow to the school. Coats, tuques, mackinaws, hand-knitted mittens and scarves were piled at the back. The parents watched with pride as each child performed his or her little "part," as it was called. The whole student body-all seven or eight of us-stood at the front and sang "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town." We sang "Silent Night," peculiarly appropriate in the quietness of the ice-locked little community. There was no piano and no music, just Miss Colson with her little pitch pipe to start us off. Some of the little ones got frightened, unused to so many people looking at them (there must have been as many as twenty people crowded into the little room) and they forgot their lines. But the older ones would give them a shake and away they went, like a balky watch. There was a tree off to one side with some decorations on it, and Miss Colson had an apple or an orange for each of us-rare treats in that place. And what an achievement to keep them from freezing so she could give them to us that Christmas Eve.

I remember well. I had a recitation-it was a little thing of a few short verses about what I hoped to find in my Christmas stocking. I was to stand at the front, hold up my stocking, and say my piece about what I hoped to find in it. Murphy's Law being what it is, even then, I landed up in front of the audience without my stocking to hold up. Undismayed, with my five-year-old logic to support me, I held up just my arm in front of me and started off without it. It took a few moments for the audience to realize that I was addressing a non-existent stocking. This gave the performance an extra fillip, so to speak. In my later years as an entertainer, I had to do the same thing many times when my talent turned up missing at crucial moments. I remember that my "part" was a great success. Who knows, the warm feeling of applause in that little shack may have started me on the way that has given me so much pleasure.

There wasn't a priest or a minister in Canoe Lake, so when it was over one of the parents thanked Miss Colson and said how much they had enjoyed it. The Christmas concert, looked forward to by all of us with both trepidation and the desire to make our parents proud of us, was over.

After that we all bundled up and went home to the station, Dad, Mother, Howard and I. My brother and I still believed in Santa Claus, although Howard, being older and perhaps more observant, was starting to have some doubts. However, Mother and Dad assured us that Santa Claus would indeed come to the station. Why, after he left Pembroke, he had only to follow the railway tracks. The reindeer would fly so swiftly that he would be here in no time.

"We must keep a sharp eye out," they said, "and if we are lucky, we might even see him." In our bedroom, which was above the station waiting room, there was a hole for a stovepipe, with its kind of open-lace-work, black metal ring. It was not in use and if we lifted off the tin plate covering the hole we could see down into the waiting room. We had been sent to bed speculating on what delights of turkey and dressing the morrow might bring. We were drifting off to sleep, listening to the old station crack and groan with the cold, and the clear, measured sound of the big pendulum clock in the office making its slow "tick. . .tock. . .." The telegraph chattered occasionally, as common a sound to us as a bird song to other children.

We suddenly froze in our bed, with an incredulous awareness of what we were hearing. Sleigh bells! Right outside the waiting room door. Why, it must be right on the platform. We rushed to the window but, of course, could not see the platform because of the overhanging roof. At that moment the waiting room door banged open and a great voice cried out, "Ho Ho Ho!" We flew to the stovepipe hole, and stared down into the waiting room where our parents cried out, "Santa! Well, well, we're so glad you could make it. Will ye take a wee drap for the cold now?"

There he was. Red suit, flowing white beard, big belly, black boots and, wonder of wonders, over his shoulder a big burlap bag stuffed with who knew what delights. The great booming voice, the rolling walk-and at the stovepipe hole two small boys, transfixed, frozen with awe and the fear of discovery as we crouched in our bare feet and flannelette pyjamas, staring down in hypnotized fascination at the mythical figure. The great voice thundered out, "Well, well, and have Howard and Donald been good boys?"

"Well, not all the time, but mostly," replied our father.

"Ho Ho, I think they deserve something for Christmas. Let's see what I have in my bag." He moved over to one of the benches where we could only partly see him and there was a sound of boxes being dropped. "Well, d'you think they would like this?"

"Oh yes, Santa, I'm sure they would." A few moments more and Santa and Mother and Dad reappeared in our view. Dad and Santa raised their glasses.

"To a Merry Christmas," and the contents of the glass disappeared like magic into that huge, snowy beard. "Ho Ho Ho. Well, I have a lot more places to go before this night is out. It's been nice seeing you. I'll be back again next Christmas Eve." And the waiting room door banged closed behind him.

Sleigh bells jingled from the platform and faded away as we crouched at the stovepipe hole, still motionless with the wonder of it. It was real! We had seen him! Oh my, he had talked with Mother and Dad and left presents for us. Neither of us spoke. We crept back to bed and climbed into the pile of blankets, staring at the ceiling, still seeing the figure of Santa, hearing the "Ho Ho Ho." We had no words for what we were feeling.

I know now, of course, almost seventy years later, that Santa was Murphy, the caretaker down at the mill. How he got the suit and how he was moved to walk miles in the cold that night to play the part of Santa in the station waiting room I could not say. I do not know what kind of a man Murphy was. I recall that he lived alone at the mill. But if there is justice in heaven, Murphy was welcomed there for what he did for two small boys on Christmas Eve, 1931.

Don's father, James Frederick Corbett, was the CNR Agent at Canoe Lake. He was a keen amateur radio "ham," probably the first in Algonquin Park, with a battery-powered O1A transmitter, call sign VE3VU.

Don never graduated from high school, or from any of the five universities where he took selected courses. He did, however, become an electronics researcher of some renown and managed three high tech companies in addition to racing motorcycles and motorboats. An accomplished musician, he plays the guitar throughout the Ottawa Valley with his group, "The Opeongo Line."

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 34, Winter/Spring 2000. Copyright S. Bernard Shaw.



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