The Story Pool – by Madonna Hamel
When I lived in small- town Michigan with my beau we relied heavily on the resourcefulness of farmers. The men of Marshall might not always have dressed in an “attractive” manner as far as my sweetie was concerned, being as he was, a man of the stage, but they definitely dressed appropriately. When you spend most of your time under machinery, stepping in turds and wiping grease, dirt and afterbirth on your pant legs, you don’t bother with the creases and pleats. But after his neighbours came to his rescue a few times, and his landlord, a gentle Quaker man, pointed out that farmers and ranchers are the ultimate handymen, he was the first to defend their attire to city folk.
“They can fix, jerry-rig, adapt, any piece of equipment. They understand animals – including people- and the weather and the land. They perform triage on cows and folks in emergencies and can scrape together scraps to make a feast for supper. Your farmer is your best friend, buddy, don’t you forget it!”
And not two nights later, at four in the morning, in the middle of January, it was a farmer who slid under the band van and within twenty minutes, got it him on his way on his way to his first gig of a month-long tour.
I am being reminded of that lesson in my new remote home in Val Marie. One night we had a young man who makes a living chasing tornadoes give a talk at the community hall. Having lived in Oklahoma and Michigan and now Regina, he knew a thing or two about weather. Adept at avoiding death, his worst mishap was having his ear clean ripped off in the middle of a twister. “I learned from a farmer” he said, “who learned from a soldier back from Iraq, to reattach the ear with crazy glue until you can get to the nearest hospital.
The storm-chasers’s kind of “duh, of course” resourcefulness is commonplace behaviour in remote parts like these. Once while driving back from the park with my friend Page, I commented on an abandoned building with, what looked like, big old dinner plates attached to the outside of it.
“Well, actually” he winds up to explain, “those are from the old seeders.”
“Cedars? Where are there cedars around here?”
“No, seeders. As in: seeding machines.”
“Yeah. My friend Allan told me about them. That building used to be a grainary. It’s what they used before the round ones you see everywhere. They’d get some half inch metal rods and run it both ways through the building and then attach them using those disks as baseplates.”
“Right! They remind me of the giant bolts attached to the sides of old houses in Quebec. They held the wood beams in place to reinforce the floors and ceilings.”
“Exactly. Only these are used to keep the building from exploding. And those ones were used to prevent the brick buildings from falling in on themselves.”
“Either way, it’s all about holding it all together.”
This past winter my friend Tony came by with a Christmas gift that continues to give me joy and inspiration: a ‘uketar’. Small like a ukulele, with the bottom four strings of a regular guitar, Tony built this musical wonder from a collection of oak and maple from an old piano, spruce from a shattered shelter board, some left-over scraps from the new Hutterite bakery, and mahogany picture frames cut, planed, soaked and re-jigged into the instrument’s neck and sides. A beauty to behold, with a rich and warm tone, it’s all one needs to write a tune in a day – that and three chords and the truth.
Prairie know-how is exactly what my art school teachers tried to impart in me when they urged us to try new approaches with tools. No, seriously, they promised me (after a basic how-to and safety session): you won’t a) blow it up, b) break it c) render it dysfunctional. No. But I did manage to cause a power outage through the entire left wing of the sculpture department. But the important thing was I tried, when before I just zoned out at the prospect of solving a problem or creating a functional object.
At some point in my earlier life, I got discouraged from taking risks, attempting to fix things on my own, learning to troubleshoot. Most girls, in my day, would just numb out or crumble in a helpless heap, faced with a breakdown in the middle of nowhere. It would not occur to lift the hood and poking about, looking for signs of something, anything. Today, I know a quite a few women mechanics, and most of them grew up on farms.
Thus far, I’ve yet to come across a single prairie memoir that doesn’t fill me with glee and a giddy sense of liberation when I get to the part where the kid jumps up on her horse to go check her traps, or the boy jumps from the rooftop after his dad absent-mindedly leaves with the ladder, or the 10-year-old drives tractor so his father can take a dinner break! My dad was the eldest in his family and at twelve he ploughed fields with a horse. Back-breaking work and not something he waxes nostalgic about, but definitely a life of responsibility that earned the right to take risks, try things, come up with new schemes.
With all the interest in the workings of the brain these days, it would be fascinating to study the formation of the brain of an adult who grew up as a farm child in the Depression and contrast it with that of the brain of hyper-agendized, micro-managed, urban child born into a disposable world. My favourite related story is one from dad. His mom gave him some money to buy a new cap for school. So off he went, briskly marching down the country road, on his way to the nearest general store. On the way, our hero sees a crop duster coming in low to spray his neighbour’s crops. Only, instead of releasing chemical dust, out flutters hundreds of leaflets advertising barnstorming trips for the price of a hat! The story ends with my father returning home capless and my grandmother having a good long laugh. He deserved that thrill-ride, she told us years later.
And while on the topic of general stores, small towns in the middle of nowhere have the best catch-all shops. Last week when the rubber drive belt on my mini-vacuum cleaner broke, and the hair tie and duct tape didn’t work, I went next door to Gerald’s to ask if he knew where the dealer was in Swift Current.
“Oh yeah, he’s on the hill going out of town. In a big white house … he sells trophies too.”
“Yeah. And guitars.”
“Oh the guy I bought my tuner from? He’s in vacuum repairs, too? “
When I told Caitlin at the café the name of the shop she replied: “Oh my favourite is the fresh fish and lawn mower store!”
“You know, they should just go back to ‘General Store’. Like the ‘notions’ aisle in the drugstore. But I’m glad they don’t, because the meets-all-your-totally-random-needs signage is pure poetry!”
That afternoon I was wildly winding duct tape over and under and around my birdfeeder, attaching it to a post when Gerald moseyed over to see what I was doing.
“A work of art, eh?”
“It looks very nice.”
“Oh please Gerald, it’s pathetic. But hey, it works in a pinch!”
Yes, I am finally resonating with my rural Saskatchewan DNA, and here are some of my own signs:
1) I can walk the length of the Riverwalk and successfully navigate a Texas gate without breaking my stride.
2) I am disturbed by more than two jet trails in the clear blue sky at any given time.
3) It feels counter intuitive to drive the speed limit in a straight line on Highway 4.
4) I am tempted to do a U-turn and pursue the driver who just passed me and did not salute me back, to ask if I’d somehow insulted them recently.
5) I no longer notice the spider web of cracked windshield glass before me.
6) Swift Current traffic is something brutal!
7) I fixed the wooden swing on the front lawn with an old hair curler and a bolt and washer from an old abandoned stove … and while I was at it yanked off the left burner knob to use at a handle for a pot lid at the café. Which is to say…
8) I fearlessly roll up my sleeves and trouble shoot and if I still can’t fix it…
9) I bake a pie, fire up the espresso machine (a brand new Braun scored for $5 at the Mennonite thrift store), call Eugene or Page or Tony or Gerald or Caitlin and
10) Humbly ask for help!
Madonna was a CBC writer-broadcaster for a couple decades and won awards for music documentaries. She lives in Val Marie, working on a book and continues singing and songwriting. For comments you can reach Madonna at firstname.lastname@example.org