Before Fenwick there was Neederlandia…and Jim
Our car was a Magic Time Machine. In 1957 we drove endlessly from southern California to Neerlandia, a farming community in northern Alberta, past fields of grain, over rolling hills, past spruce and poplar bush, and muskegs — all beneath Rembrandt skies. As we neared the hamlet, our rackety Time Machine sent us instantly back to the 1800s. It was exciting. It was amazing. It was unbelievable. Our favorite pioneer books came to life. We couldn’t believe it. I was 11. With Caddie Woodlawn, pioneer girl, my fictional heroine, I now got to step into Caddie’s life.
We arrived a generation after the first settlers: land was still being cleared; threshing machines were used for harvesting; hunting and trapping were common; electricity was replacing generators and lanterns; only a few had telephones and those were multiple-ring, party-line phones, misused by a couple of biddies who listened in and spread juicy gossip. My sister, when she called her friend, used to hear old Mrs. Bart’s asthmatic and raspy breathing and say, “Okay, Mrs. Bart, it’s time to hang up now. The juicy bits are coming up and we want privacy.”Such a spoilsport.
The houses were small, two storied, some still log cabins, with wood stoves, wood furnaces and outhouses. City kids, we thought outhouses a sign of dire poverty. We did not associate toilets with underground plumbing and never thought about where the toilet contents went. I found out. At my new friend’s house, just before going to bed, wearing her brothers’ pig-stinky chore jackets, we would sit companionably in the dark, two-hole outhouse while waiting for the howling coyotes to leave the yard, and cross the creek, so we could run, screaming, back to the house, the proverbial 40 yards away.
I was not a farmer’s daughter, but my friend-for-life was. Sharen was strawberry blond, tall, slim, and nervy, jumping a foot if she was startled. We were well matched. We did everything together – including going to youth sport’s nights where I always got picked for teams a humiliating last, the captain groaning, “I guess we get Marjorie.”
For a few years, the local school used the Phys-Ed periods exclusively for team practice. The rest of us were often left on the sides of the gym. Small wonder that the teams always won at the regional meets. Small wonder I was hopeless at sports. One sports night, during volleyball, a current crush of mine leaned over to tell me something. Blushing, my heart fluttering, I listened to him say, “Move over if the ball comes your way. I’ll get it.” I was crushed. He was crushing, but instantly no longer my crush!
Sharen and I wandered the fields and woods picking wild strawberries, blueberries and saskatoons (serviceberries), and helped each other with the garden and kitchen chores. Oh, and we also poured creek water down prairie dog holes and served threshing crews.
One field at the back of the farm was so riddled with prairie dog humps and holes, it was useless. Filling pails at the creek, we heartlessly poured umpteen pails of water down the holes to see if any prairie dogs would emerge. About to give up, we saw two drenched baby prairie dogs creep up out of a hole. Poor little things. We put them in the pails and brought them to the house, where we dried and petted the adorably cute and cuddly babies. We left them in the pails while we had tea, then went back to them, picked up the recovered babies, and promptly got bitten by the vicious, horrible little varmints.
Sid, Sharen’s brother, heard our shrieks, grabbed the pails, saying, “I’ll take them away for you.” At supper time, we asked Sid where he had released them.
“Into the pig pen,” he said with an evil grin.
“Oh, no, you didn’t did you? You really didn’t?”
We knew full well that pigs are vicious omnivores, so the prairie dogs would have had a quick death. We are not sure if Sid actually did this as he was a dreadful tease. We stayed mad at him for quite a while, but we did get over it. We had fickle hearts.
And serving the threshing crews? Way up in northern Alberta, in the ‘50s, there was not a variety of grain which would ripen early enough for combines, so it was cut, bundled and put into stooks—an arrangement of sheaves— to dry. Later, it was harvested with hay wagons, a threshing machine and young men, who went from farm to farm. Threshing time was boisterous and busy, with the threshing machine making a deafening noise and filling the air with choking chaff. The crew worked at full speed.
At threshing time, most of the houses had an ample supply of women-power because the girls were trapped in the houses with their mothers, baking and cooking to prepare for coffee and meal times. Their hard work had a reward: they got to bring out the coffee and goodies to the field. This was highly anticipated, as there were two girls to ten bare-backed, muscular young men. Yum! This time was a most delicious chance for flirting, for thoroughly enjoying the company of handsome and some not-so-handsome young men of the community—a time for fun, a time when inhibitions flew into the wind with the chaff from the thresher, a time for the sheer joy of living. As long as you didn’t mind performing a demented dance as you pulled your shirt out of your pants to get rid of the mouse put down your back while the guys laughed, or being tossed onto hay wagons where one or more of the guys would join you, or racing through the fields, or crazy teasing, you were in for a great time. I’ve often wondered how many marriages had their beginnings at these threshing coffee breaks.
Back at the house, the girls calmed down, cleaned up and helped prepare the noon meal. The men came in, filling the large kitchen with the heavy, musky smell of hard-work, combined with the mouth-watering smells of food, and, of course, the ever present odour of pigs lingering on the barn boots and jackets in the back room. Compliments, pretend insults, and jokes were exchanged. My blushing never stopped. I loved this time of the year. I thought I should have been a farmer’s daughter and wanted to marry a farmer.
One year, there was also another time for flirting, supplied by Sharen’s mother, this time for the young men. One evening a few weeks before threshing time, Sharen and I were chatting at the kitchen table, next to the windows— about boys, of course. We had been double-dating Fred and Jim, but wanted to stop, particularly as we were to serve the threshing crew in a few weeks and, of course, wanted to be free. Car lights shone down the long driveway. As the lights neared the house, Sharen could see it was Fred’s car.
Fred, charming, blond, tall and thin, was a wisecracker. Rumour had it that he sniffed gas. But it was just a rumour. I don’t want darken his name. Jim, dark, with curly hair, short and really strong, liked to talk, and could always hold his own in a group, which made me uncomfortable, because I was shy and didn’t like eyes turning our way.
We told Sharen’s mother to say she didn’t know where we were (which would be the truth, we thought), grabbed jackets, dashed out the back door and across the yard, rolled under the fence, and ran into a moonlit field filled with stooks. The stooks stood tall, with the bundles slanted in enough to allow a person to creep into the little tents they made. We sprinted to the middle of the field, where Sharen slipped into a little tent, while I went about 20 yards further to conceal myself in another.
The evening was quiet, the air autumn-crisp, the skies northern-clear, the moon and stars brilliant and the stook tents cozy and tranquil with no boys to bother us. We each rested complacently, thinking we could wait out the boys, but little did we know. Sharen’s mom was like every other mom —she knew everything.
“They probably went into the field to hide in the stooks,” she said.
So out they came, noisy and shouting. The bright moonlight helped Fred quickly find Sharen, and soon, probably from our giggling, Jim found me. The boys each sat down bedside us, way too close, in our little hideouts. Jim’s arm somehow found its way around my shoulders as he edged even closer. Danger zone, I thought. Suddenly, I heard a scream from Sharen, and a, “Marjorie, come here. Come here, quickly.”
“What is it? What’s the matter?”
Mice didn’t bother us, and we were too noisy for the coyotes.
“Just come right away!” she yelled.
I jumped up, panicked by her calls, and rushed to her.
“What is it? What’s the problem? Are you hurt?”
“No,” she said with a naughty grin, “but Fred just told me that he had a bet that Jim couldn’t get a kiss from you in five minutes. I thought I would rescue you.”
Catching my breath, I said, “Thanks Sharen, for saving my life! Sorry, Jim, but no way!”
I’m not too sure about Fred, if he got his kiss or not. Never asked Sharen. She didn’t marry him though. Nor did I marry Jim. But we did have a lot of fun during the threshing season. ◆
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