We all know or have heard of those people who somehow seem to know everyone.
No matter where they go in the world, be it Hawaii, Mexico or Vancouver Island, they will meet one or several people who they are either directly acquainted with or have someone in
common. Lorne Armstrong is one of those people, only in his case he also finds relatives everywhere he goes.
Not surprising, Lorne comes from a family of 12 children, all born and raised in Swan River, Manitoba.
He was 14 the first time he saw anything of the world outside of Swan River; his father took him and his older brother on a train trip to Vancouver. Lorne remembers finding the towering mountains, and the train tunnels through them, rather frightening.
He was not a boy who grew up dreaming of escape from his home; finding work with a roofing contractor who worked in various towns in Saskatchewan suited him fine. At 19, he married a girl from Melfort.
Lorne was a volunteer fireman and it was in this capacity his innate and strong compassion for his fellow man was best expressed. He was part of many firefights, sustaining some injuries from his willingness to enter burning buildings or hold the line in a prairie grass fire.
When he talks of those times, one can see the more gruesome and tragic aspects of firefighting left a lasting sadness. During the 12 years he volunteered, there were 15 deaths, many of them children. There were murders, again of children, and a man who set his own house on fire, and fires that were suspicious and remained a mystery.
For a man whose main characteristic was emerging, that of a person of tremendous compassion, these were tough experiences.
His next job was driving a truck, which took him away from home a lot of the time. Too much time, it turned out, to sustain a young marriage.
Lorne was in Hudson Bay working, and still hurting from the breakup of his marriage, when his brother Ed came through on his way to the Yukon to work on the Alaska Highway.
Their sister, Bernie, was already up there, running a highway lodge with her partner, Don McIntosh. Ed tried to talk Lorne into coming with him, but Lorne took some time to think about it. That led him to two weeks off work, during which he drove north.
He arrived at his sister’s place in Upper Liard on a Sunday and was offered a job the next morning, repairing houses in Upper Liard.
This was in 1968; Lorne has lived in the North ever since.
When the housing repairs were done, Lorne went to work for Ivan Raketti, a contractor in Watson Lake.
During the five years he worked for Raketti, the maintenance supervisor for District No. 87 in BC, Ed Michaels, often tried to woo him away from carpentering to work for the school board. Lorne was never a man who liked to quit a job; he finally approached Raketti with the idea he would sort of like to take Michaels up on the job offer. Raketti reluctantly agreed it was a good opportunity for Lorne.
In two years, Lorne got Michaels’ job and for the next 20 years he lived in Cassiar where the district was headquartered.
These were good years for him.
No. 87 covered 186,000 square kilometres and included schools in Dease Lake, Telegraph Creek, Good Hope Lake, Atlin and Lower Post, as well as the two schools in Cassiar. The job demanded a lot of driving, which he loved, as well as creativity and an ability to keep all systems functioning in a remote area.
He fell in love. In 1986, he married Joyce, a pretty and vivacious widow who lived in Watson Lake.
They had a wonderful time in Cassiar. They took full advantage of the beautiful wilderness around them: camping, boating, fishing, cross-country skiing and curling. The town’s social life was busy and fun, with Lorne and Joyce playing their part in it.
Lorne is nostalgic about those years. It was a genuine heartbreak to leave.
In 1982, District No. 87 asked for a new school. In 1992 the school was built, at a cost of $6.7 million. In l993, the mine was closed.
Lorne’s last job was to oversee the tearing down of the school. His bewilderment and his anger, at the waste and the seeming thoughtlessness of it all, still surfaces.
The plan was to move the district headquarters to Dease Lake. Lorne and Joyce were sent house plans and chose the design and layout of their new home.
They’d lived there for 10 months when Lorne’s job was pronounced redundant and he was pensioned off. This happened three months after they’d sold the house they owned in Watson Lake.
Suddenly, they were without a community and a home.
Luckily, a house came on the market in Watson Lake and, in 1993, they settled in; they continue to live there to this day.
Joyce’s son lived in Watson Lake; he’d taken over the family expediting business, and her youngest daughter lived there. With family and old friends, they were soon in the thick of things again.
Lorne took part-time work guarding prisoners at the local RCMP station. He and Joyce created their comfortable and attractive home, with lots of landscaping and gardening to keep them busy. They joined the Signpost Seniors, an organization in which they remain active after playing integral roles in the expansion of its facilities and programs.
In 2000, Lorne joined the local EMS. He took full advantage of every training opportunity and worked with his usual total reliability and many skills. He was supervisor for a few years, but found the position too stressful.
Driving an ambulance demanded the use of all the knowledge and skills he’d learned over the years and they were put to good use on many occasions. The Watson Lake ambulance covered a vast area, with trips as far as the mine at Canada Tungsten and the Liard Hot Springs.
Again, there were scenes of pain and tragedy, and again the emotional content of remembering shows when Lorne describes some of these events. He feels the pain of others, a quality that makes him good to have on the scene, but which takes a personal toll.
There were, and are, good times in Watson Lake for Lorne and his wife. The family grew, with grandchildren bringing special joy.
Lorne was made for grandfathering; his endless patience, his deep love for children and his playfulness make him beloved by all kids, not just his own. It explains why, for years and years, the red and white suit, the beard and boots of the Christmas guy have hung in Lorne’s closet; he is a busy man during that holiday season.
He also gets to drive a lot. His stepson, John, has a lot of road trips — making deliveries of lumber, fuel and various necessities to mining camps. The conditions are almost always challenging and it seems those are the ones Lorne likes the best.
One trip ended up combining two of Lorne’s special interests.
He and John, in separate trucks, were returning from an expediting trip when Lorne felt suddenly ill.
He was able to radio John, who was driving the bigger truck ahead of him, before getting out of his own truck, slipping and falling to the ground.
When the EMS crew arrived, Lorne was worried about his leg, which looked odd to him. Of course, the attendants knew him and were especially concerned about this patient, so when he tried to tell them his leg might be broken, one of them snapped “to hell with your leg.” She was not being heartless; everyone was fairly certain Lorne was having a massive heart attack.
He wasn’t — the passing illness might have been food poisoning. But his leg was broken, and necessitated weeks of casts and crutches
So here he is, 77 years old, enjoying a happy marriage, a rich family and community life and a nice home that he mostly repairs and maintains himself.
He and Joyce go camping in the summer.
Last year, they bought an old four-by-four in order to explore the surrounding wilderness, an activity which causes some concern to their kids who are rarely told where they are exploring.
That would be enough for most men, but Lorne isn’t most men; he needs to keep challenging himself.
He bought a computer, learning the intricacies and endless frustrations of the technology while happily staying in close contact with his son and grandchildren in Australia, and his daughter and her family in Saskatchewan.
A digital camera soon followed, to go along with the computer, and lately, a GPS.
He quit the EMS, but now stocks shelves at the local grocery store, bringing to the job the same strong ethic he brings to everything he does.
He responds to calls in the middle of cold winter nights for help with propane furnaces. He responds to calls for help, period. He can be relied upon to know what to do and mostly, how to do it, representing the sort of man who is ever more rare in that respect.
Most importantly, at the end of the interview it is not hard to understand why he knows so many people. He cares about people; he exhibits an unabashed interest in everyone, an interest that does not make judgements and carries with it a desire to have everyone do, and be, well.
He knows a lot of people because everyone wants to know him, to bask for a while being the centre of his focus, a focus that makes one feel special and important.
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer
who lives in Watson Lake.