I first looked down on the Canadian prairies in the summer of 1982, from a window seat in the big wide-bodied jet that was flying me from London to Saskatoon. The weather had been cloudy over the Atlantic, but it began to clear as we crossed Hudson Bay, and by the time we began our descent into Saskatoon I was looking down on a patchwork quilt of perfectly rectangular fields: deep green, golden yellow, and lavender blue. I had been brought up in the English countryside, where no road runs straight and where very few fields are regularly shaped, and what I was seeing below me was as alien as a lunar landscape.
I had spent five years at Oxford University before accepting a position as a high school English teacher in Meadowvale, a small town about eighty miles northeast of Saskatoon. When I looked up my new home town on a map I was surprised to see how isolated it was. I was used to the English countryside, where rural communities are only two or three miles apart; the prairies, as far as I could see, were wide open spaces, and distances of twenty or thirty miles between communities were common. Public transport also seemed to be rare; there was a railway line running through Meadowvale, but passenger service was non-existent, and bus schedules were very hard to discover from the other side of the ocean. Fortunately for me the principal of Meadowvale High School, Will Reimer, offered to drive down to Saskatoon and pick me up. “It won’t be a problem”, he said when we were talking on the phone a week before my flight; “I’ve got to run some errands in the city anyway, and your plane lands in the afternoon, so I’ll just go down in the morning, do the things I need to do, and then pick you up on the way home”.
“How will I know you?”
“I’m short and a little chubby, and I’ve got a thick grey beard. How about you?”
“Tall and thin, with long dark hair and a scrawny excuse for a beard. And I’ll be the one with the guitar case”.
“A guitar player, eh?”
“Me too. Acoustic or electric?”
“Right – I’ll look for the closest thing to a hippy folk musician in the airport”.
I laughed; “That sounds just about right”.
“See you next week then, Tom”.
He was waiting for me in the arrivals lounge after I cleared customs; as he had said, he was short and a little chubby, with thinning curly hair and a thick grey beard, wearing a short-sleeved check shirt and jeans. I approached him through the crowds, pushing a baggage cart in front of me with two suitcases and a guitar case, and he smiled and said, “Tom Masefield, the guitar-playing hippy, I presume?”
“That would be me”, I replied as we shook hands. “You must be Mr. Reimer”.
“Call me Will; I get ‘Mr. Reimer’ all year long from the kids, and since a good number of them are my relatives, it gets a little wearing after a while”.
I was surprised; “Are you from Meadowvale?”
“Born and bred; I taught someplace else first, but eventually I came home. Are you hungry?”
“Not really; they fed me well on the plane”.
“Right then, we’ll get going; it’s about an hour and fifteen minutes up to Meadowvale. We can drop your stuff off at your place, but my wife Sally’s cooking supper, and she told me to insist that you come and eat with us”.
“That’s very kind of you, but you don’t…”
He shook his head; “Like I said, she told me to insist!”
We emerged from the airport building into a wall of heat; I was arriving in Saskatchewan at the beginning of August, and the temperature that day was in the low thirties on the Celsius scale. “This is a bit warmer than when I left home”, I said as he led me across the road toward the parking lot.
“Did you come all the way today?”
“No, a friend drove me to Heathrow last night. It was overcast and drizzling this morning”.
“We could use the rain; the ground’s pretty dry, and the crops are suffering from it”.
“Is it always this hot?” I asked as he led me down between the rows of cars and trucks.
“Quite often – our weather tends to be very hot in summer, and very cold in winter. It’s dry, though, as you can tell”.
He led me to what looked like an enormous car, although I realized later that it was actually only mid-sized compared to some of the vehicles on the road in Saskatchewan in 1982. It was a station wagon, and he opened up the tailgate and stowed my suitcases and my guitar case in the back with plenty of room to spare, even though he already had a few boxes and packages of his own. “Right”, he said with a grin, “Climb aboard, and we’ll be on our way”.
Inside the car the temperature was stiflingly hot, and we quickly rolled down the windows. “The air conditioning will kick in pretty quick”, he said as he started the engine; “By the time we get out of town it’ll be more comfortable in here. What time is it back in England right now?”
I glanced at my watch; “Almost ten o’clock at night”.
“You might want to catch a nap before supper, then – or even on the road, maybe! Is there anyone you need to call?”
“No; I’ll ring my mum tomorrow to let her know I got here safely; she’s an early-to-bed, early-to-rise sort of person, so she’ll probably be getting ready for bed just about now”.
He pulled out of the parking spot and steered toward the exit. “What family do you have?”
“Father and mother, one brother and one sister”.
“Do they all live pretty close?”
“My sister’s twelve years younger than me, so she’s still at home with my parents. My brother’s a student at Oxford”.
“You’re the oldest?”
“Yes. How about you?”
He grinned; “I’m one of eight”.
“Yeah, we had big families in the old days. Sally’s one of seven, so family gatherings are pretty enormous”.
“Have you got children?”
“We’ve got three. Our oldest is Joe; he came back to Meadowvale last year to work as a vet. Kelly’s our second; she finished her nursing training a year ago and she’s working in Jasper now”.
“Is that close?”
“No, it’s in Alberta, in the Rocky Mountains”. He stopped at the exit, paid for his parking with a smile at the attendant, and then pulled out onto the road. “It’s a little different from this”, he said, gesturing with his hand at the big prairie sky. “It’s about a ten or eleven-hour drive from Meadowvale”.
“A ten or eleven-hour drive in England would take you the length of the whole country!”
“Things are a little more spread out here”.
“You said you had three children?”
“My youngest daughter Krista’s just started working on her master’s degree in Edmonton, at the University of Alberta; she wants to be a wildlife biologist. But right now she’s working for Parks Canada in Jasper for the summer and staying with Kelly. How about your brother; what’s he studying?”
“Law; he’s following in my father’s footsteps”.
“A lawyer, eh?”
“I’m afraid so”.
“You weren’t tempted yourself?”
I shook my head; “It never interested me”.
He gave me a sideways glance as he pulled out onto a major road. After a moment he said, “The airport’s on the north side of the city, so we have to go around Circle Drive to the east side and then take the highway northeast toward Meadowvale”.
“How big a city is this?” I asked, grateful that he had changed the subject.
“About a hundred and sixty thousand”.
“Is it the capital of Saskatchewan?”
“No, that would be Regina. There’s a fair amount of rivalry between them, as you can imagine. I went to university here, so of course I’m partial to Saskatoon”.
“Is it the usual thing in Canada for people to go to the nearest university?”
“Not always, but it is pretty common. You went close to home too, right?”
“Yes. I was actually born in north Oxford, but when I was eleven we moved out to a village south of the city. I liked Oxford, though, and I always wanted to go to university there”.
“It must have been hard to get in; Oxford’s one of the top universities in the world”.
“I was lucky, I suppose”.
He grinned across at me. “Luck had nothing to do with it, Tom Masefield; I’ve seen your academic records!”
“I suppose you have”, I replied awkwardly.
“It’s not every day that a little country town like Meadowvale lands a teacher from Oxford University; you’ve caused quite a stir on the staff”.
I shook my head; “I hope not”.
“You’ll be fine; we’re just pleased that you agreed to come”.
We followed Circle Drive around the city, headed east on College Drive, and then turned northeast. The landscape was more open than anything I had ever seen in my life; not flat exactly, but wide and spacious under an enormous blue sky. We passed huge fields with crops that I would later come to know as wheat, barley, canola, and flax, with farmhouses and farm buildings surrounded by stands of trees. “Windbreaks”, Will explained when I asked him; “The original settlers probably planted them. The wind can blow pretty cold in the winter time”.
“How cold does it get?”
“Occasionally we’ll get down to minus forty. Usually it sits around minus twenty”.
I stared at him; “How on earth do you survive?”
“We live in warm insulated houses, and we drive cars with good heaters. It’s not like the old days!”
“What did you do in the old days?”
“When I was a kid growing up in Spruce Creek, we drove cutters in the wintertime – horse-drawn sleds. We wore the warmest clothes we had, with blankets over our legs and feet, and we warmed up stones on the wood stove and wrapped them up in blankets to put on the bottom of the cutter to keep our feet warm”.
“Where’s Spruce Creek?”
“It’s a district about fifteen miles north of Meadowvale. My parents were Mennonites who came here from Russia in the 1920s. The Mennonites tended to keep themselves to themselves; they spoke their own language, ran their own schools and so on, so they all settled around Spruce Creek. I went to school in a one-room log schoolhouse out there during the war. I’ve still got relatives who farm there”.
“How old is Meadowvale?”
“Not very old, by your standards. Oxford dates back a long way, I expect”.
“Nobody really knows how old; my college was founded in 1427”.
“Yeah, well, Meadowvale’s not quite that old. The first homesteaders settled in the area around 1908, we think, although there were trappers and missionaries travelling through before that. The village was officially founded in 1922 and it became a town in 1928”.
“Where did the settlers come from?”
“Britain and France at first, although the Metis had been travelling around in the area for a long time before them. Like I said, the Mennonites started arriving in the early 1920s, and after that there were Ukrainians and Polish and Chinese and others. It’s a real melting pot”.
“How big is it?”
“Depends how you count. You could just count the people who live in town, but then you’d be missing out a whole other group that live out on the farms in the R.M.”
“Right. So how many…?”
“About two thousand in town, and maybe another three or four thousand on the farms around. They all shop in town, and the kids come in to the schools and play hockey on the local teams, so we count them as being part of Meadowvale”.
“Canada’s national winter sport”.
“Ah – ice hockey”.
“Right – you have field hockey in the old country, don’t you?”
“We do – it’s a girl’s sport”.
“Our hockey is definitely a guys’ sport”.
“No girls allowed?”
“Well, there are girls’ teams in some places, but that’s a little adventurous for a town like Meadowvale”.
I fell asleep about twenty minutes into the trip, and I didn’t wake up until I felt the car beginning to slow. The front seat was a bench seat without much of a headrest, and my neck was stiff. “Ouch”, I said as I sat up.
“A little sore?”
“My neck. How long did I sleep?”
“About fifty minutes. We’re just getting to Meadowvale now”.
I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and squinted ahead. About half a mile down the road I saw three grain elevators standing tall against the clear blue sky with a railway line running beside them. Between the elevators and the highway was an Esso station with its distinctive oval sign, and just beyond it I could see a car dealership, its parking lot full of half-ton trucks. Off to the left I could see houses under the trees.
“So this is Meadowvale?”
“Welcome to your new home”.
“Does every town on the prairies have these grain elevators?”
“Every town on a railway line does”.
“Why a railway line?”
“Farmers truck their grain into town and sell it to the grain companies that run the elevators. After that it’s shipped out by rail”.
“Those are the old style elevators, made of wood. We’re starting to see some bigger ones in some places, concrete ones, grain terminals they call them. There’s one a few miles west of here, run by Cargill; that’s an American company. I expect in a few years these old wooden elevators will be a thing of the past”.
“They look quite impressive”.
“Yeah, I’m kind of partial to them myself”.
He steered the car left off the highway onto a service road leading into Meadowvale, passing the Esso station on our right. “There’s a greasy spoon joint by the Esso”, he said; “That’s where people go for coffee and the occasional meal out”.
“A ‘greasy spoon joint’?”
“Trust me, your arteries will feel the impact for hours afterwards. Do you want me to take you straight to your place, or would you like to drive around for a few minutes?”
“I wouldn’t mind a drive around, if you’ve got time”.
“All the time in the world; I’m a school principal in the middle of the summer break!”
We crossed the railway tracks, turned right, and then left again onto what was obviously the main street. The buildings were low and flat-roofed, with signs I didn’t recognize: ‘Fields’, ‘Zellers’, ‘McLeod’s’, ‘Blackie’s General Store’. We passed a bank and a post office on our left. “Is there just one bank in town?” I asked.
“A bank and a credit union, which is a prairie socialist version of the same idea”.
I grinned at him; “Are you a prairie socialist?”
“Now, now, Tom; you’ve only known me for an hour and you’re already asking me questions about my politics?”
“Well, you asked me about my family!”
“True enough! Well, I suppose I am something of a prairie socialist. The prairie socialists were in power in Saskatchewan until May, but we just elected a Conservative government, which some people in town seem to think is a good thing. Perhaps you do too?”
“I couldn’t really say; I do know that I’m no big Margaret Thatcher fan”.
“The Iron Lady’s not your cup of tea, eh?”
“Here’s the elementary school on our right; our school’s a bit further along, just beyond the playing field”.
The elementary school was an older building with grey siding and a flat roof. The high school, in contrast, was a smart looking two-storey brick building with large windows, its roof sloping to one side. “That looks new”, I said.
“Five years old; it replaced a frame building that nearly blew down in a blizzard a few years ago”.
“Pretty old, was it?”
“By our standards; it was built in 1946, in the worst of the postwar construction era. This one was built by prairie socialists, though, so it might not do much better, so the local Tories say”.
“It looks pretty good to me”.
“I’m glad you approve. Your classroom’s on the ground floor, over on the west corner there”.
“I’ll look forward to seeing it”.
“Probably not tonight though, eh? Are you just about ready to have a look at your new home?”
“I think so”.
We drove around several blocks of comfortable looking houses sitting on spacious treed lots with colourful gardens. “This looks pretty smart”, I said.
“Well, it’s the nice part of town. There are some poorer streets, but overall we can’t complain. Our place is over on the west side of town, just before the little creek that we dignify with the name of the Welsh River”.
“The Welsh River?”
“Yeah. One of the earliest settlers was from Wales, and he named it, so we’ve been told. It runs down the west side of town, then bends around to the east, runs under the railway tracks and the highway, and empties into Robert’s Lake – which some local folk call Welshman’s Lake, on account of the fact that Robert Williams – that early settler – had his homestead on the north side of the lake. Also, sadly, he drowned in that lake, which is quite an achievement given that it’s only three feet deep”.
“How can you drown in a lake that’s only three feet deep?”
He grinned mischievously as he turned a corner to the right. “Well, bear in mind that this happened in 1935, when I was all of four years old, and the story’s had forty-seven years of embellishment since then. Still, my dad used to say that Robert and his wife had been fighting, and he was drinking it off with a friend. Old Robert had a little sailboat, which was considered to be very eccentric around these parts, and he and his friend went out on the lake and then got into an argument. A few punches were landed, and then they got to wrestling, and they capsized the boat. The other guy made it to the shore, which wasn’t hard in three feet of water, even if it was muddy on the bottom, but old Robert was as drunk as a skunk, so he drowned. So I’ve been told, anyway”.
“Are there lots more stories where that one came from?”
“You don’t believe me? I’m mortified!”
I laughed. “Oh no, I believe you! It just strikes me that small towns are the same the world over; they’re full of real characters and unlikely stories”.
“Isn’t that the truth? Well, here’s your place”.
We pulled up in front of a small single-storey bungalow with off-white wooden siding, a shingled roof with a brick chimney, a small porch on one end and a free-standing garage at the other. There were two white-framed windows at the front of the house; I knew from the floor plan he had sent me that one was in the living room and the other in the kitchen.
“Want to come in?” he asked.
We got out of the car, and I realized immediately that the air conditioning had hidden the fact that it was still stiflingly hot. We got my suitcases and guitar out of the back, and then he led me up the path to the house. Unlocking the door, he led the way inside, through the porch and into the small kitchen; it had yellow-painted walls and white cupboards, with counter space on the front wall, a sink under the window, a stove and refrigerator. “There’s a small basement downstairs with a freezer in it”, he said.
“This looks pretty nice”.
“Not bad, eh?”
We passed through into the living room; it had blue walls and a carpeted floor, furnished with a chesterfield, a recliner, and a coffee table under the window.
“I thought you told me it was unfurnished?”
“Well, it is, but we thought you’d need a few days to get yourself some furniture, so Sally and I asked around”.
“That was very thoughtful of you”.
“It’s no trouble. When you get your own stuff, the owners will be glad to take these things back”.
He showed me the two bedrooms and the bathroom; the place had obviously been refinished recently, and it was spotlessly clean.
“So who owns this house?”
“Ron Ratzlaff; he’s married to my cousin Margaret. It used to be Ron’s mom’s place, and since she passed away five years ago he hasn’t had the heart to sell it. Actually, your predecessor rented from him as well”.
“Really? That’s a coincidence!”
“You could say that, or you could say it’s all part of the Meadowvale hospitality”.
I shook my head slowly. “This is amazing, Will; you’ve gone far beyond the call of duty here”.
“Well, it’s not every day that little old Meadowvale gets a teacher straight from Oxford; we’ve got to do our best to make you welcome”.
“You’ve certainly done that”.
“There are a few basic foodstuffs in the cupboard and the fridge, and Sally told me to tell you that tomorrow after you’ve unpacked she’ll be glad to show you the grocery stores and give you some advice about shopping in Meadowvale”. He looked at me seriously; “If you don’t mind me asking, are you okay for cash? I know moving’s expensive, and your first pay cheque won’t come until the end of September”.
“I’m fine, thanks; I worked at the village pub through the month of July, which earned me a bit of money. And then, my dad’s not short of two pennies to rub together, as the Irish say”.
“He gave you a little help, then?”
“In a manner of speaking”.
“Well, I’ll leave you to settle in and get unpacked”. He glanced at his watch; “Four-thirty. Shall I pick you up at six for supper?”
“Please, I don’t want to impose…”
He shook his head; “Sally told me to insist, and I’ve learned that the wisest thing is just to go along with what she wants!”
“Alright; thank you very much”.
“Not at all. See you in a while”.
Sally Reimer turned out to be every bit as warm and friendly as her husband. She was a little taller than him, with a thin face and blonde hair streaked with grey, and when I followed Will into her kitchen she greeted me with a smile and took my hand in both of hers. “You must be exhausted; did you have a nap?”
“I did, actually; I unpacked one suitcase, but then I sat down in the chair and closed my eyes, and woke up when Will knocked on the door”.
“Never mind; we won’t make you stay late. I just thought that after a long flight it would be so much better if you didn’t have to cook for yourself”.
“Thank you; I hope you didn’t go to a lot of trouble”.
“No trouble at all; I just made a couple of salads, and Will’s going to barbecue us some chicken. It’s still warm, so we can eat out on the deck if you like?”
“That would be great”.
“Right, I’ve got some coffee made, Will’s put some beer in the fridge, and there must be a couple of bottles of wine around here somewhere. What would you like?”
I laughed; “I think coffee might be useful right now, since I’m only half awake, but I’ll reserve the right to accept that beer with supper if I may?”
“Of course”, Will replied with a grin; “Grab yourself a coffee, and let’s go out the back and get the barbecue going”.
They had a spacious back yard, with a wooden deck behind the house and a large vegetable garden in one corner. We ate on a picnic table on the deck, with a big poplar tree giving us shade from the evening sun. Sally had made a potato salad and a green salad, Will had barbecued chicken, and there were fresh raspberries with ice cream for dessert. When we were finished Will went into the house and brought out a second round of beers, and we sat back in our seats, feeling pleasantly full. “Thank you”, I said; “That was just perfect”.
“I’m glad you enjoyed it”, Sally replied. “We like having company, and now that the kids are all grown up and gone we don’t get to share as often as we’d like”.
“Your son lives in town, you said?”
Will nodded; “He finished vet school last year and came back here to work. When he was a kid he used to hang around with Ivor Greenslade, our town vet; Ivor always said he’d be glad to take Joe on when he finished his training. So that’s what happened; there are actually three of them working there now, and they’ll probably be looking for another one before too long, because Ivor’s just about ready to retire”.
“So Joe would be a couple of years older than me, then?”
“He’s twenty-six”, Sally replied. “He’s just got engaged, actually, to a girl he met in Saskatoon”. She smiled at me; “What about you, have you left a girl back home?”
I shook my head; “I like them, but I don’t seem to be able to get them to like me”.
“I’m sure that’ll change as time goes on”.
Will took a sip of his beer. “What sort of music do you play? Are you into this punk rock stuff?”
I laughed. “No – it’s popular back home, but it doesn’t really appeal to me. I’m more of a traditional folk musician; I play old folk songs, from generations gone by”.
“A little older than Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, then?”
“Dylan actually learned some traditional songs from Martin Carthy, back in the sixties in London. So did Paul Simon; he picked up ‘Scarborough Fair’ from Carthy”.
Will nodded; “I know a few traditional songs, actually; wasn’t there one that Traffic did – ‘John Barleycorn’, or something like that?”
“Yes, and ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’ was based on another traditional song called ‘Lord Franklin’”.
“You must bring your guitar over and play us some of these songs, Tom”, said Sally. “Will loves getting together and jamming with other musicians”.
“Tom’s probably a much better guitarist than me”, said Will; “I’m just a meat and potatoes strummer”.
“What sort of music do you play?” I asked.
“I like old fashioned country songs, although I can manage hymns and classic rock songs too, at a stretch”.
“I’ve never heard of hymns being played on guitar”.
“Well, they probably don’t sound very good, unless they’re old gospel songs, but my mom plays the piano a little and she likes hymns. She likes it when I play along with her, so I learned a few to make her happy. And I like old fashioned mountain music – stuff like the early Doc Watson and Jean Ritchie songs. Doc Watson played traditional songs, too – I’ll bet some of them were from the old country, like the stuff you play”.
“I’ve never heard of him”.
“He’s more of a flat picker, although he can finger pick, too”.
We were silent for a moment; I was beginning to feel very weary, and I knew that after I finished my beer I was going to have a hard time staying awake. I glanced at Will; “So, what’s the schedule for the start of school?”
“Well, you’ve got about four weeks to settle in before we get the staff together to start the year. Are you going to get yourself a car?”
“It looks like I’m going to need one”.
“You’re looking for something used, probably?”
“Yes – I’ve got some money, but not a lot”.
“Well, you can pick something up at the Ford dealer on the highway, but you’d probably get a better deal in the city. I could run you in to have a look, if you like; I could borrow Joe’s truck and we could go look at some second hand furniture stores too”.
I shook my head; “You don’t have to do all this, Will…”
Sally laughed; “He loves company, Tom, and he likes making road trips, too”.
“Well, that’s true”, Will agreed. “I do think you’d be better looking for a car in the city. Henry Pickering’s the Ford dealer here, but he mainly carries half ton trucks, plus a few big eight-cylinder gas guzzlers. You’ve got the look of a guy who might like a slightly smaller car”.
“I’m not used to big cars”.
“I guess not. Be careful, though; don’t get something too small, because the roads here get pretty bumpy, especially on the gravel, and really small cars tend to get shaken to bits on them”.
I yawned; “I should probably take another look at the curriculum, too”.
“We can do that any time you like”.
I put my half-empty beer glass down on the picnic table. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t finish this. You folks are starting to swim across my field of vision!”
“Take him home, Will!” said Sally. “I’ll take him shopping in the morning!”
“No, really!” I protested; “I’ll be fine”.
“You’d be better off just to do as she says”, Will replied; “she’s a pretty smart shopper and she knows where to get all the good deals”.
I shook my head as I got to my feet; “You people are amazing!”
Sally smiled at me. “We aim to please! See you in the morning, Tom; thanks for coming over”.
“No”, I replied; “Thank you!”