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A Sky Full of Dreams, A Literary Prairie Memoir by Victor Friesen
 

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A Sky Full of Dreams: Memories of Earlier Days on the Farm by Victor Carl Friesen ...

A Sky Full of Dreams: Memories of Earlier Days on the Farm by Victor Carl Friesen

Kingsley Publishing, 6 x 9, paperback, 248 pages, 978-0-978426-9-8, $20.00

A poet and naturalist writes and reflects on simpler times

For American novelist Willa Cather, the world broke in two about 1920 when the pioneering spirit and accompanying values of that era gave way to a greater materialism, advancing technology, and a quickened pace of life.

A similar transition took place on the Canadian prairies, albeit a bit later, in the 1950s. Victor Carl Friesen, a Thoreau specialist, writes about this rural world with a naturalist's keen eye and describes it in a simple, poignant manner. Here is a work that is both literature and social history, revealing an award-winning author's love and understanding of a birthplace that for him will always be "forever home."

About the Author
Friesen has taught in one-room schools, university classrooms, and community colleges. He has a Ph.D. in American literature (while holding a Canada Council Fellowship). He is the author of The Spirit of the Huckleberry; The Mulberry Tree; The Windmill Turning; The Year is a Circle; Where the River Runs and Forever Home. To date he has also published 250 journal pieces, including articles in Canadian Geographic and Prairie Forum.

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    A Sky Full of Dreams, A Literary Prairie Memoir by Victor Friesen A Sky Full of Dreams, A Literary Prairie Memoir by Victor Friesen Document Transcript

    • A Sky Full of Dreams Memories of Earlier Days on the Farm VICTOR CARL FRIESEN PUBLISHING
    • Copyright © Victor Carl Friesen 2010 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the copyright holder, except in the case of a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review to print in a magazine or newspaper, or broadcast on radio or television. In the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, users must obtain a licence from Access Copyright. Cover and interior design by BookWorks Project management by Kingsley Publishing Services www.kingsleypublishing.ca Front cover and interior photos © Victor Carl Friesen First published in the United States in 2010 by Kingsley Publishing Printed in Canada by Friesens 2010 / 1 Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication [to come] Ordering information: www.kingsleypublishing.ca
    • To the memory of Mother, Dad, Elsie, Ernie, and Ted
    • Contents Preface. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . viii I. IN T RO DUC T I O N S 1. Airplanes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 II. WH E RE W E L I V E D Paying for the Farm . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7 Home, Sweet Home . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16 The Fence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22 My Woodland Trails . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29 III. WO RK ABO U T T H E H O M E A N D FARM Mother’s Day . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33 Depression Treats . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41 Splitting Wood . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44 Dad’s Husbandry . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49 IV. FA L L ACT I V I T I E S Berry Picking . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 56 Binding Sheaves . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 62 Garden Harvest . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65 Meat on the Table . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71 V. RU RA L AM U S E M E N T S A Boy’s Willow Craft . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 78 Funny Papers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 82 Old-Time Radio Comedy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89 Visitors . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 97
    • S TI L L F O R EV ER HOME VI. SC HO OL D A Y S The Road to Learning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 104 Softball . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109 Time Off . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111 Picnic Day. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 117 V I I. G OI NG T O T O W N Summer Travel . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 124 Winter Travel . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 130 The Old-Time General Store . . . . . . . . . . . . . 134 Statement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 139 V I II . G E T T I NG A W A Y To the River . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 145 To the Lake . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 150 By Telephone . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 154 Destination Moon . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 159 IX. T H RO UGH T H E Y E A R Indian Summer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 165 A Home Christmas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 169 Spring on the Farm . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 176 Rainy Days . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 179 X. T H IS AND T H A T Arrowheads . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 184 Our Dogs and Cats . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 189 Farm Wells . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 195 Clouds . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 201 XI. C AR E E RS My Athletic Career . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 207 My Musical Career . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 213 Boyhood Photography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 221 Final Career Choice . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 227 About the Author . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 237
    • S TI L L F O R EV ER H OME Preface For American novelist Willa Cather, the world broke in two about 1920 (Not Under Forty, 1936). She had grown up in rural Nebraska and was thinking of a former time, her childhood, when the pio- neering spirit and its accompanying values held sway—integrity and industry, responsibility and neighborliness, too. Then came a transition to greater materialism and, with advancing technology, a quickened pace of life―the Roaring Twenties. We experienced a similar transition on our Canadian prairies, only it happened later. Settlement was delayed somewhat, with the pioneer generation still the dominant force during the 1920s, particularly in farming country. Then came the Great Depression of the thirties, when conditions were set back, followed imme- diately by World War II, with things necessarily put on hold. So the accelerated evolvement to the present world began here only around mid-century, say, 1950. My parents arrived in what is now Saskatchewan before the turn of the previous century—my father almost at age seven in 1891, my mother born here in 1899. This was the beginning of pioneering in our area: my father’s family in fact was of the first group to settle in the Rosthern district. And during most of their lives, the pattern of life changed little. A family lived on almost viii
    • V I C TO R C A R L F R I E S EN every quarter-section of land; children went to a one-roomed country school; the school’s Christmas concert was the social event of the year; most people farmed with horses; buggies and wagons in summer and bobsleighs and cutters in winter were the common conveyances; crops were cut with a binder, stooked, then threshed with a separator. When I, born in 1933, think back, my own childhood on the farm in the 1940s seems hardly different from that of my parents. My chores were manual; my education (including high school correspondence courses) was rural. Going to town on occasion was a highlight, returning to the farm a greater one. But now! Farms are measured in terms of whole sections, several of them, and many farmers live in town, driving out to harvest crops with combines. What is found, if anything, are deserted farmyards (or fields of standing grain where they had once been), only gaping foundations or cairns to designate former schoolyards, and no three-track buggy trails, wagon lanes in high- way ditches, nor cross-field winter roads. The changing situation was brought home to me quite dra- matically. A winter road had cut across our farm during my entire boyhood, even to my father’s death in 1950. The next four winters I was away, attending normal school and teaching elsewhere, be- fore accepting a position in Rosthern. One Saturday afternoon I set out for a walk eastward along the old winter road, which for the first half mile appeared to be well enough driven, this stretch coinciding with a municipal roadway. I envisioned walking per- haps up to our farm. At the first crossroad the trail almost petered out. One sleigh must have continued east, however, and I continued east, too. The going now was much harder—I had to swing my foot inward with each step to remain on the narrow runner track. Then the trail suddenly turned off across a side field, where it had no business being. It was not made by a sleigh traveling to and from town but merely by some farmer hauling feed for his cattle. I pushed on resolutely eastward through the snow where the ix
    • S TI L L F O R EV ER H OME winter road used to be. But the drifts became deeper, and I had to jump with every step, soon exhausting myself, not knowing whether to continue or go back. Stranded, I did not realize then, as I did later, how symbolic my position was of someone entering a new era, a new pattern of living. It seemed that I was “wander- ing between two worlds” (Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”), or like Cather, caught in a world broken in two. Without becoming overly philosophical, I thought mostly of the good old days on the farm, wishing that time had moved at a slower pace. For there are “graces, traditions, riches of the mind and spir- it” that need to be retained, “bright incidents, slight, perhaps, but precious, as . . . life itself, . . . trifles dear as the heart’s blood” (Cather, Shadows on the Rock: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931). These are what I have tried to record in A Sky Full of Dreams. And we can look to our own Canadian novelist, Frederick Philip Grove, for confirmation of their value: only the “commonplaces of life are worthy of being forever repeated and expounded anew” (In Search of Myself: Macmillan of Canada, 1946). This book, of course, is a follow-up to my first book of per- sonal reminiscences, Forever Home, 2004. There was more to say about my 1940s boyhood, the everyday incidents of those sim- pler times that I shared with others growing up on small farms across our country and the bordering United States. The two books complement each other. As in the preface of the previous book, I can again say that I tried to capture the sights and sounds of memorable experiences in a series of personal essays. These chapters, grouped into sections of related activities (most of the section headings remain the same), can be read independently. I am grateful to my wife, Dorothy, for her special care in reading the original manuscript. x
    • I INTRODUCTIONS 1
    • Airplanes The small town of Rosthern, Saskatchewan, is located halfway between the cities of Prince Albert and Saskatoon. If a line were drawn from one city to the other, it would pass a few miles east of that town, however. That is, it would pass directly over the quarter-section farm I was born and raised on, and even more pre- cisely, over the yard in the middle of that farm. So our farmyard was directly beneath the daily route of what we called the “mail” plane (a Douglas DC-3), traveling between the two cities. Air travel then, in the early 1940s, was still something rela- tively new to most people, something exciting and adventurous and romantic—we were hardly used to even motor traffic on the trail across our farm. When my sister, Elsie, and brothers, Ernie and Ted, heard the airplane’s distinctive hum, we all dashed out- side and stood in awe with our necks craned upward. A young woman really, Elsie, if the summer was 1942, had just graduated from normal school. She liked to join in the excite- ment as her last chance, at age twenty-two, to be one of the “gang” again before she started teaching in a neighboring school that fall. Ernie, sixteen months younger, had completed grade twelve in June, but was home now and would be helping Dad on the farm for the next while. (Both siblings had finished high school after a 2
    • AIRPLANES hiatus of a few years from education, for those were tough times.) Ted, aged sixteen, had had rheumatic fever, so his dash was lim- ited to a fast walk, while I, turning nine that summer, scrambled out last. Dad and Mother left us to our frivolities. He was fifty- seven, somewhat sickly, and fifteen years older than Mother, a stout, quick little woman (their birthdays were on the same day). Our dog Gyp, however, caught up in the hubbub of our hur- ried exit to be the first one to sight the plane, tried to get out quickly, too, but his paws had little grip on the smooth linoleum, and he slipped and slid to the doorway, barking madly. Once out- side, he continued to bark. Although he might not have seen the plane, he could hear its roar. The rest of us silently watched this marvel of aviation sailing across the overreaching blue dome, sometimes disappearing into the airy cloud-castles along the way. Then we “look’d at each other with a wild surmise” (as in Keats’s famous sonnet), agog at what we had witnessed. Airplanes were really very much a part of our simple farm lives, even though we had never seen one from up close, let alone flown in one. We gloried in reading about them (pilots Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart were still much in the news) or, better yet, in seeing fictitious airmen in the funny papers carried by the farm weeklies, flying to exotic places. King of the Royal Mounted (a Zane Grey creation), for example, often flew a bush plane in Canada’s Far North. Meanwhile, we built model planes, obtained in kits, from balsa wood and tissue paper, with a rubber band to turn the pro- peller, carved from a larger block of wood. All was held together by airplane “dope” (glue)—I can smell it yet. Every Christmas, an airplane kit was the only gift my brother Ted ever wanted—he was crazy about airplanes. Once when he saw a contest in Popular Mechanics magazine for entrants to write a page-essay on aircraft, he was overjoyed. He worked for several days on this composition, which closed, I remember, with a reference to watching an overhead plane, until it “faded to a mere speck above the horizon.” He thought the end- 3
    • A SKY FULL OF DREAMS ing particularly effective—poetic, if you will—but his high hopes for a prize were diminished over the following weeks when he never heard back about his mailed-in entry. It was our cousins on the next farm who built the most model airplanes. Walking into the living room of their home usually re- vealed yet another model plane suspended from the ceiling. It is little wonder that during the Second World War Bob, the older cousin, joined the air force and rose to the rank of Flying Officer, piloting a transport plane in Burma. At the conclusion of the war, he secured employment in the de Havilland Aircraft factory in Ontario and made that his life’s work. (The younger cousin, Jim, of about my age, flies remote-controlled model planes, of his own construction, as a hobby today.) The biggest “airplane” thrill Jim and I had in those early 1940s occurred one summer evening. Again, we were watch- ing a plane passing overhead—a low-wing, twin engine Cessna “Crane” (from the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan)— when the engines began to sputter, caught, sputtered some more, and then went through a series of seeming stops and starts. All the time the plane was losing altitude, and it looked as if the pilot was trying to glide it down to a safe landing on a nearby level field. We raced down the dusty trail in that direction, panting hard and kicking up dust with our bare feet, to see the plane coming down before us in a graceful curve, approaching the ground well under control. And then, with the craft just a few feet above the field, the engines fired up into a steady roar—we were almost up to it by this time—and the plane swept off, in a graceful curve upward, leaving us groundlings standing still, open-mouthed, as it sailed into the blue and finally faded “to a mere speck above the horizon.” We had finally seen a plane up close—well, fairly close— and what a thrill! We talked about it for days afterward. There was the pilot, within shouting distance, seen so clearly through the cockpit window. It was just his luck, and our bad luck, that he got his plane going again. 4
    • AIRPLANES When I think back now of the incident, I ponder—yes, the plane’s engines did sputter and seem to stop for a time, almost leading to a forced landing. Then again, maybe this was a training maneuver, or perhaps this pilot had seen us young boys running out of our farmhouses on several occasions and had decided this time to provide us with a little extra excitement by faking engine trouble. Who knows?—we were excited, buoyed up, and soaring in our imagination with all the airmen we had ever heard about— Lindbergh, Earhart, and Sergeant King. Ah, those innocent days of childhood, those impressionable, wonderful years of the past! 5
    • II WHERE WE LIVED 6
    • Paying for the Farm A Dominion Land Surveys map shows that in every township, sections eleven and twenty-nine were set aside as “school lands” when the original survey was made. Since my dad’s farm was the northeast quarter of Section 29 (Township 42, Range 2, west of the Third Meridian), it had been part of a “school section” before he bought it. The four farms in such a section could not be taken up as official homesteads, but they were sold later, often to large corporations, which then resold them to individuals. Dad bought his farm from the Beaver Lumber Company for a dollar down in 1915. The purchase price was $4,000. To get that much money out of 160 acres (really 159—the surveyors had made an error of one acre) could be the work of a near lifetime, and it was. The whole quarter was virgin land—an alkaline mead- ow in one corner and a mix of open prairie, scrubby wolf-willow cover, and aspen poplar bushes elsewhere. The soil was sandy, and rather stony, too. It took my parents twenty-nine years to pay for the farm. The land being bought as “new land” and they the first farmers on it, my mother and dad just would not give up hope of owning it outright—the farm meant too much to them. They 7
    • A SKY FULL OF DREAMS had cleared and broken the sod in every field themselves, about a hundred acres all told. My dad did not believe that by plowing a farm from corner to corner one was being a good farmer. He left the southwest corner, “a low countree,” as a natural meadow; thirty-five acres beauti- fully treed, with fluttering-leafed aspens and red-withed willow clumps glowing in the sun, to be a cow pasture; and several acres for the yard and garden, shaded by two mature poplar bushes. One would have room to think there and children room to play. The question was—where was the money, all $4,000 of it, to come from when a barn and granaries had to be built, when a per- manent house should replace the temporarily thrown-up shack, when machinery was needed and a livestock herd had to grow? True, wheat was selling for two dollars a bushel; so if things went really well, Dad reasoned, the debt might be cleared away and a nice estate built up within twenty years. Then he and Mother could spend their winters in California—so he had told her before they got married. But things did not work out well. In 1916, when Dad had his first big crop standing, on land freshly broken, a hailstorm beat it flat into the ground. The Rosthern area did not see a hailstorm of such intensity again until 1963. The crop, successfully harvested, would have paid a good portion of the debt. Mother and Dad, not married yet, had been to the Saskatoon Exhibition that day in August: two young farm people seeing the sights in the company of a few other members of their families, enjoying themselves together. On meeting some acquaintances from Rosthern, Dad had told them of the heavy stand of his crop. It was a time to celebrate. When they drove home after dark and neared Rosthern, the car’s headlights found no wall of standing wheat alongside the road. Instead, they shone over the twisted wreckage of a sum- mer’s work, stalks of grain crushed and lying pell-mell, high- lighted and shadowed in an unreal landscape. Hail! Would it have struck east of town as well? There was no thought of the exhibi- 8
    • P AY I N G F O R T H E F A R M tion now, usually something to be talked about with the neighbors for weeks. In the town itself the streets were littered with glass from broken windows. Now the four miles left to go!—more flattened fields, road- side trees with broken branches, and more damaged fields. At Dad’s farm the story was the same. There was no crop left stand- ing to be cut. Still, my parents got married two years later in 1918. Things were looking better by then, with Dad having paid nearly two- thirds of the farm debt. After a simple wedding at my grandpar- ents’ home, Mother placed her entire belongings in the center of a tablecloth, took up the four corners, and knotted them together. Taking up her bundle, she was ready to leave home and start mar- ried life on Dad’s immediately adjacent farm southwest. In those first days, Dad, wanting some company while chop- ping trees at a field’s edge, told his young wife that if she joined him he would give her a dollar for every tree she cut down. Mother was probably lonesome as well, by herself in their fourteen- by twenty-foot shack (she, like Dad, had come from a family of a dozen or more), and she was only too glad to hurry with her housework and join him. And being a strong, willing person (as farmwives were expected to be), she selected ten trees, chopped them down and collected the money. She could have chopped more, but there was no point in wresting Dad of his last dollars. Thus the farm became theirs by reason of the hard work they did on it and the love for it that this work engendered. David Grayson, that homespun American philosopher, in Great Possessions, 1917, says that “real possession is not a thing . . . of documents, but of the spirit.” Now, Dad had paid only a dollar down when, during World War I, the price of everything was high. A recession followed the booming war years, and the price of wheat dropped. The debt did not. It grew by accumulating interest, with no payments made in 1920 and ’21. It was my parents’ habit to rise early each morning—at six, 9
    • A SKY FULL OF DREAMS and, on days of some special activity, at four o’clock. “The early morning hours are golden,” my mother used to say—or, quoting Carlyle: “Every morn is a world made new.” Every morn was a fresh beginning for them, but the debt began to be an oppression. In 1922, it was transferred to a life insurance company, and from then till 1925, only the interest each year could be paid. Now a “loan company man” came out each summer to take stock of our situation and to press Dad for money that was just not there. The family was growing; children were starting school. Always there seemed to be a new occasion where money was needed. The amount of the mortgage itself had still to be raised. And then came the Depression! To people in Eastern Canada, the Great Depression meant the stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing years of low income or no jobs at all. But in Western Canada, and in Saskatchewan in particular, the Depression was also a period of severe drought. Wheat had next to no price, and there was very little wheat to sell even at that. The prices dropped to their lowest in fall when farmers had to sell their grain in order to pay their harvest expenses. One fall (1932) wheat stood at seventy cents a bushel. Dad did not sell his crop immediately, for wheat had never been that low before and would probably go up in price shortly. So he thought. But it began to drop—to sixty cents, then fifty. Dad could not sell now, for he would make no profit at all. The drop had to be a temporary fluctuation. The price, however, continued to plummet. Down, down to eighteen cents! Then he had to sell: some money was better than no money at all. The drought years became increasingly worse as the Thirties advanced. One summer our land did not receive a drop of rain from the time the crop was planted in May until it was harvested in August. It is a credit to my dad’s careful husbanding of the soil that he still received a yield of sixteen bushels to the acre from a field of sown summer fallow. (The “stubble crop” produced next to nothing.) In 1937, there was no crop at all. Dad cut some of the fields that were high enough with a grass mower for cattle feed. 10
    • P AY I N G F O R T H E F A R M The drought was signaled by other symptoms as the Depression wore on. Spring and fall winds got to work on the dried-out land. They lifted the topsoil in swirls, then sent it back down to scourge the earth nearby, scouring out holes on unpro- tected hills and leaving rippled drifts along fences. Some blow- outs were four feet deep, exposing arrowheads thousands of years old, while some of the fences were actually buried. Russian thistle (tumbleweed) rolled before the wind, lodging, too, at fence rows, helping the wind to make natural dikes along pastures. Every morning, while the wind lasted, the farmer saw the clear skies blur into gray and then toward evening turn yellow in the dying light. The sun was a red ball. To limit such sights on our farm, Dad made sure he did not cultivate the summer fallow after the end of August so that a small stand of weeds remained to hold the soil together during the strong equinoctial winds. Then there were the grasshoppers. The drifted sand was a good place for them to lay eggs. The hot, dry weather ensured that they would hatch. From the edges of fields, where the drifts tended to accumulate, the little hoppers worked into the greening center, leaving the ground bare behind them. One summer Dad spread old straw along a field with the worst outbreak and lit the straw, hoping to “smoke their hams.” The most common practice was to put out poisoned bait. This was simply sawdust mixed with some lethal solution to make a wettish mass. I can remember being with my dad in town while he loaded our double wagon box level full of this mixture to take home. We sat on the spring seat above the fuming load on the way back, and I can smell the sawdust yet. Then in the evening, or perhaps very early in the morning, we shoveled the bait broadcast over the fields. If the grasshoppers found the wet sawdust more succulent than the tender shoots of grain, they would be killed. On the whole, the poisoned bait was not too effective. It was hard to raise money on a mixed farm altogether. Cream from dairy cows sold for a dollar per five-gallon can. The cows themselves sold for as little as ten dollars. A pig, killed 11
    • A SKY FULL OF DREAMS and dressed, paid for only a load of fuel logs from a neighbor (a dollar’s value), and Dad had to chop down the trees himself. Chickens, plucked and drawn, brought in only eleven cents a hen. Meanwhile, the “loan company man” continued to come around. For hours Dad sat in the man’s car; they talked and talked. Couldn’t Dad break up some of the yard and bring a few more acres under cultivation, the man wanted to know. “I like a big yard,” Dad answered. (With fields burned brown by the sun, if not eaten bare by grasshoppers first, how could a slightly larger acre- age be a solution? And with commodity prices so low?) To us children, it was something of a novelty to see the latest model car drive onto our yard each year, but to Dad the thought of facing the loan company man again became a dread, something that preyed on his mind the whole time from one visit to the next. He wanted to pay his debt but could not. That we should live more economically was not the answer. We pinched all the pennies we could. In one thirty-week period, our family of six lived on exactly forty-two dollars. That was all the money that the cream brought, and there just was not any other income over the interval. The amount breaks down to $1.40 a week for the family, or 23⅓ cents a week for individual expenses. In 1846, Henry David Thoreau calculated his simple life at Walden Pond to amount to but 27 cents a week. So our family members, though ninety years later, outdid him by 3⅔ cents (he would have loved the precision here). And our 23⅓ cents repre- sented total expenses and not merely the amount paid for food, as it did to the Concord philosopher. In the late thirties, “relief” had to be distributed by the fed- eral government—“pennies from heaven.” It surely seemed like heaven with a small cheque ($11.40) coming every month. Mother budgeted so carefully that we always had a few pennies left when the next one came. Finally, a Debt Adjustment Board was created in 1941. Yes, the “official” Depression was already over by then, but things had not changed that much on the farm. The government realized how 12
    • P AY I N G F O R T H E F A R M impossible it was for some farmers to pay their lingering debts, how some debts had been paid many times over, simply in inter- est fees. Board members were sent to each community to hold a hearing and to fix the debts at a fair amount. These men first made inquiries about the integrity and industry of the people who owed the money. I can remember the day of the hearing very well: a momen- tous morning in our household, Mother and Dad quietly getting ready to go to town. We children wondered what would happen. I see them yet, driving away, sitting atop the spring seat atop the wagon box. Mother was wearing a taupe-colored coat that she had made herself, on her head a pink straw hat. Dad was wearing his one “Sunday” suit. He had wanted to wear his work clothes, for the hearing was held on a weekday and he thought his ev- eryday clothes would represent his situation better. But Mother would not let him; she said he should look his best. Probably his old, shiny suit told their story as well as anything. There were several cases heard that day. Dad, who had al- ways been hard of hearing, could not know what was said of his situation in the jumble of a packed room, but it began with a trib- ute to his conscientiousness, honesty, and hard work. Mother felt easier at once; something good was going to happen. My parents had already paid $7,382.22 for a $4,000 farm, with another $2,334.81 to be paid. Now the Debt Adjustment Board re- duced the amount by $700. Mother and Dad returned home happy. Here was real relief, relief for the soul. They were not out of debt, but at least it was no longer advancing ahead of them at a pace faster than they could keep up with. Times continued difficult, however. The trying period of the Depression had affected Dad’s overall health, and his eyesight was poor. When he reached for a slice of bread at the table, his fingers would miss the plate it was on. When he tried to read he needed two magnifying glasses (one borrowed from a neighbor), adjusting one at some distance beneath the other, trying to bring the print into focus. Certainly, his eyes needed testing. 13
    • A SKY FULL OF DREAMS On the optometrist’s periodic visit to town, Dad discovered that his vision was only twenty percent of normal. Mother, who was with him for the examination, was not surprised. He had to have glasses. “How will you pay for them?” the optometrist asked. He knew the situation that farmers were in. “We have one pig,” Mother said; “we’ll sell it.” (The pig was to have been our meat that winter.) And Dad received glasses; his world, already circumscribed by hard hearing, suddenly became large. “Why not raise a lot of pigs?” my older brother said some months later, for the price of hogs had started to rise. A pig could not only pay for Dad’s glasses, but pigs, many of them, could help to pay for the farm—more so than did the poor crops we raised. Dad thought the idea a good one. He and my brother built a pen from stout mesh, then placed inside a homemade self-feeder and a small shelter covered with straw. The feed we ground our- selves from oats and a bit of wheat. (The addition of skim milk made a rich mash loved by the pigs.) On grinding days the piercing high hum of the “mill” could be heard all over the farm. I sometimes helped shovel grain from the bin to the grinder or shoveled the ground chops away. Everything then was coated with a fine white dust. It even clung to the gra- nary walls, and spiders’ webs between studs became little white ropes. Our clothing and faces were covered, too. We could taste the flour in our mouths; we breathed it with every breath. All things seemed to go right for once. The pigs flourished. The couple of Yorkshire sows we had, kept in the barn during farrowing, gave birth to large litters, even into the teens. With the young pigs growing into fine marketable bacon hogs of two hun- dred pounds in the open pen, the operation made some money. By 1944, the pigs, and the good crop of ’42, had provided enough income for my parents to make the final payment on the farm. Dad said Mother should have the honor of sending off the money order. The date was June 6. 14
    • P AY I N G F O R T H E F A R M When I look at the dozen payments my parents made over the three years after the adjustment, all recorded in Mother’s neat handwriting in an old scribbler, I pause over some of the figures. Yes, one payment was as high as $325, but most were consider- ably less; in fact, as little as $15.33 and $14.67. These would be the specific amounts received for some farm produce sold and which my parents had beforehand ticketed as money to be sent in to pay down the debt. I wonder if the people at the head office of the mortgage holder, the life insurance company, gave any thought to these sin- gular amounts, that there was a story behind each one. Or were they simply tabulated and filed away—just part of another day’s activity at the office? Be that as it may, after twenty-nine years they totaled more than double the original cost of the farm. The quarter section on which all of us children had been born was now ours, not just in spirit, as David Grayson had said, but by official document. Later that summer the “loan company man” made another call. His company had not informed him that it no longer had any business with us. He arrived after supper, after Dad and I had walked across the pasture to the west side of our farm to water the cattle at the only well on our land with enough water for them. The man drove around by a connecting road and came up to us. Once again Dad sat in his car to talk, really to exchange pleasantries this time, recalling the past events and enjoying the conversation. As it grew dark, he told me I might as well go home—he would come later. Walking through the dusky bushes in previ- ous times, I had often imagined the possibility of some predatory animal lurking there. But there were no threatening sounds now, only the occasional breath of wind fluttering the poplar leaves and carrying with it the moist presence of the good earth of our farm. 15
    • Home, Sweet Home After the farm debt was paid off, my parents felt that a holiday was long overdue. Mother kept a diary of their trip, and while I have added to it and recast it somewhat for necessary details and context, I have left it as a first-person account to best de- scribe what was a hard-times narrative—two innocents abroad in Saskatchewan, 1944. My husband Abe and I finally got the old farm paid for, and we were ready to kick up our heels—so we thought. But we weren’t as young as we used to be—twenty-nine years of hail, drought, and grasshoppers had seen to that. The trip, of a week’s duration, was to proceed something like this: first to Fish Creek, nine miles distant, then on to Watrous, Lumsden, Regina, and Moose Jaw. On our way home we would stop at Buffalo Pound Lake, Dundurn, and Saskatoon. I was ex- cited but sad, too: I had never been away from the farm for a whole week. “Take a lot of food along, Ansh,” Abe said. “That way we won’t need to spend much money.” (We didn’t have much left after settling the debt.) I baked a large ham and three rhubarb pies. Then with bread 16
    • HOME, SWEET HOME and butter and four quarts of black coffee, our food was ready. (Cream in the coffee would sour on the trip.) Next I filled a club bag with other essentials, including a camera, and shoved it in the back of the car beside the food box. Our car was a Model A Ford, which looked just like new even though we had bought it in 1928. Like us, it had come through drought and Depression—but the easy way, resting in our car shed for eleven years. We couldn’t afford to drive then, but Abe didn’t want to sell it—a reminder that times had once been better and might be so again. Every summer we took it out of the shed for washing, then put it under roof again for another year. Now it was to take us on a trip. The weather was hot in July—a good time for a holiday. We planned to camp out and had packed a tent. The four children were all on the porch step happily waving us good-by. I waved, too, but looked the other way. The car gave a lurch, we waved again, and circling the yard with one last flourish, we drove off. In a short while we had covered the nine miles to the Fish Creek ferry. So far so good! I was now studying our road map very carefully. The ferryman noticed this and said, “Going far?” I immediately began to tell him our whole life history. Once across the river, we were on a straight road going south, traveling at about fifteen miles per hour, then clipping along at twenty. “Don’t drive too fast,” I told Abe; “let’s make this a real long trip.” While I watched the speedometer, I also kept an eye on the road map in my hand, advising Abe alternately where to turn (something he wanted me to tell him) and how fast to drive (something I told him anyway). Finally at supper time we rolled into the town of Watrous. It was Saturday night, and the place was filled with happy holi- dayers come to enjoy the resort facilities. We parked our Model A at a quiet place, ate and drank heartily of ham and rhubarb pie and black coffee, and then watched the goings-on at the swim- ming pool. 17
    • A SKY FULL OF DREAMS Abe was tired from the long drive, so we went to bed early. Bedding down was an easy matter, for we did not bother with our tent. The weather being warm, we spread out our blankets on the grass and crawled into them. I looked up at the blue sky and the stars above and thought, “This is the real McCoy!” Well, not for long! Soon the mosquitoes came swarming above us, keeping up their inane humming while we flailed our arms about. After mid- night they retreated, and we fell asleep exhausted. We woke up early on Sunday morning, our bones aching from our down-to-earth accommodations. Our breakfast was identical to the supper we had eaten the night before: ham and rhubarb pie and black coffee. Then we decided to look around. We climbed a steep hill, at the top of which I was seized with fright and quickly sat down to hold on to the grass. “I’ll never get down from here,” I said to Abe. Smiling, he helped me up and got me back to the car. Sunday passed quickly—we were enjoying ourselves simply by watching everything—and again we retired early. The mosqui- toes were back in full force. All we could do was to hit at them as they settled down. We woke up late Monday morning, all played out. It was already a sweltering day. I nearly burned my hand when I caught hold of our car’s door handle to get our food box with its everlast- ing ham, rhubarb pie, and black coffee. The coffee was warm. It had heated up by itself in the hot car. After brunch we took a few pictures, then sat in the shade for a while. And in midafternoon we left. Toward evening we drove down into a valley, and there, in the midst of an old riverbed and half encircled by a small stream with large trees all around, was the town of Lumsden. We found a tourist camp, where tables and chairs were set out at convenient places. There was also a stove with a roof over it, with wood nearby—almost as comfortable as home would be. We heated our coffee and sliced some more ham. By this time we were getting a little tired of our food. 18
    • HOME, SWEET HOME As it grew dark, lights flashed on in the trees about us, and it seemed as if we were in fairyland. A train whistled and the sound echoed and re-echoed through the valley. “Qu’Appelle” (“Who calls?”)—the valley is well named. Once more we bedded down on the grass, and this time no mosquitoes came to bother us so that we awoke refreshed the next day. We were now on our way to Regina. I still had the road map in my hand and occasionally reminded Abe not to drive too fast nor to fall asleep. He smiled and said nothing: we were enjoying ourselves. At noon we sailed into our capital city. We registered at the tourist camp, had a quick bite to eat, then went sightseeing. We saw boats on Wascana Lake and some swans at a distance. We walked to the Legislative Buildings, and I took a few pictures of Abe standing on the steps. Finally we shopped a little, then walked back to the car, tired and hungry. I had bought for our lunch a jar of what I thought was peanut butter. On opening it, we found that the contents had a peculiar taste, and we looked at the label again. “Soya Spread,” it said. (Some foods were scarce during the War, and substitutes like this were on the market.) We closed the jar, having only tasted the spread, and put it into the food box to bring home to the children. They were fond of surprises. Meanwhile, we had our usual fare. After our next night in the open on our blankets, the host- ess of the tourist camp walked up and inquired sympathetically, “How come you’re sleeping on the ground here?” Quickly I explained: “We’re on holidays for the first time in twenty-nine years. We finally paid for our farm.” She looked at me queerly and said, “Do you call this a holi- day?” “Oh yes,” I replied unabashed, “the best one we ever had.” She said nothing in reply, walked off, and soon returned with a pot of steaming hot coffee, much to our pleasure. Abe and I took out our breakfast from the food box: baked ham, bread and butter, and rhubarb pie. The hot coffee made everything taste better. 19
    • A SKY FULL OF DREAMS We packed up and again took to the highway, now going west. While I held the road map, I kept giving Abe advice about driving. I had to. Abe was seeing ripening fields of wheat on either side of the road, and forgetting that he was behind the steering wheel. This wheat looked much better than ours at home, and he could not get his eyes off it. Once we nearly landed in the ditch. Our next stop was Moose Jaw. Again it was mealtime. We found a suitable camping spot, took out our lunch box, and spread out the food. We were nearing the end of our “Dogpatch” ham. It had served us well, but we were more than tired of eating it. After dinner Abe said, “The birds have to eat, too.” He picked up what was left of the ham and placed it under a tree for them to peck at. After another night of sleeping under the stars, we headed for home. We were traveling a different road now on our return, and the country about us looked dried-out and poor. It was pret- ty, however, at the north end of Buffalo Pound Lake, where we stopped for a few minutes and filled up the gas tank. Continuing on, we passed through Davidson, Kenaston, Hanley. I was getting drowsy. Suddenly Abe nudged me with his elbow. “Ansh, wake up! We’re close to the river at Saskatoon.” I sat up with a start. I knew what was on Abe’s mind. He wanted to push on, cover the remaining sixty miles or so, and be home before dark. He was like a thirsty horse that had scented the water of an unseen slough. “We don’t want to go home yet,” I said. “This is only Thurs- day, and we were going to be away a whole week. Even tomorrow it’s only six days.” I smiled my sweetest; Abe looked at me and smiled back. We made camp that night on the east bank of the South Saskatchewan River. Abe for the first time took out the tent. This being our last night out, he remarked, “We will have a roof over our heads tonight.” It happened to be Exhibition Week in Saskatoon at the time, and next morning, Friday, we watched the Travelers’ Day Parade. 20
    • HOME, SWEET HOME We were seasoned travelers ourselves by now. Then we window- shopped for a while and bought some souvenirs for the children. We were now ready for home. At about four o’clock in the afternoon, we rolled into our yard, blowing the horn loudly: “Ah- oo-ah!” (The Model A horn has a unique sound.) The children came running to the door. They were surprised to see us, not expecting us till the next day. Abe stopped the car, looked at me happily, and said, “Home, sweet home.” I nodded in agreement, happy, too, happy to be back home, safe and sound. 21