My first clear memory of St Bride’s was of Mass. We attended Midnight Mass in a log building on Joe Bell’s Farm. The inside of the building had been whitewashed and it was already full of mufflered, overcoated individuals when we arrived.
A long cylindrical heater at the back of the room radiated some heat. At the other end of the room a priest in Eucharistic vestments stood before a make-shift altar and beside him stood Mrs Bell. She smiled warmly as she introduced us.
I spent the second decade – plus two or three years – of my life in St Bride’s. For me it was a period of development and discovery. With so many others world-wide we experienced the Great Depression, with its privation and deficiencies, the humiliation of applying for ‘relief’, crop failures, starvation prices for farm produce with the prairie farmer’s cheerful philosophy: ‘There’s always another year’.
It was the beginning of the Forties when I left that community forever. For the following year and a half I worked at a variety of jobs in Edmonton and Calgary and I finally ended up in Vancouver, where I worked at the Boeing Aircraft factory until that closed down at the end of the War.
Next I got a job involving heavy manual labour in a sawmill for the princely sum of fifty-eight cents an hour. Three year -and two strikes – later it was increased to sixty-three cents an hour. My first experience with trade unionism – the ‘Brotherhood of Working Men’ – had close parallels with my earlier experiences as a hobo when I, with thousands of other single, unemployed young men rode the freights back and forth across Canada looking for work. It did not bother me at all that some people labelled us as Communists.
One dismal December morning as the cold damp fog rolled in from the Frazer river and obscured the log booms and the stacks of finished lumber in the yard – and crept up the legs of my trousers – I looked across the dry chain at my partner, Allen Adams who was nearing retirement, and I asked myself if I too would still be working at that same job twenty-five or thirty years down the line. Already I had been at it for nearly five! I was becoming restless and dissatisfied. I had injured my back in an accident and I saw around me men who had lost fingers, hands and arms in similar mishaps.
For the next few weeks I thought about it on and off and it became an obsession. I feared growing old and decrepit on that job, listening to the whine of trim saws day after weary day, engaged in monotonous, repetitive, boring and mind-destroying work. I knew I was capable of better things.
But what could I do?
… taking night classes …