The_Irvine Boys, 1932-1967
By Lance Irvine - 2010
The Early Years
My memory of my brothers is a little scattered for the earliest years.
Brothers are mainly just there, and unique memories, especially before I
was about ten years old, are harder to come by. Memories of Wayne are
the most common, with the others appearing more often as they became
I was apparently a restless child. born at home on Edmonton's south
side, north of White Avenue and the Calgary Trail, on 85 Ave. At the age
of three I escaped one night through the bedroom window, got past the
fence, and toddled a block or so to White Avenue, where I sat down on
the streetcar tracks. The first intimation my parents had that I was
absent was when the police appeared with me at the front door. The
police made a fatal error. They had plied me with pop and ice cream,
thus ensuring repeat performances until Dad laid down the law.
My memories of that first address, 10554 85 Avenue, include another
wandering, this time down into a railway tunnel. I remember standing
there, frightened at an invisible clatter somewhere in front. I looked
around to see Dad coming down the embankment. and rushing in to gather
me up. A freight rumbled past us a couple of minutes later.
Trains were a recurring hazard at that time: one of my early memories of
Wayne was his rushing toward the tracks to watch a passenger train roar
by. I raced after him, calling on him to stop. He kept yelling
"Train...train!" until a pipe on one of the passenger cars grazed his
forehead, leaving a mark which is still visible. I seem to remember
being scolded for not taking better care of him. The injury didn't
affect his intelligence, though, since I spent most of my school years
trying to avoid being shown up by his grades.
The Great Depression was at its height, and family resources were always
limited. I recall a typical Christmas where Wayne and I shared a toy
truck with real headlights. We played under our bed in the dark for
hours. I can't recall any fights then. In our teens we used to have them
often. Wayne and I had to share a bed, and many a nocturnal altercation
followed the failure of one of us to heed the invisible line down the
center of the bed.
Our parents married at eighteen and I was born on July, 21, 1932,
precisely at the height of the depression. While Dad had a job with the
Edmonton gas company, the needs of a growing family weighed heavily.
Mother's parents helped as best they could, often sending food from the
farm. Aunt Viola recalled bringing eggs in a wooden crate packed with
oats, paper bags being a luxury and the oats being all but unsaleable.
Verna felt that eggs simply stayed fresher longer packed in oats. A
turkey had been sent one Christmas, and Mom placed it in a box on the
back porch to keep it cool, having an unreliable ice-box for a
refrigerator. Dogs got into the bird, and Mom was frantic lest the
grandparents find out what had happened. With the help of her sisters a
replacement was found.
Once, when the rent could not be paid, Dad had to hitchhike the nearly
100 miles to the grandparents in Bentley to borrow enough to get by. Mom
economized by salvaging meat from her soupbones for sandwiches.
There was the memorable depression day when I left my new trike in the
street. A car backed over it. While I was waiting for Dad to come home
and mete out the inevitable retribution, I wandered over to watch some
boys playing baseball. I had no idea what they were doing, so I walked
up behind the catcher and poked my head out in front of his glove to get
a good look. I woke up on my bed at home to see Dad standing sadly in
the doorway. Depressed by the financial pressures of supporting a
growing family, he didn't have the heart to say much about the bike.
(Twenty years later an RCAF doctor told me that I had only a 17% opening
in my left nostril, which explained why I tended to be a mouth breather
during my teens).
I was lucky to get away from that address alive. Wayne and I thought it
was cool to hold onto the tailgates of trucks and run or slide along
behind them. I stopped doing that after a truck I was tailing shifted
into road gear, yanking my feet off the road. I saw our house sailing
by, looked at the dirt road beneath me, and decided that I had better
let go. The landing made a mess of my clothes, left a few scratches, and
scared hell out of mother.
Not all my memories from that time were of life-threatening adventures.
We were across the river from the exhibition grounds, and I can recall
the spectacular fireworks displays at fair time, which seemed to erupt
right above us. Later, when we lived very close to the exhibition
grounds, Wayne, Bill and I used to slip away at nights to see the
sights, forcing Dad to locate and retrieve us. I can recall picnics
which followed the departure of the midway, where the family scrounged
around in the sawdust in search of lost change. On one occasion we
returned elated by the discovery of several dollars.
I must have been five when we moved to the Norwood district. At the time
it was a respectable working class neighborhood, although it is now an
inner city district. None of us recall the address of our first Norwood
home, where we stayed for only a short time. We eventually moved to a
new house a few blocks away, but had to wait for a month or so before
moving in. We stayed at a cockroach-infested hotel before moving into a
house at 11222 91st St. That house, now overshadowed by the north end of
Commonwealth Stadium, is the home we all remember best, and still look
up on visits to Edmonton.
We were always short of money. I can recall hiding with Wayne and Bill
and mother under a bed waiting for a bill collector to go away. I lay
there and vowed that I would never hide under a bed with my children if
I had to go to university for ten years. I was to make I it for seven
years as things turned out, but I haven't had to hide under beds, and I
have been able to pay for my children's education. It is no accident,
one supposes, that the next generation of children tends to get what the
earlier generation was denied.
I began school there, and loved my grade one teacher, Miss Gee. Some of
us used to walk with her to school. My interest in studies was slow to
develop, however, and I can remember Miss Gee sitting in the living room
at the school year's end, explaining why I would be allowed into Grade
Two "on probation." I didn't like the sound of that, and I remember
concentrating very hard as soon as school reopened.
My early lack of success in school may have had something to do with my
association with Harold Mclssac. Harold and I used to sit behind the
backstop at Norwood School throwing rocks at passing streetcars. We kept
a log so that we wouldn't throw at the same one twice. That ended after
a school assembly where the principal threatened to bring down hell and
damnation on the (unknown) perpetrators. We hadn't thought that the
conductors talked to each other. I met Harold years later in Vancouver,
when I was in library school. He was still pretty wild.
The Irvine boys were always getting in scrapes of one kind or another. I
can remember playing on a boulevard when Wayne (as I thought) picked up
a rock and pegged it at a passing car. An obviously Jewish man got out,
caught us, and took us home. He protested at length that he had seen me
fire a rock out of my play gun, although he wasn't able to duplicate the
feat. I was the oldest, so Wayne got off. Fortunately, no damage had
been done. (The real culprit turned out to have been little Bill, who,
when the incident was recalled years later, finally fessed up--he was by
then 62 years old.)
There might have been more damage on another occasion. Mother and Dad
had gone out, but had not hired a baby sitter. I would have been the
oldest (seven or eight) so trouble was possible. Wayne, Bill and I each
wore pullover pajamas, complete with legs and feet. That allowed us to
play a little game with matches in the living room, lighting pieces of
paper and stamping them out by jumping on them. Mom and Dad arrived home
shortly after we started, in time to head off further trouble.
Wayne, Bill and I played in the hospital and airport area often. Usually
we played Cowboys and Indians, making our bows out of willow branches.
The proximity of the airport led us to stand by the runways watching
pilots in the Commonwealth Air Training Programme take off in their
Ansons. I even tried hitch-hiking a ride, but didn't get a bite. We took
off when we noticed some airport police heading toward us.
Mention of the hospital reminds me of the time Wayne spent a week or so
there with scarlet fever. We visited by standing on the lawn below, as
he was quarantined. We all had a number of childhood diseases, but
Frank, who was a year old at the time, had nearly all of them in his
first year: whooping cough, scarlet fever, mumps, measles and chicken
pox, as I recall. Our parents never expected him to survive his first
A minor crisis of my own occurred at his time. My right knee had become
infected and was badly swollen. I spent no time in hospital, and am not
sure whether my swollen. pus-filled knee was ever seen by a doctor. I
remember a poultice being on it, and Dad sterilizing a needle. He poked
a hole beside the knee one night when I went to bed, and I woke up with
a cured knee and a disgusting poultice. I have a feeling that, in those
days, we sought no more health care than was unavoidable. For example,
my lower front teeth grew in unevenly, and stayed that way until, at age
64, they were replaced by a six-tooth bridge.
Norwood was a respectable, if modest, area of the city then. We
collected scrap paper and metal for the war effort, lined up at a local
drugstore for ice cream sales, and generally did well at school. I
recall a school visit to the local dairy, and looking through a bay
window down into a huge vat filled with chocolate milk. I yearned to
swim in it. I recall asking father for the first time where babies came
from. He told me that I would know that when I understood what "pie-r
squared" meant. As it turned out, he was right.
I can remember walking along a street on my tenth birthday, wondering
where I would be in another decade and musing on the outcome of a battle
in the Pacific:. around the island of Midway.
My other principal friend was John Bridges. We called him "Pendy" then,
although he came to hate the name. His parents owned a bakery as I
recall. Pendy was a mechanical genius, and I have always intended to
look him up to see how he turned out.
His passion were flying model aircraft and gliders, even though he could
not have been ten at the time. We flew gliders (mice and frog
passengers) on the fields now covered by Commonwealth Stadium, and used
to lie in his back yard while gas'-powered flying models circled
overhead on a tether He and I would blast away at them with BB guns.
After the "enemy" plane crashed, Pendy would retrieve the motor and
build another one.
Pendy and I had one falling out, and it led to one of the few fights of
my life. He had challenged me to meet him after school, which I did, not
enjoying the experience but determined not to back down. I scored a
lucky punch straight off and sent him home in tears.
I had begun to enjoy school at last. I can recall sitting enthralled by
Miss Parkhill in grade three, listening to readings from Peter Rabbit at
the end of the day. I didn't always reward her with good behavior. For
some reason, she used to give a secret message to the first row student
and the message was supposed to be relayed in whispers to the student
behind, and so on to the end of the class. I fouled things up by
substituting my own message when it came my turn.
I learned early to value a few good friends over superficial popularity.
Valentine's day in Grade Four ensured that. I had sent out a bundle of
valentines, and, when we had our class party, I found myself the
recipient. of only seven in return. I had burst into tears, but only
later did I realize that I should have valued more the people who had
remembered me. I did better the following year, only then I had my first
"flame" and I sent her a succession of valentines. On the great day I
opened a huge valentine she had sent in return. I still remember her
name: Elinor Hanson. I stopped by on one of my air force furloughs to
visit Miss Gee, then the wife of Gordie Latham, a bush pilot who was a
friend of Dads. I found some old friends, but Elinor was on a holiday I
gathered that she was a superior student, and had never missed a day of
school right through to grade twelve.
The Ross Flats
The principal reason for our frequent moves in Edmonton was the growing
family. We four boys were billeted in one room in Norwood, and the
arrival of our little. sister Dawn in1942 forced yet another move, this
tine to the Ross Flats, again a respectable working-class district
nestled in a bend of the North Saskatchewan river below the McDougall
hill. On the crest of the big hill we could see the Edmonton Journal and
the famous CPR hotel for which the hill was named.
We made this last Edmonton move when I was entering grade six. The new
place was stylish for its time. I especially remember the gas fireplaces
in each bedroom. They glowed a soft orange on cold winter nights, and
emitted a comforting, quiet hiss. Years later a highway was routed
through the area and now only our old house (much run-down) remains of
what was a major area of Edmonton. The Ross Flats bordered the North
Sackatchewan, and the river flats were developed as a recreational area
in the following decades. A number of huge luxury homes have been built
close by our old house, and it is likely that it will soon be replaced.
The Depression and the war conditioned many of my childhood memories If
Mom gave a drifter a meal, he would mark our rear fence-post as a guide
for others. Dad was away working on the Alaska Highway, and Mom had her
hands full. I can remember the four of us (Lance, Wayne, Bill, Frank)
all dressed in play air force uniforms marching abreast in downtown
Edmonton and saluting every American and Canadian soldier and airman who
happened along. I was the oldest; nine or ten. We fought the battle of
Stalingrad in the snows of Edmonton, our main source of information
being the Saturday matinee newsreels. Those Saturdays at the Strand
Theatre were financed with l5c for the movie, and 5c. each for a soda
pop and chocolate bar. Thus were Wayne and I able to use play materials
to create an Irvine newspaper, the battlefront in Russia being the
principle illustration. I can't remember whether we circulated it beyond
Bill and Frank, neither of whom could read.
Wartime rationing is recalled by our famous raid on Safeway during a
strawberry jam sale, in which one tin per customer was the limit. Wayne,
Bill and I fanned out, each of us carrying the price of one tin, and the
thus family was able to bring home four. It was our first experience
with shopping, although for the life of me I can't remember why we
thought we needed so much jam.
I had my last misadventure with Harold at this time. We had spotted a
shed at the back of a church, with an inviting pane in the door. Both
Harold and I picked up rocks, but. at the last moment I decided not to
throw mine. Harold did, and he shattered the pane. I remember Mom
standing at the head of the stair, asking in a tired way when I was
going to give her a break. That was enough to end my flirtation with
I was very much wrapped up in the Pacific War, an interest which remains
with me. I can recall a radio announcer interrupting a program to
announce the attack on Pearl Harbor. The announcement seemed so real
that I glanced out of my bedroom window to see if any Japanese planes
were over Edmonton. I remember being determined to see the movie "Wake
Island" when it came but mother, and dad wouldn't let me go to a war
movie. I complained and cried until they finally let me go. I arrived at
the old Dreamland theatre two minutes after 6 pm, to discover that a
curfew prevented me from getting in. I came home in tears, and my
parents promised me a movie the next day. I went downtown to see
Saskatchewan, starring Gary Cooper, Paulette Goddard and Akim
Tamiroff--still regarded as one of the great Western classics. It was my
first introduction to the Riel Rebellion. Years later I did see "Wake
Island", and by then could see that I had come out ahead.
Edmonton was the beginning of the Alaska Highway. and a main
staging area for supplies be airlifted to the Soviet Union. One result
was that the city was full of Americans. We found that they were fairly
easy to peddle magazines to, the titles being Liberty Magazine, and the
CCF (now NDP) News. They almost always gave us some money and told us to
keep the magazines. Frank used to walk backwards in front of Americans
until he broke them down. He couldn't have been more than five years
It was always exciting to watch baseball at Renfrew Park in Edmonton. I
loved the Americans and their neat uniforms. It being wartime, the
American team was loaded with players who might otherwise have been in
the major leagues. They were exciting to watch.
We had become Cub Scouts arid I recall some interesting hikes to Forest
Heights, a ravine where we were once forced to seek cover when a sniper
with a BB gun opened fire on us. But the prize incident occurred at the
west end of the McDougall hill, now occupied by luxury hotels, but then
dominated by two large flights of wooden stairs leading down from the
Journal building on the west and the McDougall Hotel in the east. The
western slopes were covered that October by tall dry grass nearly four
feet high. It was an accident waiting to happen, and did one day as
Wayne, Bill and I passed through the grassy hill on the way to a Cub
Wayne, as I recall, again had an inspiration. He decided it would be fun
to light just a little fire there and stamp it out. I was a little
dubious, but couldn't stop him. Of course, the grass literally exploded
as soon as the match was lit. We made ourselves scarce, but when we came
home from Cubs an hour later the hillside was surrounded by a huge crowd
and much of the Edmonton fire department. The hillside was now entirely
black, but a single lone cottage had been saved. I heard someone comment
that he had seen some boys at the bottom of the hill, so we didn't lose
time hanging around to admire our handiwork.
Some of our scrapes had less fortunate results. I can remember that our
aunts Verna and Annie were dating their future husbands, and we had been
hiding in the kitchen watching one couple or another kiss. They used to
keep a bottle of whisky behind a picture on the piano. Wayne and Bill
and I decided to found the Boys Bureau of Investigation (not being aware
for a few decades what a bastard J Edgar Hoover was) and ratted to Mom
about the bottle. It produced a confrontation between Verna and Mom, and
I can recall Verna turning to me and asking what they had done to us.
Forty years later I recalled the incident to her, but (mercifully) she
had no recollection of it. We disbanded the Bureau shortly afterward.
One fond memory was my first job, a paper route helper with a tall
handsome teenager I now remember only as Fred. His sudden departure (for
the armed forces?) was remembered as a great loss. I made twenty-five
cents a week,, and made a memorable. purchase on my first payday. I
bought some tonic water, mistaking it as an equivalent to my favourite
Canada Dry. I sat on the steps of the store and cried my eyes out. I had
better luck with a hard foam-sugar candy, called seafoam or sponge
toffee, infrequently seen now. It was a product of old Pappas' corner
store. Pappas made all his own candy, as Uncle Ed Salahub remembers, and
served refreshments to customers seated on stools in front of the
counter. The store was eventually destroyed by a natural gas explosion..
Having covered much of the Ross Flats on a newspaper route, it was
difficult years later to get my mind around the area's complete
The most significant part of our young lives was the farm at Bentley. My
earliest memories of it go back to the time I was three or four, and we
spent every summer there until I was seventeen. Grandpa and Grandma
Baumbach would be waiting for us to arrive home on the last day of the
school year, and we would be sleeping at the farm that night. We never
saw our parents during the summer all those years, and, after Mom died,
Frank went to school for one term in Bentley. He missed Dad and came
home, and I often wondered, for reasons which will become clear later,
if he made a mistake. Uncle Melvin had been interested in adopting him.
We took the life on the farm for granted. We lived within what would be
now called an extended family, so seldom encountered now. We were the
children of the oldest daughter, and the Grandparents took for granted
that the farm was our second home. We had two aunts and an uncle younger
than I and an uncle only four years older, and they seemed more like
sisters and brothers. For a time I worshipped Aunt Gladys, a beautiful
girl only a year or two older than I. She played Chopin on the piano,
and I would stand in reverence next to her. I had no illusions about the
relationship, but I had, at the time, no other woman in my acquaintance
whom I could love, and Gladys seemed to me for years to be the most
precious person alive. Some time later Aunt Doreen was a treasured
friend.. I can recall that Aunt Diana and Frank were close friends.
While Uncle Glen was the catalyst around whom our endless games
centered, Uncle Herb was indistinguishable from a brother. Melvin was
older, but we all liked and respected him, especially for his interest
in and reverence for, wildlife. Finally, our cousins Leonard Galipu and
"Butch" Richardson, occasionally filled out thc company.
There were more than enough children around to staff almost any sport or
game we wished to play, and, under the watchful guidance of uncle Glen,
who was a little older, these activities formed a rich part of our
This was the era of Depression and war, and a time of shortages which
required that, for the most part, we make our own equipment. War games
were common, and old inner tube's provided the ammunition for our
elastic guns. Someone even invented an elastic machine gun, notched to
accommodate several rounds which we fired by lifting a cord on the
barrel. Eventually we abandoned that concept, and went to simply
shouting "bang'." when we wished to shoot. Glen made a twenty foot pole
to settle disputes as to whether or not soldiers being fired at were
within range, which did much to ensure that conflicts never descended to
fists. The casualty had to go and sit in the yard until the campaign was
Possession of the barn was usually the object of the war, and the loft
and yard wore also the main sites of our tennis courts. Racquets were
fashioned out of wood, which became a problem when Bill decided that it
was legal to carry the ball back to the net by bouncing it on the
surface of his racquet. Wayne decided that if that was legal then it was
also legal to smash the racquet out of one's opponent's hands by
converting his own racquet into a club. Glen intervened before the new
rules led to fatalities.
Games of hide and seek were pursued endlessly after dark, and, with a
yard full of children, and endless hiding places provided by pig pens,
chicken coops, machine sheds, blacksmith and water-pump sheds, and
garages, those games never became boring But the game which I remember
most was barnyard cricket, and it would still be a game of choice even
Our game was vaguely similar to the familiar to the national sport of
England. We needed only our own equipment, which consisted of 6 tin
cans, two broomsticks,. and a peg. Two groups of three tins were placed
behind shallow holes dug some thirty feet apart. Two batsmen would stand
with their sticks in the holes, while the two fielders threw the wooden
peg at the cans immediately behind. If the peg struck the tins while the
swinging stick was out of the hole, the defense counted the scattered
tins. The object was to knock out 3 cans, thus ending the inning, before
the batters could score their limit of 21 runs, one run each time the
batsmen struck the peg and exchanged holes.
The peg (occasionally tennis balls) could be fielded when hit and thrown
at the cans when the batsmen were running. If the fielder could get to
the holes before the batsmen, he could kick the cans over provided he
had possession of the peg. Since surplus children could be used as
fielders, it was amazing how little time the batsmen had to score a run
by running to their opposite holes.
I not sure whether barnyard cricket was invented by Glen or a common
sport in depression farmyards, but it provided countless hours of
enjoyment. No better combination of excitement and economy could have
been devised by farm boys during the depression and World War II.
Court whist was played endlessly on those long rainy days where the
barnyard was unusable. This was the era of the coal-oil lamp, as rural
electrification was some time away. It was the era of the outhouse and
Eaton's catalogue, of drinking water in a bucket near the front door,
with a long-handled dipper floating on the surface. It was not until the
late 1940s that the new modern house was built. The roof was reshingled
a couple of years ago, and Glen reports a "vote CCF" message I had
inscribed on the shiplap. The construction of the new house likely took
place in 1948, during my last summer there. Since I can remember only
the digging of the basement and the roofing of the house (as much lumber
from the old house was salvaged as possible) it is likely that I was
spending the bulk of my time cultivating summer fallow as usual.
Our farm was blessed by the nearby Blindman river, then an unpolluted,
clear stream ideal for swimming and fishing. We had an authentic
swimming hole and picnic plot. One of the great features was a huge old
cottonwood tree with branches out over the river, and we could swing to
the centre of the swimming hole before dropping in.
Glen, ever inventive, improved on evening swimming by constructing a
sweatlodge, not unlike the native version. We would dig a hole, and
surround it with a willow frame covered with blankets. Large rocks were
heated to red hot and dumped into the hole. We would all crawl in
(usually naked) and close the flap. A pail of water would then be dumped
into the hole, creating a cloud of steam. We finished off the steambath
by running into the river to rinse off.
The Blindman is now a murky and weed-infested run, the victim of
upstream sewage lagoons and agricultural runoff, but in those days it
was crystal clear. I was especially given to fishing with an old bamboo
pole, to which a line and a single spinning lure was attached. In all
those years I never saw a spinning reel, and our casting range was
limited to the length of line on the pole. Even so, I never tired of
long days trudging along the banks of the river fishing for pike.
Sometimes the grandparents became nervous when I didn't return until
late in the afternoon.
We enjoyed the pike, which were plentiful then. We also enjoyed fish
which we caught in traps, but is now thought to be a junk fish: suckers.
In fact suckers, while they were bony, were deliciously sweet to eat,
and we liked them quite as much as the pike.
I can remember running down to the Blindman during a break in the
harvest season (farm work was expected soon as we were old enough) and
sitting in the transparent shallows to cool off after "stooking", or
gathering together the heavy bundles of grain for threshing. We once
camped out on an island there (I recall the night being uncomfortably
cool) and drank from springs along the banks. The summers on the farm
would have been diminished sadly without the river.
One sport on the river remains especially vivid in memory. Uncle Melvin
a small skiff equipped with and outboard motor and we used use it in an
attempt to snare a large pike between two of the rapids. One person lay
in front with a snare. One person sat amidship with a pail, his job
being to bail the water which shipped into the skiff with every sharp
turn. The person in the rear operated the motor on direction from the
bow. We had tried before to capture that pike, for it sported a couple
of scars around its head, and it soon became apparent why it was so it
difficult to catch. We had been hotly chasing it for several minutes
before we slewed so sharply that the river swamped the boat and we went
down. We were back in the pike's element, and he got away again, leaving
us in peals of laughter despite the loss.
Uncle Melvin, the oldest son on the farm, was a generous and
kind-hearted man. He was a talented farmer, and my mentor as I became
old enough to work. We were, of course, expected to put in full working
days as soon as we were old enough. In practice, I took over the bulk of
the farm's summerfallowing for years, giving me the status of the only
Irvine who got to work full-time on the McCormick-Deering WD9. Haying
was another major activity, and the horse-drawn hay rakes were operated
by Wayne and Bill as well.
Just how many thousands of hours I worked in the field is unknown. I
scarcely thought of it as work. I enjoyed the long hours in the sun and
dust, usually with the tiller. I occasionally did some ploughing and
harrowing, and I remember the excitement when Melvin brought home a
shiny new International cultivator and I got to use it. The rusting
corpses of these fondly remembered tools are still scattered about the
I never had to worry about the occasional mishap, some of which are
still part of family lore. The most famous occurred the day I backed
over the tiller and broke a casting. I had been summerfallowing, unaware
that I had forgotten to lock the tractor brakes together. As I
approached a steep incline, I missed second gear as I shifted down, and
had to brake in order to hold the tractor and shift down to first gear
Unfortunately, one brake was insufficient to hold the tractor (or
perhaps I was not strong enough) and hence my sliding backward onto the
Uncle Melvin came out with the welder and soon had the damage repaired,
despite his difficulty welding while laughing so hard. I can remember
vividly the rare occasions when stern reproofs had to be given, however.
One occurred when, having finished working at the far end of the farm, I
decided to borrow the hired hand's flivver to get home. It was the first
time I had ever driven a car, which had something to do with my
I got home with no difficulty, having only some four miles cover, and
all was well until Grandad asked how fast I had driven. I carelessly
answered that I had been careful not to exceed 40 miles hour, and the
manure hit the fan. The hired man jumped up exclaimed, "My car won't go
that fast!" Grandad and the uncles had act sternly, at. least until the
hired man had gone home. It would not have been good manners to double
up in glee while he was there.
Our WD9s were the most advanced diesel tractors of the time, and we
regarded owners of other makes, especially the "Putt-putt" John Deeres,
with overweening contempt. I recall passing a John Deere once when it
was travelling in road gear on the highway while I was tilling a field.
That may have been the reason I once left a turd on the seat of a parked
John Deere--a childish prank indeed, but then something a thirteen-year
old could do.
Haying time saw all of us employed in one capacity or another. Wayne was
old enough to handle a horse-drawn hay rake, and I took that up too when
I found that working on top of the haystack with the older men was too
hot, strenuous, and frightening. I didn't like the height, the dust, and
looking out for rocks which sometimes came up with the load. I was
retired after I accidentally stabbed my heel with the pitchfork. The
only other job which matched the haystack in discomfort was stooking
hemp and thistle infested wheat bundles during harvest. That was too
much like work, although it. was better than pulling mustard weeds,
which the younger boys had often to do.
Accidents with horses forms the basis of much family lore. I found that
it was fun to rake hay on a dead run, but Nince tumbled over and came
back up, miraculously without damaging the traces. But in watching her
near disaster, I forgot about the trip handle, which fetched a sharp
blow on my elbow at the same time. The unit and I were idle for several
minutes after that. I immediately became more philosophical and patient,
and learned to work at a more measured rate. In other words, to adopt
the same attitude I maintained on my steel horse.
There were other accidents, including catching a wheel in a gatepost and
breaking the singletree. Melvin was a little annoyed, and transferred me
to the Farmall tractor, which pulled the rope attached to the hay
stacker. That worked for a time, but, unfortunately, I began to
daydream, and drove too far, breaking the rope and depositing the load
with a crash back where it started.
My troubles with hay rakes and stackers were not over. My most famous
accident, still recalled with glee at every family reunion, was the time
I hitched the traces to the stacker before going in for lunch. This act
had an unforeseen consequence. When one of the horses dropped his head
to feed, he would jerk the other horse's head upward. When we all
returned to work the two were far apart and the hay rake's traces were
Runaways occurred with the hay rakes, and Wayne has the best story to
relate on that account. We were haying across the river, and Wayne was
crossing a piece of summerfallow, going fast enough for dust to be
scattered forward and down over the horse's blinders. Now he had been
given Baldy and Dot for good reason. Dot was high-strung and easily
frightened, so much so that she was always paired with old Baldy, who
was slow, club-footed, and lethargic. The subsequent runaway pattern was
Dot bolted as soon as the dirt hit her blinders, but Baldy was
disinclined to bolt even on Judgement Day, with the result that the hay
rick described a series of circles in the summerfallow as it made its
way into the trees. Wayne bailed out over the back, scrambling to evade
the team as it came about . The rig hit the timber with a crash, and we
came running up to find Baldy placidly munching on the grass, having
come to a stop as soon as Dot was gone. Dot had broken loose and was
standing in the river three hundred yards away.
Uncle Melvin had a horse named Fleet, and we rode Fleet so often that
the canny animal used to develop a mysterious limp whenever we converged
on him. Wayne was best at bare-back riding, I once inadvertently caused
the horse a minor injury by "sicking" Touser, our cantankerous collie,
on Fleet. The dog actually did as he was ordered, and I never made that
Touser was famous throughout the countryside, and many a travelling
salesman had cause to rue meeting him. He was harmless to those he knew,
but Glen once had to intimidate the dog from attacking strangers by
dressing up in a Santa suit, When Touser attacked, Glen fired a shotgun
into the air, That cured the dog for a few days. When I hitch-hiked home
during my air force days, I always spent a week or so at the farm. More
than one driver warned me about the dog when we neared the farm.
One of my fondest memories, eclipsing even the long lazy Sunday
afternoons at Sylvan Lake, were the Bentley sports days, and the
baseball tournaments played there by local farmers. Melvin was the first
baseman, and I remember a neighbour, Carl Rabbas, as the Bentley team's
best pitcher. It was a thrill to be given a huge ice cream cone, but
other events rivaled that . We all joke about the time that Willie, the
local elevator operator, was umpiring at third base. He was three sheets
to the wind on beer and felt an overpowering need to relieve himself,
which he proceeded to do in the middle of an inning.
The Bentley team's most notorious play was the peeled potato trick. The
Bentley catcher had a potato in his back pocket, and waited until the
opposing team had a runner at third base He threw the potato over the
third baseman's head, tagging the runner there out when he broke for the
plate. A famous rhubarb followed, of course, but I don't recall just how
it worked out.
No account of the Bentley farm would be complete without a reference to
the farm pasture, a large meadow on the edge of Gull Lake. We often had
to carry salt there, and round up the cattle for the Fall drive back to
the farm. The road in followed the contour of the land, and featured
several large hills. The old flivver could only scale those hills in
reverse. I remember once emerging from a rain-soaked pasture road to
find a bone-dry edge. It hadn't occurred to me that a storm could have
We brought the herd back in the rain one day. I was on the tractor,
pulling the grain hopper behind, and quite unaware that my speed was
causing mud to be thrown from the rear wheels into the hopper. I
remember Melvin making me shovel out the hopper, before supper, after we
The farm days seemed fated never to come to an end. Indeed, as the first
generation of grandchildren, we had had nearly fourteen years to
ourselves. However, the summer of 1944 was to alter everything.
We were suddenly gathered up on a hot day in August and put in the car
for an unexpected return to Edmonton. I remember having to wear a tweed
suit, and complaining at length of the discomfort in the heat of the
afternoon. It was not until we were sitting in our bedroom in Edmonton
that we learned that mother had died. She had gone to hospital , as. I
recall, for a hysterectomy. That was the first time I heard the
expression “the operation was a success, but the patient died”.
Aunt Verna provides a glimpse of Mom's last days, She recalls Mom
packing her suitcase and heading off to hospital on a streetcar. Dad,
off working on the Alaska Highway, could not be with her. Verna recalls
Mom remarking, a few days after the operation, that she didn't think she
was going to make it, although the doctor, when told of this, responded
that "she is not as sick as she thinks she is".
Grandad Irvine, too, was alarmed. Dawn, a nurse herself, thinks that,
had the post-operative procedures of today been in effect, Mom would
have survived. As it was, she died at 2 am, 1 August. Verna received the
news at work in the morning .
I was asked, as the oldest , whether we wanted to attend the funeral. My
answer was no. Perhaps if we had been prepared earlier, we might have
gone. Bill, in particular, has placed some stress on the effect on us of
not having an opportunity to grieve. It is true that a vacuum had opened
in our lives, but its effect was to depend in part on whether or not it
could be filled. As things turned out, it was not, but it would be
decades before the full effect of the loss would be evident.
I can recall the day we left Edmonton. I sat in the bus I ascending the
hill over the Ross Flats, and vowed to return home some day. That
ambition was eventually to dissolve once I had become acclimatized to
British Columbia. For the time being, however, our home was to be with
the Irvine grandparents in Wetaskiwin.
Grandad Irvine, we vaguely knew, was a Canadian institution. He was one
of the founders of the CCF and one of the first two MPs in Ottawa for
the party, along with JS Woodsworth. Grandad had been in parliament
already for a large portion of the l920s, representing Wetaskiwin for
the. United Farmers of Alberta.
Grandad Irvine was, of course, away much of the time, but he would come
home occasionally, and I remember vividly his splendid baritone voice,
for he loved to sing, preferring church hymns (he was a retired
Unitarian minister ). Under the circumstances Grandmother was the most
significant influence for that 1944-45 year.
Wetaskiwin had a rural element as well. We spent much time at the
“coulee”, a forested ravine some twenty miles west of town. Wetaskiwin
was a valued part of our background, although it never replaced Bentley
in our affections. I was in grade seven at the time, and was old enough
to join the air cadets, the RCAF being something of an institution in
the family. Three uncles had belonged to it for much of the 193Os. Jim
rose to the rank of Wing Commander and served in the war . Eric and
Harry also served, the former making a career of it. Harry was a former
school principal and was killed in action in January 1945.
Wetaskiwin had its own contribution to make to the lore of the Irvine
boys. Some random memories include our raid on the apple store in the
basement. We could have had apples for the asking, but that would hardly
do. Since we could lower Bill and Frank past the staircase into the
basement, that was the preferred method of acquiring apples, Grandmother
and Aunt Vera must have had stitches listening to our clandestine raids.
We once experimented with a cigarette in our upstairs bedroom.
Grandmother recalled years later nearly being asphyxiated when she came
up to change the linen. We raided the corn flakes once too, but found
that there was no milk. We tried water and immediately understood why
milk is the natural companion of cereal.
We used to skate endlessly on local sloughs, especially if they froze
over before a significant snowfall, and flew kites in the spring. Some
of the old pranks survived. We liked to hitchhike on car bumpers through
ice or snow-covered intersections in winter. But the old pull of Bentley
was still there, and I remember looking up from a swimming hole we had
gone to after the last day of school and seeing that the Baumbach
grandparents had arrived on time once again.
I had just turned thirteen, and the summer of 1945 was the beginning of
my full time operation of the WD-9. It was. also the first indication of
a rift of sorts between the two families. The Baumbachs had expected to
take my sister Dawn to Bentley for the summers along with the rest of
us, but Dad, having decided to allow Aunt Vera to adopt and raise his
youngest child, was negligent in not anticipating her inevitable
reaction to Grandma Baumbach's sudden arrival at the end of the school
year. Aunt Vera was offended by the assumption of the Baumbachs that the
extended family included her new baby girl, and Grandmother Baumbach had
been ordered out of the house. The rift had no permanent effect, but it
was unfortunate, particularly since it complicated bonding between us
and our sister. A couple of extra summers with her would have helped a
process which would not be fully complete for nearly twenty years.
The decision was a shocker to us at the time, although Dad's judgment,
as it turned out, was to prove sound, if not only for unanticipated
reasons. It would not have done to raise Dawn in the family environment
which was to follow the loss of our mother. Dawn points out, however,
that there was a lot of initial pain for her, too. One of her earliest
memories was a tugging match for her by Grandma Baumbach and her new
mother, and for some time Dawn thought that the breakup in the family
was her fault. With her brothers suddenly absent, she was troubled by
loneliness for many years. We were all scarred by Mom's loss, in ways
which only become evident with the passage of decades. But Dawn, at
least, would have a loving home, and a career as a nurse, farm wife and
mother. The rest of us would have to struggle uphill for anything we
It fell to Aunt Verna to help wind up the family's affairs in Edmonton,
as Dad had to return to the North. Verna disposed of the family
furniture, shocked to discover how little. she could get for it . Some
luggage had to be disposed off in a pawn shop.
We returned to the farm, and life went on as usual that summer,
including one of the most famous incidents of our youth. As might be
expected, it centered around the Irvine propensity to get involved in
All of us, joined by Uncle Herb, had taken up positions on the
Bentley-Rimbey road one night, with the intent of dinging the hubcaps of
passing motorists. After a time, a large truck came rumbling past, and
we opened fire. A rewarding ping sounded, evidence of a direct hit--only
this time the truck came to a screeching halt, and half the Canadian
army leaped out from the back.
I guess the sergeant-major there had taken offence to the attack, and we
heard the orders to apprehend the miscreants. We all took off into the
bush and the rye field beyond. Some climbed trees, others lay down in
the field. Most are sure that soldiers had spotted and ignored them,
preferring to confine themselves to the appearance of searching. I
solved the problem for the sergeant-major by getting up and sprinting
across the field. I'm not sure where I thought I was going, and I was
I was hauled back to the truck, where it was decided that I ought to be
turned over to the police in Lacombe--twenty miles away. And so I ended
up in the jail there. The guard suggested that I could lie down in a
cell, while we waited for the rural constable to return. He promised not
to lock me in.
The constable returned in a hour or so, and I think that he thought that
the sergeant-major had overreacted to our ambush. At any rate, he took
me first to a restaurant and treated me to a milkshake and a piece of
hot-mince pie, on my promise not to engage in further attacks on the
army. Needless to say, my partners in crime were consumed by envy,
unable to understand how I continued to fall into septic tanks and come
out smelling like roses.
I'm not sure whether that was the summer we put the gopher on trial. It
was a standard sport to form up a bucket brigade when gopher burrows
appeared in the barnyard, and keep filling the holes until the hapless
creatures were forced out into Touser's jaws. We had captured one alive
and decided ( I think that I was the villain here) to put it on trial.
It was duly convicted and sentenced to hang.
I can remember getting up next morning and looking out the window at our
victim swinging from a fence. I think that was the time I realized that
some things were beyond the pale. Even running about fields, fending off
mosquitoes while leaving poison at the burrows, was a lesser evil.
Late that summer we learned that we would not be going back to
Wetaskiwin or Edmonton. Dad had moved to Prince George, B.C. and he had
remarried. The Baumbachs took us to Edmonton to board the train.
I must admit that I deeply enjoyed trips through the mountains on the
train. We used to stand at an open window between the coaches, savoring
the wilderness and watching the coal cinders from the locomotive whisk
by. There was some concern whether Dad had heard anything of the brush
with the army, but that proved to be unfounded.
Of greater significance was the adjustment we boys had to make. Dad and
Scotty (as we called our step-mother) were living in a small cabin. Dad
had erected a tent in the yard, providing a wood floor. That was to be
our accommodation until the new house was completed.
When winter arrived we were moved into the basement of the new house,
charged with keeping the furnace stoked. Dad was finishing the upstairs,
but had not left the cabin. The arrangement nearly went badly wrong.
We woke one morning to find that the furnace had gone out. We had to
fire it up again before going to school, and Wayne tried a shortcut. We
had the kindling loaded, and Wayne thought we could speed things up by
soaking the kindling with coal oil. Unfortunately, there were still live
The fire raced up into the oilcan, which exploded in Wayne's hands. I
tried to get Wayne to roll about on the floor, but he elected to race
outside and roll in the snow. Bill, Frank and I turned to stamping out
the flames in the basement. We succeeded, but lost our mattress.
Needless to say, Dad was not amused, although there was relief that
no-one had been injured, and there was no damage to the house.
It took a year to become acclimatized to B.C. I made friends slowly, but
still had my brothers to rely on. We sold CCF news (not being above
sending the aggressive seven-year old Frank after customers in pubs);
cleaned up the CCF hall on rather dreary Sunday afternoons, and helped
with the new house. I can recall the septic tank in particular. Dad
wanted to reach gravel before stopping digging, since at the cabin one
reached gravel everywhere after digging six inches. I think we must have
had a hole under the tank at least six feet deep and still we couldn't
find gravel. Dad finally called it enough.
The contrast with the cabin, on the other side of town, was stark. We
had had an outhouse at the cabin, and while we were there the outhouse
had to be moved, and this required Wayne and I digging a new hole.
Unlike the new house, one reached gravel almost immediately.
Paradoxically, it was a bearcat to dig the hole deeper, since gravel
kept sliding in from the sides of the hole. We ended up with a hole
three feet deep and five feet wide, and it took the better part of a day
to do that.
The most onerous and frustrating chore we ever had to do was helping Dad
bring in a truckload of firewood from a woodlot north of the city. It
was bad enough that the woodlot was sited well off the highway in a
boggy area inhabited by half the mosquitoes in B.C. We loaded several
cords of wood and started out. We went only a few hundred yards before
the truck became bogged down in the soft road. It had to be unloaded,
unstuck, and reloaded. We made a few hundred yards before becoming mired
again. Again, we unloaded and reloaded. Again we went a few hundred
yards. Again we got stuck. It must have taken all afternoon to reach the
road, and we then stopped, mercifully, for supper with Dad's business
partner. Fortunately, Dad soon decided that the business didn't pay
enough. His sons were much relieved.
Removing the ice from eavestroves in the winter was a fun job, but I
remember polishing the living room floor best. After Scotty had waxed
the hardwood, the boys would have to polish the floor by sliding back
and forth in heavy socks. It was a tedious business, but fortunately we
never picked up slivers.
It was soon evident that relations with Scotty were going to be a
problem, It may have been that we were a handful, but that hardly
explained the emotional vacuum we found ourselves in. I seemed to have a
knack for offending Scotty, and she considered me to be very immature. I
'm not sure why that happened. She had the burden of the chores required
by a large family, but she also had boys who were never involved in
gangs, worked well at school, and worked at home. Doubtless the four of
us could be a handful , but there were no drug or alcohol problems to
solve, no delinquent behavior. We did arrive at an accommodation of
sorts, but there was no warmth at all between us. Few children are
blessed with the kind of stepmother Abraham Lincoln had, and Scotty was
limited by the harsh and unforgiving background of rural B.C. in the
depression. She had been thrown out to survive on her own, and seemed to
think that everyone was obliged to follow suit.
I soon had evidence of her difficulty in bonding with us. I had, for
example, begun to take a serious interest in music, listening to the
Metropolitan Opera every Saturday in the basement of the new house.
Apparently the music was too loud, for I found one morning that Scotty
had cut the cord on my radio. That latent antagonism was to prove a
given for three decades.
I think that it was about that time that mother's loss had really sunk
in. In all fairness, Scotty did her duty, but she could never extend any
affection to us. We accepted the situation, and everyone made the best
of it. She had been Dad's choice, so overt hostility was out of the
question. But the vacuum remained.
We found much satisfaction in each other's company, and camping trips,
especially to Six-Mile Lake (so called because it was just six miles
from town) were an important feature of our life. Some idea of just how
remote northern B.C. was at the time will be evident in the fact that
one of the main hazards of boating on the lake were the herds of moose
in the shallows. Moose even stumbled into our campsite at times. Even
then I knew that such a paradise couldn't last.
While we trolled for rainbow early in the year (they became wormy by
mid-summer) we also used our trips to make money. There was a lodge at
Six-Mile, and money to be made by picking up beer bottles on Sunday
mornings. Wayne and Bill, ever the first in such things, hit upon a
happy idea: deliver the bottles to the front door, wait until they were
deposited at the rear, and then retrieve and recycle them.
We brothers had our differences at times, and I can recall Wayne and I
having a fierce shouting match in the boat, while Bill was
panic-stricken at the sight of the mounting waves. It was some time
before sanity prevailed and we got ashore before resuming the argument.
One other camping excursion deserves mention. We had only a limited
amount of supplies, and decided hat some additional food was necessary.
We decided borrow some from a few downtown grocery stores, and Wayne,
Bill and I fanned out to different destinations. We met half an hour
later and compared our loot: we had each stolen a fruit cake. I think
that ended our careers in crime.
The lure of Bentley, under the circumstances, maintained its strength.
If anything, the pull had become stronger after mom's death. Since the
grandparents could no longer come for us, we would have to go to them,
and the problem was how to manage that. We could expect no help, only
the absence of opposition.
That much we got. Dad could not bring himself to oppose us going, and
Scotty was probably satisfied to be relieved of the burden of dealing
with us, especially since our half-brother, Scott, had now arrived. We
had to raise the trainfare ourselves, and we had discovered a modest
gold mine: a local brothel operated by a kindly person we knew as
"Madame Carmen". Madame Carmen paid handsomely for wood-cutting and
stacking, and Wayne and Bill religiously picked up and delivered her
mail. By the end of June, we had saved train fare enough for the four of
us--as far as Jasper , Alberta . We would have to hitch-hike from there.
And so it happened that we found ourselves on the outskirts of Jasper at
the end of June, 1946. I was the oldest at thirteen; Frank the youngest,
not yet seven.. We had not been standing long on the road when a
Greyhound bus appeared. I don't know what led me to stick out my thumb,
but I did so despite Wayne's frustrated reproof that "You can't
hitch-hike a bus!" The bus stopped, and we met a driver I remember as
Jimmy. I can't remember just what we or he said, but he must have sized
things up and decided to take us along. We stood in the front of the bus
all the way to Edmonton. Jimmy's only condition was that I write him and
let him know if we made it to our farm.
We cut across Damron's field, and saw Melvin coming towards us, his hand
outstretched in welcome. The extended family was still alive and well.
That was not the end of it. The following summer we repeated the feat,
financed in the same way. Incredibly, a Greyhound bus stopped for us
outside Jasper. It was Jimmy again.
When we approached the farm, Melvin was driving out of the yard. He
stopped, got out and approached us with undisguised joy. He said we had
not been supposed to come. Years later Wayne found the letter the
Baumbach's, worried about us being alone on the long trip, had written
to Dad asking us not to come. Scotty had intercepted and hidden it. Just
as well, for we always treasured that last summer.
It never occurred to me to doubt my ability to get my brothers to the
farm, and I was undoubtedly helped by their own independence and
willingness to work for the common end. We had come to rely on each
other in the absence of a fully functional family, and a bond had been
created which was to be a bedrock for the rest of our lives. We had many
shocks yet to survive, but the will to do so was never in doubt.
The summer of 1947 was the last that the four of us were together at the
farm, ending a run of twelve years or more. That fall the grandparents
put us on a train for New Westminster, for Dad had moved there during
the vacation. I was to return alone the summer of 1948, but more of that
Over some seventeen years, British Columbia seeped into my soul. I have
been away for 28 years now, and my wife and children are
Saskatchewanians to the core. But deep within I still feel like an
expatriate, despite a sincere affection for my new home.
On my first day I set out to find the high school. By accident, I found
T.J. Trapp Technical, a block or so from Duke of Connaught, the academic
high school all my brothers attended. I never got around to changing
over, in part because I found three marvelous teachers at T.J. I didn't
want to leave.
My fondest memories. are of Howie Daniels, my grade ten and eleven
English teacher, of Mr. McCormick, who taught me History, and of
Charlotte Reid, who tried to teach me Latin and did succeed in teaching
me some drama. She talked often of a prize student who had graduated two
years earlier: Bruno Gerussi. I visited her last in 1961 shortly after I
had begun my own teaching career.
My respect was no less for the principal, Ian Douglas, although our
relationship was turbulent at times. He taught me Grade Twelve English,
and he was a superb teacher, especially of writing. He used to assign
precis assignments, and I could not only exceed the limit he set for
words, but could also preserve some of the flavour of the original
selection. He often used to grade me 13 or 14 out of ten. He never let
his dislike of my politics affect his grading.
Our greatest clash came over a Grade Twelve public speaking competition.
The subject was The World Twenty Years Hence, and most of the
competitors talked at length about jet-powered bicycles and related
trivia. I took the line that, given the state of world tensions, the
fact of the Bomb and the looming problems of the environment, we might
better speculate on whether there would be a world twenty years hence.
I had won in club competition, but Douglas caught wind of what had
happened and called a school assembly on the excuse of making such
excellent speeches available to the student body. He really wanted to
prevent a socialist from representing the school. I thought I knew what
was coming, and had taken some care to avoid a baldly political cast to
my speech. In fact, I thought I had done rather well at that. The
problem may have been taking a trivial theme, which was deliberately
uncontroversial, and making a serious event out of it. Even so, I'm not
sure why Douglas was so bothered.
I expected that he would privately ensure that the judges would not rank
me higher than second, but, when we had finished, he strode to the stage
to rebut the views of the "last speaker". The judges took the hint,
announcing, against custom, who had come in second. My fame among the
students was ensured. I actually hadn't been keen on speaking on further
occasions, and it was satisfaction enough to have forced the old
reactionary to such an extraordinary length to put me down .
Life went on at home. I delivered papers, and worked in a bowling alley.
My brothers must have had sources of income too, but I can't remember
how they occupied themselves. Presumably they also had paper routes. I
had to buy by own dress clothes, pay for my own eyeglasses and dental
bills. Any remaining discretionary income went into Sunday concerts by
the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. There was left neither time nor money
for a social life which included girls.
My other escape was the Socialist Party of Canada. We met in a small
hall on Edmonds Street, Burnaby, a mile from home. Dad and I often got
into a political discussions, and he had urged me to find out more about
our political heritage. Doug Cameron was a family friend, and a leading
light in his democratic Marxist study group, and through him I met
several other fine people, including Norman Wood, who eventually became
my closest friend and an educational colleague in Saskatchewan, where he
did distinguished and original work in teaching English to non-academic
students. I was to complete his coursework after his death, and develop
an academic history course using the same principles, and his work is
described in my book, The Magic Wand, which can be found on the Internet
under “Lance Irvine’s Web Page”. It is also found in Yahoo, Canada under
Teaching Literacy and Language.
I had become very involved in political philosophy, and was to read the
entire corpus of Karl Marx, including all four volumes of Kapital, by
the age of twenty. While my outlook is now much modified, the fact was
that by the time I started university I was nearly ten years ahead of
the bulk of my contemporaries. I remember resting by the farm swimming
hole one summer and resolving never to read fiction until I knew how the
world worked. I still don't read much fiction.
My extra-curricular activities had the effect of depressing my high
school grades, especially since I was poor in math and science, and
disinterested in languages. My strength was in English and History,
Economics, and, later, Philosophy. My academic average jumped from 72%
to 85% when I eventually want to university.
My interests were shaped by my friends, all of whom were four or five
years older. They had some bohemian interests, and I recall becoming
much interested in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I soon memorized the
entirety of Fitzgerald's translation and used to recite it to myself as
I went about delivering my papers.
Much of this furnished a relief from home. We brothers still had each
other, and we slowly fashioned an informal strategy to keep our spirits
flourishing. Some of this arose out of the relationship with Scotty.
We had a wood and coal stove in the kitchen, and the water heating coil
was located in the firebox. Every day firewood had to be provided, and
the job fell primarily to Wayne, Bill and I. Now Dad had purchased a few
cords of firewood, if that is correct term, from a mill. The wood had
been floating so long in salt water that it was soaked through and
encrusted with barnacles. This presented a problem in meeting Scotty's
insistence that the wood be split fine enough to burn in the stove.
Every time you hit a log with your axe you were sprayed with salt water.
I can't recall whether it was Wayne or I who first noticed the nice dry
siding on the wall of the garage. The garage or shed had seen better
days, which may have made it easier to rationalize borrowing a few
pieces of dry siding each day to salt in with the firewood. I remember
coming home the first time after I joined the air force and being
stunned to find that the garage had vanished. My first reaction was that
Wayne and Bill had overdone it. Dad had pulled it down, but I don't know
how much our depredations had influenced his decision.
The family never owned a car while the Irvine boys lived in New
Westminster. We had to walk everywhere. I walked to school, to work, to
Burnaby. I had to walk home two miles from the site of my paper route.
We had to walk several blocks every Saturday to the Safeway to truck
home the week's groceries on wagons. Scott, and our
half-brother George (or "Bud" as we called him then) were a little too
young to help as yet. (It was remarkable that the intermittent tension
with Scotty never affected our bond with her children. It was only upon
Frank's death, and Scott and George's admirable support, that I realized
just how strong a bonding had occurred there as well.
We had one trick that Scotty never caught on to. Our ceilings were quite
high, and I soon discovered that could scale the hall I walls with my
bare hands and feet, and perch propped next to the ceiling. The others
promptly caught on, and since Scotty never looked up, we could make it
difficult for her to find us.
We were sometimes sent out to Lulu Island, some three miles away, for
berry-picking, particularly as Scotty liked blackberries. Now
blackberries grow on huge bushes, and, to reach the top berries, we had
to use ladders and even lay boards across the top of the bushes.
Blackberry bushes are thorny, and we sometimes fell in. Lugging pails of
berries home after lacerating ourselves in the bushes was another
The summer of 1946 arrived, and the question arose once again of going
to the farm. This time I could not bring the brothers with me,
particularly since we had found no replacement for the kindly Madame
Carmen. I decided to go alone.
I might have prepared for the trip better. I set out with a small
suitcase and gabardine jacket and slacks. The latter proved to be scant
protection from the cold in the mountains. I was unfamiliar with the
route, which at the time was rather primitive. I soon discovered that
the Fraser Canyon was penetrated by a winding gravel road, with wooden
trestles hanging out over the chasms. A gentleman in a Ford coup picked
me up at Yale, and by nightfall we had passed through the dry
cactus-country east of Cache Creek as far as the rail siding at
Sicamous. The Rockies were a short distance ahead, but there was no
I had picked up with a couple of companions. who were also on the road,
and we spent a few uncomfortable hours waiting a ride to appear. A
railroad employee spotted us, and was kind enough to unlock an idle
passenger coach for us to spend thc night. It was pretty cold even so,
but it was out of the night air.
Day Two saw me pressing on toward Revelstoke. A kindly old man had
picked me up in his. Model A Ford, which suffered a breakdown by
mid-day. He. opened the hood and removed the distributor for inspection,
but lost a. couple of springs in the process when they disappeared into
the ditch. Knowing nothing of value about auto repairs, I had eventually
to leave him to his fate.
Eventually I got to Revelstoke and found temporary refuge by the road in
a deserted shack. After a time a car appeared in the distance: it was my
ride from the previous day. Unfortunately, he had had a long revelry in
Sicamous, which told on him as we began the long trek over the Big Bend
highway. Some decades later the Rogers Pass provided a 60 mile or so
alternative to the winding 200 miles of gravel which followed the valley
of the Columbia, first far north, and then down to Golden and the B.C
With an increasingly unstable driver , the night was a long one. We were
not far, however, from our destination when I leaned forward to look at
the moon over the mountains, nudged the driver's arm, and nearly
precipitated us into the Columbia.. I decided to get out, and was left
trudging along the road in the chilly mountain darkness. Luck was with
me, however, when a young couple in an old flivver happened along. I
arrived in Golden close to midnight, and bedded down in the train
station. An RCMP constable roused me once, but left me alone after
asking a few questions. It had been a long Day Two.
Morning saw me in a car heading down the endless dusty switchbacks
through Yoho Park, arriving in Lake Louise by noon. Now I had thousands
of cars streaming past me on the way to Banff, along a vastly superior
highway. Well, it was superior for the drivers, all of whom were in too
much a hurry to stop for me. I spent a long afternoon in the magnificent
valley under Mt. Edith Cavell, although the charm of the scenery was
somewhat lost on me at the time.
Late in the afternoon a car passing in the opposite direction stopped
and turned around. In it were a middle-aged American couple. They had
passed me earlier, and had been sitting in a Banff restaurant with their
son when the latter mentioned passing a young hitch-hiker at Lake
Louise. They realized at once how long I must have been on the road, and
decided to go back for me. I was to realize later that such generosity
typically distinguishes American from Canadian drivers, particularly if
you are identifiably Canadian, which I was to be later in my RCAF
uniform. They got me to Banff and, again typically, bought me dinner
before depositing me back on the highway. I was able to reach Lacombe
that night, and took the "Muskeg Special" to Bentley the next morning. I
had been three and a half days on the road. Later, I was to go from
Vancouver to Hamilton through the northern U.S states in less time. This
was a simpler age, however, when violence against drivers and hikers was
That was the summer of the Marshall Plan for the recovery of Europe, and
the dawn of the Cold War. Part of the rebuilding of western Europe
involved reviving its agriculture, and the price of rye had gone to
unheard of heights, greater than seven dollars a bushel.
We were combining with the new Massey Harris combine, and I had the task
of pulling the 200 bushel hopper alongside and delivering the grain
straight from the combine to the elevator four miles away.
I had made several trips before it occurred to me to inspect the cheque
I was given after each trip. I found myself staring at the inconceivable
amount of $1,500. I had delivered several loads that day before I
realized that the lean times were over.
An era had come to an end. The following summer I decided at last to
stay at home in New Westminster. It was a long, cold, boring summer,
with no paying work to do. I think I made a mistake.
When the summer of 1950 arrived, I went to work in a sawmill at
Honeymoon Bay on Vancouver Island. The. job paid well, and I was in awe
at the size, quality and quantity of food served in the company mess
hall. The mill-hands, like Napoleon's army, marched on full stomachs. We
had always been used to more humble fare, which, combined with all the
walking, had kept me to a skinny 125 lbs by my 18th birthday.
I had enrolled in Normal School, thinking to go into teacher training
that fall. The summer job would give me some help, and I naively
expected to remain at home for another year.
I started out working at the gang saw, flipping huge slabs of wet lumber
onto the saw's rollers, with the not inconsiderable aid of huge Swede at
the other end. It was soon clear that I was too light for the work, and
I was transferred to a trim saw on the green-chain. That was pleasant
enough work, although I nearly lost a thumb at the end of July. I had
reached under the saw to loosen a chunk of wood jammed in the conveyor,
and the saw caught my cotton glove and raised it into the teeth.
I had an eleven stitch wound and had to return to New Westminster for a
ten-day recuperation. On the tenth day Dad confronted me and accused me
(unfairly) of malingering. The hint was that it was time to get out of
the house, and I had little doubt why there was need for haste. That
suspicion was confirmed by the summer's end.
That September Dad confronted me again, and made it plain that staying
at home while going to Normal School was out of the question. When I
ventured to suggest attending Grade 13 until I had enough money to pay
my way to UBC, Dad uttered an anguished "What are you trying to do to my
marriage?" I was persona non grata the day after school had ended.
I did not wish to return to the mill. The life of the young workers
there was a little too wild for me, at least at that stage of my life. I
had vivid memories of the time they had got me to drink a mickey of rye,
the first hard liquor I had ever consumed. I drank it down quickly,
wishing to be rid of it. When I finished, my companions announced that I
had drunk enough to kill a horse, and the only remedy was to chase it
with some Extra Old Stock ale.
To make matter: worse, I was told when I woke up that I would be drunk
again if I. drank any water. Three hours passed before I decided to call
My friends were really good-hearted at bottom, if rather irrepressible.
I played a lot of poker that summer, and I was the only one to whom the
loggers would extend the favour of correcting my calling of a hand if
the call was too low, even if it cost them money.
One day, however, I amassed an astounding deficit of $45, and was
offered a chance to cut cards at $5 a crack. I quit after winning nine
straight times, and never got into serious gambling again. Sometimes I
wonder if my friend had lost on purpose, since my companions knew I
planned to go to school.
The real problem was that I didn't like the lack of privacy in the
sawmill barracks, and was never comfortable with the endless gambling,
drinking and swearing which was such a large part of single life in the
Since the idea of a year in the bush was not on, I turned to the
traditional Irvine alternative: I joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Two weeks later I lay in an upper bunk at Aylmer, Ontario, wondering how
I had managed to get into such a mess.
The Air Force Years
Any homesickness I felt proved to be short-lived, and I soon I began to
fit into a lifestyle which I remember to this day with affection.
Even boot camp had its compensations. Military discipline, particularly
as I first encountered it with drill sergeants, proved not to be so
onerous as the popular misconception would have it. It was not so then,
at least in the air force, which tended to be much more casual than the
army and navy. Elements of parade square discipline found their way into
my classroom management years later, imparting an aura of authority few
of my fellow teachers could match.
One incident, in particular, remains vivid in my mind. The only form of
hazing we ever knew at boot camp was the traditional one of throwing
everyone into the shower on the last day. It was clearly a different era
in the services. I had no intention, even so, of co-operating, and lay
in my bunk with a clenched first, resolved that while I could not avoid
joining the other 60 in the shower , the first person touching me would
lose his teeth. When all except me had gone into the shower, someone
asked if any were left. "Irvine," was the answer. "Oh, he won't think
its a joke”. I was the only one that night exempted from hazing.
Some of the older veterans thought that I was eccentric, that I did not
quite fit in. There was truth in that, but the willingness of my
comrades to let me be myself left a lasting affection for military life
as I , at least, knew it.
Years later, when I could look back after a career in education which
proved both rewarding and frustrating, I would realize that going into
Normal School immediately after high school would have been a mistake.
Any teacher worth his salt needs to get out into the real world for a
time. Join the military, work your way around the world on tramp
steamers, travel, love and lose: anything is better than progressing
from high school to university classroom and back to a public school
classroom to face youngsters without ever breaking out of an academic
straightjacket. One exception might be. the route taken by my wife., who
came through a succession of one-room schools in rural Saskatchewan.
Learning while working the job can also be an education in itself.
I will sketch out some of my experience in those years in a moment, but
first the matter of how much of the rewards of service life owed to
Scotty. I have nothing to blame her for, any more than I should give her
credit for forcing me into a phase of my life which I came to value. In
the end we make our own destinies. Neither do I credit my first wife's
selfishness and alcoholism for making possible my eventual success in
finding happiness with my second wife and family, since in the end such
success depends, in addition to a little luck, on one's being a
survivor. Scotty had simply done her duty without grace, at a cost to
her as well as to the rest of us. The result was that it was to take
some decades before any of us could bring ourselves to call her "Mom".
We did reach that point, although not without a long journey.
I arrived in Ontario in the middle of the McCarthy era and the
intolerance and hysteria of that time spilled over, to some extent, into
Canada. One does not normally talk religion and politics in the Canadian
Armed Forces, and I was really interested in little else. I did not make
a point of pursuing these topics, but I was inevitably drawn into them
in the airmen's mess.
In the Ontario of the 1950s, even an opinion that Unions had a right to
strike was enough to spark a charge of communist sympathies, but the
Cold War had also inspired a paranoid fear and hatred of Russia, and
some enlisted men on the unit had the notion that the whole matter could
be resolved by nuking Russia before she got the bomb herself. I got into
some arguments over that, holding that killing a few hundred million
people was hardly a reasonable way of settling political differences.
Someone demanded that I explain what we were doing in the air force, and
I responded that, apparently, we must be there to kill people. That led
to a report to the service police that airman Irvine was a communist.
The military police confronted my commanding officer with the charge,
and he threw them out of the office. The C.O. and I had made a number of
trips together to Trenton, where we both had friends, and we had talked
of political and social affairs at some length. He was a Liberal, but
was fair-minded and understood my point of view. He was to become Air
Officer Commanding of Transport Command a couple of years later, and he
proved to be a good (and invaluable) friend. I invariably got along
better with officers than with enlisted men.
I had again found life in the barracks; distasteful, especially with the
prevalence of drinking and lack of privacy, and, since there was an
option of living off the station, I had asked for it. The C.0. smiled
and granted the request, noting that he had heard some concerns about my
influence among younger airmen, who apparently were repeating my
arguments in other contexts. For the next two years I was to live in
Hamilton, commuting by service bus to the station at Mount Hope.
Those were great times. I attended night school four nights a week for
both those years, redoing my high school math and taking first year
university English and Biology. I did not entirely escape the commie
hunters, two of whom were parked outside my apartment late one Saturday
night, convinced that it was suspicious that my lights were still on. I
happen to remember that night. I had been listening to the election
returns from the U.S., and, not being ready for sleep, had turned to
reading Sherlock Holmes in the wee hours of the morning, quite unaware
of the presence of the two amateur security agents outside.
I completed much of my first year at university while in the service,
and even managed to stretch my annual leave in 1954 to cover a wonderful
summer session at Queen's university. I took a philosophy course there,
and soon realized that I had found my academic specialty.
In the long run, the commie issue came to nothing. During those years I
was able to pursue a rich cultural life, attending the visiting
Metropolitan Opera when it staged its big productions at Maple Leaf
Gardens. I attended operas and plays at the Toronto Conservatory, and in
December of 1953 I went to New York for a performance of Wagner's
Tannhauser, the beginning of a lifelong fascination with Wagnerian music
drama. Since I was a lover of symphonic music who listened to opera,
Wagner's linking of the two in music drama left me breathless. I saw at
once that he used the voice essentially as an additional musical
instrument. I returned home to Hamilton and bought very recorded work of
Wagnerian music I could find, convinced--rightly as it turned out--that
anyone who got it that right couldn't have written bad music.
Frank and I had always been Cleveland Indian fans, and I remember some
memorable trips around Lake Erie to watch the Yankees and Indians, both
of whom had Hall of Fame teams during those years. Since Cleveland was
directly south of Hamilton, I could listen to most of their games on
Of all my service experiences, the most memorable were the hitch-hiking
trips home from Hamilton to Vancouver in the summers of 1951 to 1953.
Hitch-hiking was safe in those years, and I traveled through the United
States, a great way of coming to know ordinary Americans. Americans were
almost invariably generous to a fault. Many who picked me up insisted on
buying dinner, or driving me far out of their way to drop me off at an
By contrast, I remember having a long ride with a Canadian around Lake
Superior. He had a case of beer under his legs, which he sampled now and
then, but didn't offer me one all day. I wasn't bothered by this, but
could not help but note the contrast with Americans.
My preferred route was along Route Two, but I went out on Ten in 1952,
and had used it to return in 1951. My adventures included two nearly
fatal brushes with death. One occurred when a young American airman and
I passed a pokey farmer in North Dakota, giving him a derisory honk as
we went by. Before we knew it, he was past us, setting up a race which
ended with an oncoming car jumping out of dip in the road in front of
us. He went to the shoulder , the farmer went to his shoulder, and we
hit the space left. The farmer swung out again to renew the contest but
we waved him off.
In 1952, outside Miles City, Montana, a driver and I were coasting along
a gravel highway at 80mph when a deer darted out in front of us. The
driver slammed on his brakes, but hit the animal dead-on anyway, and I
found myself waiting for us to roll over as the car slid sideways down
the road. I wondered what Dad would think when he read of my death in
the papers. We finally came to a stop, and walked some two hundred feet
back up the road looking for the deer. Not finding it, we searched ahead
of where the car had come to rest. We found our deer nearly two hundred
feet further on. Mickey Mantle didn't hit home runs any longer.
I can remember the excitement of passing through Grand Coulee Dam at
night, of travelling through the American Cascades, of learning to drive
one night when I spelled off a sleepy driver on a stretch between
Cleveland and South Bend, Indiana. I can remember my first hearing
diesel locomotives in the Rockies, contrasting the comfortable chuff of
steam locomotives with the lonesome wail of the diesels in mountain
valleys. That time I took the train from Golden to Revelstoke in order
to avoid the Big Bend.
Each year I turned north at Sweetgrass Montana, and headed into Alberta,
preferring to budget the better part of my vacation to the farm,
Wetaskiwin, and Edmonton. That decision followed my first visit home in
1951. I had been there but an hour when Dad handed me five dollars and
suggested that I stay at the "Y" during my visit. I indicated that if I
was unwelcome at home even for a few days after a year's absence, I
would rather leave at once for Hamilton. Dad must have had it out with
Scotty, for my visits were tolerated from then on. Nothing much had
changed: I remember Wayne crying tears of frustration because he and
Bill were now expected to pay rent.
The chill was always there. I had to leave for Hamilton in 1952 with
less than three dollars in my pocket. Dad had gone to work, and I wasn't
about to ask Scotty for a dime. I recall walking into lobby of a hotel
in Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, late that night and discovering a one-armed
bandit. On impulse I plugged a quarter into it and won five American
dollars.! Still on a short budget, I traveled three days and nights
without sleeping, and arrived Hamilton with as much money as I had set
I was a little more flush in 1953, and took the bus back from Vancouver
to Hamilton. I wish I hadn't. Hitch-hiking has the advantage of avoiding
waking up every time your head hits a bus window. I seldom sleep on a
moving vehicle anyway. I got an indelible impression of Saskatchewan, in
the decades before its highway infrastructure was built, as the bus
spent a long day winding up and around those dust-choked gravel roads.
Late one afternoon I found myself staring out the bus window at a yellow
calcimine wall in a place called Yorkton, still 14 years in my future.
We took wrong turn one night in 1995 as I brought my son back from
school in North Dakota, near some of the haunts I had known in my
service days. We turned into a familiar "hole in the wall" outside of
Minot, where Highway Two turned toward Montana and the coast. I realized
that I was on the wrong road when I reached Stanley, N.D. I was emerging
from a motel lobby there, after getting directions, when it suddenly
struck me that I had stayed at that very motel some 42 years before.
Private rooms for RCAF personnel were completed eventually, and I
returned to living on station. That had its compensations. We played
bridge endlessly, and the prize event was the non-stop Friday night
Sunday morning marathon. We would arrange to have the beer and food
brought in. Such entertainment proved to be a bargain, as we played for
a tenth of a cent a point , and I once calculated that I had lost some
$45 dollars over four years.
The service era ended in 1955. The Commie thing would re-emerge from
time to time, and I was getting fed-up with it. The C.O. noted one day,
after I had indicated that I had not made up my mind about re-enlisting,
that I belonged in university. He said he could arrange my early release
under "services no longer required". My hesitation evaporated when he
pointed out that the $1600 severance pay I would be entitled to would go
a long way at university. I enrolled at the University of British
Columbia at the end of a summer living with friends in Hamilton and
working as a typist at Firestone. Since I was entitled to free tuition
as an ex-serviceman, so long as I averaged 80%, I would have no trouble
paying for my own education, even though it was to last seven years. I
did better in my major subject, philosophy, graduating with honours at
85%., and earning a teaching assistantship to the University of
The Brothers Reunited
Wayne and Bill were already at university, and Frank had just graduated
from high school. My return meant that the four of us could take up
residence in Point Grey, only short distance from the university. It
seemed that we were only taking up where we had left off.
Our reunification began with a fishing trip to the Skagit River near
Yale. Bill had hooked a large trout, and I tried to land it, clinging to
a log and reaching with a net. I realized that the log was too smooth
for a secure grip, and tried to warn Bill to get his catch out of the
way. Too late. I landed squarely on the fish and the line snapped. Bill
still marvels at how I apologized when I surfaced, unconcerned with the
danger of being swept under the log jam.
Mathematics was my cross to bear in the first year, and, without Wayne's
coaching, I might not have made it. I spent almost half my time on that
one hurdle and, on reviewing the final exam, Wayne guessed that I might
make 53%. He was exactly night.
Frank did not find university to his liking, and would leave it for the
CBC and a career in film editing at the end of the year. We were a
little startled at first, but began to relax as it become evident that
Frank had found his niche. The rest of us would spend a second year
together. All of us were hard workers, with bridge, as usual, being the
principal diversion, if one discounts arguments. Eventually women would
be the occasion for ending our last interlude together.
Wayne and Frank were the first to go. I was the best man at both
weddings, but that was not enough to save them. Both marriages were made
in haste. Wayne's wife turned out to be an irresponsible flower child,
and Frank married a nice girl beset, however, by destructive emotional
problems. Bill married later, and his wife helped him through medical
school. Eventually that marriage did not work out either, although I am
uncertain how much that failure owed to our shared background. To a
large extent, mother's death had deprived us of an opportunity to learn
to relate to women. But marriage is a matter of luck too.
Contact with Dad and Scotty was only occasional. We were too busy during
the school year, and summer employment used up the rest of our time,
My summers working in northern B.C and the Yukon are a separate and
valued memory. Like my brothers, financing my way through school was not
a problem in those days. I worked six days a week, 10-12 hrs per day, at
university. At the end of April I would leave the apartment and take to
the wilderness with the Forest Service, living in tents, travelling by
truck, boat, bush aircraft and helicopters to places along the Alaska
Highway remote from civilization. During the first summer, we cooked
entirely over wood fires, only later using Coleman stoves. The stark
change in lifestyle from winter to summer was my equivalent of a
vacation, offering a contrast of the mental and physical. Whether it was
rafting 180 miles down the Ketchika or travelling 250 miles at night on
the Alaska highway without brakes or lights, those summers remain etched
in my memory. Curiously, I spent some time timber surveying on the
Douglas Lake ranch in 1958. Nearly thirty years later my son would work
two years on the same ranch.
I did get a few days off the first summer and managed a trip to
Wetaskiwin, complete with my surveyor's beard, which my aunt and sister
promptly shaved off. Bentley had to wait. The four of us would see it
next at Granddad Baumbach's funeral, by which time we were leading
separate lives, although linked, as usual, with get-togethers for bridge
On my return from the bush in September 1955 I was offered a Teaching
Assistantship in philosophy at the university of Washington, and a
chance to move on to a Master's degree. It meant declining a Research
Assistantship at Queen's, but by this time I had no desire to leave my
The year in Seattle was inspiring, if strenuous. I found myself studying
under Abe Melden, a leading American philosopher and advocate of the
Ordinary Language revolution in philosophy which was just reaching its
peak. Only later did I fully realize how fortunate I was to be in that
place at that time. I made some good friends and enjoyed a rich cultural
life when I had the chance, but I didn't get back to Vancouver very
often. The one time I did reminded me of the fact that I had no home to
go back to.
I had spent an evening and night with Dad and Scotty in Burnaby, the
first time in three years that I had ventured to go home. A few days
later I received a letter from Scotty. In it, she accused me of
"unloading the expense of my long education on the family". I could
guess only that she was referring to the bowl of cornflakes I had eaten
there in the morning. I penned a chilly if dignified rebuttal, and went
back to ignoring her.
I returned to Vancouver to receive my walking papers from the girl I had
always assumed I would marry. She was a librarian at UBC, and I had
known her briefly while in high school. She was warm, witty, and
intelligent, and for three years we used to date by Dutch treat, dining
at the better restaurants in Vancouver. This was the time when medium
rare steak was still a novelty. We had written volumes to each other
when I was away in the north. She was very religious (which I accepted)
but there was always a hint of an emotional stress. Her parents seemed
to be skittish about their daughter's emotional balance, but I had seen
In time the relationship became more serious, and the prospect of
physical intimacy loomed. At first she had seemed to come around, but
when I came back to Vancouver she called me over to see her at the
faculty club. It was then that she suddenly told me that our
relationship was at an end. Ten years later, after an emotional
breakdown and a lengthy road back, she contacted me out of the blue
and proposed marriage, but by that time I had been through my own
marital disaster, and didn't need to chance another.
Wayne and I spent a last summer together in the Dunbar district of
Vancouver By September I would be off to the Crow's Nest pass and my
first. year of teaching, I was coming. to realize that the stress of
four concentrated years in university, and the still pending Master's
thesis, had brought me close to burn-out. A change is as good as a rest,
even if it meant the slave labour of beginning teaching with seven high
school classes in a small town school in the mountains.
One incident from that summer remains particularly fresh in memory.
Wayne and I were into brewing beer, and, of course, nothing less than a
scientifically impeccable product, indistinguishable from the best
commercial brands, would suffice. We saw the challenge as involving
straining sediment from the brew and finding a way to improve the
carbonation. Wayne borrowed some equipment from his lab and we tried
filtering the beer, but the crushed seashell filter kept plugging up,
and we decided to leave that off for a time. This left the carbonation.
Wayne decided that dry ice was a super source of carbonation, and we
thought we would try adding a sliver of it to our bottles when we capped
them. I went to a brewery for the dry ice, but the smallest quantity I
could get was one pound. We cut off a tiny piece, dropped it into the
bottle and capped it. To be safe, Wayne held the bottle by the bottom
and pointed it away from him, expecting that the cap might blow if we
had added too much.
We had added too much all right. The bottle exploded, leaving a shard of
glass embedded in the wall, and bits of glass and beer all over the
kitchen. We were lucky that neither of us was injured seriously.
Obviously that stratagem was impractical too, so I put the dry ice in an
aluminum pot and left it outside on the concrete walk in the blistering
sunlight. The dry ice froze the pot immoveably to the concrete, despite
I spent a grueling year at Sparwood, but decided nonetheless to go into
teaching. I enrolled at the College of Education and rented a room from
Wayne and his wife, Chris. By that time, Eric had arrived, and strains
in the marriage were evident. Chris was not up to caring for children,
and for some time I did a slow burn each morning while the boy stood
unchanged in his crib and cried for attention. His mother was in bed,
and did not get up for hours.
I came to change and feed Eric for a time, but one morning, having to
get to school earlier, I exploded in frustration and banged on his
mother's bedroom door to get her out of bed. Wayne offered a
half-hearted criticism of my behavior later, but I could see that he was
troubled by his wife's conduct. Frank, too, was having trouble in his
marriage, and was yet to begin his eventually successful battle against
A year later I married too, and thought that I had chosen well. Wayne
and Chris had split up at that time, and Wayne and Eric came to live
from a time with Joan and me, in time to see my own marriage beginning
to unravel. It was then that an incident occurred which I shall remember
all my life. Chris had asked to have Eric for a weekend, and I had
advised against it since custody had not been legally fixed. I argued
that she might have a sudden attack of filial devotion, and decide to
take Eric into the commune with her.
That is precisely what happened, and Wayne, frantic to recover Eric, had
charged through the front glass door to seize his son. Frank and I
arrived a few minutes later, intending to lend assistance, but Wayne and
Eric were gone. Chris, who had earlier fled the house in terror, came
back in to shout abuse at us. We headed to Cecil Pottinger's, our
cousin, and sure enough found Wayne, head bloody, rocking Eric back and
forth. Chris filed a complaint with the police, but shortly dropped it
when her natural lack of responsibility reasserted itself.
My own wife had begun disappearing at nights, showing up under the
weather the following morning. She seemed to have become suddenly
frigid, and a pattern of seeming to value others only for their
usefulness to her became established. Only years later did I realize
that her problem was alcoholism, and, since we had no spare income to
support her vice, the pressures exploded elsewhere.
For a time I struggled to keep the marriage afloat, and it may have
seemed to my brothers that all was well. We still had our bridge games,
and some memorable high jinks along the way. One evening the
conversation turned to my need for a new incinerator, and to the problem
of finding a 45 gallon steel drum. Wayne had seen one in the alley
behind a dry cleaners. I suppose we might have had it for the asking,
but nothing would do except that we would have to stage a commando
operation at 3 am in the morning and steal it.
Bill was to wait in a car at the end of the lane while Wayne and I
seized the drum and lugged it to the street. Carrying a drum by each end
proved an awkward business, and was accompanied by barked shins and a
good deal of swearing. By the time we reached Sasamat street, Bill had
noticed that he was parked rather conspicuously beside the Bank of
Montreal. He decided to move off down the street just as we emerged
behind him. Cursing and swearing, Wayne and I rolled the drum down the
street after him. The noise would have awakened any nearby cop, even if
he was dead, but in due course we did get home with the new incinerator.
My marriage ended in divorce in 1966. I had no legal claim to my son and
had, ironically, to fake adultery to provide grounds for the divorce.
Joan, who had financed her alcoholism with adultery, had an ironclad
claim to Gene and alimony. I found myself giving her title to the house,
my son, a small bank account and an alimony claim. It was certainly the
lowest point of my life. I might have insisted on a half-share in the
house. It was a seven bedroom, three story mansion which we bought at
the bottom of the market for $16,000. Within a few years it commanded
$250,000, and is doubtless worth more now. I had no head for business
then, I suppose. I had thought to leave her self-sufficient, and with a
small enough alimony payment to allow me to rebuild my life. To that
extent I succeeded. Within two years I was given custody anyway, as
Joan's personal problems became unmanageable. She was eventually to
drink herself to death.
My ex-wife had been a victim of absentee parents and rejection by her
father, a Vancouver magistrate who referred to his former family as
"trash". Certainly, she had not had much help from her mother, who was,
by all accounts, footloose and unsettled in her youth . I knew her
mother later, when she was more stable. As it was, Joan and her siblings
had been raised by the grandparents, and the scars were evident in every
case. Even so, it was twenty years before I could forgive her for the
way she treated me.
I went to library school the year of the divorce, largely on a bursary
from the Grande Prairie, Alberta, school district. The condition of the
bursary was a period of service in the school district. The year at UBC,
and the following summer, working as a bibliographer in the
Parliamentary library in Victoria, did something to salve my shattered
soul. By September I was to leave BC for good, a blow that I never
entirely got over. I stayed with Bill for a day or two before I left, my
little car loaded with everything I owned. He had begun his practice in
Oak Ridge, and I still remember turning the corner there, waving
goodbye, and starting out on a new era in my life.
Scotty has become, with the passage of time, "Mom". The process took
time, and was not helped in my case when I came to Vancouver on my
honeymoon. We did meet all the family in a big gathering, but somehow
ended up in a motel on Kingsway when no one thought to invite us to stay
with family. Since my brothers may have been ill-situated to have us,
the blame for the omission rested really in the same old place. My wife
was humiliated, and it was thirteen years before she came with me to
Vancouver again. By that time, things had changed.
The reconciliation with Mom began with the visits to Saskatchewan in the
mid to late 1970s. Dad showed up unannounced at our door (I think it was
in the summer of 1977) and asked if it would be all right to come in. I
was rather puzzled by the question, until I realized that Mom was
sitting in the car waiting for Dad to find out how we would react. I
suppose that she feared retaliation for the honeymoon debacle. That
would not have occurred to us, and their mere appearance there promised
an olive branch. Mom had made some comment about "bygones being bygones"
during this first visit, and Dad asked in a private conversation later
how Rill and reacted to the snub. It was clear that he regretted other
mistakes he had made. When Rill and I visited Vancouver for Wayne's
wedding in 1982, we were welcomed at home at last. The long war was
finally history. Rilla's Dad had died only a few days earlier, but I
decided that it would be unwise not to go. It was a good thing that we
made the trip, for it was the last time I was to see my own father.
Dad spent the bulk of his time during their visits in the late 70s doing
essential construction work on our home. Mom was employed in Yorkton and
Regina preparing Henderson Directories. Since the terms of his will
seemed to exclude his own children, it was painfully obvious (the
wording was unfortunate) that the only bequest he could offer us was his
own labour. In fact the inheritance would be limited in any event, and
best left to Scott, who assumed responsibility for looking after mother
when Dad died.
A more serious obstacle to reconciliation had been the partial
exploitation of the Irvine boys through the demand for payments for room
and board, which occurred while I was still in the RCAF. Bill had had
two summers of work on a greenchain appropriated for this purpose, and
Dad had scrounged through Wayne’s belongings looking for hidden money. I
had had to pay for clothing and dental work, but was absent for the
later difficulties. For youngsters who would have to pay their own way
through university, which we all eventually managed to do, these matters
The incident left some bitterness in the family, especially with Wayne,
for some years. Dad’s preoccupation with politics and his trade-union
mentality had made him, at times, a less effective provider for his
family than circumstances warranted. The extensive work Dad did for me
in later years was his way of making amends, and it appears that he also
made similar efforts for his other children.
An incident after Dad's death seemed to indicate a changed attitude on
Mom’s part. I had made some arrangements for the interment of Dad's
ashes in Wetaskiwin, assuming that the matter was straightforward. My
sister and I had decided on a grave marker, and had not thought to clear
our choice with Mom. She did comment on it, but made no protest. That
was clearly evidence of a wish for reconciliation. It was an indication
that a truce was really in effect..
A related matter deserves mention. I first discovered in 1951 that our
own mother's grave in Edmonton was unmarked, and I had always been
determined to remedy that situation. The occasion to do so came with
Dad's death, and Dawn and I raised money among the brothers for a simple
gravestone. It was not possible for me to be present for the
installation of the markers, but Dawn was there for Dad's, and Frank
happened to be in Edmonton on a film assignment when mother's was ready.
It was satisfying that, almost 40 years after her death, that some of
her children were present for an overdue homage.
The bond between the brothers remained strong. While it is renewed by
occasional forays to the coast, there has also been the occasion for
reunions elsewhere: once at Grandma Irvine's funeral (the only time
where Dad and all his children appeared in a photograph together); at
Grandma Baumbach's funeral, and at the Baumbach reunion in 1989. The
importance of family ties is felt by my own children, who have
themselves visited uncles at the coast. Gene, in particular, was close
to Frank, and benefited from the latter's friendship and counsel. It was
Gene's suggestion that this history be undertaken. Gene, who had won a
battle against drugs and alcohol himself, took Frank's loss especially
I am now the last surviving member of the Irvine boys. All of us
brothers, in our own ways, found success and happiness despite life's
obstacles. I could wish no more for my own children.