from A Squandered Life / Snow Sculptures '66

....he threw himself in front of a subway train and was killed instantly.

As christmas approached I had two major worries.

One was that I had no desire whatsoever to go home but couldn't think how I might get out of it. The other was that I'd promised Les that, if there was enough snow, I would help him to win the winter carnival snow sculpture award. Snow fall hadn't been that great, but what I hadn't anticipated was Les calling up the local road clearance boys and asking them to dump their snow on the front lawn at Doyle. We'd been watching the mound grow and grow from our dormitory windows as the trucks arrived at all hours of the day and night.

The first problem was solved neatly by my roomie Wayne who invited me up to his folk's place in Gander for the duration. This was perfect. How could I turn down a christmas invitation. I wrote home and my parents completely understood.

The second problem was more difficult. I could see the rising mound of snow outside my window but I knew Les was having trouble recruiting enthusiasts. Somehow the thought of just him and me converting that mound into something meaningful was too remote and unattainable. But one late afternoon he showed up at my door with two snow shovels saying, “You did promise didn't you?” What could I do? He was two years my senior and I'd promised. I dutifully put on my overcoat and boots and trudged listlessly after him as he set off along the hall and down the stairs, talking animatedly about his vision for a magnificent spiral tower leading up to some kind of light show.

Yeah right. Outside it was cold and starting to get dark. From the ground that heap of snow looked even more intimidating. Les was still babbling away (I'd never seen him so keen about anything) and just leaned in and started shovelling furiously. I followed suit, more lethargically, worrying about wasted life. But gradually a strange thing began to happen. Through all his babbling I began to buy into his idea; to share his vision. It was simple enough. Just carve a diminishing spiral ramp around the mound, heaving the snow upwards on to the slopes, and worry about what was actually going to be up there at a later stage.

We got to nattering and joking and telling stories without realising how dark it was getting. The lights from the residence itself were enough to work by and we kept going till about one or two in the morning. At the end of it you could almost see a preconceived formation rising out of that shapeless tonnage of snow. Les slapped me on the back. “Good work boy,” he said. “Same again tomorrow?” “Sure,” I said, “I guess.”

The next late afternoon we started again. Again we got totally immersed and I remember hearing our laughter ringing back off the walls of the residence. I looked up, surprised by the echo, and suddenly noticed that nearly every one of the windows looking out this side had two or three faces in it, quietly watching our madness. A few heads darted back as they spotted me looking up; a few waved. I looked at Les. He looked at me, shrugged, and started shoveling again. Later, my friend Steve appeared, shovel in hand, and the three of us carried on into the night.

The next day, we were joined by two or three more guys, and the next day, more again, until at last it seemed as if the whole residence was at it. God knows where all the shovels came from. Some wheel barrows even appeared, and the spiral climbed slowly skywards. All the while the trucks had kept dumping but, once we'd started shaping the thing, had to do so a few metres away. This meant there was the logistical problem of transporting snow from the base of one mound, up the growing spiral ramp, and on to the top of the other. Working in uncoordinated relays and maximising the wheel barrows to the full, those Doyle guys achieved the impossible.

Very soon it was time for Les to finesse his monument with its crowning glory - a slightly grotesque ice torch with a big industrial oil burner of some sort wedged into the top. More nights were spent packing the snow as hard as possible and then Les appeared with a hose running from the porter's kitchenette and sprayed the whole thing so that by morning it was an enormous glittering ice work of (sort of) art.

It was never going to be beautiful but it certainly had mass and it certainly had presence. We won first prize for the sheer scale of the thing and, later in the year, Les had to go up on stage to receive his award.

Les was a quietly courageous guy in so many ways, but he had his anxieties. He was nervous about having to go up and get the award and agonised over whether or not he should wear white socks with his casual suit and black shoes.

Although he never told me, I discovered that his father had topped himself when Les was a boy. In later years, long after he'd left university and was living and working in Toronto, perhaps driven by the memory of his dad, Les threw himself in front of a subway train and was killed instantly.

He used to look at me and say things like, “I know you're in there.” It was as if he suspected my tomfoolery and faltering self-esteem were just a front. “In there somewhere is a quiet reptile, not saying anything, just watching, just thinking, blinking in the private sun of your own mind.” I hadn't a clue what he was talking about and, until I wrote this, never did. As I write now, I realise he was talking to the author of these words.

Les, you fucking cunt. I fucking hate that you did that. Where are you now? I was fucking relying on you for light and intelligence and a strong critical friendship over the years to come. I still feel anguished at what you must have been putting yourself through, but my bitter pangs are, to this day, tainted by resentment and a deep sense of feeling cheated.


© 2012 Deacon Martin

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