Thursday, December 17, 2009

The United States and Canada

The 4 a.m. Breakthrough
Write a fragment of fiction about high school sweethearts who live in two towns close by but separated by the U.S. - Canadian border.

This one is a tad long: I tried to shorten it, but it refused my efforts! Enjoy.

The middle-aged couple sat outside the square towered clapboard church waiting for other members of the congregation to arrive. Early winter roads slowed their journey making their short drive longer than usual. Black ice covered much of the paved highway. Although most of their journey had been on dirt roads, well maintained but still slick with the moisture from the last storm, Leonard had driven precisely in their big ole Chrysler Ram minus the back bumper, which he had removed years ago. Still, they had arrived early, quite a bit early, for the Wednesday night service.

Agnes asked, ‘could we turn the motor back on? I'm kinda cold.’

‘Sure. Ya know, this church could use a coat of paint.' Here they had been married forty years ago. 'Maybe in July after spring planting,' suggested Leonard.

‘We'll have to organize a work party. Will we have to trim those trees? I've always liked the trees here in Flaxton.'

Even in winter the skeletons of huge trees lining the streets shadowed the church and kept the persistent northwesterly winds at bay.


Agnes' hands, folded in her lap, played with grey gloves; she tugged at the fingers and then pulled the palm back up towards her wrist. 'Do you remember that first December? I was sitting beside my parents when your and your folks bundled into the pews on the other side of the aisle.

'I could tell, even back then, that you drove fast,' she murmured as they sat side by side in the cab of the Canadian pickup. My sister whispered to me that you had been in on that prank with the combine over at Northgate the week before. I was pretty sure you wouldn't have done anything like that. That Wednesday night you seemed pretty serious. Do you remember your electric hair when you took off your cap?' She smiled. 'You Canadians worked up more pranks than any of the boys in Flaxton ever thought of.'

Leonard and his family had driven from their farmstead fifteen miles north and east across the Canadian border in East Northgate. They had been attending the Presbyterian church in Estevan, forty miles northwest when his father decided that in winter it would be much more comfortable to attend the Lutheran congregation in Flaxton, only ten miles south. The condition of winter roads forced many decisions otherwise unlikely forty years ago. They made the difference today as well.

This Wednesday night they had come to the service early in order attend a committee meeting to help decide how best to communicate with the folks of the other Lutheran church in town. That congregation had winnowed away to such a small number that they no longer wished to heat the church in town for weekly worship services. It would be financially wiser to combine with the Bowbells church to worship twice a week in the next town only thirteen miles away.

The differences in church philosophy between the two congregations were far greater than the differences between the Canadians and the Americans who joined together to worship here in Flaxton. The physical building may have needed paint, but the warmth that existed between like-minded worshipers inside the church was palpable. They did enjoy one another's family, one another's children, one another's lifestyle. No nonsense, no music, no dancing. They loved their God, feared his wrath, and lived lives to inspire spiritual support.

Agnes and Leonard, hard working farm folks, had met in this church hall; had lived their lives since they were fifteen in the companionship of one another with the support of each other's families.

Agnes had moved to the Canadian farmstead after they were married, filed their marriage license in Saskatchewan, and eventually applied for Canadian citizenship three years later. She never considered herself Canadian nor American. She was a prairie dweller; a farmwife, one who cooked and planted, fed chickens and cattle, one who darned old work clothes, and made new from Sears catalogue materials. She drove the farm vehicles including the huge grain trucks carrying their product to the elevators at the railroad tracks either in Estevan, Bowbells, or Northgate.

These days if one or the other of them needed medical attention they sought the doctor in Estevan because Canada paid the bill. Certainly they purchased their pharmaceuticals in Canada at a much lower price than the same medicines were available in America. But, if the wait seemed too long for attention to Leonard’s back in Estevan, the two would drive to Bowbells to see Shelly, the nurse practioner for the area who would provide a referral to the North Dakota doctors. It might cost more, but the treatment was quicker.

Still, both wondered at the attitude of Americans about health. Leonard and Agnes took it for granted that their community would support their lifestyle just as their American church supported them in issues of religion. There was never a question. They both understood precisely where they stood with their God. If they took care of themselves and of their fellow church members, God would do the rest. Didn't matter if they were Canadian or American.

It was obvious that their good health and above average income came from a God who approved of their rigid doctrine of hard work. He looked after them just as they looked after themselves.

Soon after moving across the border, Agnes' support of the local hockey team moved from North Dakota to Saskatchewan. Along with Leonard she was an ardent fan willing to travel the two hours to Regina on a regular basis to support the Regina Pats as well as the local junior hockey team in Estevan.

Agnes regularly participated in the woman's curling league during the winter months. Some outsiders thought that the prairie slowed down in winter. Not so. Curling and Hockey provided lots of social and physical contact.

Other issues set both Agnes and Leonard apart from some of their American friends. The couple approved of Canada’s refusal to be part of Bush's Iraq invasion. They had no argument with Muslims. They didn’t know any.

What they did know was that their God would take care of the situation in the end. The Canadian government certainly didn’t need to intervene. They paid a higher tax bill on their Canadian harvest than they did on their American harvest, but that bothered them very little. One offset the other. Being a prairie dweller was far more important than being a Canadian or an American. What differences were there anyway?

The Americans ran scared these days, it was true, but not the Americans they met weekly in church. Those folks put their trust in God. Where else ought one to look? The fortune invested by the American government at the border crossing at Portal seemed extravagant, but from the Canadian point of view, extravagant was often the American solution to problems.

The Canadians had no intention of following suit on their side of the border, a line that didn't used to make much difference to anyone. However, after Wednesday night meetings in Flaxton, they would drive an additional twenty-five miles home because the border crossing at Northgate closed at five p.m. They would have to cross at Portal and then retrace the ten miles between border crossings on the Canadian side. They had grown used to this additional distance and usually listened to whatever hockey game was broadcast on the radio during their drive.

Like the Canadian Mounted Police, Leonard and Agnes were above reproach and fiercely loyal to the home team. Their integrity followed them through their daily lives. Actually, they didn't give it much thought. They were honest, hard working prairie folks just like their neighbors to the south.

They worked hard; they saved, they spent only what they made; they canned, and froze meat, vegetables, and fruit for winter. There was no reason to assume that someone else would take care of the family.

If only the American agribusiness giants would keep their hands out of farmers' pockets, all would be well. Family farms made this prairie luxuriant. Huge holdings of commercial giants did not exist on either side of the border between North Dakota and Saskatchewan.

Shaken from her reverie, Agnes heard the crunch of tires on the gravel street outside the church. She looked up to see Judy arrive. That beautiful blond always had a smile. She didn’t always have a positive response, but even the negative filtered in through the smile in her eyes. She was the realist. Agnes grew up in the same town as Judy. The two had been friends for a very long time. What possible difference did it make that one of them chose to live in North Dakota and the other in Saskatchewan? None. Not really.

Leonard reached forward to turn off the engine of the car; opened the drivers door to their grey four wheel drive pick-up, leaving the keys in the ignition and stepped up to the church doorway held open by Judy. Behind him walked Agnes, pulling off her gloves, untying her scarf. She deposited her warm home made beanie in her pocketbook.

‘When will the others arrive, Judy?’

‘I think Herb has the flu. Won’t be here. We can still make arrangements for Sunday. I’ll notify him of our decisions. Wes will be here in a few moments. He had some work still to do on the stuff in the basement.’

‘So, how was the drive?’

‘No problems. Roads are mostly clear. Saw some elk over by the Peterson place. Heard there was a bull moose out there last week, but we didn’t see him.’

‘Weather isn’t too bad yet. They’ll have plenty of food for a while.’

‘You ready for coffee?’

‘Yep.‘ Leonard laid his jacket on the bench behind him and tugged gently on his suspenders as he reached for the warm brown beverage. He sipped thoughtfully.

‘Some woman was looking for you guys last Monday. She came in the post office with an address that didn’t make any sense. I told her you lived on the Canadian side of the border. That seemed to satisfy her. She didn’t have to check your details if you weren’t part of the American census. Strange huh, that they have you listed as American.’

‘Well, Agnes is. Don’t think I ever want to be though,’ Leonard laughed.