Bernard had been accepted Into the Royal Canadian Flying Corps. While he waited for call-up he was selling Insurance through the country around Saskatoon.
Our Joe had been invalided home after a lengthy stint in a hospital in England.
I had now had enough of the business world and decided to return to teaching, and so I went to Dundurn in September. It was an isolated community some twenty-five miles from Saskatoon and seemed to spread out for miles over the prairie.
My new landlord met me at the train platform. A station-house was a luxury enjoyed by only much larger communities! Mr. Whittaker w as a short dark man from Indiana whose mouth was permanently deformed by the large wad of chewing tobacco which he kept clamped between his back teeth. Driving along in the wagon we passed several stooping figures filling gunny sacks with coal which had fallen from the train cab.
Blond Roberta ran into the farmyard to meet us. She was dressed in overalls and a clean blouse and I remember thinking what a sensible oman her mother must be to dress her little girl this way instead of in the encumbering skirts we had worn. We were met at the door by a smiling blond woman with a heavy German accent. The most heavenly smells of baking emanated from her kitchen! The bungalow was recently completed and boasted hardwood floors, flush plumbing and a telephone! I couldn't believe my good fortune!
No sooner were we sitting down to a welcoming cup of tea than the phone rang. Mrs. Whittaker sprang up from her chair, placed her hand over the mouthpiece and placed the receiver to her ear. I waited for her to say something. She didn't. As the party-line conversation unfolded, her large blue eyes grew round at some item of news or she frowned and pursed her lips into a 'tsk, tsk ' at some less favorable tid-bit. Eventually the conversation was terminated and she returned to the table and her now cold cup of tea.
"We all listen to every call that t comes through," she said without a shade of embarrassment. "That way we know when someone is ill or in trouble and we can do something to help."
One of the local families had a pretty fourteen-year old daughter who was one of my students. This year at harvest time her father had hired a young boy to help on the farm. Unknown to the girl's parents, a liaison had developed between the two young people.
Early one Saturday morning the girl's father rode his horse into Whittaker's yard at a great clip, his hair wild and his eyes blazing.
"What's wrong, man?" demanded Mrs. Whittaker.
"That dang-blaated hired hand has got our girl in trouble! I'm off with the shot gun!"
Sure enough there was the gun lying ominously across the saddle. The tormented man turned his horse and sped away up the road.
"We had better go down to the field and tell Bill because when that man gets in a temper like he's in now he'll for sure blow that boy's brains out!"
Mrs Whittaker doffed her big white apron and we sped aver the fields to find her husband. Hurriedly the horse was hitched up to the buggy and the three of us drove to the neighboring farm where the boy had come out of hiding and was sitting abjectly in the kitchen with the sobbing girl and her distraught mother.
The four adults did our best to discuss the situation i ntelligently while the two youngsters sat in silence listening to their fate being decided. We had reached a level of forced calm by the time the frenzied father returned, and the entire performance had to be repeated.
After another hour, during which anger, shame, disappointment - all rose to the surface at regular intervals, the poor father rode off again. He rode slowly this time, shoulders hunched, head hanging - a sorrowing figure.
Before long he returned with the minister. The two youngsters were married right there and then in the parlor with the Whittaker's and me looking on. The boy and girl whispered their responses. The mother cried audibly. The father's jaw jutted, perhaps to keep it from trembling.
Some months later I called on the family. Everyone had accepted his lot philosophically and were all waiting for the arrival of the new baby who would now be born into a 'respectable' family...
Occasionally Bernard would be able to get a drive with someone in a Model T Ford and come to Dundurn for a Sunday. These were special times for us and we spent many wonderful hours together planning our future. They were special times for Mrs Whittaker too; who would disappear into her kitchen to prepare her fabulous fried chicken with quantities of thick gravy, feather light cinnamon buns, strudels, coffee cake, and bread dough filled with jam. When a new batch of biscuits came from the oven we cut them in half on the spot and slathered them with butter from the pail beside the stove!
Once Bernard was able to borrow a car for a few days. We timed his calls to arrive at Dundurn after school on a Friday and we set off for Saskatoon. The car had to be cranked repeatedly. When it finally took hold in a series of jolts and shudders, Bernard climbed in, released the-brake, and off we jolted. Bernard was wearing a duster coat, visor cap, goggles and gauntlet gloves. I was enveloped in a borrowed duster coat several sizes too large for me and my hat was tied down with a long scarf which trailed behind me in the wind once we were in motion.
There were no paved roads, garages or filling stations. Neither were there 'unfilling' stations and many a passenger traveled tortured miles too embarrassed to mention the immediate need to retreat behind a nearby bush. To go twenty miles without a breakdown was a fabulous feat. When it rained, the driver had to stop the car, get out and hook each curtain individually in place. By then his clothes would have reached saturation point. In winter the driving was even more hazardous since there were as yet no heaters or anti freeze. The driver had to pour a kettle of boiling water over the radiator to thaw it before the engine would start. Every few miles one or more tires would pop and bang, and the car would come to a standstill until repairs were made. By then the radiator would be frozen again, and the driver would have to plow through snow to the nearest farm, often many miles away, to get another kettle of water which in all likelihood would be frozen when he reached the car again. In desperation he would have to return to the farm and persuade the farmer to hitch up his team and pull the car and passengers back to his farm where they would all have to stay until things could be put into action again. Farmers augmented their harvest income by charging $10.00 to $15.00 for such a tow, muttering all the while, "New fangled contraptions! Give me old Nellie every time!"
But Bernard and I were lucky on our drive to Saskatoon. Only twice did a tire blow and we were soon under way again each time.
It was now late autumn. There had been no rain for weeks. Winds were high and air was filled with dust particles so thick that they blocked the sun. A layer of sediment covered everything. Farmers saw their newly seeded fields stripped bare, their work gone in the relentless wind.
"So much of this waste could have been avoided," Bernard said, shaking his head. "If only the farmers could see the wisdom of contour ploughing!"
"Any of them could have written to Ontario for free trees which they could plant for a windbreak," I observed. "There have been notices in all the papers and in the general stores."
"That's true, Patty. But don't forget that many of these people have only the rudiments of reading and writing and they would be too ashamed to ask someone to help them...That farmer could have dug an irrigation ditch right along there," he said pointing out to his left. "And would you look at those cattle they look ready to drop from starvation!"
With no water and no feed, cattle indeed died in the fields, their ribs showing visibly through their hides.
"All the teachers have received information about summer fallowing and crop rotation, to pass on to their students," I remarked. "We hope to reach some of the fathers through their children."
We passed through mile after mile of desolate countryside where homesteads had been abandoned and the dust sifted in constant waves over everything. Some fanners had made an effort to keep out the offending particles by chinking up every crevice with paper and rags, but somehow the dust grew higher - ever higher. There was no way to stop it.
We passed a family who had just packed up their few basic necessities on the wagon driven by a gaunt horse. The mother clutched the youngest child, a mere babe, in her arms while the other children dragged one bare foot wearily after the other along the dusty road. Defeat was written over the face of each parent. They had toiled so hard. Years of backbreaking labor had been made bearable only by the hope of the crop to come. Now all was lost! They had no money, no home, no hope.
When we arrived in Saskatoon, dirty and depressed by the devastation we had witnessed, mother failed to recognize us. We were covered from crown to sole with thick dust. Our eyes were bloodshot and even washing could not remove the embedded particles from cur clothing.
This was the first of sight years of drought which destroyed man and beast alike in great sections of Canada's prairie land.
It was good to be home for the weekend. Mother and Mabel very busy with their various activities. Father was firmly entrenched in his own affairs and no one else quite knew what they w ere. Young Bernard was back at school and involved with his own friends and their current pranks. My Bernard and I visited with the Harrison's and went for long walks along my beloved Saskatchewan River.
When our Joe had been discharged from the Army he had one over riding ambition. To study.
"I know I can't get anywhere without an education, Patty," he had said.
Riding around with Reg and working the big spreads is one thing when you're single. But I did a lot of thinking when I was overseas, and when I got this, and he held up his maimed right arm, I knew that I had to settle down now and look after my wife and daughters properly. Will you help me? he had asked.
Joe had written to Ontario for courses and had gone back into the classroom with young children. He had followed me around at night like a shadow to get help with his mathematical problems. He had found History particularly difficult and enlisted my aid at every opportunity. Motivated as he was, he soon outclassed me in mathematics.
"It's like a new world for me!" he had exulted.
The months of study had gone by with no let up on Joe's part. At the end of the last school year he had matriculated with first class honor's, only to embark than on a new course of study. He was offered a good position with the Soldiers' Civil Re-establishment working out of Calgary and his job was to call meetings of farmers to educate them in methods of irrigation, contour ploughing and crop rotation.
Sitting alone together in our dining-room over a cup of tea that Saturday, Joe told me about one of these meetings.
"You know how I am, Patty," he said. "Ordinarily I speak without any difficulty at all, but when I get excited, I stutter. Well, it was my first big meeting and I was nervous. As soon as I opened my mouth I sounded like a machine gun! The audience began to fidget and I didn't know what I was going to do. My new boss was there to listen to me go through my paces and I had visions of my job flying out the door with the disgruntled audience! I made one or two more horrible tries and looked down at them all sitting there. I felt all was lost now anyway, so I said, Yes, I'm s-s-stuttering! And if I didn't have s-s-such a bunch of plug-ugly mugs to look at and t-t-try to sell a little progress to, I wouldn't be s-s-stuttering like this! Well, it just broke the tension and those farmers roared, and I was alright after that!"
As we drove back to the Whittaker farm that Sunday, Bernard e ither chattered without stopping or grew silent for long periods. I had a sense of foreboding.
"Have you been called up, Bernard?" I asked, already knowing the answer.
"Yes, Patty. This will be our last time together for God knows how long. I leave for Long Branch, near Toronto, in the morning." I felt my heart tighten into a hard lump, but knew that I must help him to be strong.
"It's what you have been waiting for such a long time," I managed with what I hoped was strength and pride in my voice. "I am so very proud of you. And it can't last much longer...can it?"
"That's what everyone said three years ago," he said. "It may sound dreadful of me to say it, but I do hope it lasts long enough for me to get over there and do something worthwhile!"
"But you did try to enlist at the very first," I reminded him. "It was during your medical that they found you had that heart murmur!"
"I know," he said. "And I've done everything the doctors advised to cure it, and now at last it is fine. But that hasn't made it any easier to see people like your brothers go off and return home again maimed like Joe or to die over there like Buzzy"
"I know dear," I murmured. "How I shall miss you!" And my hand was squeezed in return as we drove into the farmyard.
The Whittaker's helped me through those next trying weeks. Whenever they heard of someone in need, they packed a hamper of baked goods and rode up the road in a cloud of dust, leaving the house untouched and untended. They worked from sun up to sunset each and every day.
"We know what it is like to struggle," said Mrs. Whittaker, nodding her blond braided head. "If people had not helped us when w e needed it we couldn't have managed at all, at all."
"I hear that Englishman over yonder is planning to marry up with that young daughter of the Neilson's'," said Mr. Whittaker one night between chaws at his ever-present wad of tobacco.
"She will be taking on a great load, that girl, if she marries up with him," his wife spoke from her rocking-chair where she sat putting a patch in Roberta's overalls. "You know, Patty, he has a brother who is retarded and is quite a care, I believe."
"Shucks, she'll be alright," said her husband. "Any fellow who treats his animals as good as that guy does will treat his wife good too. You mark my words!" And he aimed a mouthful of tobacco stained spittle into the fire with great accuracy where it hissed itself into oblivion. "Yup. That's for sure. Now look how he treats his horses. Never beats them when they get stuck in the mud. Never overworks them. And he never gets riled with that young brother of his, no matter what. Believe you me, he'll make her a fine husband!"
I decided to go home to Saskatoon for a long weekend. The train passed through Dundurn at three in the morning, so Mr. Whittaker drove me to the Lutheran minister's home after school on Friday. The minister and his wife fed me a marvelous dinner and I was shown to a spotless guest-room for the first part of the night, where the sheets smelled of lavender.
"Time to get up, Miss Sutton!" The call came almost as soon as I closed my eyes.
Out into the night we trooped, the minister and I, the one holding a lantern aloft and the other carrying a small satchel. There were no sidewalks in Dundurn and we stumbled over hummocks and through puddles to get to the platform well before three o'clock so the night attendant could flag down the train. I was wearing my best pair of high boots so I would look smart when I arrived home. They were made of fine kid and sported higher heels than I had ever worn before. When I bought them, Father had taken one look and said, "You're not going to the country to teach in THOSE!"
"Oh yes I am" I had retorted, and here I was trying vainly to avoid scuffs from stones and mud from puddles!
As we picked our way along in the ghostly light, the train whistle blew from far down the line. This threw me into a panic. I lifted my skirts and began to run, deciding that my beautiful boots would have to take care of themselves. The minister puffed along behind saying, "There's really loads of time, Miss Sutton! The train is still a long way off. Don't hurry so or you may fall!"
Away in the distance the first glimmer of the train's light pierced the darkness spasmodically, alternately winking and hiding as it came ever nearer. My heart rose into my mouth.
"Isn't it going too fast to stop?" I gasped.
"Now don't you fret none, miss," the attendant said, waving his lantern aloft.
The small light seemed dwarfed to me when compared to the huge headlight advancing at an alarming rate. The train was NOT going to stop! It had slowed down certainly, but it was still moving along at a nice clip!
"Here, miss. Step on your satchel and I'll give you a boost in," the attendant offered.
A conductor was leaning out from one of the openings with arms extended in my direction.
"Come on, girlie," he called, "I'll give you a hand!"
Holding my skirts much higher than decorum allowed, I jumped for the conductor's arms, aided by a firm propulsion from the rear. I was swung inside, my satchel hurling in after me.
"There you are now. We don't bother to put down the steps for just one passenger," I was told!
Unnerved and disheveled, I turned into the coach to find a seat. The light was dim and before I could distinguish details visually, my olfactory sense was made aware of unwashed bodies combined with garlic and vomit. Babies cried petulantly. Most of my coach mates appeared to be large people and spoke in a language I did not understand. The train conductor nodded at them and said to me, "Dukhobors and Mennonites."
One particularly stout woman sat with several large men and they appeared virtually surrounded by innumerable children in various stages of sleep, train-sickness and active curiosity.
I found a vacant seat and prepared to settle in for the remainder of the night.
"I really wish the minister and his wife had let me pay for my dinner and lodging," I mused. "They certainly can't afford to put up guests for nothing."
When I had tried to offer payment, I had been told, "It's Just Christian, Miss Sutton," and my hosts would accept nothing.
I took up the problem of payment with Mrs Whittaker when I returned from the weekend.
Now don't you worry about it, Patty! Bill and I always give the m a piece of hog or some cream when someone goes on the train, and we take a couple chickens them each time we go into town. So don't you feel badly!"
Out of my meager $5.00 a week board money, the Whittaker's had paid for my night's hospitality in their own way....The School Board had certainly done well in choosing a good home for their teacher this time!
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