The Painted Wagon

[This event actually happened but the characters are fictitious. The only official interaction with the town was likely a stern letter telling the ladies to hit the road. But, in my memory, this was more fun.]

The good citizens of Wainwright weren’t ready for it, of that we may be sure.   And why would they? This was 1952 rural Alberta and the raciest thing to happen anywhere was a divorce dripping with infidelities and surprise participants.

One morning in early July, a colorful wagon was discovered parked in the west end near the town’s dairy. It wasn’t there the night before. It looked like a tinker’s wagon. Gaudily painted as if to advertise a freak show, the lettering, in a showy scrawl, read “lnvisible Mending.” It was as if one part of a circus got lost and ended up in Wainwright.   The contraption was pulled by a 1948 Ford 3/4-ton that was as plain as the wagon was showy. Questions arose.   Immediately.

“What on earth IS that?”

“Who are those two women stepping in and out of it?”

“They look like gypsies. Am I right?”

“Why park there and not at the fairgrounds where drifters are supposed to go?”

“What the heck is Invisible Mending anyway?”

“Whatever it is, my old lady could use some help. These brown socks with white darning wool stick out like a 100-watt bulb in an outhouse at midnight”

“They can’t park there. Why won’t anyone tell them?”

And so on. People were perplexed. It was all so unusual. The two women settled in quickly. A picnic table was “borrowed” from an adjacent ball park and served as a dinner table – weather permitting.

The two wagon owners did look like gypsies, not that anyone was sure what a gypsy actually looked like.   The women wore colorful full-length dresses and had big hair, the tall one blond, the short one raven-haired. They walked around the wagon like they didn’t have a care in the world, laughing and pointing at the vehicles passing by, or smoking cigarettes at the picnic table and sipping from large mugs.

Over the next few days, dozens of cars and trucks eased by, windows down, and eyes ignoring the road. As if they’d just come upon a UFO. Nobody approached the wagon. The neighborhood kids were captivated and spent hours in a nearby willow grove watching every move.

It turned out the wagon had a lot to do with the nearby army camp.

Starting in June, the camp hosted ‘The Concentration”. Battalions and Regiments from across Canada showed up to do mock battle in the scrubland that was Camp Wainwright. Soldiers arrived by convoys, skirting the edge of town in impressively long lines of jeeps, lorries, and bored soldiers. The convoys also submerged the area in a cloud of dust that could be seen for twenty miles in any direction.

It wasn’t long before the townsfolk put two and two together – in this case, one and one together. Soldiers with nothing to do when getting a pass into town and two earthy-looking ladies with their own portable business premises?   Was there a connection?

Well. This was something new, most definitely new.   The world’s oldest profession in one of Canada’s youngest towns.   It reminded some of Hollywood’s mining camp portrayals. Except this was 1952, not 1852.

One of the brasher kids, a newly-minted teenager, approached the ladies one noon hour as they sat casually noshing on chicken legs.

“Whatya want, kid? Need something mended?” This from the brunette.

Nothin’, I guess, I just wanted to see how you’re doing. Bein’ neighborly, I guess.”

“Bullshit, kid, whatya really want?”

“A lot of people don’t think you ladies have anything to do with mending. Am I right? Are they right?’

“Depends on your point of view.   What do they think we’re doing?”

The kid hesitated and looked around, as if to see he wasn’t being followed.   “Um, they say you ladies are whatcha call it, prosecutes?

Following a brief silence, “Yeah, kid, we’re, uh, prosecutes. Tell your teacher. Now bugger off. We’re busy.” The ladies rose and climbed back into the wagon.

The church guilds were aghast. How could this be happening in a God-fearing town like Wainwright?  Several self-appointed guardians of town morals paraded up and down the street by the wagon, arms akimbo and lips pursed in a scowls so fierce they would have turned Jack the Ripper into a community outreach worker. But that’s all they did, apparently bereft of any ideas of where to go from there.   After a time, they retired to Mac’s Newsstand to order a half-pound of cashews while at the same time surreptitiously scouring the lurid headlines, the bulging biceps, and heaving bosoms of the Police Gazette, Stag, For Men Only, and True magazines.

Meanwhile, it didn’t take long before the “Invisible Mending” operation was doing a brisk business. Lineups were frequent and tongues wagged all across town. Rumors of husbands straying into wagon territory began to circulate.

A town official was sent to “look into things”. In general, small town officials had a fairly easy time of things. It was their job to make sure stray dogs didn’t bite anyone, that outhouses didn’t overflow or become too redolent, that the town hall lawn got mowed regularly, and that the hobos stayed on the other side of the tracks. They might spend many days driving around trying to look busy.

The town official parked his new IH half-ton with the fancy dual rear windows and sauntered up to the wagon.

As kids watched from the willowgrove, he and the blonde lady chatted amiably for a few minutes and then she apparently invited him inside. To his credit, he hesitated, as if weighing the consequences, but then doffed his cap and ascended the two steps.

Of course, no one was privy to what went on in those few brief minutes, but he came flying out of that trailer with a face the color of a cherry tomato, one hand waving his cap ferociously as if to dispel a bad odor. Behind him, the blonde and the brunette stood at the door smiling.

Whatever did happen in those few intriguing minutes, the official was transformed from a lethargic clock watcher into a raging crusader against the evil represented by the colorful wagon. He must have spun an impressive story to the town council because they gave him carte blanche to fight the “scourge” of the invisible menders. Carte Blanche, in this case, meant no more than “look into things to your heart’s content and we won’t scrutinize your time sheet too closely.”

The exercised town official took to the road with uncharacteristic vigor. First, the army camp to argue for a ban on town visits by its troops. The Commanding Colonel was a third generation military man who instinctively hated all civilians. With news of the wagon, he was seriously conflicted. “I don’t want to piss the town off but soldiers have always had camp followers.   Just ask Alexander the Great and Napoleon!” In the end, he did what many Commanding Colonels did when faced with community relations questions – nothing.

Undeterred, the town official visited the various chaplains at the camp and urged them to remember what Jesus said about “fallen women” and to exhort the troops to celibacy. Unfortunately, none of the chaplains could recall Jesus ever using the phrase “fallen women” and settled for shrugging their shoulders while saying they’d do what they could.

The official drove to three other similar-sized towns to see if they’d experienced the problem. None had, but one town admitted it had had a strange bachelor lady show up one year. The poor woman set tongues wagging when it was discovered she was a librarian with a fondness for Erskine Caldwell and Mark Twain.   The concerned townsfolk were able to rid the community of her toxic influence by sneaking out in the still of the night to torch the library. The startled librarian retired to a more urban locale. Was this of any help?

Perplexed, the official even thought of burning down the wagon. That would work but the ladies never left the wagon together. One was always there and he wasn’t about to risk a murder charge just to clean up his town.

He attempted to talk three smaller towns into taking the ladies and their wagon (“It’s good for business!”) but was rebuffed soundly by canny ruralites who knew a mixed blessing when they saw it (After all, they were the ones who crowed the loudest when the automobile replaced the horse only to see their towns wither when people now drove to shop in the bigger towns). Who knew what the downside to this ‘mixed blessing’ could be?\

Discouraged, the town official reported his failures to the town council who were displeased with the lack of success but thrilled to see how much energy the man could muster when properly motivated. Maybe, they thought, the ladies should be hired for a human resources seminar.

Meanwhile, business remained strong at the wagon and not every customer was wearing a khaki uniform. Mrs. Gunderson, one of the town’s moral guardians and a frequent visitor to the road adjacent to the wagon, took note, relieved none of her Gunderson clan were in evidence.   She knew a back sliding town when she saw it but was kept at bay by town fathers who claimed to be too busy preparing next year’s budget to deal with the wagon issue. Mrs. Gunderson, after seething in relative silence for a week, found the opening she needed after one of her brood of sullen kids came home to complain that he needed to buy a business license if he was going to continue to sell the family’s inventory of illustrated bibles.

Confronting town council, Mrs. Gunderson demanded ‘Where is their business license? My bible-selling 12 year-old needs a business license. Why don’t they?”

The town official slapped his forehead. Business License! How could he have overlooked that? The Mayor and councilmen slapped their foreheads. How could they not have made sure this wasn’t a problem?

The ladies were sent a letter. “We have it on good authority that you don’t appear to be properly licensed to be operating an invisible mending business, so we’d appreciate it if you packed up and moved to another jurisdiction (i.e. town)” signed, the Mayor.

“How much is a license?” The tall blonde asked the city clerk while flashing a wad of large bills so thick it made the clerk swallow very hard while pondering her choice of careers.

“Uh, fifteen dollars for one year.”

“We plan to be here no more than four months. Can you pro-rate that?”

“Huh? Pro – what?”

“Forget it kid. Here’s a twenty. Keep the five and buy yourself a Packard. Just give me the piece of paper.”

“Huh?” The clerk thought she might faint from sensory overload.

Later, Mrs. Gunderson fumed. “I didn’t mean for you to sell them a license, you ninnies. I want them out of my town. GET THEM OUT OF MY TOWN!’

I thought it might work,” lamented the Mayor. “Whatya say we adjourn early tonight?”

So began a sort of Mexican standoff with Mrs. Gunderson and her loyal thin lipped brigade parading in front of town hall bearing semi-literate placards deploring the grievous sin of co-habiting with Jezebels. The Mayor and town council dragged their proverbial feet, hoping, as politicians are wont to do, that the crisis would resolve itself without their help.

After three days, the crisis did resolve itself when the town woke to find the wagon gone. While there was obvious regret displayed in some circles, relief was generally widespread, if only to see the end of Mrs. Gunderson and her poorly made signs on the streets. But two basic questions remained. Why did they decamp so suddenly and where did they go?

The second question remained forever in the realm of rumour but the first one would appear to have a connection with a report from the army camp.   The army medics reported an unusual spike in STD’s, all the more unusual for occurring in a camp where access to women was so limited. This report, of course, spoke eloquently to the popularity of the two ladies and to the danger of letting something other than the brain make decisions. It also sparked a sharp increase in demand for medical services in the town.

The entire affair lasted less than 2 months and only a large garbage bag full of items, best kept away from the prying eyes of neighborhood kids, proved they’d ever been there. The yellowing grass beneath the wagon site sprang back to life and within a week, no one could have guessed what had happened in that small prairie town.

And no one ever came up with an acceptable definition of what was meant by “Invisible Mending”.   The most popular conclusion was if someone is conducting an illegal business, advertising itself as something not remotely connected to the “business”, was just, uh, good business.

Robert Alan Davidson

(January 2016)

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