World O’ Words: A long life on the Goon Spoon

I have come to realize I shall never be free — it is my doom

As a young man I worked a couple of seasons on Canadian Pacific railway gangs in Saskatchewan. Replacing ties, replacing rails, replacing ballast, and so forth, on spur lines and secondary lines. Even a main line occasionally. A lot of these lines are now gone, along with the grain elevators they went by.

I’ve done a lot of different kinds of manual labour in my time, but working on these gangs was by far the toughest. There were a lot of tough manual labour jobs. Pounding spikes with a spike maul, for instance. But one quickly learned how to let the spike maul (a hammer) do the work for you — swinging it over your head, sliding your right hand up the handle as it descended, and using your hand-eye co-ordination to drive the spike down.

There was “cranking,” as we called it, which was running along beside a train of hopper cars filled with new ballast. Hefting an iron bar, you opened the hoppers at the bottom of the cars to spill ballast alongside the track or between the rails. The first time I did this job, I made it 100 yards before collapsing. But as you kept at it, you developed the wind and stamina so that you could run alongside the train, opening and closing the hoppers, even climbing up on the train for a ride until it was your turn to open another hopper.

There was tamping with a big iron tamping bar (you develop great upper body strength); pitching new creosote-soaked ties off the top of a flatbed car with big tongs; carrying those big steel rails up the railway embankment (“all together now — yo heave!”), and trotting alongside all sorts of crazy roaring machinery while foremen, assistant roadmasters, roadmasters and other “white hats” shouted instructions and insults at you. It all got to be quite bearable, and even fun.

But of all these jobs, there was one that never become fun, or even bearable. It was the worst job, and that was shovelling up the ballast from the bottom of the embankment to the top. The ballast was between the sizes of marbles and golf balls, so you couldn’t really just scoop it up. You had to worry the shovel into it, then you could either try tossing it up from your bent-over position, or waste several movements to stand straight, and pitch a meagre shovelful of ballast to a higher elevation. No matter what, it was a back killer.

On the railroad gangs, we called the shovel the “Goon Spoon.” (That’s our word of the day! Though more like a compound noun.)

It was a punishment detail. For really, what purpose was there in shovelling ballast from the bottom to the top. It was a look-busy kind of job, and you were instantly assigned to it if a) the foreman didn’t like you, or b) he thought you were f— the d —, the term we used for standing around idly, or trying to catch your breath. I ended up on the Goon Spoon a lot.

This was fitting, because for all of my life, the Goon Spoon has been part of it. As a boy growing up on a farm, I would try to hide out of sight and earshot when it was time to shovel grain into an auger, cleaning out the almost empty granary. I wasn’t one of those strong, milkfed farm kids who could wrangle horses, pitch straw bales with forks, or heft the Goon Spoon like it was child’s play. I was the opposite.

There were all those long, long seasons of treeplanting, where your entire life revolved around the Goon Spoon. Not only are you wielding it eight hours a day — a quick ticket to metacarpal tunnel syndrome — but you’re doing it in the pouring rain, while blackflies, horseflies and mosquitos puncture your hide in all sorts of places.

Just think, I spent 10 seasons in Canada’s bush, Goon Spoon in hand. It’s enough to make a fellow dream of a desk job, and head back to school (again).

But for me, there was no escape. The Goon Spoon follows me wherever I go. It is my doom. It’s like that joke where you end up in H -, and Satan offers you the choice of Door No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3. I’ll pick the door that requires the Goon Spoon, for all eternity! (The punchline to that joke, by the way, is “All right, coffee break is over, back on your heads.”)

This occurred to me the other day, as I set out to shovel the snow off my sidewalk, which wends its way for long metres around my corner lot. As usual, I had left it too long, and the deep snow was crusted and frozen. No sweeping it off like my neighbours do, catching it at first snowfall. In Canada, you can never be free of the Goon Spoon.

I armed myself, with not one but two Goon Spoons — the snow variety for scooping it away and a spade for breaking it up. Outside I went, with my Goon Spoons. I had a brief fantasy of a ghostly ballast train pulling up, which I could hop up on and be borne away — except, of course, it would take me to some place where the white hats would have me scooping up ballast with the Goon Spoon.

But what should greet my eyes — one length of my sidewalk was snow-free. The neighbour in his Christmas kindness had made a pass in front of my house with his fabulous new snowblower. And as I stood there agog, who should hove into sight — not the mystery ballast train, but an entrepreneur with a plow, hired by our household, who cleared the other half of the sidewalk.

It was like a miracle. A Goon Spoon-free Christmas.

I’d like to wish all the Townsman/Bulletin readers a most pleasant New Year. May your 2018 be free of sore backs and Goon Spoons.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

COVID-19 test tube. (Contributed)
test tube with the blood test is on the table next to the documents. Positive test for coronavirus covid-19. The concept of fighting a dangerous Chinese disease.
Interior Health launches online booking for COVID-19 tests

Testing is available to anyone with cold, influenza or COVID-19-like symptoms

Mainroad Communications warns of coming weather event.
Mainroad Communications notifies drivers of snowfall event over next 24 hours

It’s that time of year again. A weather event is heading to… Continue reading

Cranbrook's Casey Hanemayer reaches a rating of 1022, jumping up 17 points and becoming the highest ranked player in Canada. Paul Rodgers file.
Cranbrook’s Casey Hanemayer becomes Canada’s highest-rated disc golfer

Cranbrook’s Casey Hanemayer has become Canada’s highest ranked disc golfer, after the… Continue reading

A health-care worker prepares to swab a man at a walk-in COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal North, Sunday, May 10, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)
Interior Health records 21 new COVID-19 cases over the weekend

Thirty-six cases remain active; two people are in the hospital, one of whom is in intensive care

This year’s Sunrise Rotary Club Scholarship recipients. Top left: Kieran O Grady. Top Right: Nathaniel Ralph. Bottom Left: Robyn Anderson. Bottom Right: Emily Daly. (Submitted files)
Cranbrook Sunrise Rotary Club announces 2020 scholarship winners

Funds are awarded to post-secondary students who graduated high school in Cranbrook

FILE – People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing facility in Burnaby, B.C., on Thursday, August 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
167 new COVID-19 cases, 1 death recorded as B.C. enters 2nd wave

Three new healthcare outbreaks also announced

Volunteer registered nurse Stephanie Hamilton recieves a swab from a driver as she works at a Covid-19 testing site in the parking lot at Everett Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020 in Everett, Washington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
13 more COVID-19 cases in Interior Health region

There are 624 cases in the region since the start of the pandemic

This 2020 electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows a Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 particle isolated from a patient, in a laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-NIAID/NIH via AP
At least 49 cases of COVID-19 linked to wedding in Calgary: Alberta Health

McMillan says the city of Calgary has recently seen several outbreaks linked to social gatherings

UBC geoscientists discovered the wreckage of a decades-old crash during an expedition on a mountain near Harrison Lake. (Submitted photo)
Wreckage of decades-old plane crash discovered on mountain near Harrison Lake

A team of Sts’ailes Community School students helped discover the twisted metal embedded in a glacier

The official search to locate Jordan Naterer was suspended Saturday Oct. 17. Photo courtesy of VPD.
‘I am not leaving without my son,’ says mother of missing Manning Park hiker

Family and friends continue to search for Jordan Naterer, after official efforts suspended

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Touchstones Museum has opened up Nelson’s Cold War bunker to the public. The unique exhibit includes artifacts from the 1950s and 60s. Photo: Tyler Harper
Take cover! Cold War bunker opens to public in Nelson

The shelter was built in 1964 in case of nuclear fallout

A bear similar to this black bear is believed responsible for killing a llama in Saanich on Oct. 19. (Black Press Media file photo)
Bear kills llama on Vancouver Island, prompting concerns over livestock

Officers could not track the bear they feel may not fear humans

Most Read