In this blog I reflect upon persons who have impacted upon my life journey. I call them pilgrims as I also designate myself – on a journey that is so very brief but in our consciousness is a lifetime. Perhaps this journey leads to another dimension that some would call the afterlife. Perhaps it is just a limited time in a cosmic process of evolution of the universe of which we are such an infinitesimally insignificant contribution.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han wrote: “If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.”
Ernest Francis Little has known me all my life. He is my father. Half of my DNA code comes from him and his side of my ancestral tree. I am so much that I am because of the nature and nurture received in my first two decades of life, which I realize now continues to influence and at times direct my journey in an unconscious way – for better and for worse.
My father now is near the end of his journey. He is almost 89 years old and his body after so many years of hard work is just too tired to go on. Hard work is one of the defining marks of his life. Only in the last few years was he unable to work. He retired in 1977 at the age of 56 and bought a farm on Vancouver Island so that he could work from dawn to dusk doing everyday what he enjoyed. Almost 30 years of a very active and productive retirement makes him a poster boy for what the “golden years” could be. But that is jumping ahead in the story.
The Great Depression and the War
My father was born on August 15, 1921 in a rustic farmhouse a few km. west
of the tiny village of Carbon, Alberta. This was classic prairie land – flat with a coulee that ran north of the farmhouse near the west property line. Dad was the fifth of seven children born to Robert Wilfred Little and Charlotte Edith (“Ada”) Heffernan. Robert Wilfred (“Bob”) had emigrated from Ontario around 1904, along with his father whose name was
David Robert Little. The Little’s were strong Protestant families of Scottish descent and David Robert and his father David were members of the Masonic Lodge. Charlotte, known as “Ada”, came from a strong Catholic Irish family (Heffernan) and was brought to Alberta by her father to find her a husband. Bob had to become Catholic to marry Ada which alienated his family, but his conversion was nominal and he was certainly not a devout Catholic. My grandmother Ada was more than devout; she was a strict and pious Catholic woman upon whom the Catholicity of the family depended. After supper, before evening chores, the family would have to kneel on the hard wooden floor of the kitchen and pray all 15 decades of the rosary, and then still recite some litanies. Relations with the Little cousins who lived on nearby homesteads were minimal because they were Protestant.
Of the seven children born to Bob and Ada, two of the children died shortly after childbirth, and an older son Clifford suffered from epilepsy. The farm was definitely not prosperous, but a livelihood for the family all of whom shared in the chores. My Grandfather Bob was not a dedicated farmer, and he ventured into selling tractors and made a bit of money from that. For the
most part however, the family was poor and struggled to survive. Growing up during the “dirty thirties” marked my father. They knew real poverty and did not take advantage of government loans because of a mistrust of government and banks. The depression was made more painful by the great drought that turned the prairies into a dust bowl. As we all have some quirks, water was one of those for my dad.
My dad’s older brother Wilfred had left the farm and sought his future in the oil patch in the north of the province. His other brother, Clifford, by then was more debilitated with epilepsy. My father was able to finish Grade 11, which was as far as you could go at the time, in the high school at Grainger. During the week he boarded above a hardware store in Grainger, doing some work at the store to help pay his room and board.
When Canada went to war my dad was still on the farm and considered to be essential labor. He was young and wanted to see some of the outside world. One day dad and his cousin Jack Little went to Calgary and enlisted in the Air Force, even though they did not have the proper documentation. Dad admits that he knew that if he left the farm the R.C.M.P. could apprehend him at his father’s request and return him to the farm. However the Air Force could trump the R.C.M.P., so that was his ticket off the farm. After enrolling in the RCAF, he was given leave to visit his parents. The day he had to leave the farm his father did not get up to say goodbye to him. Ada walked with him through some of the fields, but dad urged her to turn around and go home because she suffered from terrible ulcers on her leg. Many years later my cousin Grant Schwartzenberger asked dad if he enlisted because of a sense of duty or perhaps because of patriotism. Dad was quite forthright – he said that if he had known what the war was all about he might not have enlisted but at the time it was his ticket off the farm.
Dad was later given another leave by the Air Force to go home for a weekend
to get his documentation. It turned out that his birth had not been registered by his parents, so he found a justice of the peace in Grainger who wrote him a hand-written document attesting to his birth date and his parents. That was good enough for the Air Force.
My father spent part of the war at different bases in Canada, in Vancouver BC, St. Catherine’s Ontario, and somewhere near Dartmouth NS. He was trained as a mechanic to service airplanes. Eventually he was shipped over to England and did his job as he was trained. At a base known as Innsworth he went to an evening social, attended by many British WA.A.F.’s. That evening he met Margaret Eileen Clarke, a young 17 year old from Yorkshire who came from a merchant class family. My dad was convinced that he had met the woman
who would become his wife. He proposed on Valentine’s Day 1945 and was married that year on June 27 in Wakefield. Eileen came from an Irish Catholic family, which is probably the only reason that my dad remained a Catholic and made the church a pivotal influence in the growing up years of the family. On June 27, 2010 my folks mark their 65th anniversary, a milestone even if dad, due to dementia and medication, cannot remember the significance of the event .
Around that time he experienced a significant change in his military life. How it happened we are not entirely sure, as my father’s stories became more elaborate with time. What is definite is that at some point, a number of the air force men who were not pilots but ground personnel, were selected and transferred to a new flying
unit of the army. From that time until the end of the war my father was a member of the 604 wing of the Air Observation Patrol (AOP). He was a flyer but has never been recognized as a flyer (i.e. with “wings”) because he wasn’t technically in the Air Force when he was a flying member of a squadron. As a member of the AOP, dad flew in a small 2 passenger plane with a pilot who was army and trained as a pilot. The captain he most remembers was Capt.
Harvey Wickett, the man who helped him obtain leave to go to Wakefield to get married. The two man crew flew in a small plane called the Auster, with the observer sitting at an angle behind the pilot and it was his responsibility to look for enemy positions and to report on enemy fire. These planes were sometimes referred to as “hedgehoppers” for they would fly low to the ground at times, and then rise above the enemy line, radio in their information and then drop low while their own troops would fire shells above them towards the German lines. Darrell Knight who wrote a book on the A.O.P. said in an email “your Dad’s squadron was involved with the MI-9 and IS-9 intelligence flights”. Darrell
also said that “your Dad (and his documents) are mentioned many times throughout the book” titled “Artillery Flyers at War”. This book mentions dad flying with two Captains – Ambrose and Wickett – flying over Holland and Germany. The planes were designed to fly low and fast at a low altitude to survey enemy positions to report to the Canadian artillery. Dad and his captain decided not to carry their side arms figuring that if they did crash land behind enemy lines their chances of survival would be reduced if they carried their revolvers. One day his captain told him to jump in the plane, although they did not have a scheduled flight. They flew over a large camp that had been liberated that day, called Bergen-Belsen, but neither of them at the time understood the significance of that camp.
When back on the ground the observer also had the responsibility to service the plane and make sure it was ready for flight. Dad tells the story of one time when in bad weather they were forced to make a crash landing in a field near the enemy line. He had barely finished pulling the plane into some bushes
when they were surrounded by men with bayonets at ready. They were marched to a commanding officer and held until he was given security clearance. As AOP they wore a mix-match of uniform parts so they did not look like either army or air force. It turned out that only a hundred meters away they would have landed behind the German line, and my narrative could have been quite different or not at all.
Towards the end of the war dad was occasionally sent with a multi-national team in a jeep to check out territory that had supposedly been cleared. Somewhere in Northern Germany he entered a village to find the people very upset about something that had happened. It turned out that a German military officer decided that he would not let his troops surrender, so he had they put on full battle dress and then marched them into a barn or warehouse and had them gassed. The villagers were trying to bury all these young men killed by their own officers to prevent them from surrendering. Dad did not like to talk about the war and only in his later years did some of these stories slip out.
With the war over Dad was shipped back to Canada and officially returned to the Air Force and then released. He was never officially (to his recollection) dismissed from the Air Force. While still in England, my father was offered a partnership in the Ironmonger business of his new father-in-law, Harry Clarke. It is something my father could have done well, for he was not only a hard worker but very innovative and inventive. He wrote home to his parents telling them that he might stay in England. Shortly thereafter he received a letter from his mother telling him that if he returned to Canada the farm would be his. That was all the incentive he needed, so he returned to Canada and my mother followed in May of 1946. They lived on the farm for a short time when dad asked his mother about the transfer of the farm. Bob and Ada
were already in their mid 60’s and unable to continue working the farm. His mother replied that she had no intention to sell him the farm or give it to him, but she felt that she had to say something to get him back to Canada. My father’s dream had been to be a farmer and to have his own land.
That dream now seemed very unlikely, and he was approved to begin his training as an auto mechanic. He was sent to study in Medicine Hat, Alberta while my mother remained in Beiseker, a small village half way between Carbon and Calgary. Dad was accepted as an apprentice mechanic at Beiseker Motors run by one of the Schmaltz brothers. My mother became pregnant soon after her arrival in Alberta and
she remained alone in a small house they rented that was quite spartan and rustic, definitely a few notches down from what she was accustomed to growing up in England in the home of a successful merchant.
While dad was doing his course work in Medicine Hat, he was boarding with a woman who did a lot of knitting. My father had her show him how to knit and he proceeded to knit a full “layette’ for his first born that was me. Dad was not one who could deal well with leisure time. He had built into him a need to be practical and productive. Free time was time to get some extra work done, not to relax. At the same time, as so many other examples would illustrate, my father was not shy to try to do something he had not done before. He could learn easily almost any skill and he became proficient in multiple skills, making him an all-rounded handyman that later proved to be so helpful in his retirement.
Having finished his program, dad discovered that the owner of the garage in Beiseker was cheating him on his holiday pay, so he went to Calgary and found a job at Universal Sales and Service – a Ford dealership in downtown Calgary. He bought a lot in N.W. Calgary where the streets ended and the prairie began. Through his brother Wilfred, who worked for Shell oil, dad bought a small tar shack which he put on the empty lot. Then he proceeded to build a new home around the oil shack, buying wood and construction materials as his pay check would allow. Dad would not go to the bank for a mortgage, or a loan, demonstrating the values of his mother with a mistrust of banks. Dad had a good relationship with his boss who provided him with a loan to help with the lot and construction. Apparently dad was considered to be a valuable worker as he finished jobs in less that the normal time and his work was considered
to be reliable. He built a lovely little house, but as three more children came along the house was getting smaller. At the same time in 1956 my folks also housed a family from Hungary who were refugees.
Dad then bought the empty lot behind this first house and began construction on a second house that was to be much larger. It was built as an up-and-down
duplex. Some of the work was done by specialists such as my uncle Tony Schwartzenberger who was a plumber, or Walter Reib who was a roofer. I think my father repaid them by working on their cars, for reciprocity was the rule by which he did things. We moved into the basement area while dad continued to work on the upstairs section pay check by pay check. In 1958 when the house was still just frames and walls, another family came to live with us for a while. My mother’s cousin Carl Wiseman and his wife Maureen and two young daughters lived with us in the first months after their arrival in Canada from England.
My dad did a lot of things on the basis of reciprocity. In the days before medicare and with a house full of children who tended to pick up all the childhood diseases floating about, it was common to call the Dr. to the house. Our family M.D. was a Dr. Foster who drove one of those big black cars. Dad impressed the Dr. one day by using the Dr.’s stethoscope to listen to the car motor to determine where there was a problem. From then on there was an arrangement – the Dr. would take care of the kids and dad would take care of his car. My father was a very uncomplicated man – he was what you saw. He would say “a deal is a deal” and there was no fear that he would ever backtrack on his word and that is what he expected from others.
In the late 1950’s dad left Universal Sales and formed a partnership with John Sutherland, a friend who lived in Bowness. They secured the lease of a Texaco service station at the bottom of the 10th Street hill in NW Calgary. Dad was the mechanic and John would manage the pumps and the business side. His wife Mary became the accountant for the business. This partnership did not work well, so dad began working for Alberta Government Telephones (AGT) as a mechanic on their fleet of vehicles. One year (c. 1959) he was seriously injured in an explosion which shattered his knee cap and left him with a permanent disability in his left leg.
In 1962 dad accepted a promotion to be Foreman in the service center of AGT in Edmonton. The second house was by this time finished and just as my mother wanted it after living inside a construction zone for almost 15 years. From the kitchen nook we had a lovely view of the Rocky Mountains in the direction of Banff and at that time it was the largest house on the block. My folks traveled to Edmonton and stayed with friends from the Beiseker years, Peter and Edna Turnes. They told them about a house only a short distance away in the Lynnwood area that was custom built by a neighbour. They went over to look at it and bought it. It was a 4 bedroom bungalow – and my dad quickly added two more bedrooms in the basement. By this time the family had reached its limit of 9 children – four boys and five girls. I was just beginning high school that year and the youngest was born in Edmonton in 1963.
My dad was the foreman in the vehicle service department for AGT Edmonton. In the summer of 1964 through his influence in the plant, which included a number of departments, I obtained a summer position in the warehouse yard. My role was to do inventory of the yard and to help the trucks load up supplies they needed for their daily assignments – things like telephone poles down to copper wire. That summer I got to know my dad better as I would often go and have my lunch in his office, where a
number of the co-workers would gather. That summer I earned almost enough to pay for a year at St. Anthony’s College for my grade 12 year. Dad said that if I was willing to contribute what I had he would make up the difference. Going to SAC provided me with the structure needed to complete and do well in my grade 12 matric exams.
Often dad would use his lunch hour to cut hair. He had been trained by my Uncle Harry Simmonds who was a professional barber, and as usual dad learned to master the clippers. This was the 6o’s and long hair was not the fashion, so hair cuts were pretty standard and short. All my life at home dad would cut my hair and in the years I lived on the farm I relished the opportunity to again get my hair cut by my dad. As a child I remember that dad would use the clippers to bonk one on the head if we squirmed or failed to keep our head still. Fortunately dad learned to temper his impatience while cutting hair with his grandchildren.
So I left home in 1964 to attend SAC, a boarding school run by the Franciscan friars in north eastern Edmonton, and the following year I went to Ontario. My space was quickly filled with foster children, including an autistic Inuit girl, Verna, and finally a new born infant girl, Rosa Gon, who was Dogrib from northern Alberta. Both of these children were as dear to my parents as their own children. When little Rosa was taken back by social services to be sent to live in the far north of Alberta, my father was heartbroken.
My father seemed to have two full time jobs – he would work all day, come home for supper and then go out to the garage and work on other person’s cars. Even in the cold winters he would be in the garage, warmed by a small heater, until 11 p.m. He would work on weekends in the garage. I don’t think as kids we understood that dad had to work so hard to provide for his family. He was determined that his family would not experience the poverty that he remembered from his childhood. We were not well off and extra unexpected expenses created a crisis. I remember my father getting quite upset when I announced that my elementary school class at St. Pius X in Calgary was joining the “Holy Childhood” society and we needed to contribute 10 cents each per week. Whatever else was happening at that time, that 10 cents pushed him over the top and he got quite angry and refused to give me the money. My father was the “provider” and he made sure that we were well dressed and well fed. On birthdays or Christmas we received generous gifts, not realizing how difficult it was to provide for a growing family on a working wage. Dad did not want mom to work outside the home, and certainly there was plenty of work to do in the home. For my father it was his role and pride to provide for the family, even if it meant he had to work day and night. He made sure that there was enough cash in his bedroom drawer to guarantee that mom had enough when she did the shopping.
Dad also provided us with summer trips in the years before the cottage was built. Inevitably these would be trips to B.C., through the mountains with everyone and camping gear cramped into the station wagon. Dad eventually built his own tent trailer, with a roof that would rise with cables and it was furnished with the necessary appliances. This huge tent trailer was pulled across Canada for Expo 67 in Montreal. Living in Calgary we would often do day trips to Banff, leaving early in the morning without breakfast so that we could get into Banff in time for Sunday morning mass to be followed by a country style breakfast at a park in downtown Banff in the cook houses provided. In the afternoon we would have a swim in the sulphur hot springs and then we would drive home in the dark, with the kids asleep. This would be Dad’s day of rest. He didn’t recreate himself very much but he made sure that as kids we had many opportunities for these experiences.
Dad did not get involved in too many things outside of work and home. In the early years with Universal Sales and Service, Dad was the pitcher for the company soft ball team. During the Calgary years I remember dad coming to our “wolf cubs” meeting to teach us how to tie knots. In Edmonton years later, he did get involved with the “Christopher movement”; a leadership program that trained people in public speaking. He became an instructor of the movement and was well liked by all the people
who took the course from him. He also became involved as a speaker with Catholic family services working with engaged and married couples.
Back around 1957, Dad bought a property near Gull Lake, west of Lacombe, Alberta. Gull Lake was a perfect summer place for kids, the water was warm and the soft sandy beaches extended far into the lake providing wide shallow areas for the kids. I went with dad one weekend to build the cottage – which he named the “Lil-Do-Inn”. We went up on a Friday evening after work, with Bud and Bill Gale, Carl Wiseman and a couple other friends of dad’s. We spent two nights at the Bentley Hotel, which I thought was a treat, but I had to stay in our room while dad and the men went down to the tavern to wash down the day’s dust. But Sunday afternoon the cottage had been built – 20 ft. square with walls and roof. On subsequent weekend trips dad would add other details – such as windows, built in bunk beds, and of course the customary “out house” at the back of the property. The trips to the cottage seemed at the time to be long – but that is from the perspective of the one who traveled in the back of the station wagon along with the luggage. It is now only about 2 hours from Calgary, but at that time it probably took longer and we would often stop somewhere along the old Hwy. #2 to go to the bathroom and have a picnic. The cottage is full of good memories and it still stands although it has been enhanced and looks nothing like its original design. The simplicity and utilitarian nature of the cabin reflected dad’s values – and we would spend most of the summer at the cottage even while dad had to remain in Calgary to work.
In the early 1970’s dad experienced some difficulties in Edmonton while working with AGT. As foreman of his branch of a large AGT complex, he found himself at odds with an intermediate supervisor who tried to tell my father how to do his work. This supervisor was placed in a management position without any qualifications other than contacts in upper management, but while he didn’t know what he was doing, he had the authority to do it. My dad went through a few very difficult and stressful years but in a decision of the provincial ombudsman his position was upheld and the company was severely reprimanded. Because of his interest as an amateur ham radio operator, dad transferred to a different department dealing with the installation of radio mobile equipment. However, the workplace was sufficiently poisoned for him and other workers. He won his case but the people involved would not make it any easier for him. This was a bitter experience, and my father yearned for an opening to a new life.
In 1977 he saw a very small advertisement in the classified ads of the Edmonton Journal. A small 20 acre farm was for sale on Vancouver Island. It was traditional that in the spring my father would drive in the countryside looking at acreages, but in Alberta you needed money to get into farming. Dad figured that he could sell what he had in Alberta and buy the farm. He and my mother traveled to Vancouver Island and got a look at the farm, which at the time was being used by a hippie colony including the owner Greg Wallace. My mother wept as she already had the home she wanted, but my father saw promise and years of projects that could keep him busy and happy.
So at the age of 56 he finally had his own farm. He negotiated a very small
pension from AGT and officially my folks lived far below the poverty line. They had six large freezers on the farm to hold their own produce of meat, vegetables, fruit and apple cider. My father designed his own apple press – converting an apartment sized washing machine and spinner into a super efficient apple cider producer. He was able to get more juice from the apples than from traditional apple press methods.
At this time my dad became more involved in the church. Up to this time he was an average church goer, but he met a very progressive priest in Nanaimo, Fr. Jack Sproule, who had an understanding of Vatican II far beyond what most bishops even dreamed. He got the people involved and convinced them that they were the church. My father became a leader in the church community and at the same time took on the responsibility of property manager. He ended up spending many hours a week dealing with contractors and workers dealing with the physical upkeep of the church property. However, Fr. Jack was transferred to a different parish and a succession of regressive old-minded clergy were sent in who promptly restored the parish to its former style of management where the priest does everything and the people are kept in the dark. To the large group of people, most in their 50’s and 60’s, who had become involved, a priest told them that they were no longer needed and their response was that they did not need the church. Most at that time simply left the church and moved on.
For my father this was another very bitter experience. He confided in me that he always had serious doubts about the church and its doctrines, and had he not met and married a catholic woman he would have easily left the church as a young man. While the children were growing up he remained a catholic out of a sense of duty. This latest experience confirmed for him that the church was not a healthy institution and that he was better of without it. He once told me that when he died he didn’t care where the service was held so long as it was not in a Catholic church. This was an expression of the sense of betrayal and great disillusionment that my dad felt towards the Catholic church. There was also an anger, but it was an anger towards his own immaturity which allowed him to give the church and its representatives power over his personal and married life.
My dad was known as the chain-saw renovator. My mother claims that with the farm house she inherited a sow’s ear and changed it into a silk purse. She married the man who could do it all himself. At one time they even had a large bay window installed in the bathroom, something that visitors found disconcerting. It faced the garden overlooking the orchard. Privacy was not a great concern and the view was marvelous. My mother has an artistic side and she would imagine what could be done. Dad would do it. The farm house was transformed from a dilapidated run-down and dreary house into a story book type home. My folks also purchased a used mobile home which was set up beyond the barns and this was the guest cottage when it wasn’t being used by tenants or children who moved home for extended periods of time.
My father was the “provider” – a role which he continued to fulfill until he began to experience dementia and stopped working on the farm. He was proud to be a provider and he enjoyed being able to provide for the family, even when we had our own families. Those who lived near the farm enjoyed the produce of the farm – meat, eggs, vegetables, fruit and even fire wood. When strangers would drive into the farm to buy eggs they would often leave with some fresh vegetables, like zucchini or fruit that was added as a bonus. He loved to share the bountiful harvest of the land and his labour.
He began to allow himself some recreation in the form of garage sales. He
loved a bargain, so Friday evening’s he and my mother would map out the following morning’s tour based on garage sales advertisements in the different papers. My mother had a good eye for special deals, but my dad was more interested in tools or better yet, small motors or appliances that were not working. His recreation was an excuse to find something else that he could “work” on. He would get home and immediately take his finds to his workshop and immediately begin working on them to get them back into working order. Friends and family knew that if they needed a vacuum cleaner, dad would have an assortment in his shed just ready to go and he would not even accept payment for what he had paid. He loved to fix things and then give them away. Always the provider.
When dad was still in Edmonton he bought a car that needed a lot of work. He spent a lot of time on it and sold it for a profit of $3000. At that time I was working in Peru and one of my classmates, Allan McDonell was the parish priest in a town called Chincha Alta. It was the area of a major 8.1 earthquake in 1974 which left many families homeless. Allan used a parcel of land that belonged to the parish to develop a housing co-op for families, and the cost of each unit was $3000. The members of the co-op contributed in labour and some financial input, but solidarity from Canada was essential to making this project work. When dad read about this he sent all the profits from his car sale to Allan, essentially paying for one of the houses. The project took almost 4 years to complete, but these homes built with good materials including iron reinforcements still stand strong even after another major earthquake in 2008.
My dad had a thing about “water”. He told stories of the “dirty thirties” and the dust storms on the prairies. As a boy one of his jobs in the evening when it was getting dark was to take the “gray water” from the house and to go to the garden and to give each plant a ladle of water. He learned to conserve water and this stayed with him all his life. Even when living in the city, he would urge people to save the bath water which he could transfer to the garden. This was just one of dad’s quirks – which put him way ahead of the conservation movement. He also began to develop an aversion to water – for drinking or even bathing. His showers could be counted in seconds, not minutes.
At the same time, water was part of his dream. After he moved to Vancouver Island to his own little 20 acre farm, he revealed that he dreamed of having a farm with a waterfall. The farm had a small creek that would run through the east field in the spring time, and on one end would leave a small pond where ducks and herons would often land. Dad built a small dam on the north end of this field, creating a much larger duck pond which would hold water for a longer period each year. In the spring dad would go down and sit by his waterfall and listen to the water as it babbled over the small dam. It was an unusual dream for a prairie lad but fulfilled as so much more came to happen on “The Little Farm”.
My father was not a St. Francis with the animals. He had a mixture of animals over the years, including a lame horse, cows, sheep, goats, geese, ducks, pigs, chickens, dogs and cats. From his early years on his parent’s farm he inherited a very unemotional relationship to the animals on the farm. He did not enjoy harvesting his animals but when it was practical he would do so. I remember as a kid that often we would drive out to Rosebud (east of Calgary) to visit dad’s school year friends, Matt and Eleanor Brownscombe, who had a farm. We called them aunt and uncle. Dad would help Matt
slaughter animals from chickens to cows to bring the meat back to Calgary, where in the days before home freezers the meat would be stored in community lockers that were rented. For some strange reason the chickens on the Cedar farm tended to live out their years well after production had slipped well below acceptable levels. Dad was content to get the eggs he needed and more, so when chicken did appear on the menu one had to wonder how it merited a premature end on the farm.
Those who knew my dad remember his sense of humor – which was different but memorable. His prospective mother-in-law got a taste of this humor, but perhaps never came to understand that it was humor, on a weekend when the Clarke’s hosted an afternoon tea for their friends at “Waite House” to come and meet their soon-to-be son-in-law. My Grandma Clarke came from a very poor Irish family (Larkins) and she herself worked as a child in the woolen mills near Dewsbury. But she married “up” and her status improved as the wife of a successful merchant – an ironmonger who had a partnership in a company. Grandma was not content that my father was a “farmer” from the prairies, so she upgraded him to veterinarian but didn’t let him know about this promotion in his status. During the tea, my Grandmother’s friends continued to bring their sorrowful pet stories to my dad looking for some free advice on how to cure the animals from their different ailments. To each story my father suggested that the animal be administered a 22 bullet between the eyes, and thus died very quickly the myth of the veterinarian. When dad was queried by Grandma Clarke about his family pedigree, as if she had any illustrious pedigree herself, my father was quick to respond that his grandmother was an “Indian squaw” and that his great-grandfather had been
hung for horse thieving. Grandma did not want to press the topic any further for fear of discovering more unsavory information about the family that her only daughter was joining. It is doubtful that Grandma ever came to understand that this was my father’s sense of humor.
At one time a young woman, Georgia, came to live in the mobile home with her three small children. Georgia had a very tragic story and was in need of support which she received from my parents. Eventually things started to go well for her and she met a
kind and loving partner Henry Bob. They are dear friends of my folks and all the family. Their daughter Jenny gave birth to her second child in July 2010, a boy whom they have named Ernest (but to be called Ernie). This is a gesture of the warm affection that so many have for my dad – an affection earned by his care and protection of others.
Dad came to be known as the man who fed the eagles. He would accept dead animals, such as deer killed on the highway, and take them to the crest of the hill on the far pasture and open them up. Within hours he would have bald eagles, turkey vultures and other smaller birds of prey lining up for their turn at this unexpected feast on the farm. Within few days, only the heavier bones would remain on the hill.
Having left home at the age of 17, I returned at the age of 57 having followed the lead of my father by taking early retirement. The original idea for us was to settle on the farm and buy it, while we lived in the mobile home and my folks would continue to live in their home. We lived on the farm for almost 5 years but the idea of buying the farm did
not work out. For the most part of those 5 years I was my father’s shadow – following him about the farm and doing things his way. The farm was never really productive in terms of being financially successful, but it provided a life style that was complete and healthy.
My father invented his own apple cider press using an apartment size washing machine spinner combination. He removed the washing component and used the motor to drive a series of saw blades that were at the bottom of a funnel through which apples would pass. This produced mulch that was then fed into a fine mesh bag that went into the spinner. The machine would then pour out a cider, far more than with traditional presses. The juice would be gathered into plastic jugs (usually washed 4 litre milk jugs) and the juice would be frozen for use during the whole year. One of the freezers would be totally dedicated to juice. It was pure, probably with the occasional bug or two that would have been inside an apple but they too would have gone through the grinding and filter process. We would pasteurize the apple cider but only to satisfy our city nerves.
The day before his 80th birthday marks the beginning of his decline. Dad had bought a small unicycle at a garage sale that needed some repair work. He thought that it would make a fun addition to the many things that he had around the farm for when the grandchildren came to visit. He was fixing the tire and then began to wonder how the unicycle worked. He sat on it and doesn’t remember much more after that. He was found crawling down the driveway and ended up with a total hip replacement. He was not a good patient and did not get the required physiotherapy, so his new hip did not heal properly and left him with discomfort and a disability.
For me being able to spend these years with him was a great joy – to take him to his appointments, to accompany him on the farm or off the farm, and on Tuesday mornings to take him to his morning coffee club with a group of Air Force vets who like to talk about their war experiences and everyday adventures. All of those lads are now gone, even though some of them seemed at the time to be in better shape than dad.
My dad was not a complicated man – he was more two dimensional in most things. He did not understand nuances, but took things straight forward as good or bad, white or black, useful or useless. He was practical and utilitarian – he was a gifted master of all things for anything he wanted to do he would teach himself quickly. But things needed to have a purpose – or be useful.
These final years have not been kind to my father as he progressed into a dementia and an inability to work as he loved to work. The year 2010 has been most difficult and filled with medical crisis moments. He survived more than 100 days in the Nanaimo Regional hospital, somehow overcoming a severe blood flow problem, two amputations, pneumonia, a heart attack and having patients in his room with two major infections. Old age is not for sissies!
(edit – update) June 27, 2010 was the 65th Anniversary of my parents wedding. Dad was still in the hospital at that time, but he was well enough to receive visitors all day long. I baked for him his favorite “crumb cake” and took it in to the hospital. A few
days later Dad was transferred to Wexford Creek, a new care facility run by the Lutheran “Good Samaritan Society” located at the southern entrance to Nanaimo. The care he received was very good and he even began to put on some needed weight, but his dementia got even worse. I was grateful that during this time my three children had all managed to come to the Island to spend some time with their Grandpa. However he was comfortable and without the great pain that he had experienced before. Dad’s condition began to deteriorate again in November and by mid-December he was again in crisis with numerous problems. In the early morning of Dec 19, accompanied by his wife and a number of the family, he took his last breath and passed into eternity.
Still my dad did get almost 30 years of a very active and productive retirement, doing what he wanted and always agreeing with his boss – himself. As I look at the palm of my hand I see him in the main lines that branch out – I am a part of him more than I will ever understand.