Unpacking books evokes Black Friday memory

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 30, 2003

This past weekend, I finally got around to unpacking boxes and boxes of books that eluded my grasp since our last move over four years ago. Holding each volume in my hands was like sipping coffee with a long-lost friend.

Indeed, one of those books brought back vivid memories of having coffee with its author at the very time and place of one of Canada's worst natural disasters – but more about that in a moment.

I pawed through the boxes with all the excitement of a child opening Christmas presents. There they were: T.S. Eliot, Viktor Frankl, Solzhenitsyn!

From one box I retrieved a pair brought together in the serendipity of packing: St. Augustine's 387 A.D. classic essay On the Immortality of the Soul, and Stephen Hawking's 1988 best-selling A Brief History of Time. What awesome chats these two could have over coffee, time and eternity!

But a few boxes later, I found an even stranger mix: David Suzuki's The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature, Gerald Masters' The Pan Book of Dates (historical dates, that is; not candlelight and music), and several by philosopher Don DeMarco of St. Jerome's University.

Nature, dates and Don?

The memory struck me like lightning. July 31, 1987 – 16 years ago this week – Don DeMarco and I were in Edmonton discussing ideas for one of his books. It was a hot, humid afternoon, so we decided to take a break and venture over to the air-conditioned Edmonton Space Sciences Centre for a viewing of Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic, the giant-screen Imax history of Niagara Falls.

As we drove to the centre it began to rain, and by the time we pulled into the parking lot it had become a torrential downpour. We dashed for the entrance, getting thoroughly drenched, purchased our tickets, and settled into our seats for what we assumed would be a pleasant, uninterrupted experience of water falling in a grander way.

Unfortunately, the power to the projection system kept going off. Finally, after a number of stops and starts, with profuse apologies from the management who blamed the interruptions on the thunderstorm, the film was able to run its course. Toward the end was the touching story of a child who had fallen over the falls and survived. The narrator explained it as a miracle, crediting the legendary gentleness of Mother Nature.

As we exited into the lobby, we heard rumours of another side to Mother Nature: a funnel cloud had been spotted overhead. Outside, the storm had turned the parking lot into a lake. We waded back to the car – the water was calf-deep – and attempted to drive a few blocks, finally giving up and ducking into a coffee shop.

That's when we heard the first radio reports that a class 4 tornado across town had just devastated the east-end industrial district and a mobile home park. In its fury, it had taken 27 lives by the end of the day, destroying 300 homes, and causing $300 million in damage.

"Gentle" Mother Nature, indeed!

But there was a gentle kindness of another kind to be found amidst the tragedy – that of neighbours, volunteers, and survivors who, though injured and dispossessed themselves, immediately set about helping others.

That's how it was on Edmonton's Black Friday, and that's how Don and I spent our afternoon. The book Don was working on at the time, How to Survive as a Catholic in a Parochial World, was published the following year. It sported on its cover a photograph I had taken of a more idyllic setting: the 1000-year-old Church of Notre-Dame-de-Val¸re, at Sion, Switzerland, as seen through the archway of a 2000-year-old fortress against the backdrop of 20th century mountainside homes.

While we're still on the subject of books, last week's column on James Treat's new volume brought smiles to the faces of Cochrane bookstore owners. They're still counting up the orders for Around the Sacred Fire: Native Religious Activism in the Red Power Era, A Narrative Map of the Indian Ecumenical Conference, on the intertribal gathering hosted by the Stoney Nakoda First Nation at Morley from 1971–92. It all goes to show what a well-read klatch of coffee companions we have.

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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