All posts by Art Martens

Valentine’s Day, More Than A Box Of Chocolates?

Art & Linda Martens in Hedley, BC

Last week, while thinking about the coming of Valentine’s Day, my mind drifted back to the evening I met Linda on a hayride sponsored by the Mennonite church she attended. We had both been raised in the church, but my commitment had lapsed, as had that of my closest friends. I felt drawn to Linda’s fun loving nature and her capacity to laugh easily. Two weeks later I walked half a mile to the nearest pay phone and asked her to go to an Abbotsford Panthers basketball game. I didn’t want my family to be aware if she turned me down.

Looking now at the early years of our relationship, I realize I really didn’t have the understanding or maturity to make it work. Fortunately Linda was more settled and she was thinking beyond a few dates. Even that might not have been sufficient though and Linda’s mom apparently considered me an ill-conceived choice by her daughter. Shortly before we were married, she said to Linda, “I’m concerned about you two.” Understandably, she was probably troubled by the fact that I owned nothing except a recently purchased 1950 flathead Ford.

In today’s pretty complacent thinking about marriage, I wonder if ours would have survived. Like many of our friends, financially we started with almost nothing. Also, I always tended to over commit to work and Linda was at home with our children many evenings. What held us together?

We had grown up in the still quite cohesive Mennonite culture existing at that time. Our parents, and virtually their entire social circle, provided an example of a stable family life. They clung tenaciously to Mennonite roots, culture, and beliefs. Also to the German language. They wanted their children to embrace the simple, unadorned faith that had been passed on to them by previous generations. It was a faith intertwined with a good deal of culture, and had been practised by Mennonites in Ukraine and Russia, and in Holland before that. Although pyrogies, farmers sausage, cabbage rolls and home made white buns weren’t essential to the faith, in practise, a relationship did exist.

In our preschool days, our families spoke Low German at home. It was a dialect that came out of Holland and was the mother tongue of many Mennonites. The written version never really caught on, so in most churches the regular German predominated. Since neither Linda or I had a grasp of the language spoken by ministers, we didn’t understand the sermons until an English language Mennonite church was later started in our community. In spite of this, we understood the teaching that marriage was “for better or for worse, till death do us part.”

Without realizing it, this historical heritage of culture, language and faith seeped into our psyches. And into the psyches of the Mennonite friends we grew up with and who are still important to us. None of the approximately dozen couples we still consider intimate friends from the past have gone through a separation or divorce.

It was a different, more stable time in Canada and certainly Mennonites were not alone in wanting marriages to survive. Our grandchildren, now in their late teens, are immersed in a culture in which there isn’t a high regard for fidelity in marital relationships. It doesn’t even encourage marriage.

Linda was 20 (plus 4 days, as she sometimes reminds me), and I was 23 when we got married. Very young by today’s standards. We tested the bond between us early, tent camping for 3 months on the then undeveloped far side of Sheridan Lake in the Cariboo. The mosquitoes were ravenous and Linda particularly deplored the rain. Those 3 months set the stage for me attending university and for many of the adventures we have shared. In spite of our share of setbacks and failures, staying in the game for the long run has given us a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.

By their example, our parents and their friends showed us the importance of overlooking slights, forgiving, never giving up and providing a stable home for their children. If we pass on to the next generation this deep commitment to sound values, Valentine’s Day could mean more than a card, a box of chocolates and a glass of wine.

Lee McFadyen, Environmental and Organic Advocate

Lee McFadyen

When Lee McFadyen arrived in Canada from Australia in 1967 at age 25, she planned to stay only 2 years. “I wanted to see the country, particularly the Canadian Rockies,” she said. “I had a nursing degree and it was my intention to return to Melbourne and work there. Everything changed when I turned in to a farm in Cawston and asked for a drink of water. The owner of the farm was Mr. McFadyen.”

Lee had been made aware at an early age that water is important for much more than drinking. “The only time my Dad ever swatted my back side,” she recalled with evident amusement, “ was when I threw out half a glass of water. He told me I should have poured it into the bucket we used to water the garden. We were in the midst of a serious drought.”

She had grown up on the family farm in Australia. “We didn’t have television or electricity. My early years instilled in me a deep respect for land and water and all nature. The aboriginal people taught us to look after the land. That became embedded in me.”

Upon arriving in Toronto she initially worked in a hospital. “I didn’t live comfortably in the city,” she said. “I didn’t like the smells and the noise.” Requesting the glass of water led to marriage with Bob and a lifetime of organic farming and advocating for the Similkameen environment.

At that time their farm consisted of 250 acres. “I loved the sounds of birds, lightning and thunder, the river rising, a snake slithering in the grass.”

Lee McFadyen in her backyard, with Mt. Chopaka in the background.

Reading Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament provided the sound understanding she would need to become a force in organic farming. Sir Albert was one of the key founders of organic agriculture. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring significantly impacted her work in protecting the environment. The Rodale Institute also played a role in her education.

“My father understood the need to protect the land. He didn’t use chemical fertilizers. At the end of his life he told me he had only one serious regret. He had agreed to let the government use a portion of his land for experimentation. They sprayed DDT on it. Years later this still saddened him.”

Lee’s environmental advocacy began some 40 years ago. She was asked by pioneer rancher, Mrs. C.C. McCurdy, for help in responding to the proposal to construct a Keremeos sewage treatment plant. “We weren’t opposed to the plant, but the location was a serious issue for us. It required a lot of research. Fortunately I had learned to do research as a nurse. We didn’t get everything we wanted, but in time we did get a better location and a plant more suited to future needs.”

Her understanding was enlarged when she began noticing there were fewer birds. “It became clear to me that without cleaner agriculture, we can’t have a cleaner environment. Everything we touch comes from the land. Land is life giving. ”

Lee McFadyen received COABC (Certified Organic Associations of BC) Founder’s Award

There wasn’t much information available concerning organic growing so she developed a course and taught it at the Keremeos and Penticton campuses of Okanagan college. She also developed a course that is now used by Canadian Organic Growers.

For some time Lee and others have been pressing hard for policies and practices to save our water shed. “Everyone can do something,” she said. “We should all be very aware of the amount of water we use. Also, don’t litter. Plastics are especially destructive. Bits of plastic migrate through the soil and end up in the watertable. The way we dispose of medications and cosmetics is also a problem for water.”

Lee practises what she teaches. “I’ve never owned a clothes dryer,” she said. “They use too much energy. Also, clothes last longer when they’re dried on a line.” She is concerned about the excessive amount of packaging, especially plastics. “When I come home with a new product, I sometimes write to the manufacturer about the excess. Letters have more power than emails. They take up space.”

Consumerism troubles her. “Advertising programs children to want things. Consumerism causes enormous damage to the planet.”

Lee still grows and markets basil and parsley, and seems surprisingly content. “I enjoy my grandchildren, the cycle of the seasons, seeing 5 nuthatches at my birdfeeder. I’m happy when a sick friend gets better.” It started with a glass of water.

Michelle Stilwell, An Elite Paralympian

MLA Michelle Stilwell (Parksville-Qualicum), Winner of 6 Paralympic Gold Medals

When the phone rang in my home last week and a congenial voice said, “Hello, this is Michelle Stilwell,” I instantly sensed her exceptional vitality. An elite athlete, she has won an impressive array of medals, including 6 gold and 1 silver in the Sydney, Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro Paralympics. At age 17, while being piggy-backed by a friend down a flight of stairs, she fell and suffered a life altering injury. In spite of requiring the use of a wheelchair, she exudes a sparkling zest for life.

I wanted to understand how she had been able to move ahead and become a highly regarded athlete, and more recently, an effective member of the B.C. Legislature.

Michelle expressed gratitude for a good early beginning. “My parents owned a hotel in Winnipeg,” she said. “Observing them, I learned the value of a dollar. I was expected to work for the money they gave me. At first it was chores at home. Then I bussed in the hotel restaurant and cleaned rooms. Eventually I became the front desk clerk. I liked people and I liked responsibility. I was class president in school and a youth leader in church. Through sport I learned about teamwork, leadership and dedication. Prior to my injury I wanted to become a flight attendant and travel the world.”

Her aspirations and dreams crashed when, three weeks before graduation, she landed in a helpless heap on the floor. For most victims of such physical and psychological trauma, it might have seemed there was little left to live for.

In the rehab hospital there were certainly occasional days when I didn’t want to do anything,” she acknowledged. “Fortunately, they had a program that enabled me to graduate. I was introduced to wheelchair basketball and I began to see a path ahead. I committed to that path.”

She began playing on a mixed basketball team, the only female. “I don’t have hand function so my role was to get the big man into the key so he could score.” There were new challenges when she started travelling with the team. Bathroom doors weren’t wide enough for a wheelchair, or the bed was too high to get into. For over 3 years she spent a lot of time in the hospital.

Michelle didn’t deny reality. Instead, she decided to view her situation through a positive prism. “I knew I wouldn’t get a reset button to start over. I needed to do the best with what I had. Walking isn’t everything.”

She reflected a moment, then said, “I could make choices that would create my future. We are all responsible for our choices and decisions we make.”

Michelle Stilwell, (right) Rio de Janiero Paralympics, 2016

Michelle committed to training for Paralympic competition, first in wheelchair basketball, then in wheelchair racing. “Training was full on hard core. I ate the right food, spent hours in the garage where I had stationery rollers for my chair and surrounded myself with people to help me succeed. To get to Olympic competition you need God given talent, but it also takes sweat, tears and pain, pushing yourself past exhaustion. It became my world. For me it was everything. Each day I tried to go faster. Tried to get better. I loved the challenge. Those were some of my best days.”

She met Mark while playing wheelchair basketball. Although able bodied, he was allowed to compete in the integrated sport. “For me it was love at first sight,” she said, and I sensed a smile in her voice. “It took 4 months before he asked me to marry him. We have a sixteen year old son, Kai.”

Since winning a gold medal in Paralympic basketball and 5 gold plus a silver in wheelchair racing, Michelle has taken on a new challenge. “I never, never, thought of getting into politics,” she said, seemingly surprised at this new venture. As Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation in the Christy Clark government, she brought in the Single Parent Employment Initiative which provides help to single parents to get off social assistance. “It’s especially important because these parents become positive role models for their children,” she said.

MLA Michelle Stilwell at Swearing In Ceremony

Would I undo the injury if I could go back in time?” Michelle asked at the end of our conversation. “No. I wouldn’t have had the opportunities to accomplish what I’ve been able to do, and I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Princeton Ground Search And Rescue

Randy Rorvik, a Team Manager of Princeton Ground Search and Rescue

Members of Princeton Ground Search and Rescue (GSAR) are at times awakened in the middle of the night by the urgent ringing of their phone. “We’re on call 24-7,” Randy Rorvik, a Team Manager told Linda and me in a conversation at their headquarters on a recent Saturday morning. “We never know what to expect. My wife Angie gets up and makes coffee and sandwiches for me. We cover a huge geographic area. Last year we were called out 22 times, mostly for rescues.”

He paused and smiled. As we listened, we would conclude that his disarming, relaxed demeanor was likely at least in part derived from the confidence provided by extensive training and experience.

A quick glance around the GSAR office suggested this is not a place where fainthearted dabblers would feel comfortable. The walls are void of adornments. One wall features a large map detailing plans for an evacuation. There’s communication equipment, also several computer screens. No woman’s delicate touch here. “We debrief after every search. Communication is always an issue,” Randy observed.

Randy Rorvik points to the Princeton Evacuation Plan map.

We learned GSAR is very much about commitment, preparation, and often tedious attention to detail. “We meet for training every Thursday,” Randy said. “Some of what we learn may never be put to use, but we must be ready. Today a number of members are in the meeting room attending a seminar on ice rescue. This afternoon we’ll be at McKenzie Lake doing a simulation.” I was impressed that while some people were sleeping in or relaxing, team members were preparing.

Randy was born in the early 1960’s in Princeton and raised locally. Until 15 years ago, he wasn’t even thinking about search and rescue. “My friend Arnie Powell got involved when an RCMP officer placed an ad requesting volunteers. Arnie’s truck was broken down and he asked me to give him a lift to a search and also to help. Since then I’ve taken a number of courses, including Train the Trainer. Tracking is my specialty and I teach that. Tracking entails a lot of time on hands and knees, nose to the ground, looking for clues.”

Randy expressed high regard for the team. “We’re all volunteers. We do receive $25 per day on call-outs, but every member turns that back into the organization.”

In the early days, all their gear was stored in one large orange box. Since that meager beginning, the provincial government has recognized the benefit of their work. “The province has given us one time grants, and the town and RDOS have chipped in as well. We also receive support from the community,” Randy said. “All this has helped us acquire several ATV’s, snowmobiles, a truck and a command trailer that carries our gear when we go on searches.”

Randy with the Princeton Ground Search & Rescue Command

I’m sometimes surprised at where lost people end up,” Randy admitted. “We regularly use Koester’s ‘Lost Person Behavior‘ which is now online. It helps us understand what lost people typically can be expected to do. ”

Lost people make it easier for the team if they leave some sign they have been at a particular spot. “In the past we expected people to go down to find a stream. Now they are likely to go up to get a cell signal.”

In one case a man took his 2 children and a friend into the mountains. Their pickup got stuck and the friend, apparently hoping to get help, walked away and got lost. “We went in by chopper and found the truck. From there we were able to follow the tracks in the dirt and find the man.”

Some rescues are pretty simple but still critical. One such case involved a woman in the Keremeos area. After hiking she was too exhausted to get back to her car. “We alerted Scotty Hare, a Team Manager who lives in Keremeos. He found her and brought her back.”

Randy explains the importance of the Personal Locator Beacon with texting capability.

Before going into the wilderness, Randy said, people can make things easier for searchers by leaving a plan indicating where they are going and when they expect to return. He also urgently recommends a Personal Locator Beacon. “The newer models permit texting. This can provide information that aids us in the rescue effort.” He’s enthusiastic about new systems, strategies and technologies.

If Linda and I are ever lost in the woods I certainly hope Randy and his pragmatic, tough minded search and rescue team will be out there with noses to the ground, searching for us.

Relationships Are Worth Nourishing

Relationships by

Although I am in regular contact with Brian, I have never met him and almost certainly never will. He’s serving a lengthy sentence in the Idaho Maximum Security Institution, a commercially operated prison. A trouble maker in the prison until quite recently, he was “bequeathed” to Linda and me by our friend Arnet Hales, who passed away last year.

With Arnet gone, we are Brian’s only connection to the world outside the high metal fence that surrounds the prison. From him and other inmates, I’ve learned something about how important it is to nourish relationships.

Maintaining outside relationships while in prison is particularly challenging. Prisons tend to have a plethora of regulations that discourage substantive interactions, even with family. U.S. prisons are especially harsh. Except for one telephone conversation, our communication with Brian has been by letter. In that single phone call from him, he said very forlornly, “I’ve done too much time. My family and friends have given up on me. I don’t know where they are anymore. I don’t blame them.” Possibly he didn’t make the effort and they didn’t either.

Having lived many years without letters or visits before Arnet’s time, Brian has become aware of the value of friendships. He invariably expresses fervent appreciation when we write.

In my work life I interviewed many inmates, many of whom, like Brian had lost all outside connections. On one occasion at the B.C. Penitentiary (since then shut down and demolished) I was required to speak with a man through a small metal mesh in a plexiglass window. Slight, with thinning brown hair and a wan, expressionless visage, everything about him suggested a deep inner desolation.

Dressed in grey prison garb, he observed me vacantly, seemingly incapable of believing any good would come from this conversation. 18 years in prison had apparently taken away all zest for life. Even so, he wanted a friend and had applied to our organization for a citizen sponsor.

I’ve come to understand that prison walls and regulations are not the only obstacles to communication. Most of us at times erect relationship barriers, intentionally or through neglect. Pressures at work, disagreements at home, discouragement, or complacency can distract us from what is really significant. I know one individual who will not accept a telephone call when her favorite tv program is on. In-depth conversations become more difficult when people continuously send and receive text messages.

Linda and I have been guilty of permitting relationships to languish. When we first moved to Hedley in the late 1970’s, we were too preoccupied with work and family to maintain important friendships we had left behind in the Fraser Valley. Due to lack of attention, they withered.

Dr. Mensa Otabil

Reflecting back on that time, we realize that Dr. Mensa Otabil was right when he wrote in Pathways To Success, “90% of the people in your life today will not be there in 10 years.”

Fortunately, when an employment change took us back to Abbotsford for some 25 years, we were able to restore many of the relationships we had neglected. When we returned to Hedley 5 years ago, we decided we would not repeat past negligence. In the hope of retaining and adding to our connections, we began writing an email letter to family and friends every 2 months.

Mostly they talk about life in this rustic, somewhat remote community. If Linda is baking brown bread or chocolate chip cookies, we write about the aroma and anticipation. When we still had 3 chickens, they received respectful, occasionally disgruntled mention. We have written about the popular monthly $5 pancake breakfasts at the Seniors’ Centre, the Museum’s Stamp Mill Day celebrating Hedley’s gold boom past, and the Community Club’s summer street dance.

The content of these letters is never sensational. Writing about small town life in a manner that interests our more sophisticated city friends can be daunting. Their responses at times do cause us to ponder. Some provide a sketch of daily routines, challenges, adventures. Many write only a few lines but want to stay in touch. Others never respond but when we meet them, they express appreciation for the letters. “We’re not good communicators,” they say, “but we like reading about your lives in Hedley. Keep the letters coming.”

Staying in touch need not be arduous. A phone call, card, email or visit lets people know we value their friendship. Relationships are worth nourishing.

Recent Arrivals A Benefit To Hedley

Our new neighbours in Hedley, Dian & Tap.

At the beginning of 2017 a number of homes in Hedley were for sale. Linda and I hoped for an influx of quality people willing to commit to our community. By the end of the year almost every for sale sign had come down and it appears our wish has been granted.

Among the new people are our next door neighbours, Tap Nevalainen and Dian McKusick, who moved from Maple Ridge in August. They have very quickly acquired a deep appreciation for the simplicity and peacefulness of rural life. “We lived near railway tracks,” Dian told us. “There were train whistles all night. I had difficulty sleeping.”

Both had experienced a failed relationship when they met in a bar 6 years ago. “I had decided I’d never do that again,” Di told us. Tap wasn’t looking either, but admits he was smitten quickly. “It was pretty close to love at first sight.” Di nodded and said, “It was the same for me.”

Like most of the new emigres to our community, Tap and Di have been matured and tempered by life experiences. Until they made their move to Hedley, Tap worked in construction, building high rise apartment buildings, at times 40 to 50 stories. “I was foreman overseeing the construction of the foundations,” he said. “All the concrete work. On the last building, we dug down 6 levels. On these projects there is always water to deal with.”

Tap was 13 when he moved with his parents from Finland to Canada. Having a pragmatic bent, he knew at a young age he wanted to be a carpenter. “I quit school after grade 10. That was enough to get me into an apprentice program when I turned 19. I didn’t see a need for more education.”

At age 12, Di learned from a sister she was a foster child, not the biological daughter of her parents. “It was a huge shock. She also told me my birth mother had just been found murdered. I first met my biological father and siblings at a Catholic prayer time for my mother.”

Deeply troubled by the unexpected revelations, her life spiraled downward and she ran away. “I was mixed up and didn’t understand. I was unhappy with school and myself.” Unable to cope with Di’s erratic behaviours, her mother enrolled her in the school at Convent of the Sacred Heart, hoping this would settle her. It proved to be an ineffective solution. Di was then placed in a group home where she lived until age 18.

She didn’t become bitter toward the family. “I consider myself lucky, ” she said, “I didn’t get moved around like a lot of foster kids. They are my family and I have a lot of contact with them.”

Di attended school only to grade 7. At age 16 she began working weekends in a rest home, preparing breakfast and dinner for residents, giving medications and doing other tasks. Her husband’s business took her to Quebec for 25 years. When the relationship collapsed she returned to B.C. “I was determined to prove I could make it on my own. I cleaned houses and high rises. On weekends I cleaned at Canada Place.”

Meanwhile, for about 30 years, Tap was a foreman on high rise construction. Getting the foundation exactly right was crucial. He needed to develop the thinking to deal with complex challenges, some of them people related. “It’s nasty out there in big construction,” he said. “The people can make your life miserable. I’m very happy to be out of there.”

Tap, holding one of his rustic birdhouses.

Now in Hedley Tap is again in construction, building dwellings for birds. With Di’s deft decorating skills, each house becomes an intricate work of art, with an alluring rustic aura. It’s a great common ground for them.

Di decorates Tap’s creations.

Until I met Tap, I didn’t think I’d ever be happy again,” Di said. “Moving to Hedley and doing the birdhouses together has been good for us. I’m very happy.”

Like most of those who migrated here in 2017, Tap and Di show up at community functions, including the early morning coffee time at the Seniors’ Centre. They intend to volunteer their time and talents to assist local organizations. Very likely other rural centres are benefiting from a similar influx of solid contributing citizens. Many come with experience, ideas, and skills that will make communities more attractive, and enrich us all.

The Grahams of Hedley

Maggie Graham Pitkethly (photo taken in 1970)

Over the years I’ve heard plenty of speculation by Hedley oldtimers as to how Bill and Maggie Graham found the means to purchase the Colonial Inn after the mine closed. Maggie had worked as a housekeeper for the mine. Bill had operated an ore crusher in the Stamp Mill at the base of the mountain. It was generally known they had not come with money. Since none of the speculations could be verified, I decided they were a rural version of urban myth.

When I learned recently the Grahams’ daughter Maureen and her husband Campbell Dirksen live in Keremeos, I immediately called them and asked if they would talk with Linda and me.

In their comfortable home with a spectacular view of the valley and mountains, we enjoyed Maureen’s rich blend of coffee and delightful blueberry scones. We would learn she and Campbell have an impressive grasp of details from the past.

My dad, Bill Graham came from Scotland,” Maureen told us at the outset. “Mom was born in Hedley in 1909, in the house that still stands at the corner of Daly and Irene. Her father, Anton Winkler, owned several hotels, including the Grand Union, one of 6 in town. Over the years all burned down. My parents were married in 1935.”

The Inn was purchased first by Dr. Moore, a dentist who used it for his practice. When the mine shut down operations in 1955, the miners mostly moved on. Having few clients in town, Dr. Moore sold the Inn to the Grahams about a year and a half later.

Where did they get that amount of money?” I asked, hoping they could shed light on this local mystery.

Dad asked the Kelowna Exploration Company for permission to clean up the dust left behind from the mining operation,” Maureen said. “He was the only one who thought there must be gold in that dust. They gave him a profit sharing contract.”

Campbell picked up the story. “With a broom and wheel barrow, he swept up the dust in the Stamp Mill. He removed the floor boards and swept under them. All told, he collected enough dust to fill 8 tram line cars. He had it sent by train from Princeton to Everett, Washington. It took 3 years.”

It turned out there was a lot of gold in all that dust,” Maureen recalled. “Even after the mine got its share, my parents were able to buy the Inn and also send me and my brother to college in Vancouver.”

Bill and Maggie ran the Inn as a lodge and restaurant. Maureen has warm memories of working in the kitchen with her red headed, vivacious Mom. “She taught me everything I know. I baked 12 loaves of bread every day. People wanted to buy them but we needed them all. Our blueberry pies were very popular. We received letters from all over the world from satisfied guests.”

Famous people like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Governor Generals, and former Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas came by for a meal and sometimes stayed overnight.

One time Bing Crosby said we should have a juke box. Mom teased him, saying she wouldn’t have any Bing Crosby records in it anyway. She was good with people. Very friendly and she always remembered names of guests when they returned. She often picked up hitch hikers and brought them to the restaurant and gave them a meal. Sometimes she put them up overnight.”

Eight years after buying the Inn, the Grahams also acquired the Coach House, located at the rear of the property, near the Stamp Mill. “People were removing doors and windows and other items,” Campbell said. “It required a lot of repairs.” Unfortunately in 1971, Kelowna Exploration Co. had the iconic stamp mill burned due to liability concerns.

Bill died of cancer in 1968. About 5 years later Maggie married David Pitkethly, a wealthy businessman who stopped regularly for a meal at the Colonial Inn.

In July, 1975 Maggie and Maureen were collecting rocks on a mountainside. Without warning, a large boulder broke loose above them and came hurtling down toward the two women. Without thought for her own safety, Maggie pushed Maureen out of its path. She didn’t have time to get out of the way herself and was killed instantly.

At the end of our conversation with the Dirksens, Linda and I were convinced Bill and Maggie Graham played a significant role in Similkameen history. Their story is authentic, not an urban or rural myth.

On The Threshold Of 2018

I was sitting at the computer in my home office, contemplating the fact that we’re on the threshold of 2018. Several scenes from my past stirred restlessly within me, reminding me to not enter the new year with a sense of complacency.

In the first scene it was spring, and I was seated cross legged on a rock at the edge of the Similkameen River. Because this was a year of unusually heavy run-off, the icy water rushed by me with immense force. Alongside the turbulence, in a small sheltered eddy I noticed two chunks of driftwood, bumping repeatedly against the rocks, going nowhere. These pieces of driftwood reminded me of an earlier time in my life.

A number of round faced men in drab grey garb were sitting on hard wooden benches against a long metal hut. Desolate and unfocused, they sat unmoving, as purposeless as discarded mannequins. Sometimes they waited hours in the bright warm sun for the most significant event in their day, the next meal. These men were federal prisoners in a medium security penitentiary.

Like the chunks of driftwood, the unstirring grey figures with their vacant unsmiling visages had long ago sought the safety of quiet waters. Perpetually anxious, they were unsettled by the questions, decisions and rigours of life they would need to deal with upon release. Although loath to acknowledge it, the only place they felt somewhat secure was inside the high chain link metal fence surrounding them.

Still observing the two chunks of driftwood floating aimlessly in the secluded eddy at the edge of the river, it occurred to me that quiet water holds no excitement, no challenge, and no fulfillment. In its apparent safety, nothing grows except smelly, green stagnation.

Bending over, I reached for one of the chunks of driftwood and hurled it with all my strength into the midst of the rushing river. It was suddenly seized and energized by the might of the current. I watched with a sense of wonder as it sailed triumphantly around the next bend and out of sight.

That liberated piece of driftwood brought to my consciousness yet another scene that has for many years intrigued me. This scene came from a Bowron Lakes canoe expedition in the wilderness near Barkerville some years ago. We were 12 in number, 3 leaders and 9 adolescent boys.

As we emerged that Thursday morning from the fast flowing, potentially treacherous waters of the Bowron River onto Lanezie Lake, a powerful headwind was already whipping up the waves, stinging our faces with cold spray. In spite of strenuous paddling, our 6 yellow frontiersman canoes bobbed like corks on the unruly water, scarcely moving. Hemmed in by mountains that descended to the very edge of the lake, we could not hope for refuge there.

Our usually boisterous boys grew eerily quiet. Concerned they might panic, I looked for a means of bolstering their spirits and overcoming my own anxiety.

Some might deem it nonsensical, but I started to sing, “row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.” I’ve never been nominated for any singing award, but in this situation it didn’t matter. At first the boys seemed puzzled, then two joined in. Their voices weren’t much better than mine, but in the blowing wind, who cared. “Row, row, row your boat.” Soon we were all singing, whooping, and paddling like mad voyageurs from another time. We became lusty and strong, free of fear.

“Shooting the Rapids”, painting by Francis Ann Hopkins (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/02774f)

I looked at the 2 straining, sweating boys in the canoe closest to me. Both were grinning. They were having too much fun to be scared.

Three hours later we were in the safety of our rustic camp, tents set up, fire burning brightly and warm food in our bellies. Surrounded by the deep darkness of the wilderness, the boys were sitting around the fire talking quietly. I sensed today’s experience had made them more aware of the strength, resilience and courage residing within them, waiting to be called upon. They had contended with danger, and had learned they could overcome.

Although these scenes are from my distant past, they are indelibly imprinted on my subconscious mind. They remind me that even though I no longer have the vibrant strength and energy of those years, and the challenges have changed, if I want significance and excitement in 2018, I still must avoid life’s quiet waters.

Only A Child, Only At Christmas

Taegert, B.C. 1979. It was Christmas Eve in Taegert, a small remote former gold mining community in northern B.C. Snow had begun IMG_0742falling steadily the previous night and the mountains surrounding our little town were now bedecked with a soft white mantel. Through the still falling snow,  plumes of grey wood smoke streamed upward from chimneys into the dark sky.

My wife and I leaned forward, pressing into the chill north wind flinging snow into our cold faces. Not far ahead snow laden figures loomed out of the whiteness of the night. We were all hurrying, adults and children, to get a good seat at the Christmas Eve celebration in the community hall.

We arrived to find the hall already packed with a boisterous crowd. The only place was along the back wall with other stragglers. Outside, cold snow hurled itself at the hall, but inside it was toasty. The ancient pot bellied wood stove was working its magic. In one corner an enormous fir tree, with lights, ornaments and tinsel encouraged a holiday spirit.

The program MC, Marty Dyke, slipped from behind a curtain at the left end of the stage. She was a robust woman, something her loose, bright red dress could not hide. With a hearty laugh and booming voice, she said, “ Welcome to our community’s 38th Christmas concert.” Then she turned to the side of the stage where she had entered. “ Without further adieu, let’s put our hands together and bring on the famous Jones family!” There was clapping, hollering and stamping of feet.

The Jones clan came hustling on stage with guitars, fiddles, harmonicas and a banjo. Grandpa Jones began belting out the tunes and his whole lusty clan backed him up like they were on stage at Nashville, Tennessee. Pretty quick folks were smiling and singing along. A few pretty young girls in bright dresses danced in the aisles. It was a Christmas hootenanny. Marty always introduced them first because they knew how to stir up the crowd’s Christmas spirit.

Everyone settled down when 11 year old Susie Thomas began telling about the baby Jesus born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger. “It happened in a stable,” she said, “and there were probably sheep and donkeys watching. And shepherds came from taking care of their flocks in the fields.” She seemed awed by the event. Susie was followed by Mrs. Brown reading her latest Christmas poem.

Everyone was having a grand time. Everyone except me, that is. Just before the program started, Marty Dyke had whispered to me, “I’ve asked your friend J.K. Barnabas to bring his guitar and sing two or three tunes at the end. Be a fine way to wrap up the evening, don’t you think?” It was too late to change things, so I remained silent.

I was concerned because J.K.’s a black man. A big old white haired blues singer who used to perform in bars in cities like Winnipeg, Vancouver and Seattle. Not that anyone in Taegert would object to him singing blues, or to him being black. No one that is, except Gerhardt Gruber. And, in a way, old Gruber had a pretty good reason for not liking black men. He had nothing against black women.

In the big war back in the forties, he and his son were in the same company in the German Wehrmacht. In close combat, a black Yankee soldier shot the son dead right in front of Gruber. He’s been bitter against black men since that day.

That’s why I was troubled about J.K. Barnabas getting in front of this crowd. Gruber might have a flashback. What if he did something crazy? J.K. isn’t a well man. He doesn’t need that.

While my mind was thinking about these things, the evening was flying by. Now Marty called on J.K. He walked to the front slowly and sat down on a hard wooden bench. After taking a moment to adjust the guitar strings, he grinned at the children in the front row and launched into a frisky rendition of Frosty the Snowman. Next he pleased the crowd with Rudolph the Red Nosed reindeer. Everyone cheered when he was done, but not Gruber.

Then the raucous, buoyant mood was gone and he seemed to forget we were there. He drifted into a tune I was sure he had written himself.

“I woke up this mornin’ and the sun, it didn’t shine,
Was sittin’ in my room all alone, didn’t have one friend I could say was mine.
Too many nights in the bars, too many days on the road, now this body’s gettin’ old.
Snow’s fallin’ and I’m feelin’ mighty low, oh yes, I’m feelin’ mighty low.
My little baby’s gone.
She’s grown up big, don’t come to her daddy no more to play.
Sure has broke this old man’s heart.
Oh Yeah, sure has broke this old man’s heart.”

Then he was quiet, still sitting on the bench, a lonely old blues man. A single tear rolled slowly down one cheek.

A hush fell over the hall, and no one cheered or moved. It seemed everyone was expecting something to happen.

I heard the rustle of a dress and I looked to my left where old Gruber was sitting, arms crossed over his chest and face hard as the barrel of a German army rifle. Before he could stop her, his pretty little granddaughter had slipped off his lap and was running to where the white haired J.K. Barnabas was sitting.

Gruber's granddaughter offering her baby to Mr. JK
Gruber’s granddaughter offering her baby to Mr. JK

“Here, Mr. J.K.” she said, holding a little blond doll toward him. “Take my baby. She’ll make you happy. I have more babies at home.”

I think everyone stopped breathing and looked at old Gruber. His stiff white Wehrmacht moustache made him look real serious.

And then it happened. Gruber got up. Using his cane, he walked unsteadily to where his granddaughter and JK. were. He sat down on the bench next to J.K. and lifted the little girl onto the black man’s lap. Although he wasn’t a religious man, far as I knew, he began singing “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,” in his native German, his sweet tenor carrying the words throughout the hall. After hesitating a moment, the old blues man joined his deep baritone to Gruber’s tenor.

“Silent night. Holy night. All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon virgin mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace.”

Then everyone was singing, and when the song was done, I saw men and women laughing and crying, shaking hands and embracing. At the front of the room, I saw the old black man and the old German army officer rise and embrace.

Taegert was never quite the same again. There was more of a sense of peace. And that’s why I say, “Only a child could have accomplished what happened in our little town that night. And only at Christmas.”

(first published Dec. 2014)