Christmas last year, I was in Winnipeg with my family. I had not planned to return last Christmas, but shortly before the holidays, my Grandfather passed away at 82 years of age. I returned for the funeral and stayed for the holiday.
Grandpa made a series of photocopied binders - four in total - which encompass a variety of autobiographical material, family history, and narratives from the old country. Since March, I have been editing them down and serialising them on my blog. It's been a long time since I put up a post from Grandpa. Since July from the look of it. You can read the entire series to date by clicking here.
After a long interlude of material from Russia, we are returning to Grandpa in the 1940's. The last post from Grandpa's life saw him on the farm in Saskatchewan in 1943, age 22. He had just received an indefinite differment from his draft board. At some point in 1944, Grandpa became a naturalised Canadian citizen. He doesn't mention it in the text, but there is a copy of his naturalisation certificate which refers to him as a British subject, not a citizen, since there was no such thing as a Canadian citizen until 1947.
But Grandpa came to aspire to something other than a life on the farm. He eventually left Saskatchewan again to finish his education and finds himself involved in the construction trade on and off through this period, and sweeping floors and cleaning furnaces much of the rest of the time. This gives rise in me to the odd image of my grandfather as Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, except without the casual sex with ex-demons. He fell into construction simply because he needed the work and found that he was good at it.
This post covers the years from 1945 to 1953, during which Grandpa finished school, met and married his wife and had two children. But, he has a few more adventures in him yet. His story started in revolutionary Russia and the early Soviet Union and has taken him to rural Saskatchewan between the wars, but there is one more exotic location to come, as we will see at the end of today's instalment.
This post also reveals some of the larger context Grandpa is living in. Some traditional Mennonite institutions are beginning to break down in the face of social change. Increasingly, Mennonite society is divided between evangelicals who seem themselves as having a global mission and traditionalists who seek isolation from worldly affairs. This divide is not just visible in religion, but also in culture and especially in language. The divide over time took on a more and more linguistic tone, as adopting urban life, public schools and the English language became linked to one side, while Church German, Plautdietsch and rural living were left behind.
I do need to give you one more piece of information before we start. During the 1930's, Grandma and Grandpa Dick - Grandpa's mother and adopted father - had three more children: Irene, Wanda and Hedy. Grandpa just barely mentions their birth in his text, and I don't think I've included that material, but he mentions them again here. Also, the family name "Toews" is pronounced "Taves" to rhyme with "Dave's", and "Dueck" is pronounced "Dick." The reasons have to do with how people approximate German vowels in English and Plautdietsch.
In 1945 the war ended. The Mennonite Brethren Bible College had begun in 1944 with about a dozen students and because of the new Bible college, Bethany had changed its program to a four year course. I knew that one more year would not be enough for me, so I chose to go to Bible college even though the War Services Board had not released me yet. Irene and I left together as she was to take grade eleven at MCI in Gretna. [Mennonite Collegiate Institute is one of the oldest Mennonite secondary schools in Canada. It was established in 1889 in Gretna, a very small town on the US border about 100km south of Winnipeg.] Dad knew the principal, Gerhard Peters, from Russia.
Saskatchewan had correspondence courses for grades nine, ten and twelve, but they forced students to attend a regular school for at least one year by not providing a grade eleven correspondence course. Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute offered both grades ten and eleven in the college building. [MBCI is a Mennonite Brethren high school in Winnipeg. This meant it was actually directly run by Grandpa's denomination instead of by Mennonites in general. It also offered post-secondary religious education in those days, but now that option is no longer terribly commonplace. Post-secondary programmes are usually not connected to high school programmes in present-day Mennonite practice.] I took about twelve hours [a week] of Bible college in the morning. Sixteen hours was considered an average load. In the afternoon I took the grade eleven subjects that were offered at that time. After an interval of nine years [since Grandpa had last studied math] all the mathematics was forgotten. In geometry, Henry Wall, a retired teacher, took us through the grade ten part first and then the grade eleven materials. I never noticed where the break between the two grades was. I ended that subject with 100% in June - and those were three hour exams. In algebra, I did not fare quite as well. I had no difficulty with the material being taught, but grade ten factoring did not come back until after Easter. More than half the final paper was based on grade ten factoring.
Since I came from Saskatchewan to Manitoba, I needed my marks for the grade ten final exam. ["Marks" are the Canadian word for what Americans call "grades" - as all you Degrassi fans surely know. Grandpa needed his transcripts from Saskatchewan.] I wrote to the [Herschel, Saskatchewan] school secretary, George Scott, only to be informed that they had had a teacher who had destroyed all school registers and records. Fortunately, Mr. Rexsmith, the school inspector in Rosetown, had a record of my marks, so I experienced no problem in making the transfer.
Those were the years of three hour departmental exams, so with the first half of grade eleven, I wrote grade eleven German. The next year I wrote grade twelve German with the second half of grade eleven. The third year I took only grade twelve and did the janitor work at MBCI.
[In the old days - pre-1970, but I don't know exactly when the system changed - Canadian school teachers didn't write their own exams. Students had to take exams prepared by the provincial government, much like in the French or British school system today. These were quite heavy examinations, especially at the high school level. However, you have to understand that in the late 1940's in rural Canada, passing grade 12 was rarer than getting a Bachelor's degree in the US is now. Consequently, expectations were much higher for a student at Grandpa's level than in a contemporary high school.]
But, because I was paying tuition, I wanted my money's worth. I had written grade twelve German already. Students only had to take two subjects from chemistry, physics or history. I took all three. It was the only year when the time table permitted that. Because my first two years of Bible College were in bits and pieces to accommodate the high school subjects, things did not work out too well when I wanted to complete Bible College. It took two full years before I was able to get the required subjects in for my Th.B. degree. [Bachelor's of Theology] I kept taking a full load, however, and ended up with 22 hours more than I needed to graduate, many of them in education studies.
The first year at Bible college, I roomed with five other students at Dr. A. H. Unruh's house at 15 Leslie Avenue. Henry Penner and Rudy Janzen had a room on the second floor, while Nick Willems, Herb Janzen, Henry Loewen and I shared the large attic room. For meals we had to go to a building at the school. Herb was just back from the army where he had served as strecher bearer, so he had priority for buying a suit. When he brought it home, it reeked of smoke, so he hung it up on the wash line behind the house to air out. Later on when he went to get it in, it was gone. Some things were in short supply after the war and because all the returned soldiers needed new outfits, someone must have found the temptation too great to withstand.
When I arrived at Bible College, I was 25 years old and turned 26 that November. I think my parents were almost despairing of whether I would ever get married. There were not many girls attending that first year, but there was one that eventually began to intrigue me. In the library I would glance at her every so often and notice that she was looking at me too. Rules were rather stringent in those days, but because we were eating in the same dorm and doing things like washing dishes together, we started to call each other by our first names. The administration put a short end to that, and then it had to be Mr., Ms. or Miss, or Brother or Sister. Informality was not acceptable. I don't think that helped too much because quite a number of couples found each other that year: Victor Toews and Anne Peters, and Henry Penner and Lydia Dyck.
Nick Willems and Betty Rempel found ways of meeting because they were on the same student committee. Sometimes they got caught, but that did not happen too often. It was possible to date a girl if one got the appropriate permission from the President of the College, but that was something I never considered doing. Betty Rempel and Frieda Willms were roommates at 162 Hespeler Avenue, which meant that we often walked the same route home as the girls. This happened to be the case on the evening before the final program [a religious service at the end of the school year - a closing ceremony of sorts] which took place in the South End Mennonite Brethren church. I asked Frieda if I could meet her after the program the next day. We did meet, and I asked her if she would marry me, and she said, yes, she would. I was lucky not to know that her father had told her he would not allow a stranger into the house. He never mentioned anything the first time when Frieda introduced me to him in front of the Bible college. He knew my step-father's family in Russia and maybe that helped him to change his mind. After the murder of the David Dicks Sr. the children had to depart from Apanlee. They stored some of their things with the Aron Willis of Kleefeld, Frieda's parents.
We were married on August 24, 1946 in the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Church in Steinbach. The reception was in the M.B. church which consisted of the basement with a roof over it. Rev. Jacob Epp performed the ceremony and Dad and Rev. J. B. Toews both brought messages. [Mennospeak for "gave sermons." At my wedding, Grandpa pointed out several times how disappointed he was that there was no message and reminded me each time how there was not only one but two sermons at his wedding. Really, it bothered him that I had a secular wedding, presided over by a "marriage commissioner" rather than a pastor.] The ceremony lasted an hour and a half. There was no bridesmaid and no best man. The food for the reception was very simple and our wedding gifts inexpensive. Dad was a bit peeved about stopping the combine on a Saturday with one more day of combining left and the weather so beautiful, but the good weather continued for another week, and he completed harvest without loss.
For our wedding I bought a new suit as well as a tie and a pair of boxer shorts at one of the stores on Main Street in Winnipeg, but that pretty well depleted my treasury. The engagement ring had a very small diamond in it. I'm not sure whether I was acquainted with the idea of a honeymoon; for us the financial possibility did not exist. We had the next school year to think about. Little did we know that there would be four more before we were through.
Without the benefit of a diary to jolt our memory, it is difficult to recall the course of events. For all practical purposes we had come back to farm again. In Saskatchewan, nine quarters [2.25 square miles, the final size of the Dick farm during the war years] had kept both Dad and me busy. In the spring of 1946, Dad bought a three section farm in Niverville, Manitoba. It needed a lot of building on it. Dad was happy to run the tractor and let me do the carpenter work, so I did not get to do much farm work except during harvest.
[Niverville is a community of a few thousand approximately 25km from the centre of Winnipeg. It is close enough to the city that it serves as a bedroom community nowadays, but in the late 40's before the construction of the Osborne bridge it would have been too far to travel daily.
My father used to tell this joke about how Niverville - and the next town over Otterburne - got their names. In the old days, there were French traders who came through the area, and two of them once camped where Niverville is now. Unfortunately, it was a rainy night, so they couldn't get a fire burning. So the one trader says to the other, "Well Pierre, it otter burn." And the other replies, "Yeah, Michel, but it niver ville."
Insert rimshot here.]
The original house on the farm was a very old one. It stood on massive blocks of stone that must have come from the Garson quarry. [A big quarry in southeastern Manitoba that is famous for "Tyndall stone", a form of mottled limestone that has been fashionable now and then. It is a fairly expensive material anywhere outside of Manitoba. I believe the interior of the Canadian parliament is done in Tyndall stone. One of my aunts lived in the next town over from the quarry for several years.] The walls were filled in with blocks of wood between the studs, but the foundation had shifted and there was a space between floor and wall. Spaces like that were filled in with items of old clothing. Dad tore the old house down and built a new one in its place with a full basement. Because I was at Bible college, I missed most of the construction. The man Dad hired to head the construction told Dad he would build whatever Dad wanted, and if he wanted the gable at the bottom he would build it that way. [If you don't know what a "gable" is, substitute the word "roof" to get the idea.] However when the structure was nearing completion, he must have changed his mind and he stopped abruptly. By that time I was home from school and was able to help finish the job.
[I remember this house very dimly. Grandma and Grandpa Dick lived there until 1979, when they moved into a retirement home in Winnipeg and the house was sold or rented out. By then the town had expanded to the point that selling the house separately as a residence alone was practical. The land was still farmed by Grandpa's sister Irene's family when I was a teenager, but I believe that sometime in the last decade it was sold to developers and is now housing. I seem to remember hearing that the house was torn down too, but I'm not sure. I don't think I've actually set foot in Niverville in over a decade.]
When Dad bought the farm, there were actually two houses on the place. The second one, which was not part of the sale, stood where the garage is now. The owner consented to let Mother and Father use that house until the new one was finished. When Frieda and I got married, we were the first to sleep in the new building. We used the downstairs bedroom in the southwest corner, but as a whole the structure was quite incomptete. The stairs that led to the basement were there, but the cement floor was still missing.
The next year we returned to MBCI. We both studied full time and lived apart at the school. [When I was younger, I remember hearing stories about this arrangement and how silly it was, but Grandpa doesn't talk about it here.]
In the summer of 1947 we lived at my parents' place while I worked at the construction of the new school in Niverville - the one that burned just a week before Christmas in 1960. In 1947-48 I took only grade twelve. We should have been eligible to room in the upstairs of the MBCI duplex, but we were expecting Robert at the time, and the board did not think they wanted the girls up there to live with a pregnant woman. J. B. Toews was kind enough to let us move into room 19 on the first floor of Ebenezer Hall even though I was not a college student that year. This was the single room in the north-east corner of the building next to the ladies wash room.
After Robert arrived on February 16, 1948 we bought a baby carriage. ["Robert" is Theodor Robert Martens, my father.] The bed was in the northeast corner arid a clothes closet on the west wall. The carriage just fit between. If we wanted to go to the window, the carriage had to come out first. On the south wall was the little kitchen cabinet in the corner and the rangette filled the space up to the door in the other corner. On the east wall, a small table filled the space between bed and kitchen cabinet. It was just long enough so both of us could sit at it from one side. Caretaking at the high school paid just a shade more than our rent.
In the summers of 1948 and 1949 I worked for Bockstaul Construction in Winnipeg. The first two weeks I got 80 cents an hour and then moved up to $1.00 as skilled labour. While it did not make us rich, it did help to supplement the equity that I had built up during my farming days.
The last two years at Bible College I looked after the heating of the school and Ebenezer Hall which were on the same hot water system. The boiler was coal heated and the coal was supplied to the furnace by a stoker. The delivery trucks dumped the coal right over the coal intake, so I did not need to shovel it, but I did have to clean the flues every day. That meant I had to push a long cleaning rod through the full length of each of the 48 pipes. By the time I was through, I was well perspired. But then the ashes and clinkers had to be taken out. If I got my back chilled in the process, I was sure to get Hexenschuss - lumbago. To alleviate the pain in my back, I would put the hot water bottle on my back for the rest of the evening. Usually that took care of it. I can't say I enjoyed studying during those evenings, but there was no alternative.
During those last two years it was not possible to take the remaining subjects when they would have fit into my timetable. But I continued to take a full load by enrolling in subjects that interested me, many of them in education. I ended up with 22 hours more than I needed to graduate. The Th.B. required that we have second year University standing, and I had that as well. And I also had an extra grade twelve subject.
After graduation in 1950 we worked for the Western Children's Mission for one year. We bought a 1931 Model A Ford for $350 from Loewen Chevrolet in Steinbach. Where we got the money I don't know, but the Lord kept providing from back payments of farming days.
[Canada has a system of quotas and price controls in agriculture which offer farmers a stabler sale price for their goods, even when the market price fluctuates. This programme provides a number of forms of income guarantee, including a system of continuing payments after you've been a farmer for some time. I'm afraid I don't know the details of Canadian farm economics, but I think this is what Grandpa means by "back payments".
Western Children's Mission was an evangelical programme operated by Bethany Bible College, where Grandpa studied in the previous chapter. It sent Mennonite Brethren pastors and Bible students to isolated Old Colony and Sommerfelder communities - less evangelical Mennonite sects - that didn't have any sort of church. If I am reading the history accurately, this is an early instance of the tension between "cultural Mennonites" and "religious Mennonites", where those who view the sect as an evangelical church sent missionaries into communities where being Mennonite represented an ethnic identity and a set of community values. Grandpa was an evangelical. For him, the church is God's church, and is open to anyone who wants to live as God commands. The Western Children's Mission was absorbed into the Saskatchewan M.B. Mission Board in 1953.]
We had expected to go west immediately after graduation, but they kept postponing it because of the lack of accommodations. [No house.] As a result I worked for Jake Voth for a while in construction. Eventually we got the go-ahead to move to Hague Ferry, Saskatchewan.
Because Dad was farming at Niverville, he bought all his oil in bulk - at Esso, I believe. [Esso is ExxonMobil. Even back then, I think it was basically the same company as Mobil.] Before we left, he gave us an oil change for our Model A. All our belongings were on the one-ton International truck that Dad drove. It did not take long until the oil put its cleaning action to work on the inside of that dirty motor. We had to have another oil change on the road to solve the problem. Our top speed was 45 mph. I know we did not get there in one day, but I don't recall where we spent the night.
["[O]ne-ton International truck." This must mean International Harvester, a farm equipment company which made light trucks for agriculture until 1975. My wife tells me that her Grandpa had one too. The heavy-duty truck division of International Harvester became Navistar in 1982 (now International Truck and Engline) and the rest of the company was merged with a competitor - J. I. Case - to form Case IH.]
The new building, of course, had not been moved yet, so we had to move into the old school. Initially the people had settled in a bend of the South Saskatchewan river, because it was beyond the four mile school attendance law. [They lived in outer nowhere because then they didn't have to send their children to public school.] I remember that while I was at Bethany in 1940 to 1941, George K. Giesbrecht began a very humble work among these people. Eventually they put up a building that served as church and school.
By 1950 they had a government school just north of the mission property. Jean Fehr was the teacher and Helen Unruh had been in charge of the mission. They lived in a small teacherage on the mission property. ["Teacherage", formed by analogy with "pastorage", is a house owned by a school where the teacher lives. Canada still had one-room/one-teacher schools in rural areas in the 1950's. My mother attended one in the early 60's. They disappeared in the mid-1960's when modern systems with school districts and rural busing were established.] The church had been built in such a way that the worker could live in the gable part upstairs where the floor provided the ceiling for downstairs. The joists were visibly from below. The walls were plastered with mud, because everything had to be constructed as cheaply as possible. We moved into that building when we arrived some time at the end of June. On Thursday, July 13, I wrote the second letter home and reported that on Thursday, the 6th, we had hosted the crew that poured the basement and cistern that would be under the residence part of the building. The old building had no partitions, so we had to make the best of it. We piled the old church benches in the far corner and put our bed up against the pile with the crib next to our bed. From the other side we used our book cases as a divider. Next to the door we had a stand on which we put our Coleman stove. We used that before we got the wood and coal range. Actually, we are not at all sure whether we had the range in that building at all. We must have had several small tables to move together, because we had as many as nine or more men for meals during the construction and moving.
During these first months we had services in the government school building. The building they planned to move for the new church was an old Mennonite school. On location nothing had been done prior to our coming except the excavation of the basement and cistern under the living quarters. We hosted the men that built the forms and poured the concrete. There were no screens on windows or door, so every evening I swatted hundreds of flies.
After the foundation had had lots of time to cure, they finally started to move the building with three tractors on Tuesday, September 26. It took a whole week before it was in place on the foundation. We took the flooring out of the upstairs room of the old church, because we needed it to replace one of the floors in the residence part of the new building. It was quite cold by that time, and with the ceiling gone, it was impossible to keep the place warm with only a kitchen stove. By that time we were using the feather tick at night. [Does anyone know what a "feather tick" is? It sounds kind of kinky to me, but Grandpa was not a kinky sort of guy.] We finally moved in on the 6th of November. We were very happy to have a warmer place in which to live.
The new building was a typical Mennonite school the way our people built them before the government forced them to have all the instruction in English. The way the building was situated, there were two rooms at the north end of the building. The south end was the large school room with a wide hallway in between the two parts. The hallway had doors from both sides and was divided in two. Originally this provided separate entrances and cloakrooms for the boys and the girls. There were also separate entrances into the classroom. We closed up the door from the west side and used the west half as our kitchen. We used the east entrance for ourselves as well as the church. The other two rooms were our living room and bedroom. The ceiling in this building was quite different. The beams were 4 inches by 10 inches every three feet with the floor above constituting the ceiling. There was good storage upstairs, but we lost a lot of heat through only one layer of boards. The beams were dark, and the construction would be considered very modern now. I wonder where one would find solid wood like that the length of the full width of the building today?
When we came to Hague Ferry, Robert was two and a half years old. He was used to speaking German in our room in the dorm, but outside he spoke English like everyone else. The elementary school at Hague Ferry was separated from our yard by nothing but a fence. When school started in fall, he was attracted by the children on the other side. Since this was definitely outside of the house, he took it for granted that English was the language of communication. He was really insulted when they came back with, "Du kjleena Enjlaenda." (You little Englishman.) But it did not take him long to pick up the Low German in their dialect.
[I heard this story often enough too growing up, especially after I started studying linguistics. It is quite interesting to see how my father grew up with two - sometimes three or four - languages, thinking that each was proper to use in particular places. English outside, German inside. Grandpa even used to tell the story of how Grandpa Dick once called to Dad in German from indoors, but since Dad was outside he responded in English.]
It was at Hague Ferry that I really learned how to preach. I had to have a message ready every Sunday evening. [Many older Mennonite communities have services Sunday evening rather than Sunday morning, as most North American Protestants do. Later, this distinction would become linguistic - English services in the morning and German services in the evening. This is still the case in some churches, but as the remaining German-speaking Mennonites die off, the practice is disappearing.] Sometimes when the weather was poor, only the Henry Hamms would come. [Henry Hamm owned and farmed the land the church was on. So, he lived next door and his sponsorship of this enterprise could be taken for granted.] In that event we would change to a Bible study and leave the sermon for next time. I preached in High German, but their language of communication was Low German. [This was the case in most Mennonite communities in western Canada before WWII.]
We also had young people's meetings once a week on Thursday evenings. Here we tried to sing with them, but Frieda was not too good at playing the organ, and I was a poor conductor. At one time I wrote to Ben Horch [a freind from school, I think] and asked how to beat six-eight time. It was around then that I found a wine bottle behind our house after one of these meetings. I thought we must have quite a "spirited" group. [Grandpa had many talents. Comedy was not one of them. That is exactly the kind of bad pun he would tell.] We tried to get something going with the younger set as well. Frieda tried a Sunshine club with the girls. She wanted to do handwork with them, but it was very difficult to get anyone really enthusiastic about anything.
In addition to services, we also tried to visit people at home. After the first snow, the car was put on blocks for the duration of the winter. We still had the sleigh that we had used for Robert in Winnipeg. [All weather baby strollers did not exist in the 50's. In winter, you used a baby sleigh.] I bought two four inch boards to use as runners under the narrow metal runners. We boiled the wood in the copper boiler to curve the front ends and then attached them to the sleigh. At the back we attached a two inch piece with a hole large enough for a broom handle. I would pull the sleigh from the front, while Frieda would walk behind with one hand on the broom handle to keep the sleigh from tipping and spilling our son into the snow.
All of our trips to Hague [the nearest town of any size] were courtesy of Henry Hamm. When they went to town, we would go along. Our small size Quebec heater was bought for the mission at Dyck's second-hand store in Hague Ferry. Where we got the hand-powered washing machine, we can't recall. The McClary range we bought for $20.00 at the same second-hand store for the mission. It so happened that Mr. Dyck owed the mission $50.00 and this allowed him to repay part of the debt. I'm sure Mr. Hamm hauled these items for us as well as the coal once we had the new building.
At one point it became necessary to make a trip to see the doctor in Saskatoon. We had an appointment, so we could not change the date. Henry Hamm had promised to take us to the station to catch the morning train. That day it was -54 degrees Fahrenheit so we left extra early. Mr. Hamm had the team walk all the way in that exteme cold. It would have been inhumane to expect the horses to run. [Henry Hamm was still using horses for transportation in the early 50's. This practice was already fairly rare in the early 50's, but it did persist in isolated enclaves until the late 50's.]
We received fifty dollars a month from the mission and five dollars for one child. Family allowance was $5.00 extra. ["Family allowance" is a non-means-tested benefit that everyone in Canada who has a dependent child receives. The theory is that it's enough money to provide basic nutrition to a child. It doesn't come to very much money, but nowadays it's a good deal more than $5.] I cashed the cheque at Frank Sawatzky's grocery store. He still had a separate purchase book for each customer. We would put $25 on deposit and buy from that until the next cheque arrived. We could not live very high on the hog with that income. Instead of bacon, we bought jowel, which came from the cheek of the pig, but then we were not used to being pampered. Milk we obtained from Henry Hamm for 10 cents a quart jar. Eggs were 25 cents a dozen. We had brought some canned goods with us, so we made a go of it. We picked saskatoons, pincherries and chokecherries in fall. That helped the fruit situation. We were even able to buy our first box camera for $4.95 from Eaton's. It was made of metal and took a 120 film.
[Saskatoon berries are a native fruit of the Canadian praries. The city of Saskatoon is named after the berries, from the western Cree word "misaskwatumin." I haven't eaten them in a while, but if I recall correctly they have a moderately bitter taste like black currants but taste quite good in pies and jams, where sugar is added. They have traditionally been used in native recipes, particularly in making pemmican, which is a way of preserving meat that Canadian traders learned to make from the local natives. They are usually picked from wild or semi-wild bushes rather than farmed, but in recent years there has been a small commercial demand for them. Apparently, they contain anti-oxidants and some kind of anti-carcinogenic flavonoid, so the government has been flogging them on the international market for nutritional and alternative medicine use. I wish them luck. Saskatchewan's farmers could use the money.
Pincherries are also native to western Canada and parts of the upper plains in the US. They look like red currants and have similar uses. They are extremely hardy plants, living as far north as the Great Slave Lake in the NWT. Furthermore, they are shade intolerant, which is just wonderful in Saskatchewan, because there isn't any shade to speak of in the province.
Chokecherries are fairly widespread in the western US and Canada and are sold commercially. They are sweet and flavourful, but the pits are toxic.]
One time during the year, my parents sent us a gift of $50. That is when we splurged. We ordered a hand-cranked gramophone from Simpson's. It played 78 rpm records and the needle was supposed to be changed after each playing. Here, far removed from hydro, this was a real treat for us. We did not have a battery-powered radio. No one had dreamed of a transistor radio yet. Thus the gramophone provided the music and the Rundschau and Free Press Weekly the news.
["Hydro": In Canada, most electricity comes from hydroelectric dams, except in Ontario which converted over to nuclear back in the 80's. Thus, most of the public electric companies - including in Ontario - are called "Hydro", e.g. "Hydro Quebec", "Manitoba Hydro", etc. This word has, by extension, come to mean electric utilities in general in Canadian usage. Thus, when Grandpa says he is far removed from hydro, it means that they are too far out to be connected to the electrical grid. This is a very conventional usage in Canada, but not in the rest of the English speaking world as far as I know.
The Mennonitische Rundschau is a weekly newspaper in German published by the Mennonite Brethren press in Winnipeg. It still exists, although I think it is a monthly now. The Free Press Weekly was a weekly news digest published by the Winnipeg Free Press for customers who could not or did not want to receive the daily newspaper. You could subscribe to get it by mail, so it was popular in rural households. It still existed in the early 90's, but I don't think it's still published. There is home delivery over so much of Manitoba now, and TV brings people news far more effectively these days.]
On the 19th of November we had the dedication of the new building. We also celebrated the "Erntedankfest" - harvest thanksgiving - at the same time. Rev. Jake Epp and Rev. David Wiens, both from Bethany Bible Institute, spoke in the afternoon and Rev. Epp spoke in the evening. In the afternoon about 75 people attended and in the evening about 50. Some of them did not go home between services to do chores, so we had company for a long time.
["Erntedankfest": This holiday is celebrated on different days in different parts of the German-speaking world. In the Bundesrepublik, it is associated with Michaelistag - the feast of St. Michael on September 29 - and is celebrated on the first Sunday after it. It enjoys some legal recognition in Germany. Most Americans believe that Thanksgiving was invented in the US and has something to do with Pilgrims. In fact, a link to "Erntedankfest" is somewhat more plausible. Some version of this festival has been celebrated irregularly in the Americas since at least 1576. The US version did not become an annual state holiday until the 1940's.]
Our work developed slowly. After the building rush was over, we started an afternoon Bible study. It did not catch on. At best we had members of the Henry Hamm family and John Janzen who worked for him. By this time it was winter, and farm work no longer kept people busy. Sometimes bad weather was a good excuse to stay away.
At Christmas we had an experience that was different. We observed Christmas Day and Boxing Day as usual. That, after all, was tradition with us. The day after that, we must have run short of laundry, so Frieda decided to do some washing. After all, Sunday had been Christmas Eve, Monday Christmas day and Tuesday boxing day so the holidays were over. That afternoon the Henry Hamms came to visit. With them it was Dredde Heljedach - third holiday. That is when we found out that locally, Christmas was celebrated for three days.
["Dredde Heljedach" - Plautdietsch for "third holy day." In rural communities in the middle of winter, what else were you going to do? Celebrating Christmas for three days cost very little, since there wasn't much farm work to do in winter except milk the cows.
"Boxing Day" - this is not generally celebrated in the US, but it is in Canada. Not quite as sacred as Christmas itself, some retail may be open the 26th of December, but not all. It is a traditional British holiday. In the old days, it was the day when the master of the manor had to serve the servants. A sort of annual role-reversal to remind the boss what it was like to work for him.]
Mother kept most of our letters that we wrote from Hague Ferry. In the mean time I have had a chance to read them again. One tends to forget the difficulties and remembers the pleasant things. The letters refreshed our memory. One recurring problem was that Miss Unruh [Helen Unruh who had previously been stationed at Hague Ferry] kept coming back, making it hard to get people to work with us. This was especially noticeable with the young people and made things very discouraging for us.
[Hague Ferry was not a terribly successful mission by all appearances. Through the next decade, there were four young couples rotated through Hague Ferry as worship leaders. In 1960, the mission was moved to the larger town of Hague because there was so little going on in Hague Ferry. The church building itself was relocated - again! - several miles away to Hague. In 1963, a Sommerfelder church opened in the community, and as result the Mennonite Brethren conference withdrew their support for this mission in 1968.]
Towards spring a fairly large group of Mennonites from the area sold their belongings and started off for the British Honduras. Before they went, the group sold their farms and the rest of their possessions at auction sales. I'm sure everything was sold at basement bargain prices, because this was not a rich area.
[In the 1920's, a large group of Mennonites from western Canada moved to Mexico in response to the new public schooling laws - passed in the wake of anti-German sentiment in WWI - which required Mennonite children to study in English in public schools instead of German in church schools. This was seen as something of an attack on their community isolation. Around this time, the Mexican government expropriated the extensive land holdings of William Randolph Hearst in Chihuahua state, near the US border, because his newspapers had been very critical of the Mexican government. They offered the land to Mennonites, where they could live tax-free and in German, as long as they promised to bring more than a certain number of tons of dairy products to market every year. "Queso Menonita", a mild cheese which is commonplace in Mexico, began as the kind of cheese this new colony sold.
By the 1950's, the Mennonite colony in Mexico had outgrown the land it was on, and the Mennonites investigated finding new lands. The government in British Honduras proved amenable because there was a dispute over the border between British Honduras and Guatemala, and settling the territory reinforced the British claim. As a result, a large group of Mexican Mennonites relocated there. By the 1950's, Canada was a modern state and both the English language and North American culture were making ever deeper inroads into Mennonite life. As Grandpa points out, the people around Hague Ferry had moved there to escape public schooling and government, so it is hardly a surprise that many might decide to preserve their culture by moving to British Honduras. However, this proved to be a bad move, as we will see in a moment.
In 1979, British Honduras became independent and now calls itself Belize. There are still substantial Mennonite colonies there.]
They got as far as Mexico before they found out their papers were not in order, and they had to return. In the meantime some of their children had become ill with diarrhea. One little one passed away after they returned. Some of the children that did not go on the trip got infected by those that came back, and one of them died as well. We attended the funeral.
[I've cut some stuff, so I need to explain here. The government quarantined Hague Ferry and forbade the people there from getting together in order to contain the outbreak. Thus, there were no church services for a while, so Grandpa couldn't do much. Grandpa and his family weren't sick, so they were free to go. They went back to Manitoba for a while to the MB annual conference and to see their family.]
We did not come to work for the Western Children's Mission because we regarded home missions as our life's work. Our eyes were directed at foreign missions. We had contacted the Board of Foreign Missions previously and continued our contact with them. Since we had applied for Colombia and Colombia was very afraid of communism, the Board had little hope of getting visas for us since both Frieda and I are born in Russia.
[This is the first time Grandpa says that he wanted to be a missionary abroad. The idea seems to have come to him sometime during his time at MBCI in Winnipeg. In Columbia, this period - the late 40's and early 50's - is called "La Violencia." A full discussion of Columbia's history of social problems is not really relevant here, but at the time, there was a constant low intensity civil war going on between various leftist and rightist forces. Ultimately, at least 300,000 people were killed in this period. In 1953, a military government brought some order to the country, but the fighting continues even now in some parts of the country. The running partisan warfare meant that the more-or-less legitimate government was terrified of any outside political force coming into the country, so anyone with even the most tenuous link to communism or the Soviet Union was forbidden from entering the country. That the Mennonites were there at all is a testament to how seriously Grandpa's wing of the Mennonite community took its missionary functions.]
Eventually, we decided that if we ever wanted to be considered for foreign missions, we would have to go to Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas. We planned to apply for our visa while we were in Manitoba. In that respect we were sadly disappointed, because we were residents of Saskatchewan, and the U.S. Consulate in Manitoba could not help us.
[Founded in 1908, Tabor College is a liberal arts college owned by the Mennonite Brethren Church. There are several Mennonite liberal arts colleges in the USA offering ordinary university subjects, but this is the only one associated directly with the Mennonite Brethren in particular. In Canada, there are very few accredited degree-granting liberal arts post-secondary not associated with the government. It's not illegal, but it has traditionally been impractical because there are few possibilities of accreditation outside of the state system and because there are no prospects for post-secondary financial aid in Canada outside of the state school system. Thus, a Mennonite general education even today means going to the US. Grandpa needed more education if he wanted to be sponsored to go abroad as a missionary.]
To make things easier for us, we left Robert with my parents in Niverville. Our return trip took us via Regina where we picked up the necessary papers on Tuesday, August 28th. I do not have a birth certificate so Mother had to provide an affidavit in two copies in order to get a student visa.
By the time got back to Hague Ferry, the order forbidding assembly had been lifted, and only three families were still quarantined. My letter of September 3rd says that Dr. Hamm could only count 20 people who were still sick with the epidemic that the people brought along from the South. The name Dr. Hamm appears a number of times in my letters, but we just can not recall where he had his office although it seems we had gone to see him a number of times.
From now on our efforts were directed at collecting the papers that we needed for our student visa. With an axle, wheels and springs that I bought at Dyck's second hand store, I built a two-wheeled trailer for a total of $80 in which we took our goods to Tabor. I remember Dyck had to replace the first set of springs because they had no tension left in them.
Finally we had all our papers and an appointment with the U.S. Consul in Regina for 11 a.m. on Tuesday, September 25th. We started out on Monday, the 24th, and went as far as Watrous. The next morning we started out bright and early so we would be in time for our appointment. The car performed well until we reached Lumsden.
In that area they had had a freezing rain and the roads were smooth. Going down into the valley was not too difficult, but getting up on the other side was a problem. The road went up rather steep, and every time I let out the clutch, the motor would die. Finally we found ourselves in the wrong lane with the trailer jack-knifed and pointed into the ditch on the left side. The road was one ice. I can still see the look of horror on the face of the last driver that came down and found us in his path. However, he was able to come to a halt, and both of us remained undamaged. After that they stopped traffic at the top, and about the same time a tow truck appeared and began putting on his chains to assist people up the hill. I continued to try with the Model A and, amazingly, it got going and took us right to the top. The remaining 23 miles into Regina we drove in second gear. Of course we were late to see the Consul, but we had no problem there in spite of that. Since then the road through the valley at Lumsden has been redone, and the new highway is not nearly as steep as the original one was.
Our next stop was at the Chevrolet dealership, because Helmut Epp [a family friend] was foreman in their repair department. Since we were driving a Ford car, he could not help us, but he did make arrangements for us with the local Ford dealer. We got there with our outfit, and the foreman came out to look at our problem. He opened the hood, and I had to step on the starter. As I did so, the anti-freeze came out of the manifold. We had a blown head gasket. They could not start on our repair until the next day, so we had to spend the night in a hotel. After the car was repaired we drove south from Regina and took the first American highway going east. Canada's number one was still under construction and with all the rain we had, that was not an advisable route to follow.
[My mother remembers the days when the Trans-Canada highway was still gravel in places. It had been possible to cross Canada by car since 1912, but it was a pretty rough ride. In 1949, the federal government finally allocated funds for paving, leveling, straightening and modernising the road so that there would be a useable highway across Canada. This work was not completely finished until 1962. Until then, many Canadians simply crossed the open border and used the US road system. Many still do, especially because the section from Winnipeg to Sudbury is longer, slower and more treacherous than the US roads between the same places.]
Robert was glad to see us. We called him Bobby in those days. [Dad hated being called "Bobby." His sisters used to call him that when they wanted to tease him. He wasn't big on "Robert" either. He liked to be called "Bob."] We did not stay very long in Niverville, only over the week-end, because I was already late for school at Tabor College. We started out on Monday, October 1st, and got as far as Crookston, Minnesota, where we spent the night at a hotel. A filling station let us park our rig on their lot. The trailer was covered with a made-to-measure tarp. It would not have been difficult to rob our goods, but everything was safe and sound the next morning. We must have made good time with our car, because the next day we drove 400 miles to Elk Point in South Dakota, just north of Sioux City. On Wednesday, the 3rd of October, we arrived at Hillsboro at 3:00 in the evening. The next day I registered at Tabor College.
They gave us suite #6 on the second floor in South Hall. Apparently, that was the nicest suite they had. For us, a gas stove and heater were something new with an element of danger that we were not used to. Our suite had two fairly large rooms, closets and a bath room. After Hague Ferry the latter was a luxury for us.
I was taking Abnormal Psychology, German Religious Literature, Advanced English Grammar and Goethe and Schiller. The latter was a reading course because I was the only student. Once a week I had to see Professor J. P. Rogalsky, and we would talk about what I had read. He was a nice elderly gentleman. He had to use a hearing aid, but with me that was no problem. The students still talked Low German [Plautdietsch], but they had to take a certain amount of High German [Standard German] for their Arts degree. They hated it and made Mr. Rogalsky's life miserable. Maybe he enjoyed the change with me. My major was German and my minor English. This gave me two teaching fields for a Kansas Secondary Teaching Certificate. Had Tabor been accredited, I would have had that. As it was, one had to take a Summer School at Emporia to get the certificate. Isaak Redekop went that route but also took his Master's there. [Emporia, Kansas was home to the Kansas State Teachers' College, now Emporia State University.]
This was our first experience in a foreign land with a different culture. This became evident the first time we went grocery shopping. When we had paid for our things, the clerk asked if she should put our groceries into a "sack." Frieda told her a bag would be good enough. How should we know that they used a different word for the same thing? With us the alphabet ends in a "z" ["zed"]; they say "zee." Our house has a roof on it; theirs has a "ruff."
[Canadians say "zed" for the last letter of the alphabet, as do nearly all of the world's English speakers outside of the US. Many Americans say "ruff" - which rhymes approximately with the French word "oeuf." Although in the past this was part of the North-South dialect distinction in American English, it is increasingly a city/rural distinction, and the "ruff" pronunciation is now seen as a sign of poor education in much of the US, although it's really just a regional variation.
The story about how Grandma asked for a bag when they offered her a sack is another story I heard a lot back when I started studying linguistics. This too is a regional issue, mostly East/West. In Canada, it's always a "bag." In the US, it's a "sack" anywhere west of Chicago.]
A number of things that happened that year still remain in our memory. It snowed four times all winter, but it began melting just as promptly and was gone in two or three days. [Kansas is a good deal warmer than Canada.] One day we wanted to use our car, but when we turned the key, there was an explosion under the hood. What happened? It must have seemed like a great lark to wire a fair-sized fire cracker into the ignition system. After all, a 1931 Model A stuck out like a sore thumb in 1951. And lets face it, we were foreigners that were different. After five years of study and one year of mission work we did not have the money to be dressed in the latest. [Unfashionable, poor and in a place where things were different enough to trip you up - just like when Grandpa came from Russia.]
Toward spring of that year we were called in by A. E. Janzen, the executive secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions, and informed that it was still impossible to get visas from Colombia for us because we were both born in Russia. We asked him, could they use us anywhere else? His reply was that all the fields were staffed. We accepted that reply for about two weeks, until he was speaker at a Tabor College chapel. In the course of his message he appealed for mission workers including for a field for which they had no applicants yet. If you had had such an experience, what would you have thought? We concluded that they did not want us but were not forthright enough to tell us. We never went to see A. E. Janzen again.
After five years of study and one year of mission work, our finances were not the greatest either. Being a foreign student, my chances of employment were very restricted. [US law only permits employment at the school.] The school offered me the job of keeping the gymnasium clean. It paid 50 cents an hour and provided me with a lot of exercise. Even though the mop was fairly wide, it took a lot of trips back and forth to cover the whole surface. The locker rooms had to be washed with disinfectant to prevent the spread of disease.
Competitive basketball games against other colleges were played in the high school gym, because they had bleachers for spectators. The stage provided room for the band which played during intermission at all home games. Watching basketball games was something new for us. [Basketball was a rarity in Canada until the 1990's.] We enjoyed it very much. Another new thing for us was the cheerleaders at these games. When I compare the attire that the girls wore back then with what is being worn today I must admit it was very modest. At Bethany we had played football and volleyball in the snow during the winter. At M.B.B.C. we could only play volleyball outside, so the hoopla associated with these games was a new experience for me. I'm sure we pulled for our team, but we never went wild with enthusiasm as the American students did. We went as a family and even Robert enjoyed it.
The M.B. Conference had their publishing house in Hillsboro and that, of course, included their bookstore. I got to be on pretty good terms with the manager and made a number of purchases at an advantageous price. This was where we bought our first 35mm camera, an Argus C4 with a 2.8 lens. The manager had a soft spot for people who were entering the ministry, so that is also where I bought my Pulpit Commentary and Westminster Press Commentaries on the New Testament by Charles R. Erdman in 17 volumes. While the war kept me from attending school, I was able to go to Hepburn for conferences. On one occasion I asked G. D. Huebert what expositions he would recommend for certain New Testament books. So I bought two or three of the Erdman volumes. But now I could buy the whole set because it was available at a good price.
Sometime during that winter we became aware that we had come through customs without the required papers for our car and trailer. I wrote to the border crossing where we had come in and reported that I had bought the car for $350 and built the trailer for $80. That was not good enough however, and we had to make a special trip to Kansas City where they evaluated the car at $100 and the trailer for $25. On that basis we had to make a deposit of $11 and cents to make sure we would take them with us and not dispose of them in the States. We got the refund when we returned. In Kansas City we had our first experience with one-way streets, but we managed to reach our destination. If Rome is built on seven hills, Kansas City must be on a hundred or more, because it was up and down all time time. This trip also gave us our first experience with cloverleaf overpasses. I know we were going the wrong way on one of them, but we got ourselves turned around and headed the right way.
Driving a Model A was not all that pleasant at times. When mud got splashed on the windshield there was no water with which it could be washed off, and the wiper had to be operated by hand. The headlights had bulbs that were not nearly as bright as sealed beams and when mud got splashed on the lens, it was even worse. Model As had only one tail light, located on the left side, so turn signals had to be given by hand. I remember one time we were coming home in the dark, and we had to make a left turn off the highway. I extended my arm to signal I was turning left, but the cars just kept whizzing past.
I have no way of knowing where our finances came from. At the end of my farming days I had owned a 6 1/2 foot John Deere one-way and half a share in a John Deere AR tractor. These were sold, but I don't know whether I ever knew for how much. Wheat had to be sold through the Wheat Board and supplementary payments kept trickling in for a long time. Dad administered that for us. I'm sure I never asked for an accounting. Now, I wonder how much he added from time to time without our ever being aware of it. Before we were finished at Tabor College, however, all our equity from farming days had been used up and we were somewhat in debt by the time we got home.
[Classic Martens behaviour: school, debt, work, pay off debt, break even, go back to school.]
When we left for Tabor College, we had to buy U.S. currency. The American dollar was higher than the Canadian dollar, because the relationship had been artificially established. Some time during that school year the dollar was freed. It rose in value above the American dollar. The result was that we lost both ways - coming and going. You just can't win.
After graduation with a Bachelor of Arts in May, 1952, we loaded our trailer, hooked it behind our trusty Model A and headed back home. The Mission Board had offered us the opportunity to teach for one year in one of the Indian Schools in Oklahoma while someone was on furlough, but that required talking summer school, and I did not think I wanted to teach.
We went back to Niverville and lived with Mom and Dad. Irene was married and Wanda and Hedy could share one room, so that left one upstairs bedroom for us. We considered building a house, but the cost was prohibitive. Finally we bought a house in the New Bothwell area. [New Bothwell is a very small village not far from Niverville.]
This structure may not have been our dream home, but it did fit in with the adage "Klein, aber mein." Small, but mine. We paid somewhat under a thousand dollars for it.
The Albert Wohlgemuths were kind enough to let us use their wood stove for cooking until the utilities were connected. Frieda remembers she was cleaning that stove when she went into labor. Frieda Carol was born at St. Boniface Hospital on August 3, 1952. At that point Robert was still sleeping in the crib and Carol had to make do with the baby carriage. [My aunt Carol is never called "Frieda." Frankly, until Grandpa reminded me here, I had forgotten that "Frieda" was even her name.]
Our account book records that we used somewhat over $20 for groceries that winter. We had access to Dad's chickens whenever we wanted one, and there was no problem with milk because Dad still had a number of dairy cows. The major purchase was a 100-pound sack of flour. Mother's garden provided for our needs during the winter even though we came home too late for planting our own garden.
That winter I made three book presses and rebound a series of ethics books for Bible College. It did not make us rich, but it did keep me busy and it did provide a little income. In the church I helped out as requested, although I have no idea how often I preached. While I attended Bible College, William Dyck [a minister at the Mennonite Brethren church in Niverville] asked me to speak a number of times, but I accepted only on the condition that I not be the only speaker. I knew that my sermons were too short to fill the allotted time for a message. But now I no longer had that problem. My experience at Hague Ferry had given me practice in preparing sermons and our stay at Tabor College gave me experience in speaking in various situations. In Kansas I had to speak in English, but in Niverville all services were exclusively in German. Since Dad and Brother Dyck were the only ordained ministers, I'm sure they appreciated the help.
At the Erntedankfest in 1952, the guest speaker was Rev. G. D. Pries, a member of the Mission Board. During the course of his message he said how nice it would be if the church had a representative on the foreign field. Brother Dyck sat behind him on the platform and interrupted with "They are ready to go", pointing at me and Frieda. After the service he asked for more information but I do not know what he was told.
The Canadian [Mennonite Brethren] Conference in July, 1953 was in Dalmany, Saskatchewan. William Dyck was one of the delegates from Niverville. A. E. Janzen, Executive Secretary of the Mission Board, was there too. He appealed to the Conference for mission workers. Later on Brother Dyck button-holed him and inquired why he was appealing for workers when they were not sending out those who had prepared to go.
Within three weeks we had a letter from A. E. Janzen asking whether we would be willing to come to Tabor that fall to study French for a year, then go to Belgium for a year to get credentials for their school system, after which we would go on to participate in the school system in the Belgian Congo. Frieda felt called to Africa, so it was her call that came true.
I have hinted a couple of times that I was not the first member of my family to have dealings with the Belgian state, but I've never quite come out and said it on this blog. But, I did promise some exotic locales. In our next chapter, we will next be visiting the Belgian Congo in its last decade before independence, and we will be seeing it through the eyes of a Mennonite missionary.Posted 2003/12/25 19:06 (Thu) | TrackBack