Charley Van Dearon was an outdoorsy type who liked fishing, hunting and even scrapping when the occasion warranted. He was rugged of demeanor, with an excess of vigor to go along with a fun-loving nature.
Still, he was no one-dimensional cartoon. He had a sensitive and romantic side with deeper thoughts than many of his cronies would have imagined.
His education may have stopped before university, but he clung to lessons learned with a fierce tenacity. Most of what he absorbed had a practical bent. He was good with his hands and he could work with any kind of machinery.
His people were sensible folk of Dutch heritage and growing up in the bread basket of southern Alberta, he was embraced by a close-knit, caring and populous family.
He was living in a miraculous time. Whether one was cowman, oilman, grain farmer or politician, Alberta entering the first decade of the new millennium was a land of wonderful opportunities.
You still had to find adventure where you could. Hence Charlie, like many another young man in his early 20s, hustled his butt to the modern frontier, the energy project hotbed of the province’s northeast Oil Sands.
For years, he toiled as laborer, truck driver and tradesperson, all the while making a pirate’s wages.
Eventually pleased with his financial standing, Charlie started searching for more in his life. Such a pursuit led him to thoughts of female companionship. This was problematic in the work camps and temporary residences of the far north.
The world’s new electronic pacifier came to his rescue. Charlie took to the Web. He heard from co-workers about the digital dating scene. One could hook a likely prospect with minimum effort.
Charlie was leery at first. In his initial encounters, he awkwardly flirted with girls on sites that might as well have been named “Gold-diggers Anonymous.”
Not only did Charley not speak their language, but the bare bones description of his life didn’t seem to generate the female interest he was hoping for.
Undeterred, he searched for a site more to his liking. One with more effective screening. Charley did learn his lesson and when it came to listing his profession he embellished the truth.
He took on the persona of chuckwagon driver in Calgary’s hugely popular Stampede. He hardly felt he was lying.
After all, he had been Chuck the wagon driver on occasion. His new fantasy occupation was a more powerful magnet than heavy oil wrangler.
He was soon in contact with the girl of his dreams, a brunette stunner from Ontario named Sharon Ruffnugget. There was considerable back and forth networking before she finally agreed to travel west and spend a trial week with Charley on his home turf several hours outside Lethbridge.
After the nervous high of their first meeting, the excitement quickly faded. Sharon was an urban girl and her expectations were out of line with the reality of Charley’s life.
This was nothing like the suburbs she was used to. Her home was in the 905 phone exchange that ringed Toronto’s urban core. With Charley, she’d be living in a permanent 911 emergency zone. That is, if her cell phone could pick up a signal.
For his part, Charley’s impression of Sharon ran afoul of the digital age. In her Toronto lair, Sharon was addicted to old television shows delivered day or night by cable. One of her favorites was “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
While she vaguely knew of Alberta’s oil riches, she had only a dim concept of what was involved in the extraction process.
She borrowed Charley’s shotgun and tried shooting at some stationary objects merely meters away. Her fond hope was that “up from the ground would come bubbling crude.” No such luck.
Their early days together were an agony and Sharon was pretty sure she’d soon be saying good-bye. But in the cellar of despair is where the merest cracks of light will shine the brightest.
Thankfully, a well-timed invitation to a combination social gathering and group labor effort offered a temporary distraction.
On Wednesdays, the rural women would gather at the nearest creek bed to chat and do their chores. Being trapped between a rock and a hard place was local parlance for doing the laundry.
Afterwards, Sharon had to admit her stone-washed jeans never looked better. That was the least of the attitude adjustments she made that day.
Her eyes were opened to other possibilities. Charley had a treasure trove that largely escaped his notice for one obvious reason.
He had cousins. Lots and lots of likable, attractive, one might even say adorable, female cousins.
That didn’t mean much to Charley. After all, what could he do about it? He wasn’t likely to marry one of them. That would make him a throwback.
It was bad enough that when Charley took his rundown jalopy for a drive, he’d fill up with a liquid concoction made from barley stock and wheat.
Charley liked to call it biofuel. Sharon knew that in all but name, it was moonshine.
Sharon could appreciate the cousins. Truth to tell, she had a terrific time that afternoon. There was the promise of much more fun to come.
She’d give this thing with Charley another chance. There was no denying he was cute in an awe-shucks sort of way.
Who knew? Maybe eventually she’d play the game that was the all-time favorite in these parts, “Find the engagement ring in the hay stack.”
This story has an interesting history. It was originally written under commission from a bridal magazine. The editors sent me a raft of pictures to help establish the mood. The photos were of young women in white gowns cavorting in farmers’ fields, with what was clearly a prospective groom in tow.
My first version had a different ending the editors admitted was amusing but not appropriate for their purposes, to make brides feel good with respect to their upcoming big day and sell advertising.
They were right. This second version (see above) is sweeter and more light-hearted. Nevertheless, the alternative which culminated with some forays into the world’s oldest profession and several charges of trafficking did have some interesting twists to it.
Also in the first version, I set out a scenario in which most of the men in the community were upset with the federal government’s long gun registry, accounting for their absence. In protest, they disappeared into the mountains to engage in what they considered to be their birthright – tracking and shooting. This left the adult women with their own lament, a “long gun” deficiency so to speak.
Again, the consensus of the bridal magazine’s editorial board and my wife was that I should leave that section out. Me, I’m not so sure.