“Hello” and “Coca-Cola” were the only two words he knew in English when he stepped off the ship in Quebec City in 1926. He had seen an ad in the local newspaper in the small town near the farm he grew up on. The ad extolled the virtues of lots of land and lots of hope for the future. He purchased a one-way ticket and bought the dream that took him from the old world to the new one. He didn’t know it at the time but, he would spend the rest of his life chasing that dream.
He climbed aboard a train with nothing more than an old small suitcase and the clothes on his back. His destination was a small town in the heart of Saskatchewan where he was met by an old farmer on a horse-drawn wagon. For the next year and a half when he wasn’t working long hard hours, he taught himself to read, write and speak English.
He became a skilled carpenter and went wherever there was work. Often there wasn’t much of that during the dirty ‘30s. Still, he waded through mud in lumber and construction camps, helped build grain elevators, army bases and houses from North Western Ontario to the West Coast.
He had many favourite stories from his earlier days. One was leaving Fort William with a friend and riding all the way to Winnipeg in an open Ford through a driving rainstorm. And, after a night on the town, he recalled the night he danced across the old Salter Street bridge with a “drinking partner” called Polish Pete. He still laughed telling the tale of a huge Swede he worked with somewhere in B.C. The man had size 14 feet and he ordered a pair of rubber boots from the Eaton’s catalogue. Weeks later he was excited when the package arrived. In it were two pair of rubber boots. Both size 7.
Eventually, the now 40-year-old carpenter met a 41-year-old divorcee with three grown children. One thing led to another and in May of 1950, they had a son. Ten days later all three were packed up and on a train to Wainwright, Alberta where he found work building military housing.
For the next twelve years the family would live in Alberta twice, Vancouver twice or Winnipeg and never more than a year in one place, finally settling here around 1962. The father still left for months at a time to go wherever there was work. The money was always better out west he said. But, eventually age caught up to the carpenter and his tool boxes were getting too heavy and he knew he couldn’t quite keep up.
The boy was now working and through an estate sale, bought the house they had rented for many years. The old man now had a permanent place to live and never had to pay rent again. He had a little bit of money tucked away and would turn 65 and be able to collect his pension in just a matter of a few months. He even talked about saving up and going back to the “old country” for a visit.
The mother was now in a health-care facility and father and son would, for the first time in their lives, spend evenings renovating the house and talking about the future. Coming home one Sunday evening, after visiting his wife, the old man fell to the floor and died of a stroke. Two and half months short of turning 65.
And so, it’s June. And with it comes Father’s Day. Almost 50 years after my father passed on, I still tell a story or two to my son about his grandfather. I tell him my father was a good father and a good man. I can only hope one day my boy thinks the same of me.
So, when Father’s Day rolls around, I think about that young, wide-eyed lad stepping off a ship into a brand new world. I think about him working in dust storms, snow storms and alone in cold bunkhouses in the middle of nowhere dreaming for a better life. I can’t help but feel sad. But then, I see him dancing across the Salter Street bridge with Polish Pete and well, then it’s a happy Father’s Day.