When I was in the second grade (it was 1955, Saskatchewan’s Golden Jubilee), one afternoon our teacher gave us an unexpected assignment by “volunteering” the class to canvass the village of Laird for donations to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. She paired Lyle Sawatzky up with me, and the two of us were sent to visit the businesses on Main Street to solicit money from local merchants.
As we headed across the crocus meadow toward “uptown,” as we called it, I felt a bit timid. Our village of 400 had two grocery stores, two garages, a hardware store, lumber yard, shoemaker’s shop, egg-candling station — so many places to go, and some of the proprietors hadn’t seemed friendly to me before. But Lyle and I began making our rounds, carrying a little canvas bag to hold the money, and soon enough it was weighing pleasantly with nickels, dimes, quarters, an odd paper dollar, and with each successful bid we felt our confidence grow.
We finished one side of the street and crossed to the other, where the Imperial Bank of Canada stood at the end of the block. I had been inside this building only a few times with my father, and didn’t like the way our footfalls echoed from the high ceiling, the sombre hush of money as a teller peered at us from behind a wicket, and at the back wall was the massive, dark door of an open vault.
So now I felt hesitant again as Lyle and I pushed the door open. The teller listened to our request and directed us to the manager, who sat at a desk in his glass-windowed office working at some papers. Our sales pitch by now was thoroughly memorized, and the banker nodded as we spoke, took a chequebook from his drawer and told us we were doing a good thing, and wrote out a bright-orange coloured cheque, like the cancelled ones I’d seen among my dad’s papers. He tore it from the book and handed it to us, and we saw it was in the amount of 50 cents.
To me, cheques represented far more money than I ever expected to hear jingle in my pockets, and although other merchants had donated more, I imagined the teacher would consider this an especially significant donation. Back on the sidewalk I felt proud as Lyle and I folded the cheque and placed it in the pouch.
We carried on, garnering handfuls of change, and finally came to the hotel. Although my own house was hardly a block away, I hadn’t been inside the hotel even as often as in the bank. The hotel was owned by one of only two Catholic families in our mostly Mennonite and Lutheran village, and to me it was not so much an establishment offering rooms to travellers, as a place of iniquity where Ronny Tobin’s father sold beer on one side to people who were bound for hell, and on the other side his mother cooked meals in the kitchen and sold cigarettes from the front counter. So I was scared again as we approached the sinful place.
I knew there was a Wurlitzer jukebox in one corner of the lobby, but had never heard it play. The instant Lyle and I opened the door we heard noisy men talking in the beer parlour and loud music in the lobby, and there to our right, all alone in the middle of the floor, Ronny’s Grandpa Joe was dancing, his old body hopping up and down in one place, arms at his sides, knees knocking together and his feet a wild blur of motion.
I had heard a song by the Chuck Wagon Gang on my uncle’s gramophone, and one verse went: I heard a great thunder up in the sky, Must’ve been the saviour passing by, Heard a great rumble under the ground, Musta bin the devil bouncin’ up and down. That devil had been kicked out of heaven, they sang, and was bouncing around in hell, and here with my own eyes I saw in the Laird Hotel a devil-possessed Catholic, and for the first time in my life I panicked.
I turned and fled, leaving Lyle holding the money bag, out the front door, back along the street by the businesses we’d just canvassed, past the Imperial Bank and Lutheran Church and all the way to my house, without stopping. I arrived in the kitchen panting, my heart galloping more wildly than ever before — not even the Saviour’s thunder up in heaven seemed as fearsome as this close encounter with hell.
But here is one of life’s little mercies. The rest of that day is forgotten — or more likely repressed. Surely my mother must have seen me arrive in such panic, but she asked no questions then or later. And next morning at school there was no accusation from Lyle, and when the teacher reported the outcome of the Grade 2 campaign, she held up our 50-cent cheque as a rare exhibit indeed. For all I know, she explained the difference between coins and two sorts of paper money — or at least that’s how I’d like to recall it.
I did get over my fear of Catholicism, too. A few years later when I was 10 or 11, I fell madly in love with Pat Hardy, a girl from the other Catholic family. Still later in my teens, I was infatuated with the hotel proprietor’s own daughter Peggy. I wanted so desperately to win the convertible on Kellogg’s Corn Flakes boxes, and sent in my contest submissions with the required boxtops, fantasizing how Peggy and I might cruise around in Laird, and right there on Main Street, passing by her hotel, I’d wave at all the jealous guys, mere pedestrians, plodding on the sidewalk.
But I never won the car, nor did I succeed in attracting the notice of either Catholic girl, and they remain two of the forever-unattainable goddesses of my youth.
(To be concluded in the April 18 issue.)
Ratzlaff is a former minister, counsellor, and university lecturer. He has authored three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press, and edited an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. He has been short-listed for three Saskatchewan Books Awards, won two Saskatchewan Writers Guild literary non-fiction awards, and served on local, provincial, and national writing organization boards.