M y Mom and Dad divorced when I was 3, and I lived in Regina Saskatchewan with Mom; Dad lived on a farm near Wawota SK, about a 2-hour drive to the south-west. I spent about half of every summer, Christmas and Easter holiday there.
Wawota is a small town of about 500 people and a few years before I was born my paternal Grandparents moved into town from the farm.
Like most kids with rural experience, and I realize that my limited time spent there each year is a stretch to call it “rural experience”, I learned to drive at a young age. My instruction was in Grandpa’s 1976 shiny/burned/rusty colored pickup, and like any good farm truck, it was a ‘standard,’ meaning a standard as opposed to an automatic transmission.
This isn’t really Grandpa’s truck, but the model and color are closeish…
When I was around 10, Dad taught me how to work the clutch, and explained how the hell to drive a truck that had three pedals when you only have two feet.
This was likely a mistake. I wasn’t the kind of kid who should have been shown things like driving, starting fires, shooting, ropes and knots, traps, chokeholds, or anything else that gave me a boost in the eyes of my impressionable peers, because I was apt to use my newfound skills.
Also, I have a very high tolerance for applause. Dad always thought phenomenon would weaken in time (ha!) and he always underestimated its pull.
Off to Wawota
So, when my buddy Chris (whom you may remember from the story accompanying The Huddle) came with me on one of my summer visits to The Farm, driving was high on the ‘to-do’ list. Chris has always been more of a car guy than me, so he was a good audience.
“It’s easy to drive a standard,” I said while we traveled on the Friday night bus to Wawota.
“And you think that you’re going to teach me, huh?”
There was a certain…whatchacallit in his voice. He sounded like an Unbeliever.
“Sure, it looks complicated, but once you get behind the wheel, and have me shouting directions at you, you’ll be fine!” I said.
“And your Dad said this is OK? He actually said the words?”
“Well, I don’t have it in writing, but he likes you,” I said.
“That’s not exactly permission. Maybe I should ask him to teach me instead.”
“What, you don’t think I’m a good teacher?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think you’re a good teacher, and your Dad’s temper terrifies me. I’m not risking having me bones ground to make his bread,” he said.
That wasn’t a bad point actually. It needed thinking out.
The next day, as predicted, dawn broke out at the farm. It’s funny how lifelong habits are fully formed, even at a young age. I’m a late sleeper. As young as age ten, I was never up early without the use of heavy motivation.
Chris however, was always up at least two hours before me, and had already breakfasted with Dad and caught up with Grandpa when he came out from town. By the time I awoke at 9:30, he’d already had a solid hour of TV cartoons.
“Has Dad gone out?” I yawned.
“Your Dad and Grandpa are out in the field, but they’re coming back to get us at noon, and we’re all going to have lunch in town. And your Aunt Swig came in from Winnipeg last night.”
This was welcome news! Grandma’s sister, Ruth, was a gas! She always referred to herself as “Aunt Swig”, or, alternatively, “Aunt Sow”.
Aunt Swig was widowed early on, and spoke with a sing-songy Scottish brogue, but without the actual accent. Like others in this branch of the family, she ran to some height, and was a great lanky jolly old soul who enjoyed throwing her head back with a bawdy laugh. And like Grandma, Aunt Swig seemed to have an imaginative and never-ending series of ailments and body parts that needed repair.
She sported a dark brown hairdo that didn’t fool anybody, and was always swathed in riot-colored polyester. Auntie also wore crocheted slippers around the house, which baffled me, as they made linoleum as treacherous as black ice. I couldn’t get to the fridge without one of my feet shooting out from underneath me and necessitating a frantic tap dancing routine to keep me from landing on my head.
No wonder old folks kept breaking a hip every 15 minutes.
Chris and I came to refer to her as “My Detective Aunt”, because she always, ALWAYS, knew when we were up to something.
“Your Dad also said that you have to mow the lawn before lunch.” He was looking at me sideways.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” I asked.
“I’m waiting for you to try and talk ME into doing it,” he said.
“Don’t worry, I wouldn’t ask you to try and do a man’s job” I said, patting his sleeve.
Chris is no dummy; he knows my methods. If I don’t try to suck him into something, then there’s something else afoot.
And he was perfectly right.
This is Stanley
For some reason I hadn’t mentioned it to him, but Dad had just purchased a brand new garden tractor, and it was his pride and joy.
I shot my cuffs, strode over to the door, stepped into my runners and grabbed my special, never taken home, farm use only, black mesh ball cap with a ‘Versatile’ farm machinery emblem emblazoned across the front, and screwed it onto my head. I’d like to point out that this was a full twenty years before that tarty whatsername and that idiot-stick made these things ‘fashion’, but that appears to be my lot in life.
We dashed out into the prairie sunshine and charged around to the gravel driveway. As we rounded the corner, I waved my arms in a big flourish, pronounced “Ta-Daaa!” and presented Dad’s new crisp white garden tractor. The ‘Roper’ brand name was displayed proudly on the hood.
“I know,” he said. ‘We parked right in front of it when we got here last night.”
I’d forgotten that.
“Your Dad calls it ‘Stanley.’”
“‘Stanley’…it’s a Roper. Get it? Mister Roper? Stanley? Stanley Roper? Three’s Company?” He was getting exasperated.
“I get it, but how do you know all of this?” I asked.
Stanley’s namesake, Mr Roper from Three’s Company
“Well maybe if you got your arse out of bed before the crack of noon you’d get told things too. When your Grandpa got here, your Dad brought us out and showed it off.”
“Then why did you get all sniffy at mowing the lawn if we get to do it on this?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t mind riding a mower, but I hate it when you try to get me to do your work. It’s a matter of principle.”
I dismissed this attempt at philosophy and hopped onto Stanley
The keys were in the ignition. I began a checklist of the controls.
“Here, do you want me to show you how it works?” Chris asked. “I drove it this morning.”
“What?! You snuck Dad’s brand new mower after he’d left…and you didn’t even wake me up?!?”
“No,” he said, evenly. “I have no idea how you slept through the noise, but your Dad showed me how to operate it so we could use it to mow the lawn.”
This made sense, but it made me anxious too. “Dad wants us to use his new mower? He screamed himself raw when I used the washing machine…”
“That’s because you bleached everyone’s jeans, dummy. Move over, and I’ll show you what to do.”
I can’t believe I found a catalog photo of dad’s lawnmower!!
Getting the job done
Chris explained in short, one syllable words how to start the tractor, how to engage the mower, and what not to touch. He also gave a verbatim description of what would happen to us if we wrecked anything.
It was terrific!
Chris and I were both wedged side by each onto the seat, and we took care to ensure that we both had equal time behind the controls. We may have driven somewhat faster than Dad and Grandpa may’ve liked, but we got the job done. There was only one accident when we tried to climb an embankment, but other than Chris falling off there were no serious injuries, and the lawn received only the barest minimum of spinning tire scars.
We parked Stanley precisely where we found it.
A New Idea
“That was pretty cool!” I said, my ears ringing. I looked at Chris.
Chris looked back at me. “What?” he said, suspiciously.
“Nothing,” I said, and I waved a breezy hand.
“What.” he said, but not like a question.
“Well, it’d be kind of a shame to stop the driving lessons now.” I glanced at the truck that he was leaning on.
He looked at the truck. He looked at the windshield. He looked at the horizon. He looked at me. He muttered something about not being a good idea.
“Look,” I said, “obviously, Dad figures we’re responsible, or else he’d NEVER have let us near his prized Stanley.”
Chris shrugged an ‘I guess so’ shrug.
“Why on earth would Dad teach me how to drive, if he never wanted me to drive?”
A head nod, and a shrug.
“The keys are in the ignition. If he really didn’t want us to drive, he’d have hidden the keys, right?”
Another positive shrug.
“We’ll just get in, and start it up…we won’t even go anywhere.”
We got in.
The Driving Lesson
I gave a confident sniff that was more Mr. Furley than Mr. Roper, and pressed in the clutch.
“First, you have to push in the clutch; it’s the one on the left,” I said, perhaps a bit patronizingly.
“I know, to disengage the drive train,” Chris said.
I ignored this. “Then, just start it up.” I turned the key, but nothing happened. I cursed one, and tried the key again.
“The steering wheel is locked,” he said.
“Which key unlocks it?” I asked.
“You idiot; just turn the wheel as you turn the key!”
This didn’t sound right at all.
“Turn it which way?”
“Just turn it!!!” he barked.
I futzed with it for a moment, then it released, and the engine turned over.
Regaining my suavity, I grabbed the floor shifter as I gave the gas a showy pump or two.
“Now, you just waggle this lever to make sure that it’s in neutral, and let go of the clutch…”
Except it wasn’t in neutral. I’ve since learned that Chevy trucks of that particular vintage have a hell of a lot of play in the gearbox. It waggled lots, and common sense said that it should’ve been in neutral – but it was in first gear…
The truck shot forward with a horrifying lurch and smashed into Dad’s barbecue, which flew good twenty-five feet into the spruce trees behind the house. I slammed my feet down, and by The Grace of God, they came down on the brake (the middle pedal, if you’ve been taking notes) and the motor stalled silent.
“What the hell are you doing!?!?” Chris yowled.
“Are you ok?” I asked.
“No. No, I’m not. Dad is going to kill us.”
“Not ‘us’ Bonehead…YOU!”
We got out, and on wobbly knees, teetered to the front of the truck. What we saw took the legs from under me, and I fell squarely on my arse.
The bumper of the truck was less than 1/8 of an inch from Stanley’s rear fender. Chris tried to fit his eleven-year-old finger between Stanley and the truck, but it was too close.
I would’ve very likely been sick, but I’d forgotten to eat breakfast, so I just turned green and let my eyes water up a bit.
I would’ve very likely been sick, but I’d forgotten to eat breakfast, so I just turned green and let my eyes water up a bit.Click to tweet
Y’know, with some rust knocked off, it kind of looked better…
We looked at the truck. It had to be moved back, but I was crippled by this close call. I looked at Chris and gurbled “I can’t…you’ll have to…”
He nodded slowly and said, “Just walk me through it.”
Chris to The Rescue
He got behind the wheel, and I moved Stanley out of the way. Then he started the truck, found reverse, and got the truck moved about 3 inches before he stalled it. Another try got another 3 inches.
It took almost a half hour to get the truck back into position. Our experience at clandestine work being as thorough as it is, we even brushed out the tire tracks in the gravel. Stanley was returned to roost, and we went back inside.
We were inside for less than 5 minutes before Dad and Grandpa drove back into the yard. When Dad walked through the door, he had his lips set in that certain ‘disappointed’ way. Chris and I gave at the knees again.
“You HAVE to make sure that you turn the key on Stanley all the way to the ‘off’ position, or the battery will die.”
“Oh…sorry” Chris said, “I guess we haven’t used Stanley enough to remember everything yet.”
We drove the 8 miles into Wawota with Grandpa telling us all of the different things that we had to be careful of. He was always so worried that somebody was going to get hurt. The funny thing is that 40+ years later, I’m exactly the same way with my kids.
Raising little boys is the perfect aerobic exercise. You achieve your target heart rate several times a day, without all of the sweat and hassle of going to the gym.
We pulled into Grandma and Grandpa’s, kissed Aunt Swig hello, washed up and sat at to a lunch that was the usual good simple stuff that Grandma always made: homemade bread, oddly gray but fork-tender roast beef, garden veggies and those unparalleled homemade mustard pickle preserves.
There was one Yin in the Yang however: her mashed potatoes.
She’d peel, boil and drain the potatoes, take the masher in, and, well…mash them. Sounds about right so far. This will be hard for you to believe, but that this is where she stopped. No butter, not even any milk. Just dry, crystally, crumbly sad old potatoes.
You could have used this stuff to mop up fuel spills.
To be fair, Grandma was a wizard with gravy – Thank God, because you couldn’t have got her potatoes down unassisted.
The usual pleasant conversation ensued about ‘how much we’d grown’, blah blah blah until about halfway through the meal, when Aunt Swig whipped her head around and looked at Chris and me. She knew that we’d done something. She’d caught The Scent.
The Horror of Aunt Swig
After lunch, Dad and Grandpa went back to the farm, and Aunty went outside to “smoke a nerve pill”, as she called it.
“Oh my darlings, come and keep poor old Aunty Sow company on this lovely afternoon.”
Chris and I looked at each other. This would be bad.
It was impossible that she could’ve known anything about the morning, but that didn’t matter…she knew. And we had no way of knowing how this was going to go. Chris’s bottom lip began to tremble and he shot me a fierce, “I’m NEVER listening to you again!” sort of look. We took deep breaths, and went out.
Aunt Swig had lowered herself onto the steps and had a goodish sized jar of Vaseline opened up and was digging out a scoop.
“Odd stuff, that Vaseline,” I thought.
On my previous visit to the farm, Dad had a calf that wouldn’t eat and so had to be force fed (the calf, not Dad). Dad took this device that was a length of white plastic with a bulb or two on it and he was schmearing Vaseline all over it, and I was reading the label.
When I asked what he was doing, he said it was to get some formula into the calf before it got too weak.
“But why are you coating the thing with Vaseline?! It says ‘petroleum jelly’ on the jar! Isn’t it poisonous?!?” I asked.
Dad shrugged and looked at the appliance. “It must be okay, the vet said to do this, because it’ll make it easier going down.”
So when I saw Aunt Swig rummaging around a tub of Vaseline, I confess I made a joke to myself about using it to get grandma’s mashed potatoes down.
But that didn’t answer the question about what Aunt Swig was doing spreading it around on her fingertips. What was she trying to “make easier going down”?
She’d passed on dessert…
She rubbed it on her fingers, and with a custom, homemade, machine-rolled cigarette dangling out of her mouth, she began to smear the Vaseline onto her eyes!
Not her eyelids, mind you…her eyeBALLS!!!
She rolled them back until the whites shone and slathered the Vaseline under her lower lid and gave a ghastly sigh of relief. Then she looked all the way down as if trying to see her dentures from the insides and dug the first three fingers of each hand under her upper lids and trowelled a layer there too. Once it had been spread a bit, she massaged the muck into a gruesome film on her corneas, alternating her focus up and down.
Then she looked like she was listening to something while focusing on the middle distance and she gave a half dozen very intense blinks, the cigarette never leaving her lips.
Chris reared like a startled horse.
I forgot myself and said, “What the hell are you doing?!?”
“Ahhh, it feels so good on dear old Sow,” she said, sighing again.
I looked at Chris, and he had the same enriched emotion as one who’d swallowed an unripe earthworm. I too wrestled down a little bit of throw up; those potatoes were difficult enough the first time.
It’s not what you’re thinking. It’s much worse…
She wiped her fingers on a tissue, sighed another pleased one, then took on a sterner look.
Trial by Swig
“Now, I want to know what you two wee lovelies have been up to. Out with it. You can’t fool Old Sow!” she said as a small bolus of Vaseline squeezed out the corner of her eye. She looked at us squarely and waved her cigarette at us. “Have you two been smoking!?!”
Chris and I looked at each other and blinked a few times.
When you’ve been up against it as often as we have, you develop a keen awareness of possible escape routes. This was fantastic! There were no witnesses, and there was no actual physical evidence that a crime had been committed. She would be so relieved that it wasn’t smoking that we could be guilty of any number of felonies and the charges would be dropped. Ha!
A full, (though slightly massaged), confession would satisfy that damn Spidey sense of hers, and we’d walk away free with time served!
When we’d composed ourselves, I smiled at her as I prepared to throw myself on the mercy of the court.
“Nope. Something better.”
She braced herself, dabbing the goop out of the corner of her eye with a tissue. “What?”
“Driving!” I said.
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Owen on Memories
"The events in my life - marriage, fatherhood, laughter with worthwhile people, bereavements, good songs, bad choices, onslaughts of challenges and occasional triumphs are all reflected in the drawings I create.
The artwork may have nothing to do with the event, but every drawing is charged with the emotions of the time.
It's like hearing that certain song come on the radio and BOOM - you're right back in high school with a broken heart...
I don't see the subjects of my drawings, really. I'm pulled back into what was happening in my life at the time I was drawing it. It demonstrates how life and art are inextricably linked."