I think it normal for everyone at some point, or quite often, to think “what have I done or experienced that is of any value up until this point in my life?” It would be wrong to say that the thought does not enter my head every so often. Thankfully, this unhealthy train of thought is susceptible to simple reflection and I realize that in between my boring life of University, video games and slight socializing, I have had some experiences which people could write short, badly written novels about. Most of these experiences come thanks to my summers tree planting or the little traveling I’ve done. Some stories will never escape my lips(or at the very least never be written on this blog) and others I will begin to share. I want to write these here for no other reason than as a way to remember these exciting moments in my life and as an appreciation for the art of creative non-fiction(and to shame people like Thomas).
Part One – Thomas the Cook:
There is a tree planting dictum that states: “the cook is your best friend“. This is more so true when one has dietary concerns. Being friendly with your camp cook can mean larger portions, faster seconds and a willingness to make you delicious vegan food. A cooks job is not an easy one: up at 4am, short nap in the afternoon and then cooking/cleaning from 3pm until 11 or 12 at night. So imagine cooking for a camp of 30-40 people while having to prepare a separate meal for one or two people. Needless to say, I’ve stopped short of bribery to ensure the cook and I get along. The camp cook serves an important function in the life of the tree planter aside from providing sustenance: they are the largest morale boost short of the hot tub on a day off. After working for 10 to 12hrs in the bitter cold and rain; burning 3000-4000 calories, food becomes our oasis. Some of my fondest memories these past 5 years involve food in some way. Cold, soggy fajitas after a 17hr day and a third degree burn or eating lasagne with Sam in our work truck at 11pm after we performed an emergency first aid rescue.
In my 8 years of tree planting, the cooking has been nothing short of spectacular. Teresa, Jen, Abe, Katherine and Christine have been amazing cooks and people. Teresa and Christine in particular will always hold a place in my heart. Teresa was the cook that people warned me I would never have. She went out of her way to make everyone happy and ensured we were well-fed. Smoothies every morning, sushi, fresh bread and soup every night. We had it far too good. I landed in Prince George at the beginning of my third year and found out Teresa had moved on. This is where the story of Thomas the cook begins…
Our camp converged on our yearly orientation meeting in Prince George with rumours swirling. Teresa had left and the new cook Thomas seemed nice. He owned a vegan restaurant in India and cooked in Ottawa. I couldn’t have been happier. In the dank hall of the conference room, my eyes focused on a tallish man with a moustache and fedora, arms crossed and sitting on a table facing the crowd. This was Thomas and when it came time for him to address the crowd, his kurt, brutish manner managed not to betray our expectations for the summer ahead. As is my custom, I approached Thomas after orientation in order to introduce myself and offer to help out in any way, considering my dietary limitations. His response: “Vegan? Yeah. We’ll see what happens.”
How about I headbutt you? Then you’ll have a fucking problem!
His lackluster cooking did not however, betray his cold response. For a cook claiming to have owned a vegan restaurant, his use of frozen vegetables lacked some imagination. While the meat-eaters enjoyed their steaks, et al, the vegetarians and vegans were stuck with repetitive, terrible meal choices. I went to bed hungry more often than not and our displeasure soon became very apparent. Three weeks into our season and we began to witness the crazy side of Thomas. His wonderful assistant quit in a stream of tears after having obscenities hurled at her and Thomas barely spoke a word to anyone in camp. Now that Thomas was cooking solo, the food situation for the vegetarians worsened. By this point, Thomas scared us to where no one dared question his cooking and morale stayed low. Do not forget the point to which food plays a critical role in our lives. We stopped speaking of food on our rides home except to complain or express pity for the vegetarians. The atmosphere in the mess tent was sullen and bleak. Our oasis of food was revealed to be a mirage, an illusion of Teresa and a joke on the word edible.
After another meal of frozen vegetables and unpalatable goop, I hit my breaking point and took up our case with the camp supervisor, Jim. The case was made on behalf of and at the request of all the vegetarians. The next day I saw Thomas unloading the food for the coming week. I was walking towards my tent when I heard a whistle followed by Thomas waving me over. He motioned me behind the school bus kitchen where I met him sitting on a ramp, slightly elevated above me.
“What is your problem?” He asked, cold eyes locked on me.
“Why the hell didn’t you come talk to me about my cooking?”
“Well you are not the most approachable person AND it is Jim’s job to deal with this.”
“What’s wrong with my cooking? You’re the ONLY person who seems to hate it. I asked all the vegetarians in camp and they love my cooking!” – Thomas was an intimidating figure. The majority of people who told him his cooking was decent had done so out of fear.
“That is not what I have heard. You feed us mostly frozen veggies…etc. The vegetarians asked me to talk to Jim”
“Why the fuck did you go to Jim?” His hands were gripping the edge of the ramp and his body kept lurching towards me.
“It’s his job, calm down Thomas.”
What is your problem? Stop yelling”
“Problem?” He brought his face down within centimetres of mine. “You want to see a fucking problem? How about I headbutt you, then you’ll have a fucking problem!”
I don’t exactly remember what happened next but visibly shaken, I most likely uttered something embarrassingly awkward and walked away. I made my way across camp to a work truck and explained to some friends what had just occurred. We noticed Thomas sitting inside a truck opposite us. He sat staring, not moving a muscle except to slowly drink from his beer. He sat there with his gaze fixed on me for the next half hour.
The next morning I nervously waited in line for Thomas to serve breakfast. Thomas looked me in the eyes and said:
“Since you’re so special and have such special needs, I’m not going to feed you“. So I didn’t eat breakfast and that night, food had to be snuck to me. This ridiculousness ended the next morning when Jim the supervisor exchanged choice words with Thomas.
Where Crazy Gets Really Crazy:
This is where the bipolarity of Thomas and his general insanity took new and “exciting” turns. Thomas, now forced to feed me, refused to look me in the eye as I refused to look into his. Slowly he began to alienate more and more planters. Dani and Jess incurred his wrath and he began to loudly complain that we were not holding our plates high enough for him to properly serve us food. The strangest thing was that Thomas also began acting like my best friend. Huge smiles, friendly greetings and a vast improvement in the quality of my food. I was perplexed, although even as our relationship had outwardly improved, his manner became more inexplicable and insane. Thomas began sleeping inside the kitchen bus. When informed of that being a health hazard, he set up his tent on the roof of the bus. Someone caught Thomas filling up our camp’s juice reserves with lake water instead of the purified water at hand. The nail in the insanity coffin however, was his behaviour when left alone. Joel, an injured planter, was to experience this first hand. Thomas would sporadically sneak up behind Joel, laugh maniacally and walk away in silence. Or they were to pass each other and Thomas would literally scream gibberish in Joel’s face and then continue on his way.
With the culmination of these events and the “inability” of our company to find a replacement cook(something I still take issue with) a meeting was called. We drove several kilometres outside of camp one night, so as to speak without Thomas around. We aired our grievances, expressed our fears and were eventually told that we were out of luck and would have to deal with him for our final 3 weeks. With two weeks left to go in our season and Thomas appearing as “normal” as he’d ever been, he suddenly disappeared. Our season was going to be extended by an extra week and Thomas had already booked his flight home. A day before his flight and with 2 weeks still left in our season, he fell off a ramp and “injured his back”. What a mess. Our company scrambled, did what they should have done a month earlier, and found another cook.
There was a polarity to Thomas that spoke to a severe mental illness. He had reduced an assistant to tears several times over, threatened me with physical violence and refused to feed me only to reverse course and act as my best friend two weeks later. He smiled at us one day, scowling the next and abused his authority in hazardous ways. Three years ago, this was one of my first encounters with the rope-walk of mental illness and how poorly that reality co-exists with a broader reality. The world of the mentally ill does exist in an alternate universe, albeit one that runs alongside our own. This is something I would later see in myself and in many others. Thomas taught me valuable lessons in diplomacy and stress, as well as in how to deal with psychosis in the work place. In much the same way that my worse days as a tree planter begat life lessons and positive memories, this episode has turned into a great story to tell as well as a lesson for myself and for our entire camp. Never let crazy cook, stand up for yourself and do not be afraid to call out an abusive company. We stayed silent for too long when so much insanity could have been avoided.
Addendum: This story happened a long time ago and some details have been lost. I thought it only fair to add a quick edit. 1 – We had a planter with severe peanut allergies in our camp. The peanut butter had to be kept in a separate tent. Thomas fed this gentleman(Andy) a cookie with walnuts in it, leading to an emergency evacuation to the hospital, literally almost killing him. 2 – After Thomas “hurt” himself, we were left without a cook. For a week, Daniel, a planter, volunteered to cook for us. Seeing Dan in an apron in the morning was an instant morale booster, as was his willingness to cook vegetarian, even though I doubt he’d ever cooked a vegetable in his life!