(1) Family Friends and Social Events.
When relatives on both sides of the family returned to Denmark the Danish friends we had made in the new land became all the more important.
Svend Svendsen was born in 1906 in Djursland, Jutland, out of wedlock and unwanted. When he was six his mother sent him to live with her brother and to earn his living on his uncle’s farm in Fyn, another part of Denmark entirely. There his ears were alternately boxed and pulled, he was belittled and ridiculed. His breakfast consisted of the leavings burned on the bottom of the porridge pot when his uncle had had his share. In school his treatment was equally deplorable. He was told he could not sing, and when the other pupils had a singing lesson he was sent out to feed the teacher’s pig. Later in life he was sure he could not carry a tune, but would whistle at a dog with the same little melody used by everyone else.
Svend came to Nova Scotia in 1929 and spent the first year or two in Kentville and Lawrencetown in the Annapolis Valley. Then he moved to Caribou, and throughout most of the thirties and forties made our home his headquarters. It was the first real home he had ever experienced, the first place where he knew he was always welcome. The arrangement worked to our advantage as well. Not only did we have capable help when we needed it; his presence was also a type of insurance – if Dad had lost his life or had been incapacitated, I am sure Svend would have taken over and supported Mother and me. Conversely, if Svend had been disabled, he would still have had a home with us. He was a hard worker, practical, inventive, honest, kind, generous and helpful.
All the same, the wounds received in childhood had left their mark. He boasted of his work and had to assure himself and others that his methods and devices and outlook were superior to those of other people. Having known so much ridicule and teasing in his youth, he knew no other way of dealing with children, and as I was sensitive his ridicule and teasing hurt me more than my parents ever knew and hindered my socialization. Even so, we all regarded him as a member of the family.
Shortly before we moved to Caribou a lobster cannery was built on the shoreline of the farm which was our home. There were three large buildings: a tankhouse, a factory and a cookhouse, as well as a number of smaller ones. In addition some of the fishermen built homes, or at least shacks where they could live during the fishing season. The factory workers came from the Cape Tormentine area and were francophones; we never really got to know them as they were our neighbours only during May and June, the lobster season. The fishermen were local people.
Throughout the thirties Svend spent two months each spring fishing for lobsters. The rest of the year he took what work he could find, in other types of fishing, on farms, in construction, or in the woods. He generally spent the winters with us, working for his keep.
He went to the woods with Dad, dried the dishes for Mother, made repairs around the house and barn and in the evenings knitted heads for his lobster traps. One fall he came to us with five cents in his pocket and left in the spring with the same five cents.
Somehow, through hard work and diligence, Svend managed to get ahead. One year he made a deal with a carpenter who lived nearby, and together they built him a forty foot lobster boat, the largest boat sailing out of “our” cove and doing business at the cannery. It was the only one powered by a deisel engine. Later he built a two story shack at the shore; the ground ﬂoor consisted of one large traproom while the upstairs provided storage space for nets and buoys, a small workshop and a bunkroom. There he lived during the ﬁshing season. He had some of the best equipment of any ﬁsherman between Pictou and River John.
His partner in ﬁshing was Karl Mogensen. Karl was a workaholic. In the spring he would get up at 3 to go fishing with Svend at 4, return to shore at 11 or so, work on MacKay’s farm all afternoon, look after his cranberry bog in the evening, and spend a couple of nights a week spearing eels. His eels and the fish that wandered into the lobster traps often arrived at our place where they were much appreciated.
Karl was very quiet, sensitive and easily hurt. Sometimes in his misery he would go for days without saying a word to anyone. We never knew whether to expect him at Christmas; if he came he was welcome and there was a present for him, and if not we would see him when he recovered from his mood. We never knew what might have caused him pain. He was kind and thoughtful. One day he took me to the Pictou Lobster Festival and bought an apple pie which we ate for lunch; it cost all of 25 cents. Later, during my sister’s childhood he would buy her sweaters for her birthday or for Christmas, and Mother said they were always pretty and in good taste. He made good money at MacKay’s – $30 a month and his board.
Karl’s lack of self-esteem showed in his carelessness about himself: he had lost parts of three ﬁngers in a saw mill. Later he chopped off his thumb while splitting firewood; some one took him to a doctor to have it bound, and he had to be prevented from going back to work immediately afterward. Two or three times while working in the woods he chopped his leg with the axe and had to be taken to a hospital. He was similarly careless with food and cleanliness.
Sometimes Karl would bring William MacKay for a visit — usually on a Sunday afternoon. Mr MacKay was a bachelor and was totally blind for the last 30 years of his life. His sister Kate kept house for him. They had a large farm, and William worked around the barns, feeding the cows and horses, separating the milk, stowing hay into the corners of the mow at harvest time, etc. One year he had the distinction of being voted “Banner Farmer” of Pictou County in spite of his disability. He had been superintendent of a Sunday school in Bay View school in the 1920s, and was loved by everyone. He gave me the first quarter I had ever received in my life. And could he tell stories!
Oskar Jensen and his wife came over at the same time as we – perhaps even on the same boat. She was from Poland, had lost her only son there during the First World War and had been in poor mental health ever since.
Ben Skakke had a master’s degree in geography from the University of Copenhagen. He had been a school teacher in Denmark and had been ﬁred from his job. Rumour had it that he had been found playing cards with his friends when he should have been in his classroom teaching! He came to Canada with his wife Bodil and engaged in fishing and other manual work for many years. Eventually he got a job at a high school and became a very successful and dedicated teacher. Unlike the rest of us he loved classical music and on Saturdays when the Metropolitan Opera was broadcasting from New York he could not be pried from his radio no matter how many visitors arrived. Bodil was a sensitive woman whose father had been a sea captain; she and Mother became good friends.
Christian Eriksen had been in the Kaiser’s army during the First World War, not by choice but through conscription. He, his wife and their two boys (14 and 16 in 1929) were from Als, in Slesvig, south Jutland – the area that had been in German hands from 1866 to 1920. They had been landowners, with hired men and women working on their farm. Now they were the hired help, and they had great difficulty adjusting. They knew no English when they came, and on one occasion they lost their jobs and arrived at our place in Loch Broom on foot, pennyless, carrying their duvet and his evening suit. One son worked on a farm where he was not given enough to eat; he would come to our place on Sundays and fill his stomach. Dad helped Eriksen and the boys to get work in the salt mine at Pugwash; they were there for some years and saved their money until they were able to buy a farm on Green Hill. My parents were used to poverty and low social standing and could better put up with deprivation.
Such were some of the problems our friends had to endure.
We gathered on Sunday afternoons and between Christmas and New Years, and sang songs of Denmark with tears in our hearts. Once in a while, usually at Christmas, Dad would conduct a short religious service in someone’s living room. Once a year there was a major gathering of Danish Canadians on a farm in the Pugwash or Malagash area, modelled on the Constitution Day rallies in Denmark. A podium would be built and draped with Danish ﬂags. We were there by the hundreds. We would hear a speaker or two from Denmark – usually a high ranking clergyman or a politician; and we would go home strengthened to carry on for another year. Julius or Karl or Oskar would drive us to these events. Karl had a coupe and I remember sitting in the trunk with the lid open and being covered with dust by the time we got to our destination. The “Sunrise Trail” was a gravel road.
Sundays were far from being the restricted sabbaths of our Presbyterian friends. When we could, we attended church in the morning. Dad would have a nap after lunch. If there were no visitors we would read for a while; Dad would go for a walk, enjoy the scenery and perhaps plan the week’s activities. Sometimes he would work on a hobby, such as carving animals out of poplar or grafting the apple trees. Karl, if he were visiting us, might get restless and wander out to the ﬁeld to collect potato bugs in a tin of kerosene. Sometimes he would drive us to Loch Broom for an hour or two of berry picking in the woods. Often, to my delight, the family would have a game of parcheesi or Chinese checkers; Svend liked to play for matches. There would be a leisurely cup of coffee in the afternoon. But no card games in our house – on Sunday or any other day.
Our main Christmas celebration was on the 24th. The tree was brought home a couple of days earlier, cut in our own woods. It was set in the middle of the living room floor and decorated on the afternoon of the 24th with strings of red and white Danish flags, woven paper baskets and cornucopiae made of heavy paper and filled with candy and “pebemoddei” (small ginger cookies). “Kravlenisser” (Christmas elves, also made of heavy paper) were climbing over everything, accompanied by their pigs. There were real candles on the tree, in the colours of the oldest national flag in the world; no blues and greens for us! The tree was topped by a star or an angel. Dad finished the barn work early and came in to a delicious dinner of roast pork and chicken, with potatoes and gravy and red cabbage. Dessert was my favourite, “aeblekage”, a kind of pudding, similar to trifle, made with apples, browned bread crumbs, whipped cream and jelly.
After supper we washed the dishes and then gathered in the living room. There stood the tree in all its magnificence. We joined hands and walked around it, singing Christmas songs; the singing was mostly in Danish, but as I learned English songs they were added. The family dog sometimes accompanied us around the tree, looking as if he thought we were insane but at the same time wanting to be a part of whatever was going on. Then just when I thought I couldn’t wait any longer the presents were given out and enjoyed. Then more singing, ablekage and coffee.
Sometime during the evening Dad would read the Christmas story from Luke 2 and lead us in prayer. Aside from the Lord’s Prayer that story is still the part of the Danish Bible that I know best. Bedtime always came too soon.
During the next few days the Danes gathered in the larger homes to celebrate Christmas together. There would be more aeblekage and coffee and other good food and candy, more singing – including games such as Bro Bro Brille (hear Flemming sing it! The game is similar to “Go in and out the Windows”).
We also learned to socialize with the non—Danes in the community. There were some wonderful folk there. But one of their favourite pastimes was card-playing, so our involvement was limited.
A Community Club had been organized in Bay View in 1922, but had fallen into disuse some time before we arrived. The Club was revived, with William MacKay as the first president and Dad as the second. The programs were largely educational and, appropriately, were held in the schoolhouse. We had speakers from town, games led by the schoolteacher, songs and recitations. The Club met every other Thursday, and I have memories of walking to the meetings with Dad, through the snow. Mother’s poor feet and lack of stamina tended to keep her at home.
One of the contributors to our programs was Harry Johnston, a bachelor who had spent some time in the west on harvest excursions and there had learned a number of Harry Lauder’s Scottish songs. William MacKay would introduce him as “one of our talented singers” and Harry would launch into “Roamin’ in the gloamin”‘ or “Oh, it’s nice to get up in the mornin”‘. Harry and his brother Ray had mobility problems apparently similar to Grandfather’s; they would walk home side by side, one limping to the left, the other to the right – a ludicrous sight to a small boy following behind, but not so funny to them.
One night there was a formal debate at the Club, as to the relative merits of the radio and the newspaper. William MacKay, who depended on the radio for news and other programming, championed the radio; Dad, who didn’t have a radio, spoke on behalf of the newspaper. A team of judges who had come out from Pictou pronounced the radio to be the winner by a small margin.
The Bay View women also got together on occasion, often to hook rugs or make quilts. They gave Mother a quilt when we moved away.
(2) I go to School.
A docile only child, living in a household of adults and with no other children around will learn to relate primarily to adults and to grownup pursuits. And if those adults set an example by being eager readers and if they have any patience at all with the child, he is almost sure to learn to read early. We had books and magazines, including comics, in two languages. I would choose an item and get Mother to read it to me, perhaps two or three times. Then I would have Dad read it to me. My grandparents, Ester and Mille and Johannes, Margaret MacKeil and the Rosses might have their turn. By the time the material had been read to me five or six times I knew it by heart and could read it to the adults. Somehow l picked up the alphabet and the numbers as well. The result was that by the time I was five I was reading in both languages.
There were the Billy Bunny Books (four of the six), The Night Before Christmas, Sonny Elephant, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Katzenjammer Kids (“Knold og Tot” in Danish), Bible stories, a number of other Danish comics and a host of other materials. Most of the books in English were hand-me-downs from the Ross boys.
Then there were hymn books and song books. We sang at home and we sang in church and we sang when Danes got together. When a congregation is singing it is easy for the children to follow the words in the book because the tempo tends to be slow. I like to see children in church looking up the hymns and trying to sing them; it is an opportunity for them to absorb something of the Christian faith and at the same time to practice their reading skills – as well as to enjoy the singing.
Certainly I had every encouragement to become literate, and when Mrs Ross had visitors she sometimes used the occasion to show them how well this five year old could read – perhaps not the best thing for the five year old.
Mother and Dad encouraged me to read Danish. We always spoke Danish among ourselves, long after other families had switched to English. Dad used to say that he could not teach me English but he could teach me Danish — and he did. He told me bits of Danish history, recited Danish poetry, and sang hymns, patriotic songs and nonsense and camp songs while he was milking or when he was putting me to bed at night. Mother also sang — mostly hymns, patriotic songs, and children’s songs about lambs and hens and children and family life.
Dad had a good natural tenor voice. In his youth he had started to learn to sing bass, but found that he could not reach the lower notes, so switched and learned the tenor of several hymns. Mother had a low pitched voice and should have learned alto. Neither could read music. There was no question about their ability to carry a tune – until they reached old age, when their singing abilities, though not their desire, waned. When the Danes got together it was usually either Dad or Jens Johnson who led the singing. We had no instruments.
Mother and Dad had a healthy respect for learning, and both wished it had been possible to get more schooling. Dad used to tell me that even if I were going to be a farmer I should take grade 12 and attend Agricultural College.
Dad had kept some of the textbooks he had used in high school, including an atlas (1913), a valuable collection of poems and short stories from Danish literature, a history of Scandinavia, a history of the world, and books on botany and zoology and Danish grammar. My chief interest was in geography. It was important for me to see Denmark in relation to Canada, and to know where each of our Danish friends with their various dialects had originated. On my seventh birthday I received a copy of Nelson’s School Geography, the text that was used by the older students. I was soon involved in drawing maps, and by the time lwas eight or nine I could place the 48 American states and all the countries of Europe, with most of their capitals. From there I went on to royal family trees and our own genealogy, and memorized the names of the kings of England from William the Conqueror to our own time, with most of their dates. This process of course covered a number of years.
One day in September, 1932 Mr Ross drove Mother and me to Bay View School. The wood road l would normally travel each day must have been close to two miles in length, and by car the distance was about four miles. The teacher, Pearle Maclnnes, welcomed us and gave Mother and Mr Ross chairs at the front of the room. I am sure the students were impressed: not everyone came to school on his first day in a car, accompanied by two adults, one an educator with university degrees. I wonder, though, whether some of them didn’t think it was a bit much. Who did we think we were? Mr Ross suggested that since I could already read it should not be necessary for me to take Grade 1 (there was no primary grade in those days). So I was placed in Grade 2 immediately. Mother was not sure this was wise, but bowed to Mr Ross’ opinion.
There were so many children in that school – all of 24 that first year! And some of them were big kids, four of them in Grade 10. Truly there were giants in those days.
We had one of the best teachers in Pictou County. And we paid her well: $500 per year. Of all the rural schools in the County only Bay View and Lyons Brook paid that much. Most teachers in the rural areas received between $350 and $450. Miss MacInnes had an “A Licence” – Grade 12 and a year at “Normal College” in Truro. Some teachers had only Grade 10. Or even less.
With all those grades to be taught we had to do a lot on our own, and sometimes the older students helped the younger ones. In the mornings the pupils in each grade were called in turn to stand in a line before the teacher’s desk. There we were quizzed on our homework: spelling, grammar, arithmetic tables, etc., and each one had to read a paragraph from the reader for his grade. One end of the line was the head of the class, the other was the foot and when we made a mistake we had to move to the foot and might then make our way laboriously back to the head. Only those who seldom made a mistake had any hope of ever rising to the head. The result was that the better students spent nearly all of their time at or near the head, and the poorer students spent nearly all of their
time at the foot. This was great for some of us, but disastrous for those on the lower end.
When the teacher ﬁnished working with each grade we rushed to raise our hands and ask for assistance with our math, and the teacher took a walk up and down each aisle, giving us individual help.
There were ﬁve or six in my grade. For the first couple of years Jessie MacKeiI and I vied for the top position. As I had not taken Grade 1, there were some gaps in my knowledge, especially in math and spelling, so it sometimes happened that I found myself at the foot. As time passed however I generally managed to stay in first place, and Jessie in second.
Jessie later became a nurse and married a doctor. As Mrs Fitch she eventually became president of the Maritime Baptist Convention.
It was a long lonesome road through the woods from Seaforth to the school, and except for a few months I travelled it alone. During my first year Svend would go with me in the morning and see me to the edge of Jim Ross‘ field; from there I could see the school. In the afternoon he would be waiting for me at the same place. He complained that I walked too slowly, that I stopped and talked to every second tree and stone. Which was more or less true. I grew quickly and didn’t have an abundance of energy. In the winter, after each new snowfall it was particularly helpful to have him lead the way and break the trail; sometimes he would cut a stick and hold one end of it while I followed holding the other. But why did we have to walk so fast?
My chief impression of my early school years is one of a naivete which invited the other kids to laugh at me and take advantage of me. I minded this sort of humiliation but did not tell my parents. I have always found it easy to learn, and have liked the learning process; but my interests have seldom been those of the people around me. I am rather impractical, at least as far as mechanics and business are concerned, and have little self-confidence about such matters. I am a dreamer and a reader, and have been told that I resemble my Grandfather Birkholm. Like Mother, I have approached life with a good deal of anxiety, finding it hard to deal with opposition and criticism. But with the passage of time I believe the other pupils in Bay View school learned to respect my scholastic ability and my concern for the younger children.
There was a shed behind the schoolhouse, containing the boys‘ and girls’ toilets and the coalbin. One day I was in the coalbin for some reason when one of the girls slammed the hatch shut on my fingers and smashed one nail. That was painful. I also remember our curiosity as we contemplated the activities on the other side of the wall between the two toilets – especially those of us who had no siblings of the opposite sex.
We sang at Bay View school. We had our devotions each morning, using the Presbyterian Book of Praise for our hymns. Our favourite was #401, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling . . . Come home. . . .”. l have often wondered why we chose that particular hymn. Was it because the plaintive refrain appealed to us, or because we really longed to be home rather than in school? No consideration for the Roman Catholic and Anglican minorities interfered with our Presbyterian devotions.
We sang other songs as well, songs of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales: “D’ye ken John Peel”, “Loch Lomond”, “Men of Harlech”, “Danny Boy” and many others. Songs of the United States: “Marching Through Georgia”, “My old Kentucky Home” and “Nelly Gray”. A few Canadian songs such as “The Maple Leaf Forever” and “Gentille Alouette”.
I learned the songs and taught them to Mother. And when she was over 90 and in a nursing home those are the selections she would have chosen when the residents had their singsongs. But those “old favourites” were too old, and people who came in to lead the singing concentrated on more recent songs, and overdid “You are my Sunshine” and “lt’s a long way to Tipperary”.
Tuesday, May 1, 1934 was moving day. I suggested to Dad that I should stay home and help the family move (I didn’t want to miss anything) but he thought my education was more important. So that morning I walked north to get to school, and in the afternoon I continued north to get to our new home at Caribou.
In the cold of winter it was good to have a hot drink during the day, and one year our teacher suggested that if the farm families among us would take turns bringing milk she would make cocoa. So we agreed and established a schedule. One morning, when I was bringing milk in a lard pail, we detoured through a ﬁeld, where there was a hard crust on the snow. As I was running to catch up with the others my feet went through the crust and I fell headlong, spilling most of the milk. I cried as I made my explanation to the teacher, and heard for the first time the saying, “It’s no use crying over spilt milk”.
We had two softball teams in Bay View School. When the school term started in the fall we picked our teams for the year. As soon as five or six of us were there in the morning we would begin playing ball; we would carry on at recess and dinner hour. One year the teacher added up the scores day after day until the season was over, and the total was something like 1000 to 800. Herbie Landry was my mentor and he saw to it that by the time I was eleven I was pitching for one of the teams.
We played ball in MacDonald’s pasture, beside the school grounds. On the other side of the diamond was a brook. One day when I was alone in the pasture, jumping across the narrow brook as I had done many times before, my foot slipped on the greasy bank and I fell into the water. One leg got soaking wet, from the foot to the thigh. Rather than tell anyone what I had done (and perhaps have to take off my pants and wrap myself in a blanket or coat) I sat in school all afternoon in my wet pants.
Back of the school, over the hill and through the woods ran The Old Road. It must have been very old indeed, and have lapsed into disuse soon after it was laid out, for on the 1879 map it is depicted with a dotted line, and the main road circling the hill is as I remember it. Near The Old Road was a huge spruce tree which had been blown down in a storm and was lying on a slant in such a way that its top nearly reached the tops of the nearby birches. We would sometimes go there at noon. I remember walking up the spruce as far as I could go, climbing from there to the birches and then swaying back and forth on the ﬂexible trunk of a birch.. One of the boys might have a bit of tobacco in his pocket, so we would have a smoke. At other times, being less affluent, we would experiment with leaves. Eventually we would make our way back to school – late, of course. When the teacher took us to task for our tardiness we had an excuse: none of us
had watches. But we knew very well that we were late.
Across the road from the school was Jim Ross‘ farm. Jim was a natural country gentleman. His great-grandfather had given the land for the school some eighty years earlier and had signed his name on the deed with an “X”; but evidently he wanted his descendants to get an education. Jim and his wife Pat (Thompson) had an apple orchard, the only really commercial orchard in the district. North of it lay the woods belonging to the Porter family. South of it was a grove of trees. And south of the grove lay Jim and Pat’s house and other farm buildings. As the orchard could not be seen from the house the situation was made to order for us kids. There were afternoons in the fall of the year when six or eight of us were in the orchard and ﬁfteen to twenty others were in Porter’s woods waiting to receive stolen goods. We filled our schoolbags, we tucked our shirts ﬁrmly into our pants, we buttoned our jackets (no zippers in those days!) to make room for as many apples as possible, and we had enough for the long trek home. And our parents wondered why we had so little appetite for supper.
It must have been during my last year at Bay View that I made a suggestion for avoiding theft. Being jealous of my reputation, having been well taught at home and regarding myself as a Christian, I was uneasy at the thought of actually stealing. By this time I was one of the big kids, in height and grade if not in age, so I guess I had some influence. No doubt there were others who preferred not to steal.
We could not imagine doing without apples, so we decided to be beggars. There were three families with orchards near the school. Jim Porter had a heart condition due to rheumatic fever and was not able to work; he also had a large family, so we did not go there. Marshall Murray and son lived nearly a mile away in an isolated location, so we left them alone. That left Jim and Pat Ross. One day three of us knocked at their door.
Mrs Ross appeared. We stated our request and she graciously gave us two or three apples each, no doubt gratiﬁed that we had decided to forsake our criminal careers. What did not occur to her was the presence of about twenty other kids hiding in the ditch by the road, waiting for us to appease their hunger. The apples she gave us were beautiful and we appreciated them; but like the loaves and ﬁshes in the miracle story, what were they among so many? If she had been wise she would have gone with us to the orchard and supervised us while we gathered windfalls, but our corruption was deeper than she could imagine. A day or two later we were back in the orchard, climbing the trees and shaking down the good apples.
One day at recess we found that a pair of garden shears had been left on the school grounds. Some of us decided that perhaps we were cut out to be barbers. Three or four lost some hair that day, including myself, but none more than Kenny Porter who was five months younger than I. Kenny lived near the school and went home for dinner. His mother was not pleased. When the afternoon session started our teacher (Jessie MacDonald by this time) had on her desk a note from Mrs Porter. Miss MacDonald had red hair and a ﬁery temper, and her neck and face grew red until they almost matched her hair. The culprits were identified and three or four of us were sent to the Porter home to apologize. I was more a victim than an offender, but the others fingered me and they knew what they were doing. We set off for the Porters‘. When we were within sight of the house I was given the honour of representing the group in reporting to Mrs Porter, while the others waited at the edge of the woods. I knocked at the door, and when Mrs Porter appeared I burst out crying (as I usually did on such occasions) and Mrs Porter comforted me with a glass of milk and a cookie. She and I always did get along well.
In fact the Porter home was a favourite haunt of mine. There I learned to play cards, a fact which I did not share with my parents until they were in their eighties and had mellowed. I could see nothing wrong in a friendly game of cards, even then.
Marion Porter Langille, who is a bit older than I, remembers that I would amuse the younger children in the family (there were four little ones) by placing the kitchen chairs in a row and playing train, complete with sound effects. That was a game I had been told about by my mother. The Porters were kind people.
We all have our heroes. Herbie Landry was older than I, big and strong. He tended to be the arbiter of disputes on the school grounds and had a remarkable sense of fairness. If my memory is accurate he had real muscles and was in the process of growing hair on his chest (and probably in other places too). And he knew a bit about boxing. That was around the time of the world heavyweight bouts between Joe Louis and Max Schmelling, in which we took quite an interest. I’m not saying that Herbie was in a class with those fellows, but he knew something about the subject. I was a better student than he, but in some respects he was everything that I was not. He had street smarts.
I was never any good at defending myself. When I got into an altercation it generally ended with my nose being bloodied and was followed by a crying spell. Once I made a remark about the mother of one of my classmates. It was made in a whisper during school hours, and the boy in question overheard it; he immediately threatened to deal with me after school. I recognized that I had spoken out of turn, and as soon as I got the chance apologized to him. His temper had cooled by that time, but he explained that honour demanded some action on his part, and I received the usual bloody nose. We remained good friends however.
Herbie thought I should learn something about the manly art, so he gave me some lessons behind the school where the teacher couldn’t see us. He showed me how to keep my left hand in front of my face and jab with my right, that sort of thing, and I thought I was beginning to understand. Then he paired me against a lad a bit older than I was, who had less than the usual respect for the Marquis of Queensberry Rules. During the match I must have turned my left side somewhat toward my sparring partner; at any rate he caught me in the middle of my back with his right ﬁst and knocked the breath out of me. I was out for the count of ten and then some, but I had the satisfaction of seeing Herbie chase the other fellow all over the schoolyard until he was begging for mercy.
Herbie had a younger brother by the name of Billy. Billy was having some difficulties, and my attention to him may have had something to do with Herbie’s defence of me. We sat two to a desk, and I arranged with the teacher to have Billy sit with me while I helped him with his math. Herbie was inclined to be pugilistic, but Billy seemed soft and sensitive and needing a special kind of treatment. I empathized with Billy, as I too sometimes found the tough world hard to take.
Near the lobster factory lived the Bronson family, about a dozen of them, in a three room house. Eddie Bronson’s father had come from Norway in his youth, and farmed on Caribou Island. Eddie made his living largely by ﬁshing. Times were tough, and it was not easy to bring up a large family when the parents had little education or training. They bought milk from us, three quarts a day for five cents a quart; and there were times when they had no money and Dad gave them milk rather than see the little ones deprived of the necessities of life. Henry was three months younger than I and one of my best friends. One day he found a dime and decided to give his mother a present. So he came to our place and bought her a half pint of cream. Henry loved his mother.
One Saturday morning in May Henry and his older brother Murray arrived at our place. They were on their way to Pictou, ﬁve miles away, on foot, and wanted to take in a movie. They suggested that I join them. Mother had her doubts about the weather and sent us to Dad who was working in the field. Dad too thought it might rain, but we knew better and we prevailed. On the way we picked up Herbie, who lived on the other side of the school, closer to town. We felt vindicated when we left the theatre at 5 and the rain had not started. But we hadn’t gone far before it began to sprinkle. The Bronsons’ grandmother lived in Pictou and Henry decided to take refuge with her. Herbie, Murray and I started for home and by the time we got to the edge of town the sprinkle had become heavy rain. What to do? We couldn’t walk ﬁve miles in a downpour. We found an old ice house, with lots of sawdust and an old Christmas tree but no ice; there we took shelter and waited for the rain to stop. Murray had a loaf of bread and three tins of sardines that he was taking home to his mother. Being hungry we opened the sardines with a rusty nail and broke the bread with our hands. Then we ate half the bread and all the sardines, and, when the rain didn’t stop, slept (more or less). In the morning we ate the remaining dry bread and walked home.
Children’s consciences sometimes work overtime. After we had said goodbye to Herbie, Murray asked me what I was going to tell my parents about the whole affair. I hadn’t thought about it until he asked, and immediately jumped to the conclusion that I had better not tell the truth. I told them I had spent the night at Landry’s, but Mother had trouble believing that story, as we had arrived home around 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning after a walk that must have taken at least an hour from Herbie’s place. Not until she and Dad were in their eighties did I tell them the whole story. Truly, “the wicked flee when no man pursueth”. Or, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “Conscience doth make cowards of us all.”
I have been attracted to many women over the years, and cannot remember a time when I did not appreciate feminine beauty and admire some favourite. The first such occasion that I clearly remember occurred at Bay View School. I must have been ten or eleven. I suppose the hormones were beginning to do whatever it is that hormones do. Or perhaps I only thought it was time for them to begin their activity. Come to think of it, I don’t believe we had hormones in those days; I don’t remember hearing about them. Anyway, there was a little girl a bit younger than I whom I liked to watch. I mentioned to one of the other fellows that I thought she was pretty nice. That was a mistake, for in an hour or two it was all over the school and even came to the attention of the girl herself. Horror of horrors, she came up to me wanting to be friends. I don’t remember what she said or what I said, but I know I was dreadfully embarrassed and retreated most ungraciously. The teasing I knew would come, at school and from Svend, was more than I could face.
I have often regretted my timidity on that occasion. Having no sister at the time and no female cousins in this country, I grew up with a lack of understanding of women and a lack of appreciation and acceptance of some of the characteristics which make them different from men. To have had a girlfriend even that early in life could have been very pleasant and opened up new understandings for me.
We sometimes had spelling bees and geography matches. Teacher would have us choose two teams and line up on opposite sides of the room. During the spelling matches she gave us words to spell, and if we missed three words we were out of the game and had to sit down. The words were chosen with our grade and capabilities in mind.
Geography matches were somewhat similar: we were to name countries or continents , the name of each country starting with the last letter of the previous country mentioned. I enjoyed such events, but they can only have discouraged those who were not academically inclined.
On Friday afternoons, when the week’s work was done, we had Junior Red Cross Club meetings. The meeting was like that of any organization, with a business session followed by a program of some sort. It gave us a chance to learn parliamentary procedure and to perform before an audience. Knowing a lot about Denmark, and having a wealth of resources, I presented a program on the land of my birth, telling about the geography and history of the country, comparing it to Nova Scotia, drawing a map freehand on the blackboard, showing pictures of Danish scenery, etc. Mother thought the students had previously looked down on me as a foreigner and changed their attitude that day. I have no reason to believe that was so, but I am sure they were impressed.
The Bronsons and Prests were Liberals and the MacKeils were Tories. One day after the federal election of 1935 the kids were arguing politics on their way home from school, each child taking the position of his or her parents. Not knowing how my father had voted, l was not able to join in. When I asked Dad about it, he said that as Pictou was a dual constituency and sent two members to Ottawa, he had voted for the two who were not lawyers – one Liberal and one Conservative. He thought that other occupations should be better represented. That information was of no help to me as I still couldn’t argue politics with my friends.
Dad had become a Canadian citizen as soon as possible (a five year stay in Canada was required at the time) so that he would be able to exercise his franchise. Voting intelligently, like giving blood to the Red Cross, was something a man ought to do, and whether he had money or property didn’t matter. Not seeing any difference between the parties, and not having inherited any relevant political prejudices, he was unable to choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, so he asked the advice of two trusted friends, one of them our minister. One replied that the Liberals were a little more conservative than the Conservatives (which probably was true in the closing months of R.B. Bennett’s regime).
The other said the only difference was that one party was in and the other was out (which was also pretty close to the truth).
Later Dad resolved the dilemma by voting for the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, the forerunners of the NDP). The socialists advocated social legislation benefiting the poor and were similar to the Social Democrats of Denmark. Dad also had fulltime work on the farm, so the reward of a job with the Department of Highways (for voting selfishly) was not particularly tempting. He would not have voted for the winning party just to get work anyway; he deplored such patronage almost as a form of prostitution.
Mother felt her emotional attachment to Denmark very keenly, and could not bring herself to give up her Danish citizenship until after the War.
Another educational event took place around the same time. While we were in Loch Broom Karl Mogensen was sometimes out of work, and took refuge with us. During one such occasion he made a deal with Dearborn involving the removal of some stones from a field. There were many small, narrow fields on the farms in those days. The original settlers, while clearing land, found it necessary to remove large quantities of rocks. They piled the rocks in long rows bordering the fields, and as they didn’t have time to transport them very far, the ﬁelds were generally narrow. Rarely were the rocks piled in such a way as to constitute fences; they were usually just rough barriers which a cow might walk over if tempted by grain or clover on the other side.
Karl was to remove one such row of stones, thus joining two narrow fields to make one wide one. He was to be paid $70 and if he got steady work in the meantime and was not able to finish he was to be paid in proportion to the amount completed.
Karl removed most of the stones before getting permanent work elsewhere. He thought Dearborn owed him $40, but when he tried to collect Dearborn refused to pay because the job had not been finished.
Karl’s language skills were rudimentary so he waited for five years before doing anything about the matter. Then he laid charges.
I had not been allowed to miss school on moving day, but this was different. I accompanied Dad to town for the hearing, and I remember seeing Karl, Dad and one of the Loch Broom “scoundrels” on the stand. Karl won his case and his $40 – which he promptly handed over to his lawyer. I don’t remember details and didn’t understand them anyway, but my impression was that Dearborn was out $340 plus legal fees – a considerable sum in those days. Thus was justice done.
Jessie MacDonald must have thought she had a pretty bright class, for she had us complete three grades in two years and I passed into Grade 8 at the age of 11. That was a mistake, in my case. I could handle the work without difficulty, but when we moved to Truro a year later I was not ready socially for inclusion with people two years older than me. I continued to be socially inept for many years, and still suffer the consequences.
Dad had hoped to be able to buy Kate MacKay’s farm, but she decided not to sell. So we looked elsewhere. In November 1937 we moved to Abercrombie and I said good-bye to my friends at Bay View. The students gave me a book, “Around the World in Eight Days” by airplane enthusiasts Wiley Post and Harold Gatty, and Mrs Landry (the community’s poet and mother of Herbie and Billy) wrote some verses which were read to me and which I pasted into the book. Book and poem disappeared many years ago, but Dad remembered the contents of the poem and shared them with me when he was in his eighties; there was something there about befriending the weak.
(3) Me and My Parents.
Dad made most of the major decisions at our place, and Mother was content with that arrangement. In her youth she had made two major occupational choices, and both had turned out poorly: to study nursing, and to work for the Salvation Army. She must have felt that she was out of options. She took refuge in Dad’s care, and generally accepted his decisions.
Let me qualify that. Dad never interfered in the housework; that was Mother’s domain. He might suggest that a certain hen had outlived her usefulness as a layer and merited a place in the roasting pan, or that the peas were about ready to be eaten. But he left the details to Mother. Certainly he had more than enough to do in the barns and fields without getting involved in running things in the kitchen. In fact, during his working years he seldom helped with the housework unless there was heavy lifting to be done. If Mother needed assistance she could press me (or the younger kids) into service or avail herself of Svend’s help.
There is another qualification. Once in a while Mother would express a strong opinion contrary to Dad’s. He would give her a fair and sympathetic hearing, one would convince the other, and life would go on. She could always be sure that he would listen carefully.
But it took some effort to stand up to him, especially in the early years.
Dad was the business head of the family. He was the clear and logical thinker – so clear and logical that sometimes it was maddening. Mother and I would be delayed by emotion and would just be starting to think the matter through when Dad would have it clear in his mind. And he would be right nineteen times out of twenty. That made it frustrating for me, and I felt inferior. I needed to be right once in a while, to be right first, and to know I was right.
Morality was usually a simple matter, and right was right, in Dad’s mind. One knew what had to be done, and did it. To paraphrase a Danish saying, crying “Dear Mama” didn’t do any good whatever. The fat pork was there to be eaten, so we ate it; as the man said when swallowing a frog, “No matter whether you squirm or wriggle, you have to go down.” That was the way Dad had acted all through his life, and there was no good reason why his children should not exercise just as much willpower and be just as stoical as he. But the fat pork kept coming up, over and over.
Dad tried very hard to be fair. And in most ways there never was a kinder, more loving husband and father. He was as kind as he knew how to be.
He was extremely protective of Mother; she came ﬁrst in his life, and as time went on he could hardly have survived without her. You could say or do to him what you wanted, but when Mother started hurting he lowered the boom. He might be hard on others, especially in the early years, but he treated Mother as a precious charge, accepted her as she was, recognized her strong qualities and never failed to make allowance for her limitations. So what, if she couldn’t work in the fields as his mother and sisters had done; she had other strengths, and she did what she could.
How did it come about that he treated Mother so differently from other people? Was it just that he loved her so? Was it out of a sense of responsibility? Or had his mother (whom he worshipped) taken him aside at some point and helped him identify Mother’s strengths and weaknesses and showed him how important it was to treat her as someone special? Certainly he gave her the shelter she needed from the stormy winds of life. But he overprotected her, and it would have been better for her in the long run if he had encouraged her to operate the television, record player and similar gadgets. By the time he died it was too late for her to learn much, as her memory was failing.
In turn, Mother humanized Dad. Without her he could have alienated some members of the family. She helped him to temper justice with kindness and make allowance for people’s weaknesses and for ideas and standards that were different from his own. Her influence made him a kinder, more patient, more tolerant, more understanding person.
And Mother was strong in her own way. Many years later Jim Hines called her “a tough old broad” – and she was. She appreciated Jim’s description. Amazingly, she outlived Dad by eleven years.
l felt at least as much pride as love toward Dad. To have grown up in the poverty of rural East Bornholm, to have been the only member of his family to achieve matriculation, to have taken three years of high school in a year and a half, to have done the work of a minister in the Methodist Church, to have worked so hard over the years both mentally and physically, to have understood matters such as insurance and trade and business as I have never learned to understand them even with my university degrees, to be able to deliver good sermons and speeches in two languages and to do so without notes at an age when most peoples‘ powers are waning, to be able to write so neatly, to be given positions of responsibility in church and community in spite of his broken English — I could go on and on. And then to see the very evident love he had for Mother, shining out of his eyes whenever he looked at her, to experience his warm smile and his great kindness to little children – but here I go again. One could not help being proud of such a man. I told him the night before his final operation that l was proud of him. I wish I had said it earlier.
But he would not have become the man he was without Mother. In spite of all her feelings of inferiority and inadequacy and failure and weakness, she supplied him with qualities he never would have developed without her. She was the best thing that ever happened to him. He knew it. But I don’t think she realized it..
Dad was the one who exercised discipline in our home; it was severe by modern standards, but loving and kindly. I felt the effect of his broad, strong hand on my bottom a good many times, and it hurt. But there were tears in his eyes when he spanked us, and his quiet, patient lectures that went with the spanking drove the point home with more than necessary diligence. The lectures — or the spanking – alone would have been enough. And the knowledge that I had caused Mother to cry made at least as great an impression.
I felt, growing up, that Dad was too strict, and I suspect Mother thought so too but attributed this opinion to her own softness. In the early years of their marriage Dad could do little wrong – in her eyes.
I have no recollection of wanting to hurt anyone; I don’t think I ever intended to do wrong, except when stealing apples or lying to get out of a tight situation, and I can’t remember being punished for intentional wrongdoing. As far as I can remember I didn’t think cardplaying was wrong, but I may be mistaken. Certainly there were occasions when I felt I had been punished unjustly. I forgot, or I didn’t think, or I became impatient or unreasonable. I remember once at Caribou, when I was with Dad in the field – I believe he was harrowing and I was probably picking rock — something went wrong with the machinery and I was sent to the barn to get a wrench while Dad stayed with the horses. By the time I reached the barnyard I had forgotten all about the errand. Dad waited for a while, then unhitched, came back to the barn, horses and all, and paddled me. That was typical, I suppose. I was a dreamer and absent—minded. I preferred reading to farm work.
When I was about ten we had a four year old boy by the name of Keith staying with us for some months. Keith’s parents had separated and his father had custody of the four children. One day Keith had been obstreperous and had been put to bed — quite unjustly, I thought – it may even have been Christmas Eve which would have made it all the worse. I protested with tears, for I had been given the same treatment under similar circumstances and felt it to be unfair. Dad went upstairs and brought Keith down, explaining to him that he was being given a reprieve because I had interceded for him. So I suppose I too helped to educate Dad. In any case, his evident sorrow and disappointment were harder to bear than the spankings.
I think it is usually possible to bring up a child without corporal punishment — and the child is the better for it. Certainly punishing a child in the middle of a tantrum does no good. I have always believed that I did not need Dad’s strong hand on my rear. Perhaps if a parent does not understand his child, spanking is necessary – but then it is a reflection on the parent, not on the child. “Ye fathers”, said St. Paul, “provoke not your children to wrath” (KJV). When a child is unhappy, and the parent is impatient or preoccupied and doesn’t listen, the child may become more unhappy until he is out of control. That is what happened to me at times, and that is what happened to Keith. In each case the punishment could have been avoided if the problem had been properly dealt with at an earlier stage.
I must say however that Dad had a way with small children, and Keith loved him and wanted him to tuck him in at night and sing Danish songs to him. One song, “Der er noget i Iuften” Keith called “Luften and l”. Of course he had no idea what the words meant.
A few words about the standards in our home.
I was not allowed to say “darn” because it was a substitute for “damn”. I was not allowed to say “heck” because it was a substitute for “hell”. I was not allowed to feel anger. There was less understanding of child psychology among ordinary people than there is today.
When Dad’s mother was a girl she saw a good deal of hard-earned money being wasted in gambling and drinking – money that should have been spent on food and clothing for the family. If her father had not been a drinker and a gambler she and her siblings would not have had to earn their own living almost from infancy, and her mother would have been spared much suffering. So it was natural that she should have a strong aversion to cards and alcohol throughout her life. When Ludvig as a boy brought home a deck of cards she put it in the stove. Since in Dad’s eyes his mother could do no wrong, he inherited her attitude to card playing. The Methodist Church tended to reinforce that position. In popular songs and stories I had heard of people wasting money in gambling. But my experience of card-playing was limited to a quiet game of Old Maid or Auction 45s around a kitchen table. As far as I knew, everyone in Bay View except us played cards – but I never saw anybody gamble. It was hard for the Presbyterians to recognize such innocent fun as being sinful – unless, of course, it were done on a Sunday.
On the other hand the Danish Methodist Church has always raised money through what we would call small-scale gambling, i.e., lotteries, whereas the United Church of Canada has traditionally been opposed to games of chance of any kind.
I have come to the position of being opposed to large-scale lotteries, but not the smaller ones. In 1948, when I was on a student ﬁeld in Saskatchewan, a pretty girl sold me a raffle ticket; the prize was a tractor or a thousand dollars. My chief concern was that I might win and the Presbytery and Home Mission Board would find out. I could have been in hot water.
As a child I kept many of my worries and humiliations to myself. I did not want Mother to cry, Dad to become judgmental, or Svend to ridicule. Secretiveness seemed to be the best course.
It is not always easy being an only child. Mother’s attention was riveted on me far too much, but then there was so little for her to grasp and hold in those days, with the keen mind she had and so few relatives around. Dad expected too much of me. I felt I could never measure up to him, and seldom completely please him. I realized there were times when he was proud of me, but I never really shook the feeling that I could not reach his standards. And we never did sufﬁciently share our feelings toward each other.
Dad had memorized parts of a number of Danish poems during his student days, as well as many songs of various kinds, and remembered stories from the history of Denmark and of the Danish church He shared with the family such resources for living. He never stopped learning – in his mid-eighties he bought a new Bible, the Good News translation with the Apocrypha, and he read the intertestamental books for the first time in his life.
My sister says that every family is dysfunctional. If this is so, ours was no exception. We had many happy moments together, however. Compared to most families, we had a good home.