This particular event in my adventure of life is a sad one, sad because it touches on the emotional havoc reaped by the institutional church. I know that much has changed since those early immigrant years, but much remains to be done. The true church offers its members unconditional love, complete freedom, and unwavering assurance. When I venture along the road of faith, I reflect sometimes on the fact that I have been set free from institutional religion and I rejoice in the fact that I have experienced true faith. But sometimes, I am also reminded of the pain so many have suffered at the hands of men who thought themselves to be executioners for God. This story is set in 1959, in Wallaceburg, but to keep this sad story in context, I must go back to the Netherlands, about a year before the end of World War II.
Like most seasons, Autumn of 1959, appeared to be no different than previous seasons. A timely Indian Summer had granted a postponement of winter, and everything seemed to glow in yellow, orange, and sienna. It was a favourite time of the year. Gone were the sweltering summer nights and days, when the air was crowded with pesty mosquitos. Thoughts would turn to baking, sweaters, and piles of smouldering leaves, whose smoke filled the air with a fragrance that can only be described as an Ontario Fall. Autumn was also a time when church elders resumed their devoted task of visiting all the parishioners in town.
My parents had never been particularly religious, except for the outward appearances of pious duty associated with orthodox Calvinism, that religion of works which permeated Dutch soil during the Reformation of the sixteenth century. To explain how Calvinism had affected my father and mother, I must go back to 1944.
Their church membership in the Netherlands was in the Christelijk Gereformeerde Kerk known elsewhere as the Christian Reformed Church. My mother was a member of the Herformde Kerk known as the Reformed Church. Both denominations had their roots in the stifling doctrines of orthodox Calvinism, a protestant faith associated with the Reformation that swept Europe in the early fifteen hundreds and a time spearheaded by Martin Luther. The Netherlands had become a bastion of male-dominated, reformed theology, which in turn birthed many churches. Now, one would think that with a few minor doctrinal differences, all these different churches of the Reformation would get along. Never. The Dutch churches were notoriously divisive, a cancer that grew over centuries, birthing bitter rivalries over stupid man-made doctrines. My mother, in 1944, a day and age when women had no voice in the church, therefore, had to commit herself to my father's religion. It was all part of a complex religious duty that meant my mother had to "change churches," and leave the Reformed Church to join the Christian Reformed Church. The climate of faith in those days was high in doctrinal correctness and very low in grace and mercy. My father and mother came face to face with the ugly side of religion during an episode in their lives that left bitter scars for decades. My father and mother were married when my mother was pregnant with Beert, my older brother, their first child. In the venacular of common speech, they "had to get married," which for the uninformed meant they had sex before marriage. Their love for each other was never in question.
It happened one year before World War II ended.
God only knows what emotions ran rampant in the lives of people whose daily existence was plagued with fear, doubt, and terrifying Nazi oppression. When my mother was much older she continued to have nightmares about allied or German bombers flying low over the house and a crushing fear of bombs that threatened to fall before they reached their target. The news was frequently filled with accounts of allied fighters and bombers that didn't make it because of enemy anti-aircraft fire, mechanical failures, and inexperienced crews. My mother's fear was very real. So were the fears of my father, my grandparents, and everyone else who lived in western Europe. No doubt, love and affection provided a moment's escape from terror. In their wartime anxieties many people turned to each other for comfort and hope. My father and mother were married in 1944, and they remained deeply and devotedly in love with each other until my mother died in 1987.
Neverthless, the church, rather than showing some grace and mercy, or any compassion and forgiveness, insisted the entire world must know about my father and mother's indiscretion, their "sin" as the elders called it. First, they were required to confess their adulterous affair before the elders of the church, who amidst the smoke of their heavy Dutch cigars, no doubt made them recall every juicy detail of their amorous encounters somewhere along the dike between Zwolle and S'Herenbroek, a small rural village where my mother was employed as a gradeschool teacher. But forgiveness behind closed doors was not enough for the church. In addition to private confessions, my parents were publically humiliated when forced to confess their sin before the entire congregation. And it was a very large congregation too. My father never forgot the humiliation and he always bore the scars of their "brotherly love," in the form of bitterness and sarcasm. Whenever he told me the story, his voice would grow cold like steel. Yet, miraculously, he did not abandon his religious upbringing. Mom and dad faithfully attended church, paid their dues to meet church budget requirements, and said the Lord's Prayer at meal times. It was all religion. Not until some thirty-five years later would they discover the difference between the Christian religion and true followers of Jesus Christ. The discovery set them free.
Now I'm back in the late fifties.
And so, on a dark Autumn evening in 1959, the elders of the Wallaceburg Christian Reformed Church arrived at the Verstraete residence on Forhan Street. The meeting was usually a formal one. The family sat around the diningroom table. A brief prayer was said followed by what can best be described as an interrogation. Looking back, it seemed those elders really enjoyed their self-proclaimed position of authority, and they loved to use that authority to pry into family matters that were none of their business.
And so the interrogation began that evening.
"Gerrit, you were seen in the movie theatre last Friday evening. Is that correct?
They had "caught me" going to a Brigitte Bardot movie. Keep in mind that in those days, whwn any part of a movie appeared to be somewhat risky, such as a brief nude scene, of which there were very few and never full nudity, the projector lens automatically went out of focus. All you could see was a blurred image with no detail. Such was the case of nudity in this particular Brigitte Bardot movie. Brigitte Bardot was the reigning sex idol in Europe during the nineteen fifties. No preacher ever spoke about white-collar crime, corporate crime, spousal abuse, or substance abuse, but sex, my God, it bordered on the unforgiveable sin. So, I was caught seeing a movie which in its approximate hour-and-a-half length had only one nude scene that lasted no more than ten seconds. In fact, I remember the scene as a quick peek through a keyhole to watch a woman stand up in a bathtub. The whole image was a big fuzzy blur.
I managed a daring reply as the elders waited for my confession anticipating the usual denial during times when their questions seemed so probing and personal.
"Yes," I replied, "but, it was your son who was there also. He watched the entire movie as well including the fuzzy nude scene, and it was he who no doubt saw me and reported me."
My reply fell on deaf ears and they quickly changed the subject.
"Have you been reading the Bible regularly?" they asked everyone
We all nodded an obligatory yes.
My father replied, as he always did, with a monotonous, "yes!"
My father was very familiar with these home visitations, having served as elder himself in the church. That evening he chose not to be controversial. This would be a peaceful evening. There would be other times to deal with the bitterness in his heart towards religious duty. Tow the party line and get it over with, was his attitude. Serve the customary coffee and pound cake and be gone. Such would not be the case, however, that Autumn evening in 1959.
A few months before the visit of the elders, as I have mentioned earlier, my sister bought the family's first television, a small black and white unit. Colour had not yet been developed. I can even remember when television was first invented. A neighbour on our street in Zwolle had bought a television. As children we would hide in the hedge behind their house and carefully peer through the window to catch a glimpse of this incredible wonder. I found it hard to believe, what's this, moving pictures right in your own home?
But here we were in Canada, years later, in new country, a land of milk and honey and a land of television. When the Verstraetes sat down in front of their new set, it was an escape from the rigours of early immigrant life. Somehow, life on Forhan Street in Wallaceburg had a silver lining. We were so enamoured by our new television, I do not recall ever fighting over programs. My mother watched General Hospital in the afternoons. My father watched boxing and nature programs, and in between we filled our time with Hockey Night in Canada, The Jack Benny Show, The Honeymooners, The Three Stooges, and other more serious fare.
That fateful night, however, was the only time I ever saw my dad turn on our visitors.
The two elders of the church were still seated around our diningroom table, their interrogation almost over. As if inspired by the Spanish Inquisition, a historic event that still brings painful memories to the Dutch national conscience, one elder stretched his bony arm and pointed a jabbing-stiff finger at the new television set in our livingroom. His lips quivered and with a voice as authoritatively religious as he could muster he hissed.
"The devil is in that box!"
We were stunned.
His condemnation stung like the bite of an angry hornet. Suddenly we felt as if we had been accused of the grossest of sins, the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. Would we go to hell because we owned a tv? My sister had worked hard and long honest hours at the Wallaceburg Dominion Glass Factory. The set was fully paid for. Fearfull thoughts raced through my head. Would my father fall on his knees and beg for forgiveness? Would our brand-new television be thrown on Calvin's trash heap of man's utter depravity along with the thousands of art treasures that they judged as ungodly? But my father stood up to speak.
His words were simple, powerful and non-negotiable.
I will never forget what he said. He turned to the elder and spoke in an icy voice.
"Don't worry, in our home the devil is behind glass."
Somehow the answer lost impact when translated from Dutch, because in its original use, "behind glass," meant it was harmless.
Then my father abruptly dismissed the elders, assuring them that the devil was not about to escape from behind the glass of our television set, and be set free to torment the Verstraete family. In the 1950's, television picture tubes were still safely mounted behind a thick piece of plate glass. It was double protection. Even if the devil escaped from the picture tube, he'd still be stuck behind a formidable plate-glass barrier.
The following year we had different elders for home visitation.
Not all home visitations were bad. Many were friendly and hospitable.
I continued to see the elder's son at the movies until I moved out of town to the big city.
"Nothing is new under the sun," said Solomon. So, enough of this sad tale.
Sgt. Rock of Easy Company
My second venture into the world of art, the first being my childhood art lessons at Zwolle's Hopmanshuis in 1950, dates back to the locker-lined hallways of the Wallaceburg District Secondary School. In 1960, during the early months of grade nine, I was introduced to a formidable character. He made such an impact on me and every other young boy, that memories of his exploits lasted well into adulthood. He became the inspiration for endless sketches and miriads of doodles in the margins of my school textbooks. During tedious science classes he filled my head with thoughts of great adventures. He was my solace when I felt rejected by fellow classmates, especially a young girl I dared not talk to. He was flights of fancy and unbridled imagination when history lessons droned on and on. Every young boy I knew in highschool belonged to his special group.
He was Sargeant Rock of Easy Company, that notoriously brave band of American GI's who nearly single-handedly fought the entire Nazi regime.
Sgt.Rock was a comicbook hero.
All of us young boys belonged to his Easy Company.
Whenever a new comicbook issue arrived it was quickly circulated among the boys in WDSS. I could not afford to subscribe to the comicbook, but those who could were generous in lending the slim editions to everyone. Later, I became a collector of Sgt.Rock and Easy Company comicbooks.
I learned very quickly how to draw fighter planes, tanks, artillery, bazookas and the ever present graphic representations of BLAM, WHAM, SLAM from exploding shells. More than anything else, Sgt.Rock was cool. Nothing phased him. He had nerves of steel, the kind every young boy wished he had. He walked unscathed from all enemy ambushes. He tore the sides off an enemy bunker with the single toss of a hand grenade. He could fire a cumbersome machinegun from his hip. Sgt.Rock was every fatherless boy's father, every homeless boy's family, and every frightened boy's rock of peace. Often, in the absence of comicbooks, we gathered other students to create our own situations for Sgt.Rock. His exploits filled the margins of my school textbooks and endless pages in my three-ring binders. I was the group's faithful illustrator of our boyhood fantasies.
Soon I earned a reputation as a pretty good cartoonist and illustrator. My reputation was godsent, because my artistic talent became a convenient bridge to peer acceptance and social life in highschool. When I entered grade nine, I was terrified to socialize with anyone in school. I never hung around long enough after school for fear of being discovered as Dutch or Christian Reformed. Drawing gave me a bridge over which to cross that terrible divide, and venture into the domain of "those Canadians" as Dutch church people called them. Being "Canadian" was thought of as some social disease deserving of anyone who was not Christian Reformed. No doubt it was also part of a complex defense mechanism of early immigrants to deal with being labelled a honkie or a religious foreigner. Reverse racism is therefore a better word to decribe the protectionist attitude of an immigrant church. However, not willing to accept the church's verdict of my highschool friends, I dared to enter into the camp of "Canadians." I found the reception overwhelmingly friendly.
Before grade nine was finished, I had become a real hit with my drawings. My popularity also carried me into forbidden areas such as cheating in science classes. Everyone knew that for my zoology and botany notes I created beautiful drawings. If only those drawings could be seen when writing a test. Therefore, during exam time I sometines drew plantcells, hydra, exo and endo skeletons, and diagrams about photosynthesis, all big enough for everyone to see. When the supervisor was not looking, I held the drawings up hign for all to copy. I am not proud of such antics, and fortunately I did it only for one big exam and just a few tests, but it demonstrated the extent to which I wanted to show my gratitude for being accepted by "those Canadians." Sgt.Rock cartoons, however, were a safer avenue with which to explore peer acceptance. He became commonplace in my textbooks and notes as well as the textbooks and notes of others.
But the grandest finale of my artistic popularity was reserved for two specific events during the schoolyear. These events were the autumn and spring dances held in the school gym. What made both events so special was the fact I was not allowed to dance. After all, such godless activity, so I was told once again by church elders, would lead to serious sin and the eventual collapse of my moral character. I never did understand how dancing with Janet Dugit, Cheryl Christopher, or Ginny LaPointe, could ever lead to moral decadence. I never did dance with them for fear of some holy curse falling upon me. Who knows, with home visitation only weeks away, perhaps the elder's son had been on the lookout outside the movie theatre. Yet, in my mind I was confused about the church's dance doctrine. What could possibly be wrong about dancing with Janet, Cheryl, and Ginny? They were such gentle sweet spirits and dancing seemed like so much fun. I wondered whatever happened to all of them.
Even though I was not allowed to dance, I was as popular as the Homecoming Queen or Red Feather Queen. My popularity, however, was not based on any prowess on the dance floor. Instead my popularity had its source in my art. I had been asked to join the social-convening committee of the highschool's student council. The committee's sole responsibilty was the organization of highschool dances. By accepting my position, I netted the highly visible task of creating huge colour chalk murals on the blackboards of our school's cafeteria. One can imagine my excitement as day after day leading up to the big dance, I stood in front of the cafeteria crowd drawing my chalk wonders. And they were big, very big, covering an entire wall. My dance was in the art of chalk drawing. I created the magic of Hawaii, the pulse of a big city, or whatever dance theme the committee chose, and I created masterpieces in vibrant yellows, greens, oranges, red and blues. I could not dance but I sure could draw.
Catapulted to fame I could at least talk to Janet Dugit, Cheryl Christopher, and Ginny LaPointe. They were also members of the yearbook committee as was I. As a result of my blackboard masterpieces, I was asked to become art director for the school's yearbook. I did so for two years. During 1963 and 1964, Actiana, as was the title of our yearbook, was graced with many drawings of school activities, cartoons, and other pertinent illustrations. For the yearbook of 1964, I obtained permission from Hanna-Barberra in Hollywood to use their famous Flintstones characters as subjects for my drawings. Actiana 64 was filled with images of Fred, Barnie, Wilma, Betty, BamBam, and Pebbles. A copy of the Actiana 64 yearbook became the largest entry in my portfolio of drawings which I submitted with my application for enrollment at the Ontario College of Art.
From Hopmanshuis in Zwolle, to highschool dances and yearbooks at the Wallaceburg District Secondary School, my art was about to undergo a major change, namely that of formal training. In September of 1964, I began my fine art studies at the Ontario College of Art.
Fleas in my journal
John Gould, a fellow honourary member of the Drawing Society of Canada, once said that he never met a serious artist who did not write. The great Renaissance master, Michelangelo, was a prolific writer as well, crediting some five hundred sonnets to his name.
Before I leave Wallaceburg for my next chapter in this Verstraete venture, I must share another special episode in my teenage journey, an encounter with fleas. As I remember this special moment, my soul is flooded with many warm memories, memories I had carefully recorded during that time.
My earliest memories of the art of writing were a thick journal I kept during the years I worked on a weekly bread route for Canada Bread. Gordon Spiering, who was a friend of the family, had offered me the job of assisting him with a large bread delivery route on Saturdays. The job meant getting up at 5 am every Saturday not to return home until some time around 6 pm. I earned ten dollars for the day's work, plus all the baked goods in the truck that I could eat. In addition, Gord taught me how to drive a truck, especially the art of driving a delivery truck over treacherous country roads during Ontario's infamous winters. When I turned sixteen, he felt confident to let me do the whole route by myself. By about 5:15 in the early morning, Gord's bread truck rolled up the driveway in front of our house. Together we drove straight to the depot where we loaded all sorts of breads, hamburger and hotdog buns, pies, cookies, donuts, sweet jelly rolls, biscuits, chelsea buns, and all the goodies that drove a hungry, sixteen-year old boy mad. After the truck was loaded, we were off to Cozy Corners Restaurant just a few blocks away. It was truly a cozy place where Gord and I filled up on eggs, toast, bacon, and coffee. Sometimes sales where not too good and we just had coffee. I also packed a generous lunch. I made my own sandwiches and earned quite a reputation for making great sandwiches, so great in fact, that Gord would eat half of them and in turn reward me with anythng I wanted from the truck. It was a good arrangement. We drank plenty of coffee along the way as the route, which covered three towns and over one hundred miles of country roads, did not lack coffee shops. Sometimes, especially during bitter cold winter months, I brought a thermos of hot soup. I had given up my paper route because I could earn much more on the bread route. Gord, who was very familiar with the hardships of our immigrant family, because his parents were immigrants, at the end of a long day would pack a large box full of buns, breads, donuts, and other baked goods knowing these could not be kept for the weekend to be sold on Monday. The box was a welcome sight every Saturday night when I came home. Some members of the Christian Reformed Church had hearts of pure gold. Gord and his wife Mary were two such saints. All these memories and events were carefully recorded in a large journal I kept in the truck. As both of us were not needed to carry the large breadbasket to the customer's door, we alternated our duties between filling up the basket in the truck and knocking on the customer's door.
While Gord left the truck to service a customer, I wrote in my journal.
Our route took us far into the countryside surrounding Wallaceburg and as far away as the town of Dresden. Many customers were farmers. Often, after months of writing in my journal, I read the pages again and again to dream of one day writing a book about my bread route journeys. Suffice it to say the journeys were full of adventure, laughter and tears, joy and pain, as we experienced so many events every Saturday. I cannot begin to recount them all. I worked on that Saturday bread route for five years, until I left Wallaceburg to attend college in Toronto.
One Saturday, a few months after I began my job, I gathered the courage to ask Gord a question that had burned in my mind for weeks.
He simply smiled and said it was easy. Seeing my bewilderment, he made one of the most generous offers I have ever had.
"Tell you what, Gerrit, you give me both your delicious sandwiches, and you can eat anything on the truck, all day - anything."
I was shocked. Anything? All day?
" Are you sure Gord? I can eat a lot you know?
"I am sure, so why not start now," he replied.
So I did!
Somewhere on a country road just outside town I began opening the baked goods. First I warmed up some small mincemeat pies in the truck's cab heater. Gord had rigged a little door on the truck heater so he could open it up and heat up special treats. If you have never traveled in a drafty delivery truck, bumped over snow-covered country roads, while a small blizzard howled outside, and you had to open and close the big side doors of the truck every time you came to a customer, letting icy winds gust through truck and flesh, you have never experienced the bone-chilling cold I experienced on the bread route. Despite winter boots, a warm coat, scarves, woolen hat, and thick gloves, the cold permeated us by about 11 am. The work day did not end until about 5 pm. Then it was still a long drive back to the depot, to unload and finally make it home by 6 pm. Gord's little heater-oven invention was nothing short of a miracle.
Soon my mouth was stuffed with mincemeat pies. From the little pies I graduated to glazed donuts. I ate the whole box. Gord just smiled. I waited untill I had finished serving a few customers only to resume my excursion through the truck's baked goods. I did not, however, waste any food. I finished eating whatever package I opened. We had agreed on that. I was not about to open a box, eat one and leave the rest for Gord, or leave the box's contents to dry up somewhere in the back of the truck. I made sure not a crumb was wasted. The strawberry jellyroll was particularly delicious.
I began to worry whether I would bankrupt Gord.
"Are you sure, it's OK to eat all this stuff?" I asked.
"Just keep on going," said Gord. " If we run out we'll go back to the depot."
He must have known that would not be necessary and that I would soon reach the climax of my eating binge. I do not remember how long it was before I was truly full. I do think that Gord was surprised how much I managed to stuff into my hungry body, but he just smiled. Somewhere along a deserted country road that ran quietly between farms, I turned sweaty and a ghostly pale. Gord recognized the symptoms and immediately pulled the truck off to the side of the road. I opened the door hoping a blast of cold air would help. It did not.
I staggered out of the truck, not even caring to zip up my coat. My feet sank into a snowdrift along the side. I bent over and for the next agonizing eternity I vomited until I was sure my stomach and intestines had exited my body. When I was done, I stumbled back to the truck. I sat down on the inverted crate that was my co-pilot's seat and sighed. Gord closed the door. I looked up at him. He sat there grinning.
"You knew that was going to happen didn't you?" I stammered.
He just grinned and nodded. I managed a weak smile.
"You'll never be tempted again," he said.
"From now on you will be very selective about what you eat on this truck. In fact, most of the baked goods will just seem like products-for-sale to you, and no longer a temptation and feast for hungry eyes. I know, believe me I know. I did the same thing myself about a month after I started this bread route."
I felt strangely comforted. Gord was right. For five years it never bothered me again. In fact, we preferred my homemade sandwiches a whole lot more.
The eating episode was given special attention in my journal.
I made long and detailed entries in my journal. The stories would one day make riveting chapters in my book I thought, but not as riveting as the story of one customer just outside the town of Dresden. He was an old man who lived by himself on a large sheep farm. He had made arrangements with Gord that about once a month he would buy all the stale stuff Gord had on the truck that day. He paid cash every time. He only asked that we would come into his house with the bread basket and go through the ritual of showing him all the stale baked goods we had. He seemed to like the idea of shopping from a basket. When he finished examining all the contents of our basket, he emptied the whole basket on his kitchen table and insisted he pay full retail price. He did not expect bargains. We did not argue. I often wondered what went on in that place when I saw Gord leave the truck and enter the man's house whenever it was that time of the month. I just stayed behind and wrote in my journal until one Saturday in May, when Gord said, "now it's your turn!"
It is difficult to imagine what was about to take place. The cliché, "you should have been there," was very appropriate for this experience. I grabbed the loaded bread basket, a wieldy wooden basket some two by three feet long and about ten inches deep, which could carry a lot of weight. To balance myself while I walked with the basket I stuck my left arm through the wide handle. Over time and with practise, I actually became very good at wielding the basket. Once it served as protection from a large yard dog who cornered me in a narrow laneway between a farmer's house and his garage. There I stood at one end of the passageway, basket over my arm and in front of me, lowered to just above my knees, while the dog stood growling at the other end. He pounced and I lowered the basket. He bit the basket and withdrew growling. With the basket still in front of me and the dog jumping and biting the front of my basket I knew I would be safe until I turned to swing myself and basket through the backdoor of the house. For a brief moment my legs were exposed. Suddenly the dog leaped and rushed forward, but he hit the door instead of me.
"Don't mind King," said the farmer's wife in the kitchen, as I tempted her with all our freshly baked goods. "He don't harm nobody. He's all bark and no bite."
She never did see the chewed-up front of my basket. She bought a lot that day. I managed to escape the same way I came, as King chewed some more off the basket. Once a very dangerous dog was so ferocious he bit my large boot and got his teeth stuck in the rubber. I dragged him and my basket back to the truck. The dog wouldn't let go. I grabbed a piece of flat iron we kept in the truck for just such a purpose. I clubbed the dog untill he let go. I think he was dead, but I did not stick around to lament his demise. I never saw that dog again. We encountered many extremely dangerous farm dogs on our route. They ran loose and wicked, chasing cars and trucks. They were especially fond of those who dared to come out of their vehicles to walk up the driveway. Gord and I were no exception.
Here I was, however, once again ready to cradle the bread basket over my arm, and ready to meet my next challenge, the old sheep farmer. Fortunately there were no dogs. Gord stayed in the truck to update his sales journal.
Slowly I walked through a narrow gate at the front of the yard. An old dark house loomed before me, the kind you see in horror movies. Why would Gord ask me to go, I asked myself? Was this another object lesson as was the eating binge a few months before?
I carefully negotiated my way through sheep, dogs, chickens, cats, and critters too filthy to recognize. The yard was cluttered with broken farm equipment, old leaky barrels, hub caps and other car-parts strewn among generous portions of what looked like brown earth, but whose odour said otherwise. I walked up the steps manouvering the basket in front of me, not knowing what could possibly jump out at me once inside the house. The house had no door. I stepped inside and noticed the only difference between outside and inside were some dark bare walls. Sheep, dogs, cats, and critters, were everywhere. Gord had said to go to the room at the back. There I found the old man. He looked every bit the recluse I had imagined or had read about in books or seen in movies. He was very old and bent-over, appearing frail and weak and sitting in an even older armchair. He motioned me to come closer. At first I hesitated but as I looked more closely, he was not a victim of some social disease, or some poor hapless soul destined for welfare and a lonely demise. Despite his filthy sweater, long sticky straggly hair, old gumboots, and a chipped pipe, he appeared to be a whole lot stronger than at first glance. His eyes were clear, bright and friendly. With a motion of his arm he swept aside everything on an equally filthy table to make room for my breadbasket. He pointed to the basket and then to the table. Up until this moment he had not spoken a word.
I put the basket square in front of him and began my sales pitch. I moved my hand over a stale collection of freshly baked apple pies, soft and sweet jelly rolls, chocolate donuts and a stack of bread that threatened to tip my basket. He motioned to me again to empty the basket on the table. He said little except to ask, "how much?"
I answered as quickly as I could add up all the figures.
He put his right hand deep into his pocket and pulled out the biggest, fattest bankroll my teenage eyes had ever seen. He could barely hang on to the roll of bills. There were hundreds, fifties, twenties, tens and fives, all tightly rolled into a bundle. As he began to peel off the required number to pay for his purchase, a number of large fleas crawled from between the bills. They were cattle fleas of the big kind, and very visible to the naked eye. Even in that dark room I could see many of them crawl from the roll of money on to his hand. He didn't seem to care as he continued to count his money. I shuddered as he reached to give me the bills. It was a large amount for a large purchase and Gord would welcome the sale that Saturday.
I took the bills and dared not look to see if any of the fleas had made the trip from his pocket to my hand. I did not put the money in my pocket. I held the money in my hand. I closed my fist hoping whatever fleas were trapped in the money would not escape. The basket was empty. I tried graciously to make a quick exit. Were those fleas following me? I looked in the basket, but it was empty - no fleas. I threw the basket in the truck banging the sides against the steel door, making sure I was able to dislodge any remnant flea before we filled the basket again. Gord burst into laughter. I checked all my clothes, my hair and my shoes. No fleas. Yet somehow, as I began to recount the event in my journal, I felt a great need to scratch myself. Had those fleas made it to my clothes after all, perhaps even into my journal, to remain there until I would rewrite the events of that day in my upcoming epic novel? In words those fleas did make it into my journal, but in kind I hoped they were far away. Never again I thought. That man remained as Gord's own customer from that day on. Brrrr. Scratch, scratch.
But this story had an unfortunate ending.
Two years later, while having a coffee with Gord somewhere along the route, someone broke into the truck and stole some baked goods as well as my journal. Baked good I understood, but a journal? Perhaps the thief thought there was money stuck between the leaves of the book, but that was unlikely. We kept all our money in a large leather pouch we carried on our belts. There were no valuables in the truck, only bread and baked goods. I was devastated because there were many great stories in my journal, stories I had collected over three years and enough material for a very interesting book one day. So great was the loss, I lost all interest in journaling. I did not even bother to try and recall all those special memories and to record them again in another thick journal. For weeks I checked nearby garbage bins to see if the journal had been discarded. To no avail. It was lost forever. Only a handfull of memories remained, and "fleas in my journal," was one of them.