Notes from my father

In the Image

My hands hold a booklet. It is entitled the Farmer’s Pocket Ledger, 73rd Edition. Further down it informs that the booklet is compliments of August Zirk, Agent for John Deere Plow Co., Ltd. at Luseland, Sask. The back cover displays calendars for 1939 and 1940, indicating its vintage.

Opening the cover, I note that this book is the property of George A Olfert of Luseland. That’s my father. In 1940, George turned 19.

The first third of the pages are covered with John Deere advertising. We are reminded that for heavier farm jobs, one should turn to the JD model D, which saves money because it burns fuels that are much cheaper than gasoline. It is available with steel or rubber tires. It is designed for modern high speed farming, with a high gear that attains 4 miles per hour.

Interspersed with the enthusiastic ads are charts that I find equally charming. To find the bushels of shelled corn in a wagon box, multiply cubic feet times .8. I can calculate board feet in a log, tons of hay in a stack, the value of articles sold by the ton. Did you ever wonder at the amount of paint required for a given surface? The Farmer’s Pocket Ledger knows the answer, as well as how much time it takes to double your money at various interest rates, at both simple and compound interest.

There’s a reason why this quaint little book has survived these sixty plus years, why my mother passed it on to me after my father’s death in 1994. The lined blank pages begin with a few pages of scribbling dated 1941, an accounting of money earned from a job, money still owed. The largest number entered is $12.

Then, a line is drawn across the page. A new entry, a new date. “In 1945 send Xmas cards to the following:” Sixteen names are listed. These were the young people that obviously made up his friend group. I grew up among these. I attended the funeral of one yesterday in Calgary. Only one still lives.

My mom’s name heads the list. They will not be married for a few more years. I suspect that she helped him compile the list.

Then I turn the page over. A longer list begins in earnest, a list that goes on for five pages.

I am looking at, I decide, my father’s record keeping for a time of alternative service, something arranged to get value from the men who chose not to take part in World War 2 for religious reasons. My father was Mennonite. One of my significant regrets are that we were never able to have the conversation that I needed to understand that period of his life. Like many veterans, it was not a time that was much discussed. The closest I came was when I invited him to talk about how that decision was made that he and most of the other Mennonite young men would not bear arms. He responded simply that he still was angry that the decision was made by a church official. I get that. George was a fiercely independent man. Even as a boy, I can’t picture another making that choice for him.

On November 17, 1945, George arrived in Fort William, a former name for Thunder Bay. He spent two days “helping” on a crawler tractor. After that, his job description is listed, proudly, as “driving.” His days were mostly 10 hours, sometimes longer, one stretched to 23 hours. He skidded logs out of the bush, sometimes repaired roads, sometimes did something called “tanking.” A touching personal glimpse appears on a day when he scribbles “on sick list” and then adds “lovesick.” No hours are added that day.

By the end of February, 1946, the total comes to 1001 hours. There it stops. The remaining pages of the Farmer’s Pocket Ledger are blank, more JD advertising. George returned to Saskatchewan and picked up his life that resulted in marriage, a farm, seven children, and a number of generations that followed. To the end of his life, George had a passion for heavy machinery.

What was owed was paid. Ed Olfert is a retired clergy person who continues to find glimpses of holiness in every step. These days, his steps wander further into the world.