Homeward bound gerrit Verstraete homeward bound

Hot steamy summers and bitter cold winters


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Hot steamy summers and bitter cold winters

The years 1968 to 1964, were the Wallaceburg years, a time of adolescence that still conjures up a kaleidoscope of multi-coloured memories, some good and some bad. I will never forget the morning after our night-arrival. The whole family had been put to rest in a number of beds at the home of Jannie and Frank Bos. Instead of customary linen, the sheets on the beds were flannel, a whole new experience in itself. Perhaps I dozed for a short time or even managed a few hours of deeper sleep, but I was thirteen and determined to be up at the crack of dawn in order to get a first look at my new homeland. Thoughts of mounties and Rockies would not leave my young mind. At last, a few rays of early light filtered into the small bedroom. I climbed on top of the bed and opened the curtains. I was stunned by what I saw. The 1945 Chevrolet was still parked in the Bos' driveway.

A wave of disappointment washed over me. I stood fixed as I stared upon endless miles of flat emptiness. The Bos family lived at the edge of town, an edge that bordered the rich farmland of south western Ontario. My mind raced to identify and comprehend what I was looking at. Questions formed on my lips. I had left my Dutch homeland for this? This is Canada?

There must be a mistake.

I made a silent vow as I stood looking out the window, that one day I would leave this place never to return. Not that there was anything wrong with Wallaceburg. It was and still remains a thriving community, a wonderful place for thousands to call home. But, somehow, somewhere, I knew Wallaceburg was not my Canada. In 1964, I fulfilled my vow when I left for Toronto. I may have left Wallaceburg, but Toronto was hardly the Rockies either.

Wallaceburg was also the time of my highschool years. I was fortunate that my older brother Beert prepared the way to school before me. Even though we had both enrolled in the same grade, grade eight, at the Wallaceburg Senior Public School, Beert, should have been in grade nine. Yet, a local school board deemed it necessary to put him back a year. He was old and wise enough to go directly to grade nine, but that was simply not allowed in Wallaceburg. Despite my father's legitimate claims and proof that Beert spoke English, and that he had already completed a number of years of highschool in the Netherlands, becoming proficient in three languages including Dutch, English, and French, as well as having studied geometry, algebra, math, and science, members of the local schoolboard decided nevertheless to put Beert in grade eight, a place where most students were still struggling with basic math such as calculating percentages. The curriculum of Wallaceburg's public schools was well below European standards. Needless to say, despite his great disappointment, Beert was a quick and eager student. He never did study for a single exam, yet he passed the entire eigth year with honours. I was content to follow in Beert's footsteps hoping the schoolboard would think I was a genius as well.

When at last grade eight was finished, he had an incredible passing grade, but I was barely above a passing grade. My father continued his protest. However, amidst a flurry of words and stiff opposition, the schoolboard reluctantly allowed Beert to skip grade nine and go right to grade ten. I was passed into grade nine and so, in 1959, Beert and I became students at the Wallaceburg District Secondary School. Teachers and school trustees said Beert would never make it through grade ten and I would find it difficult in grade nine. It had never been done before. I wonder if I have ever forgiven them for such colonial thoughts. Beert not only succeeded in his highschool studies as an A student, he went on to become the school's only Ontario Scholar in his grade thirteen graduating class, an honour for which the school generously praised Beert. I remained an A student as well throughout my highschool years, except for my infamous grade thirteen marks. When in September of 1963, I began my final year in highschool, I also discovered art college. What made that discovery so delightful is that admission requirements for the Ontario College of Art did not require grade thirteen. However, I was already well into my grade 13 year. Did that mean I could quit early? The thought was tempting.

I waited three months before I made up my mind.

Eager at the prospect of going to art college but still in grade thirteen, I applied in January, 1964, for admission into the fall semester at art college. In March I received my answer. I was accepted at the Ontario College of Art.

My grade twelve honours and a modest portfolio of artwork I had sent with the application were the only requirements. They were enough to gain me admission. I was genuinely excited, yet there remained one challenge to overcome, that was, what to do with my grade thirteen? I admit, acceptance into the Ontario College of Art also awakened a bit of a rebel in me. After all, I had nothing to lose. I was already accepted at college, long before the usual rush of applicants at the close of a school year. That attitude became obvious when I discussed my plans with our highschool's guidance counselor. Amidst a great deal of protest from her, I had decided to test the education system's real worth. I asked myself ( and the guidance counselor ) a profound question. Would I be able to pass all grade thirteen's final exams without studying? Was the public education system a real system of learning or just a mechanical world of momentary memorization? Would I be able to rely totally on what I was supposed to have learned during the year, instead of cramming endless textbooks into my head during long nights before each exam with just enough recall to get a decent mark?

I soon found out if my "theory" was accurate.

In June of 1964, I wrote nine grade thirteen exams. I passed six exams and failed three. Six out of nine is sixty-six percent and failing grade was below sixty. So, technically I had passed my year. At least, that was my math but not the math of a public school board. I failed grade thirteen. Although six out of nine was not enough to pass grade thirteen, I was comforted by the fact that I didn't need grade thirteen after all. I was off to college regardless. It never really mattered either. Art college was a whole new way of studying with a greater emphasis on creating artwork than on memorizing textbooks. I went on to become an honours graduate at the Ontario College of Art, complete with a number of prized scholarships and four years of indepth studies in the arts. Years later I completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree as well. I stayed home from grade thirteen graduation celebrations, but somewhere in the quiet recesses of my mind I determined on that graduation day, to vindicate my decision not to study for any grade thirteen exams. My moment came ten years later. In 1974, I organized the entire highschool reunion of ten years. It was in part a vindication and a public claim that this immigrant boy from Wallaceburg, did make it after all. I organized the date, the place, the event, the entertainment, the press, the speeches, everything. I showed up at the reunion with my beautiful wife Alice at my side and a handsome business card that read Executive Vice-President, Folio Advertising Agency Ltd. Folio was the national, Toronto-based,advertising agency I owned with my business partner Joe Hatt-Cook.

Needles to say, I was a local celebrity at least for that one, tenth-reunion night.

And everybody loved Alice.

In fact, I think she stole the whole event.

During my highschool years I earned the distinction of winning only one trophy. It was the Bending Art Award, an achievement award named after the Bending family and awarded for excellence in art. I also won a Certificate of Award and Honourable Mention in 1961 and 1962, respectively, at the Sarnia Science Fair. The annual fair was a popular event sponsored by the Chemical Institute of Canada. One award, in 1961, was in the category of Junior Science where I presented my entry of a superb collection I had built comprising Canadian ores and minerals. In 1962, I won the award for Intermediate Science with my artistic re-creation of ancient man, complete with fossils and a huge relic. I proudly displayed a Mastadon tooth I had borrowed from a friend's father.

But then came the year 1962. Who can ever forget 1962?

During grade twelve exams in the fall of that year I was stunned by the assasination of the American president, John F.Kennedy. The school had kept the news quiet until we finished our exam that day. Like millions of others, I sat glued to our television as the world watched the events unfold. I have never felt "American" in any particular way, but that day I shared their pain. Amids tears and silence we sat and viewed the funeral procession down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. as it slowly made its way to Arlington Cemetary. As Canadian highschool students, John F.Kennedy held a special place in our hearts. It had only been nine months earlier when a small group of eager highschool students joined the American president in his challenge to get America in shape. Kennedy challenged every citizen to walk fifty miles. In February, 1962, I presented that challenge to all highschool students, especially my classmates, and organized the walk-a-thon while taking advantage of a highschool teacher's convention. Eleven students accepted my challenge.

We left Wallaceburg around 8 o'clock in the morning and decided to follow Highway 40 to Chatham, a distance of eighteen miles one way. The metric system has not yet been introduced in Canada and all distances were still measured in miles. I had calculated that the mile or so to get out of town, plus the round trip of eighteen miles each way would come close to meeting the president's challenge. Three students did not make the round trip. I was one of the remaining eight who did complete the walk. Together with a few extra miles tagged on in Chatham, the round trip was forty miles. It took twelve hours to complete. But remember, it was February. February in southern Ontario was just like the Arctic. It was bitter cold that month and even colder the day we walked to Chatham and back. Our food was frozen by the time we made our first rest stop. The windchill factor was also very high that day, as bone-chilling winds, well-below zero temperatures, and fine snow, combined in force to drive across the flat farmland that lay on either side of the highway. Often the black-top highway disappeared completely beneath drifting snow, in conditions known as whiteouts. One time we walked right off the road because we could not see the highway. Determined, however, we pressed on. When darkness fell that cold day, eight brave survivors literally stumbled back into town. We ended our challenge jubilant but very stiff. We rested our nearly frozen feet in a hot tub of water at the home of Don Domanski. I still have the pictures from a press clipping to prove it. We were hailed as heroes in both the local media and at school. I remember the cold more than I remember the distance we walked.

Weather was a major influence in my life and the life of my family during the Wallaceburg years, those first years immediately after we arrived in Canada.

Bitter cold winters were new to me, as were hot steamy summers. Having grown up in a temperate climate, conditions such as extreme humidity, long, hot, sleepless nights, and sweat everywhere, were unfamiliar to me as were frozen pipes, driving snowstorms, bitter cold, and uninsulated bedrooms. But they gave me an early taste of the real Canada. That tase was ever so strong on my first job. It was a paper route on a clumsy bicycle in an Ontario winter, and not a small task for a thirteen year old boy. Fortunately my papers, The Chatham Daily News, were a whole lot smaller than the Windsor Star, which was a bulky newspaper that was hard to fold. It was a lot easier to make the traditional paper-toss from my bicycle to the front porch of a customer's house, with the Chatham Daily News. I carried a lot less paper weight during those cold winters and hot summers that the Windsor Star did. My friend Herman Brand had a Windsor Star route. The year was 1963. I made enough that year to pay for a brand new CCM bicycle, complete with carrier. I paid for the bike and carrier at the local Canadian Tire store in seven installments of five dollars.

There is, however, a dark side to my adolescent years in Wallaceburg.

That dark side was my first experience of the miserly world of capitalism, a capitalism that appeared in the form of farm work. But this is not a slamdunk of farming which will always remain an honourable profession and a great Canadian tradition. I hated working in the fields around Wallaceburg, Chatham, Port Lambton, and Walpole Island, a large native reserve just west of town. Not only did I hate the work, I hated the farmers. And my reasons were justified. These were the farmers who exploited immigrant workers. Many of these farmers were members of the church our family attended. Disguised as people of "brotherly love," the church-going farmers gave my father pittance work when he so desparately needed money to feed, house, and clothe his growing family of seven children. Not that there was little work. There was plenty of work to be done. I can still picture my father toiling away in farmer's fields. My father was a big tall man and working most of the crops meant bending over at the waist hoeing and pulling with his hands close to the ground. It was very hard on his back but he did it faithfully for his family. I on the other hand was young and able. It did not matter if I came home with blisters, a sore back, and grimy clothes. A quick swim in Running Creek, just up the street from where we lived, or a quick hike to the railroad bridge over the Sny River, where waters ran deep and cool, and I soon forgot those endless rows of soya beans, milkweeds, thistles, sugar beets, corn, and those greedy eyes of landowners as they stood and watched their cheap labour slave in the fields. My father did not fare so well. I will never forget the look of pain in his eyes when he bent over rows of tiny sugar beet plants, wielding a short hoe back and forth to thin out the young plants, and leaving one standing about every foot. The sun was burning hot while the sons of church elders, got easier and better paying jobs around town.

We lived in the church basement that summer of 1958. Every Sunday we had to put all our belongings and furnishings away to make room for Sunday school. After a blistering week of hard labour, my father could not even afford the luxury of skipping church, because the entire congregation would end up in his basement bedroom, pointing accusing fingers at my tired dad. Many times I worked alongside him as we hoed beets, weeded soya beans and corn. Once a year there was a big tomato glut. Back to back we competed with other Dutch families as we picked ripe tomatoes and piled them in large baskets. The full baskets were placed in long rows throughout the field. At the end of the day the farmer came with his tractor and flatbed wagon to pick up the baskets. Piled to precarious heights, these wagons then slowly lumbered their way to Libby's tomato processing plant near town. Many times a wagon collapsed under the weight of its large load, spilling thousands of tomatoes on to the street. A hot sun, muggy temperatures, and millions of flies, made for smelly tomato "soup" on the streets of Wallaceburg when a spill occurred. The fire department had to come to the rescue and hose the street until only a red stain was left on the pavement. Proud tomato pickers boasted of one hundred baskets a day. At ten cents per basket, that meant ten dollars a day. Throughout a tomato season a hard-working family could earn enough money to send mom or dad back home on a trip to the fatherland, or maybe buy a used car, some furniture, or much needed back-to-school supplies. I peaked at thiry-five baskets a day, spending generous time eating tomatoes instead of picking them. With a bit of salt and pepper, they made enviable snacks for a growing young man. While the rest of the workers glared at me as if I were some apparition who hated the work, which in fact I did, I calmly sat between the rows of tomatos sprinkling big, red, juicy ones with salt and pepper often accompanied by my regular lunch of sandwiches or a tin full of pancakes. I always managed to eat many tomatoes before lunch time. How could I ignore such a bountiful provision growing right before my eyes? After all, a handful of tomatoes would not cramp the farmer's profits in any way. It was the farmers, however, who bought the new cars. Yet amidst the back-breaking work of farm labour there was always room for a good laugh, usually at the expense of my brother Beert.

Beert was not a farmer by any stretch of one's imagination. On his journey to become a leading Canadian and international scholar in classics, especially Latin and Greek, as well as becoming a senior professor at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, he passed for a season through the fields of south western Ontario. Those fields will never forget Beert, nor will the farmers who hired him. Beert's mind was nowhere near crops growing in a field. He was steeped in the glories of ancient Rome and in classical languages. As a highschool student he was brilliant. He had a mind that never ceased to amaze me with endless reservoirs of knowledge. Beert knew everything, except he could not tell a weed from a soya bean. One day a number of us started at the far end of a large field. We each managed three rows of soya beans with one row between our legs and one on either side. With long strides we walked along rows of soya beans pulling the weeds up by their roots. It was a slow walk as most fields were choked with milkweeds, mustard plants, and spiny thistles. Our wages were very low. This particular day, however, was a good day. We managed to made steady progress because the weeds were much easier to pull than the weeds in other, clay-filled fields. As we continued to walk, bend, and pull, we left a field of knee-high and green soya plants gently swaying in an afternoon breeze. Behind us there were no weeds in sight. Neither was Beert.

Where was Beert?

Looking back we found him grunting and groaning about half a mile behind us. We marked our spot in the field with our garden gloves and left our place among the rows of soya beans to see what Beert was up to. Why was Beert so far behind? We found him near the beginning of the field right by the access road. There he was, bending over under a hot sun, pulling everything in sight from the ground and up by the roots. A trail of green everything lay at his side with weeds and soya plants piled and wilting on the dark brown soil. It was obvious why he was so far behind. In his blessed absentmindedness he had forgotten that he was supposed to pull the weeds and leave the soya beans standing. As luck would have it, the farmer showed up moments later and immediately fired Beert. I don't think he lost any sleep over the event. He was probably glad to be rid of such plebeian ( a favourite word of his meaning, common ) work, wishing instead to return to his treasured books. We all had a good laugh and resumed our weary task. Perhaps this explains why I never became an avid gardener in my home-ownership years. "Pave it or sod it," became my green motto.

As I write this venture at my computer and look out my studio window on Gabriola Island, decades later, I manage a big smile because I am looking at half an acre of wild undergrowth, tall cedars and firs, mindful of the annual threat of grass I am obligated to mow for fear of being branded by my island neighbours as one of those "back to nature types." But, my green motto has survived. There is no garden plot demanding vigorous combat with weeds, slugs, deer, and other unwelcome guests. The local fruit and vegetable market is just around the corner.

Wallaceburg's one big claim to fame was Chuck's Dairy Queen, a family owned fast food place just a few blocks from our home and the town's highschool. Never have I ever tasted more succulent footlongs complete with Chuck's own worksauce, a hearty mix of mustard, ketchup, relish, chopped onion, and I suspect, a secret amount of barbeque sauce. Never have I relished the flavours of an ice cold milkshake more than the homemade shakes at Chuck's. I suspected he mixed a bit of vanilla in each milkshake to give it that special taste. Last but not least, there were Chuck's burgers and fries. These were treats that held on to a reputation of real burgers and fries, in a world increasingly flooded with cheap and flimsy mass-production fast-food burgers and flimsy fries. Chuck introduced Wallaceburg to soft ice cream as well, with chocolate or caramel dip. About twenty-five years later in the late eighties, I returned to Wallaceburg with a friend as we went for a long drive, enjoying a summer weekend. Despite my earlier boyhood vow never to return to Wallaceburg, I decided to drop in at Chuck's to relive some of my savoury memories. My friend agreed. At last I found the Chuck's of my memories, but Chuck's was now a charred building standing empty along the street. A fire had closed the place down. Now I will never, never come back, I swore.

The dark side of farm labour also included an even darker side of life in Wallaceburg. That dark side was racism, and again, in our family my father bore the greater brunt of it. We were white, European, Protestant, and a hard-working, law-abiding, church-going family. We were branded "honkies," a name for those newcomers who came to town to take jobs away from Wallaceburg's more celebrated citizens. In fact, there was so much work available, a shortage of labour was actually very real, even though much of the work was seasonal such as farm work and the construction trade. Yet, my father had difficulty finding work and keeping it. No one extended any credit to help us get our feet firmly planted in our new Canadian home. Because my father was such a big man he had some major accidents. Once, while working as a carpenter in the construction of new homes, a scaffold collapsed underneath him. Another time he split his thumb with one mighty blow of his hammer. Yet another time a roof on which he was working collapsed. When cold winter storms raged or there was too much snow on the roof, construction of new houses ground to a halt, sometimes for months. Whether it was an injury or frequent unemployment that affected my father, there was no workman's compensation or unemployment insurance to ensure some form of income for the family. I don't know how and what my father felt in those days as he never let his emotions show. Being a "honky" immigrant was a tough row to hoe, even in prosperous post-war Canada of the nineteen-fifties. Sure, as a teenager I could shrug off the jeers and taunts, and even manage an occasional insult or a not-so-kind finger gesture in return, but I was not reponsible for feeding an entire family. Needless to say, all the children contributed generously to the family's survival treasury with babysitting money, paper route money, and earnings from the farms. We did so gladly and with no regrets. A special demonstration of the children's care was initiated by my sister Lida. It was she, after she obtained an enviable and much cherished, union-pay, full-time job at the Dominion Glass Factory in Wallaceburg, who bought the family's first black & white television.

In a world of hard immigrant times, television became a refuge. To her dying day, my mother watched General Hospital. My father loved concerts and Wednesday night boxing matches. Time would heal some of the wounds as my father grew to become one of Wallaceburg's leading citizens and founder of the Wallaceburg Bookbinding and Manufacturing Company, a thriving business that still employs many townspeople. My father's European trade, taught by his father and refined at a Dutch tradeschool, was the art of bookbinding in the form of binding standard schoolbooks as well as the fine art of rebinding treasured volumes with ancient leather covers. My father was a master bookbinder with an exceptional knowledge of fine papers. When in the early sixties, some six years after we arrived in Wallaceburg, the bookbinding company reached special status in town, our "honky" immigrant status changed dramatically. My father was now a citizen of town and no longer an immigrant. Owning one of the larger and more prosperous businesses in town made him a welcome guest and customer at every store in town. Store owners coveted my father's patronage. My dad could buy anything anywhere in town, with no questions asked, no credit needed, and a "Yes, Mr.Verstraete, sure Chris, whatever you want sir, just pay me whenever."

My father's word was as good as his reputation of a hard-working man whose business practises were of utmost integrity, a virtue he acquired from his father as well as the skills of bookbinding. My grandfather once lost his entire company in a huge fire. That was in the Netherlands right after World War One. There was no business or home fire insurance in those days and my grandfather was left with a large debt owed to suppliers and other manufacturers. He visited each of the creditors and on his word of honour alone, with no written and legally-binding papers, he promised to pay back each creditor the full amount with interest. It took my grandfather ten years but he paid every cent back with interest.

When merchants and citizens of Wallaceburg began courting my father's patronage, he may have felt a momentary satisfaction in "having made it," but it did not erase the years of rejection by the townspeople. My father became bitter towards the town. In 1967, he sold the company to his partner and left Wallaceburg to start all over again in Sarnia just a handful of miles north. He called it Admiral Bookbinding Company, after his mother's family name of Admiraal. Instead of binding large numbers of school and library books he returned to his original artform, that of master bookbinder and the fine art of carefully crafting beautful covers on dusty old books and the careful restoration and rebinding of valuable volumes. He also created a specialty product in the form of handsome and strong three-ring binders which he sold in very profitable quantities to Sarnia's huge petrochemical companies. His binders were far superior to plastic binders and became the standard for all instruction and maintenance manuals in the petrochemical industry. All this my father did, and more, in his large home on Albert Street in Point Edward, a small village attached to the northwest corner of Sarnia, and in the shadow of a large span that "bridged" the St.Clair River between Canada and the United States. Locally known simply as "the bridge," this landmark began its slow incline in Sarnia and crossed Point Edward high in the sky at "the point." To this day it remains a romantic spot where Lake Huron squeezes into the narrow opening of the St.Clair River. Under the bridge and at the point, they sold fabulous french fries. My father and mother, as did I when I visited them, spent many hours at the point, watching huge, empty, and ore-laden lake freighters slowly plow their way up the strong currents of the river. It was always a majestic sight as the huge ships passed beneath the bridge downriver or into Lake Huron. A flotilla of pleasure crafts filled the gaps between lake freighters. I think the view reminded my dad of happy days in the Netherlands, where he often sailed his small boat along the IJssel River, a tributary of the Rhine as it flowed past Zwolle. He also loved sailing along a smaller nearby river called Zwarte Water or black water.

The Point Edward years became his happiest years right up until my mother's death in 1987, followed by his retirement a few years later when he retired both himself and the company he founded, and until his death in 2003.

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