It was 1939 & the Second World War had been declared. My father was with the RCMP & enlisted in their Special Investigation Branch assuring my mother that the war would be over in 6 months. I was 11 years old while my brother was 13 & we were living in Sault Ste. Marie.
It's now 1945 & my Dad is stationed in England, my brother is in the navy & Mom is only responsible for me, a lively 16 yr. old. Her watchful eye was determined to keep me pristine & pure.
My girlfriends & I heard of the farmerettes. You needed to be 16 yrs. old, have good grades in school & have parental consent to qualify. We all qualified for the first two criteria. Since we were going to be working with other girls on farms, would be living in a communal setting with a "camp mother" & strict rules to go by, our parents gave their permission for us to go & 'give a helping hand' for the war effort by harvesting food for the nation. None of this patriotic rhetoric was meaningful to me: I was getting out of writing my chemistry exam & escaping the watchful eye of my mother.
The train ride with all my pals from the Soo to St. Catharines was great fun. We were looking forward to a spring & summer sharing this exciting new adventure. Instead we were all sent to different locations; I ended up at Camp Gregory up on a cliff overlooking Lake Ontario knowing no one. My fellow farmerettes came from far & wide & were formed into teams; each team was picked up by a farmer & driven to our work site each day.
Our team worked for Horace Troupe. He had a wife who tended to her chores & kept a watchful eye on three little ones. Arthur was the oldest, about 4. I can still hear Mrs. Troupe hollering across the field: "Arthur git out of them thar strawburries, they aint no good if thur squished!"
Our first crop to harvest was long rows of asparagus. It was back-breaking work in the sun with no letup until noon when Mrs. Troupe came out with a pail of cold water from their well; we all shared the dipper for a welcome drink along with our lunch which we had prepared after breakfast. Because our lunches were in brown paper bags & had been lying beside the field,
I seem to remember my sandwiches were peanut butter or cheese with a piece of fruit for dessert. Meat was never an option as there was no refrigeration. After lunch it was back to the row upon row of asparagus with all of us working in unison each on our own row but working parallel to each other. We all got along well with no arguments or complaints; we were too busy thinking of when 5:00 would come.
Lesson #1: Team effort makes any job run more smoothly.
We were responsible for doing our own laundry. After the first week of adjusting to routine I discovered I had no clean clothes one morning. Digging into the dirty laundry bag I pulled out some underwear, turned it inside out, tugged on a smelly shirt & headed out for the farmer's truck feeling absolutely disgusting. I'm sure my team-mates thought the same.
Lesson #2: You are responsible for tasks to be done. Don't procrastinate.
Between the asparagus & strawberries there was a gap which Horace filled by having us paint the barn so he could retain our team. Through negotiations I somehow I ended up on the highest ladder with the most sore insteps at the end of each day due to standing on the narrow rungs all day.
Lesson #3: Democracy isn't always fair but it works for the majority.
After the strawberries were over we went to another farmer's fields to work. As usual he came to pick us up with his truck which had no back or sides so we had to hang on as best we could. I sat at the back with my feet dangling until he hit a pothole & I went flying up & over hitting the road with my head! Apparently I spent a couple of days asking repeatedly: "What happened?" over & over until my mother came down from the Soo to take me home so I could recover from the concussion. I have no memory of this but I do know that I succeeded in convincing her that I was fine & wanted to finish the job I had been contracted to do. I stayed on for the rest of the season.
Lesson #4: If you want anything badly enough, learn how to present your case logically with conviction to succeed.
Our free time was mostly on weekends when we would hitchhike into St. Kitts on a Saturday to hang out or see a movie. On Sunday we could go into town to church. We had no trouble being picked up off the side of the road as everyone knew we were farmerettes & welcomed us into their cars. We never hitch hiked alone, always in two's or three's ( more than that was too many). The exception to this was an invitation from my best friend, Diane (who lived in Toronto) to spend a weekend at her family's home. From some of our conversations I realized that her father had a high position in the government & so I would have to be on my best behaviour. As we pulled up to their lovely home I knew I was being challenged not to besmirch the Denton name. All went smoothly through dinner with the correct use of the cutlery, polite conversation until bedtime. The next morning as I was walking down the hall to go down for breakfast Diane's 18 yr. old brother came out of the bathroom naked as a jaybird & with complete nonchalonce, walked past me & said: "Good morning." I was too stunned to reply as I had never seen naked person before.
Lesson #5: When in new situations, always be prepared for surprises & accept other people's lifestyles.
The day the war ended a farmer pulled into Camp Gregory with his huge stake truck announcing that as many as could fit while standing up could climb aboard & he'd take us into town for the parade. I remember feeling the thrill (my Dad was coming home!) as we drove along the main street of St. Catharines waving at all the cheering crowds.
Lesson #6: Wherever life takes you there are decent, thoughtful people you encounter. Appreciate the moments & pass them on.
And that's a wrap.
Betty-Lou (Denton) Clark