This is the Blog of Peter C. Conrad, an author of short stories, articles, non-fiction books, on-line course content, instructional design, journalism, and encyclopaedia articles. Never accepting limitations, he has had successes in diverse writing approaches. He is a storyteller, teacher, and artist.
by Peter C. Conrad
After completing a contract with The Heritage Community Foundation as a Senior Editor and Writer from producing content for the Alberta Online Encyclopaedia in 2006, I signed a contract with Folklore Publishing in Edmonton, Alberta for the book Canadian Wartime Prison Escapes: Courage and Daring Behind Enemy Lines, published in 2007. The book was focused on the young reader, with each chapter written so they could stand-alone. This format demanded that each chapter would repeat some basic facts for the reader rather than simply referring to another place in the text.
by Peter C. Conrad
The history, Training Aces: Canada’s Air Training during the First World War will be released on October 15, 2015 by BookLand Publishing.
When the Great War broke out, little was known about flight. Even less was known about using the biplane as a new weapon. In 1915 and 1916, two aviation companies were established in Toronto and Vancouver to train pilots for the war. By the autumn of 1916, the aircraft was seen as an important weapon. More pilots had to be trained than the two small companies could manage. The result was the establishment of the Canadian Air Training Scheme by the Royal Flying Corps in 1917.
As winter approached in 1917, questions loomed over the training effort. Could a biplane fly in winter conditions? Even if the aeroplane could fly, could a pilot be trained in the cold? These questions forced the Air Training Scheme to move to the warmth of Texas for that winter. Canadian and British staff helped the Americans to establish their own air force while they trained that winter.
One training wing remained in Canada to answer the questions. When the majority of the Air Training staff returned to Canada in the summer of 1918, the answers were clear: flying was possible year-round in Canada.
The Air Training Scheme was so successful that the facilities in Canada were expanded in 1918. Plans were made for expanding the air training in Canada to make it the central training ground for the Allied forces if the war continued into 1919.
This book shows the effects of the Training Scheme on the overall development of aviation. The success of the training program in Canada was so significant that it led to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan of the Second World War.
by Peter C. Conrad
When Training for Victory was first published in 1989 it found a significant market in Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, all countries where those who participated in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan came from.
There was nothing different about the field of prairie grass that I stood in except that in the distance there were huge gray buildings that looked like a set for a World War Twomovie. But, looking at the scene more closely, it was clear that the dark buildings, were in a state of disrepair and that the grass I stood on was growing through cracks in what had once been runways. In this field, as in many others across the Prairies, the remains of the Jacob, Wright, and huge Pratt and Whitney engines that once roared through the skies of the Canadian West lay in the deep grass, only rusting memories of a massive national effort.
The eerie summer scene was at Vulcan, Alberta. The buildings were from the instructor flying school and service flying training school of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, which had trained massive numbers of aircrew for the Allied cause. The final number of trained personnel was over 131,000 at a cost in excess of two and quarter billion dollars.
When doing the research for this book, I was struck by two realities of the Air Training Plan. The first was its magnitude. Air schools were located across the country. Indeed, the BCATP was a central focus of the nation during the war. The second was the high level of uniformity among the schools located in British Columbia, the Prairies, Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime. From interviews with those who were involved in the Plan, it was clear that there were few differences between the schools regardless of where they were across Canada.
Although there was uniformity in the way that the schools operated and in the way they related to the communities around them, the Prairies as a region experienced especially significant changes as a result of its involvement. The Prairies had just been liberated from the Great Depression in the late 1930s. The economic prosperity that accompanied the schools aided in the recovery, and, at the same time, began to ease the feeling among western Canadians of being alienated from eastern Canada, a feeling that had been aggravated by the Depression. Approximately half the air training schools of the Plan were located in the Prairies, making the region an important part of the national war effort. The experience of being an equal partner in a national effort brought about a decline in western Canadian alienation during the war years that continued in the postwar era.
by Peter C. Conrad
He was going to get involved—he decided. He walked out of the school and looked across the white field that was their playground in summer. The building was white too, but its walls were dirty. The large windows were covered with things of all colours cut from paper. “That’s where the rejects go,” Ed remembered a friend said once. Stupid, he thought as he began to walk across the playground.
The building was divided into two sections. One was the classroom with three walls covered with shelves. The other wall had a small blackboard on it. The second section was the recreation area. Off to one side was a small kitchen. The kitchen had one door and a square opening where plates of food were pushed through.
“So you’ve come to help,” said the lady standing in front of Ed. “Well, I’ll tell you what is expected. This isn’t going to be a picnic.”
“No,” replied Ed as he watched Mrs. Thomas dry her stout fingers on a tea towel. Her grey hair was gathered into a lose bun with about a quarter of it falling to the sides, calculated Ed.
“Well you better be prepared to work—and that isn’t just cleaning up—you’re going to have to get right into the mess. Do you understand?”
“There are the chores in the morning you’ll have to do. They show up and need breakfast. That means cooking, setting the table, helping them where they need it, and then doing the dishes. Noon will be the same way—you will have to come straight here when your class ends. It’s the same things, but you’ll have to help clean up the morning stuff; from the class you understand. You’ll be busy right through. There are also games after lunch that you’ll have to help with. The same things happen after school. You’ll be able to handle that?”
“We’ll see. We’ll see if you turn up tomorrow morning at seven-thirty. If you want to help with anything, you’ll have to help with everything.”
“Tomorrow, then …”
* * *
Ed really never understood the idea behind fighting. He always felt puzzled when he was arguing. A friend would ask. “Do you want to fight about it?” It made no sense. He just didn’t fight. He would rather have people call him yellow than to meet behind the gym at three-thirty. Ed watched his classmates fight and play. He was often puzzled by how fast a game became a fight. He always preferred to watch.
Robert was different. He would beat anyone that stood around long enough. Even though Robert was the captain on the hockey team, he would be the first to drop his stick and let it fly. Half the time he was the one behind the gym at three-thirty. None of the guys wanted to scrap with Robert, especially Ed.
It was an uncontrolled anger; thought Ed. Robert appeared unable to help himself. Robert move too fast. He couldn’t think about it first, thought Ed.
* * *
“What did you say your name was?” asked the heavy-set woman as she cracked another egg onto the grill. Ed was stirring a pot of steaming cereal.
“Ed, Mrs. Thomas.”
“Well, you can start calling me Darcey.”
“How old are you?”
“Just about fifteen,” lied Ed. He had just turned fourteen.
“Fifteen, eh? That’s something—the ones that stick with it are older or younger. I was sure after a week you’d stop coming, that was if you came back for the first day.”
“You’re a nice kid—you have problems getting along with the rest?”
Ed remained silent a moment.
“No—I’m fine,” he replied.
“Quickly now, get the dishes out,” she said. “That cereal is done. Set the table, they should be here any minute.”
Bill and Gregory were the first to arrive. Like every other morning, a taxi arrived and the two would slowly open the door and climb out. Ed never did know why a taxi brought them. It seemed odd to Ed at first, but as he spent time in their world things that were strange became normal. He watched out the window as the hunchback boys came to the door and walked in. Their faces were red and cold the same as everyone else. They had thick lips and crooked stained teeth. Bill had a huge lump on the right side of his nose that made it look crooked. Gregory didn’t appear to have any nose at all. Their cheekbones were low and heavy. The heavy bony mass of their brows made their eyes look small and sunken. Their hair was thin, making them look slightly bald. They both had short, stocky legs and Gregory’s arm was like a flipper. Ed watched as the two helped each other take their boots and coats off. This silent ritual occurred every morning and every afternoon when they left.
Connie was different. She would skip and jump as she came to the small building. There was no one with her. “La–la, ta–ta, da–da.” She would come in. Her body always dancing to the rhythms of some band playing again and again, somewhere bright… She was always there—wherever that was—smiling, always happy. “Ta–ta, la–la, da–da, she sang along as she took off her coat. She was not physically different like Gregory and Bill. She was overweight for her height, but at eleven years it seemed right. From a distance, she seemed like any other girl.
Tom came next. He was the oldest and the biggest. He came down the street from the same direction as Connie. He had abnormally big boots. Tom never looked around. He walked with his eyes straightforward—his chin was stuck far out. Like Gregory and Bill, he had a very pronounced hunchback and heavy eyebrows. His arms were too long and bulky. His legs were bowed. He looked old at nineteen.
Kathy and Bob came on one of the early school buses. They arrived as the rest finished their breakfast.
“Oh but Connie,” said Kathy as Ed came out of the kitchen with fresh toast for the two that just arrived. Kathy was at Connie’s side, her coat still on. She was trying to clean some hot cereal from Connie’s blouse with a napkin. Connie was sitting still and looking down at the mess. Ed was surprised. For the first time since Ed had been helping, Connie was still, not humming.
“Oh but, oh but,” continued Kathy.
“There now, don’t worry,” said Darcey as she stepped out of the kitchen behind Ed. “You take your coat off Kathy and eat,” she said as she placed another jug of milk on the table. “I’ll take care of this.”
“Yes,” said Kathy quietly as she did as she was told.
“I saw a nice car today,” announced Bob.
“You take your coat off too Bob and eat,” said Darcey.
* * *
“Hey Ed, what’s the matter? You going over to the rejects again? Can’t handle real people? Can’t play hockey?” called Robert. It was three—thirty and everyone was heading over to the rink. Ed continued to walk away from the school.
“Hey, you’re making progress; you’re beginning to walk like those reject.”
Ed noticed he was staring at the ground in front of himself—his head bent forward. He straightened up. He could feel Robert’s gaze following his back.
“Hey, when you get better, you can come play hockey again. Have fun with the weirdoes.”
* * *
“I like you Ed,” said Bob as he stood up at the classroom table. He picked up some paper and carried it to the shelf.
“Yeah, you’re nice,” agreed Kathy.
“Oh,” replied Ed. He picked up another two magazines that were open and had holes in them. He placed them on the shelves.
“They’re not all like that,” said Kathy.
“What?” said Ed.
“Just boys that look like you.”
“They’re like you, but they’re not.”
“They’re not what?” asked Ed, not paying attention. There were still three bottles of white glue to put away and some coloured paper that belonged in a special box.
“Nice,” Kathy said.
“Yeah, they’re not nice,” repeated Bob.
“But, you are nice,” said Kathy. Gregory and Bill nodded in agreement. They were always nodding yes or no. They never spoke a word.
“Oh,” whispered Ed. He forgot where to put the glue.
* * *
“Come on Connie, we have to eat now,” said Ed. Connie was in a corner in the classroom. “Da–da, ta–ta, la–la,” she sang as she moved from one foot to the other, swaying from side to side.
“Please Connie it’s time to eat.”
“Ha–hum, ha–hum, la–la, la–la.”
“Connie, the food is going to get cold.” He looked at her smiling round face and eyes. Her eyes were dark and happy, but focused on the ceiling. She was focused on something else—a moment of happiness, somewhere.
“Ed, where are you?” called Darcey from the table.
“Getting Connie,” he replied. He grabbed Connie’s left hand and held it. Connie’s eye were not on the ceiling anymore. They focused on him. Her rhythmic dance stopped as Ed led her to the next room.
* * *
“What do you mean? You can’t stay and help us decorate the Christmas tree?” asked Mrs. Wilson, Ed’s homeroom teacher.
“He goes over to the school for the rejects three times a day. He took that volunteer job to help with the rejects,” sneered Robert.
“Quiet,” snapped the teacher. She looked at Ed again. “I guess you can go.”
“Thanks,” said Ed as he hurried to the back of the room.
* * *
“Jesus loves all of us, right?” asked Kathy.
“Yeah,” replied Ed as he put down the last box of Christmas tree ornaments. All of the ornaments were made of plastic or wood painted in red, yellow, green or blue.
“Even the bad people?” asked Bob.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Why?” asked Bob as Ed handed him a wood globe to hang.
“Because, the bad people can turn into good people. Even if they’re bad now, they can get good some day—so Jesus loves them,” replied Kathy.
“There are some smart people that says to me there is no Jesus,” said Bob.
“That’s because they’re still bad people,” replied Kathy.
“But how can Jesus love them?”
“Because he’s God,” replied Kathy.
* * *
On the last day of classes before the Christmas holidays, Ed was at the school cleaning up, helping each student get their folders of cut-out paper cards for Christmas and sending them home. With relief Ed helped Darcey stack the chairs that had been around the table and sweep up for the last time.
After a short word of thanks for his help, Ed was off. He would go to wrap gifts and help his mother with the Christmas chores.
There was Robert up to what he was known for. The victim was a small bundle in the snow under Robert—he hit and hit. Ed felt sick, then angry. He began to run to the place in the middle of the field. He did not know why. Robert continued mechanically. The body under him seemed to be squirming. “Bitch, bitch, bitch,” said Robert with each blow. The Ed recognized Connie’s small body—her round face—
“You’re rotten!” screamed Ed. Running full speed; he dove at Robert and pulled him to the ground. Ed hit Robert in the face and throat. Ed felt suddenly removed, as if he was watching the incident: a passive bystander. As blood flowed from Robert’s nose and cuts on his face, Ed’s blows became more frantic and devastating. Soon Ed felt exhausted. He felt a growing pain in his firsts. Robert whimpered in the snow. Ed got up looked at Robert crying, then Connie who was sitting up now. Ed moved over to her and looked at her bruises and swelling face.
“Connie, we have to go,” he said. She wasn’t moving in her usual rhythmic motion. Ed took her hand and helped her get up. Now, she looked at him. Her smile was gone. Two streams of tears flowed from her eyes.
by Peter C. Conrad
The sky is dark with high heavy clouds. Only the wind is here now. A rushing, silence, rushing rhythm like breathing. The room has been a silent refuge too long. Outside, buildings stand against the wind and the rain I know are there—are always there. The glass panel going out onto my small balcony is slightly open—I opened it. Cool air and dampness flows in. The room has been held at seventy degrees too long; every part of my life seems to be held at a perfect seventy degrees. These walls around me keep it that way. High-rise walls: stone, wood, mortar, nails. With such walls one cannot hear the rain and thunder. The wood of those walls does not creak in the cold, but they are confining. Walls shut out light or hold it in.
I’m an old woman in a room I would have never imagined existed when I was young. They take care of me here, but I would have never thought I would be taken care of. I would have never thought that I wouldn’t be able to step out of my door and be in the field of sunflowers. That life faded away and this one came to be. When did I leave the farm? I don’t remember the day when I left. I don’t remember when I came here. It just has become so.
I feel his strong arm around me again. We look onto the land for the first time. The wind is blowing. We will build our walls against it, but it will force its presence through them.
His voice comes back to me like the whisper of the wind; “We will build a house of mortar and stone, and its walls will stand forever. We will have a barn, a few animals. You shall have a garden.” He pulls me around. I feel the warmth through his shirt.
“Sod,” he says, mocking those we know. “Build a mud hole until you can afford wood to build a shack. In the home country, we used what we had. All these stones… We would use stones to build walls around our fields and our houses and barns. Mr. Campbell tells me they don’t do that here—use sod. If I’m going to the trouble to build, it will be stone. First we sow the crop, then build,” says Mike. His plough is a one-blade, horse drawn plough, but he is breaking the field faster than Mr. Campbell.
“Anna, I have all the boards. You nail these two together like a triangle. You lay the boards over that frame I’ve already made.” Mike places the boards and joints together for me. “Now these are the side and the very bottom. We will have to step over these on the floor but it’s the only way to make a quick frame for this tent we will live in for now.”
“Of course Mike,” I say. It all looks simple. I use to build the extra shelves in the old cellar at home.
“By the end of the week we can maybe move our things into it. Then I can get a load of seed grain with the wagon.”
“Maybe sooner,” I say, and Mike grins at me. His muscular jaw, neck and shoulders relax.
“Well, if you think you can do it—I will get back to ploughing.”
He leaves. I will show Mike something by the end of this day. The hammer feels good in my hand. One frame is finished, then another, then another and finally the last. I drag the frames of our summer tent into the right place. There are five boards left That’s simple to figure out. One board runs the length of the top of the triangle and one on each side of the bottom. I lift the first frame. It’s light. Then the board, and using both hands I hold the board to the bottom of the triangle. How will I drive the nail?
I drop the frame, then the board and place it on the ground, and hammer a nail into it until the tip points through on the other side. I lift the frame again. It’s slanted toward me so that I can reach the bottom of the triangle. Somehow I get everything resting together and hammer the nail in. I go to the other side and hammer a nail into the board, then attach it to the frame. Bit by bit the frames are nailed to the board. I set them all straight up and down, and hammer more nails. It now resembles the frame of a house.
The only board left to put on is the one that runs across the top. I’m too short. I can’t move the wagon over to stand on—Mike has the horse in the field, but there are other things in the wagon. I pull a wooden box to the side of the upright frame.
Oh yes, I remember what is in the box. It holds our only pieces of stoneware. Old chipped pieces of simple dishes. There are items handed to us from many different well wishers. We have no idea of what came from where. The strangest article also came from a well wisher that we had never seen before.
As we came out of the immigration office in Winnipeg, the well wisher walked right up to us and asked if we would pose for him. We stood as he went behind a black bellows. He tucked his head under a black cloth. We waited. Mike said the man had forgotten about us; we should go. The man told us to hold it, then we heard a click. He thanked us and asked where we were going.
When we came to the town we had set out for the man at the lands office gave us a box with the shiny photograph the man had taken. We looked so determined. Mike’s eyes are set dark. His stature fits his eye. His faith in the land is present in that photograph.
Climbing on the box, I can push the board to top. I put a nail in it, and push it half way to the top, then drive the nail down so that it will stay. Then I climb up on the triangle. It’s holding me. Soon the top board is in place.
“Anna, what have you done?” He is looking at me from the ground. He stares.
“I have set up the frame for the tent,” I say.
“Yes—of course,” I say.
Today he announced; “I have time to build. Tomorrow we will hook up the wagon and get our first load of stones.” He knows where the rocks were in the area. We set to work lifting the stones. Using a crowbar, I carry and roll the stone from where they had lain for years. Once they are loose, he grips them and heaves them onto the wagon.
This is one of the biggest. It is long and flat on the top. I dig deep down one side of the stone. I have gone deeper in the mud than I first thought I would have to. I wedge another stone under the opposite side of the crowbar to act as a pivot. I press with all my weight, and the stone that is my pivot sinks into the soft ground. I place another on top of that stone and begin to push against it with all my weight. I can’t move the stone—the bar is bending. I slip and fall. I get up and place the bar under the stone again. Mike is here now, we press down together—the stone begins to move. Air loudly sucks and the stone is loose. It’s much larger than I thought it would be. I take one side and Mike the other. Together we lift it and carefully take each step to the wagon. We dump it in the wagon and sweat dampens Mike’s hair and his shirt. I feel wet too. My dress is stained and covered with mud. My back first feels stiff than it is all right. I move larger stones—I’m surprised with myself.
It isn’t noon yet, when we climb onto the wagon with our first load of rocks. The air feels heavy and hot. Mike lifts the reins and the horse lean onto the yoke, muscles bulge; he strains against the weight. Slowly the wheels turn. The squeaks become low hums. Mike hurries the horse, and I move close to him—he feels warm and wet. I feel better.
“This is where the door shall be,” Mike says, as he begins to explain what the pegs are for. “These are the corners and you see that peg in the middle?”
“That is where a wall will run from that side wall over there. There will be a stonewall that will run from the left side of the door all the way to the other side. Then there will be a dividing wall on the left and we will divide that space into two rooms. One will be our room and one will be the kitchen. In the other big room, we will have a fireplace. Later, we can build rooms above ours for the children. It is that good?”
“And, we will have windows with glass and shutters,” I say.
The railway supplied lumber on credit. He designs each door, and builds the frames—then the windows.
Mike has the cement, and the foundations are ready. He sets the stone and mortar together. Carefully checking each step with his plumb.
He builds stone on stone to create a perfect shelter. The walls are growing up around the door and window frames. He never slows his pace. Up early in the morning and straight to work. He repeats the same rhythms of lifting the stones from the fields. He says he takes them from their disorder and puts our order to them. Building a solid wall against the rain and wind. I take his lunches to him—he returns to out tent home only when the sun is half lost on the horizon.
As the crop grows, so do the walls of our home. Our creations rise from this flat place. Our world is what we are building here.
The clouds are dark and deep. Looking up, as in a pool of water, I can’t see the surface of this imaginary sea far above. The sound of thunder rushes from all directions and challenges me to stand against the elements like a stone. Then the rain comes.
“I have put canvas over the work I finished today,” says Mike as he closes the tent flap. He enters soaked from the rain. The canvas around us bellows in and out, and the wind grows. The low hum of the drops hitting the tent grows to a loud rush. I hold him—he is damp and warm. Canvas and wood groans. He takes me; under the warm blankets he enters. Together we meld into one—warm and damp. Then we listen to the wind and rain. When the air is fresh and the sky is clear, Mikes sets to work again.
“For a time, I was sure Mike had forgotten he had fields of grains,” says Mr. Campbell as he enters the yard. A light layer of snow covers the ground. “But, he got it down and we threshed it just in time. It looked like a fine crop.”
“Yes,” I say—not sure of why he is here. Campbell had complained at harvest time that he didn’t have enough time to build all the things he wanted to.
“I have come to help finish the house,” announces Mr. Campbell. “It would be a shame if he had done all that work, and couldn’t use the place this winter.”
“Yes,” I reply.
“Where is he?”
“Town—to pick up lumber from the railway.” He is to pay for the first lumber he had bought on credit, and pick up enough to finish the roof.
“Ah, so he is going to finish it.”
“Ah …” he hesitates, “I was going to tell you, that my missus expects to see you soon. She has extra things laying around from her last—with you expecting, she thought she could help—”
The house had to be finished. The child had to have somewhere to come to. From the protective walls of my own body to something as protecting… Canvas and wood would never hold back and stand against the wind, cold, rain or snow. Stone is the best we can offer.
There are floorboards under our feet—not the cold inert ground. Above us wood, not canvas that bellows in and out with the wind. It is a roof. Mike hadn’t the time yet to get up a ceiling, but that doesn’t matter. The rooms are empty except for crates that hold a set of Sunday clothes, carefully wrapped China, and pictures of people and places far away—a few things to start a new life. We have no shelves yet, or furniture.
The first snow melted. Most of the willows have lost their leaves. Mike has made a fire of scraps from the building. The floor is cold and the room feels breezy as we eat our first meal in the house. Only bread, cheese, and a few carrots is what we eat, but with the one bottle of wine we saved so long, we feel like we are on our wedding night again. The rain and wind will never be so threatening again. I feel protected.
Time doesn’t past; it dissolves away as if there is no beginnings or ends, only a present. I feel like I’m drifting in disappearing time. Something is in the darkness of the night, in the cold air. I am so tired. I listen to the muffled wind outside, and the cry from the crib. I light a candle, then crawl out of bed, and the floor is cold. I look at Duncan—should I pick him up and take him into the coldness of the air? I lift him and the blankets. I carry him to the bed, and hush him.
I hate the interruption in my rest. Mike is in a deep sleep. The walls, the darkness and the cold traps me. The house that protects and keeps out the rain and wind has a power over me, different from the wind and rain. Is this security better even though it suffocates me? The cold and the wind is just outside—I have a tight grasp on Duncan. Gentle, be gentle, I hear Mrs. Campbell tell me again. In this darkness, her words come back to me.
Firsts are a struggle, says Mrs. Campbell. First winter on the prairies, first child, first crop… The next is always easier—the next…
I didn’t know that the Campbell’s had arrived until I heard the knock on the door. I sat on the side of our small bed with Duncan in my arms, not recognising the sound of knocking. Then, it came again. I rushed to the door and opened it.
They smiled at me holding the baby.
“Come in,” I said. I didn’t notice what they were carrying until they turned around to look at me in the kitchen.
“I don’t know how to repay you—” I said.
“Now Anna—look at me,” she says patting her large stomach. “I will have no more babies, I have had too many already. It’s best to let you use those things.” What would I do without Mrs. Campbell? There are also the Thompson’s. They give us eggs, milk, and some cream. They even give us some ham for Christmas.
Christmas has come and the cold white landscape feels like it has been here forever. Slowly our wagon and horse plods toward Campbell’s homestead. We are going to celebrate the day with them. Duncan is buttoned inside my coat. I sit beside Mike, and share several blankets. Drifting snow settles around us. The prairie we are crossing looks like motionless swells of the ocean. It isn’t an ocean, it is a cold desert—
The silent empty days of winter seem to fade quickly, and spring arrives demanding our attention and work. The seasons of work slip by. Duncan is walking and running. Nancy, my second baby, can walk and fight with Duncan—Duncan wins. I am still holding David.
“And I presume you are Mrs. Hansen,” says the strange man at the door. He is the lands officer. We had forgotten there was supposed to be an inspection of our homestead to get the deed.
“Did you build this yourself?”
“Yes,” Mike says. The lines on his face are deep—they make him look older for a moment.
“Too bad we didn’t have more men like you.” They both go out. I watch through the window: Mike shows the officer the buildings, the barn, the finished storage shed, and doorframes. The neat fences… Three years, good crops, three children, and a stone house… We have the deed. The officer seems pleased. He says that there is another quarter section of land near by. Until Duncan can help, we have enough.
Rain, rain… We have endured much. The land has proved itself. Mike’s faith has become more powerful. The land is our fortune. Like the stone house, we are sure we will stand here forever. We sow in spring—the fields turn green—then no more. They shrivel, and the plants twist and fall back to the ground. But, there is always next year—always next—
The soil becomes dust. We sow the land, but we don’t even see green shoots appear anymore. The dust joins the air. We see a dark sky. Rain has come! But it passes by and the wind mocks us; mocks our faith. Even at home, the dust lies on everything inside—the desert enters—there is no rain—no challenge nor threat from it.
Duncan, Nancy, David and Helen don’t play outside anymore. I look at them, and wonder what memories they will have at my age. Joan is still very small. This will end—for Joan, I believe it will be over. When it rains, will they rush inside and close the door? Quickly change into dry clothes? Or will they rush out with faces turned to the sky, feeling the cool drops run down their faces?
Another season—the next has come. This season is like the others. We sow and wait. Insects, heat and wind bring the desert to the walls of our house.
Dust to dust—the casket lies in a hole torn in the prairie. I stand holding Mrs. Campbell. How did he die? I can’t remember. Here we are, me and Mike. Mrs. Campbell’s children and neighbours. In their boiled faces are questions—no answers. Before the pastor’s words are done, small drifts of sand sweep over the casket. The land is quick to claim it.
The other graves are weathered. The wind leaves no dust on them. Dry clay. The land is marred by deep cracks. The dust rises again. Mike looks old, tired, defeated. Once, my father said—every man has an ocean in his heart—I know now that every man has a desert in his heart, and, yes, I too feel it—I have that desert. Like the children, I would run from the stone walls and turn my face to the sky and feel the cool rain.
Go north, go north, says the government agent. We will help you; go north. We need help—no food, no hope.
“He says go north. He says nothing about coming back. This will end—I know it. Then what? Who will receive our stone walls?” asks Mike. I hold him, what can I do?
“Only the walls are stone,” I say. Why did I say it? We know that but it is now said. He moves away from me. I don’t see his eyes—I want to go to him, but can’t. He sits down on the bed. Now I see his face. Two lines of wetness mark it. What is left to a man who has lost his faith? A part of him drifts away into the desert.
“Pack,” he whispers. I don’t move—I don’t want to move. I force myself to him. We sit together on the bed. I hold him, but he doesn’t move his arm around me. His shoulders are soft and sloped. We will give back the paper we carefully kept. We will take the photographs of our arrival, because those in it are strangers.
Trees surround us. We can’t see because of the trees. We live separate from our land, surrounded by bush. But things are different—Mike never looks out at the land in the old way. The wood house creaks in the wind and groans in the cold. It is built quickly. Duncan and David are old enough to help. Lumber is thrust against lumber. Nails are pounded into place. The noise echoes through the bush. There are no neighbours to help with the roof…
The walls are frames of boards. They have a board on the top and one on the bottom. Boards, side by side, like a picket fence, other nailed at angles over these pickets to cover them. The walls are hollow. Before they become walls they lie on the floor and are moved about. Then, once all the walls are made, they are raised in one day, and nailed into place. What was not there yesterday is here today.
The wind rumbles in the spruce and pine trees. The trees labour and bend against its force. I rarely feel it on my face as I had on the prairie.
Gone: the silent presence of the land. Here, the coyotes cry their warnings. In our small wooden home, we listen like children to thunder.
The children left. Marriage, college—there was no reason to stay. Mike let them go. When I asked why, he said— “there are no longer stone walls, and I’m not of granite.” Granite stands against the rain and the wind—take forever to weaken and fall.
Rain is sprinkling into this small room. The glass is fogged over by the water flowing down it. The street lamps of the city are on. It is dark, even with all those different coloured neon signs outside. Rain, rain. I come out to you on the small balcony. The different colour lights of the city glare all around. It is cold here. The black asphalt of the streets below glistens, and the cars shine. The sky above is dark, but it glows with the bright lights. Like the children after the drought, I am dancing in the field with my face turned to the sky feeling the cool wetness fall on it. All walls are behind me—stone, wood, mortar, and nails are behind—far behind. The rain and wind are with me. The sky and I glow with the same city lights—cool, wet, free—