The King Message
How war's challenge came to a prairie town —and how Briercrest gave its answer
IT WAS Sunday night, an evening of velvet darkness, where stars as big as teacups hung in golden rings above the dark bulk of the Pool elevator, and the Dipper with its slanting handle pointed a relentless finger to the North Star, to guide all sailors home.
It was just after supper and most of the young people in our little prairie town of Briercrest were gathered in Ed Anderson’s store, listening to the King. Across an eternity of distance his voice came to us, hesitating a bit here and there, as if he hunted for the right word to bear his fearful message to our trembling hearts.
“in this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my people, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.”
Doug Weir sat astride a chair and listened. Bill Anderson—Ed’s son—listened too, intently, while he surreptitiously popped a candy into his mouth every time he passed the jar. His father gazed blankly out the front window into the gathering night.
Art Hillson sat in a little booth, his gay young face sober for once, as he scraped and scraped the bottom of a little glass dish that had once held ice cream with “chocolate gravy” on it.
The Boan boys were there too, tall young giants, clean limbed, clean living, whose Scottish grandfather had ranched in the Qu’Appelle valley in the early eighties when there was nothing much there but scattered bands of Indians, the little homesick Scottish family, and the eternal silence of the purple valley as far as the eye could reach.
The Snell boy, with his fresh English complexion, turned the pages of a movie magazine. They cracked like tiny pistol shots in the breathless silence; but no one even thought of frowning at him to stop, for his nice eyes were wide and staring and darker than I had ever seen them, and seemed to be looking far off to the English countryside his mother had told him about so often.
Howard Jaques, was there too, my tall fair nephew whose wit had kept half the settlement laughing ever since he could put two words together. I looked at him and wondered what lay behind the new look on his face, that made him suddenly grown up and manly.
There was a time when we didn’t think he ever would grow up at all. His mother had taken him to Ontario and returned when he was about eight months old, and on the way home she caught diphtheria. When she arrived the baby had to be weaned, and we, the younger fry, wrere banished to my brother’s house across the road and told to wean the baby.
We didn’t know any more about weaning a baby than we knew about life on Mars. We knew you weaned calves by holding their heads down into a pail of milk until they had to drink or drown. We tried that with him, but it didn’t work so good, and when his face came up it was purple, and so were ours.
Well, to make a long story short, when his mother came home, we had him on a diet of pork rinds and buckwheat pancakes and he was as fat as a seal and hasn’t stopped growing since.
And there he sat listening to the voice that filled the little store with its fateful message.
FOR THE second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war.... for the sake of all we ourselves hold dear, and for world order and peace, it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet the challenge. . . . ”
I wondered, as I looked at these clean country lads, how they would meet the challenge—deep down inside of them, where no one else was ever permitted to know what was going on, how were they going to meet it?
Most of them were under twenty, gay faced, full of fun, they loved dances and girls and chocolate bars and Ed’s good ice cream; and they weren’t thinking in terms of Empire or “selfish pursuits of power against the sovereignty of the State. ...” They had been reared in drought; for ten years the ruthless hand of nature had been raised against them. Wind and dust and scorching heat, the desolation of ruined fields was all they knew. A diet almost devoid of fresh vegetables, and certainly fresh fruit, had been their daily portion, hard times had dogged them ever since they were old enough to realize it. Yet here they were singularly untouched by it all— as fine a bunch of boys as you could find in the whole commonwealth of nations, tall, straight, clean looking, full of fun as children, ready for anything.
The young voice of the King went on, “It is to this high purpose that I now call my people. . .the task will be hard. . . there may be dark days ahead.....”
He was getting on familiar ground now. They had known dark days, lots of them, days when the dust was so thick that you couldn’t see the barn, when the wind shrieked over the housetops and silt sifted in, even though brown paper was pasted around the windows and anyone was forbidden to open the door at all, days when you just held on to
something inside of you----until the wind went
And it always went down, too. That’s the good part about storms, they always blow themselves out—there is always a sunrise, and always a day after the storm when you can go to town and laugh about it, and tell what it did to your barn or house or windmill.
“Committing our cause to God . . . resolutely
faithful to it, ready for whatever service or sacrifice it may demand”. . .the voice was strong now, full of life. . .brave. There was a stillness you could hear, the boys sat as if everyone was holding his breath, waiting for the end.
It came soon, “With God’s help we shall prevail, may He bless us and keep us all.”
That was the end of it: no one spoke. Ed’s face was white, he swallowed a few times, looked around his little shop, circling it with his eyes as if he wanted to picture it forever in his heart just as it was then -the little chairs all awry, the young sober faces hearing their first tremendous call, feeling it strike against them suddenly like a tiny blow. Ed dusted the counter off with the sleeve of his clean blue shirt and softly said, as if to himself, “Well, that’s that.”
One by one the boys went out, letting the screen door slam behind them, going down the wooden sidewalk to their homes, as if under a spell, not speaking to each other at all.
The next broadcast came at 9 o’clock—the Alhema had been sunk, without warning. Hundreds of human beings, just like us, at the end of this Sabbath day had been hurled into the black water, struggling for their lives, fighting death alone in a grim wide sea. . .the first victims to stain the dark shield of Nazi hate.
IT IS September again. Two years have passed across the face of the little village in the midst of the wind-scoured plains. Two years that have left their deep mark on every soul who listened to the King’s fearful message that Sunday evening, while the shadows gathered along the quiet street and young boys munched their chocolate bars and listened.
Ed’s shop has passed to other hands. It doesn’t matter much, because the boys have all gbne, everyone who was there that fateful night is now in the ranks of war. Young Art Hillson, the little cheerful one who was always laughing, is an observer, stationed at Newfoundland. His plane took part in the chase for the Bismarck. I can just see his face as he kept his lookout for the sight of that doomed ship. He would be grinning, I know, with the same impish look in his eyes that he had once when I saw him gleefully sneaking up on a girl with a handful of snow.
Bill Snell and his dad are in England. They have visited the village they came from, strutting a bit, I bet, in their fine uniforms, telling tall tales of Canada, the size of the farms and the wheat we grow.
Bill Anderson is still eating candies, they tell me, munching them along the quay-side by shattered Portsmouth, looking out across the white cliffs at Dover, riding the buses in London town. He says he is beginning to know his way around there and sent home a picture of a blitzed building, with “himself” standing where a big girder swayed drunkenly in the background, and the same happy smile on his face we remembered. We heard his voice once too, on the “troops in England” broadcast, and it sounded as natural as if he were across the counter of his dad’s little store, with a gumdrop in his cheek.
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The King's Message
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Doug Weir went back to University, got his B.A. and promptly enlisted. He had been taking officer’s training the last two years at college, and at the time of his graduation he was just nineteen and one of the youngest lieutenants in the Canadian army. He is looking forward eagerly to seeing his cousins at Falkirk, Scotland, and I know they’ll be very proud of their fine upstanding Canadian relative.
The McGonical brothers, as fine a pair of Irish lads as ever went overseas, are carrying the torch in their strong brown hands. Their dad is still on the farm, south of town, working a section of land alone, doing the work for them all, his little yellow tractor creeping up and down the fields from dawn till dusk. He moves around a bit slower than the boys would, I suppose, but his fields are brown and rich and you can hardly see a weed from one end of them to the other.
Lewis. . Calder. . Heath. . McGhee . .Jaques. . Weir. . Healey. . Snell. . Boan. .—old British names, all of them, and you’ll find them on every printed page of British history. On casualty lists, on heroes’ graves, on little village voting lists. They were crusaders and scoundrels, tradesmen, preachers, tinsmiths, farmers and fishermen. The “little people,” they’ve fought in every war since the Roman invasion and held their Island for hundreds of years, reclaiming much of it from the marsh and sea. They have loved it with a mighty love, a fanatical devotion to its soil that has no parallel in history.
They turned it from a wilderness into a vast garden, where every hedgerow and sloping lawn is dear to them, from * the chalky cliffs of Dover to the rock-bound mountains of Wales, they love it and are willing to die to keep it free.
And now their sons and grandsons are going—thousands of them there already to fight for the soil their fathers called home. And we are getting letters postmarked Whitby. . London . . Portsmouth . . Coventry. . Sheffield.. Manchester. Plymouth, Dovercities that had only been names to us before, places we had read about in history and in newspapers. But our boys are making them come alive for us, sending us snaps of themselves standing beside an old ivy-covered church, draping themselves in a careless attitude by a sea wall at Plymouth, or leaning an elbow against a sandbag before a shop in London.
THERE is a huge training field about twenty miles from Briercrest, for British airmen, and all day long and most of the night you hear the drone of planes above the little town. They loop the loop, nose dive, bank and turn and cut golden circles above the housetops, and the wide fields that lie about us.
At first the horses used to squat, quivering in the harness when the planes came too low; but now they never flicker an ear, just plod along with their heads down, looking as bored as old women.
Above the “Plats” the planes dip and fall, seeming to find the air here ideal for flying. They tell me there are practically no air pockets above this flat land surface and so they can practice their perilous stunts with a minimum of danger.
One did crash, though—in Armstrong’s field, just east of the house. We saw it fall, reeling drunkenly like a great wounded bird spilling out of the golden sky. Something went wrong and the pilot tried to bail out, but something went wrong with that too, and they covered his broken body with the white folds of his parachute.
The startled birds scatter and fly away when the planes go by. I can remember herding cows here when there was nothing in the sky more dangerous than a hawk. War was far away from even our thoughts, and the triumph of wings a vision still in the hearts of dreaming men.
And all the warring factions of the village and countryside are united under one common cause, the Red Cross, and boxes for the soldiers. The old feuds are set asirle, the neighborhood grudges are smothered up or swallowed, the religious strife has simmered down, and taken second place. The United church, Presbyterian, Catholic, Gospel Hall— every creed and sect—are working together, or trying hard to, for the good of the country.
People who have eyed each other with disdain now do their best to cover the enmity in their hearts with a smile and the friendly hand outstretched. The grudges brewed in forty years of living close to each other have been glossed over, and it’s fun to see them all forgetting their grievances and grimly determined to get along together in peace and unity.
We had a Red Cross Sports Day last week—supper served in the Town Hall so no one would take
offense and refuse to come—and come they did, from miles and miles. They swarmed in with their baking and such pies they can make here, angel cakes too, sunshine, devil’s food, layer, sponge everyone offering his best with glad, willing hands.
I stood behind a little homemade counter and received their parcels and it would make a lump in your throat to see how gladly they offered them. Remember this settlement has had only two part crops in eleven years, and you’d wonder how they could spare the food they brought. I counted fifty-five pies, some of the grandest pies I ever laid eyes on — and they had been selling meals for more than an hour then. And they brought in cream, butter, eggs, meat, salads, cookies.
People I hadn’t seen for twenty years, old tired women bringing in their gifts and then going to sit down on the benches along the sides, and talking the whole afternoon away with neighbors they hadn’t spoken to as long as I can remember, telling about their chickens, babies, grandchildren, gardens, crops, their aches and pains, operations and hot, burning feet.
We cleared $125, and that’s a lot of money to raise in one day. It might not seem much to many who read this, but every ten-cent piece was a little sacrifice. They did without something to give and it meant a lot to them, but no one begrudged a cent of it and everyone went home that night feeling better, glad that old quarrels were patched up, happy to know they had given of their goods in a just and worthy cause.
There was a dance at night, to round the day off for the young folks, but there were no Briercrest boys present. They have all gone to war. The boys who danced that evening were mostly young kids below age or older men, prancing around, trying to fit their feet to the new steps and calling loudly between dances for a good old-fashioned two-step or a schottische.
WE THOUGHT at first our little village was different, we were British to the backbone. W'e thought we were doing more than our share, losing our boys, giving too much money, after ten years of drought had made our pocketbooks as lean and shabby and flat as old wrinkled ears; but now we know better.
We know that every village and hamlet and city in the Dominion is doing as much and more. You can go into any place in Ontario, Manitoba, or Nova Scotia and the story is the same. Little places hidden in the Rockies, villages tucked in between towering peaks, sun-scorched farms in Alberta, tiny cow towns in the foothills, stately cities rearing their proud towers, and there is an emptiness in them all, if you look below the surface.
Kids we watched grow up are standing guard at Dover. Boys we fed at church socials and how they could eat—are now on patrol in the North Sea. Young hellions—some of them—have grown surprisingly tall and good looking under training; filling out, bronzed as golden gods, they swing along the street, tall and straight in their uniforms, enough to knock out the eye of every girl they meet.
Across two years of war the young voice of the King comes drifting to us again. In fancy we can hear his words, falling into the air, like I golden notes, calling us to the ! sacrifice. . . bidding us to stand firm . . “in this time of trial. . resolutely faithful.....”
“I said to a man who stood at ¡ the gate of the year, ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown,’ and he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than the known way.’ ”