Outliers

 

My mother may present here as a somewhat significant influence during my youth. We can strike the somewhat. Contributing intellect and discipline, she was a massive influence. But my father provided warmth and camaraderie, so who's to judge the greater gift?  It's enough to say that Malcolm Gladwell's, "Who we are cannot be separated from where we're from" is germane to my every decision since.

But I was also incredibly lucky in that fortune dealt me four singular agents of change. In a sailing context not merely ship pilots who steered me clear of shoals, but individuals who by their strength and excellence motivated me to plot new courses to new undertakings. Simply stated, they challenged me to forego the comfortable.

Gladwell coined the phrase Outliers for such people.

 

* * *

 

Throughout the Depression, cash crop and livestock prices were usually abysmally low. So every penny was precious and for farm mothers self-sufficiency was always the objective. As a result Mom's aptitude for husbandry centered on the orchard and her three gardens. My brother Austin is seen here tilling one of them with a cultivator in early spring.

 

The bare bushes are red and black current and gooseberries; the latter was Dad's favorite for pies but a major dislike of mine. In the rear is wood cut the prior winter and drying for the next. Much later when electricity arrived, Mom graduated to an electric range and coal stoves replaced wood for heat. Central heating was impractical for our century-old house...or was too expensive for the budget at the time.

 

The apartment style birdhouse on the pole is for bluebirds that prefer to nest as families; a smaller one for wrens sat on a post in a front flowerbed.  It was there one spring evening that house sparrows (the rats of the avian genus) took up residence, infuriating Mom who loved wrens for their song. So she asked Dad to bring his shotgun. What transpired is one of three examples of close calls not infrequent when farming years go. I'll describe them in chronological order beginning with the day my father and I were clearing stones.

 

Stones continually migrated to the surface in our light loam where they interfered with cultivation and harvesting. To haul them away,visualize  a small wooden raft without wheels aptly named a stoneboat. Disposal is along a fence line or in our case on a hill too steep to cultivate. On this particular day my brother was absent so I was 'helping' Dad, helping in quotes because I was maybe age seven.

 

Late in the afternoon, he's wrapped a chain around a large boulder in order to drag it off the field—it was too heavy to roll onto the stoneboat. Just as he's attached the chain to the horses' traces, something startles them and they lurch forward. Before he can jump clear, the rock is dragged over his foot...he's down for the count.

 

Was I frightened?  More likely stunned; what the heck could I do never having worked alone with horses? But Dad patiently instructs me on how to unhook the chain and how to hitch the horses to the stoneboat. Somehow I manage. Eventually we're on our way back to the barn with me guiding the horses and Dad lying beside me. I don't think I've ever felt as proud since.

 

The fun part came next, a story Mum recounted for years. Once at the barn, I race to the house and run in the door and shout, "Mom! The horses ran away and dragged a big rock over Dad". Mother always kept her cool but this time she made it to the barn in record time, to find Dad dragging his leg around as he fed the horses. After calling him out as an idiot and forcing him to lie down in the hay, she ran to summon a neighbour...she couldn't drive and we didn't have a phone. At the hospital they sheared off his boot and X-rays revealed fourteen fractures.

 

The second incident with the aforementioned sparrows occurred perhaps three years later. Dad aims his shotgun for a near-pass at the birds on the birdhouse roof to frighten them away. But the barrel bursts and peels back like a banana—the birdhouse is demolished and the sparrows shredded. But against all odds, although Dad's hat is ripped into three pieces, there's not a scratch on his head! Lesson? Don't use modern load in a very old shotgun.

 

My recall of the third close call can still raise a wee sweat. It's summer 1953 between my first and second year Engineering at the University of Toronto. Dad has kindly contributed the seed potatoes so I plant five acres hoping to harvest maybe five hundred bags. At a buck a seventy five pound bag, that result would almost cover tuition. To make up the balance, I land a job as hired hand for a neighbour...five dollars a day, hours seven to six, dinner and supper included.

 

One nice June day before haying began, this boss sends me out to his woodlot to clear up some brush from recently felled trees. It's a pile of smaller branches each up two or three inches in diameter. Trying to drag one loose, I finally climb onto them and chop down at a  branch to free it—and suddenly feel a cool breeze on my stomach and chest. 

 

I look down. My shirt front is slashed and gaping open. What happened? The severed branch released from tension arced upward, and its acute-cut end sliced open my flannel shirt from navel to breastbone. As slick as a knife—but there's not even a nick on my gut! 

 

If had been leaning forward another inch? Watch Stanley stagger a quarter mile back to the farmhouse and dust off his intestines before ringing the doorbell.

 

* * *

 

Back to the gardens. Root vegetables would last us through winter...potatoes and carrots and parsnips and turnips could survive if stored on the bare earth half of our cellar. Though  some were still edible in spring, they were in faltering condition and those not rotten were close to being mummified. Prayers for an early potato harvest were high priorities every  summer Sunday worship!

 

Tomatoes were the other staple. Boiled over a wood stove in our back kitchen during the hottest months of the summer, Mom would then seal up to fifty quarts of them in mason jars for winter consumption.  Beets and cucumbers were pickled. As fall arrived, plums and pears were also preserved, and peaches were added to the mix after my sister married a Niagara fruit farmer in 1945. And all throughout this rash of preserving would be Mom's daily meal preparations with whatever was in season such as asparagus and peas followed by beans and corn.

 

Saturday was bake day, one pie for each weekday. Apple, raisin and custard were winter standards until fresh berries and fruit came available. And Mom occasionally surprised us with my favorite...lemon-meringue. Then came her pastries: butter tarts, tea biscuits and scones and occasionally a cake for special occasions or guests. And she also baked extra goods to sell at our Anglican church bazaars.

 

Now there's one lesson most of us learn at our parent's knee—never ever criticize the cook. But some of us may have made at least one seemingly innocuous comment only to realize a second too late our error. In Dad’s case, it happened during supper one summer with an off-hand comment that one could get a little tired of cold roast beef every night. Did a hush fall over the table? I’d swear it did. And you can probably guess what was our our meat dish every night for the next month? At least it seemed like a month...

 

So his son made a mental note of the penalty for careless comment and was even more resolved once married because Ursula was an excellent cook. My mouth still waters when thinking of her dessert specialties—pumpkin or chocolate chiffon pies with graham cracker crusts and whipped cream topping. Aware that they were artery liners...the chiffon portion  was whipped cream...she prepared them only for special occasions...

 

Unfortunately at one such event, this pie hound came to regret forever his third glass of wine. Because tucking into his second piece of chocolate pie, he joked, 'you know, this is darn near as good as my ex-wife used to make'.  I won’t make you guess.  I never saw another chocolate chiffon pie...

 

* * *

 

If Mom was not home, I was elected short order cook for Dad and my brother once I was tall enough to see over the top of the wood stove.  Frying leftovers is not a big challenge. But my skills were rarely required since she was seldom absent...until the day Dad probably realized he'd blundered into a high stakes game.

 

It was a morning late summer. I'd been playing outside so was unaware that Mom was absent. But when Dad called me to the house for lunch, immediately I knew something serious was going down...he's made sandwiches. Dad never made sandwiches. No mention of the absent party...

 

But popping the sandwiches into a bag, he announces we're going to the county fair in Orangeville and asked me to wash up and hop in the car. Now our farm is maybe a mile from the highway on a narrow winding country road.  As we pop over a little sandy hill,  there's Mother trudging along in the right car track toting two suitcases and sporting her Sunday-best coat and hat.

 

We pull up beside her. Dad reaches across to open the passenger door. Discussion ensues. There's mention of buses...possibly she planned to take the bus to the town that's east of us and then continue by train to her family in Bradford. Dad may have suggested that she ride with us to Orangeville where there's better bus service (quick thinking, Dad!). 

 

In the back seat I'm seeing my first lesson in salesmanship; face time with the client is critical. In due course, she agrees. But it's a very quiet drive to town as I continue to scarf down my sandwiches. At the fairground, Dad gives me a dollar with instructions to come back in two hours...in those days no one would worry I was unaccompanied.

 

Was I traumatized that my mother might be leaving us?  Too strong a word...unease may be more accurate.  I trusted Dad unreservedly and his sangfroid eased my possible concerns. Besides, there were midway rides... 

 

Two hours later I return to the car wondering who's going to make supper. And there's Dad and Mom chatting cheerfully with acquaintances. After which we're off  home without a hint of disagreement. All was as before. Mom had made her point, whatever it was.

 

* * *

 

So much for farm wives and their work in house and garden. First we'll describe a typical harvest...later we'll visit slaughtering and my apprenticeship as hog scraper. Not a skinner because to the best of my recollection we merely gutted and removed the extremities from the carcass. But the execution stage was the harvest floor above the stable where the pulley to hoist hay and grain into the mows could also hang a carcass.

 

Mows...pronounced like cows...are portions of the large upper floor of barns where hay is stored for winter feed and straw for animal bedding. We had no tractor so no hay baler...it was mowed, raked into rows to dry in the sun and then pitched onto a wagon and brought to the barn in bulk. 

 

Why dried before storing? Because green hay with any moisture present will mold and generate heat when compressed in the absence of air. If there's sufficient mass and sufficient confinement, it can eventually spontaneously combust. More than one farm barn has been lost to a fire.

 

The wagon loads of hay or grain were hauled by horses into the barn. A hoisting device on a rope connects through pulleys to the power source...in our case my horse. As the horse tows the rope maybe twenty feet, the hay or grain bundle rises to a steel track at the roof peak, then rolls horizontally until trip-released into the selected mow. My job starting age six was to lead the horse until I hear the release, then double back with her to hoist another bundle.

 

There were usually four bundles per wagon load. When my father and brother returned to the field for another load, I tethered my animal and resumed my duty chasing hens...the large barn doors remained open for wagon access. But hens were sporadic pests—mostly my nose would be in a book unless Mom had assigned some additional school work. A highlight would be her late afternoon snack for the three of us.

 

Winter wheat sowed the previous fall was harvested in mid-July. Mixed grain...oats and barley...sowed in the spring followed about the second week in August. Dates were weather dependent—the wetter the season, the later the harvest. After reaping with the horse drawn binder, sheaves were stooked in the field to dry...stood upright and inclined together for support. Grain must be bone dry for effective threshing...in hot sunny weather, two days were often adequate.

 

In what was known as stook threshing, grain is hauled from the field and fed directly to the machine. But there is a downside—if wet weather arrives, you may wait for days or even weeks for the grain to dry again sufficiently before you can resume. And rain can seriously degrade the feed quality of harvested crops still sitting in the field. So Dad preferred to haul it into our barn for later threshing; it involved double the labor but a better product.

 

Dad's preferred choice thus meant the contracted threshing machinery...usually with two operators...was set up inside the barn, belt driven from outside the barn by in our case an old Hart-Parr tractor. When I was very young, it always seemed so huge and it's arrival was an event!  

 

Straw exited the machine...blown through a large steel tube...outside to the farmyard to be used for animal bedding in winter. Building the strawstack was the dirtiest and most difficult task at threshing bees and Dad usually volunteered—he was a master at it and few could match his stamina. Grain was screw-conveyed into the granary...a storage room beside the mows...with several wooden compartments. If it had been a particularly good harvest, some might be diverted to a bagging station for later sale.

 

Until I was fourteen or so, helping to direct the grain spout into the respective bins or bags was my assignment. The oats were later milled into rolled oats as a feed supplement for cattle. Wheat as the more nutrient grain was fed in smaller quantities to horses and the remainder was finely milled into chop and mixed with milk for pig feed.  

 

But once I had reached maybe age 16, you'd find me on a scaffold beside the machine pitching the sheaves onto a feeder apron that led to the rotating knives slashing the sheaf twine. Some didn't relish the thought of tripping onto this apron and visiting the knives— but I preferred this duty because two volunteers alternated as feeders. That meant only one hour sweating on the scaffold and then the other lazing in the shade. Besides teenagers are bullet-proof...

Neighbors with whom you shared harvest labor by prior agreement arrived on the selected day...so Mom would prepare and serve dinner and supper for as many as fifteen men. 

 

* * *  

If the threshing contractor was not immediately available, in the interval we'd harvest our five to ten acres of potatoes. The old time potato digger machine was a heavy draw and it always impressed me to see Dad wheel the four big draft horses...hitched parallel...around the end of each row. Three horses were needed for binders (grain harvesters) and gang plows and cultivators. Two sufficed for hay mowers, hay rakes and single furrow plows. And only one for our potato sprayer and cultivator...called a scuffler..

 

Since we're talking horses and single hitches, you may recall Chapter 3 and Dad's devotion to his first draft horse Gyp. And until age ten I'd never met a horse I didn't like—until Queen, a chestnut roan, strolled in. Her sisters in toil and harness were Darkey and Topsy, two nicely matched black Clydesdale mares. Politically incorrect names? Rural Ontario in those times was a monolith of all-white incorrectness. Barney a Belgian gelding made up our equine quartet.

 

Unluckily for her workmates, sweat was not in Queen's vocabulary; she was an expert at avoiding it. Trust me, if a horse can stroll, Queen could. In any team or troika, she'd be the one with slacker traces. So when I'd matured to take on lighter duties such as in the potato field where one horse was sufficient, Queen as chronic malingerer was always assigned to me. It was a marriage of misery.

 

Potatoes were planted in rows about three feet apart, and each plant was separated by a foot or so. To remove weeds, I'd hoe between the plants and then cultivate between the rows with the scuffler. And two or three times a season, we employed a barrel-type sprayer...also horse drawn...to apply Paris green insecticide to control Colorado potato beetles. So Queen and I were together much of three months.

 

Now any self-respecting mammal...even a human...will walk down a path unless there is an overriding reason not to.  For example, Darkey without guidance would walk briskly along between each row of potato plants—I could slack the reins and concentrate on controlling the scuffler. Not our Queen! Without tight reins, she'd assume that must be enough for the day and would try to veer off towards the barn. Just as aggravating was the constant need for gee-ups and flicks of the reins to maintain a reasonable pace.

 

One day out of curiosity, I paused all these controls just to see her reaction. Queen reacted  with a flawless demonstration of constant gradual deceleration and finally coming to a full stop! No one moved...so I waited to test how long she'd hold the pose. We'll never know—after fifteen minutes I gave up in exasperation. Otherwise someone could have found us at sundown still frozen in suspended animation.

 

The jury is out on whether she was the dumbest or smartest horse in the stable. Certainly she was the meanest because more than once she nipped me when I was in her stall rubbing her down after a hot day. And she always managed to step on my foot if I was careless. But her eventual fate still bothers me a bit...it occurred two years later when I'd had moved on to a job in Niagara.

 

Possibly Queen had pulled one stunt too many or dawdled once too often. Dad was not an insensitive man but he had neither respect nor patience for slackers, human or animal. So he finally sold her to a drover who purchased horses to muscle logs in northern logging camps. Rare was the horse that survived more than one winter at that brutal labor.

 

Back to the potato harvest...the machine deposits them on the surface. Most of our pickers were hired youngsters using metal pails to collect and dump them into seventy-five pound burlap bags. Pay was a few cents per bag. At day's end a buyer would truck them off if the price was agreeable and, if not, they were dumped into piles and covered with potato tops to prevent sun damage.

 

Most often an adequate offer would be received later, and they'd be bagged and sold. If not, we'd haul them to the barn to be used for winter pig feed.

 

It was at age six or seven that I first volunteered as a picker and by evening there was one ready-to-collapse kid with the mother of all sore backs. But when Dad handed me thirty cents for six full bags, it was a proud moment—the very first money I'd ever earned by my own hand. There's also a possibility, though, that it did generate speculation of easier ways to make a buck.

 

* * *

 

Back to the killing floor and the mental image of a neutered hog praying on his front knuckles, hind quarters in the air with a rope from our hay pulley tethered around his rear legs. He was then hoisted above the tub that we'd slide under to catch the blood. It was a frequent event because we ate a lot of pork.

 

After evisceration and other niceties, the carcass was taken to a neighboring rural butcher where after a few days we could collect the wrapped and labelled packages. With a steer kill my recall is fainter because I assisted only once, but I do know he was felled with a stone hammer to the head and then hoisted.  But dressing a cattle carcass prior to taking it to a butcher was more onerous, so Dad usually purchased a side of beef or two quarters.

 

What to do with a hundredweight of packaged meat when you have no refrigeration? Most often creameries (dairies) in town rented large freezer compartments called lockers. On  Saturday nights, one of us would enter the freezer room (my chore by age ten) and grab the cuts that Mom wanted for the following week. Grab's the operative word because I always dreaded that heavy freezer door clanging shut behind me. What if I was locked in?

 

There was another happy by-product of hog slaughter, namely head cheese. Years before being allowed to help with the kill, I recall my mother in our summer kitchen wrestling a hog's head from a tub of boiling water up onto a big wooden slab. There she'd pry and scrape the meat into a container to make headcheese. If there was ever a tastier headcheese than what Mom made, God's kept it for herself.

 

Other shades of Mom and the hog. Decades later Marlene and I attend the Broadway play Foxfire in New York and Jessica Tandy is center stage hacking away at a hogs head while  chatting with the spirit of her dead husband played by her husband Hume Cronin. Winner of the Drama Desk Award for outstanding actress and a Tony for best actress in a play, it was the memorable performance that I will never forget. She and husband Hume also starred in the 1987 movie version with John Denver. Yes, that John Denver.

 

Other meaty remnants of the hog went into the soap kettle to be rendered with lye. Mom preferred soft soap for scrubbing clothes by hand—that was before she received a gas-powered washing machine in the early 40's. Suet went into the crock pot in our cellar where it mixed and marinated with the other ingredients for her memorable mincemeat pies and tarts at Christmas.

 

But the lone steer slaughter I witnessed did have a particularly memorable aspect, at least for me. We had taken the carcass to a butcher some miles away in Albion Township...and when negotiations were concluded, Dad was given a beer and settled back to chat. I was twelve but tall and appeared older so the butcher asked how about the lad?  Dad grinned and nodded...it was my very first alcoholic beverage, an O'Keefe ale!

 

On our way home Dad asked what I thought of the beer. Now this is when a son no matter his true opinion will man up and say it was great. In my case no manning up needed...it did taste great. But Mother was a strict teetotaler and as I've intimated not one to trifle with.

 

As we pulled into our lane, Dad put a hand on my knee, "Best we don't tell your mum".

 

* * *

 

To outliers...one usually doesn't survive to my age without attending the deaths of loved ones. But there's been only two where the attending nurses revealed their acute personal sorrow; one will conclude this biography. But the first was my mother's death at the Hôtel Dieu hospital in St. Catharines.

 

A little background. In 1964 I was working in Manhattan so on Memorial Day was with Marlene and our two sons Douglas and Graham in Pearl River, New York. And this is one of those 'remember when' days because my sister Jean had called to report that our mother had just returned from surgery. It was grim news...the prognosis was terminal cancer but she could expect a reasonable quality of life for a few more months at home.

 

When I visited that summer and fall, Mom never spoke of her circumstance. The only oblique acknowledgment came one evening as we chatted over tea when she  reached into the sideboard for our family albums. Leafing through them, she suggested I record names with birth and death dates on ancestors' portraits...then asked I take everything with me for safekeeping. No explanation was offered nor expected.

 

It's now December. Mom's been re-hospitalized for at least three weeks and at Jean's urging, I've driven up to be with her. At the hospital, the head nurse tells me Mom'd been on fluids for some days—yet by some miracle had sat up in bed the prior morning and insisted on a normal breakfast.  Because, she told the nurses, her son was on his way from New York.

 

When I enter her room, mother is as a wraith, almost comatose but still responsive. Later that night in my hotel room...and probably as similar countless sons before and after... I screamed at the night and made fervent commitments to God if only Mom could be granted one final gift. She died the next afternoon.

 

Later that day, the ward Sister and her nurse...it was a Catholic hospital...tried very hard to be professional but surprisingly to me appeared near tears as we approached. I was a wreck. But after we'd collected Mom's few personal effects and made the arrangements for her body, they walked with us to the elevator.

 

As it arrived and we turned to thank them for their kindness, Sister said quietly, "Stanley, your mother was one of the most remarkable women it has been our privilege to know". At  

her funeral a few days later, words to that effect were constant.  She was an Outlier. 

 

I can only echo my son Andrew's elegy to his mother: Mom probably wasn't perfect but I don't think anyone will ever convince me otherwise.

 

* * *