Is there anything more inviting than a light coming from a farmhouse window late at night in the middle of winter?
Why this is so is, perhaps, an “age-sensitive” reflection. Motor travel, rural or otherwise, is arguably less interesting today than it was sixty years ago. The vehicles are more dependable, the roads are wider, smoother and better engineered and the cell phone keeps us moored to a familiar world. But, there was a time . . .
Discounting the improvements cited above, the 1950’s might have been the golden age for motoring. Major highways were being paved; motels and “auto courts” proliferated, some with swimming pools and vibrating beds; and a middle class was growing with higher paycheques and longer vacations. Holidays to far away places could be contemplated. It was an exciting time.
But it was a different kind of excitement in rural Alberta. In this still raw country, the narrow secondary roads were gravel and dirt, well-rutted and notable for yawning mudholes in the summer, treacherous ice in the winter. Cars, with no AC, were stifling in summer, and, with wonky heaters, freezing in winter. Gas lines froze quickly and windshield washer was a handful of snow thrown at the window. Oil needed to be changed to accommodate the lower temperatures but when it turned really cold, as in -30 F or lower, no oil could be coaxed to move. Volatile weather could alter the driving conditions with startling speed. Albertans who traveled these roads to socialize or earn a living were constantly urged to plan for contingencies and, if they were smart, have a passenger with some knowledge of auto mechanics. Basic knowledge included changing tires, changing fan belts, priming a stalled engine, starting a car with the “push and pop the clutch” method, identifying and remedying electrical shorts, and some experience driving in mud, snow and especially on ice, the latter a high art form.
All this excitement was magnified for young people driving in winter. Socializing with sports or dances involved driving to another community, sometimes a community that was considerable distance. This was never a deterrent.
As they have since Fred met Wilma, young people will travel great distances to attend a dance. On the Canadian prairies, country dances were very popular. I grew up (sort of) in Wainwright in southeastern Alberta and some of the small hamlets and farming districts within a 30 mile radius of town were: Marsden, Heath, Greenshields, Fabyan, Irma, Kinsella, Gilt Edge, Passchaendale, Ribstone, White Cloud, Ascot, Pelican (Odd, because Pelicans were never seen this area), Rosedale, and Paradise Valley. They all had their own community hall. A weekend with no dances was rare.
Easily the most popular event was the wedding dance. How word got out that a couple were to be married was seldom advertised widely, but today’s users of social media would be impressed over how fast word got around. In one’s social circle, there need to be only one person with even a nodding acquaintance with either the bride or the groom or their families to warrant a carload dropping in on the festivities. The newlyweds and their families never knew they had so many friends. The attraction, of course, was free admittance and free food, often the best food many would eat that entire winter.
The protocol of country dances leaned toward the rigid: smiles, handhakes, and backslaps upon entry; nervous shuffling as people worked out whether or not they should even be there; three couples on the dance floor for whom dancing was life; covert drinking out in the car; awkward approaches to members of the opposite sex after the alcohol loosened the reserve; a break around ten for lunch, and constant male strutting displays that often ended in a brawl, preferably outside. But, no brawling at a wedding dance. Fistfights at such a celebration were considered bad form.
When midnight arrived, the last waltz was played, and the band began packaging their equipment. Dreamy couples slowly broke their embraces and dispersed for the long trip home. Everyone agreed, it had been great.
Sometimes the trip home was interrupted. Sometimes, a little bad luck, a nasty change in the weather, a mechanical breakdown, or an act of colossal stupidity prevented a car from making it home directly.
When a car broke down or a ditch was driven into, or a snowstorm halted any movement, or a gas tank coughed to say it was empty, a carload of young people was suddenly immobilized out on the bald prairie. Cell phones were still 40 years in the future so there was no calling for help or roadside assistance. They were on their own. In winter, this could be dangerous.
Once the severity of their situation was assessed, the suddenly-sober car inhabitants would start walking. Staying with the car and hoping another would appear at that hour of the morning was seldom a good idea. Depending upon how cold it was, the sense of urgency ranged from “Oh, we’ll find something” to “There better be a light on over that next hill or we’re in trouble.” Too often the clothing was less than adequate for winter trekking. This was the great winter-dance conundrum: Dress for the worst OR look your best? The former was such a distant second in this debate that emergency clothes were seldom even considered. Trust to luck, instead. The boys were likely in oxfords and the girls in mary janes.
Shivering would start immediately and everyone’s eyes would strain to discern a light.
By the late 1950’s most farmers had a power supply and a party line telephone. A few of the well off farmers installed yard lights, a brilliantly luminous rebuttal to the long dark winter nights.
But the real, warming beacon was seeing the light on in a farm house. The stranded youth would quicken their pace and thin smiles might appear.
On the other hand, if no light was on, the shivering walkers had to hope the owners could be rousted. The prospect of trudging on to the next farm was almost unthinkable.
If a light was on, the sense of relief was substantial. Boys would then listen for the dog. All farms had dogs and some were dogs no stranger wanted to meet. But in the cold of winter, most farmers let the dog sit by the hearth.
One boy would knock on the door. It was never a timid knock.
As a town person who never lived on a farm, I really can’t appreciate how shocking that knock on the door must have been. A loud interruption in the middle of a dark winter’s night out where the nearest neighbor is a half mile away? No sound of a vehicle entering the yard? Today, they’d make a TV special out of it.
The dog would bark. After what seemed a very long time, a man would come to the door. It always took him so long, a boy’s imagination could run amok. “What if he’s going to get his shotgun? Taking the leash off his dog . . . Planning to lock the door and turn out the light . . . Calling the police . . ” But, no, the door was opened.
The heat from the house was magnificent. Initial thoughts ranged from “How can they keep a house this warm? Thank god the light was on. My feet are frozen. What’s that smell? What could they possibly eat that smelled like that? Are those haloes over their heads? Whatever you do, don’t curse. They may be religious. Are we tracking up her nice clean floor? Where are their kids? I think I love farmhouses. Is that dog really gentle? What are they doing up at one o’clock in the morning?” The girls would check out the kitchen, the worn linoleum floor; the oversized kitchen table with the oilcloth covering; the water hand pump next to the sink, the old wood stove, the faded paintings on the wall.
After an awkward silence the man would take over. He would invite the girls not to worry about their shoes and go sit at the kitchen table. He let the boys tell him what happened..
If the car had slid into the ditch, he would offer to fire up the Massey-Ferguson and pull the car back onto the road. If it was a mechanical breakdown, he would be glad to help them in the morning. After all, it was bitterly cold and one o’clock. He would suggest using the phone to call for a ride, although, he would note wryly, anyone answering at the other end wouldn’t be too thrilled, not to mention that, with the party line, his neighbours would also be irritated. Or, he could drive everyone into town, assuming they didn’t live in Lloydminster or some place 70 miles away.
Sometimes an especially dense boy would urge the farmer to address the mechanical problem, forgetting it was -15 F. outside, a north wind was blowing and the car was a notoriously fickle Studebaker. At times like these, it was always cheering to watch the farmer silently eye the boy as if he was from another planet.
One way or another, the farm couple had provided sanctuary for a group of young people and perhaps saved them from real harm. It’s no wonder prairie people go through life often looking back to those cold nights when they were helped by two people who didn’t know them, were likely to never see them again and who never asked for thanks. Small wonder that light in the farmhouse window generates such warm thoughts.
I’ll end by telling of my own worst experience. Six of us, four boys and two girls were driving home from somewhere near Ribstone, a small hamlet roughly 30 miles from Wainwright. I was driving my dad’s company car, a gorgeous hot 1958 Pontiac. I took a railway crossing at 50 miles an hour. Given that the crossing was a sudden rise three feet or so higher than the road, slowing down might have been advisable. But what kid wants to hear advice at 1 am? When the car finally landed, it was still on the road but minus a functioning read end. We rattled to a stop and assessed the situation. It was bitterly cold and a vicious north wind kept us from taking more than a quick look at the damage. Seeing a piece of the axle lying on the road more or less confirmed our predicament. We weren’t going anywhere.
Eventually we found a farmhouse occupied by two warm and wonderful people. The man offered to drive us into town. But, we protested, it’s 30 miles. Are you sure? No matter, he replied. Let me get the truck.
TRUCK? Yes, the 2 girls in our group rode with him in the cab and we 4 boys huddled in the back of a half-ton truck as it bumped and slid though the snow and ice for 30 miles. Easily the worst ride of our young lives. It was -20 and the wind was slicing us to ribbons. After what seemed like hours, we were dropped off at the railway station. Our savior drove away without a word. We were very grateful, but our limbs were too stiff to wave. We could barely move our eyes and, like zombies, retired shakily to the warmth of the station’s beanery.
For your information, my father took it well.
Robert Alan Davidson