From grades three to eight I attended Vincent Massey school in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan (reputed to be one of the roughest towns in Canada), home to five facilities of incarceration from a federal penitentiary to what was referred to at the time as a mental asylum. In the mid-1950s to the late 1960s my father was an officer with the provincial jail in that town.
For most of his service, he held the position of Stockman in the prisons farm annex and was in charge of approximately 30 inmates who were tasked with providing farm produce to the prison’s population. This practice satisfied two objectives. The first one was that it reduced the burden on the taxpayer. The second benefit was that inmates learned marketable skills improving their chances of living a prosocial life without having to depend on criminal enterprise upon release.
On the prison farm, engine powered machinery was in limited use during this era of the 1950s and 1960s. The main source of tractive power was 32 Clydesdale horses. My father was a very good horseman when it came to draft and heavy horses.
On many weekends throughout the winter months, he would harness a four or six horse hitch of Clydesdales on one or two sleighs and proceed from the jail’s livery barns to the residential streets and avenues of south Prince Albert.
When the brass sleigh bells were heard jingling down the street in the frosty winter air, parents would bundle up their children and send them out to meet the sleigh. I remember my profound pride in watching my father direct the massive assembly of horses and equipment right up in front of the waiting children and come to a complete stop so they could safely board the Sleigh. Everyone liked my dad and trusted in his skill with the horses. The parents were also aware that my dad volunteered his time and effort for the enjoyment of the community and never made anyone feel indebted.
The decks of the sleighs were covered with a couple of feet of fresh straw clean and dry. I bet we had 40 or 50 kids when we had two decks with a six horse hitch of Clydesdales. There were so many yelling, whistling and singing children accompanied by neighing, snorting horses with steel shod hooves stamping out a trotting beat on the icy street with sleigh bells chiming in time. I also remember the happy faces of people looking out of the windows of houses, apartments and tenement buildings along the random route. Here they were; snow shoveling citizens enjoying the interruption from their winter work to wave exuberantly to us as we passed by in our arctic caravan.
Classmates and friends from other schools running out from their houses to jump on the sleighs with great enthusiasm, jubilantly hollering their thanks to me as if I had been responsible for getting my dad to provide the adventure.
On the northeast corner of one intersection, there was an old house. It was the residence of the Miller family, a mother and two boys Bill and Henry. There was no dad. Many of us in those days were poor, but few as bad off as Bill and Henry who came running out of their old run down house wearing ragged old toques, mismatched mitts, threadbare cotton jackets with extra shirts on underneath when everyone else was wearing parkas. Bill, the older brother, had on a pair of blue jeans his brother had a pair of felt pants. Both were wearing men’s toe rubbers (the high kind, meant to be worn over ankle boots) several sizes too big allowing enough layers of socks to keep their feet warm.
Young Henry and I were in a state of perpetual conflict. Bill and I on the other hand got along very well even though he was two years older than I was.
As they came bounding toward the sleigh, I looked at Bill and Henry and hollered, “stop!” To this day, 51 years later I can remember the bewildered look on their faces. Here I was, in a position of presumed authority exercising a prerogative that did not belong to me. My dad asked me “what’s going on?” I said I did not want the Miller boys to come on the hay deck. Bill and Henry both heard my dad ask the question and they both heard my answer. I still recall the peculiar sense of power and shame that I felt. My dad never repined or even resisted my position but was completely silent on the issue. The Miller boys abandoned their attempt to climb up on the deck and instead turned around and walked slowly back to their house.
Although I would not have been able to articulate it at the time, I do remember feeling that the corporate moral character of the party was in silent force against me.
Now that I’m a father, I realize the reason for my dad’s silence. If he had compelled me to act “properly” and invite the Miller boys up on the deck, I would not have learned a valuable life lesson in compassion. In other words I have come to realize that my father must’ve known I would benefit more from the introspective turmoil that only an active conscience can produce.
As for Bill and Henry, I sincerely apologize and appeal to your character (so markedly absent in me) to forgive my puerile and churlish actions so many years ago.
In this New Year – 2015 – may we all be as benevolent and charitable as we can for the good of our communities and the sake of our conscience.
God bless you and have the best year ever.