Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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A Teenage Failure

It was good to be home again, to eat my mother’s cooking, to sleep in my own bed in my own room, to help out around the farm and to visit the old buffalo rubbing stone, my rock of refuge. I was sure that the people in town thought of me as already a failure at the age of eighteen, so I avoided contact with them as much as I could.

After a few weeks of this my father exploded into my room one Sunday morning to angrily demand that I get dressed for church and come with them. He was right, I needed to get out among other people, but his way of forcing the issue did nothing to make me feel any less a failure. However, the rejection I dreaded at church never happened and I slipped back into the familiar rhythm of Anglican worship services.

There was perhaps some solace to my soul in the magnificent words of the Scriptures, prayers and hymns, but I don’t recall much spiritual sustenance in the sermons. The preacher at that time was a young man from England who never really got acclimatized to the prairie way of life. One sermon that I remember was about what an evil game hockey was and how cricket was the proper sport for Christians. He was that much disconnected from reality in rural Saskatchewan. I don’t think anyone ever tried to set him straight, they just politely ignored him.

Gradually I dared to peek out from my protective covering a little bit at a time and found that I suffered no painful consequences. I still went to find the peace and quiet of the old rock, but perhaps the long walks along the ravines did as much for my mental state.

This is long ago, I have repressed these memories for years and many things are no longer clear to me. I believe it was at this time that I worked for a few days helping to pour the foundation for a new high school. It has come back to me that the incident of my father burning himself and me taking over his farm duties and janitorial duties at the hospital occurred during this period.

I must have been home at Craik for almost two years. In the summer of 1962 I was off to Toronto again, this time to attend DeVry Technical Institute to learn electronics. Not that I was terribly interested in learning electronics, but it was a field that offered many job opportunities and once again my parents were ready to pay my way, so off I went.

A rock of refuge

In 1951 the doctor told Dad he had an ulcer and needed to eat a very bland diet and find a less stressful lifestyle. Thus it happened that in October of that year we loaded all our possessions and left the land of hills and sloughs for a new home in a land of ravines and coulees.

It was mid-afternoon when we got to our new home just outside the town of Craik. I was just in the way when the trucks were being unloaded and I went to look around the yard. I checked out the barn, the chicken house and the garage for our truck. As I walked away from these buildings where all the activity was going on I discovered a ravine north of our house. It began with a large culvert under the road on the west side of the yard and seemed to get deeper as it went east. It was dry now but water must come through that culvert in spring. Soon I was called for supper and after supper it was dark and I was tired.

After breakfast the next morning I decided to see where that ravine would lead me. I hadn’t gone far when the ravine widened and I found myself in a coulee coming from the south. There was a cliff on the opposite bank that I imagined to be a buffalo jump where buffalo had been driven over and killed where they fell at the bottom. When I climbed up the bank beside the cliff and looked around I saw circles in the grass and was sure there had once been tents standing where those circles were.

At the old farm the pasture was a long way from the house, had lots of beef cattle and a few big horses. I had walked it a few times with my Dad and with my older cousins when they came for a visit, but I was a little boy with no permission to explore it alone. Here I was a big boy, nine years old already, and there was a new world to explore at my doorstep. The only cattle were a few tame shorthorns.

I walked further along the coulee. It curved to the east, back west and then north again. The bank inside that last curve was the highest in our pasture. There was a hollow depression halfway up that bank and that was where I discovered the most wonderful place in that whole pasture. There stood a giant rectangular block of pink granite with a step halfway along the top. One could imagine a giant doorstep or recliner. It was a buffalo rubbing stone, rubbed smooth by buffalo rubbing their itches for thousands of years.

The best part was that when I was beside this stone I could not see a fence, a road or a power line and could hear no sound from the roads or the town. I was back in the days before the settlers came and almost expected to see buffalo come along the coulee. This spot beside the big stone became a haven for me as I was growing up. I could walk away from the tension and anger that often existed in our house and find rest and quietness beside my rock of refuge.

There were many other wonders in the coulee. In one spot along the bottom there was a burial site marked by stones. There were wild roses, buffalo berry bushes (my father called them buck brush), Saskatoon berry bushes, tiny red flowers that I later learned were scarlet mallow. Not far from my rock was the spot where the first crocuses bloomed in spring. There were pools of water along the bottom where the cattle drank and frogs croaked. There were gophers and Swainson’s hawks that hunted them.

One time, just as I entered the coulee, a hummingbird flew up to me, stopped so close that I could have reached out and touched him, looked me in the eye for a moment, then zipped aside to let me pass. It seemed an invitation to enter the coulee where the atmosphere would spread a healing balm over me whenever I was troubled.

A refuge from the storm

Abner slipped out of his bedroom and into the spare bedroom. Even there the angry voice of Papa Zedner disturbed his attempts to read. Abner knew that his father wasn’t angry with him, but he knew from experience it was best to avoid giving opportunity for it to be directed at him. Papa Zedner’s anger was like the prairie winds, all one could do was give it time to blow itself out.

The best thing would be to explore the new farm. Abner slipped out the door and walked to the barn and the gate to the corral. He was going to open the wooden gate, then saw that one side of the gate was fastened to a heavy post, leaving a gap between the post and the corner of the barn just big enough for an eleven-year-old boy to slip through if he turned sideways.

Abner walked through the corral and the open gate that led to the pasture. He hadn’t gone far when a tiny bird appeared in front of him; it’s wings a blur. Abner stopped; the bird stopped. For a moment they eyed each other, almost nose to nose, then the bird zipped away. The storm of the house vanished with the bird and Abner stepped forward to discover what wonders might lie before him.

He had been walking beside the ravine that ran through their yard and now that ravine merged with another that came from the town. Buffalo berry bushes grew on the hill sides of the ravines, with wild roses scattered among them. He walked across the bottom of the ravine and up the steep slope on the other side. The shrill whistle of a gopher alerted him to the gopher mounds at the top of the hill. The gophers were gone, warned by the whistle that an intruder was present.

A little farther along on the flat pasture land above the ravine he saw a group of circular depressions in the ground. Tipi rings! What else could they be? He had noticed that part of the ravine bank was almost vertical.  That hadn’t seemed significant before, but now it became a buffalo jump and scenes of the buffalo hunt appeared in his imagination.

He walked further along the top of the ravine, seeing how it turned first one way and then the other. Just ahead of him the ravine turned again and the hill on the inside of the turn was the highest point in the pasture. Then he saw the rock. Halfway down the hillside there was a hollow in the side of the hill and at the bottom of this hollow was a huge rock.

As Abner ran to get a closer look, he felt as though this rock was the reason he had come out to the pasture. He knew it was a buffalo rubbing stone, even if he had never seen one before. Worn smooth by thousands, no millions, of buffalo rubbing their itching sides on it, the ground around it eroded by the hooves of the buffalo, it had once served to remove their winter coats. There were still brown hairs caught in the crevices of the rock. Abner knew they must be cattle hairs, the buffalo had been gone too long. But still . . .

The rock was oblong, the sides and corners almost squared off, with a step up about halfway along the top, like giant steps, or a chair for a giant. Abner tried sitting on it, but it felt best to sit on the ground beside it. When he did so, he looked around and there were no fences, power lines, roads or buildings to be seen. There were not even any sounds to betray the impression that he was back in the time before the settlers came. Perhaps even now the hunters were camping not far away, preparing the buffalo hides and pemmican from their hunt.

The rock had stood here for ages, a friend to the buffalo, perhaps a landmark for the hunters. It has survived summer heat and winter cold, prairie fires, droughts, floods. And for a young boy it had now become a refuge from the storms at home. It was time for Abner to go, but he felt peaceful now and knew he would return.

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