Silver Donald Cameron

Farewell, Poirier’s Garage

August 22, 2010

Clem McDonald built the service station in D’Escousse soon after the Second World War, in his father’s front yard. His wife Madeleine ran a hair-dressing salon in a little trailer nearby. Bless their memories; they were lovely people.

In 1952, Lauchie Poirier bought the garage for his son Russell, a trained mechanic who was working in Sydney. Russell came home, cut some trees, hauled them to the sawmill, built a house, married and settled down. After raising two girls and two boys, Russell and Mary are in that house yet.

Russell was soon joined by his younger brother Claude, an auto-body virtuoso. Claude bought a tiny house across the road, cut some trees, milled them, and extended his house up, backwards and sideways. The house was built over a swampy dimple in the bedrock. Claude thought to improve the drainage by splitting the bedrock. He placed a charge of dynamite in the basement, covered it with explosive matting, and set it off. The house jumped. The windows blew out. Sandra’s hair turned white. The drainage was magnificent.

After raising four girls and a boy, Claude and Sandra are in that house yet.

The service station had two bays, a tiny stockroom, a terrifying toilet, a minuscule office. The bay with the pit was Russell’s. The bay with the solid concrete floor was Claude’s. The garage became the men’s social centre in D’Escousse. Just like the Halifax Club.

Between them, Russell and Claude could fix anything from a broken cylinder head to a broken heart. I once took Claude my geriatric Volvo, lacy with rust. Could we get one more year out of it? A month later, Claude had patched it up with sheet metal, pop rivets, tar, roofing shingles and other improbable materials. From a moderate distance, the car looked good.

“Used half the ductwork in the house,” Claude said proudly. And did we get another year of life for it? Claude pursed his lips and smiled.

“I think we got two,” he said.

Russell and Claude never had much money, but they had a wonderful life. I don’t think they ever charged more than $10 an hour. They both owned big, brutal old Jeep pick-up trucks that would haul anything — trailers, stumps, boats, you name it — and they kept them going with the same skills that saved the Volvo. Claude drove a school bus. They foraged for clams, fished for mackerel, cut their own firewood, raised chickens and turkeys, planted extensive gardens. In the great rural phrase, they put together “enough to get by.”

In fact, they lived very rich lives, at the swirling heart of the village, connected to everyone, an essential part of their neighbours’ lives. In an emergency, Claude would spring from his bed at 3:00 AM and pump a tank of gas for you — and on credit, too. When my car needed service, I walked over and gave Russell the keys. When he was ready, he took the car from my driveway, did the work, and drove it back. I paid him whenever I got around to it. Customer service? You never saw anything like it.

At various times both Poiriers owned pleasure boats. I once came by the garage and found a big new shed beside the building, a new addition to Claude’s matchless collection of sheds. It had come from a lighthouse on an offshore island. Claude bought it from the federal government, filled it with oil drums and saplings, floated it home and dragged it up to the garage.

On another occasion, the boys created a snowmobile from miscellaneous salvaged parts — Skidoo, Arctic Cat, Polaris, whatever. So what make of snowmobile was it? Claude shrugged eloquently, cast his eye around the shop, spotted a nameplate, and screwed it on the snowmobile.

Electrolux.

Russell quit in 2004, at 72. Claude painted a few more cars and then stopped. The garage slowly crumbled. It became an eyesore bulging with memories. Last month, an excavator dropped its bucket through the roof, tore it apart and spread earth over the spot. Gone.

If you listen closely, though, I swear you can still hear the echoes of tall tales and tears, lies and laughter, the warm echoes of human fellowship.

– 30 —

Silver Donald Cameron is host and executive producer of the environmental web site www.TheGreenInterview.com. His new book, A Million Futures: The Remarkable Legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, will be published by Douglas and McIntyre next month.

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