Small Towns

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ÖI thought I grew up in a small town.  By big city standards; it was a blip on the map. Yet at 20,000 residents, a thriving metropolis compared to an actual small town.

I’ve been in Battleford, Saskatchewan for the past few days. The official web site for the town lists three must sees on their “attractions” list. First – the water tower; admittedly decorated quite festively in lights that must have been strung for Christmas. Second – the greenhouse (not too sure about this one; perhaps a place to grow tomatoes year round) Third – a monument built to celebrate the spot the Olympic torch for the 2010 winter Olympics stopped on it’s run across Canada.

My sister lives in an incredible old renovated farm house overlooking a lovely river valley. An island in the river, directly below her house boasts five tagged moose. This is extremely exciting, we’ve looked for those moose every day.

Walk in the other direction from her house and you find yourself picking along a few sleepy streets of aging war time homes, dotted with tired two story relics of days gone by. The Queen’s Hotel is next; and yes – it looks exactly as it does in this picture from the turn of the last century. While the saggy, pealing exterior of this once practical prairie inn, show the 100 odd years of hope – fresh dreams grace the crooked steps in the form of the new Korean immigrant owner. A hand painted sign declares Korean food is now available, not at a loss for improvements; the drive-thru liquor sales are something to behold. Despite the promise presented on another carefully hand painted sign, drive-thru is a relative term. You align your car tires with deep ruts carved in snow, bump your way along the width of the building; stopping at a back entrance. In hindsight “drive-thru” in the depths of the prairie winter; simply means you leave your vehicle running as you hop out and knock on the heavy wooden door. Liquor is sold; in a blink you’re back in your toasty car, navigating a sharp turn onto the deserted street.

As fun as that might sound, the essence lies within. We arrived around 10 PM on a Wednesday night. Just as we walked up, four men exited the bar. Stopping in their tracks; as if we were apparitions, one found his voice to ask if they should come back inside. Our polite ” no thank you” crushed a momentary spike of masculine bravado – they trudged off as we entered the completely empty bar. My sister has lived here for years; quick to point out, this is a dangerous place on weekends, I take it with a grain of salt as we down our beer, watching the lone female employee play pool with the owner’s son.

When my sister informed us that another hotel and bar was just up the street, we paid our tab, and braced against the night’s chill with giddy excitement. I never dreamed our little walk would turn into a small town adventure. She happily pointed out the “opera house”, proudly explaining it was being renovated into an arts centre.

Battleford Opera House

As we made our way up the street to the Windsor, it occurred to me that the only people we had encountered in the past hour were the four men as we entered the Queen’s bar, the bartender, and the pool playing son.Approaching the Windsor my sister explained it was owned by the same Korean family.Instantly the sign outside offering drive-thru liquor sales made sense.

In fairness to the Queen’s – a picture from the same era.

The Windsor boasts an illuminated drive-thru off sales sign, what’s more – once we bellied up to the bar the patrons grew from two to five. Minding our own business was simple at first. On some level we were pleased not to be alone in the bar, for myself ;  I was starting to think it was a ghost town.  Isolation  was the poetry bouncing around my head when the drinks started to appear on our table. Apparently women at the Windsor, Wednesday night was a big deal. Looking back, it was like a script from David Lynch. We thanked the man who bought us a round and continued talking. Who were we kidding. The bartender brings over a tray of shots, he called them “slutty cowgirls” – butterscotch schnapps, cherry whiskey, and whipped cream (or milk he tells us if you have no cream) Yikes – we counted five. Three of us, the bartender, plus “Wayne” who has decided to follow his money to our table.

Wayne wasn’t much older than my daughter, and half the age of my happily married sister and myself. He seemed harmless enough; telling us he couldn’t make it home that night because the roads were closed due to extreme winter conditions. It had the ring of truth – I understood he was bored and lonely, so we made a unanimous, unspoken decision to be nice ladies rather than stuck up bitches. A nice theory as long as all parties are on the same page.

While certainly not universal to small town loneliness, alcohol fuels all sorts of situations. Wayne starts grabbing my leg, then my ass. OK Wayne, enough! We ask the bartender not to let him buy any more rounds, but it seems the bartender is bored as well. Round after round appear on the table. By now we are beyond drunk. Wayne has a creepy look in his eye, and we’re five blocks on foot from my sister’s house.

There isn’t a dramatic ending to this story. Much like a sleepy little town, we slip away, though I honestly can’t remember dodging Wayne. I remember walking down ice ruts in the middle of the street, and I know for a fact that in four hours and two bars we saw a total of  nine people. We didn’t see a moving car, hear sounds from the homes we passed, or so much as a dog bark.

Battleford has a population of around 4000. Cross the river, you’re in North Battleford, with roughly 15,000 residents. Follow the highway and it could be any small town in North America. Gas stations, motels, and a Walmart sprawl amongst car lots, fast food, and farm equipment sales. Venture off the highway, your first block encompasses something my sister calls the “golden triangle” . An area bordered by the RCMP station, liquor store, and courthouse – need I say more? Personally, I like the old movie theatre. Pawn shops, bingo halls, and lonely retail relics line the dreary street.

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It takes a certain fortitude to stay the course in a small town. I envy the ability to exist in a world without constant distraction or stimulation. Money isn’t flashed about, as most people don’t have a lot. Fashion is practical; warmth wins over style – truly liberating. Most astounding, the “arts” take centre stage.

I was there to help my sister sew dance costumes. She works for Dance Saskatchewan, on the side she makes costumes for what seems like every dance school in the province.Dance is as much a part of Saskatchewan as hockey is to Canada. Without exception, every spot on the map has a school of dance. I’ve officially mastered the tu-tu, yet despair for the fact we only completed 100 or so of the over 500 costumes facing delivery by the middle of March.

Ö

My greatest pleasure was being in a place where stars shine brighter than street lights. Sadly uncooperative, the weather allowed only one fleeting moment of the northern lights. It didn’t matter; endless skies, sunsets to rival any I’ve seen in the world, and ice fog more than made up for it.

Small towns are alive, their hearts beat to a different drummer. Life is never simple, the Battleford’s have plenty of problems; the “golden triangle” attests to the brick wall many residents face. That said – I found peace in a week away from the plastic life of the city.

Ö

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50 thoughts on “Small Towns

    • May I ask please John, who is the photographer behind that link. I became lost in it for over an hour-soaking up the visual like a speed reader as I scrolled madly down…and down…and down…for over an hour…and still I did not reach the end. I must confess I went into sensory overload…I could see, touch, smell, hear and taste…every image was a trigger…

      I came across three captions–one wished us all the best for the winter solstice, one commented on Halloween, and one revealed that she was in Alaska and temporarily away from a computer to post more images on and it was signed ‘Leslie’

      I’m not that savvy with computers and web sites but I really want to thank the person responsible for all of those incredible pictures.

      Can you help?
      k- of k&p Catalano
      http://pibbsdreamquest.com

      • It’s great, huh? My wife sent me the link and i became instantly lost, too. I couldn’t stop scrolling.

        Under each photograph (in the small gap between the next photo) there’s a little pop up that reads # WEEKS AGO/ # NOTES / REBLOG. You have to scroll over the space to see it. Click on the middle NOTES option and it’ll give you the photographer (or source).

        Hope that helps 🙂

      • John, thank you so much! I did click on the notes option a couple of times and was overwhelmed at the number of ‘notes’ on some of them. I guess it notates how many people have shared the photo. how do you find the actual photographer in the midst of all that …is it down at the bottom of the list of notes? If so…some of the notes are in excess of thousands and the it only shows about the first 50(?) then
        prompts you to reload more.
        or am I just being a dunce still and not seeing it?

        Oh and Thank You Thank You for posting the link!!!!!
        k-

      • Yay! I think the photo credit/original site is always just below the photo (in the frame). The long list is just the people who have re-blogged it. Glad it helped 🙂

  1. I love the drive thru liquor stores.

    “t takes a certain fortitude to stay the course in a small town. I envy the ability to exist in a world without constant distraction or stimulation. Money isn’t flashed about, as most people don’t have a lot. Fashion is practical; warmth wins over style – truly liberating. Most astounding, the “arts” take centre stage.”

    What a beautiful picture these words wove into my mind.

  2. Oh my goodnes…It just occured to me that you must think me terribly rude for asking so many questions about John’s link and I have yet to comment on this wonderful story you have posted.

    My mother and her family are from a small town in Minnesota, We spent time with them…starting out at the family farm and then when they moved into town after turning the farm over to my Uncle. I remember as a child seeing the population sign reading “pop. 713″…The last time I was there for my grandmothers funeral in 2002, the sign read “pop. 678”

    It saddened me to note the decline but I found the heart of the town to be much as it had always been. Some of the business’s were gone, their facades still the same but with new owners and innards, but many of them were still in operation. Like Laverne’s- He had everything for the well dressed farmer- overalls in plain or ‘rail-road pinstripe’ (every visit we kids and then the grandkids were kitted out in a new pair). He had boots and shirts and socks now famous for ‘monkeying around’.

    The main street was wide and as folks would cruise through town it wasn’t unusual for pick-ups loaded with grain, headed to the town grain elevator, to stop and pass the time with a fellow walking townsman in the middle of street. No one ever honked or became angry…they just simply waved at the two and drove gently around.

    I love small towns.
    k-

  3. See what the world would have missed if not for the courage you mustered a few days after your husband’s remark.

    As a footnote…
    I wonder if Wayne is one of your readers. I’m sure he will always remember that night he never had.

  4. Sometimes my wife will have those sort of comments about what she had said out loud.

    You don’t have to feel sorry for Wayne. He kind of deserved it a little for how he conducted himself.

    I am sure he found solace with someone else’s leg and…

    Oups… Sorry I said that!

    As a footnote…
    If he started talking instead, he would have found a beautiful brain.

    • The world is full of “Wayne s” – all harmless. If I feel bad about the circumstances of that night it’s only because women (especially a cheeky drunk woman) know how to take them by the horns and run. Women have far too much influence over hapless drunk and lonely men. 🙂 Sigh.

    • Battleford is a very strange town. Scratch the surface and trouble bubbles to the surface. A few weeks ago my nephew his wife and baby were staying in a hotel after Easter dinner at my sister’s house. Around 1:30 in the morning there was a pounding on their hotel room door. My nephew looked out, didn’t see anyone and opened the door. Two men armed with machetes forced their way in. They slashed the phone lines, held a knife to his throat and robbed them as he pleaded with them not to hurt his wife and baby. They got away with wallets, credit cards, phones, and house keys. My poor nephew is barely functioning. He has flash backs of the knife on his throat every time he closes his eyes and can’t sleep, work or leave the house.Small towns can also be complicated.

      • Sorry about that 🙂 It was an out of left field, misplaced and unconnected piece of “too much information” resulting from a fresh conversation with my sister. Promise – I won’t do that to you again 🙂

      • On an unrelated note – why is it my family clams up whenever I try to find out about great aunts, uncles and cousins? Often the most I can pry free is a “he was lost in the war”.

      • Grief…?
        They rather want to forget…?
        The past is the past…?

        My wife’s uncle who was a sailor aboard HMCS Athabaskan did not want to talk about his ordeal.

        I decided to find out for myself and then decided I had to share his story on Souvenirs de guerre the second blog I started back in 2009 then on its English version Lest We Forget.

        Who needs Rosetta Stone?

      • I need Rosetta Stone – how else is a middle aged woman supposed to master French?

        As for tight lips on the past – I think of my Dad in an abstract kind of way. Some people simply wish to remain private – he never spoke unless absolutely necessary(the result of a stutter he developed as a teenager under the criticism of his never good enough father) The one thing he had and only time he was able to drop the stutter was when he was called upon to direct search and rescue operations as head of the provincial emergency preparation (PEP) He never talked about his experiences, never wanted recognition or praise, only took the calls and knew what to do.After a particularly treacherous rescue he was flown to Ottawa and awarded the Order of Canada for bravery.We didn’t find out about it until reading a story in the local paper.

        An abstract analogy but the only frame of refernce I have towards what makes sacrifice tick.

      • See what I meant with my last reply about how you have a way with words and ideas.

      • What I have is an understanding that people I loved, people who let me down or didn’t live up to expectation – they were doing the best they could.Once I stopped blaming them (and believe me it took the better part of 50 years) I was able to forgive them for being human and view them as individuals for the first time. Life doesn’t come with a manual – I took away labels of “mom” or “dad” and replaced them with Jim and Margaret – only then did blame fade into acceptance. 🙂

      • Ditto… though I never blamed my mother who was a casualty of life. She had the greatest quality as a mother… her children and her family was utmost important to her. My father never forgave her for this as he was a narcissistic person. Took me 50 years to understand what was a narcissistic person.

        As a footnote…

        I hope I wrote narcissistic correctly.

      • Time for a footnote from me – my incredibly naive question wasn’t actually as stupid as it sounded. I get the weight of loss during the war – I only wish the few remaining people in my life able to cast perspective on their experience weren’t reluctant to talk about it

      • The veterans I have met speak more about stories of the camaraderie they had with their comrades-in-arms.

        Meeting them was a very enriching experience.

        When I can, I meet a veteran mid-upper gunner every Monday at his place.

        He’s 90.

        Of course I have a blog about the squadron he flew with during the war.

        As you can see I don’t lack inspiration for writing blogs.

      • When my youngest son was in high school he spent an hour a week with veterans at a retirement center. “Old Frank” as my son called him changed my son’s life in a profound way. My son thought it was going to be a boring way to gain a few extra credits – in reality “old Frank” touched him in ways beyond description. After a few visits my son couldn’t wait to see Frank and listen (as in really listen) to Frank’s stories. 🙂

      • Your son was blessed…

        As a footnote

        Tell your son he can write a guest post on Lest We Forget so Old Frank will never be forgotten…

        Just a thought.

        Well more than just a thought.
        I can tell him so many wonderful stories that evolved from meeting veterans which lead me of course to write about them.

      • My son wrote a story after one of his visits to Frank. A beautiful, near poetic fictional inspiration undoubtedly stirred by Frank’s revelations. It was about an island shrouded in ghosts of people murdered by the Nazis. His stupid teacher gave him a “D” because it wasn’t “on point” with her instruction for content.It crushed him to the point of indifference when it came to further expressions of creativity. My husband’s cousin is a professor at the University of Lethbridge who writes textbooks and lectures on education. We sent her the story (which she included as an example of exemplary writing in a textbook) Even then, he never wrote anything as beautiful or inspired again. I’,m going to pass you comment on to him in hope it will ignite the fire again 🙂

      • Did it again… My reply disappeared.

        Anyway…

        Tell your son to write me. You have my e-mail address in your comment section.

        As a former teacher I can tell you that his teacher was missing the whole point about teaching.

      • How about this little anecdote of a psychologist who was working in a children’s hospital telling a mother of her 4 year-old son that he would later become a drug junkie prostituting himself because on his speech and understanding problem.

        Guess he was dead wrong because this little 4 year-old is now having A and A+ in a university studing French litterature.

        Can’t win them all as they say.

      • It happened to me…
        Wrote a poem when I was around 15.
        The jury said I had copied part of it.
        Never wrote another poem.
        Too painful.

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