Ernest Andrews reluctantly feeding chickens at the Bar U Ranch, Pekisko, Alberta, 1923
When I was 6 years old we moved out to a 20 acre spread in Springbank, a rural area west of Calgary, Alberta, towards the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
The nearest kid my age was Billy Young, who lived about a mile away by field, or 2 miles by road.
Billy was a strange gap toothed kid. He didn’t smell all that good. His folks owned a chicken farm – an egg farm, really – a huge, long barn structure full of chickens in cages laying eggs, with streams of chicken shit and piss underneath. Every so often the shit and piss would be washed outside, forming a little pond. Billy had a home-made skiff; he would stand on it with a big smile and use a stick to push himself across the pond of shit.
I was on the steps one day watching Billy sailing through the shit pond when his little curly haired sister Shirley scampered up and asked “Do you know why I like bugs?” “No,” I said. “Because they crunch when I step on them.” Shirley flashed a creepy little sadistic grin while she demonstrated by grinding down a beetle with her bare foot. I could hear it crunch.
It was hard to find good help at the chicken farm. Nobody really wants to work under those conditions, I guess, so all they had was a succession of just-out-of-jail, prison, or reform school surly young criminals who lived in a shack on premises and apparently weren’t making much beyond room-and-board. I was fascinated with these guys – the whole outlaw thing seemed very Clint Eastwood to me, except that this was a modern day chicken farm and not the desert in some spaghetti western. I wanted to know more about this crime stuff so I tried to talk to some of the chicken farm hands but they really weren’t interested. Their anger was a bit frightening, so I didn’t push it.
There was a poor family living downwind of the chicken farm in a small little farmhouse that wasn’t very well ventilated. I remember their property being especially barren. They would complain bitterly on hot summer days when the overpowering stench from the shit pond would drift down the hill on a hot breeze and pool in the valley air. But they were poor people, maybe didn’t even own their land, and the Youngs were related to almost all the farmers surrounding them. The poor family didn’t get much sympathy. Nevertheless, some sort of authorities got involved and the Youngs were forced to clean things up a bit.
The Youngs were Nazarites – members of the Church of the Nazarene – which was kind of big in the area. There’s something about prairie vastness that lends itself to obscure fundamentalist and evangelical religions.
Billy was always inviting me to some kind of Church function. He made it sound a lot like boyscouts. My parents were wary of letting me go to some sort of religious cult thing – they were fairly adamant aetheists, although not dogmatic about it – prairie stoicism kind of precludes the passion required of true atheist dogma – their atheism was a backdoor atheism that came out of skepticism rather than belief.
I pressured my parents, and, relunctantly, they finally gave in. It was a weekday night. I went with the Youngs to the Nazarene Church. The adults went off one way, and the kids were separated and went off in groups by age and gender. I ended up playing basketball.
I was a new kid, and maybe a potential recruit. My play was praised undeservedly, and when the game was over I was given a special prize: a worn out old volleyball.
My parents were waiting when I got home. They wanted to make sure that I wasn’t carting in a bunch of religious texts or whatever. I showed them my deflated volleyball. We pumped it full of air but by the next morning, it was soft again. For all the great enthusiasm of the Nazarenes, the prize was kind of pathetic.
Inappropriate enthusiasm with a soft, old, worn-out & deflated pay-off: this came to symbolize pretty much all religion for me, or at least milquetoast American Christianity. You can edge it up with hatred borne of ignorance and fear, but in the end it’s still old, worn out, and leaky.