‘Papa Jack’ observed a deer and healed a broken spirit

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 27, 2009 

Warren Harbeck enjoys a Christmas 2007 moment with “Mama” Rita and “Papa” Jack Buehler. Papa Jack, who passed away in Edmonton last week, was a mentor to Warren in the art of listening, often regaling the “young” columnist with great stories from his coal-mining and hunting and fishing days. Photo by Mary Anna Harbeck

John Buehler taught me more than he could have ever imagined about the beauty of storytelling, the art of listening, and the joy of living. He, with his wife, Rita, had 11 children, 22 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren, yet he still made room in the family circle for my wife and me during a particularly stressful time in our lives back in the late 1980s. The father of Cochrane residents Lawrence Buehler and Gloria Cowley, and grandfather of my goddaughter, 2009 Calgary Stampede Princess Kateri Cowley, also of Cochrane, passed away in Edmonton on May 21. He was 91. With these words I pay tribute to this man I came to know and love simply as “Papa Jack.”

During his early years, Papa Jack lived and worked in the Coal Branch, the coal-mining region in Alberta stretching along the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies west of Edmonton. The daily routine at the strip mine was governed by the company whistle as it echoed among the jack pine and poplar hills. Black dust and ash blanketed the often snow-covered landscape.

At one of our frequent Sunday brunches of bacon, eggs, toast and coffee, he reminisced with me over his childhood memories of Christmases in the Coal Branch.

"The snow was sometimes four and five feet deep," he said. "The company houses had no insulation, so when you got up in the morning, there'd be ice in the wash basin. My mother would get the coal cook stove going – you know, the kind with the reservoir in the side.”

He spoke nostalgically of Christmas Eves, when townsfolk gathered for midnight mass at the community hall. "Father Louis took the three-hour train ride from Edson to Coalspur, then walked the last ten miles to the hall to celebrate midnight mass," Papa Jack said. "Catholic and non-Catholic alike came, and there was lots of good will."

Good will and practical advice characterized almost everything Papa Jack shared with me over the years. Sometimes it was about everyday things: how to unstick a stuck water shut-off valve in the basement or where to get the best repair work done on the car – Papa Jack, himself a topnotch mechanic, insisted on doing a job right the first time.

On other occasions, it was the memory of a fishing or hunting trip that put a sparkle in Papa's eyes: the aroma of damp autumn leaves mingled with wood smoke after an all-night rain kept him close to camp; the eagle-eyed walk along a ridge above the abandoned coal mine he worked as a young man.

Or the time he and his brother observed a deer as it encountered a crippled duck stranded on a beach and, using its front hooves, gently helped the duck to the water's edge, where it was able to swim away and re-engage life.

Like that deer, Papa Jack gently helped me through a difficult time I, too, was having in my life journey. His stories were rich in wisdom, his smile radiant with hope.

Thank you, Papa Jack. I will carry you in my heart always.

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

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