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Nobody Learned Much But Me; My Summer with Frontier College

The year was 1957. I was twenty-one and looking for a summer job after my first year at university. A friend told me he was applying to be a Labourer-Teacher, for an organization called Frontier College. This position  combined a paying job - on the railway or at other work sites - alongside and at the same rate as newcomer immigrants, as well as teaching them English, after work hours.
 
I went along to an information/orientation session and, in May, found myself heading west by rail. After what seemed an endless journey I arrived late one night near Leader, Saskatchewan, where the work crew was located.
 
The next few days were filled with confusion, adjusting to the unfamiliar circumstances and the work of a railway ‘extra gang’[1] - in this case, made up almost entirely of recently arrived Hungarians, who had fled their country after Russia crushed their uprising the previous fall.[2] They had arrived in Halifax by ship and were then sent west by train. They were - not surprisingly, given what they had been through - a pretty sombre group.
 
Certainly, neither the work-gang members nor their boss knew what to make of me, with my shiny new work boots (which I had tried, with little success, to scuff up at every stop on the way west). Most of the gang, I later learned, simply assumed I was some sort of government agent, sent to keep an eye on them as newcomers.
 
In any case, my University of Toronto jacket - dark blue with bright white lettering across the back and Vic, for Victoria College, on the sleeve - did nothing to enable me to blend in easily, as I tried to adjust to this unfamiliar situation.
 
Ironically, however, it was that jacket that inadvertently contributed to my acceptance by  the work gang. This surprising transition occurred on our first Saturday evening in Leader, Saskatchewan, where the work train was located on a siding behind the grain elevators.
 
That evening - a golden one as I recall - virtually everyone in the work-gang headed off to the local beer hall. I was, as usual, several steps behind because I had my new work boots off and was trying to shake out the accumulated grit and gravel from the day’s work.
 
That accomplished, I set off  to catch up, past the grain elevators and across the loading yards towards the main street, where the rest of the gang had headed. Along the way, however, I attracted the attention of a group of local guys, sitting on the lumber piles smoking and chatting.
 
This ‘gallery’ immediately, and correctly, identified me as an easy mark, and began a running commentary, addressing me, of course, as “Vic” and inquiring about where such a "smart-lookin' college boy" might be going on such a fine summer evening.
 
I continued on my way, quickening my steps, with the locals following me with further derisive questions and comments. Finally, I crossed the main street and  pulled open the door to the "beer parlour" ... with my posse close behind. The patrons inside - including most of the extra gang - all turned to look at this sudden influx. The Hungarians immediately recognized that I was being pursued and threatened, and all of them slowly stood up.
 
They were certainly a formidable group and - as my pursuers quickly realized - entirely out of their league. In any case, after a brief uncomfortable pause, everyone sat down and resumed drinking and chatting ... including my new extra gang "buddies", who pulled out a chair for me.
 
From then on, the gang seemed to have decided that - while I might indeed be some sort of government spy - I was, at least, "their" government spy.
 
****
 
Despite this "break-through", however,  there was no sign of the teaching materials and workbooks from Frontier College that would enable me to begin to offer language instruction that might help the newcomers adjust to their new surroundings. In fact, I seemed to have vanished entirely from the FC radar and such supplies never did arrive. There was also supposed to be a visit from a staff person at some point, but no one ever appeared.
                                                  ****
In any case, almost every day presented new surprises, problems, and possibilities. For example, one day early on, as we were rolling out to the work-site on our little open ‘train’, the guy sitting next to me said - to my astonishment, in perfect English - "Kid, if you’re ever in prison, make sure you get a job in the library!"
 
This turned out to be Harry - who, although he was tall and fair haired - I had assumed was one of the Hungarians. He had been watching me for some time and had finally decided I might be OK to talk to. In any case, he  turned out to be a very interesting, observant, and articulate individual, 
 
As his advice indicated, he had done time and been involved in various criminal activities. This became  dramatically evident in our further conversations when - especially "in his cups" - he would ramble on about various "jobs" he’d been on, disputes that had arisen with rival gangs, and time he had served in prison. To my great relief - after sobering up - he never seemed to clearly recall these "conversations".[3]

                                                  ****
An equally memorable character was the work-gang boss, a tough old (i.e., mid-50s) Ukrainian who had immigrated several decades earlier. He was very hard on the newcomers, and - later on in the summer - when I ventured to ask him why, he simply shrugged and said, "Nobody gave me a break when I arrived, so why should it be any different for these bastards? They’ve gotta make it just like I did!"
 
                                                      ****
Not long after I joined the work gang, it was further augmented by another group of  immigrants - this time Italian - fresh off the boat from Halifax. A greater contrast with the Hungarians could hardly be imagined. Instead of the begrimed jeans and sweaty t-shirts we all wore, the Italians sported bright blue and red outfits that looked more like hiking or climbing gear than work suits.
 
Even more surprising - and certainly welcome from my point of view - was the fact that they all harmonized on what I gathered were popular Italian songs. Having been part of a college singing quartet,  I was delighted to join in, gradually acquiring a few of the words as well as the tunes.
 
Indeed, this characteristic pass-time led to an especially memorable evening - this time on a Sunday  - in a town further west along the main line into Alberta. No bars were open, of course, so the gang was taking its ease, lounging on the lumber piles in the loading yard, smoking, chatting and watching the strolling couples and the cars cruising back and forth on main street.
 
As usual, one of the Italian guys began to sing and the rest of us joined in harmonizing. Soon a car turned in and cut it’s engine and lights, then another and another. People out for an evening stroll along main street also drifted across, until the yard was pretty well full.
 
After each song, our impromptu "audience" would applaud - or gently honk -  as we sang every number in our repertoire twice over. Finally, as dark fell, we called out grazie and buona sera and withdrew back to the work train bunk cars behind the grain elevators.
 
                                                  ****
As noted above, the work of the extra-gang was to maintain and, where necessary, replace the heavy wooden cross-ties that supported the rails. There were several motorized machines involved, and a lot of heavy lifting,  replacing worn ties with new ones, shovelling the gravel back into place, and - as the final step -  re-aligning  the rails with five-aside crowbar efforts.
                                                         
The first stage in this process was to dump additional gravel onto and alongside the tracks. The gravel was carried in special rail cars, equipped with crank-opening bottom and side chutes, through which the load could be dumped onto and beside the tracks.
 
These  cars, however,  were open to the elements, which meant that the gravel was usually wet, sticky, and  very difficult to move down and out the chutes. That made it necessary for several workers to ride inside the cars - clinging to cross cables with one hand, while using their shovels, with the other, to try to dislodge the load and push it down towards the chutes. At the same time, the engine would sharply brake/accelerate to help the gravel move.
 
Not infrequently, those working inside the cars were faced with the choice of letting go of their shovels or risk sliding down and out the chutes themselves. They - and I - chose the former option.
 
Nor was the outside challenge of this gravel spreading process any less difficult or hazardous. Those workers had to crank open the chutes at the right stage, while scrambling over uneven ground, clinging to the crank-handles and often leaping over culverts, gullies, and other obstacles.
 
On one occasion, at a road crossing, I was too enthusiastic in my outside efforts and inadvertently released too much gravel onto my side of the track. This resulted in the front pilot wheels of the pushing engine to start to follow the gravel up and off the rails themselves.
 
Fortunately the section boss immediately realized what was happening and shouted for the engine to stop and then carefully reverse, so that the wheels retraced themselves back onto the rails. He later told me - in very colourful terms - that he had never seen anything like this in his many years on the railway, a remark he clearly did not intend as a compliment!
 
                                                  ****
Another complicating factor in the track work process - especially on the main CPR rail line - was that the work  was often interrupted by regular traffic - mostly long freight trains heading east or west. Their approach meant that the work gang equipment had to be moved aside ... a strenuous and complicated process.
 
The most urgent of these ‘clear-the-track’ priorities, however, was the daily passage of the CPR’s flagship passenger train, The Canadian. After the usual scramble, we would all stand beside the tracks  waving, smiling, and, under our breath, cursing, as the silver dome cars and their elegant coffee-sipping passengers glided by.[4]
 
                                                  ****
During this period, I also encountered a number of interesting people not directly connected to the Extra Gang. One was a Catholic priest who I contacted on the assumption that some of the gang - especially the Italians - might want to attend mass (none of them did!). In any case, he turned out to be a very interesting character from south-west Ontario who was eager to talk and desperately missing the Stratford Shakesperean Festival.
 
Another was a tall, gangly English doctor who, with his wife, had recently emigrated to Alberta. They were very welcoming and treated me to a couple of meals. I have a vivid memory of him - during the annual town rodeo - perched on the top rail of the bucking horse ring - in his suit with his hair blowing in the stiff breeze - enthusiasically cheering on each cowboy clinging to his bronco. 
                                                     
                                                  ****
Soon after, the gang was moved farther west across and then south in Alberta. This journey was memorable in several respects. First of all, as with any significant move of the work train, we had to wrap and stow, on our bunks or the floor, all our belongings and anything fragile, such as coal oil lamps and drinking bottles.
 
This precaution was necessary because our cars would be attached to the tail-end of a very long freight train. This meant that the distant engine - way up ahead - would start off well before we did, because the connections between the freight cars - as well as our aged work train cars - were significantly looser than on a passenger train. The end result was that we would very abruptly lurch from a standing start to a brisk rolling rate ... and would have to firmly brace our belongings and ourselves in order to avoid damage and possible injury.
 
Another memorable feature of our trip resulted from the fact that, shortly before this relocation, the work gang received it’s first pay day since arriving in the west. Most of them immediately - and perhaps understandably, given their recent history  - had immediately purchased 22-caliber rifles. And so, we rolled through the countryside, with members of the gang sitting in the doorways or on top of the bunk cars, potting away at fence posts, other inanimate targets. and the occasional gopher.... shades of "Dr. Zhivago"!
 
                                                  ****
Our new location turned out to be further west and south of Calgary, on a line heading to the U.S. The views to the west were extraordinary, across the prairie landscape to the rolling foothills and magnificent snow-covered peaks of the Rockies. The splendour of the view, however, was accompanied by the very strong wind that blew down the slopes and across the grassland, sweeping the gravel off our shovels as we tried to shift it up and onto the track bed.
 
This location also became the site of a dramatic "labour dispute" regarding the work gang’s lunch routine. The general understanding, to that point, seemed to have been that when the gang was within easy walking distance to the work train site, lunch would be provided in the "eating car", rather than brought out to the worksite. That arrangement would also permit the crew to have a brief lie-down in their bunks, out of the blazing sun.
 
Unfortunately, a precise definition of this "understanding" had never been established and in this case, those who went back - about 15 in number - did so without the permission of the section boss. I might well have inadvertently joined them, but for the fact that, as usual, I had my boots off, trying to shake out the grit and gravel they had accumulated through the morning.
 
In any case, those who did go back were fired on the spot and about an hour later, trudged off down the highway, carrying whatever belongings they had. I have often wondered what happened to them, though compared to the challenges they had already faced and survived in getting to Canada - and their experiences since -, they were probably OK.
 
                                                  ****
It was, by this time, late August and my Frontier College buddy and I decided it was time to get headed back to Toronto and school. Even then, it was clear to me that this had been a very significant experience in my life and, in fact, it shaped my further development and what later turned out to be my career in the field of adult and continuing education.
 
More specifically, it made me keenly aware of the many ways - outside the sphere of formal education and certification - that individuals acquire skills, knowledge, and understanding. As I later discovered, identifying, articulating, and utilizing such experiential learning accomplishments and expertise can be crucially important
in terms of their further development and accomplishments.
 
Douglas Myers,
Halifax, Nova Scotia,
February 20, 2018
 
 
[1] According to the Canadian Pacific website Extra gang labourers maintain and repair railway tracks as part of a crew. Their job duties can include replacing and repairing various track components including rails, railway ties, and adjusting the alignment and surface of the track.
[2] Canada admitted more than 35,000 Hungarians refugess during 1956/57.
[3]. In fact, as I later looked up, there had been eight  murders in Vancouver in 1954, including one body found on the 10th green of the U.B.C. golf course.
[4]. I found it interesting to note that while the cursing habit familiar to me seemed  to invoke the deity to wreak havoc on others (ie: ‘goddam you/it!’ ‘f-you/it!’), the Italian tradition seemed to be aimed - bravely I thought - directly at the deity (eg: Deo Ladro - God is a Thief/ Porco Madonna - Our Lady is a Pig) 
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Literacy is the set of foundational skills that enable an individual “to interpret information, make decision, and solve problems in personal, work, and community life” (Windisch, 2015, p.20)
 
 

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