‘I half expected to be grabbed by the neck’

From our February 2013 issue

By John Martens – Oliver, B.C.

The stubble fields in the farming area between Winnipegosis and Fork River, Man., were a sea of mud during the spring of 1937. Dirty remnants of snowbanks remained in the shade of the scattered poplar groves.

Mother and I had walked to a neighbour’s a couple of miles north of our place, where the ladies did some exchanging of clothing and fabrics.

Mother was deft at repairing and creating garments, carding wool, spinning, and knitting. It was now mid-afternoon, and mother was in a hurry to get home before my four older siblings arrived from school.

Due to the muddy condition of the shortcut trail across the fields, we had to walk along the gravelled highway – south to our crossroad at Bicton Heath and then another mile and a half west to our farmhouse.

Mother, hugging her precious bundle of clothing, head down, walked at a rapid pace with not so much as a glance back to see me struggling to keep up.

My thin rubber slippers did little to shield my bare feet from the sharp stones. I stubbed my toe. I ran to catch up, holding up my hand for mother to grasp and steady me. No luck.

I groaned, and would have howled, but knew it would just be a waste of more energy. After all I was now four and it was time to figure things out for myself.

A car came hurtling towards us from the south, throwing a cloud of sand and pebbles against us, along with the stench of exhaust fumes. Disgusting!

It was then I remembered hearing my brothers talking about hitchhiking. I asked mother if it wouldn’t be fantastic if a car driver would see a thumb and stopped to give us a ride.

“Nein, das tuhen vir nicht” (No, we don’t do that) was her sharp Mennonite response.

I considered rationalizing arguments with her, but now was not the time. Surely, if a vehicle stopped to offer us a lift she would not refuse? How was she to know if the vehicle had stopped because the driver had seen my uplifted thumb, or not? Maybe the driver already wondered if those two stragglers wouldn’t want a lift if only they would give a sign. Now was the time to try it.

A southbound vehicle approached. Keeping an eye on mother’s back, lest she turn and see it, I held up my left thumb. The truck slowed and came to a stop beside mother. I raced to catch up. The driver leaned over and swung open the passenger door. Mother just stood there, transfixed.

I struggled to get my four-year-old frame up onto the running board, half expecting to be grasped by the neck and yanked back with another “Nein.” The driver, smiling broadly, leaned over and helped pull me into the cab and up onto the smooth leather bench seat. Mother shyly followed.

As a fairly recent immigrant from Russia, she was struggling to learn the English language and Canadian culture, mainly by reviewing her children’s school and library books.

The driver continued smiling at us and after a while I relaxed and responded in kind. I was in “Seventh Heaven”. At our crossroad I pointed and we were dropped off.

Mother was already 10 paces up the dirt lane by the time I got down off the running board. I waved to the still smiling driver as he drove off.

I raced to catch up to mother and to exclaim how exciting it was to have hitchhiked. But then it struck me: I couldn’t share this with her, not even with my siblings, since I’d defied the “Nein.”

Mother would be displeased although she probably suspected all along that I had ‘thumbed’. If father had heard about it he likely would not be amused and the strap might come into corrective action.

No, the pleasant memory of a ride in that shiny new truck was one only to be replayed in detail in my mind over the years as I lay in my bed awaiting sleep.

In the next 14 years, I probably covered some 12,000 kilometres of safe hiking, with many more warm and exciting memories of people, places, and experiences, over Canada’s five western provinces, as well as eight neighbouring states.

While my parents probably sometimes worried, they eventually accepted events as they unfolded.