Friendly ghosts, pioneers and first rate photography are the hallmarks of BW's fine blog
BW's fans discuss the tenants of this old farmhouse and speculate on what might have become of them, and where they might have gone. This is the value of BW's blog: he puts you right on the site and you can almost hear the echoes of Alberta's pioneer families in these sad, old and forgotten buildings. Anyone who has been in such a place feels the longing to connect to those who came before us, and are now long gone. What could they tell us? What were they like? Where did they go?
This particular building is in the middle of Alberta's 'Koobasaw Country'. When the Alberta frontier was opened up to homesteading the pioneers flooded in from countries like Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine. Alberta legend portrays these early immigrant farmers two ways: as unsophisticated clowns, oafs and buffoons (a reputation fairly earned - these people loved to laugh and joke) - and as frontier heroes that survived incredible hardships as they wrestled the virgin soil and unforgiving climate to build homes and communities for themselves. Because they were unsophisticated and uncultured peasants from Europe, the ruling local elite sniffed in disgust at their presence and referred to them as 'Bohunks' - a racial slur. Many of the immigrants laughed like hell, took possession of the term and used it to poke fun at their peers with rude jokes about how many Ukranians or bohunks it takes to screw in a lightbulb. Didjya hear about Nicky Fordinsky? He and Nestor were playing hockey on the ice in the North Saskatchewan River earlier in the spring. Nestor got a break away...and was gone for two weeks! HAR HAR HAR! HAR HAR HAR! Sadly, this is what passed for high humour amongst our immigrant pioneers - but it worked for them so who can complain? Often their homes were painted in garish colours to inspire cheer amidst the depressing, dull greys of Alberta's winter and spring and long winter nights. They may have been uncultured, unsophisticated, dirty and crass - but they were damned good people too.
A hundred years ago I found myself among the Bohunks, up on the roof of a home just like that, helping the owners put on new shingles. Their home was in much better condition but of a similar construction. It had been built right after WW2, by a Lithuanian peasant immigrant that had literally come to Alberta from scorched earth and famine - to make his way here with little more than the shirt on his back. We called him The Old One.
Sometimes in Alberta we get summer heat that goes into the +30s C. It's great for the urban sunbathers and those on summer holiday...but if you have to work in it...ugh. We were up on the roof laying shingles. We had come out to the farm meaning to shoot up the gopher patch with our .22's...but got put to work instead! It wasn't a big deal, there was beer and a BBQ afterward, and a bed if we got too drunk to drive home. We decided we would work for our supper, guzzle the free booze and if we could move tomorrow - we could shoot the gophers then.
So it was that Dave and his brother, and Big Jeff and I toiled away in the blazing heat. A galvanized pail of water and a dipper kept us from dehydrating. Below, the Old One shuffled about in a shambling gait and bantered with us. He had contracted polio in his youth and the doctors said he would never walk again. But he proved them wrong and actually got around quite handily all the way into his 80's.
All through the afternoon he bantered and joked, even coming up the ladder to refill our water and comment on our slovenly work, our awful looks, and make sport of anything else he could. There was no malice in any of it, there was always a good joke at the end...but sometimes it took a hard trip into the boards for the ego to get there. Finally, Dave had had enough of his bullshit.
The Old One sat below in a lawn chair talking about an especially embarrassing incident in his son's childhood - and Dave snapped. He quietly waltzed over the water bucket, quietly picked it up and crept to the edge of the roof - and dumped it on the Old One lounging below! The old man came out of that lawn chair like a scalded cat! "Why, you stoopid boogers, you!!!!" he gasped in heavily accented English.
"That's enough of your bullshit, Dad," Dave scolded, "If you keep it up, you old bastard, I am going to make you wear the bucket too!" And then the bohunks started to argue and shout at each other in some obscure language that left me smirking and wondering what they were saying. After the shouting and arguing stopped we went back to work, smirking and joking about the Old One's humiliation and just deserts. Time passed and we settled back into the rhythm of laying shingles.
No one heard it but me. A small scuffling sound. The ladder at the edge of the roof moved slightly. Somebody was on it. I peered over the edge of the roof and spied The Old One stealthily coming up the ladder with a bucket of cold water. "Dave," I said over my shoulder, "You might want to start running...".
Faster than it takes to think about it, The Old One was on the roof. "I'm going to drown you, you little sonofabitch, like I should have done when you were born...!!!"
We were young in those days. Dave jumped off the edge of the roof, rolled across the grass - and was up on his feet. "Come get me you old buzzard!" he taunted. "No rush, I'll wait...". I don't think I could have scrambled down that ladder as fast as the Old One did. In seconds he was on the ground again, and in a few more was chasing his son down the driveway with a bucket of freezing ice cold water!
Up on the roof, The Peanut Gallery went nuts. "Take your punishment like a man, Dave!" "What craven cowardice! You're an unmanly coward, Dave!" Could they even hear us? They must have been a quarter mile away at that point. But the writing was on the wall. Dave was not going to escape.
So it was that a man who had contracted polio as a child, nearly starved to death in Europe after WW2, and then again on the Alberta frontier... was 74 years old now... and had chased his son over a quarter mile with a 3 gallon pail of water down some obscure back road in northern Alberta. Dave took a knee before his father, bowed his head in submission - and was doused with freezing cold water. The Peanut Gallery gave The Old One a standing ovation - and Big Jeff just chuckled and said "fuggen bohunks..." and we all laughed.
I never saw The Old One again. 7 or 8 years later Big Jeff and I went to his funeral and he was laid to rest in a tidy graveyard behind a small church that he had helped build. It was standing room only and many of us had to stand outside and try to listen to the eulogy. After that I saw Dave once or twice but lost track of him after that. I heard he had become a school teacher so he must be doing alright.
So - the people in that old house above...where did they go? It is my belief that they went nowhere - it's us that have moved and left them behind. I don't shoot gophers anymore, or sling heavy bundles of shingles or work for beer and burgers anymore and I'm pretty sure Dave, his brother and Big Jeff don't either. But - if it would bring people like The Old One back...I would most certainly be happy to do it again.