Thursday, March 3, 2016

Another winter on the farm

The old farm house had two small upstairs bedrooms with steep, sloped ceilings while  downstairs there was  a small  bedroom just large enough for a double bed. Also on the main floor was a dry bathroom with a chemical toilet and a sitting room which was used as a kitchen in the winter.
Mother and family in front of Grandpa's Willis car
We had no electricity or running water and relied on the Aladdin lamp and coal oil lamps for light.  My grandparents, who were now in their late sixties, had us underfoot once again, only this time there were three children. When I think back to those days, it must have been hard on everyone.

During our time on the farm in 1942 my brother who was two at the time and I shared the chesterfield bed in the sitting room with mother.  However in 1945, as the chesterfield bed was not big enough to handle mother and three children, in desperation, they shifted me to an upstairs bedroom.  

In the sitting room, the kitchen range and a wood burning space heater generated the heat for the small farm house.  There was a door off the sitting room leading  to a steep staircase to the upstairs. Heating this small house was difficult so in an effort to keep the main floor warm, this door was only opened late in the day when heat was needed for the upstairs bedroom. Unfortunately, when you have a  cold winter, not much heat drifted up when the door was opened.

The combination of a cold January, an unheated upstairs bedroom and freezing cold bedding that was beyond the ability of a mere hot water bottle to warm up, made for a terrible sleeping setup for me.  Whenever I think back to that upstairs room on the farm, I can't help but think that if there was a gold medal for  the  coldest place I've ever slept, this would have been the winner by far. I have never been so cold in all my life.  I had lots of blankets piled on top of me, but as a skinny nine year old, I wasn't able to generate enough body heat to warm the bed so would stay in one place and not move a muscle all night, the sheets around me were like ice cubes.  If I unfortunately had to get up during the night and use the chamber pot, it and the hot water bottle which I had finally shoved aside, would be frozen in the morning.

The extreme cold persisted through much of January but finally, as we got through February and into March the weather started to moderate and I was able to give up the rides to school on the stone boat, and walk the half mile on my own.  It had been so cold and there had been so much drifting snow that the caragana shelter belt surrounding the farm was covered in snow and a very hard crust had formed on top.  It seemed quite odd that I was able to walk over the tall hedge on this crust of hard snow without sinking, but it was  probably similar to the crust of snow that forms on ski slopes.

Meanwhile, my father had returned to work in Saskatoon.  He  was staying with his father in a small one bedroom apartment over a store on Broadway Avenue  while trying to find a place for our family to live.  His two younger siblings had also returned from Victoria so all  four of them were in the tiny apartment.  

Getting back to our pre-war lives was proving to be quite challenging.
My grandparent's farm

Picture of the farm house

Monday, February 29, 2016

Country School

After the war my father went house hunting in Saskatoon, but soon found it was more difficult than he expected.  It looked like we would be at the farm for a while, so my mother enrolled me in a small country school until we got settled.  Cleland School, located about nine miles from Rosetown, was the same school my mother had attended as a child, and was located a half mile from my grandparents' farm.  In mid December 1945 I started my new school.
My mother attended Cleland School in 1924
She was third from the left, second row

Cleland School was the type of turn of the century schoolhouse you would see today if you were to visit any of the heritage villages located across Canada, but in 1945 small rural schools such as this were still in use in many places including Saskatchewan.  To describe the school, I would say there were about twenty desks in the classroom, but only nine students and they were seated in rows by grade; three first graders, two second graders including my cousin Diane, then I think there were two in grade six.  I was the only one in grade four and a boy named Russ was in grade nine taking his classes by correspondence with the teacher overseeing his work.  The map of the Dominion of Canada hung on the wall along with a picture of King George VI, and the alphabet was carefully written in chalk across the top of the blackboard in upper and lower case.

Russ helped out by arriving early in the morning to start the fire in the pot bellied stove and would make sure there was a supply of wood to keep the classroom warm during the day.  Outside there was a small barn and many students rode their horses to school, while others, including me relied on other means of transportation, including a horse drawn stone boat.  A nearby farmer, Mr. Black would take his son to school each day on a stone boat, which had a wooden frame about six feet square and looked like a small raft.  It was a cold winter with a lot of snow, so my grandparents asked if he would swing by and provide transportation for me as well.  Riding the half mile to school on a stone boat was quite a unique experience.

Each morning the teacher, Miss Purse would make sure all the students had work on hand, then would start teaching the grade ones and gradually make her way across the room, one grade at a time.  At lunchtime we would all sit around a big table with the teacher and chat as we ate our sandwiches, sometimes playing games like "I spy with my little eye" or just discussing events on the farm.

Soon after I enrolled, it was Christmas and a community supper at the school was a big occasion for the local farm families.  The tables were set up in the school basement and people crowded into the room, loaded down with roasted turkeys, home baking and all the goodies that make up a marvellous holiday feast.  I can't think of any  celebration at school that could ever surpass Christmas at Cleland that winter.  Everyone was so happy that the war was over and families were back together again.  Even Santa Claus made an appearance.

I attended Cleland for five months before we moved to Saskatoon where I went   to my third school in Grade Four.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Travel in 1945

Remembering our train trip to Saskatoon in December 1945,  there were no other travel options open to us.  Now, you can also fly, drive or go by bus from Vancouver to Saskatoon and can reach  your destination in a few hours,  not a couple of days.  Train travel is a great holiday adventure and the Canadian Rockies are spectacular,  but it was a long trip for a family anxious to get back home. As far as driving  a car from Vancouver to Saskatoon, not possible, the road was not even open in the winter.

There was a gravel road through the mountains which  had been completed in 1940 at great expense and connected Golden and Revelstoke.   It was called  the Big Bend Highway and was said to be drivable if you had nerves of steel.  Everyone had heard the horror stories about this highway, and even the thought of  having to back up on a switchback to allow another vehicle to  pass would send shivers up your spine.  One story I recall was from a family member who took the bus  to Vancouver in the early 1950s.   They were on a narrow, hairpin curve on the Big Bend, and the bus driver and  a woman driving a car coming toward him had both stopped and were arguing. The driver wanted the woman to back up so he could get the bus through but she was scared and refused.  Finally,  the bus driver had no choice but to back up.  For the passengers seeing the rear of the bus hanging over the steep mountain cliff as it slowly edged back, allowing the woman to pass was as frightening as it gets.  Everyone  breathed again when she was clear and the bus proceeded.

Sometimes, if people wanted their car on the other side of the mountains, they just shipped the vehicle by train and picked it up when they reached their destination.  Flying was not an option as the first commercial airline, Trans Canada Airlines, or TCA as it was known was just getting established at that time.

Oh well, you might say, at least people could keep in touch by phone.  Sorry, it was not so easy.  Long distance was expensive so calls  were a luxury and only placed when absolutely necessary.  We would write a list of subjects to be discussed, then rush through them to get off the phone in five minutes or less.  Christmas was the busiest time for calls and often you would try for hours to get a call through to someone in another city.  Unfortunately, many of these calls would start out with, "What's your weather like?" 

As for our trip to Saskatoon, my mother and children got off in the  Biggar, SK train station where we were picked up by my grandfather and once again taken to the farm.   My father continued on to Saskatoon to  check out his old job and find a house for the family.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Major Sou'wester

The Major Sou'wester, December 4, 1945

Steam engine similar to one on our  December 4, 1945 trip
I was looking forward to our train trip  through the Canadian Rockies
 as we returned to Saskatoon, but the first part of our trip, crossing over to Vancouver on the ferry,  played out in a way we could never have anticipated.  

On November 30, 1945  my father received his discharge from the RCAF and I had my last day at Keating School. My school friends had laughed at me when I said I was moving to  Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and suggested I would soon  become a "prairie chicken."   Our final weekend at Cordova Bay was spent with last minute packing and saying  goodbye, an often repeated word during those post war days as soldiers were demobilized and returned home. There were sad farewells to those who had been part of our lives for so long, and many bittersweet moments as we left good friends behind.  They were the ones who had been with us during the dark days of the war, yet we knew we would never see them again.  Many tears  flowed with the goodbyes.  My mother always cried when someone departed, and these  days were no exception, except she and our family were the ones departing.

For almost fifty years,  the  British Columbia ferries, the Princess Joan and Princess Elizabeth had regular daily crossings  between  Vancouver and Victoria,  We took a "Princess " ferry when we first went to Victoria in 1942 and now, in 1945 we were taking the ferry back to the mainland.  Both ferries had staterooms and offered quite a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere as people would  go onboard several  hours before the midnight sailings,  then  remain on board in the morning long enough to enjoy  breakfast.  

On  December 4, 1945 our family of five boarded the ferry to Vancouver early  in the evening.  It was becoming a little  blustery  outside,  but when I,  a nine year old at the time,  mentioned this to the steward, he replied something to the effect,  "Nothing to worry about," and directed us to  our stateroom where we prepared to settle in for the night "just a bit of a sou'wester." he said as  he departed down the hall. There were  bunk beds in the small stateroom, much smaller than  you would find on a modern  cruise ship, and the washroom facilities were located down the hallway, although I recall chamber pots were in the cabin.  The interior of the ferry was clean and well maintained,  and there was a restaurant on board.  It had been a busy day but in spite of being tired, we  couldn't resist spending some time exploring the ship before climbing into the bunks and going to sleep.  The rhythmic  rocking of the boat and the sound of the wind soon put me to sleep and I didn't wake up until we were docked in Vancouver the next morning.  

When I got up, I was surprised to learn that it had been  a  frightening night  on the ferry .  Many passengers,  including my parents, were concerned about the weather, and said they had been unable to sleep.  Sometime after the ferry left the protection of the harbour and was out on the open sea,  it  got its first  taste of the  approaching storm. The early winds had rapidly gained strength and eventually morphed into a strong cyclone.  A major sou'wester they said, had blown through the strait and the ferry had been buffeted up and down by the towering waves for hours, as it made its way to Vancouver.  As we left the ship and passed the newspaper stands, it was a shock to see the headlines on the front pages and read about almost two dozen  telephone poles blown down in Vancouver during the night, I could hardly believe that I had been asleep through the whole thing.  One  comment I remember my mother making was that the waves were fortunately hitting the ferry head on, rather than from side to side, otherwise they had feared the ferry might have flipped over. 

Somewhat shaken, after we disembarked from the ferry we spent the day with mother's friend Ruby in North Vancouver, then off to the train station in the evening where we saw the big steam engine firing up as the conductor helped us board.  We found our sleeping berths and soon heard the "All aboard" for our departure  to Saskatoon.  

Thursday, February 18, 2016

1945 The War Ends

VJ Day, Victory over Japan Day.    

The war was over, after six very long years, it was finally over.  On August 15, 1945 Japan surrendered and the official agreement was signed on  September 2, 1945.  As a nine year old,  it was exciting, but I didn't know what would happen next, what it would be like to live in a country no longer at war.  In 1939 I was only three years old when I saw the soldiers march to the train station in Saskatoon.  

There were celebrations and everyone wanted  to get on with their lives, but getting Canada back to the normalcy of  peacetime was a big undertaking.   Soldiers were being discharged, but found housing shortages when they returned to their old communities. The federal government arranged for the construction of wartime houses in an attempt to meet the demand, and houses sprang up at a rapid pace in cities across the country. After six years at war, the soldiers,  now in their mid-twenties and older were ready to  get married and start a family.

Many returned home with wives, war brides, who faced the challenge of integration in a new country.  Education had been interrupted, those  who  planned to continue with their education received government financial assistance.  Post secondary enrolment sky rocketed and there was overcrowding in the schools. 

Wartime house

My father, as part of the Paymaster Division, remained in the RCAF for another three months.  For many of my school classmates, their fathers were now arriving home, but for some, their fathers had not survived the war.

I returned to Keating School in September for grade four and listened as my parents made their post war plans.  I saw some  big changes, others were small,  like the day my father arrived home with a case of 24 chocolate bars,  Cadbury I think, and I just couldn't believe it.  Chocolate bars!  The canteen was shutting down at the base and they were selling off their stock. For us, this  was an unheard of treat, something impossible to understand in today's world.

In Victoria, uniforms were quickly disappearing from the streets, and being replaced by civilian suits.  Men proudly displayed their new fedoras after years of military headgear, and army boots were being replaced with flashy new shoes.

Each discharged soldier received a small general service badge that could be worn on the lapel of a suit, and these were worn with pride by veterans, some for many years after the war.

My parents  considered the possibility of remaining in Victoria, and even looked at some properties.  I remember a small,  blue house on an acre of land that we went to see, but the ties to family in Saskatchewan were strong, and the decision was made to return to Saskatoon.

General Service Badge

Monday, February 15, 2016

VE Day

After what had been an unusually cold, snowy winter on Vancouver Island, we were finally having nice spring weather.   I remember one winter day having heavy, moist snow that was perfect for making a snowman.  All the kids started rolling a ball of snow, and it kept getting bigger and bigger and blocked Walema Drive.  It was so big my father couldn't drive past it,  so had to get out of the car and help us roll it to the side of the road.

One day, there was a big announcement at Keating School.  We were told there would be a special event for our families and we could bring a younger sibling to school.  Much like the popular "Take your child to work with you day," of more modern times, this was quite a unique idea.  When I went home and told my family about the
Walking along Walema Dr. to Cordova Bay Rd.
to catch the school bus, 1945
announcement,  Bill, who was almost five,  was excited and could hardly wait.   He would get to go to school with his big sister.  When the big  day arrived, Bill and I headed up Walema Drive to catch the school bus on Cordova Bay Road.  Bill thought this was great, to be going on the school bus just like the older kids.  We both waved goodbye to Mother, who stood holding one year old Alan, and off we went.  At school, Bill sat at the desk beside  me, but the seats were not very wide and he remembers that he kept falling off the side.   At recess we both went out to play and joined up with the other children who had also brought siblings. It must have been a hectic day for the teachers, but for the students, it was a wonderful day and we returned home with lots of stories to share and memories that have lasted a lifetime.   It seems to have been one of those once only events though, as I have never heard of it happening again.

Major changes were happening in the world.  In April 1945 the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died and Vice President Harry S. Truman took office.  We listened to the broadcast of Roosevelt's funeral on the radio.

A month later on May 8, 1945, VE Day, victory in Europe and  Adolph Hitler was dead.  What had started in 1939 had finally ended.   We heard the celebrations and jubilation on the radio, but for us there was still a war in the Pacific as Japan continued its aggression.  Nightmares about the war were often a problem for children, and I was no exception. Someone had taken me to a war movie a year or two earlier and this movie contributed to my anxiety for a long time.

From the archives of the Royal BC Museum, :  Victoria celebrates the Victory in Europe (May 8, 1945) | Staff Profiles

In June 1945 my father received the military  honour of being "Mentioned in Despatches" and received the distinctive oak leaf pin to wear on his uniform.  The award was accompanied by this statement:

This non-commissioned officer has at all times carried out his difficult tasks in a highly efficient and exemplary manner. There were periods when very difficult situations arose and he has always surmounted these difficulties in a very commendable manner.  Arduous tasks and long hours have never dampened this non-commissioned officer's enthusiasm and he has been a great credit to his station.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Christmas during the War

It was the winter of 1944 and the Christmas season had arrived.  Instead of the usual spruce Christmas tree, for some reason my parents had selected a cedar tree and it just didn't look right to me. Maybe, because of the war, there was so much going on in my life, I thought something constant like the traditional Christmas tree was important.   On Christmas Eve my father was putting tacks into the fireplace mantle to hang our stockings, when he noticed my four year old brother Bill had taken the hammer and was pounding tacks into the arm of the big wooden chair.  That certainly brought about a quick reaction from Dad.  Uncle Don and Aunt Pat spent Christmas with us that year, and with a bit of mischief in mind, Don sneaked into the living room during the night and put a lump of coal in each of our stockings.  Christmas morning we pretended to be shocked but thought it was quite funny.  Our gifts were small and modestly priced.  An orange and a candy cane in our stocking was a treat and we usually received a home knitted sweater or mitts or an inexpensive board game as well.  Sometimes the Christmas or birthday gift a child received was a 25 cent war savings stamp.  At the end of the war the book with sixteen 25 cent stamps, which had  cost $4.00 could be redeemed for $5.00.  Although stamps might seem an unlikely gift for a child, there was not much we could buy if we did have the money.  Sugar was rationed so candy was limited, and the only games that were available were ones like Snakes and Ladders or card games such as Fish or Old Maid, so the promise of $5.00 after the war was a great incentive.

In December there had been some sewer excavations going on in front of our neighbour's house, so on Christmas day some of the adults were telling us how Santa had become stuck in the excavation ditch the night before, and they had to help him get out in order to save Christmas.  Brian, who was a little older than me  confirmed the story, so naturally, this made true believers of all of us.

Shortly after Christmas my father arrived home from the base one day looking somewhat disgusted.  He had been given an assignment and was not happy about it.  When my mother pressed him about what was going on, he finally said, "I've got to look after a dog."  

A statement like that immediately got not only
mother's attention, but perked up my ears as  well.  "What do you mean, looking after a dog?" she asked.  Well, it turned out that a movie was being made and part of it, the war scenes, were being filmed at Pat Bay.  Since they couldn't have unauthorized dog handlers wandering around exercising a dog on a military base, especially during a time of war, the duty had to be assigned to a soldier and my father, who  was working in the Paymaster Division, was selected.  He would be the one to walk Lassie.  The movie was "Son of Lassie" and it was released in the spring of 1945.  I thought it was great that my father was involved in a movie, but he did not share my enthusiasm.