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Sometimes, in the warm evenings of Summer after planting and before harvest and especially on Thursdays, neighbors would often walk or ride over to my grandparent's just to socialize. The women would gather inside to drink tea, knit and crochet, and talk about who was and who should be thinking about getting married, who was expecting, who was going to become a grandmother, and such womenfolk things. As the evening drew on sometimes one of them would start talking about the home and family she had left and, soon enough, everyone was dabbing at her eyes and remembering the things she had left behind her. One of the things that my grandmother had left behind her was music. She played the piano very well and had a fine though soft voice. Grandfather knew how much she missed real music in her life since he could hear her singing to herself even while she bent herself to tasks that one would have thought were beyond such a delicate woman. Early in the Winter and without telling her, Grandfather had ordered a piano and sheet music sent up from Chicago as well as a fine hand-cranked Victrola with a big tulip-shaped loudspeaker, along with a hundred phonograph records of music he thought that she would like. I remember these things so clearly . . .
One of the many good things about Lawnsdale School is that Miss Bell was quite gracious in letting her students be absent when they were needed elsewhere—just as long, of course, as they made up all of the work that they had missed and were ready, immediately upon their return, to present a full report to the school of where they had been and what they had seen and done. Grandfather asked Miss Bell to excuse my being absent Monday, and Tuesday also, if we happened not to be able to return in time for that day's school. There had been another freeze on Saturday, and the ground was hard on Sunday when we set off in the great green Studebaker wagon with Skip and Celery pulling for Loon Lake. Loon Lake was only some fifteen miles away, but between our home and the town lay the obstacle of Ratfoot Hill, a long straight pull that led to the summit on the other side of which was a short steep decline with a hairpin curve in the middle of it. In the Spring's mud and Winter's snows, it was almost impassable, but the weather was kind to us. It stayed cold enough that the ground did not thaw and become slippery, and all the signs pointed to a week of continued clear, cold weather. Skip and Celery, who geared up every time they saw the long grade up Ratfoot Hill, made the crest without drawing a heavy breath, and Bomp rode the brake all the way down the other side. By noon, we were pulling into Loon Lake.
I don't believe that I could properly describe Loon Lake as I saw it as a child. The resident population was only sixty-four, but it included a dentist and doctor with a small clinic, a Mountie station, a hotel on the low ridge overlooking the lake, a blacksmith/farrier/equipment forger who doubled as the livery stable manager, a milliner/dress maker with absurdly inappropriate headgear bedecked with egret and ostrich feathers on view in her window, a banker and his bank with bars on its windows, a tavern owner and his snug tavern, with its big hearth, conveniently located next to the hotel's restaurant, a postmaster with a real post office where one could buy books, magazines, newspapers from all over and not too old, a bulletin board with all sorts of pictures, announcements, proclamations, and notes that people left offering things for sale, announcing that they were breaking up their farm and going home, or had just arrived and needed to buy equipment cheap, birth and wedding announcements, obituaries and all sorts of other news and notices. Loon Lake didn't have a newspaper and, even if it had one, it would have been almost impossible to deliver for much of the year, so the post-office bulletin board was a required stop for everyone coming into town, and they were expected to recite all of its contents to all their neighbors when they returned home.
As important as the post-office was, there was no doubt that Jeannot's General Store was the heart and soul of Loon Lake, and that all of the other shops and stores lived only by the trade that the store brought in. Both Indians and whites came with their furs and, when the harvest had come in, lines of wagons converged on Jeannot's storage bins to deposit their grain and collect their cash or pay off the tabs they had accumulated since the last harvest. The store itself was, at least to my eyes, as big as a warehouse, and it was jammed with all sorts of goods—piles of soft white woolen blankets with the distinctive Hudson Bay Company's colored stripes on one end; ribbons, rolls of twine and great length of chain; blocks of salt, cans of grease, and cases of bottles of Sloan's liniment; anvils, sledge hammers and tongs; fragile glass chimneys for kerosene lamps, lanterns, and boxes of fat citronella candles; pails, buckets and cans of all sizes, long festoons of traps hanging from the ceiling, seines and all sizes of fish and grappling hooks; hundred-pound bags of sugar, flower-patterned sacks of flour, oatmeal, and barley, and tea chests with all sorts of colorful and exotic pictures; bolts of cloth piled atop each other, burlap sacking, mattress ticking and small papers of pins and needles; rolls of barbed wire, hinges both large and small, pulleys and grindstones; horse bits, wagon wheels and rows of boots and high-top shoes, boxes and boxes of nails, screws, and bolts, still more boxes of waxed wooden matches, tins of kerosene, and large blocks of paraffin; bottles, jars and crocks of all shapes and sizes; yellow slickers, denim work shirts, overalls and thick plaid coats; axes, lightning rods and knives of all sorts; hatchets and ratchets, pulleys and windlasses, and so many other things that I felt dizzy just looking at them. I had seen Marshall Fields, Wiebolt's, Goldblatt's, Sear's and Roebuck's, The Fair Store, The Boston Store and others, but I had never seen anything like Jeannot's, a jammed jumble of everything it took to settle a frontier or build a civilization. Just in case he had forgotten anything, Mr. Jeannot kept a big pile of Sear's and Roebuck's catalogues by his front door, and each customer took the latest wish book with him as he left the store, something with which to plan, to dream, and to entertain oneself during the Winter when civilization could seem far, far away, and, finally, something to add a bit of decoration and comfort to what might otherwise be a cold and dreary privy.
Before we had left for Loon Lake, Grandfather had collected orders for supplies from all of our neighbors, and he went over the list, name by name, with Mr. Jeannot until he was assured that all of the goods would be ready to be loaded on our wagon when we returned and were ready to head home. When this chore was finally done, he unhitched the team behind Jeannot's and we walked the team over to the liveryman's to be put up for the next couple of days. As we walked away down the single street of the town, I asked Bomp if the lake flooded. He said that it never did and why did I ask. I didn't understand why the wooden sidewalks were built so far above the dirt street, and he explained to me that some towns rolled up their sidewalks at sundown, but that the stores of Loon Lake simply lifted theirs up like the drawbridges of castles in olden days and, with their storefronts covered with thick wooden walls through which there were no doors to defend, the proprietors could sleep soundly and without concern that the town might be attacked by a pack of kinkajous. I knew that he was fibbing about the kinkajous because everybody knows that kinkajous are solitary, but, having seen shop-owners in Chicago draw and lock steel gratings across the front of their stores, I was prepared to believe what he had said about the drawbridges. It was only several years later that I realized that the "sidewalks" of Loon Lake had actually been a long line of docks for loading and unloading the wagons that pulled up in front of its shops and stores.
It was only a short walk to the "station," and the "bus" was ready to begin its drive south to St Walburg by the time we got there. It wasn't really a bus, of course, but a small heavy-duty truck with its bed covered with tightly stretched canvas something like a covered wagon. Under the canvas, there were wooden bench along each side of the truck bed, and there were several men already sitting there, smoking and with their feet stretched out on the packs and bedrolls they had piled between the benches. When my grandfather lifted me in, the men busied themselves rearranging their duffel so that I could lie down, and Grandfather unrolled my very own quilt from our bedroll and covered me up while the driver tied down the back flaps securely and we were left in twilight although it was still only mid- afternoon. The driver then started the motor, and we were on our way.
I gather that the company that had built the railway to St. Walburg had planned on continuing it the thirty miles northward to Loon Lake and possibly yet another twenty miles to the village of Goodsoil, north of which there was nothing until one reached Lake Athabasca and Great Slave Lake far, far to the north. But the big depression had come along and the railroad stopped at St. Walburg. There was only the preliminary grade and the first layer of ballast stretching up to Loon Lake. The stones for the ballast were large and uneven, and so one could not travel it either quickly or comfortably, and it was impossible for horses and wagons. But trucks could handle it, and it was the highway that linked our districts to the rest of the world. If it had not been for that road, Jeannot could not have bought our wheat, furs and other things, load them into big grain trucks, sell them at a profit to the brokers at the railhead in St Walburg, and use the profit to buy all of the things he needed to keep his store jammed pack, and upon which we depended to be able to work and to survive.
It must have been a painful ride for Grandfather and the other men on the hard wooden benches, but it was soft and warm in the nest they had built for me in their baggage, and I felt secure under my very own quilt. When Grandfather woke me, it was evening, we were at the team yards at St. Walburg, and our room at the Railway Hotel was waiting for us. I remember only flashes of the next day, but those flashes are still bight and clear. It was still dark when the lady rapped on our door and told us that breakfast would be ready soon and that the train was due in an hour. When we went downstairs, some of the men from the truck and others whom I had never seen before were seated around a large dining table, and the lady started bringing in platter after platter of breakfast. There were waffles, French toast, and pancakes; thick rashers of bacon, pork chops, big gut-encased links of pork sausage and even a few kippers in case they should be an Englishman in the crowd; eggs—fried, soft-boiled, curried and scrambled; potatoes fried with onions in bacon grease, onion soup with a thick crust of melted cheese and thick pea soup with the tips of pieces of salt pork poking above the surface like icebergs in a green sea; syrup, fresh butter and treacle to go with the fresh rolls and bread, big pots of milk, tea and—I was almost giddy with the smell of it—coffee. My tea-drinking grandparents seemed unaware that my parents, father being Swedish, were inveterate coffee-drinkers and that I had been weaned on milk and sugar with a bit of coffee added or that the proportion of coffee to milk had increased as I grew older. The lady quickly understood when I asked her if I could have coffee, and I soon had a large mug of coffee-tanned milk and sugar in front of me.
Everyone was reaching and grabbing for whatever they wanted, and were chewing and talking at the same time. I was far too little to reach and grab, but—without breaking stride in their own reaching and grabbing, the men around me, as well as the lady doing the serving, managed to keep my plate heaping. Sometimes, even now, sixty years later, when I am drowsing, the delicious smells and tastes of that breakfast return to me, together with the sound of the chatter and laughter of the men about the table.
Then it was time to go to the team yard so that Grandfather could watch the crane that lifted his precious piano and set it down gently in a giant grain truck. Grandfather climbed up and made sure that the inside of the piano was well stuffed and the ropes were quite secure, and then began to check Jeannot's goods off the bills of lading as they went into the wagon.
The thirty miles to Loon Lake seemed to take forever, and it was clear that I would not only miss school Tuesday, but Wednesday too. It was already well into the afternoon by the time we reached Loon Lake, and, by the time that the store goods had been unloaded, and the piano, Victrola, records and sheet music safely stowed in our waiting wagon, the sun was well down toward the horizon. Grandfather went to the restaurant while I kept watch over our precious cargo, and he came back shortly with some thick beef sandwiches—actually venison, but I was so hungry that it made no difference to me—sweet pickles and pickled onions. Grandfather held that it is given that a person could get by easily on bread and water if only he had a few pickled onions thrown in, and I've found that there's a lot of truth in that, even if he did exaggerate a bit.
It was time for bed, and Grandfather undid the bedroll and settled himself underneath the canvas, figuring that the canvas would keep the load dry and that his own body heat would keep the piano and Victrola from getting too cold and cracking. I took my quilt and went over to the livery stables to sleep in the stall with Skip and Celery. The stableman had told Grandfather that our horses had been quite restless while we were gone and that one of them—it must have been Celery—had kicked a slat out of the back of their stall. Horses are funny creatures. Skip and Celery were big draft horses of a particularly stubborn sort that people called "hammer-heads," and Grandfather had bought them cheaply because their owner considered them "intractable." But the two of them had taken to Grandfather at once and would have followed him around the farm like a pair of faithful dogs if he had let them. I was excessively fond of them both, and the first time that grandmother had found that I had snuck out of bed to go to the barn to sleep and had ended up in their stall, she was distraught. After some thinking, though, both she and Grandfather realized that horses are often high-strung and can become nervous and frightened in the dark, and that some horses fare much better if they have a companion, such as a dog or cat with them. Grandfather said that Skip and Celery seemed to have decided that I was as good as a dog—they were so big that they made Nick nervous, and he much preferred to sleep in the stall of Old Rose, our placid milch cow. So I had their permission to sleep in their stall whenever they seemed to be getting skittish, provided that I tell them first and not go sneaking out of the house again. And so I lay down in the sweet hay and slept soundly except for a couple of times when one or the other of them put a velvet nose on my cheek and whinnied softly in my ear.
We got an early start the next morning so that we wouldn't have to hurry. The piano, Victrola, and our neighbor's goods made a good load, and Grandfather never was one to drive his animals. When we got to that steep climb at Ratfoot Hill, Skip and Celery—incensed as usual that a mere hill should have gotten in their way—made it almost halfway up to the hairpin before they started blowing with the effort. Grandfather pushed as hard as he could on the brake lever while I put chocks under all four wheels and he called out time and again for me to be careful. After he had checked all of the chocks and tied the pole up and back onto the wagon, he unlocked the brake, and unhitched the team. He took out the long length of strong cable he had brought and tied it securely to the evener. He then walked the team up the hill to the hairpin, where there was a big post—or maybe the trunk of an old tree—firmly set in the ground. He hooked the pulley that he was carrying to the ring on an iron circle that seemed to have been forged just for the purpose of slipping to the base of the post where it was fastened by nails as big a railway spike. He then slipped the end of the cable through the pulley, through each of the end rings on the team's traces, and then tied it back onto itself so that it formed a triangle that would compensate for either one of the horses getting a step or two on the other. When he had thoroughly inspected the entire arrangement and tested each knot, he started Skip and Celery back down the hill. I gathered up the chucks and followed the wagon as it slowly rolled upwards, replacing them when Grandfather called for me to do so.
He repeated the entire process once more, and the wagon was standing beside another post at the crest of Ratfoot Hill. On the long downhill side, it was merely a matter of his riding the brake and my tossing some water on it when it began to smoke. It was an easy drive home and the sun was still high up in its track when we reached the foot of the hill. Grandfather, however, chose to travel by the roundabout route, crossing the corduroy road over the marshes at the southern end of the lake and stopping at each house for the folks to pick up what they had wanted from Loon Lake. The first stop was the Pankratz's, and, after their supplies were unloaded, Christina hurried off to lure Grandmother—who was somehow under the impression that we had gone to Loon Lake for a couple of days to have a new wheel put on the Studebaker and for the dentist to fix my front teeth (which had been protruding at an extreme angle since I had tied a rope to a tree and tried to imitate the ladies I had seen swing by their teeth at the Barnum and Bailey Circus at Armory in Chicago). Grandfather had simply pushed them back into place once we had gotten underway and Grandmother was none the wiser.
At Heinbecker's, Robinson's, Travis's, and Hunt's, the man of the house came out to accompany us as we made the circuit of the lake, crossed on the corduroy bridge at its north end, and approached our cabin from a totally unexpected direction. It turned out that there was really no need for such a strategy since the house was empty. Christina had been persuasive in telling Grandmother that her son, Ian, had a bad cough and needed help. He did need Grandmother's help, actually, but that's another story. It didn't take long to get the piano in the house since Grandfather had the foresight to have laid in some strong planks for a long ramp up the front steps before we had left. It was close to sundown when Grandmother returned, smelling of some homemade medication in which licorice and creosote seemed to have played a large part. Although the inside of the house was already dark, Grandfather had not lit any of the lamps. Grandmother came in by the kitchen door, as she had since the kitchen was finished, and lit the lamp on the table by the kitchen door. As soon as she did, Grandfather lowered the needle onto a spinning phonograph record, and the room was filled with the sound of Harry Lauder singing "Annie Laurie." I probably forgot to tell you that, although I called her "Donnie," my grandmother's real and maiden name was Annie Laurie MacFader and that she was at least as Scottish as her name.
I can close my eyes and see her still as she stood in the door to the kitchen with a lamp in her hand and looked at the piano, Victrola, and Grandfather. She was a tiny woman, and fragile as only a diabetic in the days before insulin could be fragile, but as tough as only a person who stays alive only though the strictest self control can be. In the light of the lamp she held, I could see a tear glistening down her cheek—the only time I ever knew her to cry. Grandfather always found it difficult to express affection, much less love, in words, and so he waved his hand with a careless gesture and said that he thought that we needed a bit of music in the house, which was just another of his fibs because anyone who had ever hear him sing knew that he was completely tone-deaf. Grandmother didn't say a word, but went up to him, took his big hand in her small one, and kissed it.
I wasn't old enough to be either sensitive or tactful, but I did know that something was making me very uncomfortable, so I picked up my quilt and slipped out to Skip and Celery's stall. The music from the house was still playing when I finally went to sleep.Lynn Nelson lived on a farm fourteen miles north of Loon Lake in northern Saskatchewan in 1938; he was seven years old.