Dook’s Look Back
Nineteen-seventy was a big year for Yellowknife. The Royal Family was coming to help us celebrate the centenary of the Northwest Territories. The Royal Family! Or at least most of them – the Queen, her husband Prince Phillip; jug-eared, but interestingly single heir to the throne Charles, and his teenage sister Anne, whose facial expression on a person of lower caste might have been called ‘grumpy.’ The Royal Family! The town of Yellowknife rubbed its hands and prepared for the visitors.
The Fraser Tower penthouse was set aside for the Royals – exalted personages should have a view, and the Fraser Tower was the only building in town over four storeys. City employees fogged the streets and surrounding area with bug-killing poison that worked so well every songbird within five miles fell dead out of the sky. Workmen built a podium for the Queen to stand on at Pettitot Park (now Sombe K’e Civic Plaza) and draped it with bunting. They cordoned off a graveled walkway for the Royals to walk toward the podium, but these precautions were actually ruined on the day by a large drooling St. Bernard dog who sprawled under the velvet rope underfoot and would not budge no matter how politely the RCMP prodded him. An officer positioned himself beside the dog and gazed into the distance and the Royal family gave the dog startled looks and a wide berth. It was because of the St. Bernard I got to talk to the Duke.
I stood on the side opposite the dog in the middle of a cluster of daycare children. I was a teenager then, so I stood out like an oak tree in a forest of saplings. The Duke had his right arm in a black sling which was probably the result of having slapped a reporter, but the official story was it was a polo accident. Unlike his daughter Anne, he didn’t look grumpy. He was polite, but deeply bored. He moved away from the recumbent dog and stepped toward me. “What group are you with?” he asked me.
“I’m a playground counsellor, sir,” I told him. “This is my park.” I waved my hand to indicate Pettitot Park, still rich in old-growth trees they would later cut down to build the city hall. Then, because I was naturally mouthy, I said, “I told the children the story of Sleeping Beauty today, and they asked if the Prince Phillip in the story was you.”
“And what did you tell them?” he asked me. There was an edge of upper-crust steel in his voice, but I gave the wrong answer.
“I said you never can tell,” I told him. He gave me a look of thinly-disguised disgust and turned away. On the other side of the walkway, the St. Bernard rolled over and began drooling in a new direction.
Later, there was a banquet and food for the Royals. And though I have no first-hand knowledge of this part of the story, I am told the Queen sat next to the Commissioner, and the Judge’s Wife sat next to him. Dinner was an elegant affair. Halfway through the entree, the Queen leaned past the Commissioner to address the Judge’s Wife and inquire about the state of housing in Yellowknife.
“Oh, your Majesty, you wouldn’t believe it,” replied the Judge’s Wife. “Simply dreadful. I live in a brand new subdivision called the School Draw that was designed by Arctic engineers they got from who knows where, and my house is sinking into the muskeg.”
I am told the Commissioner turned pale and kicked her leg under the table. The Judge’s Wife ignored him.
“I do my ironing in the basement standing in four inches of water wearing rubber boots and hoping to heaven I don’t get electrocuted.”
The Commissioner appeared to choke.
“I’ve asked and asked for a plumber for two years, but the government hasn’t sent one. The plumbers are all busy trying to save School Draw because the entire subdivision is sinking out of sight.”
The Queen, it was reported, was fascinated. Probably nobody had said anything so entertaining to her in years. And the very next morning, a man wearing coveralls knocked on the front door of the house of the Judge’s Wife. “I am a plumber,” he said.
Deeply embedded in this cautionary tale is a moral about going to the top. A cunning Yellowknifer to the core, the Judge’s Wife had the technique cold.
Catherine Dook was born in Yellowknife, where her father worked as a bush pilot. She became a teacher and author and now lives onboard the sailing vessel Inuksuk in Cowichan Bay, B.C. with her husband. Her books “Damn the Torpedoes,” and “Offshore” were nominated for the Leacock Award. She is also the author of “Darling, Call the Coast Guard, We’re on Fire Again!” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to purchase her books.