I think I’m supposed to be writing about municipal politics and the upcoming municipal election, less than a month away now. But you know what, I feel as much like doing that as eating a mayor for breakfast.
Under certain circumstances that’s not such a bad idea. Been there, done that, so to speak, in another time and space – this one, even, as my old friend Snaggelpuss used to say.
Yes, my millions of faithful readers, I confess I have often relished getting my teeth into local politicians who deserved to have their feet and various other parts held close to the fires of public scrutiny via the relentlessly inquiring press. But I must be getting old, or my teeth worn out. I suppose if I’m around long enough I might live to see the Sunset Strip become part of Owen Sound, sensible answers about how money got spent on surplus high school property in Wiarton come from South Bruce Peninsula council and the Bluewater Public School Board, nuclear dissenters get treated with respect when they dare to ask questions about the sacred nuclear cow that runs Kincardine, and waste management become a county responsibility so available landfill capacity can be shared and all available resources focused on finding alternatives. Those are questions voters in those places might want to ask, and keep asking, until they get answers. Roast the candidates in your municipalities good over them, I say.
But I grow tired, my people, of beating those drums. From where the sun now stands, to paraphrase one of my great heroes, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, I will eat no more municipal politicians for breakfast. Let others gnaw on those old bones. I seek my inner child before it’s too late.
And the child within me would rather write about the tall, lean, old, and very dignified itinerant carpenter who came to Rolling Acres Ranch in the fall of 1955, and the story he told about two preachers. It was, I’m more convinced than ever, a bona fide gem of the south Grey County oral, folk tradition. I wonder if anyone else remembers ever hearing the story, or if anyone remembers the old carpenter who told it back then far better than I could ever hope to. Part of the magic of the telling was his after-dinner, parlour ritual. I recall his name was Tom Thompson, which happens to be my maternal great, great grandfather’s name, the one who came over about 1870 from the lowlands of Scotland to seek his fortune as a cabinet maker and fine carpenter in the bustling little provincial and very up tight city Toronto was in those days. That Tom Thompson did very well indeed, until Sir Henry Pellatt and his Casa Loma fiasco; but that’s another story.
Some local readers of a certain maturity of age and familiarity with the Egremont Township-Durham area will recall Rolling Acres Ranch was a summer riding camp in the Wilders Lake area. I’ve mentioned it here before, not that long ago. The old carpenter came to Rolling Acres to build a few cabins. He stayed on, sleeping in a big upstairs bedroom room (where my constant sniffling bothered his sleep), and taking his meals at the big kitchen table with “Mom and Dad” Brush and the many children they boarded during the winter, myself included. After supper he always settled in the same parlour chair and first drank a cup of hot water. I, being the oldest of the boarding children, was allowed to tarry for a while before bed. Then the old carpenter always played something on his fiddle, accompanied by the howls of the Brush’s little pet dog. Finally, he told a story. This one has stayed with me all these years, though for a long time I didn’t understand very well why. I do now, though: It speaks volumes about how human attitudes change and grow and mature, or should, as circumstances change. I wish Old Tom the carpenter was here to tell it, but here’s my version for now:
There was an old “fire and brimstone” Presbyterian preacher who came to Egremont Township in pioneer days with the settlers. He helped them build their homes and then they helped him build his church. He perfectly suited the nature of the times. Though the words varied, his sermons always followed much the same theme: The path of righteousness was “straight and narrow” and anyone who gave in to sinful temptation, who lived anything less than a sober, hard-working life, was headed for the flames of hell and eternal damnation and misery. Sure enough, in pioneer days the settler families walked a very fine line between survival, as long as they worked incredibly hard, and misery, if they didn’t. The consequences of failing to cultivate the fields and sow the crops on time, of not cutting and stacking enough seasoned firewood before winter set in, of not building a good home on a solid foundation, were potentially fatal. In his way, for the sake of their continued survival in the face of such challenges the old preacher reminded the people of the “wages of sin” Sunday after Sunday. And he always worked himself up into a thunderous rage as he did so, calling down the wrath of God on anyone who dared disobey. It was also great entertainment though no one in the congregation likely thought of it that way.
But one Sunday, in the midst of one such typical sermon, at the height of his weekly passion, the old preacher suffered a massive heart attack and dropped dead on the spot, right there in front of them
It was a great and shocking loss, but the search for a new preacher soon began. It wasn’t easy. Few seasoned preachers were reluctant to come to such a poor, subsistence-level homesteader community. Finally, the congregation found a young man from the city, newly graduated from a highly respected Presbyterian college. He certainly didn’t look much like the wiry old preacher whose skin had been turned to leather by the rigors of the outdoor, pioneer life. He was big enough, all right, but rather soft and pale looking. Still the people were willing to overlook that if, in his sermons especially, his spirit was made of stern stuff.
But unfortunately, they were much disappointed: There was no fire and brimstone, no flames of hell awaiting those who strayed from the straight and narrow path. Instead, he talked about God’s love and mercy. His message was forgiveness and redemption for those who had strayed, even sinned grievously. All was not lost. The new preacher’s message was one of hope.
The congregation didn’t know what to make of it, or him, and gradually they began to drift away, some to other churches, some to no church at all. Eventually Sunday attendance shrunk to very few people indeed. But the young preacher did not change his message or his style of preaching. And he also persisted in his pastoral rounds, travelling by horse and buggy to visit every member of the congregation, whether they came to church or not. One day he came to the farm of a man who had a big, vicious dog. The farmer usually kept his dog tied up when visitors approached; but when he saw the young preacher turn down his driveway he decided, for reasons we may never understand, to untie the dog. The gentle preacher was no sooner down from the buggy when the dog came running around from the back of the house and leaped into the air straight for his throat. There was no time to think; he had to react with pure instinct. He caught the dog in mid-air by the jaws and, suffice it to say without being too gruesome, ended the animal’s life there and then. (Old Tom the carpenter-storyteller made a dramatic gesture with both hands to show us what happened).
The young preacher stood and looked at the dog’s limp body at his feet for a few seconds, then bent down and picked it up, put it in the buggy, got back up himself, and with a gentle twitch of the reins, turned the horse and buggy around and drove off without a word.
The next Sunday the church was packed, and the people listened closely to every word the young preacher said from then on. He stayed with them for many years, preaching and practicing the message of God’s merciful, forgiving love. And as time went by that particular part of south Grey County became increasingly well known for the kindness, generosity, understanding and tolerant nature of its people. They developed the habit of examining all questions and issues carefully, knowing there were no simple answers to the most serious issues affecting people’s lives.
Think about that when you cast your municipal elections ballot in your communities on Nov. 13.
And if anyone out there remembers that old carpenter and that story, I’d sure be glad to hear from them.
Originally published in The Sun Times in 2006.