Grace Triumphant - Chapter 3 - Life in Canada

CHAPTER 3
Life in Canada

“And he led them forth by the right way, that they might go to a city of habitation.” (Psa. 107:7)

Life in Canada was quite different in many ways.  Before leaving England I had become the proud possessor of my first (and only) bowler hat, that very typical Englishman’s headgear.  It didn’t take long to learn that in Canada a bowler hat soon became a target for things more solid than ridicule.

Our home in Edmonton consisted of two tents, with rough board floors and boarded sides.  A large canvas covered both tents and provided further protection from the weather.  One tent served as parlor, dining room, and kitchen while the ladies slept in the other.  A small shack served as a bedroom for my brother-in-law and me until winter came.  Then we moved into the living tent and slept on the table near the kitchen stove.  The shack then became cold storage for sides of beef and pork.  One day my sister went to cut off some meat in the shack.  Without thinking she put the key in her mouth for a moment.  In that excessive cold it lifted the skin from her lips.  Walking down the main street one day, a man stopped her and said, “Excuse me, but is your nose frozen?”  She hadn’t realized it!

We lived on the flats beside the North Saskatchewan River and so had running water nearby.  In summer we also found some edible berries to vary our diet.  In winter we had to cut a hole through two or three feet of ice to get our water.  Just down stream from our tents the high-level bridge between Edmonton and Strathcona was being built.  During the winter a lot of scaffolding was built on the ice.  Then in the spring came the break-up as the ice broke and began to drift downstream.  Huge chunks of ice as big as the side of a house would be toppled one over another, carrying everything before it.  Earlier in the winter, ice was cut in blocks and stored away in large warehouses for use during the summer.

Money was scarce for us in those days so on arrival in Edmonton we had to find work.  Florrie got a job in domestic service and Mother did odd jobs of practical nursing.  That summer Ethel had her first baby, a girl Beatrice (Tricie).  Ethel’s husband Richard was a house painter in England but had to take different jobs in Canada.  Thirteen years old, my first job was as a messenger in a jeweler’s store.  It also included being the janitor.  Saturday nights the store stayed open till ten.  As I made my way home one Saturday night there was a terrific thunderstorm.  Getting off the streetcar I walked the rest of the way, past the new Alberta Parliament buildings under construction and past an old Hudson’s Bay Fort.  Between the flashes of lightning it was impossible to see anything.  The road turned to the right to go down a hill to the flats.  If I missed that turn I would tumble down a steep embankment onto railroad tracks below, which could mean broken bones or possible death.  As I groped my way in the dark there was a brilliant flash of lightning.  Just before me was the edge of the embankment.  I was aware that the Lord was watching over me as I made my way down the hill.

That summer there was a succession of jobs.  The jeweler was not satisfied and fired me.  To me, it was a terrible blow.  But then a sister in the assembly gave me a job of putting insulation on water pipes in the basement of an apartment block she owned.  For me it was a good job while it lasted and for her it was cheap labor!  During the annual fair at the fairgrounds I worked as a busboy in a restaurant, hard work but plenty to eat.  Next I worked as a messenger in a dress shop.  It was managed by a man and his wife who were constantly bickering.  Getting tired of being caught in the crossfire, I quit.

Then I went to the Canadian Pacific Railroad to work as a telegraph messenger.  I didn’t have a bicycle but I could move fast and I knew all the empty lots and short cuts around town.  When I discovered that the other boys didn’t want to take the morning delivery to the west end of town, I volunteered.  Offices in the Parliament Buildings were opening up so there were always plenty of messages to be delivered there and all close together.  We were paid according to the number of telegrams delivered.  On that run I was able to go home for lunch before going back to the office.  I averaged a dollar a day, which wasn’t too bad then.  I could get a good substantial meal in a clean restaurant for 25 cents!  One day I found a meal ticket from a better restaurant.  People would buy a ticket for a lump sum at a discount.  Most of the slots in this ticket were not punched out.  I had visions of scrumptious meals – for free.  At noon I made my way to the restaurant.  Funny!  Nobody inside at noon!  Then a sign on the door caught my eye, “Gone out of business.”  I learned that in this world you don’t get something for nothing.  So typical of much this world offers – bitter disappointments and unfulfilled promises.

Winter was hard. Plenty of opportunities for skating but I wasn’t athletically inclined and never took to ice skating.  One night in a blizzard I escorted Mother home from work, at 30 below zero Fahrenheit.  As we struggled through the snow I wondered if we would make it.  Another morning down by the river the temperature dropped to 52 below.  I used to pick up our milk in bottles at the Fort on the way home.  It would be frozen with the caps resting on frozen milk an inch above the top of the bottle.  One evening I had a bottle cradled on each arm.  At a little slope on the road both feet shot out in front of me and I sat down suddenly and sorely.  I saved the milk at the expense of some pain and effort in getting back on to my feet.

Often I wished that I could go to a place where it was always summer.  Not that I ever expected my wishes would be granted for then I had no idea that I would spend most of my life in the tropics.  Those days I was not doing very well spiritually.  I was a weak Christian, not only because I was young but mainly because I hadn’t been taught to feed upon the Word of God.  We attended the assembly regularly but there were not many young people.  There was little help for young people because of the sad condition in the assembly.  Shortly after our arrival in Edmonton, the hall was moved to a new location.  It was something new to see such a building being slowly moved down the street!

There were two factions in the assembly.  One older brother who owned the hall had a few friends with very rigid views about fellowship with other believers.  On Labor Day there was a conference at which many gathered, including quite a few preachers.  The two factions had each invited preachers favoring their own views.  It was an open platform, no pre-arranged program.  On the hot afternoon meeting, crowded together in a rented building, one brother droned on endlessly.  In politics it would be called “filibustering.”  He was trying to keep the platform from a preacher with more open views on fellowship.  Finally an old brother who had pioneered in the Lord’s work on the prairies, got up to read 1 Corinthians 14:30 and told the speaker he should give place to his brethren.

Then one Sunday soon after that episode it was announced that the assembly had been given notice to vacate the hall.  However, word had been passed by the owner to his cronies to stay on.  Thus the assembly was split with a good deal of bitterness and hard feelings.  Such an atmosphere and such unchristian spirit didn’t tend to foster spiritual growth in a young believer like myself.

Those days there was a real estate boom on the Pacific Coast.  Agents were extolling the claims of British Columbia, which is indeed a beautiful province; but not all the agents’ claims were credible.  Some friends bought farmland very cheaply due to the glowing report they received, only to discover later that their farm was on the slopes of a steep mountain!  Nevertheless, we decided to move away from Edmonton to a milder climate.  In April 1913, Richard, my brother-in-law, went ahead to Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.  The rest of us followed a month later to the small house which he had purchased.  In the Oaklands district, close to a new school, we found congenial neighbors.  Out of ten homes in that block where we lived, there were at one time believers from the assembly in nine.  Next door was a missionary family that had served the Lord in South India.  Two of the boys were slightly older than I, and I became very chummy with Frank Maynard.  Through the help of another neighbor I got a job in a large department store, David Spencer’s.

Shortly before our arrival a new assembly had been formed in the Oaklands district, a hive-off from the large assembly downtown, Victoria Hall.  They were then meeting in a rented hall above some stores at the corner of Hillside and Cedar Hill Road.  One evening at prayer meeting, we boys saw a barn burning down the road a mile or so away.  We thought the brethren would never close that meeting so we could dash out to see the fire!

In 1914 the Oaklands assembly was able to purchase a piece of land next door to where they were meeting and start building.  A lot of the labor was volunteer.  Some of my spare time went into that project.  In August of that year Frank and I had our holidays and decided to hike part way up Vancouver Island.  The war clouds were looming but that was no concern of ours then. By the first afternoon we were starting the climb up the Malahat.  Today the Malahat is a scenic drive north of Victoria.  Then it was a one-way gravel road with places here and there for the occasional vehicle to pass.  It was a steep climb, and a few bragged they could make the climb in high gear.  That was extremely unlikely!  Evening was approaching and we were beginning to look for a suitable place to sleep out for the night.  A motorist in a model-T open Ford offered us a lift.  Frank climbed in the front seat beside the driver and I clambered up on some baggage in the back seat.  Then the driver took off on one of the most exciting rides I have ever had.  Up and down, round the curves along a cliff-hanging gravel road, he didn’t let up until he pulled up in front of a saloon in Duncan.  He promised to be out in a few minutes, just long enough to fortify his spirits with liquor.  A few miles further on he stopped again at the saloon at Horseshoe Bay.  We decided not to imperil life and limb any longer with such a driver.  Anyway, it was getting dark.  So we hiked off the road, made a bed of pine branches and bracken fern, and curled up in our blankets.

Next day we hiked a few miles further north and then retraced our steps.  Frank had a friend at Cobble Hill with whom we spent two delightful days boating and swimming.  From there we went to Shawnigan Lake (very few houses there then) and after a night there hiked to Goldstream by way of Sooke Lake.  It was a lonely trail but very beautiful.  We didn’t see a soul all day but did see footprints of bears and panthers.

While we were on the hike, World War I had been declared.  The department store where I worked was between two newspaper offices.  The latest war bulletins were posted in the windows so people would stop to catch up with the war news.  I was not much involved with such things as I was only 15.

My Christian life was quite nominal; I still hadn’t learned to feed on the Word.  Going to meetings, to Sunday school, and in summer attending the open-air meetings downtown was the extent of my spiritual activity.  But there was neither real spiritual growth nor any clear witness for Christ.  I was saved but not being challenged, or else ignored what challenges there were.

By 1915 the call for men to volunteer for military service was more insistent.  I wasn’t really interested in going overseas and my family certainly didn’t encourage any such thoughts.  There was a difference of opinion in the assembly about military service.   Some joined up but others took the stand of conscientious objectors and suffered for their stand.  One brother was very outspoken in his criticism of those fellows who had enlisted.  For me, his criticism carried little weight because he was earning good wages making war supplies.  What was the difference between making bullets and firing them?

What did attract me was the possibility of enlisting in a local regiment guarding the Pacific Coast.  This regiment was part of the regular Canadian army and different from the Canadian Expeditionary Force preparing to go overseas.  This would afford me a bit more money than I was earning, and I would be stationed near home.  There was also a youthful desire to get away from home and see a different side of life.  There was no thought of praying about such a step or asking the Lord about His will.

Changing my age from 16 to 18 was dishonest but I rationalized it was for my country.  Recruiting officers were only too anxious to build up their quota and I was big for my age.  So I became a private in the Royal Canadian Garrison Artillery and was stationed at Signal Hill, overlooking the Naval Base of Esquimalt.  Being regular army we were issued dress uniforms in addition to the regular uniform.  Arrayed in my bright red uniform I supposed I would make some impression on young ladies when I was on leave on Sunday.  Troops training for war service got no such uniforms but they saluted my uniform, supposing only an officer would dare to wear such regalia.  In a few months I was promoted to lance-corporal and got my first stripe.  That added more to my pride than to my efficiency.  Certainly I was not doing well in the Lord’s service and was not a good soldier of Jesus Christ.  Looking back I marvel at His grace – I deserved a dishonorable discharge form His service.  How amazing is the longsuffering and patience of our wonderful Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

The winter I was stationed at Signal Hill was unusually severe for Victoria.  Usually there are only a few inches of snow during the season but that year there was about three feet in one storm.  I was in town when it started and before long the streetcars were not running.  That meant plodding three miles through a foot or two of newly fallen snow.  Next day the troops were called out to help clear the snow from the streets but that did not include our regiment.  Victoria is famous for the tourist slogan “Follow the birds to Victoria,” because of the sea gulls.  That winter the birds were hungry.  Some of the fellows tied pieces of fat bacon on opposite ends of a string and had fun watching the tugs of war between flying birds.

We had a trumpeter to sound calls.  He was never in uniform in time to sound the call half an hour before parade each morning, so he would open a window and raise the trumpet through it to sound that call.  One morning one of the fellows climbed up on the roof with a jug of water which he poured into the trumpet just as the call was beginning.  There was great amusement as the call died out in a gurgle and a splutter!

Increasingly there was talk about going overseas.  Some men deserted to join outfits headed for action in Europe.  Very foolishly I agreed with one of my chums to be absent without leave.  Over in Vancouver we enlisted with a construction company that was going to France.  We even went back to Victoria to say goodbye to our families.  But on our return to Vancouver we were arrested by the M.P. and sent back for courtmartial.  We were sentenced to 30 days in military prison.  One evening there I picked up the Bible and read Psalm 51 and on my knees confessed my sin to the Lord.  A day or so later our Commanding Officer offered us a reprieve if we would volunteer for overseas service with a detachment being sent from the Battery.  On my release I asked my family’s forgiveness and also went to confess to some of the elders of the assembly.  It is an episode of youthful folly that I would like to forget but I take comfort that when God forgives, He forgets.  It is no pleasure to record it here except that it does magnify the grace of God.