Funny or Unusual Incidents
A visit to my Scottish roots
In 1979, prescription before returning home to Canada from my UN/FAO job in Washington, our family travelled to England and Scotland. I wanted to check out the part of Scotland where my maternal grandfather had come from. Grandpa “Alex” as I knew him, came to Canada as a young man in the late 1880s and settled south of the town of Oak Lake. But before that he had grown up on a farm in Scotland just up the hill from a tiny village called Butterstone, north of Edinburgh and a few miles east of Dunkeld. The farm was called McMaridge, a stony, barren piece of land as it turned out. We (Joy and I along with Janet and Murray – Brian had gone to Germany and Richard was at Carleton University in Ottawa), rented a car in Edinburgh after a train ride from Stevenage, north of London, where we had been visiting our friends, the Sparlings (Art was on a sabbatical there). Driving north, we passed through Dunkeld where Grandpa Alex’s younger brother Peter had lived. We drove on a few kilometers to Butterstone and were directed up the hill to the farm.
I had with me an old photograph of my great-grandfather (Grandpa Alex’s father) standing in a field with my great-grandmother (see photo, opposite) and a little girl, probably my great-aunt, sitting on a fence at the edge of this field. In the background on the photo were the old stone buildings. We walked around the yard and then out into the field where a few sheep where grazing the sparse grass and nibbling on turnips the present owner had spread on the field. Then I found myself in what had to be the exact location where the photographer, back in the 1860s or 1870s, must have snapped the shutter. The old buildings in the farmstead matched exactly the buildings in the picture. A closer examination of the still-standing stone fence solved the mystery of my great-grandmother “sitting” on the fence for there, in the very spot shown in the photograph, was a flat stone extending out from the fence like a chair seat!
I fancied that my Scottish grandfather was a big land-owner! He was more like a serf.
The “laird”, probably an English non-resident, no doubt owned the land and there was little chance Grandpa or his siblings could have ever taken ownership. Grandpa came to Canada; his brothers (the younger ones) emigrated to Australia. Where? Who knows!
The minister, the hired man and the biscuits
Back in the ‘30s it was not unusual for farmers to have a full-time hired man and, for that matter, for hired “girls” to work in the house. Going wage for hired help was $5 a month plus room and board. In the ‘30s it was also the usual thing for church attendees to invite the minister for lunch (it was called “dinner”) after a Sunday morning service at rural St. David’s United Church. One Sunday it was our turn and we were sitting down with, I think, Rev. Merriweather, when our hired man, not known for good manners and allowed to sleep in on a Sunday, joined us at the table – in his underwear shirt – and said: “Geez! These are good biscuits! Who made ’em?” Well, who in the world but my mother would have made them? Mother was furious, but our uncouth hired man never noticed.
That final note…
When I played cornet in the Oak Lake Legion band – as a teenager – we played military marches and some waltzes. Our band leader always called for an ending note in unison by all members of the band. Years later, at the University of Manitoba, I was asked to sit in with the University band to play at an important basket ball tournament – a final game between the U.B.C. Thunderbirds and the U. of M. Bisons. Imagine my delight when I noticed that one of the pieces we were to play was a favourite march from my Oak Lake days. (I didn’t try to play the other selections). Trouble was, the University band didn’t play that unison note at the end of the march…. But I did! A thousand pairs of eyes looked in my direction as I tried to slide under my seat.
“Will you stand up with me?”
Grandfather “R.K.” Smith was nothing if not inscrutable. Legend has it that in the 1880s when he was building his first home on his homestead north east of Oak Lake, he had help from his best friend. One morning the two of them were shingling the roof when Grandpa asked: “Will you stand up with me this afternoon?” This meant…”will you be my best man later today?” Grandpa was marrying that day. The friend agreed, of course, but legend has it that it apparently was the first time he knew that Grandpa “R.K.” even had a girlfriend.
This same grandfather of mine, writing in his daily diary on November 3, 1900, failed to mention that his wife had given birth to twin boys – Walter and Ralph! On that day he wrote something like: “Ploughed in the south quarter, wind from the west”. The twins get their first mention sometime in April, 1901, when the diary states: “Maggie took the buggy and the twins and went…..” Hard to believe!
A major coincidence…
Joy and I ran Gwenmar Bed and Breakfast in our Brandon area home from 1981 until we left for B.C. in 1998 – 17 years. As we were a bit off the beaten track (1 mile north, 2 miles west of the Trans Canada Highway), we were rarely overwhelmed with too many guests. Still, we hosted a great many interesting people over the years. They usually stayed for one night and were mostly en route to British Columbia or Alberta or heading east to Ontario. One day we received a call from Tourism Manitoba asking us to house overnight a young writer from the U.S. – someone they had contracted with to write copy about several Manitoba provincial parks. We were not to charge him; just send Tourism Manitoba the bill. Next day along came this clean-cut young man and we visited with him in the afternoon. He was from Idaho, married, with a young daughter but had been born and raised in the U.S. Midwest. “Where?” we asked. “Wisconsin”, he replied. We pointed out that we had lived in Wisconsin the late 1950s when I was attending graduate school. “What city in Wisconsin?” we asked. “Madison”, he replied. We pointed out that we, too, had lived in Madison. “What part of Madison?” we continued. “The West end – on Ash Street” he replied. “That’s the street we lived on!” we exclaimed. “What number?” “Number 113”, he said. “We lived at 111”, we exclaimed. So, as it turned out, some 35 years earlier, when I was upstairs in the study at 111 Ash Street, this young man was born in January of 1959. We hadn’t got to know the neighbours as it turned out, but what a coincidence!
A visa problem
In the early 1990s, Joy and I were finally persuaded by Dennie (Joy’s brother) and his wife Carol, to visit Maui, one of the Hawaiian Islands. They owned a rental unit there, along with two other couples. We enjoyed our 10 day stay with sun and surf and all the things you read about in the travel brochures. In those days there were no direct flights from Vancouver to Maui so that, when returning, we had to fly to Honolulu and take a separate flight to Canada. Waiting in the Honolulu Airport we were paged by the Canadian Airlines people and informed that they had overbooked the flight. “Would you consider taking another flight overnight to Los Angeles and then up to Vancouver tomorrow?” we were asked. We were told that if we did, we would receive two free tickets to anywhere in the world where Canadian Airlines flew. We accepted, of course, flew to L.A. and then to Vancouver, where we were house sitting at the time. We knew, too, that Brian and Liz were soon to be married in Australia and Canadian Airlines (no longer an airline) had regular flights to Australia. The two free tickets would be a great help to us.
Later, back in Brandon, we prepared to go to Australia just before Christmas. Brian and Liz’s wedding was a month away but we wanted to spend some time “down under”, too. Our friend Bob Hicks, known for his great sense of humour, had visited Australia and warned us that: “…you’ll need a visa”. “C’mon”, we said, but to our last-minute shock, we learned it was true. The Winnipeg airport person confirmed we could go as far as Vancouver, even make it to Australia, but without a visa, would be shipped home immediately. We boarded the plane, but I rushed off the aircraft in Calgary where we had a stop, and followed up on a decision Joy and I had made on the Winnipeg-Calgary leg of the trip. “Phone an important person who might help us”, I thought. So I called our Member of Parliament, Charlie Mayer. As head of the Canadian Wheat Board, Charlie was a Cabinet Minister – and had clout. He was home on his Carberry farm – thank goodness – and sensing the panic in my voice, told me to call him again when we arrived in Vancouver. That was the first thing I did, of course, and Charlie told me that a former aide in his Ottawa office was Australian and recently had resigned to take a job looking after the Australian Consular office in Vancouver. Son Richard rushed us downtown to this man’s office; we met him and accompanied him to his 10th floor office, got our visas and returned to the airport in time to catch our flight to Australia. Brian in Australia followed the progress reports through email updates. We actually beat the official notification, because the Sydney Immigration staff officer had no record of us. But we had our visas, officially stamped, so we were allowed to enter. Whew!
“You can’t come into Denmark”
In the early 1990s, Joy and I travelled to Europe, a trip we hoped wouldn’t be too expensive, as we hoped to stay with friends and/or exchange students that we had hosted in our homes over the years. As it turned out in the 5 weeks we were away we stayed one night on a train, one night on a ferry (Sweden to Finland) and the other nights with the aforementioned young people. It went this way – first in Essen, Germany with Brian’s Rotary exchange family, the Müller-Zantops, a visit to Joy’s dear friend Renata in Helsingør, Denmark, then on to Orkellunga, Sweden (Per Hiselius), Elverum, Norway (Kari Fjelsted), and Forssa, Finland (Outi Hakala).
But part way through this trip one humorous event stands out. I took my passport and travellers’ cheques to a bank in Düsseldorf – one known to the Müller-Zantops. This was on the morning of the day we were leaving on the train from Germany to Denmark. I got the money from the bank but forgot to retrieve my passport. Never noticed, really, until it became necessary to show it when entering Denmark several hours later. Realizing I didn’t have my passport, and searching every pocket, imagine my panic as a big, burly Danish policeman approached, looked at Joy’s passport and when I confessed that I couldn’t find mine, he boomed out: “Oh, you can’t get into Denmark without a passport!” With that, he winked at Joy and continued on down the aisle of the train – and never returned. We found out later that Jutta Müller-Zantop had been contacted by the bank in Düsseldorf and she had made the necessary long-distance phone calls to assure the Danish authorities. The policeman on the train already knew I didn’t have my passport, but he knew who I was and that everything was O.K. A week later the passport arrived Special Delivery (thanks to Jutta) at the Helsingør, Denmark post office – just before we were to continue on to Sweden.
Tonsils out on the kitchen table
For some reason a popular rural public health project in the 1930’s -at least in Manitoba – was to remove kids’ tonsils. Not routinely done today, it seemed back then to be somewhat the norm. It was probably around 1937 or ’38 when our home, for some reason, was selected as a kind of “hospital” to allow for local children to have their tonsils removed. Brother Lyman and I and several neighbour kids were the patients. The house was scrubbed down, the back kitchen made spotless and various bedrooms readied with clean sheets. The back kitchen was the operating theatre; the kitchen table the operating table. I don’t recall who the doctor was but he must have had a nurse helping him. They were probably paid in farm produce – chickens, eggs, etc. – it WAS the Depression. The doctor drove a Model “A” Ford car, probably a 1928 model,and he parked it just outside the back kitchen door. Tonsil operations need suction of some kind and in this case it was provided by the car carburetor’s vacuum. A long red rubber hose ran from the car through a hole in the screened door and I guess the nurse wielded the other end during the operation.
I was told – when it was my turn to be operated on – to “blow that cotton thing off your face!” That “cotton thing” was soaked in ether so when I took that big breath – well, you can guess the rest. After the operation I found myself in an upstairs bed with a very sore throat. Later, tonsil-less of course, I was pacified with some home-made ice cream.
Three wise men
Back in the 70’s and 80’s the Manitoba Rural Leadership Committee had a leadership training project designed for rural people – municipal councillors, 4-H leaders, etc, who wanted to learn more about the way local, provincial and federal political systems work. After 3 and 4 day sessions (first Brandon-at the Ag. Centre and in Winnipeg) we travelled with the group to Ottawa for phase III. It was in the early 1980’s and I was in charge of the group.
In Ottawa, with help from then-Senator Duff Roblin, I arranged to have three of Canada’s outstanding statesmen spend a few hours with us in a committee room in Canada’s Parliament Buildings. Eugene Forsey (1904-1991), a highly respected and articulate retired Senator was one of the men. Former Conservative Party leader and former Premier of Nova scotia Robert Stanfield (1914-2003) was the second person, Jack Pickersgill, M.P. (Newfoundland constituency of Bonavista-Twillingate) and long-time senior civil servant was the final one. I had asked them to speak on the topic “Building a Better Canada”. Although their political biases tended to show a bit, they were now out of politics and obviously had much respect for each other. Their comments and the to-and-fro discussions were pure gold. I have a version of that event, unfortunately poorly recorded, that I treasure.
Some years later Joy and I were traveling in the Maritimes and took the ferry to Newfoundland. Walking with his wife on the deck was Jack Pickersgill. I recognized him from our time in Ottawa and of course he was often featured in the newspapers. I spoke to him and he was very friendly, regaling me with stories from his youth in a small town (Clearwater?) in southern Manitoba. He asked us to “drop in” as we were passing by their summer place in the town of Selvage in eastern Newfoundland. They drove off the ferry in their Mercedes; we proceeded, tenting along the way, in our old Volkswagen. A couple of days later we found our way off the main highway, through the narrow-and only- main street of Selvage and to the little Pickersgill cottage up a lane among the rocks. Welcomed in and handed a two ouncer of single malt scotch, we had an interesting half hour discussion and then, like a visit with the Queen, became aware that it was time to go.
Jack Pickersgill died in 1997. I had almost forgotten about him until I started to read a book given to me at Christmas time (08) by Art Sparling – Unlikely Soldiers. It is the story of Jack’s younger brother Frank who served as a Special Services spy for the Allies in World war II and who died in Buchenwald concentration camp. Lots of references to Jack Pickersgill in the book.