The Railway Tracks



I walked the tracks yesterday . When I was a teenager, I often walked the tracks, sometimes stepping from railway tie to railway tie, sometimes balancing on the steel rails, sometimes standing at the side of the tracks as a train rumbled past. Canada had a railway system in those days. It was that railway system that joined Canadians from coast to coast.

I had a sense of pride about the railways because my grandfather worked for The Great Northern Railway at the roundhouse in Winnipeg.

As a child, I’d ridden the train with my parents. There was train service twice a day in summer, once a day during the rest of the year. One unforgettable time when my father was taking me to Winnipeg because I had a bad ear infection (no antibiotics in those days), we missed the train. It was pulling out as we got to the top of Centre and the highway. My father, who had stopped to talk to various people as we walked to the station, ran over to a taxi (yes, Gimli had taxis in those days. The war was on and Gimli had lots of single air force men who hired taxis.) and shouted “Catch that train.”

Highway nine was gravel, rutted, we bounced about in the back seat as the taxi driver did his best to get to the Winnipeg Beach before the train. It was like being in a movie. The taxi driver hunched over his steering wheel. My father with his head out the window yelling “Faster. Faster.” There were no seat belts in those days, the gravel surface of the road and the ruts meant slipping and sliding sideways, bouncing up and down. “Faster. Faster,” my father yelled.

I remember the moment we passed the train. We screeched to a halt at the Winnipeg Beach stop. My father said I’ll pay you when I get back, grabbed me and bounded onto the platform. My father hoped my mother wouldn’t hear what had happened but, alas, Gimli was a small town, nearly everyone was related, and hardly before the taxi had raced out of sight someone had stopped at the house and said, “Rae, Dempsey missed the train.”

Traveling by train was comfortable. The click click of the wheels on the rails.. The magic of the passing landscape. Few people owned cars so there were always people on the train that my parents knew so every trip was a chance for a leisurely visit and my thoughtful mother always packed a sandwich along with home made lemonade in a glass sealer.

When I was twelve, I started delivering The Winnipeg Free Press. That meant going to the train station each day to meet the train, to hang around with the other carriers, collect our bundles of newspapers that were thrown onto the wagons that had been pulled up beside the freight car. We filled our canvas bags and off we went, young entrepreneurs at the end of the line of railways that had spread out across Canada.

The railways nearly didn’t come to Gimli. Marshy land and Willow Creek were barriers. It made more financial sense for the railway to be built west of town where the land rose up and formed gravel ridges. This was very serious. There are numerous stories of towns being built on what was expected to be the railway line only to have the railway line built miles away. Entire towns made of frame buildings were moved to where the railway line existed. Goods had to be sent to market. Goods were needed in the towns and farms. Transportation was everything.

The Icelanders of Gimli always had good political connections. It was those connections that got them the only known transportation grant for immigrants within Canada. Faced with no railway, they formed a committee and went to Winnipeg. After a lot of lobbying, they got the railway line extended from Winnipeg Beach to Gimli. Winnipeg Beach had been the terminal point for the cordwood economy that kept Winnipeg houses and businesses warm in winter. Now, cordwood, farm produce, fish, everything that country people might produce and city people, buy, could be sent directly to Winnipeg.

The railway brought people to the village, people who needed hotel accommodation. Some people liked the town so much that they built cottages. Without the CPR line I wouldn’t have been born. My grandparents came to visit friends who had a cottage. They liked Gimli so much that they built a cottage. While my father was helping his father build my mother’s parents’ cottage, my father and mother saw each other through a window and we all know how that worked out.

You could say that I was a CPR kid.

That’s why my walk along the railway tracks yesterday was filled with sadness. Canada used to have a strong, powerful railway system. It was our railway system. It has been allowed to fall into disuse.Clean, cheap, efficient transportation for people and goods has been replaced by the car economy. The profits from making cars, building highways for them, producing oil to fuel them are so great that common sense and the environment have been brushed aside and, in many cases, bribed aside.

Between the ties there are now weeds. The ties are rotten, falling apart. The tracks are being torn up and sold to other countries. The railways made Canada. It wasn’t enough to save them.

The Lesson of Lawns

The perfect lawn

The perfect lawn

I’m guilty. I admit it. Although cutting grass when I was a teenager kept me in spending money in the summer, I have abandoned having a yard that looked like a putting green.

In Gimli, Manitoba, where I grew up, the summer campers/cottagers were a source of pocket money for movies, hamburgers and fries, candy, comic books and, later, dates with local heartthrobs. Sometimes, I got jobs painting cottages but, most of the time, the market was for lawn cutting.

Most of the cottage husbands were Friday to Sunday night men. They came down to the beach after work on Friday and went back to Winnipeg Sunday evening. Winnipeg, in high summer, is sweltering, humid, oppressive, and, in those days, there was little, if any, air conditioning. Every summer one of the papers would have a picture of someone frying an egg on the hood of a car or on a sidewalk.

Meanwhile, wives and children were ensconced in Gimli cottages, either owned or rented. The cottages, shaded by large, old growth spruce trees, made of wood with lots of windows and screens so the night air could flow inside and cool breezes from Lake Winnipeg could blow through, didn’t absorb the heat the way that city buildings, built of stone and brick, did.

The husbands, coming down by train or car, were much like the fried eggs by the time they arrived. The cooler air perked them up. They lay in hammocks and napped or had a beer while their bodies cooled off. They were in no mood to mow lawns or cut down weeds. Instead, they hired local kids.

My first lawns were cut with a push mower. This was hard labour, the kind of hard labour that should only be handed to hardened criminals. Gimli was cooler than Winnipeg but when you are twelve, pushing a lawnmower on a lot two chains (66 feet) wide, the sun beats down on you until your shirt is soaking wet and you have to keep going to the artesian well and its ice cold water. The water was so cold that we believed it could crack your teeth.

I can still hear that hand pushed lawn mower. Whirrr, Whirrr. The trick was to get up some momentum. That way you could overcome the resistance of the grass. I didn’t have a grass catcher on the back. That meant when I’d finished cutting the grass, I had to rake it and deposit it at the edge of the back lane. Then, with a pair of hand shears, trim the grass from the sides of the wooden sidewalks and along the edge of the property, from around trees, and along the perimeter of the cottage. Standing, waiting to be paid, I felt like a red twister licorice stick left in the sun.

Payment? One dollar. However, if memory serves me correctly, a movie was twenty-five cents. That was four movies. A hamburger was twenty-five cents and chips (French fries) were a dime. Ice cream cones were a nickel. That lawn was worth twenty ice cream cones or ten comic books.

I went up and down the nearby streets knocking on cottage doors offering my services. Men in shorts and bottles of iced beer in their hands said, “Okay, kid. A buck. Do a good job.” They’d put in their time and come Sunday night would board the train back to the hell of Portage and Main.

Some people wanted their yard kept up but others, whether they didn’t care how the yard looked or didn’t want to spend the money, let their grass grow quite long before hiring me. I quickly learned that those lawns needed negotiating. Pushing the lawnmower through the grass was hard, slow work. Sometimes, the grass, if it was damp, jammed the mower and I had to stop to clear the blades. A dollar fifty.

Life and capitalism became easier when my father bought one of the new gasoline power mowers. The price stayed the same but I could cut more lawns per day. In those days no adult male would have been caught dead cutting lawns as a job. It was kid’s work. Today, grown men arrive in trucks, towing trailers filled with equipment.

Spruce trees were a mixed blessing. In those days Gimli had a forest of large spruce trees. Yards with a lot of spruce trees often had untidy grass in patches that were easy to cut. However, spruce tree roots lie on the surface of the ground and I had to bump my mower over them.

Occasionally, I’d get someone asking me to cut knee high grass and I’d have to go at it with a scythe. I liked that work. There were two types of scythe, the S shaped one and the straight handled one. I preferred the S shape. I learned to be wary of the blade, treating it with respect. I learned to sharpen it and to keep the point up and not jam it into the ground. I loved the rhythm of the work, the way the grass fell as I swept the blade ahead of me. I sharpened the blade with a whetstone and watched that I never brought my hand against the gleaming edge.

Maybe because cutting grass was, for me, paid work, I’ve never had any great desire to create a putting green lawn. I see them as some sort of mental aberration and think uptight, controlling, type A owner. However, that may just be an excuse for my indolence.

I’ve owned three houses in Victoria, BC. The first had hardly any front yard, a bit of side yard and a grassed back yard. However, I was busy writing and teaching and, sad to say, out of despair, my neighbour, a great air force guy from Gimli, when he couldn’t stand my back yard messiness anymore, would cut my grass when I wasn’t home.

House two had a double lot. It had gardens, gardens and more gardens but it still had a lot of lawn. I kept the lawn cut, in those days, in spite of the slope, running behind the gas powered mower. However, to the chagrin of some neighbours, I did my best to turn the lawn back into a Garry Oak meadow. One of my neighbours swept her lawn with a broom after cutting it. Random daffodils in the lawn, grape hyacinth by the thousands, tufts of this and that. I was rewarded by my attention to meadow and shrubs by three magnificent stages sleeping in my front yard one summer evening. They knew where they were welcome.

My latest house has no grass, except for some quack grass that I’m gradually pulling up by the roots. The yard is all granite with some soil dumped on top of it, enough to grow some trees and a variety of flowering bushes and plants. There’s not a flat spot anywhere and granite hogbacks with soil filled pockets doesn’t a putting green make.

I feel that I’ve betrayed my beginnings, those summer days spent cutting lawns, those quarters and fifty cent pieces and dollar bills. There lingers within me that boy laboring under the sun learning about lawns and earning a living and deciding, at some point, to be like the husbands lounging in the hammocks having a cold drink, napping, reading a book, rather than the hired help. Perhaps, I tell him, I benefited more from cutting those lawns and those long, hot days than just the few dollars that I earned.