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Always pack a candle

CROOK_Marion_credit Duke Morse
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An excerpt from the memoir of an adventurous young nurse who provided much-needed health care to the rural communities of the Cariboo-Chilcotin in the 1960s.

Excerpt from Always Pack a Candle: A Nurse in the Cariboo-Chilcotin by Marion McKinnon Crook (2021), reprinted with permission from the publisher, Heritage House.

Launching into the Cariboo

I stepped down from the Greyhound bus in the late afternoon of a hot August day, relieved at the end of my twelve-hour trip from the Coast. After four years of university, I was where I wanted to be and who I wanted to be—Marion McKinnon, Cariboo Public Health Nurse. That feeling of satisfaction lasted only a minute. The truth was, I wasn’t sure of anything. I felt like a foreigner in a new country, my suitcases beside me, abandoned by the bus that had delivered me, awkward and alien.

From the coastal valley, the bus had wound through the Fraser Canyon, following the river up into the Interior Plateau of British Columbia. Even though the windows had been open, the air had been stifling, and I’d sat almost stupefied by the heat. The land was vast and seemed to roll into forever.

Get a grip, I told myself. This is going to be an adventure. I took a deep breath and looked around. Dust was everywhere; on the asphalt road, on the parked cars, and on the windowsills of the motel above the town that doubled as the bus station. Bits of ash floated past me, drifting on the slight breeze. To the west, I could just see a tall beehive burner proclaiming a mill site, probably the source of the ash. To the east, a lake stretched to the horizon, cradled by hills. This was the Cariboo: blue skies, a wide valley, and brown grass on the hills rolling into conifers at the skyline. It was a land of sunshine—a land of logging and ranching, remote from urban centres, and I was going to be part of it.

I’d never had any ambition to be a nurse. I’d wanted to be a vet. At twelve years of age, I’d cut open a chick to see why it had died. I didn’t find out, but I was fascinated by its anatomy. My mother thought that was odd. My dad just asked if I’d learned anything. At fifteen, I’d written to Canada’s only veterinary college and asked what high school courses I needed for entry. I’d wanted a career with animals and one that let me live outdoors as much as possible. I remembered their answer: “Don’t bother to apply. We don’t take women.” I’d been shocked. It had been so unfair. I hadn’t cried. I’d just seethed. There were very few career choices for me in the late ’50s.

I’d entered university and studied science because that was what interested me but without a clear vision or goal. At the end of my first year, I realized I had to pick something that would give me work upon graduation. My parents had five other children. My dad told me he’d pay for whatever program I wanted even if that meant studying in Europe, but I couldn’t take that much from him. He wasn’t wealthy and that would have been a huge sacrifice. I picked a nursing program that had an on-campus course in Seattle, rather than a hospital course in Vancouver, because it was the sciences I had wanted to pursue, not patient care. I did find out that patients were fascinating, contrary, and challenging, and I grew to enjoy them. Still, I had no intention of working within the four walls of a hospital and no interest in working in a city or suburban community. When the Cariboo Health Unit advertised for a public health nurse, I grabbed the job.

The ranching and logging communities would give me some work outdoors. As the bus had laboured around the winding corners on its way north, I gazed at the Thompson River dashing dangerously close to the canyon road. Perhaps I’d read too much Zane Grey. Too late for second thoughts now; I was committed. Whatever was coming my way, I was not going to return home where my mother would immediately find a job for me, a safe and boring job, close by. I would manage.

I scanned the bus depot and the parking lot. Williams Lake, Cariboo District, the sign said. Why “Cariboo”? Why not “Caribou”? Had there been caribou here in the past? I didn’t think there were any around now. Then I saw a tall, thin woman standing by a farm truck, piled high with feed sacks. She beckoned to me. I waved. She called across the lot, “Welcome to the Cariboo.” It could only be my nursing supervisor, Rita Browning. I had a quick impression of an athletic woman with a melodious voice.

She introduced herself, then took my two suitcases and flung them into the back of the truck with the feed sacks.

“Good trip?” she asked.

I climbed into the truck and slammed the door, twice. It caught the second time.

“It was long and hot, but I’m glad to be here.” I wasn’t going to start this job by complaining about the heat and the winding road that had made me nauseous. I was still influenced by the conventions of the Second World War era, even though that was two decades ago. “Don’t complain, we’ll get through it,” my dad would say. My mother’s adage was “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.” My mother valued conformity. We were all pressured to conform and endure, but women were leaned on to be quiet and self-effacing as well. As a rule, I wasn’t good at being quiet or self-effacing.

“We’re delighted to have you, Marion. Welcome to Williams Lake.” Her British accent was still strong, although she told me she’d been here for years. When we’d talked on the phone, I’d imagined a starchy British lady in tweed, a twin set, and pearls, not the woman beside me in well-worn cowboy boots and a denim shirt.

I knew the Cariboo-Chilcotin District in this most western province of Canada was 104,000 square miles, the size of New Zealand or the United Kingdom. I’d looked it up in Encyclopedia Britannica. “It’s like a separate country,” my mother had said, a little shocked that her chick was wandering into the bush and, as usual, dubious about my judgement. I’d had many deep discussions with my sister about our mother’s lack of faith in us. Since I had faith in my sister and she had faith in me, we decided that our mother was wrong and ignored her prognosis of our future failures.

My sister and my dad were quite sure I would manage competently in the Cariboo. But I wasn’t prepared for the openness, the vast expanse of rolling hills and grasslands, the miles of hillsides covered in evergreens. Were they fir? Or pine? The sparkling air fresh, dry, invigorating. The description on the printed page somehow hadn’t translated to the almost overwhelming awe of the landscape. The Cariboo was huge. I was fascinated and eager to explore. This was where I wanted to be. Would there be moose, bear, coyotes, deer, mountain lions? Probably not caribou. I asked Rita about that.

“No, no caribou.” She yanked on the steering wheel, piloting us much too fast for comfort through the almost empty streets. “The clinic is closed today, Marion. I won’t take you there.”

Williams Lake was a small town, serving the ranchers, loggers, and sawmill operators and their families, she’d told me on the phone when she’d offered me the job. She’d said I’d be responsible for the area east of Williams Lake and, at times, the vast ranching country to the west. It looked immense when we stopped for a moment at one of the road’s high points. Hills sloped out for miles. I could see the faint blue of mountains.

I swallowed. I was a newly graduated public health nurse. I had the theory: anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, mathematics, microbiology, sociology, psychology, ethics, and even philosophy . . . but not much practice. I would be alone out there in the far reaches of the district. There would be no one to check to see if I was correct about a diagnosis or the dosage of a medication. No books to get more information. No doctor. No other nurses. Probably no phone for miles. What had seemed like an adventure when I first applied for the job was beginning to look overwhelming.

“Let’s get you settled into your boarding house, and then you can come with me to the 4-H sale. My daughter is showing, and I have to be there to shame other ranchers into buying her calf.” She drove on.

“How do you do that?”

Rita was about my height and slim. She had blue eyes and blonde hair streaked with grey. She was not an imposing sight, and, with her unequivocal, proper British accent, I couldn’t imagine her intimidating ranchers.

“I simply sit there and note who is bidding and who is not and stare at them.”

I wondered if she could send out the “steely eye” the way my mother could.

She pulled to a stop in front of a two-storey house in the centre of town, where Rita informed me that the nurses usually stayed. I had a brief meeting with Mrs. Sharpe, my new landlady. We stood at the foot of the stairs to the rental rooms. A sharp smell of disinfectant hung in the air. From a large portrait framed in dark wood, a small man, standing by a globe and dressed in a Second World War uniform, glared at me. He had the same nose and narrow face as Mrs. Sharpe and the same disapproving stare.

“Here’s your key. No men in the house. Breakfast and supper included. First month’s rent is due today.” Her voice was as sharp as her name. She tilted her head and leaned forward as she pinioned me with her bright brown eyes. I instinctively moved back a pace and then felt foolish. She wasn’t going to harm me. Still, I had a feeling she wasn’t going to be my best friend.

I nodded, wrote her a cheque, and left my two suitcases and my tiny Remington typewriter on the bed. I had to have a typewriter. My penmanship was so bad that even my parents couldn’t read it. If they wanted a legible letter, I’d have to type it. My dad had bought it for twenty-five dollars and I treasured it—old and rickety as it was. Although the room was small, it would be enough. It had the essentials: a bed, a desk, and a closet. I slipped out of my sundress and hung it on one of the few hangers in the closet. Then I shook out the creases from my only other summer dress and pulled it over my head. I kept my flats on my feet. I had only my Oxford shoes, a pair of pumps, and the flats I was wearing to choose from. The flats would have to do. My dad was sending my trunk next week, but there wouldn’t be a lot of clothes in it. The bathroom was across the hall and shared with one other boarder who wasn’t home.

“The other boarder is a teacher, grade five,” Mrs. Sharpe had said. “A silly young woman called Dorothy, but I expect you will enjoy her. All the other nurses have.”

What did she mean “All the other nurses?” How many nurses had come and gone from this small town? Why did they leave? Overworked? Overwhelmed?

I joined Rita in the truck, and we again barrelled down the streets. When I’d worked at my public health practicum in the eastern farming district of Washington State, my supervisor had been what I had thought of as professional. Her uniform was always in place. She was rarely away from her desk and always addressed me as “Miss McKinnon.” Twenty minutes with this supervisor revised my whole notion of a professional supervisor.

Marion McKinnon Crook is a nurse, an educator, and the author of more than fifteen books. She began writing short stories in the 1960s while working as a public health nurse in the Cariboo. In addition to her nursing degree, McKinnon Crook holds a master’s in liberal studies, and a PhD in education. Now a full-time writer, she lives on BC’s Sunshine Coast with her dog and cat, who hate each other. For more information, visit marioncrookauthor.com.

About the Book

The true story of an adventurous young nurse who provided much-needed health care to the rural communities of the Cariboo-Chilcotin in the 1960s.

In 1963, newly minted public health nurse Marion McKinnon arrived in the small community of Williams Lake in BC’s Cariboo region. Armed with more confidence than experience, she got into her government-issued Chevy—packed with immunization supplies, baby scales, and emergency drugs—and headed out into her 9,300-square-kilometre territory, inhabited by ranchers; mill workers; and many vulnerable men, women, and children who were at risk of falling through the cracks of Canada’s social welfare system.

At twenty-two, a naïve yet enthusiastic Marion relied entirely on her academic knowledge and her common sense. She doled out birth control and parenting advice to women who had far more life experience than she. She routinely dealt with condescending doctors and dismissive or openly belligerent patients. She immunized school children en masse and made home visits to impoverished communities. She drove out into the vast countryside in freezing temperatures, with only a candle, antifreeze, chains, and chocolate bars as emergency equipment.

In one year, Marion received a rigorous education in the field. She helped countless people, made many mistakes, learned to recognize systemic injustice, and even managed to get into a couple of romantic entanglements. Always Pack a Candle is an unforgettable and eye-opening memoir of one frontline worker’s courage, humility, and compassion.

SWIM ON