Fun in the woods with a small tank
Let me tell you about my Bren Gun Carrier. I think of it whenever I see the local cowboys with their chromed 4 wheel drives and SUVs, lounging around down at the 7-11 store, imitating the TV ads. You’ve never really lived lads, until you’ve owned a [quoteright]Bren Gun Carrier.
The absolute ultimate in off the road vehicles. It’s a tracked and armoured Personnel Carrier. It got Eighth Army platoons of infantry across North African deserts, then up through the mud of the European battlefields.
I clipped out the ad that my friend Tom and I saw in August 1962. I have it before me now:
“Carriers $349.00 each. Limited Offer, 10 days only. Excellent for Pulling Packers, Bush Work, Logging, Farm, and General Utility. Powered by V8 Ford Motor. Steering Wheel Control. Will turn on Its Own Tracks. Motor Accessory Co., 415 Queen St. West. Prompt Attention to Out of Town Orders.”
Close to the small village of L’Annonciacion, a hundred miles north of Montreal in the rolling Laurentian hills near the winter ski resorts, Tom and I owned 115 arpents of spruce and pine. 115 arpents is 95 acres in English measure. If anybody had “Bush Work” to do, we did. I thought the forest was very untidy., The trees were all different heights, different kinds, varying distances apart, and the ground was littered with unraked leaves.
There was a road up to the property but not into it. We had to move some of the trees in order to make a road in order to build a house. The property is deep in the limitless Canadian forests. There is a beautiful lake 1,400 feet long diagonally across the property. My wife Madeleine reminds me that domestic water was a long haul from the icy cold spring. On summer weekends we would gather gallons of blueberries around the lake. A wonderland for the children. They were actively encouraged to attack any tree they liked with an axe. At dusk we’d go down to the lake, sit quietly with them and watch the beavers help us with the trees. Deer drank, disturbing the mirror surface. A moose came down, then swam across. We rowed out beside him and Tom climbed on his antlers for a spectacular photograph. Canadian wild geese would land on the surface for a rest on their way south. The autumn colors alone made it all worth while.
We stayed in Mike’s log cabin. Mike was a Hungarian friend who owned the adjacent 115 arpents. On the high stone foundations of what had once been a substantial French-Canadian farmhouse, we had helped him build his log cabin during all the weekends of one long hot summer. The cabin was set in a sylvan glade with an expansive lawn sloping gently down to the front door.
To complete the cabin Mike bought a hardwood front door. It was heavy and massive, almost three inches thick. It had solid hinges and a good lock and handle. To open the door you mounted three stone steps. Since it opened outwards you stood to one side on the top step.
At nighttime we and our friends would light a fire on a big flat rock almost beside the cabin and barbecue game that they brought out of the woods. Then we’d lean back and look at the night sky luminous with stars. I would get out my piano accordion. By the light of the fire I would play sad, haunting, Hungarian tziganer melodies, as well as the fast czardas that set your blood tingling and the feet stamping.
We drank, we sang, we danced the hopak. We were happy.
So Tom and I went round to Queen Street, picked out a Bren Gun Carrier, turned the key and took her for a spin around the dealer’s lot. Then we kicked the tracks and asked about extras. Drats, no Bren gun. Ah well, can’t have everything. No dents in the bodywork. We later found that .303 bullets at point blank range merely scratched the paint on the thick armour plate. We paid cash on the spot.
The steering wheel controlled the tracks perfectly There were no levers to pull. It could turn in its own length: marvellous for parking in tight corners. It had a fantastic suspension system. Consider the tons of armour plate it carried: yet it lightly swayed and danced when turning or stopping. The closest equivalent I can think of by way of illustration for those of you who have never seen one, are the springs of an English baby carriage.
Tom found a young fellow in L’Annonciacion who hauled lumber to Montreal and usually returned empty. We paid him a small sum to deliver the Carrier and me with it, close to our property.
The perfect estate car. No roads? No problem. We began clearing trees. The technique was simple. We climbed the tree, attached a hawser high up, then drove away. A large tree might merely lean at a crazy angle but a second pass in the other direction was enough. No stumps to worry about either. Small trees were simple: we merely drove over them. A marvellously satisfying feeling.
Tom had a Welsh cousin named Ray who came up to help one weekend. We had just begun work when Ray exuberantly drove over a medium sized pine tree, which refused to snap. The underside of the Carrier was smooth steel armour plate and the whole Carrier lifted slightly. That, combined with damp ground and an awkward boulder, meant that the tracks could get us neither forward nor backward. It defeated us: the weekend was wasted. We left it there and returned to Montreal.
During the week we discussed the problem. How do we move the thing? Jack it up? We returned next weekend and gloomily watched Ray ratchet the jack slowly down into the marshy ground with no visible effect on the Carrier. Another conference. Since I spoke French I was delegated to go to the village and get professional help. I declined on the grounds that I couldn’t phrase it convincingly.
Victorian French phrase books for The Englishman Abroad were full of expressions like “Help! Help! My postillion has been struck by lightning,” guaranteed to engender honest sympathy in any Gallic breast. But this was rural French Canada, and the French word for a Bren Gun Carrier is “une chenille”. I shuddered at the thought of addressing a scowling habitant with:
“Pardonnez moi monsieur, est ce que vous pouvez m’aider s’il vous plait? Ma chenille s’est coincé dans un arbre.”
“Pardon me, I wonder if you could help. I’m afraid my caterpillar has got itself stuck up a tree”.
There are limits to any man’s linguistic ability. I know mine when I see them. I have my pride. No, even after they had grasped my true meaning they would laugh themselves silly and fall about all over the place. I would become a legend in the village. Never again could I go for beer without the yokels nudging each other and asking if I’d got my caterpillar out of the tree yet, before collapsing in renewed gales of laughter. Back in the Isle of Man where I come from they’re still chortling over the family who held their pet pig up to the window to see a parade go past back in ‘54. 1854 that is.
There had to be a better way. What would Robinson Crusoe have done? In the end it was simple. Tom attached a cable to a tree behind the Carrier, and the other end through the top surface of one track, put it in forward gear, and it winched itself backward.
One summer weekend Tom, Ray and I went up to the cabin to work. Ray brought a girl friend. Mind you, Ray brought a different girl friend every weekend. How he managed it we don’t know. And he only ever seemed to use one sleeping bag. Must have been his lilting Welsh accent. This one was a gorgeous redhead named Stella, with emerald eyes, dazzling smile, carmined lips and nails, and the figure of a model. The eyes were for Ray only. She clung to his hand and nibbled on his ear. All the way up to L’Annonciacion they were entwined in the back seat as if Tom and I didn’t exist. I was afraid to look; she wasn’t doing our hormones much good. Tom concentrated on the driving with difficulty as he kept looking in the rear mirror. The humidity rose perceptibly all the way.
On arrival Tom and I toppled trees and cleared land. Ray was nominally with us but he wasn’t much use, his mind was on other things. The conversation tended to revert to Stella’s charms and the promise of delights to come. The atmosphere was charged. Ray’s cheerfully ribald songs from the Rhonda valleys somehow lost their usual magic for us.
Suddenly the motor died. Tom was an engineer with a practical turn of mind and good mechanical knack, but even he couldn’t get it going. We gave up in disgust. After supper he suggested we all go down to the village for beer. Ray and Stella declined so Tom and I went alone. Tom was unhappy about the day’s events and the slippage in our production quota. His mind was also on the absent Stella and Ray. We drank a fair amount of beer however, and as the evening wore on he seemed to cheer up. At midnight, during our unsteady return, we discussed the recalcitrant Bren Gun Carrier.
I said “Tom, when we get back I’ll get in it and turn the key. I bet you any money the damn thing will start just out of sheer cussedness.” Tom said “No, that’s impossible. I worked on it for hours and I should know.” And so we amiably wrangled on the path coming back from the village. The night was crystal clear under a full moon. You could see every leaf on the trees in sharp silvered detail.
On arrival I went to the Bren Gun Carrier and turned the key. To my great surprise it started immediately. The big V 8 engine ticked over beautifully. I was reluctant to turn it off. We stood in the moonlight discussing the novelty of the situation.
“Let’s go for a ride” I suggested. “No,” said Tom, “have you noticed the cabin is dark? Ray and Stella are asleep. They must be exhausted. Let’s wake them up.”
I brought the Bren Gun Carrier to the glade in front of the cabin, and pointed it at the front door where Tom was, forty yards in front of me. Still no sign of life from within. Tom opened the door outwards and all the way back against the wall of the cabin, exposing the doorway as a big black rectangle of a target. I gunned the motor, let in the clutch, and roared down the slope at full throttle.
No, dear readers, I did not flatten the cabin; a Bren Gun Carrier has superb brakes. I stopped in time and I never even scratched the cabin. I did, however, forget the fantastic suspension. The entire superstructure dipped forward about two feet as I braked, and something caught under the bottom edge of the door at the left of the steps, some thirty inches off the ground. As the Carrier returned to a level position that massive door came off its hinges as if they were cardboard and it sailed across the lawn like a playing card.
Pandemonium broke out inside. Ray and Stella were in their communal sleeping bag on the floor quite near the entrance. Stella woke up when the door opened and the room flooded with moonlight. Her sleepy eyes peered at the Bren Gun Carrier in the distance, trying to make out what it was. She’d never seen it before. It was silvery green and looked eerie in the moonlight, throbbing and growling. No sign of any driver of course. Then the monster snarled and launched itself at her, gathering speed down the slope.
Up to that point Ray was still asleep. Stella frantically tried to get out of the sleeping bag but the fastenings were unfamiliar to her. She shook, then clawed at Ray and incoherently screamed in his ear; that woke him up. When the monster loomed in the doorway and pawed the ground and squealed at her, she uttered piercing shrieks. The pair of them fought like tomcats to get out of the sleeping bag. Tom observed all this with great satisfaction.
I put our toy away whilst Ray and Stella calmed their nerves. Then we helped Tom to restore the door. It presented a problem because of its weight. The hinges were no use, so Ray and Tom heaved it up onto the threshold where they balanced it with their fingertips and left it leaning against the top of the frame. At least it blocked out the bright moonlight. We wouldn’t have bothered with it but we felt we should discourage bears from ambling in during the night. We maintained good diplomatic relations with all the wildlife including skunks and bears, but we didn’t think Ray and Stella could handle anything else that night. Drained by our various emotions we turned in and fell asleep.
Meanwhile, back in Montreal, Mike, the owner of the cabin, was standing on the sidewalk admiring his new car. Mike was a very good pianist. He had put himself through McGill University Engineering school by playing piano in nightclubs. After graduation and with a family to support he found the extra money very useful and continued per-orming. He was now playing in some pretty high class places. In evening dress and black tie, Mike bore more than a passing resemblance to Bela Lugosi.
Unbeknownst to us, Mike had just bought a brand new Oldsmobile 88. Free at about two am after a musical engagement, he was eager to try it out for speed. He knew we were up in the cabin. He also knew that one hundred empty miles of the only autoroute in the Province of Quebec was beckoning. Mike decided to come and say hello.
The hundred miles took him one hour. He arrived when we were sound asleep. He strode across his lawn, mounted the steps, stood to one side, and pulled on the doorknob. To his absolute amazement the heavy door came off, fell past him and made a loud WHOOMPH when it landed flat on the grass. He was dumbfounded at his own strength.
The clap of thunder jolted Stella awake again. She raised a dishevelled head to see what appeared to be a vampire framed in the doorway of the log cabin, with the deep forest as background. It stood in evening dress, gleaming white shirt and cufflinks. It stood still, in an unholy halo of moonlight.
Stella froze in horror. The apparition addressed her. Gutturally it said something like:
“Hello pliss, I haf come to you.”
Stella shrieked. She had been to the movies: she knew Count Dracula when she met him. Again she frantically tried to get out of the sleeping bag. Again she screamed hysterically in Ray’s ear. The screams didn’t do Mike’s nerves much good either. He stepped forward to get a closer look as to why there were those horrible screams. Again Stella clawed Ray. Altogether a bad night for Ray. When he extricated himself his skin was in shreds.
We went home the following day for a rest. We never saw Stella again.
PAUL GREGSON, a raconteur of no small powers, was transplanted to Canada from the Isle of Man. Now a Silicon Valley type as well, he zaps his stories directly from his computer to ours. He is also currently engaged writing new software for our subscriber database.
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