PART ONE – Darkness to Light (cont.)
Perhaps once every few months, our family would drive twenty miles west to Gilbert Plains to see my mother’s parents and siblings. We enjoyed Grandma’s bread and donuts, and the variety of crabapples and plums from their orchard in season. We enjoyed going to the Rex Café, where we would buy a dinner plate of potato French fries for 25 cents and share them. We enjoyed playing with Terry, Pat, Linda, Lois, Isabel, and Marlene (my aunts and uncles, three of which were younger and the others not much older than I), as well as with their neighbors, Hope and Daryl Bushie.
There was one day, however, that stands out, and not a pleasant one. I do not recall how old I was, perhaps between seven to nine. We had all piled into my father’s ‘51 Ford. In the back were my grandmother and her daughters, Isabel and Lois. We younger children had to sit in laps. I happened to be sitting in Isabel’s lap. She was about three or fours years older than I. A strong disagreement arose between her and Lois on the one side and me on the other. I do not recall what it was, but in anger, Isabel took hold of my head and dug her long nails into my face, scoring it and drawing blood.
I have little doubt that I was blameworthy to some extent at least. There was no call however, for marring my face and drawing blood. What made it more unpleasant was that, seated in her lap, I was helpless to defend myself while she attacked from behind. What made it completely unpleasant was that my grandmother did not intervene and would not discipline Isabel for her actions. She simply asked her and Lois some time later to apologize. Isabel and Lois apologized with smirks, knowing full well, and subtly letting me know, that they had prevailed and escaped any consequences. Where were my parents on this? I don’t recall.
Isabel ended up having a horribly dark and unpleasant life.
One day, when I was about nine or ten years old, my father gave me a newborn calf. “Who, me?” I thought. “Wow! My own calf!” He promised that if I fed and looked after it, I could sell it later, and the money would be mine; perhaps I could buy a bicycle or something.
I discovered that it was a sickly calf, perhaps one not worth his trouble nursing. I nursed it, and lo and behold, it recovered and was marketable. When the time came to cash in, he sold it, but didn’t give me the money. He said, “Well, how about the next one? We need this one.” Talk about disappointment!
Charlie Brown took another kick at the football, again and again. Each time, my dad, as Lucy, pulled the ball. “The next one will be all yours,” he said. I never did get one.
I recall his promising us that if we worked hard all day picking stones in the field, he would take us to the Dauphin Drive-in movies that night. We worked with vigor and enthusiasm, looking forward to the movie and treats. After our hard day’s work, my father broke his promise, saying, “I’m too tired, and it’s too late.” More than once, he did that sort of thing. If confronted, he would chuckle about it as though it was nothing more than a joke.
I believe I have distrusted people in business dealings as a result. After all, if a father’s word is worthless, whom can one trust? Ironically, he would take pride in, and boast about, how the Hafichuk family had integrity and a good name. What can I say? My father was a liar, traitor, and hypocrite.
I recall a Jewish story wherein a father tells his young son to stand on a table and jump into his arms. “Don’t be afraid – I’ll catch you.” The boy jumps, the father steps back, the boy falls to the floor, and the father says, “Let that be a lesson to you. Don’t ever trust anybody!”
Jews around the world have been greatly abused as a people, throughout the millennia. Time and time again, they found that the Gentiles could not be trusted for security, justice, equity, and wellbeing. The Holocaust was one major example of many. So they become cynical (or “realistic”) and teach their children to beware, always, especially in the face of apparent friendliness and sincerity.
Was it so bad that my father could not be trusted? Maybe not; maybe I had to learn some hard lessons to prepare me for what awaited me in the future.
Gordie Ryz’s father, Frank, once did some tractor fieldwork for us. I joined him for a while. As I stood beside him while he was driving, he spoke of how one ought to go to the bathroom immediately upon feeling the need – toxic wastes are to be expelled promptly, he said.
Why he told me that, I don’t know – maybe I passed gas! I just remember these little times that an adult took interest in me and shared such tidbits. No, the subject matter wasn’t exciting, but his consideration was appreciated.
Kudos for a moment to other Ryzes, Ernie and Patty, farm neighbors of ours, sons of Lawrence Ryz. One night they played with us and made me laugh harder than I ever had before. How? By pretending to be victims and acting silly when we shot them with water pistols. How we are able to bring happiness to others when we are willing to take the lower seat, even if in play! Of course, they were pretending, but they could have gotten offended or competitive or disinterested instead. That just would not have been the same.
That was a memorable night to me. During that same evening, the Ryzes took a five-cent bag of unshelled salted sunflower seeds and shared them with me, Archie, and Barb. We had all we wanted, and I kept wondering when they would run out; they seemed to last and last. I was amazed and thankful.
Things shared go a long way. The power of sharing! I wish I had taken the lesson to heart:
“A generous person will be made rich, and whoever satisfies others will himself be satisfied” (Proverbs 11:25 GW).
Today, kids have so many fascinating pleasures available to them (as do adults). As a kid in grade school, I had few toys and no TV, computer, internet, Xbox, skateboard, and not even a then-contemporary, inexpensive View-Master. We made our own bows and arrows, spears, slingshots, rubber jar ring rifles, and wooden toys (I think homemade toys are more enjoyable than bought). I also had a small collection of Dell comic books, some bought but mostly given, borrowed, and traded (I enjoyed collecting the Classics Illustrated).
Twice a year for two hours or so, we had a visit by a man (Mr. Tyndall, I believe) at our country school to show us films from the Film Board of Canada. How excited we were to rearrange our desks, pull the blinds, douse the lights, and watch educational programs, as well as a main entertainment feature and a few cartoons to spice things up! How different it is today with entertainment centers, videos, DVDs, computer games, and cell phones that take pictures, shoot videos, and surf the web, and more added almost daily!
I have not forgotten one film we saw about a fat boy working in a logging camp. He was perhaps in his early teens. Though he was heavy, he was energetic enough to excel in pillow fights and other forms of physical competition against grown men. He was a sort of hero, admired in general social interaction. It was a humorous film, and I identified with it because I was fat. For once I was not alone, and fat people were not necessarily inferior.
To my disappointment, the film didn’t appear to influence anyone toward me for the better. I was learning that personality and attitude counted for much more.
Dr. Wright came to the Dauphin Plains school to examine all the children and give us vaccinations. I remember a little piece of advice from him as well. It was to take a good, deep breath of fresh air every morning upon awakening and at other opportune times, as often as I could think of doing it. I think he also advised sleeping with an open window, if possible.
Doctors don’t often tell people things like that anymore. I must confess I did not put his advice into habit, but somehow I appreciated his personal counsel and attention. To this day, when I think of him, I take that deep breath wherever I am.
I did wonder if he was giving me that advice because he suspected I had a respiratory problem; there is no record he did, that I know. I do know there were tuberculosis scares in those days and my father was a smoker. Perhaps he had his convictions against smoking, contrary to the prevailing ignorance and notion that smoking was harmless.
I began herding our cattle through a field to the pasture one day, when suddenly one animal stopped, turned around, faced me, and began to paw the ground. It was a Holstein, nearly a year old. I do not remember if it was a young bull or a steer that hadn’t been castrated properly. All I know is that it was now acting like a bull, not a steer.
There I stood in the field with nothing for protection. I looked around for a stone or clod of hard dirt to throw; there was nothing at all – the soil was finely cultivated. Should I face the animal down or run?
I don’t remember what I did, but I seem to recollect that I wasn’t far from the fence of the yard I had just come from, to which I retreated with all the speed I could muster, not looking back, and dove under the fence. I hoped he was not chasing me, because if he was, I likely would have been through or over the fence, rather than under it.
There was no harm done except perhaps tearing some of my clothes on the barbed wire as I dove under. I realized later I could have been seriously injured, even killed. I told my father about it, and I believe he soon separated the animal from the dairy herd.
I recall someone once saying that she would never write her autobiography because one would have to be a liar to do so. “You can’t remember the details accurately,” she said. By keeping a journal for part of my life, I have come to understand what she was saying. Our memories are so fallible. This story I just related is true, insofar that I was young, I was taking the cattle to pasture through a cultivated field, a young Holstein bull or steer did stop and turn around and paw the ground, challenging me, while the rest of the herd kept on, and my father did do something about the animal later. But I’m honestly not sure of what I did in the situation. I’m afraid my subsequent imaginations played a part in this. I suspect I had no choice but to stand down the animal, and it turned.
I really enjoyed spelling for some reason. I still do. I hoped to be able to spell every word in the English language. I often received 100% in my spelling tests. One day the teacher called me up to the front to receive my graded paper. To my great dismay, I had an error and received only 90%. I could not hold back the tears! The teacher was surprised. “You did very well!” she said. “Why are you so disappointed?” Other children also wondered why I was crying. It wasn’t as though anyone beat me; I still had the highest mark. Why did I take it so hard?
We once had an oral spelling contest in school and I was asked to spell “jewelry.” Apparently there were two ways of spelling it, the other being “jewellery.” I spelled it one way and the judge rejected it. I wasn’t aware until later that I was right after all, but there wasn’t anyone among us country bumpkins to confirm or deny the judge’s opinion. I’m not sure that under the rules, anyone even had the right to correct a judge.
The woes of perfectionists in a world of imperfection!
Likely from comics, I developed a fleeting fascination for dugout canoes and had the bizarre idea of making my own. I wanted a boat of some kind, and I decided that a dugout canoe would be the easiest and cheapest way to go. How to hollow it and where to float it were other matters altogether – but for a tiny shallow slough my dog once possibly saved me from, there was no water anywhere near.
But I took an axe to one of the biggest poplar trees in our yard. A fifth of the way through, I quit. When my father saw it later, he asked me what was going on. I told him, and he naturally thought the idea entirely ridiculous. He did not seem too alarmed at what I had done (there were many trees), though he did express concern about the potential danger, and what damage and injury could have occurred had I felled it.
I tell this story to express the mind of a child, with the hope that people will try to be patient with children, understanding that they have their unrealistic notions, which they tend to live out.
Here is another travesty of our society, born of atheistic thinking and foolish philosophy. When I was eight or nine, my sister got tonsillitis. To prevent my brother and me from getting it, our parents were persuaded by the doctor to have our tonsils removed. My sister couldn’t have hers taken out because they don’t remove tonsils when infected, and she never did get hers removed.
God did not give us tonsils as warts or pimples. They have a purpose. Why do men think tonsils are excess baggage? Only because they are ignorant atheists. They know better than God. According to them, we are evolving creatures, not intelligently designed. Or if they believe in God, they seem to think He makes mistakes; He’ll have to go back to the drawing board and try again. But He mistakenly deemed His creative works to be good:
“And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good….” (Genesis 1:31 MKJV).
Now they are coming around to reassessing their notion that tonsils serve no good purpose. They are discovering that tonsils may be an important part of the immune system, a component in fighting disease. Is ignorance indeed bliss? Just how pervasive and detrimental are unbelief of God and ignorance of His ways and doings?
One late summer, we brought tomatoes in from the garden to ripen in the house when frost season came. We laid them out in a spare room upstairs, on a floor covered with newspaper. Out of sight, out of mind – nobody checked them until it was too late. When several of them started rotting, my mother had me clean them out.
The smell was awful. I got so sick, I couldn’t eat tomatoes for at least another twelve to fifteen years. For the first few years, I couldn’t drink tomato juice or even use ketchup. I slowly edged back to eating tomatoes – first ketchup, then a tiny bit of juice with lots of salt and pepper, then a thin slice of tomato hidden in a big sandwich. It took years to full recovery. I wonder why I tried to like tomatoes again.
Today I enjoy them – as long as they are the homegrown variety with flavor. Most tomatoes today are almost as disappointing as rotten ones are sickening. I enjoy the song that goes, “Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes, there’s nothing in the world like homegrown tomatoes. There’s only two things that money can’t buy and that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes!”
On the way home from school one cold winter day, someone gave the Chaykowski kids (our neighbors) and us a ride home in a horse-drawn sleigh. Dennis Chaykowski and I sat at the back with our legs hanging over the edge and our feet dragging on the ground. He was six or seven, and I was two years older. I do not recall exactly what happened, but I believe I kicked off his felt boot, which was unlaced and loose. It was immediately retrieved. An hour later we received a call from his mother, Elsie, who was very upset. Dennis was catching it from her for not dressing properly, and he blamed me (rightfully or not) for his foot being frozen.
There was even the exaggerated suggestion that his foot may need amputation. My mother was alarmed, I denied I had done anything but be playful, and I was so very afraid that I had possibly cost Dennis his foot. If that happened, I don’t know how I would have lived with myself. I was told shortly after that Dennis recanted, denying that I was to blame, and his foot was fine.
Mrs. Chaykowski once bought me a gift, a cross-shaped IQ pegboard, because one of her children had drawn my name at school for a Christmas gift exchange. The gift was worth more than the limit. She insisted that with the good marks I had in school, I deserved it and should get no less. She also told my mother that she ought to be thankful for me. Wow! That was different.
When I was about ten, Bill and Elsie Chaykowski, with children – Dennis, Diane, and Miles – decided to sell their farm and move to Calgary, Alberta. When they returned for a visit some time later, they gave us a fascinating report. Their income working for someone else was far better than anything their farming had ever earned them. Elsie worked in a cowboy hat factory, which interested me, my heroes being Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, and Gene Autry. They told us of “the greatest outdoor show on earth,” the Calgary Stampede, full of cowboys, chuckwagons, and bucking broncos.
Then there was the weather. Manitoba had unrelenting deep freeze five months of the year, but southern Alberta had warm Chinook winds every few weeks. With this wind from the southwest, temperatures could warm by 20 degrees or more in an hour. The accumulated snow would evaporate, sometimes not having a chance to melt, and people could shed their winter clothing for days. What a welcome break in an otherwise chilly, restrictive, bleak winter! Their stories enthralled me.
I decided that some day I would like to live in southern Alberta, though not Calgary, but somewhere less populated. I thought I would prefer something like Lethbridge, though I knew nothing about it.
One day when nine or ten, I was in the barn hayloft, dragging 60-pound hay bales over to the hole and dropping them to the cement floor ten feet below, for the milk cows. The hole sneaked up on me, and I dropped myself instead, landing on my butt, with my legs buckled under me. I don’t know what happened to the bale.
My parents were in the barn, but they couldn’t easily see me behind the cows and feed bins. Paralyzed, and with the wind knocked out of me, I tried to cry out, but I couldn’t make a sound. They soon spotted me, somehow, and rushed to help. My mother and father each took one of my arms and carried me outside for air. I don’t know why they didn’t pick up my whole body. When they carried me out, upright, by my arms, my legs barely touched the ground, buckled. I was laid up in bed for a day or two, with no medical attention. In the years to come, I would have occasional lower back spasms and sharp pains.
Lessons… don’t walk backwards in life? Why does God let these things happen? I was hasty and careless; either one of those can, and often does, bring harm. Did I learn? Maybe, but not that I consciously know. I suppose caution builds into a person through these sorts of incidents.
When I think of the things we suffered and endured without medical treatment in those days, I contrast it to our free Medicare in Canada today; people seem to go for treatment for almost anything. We have learned to be dependent upon, and subservient to, a medical system, which we have abused because free and which now abuses us. Freebies can surely bring bondage.
I discovered over half a century later I wasn’t the only one suffering this particular kind of accident.
I think I was about nine or ten when my mother once got so very angry with me. I don’t remember why, but she was carrying my infant brother David in her arms while chasing me down the stairs. She slipped, fell, and ended up bruising herself. Of course, I knew I was really in for it if she ever caught me in that anger.
I ran to the barn and scrambled into a hayloft full of fresh, loose hay. I frantically burrowed a hole, crawled in, and covered over the entrance. The chances of her finding me were slim, there being several mounds of hay over an area of perhaps 3,000 square feet. Having left David momentarily at the house, she followed me to the barn and came up the ladder to the loft, shouting and making threats that if I did not come out, I would really be in for it.
I figured, “I’m in for it now! I think I like ‘later’ better.” I could hear her searching about, sometimes coming close to where I was, but she finally gave up, parting with, “You just wait till I tell Dad!” I was impressed with my hiding spot – right there in the presence of danger, yet quite safe. I waited there for hours, but all things must come to an end. I finally came out of my hole, bored, tired, and hungry, and timidly sneaked into the house.
I don’t recall whether or not I received a spanking, or what I had done that made my mother so angry in the first place, but I do recall that she was not nearly as angry hours later, and I was better off with the “later” than with the “right now.” I did think about what could have happened to the baby if mother had tumbled down the stairs with him. I seem to remember that my father wasn’t angry either, but mused on the matter.
I never did tell them my hiding place, in case I might need it again, but that was the only time I used it.
When I was about eight or nine, my mother’s father, Paul Szmon, decided to give me a girl’s balloon tire Schwinn bike. He could have let his own children have it – there were at least six of them that could have used it. Perhaps he gave it to me because I was the firstborn of his firstborn, I don’t know. Another possible reason could have been that we lived in the country, while they lived in the village (Gilbert Plains), so they thought I could use it for school, which was nearly two miles away. I was tickled!
It was not long before I put my bike to commercial use. I bought myself a carrier to attach to the handlebars and began ordering merchandise at wholesale from the Veribest Specialty Company in Toronto. A kid could buy a box of goods for $30 and sell it for $45 or so. There were greeting cards, garden seeds, and Zippo, a powdered drink like Freshie or Kool-Aid. It had a distinct taste that some either liked or disliked.
I would head south all the way to Dauphin and back, five miles away, selling only to farms (I was told we didn’t have a license to sell in town); north three miles to my aunt and uncle’s, east about five miles, and west six miles to Uncle Fred and Aunt Mary Prestayko’s (almost all on gravel roads). I would spend the night with the Prestaykos and usually come home the next day. As in anything, there were farmers who filled the spectrum, from friendly and accommodating to disinterested and dismissive. Some were generous in spirit and pocket, while others were quite miserly.
It did not occur to me until years later that perhaps my parents’ relationship with the neighbors had something to do with how they reacted to me. Most farmers had dogs, and while most dogs were playful and friendly, some could get rather scary, growling viciously, baring their fangs, and snapping at my legs. (There was no pepper spray in those days!)
I learned about people, their reactions, motivations, and attitudes, and I marveled at the differences.
With my earnings, I enjoyed buying equipment for my bike – a better carrier, new seat, battery-operated horn or light – and other things, like a baseball glove.
One day, Raymond McKillop and I were racing our bikes to school. I had my girl’s balloon tire Schwinn, a “Cadillac on one cylinder,” while he had his new CCM three-speed. I could barely keep up and, at some point, I got aggressive, as if to force him off the rutted road. Our handlebars locked and I suddenly, as if by magic, found myself in the ditch on the opposite side of Raymond in prickly rosebushes, momentarily unconscious, with my bike on top of me.
When I came to, I saw Raymond quietly standing on the road with his bike, affected within, but not without. I had no idea what had happened – everything happened so fast. It seems to me, though, that I would have had to go flying over him to hit his side of the ditch.
Was there a lesson? Yes, even then I knew it, instinctively, reluctantly. “Try to do harm to another, and you will harm yourself.” Although I was not trying to harm him, I was trying to force him to yield the race, in what could be a dangerous move.
About three miles north of us lived a man with five or more sons. His wife had passed away, I believe, leaving behind some very interesting boys. While I was slightly acquainted with the youngest, Tom, his brothers were considerably older. Sam, the oldest, did some work for my father. He was friendly, playful, cheerful, hardworking, enthusiastic, and just great to be around. He reminds me of Dean Martin – easy going, fun loving, funny, and a bit of a drinker (not that Dean was a drinker – I really don’t know).
Then there were two other brothers who joined the RCMP. They left the force – I don’t know if they were kicked out or decided to quit – but they did not leave behind their training skills. They would get very drunk and in the wee hours of the morning, head to the Dauphin Bus Depot for a bite to eat or a brawl, the place being open at all hours for bus travelers and local revelers. There they would start a ruckus that necessitated police intervention.
The police, however, had a big problem. One or two would come, only to discover they needed backup against the Corneliuk boys. Backup would come only to find they couldn’t help much. Pete and his brother would take four or five RCMP officers on at once and use them for wallpaper or for parking meter wrap (so I heard). Pete was a big, powerful man. They knew techniques and effectively used them against the constables.
The fighting and stories of the Corneliuk exploits fascinated me, but there was more to it. They were Ukrainian! With the mentality I inherited from my parents about our ethnic heritage, which seemed to consist of a good dose of low self-esteem, I wondered where they got the nerve to challenge society that way, even the law, drunk or sober.