Category Archives: My Story

The University Years (part 2 of 3)

At the beginning of our SFU journey, Linda and I rented a poorly heated basement suite from an elderly widow in Burnaby. For some reason, she didn’t trust us. Possibly she was aware that at times I kept a light on while I worked through the night preparing assignments due the next day. This expense may have agitated her. Possibly she thought that since I was a student at SFU, we must be communists.

Our landlady evidently felt a need to keep us under constant surveillance. When we went away, I sometimes placed an object behind the door to our suite. Often it had been pushed back, so we knew she had entered. When my parents came to visit, she just happened to be doing a little gardening at our living room window. At one point she sent us to her son to be interrogated by him. He was a decent man and appeared to be as mystified by his mother’s suspicions as we were.

After three months of this, we told her we would be moving out. She said “that’s good, then I won’t have to evict you.” We had paid our rent faithfully and had caused her no problems. Her seeming unfairness brought out the worst in me and I was tempted to tell her we were Communists, but she was an elderly woman and I thought better of it.

After that we moved into a two room suite in the front end of the old B.C. Tel office on Gladys Avenue in Abbotsford, across the street from several sets of railway tracks. Initially the train whistles and rumbling of the wheels on the tracks woke us at night, but after a few weeks we were able to sleep through this. Linda got a part time job at the Royal Bank and I carpooled to SFU.

I had begun with a history major. When I discovered the PSA department (political science, sociology and anthropology), I switched. Sociology became my main focus. It was in PSA that my real education began. A number of extremely radical American professors had made their home here. One was an avowed Marxist. The others weren’t far behind. They focused on the evils of the capitalist system. I was assigned to read “The Communist Manifesto,” “Red Star over China”, “The Wretched of the Earth”, and “Soul on Ice” (by Eldridge Cleaver, a leader in the Black Panthers), etc. They held up Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as icons.

The PSA professors seemed motivated by a zeal to radicalize us. They wanted us to rebel against the traditions and values of our society. Several of them seemingly believed that to accomplish this they must first wreak havoc in our minds. They were smart, well informed and able to communicate their ideas in a way that caught our imagination. In time they succeeded in fostering a radicalization among many students, especially in the PSA department, but also in other departments. Eventually charismatic, radical student leaders persuaded a significant number of students to participate in a strike and occupy the administration building. This resulted in an early morning raid by the RCMP.

In the midst of the growing agitation, there were other groups, such as the small contingent of hard-core Marxist Leninists who had their own agenda for world revolution. I was particularly fascinated by the Hare Khrishnas in their hooded light brown robes shuffling in tight circles chanting words unintelligible to me. The Hippie movement was also gaining momentum and I was amazed at first that guys would let their hair grow to shoulder length and walk around barefoot in torn jeans. Marijuana, a drug about which I knew nothing and with which I had no experience, was in vogue.

To enhance our understanding of the damage done to Aboriginal culture by white society, 3 PSA profs organized a Royal Hudson train trip to the Mount Currie Indian Reserve near Pemberton. I was sitting in a circle with other students and a skinny “ rollie” was passed around. Each time it came to me, I accepted it and took a drag. Only later did it occur to me that I had been smoking pot. This was early in my days at SFU and I was still the small town boy who had lived a pretty sheltered life.

I attended many of the noon hour meetings organized by the leftwing student leaders. Sometimes the speaker was Martin Lowney, who was generally thought of as the key spokesperson and leader. Martin proved to be a charismatic personality with an ability to whip up emotions. By exposing myself to their ideas, I was being inexorably and increasingly drawn in by the philosophy he and others espoused. I’m sure my parents and also our friends in Abbotsford were astonished at the change in my appearance. I

Art Martens
Art Martens

grew long sideburns and then decided to allow them to meet , which meant I had a beard. Also, I stopped going to the barber and my hair grew very long. My brother in law gave me a pipe which, like other students, I sometimes smoked in the tutorial classes.

The University Years (part 3 of 3)

In the midst of the accelerating emotions on the part of a number of students against the university administration and the senate, I needed to work hard to get decent marks to qualify for student loans and bursaries. Occasionally, when I began falling behind, I called on Linda for help. One day I brought home several textbooks and said “I have a paper due tomorrow. Can you scan these books and lightly pencil mark any paragraphs that pertain to my subject?” Linda very effectively selected paragraphs with information I wanted. There were no desktop computers and I worked all night on my manual Smith Corona typewriter. At 8 am I drove to the university and handed in the paper.

I needed to discover ways to compensate for my inability to do as much reading as my courses required. Fortunately, a number of my profs based a large percentage of their marks on written papers. I decided to focus on writing papers that were both well researched and well written. Linda helped me as much as she could with the research and my marks on these were predominantly A’s and B’s. In an English course focused on poetry, I memorized parts of a number of poems. An angel must have prepared the final exam with me in mind. The main question required an essay length response. This allowed me to use the portions I had memorized and I quoted extensively from them.

I wasn’t aware of it, but Linda told me later she had become concerned that we were drifting apart. Also, she felt that attending university must be easy compared to working. She decided to take a few courses herself. This had several benefits, one of which was immediate. She quickly realized that university expectations were more rigorous than she had imagined. Also, she enrolled in a PSA course taught by one of the radical American professors, and her thinking was considerably influenced. Our views became more synchronized, and this was good for our relationship.

Our time at SFU had one outcome that, in retrospect, we still somewhat regret. With little money in the bank, we had been able to buy the house and five acres mentioned earlier, and also a couple of lots. Selling the lots had brought us a substantial profit, and we were keen to embark on further endeavours of this kind. The teaching of the PSA professors persuaded us, however, that this type of activity was part of the despised, evil capitalist system. We made a decision to cease these activities and it would be many years before we again got back into real estate. Because we had been out of the market so long, we had fallen behind and could participate only in a limited way.

Our experience during the time of student unrest helped us understand that a small group of committed, highly persuasive individuals can at times shape events because the majority are willing to follow. They may have the power to shape events, but the change they bring will not necessarily be desirable. Student dissatisfaction and clamouring for change persuaded the President of the University to resign. Our rejoicing at this was short lived. We had succeeded in deposing the president, but when a new individual replaced him, we discovered that he was even less understanding or tolerant of student wishes.

Linda and I learned from this that it is important to carefully assess the character, ideas and direction of the people we are following and working with. We respected most of the left leaning student leaders, but in time we came to understand their motivation was based more on ideology, than what was best for the majority of the students. Also, while they had some valid insights into issues facing our society, they had little positive understanding of what needed or could be done.

As happens so often after a crises, university life following the strike pretty much returned to its regular ebb and flow, but without the frequent left wing meetings and rallies. I was able to make up for the time lost during the five week strike and realized that my marks were high enough to attain an Honours BA if I took additional courses for extra credits. I did two substantial research projects. One was on the evolving Mennonite culture in the Abbotsford area. The other was on inmate culture at Matsqui Institution. Both required dozens of interviews and hours of writing.

For Linda and myself, it is still interesting and enlightening to look back at the SFU years. Getting me through university was the first time we collaborated on a significant challenge that required full commitment by both of us. We agree that we learned at least as much outside the classroom as inside. Some of what we learned we have subsequently discarded because it does not serve our purpose. We do value and have retained a great deal though and continue to build on it to this day.

Graduation Diploma
Graduation Diploma

 

A Foolish Decision, A Good Outcome (part 1 of 2)

I admit willingly, even with a dose of embarrassment, that it was a dumb, irrational, foolish decision. Reflecting back on that time now, I shudder inwardly at the memory of what we did. I’m sure our parents shuddered then already, upon hearing of what we were contemplating.

Linda and I were young, newly married and happy in our relationship. She was a bank teller and I was a heavy equipment operator. We had bought a home with five acres on Defehr road, near the Canada-U.S. border. The house needed updating, but we were delighted to not be renting. Our only real problem was that we both felt utterly unfulfilled in our work On a Saturday in early May, 1967, we had just completed breakfast when I asked Linda a question that had been percolating in my psyche for some time.

“How do you feel about what we’re doing?” I asked. She seemed to understand the meaning of my rather vague query.

“I know I really hope I won’t have to be a teller for forty years,” she said.

“And I don’t want to be a cat operator for forty years,” I said.

That conversation ended with our seemingly ill-conceived decision. We gave notice to our employers and found a renter for our home. Two weeks later we loaded our chevy panel truck with camping supplies and food, and set out along the Trans Canada Highway. A couple of innocent, small town kids, we were looking for more from life. How to find more was still well outside our sphere of understanding. We didn’t even know where we were going.

That first evening we pulled the chevy into a campsite near 100 Mile House in central British Columbia. One night in our new sleeping bags convinced us they were more suited to California summers than to this area’s minus zero temperatures. It had not occurred to us that May in the Caribou would not be as pleasant as in the Fraser Valley. Even fully dressed, we shivered. A couple of weeks later we spoke with an elderly local realtor. In spite of our severely limited funds, he seemed to take an interest in us. “Meet me here tomorrow at 8 a.m.” he said.

The next morning, after an hour of travelling in his pickup along an unpaved road, we eased his canoe into the pristine water of Sheridan Lake By sunset, we had fallen in love with the leased lot the realtor showed us on the rugged, far side of the lake.

The next day we set up our tent on the property. At about 5 the

Art in front of our tent
Art in front of our tent

following morning Linda roused me, agitation in her voice. “What’s that noise? I hope it’s not a bear”. Heavy breathing just outside the tent had awakened her. I unzipped the flap of the tent and realized we were surrounded by a herd of curious long horned cattle. The realtor had not informed us that this was open range cattle country. After breakfast I built a corral around the tent.

For nearly 3 months our only visitors were an overly bold black bear, a shrieking demanding squirrel, a curious cow moose and her calf, and the local rancher patrolling on his ancient dirt bike.

We cleaned up debris on the lot and in the water. Needing a place to prepare meals, w created a fire pit and circled it with stones. In the evening we sat by the fire, often talking about what might lie in the future for us. With no real sense of direction, we considered the idea of building a log cabin and staying over winter.

 

A Foolish Decision, A Good Outcome (part 2 of 2)

Our days on the shore of Sheridan Lake were taken up with

Marie Curie
Marie Curie

physical work. Each evening, sitting around our campfire, we read a few pages of the biography of Madame Curie. As a university student passionate about scientific research, Marie Curie existed largely on buttered toast and tea. She and her husband Pierre conducted their research in a cramped storage room, the only space the university could offer. During one phase of their experiments, the Curies, mainly Marie, treated 8 tons of pitchblende to obtain one gram of radium. They could have sold it for $150,000 but decided to keep it for further research. Their commitment and sacrifice deeply stirred our imaginations.

Toward the end of summer, we began to realize we were living in a world with an extremely limited horizon. Marie Curie’s commitment to science awakened in me a desire to further my education. Swatting at hungry mosquitoes and trying to avoid the smoke of our campfire one evening, I said, “I’d like to go to university, but I know we don’t have the money.” Without hesitating, Linda said, “I could work.”

A few days later, while we were working in the water at the front of our lot, the black bear jumped over my corral and damaged our tent. It really didn’t matter. We were preparing to depart and broke camp a few days later.

Back in the Fraser Valley, I enrolled at Simon Fraser University and we found a basement suite to rent in Burnaby. In September I began working toward a BA in the social sciences.

That was 46 years ago. Now my hair is the colour of snow and I have retired after many years of working with inmates in provincial and federal corrections and then with young offenders in a remote setting. I still like to reflect on Marie Curie’s unswerving commitment and wonderful passion. Her life infused Linda and me with a sense of direction and purpose. Because of her example, our foolish decision had a good outcome.

Courting Linda (part 1 of 2)

It was at a church youth group party that I first saw Linda. I didn’t require a second look  to decide she was lovely, a girl I’d like to spend time with.  Even today, some 48 years later, I recall feeling inexplicably attracted to her.  But, she was with another guy and he was at her side continuously. I heard someone say they were “going steady,” as we referred to it then. Reluctantly, I dismissed the memory from my mind.

On a cool, dark night several years later, my friend Alvin and I were sitting on  bales of hay at the rear of a flat deck truck.  It was another event sponsored by the same youth group.  Although I didn’t attend the church or belong to the group, I knew they were  pretty accepting people and I had suggested to Alvin it could be fun.

Very close to us were two lively, fun loving gals, Linda and her close friend Jenny.  Attractive and congenial, they laughed easily. I again found Linda’s animated face, dancing eyes and lighthearted manner appealing. Her boyfriend of two years ago wasn’t there so I wondered if that relationship had ended. My interest was definitely and significantly rekindled.
For the next two weeks I mulled over the idea of calling to ask her out. I had no way of learning if she was still seeing the other guy. Finally I decided to take the risk of finding out, possibly the hard way. With great anticipation and even greater trepidation, I deposited a quarter into the pay phone at the corner of Clearbrook Road and the Fraser Highway. I didn’t want my parents to hear me being turned down.
A weight lifted off my young shoulders when she agreed to go to an Abbotsford Panthers basketball game with me. I had switched to Abby High for my last year of school and enjoyed the drama of basketball.  In their black uniforms, the players were impressive visually.  The cheerleaders had dazzling good looks and knew how to work the willing crowd.  A student at Aldergrove Secondary, Linda is still somewhat amused at my lack of creativity on our first few dates.  It didn’t immediately occur to me she might not be enamoured by the idea of watching basketball players she did not know.  At school the following week a friend said to me, “she’s a doll.  Where did you find her?”  I decided I would not introduce him to her.
She was the girl of my dreams and I was smitten, but I certainly

Art & Linda During the Dating Years
Art & Linda During the Dating Years

was not yet thinking in terms of a life partner.  The idea of marriage wasn’t even on the distant horizon.  I did understand though that if I became serious about a relationship with a girl from a Mennonite home, there almost certainly would be a significant obstacle.
In the Mennonite faith and culture in which Linda and I had both grown up, the church and the faith were central.  They determined values, morals, ethics, and many aspects of lifestyle.  I was quite aware that most Mennonite parents at that time fervently hoped their children would follow in their footsteps in regard to the faith.  Like my parents, Linda’s parents were founding members of the church she was attending.  It was the church on which I had turned my back. When I began seeing Linda,  I didn’t need to be reminded that my lack of interest in the church or the faith would become a deeply troubling concern for her parents.
We were young though, and I wasn’t yet giving this matter serious consideration.  If it troubled Linda, she didn’t talk about it. Our focus was on enjoying the relationship and having a good time together.

 

Gas was relatively inexpensive then and we often explored backroads, looking for interesting , little known hiking trails.  Sometimes we took food and cooked meals in the outdoors. Rollerskating in Lynden and visits to Shakey’s Pizza Parlour became part of our routine. Sometimes we read a book together and this is where I became acquainted with Great Expectations and Gone With the Wind.

 

In winter we skated on outdoor ponds.  One night we went to an ice skating party at Lysak’s Pond on the border of Canada and the U.S.  We arrived late and were amazed to find the pond dark, deserted and silent.  We had the entire expanse of the pond to ourselves, skating hand in hand.  Suddenly, an ominous roar rumbled through the ice, as though it was about to fracture. Terrified, we made a speedy exit. We now understood why everyone had left early.
Still in school, I was living in the basement of my parents home.  In summer I worked with Dad operating a bulldozer and doing whatever was needed in his business.

Dad and I shared vehicles and when he saw I was dating a very

1957 Ford Fairlane
1957 Ford Fairlane

nice girl from a solid family, he bought a pretty red and white ‘57 Ford Fairlane hardtop.  He wanted to encourage our relationship.

Courting Linda (part 2 of 2)

In time, Linda felt we should begin talking about marriage, but I wasn’t mature enough to be ready. In part, the challenge for me was that I didn’t have a clear or accurate understanding of either love or marriage. Observing my parents should have been a lesson as to the nature of a committed relationship based on faithfulness, integrity and love. For them it was “steady as she goes.” They were too preoccupied with making a living, raising children and maintaining friendships, to focus on a need for glamour.

However, this example was overshadowed by the way love and romance were portrayed on the movie screen. Hollywood “love” was almost invariably characterized by constant, high level passion and glitter. For me this was confusing. I enjoyed being with Linda and we were having great times together. It was wonderful, but it wasn’t like in the movies. Did that mean I wasn’t in love? I didn’t want to make a mistake.

Linda eventually grew weary of my dilly dallying and her ardour cooled. It became a case of “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” When she backed off, I realized I didn’t want to lose her.

It was a speedy and effective lesson in reality therapy and overnight Hollywood’s dazzle lost its capacity to confuse. Before long, our relationship again flourished.

I still needed to deal with the misgivings Linda’s parents had about their daughter marrying a guy who showed little interest in the church scene. Fortunately, they understood that this was what their daughter wanted and when I asked for her hand in marriage, they were gracious.

Only later did it occur to me that I never actually asked Linda to marry me. Since our relationship had resumed its positive tone, I simply assumed she would be delighted to receive a ring. I presented her with an engagement ring Christmas Eve, 1964. My assumption could have proved to be more than just embarrassing. Mom had come to love Linda like a daughter, and if she had refused the ring, Christmas would have lost its sheen for her and the entire family. Fortunately, Linda accepted and Mom didn’t need to cancel Christmas.

We bought our first home two months before the wedding. We were visiting our friends Jake and Helen Klassen who owned five acres on Defehr Road. They said, “the lady just up the road wants to sell her house and five acres. You should buy it.” As yet we had no precise plan for where we would live. We accepted their advice and visited the lady. Widowed and elderly, she was eager to sell. She considered our offer satisfactory and quickly accepted our agreement for sale proposal.

We had little money but Linda was working at the Royal Bank in Abbotsford and the assistant manager agreed quite readily to provide the down payment without collateral. Like me, he had come to understand that she was a woman of sterling character and fully responsible. We visited a furniture store and bought the items needed to furnish our home at a fairly basic level. On possession day we moved the furniture in and felt ready for a future together.

We were married in the Olivet Mennonite Church in Clearbrook

Mr. & Mrs. Art Martens September 18, 1965
Mr. & Mrs. Art Martens
September 18, 1965

on Sept 18th, 1965. Linda was stunningly beautiful in her wedding dress. After the reception she changed to a going away outfit, a deep blue suit with hat and gloves. I experienced great amazement that this lovely young woman was now my wife.

Upon returning to our home in the country after the honeymoon, I picked up Linda and carried her up the few steps to the back door and over the threshold. In the years since that memorable day, I have come to understand that courting Linda was just the first step in an exciting, challenging and rewarding life journey together.

Dad’s Upward Path (part 1 of 3)

In Mr. Loeppky I saw one possible direction, a downward path. In Dad I saw another possible direction, an upward path.

By age 12 in the mid-1920’s, Dad was already working on his father’s threshing crew in rural Manitoba. Shortly after the devastating stock market crash of 1929, crops began to fail due to prolonged drought, and work became scarce. As a young man in the midst of the Great Depression, he joined hundreds of other out of work men who leapt into empty boxcars or rode the rods, looking for employment. Often his pay was $1.OO per day, when he could find work.

After his parents lost the family farm in the 30’s, they moved to a small settlement known as Barkfield. For the most part, its inhabitants consisted of two large families, the Martens and the Funks.

At times Dad worked in the bush with the young Funk men, cutting cordwood for which there was a market in Winnipeg. He developed great admiration for their ability with axes and saws. “They were skilled and very quick,” he told me in later years. “I could never keep up with them.”

Dad and the Funk boys became close friends. One day Jim Funk asked him, “are you going to the barn dance tonight?” Dad said, “No, I don’t have anyone to take”.

Mom & Dad's wedding day, Dec. 1, 1939
Mom & Dad’s wedding day, Dec. 1, 1939

“You can take my sister Annie,” Jim said, as though there was no doubt she would agree. Annie was a light hearted young gal with long black hair. She did agree to the date, the beginning of a romance later culminated in marriage.

When World War 2 started, Dad was drafted but registered as a Conscientious Objector. Many adherents of the Mennonite faith were pacifists, one of the primary reasons they had emigrated from Russia. They had left behind established villages, thriving farms and a stable, satisfying existence. A judge questioned Dad as to his reasons and apparently decided his motivation was genuine. He was sent to a forestry camp in Ontario and then to work as a tipple operator loading train cars at a coal mine in Saskatchewan.

In about 1946 Dad bought a Model A Ford and prepared to move the family to BC. All our belongings were in a single truck strapped to the back of the vehicle. With two paying passengers to help cover the cost of gas, our family made the at times arduous trip to Abbotsford, B.C.

Dad’s family had made the move previously and his brother Cornie was working as a heavy equipment operator. Although Dad’s experience with motorized equipment was limited, Cornie got him a job running a bulldozer. When the dyke along the Fraser River was being constructed, he was hired as a heavy equipment operator. Because he refused to work on Sunday, which in the Mennonite faith is considered a holy day, he was let go. His faith would always be important in staying on what I think of as his upward path.

Dad’s Upward Path (Part 2 of 3)

Dad on front-end loader

As a boy, just about all I knew about my Dad was that he operated a bulldozer and lived in logging camps more than at home.  I recall getting up very early on a Monday morning to see him off in his Model A Ford.  I didn’t know where he was going or when he’d be back.  Understanding now how dangerous his work often was, I realize that each time he departed, might have been my last opportunity to see him alive.

I was a teen before he occasionally talked to me about his logging experiences.  One account particularly unsettled me. “I was working for old man Beach,” he said.  “He told me to build a logging road alongside the mountain, pretty high up.  At the bottom of the mountain was a river.  I needed to turn the machine many times to push earth and rock to the outer side of the road.  Each time when I lifted the blade, I could see that river a thousand feet below.” I shuddered inwardly at the thought of that big bulldozer going over the edge, carrying my Dad to his death.

Apparently his employer had an enormous bank account.  On another occasion Dad said, “Old Man Beach told me to build a logging road up a different mountain with a very steep grade.  I knew that even for my cat it would be hard work getting up there. I told him no logging truck has an engine powerful enough to make the climb.  He wouldn’t listen.  He just told me to build the road or he’d find someone who would.  I needed the work so I built him this impossible road.  When the trucks arrived at the bottom of the mountain, the drivers looked up at the incline and shook their heads. ‘Too steep’ was all they said and walked away.”  Mr. Beach showed no concern at learning the road was useless. Dad thought he was spending his money as fast as possible so his children wouldn’t get their hands on it.

In time, Dad bought his own machine and obtained a contract to clear agricultural land.  When I was about 14, he decided it was time for me to learn a trade. He began taking me along to his work sites in summer. I’m still surprised that very soon he was instructing me in the use of 20 per cent dynamite to blast huge stumps out of the ground.  Doing it right made it relatively safe, but I always kept in mind Dad’s dire warning.  “If a stump doesn’t fire, don’t go back to it until the next day. One of my customers didn’t have the patience to wait. His head was blown clean off his shoulders.”  My only complaint about blasting was that handling the dynamite brought on killer headaches.

Dad also instructed me in the use of his heavy McCulloch chain saw, operating a bulldozer and backhoe, and later in driving a dump truck with air brakes.

Working with him, I became aware not only of his skill with equipment, but also his courage.  Several times I watched him building a road along a steep hillside.  He had plenty of experience in this from his logging jobs, but sometimes he manoeuvred the big machine so close to the edge, I felt certain it would tip over and he’d be killed.  For me it was terrifying, but he always reversed the machine just in time.

He was physically rugged and extraordinarily resolute. Whether swinging a 12 pound sledge hammer, welding in a hot summer sun, or getting his bulldozer unstuck from a swamp where an operator had left it, he didn’t complain.  As a teen, this won my respect.  My close friends all referred to their fathers as “the old man.”  I could never do that.

Although I wasn’t yet willing to listen to his words, my future path was being shaped by his actions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dad’s Upward Path (Part 3 of 3)

IMG (2)

As my maturity increased, I realized that underlying Dad’s physical attributes and strong will, there was a deep compassion for people in need.  One evening he picked up his large, very heavy tool box.  I asked him what he was going to do.

 

“John can’t figure out how to replace the clutch on his car,” he said.  “I‘ve done that before. We’ll get the job done in no time.”  Dad hardly knew John, but after that they became close friends.

I came to understand that Dad always put relationships ahead of personal gain.  When he was asked to bid on a large job, he invited his friend Henry to join him.  The contractors told Dad they wanted him to do the work, but Henry’s equipment was too old and he was not welcome. Dad knew Henry would be discouraged if he was left out, so he turned down what would have been his biggest contract ever.

Dad and I worked closely in the bulldozing and trucking business until I was 24.  Although I had enormous respect for him, I did not have the maturity to listen to his words about how to live.  Understanding this, he didn’t attempt to persuade me. In time, it was his example of complete integrity, as much as his courage and skills, that persuaded me to adopt much of his value system. When he lost a valiant battle against cancer at age 95, I said to a friend, “more than anyone else, Dad’s example impacted my life and shaped it. If I ever become half the man he was, I will consider my life to have been a success.” Without realizing it at the time, I had begun to walk on the path Dad walked on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gift Of Mr. Loeppky

I was quite unaware of it at the time, but looking back over the years now, I realize I was fortunate as a teen to have two men to observe at close quarters. By their attitudes, their thinking, their lifestyle and values, each set an example that would play a determining role in shaping what I valued and how I would live. In many respects, they were virtual opposites. One showed me a path leading upward to constructive significance, the other showed me a path leading downward to unhappiness and futility.

The first was my father, the second was our next door neighbour, Mr. Loeppky. I loved my father and, although I certainly didn’t think in those terms at the time, I suppose I also loved Mr. Leoppky. To this day I place a high value on the time I spent with each of them.
* * * *
Mr. Loeppky lived almost next door to us. Only an empty lot separated our home from his. We referred to him as “the bachelor”. He was a bachelor not by choice but by divorce. His wife had divorced him many years before I got to know him. His fortunes had deteriorated badly since then and his home now was a two room shack, which he had constructed himself.

IMG_0280It was evident that no paintbrush had touched the exterior walls in many years. Inside it was equally rustic, with little more than a kitchen table, an old green fridge, a woodstove and an aged chest of drawers. There was no indoor washroom, but he did have cupboards and a sink with hot and cold water in the kitchen. A sheet hung in the doorway to the bedroom. His bathroom was a one-seater out house.

Mr. Loeppky’s surroundings had not always been so sparse. In his earlier, better days, he had owned and managed a successful GM dealership in a small prairie town. A skilled mechanic, he had at first done much of the service work himself, always as he volunteered to me one day, “with a flask in my back pocket.”

He was regarded as one of the elite in his community, a man people looked up to at least in part because of his business success. His home was one of the finest in the town. When I met people who had known him then, I noticed that they invariably spoke of him with a trace of awe, as someone they respected and admired.

Mr Leoppky had money , then, and he loved to party. In conversation he was engaging, and people clamoured to be around him.

Somewhere along the way a fondness for strong drink had apparently overtaken his earlier good judgment. His business acumen began to slip and his wife, possibly
aware that financial ruin might be approaching, entered into a romantic relationship with a local lawyer. Listening to him over more than half a dozen years, I concluded he had not understood the harm he was doing to his marriage and his family. He had not seen the divorce looming.

When I began visiting him as a teen, he had already lost everything, his wealth, good standing in his community, his family and also his sense of self esteem and respect. Still, even at age 65, there lingered about him more than a trace of his earlier good looks and outward refinement. But the total loss of his former life had exacted a bitter toll.

Even now I have only a vague understanding of why a 14 year old kid was drawn to visit this once proud, successful man, so completely fallen from his former high position and no longer esteemed by society. Possibly it was his doughnuts, and maybe his pies. He made them only occasionally, and I understand now that he may have continued to make them only because he knew I delighted in them. It is possible that I experienced some compassion for this lonely man whose only other visits were from a sister and brother-in-law who came now and then. He didn’t like his sister’s husband.

Sometimes when we were sitting at his kitchen table and he was talking, my lungs rebelled at the thought of taking in one more breath of the smoke from his cigarettes. I don’t think he ever consciously decided to tell me his life story. Certainly he didn’t take me back to the early years  and  lead me through a logical sequence of events to the present time. Rather, the story came out like pieces of a puzzle put in place over the years.

An episode or a bit of information might slip out when he had a bottle of gin on his table, after he had collected his pension cheque at the end of the month. While his trembling fingers rolled clumsy smokes from a fresh can of McDonald’s tobacco, his mind  slipped into the past. If he had doughnuts, he’d place the large tin can before me and say “eat.” Sometimes they were no longer fresh and his many cigarettes had tinged them with the flavor of tobacco  smoke. I ate them anyway. While he talked, I watched those faded blue eyes as they remembered scenes from a better time in his life.

In the end, his breathing became laboured and one day he said, “the doc told me I have lung cancer. Guess it won’t be long before the Grim Reaper comes to take me away.”  He continued to smoke.

Occasionally he still made a batch of doughnuts.  “I make them just for you,” he told me one day, turning away to cough into a large polka dotted handkerchief. Because he  had stopped eating the doughnuts  himself, they lasted even longer and I was increasingly aware of the taste of cigarette smoke.  I knew it was important to him, so even though they had lost their appeal, I continued to eat them. His cough had become harsh and frequent, and it troubled me.

In all the years he was our neighbor, his two daughters stopped in once for about 10 minutes on their way to an appointment. His son came for only one short visit. During his last year as he grew progressively weaker, his children never visited.

He passed away in spring and I notified his son.  My family organized a memorial service for him at the local funeral home. We had told our friends about Mr. Loeppky, and many of them came to join my parents and myself to bid him farewell. I was surprised and pleased when the son and two daughters arrived.

At the end of the memorial service, his son came to me and asked, “do you know what my father died of?”

When I could slip out I walked around to the back of the funeral home, because a deep sadness was overwhelming my emotions. My friend Henry, a local photographer was already there,shedding his own tears. I had introduced him to Mr. Loeppky in the last year of his life.

Even before Mr. Loeppky passed away, I had already begun to understand that I didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of this man I had come to care about deeply. Standing beside Henry now, I knew I must do everything possible to ensure that my life would not end in despair and futility. It was Mr. Loeppky’s gift to me.