Dad with his climbing partners. And me. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

Liam’s Lowdown: My dad the bottle collector

Bottles and cans paid for much of my childhood

I wrote this story for school a couple years ago. It was never published, until now. I thought it might be appropriate for Fathers Day on June 21.

Fresh snow covers garbage bins in front of an apartment building. It’s dark, yet there’s a whisper of red to the east. A man in a grubby down jacket has his head buried in the bin as he pokes bulging bags with a weathered stick.

He listens for the metallic sound of cans or the ping of bottles. A conspiracy of ravens circle overhead. Waiting for scraps.

This is my dad.

Celebrating dad’s 70th birthday at a backcountry hut. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

“It’s not savoury sticking your head into the dumpster. But who cares? It’s money. And you don’t have to dress up for it,” his voice is muffled as his body is mostly swallowed within the bin.

At 73-years-old, he never thought this would be his life. A few years ago, a lady passed as he fished out Budweiser cans and asked if he was homeless.

“Not at the moment, but if my rent keeps going up, I will be.”

Dad lives in a one-bedroom apartment that looks from the outside like a colourful gypsy camp.

Every inch of his home is stacked with books, like The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Treasure Island, and Ulysses. There are more books than the local library.

Sometimes he blares Handel on his record player to compete with the hip hop party one floor below.

He’s collected bottles since I can remember.

When I was in elementary school, he’d get up before sunrise, ride his bike to the campground, do his “rounds,” come home and get me ready for school. He’d walk or ski with me to class, usually playing soccer with the kids before the bell rang.

Bottles are 10 cents and if it’s over a litre it’s 25 cents. One time he collected enough to buy himself a ferry ticket to Alaska.

Another time, he broke his ribs leaning for a Sprite bottle.

My father didn’t always rifle through refuse.

“At the end of my life, I’m not going to say I should have bought a new car, I’m going to say I should have seen a few more sunsets.” (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

He grew up in England and went to private school. His father owned a publishing company that was used by Winston Churchill.

It was devoured by another business in the 1980s, which eventually coughed, spluttered and died a few years ago.

Regardless, in his apartment, proudly mounted on the wall, is a telegram from Churchill to my grandfather, congratulating him on getting married.

In 1970, my dad was traveling in Yugoslavia and noticed a girl. He asked her to share a bottle of wine at a nearby fountain.

A year later they married, and soon after my sister was born. In 1976, my parents moved to Edmonton where he opened a painting business and became an avid gardener.

He had a gardening show on the CBC, CTV and wrote for Harrowsmith, Canadian Garden, and the Edmonton Sun. At one time, he says he grew 144 different varieties of tomatoes.

All that changed when Mom got cancer and died eight months after I was born.

READ MORE: Liam’s Lowdown: To the mom I never had

My dad was overwhelmed with being a single parent and soon remarried. He refers to it as the worst mistake he’s ever made.

This new wife was abusive. It was her third marriage.

Her first husband was arrested for being a pedophile, the second went out to the garden shed one day and shot his brains out, and the third was my dad.

She’d throw punches and vases, aiming for his head.

“I went to the police to ask for help and the officer suggested I hit her back,” he said.

He tried phoning a woman’s shelter for assistance, but there was little they could do. There wasn’t a shelter for men.

My dad has climbed hundreds of peaks. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

After two years, they got a divorce and we went to McDonald’s to celebrate. My father sold our five-bedroom house on top of a hill and we moved to a bachelor apartment in a mountain town.

Dad no longer had a garden, so he couldn’t write about plants. He also didn’t want to paint. So, to pay bills, he did odd jobs and started to collect cans.

He also bought a bicycle with a seat on the back for me. We’d bike everywhere, on all the trails: the Palisades, Bike toss, Overlander. My dad would be grunting up a particularly steep hill and I’d be sitting behind like Little Lord Fauntleroy, demanding a story.

Dad became obsessed with mountain life: biking, hiking, and climbing. Wherever he went I followed.

Weekends were spent camping beside alpine lakes, counting wildflowers and climbing mountains on blank corners of maps.

Sometimes we’d even hitchhike to the trailhead. For some reason, it’s harder hitching with a six-year-old than you imagine.

The cars don’t slow, but they’re kind enough to go into the other lane as they drive past. Perhaps they think you’re infectious.

I was never the perfect student. I’d miss science class to sleep under the stars with my armada of teddies to watch meteor showers, northern lights or an eclipse. School isn’t everything. My dad says he’s happy life has led him to the outdoors.

“It just seemed like a good thing to do at the time. There’s magic out there, “ he said.

“At the end of my life, I’m not going to say I should have bought a new car, I’m going to say I should have seen a few more sunsets.”

Recently, dad finished writing a book and is trying to get it published. It’s about life in the mountains and being a single parent. So far, no publisher wants it.

But dad says he’s hopeful. “Everything I do, I don’t view it as permanent. I live with the hope that one day I’ll hit the jackpot.”

Until then, dad says he’ll keep sticking his head in dumpsters and dreaming.

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My dad has climbed hundreds of peaks. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

“At the end of my life, I’m not going to say I should have bought a new car, I’m going to say I should have seen a few more sunsets.” (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

Celebrating dad’s 70th birthday at a backcountry hut. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

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