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He Lives in a Garage

by Darrell Hookey


    Norm Spencer is my hero.

    He lives in a garage. Not a converted garage ... a real garage. His actual living space is just a walled-in loft. An afterthought, really.

    To get to his garage, he just plops down a hole in his kitchen floor. You worry about him, being a 78-year-old riding down that steep rail of steps he scrounged from a decommissioned mine, but he reminds you he does it a thousand times a day.

    The garage instantly transports you back in time. The tall ceiling, the oil-soaked walls (just like his hands, they will never come clean), girlie pictures that were shocking perhaps 40 years ago and a pit for working under vehicles.

    Then there is a bramble of machinery under a light that is just enough to penetrate the all-business gloom of a metal shop. The lathe is pre-Gold Rush and the band saw is just used for grinding. But it all works.

    Spencer shrugs on a coat that has hugged its share of diesel engines, and suggests we take a look around outside before it gets too dark. To get to the other side of the building, we start climbing a hill. Thatís why there are no windows in the garage, I finally figure out.

    "I wanted the whole thing underground," Spencer explains. "But they wouldnít let me. "We should have shot more Gestapo," he spits. "Goddam dictators."

    Spencer says "goddam" a lot. To Spencer, "goddam" is an accurate representation of all that is impractical (read: imported bureaucracy).

    "They made me use goddam pressure-treated wood for this building," he carries on. "I wanted to use squared timber."

    He bought the property and lived in a skid shack while he started building in 1984 and moved in two years later. "Youíre not supposed to do that anymore," he mocks. "Youíre supposed to go in debt for the rest of your life."

    At the top of the hill, alongside his living quarters, stands a variety of structures begging the question: "Whatís that?" "Thatís an old CB radio antenna," he patiently answers. "But people donít have CBs anymore, they all use cell phones. I keep my CB radio on anyway."

    Then thereís a windmill that turns just whenever it feels like it. "I think itís in a dead spot," he grimaces. "It just piddles around."

    And thereís a solar panel. "They are $600 each," he says. "They are just glass, I donít know why they cost so goddam much." Itís not doing much good even at that price ... he needs six of them to be of any use.

    Next on the tour is a cubicle quad CB antenna that looks remarkably like it came from Star Wars. Heís made 30 of them over the years and they are spread over western Canada.

    Then there is a 20-metre telephone pole. He saw it in Edmonton and had to cut it in half to bring it to Whitehorse. He pieced it back together again and now uses it for, well, nothing. "I was going to put an antenna on top of it and ..." he allows the thought to disappear as he proclaims: "Nippy tonight, I might put a little wood on the fire."

    I never met Buzzsaw Jimmy or Martin Berrigan or the other five percenters, but Iíve met Spencer. I pledge to myself I will drink in this visit with him.

    "Whatís that?" I continue. "Thatís Olí Deer John," he says. It is a dozer until you remove four bolts and then it becomes a fork lift. Standing still, itís a power plant for his wood splitter.

    Towering above the wood splitter is a pile of wood. On the outside is green wood and near the middle is wood so seasoned it would burn up in a minute.

    To reach the top of the pile, he built a conveyor belt from snowmobile tracks, started with a car battery sparking a 7 HP Briggs and Stratton engine to turn an all-terrain engine that, in turn, charges up his buzz saw powered by a Datsun engine with the transmission still attached and permanently in third gear.

    Itís fun to ponder the imaginative mind that came up with this contraption.

    "You donít spend a lot of time at Home Hardware, do you?" I ask as I trace the recycled parts welded into place just so. "Something about buying from mines," he says, as he spins a roller he bought for $5 from Whitehorse Copper. "It is always top quality."

    He stops, once more, to let out a painful cough. "How long have you had your cough?" I inquire.

    "Itís not a cough, just a tickle," he says.

    "How long?"

    "About two years."

    Spencer turns an accusing eye toward a Caterpillar radiator leaning against a tree. "That goddam radiator is still here. It costs $4,000 all cleaned up," he says, shaking his head against the idea somebody just left it there, forgotten. "Or so they tell me ... course I donít believe it."

    We decide to go in, but first he asks, "Have you ever seen a Datsun pickup with two transmissions?" Sure enough, there is a hole cut into the floor with another stick popping through.

    And over there is a welder made from a 1971 Toyota engine with a generator from a bomber aircraft.

    Inside, Spencer pours coffee from a 36-cup percolator. "I have a lot of friends drop by," he explains.

    He sits in his favorite chair aimed at a television that offers a hundred channels, "but there are only four good ones." And a slight turn of the head offers a million-dollar view of the Ibex Valley. "When I saw that, I knew I had to buy this property," he says.

    Does it need to be explained that Spencer is a life-long bachelor? "Oh no, Iím not that crazy," he scoffs. "Iíve seen them other guys and I donít want any of that."

    Spencer only needs three hours of sleep a night, a habit he picked up as a long-haul driver. "A coffee and a chocolate bar and Iím good for a thousand miles," he brags.

    Cigarettes arenít part of the recipe: "I quit smoking when they hit 30 cents a pack."

    His driving career began in the army during the Second World War. Promises of high wages lured him to the Yukon in 1953 where he met Wigwam Harry, Dirty Tex, Andy Hooper and Curly Graham.

    After a summer, though, he heard a rumour that Lake Laberge was to be dammed and all of Whitehorse would be flooded. Capital spending dried up, so he headed south for three years while he kept an eye on things.

    Now that he is retired he has twice as much to do. Much of that time is just being a good neighbour. Children in the close-knit neighborhood pump up their bicycle tires at his garage and their parents use his pit to work under their vehicles. During the winter, he can be seen plowing the roads and neighborsí driveways. Friends from all over use his five hectares of land to store boats and graders and old cars.

    Every May, they all get together for his birthday. One year there were 150 people.

    But itís time to go and I still have to ask about the dragon and mosquito he built along the Hot Spring Road: "One day, I was out looking for a dragon ..." Spencer begins.

    "Why?"

    "I donít know."

    Yup, heís my hero.