Shortly after lunch on Monday, Clifford Bennett took a walk in the woods behind his house near St. Martins, a tiny fishing village in southeastern New Brunswick on the Bay of Fundy.
He is 90, and on Mondays plays the fiddle and mandolin at the local Legion hall. Each year on Christmas Eve, he plays the bass during a candlelight service at the Baptist church. When two hours passed and Mr. Bennett had not returned, his family started to worry.
They called the RCMP, which dispatched four Mounties, and in turn notified a regional search-and-rescue group. Hearing the news, volunteer firefighters, friends, neighbours and strangers jumped into action.
It is what happens during emergencies in small communities all across Canada. People band together. That it occurred at this time of year, when families are gathered in celebration, made it all the more urgent.
In a village with fewer than 280 residents, more than half participated in the search effort. Still more brought coffee and doughnuts and food to the home Mr. Bennett shares with Marilyn, his wife of 60 years. A command post was established there.
“I always knew the community was good,” Ms. Bennett, who is 80, says. “I couldn’t believe how many people turned out.”
Mr. Bennett had gone out to gather birch bark, which he uses to help light fires. He stayed too late and it got dark. The moon was but a waning crescent. He had no cellphone or flashlight.
Rescuers scoured the rugged landscape, but could find no sign of him. Some feared he would be injured when found. As hours passed, they began to consider a graver outcome.
It was a mild night, about 4 C. But even in that, how long does it take a nonagenarian to get hypothermia?
Nine hours after he set out on a trail that was very familiar to him, Mr. Bennett was found as he walked through a clearing nearly three kilometres from where he lives.
“People were mostly searching nearby,” Mr. Bennett’s son, Jeff, says. “They didn’t think a 90-year-old could get very far.”
Mr. Bennett was dehydrated and weak, but otherwise unharmed.
“It is a Christmas miracle,” says Lori Lefrancois, whose husband was the one who found Mr. Bennett.
Norman Lefrancois used to live in the vicinity of where Mr. Bennett had gotten lost in heavy brush, thickets and fallen trees. He had an idea of where he could be.
“I know that area like the back of my hand,” Mr. Lefrancois says.
He parked his truck along a country road and was about to head into the woods when he thought he heard a cry for help. “I just yelled, ‘Cliff’ and he yelled back at me, ’Straight this way.’”
Mr. Lefrancois walked to Mr. Bennett’s voice, took his hand and led him back to the vehicle. He is a long-time friend and former firefighter.
As Mr. Lefrancois drove him home, Mr. Bennett was startled by the hubbub. There were cars and people everywhere.
“What the heck is going on here tonight?” he wondered.
“Clifford,” Mr. Lefrancois told him, “they are out here because of you.”
As they pulled into the driveway, the crowd gathered in his yard cheered and whistled. It was like a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life.
“The way everybody was out there was just fantastic,” Mr. Lefrancois says.
Initially, Mr. Bennett was adamant in his refusal to go to the hospital. Under pressure, he eventually relented and was taken by ambulance about 45 minutes to Saint John. After having his fluids replenished, he was sent home none the worse.
“We are all amazed,” Ms. Bennett says. She and Clifford have four children, nine grandchildren and four great grandkids. “We are so happy and thankful, especially when you consider what might have happened.
“God is good.”
On Christmas Eve, Mr. Bennett went to church but did not, as is his custom, play the bass. He took a break this year.
On Christmas Day, the family gathered at Jeff and his wife Tanya’s place for dinner. They celebrated like never before. Music was played. Stories were exchanged.
“With nearly every step I took, I fell down,” Mr. Bennett says of his ordeal.
He is annoyed because he lost his hat. Jeff laughs and says he worries his dad is going to go back to try to find it.
“It is the best Christmas ever,” Jeff says.
His wayward father promises to be more careful, even though his grandsons maintain that Clifford is a 90-year-old in a 70-year-old’s body.
He is grateful and retains his sense of humour.
“I don’t think I’ll do this again next year,” he says.