School was not my only source
of happy times during my childhood. In the lazy days of summer after our
classes let out, we boys badgered our father for one special treat. David,
Ralph and I each fought to go with Dad on his
For many years Dad worked as a rural
route salesman for
In those postwar days,
before supermarkets, Dad traveled his busy route through some of the prettiest
farms, orchards and countryside in
Back at the house, we would help him cart those heavy boxes up to his office on the second floor, then unpack them and stack them on unpainted wooden shelves.
Dad first had fixed up a Ď32 Chevrolet sedan for his deliveries. He had a door cut in the back and pulled out the rear seat to create his own early station wagon. When panel body cars came in, he bought a Ď48 Chevrolet model with no rear windows. He then had custom windows installed so the family could see out. Those ultra modern curved plexiglass rear side windows were a novelty and everyone noticed us on the highway. Unfortunately they were not designed to be opened, and all summer we kids sweltered in the back seat.
Being with our father on his sales trips was yet another source of competition among my brothers and myself. He tried taking two of us at a time, but too often we ended up quarreling over the best seat at the window, or who was picked to accompany him into the customer's house. The best times and trips were when I got to go alone.
Dad took great pride in his appearance on the road. Even though his customers were primarily farmers, he always wore a clean shirt, tie and jacket. Each morning he shaved and neatly trimmed his small black mustache. His shoes were shined meticulously and his felt fedora was set at just the right angle before we headed out the door for the route. I was so proud to ride with him up in the front passenger seat, all alone. Dad was mine for the day and I didnít have to share him with my mother or either of my brothers.
Earlier that morning Mum
would have made up our lunches. Dad's was packed in his old worn black lunch
box with a thermos of coffee, raisins and carrots, two sandwiches and always
some homemade cake or cookies. My own child's lunch box was much simpler, but
it too was packed with special treats for the noontime stop. Dad could always
find some special place for us to park for lunch. Sometimes our lunch retreat
was under shady trees along the roadside, overlooking
Dad took several months to cover his entire territory and get back around to each customer again. In those days before convenient stores, people would take the time to order carefully to keep in stock till his next trip. What's more, Dad had a special way with each customer. Most were simple farmers and their hard-working wives who had no time for shopping. He would know what products they liked or needed, and was ready with replacements before they had a chance to ask. Often he had to hike into the fields or barns to track down the busy farmer to make those hard fought sales.
More importantly, he also
knew what many of these isolated and lonely souls seemed to need most. Many
Many of his customers also became good friends. One old couple that we boys came to know and love lived near Beamsville in an old unpainted farmhouse with no indoor conveniences. Martha and Dave were Mennonites and lived the plain and simple life. Both dressed all in black, worked hard each day on their meager farm and rarely smiled. Yet a gentleness and love surrounded that old couple that belied their appearance, and drew them close to our more modern family.
One summer, my brother David and I were invited to spend a week with Martha and Dave on their farm. We were excited at this prospect of living at the farmhouse, but not a little fearful of life without plumbing or electricity at the home of an odd old couple we barely knew. Dave and Martha won us over within a day. They lived in a dark and somewhat foreboding house, with no paint inside or out to relieve the plainness. Just wonderful smells of food and furniture polish.
The only toilet was a two-holer out back by the barn. We soon learned to improvise with Eaton's catalog pages and old newspapers. Their kitchen facilities were just as primitive. When sent to the well out in the farmyard to get butter for cooking, I found it down low on a ledge, cooled by the water far below. Bedtime meant a large down-filled bed with old comforters on an old metal frame bedstead. The roof leaked above us in the attic up under the eaves where we slept. One rainy night we had to retreat to the dining room floor below to find a dry spot.
That Sunday we went to the Meeting House down by the highway. We arrived in their horse and buggy, shunning the old derelict black model T Ford they used throughout the rest of the week. Everyone was dressed just like Dave and Martha, all in black. Solemn prayers and scriptures were read from an immense Bible in the front of the unadorned white clapboard hall. Despite our unique experiences and the wonderful home cooking, by the end of our week, we were ready to get back to civilization and Queenston.
Dad was far more patient
I would sit and glumly pout in the passenger seat, waiting his return. And when the time wore on I would begin a rhythmic rocking back and forth. Until nearly ten years old, my parents could not break me of the habit of sucking my thumb. During these exiles in the car, I sucked that tooth-scarred thumb to ease the pain of loneliness or rejection or impatience. I rocked and sucked relentlessly till Daddy returned and assured me that we were finally moving on.
Just being with my father could bring a splendid sense of security and belonging. Unlike at home, where I had to fight for his attention with two scrappy brothers, here I had my Daddy all to myself. He always had wonderful stories to tell me all along the way: stories about his customers, about the countryside, about the folklore of the Niagara peninsula. He had traveled its back roads for years and like Willy Loman he loved the people, the history and the open road.
And then there were the times that he took me inside to meet his customers. I was the Raleigh man's son. The farmers' wives liked to pat my head and comment on the rusty cowlick that was my curse and fortune. In no time I learned how to work my hazel eyes and innocent smile to my advantage with adoring housewives. But most of all, I loved the attention I got from my father, whether sitting listening to his stories in the car or trotting alongside him as he greeted his farm customers.
As many of the fields and orchards of the peninsula gradually were covered over with rows of suburban houses, the route of all traveling salesmen shrank. Supermarkets and faster cars drew the farmers into town or to neighbourhood plazas. They had no more need for a man at the door with a limited product line. Raleigh's Medicated Ointment no longer could soothe all pains or problems. As we grew older too, the thrill of the quiet country drives with Dad also passed away. As we grew older, school work and summer jobs left little time for these happy trips with our Dad.
By 1955 it was over for the Raleigh salesman. Soon after we went on to High School, Dad had to quit his old traveling route. He took a new job. He sat alone his whole eight-hour shift, and every hour he read the water intake dials at a small intake dam feeding a Hydro power station along the Welland Canal. He took up carving and leatherwork and reading. We missed his journeyman's stories of the open road. Our long Ď53 Chevy station wagon, the first car I learned to drive at 15, was traded in for a used Volkswagen Beetle.
Attention was no longer paid. Somewhere along the way Daddy became plain Pop. Like Willy, this former traveling salesman seemed to lose his confidence without the respect he once earned from his old customers on his regular route through the farmlands of Niagara. Dad sat at the impersonal dials, alone and unappreciated. And within a year or two they replaced his controls with an automated system.
He was then transferred to the Hamilton Office to sweep floors in the regional Hydro Office. In 1962 we moved out of our old Queenston home and Mum and Dad rented a simple flat in the big city. But no one could keep Dad from chasing his dreams. Soon he was on the road again, selling first cable television subscriptions and then mutual funds, both new concepts in the sixties. And with his new routes, his pride and confidence returned.
By this time I was in my second year at McMaster University. I did not travel along with Dad any longer on his new routes through the city. But we all knew he was happy again, meeting people, selling dreams to others and building one of our own. Within two years Dad was able to purchase the first home we ever owned.