Tuesday, April 16, 2024
Photo: "Elbows and Angles" by Mike Murchison
On the Road with Mike Murchison

I knew Jack

by Mike Murchison

On the north side of Highway 3 just east of Coaldale Alberta sits a series of bins, a complex set of conveyers and spidery looking pipes that reach 100 ft up into the air.

Day in and day out, trucks will come into this facility to load, unload and kick up a lot of dust. They work with fertilizer, which eventually finds its way to the fields of Lethbridge County and surrounding areas.

CP’s main southern East/West line runs 40ft from the unload pits and its siding runs right into the facility which on any given day, you’ll find hopper cars waiting load or unload.

At the western edge of this massive fertilizer storage facility is a plot of land. About an acre and a half. The lawn well kept. The hedges trimmed and a little house. No more than 800 square ft sits in the middle of it all. Not the typical location for a residence.

This was Jack’s house. Or at least the house the owner of the fertilizer facility provided for Jack and his wife for over a decade. They thought it would be a good idea for someone to live in the house thus two needs could be filled.

First: there would be someone on the property to keep an eye on things and Second: there would be someone there to receive the after-hours trucks during the height of fertilizer season.

Now this where Jack comes in.

The story as I heard it is that Jack and his wife came from Japan just after World War 2 and settled into Southern Alberta. I don’t know what Jacks education level was. Nor do I know what Jack did for work before he occupied the job he had at the fertilizer storage facility. 

The best physical description I could give you would be this: Close your eyes and picture Mr. Miyagi from the movie Karate Kid. Add a bit of black hair and you have Jack. Jack even had a similar twinkle in his eye.

There wasn’t anything at a glance that made Jack stand out …. unless you had an eye for things. He wasn’t very tall.  Five foot five maybe, a little ‘ chunky’ on the build. But he walked with a purpose. You could see it in his step. He was going somewhere for a reason. Every step had its purpose.

I don’t think I ever witnessed him just ‘wondering around’ in circles with no destination. I don’t think Jack ever wasted a step in his life.

I looked forward to seeing Jack each time I rolled into the facility with a load of fertilizer. Just to chat with him and see how his eyes twinkled for the short time it took to unload was worth it.

But I loved how Jacks use of his arms and legs in the unloading process just made me grin from ear to ear.

After being sent around the big storage bins, I would drive parallel with the rail tracks and drive over the pit until one of my trailer hopper gates was close to the intake pit auger. But I would not be alone.

In the time it took for me to drive around the complex and get to the unload pit, Jack would be standing there waiting. As I got closer and my trailers hopper gate was just about lined up directly over the pit, that’s when the unexpected magic happened.

Never seen anything like it before or since. All of a sudden in an explosive burst of arms and limbs, I would look in the rear-view mirror only to see Jack. Slightly crouched. Arms thrust up. Out and down punching at the air. Followed by a swift turn of the body and a thrusting of one of his legs.

What was that I wondered.  I hit the brakes. I got out of the truck and walked back to where Jack was standing. He had already grabbed the crank handle from its holder on the trailer and had my first hopper gate opened. Fertilizer was dumping down into the unload pit.

“What was all that punching and kicking the air?” I asked him.

“Did you stop when you saw me?” Jack asked.

I told him I did.

“Then my motions make you notice me?

“You see…. it work.”

Jack was pointing down to the unload pit and where my hopper gate was. Yup. Right on the money. Bullseye.

I smiled. Never seen anyone directing a truck to stop like that in my life. I asked Jack if he studied any martial arts.

“When I was young. Too old now.”

Jack at the time I met him was in his late 60s at least. But day in, day out, truck after truck, Jack would guide and direct drivers with a flurry of thrusts and kicks. I would not want to be on the receiving end of one of those arm thrusts or kicks. I could for all I knew be standing in the presence of one of those quiet, gentle “wax on wax off” passive warriors of the martial arts.

The world needs more Jacks. I knew Jack. Not well; just in a working capacity and only for a short time. I move on to trucking in a different sector. I never saw Jack again.

I rolled into that big fertilizer facility a couple weeks ago. First time in years. Its still operating. The house. Yup, its still there.  Someone else bought it. They take care of it.

But you won’t find Jack walking across the grass to the storage shed. There won’t be anyone thrusting punches or kicks into the air.

No. Today it’s a different generation of workers. Men in their mid twenties or so who guide the trucks. Just one hand guiding you back. Nothing colorful. 

Jack took ill at some point. Had to resign.  Been asking around but nobody there now worked with Jack. I was told he lived in that house and worked there until he was 73.

Jack may have seen insignificant to many who unloaded at that plant. Just an old man doing a job. But he told me something once while unloading that I never forgot.

We were standing side by side unloading the trailer and we notice a magpie fly right into the huge building housing the fertilizer.

Jack said “You see? He come back out not the same.”

“What are you talking about Jack?”

“He should’ve stayed outside where birds belong. Not in dusty place like that with chemicals. He won’t be same when he come out!’

A little bit of a life lesson I think to stay within one’s elements and be careful where you do wander off to. Things can change you when you aren’t ready or expecting them.

Jack was a good man. A one of a kind. And for a very short time, was able to say I knew Jack.