Soon after marrying in 1954, Alan McGowan was hired to work as a painter for the aluminium company Alcan as it reached the last days of construction of its Kitimat smelter.
He packed up his things knowing his bride, Mary, would join him later, jumped into a floatplane and made the treacherous 12-hour trek from Vancouver to the new northwest B.C. town.
Alan and his family stayed with Alcan for more than three decades, building a life in Terrace and Kitimat.
His stockpiled memories and glimpses into life working in the region at the cusp of an economic boom are captured in his last memoir, Thinking Outside the Box.
The memoir is Alan’s second and last publication after releasing his first book of memoirs, Riding in Style – the First Twenty-Five Years, which documented his stories growing up poor, working all over BC during the Depression, and riding his old Harley motorcycle to California at the age of 15.
Just a few days after completing the final draft of Thinking Outside the Box, McGowan passed away in Terrace on May 9 at the age of 89.
A natural storyteller, McGowan paints a fascinating picture of life during this period of Northwest B.C. history, from the chaos that ensued as more than a thousand men arrived in Kitimat creating an “instant town,” to when he worked with his colleagues to figure out how to smelt aluminium more efficiently and with less pollution.
Alan had a sharp eye for detail, and wrote about women and men of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds who arrived in Kitimat during that time.
“Others were on the run from trouble in their home country, some who went “bunkhouse happy” after too long in the bush, and always those working the angles to get something for nothing from the company,” the back of the book reads.
In one passage, Alan describes what it was like to see a “multiplicity of nationalities thrown together at Alcan” when he first arrived. In the early days, he writes, most of them got along, and would exchange stories and experiences in the long, narrow unloader’s control room overlooking the ocean. Most of the men were veterans of the Second World War.
|A recent photo of Alan McGowan. (Sharon McGowan contributed photo)|
Over the years, Alan learned the value and danger of thinking outside the box, and dedicated the book itself to the average worker who strove to push the boundaries with the hopes of reaping enormous rewards.
“He really loved that aspect of looking at a situation and figuring out what wasn’t working, and saying, “I can fix that,” says Sharon, Alan’s daughter.
“The book really celebrates that, not just with him but with all the people he met, all the different ways people would approach solving problems in really unexpected ways.”
He wrote about one man he calls Bill, who survived the bombing of Dresden and had experience fixing generators in Germany. Despite his experience, when the generator at the plant’s power station at Kemano began dangerously fluctuating, “no one believed he could do it.”
After his persistence, Bill was finally allowed to go to Kemano, and had the generator back up and running smoothly soon after.
“He celebrates that innovative and inventive spirit of the average person, but also particularly people in the northwest,” Sharon says.
“He wanted to do this as an inspiration, and he thought this would help inspire other people. And for me, it was a way of commemorating these extraordinary people and stories of when I was growing up.”
Alan’s inventive spirit didn’t stop at the aluminium smelter — Sharon says everything at her father’s house came with some sort of improvement, right down to the lawn chairs.
Writing his stories down was difficult for him, so 15 years ago when writing his first set of memoirs he invented a system where he could record his stories orally on audiotape, then plug it into a program to transcribe it so his writing sounded like more of a conversation than written prose, she says.
“The really wonderful thing for me was after he passed away, I found those tapes in the basement with the tape recorder.”
In one of the last chapters of Thinking Outside the Box, Alan writes about his invention of the Curlstick, a simple cane-like device that allows those with bad backs and bad knees to curl while standing up. The Curlstick is now used all over the world, and was commemorated on the Winter Paralympics 2010 coin.
Sharon will read from the memoir at the Terrace Public Library on Nov. 1 at 12 p.m., and the Kitimat Public Library on Nov. 2 at 1 p.m., fulfilling a promise she made to her father before he died. The book is for sale at Misty River Books in Terrace.
She says Alan always believed it was his duty to preserve his stories, and the stories of people he met, as a memento to a former way of life.
“It’s been an incredible thing for me because all these people I haven’t heard from in 50 years are connecting with me again, and it’s just wonderful,” Sharon says. “It’s been a real gift.”