THE NEON SIGN

Most of my memories as a child are vivid. On this October night in 1957, the air is cool. I am five years old. My father carries me downhill of our town’s main road, “Uranium Road,” – it’s dark and immensely quiet. My head rests on his shoulder. Passing each streetlight, the incandescent luminosity reflects off the steamy road, giving me a sense of warmth. I recall a time in summer when the oil truck proceeded slowly on the dusty roads, spouting heavy oil over the red sand and the gravel glistening in the sunlight, like honey-on-toast. That seems so far off since that balmy summer sunlit day, now replaced by a cold-night at the beginning of fall – the air reeks of stale oil.

Dad’s breathing is heavy, almost burdensome as he carries me. He shifts me to the other shoulder. I watch the hotel sitting quietly as we walk past it, no movement within, it seems almost lifeless. My attention shifts to an intense buzzing, it’s from the neon sign just ahead. The stench of oil is replaced with the smell of French fries, we are nearing the Dixie Diner Café, owned and operated by Fernando Curtis. I remember his waitress Hubertini Gaida, she always had a welcoming smile and cheery voice to incoming customers. Hopeful of stopping in for fries and a pop, I admit defeat as my father continues on. Inside, a man at the entrance turns a door sign hanging on a string, it reads: ‘Closed. Please Come Again!’, the lights switch off. The droning of the neon sign weakens and its blinking colours lose lustre. The sound of my father’s breathing takes over.

Gus Hawker and daughter in his store, 1950s Uranium City

We pass Hawker’s General Store and the RCMP station. I peer over my dad’s shoulder to the town’s empty street, the bright streetlights trail off and shrink into darkness. The long-winding road leads down to the Saskatchewan Government Airways (SGA) float base and fuses with the route to Eldorado, a small residential community for employed miners and their families and single miners in bunkhouses. The air becomes cooler as we draw near the bridge over Fredette Creek with its arched sign overhead that reads: “Welcome to Uranium City”. Now, where there are no streetlights – only the darkness of night, a cold breeze and the sound of a shallow river that leads to a waterfall close-by, becomes our backdrop.

“Son? I have to set you down, you’re going to have to walk from here.”. My boot soles press on the lubricious oiled-surfaceofthe road. Unzipping my coat, dad folds the scarf over my chest, around my neck and mouth and fastens my coat. “I stockpiled some greenwood here and it’s heavy to carry, so you’ll have to walk the rest of the way.” Our house sits over a mile away on SGA Hill, where it overlooks Martin Lake. We pass Hospital Road that curves up a hill. Approaching a nearby corner, thick dark trees along the road side appear to be escorted by power lines that stretch along high wooden poles, it leads to homes that sit near the float base hangar of  McMurray Air Services Ltd. (MASL) and SGA, then continues on to Eldorado.

Preoccupying my mind from the cold, we walk onward. I think of the times I used to perch myself on the big rock behind our house in the summer, at that time the sun’s radiance and blistering heat was almost unbearable. I enjoyed watching the float planes, especially the Norseman and Beaver that roared over the lake leaving a tailing spindrift of water before getting airborne. The large boulder I sat on is my favourite vantage point, a place where I would also lay down to look up at fluffy clouds against a blue sky and conjure up my own images. I remember the time my father flattened the red granite where our house sits; he used only a sledgehammer, pick and crowbar. At that time, I asked, “Dad? Can you leave that big rock there for me to sit on?” He replied as he led me away from the work area. “It would be your place to watch the planes take-off and land”.

Uranium City Main Street, 1959
Main Street, Uranium City

Breathing through a moistened scarf, in a muffled voice, I tell him that I am cold. “We’re almost home son!” Shifting a 20-foot green poplar log from one shoulder to the other, I watch as it cambers with each step he takes. We continue downhill. I think of the time the frame, of what was to be our new house, was erected, he had help from neighbouring men. On that hot sunny day I was told to keep my distance as the men hoisted the frame. I saw sweat pouring over the men’s faces. I was only five years old but I was beginning to understand the meaning of ‘hard work”.

Nearing the small sand pit on the right side of the road , a sigh of relief comes over me as clouds yield to a brilliantly-lit moon. In the distance, I see our house sitting silently atop SGA, a silhouette. With a smile, I reach up to hold on to my father’s coat, he looks down at me, a breath of air is visible, he pats my touque and in an encouraging voice, says: “You know, my boy! Tomorrow we’ll stop in at the Dixie Diner for fries and a pop, okay?” With a cheerful smile, I look up at him, “I like the way the flashing colours and buzzing of the café’s neon sign makes me feel. It makes me happy!” He looks down at me, and in the moonlight, I see him smile. “I know, son! I know. Me too”.

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