poor boy off the farm
October 23, 2010
My Tribute to My Dad
A few years ago, my dad began writing his memoirs. His title was “Poor Boy off the Farm”. It reflects the reality of his life story and something of his insecurities as he battled honorably through life. He was far from ‘poor’ in my mind, though he began life in humble circumstances.
My dad was born as the fifth of six children to a prairie homesteader and an immigrant school teacher from Ireland. My dad’s father could have been better circumstanced, but he rebelled against his father’s insistence on good behaviour at college and decided “I’ll show him,” coming out to Alberta to homestead. My dad’s mother was the daughter of a temperance worker and fine Christian gentleman in Ireland, a charter member of a Baptist church that still stands.
My dad came into the world just in time for the Great Depression, followed by the Second World War for the backdrop to his teenage years. He turned eighteen the year the war ended, so thankfully was spared that conflict. Growing up on the farm during those years meant a good deal of privation – everyone lived in tight circumstances on the prairie farms in those years. But those years made for wonderful stories that my siblings and I will always treasure. “Tell us a story about the farm!” we used to beg, and he would begin, “Once upon a time, there was a farm where lived Charlie, Nancy, Betty, Tommie, and Jakey…”
I am afraid the details of those stories will fade into mist for me now. I won’t be able to ask him about them for a while. Once they cured a dog of stealing eggs by filling a shell full of mustard and hot sauce. Another time they were up and after a fox or a weasel trying to get at their chickens. Once he confronted an aggressive badger out in the fields, armed only with a machete-like knife – no blood ensued, the badger backed off… but for us, what excitement to hear of it later! There was a story of revenge against the bully of his one-room school house… perhaps not too glorious, but we all felt that justice was done.
My dad was a self-taught man, for the most part. His one-room school house only went to grade 9. High school was twenty miles away and meant boarding in town. Dad was needed on the farm, so he took grade 10 by correspondence. It took two years, but I guess that would have caught him up to his age group, he had skipped a couple of grades early on. Later, when I was a little lad, he took some grade 12 by correspondence also. But he was a reader and a thinker. He read constantly, books on business and Christianity mostly. He read a lot of John R. Rice, as I remember, as well as commentaries and theology. His books are going to be a problem to me, shortly! I think I am going to open a used book store!
As a young man, my dad worked very hard. He spent one winter in a logging camp, somewhere in BC, I think. He worked on a ranch in southern Alberta another winter. And, like many an Alberta lad, he worked in the oil patch after the big discovery in the 1950s. He had stories about that, too. Working on the drilling rigs was tough, dangerous work. The oil patch brought him eventually to my home town where he met my mother. But I need to tell another story before I get to that one.
On one occasion, my dad was headed to his home in east central Alberta, but he stopped off to see an acquaintance from one of his jobs. The man offered him a drink, which led to several more, before my dad got in his car and continued his journey. Fortunately, a police officer spotted him and provided him with an overnight jail cell to sober up. My dad was so embarrassed about this incident that he went to his mother’s pastor when he got home and confessed his misdeed. His pastor counseled him wisely and led him to Christ. My dad never touched another drop of alcohol again. He used to be quite fierce about it. “You’ve never tasted the stuff,” he said to me one time. He didn’t want me to go sideways with my university learning and take any kind of a weak stand about alcohol.
When my dad got work near my home town, he started attending a little church there. It was the first church in our town, part of the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). My mother was working at a drug store in the town in order to be a help in this particular local church – she was an RN and had also gotten a degree in church work at a Christian college in Oregon. Well, you can see what happened. They met, they fell in love, they got married. And they started a Christian home.
In their first home after marriage, they furnished it partly by making chairs out of orange crates. It was humble beginnings. Dad spent a couple of years trying to sell life insurance in the big city. (I had come along by this time.) After some frustration with that business, he headed back to our home town and the rigs. But he had another idea, general insurance (fire and auto).
While working the rigs, he opened a tiny office to sell insurance. His desk was set on a landing he rented from the local bakery. It couldn’t have been more than 8 x 8 feet – I remember being at his desk as a little boy. He would work graveyard on the rigs, then come to his office during the day and sleep in the afternoons. He told me that sometimes customers would wake him up at his desk in order to buy insurance. After a while (he was too cautious and waited longer than he needed to, he always said), dad quit the rigs and went full time at insurance and real estate. That is where he spent his business life. He was modestly successful at it, expanding his business to a neighboring town (60 miles away, this is the Canadian prairies we are talking about…), and served one term on our town council that concluded with him serving as acting mayor when his friend, the mayor, passed away suddenly.
Work is not all that defined my dad’s life. His Christian life was not just church attendance on Sunday’s, but lived out in various ways in his life. He personally supported mission work, including the missionary work of my uncle, J. A. (Jake) Johnson. He and my mom supported the education of several young people besides their own in Christian colleges. They faithfully served and supported their own local church.
In our home, my dad was a spiritual force… He was a loving disciplinarian. That meant, at times, corporal punishment. He was always just – except, he thought, one time, when he disciplined me in anger (he says). When I think back, I think he was justified… but we both remember the even vividly, so maybe he is right. But it was more than discipline – he could effect that with just a look… no one ever looked at me like my dad. That look could straighten up Lombard St in San Francisco.
My dad had our respect. He spent many hours talking to us, when we were little – taking us for walks. Reading to us. In Canada we had no Sunday papers at the time, so the coloured comics came on Saturday. I remember when I was only about 5, sitting with my dad at the back of our house one Saturday night. We lived in a ‘skid shack’, an oilpatch house without a foundation, just creosote soaked skids. We had dirt piled around the sides for insulation – and comfortable seats on a summer evening. Dad always took his glasses off to read, but this time, when he was done, asked where he put his glasses. Sure enough we found them, he had sat on them and broken them. A week or two later, we were doing the comics reading routine again and Dad asked again for his glasses. I said, “You aren’t sitting on them, are you?” Sure enough, he had broken them again!
Dad’s reading was particularly significant to me. When I was about 5 or 6 years old, he was reading Bible stories to me from the Egermeiers Bible Story Book (still the best, in my opinion, especially the 1954/6 editions). He would read to me three times a day, after each meal. At that time I started asking him to read the record of the crucifixion. I still remember the picture on the page of a Roman centurion looking at the cross. In my mind, it is in colour, but in the book it is B&W. I used to weep when he read the story and kept asking my Dad, “Why did he have to die? If he was a good man, why did he have to die?”
My Dad patiently explained to me that Jesus died because of our sins, everyone’s sins. He explained to me that I was a sinner and could not save myself. I couldn’t understand it. (After all, I had not yet robbed any banks or murdered anyone – I was only 5 or 6. [Still haven’t done those two things, BTW.]) Dad kept explaining that we are all sinners, we have all sinned. He pointed out times when I had indeed sinned, that proved I was a sinner and Jesus had to die for that.
This went on for several weeks. My mother asked why Dad kept reading the same story when it upset me so much. I kept asking for it, he said. Finally, one night, lying in my bed, my father kneeling at my side, he thought that I seemed to understand. I remember that night vividly. The light from the hall was streaming into my darkened room and the light of the gospel streamed into my heart as I understood I was a sinner and that Jesus died the death I deserve to die. My Dad led me as I prayed and was born again.
Well, my dad didn’t tell my mom what had happened. I was just a kid, after all. A few weeks later, as my mom tells me, she asked him what had gotten into me, I had been so good lately. Then he told her the story.
What do I owe my dad? Everything.
More than that, I owe everything to the God whose grace worked first in my father’s and mother’s hearts and led them to make a Christian home.
I could say a lot more about my dad. But that, I think, is enough for now. Thank God for him, and may God still use my dad’s influence in the lives of me, my brother, my sisters, their families and my own.