PART ONE – Darkness to Light (cont.)
We were dragged to Mass at the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Dauphin every Sunday morning. Farm chores had to be done earlier, and taking the extra trouble to wash up was a chore. We had to dress in our Sunday best with ill-fitting clothes and tight, uncomfortable dress shoes. To wash the dirt from our ears and the mucous from our eyes that we had missed, my mother turned to us in the back seat, spitting on a handkerchief and wiping us down while on the way to town. Sunday mornings were very troubling.
The church was crammed with people. The mixture of body odor from unbathed poor, older people and frankincense from the censers was nauseating. Fresh air was in short supply because they did not think to open windows until altar boys were fainting. Adding to the stifling atmosphere, the Mass was in Slavonic, a language incomprensible to us, and the whole event was formal, regimented, and utterly boring.
Besides that, we had to confess our sins to the priest, which was not pleasant at all – unless we had no sins to confess, of course, but that was rarely my case.
Was it worth going to church? No doubt, all that was a super pleasant Sunday picnic compared to going to hell and burning forever and ever, 24/7.
Our church was crammed in the ‘50s and only getting worse, so a call went out to raise funds for a new building or an extension on the old. I was told when I was yet in my teens that money was collected, submitted to the “Very Reverend” Gregory Oucharyk, and disappeared. Decades later, they still had the same old Byzantine building.
I must have been about ten or so when Dad hired a neighboring bachelor in his early forties, Mr. Stefaniuk, to help stucco our farm house. I was helping the man. I remember standing on top of the back porch while we were stapling tar paper and wire mesh and getting into a conversation with him, one I hadn’t expected.
“There is no God!” he declared bitterly. “People use religion for a crutch! In the Soviet Union, they don’t believe in God at all, but they all work together and everything is provided for everybody, no matter who you are – education, medical treatment, jobs, welfare, you name it! Best place in the world!”
“You have no freedom in Russia, and everybody lives in fear,” I replied. “Who made everything if there’s no God?”
“What you’ve heard about Russia is lies – propaganda!” he answered. “They just don’t want you to know the truth! God is a big lie! Our government doesn’t want you to know how much better it is in the Soviet Union! And God never made anything. Everything you see just happened, and whatever you don’t see doesn’t exist.”
It was a bit of a shock to me, not because I felt threatened, but because I was finding out that not everybody believed in God. It was a surprise to me. I hadn’t run into anyone like that before. How could there not be a God?
I remember getting a bit annoyed with him. I think I said, “Well, if it’s so great there, why don’t they let the people out? Why are they forced to stay? Maybe they can’t come here, but you can go there if you want. Why don’t you, if it’s so good? What are you waiting for?”
He gave me some excuse, and he promised that Communism was coming to North America soon, and that the whole world would one day accept it as a matter of progress and deliverance from religious fantasy. I admit I felt a bit of a chill; I certainly didn’t like the prospect of living in an intensely controlled society.
(I believe we had heard of some people, and knew some in our church, from the Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia who had escaped the Iron Curtain, so I was aware of some of these things. We had heard of the Soviet Communist system in school, as well.)
“So anything you don’t see doesn’t exist? Do you see air? Don’t breathe if you don’t believe in it,” I said.
To be sure, it was a low-level intellectual debate, and I think I got the better of him with simple childlike reason, while he, as an uneducated adult, had only his childish reason. I still recall his countenance when the work was done and Dad and I were saying goodbye to him as he sat in his Karmann Ghia. While Dad was friendly to him, Mr. Stefaniuk had a scornful attitude he was trying to suppress.
I have encountered several atheists since then and find a common denominator, without exception. That denominator is bitterness accompanied with cynicism. Oh, there are some atheists who try to put a nice face on their denial of God’s existence, but when push comes to shove, they can get quite bitter and nasty. I seem to have the knack of provoking them into revealing their inner thoughts and feelings before too long. I was annoyed with my first atheist, and I still get annoyed with the foolishness of atheism and the stupidest, most incredible lie ever told and believed – evolution.
I mentioned the first time I had a stirring within me concerning God. Another time, when I was about nine or so, I was returning from the field after delivering refreshments to my father while he was doing field work on his McCormick tractor. A sudden electrical cloudburst caught me with no shelter available anywhere. The thunder and lightning were dramatic, and water came down as out of a bucket. Frightened out of my wits, I cried out to God.
Then something happened. It was as though I was not afraid anymore, not only of the rainstorm, but in another way. It seemed that courage was bestowed on me, so that I could trust God in my circumstances in some limited, unconscious manner. I can’t explain it, and my memory does not serve me well here. I believe that part of the secret was to accept and yield to that which could not be avoided. Get wet, and get over it. Was it Laurence of Arabia who said the secret to enduring pain was not minding that it hurt?
I had another “encounter with God” when I was around eleven or twelve. One thing after another was going wrong. I was exasperated. One day, I stepped on a rusty nail and impaled my foot – giving rise to the common fear of tetanus. On another day I was splitting wood under a tree, and as I brought down the axe, I hooked a branch with it down onto my head, which shocked me. It seemed as though the ground was biting from beneath and the sky was falling in on me. I cried out to God in desperation, fearful and broken, begging for forgiveness of my sins. A peace came to me after that, and I had no more such incidents for a while.
Occasionally, we would burn the stubble on our fields – not a good thing to do, I’m told, but that’s what we did then. My father sent me out to do the job and warned me to keep the fire well away from the straw stack, which was needed to bed our cattle. I headed out with my jacket and a Mason jar of water to drink. I started the fire and spread it. It was not long before the wind came up and shifted, heading straight for the stack.
Alarmed, I fought the fire, trying to keep it from the stack, but the wind was too strong. Soon I found myself standing immediately in front of the stack, fighting the fire. I poured the drinking water on my jacket and used the partially wet jacket to beat off the fire, but as I was beating and swinging the jacket over my shoulder, I unwittingly tossed fire behind me.
As I was crying, desperately beating the fire in vain, I did not see or hear my father drive up with the tractor. But then hearing his shouting, I looked up and saw him motion me to come out of the fire (I was not aware that I was surrounded). Jumping over the fire with my burning jacket, the defeat was complete, the stack aflame. I consider it possible that in my panic and preoccupation with the fire, I might have gone up with the stack if my father had not come along.
I thought I was going to “catch it” from him, but all he did was look at me in silence, with understanding, perhaps even compassion. Oftentimes, we can speak more effectively with our eyes than with our mouths, and with silence than with words. The stack went up in great flames, but my father never mentioned a word of it to me, and there was no need for it. My loss and defeat were sufficient.
I wonder about how we might often battle fires in life, but tossing fire behind us, endangering and defeating ourselves. When the wind is against us, there is little we can do but be rescued by our Heavenly Father, summoned out of destruction.
The first dead person I ever saw was my Uncle Sytnick at his funeral. I don’t recall how old I was – perhaps anywhere from eight to ten – he was in his seventies. It was very strange seeing a well-dressed body lying so still in a fancy white, silk-lined casket, a waxy face with an ever-so-slight smile fixed to look as though he was at peace.
Somehow it was a mysterious contradiction to me. I wondered, “How can there be happiness with death? People are dressed in black, crying, and he’s smiling?” I almost expected him to suddenly, yet casually, clutch the sides of the casket, sit up, and scatter the crowd into the far countryside. I don’t think anybody would have been too receptive of his suddenly coming alive; they would be terrified, suspecting he was up to no good, like a ghoul; not that he was known to be mean-spirited or evil in any way.
I visualized the buried coffin and body slowly rotting, infested with worms. Nobody seemed to know where Uncle was now, except that the Catholic Church taught that most people go to Purgatory for a thousand years or more of torment in fire before being granted entrance to Heaven – provided they had been good Catholics, having been baptized, and people held paid-for Masses for the departed to release them from Purgatory. I think many believed Uncle wasn’t bad enough for Hell or good enough for Heaven, so he was likely in Purgatory. With some sacrifice and prayer on their part, perhaps he had a chance.
I looked at the funeral directors and couldn’t fathom how anyone would want to be involved in that business, working with dead people day after day. I supposed, as was rumored, that they got rich on wristwatches, rings, gold fillings, and general precious paraphernalia the superstitious mourners would wish to bury with the body.
Some time later, my widowed aunt gave me a job in her florist business. I was to sit in a garden shack by myself, taking apart dozens of used funeral wreaths, salvaging reusable parts. While I somehow knew there was no danger, I was very uncomfortable with it. I wonder how useful it would have been including this work experience on a resume. Perhaps a casual attitude or a show of courage about the dead could serve some purpose as a character reference?
I don’t remember the exact details of this next tragedy. News came to us one day that about three older teen boys in our farming neighborhood decided to relieve themselves of the Manitoba summer heat and went swimming in the local Wilson or Valley river. One or two drowned. It was reported by the survivor(s) that a strong undercurrent pulled the victim(s) under. I seem to remember that one or more of the swimmers tried to save a distressed one and also drowned, or nearly so. It was a shocking and sad affair. Though I didn’t know the people personally, my parents were familiar with them.
The best gift anyone could buy me at any time was a book. I became quite interested in reading when I was ten or so. I particularly liked collecting the shiny-covered Whitman books, but any good storybook would do. I also collected ten-cent Dells, and I prized and collected the fifteen-cent Classics Illustrated comic books.
My heroes were Tarzan (how I would have loved to live in Africa, with big trees and vines, less the snakes!), Superman (what boy didn’t want to fly and have all that physical power – even invincibility! – less the threat of kryptonite?); Robin Hood (oh, to shoot a bow and arrow like him!), Roy Rogers (how I would have loved to have a twin gun and holster set, cowboy hat, boots, spurs, bandana, and a pony just like Trigger!); the Lone Ranger, with the mask; Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Rex Allen, Lash LaRue (how I would have loved to have a bullwhip!); the Cisco Kid (how I admired Spanish – I still like it to this day), Zorro (ah, to be a swordsman like him!), and our homegrown hero, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, with his muskrat hat and “wonder dog,” Yukon King.
There was a day when foolish and ignorant authorities canceled cartoons like Looney Tunes with Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Sylvester Pussycat, Tweety Bird, Roadrunner, Yosemite Sam, Porky Pig, Chip and Dale, and others. Why? They said the cartoons were too violent.
Violent? That was stupid! The cartoons were educational. We learned about human nature – about what worked and what didn’t work in social relationships. We laughed and laughed. Those cartoons were ever a source of humor, never pain for anyone. (Yogi Bear, Boo Boo, and Donald Duck also taught us about right and wrong.)
I had a good many laughs with Terry Szmon, my uncle, who was two years younger than I. He had a marvelous sense of humor, and he could effectively imitate those characters in spirit. Those cartoons were ever a source of goodwill and social wellbeing, never of evil or violence. There was always the heightened awareness of the foibles and quirks of humanity, the folly of pride and presumption, and the contradictions and exaggerations of personalities found everywhere in the world.
Even today I marvel at the humorous insights of the creators of these characters, their names (like Petunia Pig, Tweety Bird, and Foghorn Leghorn), voices (like Mel Blanc’s), accents, peculiar vocabularies, and the scenarios or story lines. People can be very funny, and if we are taught anything, it is not to take ourselves seriously, in terms of virtue or superior traits in our own right. A remarkable humbling mechanism kicks in automatically when we act otherwise – we end up making fools of ourselves.
I cannot say the same for today’s cartoons. Things have changed. There now prevails a proud, independent, mean, arrogant, rebellious, disrespectful spirit in the characters, a reflection of the producers, no doubt, and it is presented more as something socially legitimate than as something comical or foolish. That is where the violence comes in. It is some of today’s cartoons that could be legitimately banned for the reasons erringly used before.
I never seemed to be able to win, or win at, anything. For one reason or another, it was withheld from me. I recall poetry reciting contests where I would come in second, but never first. There was once a Halloween costume contest in which I did win, one of the conditions being that we would have to act out the characters, as well as wear the costumes. Prizes were coming from town, but the road was blown over in a blizzard, so I was told, and I never did see the only first prize I ever won! Talk about a born loser! I believe I was lied to; they could have given me the prize at first opportunity.
There may be another reason I received no prize: With a mask, nobody knew who I was but my mother, who helped me with the costume. I was emboldened by concealment to do things I would not have done in public. Dressed in women’s clothing, I pretended I was flirting with the men as they sat around the auditorium. Many got a kick out of it. “Who IS that?” I heard them exclaiming in their amusement. It seemed they were quite surprised when they found out.
But I look back with embarrassment. Perhaps God in His mercy withheld me from being rewarded with a prize for such behavior, although I enjoyed the temporary attention and recognition.
I remember that while I was acting the part, I was curious or struck about something. Why wasn’t I being reproved for what I was doing? How come the adults were letting me get away with it? Do masks and costumes make such behavior acceptable? I don’t recall that my parents or anyone else ever saying anything to me later. Perhaps the adults concluded I shouldn’t receive a prize for that kind of conduct after all.
While I was losing externally, God was enriching me invisibly.
When I was about ten, we had distant farm neighbor friends, the Preslowskis, whose house burned down. They lost everything. Their home for the next long while was a granary. They were friendly people and well liked; it was a shock to the community. People gave to them whatever they could.
Farming had been hard for the Preslowskis, and the fire was the last straw. Soon they held a farm auction and moved to Etobicoke, Ontario. A few years later, they returned to visit us. Ralph had established a fuel delivery business with a tanker truck fleet and was doing very well. “You know what?” he said. “That fire was the best thing that ever happened to us!” His remark found its way to the inner recesses of my consciousness. I marveled that such tragedies could turn out to be good.
A main source of income was our dairy. The health inspector would occasionally arrive on short notice to see that we were doing everything right. I say “on short notice,” not because he would notify us, but because other dairy farmers he was visiting would warn us by phone that he was on the way.
My parents were always anxious at those times, uncertain that our facilities and methods of operation would be approved. The inspector at the time was Cy Puls. He was outspoken, strict, and uncompromising. Frankly, my parents and likely many others were quite afraid of him. As a child, I grew to fear him above any man with whom we had to do that I can recall.
But the time would come, years later, when he would take a position I appreciated.
Every year the country schools would have annual picnics, and we always looked forward to those. Everyone would come to them – parents, neighbors, whoever wanted to come. There were hardball and softball games and various kinds of races; everyone willing and able participated.
Some kids enjoyed running around and picking up discarded glass pop bottles, worth 2 cents each. Five of those bought a fresh Pepsi, Coke, Seven-Up, Dr. Pepper, Wynola, Stubby, Two Way, or other drink, cold from large coolers full of water and dry ice. Or we could get an Oh Henry, Sweet Marie, or Eatmore bar, or a bag of Planter’s salted peanuts, hard ice cream cone, Wrigley’s stick gum, or watermelon (I hated watermelon, however, and I couldn’t understand why so many enjoyed it). There were also salted sunflower seeds in the blue, red, and white packets.
Picnics in my first years of school were nightmares, because I was too fat to run – left far behind by everyone, and I mean everyone. It wasn’t until years later that I found myself able, willing, and even winning. Third prize was 5 cents, second prize 10 cents, and first prize 15 cents.
Field Day was held for the perhaps three dozen rural schools in the Dauphin area. We had banners and drums, and we marched before the judges for trophies.
We also had a softball tournament. In my last year of rural school, I was left-fielder on our softball team. By the time Field Day arrived, I had become a relatively skillful player on the team, catching and hitting well. Because we were a smaller school (only about thirty students), with few, if any, larger boys, we did not expect to get far in the tournament.
For the first couple of games, I felt like I had been drugged. I just could not get it together. But then something happened: I got heated up and became very energetic. Inexplicably, everything started to flow for me. I caught would-be home runs, saving the day with several difficult catches, and I hit home runs.
To our surprise, though up against teams with more mature players, we found ourselves in the finals and down to the very last game. We started off behind in the first few innings, and then the runs started to come in – there was hope!
I felt the pressure; everyone seemed to be looking to me for the win, because I could hit the ball. It was the last inning, the score was 12 to 9 for the other team, we were at bat, the last to bat, the bases were loaded, two out, and it was my turn. Stepping up to the plate, I knew that if they would but deliver that ball over the plate, I stood a chance of bringing in four runs with a homer, winning the game.
“Back up! This guy hits!” the pitcher hollered to the outfielders. I hoped to hit it beyond the field, so that all bases could come home safely with ease. It was our only chance because after me, a girl was up to bat who could not really play much ball, much less hit (we did what we could with our school enrollment).
They had a logical, if unfair, strategy. They would walk me, let us score a run, and strike out the next player. The pitcher refused to give me a ball over the plate. Our coach, Frank Ryz, was trying to goad their pitcher, “Play fair and pitch right!” I waited for strategy from him, but there was none forthcoming.
What could he do? He knew the situation and the rules, and I think he just hoped for the best. The pitcher pitched wild balls, as far as three or four feet away from the plate, and high. I knew I had no choice but to try to hit them, and try I did and failed – perhaps I tried too hard.
So close to being a hero and failing! That was the story of my life, if not being a miserable loser. Is it possible the girl after me could have hit a run and then someone after her? Anything is possible. Was I presumptuous to think it all depended on me? Perhaps so. But if nothing else, I gained some self-respect and the respect of others that day, which I had somewhat lacked. It was a bittersweet experience.
But there was much more to be gained by the failure. There were other plans for me from above. The day would come when being thrown wild pitches to avoid my hitting a home run would be the order of the day from thousands, and I would have to learn to rest, wait for willing pitchers, and let the ball come to me, while I remained at the plate, willing to be walked if necessary.
We moved from the farm to the town of Dauphin in 1959. It was quite a change for me, but it wasn’t long before I had jobs, new interests, buddies, and girlfriends. For a while, Duane Whyte and Dennis Tokar, characters who loved to tussle and have fun, befriended me. I got greasy with the city kids when Duane got me going on hair-styling products like Brylcreem, but I preferred Wildroot. I later joined up with three other fellows – Ed Korpan, Kenny Dowson, and Wayne “Winky” Childs. Ed was the leader. Ultimate tragedy would come to at least two of these three in later years.
As with most farmers moving away, we held an auction. It was disorganized. Dad either did not have the time or the needed help to prepare for it properly. As a result, several items were sold for next to nothing. For example, we had a welder on a car chassis that Dad had built (he was a man of diverse interests and abilities), which could be towed from place to place and used anywhere. While Dad was occupied trying to herd cattle or whatever, the auctioneer, not knowing what it was, sold it for a pitiful $5.
Just before the auction, we had a good team of trained workhorses, Barny and Lady. Lady was our favorite of all the horses we had owned. She was gentle and a good team horse. She was also a smart one, too smart for her own good. She figured out how to slide the door bar of the wooden granary with her nose through its slots to open the door and gain access to the grain (I suppose Dad should have secured the door to prevent her. Perhaps he did make adjustments he thought would solve the problem, not expecting her to be so persistent and clever).
One day she opened the door and helped herself to the grain. As a result, she became terribly bloated. Dad expected that unless we did something, she would likely die. He mounted me on her and told me to walk her and not let her sit still. I did that for some time and slowly she began to show signs of recuperation. Meanwhile, Dad called the veterinarian, who came out.
The veterinarian, Dr. Rutledge, simply did not know what he was doing. First of all, he did not see that the horse was likely not in need of treatment (perhaps we did not communicate the circumstances clearly enough). But more importantly (and I find this part incredible), he took a few feet of hard thick rubber hose and forced it up her nose, I suppose to relieve the bloating pressure or send some substance through the hose to neutralize the gas or give her some medication.
While the procedure in and of itself was a common and acceptable one, it seems to me that one with any knowledge of physiology ought to know that with the kind of rugged hose he used, with its sharply cut edges, serious injury would result. It did. Our favorite horse, Lady, hemorrhaged and died.
The ignorance and ineptitude of a green veterinarian had several implications. We lost a beloved friend; we lost a workhorse team, an important and valuable asset in those days, and it made the other horse, Barny, less valuable by himself. Furthermore, now we had to dispose of the large carcass, which was no easy job, especially at a busy time when there was so much to do to prepare for the auction.
Last but not least, the vet took no responsibility for our loss, though it was his fault. We were hurt and angry. Being uneducated, my father, who had only gone through sixth grade, held educated, professional people in awe, particularly those in the medical field, and though he might ponder and complain privately, he was not prepared to strive with them for justice and equity. Likely, it would have gone nowhere anyway.
One day, I was standing on the school grounds at recess at Smith Jackson Junior High, and someone came up from behind and tapped me on the shoulder. Instantly, I took him (I don’t know how), flipped him over myself, and had him on the ground with me on top of him. It turned out to be a casual friend, Clarence Moar, a native from the McKay Indian Residential School. I don’t know why I reacted that way, but it was instinctive, swift, and effective. The boy was shocked, having intended no harm.
I have often wondered why I reacted that way or how I was capable of it. I know that when someone slapped or even tapped me on the back of the head without warning, it would greatly disturb me, and I could react with great anger.
The McKay Indian Residential School in Dauphin was a mystery to me. It just didn’t fit in somehow. I couldn’t comprehend the mixture. It was a school for children, but religion was involved – it was operated by the Anglican Church. Why them? It was composed only of native children, but the supervisors were all white. What was going on? I didn’t understand.
Many of the kids from McKay were bussed to the public schools in town, including Smith Jackson. I remember some of the kids:
There was Harvey Mann and his sister Donna. They were always laughing and cheery. Donna had a liking for me, and she teased me.
There was Clarence Moar, a quiet and friendly fellow.
There was John Martin, a big, stocky, muscular guy. Though he was quiet and friendly, he was someone nobody, not even the school rough-housers, would ever think of tangling with.
There was Harry, also quiet and friendly, not small or weak, but not too big or apparently powerful, and guys challenged him to fight. Harry was not one to back down, as much as he disliked the conflict.
There was also Doc Garson, a quiet, spectacled, sober fellow, who was well liked. I had forgotten all about him until today, 50 years later when I heard a news segment about a Canadian football player named “Doctor.”