Excerpt from On His Own Two Feet. The Life of Harold Granger
by Elaine Cust
Into New TerritoryPlay Audio Excerpt
In 1946, when Harold was sixteen, every farm around needed strong backs and capable hands. He held himself tall and straight as he walked up the road to the farm of Firmin Boddez where he was to work for the summer months.
The sun shone brightly in the sky and the grass on either side of the road was green and lush. They had had a good amount of rain this spring. Harold reached down into the tall grass and picked a strand. He pulled it carefully, so it slid out of the stalk rather than snapping. That way, the tangy inner part wouldn’t break off. The strand of grass he pulled was like the day – perfect. He smiled to himself and stuck it in his mouth.
He turned in at the farm gate and walked up to the house. The sound of his boots on the porch step was all that was needed to announce his arrival. The screen door was pushed open for him. It creaked in welcome and then slammed behind him. As he entered, his eyes squinting a little to adjust to the light in the kitchen, Mrs. Boddez looked up from the stove. She smiled and asked, “Two eggs or three, young man? I’ve got to feed you so we can get a full day’s work out of you.”Harold grinned at her. He liked the thought of being strong and capable. This summer job was going to work out just fine.
“Two,” he said. “Lucy made me eat before I left the house. She said she didn’t want me eating you out of house and home as if she didn’t feed me enough.” He hung his hat on the back of a chair and sat down at the table, a table just like the one he had left earlier that morning, pushed up against one wall with a bench for the kids at the back. He was in the visitor’s chair, the one just inside the door, where a man could sit down for a meal or a cup of coffee without worrying too much about what might be on his boots.
“A man,” he thought. “That’s me. I have a man’s job. I’m going to do a man’s work this summer – and earn a man’s wage.”
Hard work wasn’t new to him – but being paid for it was. He had helped Mike around the farm since he was four and came to live with them. From gathering the eggs and feeding the chickens he had graduated to milking the cows, to throwing bundles of hay for them to eat, to slopping the pigs, and being careful to stay out of the way of the big black boar. Since they moved to ‘Qui Barre, he had helped in the garden as well.
After breakfast, Mrs. Boddez showed him his room for the summer. It was up the set of stairs that edged the living room. Harold put his bag on the floor by the bed. He had little to unpack, a change of clothes, a couple of extra pairs of socks, his comb, and a jacket in case the days weren’t always sunny and hot. He wouldn’t spend much time in the room, just the hours of sleeping, so he didn’t need to look around.
The next days and weeks were spent in the sun. He drove the small tractor around the field pulling the various pieces of equipment used for summer fallow, first the cultivator to turn the soil and then the harrows to break up the large clumps of dirt. Firmin had been patient and let him work out for himself just how to juggle the need to look ahead of the tractor to see where he was going, and the need to look behind to see that the cultivator and the harrows made straight rows without leaving strips of weeds.
The days were filled with hot sun and dust. He wore his work gloves from morning till night, and the fingers and thumbs were worn. He lost count of the times he circled the field with the tractor. His overalls and shirt were caked with dust and he crawled out of them at night to sleep, and back into them the next morning as the sun cleared the eastern horizon. There was no point to putting on clean clothes. The dust began to settle on them the minute the tractor roared into life.
Every day was the same and every night was the same. Three times a day, he sat up to the table prepared for hungry men who worked hard and long, and ate with one eye on their plates and the other on the weather. In between meals, he worked to keep up with the machinery, pausing only to take a long drink of water, to brush the sweat out of his eyes, or to straighten his aching back for a minute. The nights brought a blessed blur of images that disappeared the instant he woke with the light.
Then came the morning that everything was different. The night before, he went to bed feeling extra tired. Sleep came instantly, as it always did. He dreamed, as he always did. And then, came morning. At least it should have been morning. He became conscious of the light of day. But it was a day unlike any other he had ever wakened to. He opened his eyes to blurry shapes and patches of light. The sounds that should have been the loud scrape of chairs and the insistent clatter of pots and dishes were deadened and seemed to come from far away. Automatically, he moved to get out of bed. Nothing happened. His body didn’t respond to the thought of swinging his legs over the edge of the mattress, to sitting up. He was unable to move. Trapped. Frozen in a dream that he couldn’t get escape. Held prisoner. His arms and legs and head were held in a grip so strong and tight that he could not move even his little finger .
Again and again, he willed himself to fling the blankets aside, to swing his legs over the side of the bed and sit up. But it didn’t happen. His body didn’t obey. He was frozen in the position that he was in. Time crawled by as he lay there, helpless. He became conscious of his breath, which seemed to be the only part of him that was still working – and it was laboured and slow, the air making its way into his lungs, his lungs ponderously attempting to extract enough energy from it to make a sound or a movement, and then the air whistling softly as it wheezed its way back out of his body.
Dimly, he became aware of movement and sound around him, at first boisterous, as the other men on the crew came to roust him out of bed as a sleepyhead. Then the action slowed and the noises quieted, as they realized that he was unable to respond to their lively efforts to get him up.
His mind took in the excitement, then the confusion, then the concern, and finally, the fear expressed by the people moving in and out of his room. He lay there, unable to respond to anything, not shouts and laughter, not questions and concern, not flashes of fear, his own and that of those around him.
In time, he became vaguely aware of his dad in the room. Some time after that realization, the commotion changed. He felt strong hands shift his body to the edge of the bed and then lift him up out of it. He was carried out of the room, down the stairs, through the house past a silent line-up of shapes he guessed were people. He was somehow bundled into the back seat of a car by the same strong arms that had carried him, the men’s voices strangely gentle as they tried to settle him into some sort of comfort. He woke up only once or twice on the ride to the city. His breathing was so laboured it was all he could do to keep the air moving in and out. He had no energy even for fear, though it was there, hiding in the back of his mind.
A storm blew in and the lightning lit up the worried faces of the two men in the front seat, and the slightly bluish complexion of the boy in the back. The thunder rumbled around the car, slamming down hard on the roof as if it had to be let inside with them, much like the fear-filled thoughts that forced their way into their minds. The windshield wipers brushed away the rain in the same way as the men pushed away their worries. By the time the car reached the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, it was suppertime.
Harold felt himself being moved again and braced himself as best as he could for the effort it would put on his breathing. He was aware of being moved onto a stretcher, and then rolled down the hall into a room. Finally, he was settled into a bed. Between his laboured breaths he struggled to understand what was happening around him.
He heard only muffled unfamiliar voices, and saw only indistinct shapes, like the large dark object that appeared in his peripheral vision as something was wheeled into position beside his bed. When Harold’s beleaguered senses brought the conclusion that the only thing it resembled was an oversized coffin, his mind gave in to the paralysis that had attacked his body. It seemed there was no hope – and they even had the coffin ready for the inevitable. He closed his eyes to shut out the coffin. Panic rose inside him, engulfing him entirely.Play Audio Excerpt