When granddad was a boy

When granddad was a boy

Neil McKenty’s first speech at an oratorical contest – see below for the inside story on it.

“I don’t see why the power hast to go off just when we are listening to the last game of the World Series. I was cross and crosser still when granddad, who was sitting on the porch beside me, began to chuckle. ”Well when I was a boy,” he commenced. All thoughts of baseball and even the most thrilling game of the World Series were forgotten for I knew when Grandad began that way I was sure to hear something more interesting.

“In those days we did not have radios and not even electricity,” he went on. “We used candles instead, and even then, we had to make them at home”
“But Grandfather how did you make candles? I thought you bought them at the store?”
“Well the tallow was rendered from sheep and beef, poured into metal moulds, perhaps a dozen at a time and allowed to harden. My part of the work began then. Often when I came home from school, I helped mother undo the knots at the bottom of the moulds and pull them out from the top. There were no flashlights in those days either. We did the chores by the light of a home made lantern in which one of those candles was placed. By the light of these flickering tallow candles we studied our lessons. We didn’t have the long summer holidays that you have now. At one time they were only one week then two weeks and later they were for three weeks. “I spent mine at home helping with the crops.”
“But Grandfather did you work all the time – Didn’t you ever have any fun?”
“Oh yes, but it was different from what you call fun. We used to sit around the fire in the evenings while someone told stories, most often ghost stories. There I would sit in the corner , listening and shivering, to creep off to bed as thirsty as could be, because to run through that awful darkness from the house to the pump was more than I dared. We all looked forward to getting to the fall fair. It was one of the most important events of the year, and , we certainly wasted no time in seeing, that the potatoes were dug by the second week in October to make sure we could go.
We often went to our neighbours to help with the work too, logging, threshing, husking, and woodcutting. The work went much faster, when there so many helping. Then, there was time for fun when we were finished. in those days we did not use a binder but, cradled the wheat. One fall at our farm 5 or 6 men cradled 50 acres. We had no twine to bin the grain, but tied it with a band of the straw. “When the grain was threshed we took it to some of the nearest towns, Peterboro, Colborne and Trenton. Once I had to take a load of 65 or 70 bushels of grain to market. There were five or six teams – travelling together and going to Brighton.
We got up at 2 o’clock because it was a whole days journey. We took along hay to feed the horses, as it was such a long trip. The teams kept coming from the whole countryside so that by night there were 100 teams in Brighton . When I went to look for my team I couldn’t find them there were so many horses in the barn. When we went to church in those days, the whole family went in the wagon for there were no buggies. The first buggies were used about 1870. They were rather clumsy ones and there weren’t many of them.”

“How far did you have to go Grandfather and how long did it take?”, I asked.

“It was about 2 miles and it took half an hour”

“Surely a difference from the few seconds it took me to get to church, in my dad’s car I thought.”

“There were no milking machines or separators in those days either,” he went on “We had about 18 or 20 cows at home. The milk was put in earthen pans and set for the night. In the morning it was skimmed. We used dash churns to make the butter, and, it often took hours before any signs of butter appeared. Butter was packed in firkins, small, wooden tubs, made by coopers in the nearby village. Washing the sheep in the spring was hard work too. They were sheared, and the wool rolled in a sheet or blanket, was pinned with thorns, and taken to the carding mill in the village. After that was done, the rolls were taken home, and the wool was spun into yarn, by the women of the household on the spinning wheel. It was now ready for the weaver, perhaps some local farmer, who had learned the art in the old country. Then the full cloth and flannels were taken home to be made into clothes. A tailor would go from house to house, sit on the table, and make the suits. Every boy had a new fullcloth suit, bound with black braids to start off to school in the fall. And a new pair of books, which were made by hand. We made our own sleighs out of the staves of barrels, with pieces of boards to hold them together. We had just as much fun with them as you do now with your expensive tobboggans. One day at noon time, 15 or 20 boys went sleigh riding on the hill, beside the school; I went too. It was far enough away, so that the teacher could not see us. We stayed out there till 3 o’clock. We forgot all about school. School was let out, each one got 4 slaps on his bare hand with an oak ruler. Just as one of the boys went out the door he – well, he said something that wasn’t very nice to the teacher, and away he went. The next day all the boys in the school were kept in after 4 to see how this boy would be punished. He was told to stand on the floor and take his coat off. He wouldn’t do it so it had to be taken off. He was slapped across the back with a blue beech rod, with the frost taken out of it. He was given about 20 lashes. He didn’t try any of those tricks again. The making of maple syrup and maple sugar was both work and play. 100 trees were tapped in our bush, the operations were all carried on in the woods. Wooden spiles, troughs, and yokes, made by hand were used. The sap was carried in these to the boiling downpots, big iron pots hung on a pole over the fire. Sugaring off took place about twice a week. It was fun for us, when we were allowed to empty egg shells with the hot sugar and then eat it when it cooled”
”That would be fun Grandfather, I think you had as much fun when you were a boy, as we do now, just different, that’s all”
The door opened, and dad walked in, “Well, it was a great game” I looked at him blankly. Could it be possible, that the game was over while I was listening to Grandfather’s story?
It was.
And that is usually what happens when Grandad talks about his boyhood.

The end.


This excerpt from The Inside Story tells the story of this speech:

Like the anxiety at the pit of my stomach, this alienation, feeling different from others, had been there from the beginning – never more so than one hot August day when I was seven or eight sitting on the steps of the hardware store. Across the comer in front of the red brick Royal Bank building, a group of fanners were smoking their pipes, perhaps discussing the case of the Lindbergh baby. Along the main street a group of kids, including my brother Stafford, were on their way to a swim at Hank Scriver’s boathouse – where Hank made some of the best birch bark canoes in all of Ontario. Some tanned tourists in their shorts passed in front of me on their way to Tim Coughlan’s drugstore and the bakery shop. I felt the warmth of the summer sun on my bare arms, but I didn’t feel the warmth of the tourists passing by or the kids going swimming. I didn’t feel part of them. I felt I was sitting alone inside a bell jar. I couldn’t reach out to touch them and they couldn’t reach in to touch me. It was a lonely experience, this feeling of being different from others, and it stayed with me, off and on, for most of my life.
Eventually I realized that I must anaesthetize this interior feeling of disease and discomfort, so I decided that since I was different from my peers, I would show them – I would be better than they were. I embarked on a course that led to years of striving and competitiveness, with all the stress and strain those involved.
Being better than others was ineffective as a strategy for success unless it was noticed by others. So I set out to be noticed. Being head altar boy fitted the blueprint. So did coming first in my class which, under pressure from my parents, my priest, my teachers and myself, I managed to do fairly easily during my grade school years. The most visible success of my campaign to be recognized occurred at age nine in the fall of 1934, the fall that Mother drove with Dad and some friends to Campbellford to hear the charismatic Liberal leader, Mitch Hepburn, at a political meeting. That year my teacher, Miss McMahon, chose me to enter the local oratorical contest. This was indeed a feather in my cap. No one in the junior room of the Catholic school had ever been chosen before. The local winner would go to the regional finals and the winners of those to the provincial finals in Toronto.
There was also a religious subtext to this oratorical contest. Hastings was a predominately Protestant village with a strong Orange flavour. On the twelfth of July, leather-lunged Protestant ministers came from as far away as Toronto to flay the Pope, the whore of Babylon, at the local baseball field. After listening to the papists being denounced, we Catholic kids hung around the Orange parade to watch “King Billy” on his white horse, then ate as much free “orange” ice cream as we could. Dad had taught us to respect all Protestants, as well as the only Jew in the village, a strange man (we thought) with a bushy grey beard and a little black handkerchief on his head. Dad often reminded Stafford and me that many of his customers were Orangemen and if it weren’t for them our hardware store would go broke. Every year, as a family, we attended the annual dinners in the Protestant church basements. I have never found the equal of their pies – raspberry, apple and pumpkin, lathered with freshly whipped cream. And on November 11, I would stand rigidly at attention beside my father as the Last Post sounded beside the cenotaph at a mainly Protestant service. This was Dad’s only public remembrance of the war. Still and all, we believed that all Protestants would go to hell unless they had the good fortune, maybe on their death bed, to become Catholics.
To some degree, the oratorical contest reflected these religious animosities. The contestants were from the large public Protestant school and the small separate Catholic school. Usually the winner was from the Protestant school. The occasional Catholic victory was attributed to prayers to the Blessed Virgin and was viewed by many as a triumph for the Pope and for Rome. From the outset, Dad was concerned that I not let down our side and make a fool of myself and of him. I had chosen as my topic the life of Sir Wilfred Laurier. Already I was interested in history, especially the career of Franklin Roosevelt. But my teacher and my mother vetoed the choice of Laurier because they thought I didn’t know enough about him, a quite reasonable judgement. Instead they wanted me to speak on the topic “When My Grandfather Was A Boy.” And that is what I did.
My grandfather, William Shea, my mother’s father, was in his eighties then, a spare man over six feet tall with a trim white moustache. He smoked a pipe and occasionally had a spot of brandy with one of his friends. He could be found hour after hour on the bridge over the Trent River or sitting quietly on the dam above the water foaming in the sluiceways, fishing for pickerel, a treat my mother would cook, fresh and tasty, for supper. I liked Grandpa and felt he took pride in my accomplishments. Chuckling as he tamped and smoked his pipe, he would tell us stories about days in a bygone Canada, stories that often made us laugh. But Grandfather Shea had his own ideas about the way we should do things. He would never permit us to call our favourite cousin “Bill” Moore. It had to be “William.” And later on when a group of us put up the boxing ring in our back yard, he strode out, cane at the ready, and slashed the ring to pieces, saying he didn’t take with boxing for young boys. When Mother and Miss McMahon were helping me put together my speech, I had long talks with Grandpa about his early days on the farm before he became a streetcar conductor in Peterborough.
As the date for the oratorical contest approached, my father became more and more concerned. One day at noon after we had eaten a heavy meal of salt pork, mashed potatoes and rice pudding (we always ate dinner at noon except on Sundays), Dad told me to go into the parlour, where he sat down and asked me to recite my speech for him. I refused. He insisted. I continued to resist until I burst into tears, shaking with fear, anger and resentment. As I recall now, Mother remained in the kitchen. She was not a passive woman but she was a pacifist. She wanted to keep the peace and not rock the boat. Perhaps in some way she was in awe of my father or even afraid of him. (I remember cringing in the back seat of the car when his impatient efforts to teach my mother to drive verged on bullying.) Did I resent Mother’s not standing up to Dad when he was badgering me about my speech? I’m not sure. Perhaps she felt getting involved would only make matters worse. In any event, she did not intervene, if indeed she understood what was going on.
At the time, I’m sure I didn’t understand what was going on myself. Why wouldn’t I recite my speech for my father in the parlour when he asked me to? Was I too embarrassed, too nervous, afraid of forgetting a passage? Was I trying to get back at him on some other issue entirely, such as his drinking? Or was a broader and deeper dynamic at work in this contest of wills? Was I attempting all by myself to stand up to his raw intimidation, to get out, even briefly, from under his oppressive control? And if that was the case, what motivated me, even enveloped in terror, to make such a stand except a dim realization that if I didn’t risk it I wouldn’t survive? Whatever the dynamic at work, I didn’t utter a word of my speech and my father finally gave up.
A short time later I delivered my speech about Grandpa before a town hall packed with supporters from the Catholic and Protestant schools. Competing against eight other candidates, I won first place, thus saving the honour of Rome and pleasing Dad who sweated profusely during the entire evening. This was my first big public triumph, yet despite being victorious, I felt curiously drained and dissatisfied as though my expectations had not been quite met and the good things people were saying about me I did not believe.

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