A Masculine Upbringing

That winter after my father died of a stroke, I sharpened, rather poorly, our Homelite chain saw, filled it with mixed oil and gas, and went out to cut and haul firewood with the help of my younger brothers. I was 12; my brothers three and four years younger. My mother urged us on and fed us well from the the cook stove burning the wood we supplied.

Eventually that winter in 1963 our uncle, my mother’s twin brother and a railroad engineer, arrived from California, and he took over the lead on fuel production.  We all lived in a log cabin in the wilds of north-central British Columbia.

Gathering enough wood to keep our stoves going was a big deal. We might use four or five cords of wood per winter. A cord is four feet wide, four feet high and eight feet long. The wood had to be cut far enough in advance to dry properly, so that meant at first we were cutting for the next winter too. We tended to burn a mix of dried and green poplar. Poplar is plentiful in the Bulkley Valley in British Columbia, but when green it doesn’t burn well and it takes a long time to dry. When it’s dry it burns too fast.

The winters were more severe then, and the snow piled high and lasted long, from the end of October until well into March. There might be several weeks of -40 to -50 below zero (Fahrenheit).

Back to back they faced each other

My uncle taught us amusing doggerel verses while he stayed and worked with us that winter. Like this:

One day
In the middle of the night
Two dead boys got up to fight
Back to back
They faced each other
Drew their swords
And shot each other
A deaf policeman
Heard the noise
And came and shot
Those poor dead boys.

My brothers and I thought this was the height of comedic and literary sophistication and laughed at all my uncle’s tried and true versifying.

But after that winter, my uncle left, having lost 20 pounds or more to hard work, and returned to Southern Pacific in California.

The rest of us returned to our reality, a near penniless young widow and her three boys living in a 50-year-old log cabin on a section of land without electricity.

I remember finding my mother several times with her head down on her arms crying at the big kitchen table. But she would dry her tears quickly and try not to show any weakness in front of her sons. We had almost no money, but with the kindness of friends and neighbours who brought by quarters of deer and moose and bear, and with largesse from their gardens and our own, we did well enough.

In a year or two some GI benefits from the States trickled in because my father had been a US Marine in WWII, and then Ma eventually found some employment 25 miles away in the town of Smithers (pop. 3500 or so at that time). The industries in that part of BC were logging and ranching, with some civil service jobs like working for the Ministry of Highways thrown in.

A near miss

But before our affairs started to right themselves, I remember a local well-to-do rancher coming to court Ma. It was a funny kind of courting. From what I recall, one day he was introducing himself, and shortly thereafter he was at our cabin with a serious proposition.

He told Ma he needed a wife to help run his ranch, and that we three boys needed a man’s influence. Ma needed help, without a doubt, and she had no obvious prospects and little future.

Ma sent the three of us outside while she talked with him. It was one of those times when one’s entire life could change while having very little say in the matter.

She refused. The rancher went away feeling slighted and misunderstood. I think Ma understood this turning point well. She had come to appreciate her growing independence and couldn’t see herself in the subservient position, even if it proved to be benign, that marriage to that fellow meant.

The ghost in the machine

Ma eventually worked for several doctors in Smithers as a receptionist. I can still see the face of one of the doctors who loaned to me Arthur Koestler’s Ghost in the Machine. I remember his interest in what I thought of it, and his kindness towards a fatherless bookworm boy who built his own boxing ring.

There are many threads of masculinity in all this. They weave towards the main knot of one winter and summer. There was considerable timber on our section of land. Ma wheeled and dealed her way to selling the logs for a considerable sum to a contractor from the Peace River region in northeast BC.

But part of the deal was we would supply the loggers with food and shelter. The latter amounted to a well-built plywood shack fifty feet from our log cabin that would last for decades. Three loggers moved in: a Swede and a Greek and some down and out local guy. The Swede was huge and had a beard like Santa Claus. Their bunk house smelled of sawdust, chainsaw oil, old wool and sweat.

Ma and the contractor Zig formed a romantic liaison.  I remember listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine while we drove in a warm pickup somewhere on a cold winter’s night, Ziggy’s free hand going to my mother’s knee.

The logging seemed to go well. That summer we had a real party, thanks to those loggers.

We ate breakfast and dinner with them almost every day in our small kitchen, and there was a true air of camaraderie in this odd extended family. Zig was often there too.

We had a few pigs and chickens then. The Greek fellow declared that if we were willing, he would kill and butcher the big sow, build a spit over an open fire and cook it for all of us, just like in the old country. The logging was finishing up, and it would be a just celebration. Ma agreed. She loved a good party and often had friends and neighbours sitting around a campfire in our yard on summer nights until all hours.

Feast of the pig

The process of killing the big pig was elaborate. The Greek slit her throat and she was hung to bleed out. The carcass was then lowered into a 45 gallon drum of boiling water from a home-made tripod. Lifted out of that, the skin was scraped to remove all the hair.

Meanwhile the loggers had built a large spit with a handle over a long fire of burning coals. Somehow they threaded the heavy carcass onto the spit and our Greek friend stood there beaming for hours as he slowly turned the handle and drank beer.

These men roamed almost anonymously from logging show to logging show, thick accents, uneducated, perhaps even illiterate; they were hard working, hard drinking, with little to show for all their years in the woods. Yet they showed us quite unselfconsciously that day their true masculine spirit.

That was a party. People came from near and far, even that doctor who loaned the book to me. The sparks flew up around the diminishing spitted pig until the stars were bright.  We sat around another fire as it crackled and glowed while talk and laughter endured until the small hours.

But then there’s always another side of the masculine. Zig started to drag his feet paying out the rest of his obligations on the logging contract. One day he just disappeared, presumably back to the Peace River country. It wasn’t just a financial betrayal for my mother, but also a personal and amatory one by a man who had strung her along and finally conned her.


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8 Comments on “A Masculine Upbringing”

  1. As a single mother raising three kids, two of them boys, this struck a deep chord with me, Fencer. Really lovely and honest. Have you considered writing a memoir?


  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Mary,

    Good to hear from you! (I keep checking your blog from time to time.)

    Although I was trying to write about the currents of masculinity around me that helped form my early life in the absence of a father, this is really about my mother too, about her strength and her vulnerability. It can’t be easy raising kids on your own. I admire you.

    But we were lucky; we lived in the country, and there was enormous space to grow up in, where we could shout and laugh at each other.

    I find that I’m often writing an episodic memoir here. I’ve toyed with the idea of setting up another page with an chronological or relational outline of my history, mostly for my own benefit, with links to the posts that explore specific aspects. It might jog my memory about other episodes that need remembering.

    I feel like I want to get some of these things down. Mostly, the only stories that will be told from those times are what I tell here, and the people in them will be honoured nowhere else…


  3. sputnki Says:

    A lovely piece of your personal history, Fencer. It is evocative of your youth and evokes memories from my childhood, helping my grampy in the woods.


  4. fencer Says:

    Hey Doug,

    Thanks! and nice to hear from you…


  5. Fencer,
    This is a heartfelt piece of writing. I ache for your mother’s hardship, not only in eking out a living and raising three boys on her own, but also in losing her husband and the vulnerability that that engenders.
    You boys must have felt the loss of your father too, but in a much different way, as children do, more viscerally; and you sure had a variety of masculine influences come in and out of your upbringing.
    Truly, you have a unique story to tell and I find it so interesting to read the way you tell it. That kicker at the end – what a rotten thing to do to someone!

    Your story made me think:
    Sometimes people believe we Canadians are so privileged and it has just been handed to us. At this later part of my life, I see that we really are. But what we have been able to accumulate and make grow during our lives does not speak of the hardships that we went through in our youth. Or our parents’ youth.

    A one generation Canadian whose parents immigrated to Canada was complaining about how harsh their beginning was here in Canada because they came with so very little and how they had all had to work in the family; and how they had been laughed at as non-English speaking children.
    I thought about it a while and later, I opened up the conversation again. My family was climbing through education to a different position in the social scale; but it was by dint of my grandparents constant toil. They came with nothing from the old country – and were not English speaking either; but they got on with it and made it a challenge to speak the language perfectly.
    When my parents were young, in both families, all the siblings had to work to keep the household together, each contributing the small wages they could earn, just to keep heat in their houses(in Winnipeg) and food on the table.
    It’s a common story of struggle and success. I think that is what makes Canada so unique. People can make of their lives what they will, given determination and hard work. Trials and tribulations make us tougher, more durable, better people.


  6. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    Thanks a lot for your comments… We have it pretty easy now most of us, even just compared to our childhood, or even more so to our parents’ and grandparents’. Especially if they lived through the Great Depression.


  7. julio Says:

    Hello Thank you for sharing those moving memories…..in adversity people shows thier true nature, like your mother….
    G. Julio.

  8. fencer Says:

    Thanks, Julio…


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