I read four very interesting books this winter. Run of the Town tells of a young man’s life experiences growing up in the northern Ontario town of Hearst. The collection of short stories takes place between 1940 and 1960. Author Terrence West taught me in Grade 10 in 1964 at the Eganville and District High School.
I also enjoyed The Pioneer Years 1895 – 1914. Author Barry Broadfoot researched this era, collecting data from hundreds of personal interviews on those early settlers. It’s a collection of wonderful real life stories. The book also deals with the tremendous hardships that the settlers had to deal with — cold, cold winters, isolation, loneliness, adjusting to pioneer life and dealing with the huge swarms of mosquitoes in the spring and summer.
A woman interviewed said the influenza was very bad some years and a lot of people died. But you never heard too much of the children dying.
Children seemed hardy, these children from big families. They seemed to survive better. They were hardy and strong in those days.
I think most people will agree that we don’t have to go all the way back to 1908 to know that kids were tough in those days. Kids were hardy when I went to school. But they were also kind and helpful. I don’t recall anybody ever being labeled as a bully. We all got along. It was like a big, happy family. Classes had 30 or more students. There was no special needs teacher. We weren’t pampered and fussed over. You could fail a grade. We spent a lot of time outdoors and we were healthy. Kids seldom missed a day of school.
There were no “snow days” or teacher strikes when my generation went to school in the 1950s and 1960s. The buses ran every school day. The country roads were muddy for a few weeks in the spring when all those huge snow banks melted. If the road was too muddy, our bus driver would let the kids off and they’d walk the rest of the way. He didn’t want to make the mud holes any deeper. Buses were never cancelled.
If the regular bus driver couldn’t make it back on time (he was also an electrician), the principal would get the school’s custodian to drive the bus. He was an elderly man and was hard of hearing. The farm boys often had to remind him to “put it in high” as we’d roar along the winding country road in second or third gear.
Grade 8 kids in the school I went to in Eganville would sometimes be asked to supervise the younger classes at noon hour so that the teacher could have a lunch break with fellow teachers. I recall supervising the Grade 2 and 3 classes on many occasions. Some farm kids had a glass jar of milk in their lunch kit. The raw milk sat in their lunch box on top of the coat closet all morning. There was no such thing as a refrigerator in the schools. Kids ate slices of homemade bread with farm-slaughtered meat and drank the lukewarm unpasteurized milk and they were healthy because that’s what they were brought up with. There was no such thing as food allergies. It’s good to see kids playing hockey and sliding down hills, getting into rough and tumble play like their grandparents did. Have fun in the great outdoors! It’s good for you.
I also read D-Day, Juno Beach: Canada’s 24 Hours of Destiny written by Lance Goddard. It’s a fascinating book full of photos and it tells in detail the sacrifices made by the many young Canadian soldiers. These brave, courageous men began the liberation of Europe. It wasn’t only rough and tough stuff — they went through horrific experiences.
Now I’m reading Through Footless Halls of Air, a book I received for Christmas. Author Floyd Williston researched the short lives of six Canadian airmen, two of them Williston’s brothers, who failed to return from aerial operations during the Second World War.
All four books taught me something: How lucky we are today . . . even with the ongoing teacher strikes, railway shutdowns and the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Maynard van der Galien is a Renfrew-area farmer and columnist.