May 24, 2013 Victoria, BC (ISN) – Welcome to the second article of Ken’s Blog, where historian Ken Warren takes us through some of his childhood memories, and shares with us the lives and times of his sports oriented family growing up in Saskatchewan and Manitoba in the 1900’s and beyond. In Part 1, Ken and his family take us to the town of Lestock, Saskatchewan, and share their experiences in sport and in tragedy.
THIS IS THE SECOND ARTICLE: MY FAMILY TREE HAS ROOTS IN SPORTS
Top row my grandparents, paternal and maternal; second row: two of my dad, my mom’s twin and Mom. Mom and Dad with Jim and me all down the left. Me in my Airforce uniform with two little friends. Model T aunts and uncles, Dad and Mom. Four generations bottom right. Kenny’s UBC grad pic. Look like my mom – Photo courtesy of Ken Warren (ISN)
After our short stints in Prairie River and Conquest, we moved to our first town on the CNR main line, Lestock, Saskatchewan. While the previous two villages were only our homes for about six months each, Lestock was home for more than five years. A Roman Catholic community of about 400 predominantly Hungarian, Ukranian, and Metis, Lestock was created from a large parcel of land surrendered by the Muscowequan Indian Reserve. The large Reserve bordered the West side of town and a couple of miles from Lestock the Oblate Missionary Group ran a Residential Indian School.
While my friends Arnie Nofield, Jackie Winiski, and I played often in the Muscowequan Reserve building forts, making swords and bows and arrows, we played lots of sports, too. We had many Metis friends: Jimmie and Mabel Brown, Larry and Raymond Lafontaine, Marina Fisher, Wilmer Salter, Chotch and Wayne Pelletier who played our own brand of Canadian football. The action didn’t stop until a touchdown was scored. There were lots of white kids played with us too, boys and girls. The reason I mention some of the Metis by name is because hundreds of them were forced by the CCF government to move out of Lestock, and we lost all of these great friends from our school and our games. I will explain this foolish government move shortly.
Meanwhile many of these same Metis kids and others were on our baseball team. At 11, I was the manager and the left-handed pitcher. Why was I the manager? Because my family had six extra baseball gloves, balls and bats, and catcher’s equipment. In addition, my dad let me use the CN phones to call long distance to set up games in Kelliher, Punnichy, Leross, and the Residential Indian School. We never had any home games, because there were no kids in the other villages able to arrange games. How did we get to the games? Our best ride was Steve Kish, the pool room owner. His son, Eddie, was our shortstop. For 15 cents each we’d pile in the back of his truck, and Steve would wait around until the game was over–and bring us back. Other boys fathers and big brothers took us occasionally, too, but Mr. Kish was our most reliable ride. I did all the phoning for the players, the rides, the long distance calls, collected the fares, lent the equipment to kids who couldn’t afford gloves, and best of all, got to pitch. I don’t think we ever lost. That’s because we loved the game so much we were willing to do anything to get to play it.
Photo courtesy of Ken Warren (ISN)
We played many peewee hockey games against the young natives at the Residential School, and my brother Jim and friend Kenny Edwards were the only white boys who played on a very good senior boys native residential team. There were many accidental deaths in Lestock and they will be mentioned later. However one such death occurred to a young man who had played on the senior boys hockey team, so I’ll mention that death here. Big Nick was my brother Jim’s defence partner. He was killed by a train when he fell asleep on the railway tracks. This type of death was not uncommon in those days, especially in winter. Many natives walked along the tracks because they had been cleared of snow. Natives were not allowed to be served or buy alcoholic beverages in Saskatchewan in the 1940’s and 50’s, and hence many resorted to drinking Lemon and Vanilla Extract, or finding bootleggers. Even some were found frozen to death after drinking antifreeze. If they had been drinking, they might get tired of walking and sit down for a rest. They could fall asleep unintentionally. They could be walking with their backs to the approaching train and not even hear it. This was the CN’s main line. Most freight trains never stopped in Lestock. The passenger train, called The Flyer, went through Lestock 70 or 80 mph. It almost never stopped.
One day the Flyer did stop…well, kinda stopped. It flew through Lestock and my dad and Bill McClughan, the Pool Elevator Operator, saw old Louis Lafontaine at the railway crossing get thrown eighty yards down the right-away. Bill puked over the platform and Dad went running to the old man’s body. The train had disappeared. Then the strangest thing happened. The Flyer was backing up, coming back to Lestock. This accident occurred about two years before Diesel engines were used, so the Flyer was still being pulled by steam engines. When the engine hit Mr. Lafontaine’s body he loosened something that caused a fault in the engine’s operation. The engineer stopped the Flyer a few miles down the track and got out to correct whatever the problem was. When he got to the front of the engine, there, caught in the cow-catcher, was Mr. Lafontaine’s hat. The engineer knew then that he had hit somebody, and so he backed up to find out what had happened.
Photo courtesy of Ken Warren (ISN)
I spent almost every day of my five years in Lestock with my closest friend ever, Arnold Nofield. One day Arnie and I were rafting on a slough along the railway tracks when we saw a freight train hit a car and knock it about 100 feet down the tracks. We rushed to the scene, but both men inside were dead, one with the top half of his head missing. There were two railway crossings in Lestock, and neither had any warning devices. It was purely look both ways and take your chances.
Another time, Arnie and I were walking down the tracks and we saw two boys, Raymond Lafontaine and Ernie Bunyai, skating on a slough across the tracks from our rafting slough. We saw both boys break the ice and disappear below the surface. Raymond reappeared and crawled out of the hole, but Ernie didn’t. We raced to the railway station to get my dad, and he walked into that slough breaking the ice with his rake until he reached the hole that the boys had fallen through. My father was up to his neck in the water and used the rake to search for Ernie’s body. Towns people came, and Joe Lucas, a huge man, made a raft of grain doors, eventually pulling Ernie’s body out. Arnie and I raced across the road to Bunyai’s house where Ernie’s mother was the town’s telephone operator. Ernie’s brother Jim (my age) was manning the phones, but he refused to believe us and his mother was not in, so we returned to the scene. Ernie could not be revived.
In the 1940’s and 50’s in Saskatchewan, men played baseball and girls played softball. Every town and village had a Sports Day where prize money was offered for baseball and softball competition. Lestock Red Sox had one of the four best junior (under 21) baseball teams in the province. Lefty Guy Blondeau and my brother Jim were the team’s best pitchers. Kenny Edwards was a great infielder and hitter. When they went to Sports Days, however, they also picked up some good senior men in town. Lestock won many tournaments in the two years that Jim pitched for them, and he was impressive enough that Wynyard, a much larger town, hired him as their only paid player at $400.00 a month, and secured him a summer job as well. Since he was in pre-med at the University of Manitoba, he needed the money for his studies.
The problem was that now Wynyard thought they could go to big city sports tournaments where the prize money was in the thousands of dollars and Jim could pitch two or more games that day for them. And Jim was young and foolish enough to do it. Wynyard even took on touring black teams. For me, it was a great adventure. At 14 and 15, I’d hitch hike around the province to get to see my brother pitch.
But back to deaths. Often as Arnie and I walked from school past St. Joseph’s Hospital, Diane Lafontaine, a Metis girl about 18 who worked at the hospital, would whistle at us and motion us to come and see something. It was always a dead body that she had been working on. She would take us into the little morgue room and show us her newest candidate. Her job was to perform some really basic undertaker tasks. Sometimes she would look at a young stiff on the slab and say: “Isn’t he too handsome to die so young?” I think she tried to put smiles on their faces, but I seldom thought they were very handsome.
There were fights in Lestock every Saturday afternoon, and the fights were generally on the busy streets. Shoppers just walked around the combatants. Since there were no police in town, the fight went on and on until the gladiators were totally exhausted. Both bloodied, one would stagger off, and the other would lie there. I don’t know how many times I saw I saw Tommy Champagne fight Chotch Pelletier’s big brother. (We called my friend Little Chotch, and his brother Big Chotch). They weren’t the only drunks fighting on Saturdays, but they were the most frequent.
Living in a railway station on the main line, all of my mother’s dishes in her china cabinet would shake as the trains went roaring through. And of course the bedroom windows on the track-side were only about 15 feet from the trains as they went rolling through every hour in the night. Strangely enough, they never woke us up.
One day when I was just 13, my mother called me into her bedroom to tell me something special. She was going to have a baby. I left her bedroom quite concerned.
“If she’s going to have a baby,” I stood aghast, “then all my friends are going to know that my mom and dad have just screwed.” I was mortified. I thought that the only time you ever screwed a baby came. I was so embarrassed at the thought of my friends knowing that my parents had recently done it. Also, I knew that some of the girls my age had been laughing at one of our former teachers, Helen Herring, who was pregnant. So I feared they would also laugh at my mom as her tummy grew larger.
In 1952, pop and chocolate bars were a nickel, the Friday night movie was 15 cents, and Topps baseball cards were 5 cents a pack for three or four cards and bubblegum. I scored three Mickey Mantle rookies amongst my three or four hundred Topps cards. Little did I know that one day the Mantle rookies would be worth $25,000.00 each. While I never did stupid things like throwing them against walls, or using them as noise-makers in my bicycle spokes, I nevertheless played with them so often, none were in mint shape.
I delivered the Saskatoon Star Phoenix and the Winnipeg Tribune daily for a few years when I was 12 – 14. I became a staunch Winnipeg Blue Bomber fan and loved Jack Matheson’s football column in the Trib. Since I’ve brought up my work, I might as well mention my chores. There was no running water in Lestock homes, so I’d get our drinking water at the town pump daily. Wash and bath water in winter I’d get from carrying several tub loads of snow on a toboggan to a barrel in the warm CN waiting room. In those first few years in Lestock, I had to go fairly far from the railway tracks to get the snow because the steam engines left cinders on snow within 70 yards of the tracks. Most nights Jim and I washed and dried the supper dishes. After Jim left for university, Phil and I did the supper dishes. Other chores: I brought in the coal, made the kindling, filled the stove’s water reservoir (our hot water supply), and generally got groceries. My allowance was 40 cents a week. Good thing I had a paper route!
In the winter we only bathed once a week, and if that’s not bad enough, then listen to the routine: First off, the tub was one of those round laundry tubs. It must have been hell for Mom, she was quite big, but at least she got the water first. Then Phil got bathed. He was small enough that the size of the tub wouldn’t have bothered him much. Then it was my turn. At 13 and 14, I hadn’t started a teenage growth spurt either, so it was ok for me. Then it was Dad’s turn, by this time the water must have been gray and luke warm. The kettle warmed it up a bit, but J.E.’s knees must have been in his face, sitting in that little tub. At long last it was Jim’s turn. The bathing occurred on the kitchen floor, and since Jim was much bigger than Dad, I wish I had a picture of him in that little round tub. I’d also like to send a specimen of the water to a health lab after he had finished his bath.