Sep. 10, 2014


By Milton Cust

My dad, John was born in 1911 so it was during the Great Depression that he met and began courting my mother. “Courting, yes, that is what it was called in those days,” he said.
Then he explained that back then young people got together as much as they do today, but things a lot slower.
There were no fancy cars for young people to race around in, and one had to be a lot more circumspect when interested in a member of the opposite sex. It seemed to him that a young gentleman paid a lot more attention to a young lady's reputation. And the woman, turn. Although they might be highly interested in a certain young man, were always aware of how they should conduct themselves with the proper amount of decorum
Still, there was just about as much flirting and mingling among the young singles as there is today, only it wasn't so bold and obvious, according to my dad.
When he was a young man almost everybody was farming. His dad's farm was located about six miles from a little village called Riviere Que Barre, Alberta with the nearest big towns being Morinville or St. Albert.
The village was so small it didn't even boost a grain elevator or rail road tracks. It contained a small hardware hard ware store that mainly sold a few basic parts for farm machinery, and acted as a garage for the few people who could afford the luxury of a car.
There was also a church, school and community hall, but the main place to congregate was the huge general store that served as post office and held a barber shop and a pool table in the back.
Every Saturday afternoon when the farm chores were done, my dad would clean up a bit, harness up his team of horses and drive into the village. This was common practice for everybody who
lived in the vicinity of the village and on most Saturday afternoons, the place would be teeming with with people strolling up and down the small main street.
Although, most of the young man arrived like he did by themselves, the young women would usually arrive in the company of their parents for an afternoon of shopping in the big general store.
The store was crammed full of just about everything a family needed. One side of it had
shelves and tables full of men's clothing, mostly denim pants and shirts, socks, jackets and work gloves.
In the center, were aisles of basic foods such as sugar, flour, bins of bulk produce and a few cans of stuff like Spam, pork and beans and fruits. Pretty meager compared to today's giant stores but in those days families grew their own food and needed only a few basic necessities from a store.
There were also a couple of aisles containing some basic household needs such as brooms, mops and cleaning supplies as well as tobacco, candy and soda pop.
On the other side of the store were the tables and shelves full of women's things. It was here that the females, young and old, would congregate to check out the latest patterns for dresses, and exclaim over the latest clothing styles shown in the various catalogues put out by Sears Roebuck,
Eaton's and The Hudson Bay.
Actually very little of the women's clothing on display was purchased, as the women found it much cheaper to purchase the patterns and some bolts of frilly material to take home and sew on their
sewing machines.
Although a lot of young men would gather around the pool table and play eight ball or snooker for a few pennies a game, my dad would be out back of the store where there were several horse shoe pits
It was here that he gained a reputation as one of the best horseshoe players in the community.
He could match any challenger ringer for ringer and everyone was amazed at his prowess,
because his eye sight was so poor he had to tie a white cloth around the head of the pins.
In fact he was nearly blind due to a childhood disease but it never stopped him from beating
everyone in the area at horseshoes
His reputation as a horseshoe player was such that often on Saturday afternoons he would have challengers lined up but he very rarely lost a game.
His games featuring him a near-blind man against all comers, also attracted some spectators who would come to cheer him on.
On a particular Saturday afternoon one of the spectators happened to be a young woman named Helen.
Helen always stood at the front of the crowd of spectators, her eyes constantly on the young man who had such character that he would never let his poor eye sight stop him from doing everything a normal person could do.
She always applauded and cheered loudly with each ringer the man threw and that was as far as things progressed until one day, when my dad arrived for his usual game and he couldn't find a white rag to tie onto the horseshoe pins.
Helen, seeing the problem as an opportunity to make herself know to the rather shy but very talented horseshoe player, took a bold step for a proper young lady. She suddenly dashed out from among the spectators with a long piece of white cloth in her hands.
“I've got something that may help,” she cried out with her face blushing red as she stood before the young man, the white cloth waving gently in the warm summer breeze.
My dad took the cloth from her and with a bit of ceremony, tore it into two pieces and tied each to a pin. He then walked back a few paces and studied each silently for a brief instant before declaring them perfect.
After thanking the young woman and asking her name he began playing. It was said that on that particular afternoon he played even better than ever. He threw ringer after ringer, soundly defeating each opponent in short order.
Even though he couldn't see that well, he could feel Helen's eyes on him at all times and that is what spurred him to play better than he ever had before.
But the real trick to my dad playing good horseshoes was not only the white rag on the pins but the way he carefully measured the exact distance between them so that he knew exactly how far he had to throw the shoes
The white rags, although only a blur in his poor vision, gave a target to aim at.
After that afternoon my dad began finding ways to meet with Helen.
Most often it was at the monthly Saturday night box lunch social and dance in the community hall.
It was there that he once again thanked her for producing the white rag and then asked her to dance.
They danced and talked for hours that first night and on many other nights so he quickly came to believe that she was the one for him.
With Helen, the feeling was mutual so she began planning with him ways of ensuring that he ended up with her box lunch.
As a conclusion to the evening, the young women would take out their carefully prepared box lunches and put them on display on the tables at the front of the hall.
The young men would then stroll by the tables to study the colorfully wrapped lunches that came in all shapes and sizes. The packages would be picked up, shook, rattled and even hefted as if their weight would give a clue as to which young lady owned a particular lunch.
Then the bidding for the lunches would start and the young men who were interested in a particular young lady would attempt to buy her box lunch
Other men would eagerly bid for a lunch just to get a chance to share it with a young lady and then offer her a ride home in his sleigh or wagon, depending on the season.
There was also a group of men who would bid for the lunches just to disrupt the plans of young lovers.
Apparently my dad had several nights where he failed to buy Helen's lunch, thus missing the opportunity to eat it with her and then take the slow way home. This made Helen decide once again to take matters into her own hands.
Her first plan was to tell dad as they danced exactly where she had placed her box lunch.
It was supposed to be the fourth one up and she instructed him to save his bidding until then.
This worked good for several dances and they were both happy sharing the lunch and subsequent ride home.
Although my dad had a very good team of horses that could race along quite quickly, it seemed to take considerably longer when he was taking Helen home from the dance.
Once away from the village, he would slow the team down and allow them to plod along at a snail's pace, while he and Helen became deeply engrossed with each other. However, it was not much more than snuggling up to each other so he could put his arm around her, hold her hand or steal a quick a quick kiss.
That was as far as proper young lovers went in those days, but they never missed a chance to draw closer and closer together on those long midnight rides home.
In fact it was on one of those rides that Helen confessed to my dad about how she had managed to produce that long piece of white cloth at just the right time.
Helen told him that she had noticed him a few weeks before the horseshoe game and after inquiring about who he was, contrived a way to meet him.
It was after watching him play horseshoes and noting that the men were sometimes without anything to tie on the pins, she began carrying the old piece of white cloth in her hand bag each Saturday afternoon she went into town with her parents. Then she waited for just the right opportunity to use it.
Often as soon as they were away from the village, Helen would complain that she was feeling chilly or downright cold. This was just the excuse my dad would need to stop his horses, reach into the back of his sleigh or wagon and produce a thick blanket or warm rug for them to huddle into as the team plodded along.
However, true love never runs smooth. After a few miscues, when my dad mistakenly ended up with some other young lady's lunch, they realized that the auctioneer had discovered their ruse. For his own amusement he began deliberately putting Helen’s box lunch up for bid out of turn.
Enjoying your lunch John,” he would question my dad with a hearty chuckle as he walked by table he shared with some woman who was a complete stranger to him. Across the hall he would spot Helen sharing her lunch with some other gentleman and she would be starring daggers at him.
After some discussion, Helen decided to tie up her box lunch with some silver bells that would tinkle when the evil auctioneer picked it up. This plan worked and for several more dances they shared the box lunches and the blissful rides home. But once again they ran into difficulty.
This time it wasn't the evil auctioneer who had earlier conspired against them, but the actions of several horrid young bachelors who were onto their latest trick.
The young men apparently took great delight in bidding against my dad when he attempted to buy the box lunch with the silver bells.
It seemed they always started a bidding war with my dad, forcing him to pay astronomical sums like a dollar or more for the privilege of purchasing that box lunch he seemed so interested in.
Normally bids would be concluded at about 10 cents with perhaps a few going as high as a quarter or half dollar, but never much more than that.
Remember this was during the Great Depression when money was so scarce a dollar or so seemed like a small fortune.
This outrageous turn of events often left my dad so broke he could barely afford his weekly supply of his favorite pipe tobacco or any other extras so he decided to do something drastic.
He asked Helen to marry him. It seemed like a pretty good idea when he thought about the vast amount of money he was spending just to eat the box lunches with her.