Coach

"To my old brown Earth
and to my old blue sky,
I'll now give these last few molecules of I".

— Pete Seeger 

David Herbison and Chris Petersen lace up their skates on the Argenta flats with the ever-present Mt. Willet standing guard above.

David Herbison and Chris Petersen lace up their skates on the Argenta flats with the ever-present Mt. Willet standing guard above.

We ran for hours. Mostly as horses but sometimes as dogs or deer or wolves. We ran across the sawdust from his mill which blanketed the driveway, offering a perfect arena for for our calloused bare feet. We ran across the forest floor covered in thick moss and pine needles, leaping over logs that lay rotting into the soil from which they came. Exhausted by our efforts, we would fall on the cool earth gasping for breath.
In these early memories his image is elusive though his presence is unmistakable. I don’t recall him handing it to us but I remember the lemonade sweetened with maple syrup we drank in the shade of the maple tree. I don’t recall him building it but I remember the play barn we slept in on cold fall nights. Brynne’s snotty tissues piling up beside the straw bale bed as familiar stars danced overhead.
At the time he was not my focus. I was a child. My focus was me and my playmates and the worlds we created. Skinny sawmill cutoffs became rails for our very own Spruce Meadows jump-offs during, the time kept by the questionable, subjective practice of “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi.”

David and his girlfriend Noemi sing carols at the annual Argenta Christmas dinner. It is one of the few community traditions that has remained more or less unchanged for decades. 

David and his girlfriend Noemi sing carols at the annual Argenta Christmas dinner. It is one of the few community traditions that has remained more or less unchanged for decades. 

At one stage, as part of my formal education, my mother traded French lessons for his vocal lessons and our class of three or four would gather in the small cabin to sing songs about Lilies of the Valley and bumps on logs in the bottom of the sea. In future days his tenor voice was ever present as people passed away or Christmas carols were sung. It was rich and light and beautiful and genuine, just like the man who it welled effortlessly out of.
He once told my mother that if he ever got the travel itch all he had to do to was drive 15 minutes to visit the sprawling metropolis of Meadow Creek, complete with a gas station and minimal grocery selection. And, for the most part, this was true. He was a homebody and thus this became the namesake for the their farm where horses awaited our bareback rides through the forest and chickens roamed the yard and garden. It was the goats, however, that were the foundation of this microcosm.
They called as you walked by their wood board fence and as you lured them onto the milking stand with a bucket of grain. They gave birth in the dead of night. The mess of straw, and blood and mucus-covered offspring illuminated by our shaking flashlights. The babies were fed from brown beer bottles equipped with rubber nipples. Their eager mouths drooling milk down their gurgling necks so voraciously that you had to wrestle the bottle from them now and then so they remembered to breathe. He loved them dearly and I imagine the inevitable butchering of the excess males of the herd weighed on him in some way. At times when I was invited over for dinner I would ask what it was we were eating. When answered with sullen faces from the girls I understood and would say no more on the subject.

The legendary eyebrows and twinkling eyes that greeted so many. 

The legendary eyebrows and twinkling eyes that greeted so many. 

Along with the goats and the tenor voice I recall fondly his eyebrows which seemed to have a life of their own as they danced atop his blue, twinkling eyes. His hands too deserve mention as they were quite the opposite of what mine have become. I have the hands of someone who earns their keep with a laptop, soft and slender. His were the kind that have dug deep into gardens and motors alike. They were calloused and strong and defied the gentleness with which he carried his body and soul. He was kind and generous and always a five minute walk away, through the upper and lower fields, past my grandmothers, across the road, and down the sawdust driveway. That is, until I left.
First it was to highschool in Kaslo, then to Nelson and Victoria and although I often come back to Argenta I have yet to commit to it. Because of this I admire those who do, for as a good friend of mine once told me as we walked the hard-packed dirt of the main road, “That’s what this community needs. Young people like you and me to commit to being here.”

David at this perch in the Argenta Postoffice where he conducted business three days a week for almost two decades. He retired shortly after this photograph was taken. 

David at this perch in the Argenta Postoffice where he conducted business three days a week for almost two decades. He retired shortly after this photograph was taken. 

In this sense David was a wonderful example of the quality of life that decision can bring, not only to an individual but also to those around them. He offered a sense of stability to many, including myself, because of his reliability and routine. For most of my life he was our postmaster and could be found every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday behind the desk and in front of the mail cubbies. I remember those cracked hands deftly wrapping a rubber band around our mail because it was an image that went almost unchanged for decades.
On Sunday he became coach, leading The Hippies to the sacred ice of the Kaslo Arena where they still hold the longest running ice time. It wasn’t until last year that I joined this weekly pilgrimage where the dried sweat of past glory takes on a particular spine quivering aroma and every seven days from October to April there is renewed excitement as the first puck is dropped. Not only was he the spiritual leader of the team but he was also the secretary, collecting our money after each game in a square cookie tin, with a word of encouragement to ungainly newcomers like myself. But the image I hold dearest of those Sundays when he was our captain is the ceremony that precluded every game. Kneeling at centre ice with his second jersey wrapped over his shoulders like a fashionable cardigan, he would begin methodically and reverently tossing the pile of sticks in front of him to one side or the other, making teams dictated by the hockey Gods themselves.

 

"Coach" tossing sticks to decide teams at Argenta's weekly ice time in Kaslo. It is currently the longest running one at the arena with the players hitting the ice every Sunday at 4pm. 

"Coach" tossing sticks to decide teams at Argenta's weekly ice time in Kaslo. It is currently the longest running one at the arena with the players hitting the ice every Sunday at 4pm. 

There are still days when I catch myself expecting to run into him as I often did. He simply wasn’t someone I ever considered mortal although in retrospect this is absurd. So, when he passed away without so much as a murmur of warning, I, like everyone else in our community, was left in a state of shock. I stared, devoid of words, as his suddenly lifeless body was moved from the bed of the hay truck to the ambulance. His feet momentarily protruding from its sterile depths. One sock on and one foot bare.
He died mid stride as many of us dream of doing and while this is hard for those left behind it is poetic and perfect for those exalted by it. No, there are no last earthly goodbyes or forewarned final moments but I believe those are not where our relationship with the deceased ends. As we buried him amongst flowers and alongside records, trinkets, and his hockey stick, the sky above boomed with thunder. As we sang him into this old brown Earth the clouds which had steadily formed all morning released a deluge to wash away our tears. And even as his image began to fade, his presence there, in the weeping, mourning forest, was unmistakable.

 

David's unfinished gravestone in the workshop of his dear friend Chris Petersen. 

David's unfinished gravestone in the workshop of his dear friend Chris Petersen.