Parkinson’s, Old Men and Close Shaves or Lessons from the Barbershop

Having Parkinson’s disease has made me an “old man” before my time, I am afraid. [And I really am afraid but that is a topic for another time.] Bradykinesia has slowed my stride, altered my gait, and when Parkinson’s is in full attack, makes it painful for anyone to watch me execute even the most simple of movements. I recall being at a breakfast meeting a few years ago, well before any official (or even unofficial) diagnosis of PD, and I was struggling to locate and pull the tab on a small packet of peanut butter when the person sitting beside me (a colleague and a friend) reached over and said brusquely, “Oh for God’s sake, I can’t stand it, just give it to me. I’ll open it.” And she did. I was not offended as I really wanted the peanut butter and it was increasingly looking like I would not be successful in achieving that goal. Other simple things such as the act of pulling on one’s pants (trying to do that easily without losing your balance) are common challenges for us Parkies. I recall hurrying to pull on my tuxedo pants as we were getting ready for my retirement party, stumbling and pulling a hamstring severely enough to cause bruising. I spent most of the party limping around, trying not to admit that I hurt myself dressing! Strangely, getting one’s pants off does not seem to be an issue for me, for some reason. The old saying that “everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time” is meant to equalize the playing field i.e., we all equal at a basic level – except for Parkies, because we often put our pants on “no legs at a time” or “one leg forever at a time.”

Rolling over in bed is still another matter. Most Parkies have difficulty rolling over in bed. I know I did, and still do, so that is why I train and practice this skill in my sessions with my physiotherapists. I kid you not. Not being able to “skooch over” in bed used to drive me crazy and I would regularly complain to Anne, my wife, that I couldn’t believe I was getting so old that I was not able to roll over to get out of bed. At the time, we didn’t know that I had Parkinson’s and it is testament to her patience and understanding (and, I believe, her love for me) that she never actually threw me out of bed during those years. I have heard of other Parkies using silk sheets in order to make it easier to slide along in bed. Having never tried silk sheets, I am not sure if it works, and every time I raise it, Anne just rolls her eyes and says no. Is there some other connotation that I missing here? In any case, I have noticed that when I wear a t-shirt to bed it is much more difficult to roll over and/or reposition myself. Friction holding me back? Sleeping au naturel seems to be the solution, [OK, maybe that is too much information.]

I think I will dedicate a future post to delineating and elaborating on many of these early indicators of my Parkinson’s … but for now, I will only add that rigidity, inflexibility, and coordination challenges have made me less likely to move smoothly or to bend down gracefully to pick up any object from the floor or ground, and a loss of balance has made me walk more unsteadily than I have in the past. That, plus the indisputable fact that I actually am getting older, is culminating in my new persona of “old man.” Note: I hasten to add that my physiotherapists are working very diligently to delay this onset of “old age” and the progression of Parkinson’s, somewhat successfully I believe. I shall write about their heroic efforts in a later blog but for now suffice to say that “old age” is sometimes more of a title than it is a condition.

To illustrate, one of my daughters told me about 15 years ago that the kids on our street call me “old man Marshall,” bestowing upon me, at the then grand old age of 50, the same moniker that children in our village had bestowed on my own father when he was about 40 years old. Further, his initials were R. B. and he used them always, and specifically, to identify himself in any letter or official document. This struck others as unnecessary or maybe pretentious and so, consistent with the dictates of small town humour, he was equally referred to as “Rubber Boot” to elongate the R.B. to a full extension.

My father passed away a few years ago and among his effects were several straight razors, some barber’s scissors and a razor strap, carefully set aside for me by my sisters on the correct assumption that I would most likely want them more than they did. They had been stored at my sister’s place a few thousand kilometres from where I live. I had considered bringing them home with me when I visited a few years’ ago but figured it was not likely that I would be able to take five straight razors as carry-on baggage at the airport. And of course, I have had a full beard since 1969 so I wasn’t really desperate to put them into immediate use.

Some of my father's barbering tools  Photo: S. Marshall

Some of my father’s barbering tools Photo: S. Marshall

But these straight razors triggered a series of memories about shaving from my youth. No, these are not memories of me shaving but memories from long before I hit puberty. These memories include observing my maternal grandfather Bill and my father shave, both using straight razors. It was a fascinating experience for a 4 – or 5-year-old boy. Using a brush with brown and white bristles, grandfather would lather the shaving cream until it stood with stiff peaks like meringue my mother would make. Unfailingly he would plop a big daub on the end of my nose and I would laugh and wipe my nose furiously. Sometimes he would use the brush and apply cream to my soft, fuzzy plump cheeks using the dull side of the razor “to shave” my face. The whole process was both intriguing and spellbinding. Who needed television? … We didn’t have one anyway.

Our father worked for many years as a barber and “faced” a lot of bristles on the heads of many “old men” from our village and the surrounding farming community. And you haven’t lived until you have watched a barber’s scissors deftly enter the nostril of an 80-year-old farmer to trim a 2-inch (no metric in those days) long nose hair that has been waving with each heavy breath through a bulbous nose. By that measure then, I guess I have lived. My father’s fingers spread that nostril wide to ensure clean access to the hair without nipping nostril walls that resembled hillsides of clear-cut stumps.  As I was only four or five years old I had the perfect angle from the foot of the barber’s hydraulic chair to see clean up both nostrils. And, thank goodness, the nostrils were usually clean except for one or two long remaining fibres.

Snip – the harvest was complete – and the farmer’s lips formed a pucker reaching almost to the tip of his nose before giving way to the quivering walls of his nostrils and, at the same time, engaging the whole of his throat in a massive, loud, reflexive and reverberating response to the tickle of the withdrawal of the scissors. I learned to always jump back to avoid any wet fallout from this ticklish operation or any inadvertent kick from those manure-caked boots. [Hey look, sometimes they cleaned them, and sometimes they didn’t.]

A similar operation was performed on the ears, consigning any long protruding aerial hairs and accompanying shrubbery to the barber shop floor. The sunburned ears with their red veined road maps echoed those on the nose, and both shone in their newfound cleanliness and exposure. A quick trim of the eyebrows and part one of the Saturday night ritual was completed with a flap of the apron sending a cloud of hair and whiskers flying in every direction, and I scrambled to avoid being covered in icky itchiness.

With the hair, nose and ear jobs complete, my father would reattach the apron tightly around the farmer’s neck with a clip, lather up a brush on a cake of shaving soap in cup of warm water and proceed to cover the nape of the patron’s neck and his face with a thick coat of wet foam, being careful not to put too much under the nose to avoid having it sucked up into that enormous cavern. In retrospect I doubt whether anything white had ever been snorted up that nose … but I digress.  I note with interest that the extra-clean feel of a straight razor shave of the nape of the neck is a specific hot selling point in modern-day barbershops, and a straight razor shave of the beard is billed as superior tonsorial sensual splendour.

With lightning and frightening speed my father “stropped” the straight razor to an equally frightening sharpness before carefully pulling the skin to the correct tautness that begged to be shaved. My father gripped the razor in a seemingly awkward manner and proceeded to draw it across the skin on the left side of the farmer’s face, removing both shaving cream and whiskers, producing a distinctive “rasp” sound as the still wiry whiskers were cut as close to being under the skin as was physically possible. This was repeated on the right side of the face but with my father now gripping the razor in such a manner as to use an equally awkward-looking “back-handed” stroke until every square inch of the face and neck was harvested of hairs. The denouement included my father taking the farmer’s fleshy nose firmly between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, squeezing it to close the air passages, and pulling it up into the snooty position deftly pulled the straight razor with his right hand down over the philtrum or infranasal depression – that little hollow leading down from the nose to the lip, risking calamity with each gentle stroke. Amazingly, the crevices and crevasses of the leathery face were now visible, free of any unwanted foliage. A hot, steamy towel was retrieved from a heated chrome and glass container and placed over the face, eliciting a sigh of relief from both the farmer … and my dad. A final splash of after shave was applied and the farmer was fit to return to active duty with his wife and family if he had them, and if not, then to the general two-legged and four-legged public with whom he customarily consorted.

Occasionally, the razor did not navigate the folds of the face and neck so cleanly and a spot of blood would appear after the razor’s pass. The bleeding was quickly staunched with a little rub of yellowish astringent powder kept in a small packet on a ledge underneath the mirror behind the chair. With any kind of luck the astringent was all that was necessary as the cut was not a slice but a “nick” in my father’s words. He was embarrassed when such events happened and it showed on his face especially as he turned the patron around in the chair and held a mirror behind so that the full 360-degree effect of the haircut, shave and ear/nose/eyebrow trimming could be viewed. Any little pieces of tissue stuck to the skin to staunch the flow of blood certainly detracted from the professionalism of the job. I recall this happening only two or three times in all the hours of my childhood watching. Still, I watched this work with the same fascination with which people watch reality TV today – hoping for a major mistake.

At the end of these ablutions, the old farmer fished 75 cents out of his rubber squeeze change purse, gave it to my father and thanked him, before rubbing my head with his strong earthy hands and heading out into the cool summer night air. This transaction was my very first exposure to commerce. The old saw “shave and a haircut, two bits” had already been supplanted by “shave and a haircut, six bits” due to inflation, I guess. Individually, the haircut was 45 cents and the shave was 30 cents. Children could get their haircut for 25 cents. This was my first exposure to commerce; and it was, I believe, also my first exposure to “price fixing.”

Have you ever wondered who cuts the barber’s hair in a one-horse town? The answer is: a barber from another one-horse town, of course. In this case, there were three one-horse towns lined up along Highway 23, each with its own barber. Ralph cut hair in Miami (no, not Florida) ‘Bose was the barber in Somerset (no, not England), and my dad barbered in Altamont (no, not California.) In the early years, and in line with all stereotypes, they each ran poolrooms in conjunction with the barbershop. On several occasions, I went with dad to see Ralph or ‘Bose whereupon they cut each other’s hair. Fair trade. However, on one occasion all three were present. Who cut whose hair I don’t recall, but there was discussion about the fair going rate for haircuts. In the car on the way home I learned that in my father’s shop a haircut had gone up in price from 40 cents to 45 cents and a shave had also risen by 5 cents to 35 cents. I have reason to believe that prices in neighbouring communities also increased accordingly, necessitated by changes in the economy and undoubtedly implemented by the “invisible hand of the market.”

Apparently, “old style” or “traditional” barbershops and the straight razor are making a return. I recently saw a local news report highlighting the delights of the close, clean shave of the straight razor, and the soothing, relaxing pampering of hot towels drawing every last bit of tension from your rediscovered baby bottom smooth cheeks. Of course, the cost to achieve this state of nirvana is much higher these days than it was in the mid-1950s. According to the price list of one establishment, a barber cut costs $22 (more if you have long hair.) If you want the full treatment the price increases exponentially: shampoo $8, traditional shave $37, neck shave $10, for a total cost of $77 plus tip. The rate of inflation in Canada from 1950 to 2015 is approximately 785%, or put more succinctly, an eighty-cent shave and a haircut in 1955 would cost $7.11 in 2015 if one considers the effect of inflation alone. I guess the remaining $70 represents value added improvement in technique, atmosphere and attentiveness – the so called “art and science” of the barbering experience. Price fixing or not, our father could never hope to earn a living barbering in the 1950s and 1960s, even as only one of a host of jobs he was doing simultaneously. He left the profession to pursue a more proletarian life as a stationery engineer in a pulp and paper mill.

My father would sometimes make house calls providing tonsorial services to several older gentlemen and ladies in and around the village. Before I was in school [school for us started only in Grade 1 as there was no such thing as kindergarten and I cannot help but think that I have suffered greatly over the years from that significant disadvantage,] I would sometimes accompany him on these visits usually made on Thursday afternoons when our village shops and businesses came to a halt, closed for a half-day’s rest. In many other communities, closing day was Monday but the merchants and business owners along Highway 23 had reached an agreement that a respite on Thursday afternoon was all that was necessary to ensure quality of life for themselves and their families. Of course, no one was open on Sundays as it was the Sabbath, the Lord’s Day of Prayer, and a day of rest to spend with family. But I digress and I shall post some observations on the historical underpinnings of the decline of the Sabbath in small towns at a future time.

While my father rarely violated the strictures of no work on Sundays except perhaps to work in our extensive vegetable gardens or to putter amongst the flower beds, he did allow that he could break the commercial standard on a Thursday afternoon to make a house call to provide a cooling haircut and/or soothing shave to an ailing gentleman who was no longer mobile enough to make the trek to the shop, or to make a senior lady feel more presentable, if not beautiful, by cutting her hair, providing a style or perhaps even a “perm.”

I enjoyed accompanying my father on these calls because not only did I get to see my father’s skill with the scissors and razor, but I got to see the inside of many houses where I would not otherwise be permitted to enter. I won’t bore you here with details of every visit I ever went on (I reserve the right to do that in a later post) but I will take this occasion to talk about one memorable one.

About one-half mile west of our village there was an abandoned farmhouse, probably one of the original homesteads in the area dating back to the 1890s. It looked like its occupants had either left in a hurry or left without means to take their belongings with them. As children, we would walk a gravel road to the point where we turned to tramp across a wheat field and into what was once a farmyard. The three requisite identifiers of any prairie farmyard were present – an out of control crowd of lilac shrubs, a patch of rhubarb and a row of daylilies (common ditch lilies.) Undoubtedly, it was a good house and home when it was built but now it was ramshackle to say the least and we entered gingerly not knowing what might befall us as we entered or, more precisely, what might fall on us as we entered. It had been a two-storey house but much of the second floor had now unceremoniously sagged and slipped onto the first floor. We poked at the hanging bits that looked most precarious to ascertain their structural integrity. Once a path had been determined, and once we convinced ourselves that there were no critters in residence, we entered into a time warp, into history, into the halcyon hay days of the1920s and then beyond, into the soul destroying dust of the “dirty thirties.” We were in amongst the old horsehair furniture – couches and chaise lounges with the leather now badly worn, torn, flea-eaten and weather-beaten. Successive seasons of sun, rain and snow had done its nasty handiwork and the grand times and comfort in those pieces of furniture had long since fled. We felt no urge to rest upon them.

"Lilies"  original painting by Anne F Marshall '95

“Lilies” original pastel by Anne F Marshall ’95

I suspect that anything of antique value, or heading in that direction, had long since been taken by remaining family members or antique scavengers who saw it as their right to enter any property that appeared abandoned and was not locked, to swiftly and silently carry away pieces as surely as crows or magpies scoop up shiny things never to be found again. In the kitchen we discovered that they had not yet realized the future value of old mason jars and there were many shelves … well many broken shelves, with mason jars of preserves still intact. I recall we often wondered whether said contents were edible, daring each other to have a taste. Thank goodness we all had sufficient brains (and cowardice) to resist such foolhardy taunts and not succumb to deadly bravado.

One summer afternoon, I accompanied my father out that way but we were not interested in this old house, surprisingly. Instead, dad turned the Austin Healy off the road a short distance to the east of it and travelled what I can only describe as a footpath – one that was not all that well travelled suggesting that few footfalls ever reached even this short distance from the highway, and even fewer vehicles left impressions of tire treads in the dirt. We proceeded, the grass brushing against the bottom of the car, until it’s sound sounded unsound – if you know what I mean. I was standing on the seat (no seat belts in those days remember) straining to see our destination as the car slowed to a halt. I peered through the windscreen and the dust (grass pollen, spores, dirt) and insects that our car had set flying and fleeing. It was a warm day, cicadas stinging the air, invisible in the trees. At first, my eyes could not adjust to the sharp contrast between light and shade in the sun’s glare, but my father pointed to a small shack, lurking in the deep shadows of the bush, with its distinctive weathered gray siding and shingles so typical of rural poverty. Its front door … well the only door … opened out of the shrubbery and onto the clearing. That was our destination. But who were we to see and why?

My father fetched a small hard – sided black box from the trunk of the car and I knew that a haircut and possibly a shave were in the offing. A sharp rap on the shack door brought the hairy mountain man out into the open. Without a doubt he had heard us approaching as a dog barked on the other side of the door, but he had chosen not to open the door until we summoned. This was the man that we all knew to be Dick Mussell, and I am certain that he was, indeed, Dick Mussell.

The Mussells were among the first settlers in the area and the first local Post Office was located at Mussellboro or Mussellborough in the very early days. According to “The High Mountain: A History of the Altamont, Manitoba District” written by Ms. Beula Swain, and dated September 1973, Mr. Henry Mussell was appointed postmaster at Mussellborough in 1884 and the Post Office was located in his house. I believe that Mussellborough was situated a mile of so east and about a half mile south of the present town site of Altamont. According to Ms. Swain, the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railroad, built in 1889, cut through the hills just to the north of Mussellborough to Altamont where a water tower and a coal shed were built to provide sustenance for the steam locomotives, and a turning wye made it possible for the locomotives to be at the head of the train going each direction. Commerce, no doubt, shifted to Altamont to be close to the railroad, and the rest of Mussellborough went with it. Sadly, I don’t believe there is any marker, plaque or cairn to mark this historic now disappeared village.

Altamont train station circa 1953      Photo: unknown

Altamont train station circa 1953 Photo: unknown

The firemen on the steam locomotives quickly learned that their work was cut out for them as they pitched coal and wood into the boilers powering the locomotives up the steady grade from Morris to present day Miami, Manitoba and then up and over the two escarpments known as the Manitoba Escarpment (or Pembina Hills to some), the remnants of the shores of glacial Lake Agassiz. They would achieve the pinnacle, the highest point of land between Morris and Virden, approximately two miles west of Mussellborough, and upon cresting that ridge the trains began an easier downhill run to the western terminus at Virden, Manitoba.

The return trip east to Morris was easier but required great skill from the engineers to keep the cars from spilling their contents in a derailment if speed levels were not controlled. There were a few rail accidents when I was a child and crews would arrive and stay in Altamont, usually in bunk cars parked on the spur lines running past the grain elevators.   The section foreman who lived just on the eastern edge of town in a CNR-owned house, would be in charge of the clean up.

I do recall one incident that could have ended very badly, but didn’t. It was, however, an incident that exemplifies the truth that it was all-downhill from there, so to speak. Some empty grain cars were sitting on a spur line near the siding of Deerwood just east of Altamont.  The grade from Deerwood east was quite steep through the escarpments and it seems that a howling west wind was responsible for assisting two of these cars to begin journeys independent of any locomotion or human guidance. Perhaps the cars’ brakes were not applied properly through either human error or mechanical failure, and/or the time honoured tradition and requirement that a piece of wood be jammed under the leading edge wheels to prohibit forward movement was ignored, and/or the spur line had inadvertently remained connected to the mainline at the switch. The fact of the matter is that more than one of these possibilities had to be true for the cars to escape custody. [Given present-day rail “accidents”, I sometimes think that while the technology and the magnitude of rail traffic may have changed, not much has really changed in the internal logic of rail movement.] In any case, the two cars, aided by that strong west wind, began a slow creep down the grade. At some point a half-mile or so separated them, doubling the danger quotient of their movement. Slowly they gained momentum passing silently through farmland, before reaching speeds that sent them whistling through level crossings without the required blast of the train whistle, careening perilously around long corners of track snaking through the hills, passing unnoticed through the villages of Miami, Rosebank and Jordan before coasting to a stop somewhere on the other side of Roland, Manitoba.

One can only imagine the consternation of a grain elevator agent discovering that two grain cars had gone AWOL. What to do? Get on the phone, have the telephone operator issue a distress signal (one long continuous ring) on the party lines, calling on everyone to be on the lookout for strange rail cars sailing through their communities. Send a telegram to the CNR to let them know that it would not be wise to deploy any rolling stock on the main line until the rogue cars were back in captivity. Then, proceed along the track, from the uphill side (having learned the principle of gravity from your earliest experiences as a boy trying to pee uphill.) At some point you would catch up.

Today, Twitter, Facebook and other social media would not only have located the cars before the agent had noticed they were missing, but segments of video documenting their ‘hilarious’ ride through the escarpments and a cobbled together compilation would go viral within a few hours. Like storm chasers with cell phones on hands – free, crazy people would monitor sighting reports and speed across the prairie on dusty and rarely travelled back roads hoping to capture that one moment that would make them famous – that moment when they were able to warn someone in imminent danger just in time to save their lives – or, sadly, but maybe better still for fame and notoriety, that moment when several tonnes of rail rolling stock crashes into a busload of corporate sales representatives on a tour organized by a major chemical company showcasing fields treated with 2-4-D or DDT.

In truth, and gladly, the end result was newsworthy only for being uneventful and for the fact that the cars had escaped at all. For me, it was yet further proof of just how sparse the population is across that part of the prairie, and proof that Altamont really was on higher ground. You see, settlers in this area were known to have settled on “The Mountain” and there is documentation that mail was actually addressed to them with that locator. It all seems rather amusing now as, if you know that area of Manitoba, mountains are a creature of “relativity” at best and if you had ever seen the Rockies or even the Laurentians, the idea that there was a mountain anywhere close to Altamont would seem ludicrous. Be that as it may, Altamont was so named because of its location on the mountain.

It is only fitting then that the “high mountain” should have a “mountain man” and Dick Mussell was larger than life to me and seemed to fit that bill. I can only assume that Dick was part of the Mussellborough Mussell lineage and at some point in his life had opted for an alternative lifestyle. On the day dad and I went to visit he sported a long beard with turbulent rivers of gray and white, and the hair on his head was matted like an unshorn sheep. His attire was early coveralls, not the height of fashion.

Dick would venture into town every few weeks on a Saturday to purchase supplies including a sack of flour, some bacon and beans, a few hard candies, and to imbibe some refreshment at the local hotel. It was a men’s only hotel in those days, as women had not yet attained that exalted status of patron of the bar. Without fail a rifle of some sort accompanied Dick. It may have been a .22 calibre but I believe it was often a .30-30 or perhaps a .30 – 06 (thirty ought six as my father would say.) If I proceed with any further descriptions, someone more knowledgeable will cringe and call me to task. Suffice to say that it makes an impression on a small boy when a mountain man complete with a rifle moves into his orbit. I don’t think I had ever seen a rifle before, or a mountain man for that matter.

Even today, I know nothing of guns, as we never had any in our house, although my uncle on the farm had several and knew how to use them. I have personally witnessed the shotgun deaths of several magpies, largely seen as unwanted pests on farms. Other than that, Chuck Connors and The Rifleman is my main frame of reference and, when I was a boy, I could only watch him occasionally on Orville’s TV – the only one in town.

After a few hours in the hotel at the opposite end of town from his shack, Dick would make his way back along the row of stores collecting his purchases along the way. He would then set out on his horse, Queen, who was able to navigate the way back to Dick’s shack no matter the condition of its rider. Things were not always smooth for Dick. Sometimes the older boys would taunt and tease him. He largely ignored them or shot them a frightening caries filled smile. I remember just trying to stay out of the way but also trying to observe everything I possibly could from some safe haven – perhaps from behind the cattle salt blocks in one of the two general stores … we never resisted having a salty lick or two while we were there.

On one Sunday morning, I awoke to an animated conversation between my parents about how there was blood on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant that my parent’s owned. Later I checked and sure enough, there was enough blood to be noticeable but not enough to make anyone overly alarmed. How did it come to be there? And what did it mean? I guess it could have been blood from a kid falling off a bicycle and landing on his/her head precipitating a scalp wound, bleeding “like a stuck pig” as we used to say. But the tenor of the conversation between my parents gave the lie to that notion. Apparently, it was human blood and something nefarious had happened.

When I asked my dad about it, he allowed that there likely had been a botched attempt at robbery. (There were many other robberies in our town in later years and I will deal with them in due course in future posts.) Apparently, one of the teen boys (girls don’t do this stuff,) let’s call him JBG, attempted to bushwhack Dick in highwayman fashion as he was making his way to his shack, believing that Dick was too drunk to defend himself or to know what was happening. I am not sure why JBG thought he could, or should, steal from a mountain man with a gun but for some reason he hadn’t counted on the fact that Dick had a rifle, knew how to use it and use it he did. At a half mile from town, in the late evening, a gunshot would not have registered on anyone’s ears as being trouble.

My father and I in front of restaurant, barbershop and poollhall circa 1953   Photo: unknown

My father and me in front of restaurant, barbershop and pool hall circa 1953                  Photo: unknown

Late Saturday evening just before closing, JBG showed up at our restaurant asking for a bandage to dress a wound to his lower leg and shin – a wound which JBG claimed was self-inflicted, the result of a screwdriver slipping as he attempted to repair an old car. It was serious enough for blood to form a small puddle on the sidewalk. From the way my father was talking to my mother, it was clear that he did not believe JBG’s story but assisted him with immediate necessary first aid, and advised him to seek further medical treatment. I am not in a position to know if JBG did, or if he didn’t, seek that assistance. As the nearest doctor was 8 miles away and the nearest hospital was 13 miles away, I tend to think he did not.

As for Dick, he had no advantage to be gained from reporting this incident to the police. It is likely he just wanted to keep his solitary existence … well … solitary. I doubt if there was an RCMP investigation (they patrolled rural areas in the province) but how would I know for sure? I was far too young to have been questioned as a suspect and I had witnessed nothing first hand.

For as long as I can remember there was speculation that the old bachelor “gentlemen” in town had thousands of dollars hidden in their shacks – for they all lived in shacks – under the floor boards, in tobacco cans, wrapped in wax paper, buried in dirt cellars, or even sunk into the human excrement under their one- or two-hole outhouses located behind their premises. [The concept of a three-hole outhouse is just hilarious but I have seen a few in my lifetime.] So maybe it is not surprising that Dick became a target.

But let’s return to the particular visit my dad and I made to Dick’s cabin. There had always been lots of rumours about Dick and how he lived. As is often the case there is a kernel of truth in most rumours, but not the whole truth in any of them. There was no well near the shack and no running water save for a small creek flowing a few hundred yards to the downhill side. While the inside of the shack was tidy enough at first glance, the methodology for such tidiness would not have found favour in any book of etiquette or in the Ladies’ Home Journal so popular at the time.

A cast iron skillet, a tin plate and a couple of eating utensils were neatly tucked up on the far side of a small potbellied stove – a perfect spot for the resident dog to lick scraps and grease until the skillet and plate shone ‘clean.’ My father made specific mention of this dishwashing method as we walked back to the car. As I think back on it, the dog did seem to be partial to a spot on the floor where his nose was not too distant from that skillet and plate.

It was rumoured that Dick never bathed. I did not see anything in that one room shack that resembled a bathtub or a place where even a sponge bath could be taken. Now, to be fair, at that time, our own house in town did not have running water but we always had a space where there was a tub that would be filled with water heated on the stove. Dick did not look or smell like he had bathed recently. Perhaps, he washed in the creek? A second part of this particular rumour was that Dick never took off his underwear and that his body hair grew right through the cloth forming a complex knitted interlacing of protection from the severe cold of the winter. It was accepted as fact that once when Dick had to be admitted to hospital for some emergency surgery, his clothes had to be cut from his body for that very reason.  But this was early summer. Surely, he would take off his clothes now. But the logic of rumours is often … well … not logical. I had heard others, not just children but adults as well, say that he never ever took off his clothes and made sure that he had his “long John’s” on 24/7 as he believed that “if it keeps the cold out in the winter, it keeps the heat out in the summer.” If one thinks about insulation, one might concede that there could be a kernel of truth in this logic. I am just not sure that the experience of wearing several layers of clothing, all day, every day, such that it became part of your skin, was one that the human psyche could tolerate and resist the natural temptation to rip it off and run free, naked and clean!

Dick did come into town one time wearing full white long john underwear on top of his other clothes. The explanation at the time was that it was hunting season and he didn’t want some city slicker or other idiot (note the logic here: not all idiots were city slickers but all city slickers were idiots) mistaking him for a deer and taking a pot shot at him. He reasoned that white would make him very visible. I know that blaze orange is the current regulatory requirement for hunter camouflage but I am unsure as to whether that was always the case. Perhaps, it used to be white?

Which brings me to another rumour about Dick – that he always was naked inside his shack. Surely this contradicts the first rumour that Dick never took his clothes off! I am not aware of any evidence that the nakedness rumour was… well … the naked truth. Besides, if you can’t be naked inside your own home, where can you be naked? And what is wrong with that? He was most certainly clothed when my father and I visited him but perhaps he was expecting us. In retrospect, there are often untrue rumours about people and situations that are out of the ordinary and Dick clearly had chosen a lifestyle that eschewed the conveniences of modern life, such as it was, in the mid-twentieth century. It may also be the case that the stories were carefully crafted and perpetuated by older generations to illustrate the folly of not following a good, clean, family (if not Christian) life. In other words, ‘bathe and change your underwear or you will end up like Dick Mussel.’ The stories may also have been a way to ensure that we children did not bother the mountain man avoiding any dangers or misunderstandings. The mere thought of seeing a naked Dick in his shack was a fearsome thing and enough to keep us well away. Hmmm … okay, I am taking too many liberties here. I apologize. Suffice to say, there is much sociology already written about the role of rumours in the social construction of reality in everyday life. [Maybe it is time for me to do some serious research and writing on this matter – but not right now.]

In order to properly carry out the required barbering duties, my father suggests that we take a chair outside for better light and asks Dick to heat some water on the stove. There was a small fire going already, making the shack feel a bit like a steamy sauna on an already quite warm early afternoon. Scissors, combs, brushes and razors were revealed upon opening the travel kit. I don’t really remember much about the haircut or the shave, other than a considerable amount of head and facial hair hit the ground revealing the countenance of a hitherto unseen man. There must have been some particular reason for his desire to approach being respectable in appearance but I don’t know what it was. Perhaps, it was merely an annual summer haircut and shave – whether he needed it or not, as my father always said. Funny, but I find myself repeating that saying each time Anne attacks my hair and I trim my beard after an extended period of tonsorial abstinence. Or perhaps there was a funeral to which Dick felt obliged to attend, putting his best face forward.

I have no reason to believe that the Dick Mussell that my father released from the forest of hair was ‘new and improved’ but I am certain that his appearance was drastically changed. Clean and tidy, he probably no longer carried the mysterious aura of a “mountain man.” But for some strange reason, I don’t really remember the details of his clean shaved face and neat haircut at all, nor any of his defining features. I can only surmise that his shorn persona blended into that mass of male respectability that I have known for the majority of my life. In short, while you would think that his new visage would be the one I remember the most vividly, it isn’t. Rather, I remember friendly eyes shining through the shock of hair that extended seamlessly, but wildly, around his head before his hair was cut.

Is there any kindness in these eyes?

He was supposed to be the mountain man, a frightening example of someone who not only lived an unconventional lifestyle, but one who also personified the words ‘dirty’ and ‘unkempt.’ The word amongst the boys of the village was that everything at Dick’s place smelled like … well … smelled like smells we seldom smelled … the pungency of a wet dog after rolling in fresh manure combined with the eye watering acridity of wood smoke … the appetite repelling stench of meat left too long out of refrigeration … the stomach churning fetor of an abattoir …. Interestingly, I don’t remember any of these smells. Perhaps, Parkinson’s had already seized the olfactory functions of my neurological system? Not likely.

What I do remember is that the furnishings of Dick’s shack were minimalist, rustic, made from available materials, but cosy nonetheless. There was some small talk between Dick and my father but I was focussed on the dog that seemed to be eyeing me warily as I approached. Dick muttered something that was unintelligible to me but caused the dog to settle noticeably as he and I climb on a horsehide throw and several rag quilts that cover what passes for Dick’s bed and living area. It was strangely comforting to be enveloped by the smells of horse, dog, and mountain man and, dare I say, human kindness. It was not an act of human kindness but the smell of human kindness. I am certain that my mother would never understand but in that moment I became less fearful of the fearsome.

Having said all of this, I have to confess that to this day I have little knowledge of the true character of Dick Mussell. What I have told you is as seen through the eyes, heard through the ears, smelled through the nose, and recorded in the brain of a five-year-old child. Dick may well have been a despicable character who deserves condemnation but I have no experience or evidence to suggest that to be true.

I have no recollection of dad ever returning to the shack again to cut Dick’s hair. Somewhat selfishly, I sometimes like to think that the reason for our visit was to impress upon me not to be too quick to judge those with whom I am not familiar; not to let rumour, innuendo and prejudice jaundice my views; to be receptive always to new information and experiences in the formulation of my opinions; and to be charitable in both thought and deed. Have I lived my life by these lessons? No, not always, but it is a good touchstone upon which to ground oneself.

As important as this lesson was, there is another, perhaps even more important practical lesson. Although there was some unintentional bloodletting in the barber chair from the occasional “nick” of the straight razor, I never witnessed anything more serious. But many times in my early childhood my father expounded upon the historical place of barbers in what passed as “medicine” in early days. He would wax on, almost as if he had personal experience, about various medical ‘procedures’ that barbers performed. The red and white barber pole was, after all, symbolic of blood and bandages in a procedure known as “bloodletting” performed by barbers to heal the sick. He often mentioned that barbers used leeches to draw “bad blood” from their clients. I still cringe at the thought of the leeches that used to cling to our legs, arms and torsos when we would swim in the Boyne River or in the pools of the creek at Babcock’s. (Note that leeches are still used in modern medicine to assist in healing wounds.) I wonder if my father didn’t secretly wish he lived in that era so that he could use his barbering implements to full effect. Or perhaps with different opportunities, he would have become a surgeon rather than a barber? Or maybe he would have become a quack doctor … or worse yet, a quack barber? Who knows?

I do know that straight razors are wickedly sharp, lethal, frightening and to be used with extreme caution only by those who are experienced and skilled in the tonsorial arts. I actually have never used one to shave myself nor have I had a straight razor shave of my facial hair. My closest experience is a shave of the nape of my neck that all the old style barbers in the 1970s included in the regular haircut package. Given that I have had a full beard almost continually since about 1970 when I was 21 years old, I have pretty much self-selected myself out of the enjoyment of the adrenalin rush precipitated by a blade so sharp that it shears your whiskers as near to being under the skin as possible such that your skin does not register its passing except as a cooling breeze.

Of course, I am quite certain that any notion that I should take up shaving with a straight razor is now out of the question, and will send ripples of dread up and down the collective spines of those who know me. I can’t think of anything more potentially chillingly calamitous than a Parkie honing a blade to terrifying sharpness with the intent to draw that blade across one’s face and neck just a skin’s width away from one’s jugular. Have no fear; it is not in my plan, straight razor or no, to shave … ever again.

Ooops!   Photo: S Marshall

Ooops! Photo: S Marshall

Vandals and Veggies; Pesticides and Parkinson’s

I am often asked whether we have a vegetable garden.  We don’t.  Our garden is largely perennial flowers with a few annuals interspersed here and there for colour, and a few plants ‘out of our climatic zone’ which we treat as annuals i.e., they either die with the frost or we dig up the tubers to store until the following spring.  A few kale are thriving presently because I had an impulse buy at the garden centre when I bought a selection for one of our daughters.

For several years, early in the existence of our current garden, we did have a few tomato plants but they did not thrive in partial shade and we didn’t deem them worthy to supplant more colourful masses of perennial flowers in the borders that were closer to full sun.  And I never seemed to find that perfect, sweet beefsteak tomato that I so fondly remember from my youth.  Or perhaps the slugs found it before I could get my hands on it?  The growing season always seemed to be too something – too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry – and the tomatoes grew too fast and split, or too slow and were little dry tasteless lumps.  In any case, I have the utmost admiration for those of you who have told me that you grow the most beautiful, “to die for” sweet tomatoes.  I just hope that I am not dying from them. (Much more on this thought later.)

Still, I have become increasingly intrigued by this question of why we have no vegetable garden, especially when many others we know are engaging in significant and well thought out projects of sustainable and organic produce gardening.  And my sister and husband in Saskatchewan have always had a substantial vegetable garden that was integral to their farm’s economic base i.e., they grew their own food – remarkable eh?   Their children in turn recognize the importance of such agricultural pursuits and assist with the garden on the home farm.  Vegetable gardens have been a way of life for generations on farms and in rural communities.  Why did I not carry this tradition into my urban existence?

As usual, I began my investigation into such questions by rummaging around in my memory banks for historical antecedents that might provide answers.  I had already been rummaging around in that murkiness anyway for clues as to why I now march unsteadily through life with Parkinson’s disease.  So it seems only natural to expand the scope a little. I have to say that I am a little surprised at what I am uncovering and it may take some time to assess, analyze and ferret out conclusions or patterns from my ever-diminishing memory banks.  This is a long way of saying that my thoughts will undoubtedly be spread out over many blog posts.  I apologize to those who are impatient and like to flip to the end of books to reveal the ending avoiding nuances in the plot.  And my apologies, of course, to those whose idea of a plot is being able to tweet an idea in exactly 140 characters.  They likely have already left the building.

For those who are remain, my musings on Parkinson’s and gardening will stretch far into the future – as I hope will my ability to engage in such activity.  While many people do claim to believe in the supernatural, I doubt very much that I will be communicating via Ouija board from the verdant and abundant Great Beyond, free from bindweed and ergot.  The best I will be able to do is to leave wisps of memories through which, it is my fondest hope, I will be remembered in the same manner that I am remembering those in my past – if that makes any sense.  In the meantime, I will just continue to throw my memories (and attendant feelings) about with reckless abandon as I wade (with the help of Google, I won’t lie here) through gazillions of megabytes of information.

In earlier posts I outlined our family’s lineage and passion for horticulture and perennial gardens.  While all of this is true, and there is much more to tell, I have neglected to admit to the details of a family which was also focused on the husbandry of vegetables and fruit as produce for use and sale.  I haven’t lied about anything. I just haven’t told you a whole lot of stuff that still needs to be told.  Also, I have discovered that it takes time to recall, tell and analyze the stories of a lifetime. In fact, if one did this precisely, it would take a lifetime plus the extra time required to review the “director’s commentary” so to speak.  I don’t know about you but I don’t have that much time so I shall endeavour to cut a few corners without, I hope, cheapening the product.

The fact of the matter is that our family always had substantial vegetable gardens.  In the village where we grew up (Altamont, Manitoba) we had a sizeable garden on the north side our house where we grew potatoes, corn, peas, carrots, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, egg plant [which we did not really know how to cook in those days (1950s,) and no one called it “Aubergine,”] and always an experiment or two e.g., celery, which weren’t always successful.  The celery experiment wasn’t.  The one concession to flowers in that garden was a row of snapdragons planted along the front fence.  It entertained small children, girls and women all summer long as they pinched open the flowers’ yawning jaws and poked a finger gingerly inside with some merriment.  Boys and men deemed snapdragons to be not manly and instead did such things as kick puffball fungus (Calvatia gigantean) in the pastures for fun, spraying great clouds of spores.  And, in those days, we certainly never entertained any notion that this fungus could add an earthy, nutty flavour to fare on the dinner table.

A smaller flower garden on the south side of the house behind the rickety old garage was home to delphiniums, peonies, poppies as well as hollyhocks.  The hollyhocks, really a biennial plant, seemed to thrive in the scrabble of stoney soil and summer heat against the house.  These conditions produced a glorious row of beauty year after year.  How I envy those hollyhocks today!  Every year I make a valiant, but unsuccessful, attempt to reproduce the hollyhocks of my youth.  Thankfully, I have a lover, an artist, who has immortalized them for me on canvas.  I also covet the delphiniums but have been unsuccessful in our attempts to have them grace our spaces.  Other members of my immediate family can, and do, grow both hollyhocks and delphiniums, so the failure here is a “me” thing and not a generalized family trait.  I do so hope that it is the same for Parkinson’s disease.

 Anne F. Marshall "Hollyhocks"

Anne F. Marshall “Hollyhocks”

A second vegetable garden was located behind the store that my father owned and ran for many years.  The store was the Post Office, the barbershop, a small confectionery and magazine stand, the bus depot, the hub for my father’s small Rawleigh products distribution business, and the office from which my father sold Wawanesa Insurance policies on vehicles, homes, and crops to residents of Altamont and district.  Each of these short occupational identifiers contains many vignettes that I know will float to the surface in subsequent posts to this blog.  My mother worked in the Post Office for many years as my father was “on the road” peddling Rawleigh brand products ranging from bag balm to “Kool Aid” and pie filling.

If you were to apply a class analysis to our situation, you would say we were “petite bourgeois” or “middle class.”  The fact of the matter is that the vegetable gardens probably were the only thing that lifted our existence out of poverty for most of my childhood life.  In our home we had no running water and no sanitation.  We had a well that was located under our basement stairs and we used a hand pump at the top of the stairs from which we drank and filled our washbasin or pots to be heated on the stove.  We did have electricity so no wood stove in the kitchen.  Periodically, the well was cleaned to rid it of worms, and salamanders.  Our toilet was a “honey bucket” in the basement that I had the pleasure of emptying when I grew old enough (about 10).  It was dumped into a pit at the farthest edge of our property away from the house – a place where, my father believed, the water table and an underground stream did not flow towards our well but away from it.  A coal-burning furnace (initially burning bituminous and later adapted to anthracite) in the basement provided heat for the household.  An electric furnace later replaced it, mercifully.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not trying to give the impression that we lived in squalor.  We didn’t.  While it wasn’t an easy existence, our gardens and an orchard on my grandparent’s farm, contributed greatly to our economic base.  A gendered division of labour existed with my father tending the gardens and my mother working in the kitchen canning, blanching, and freezing produce.  It was hard work and I remember my mother hating some parts of it – especially working late into the evening over a hot stove covered with steaming pots.

My parents struggled to pull our family out of the worst parts of that existence.  Ironically, in the end, they accomplished that by throwing off the yoke of this so-called petite bourgeois existence to join the working class when my father retrained as a stationery engineer.  One might say we were truly “proletarianized” in Marxist terms; or lost some status in Weberian [Max Weber] terms; or alternatively perhaps, the increased income moved us a few rungs up on the ladder of social mobility according to Canadian sociologist John Porter.  This has always left me in a bit of a quandary.  Did we succeed or fail?  In any case, this story of class change will be the subject of a future bog post, one not yet written – at least not outside of my mind.

But as I was saying, the gardens continued behind this primitive conception of the urban mall – the Post Office.  Here we grew potatoes, rows and rows of them, and asparagus! Long rows of asparagus!  In my small village, very few people knew about this culinary delight and fewer still grew it purposefully.  Those who did revelled in its beauty through their taste buds.  At the most tender opportunity, my dad would cut the young spears with his pocket knife and they would be served up slathered with pepper and butter, a white sauce, or a cheese sauce.  I know, I know…. my mother was never a great cook, but this was about as good as it could get.  As a young lad I thoroughly enjoyed asparagus and continue to do so to this very day, although usually without the sauces.  Once the spears began to be too woody (about the time they put them out in the stores where I shop today) dad would let the plants grow to create a great long, green hedge of feathers and seeds.  Asparagus eating was over for another year.

Altamont Post Office 2014  Photo: C. Baumann

Former Altamont Post Office, 2014                                                            Photo: C. Baumann

Two large patches of rhubarb (one located disturbingly close to the “honey bucket” pit) provided us with rhubarb pies, crumble, and sauce for a good month or more in the spring before their stalks grew woody and became more bitter than tart.  Of course, rhubarb provided handy hats for children and we ran about the lawn with the inverted leaves on our heads, stalks sticking upward like giant antennae receiving signals from faraway galaxies – signals that caused our legs to run and jump in the joyous abandonment of a Celtic ritual, halted only when some child fell and cried.  Every house on the prairies had a patch of rhubarb.  Old homesteads in Manitoba, houses and families long departed, are usually marked by three things: a foundation where the original house stood providing shelter from unbearably cold winters; a patch of common day lilies or “ditch lilies” providing food for the eye in July, “brightening the place up a little”; and rhubarb, providing the perfect blend of tart and sweet in the form of a pie or crumble which, I swear, kept marriages and families together when under other circumstances, they would have crumbled.

In addition to these gardens, we always seemed to receive a share of a large crop of potatoes that spent the summer multiplying in a field at my grandfather’s farm.  On a crisp day in the fall, dad and our family, and two or three of his brothers and their families would gather at the farm to harvest the potatoes which had been somewhat gently turned out of the soil with a cultivator drawn by a tractor (and in the early days, a horse.)  All kids scattered out across the rows to toss potatoes, large and small, into “gunny sacks” or burlap bags.  The bags were then hoisted onto a hay rack drawn through the field by a horse with my Uncle Cecil at the reins.

As an aside, I recall two horses at the farm – one was a broken down racehorse that we children were never allowed to ride.  It was skittish and danced with anticipation when it was being prepared for a ride.  I only ever saw Uncle Cecil ride that horse and, broken down or not, it seemed to me that it could still fly like the wind.  The other horse was a sturdy plow horse – probably a Clydesdale named Major, I think.  I have observed that every farm with a plow horse of Clydesdale (particularly,) Belgian, or Percheron blood has, or had, at least one horse, and probably more, named Major.  In any case, we were allowed to ride Major and often did take him down into the orchard where he would spend most of his time reaching for apples, while we wrenched the reins trying to get him to go somewhere without apples.  Any modern day horse person (of any level of expertise) will cringe at the thought, but we didn’t know what we didn’t know, if you know what I mean. We had a hell of a good time.

But the vegetable gardens of my youth were not always fun and joy.  The fields did not require much hand weeding and other maintenance but the town gardens certainly did. We were often sent into the garden to weed every inch of soil that was not inhabited by productive foliage.  I remember having to hill the potatoes, a concept I grasped very early in life, as I was wielding a hoe about three feet longer than I was tall.  Perhaps, my skills with a hockey stick were initiated by this activity – although I am pretty sure that no one ever described my stick handling abilities as “like hoeing potatoes,” thank goodness.

Pernicious flora was not the only threats in the gardens.  Fauna played their nasty roles as well.  Potato bugs were common and I recall going up and down the rows, looking under potato leaves where those little black and yellow striped insects (Colorado potato bugs) would be munching away happily.  We had to pick them off with our fingers and put them in a tin can.  I am not sure what exactly happened to them after that, but I think they were doused with gasoline and set on fire, or sometimes doused with soapy water, a process that I deemed to be preferable but no less lethal.  As well, we were expected to crush with our fingers any masses of eggs we discovered under the leaves – a particularly squeamish duty but nevertheless one to which I became enured quickly.

Colorado Potato Beetle.   Photo by Z.

Colorado Potato Beetle.                                                                             Photo by Z.

Cutworms were also a problem and we dug around the base of the young plants to unearth the curled up larvae and place them in the can for disposal.  Our failure to tend to these duties properly became very evident in a day or so when the leaves would be reduced to stems or the plant was laying on the ground from cutworm damage.  These insects also attacked tomato, pepper and eggplants but we had far fewer of those to attend.

Presently, I understand that cutworms are a significant pest for Canola (rapeseed) crops.  Canola was not a big cash crop in my youth but it seems that the cutworms were clearly there, waiting for better times.  Chemical control for cutworms is made more difficult because of their nocturnal feeding habits and laying under the surface during the day. Insecticides need to make contact with the pest in order to be effective.  In addition, cutworms do not feed during molting making it difficult to time chemical application.   Consequently, I am uncertain as to whether insecticides were used extensively for cutworm control during my youth.  There are other non-chemical means of cutworm management e.g., summerfallowing and delayed seeding – and, of course, sending children into the garden to “harvest” them.

Our vegetable gardens were augmented by many kinds of fruit grown in the orchard and berry patches on my grandparents’ farm.  Baskets of apples (eating, baking, crab, jelly,) strawberries, raspberries, watermelon, “muskmelon” [what we call cantaloupe today,] not only reached our table but were sold to others in the community.  “You pick it” farms were not yet in vogue.  I was often pressed into service to assist my grandmother and my cousins to pick the ripe fruit which was sold by word of mouth to the first callers – some stopping by the farm “on spec” and others calling on the party line telephone which hung on the wall like the future museum piece it was to become, and jangled out the correct number of long and short rings.  My grandfather experimented with many fruits and did develop a type of apricot that was hardy enough to produce fruit in the short Manitoba growing season.  I remember savouring its somewhat foreign (to me at least) juicy flesh.

I will return to stories of the orchard in future posts.  They surface too often in my memories to remain hidden for long.  But for now, suffice it to say, that I am pretty certain that these orchards did not produce fruit that was “organically grown.”  But again, I do not have firm evidence of the type or extent of chemical use, so any possible impact on my life or that of others cannot be stated or even alleged.

In other posts, I have contemplated the environmental antecedents for my Parkinson’s.  I am not an environmental research scientist, and I have no conclusive evidence of environmental factors in my own case.  I was far too young to keep records of any kind, never mind accurate records, or to make observations, which would stand the test of scientific methodological rigour.  However, one has to wonder whether there is truth in oral history as much as in scientific data gathering.  These reflections always make me return to the pesticides (insecticides) in common use during my childhood.  DDT always jumps to mind.

Interestingly, a German student, Othmar Zeidler, first synthesized DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) in a purely scientific experiment in 1874.  But Zeidler had no idea of its commercial potential and it was not until 1939 when chemist, Dr. Paul Herman Mûller, an employee of the dye-manufacturing firm of J. R. Geigy, S.A of Basel, produced it for commercial use.  DDT was used extensively in controlling Colorado potato beetles before it was used for a whole host of other applications.  I know that by the late 1950s (I was born in 1949) my father was applying “potato dust” to control those self-same Colorado potato beetles.  Was it DDT? I have no conclusive evidence that it was but in all likelihood it was used at some point.  Oh, if my father were still alive, the questions I would ask him.  His passing predated my diagnosis with Parkinson’s and these questions were not as important to me then as they are now.

By the late 1950s another pesticide Carbaryl (1-naphthyl methylcarbamate) was developed by Union Carbide and touted as a broad-spectrum insecticide.  It was sold to American farmers under the chemical name Sevin and is still available today to kill a wide variety of insects.  Initially, it was touted as having few after effects and little residue.  As a kid in the 1960s I am pretty sure that I remember my Dad using Sevin dust on his potatoes and tomatoes.  It has been described as a pesticide and a neurotoxin “which in plain English means that they act on the nervous system of the insect [and humans presumably?].  In insects they scramble nerve impulses causing neurological misfires and ending in paralysis and death.”

If I had to describe my own experience with Parkinson’s and Dystonia, the words “neurological misfires and scrambled nerve impulses” would not be far from my mind. God, I may have to become a chemical engineer and an environmental scientist to sort out my own disease.

Altamont, Manitoba 1985  Photo: United Grain Growers

Altamont, Manitoba 1985                                                       Photo: United Grain Growers

As I write this post, I have some fleeting images of a particular episode in the garden – not one of our family’s gardens but some other gardens around the village.  I could not have been more than five or six years of age.  [It seems that in these last few posts I am regressing into childhood memories in search of … something … I am not sure what.] In any case, I had an accomplice – let’s call him “Z” [not his real initial] in order to protect the guilty, for he was surely guilty, as was I.

Gardens in Altamont hardly ever had fences around them, and when they did, they were often in poor repair and offered no resistance or barrier to anyone who wanted to to gain entry.  Such was the case with Mrs. X’s garden, and I believe it was also the case with Mr. X’s garden.  Mrs. X and Mr. X had the same name but were not married.  They may have been related but I do not believe that any familial relationship was entered into evidence at the time and therefore it is likely irrelevant to the outcome of this case.  While I am certain that Mrs. X and Mr. X are quite dead, and that the statute of limitations has long run out on the commission of any crime(s),  I have disguised the names of the victims in order to protect myself from any litigation and/or charges from their heirs and/or successors, should they still seek damages or allege slander.

The evidence placed before a panel of two judges (my father and Z’s father) was that a redheaded vandal and an accomplice were spotted wreaking havoc in at least two gardens, and possibly more, at various locations around the community.  The redhead and accomplice were observed pulling various vegetation (carrots, peas, corn,  cucumbers and potatoes in particular) up by the roots and were frolicking about the garden waving and throwing both vegetation and produce willy-nilly.  As I recall, no bite marks were entered into evidence and it did not appear that the perpetrators consumed any carrots, peas, corn, cucumbers or potatoes.  Shelled pea pods were indeed found on the ground near the legumes but that was not unusual in any garden in the community as everyone ate fresh peas right out of the pod.

My defense of “being under the influence” and “just having a good time” must have fallen on deaf ears. I also protested that no one identified me by name but only referred to the alleged perpetrator as “that redheaded boy.”  I was adamant that just because I was the only redheaded boy of age 5 or 6 in the village did not mean that one from a neighboring town or environs did not sneak into our village intent on destroying gardens, and in the process besmirching my good reputation.  It seems this line of defense was not persuasive.

Perhaps, if I had a better lawyer, I might have been able to plea bargain.   Maybe Z and I should have reflected on the honesty of George Washington and professed boldly that we could not tell a lie and that we did indeed rip through Mrs. X’s and Mr. X’s gardens like little lethal tornadoes (certainly a grade up from dust devil) wreaking havoc among the fall harvest.

But, as it turns out, Z and I did not stand a chance.  The evidence mounted against us at each turn.  They had the dirt on us so to speak.  The potatoes had eyes and the corn had ears.  They saw, they heard and someone told.  (I personally think it was the tomatoes who heard it through the grape tomato vine – okay, okay, these bad puns don’t help my case either.)

To make matters worse, it seems the two perpetrators decided that it was such a nice warm day, and if one was going to frolic, one might as well frolic in the manner that true frolicking was meant to be done.  So we doffed several items of clothing that were subsequently found at the first garden (Mrs. X’s) and one of the principal scenes of the crime.  There is no evidence as to how we got to the second garden, almost all the way across the village, without calls being made to the morality squad (our mothers.)  I also have no evidence that these ragamuffins doffed all of their clothing but one might assume that if the punishment is commensurate with the crime that at least one of us met the criterion of being “indecent.”

So, it was determined that Z and I were two peas in a pod, and found guilty with no right to appeal.  Sentencing was to be carried out in accordance with local custom where parents both determined and meted out the punishment.

I am about to say something now that is not easily understood in this age of sensitive parenting.  It certainly is not meant to vilify or diminish my father in any way (especially in the eyes of my immediate and extended family) or to approve of corporal punishment.  I loved my father dearly for reasons most will never know, even though we disagreed on many things over the course of the years we spent on this planet together.  He was my earliest and best role model teaching me values and principles I hold dear to this day, and which have guided me almost without fail to good decisions throughout my life.  I accept responsibility for any decisions that have failed to meet the standard, inasmuch as I deviated of my own accord from those principles.  But some, when they read the following paragraph, will jump to inaccurate conclusions.  Sometimes, you have to live a lifetime to be able to calculate the end product of that lifetime.  Don’t be too quick to judge.

My father was a barber (among many other occupations as you heard earlier) and when I stepped out of bounds too seriously, I received a few smacks across my behind (always clothed) with the strap he used to sharpen his razors – firmly embedded in my mind as the “razor strop.”  This was one of those occasions.  Z was “grounded” – whatever that meant for a 6 year old – and he was tied to the kitchen table for a few hours “to each him a lesson.”  I recall at the time that I thought that action was more barbaric than the few smacks of the strap on my behind after I received a very stern lecture on the value of property and the importance of gardens for sustenance and survival.  My father had a way of ensuring there was always a lesson to be learned – from the behaviour that spawned the punishment – if not from the punishment itself.   You can know of the basic laws of physics but if you don’t understand them, it will be a painful life.  [Newton’s third law of motion: In a system where no external forces are present, every action force is always opposed by an equal and opposite reaction force.]  Sometimes, such laws are parallels for understanding social behaviour.

So what am I to understand from my explorations of the murky depths of the cognitive reaches of my already dopamine deficient brain?

(1) We do not have a veggie garden and I really don’t understand why not.  Sorry.  The familial history and socialization to vegetable gardening was certainly present throughout my youth.  Perhaps, the fact that I would have much rather been playing hockey, baseball or any other sport interfered with the maturation of such ideas.  Leaving home when I was 16 to pursue some of those goals undoubtedly caused any thoughts of vegetable gardens to be suppressed.  These are all areas which I have not explored in this post and won’t as they are too complex and, remarkably, too sensitive even these 50 years later to lay bare at this time.   That time will come in due course.

(2) Perhaps I have a subliminal chemical addiction to vegetables carrying insecticides that attack my neurological system.  This addiction may have clouded my judgment such that I deny the purity of environmentally sustainable market garden crops and blindly rely on corporate farming practices to look out for the well being of consumers i.e., corporate farming can provide cheap, accessible food eliminating the need for family or community gardens.  If the phrase “sheer folly” were not already coined, surely it would have to be in order to describe these views.

(3) There do seem to be some other potentially mitigating environmental factors in my life re: Parkinson’s, including possible contamination of ground water from sewage [In a previous blog I mentioned my father’s concern about arsenic levels] and possible effects from the coal burning furnaces and the coal stored in our basement.  To be fair, I have never read anywhere that coal has any association with Parkinson’s, but you never know.

(4) And lastly, my regression into the past led me to that place where I found myself frolicking nearly naked through a cloud of insecticide infusing my neurological system with the potential to “misfold” the alpha-synuclein protein in such a manner as to promote “misfires and scrambled nerve impulses.”  Ah Parkinson’s, my constant companion and nemesis, may ultimately be the key to understanding my entire life.

After Note: “Z” and I were found guilty of vandalism and willful destruction of property but I cannot escape the feeling that we were not the only perpetrators in the veggie garden that fine day.  But there was not enough evidence to convict them, and they remain at large.

‘Car Trouble’ or Who was in the Boot with Parkinson’s?

It is a rare occasion indeed when Ottawa, Ontario (at the confluence of the Rideau, Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers) is mentioned in the same breath as Lake Kawawaymog near South River/Algonquin Park in Ontario, and the Assiniboine River near Treherne, Manitoba. The straight line distance between Lake Kawawaymog and Treherne is approximately 1,502 kilometers (934 miles.) The straight line distance between Ottawa and Treherne is approximately 1783 km (1108 miles.)  Interestingly, a straight line from Ottawa to Treherne runs almost directly through Lake Kawawaymog.

 Photo: AFMarshall

Lake Kawawaymog                                                             Photo: Anne F Marshall

Other than having this interesting geographical juxtaposition, their waters never intermingle directly, but a strange thing happened last week. A time – space continuum was breached, as my thoughts traveled to our immediate destination (Lake Kawawaymog) and kept on traveling straight to Trehere not only across 1783 km but also back through 57 years of temporal space. No, I was not hallucinating because I have Parkinson’s disease and although Parkinson’s was along for the ride, it just wasn’t driving as usual. And yes, the levels of all bottles in my stash of scotch remained constant so there is no blame to be directed there.

A = Ottawa B = Lake Kawawaymog C = Treherne

A = Ottawa
B = Lake Kawawaymog
C = Treherne

Please bear with me. I can explain but you will have to be prepared for a somewhat circuitous route.

Anne and I were embarking on a relatively short journey (51/2 hours or so) from our home in Ottawa to Anne’s sister (Wendy’s) and brother-in-law (Ger’s) cottage on Lake Kawawaymog. My own sister (Ger) and brother-in-law (Terry) were accompanying us as we were to drop them off en route at Terry’s sister’s place. Regular readers probably realize that I do not often reveal names beyond my immediate family on the grounds that some of them are, in fact, innocent. But in this case, in order to avoid confusion, I need to note that both my sister and my wife’s sister’s husband respond to the name “Ger”, one being Geraldine, and the other Gerald or Gerry. Fortunately for us they seldom are in the same room together, but they are included in many sometimes confusing conversations.

On Highway 17, some twenty minutes west of the City of Ottawa boundary, our trusty hybrid vehicle (make, model and year withheld to avoid any possible litigation) decided to pack it in. In the old days when a vehicle died it just stopped running, or made some horrible grinding, mechanical noise. In this case, when I kicked the accelerator to pass a slower vehicle in front of us and to avoid a faster vehicle which was intent on riding up our rear end, the hybrid cried out electronically with a cacophony of bells and whistles, and a plea for us to “pull over and stop safely” appeared in bold text across the dash in front of me. Further attempts to rouse the engine and transmission to their respective tasks went unheeded. We slowed and coasted to a stop on the gravel apron.

We sat in disbelief for a moment and then I did what every human is programmed to do – reboot. I again started the car, put it in gear and pushed carefully on the accelerator. Toying with us, the hybrid got back up to speed, but then quickly relapsed into ‘I ain’t going nowhere mode.’ The four of us sat somewhat stunned as the realization that our routine trip was going to be anything but routine.

While we gathered our wits, I did have some fear that this situation would trigger an attack of Parkinson’s tremors and accompanying pain in my left foot and leg. I do suffer from persistent pain but it had been largely under control on this trip barely registering a 2 or 3 on my 10 point scale. And stress, even of the most innocuous sort, usually precipitates such responses. I need not have worried. It didn’t develop. But more on that later.

‘Car trouble’. Those words rolled around in my brain with a familiarity which surprised me. When I was a very young boy, ‘car trouble’ followed us around like the black cloud over Joe Btfsplk’s head in L’il Abner. In the late 1940s and early 1950s my parent’s traveled the highways and byways of Manitoba in at least two different Austin Healey cars. And funny little cars they were. Turn signals were not yet in common use on many vehicles and hand signals were an obligatory part of the highway driving code. Winter was always chilling as wind and snow blew in the driver’s side window onto whichever poor child had the misfortune to have the rear left seat.   Then came a breakthrough which sealed the Austin’s comical fate in my mind forever – electric turn signals emanating from between the posts of the front and rear doors on each side. Controlled manually from inside the net effect was that of little illuminated rabbit ears popping up and jutting out with each turn, and popping down when the turn was complete. I do recall that my father hated it when I would reach out of the back window and try to keep the ears from popping out. Fortunately, he could not swat me as I was in the seat right behind him and he never swore so I escaped immediate wrath. And he mostly forgot such things by the time we reached our destination.

I recall my mother being in perpetual fear of breakdown especially on rainy days and on muddy roads, or during bone chilling minus 30C winter days. These are fears she carries with her to this very day.  In winter, we children traveled under the warmth and weight of several itchy khaki blankets courtesy of my grandfather and my dad, and the military. To be fair to Austin Healey, ‘car trouble’ included getting stuck in snow or mud, dead batteries in the middle of winter as well as a variety of mechanical concerns ranging from inoperative windshield wipers, to frozen heating systems with no defrost, to holes in the gas tank from the pounding of gravel from the roads. A good road had gravel; a bad road had mud; both were dangerous. There were precious few paved roads.

But, back on the apron of Highway 17 we were waiting for the tow truck to arrive to carry the hybrid away in an inglorious fashion, when the memory of a leaking gas tank on the old Austin flashed through my mind. I am not sure why, but maybe it was because it was also at the beginning of small exciting trip for me. I was a young lad of about eight. My dad and I were off on a day trip to go fishing in the Assiniboine River near Treherne, Manitoba.  We rarely fished in the Assiniboine in those days, preferring to fish in the smaller Pembina River which ran closer to home. [This was before the days of torrential summer rains which flood large sections of Manitoba. How about that? I think I have lived long enough to document climate change in my oral histories!]  Anyway, the fish in both rivers were mostly Northern Pike which we called “jackfish.” In summer, the river was warm and the fish sluggish and mushy. As you can imagine, sluggish, mushy fish taste like sluggish, mushy fish. The thrill was in the catching not the eating.

Nevertheless, Dad and I were returning to the great meandering Assiniboine because a month or so earlier we had been fishing off a shoal on the shallow side of the river, casting our lures into the deeper waters eroding the far bank, when my lure was struck with a heavy hit from something large. It almost ripped the rod from my hands and the rapid retreat of whatever was on the other end caused the handles on the reel to rap painfully on my knuckles. As an eight-year old, I had no concept of how to skillfully play a fish for landing. The fish (I assume it was a fish and not some Assiniboine version of Ogopogo – Lake Manitoba’s answer to the Loch Ness Monster,) came back towards me just as rapidly and I cranked in the line. The fish then turned to make a second desperate escape bid neatly snapping the taut line, making off with my favourite red and white spinner and dashing my hopes of landing a really big one. If I were telling this to you in person, I would punctuate the story at this point with my arms stretched out widely.

So, we were returning to the Assiniboine, somewhere west of the bridge on PTH (Provincial Trunk Highway) 242 and east of the bridge on Highway 34 in search of the “big one that got away.” I am not certain which bridge was called the “new bridge” and who knows, they maybe call it the “new bridge” to this day, some 57 years later, such is the unique passage of time on the prairies. Only we never made it – car trouble.

Somewhere north of Notre Dame de Lourdes, we let it slip away. [Funny, these words evoke some notion of a Canadian version of “Me and Bobby McGee.”] Anyway, dad noticed that the gas gauge was going south faster than the old Austin was going north. A quick stop for dad to peer beneath the car, dust still billowing behind us and over our heads. The verdict: a small puncture in the gas tank. A new problem; never had this before. What to do? Perhaps it was too far to return to our home in Altamont? Besides, we both held out hope that it could be repaired and we could continue on our expedition. I also think my dad didn’t want to disappoint me. Dads are often like that.

It was a Sunday. I know this because my dad only ever had full days off on Sundays. So we continued on towards a nearby farm. We pulled into the yard and into an open shop (a wood frame building as it was in the days before there were many steel Quonset huts.) I don’t recall much other than the farmer was nice (they usually are) and wore the obligatory coveralls of the day. The floor of the shop was a combo of concrete and dirt – hard to know where one started and the other ended – both covered with oily, greasy substances accompanied by that distinctive petrol smell. My dad and the farmer quickly discussed the particulars of the situation and jacked the car up with a hand jack. Yep, closer examination confirmed the original diagnosis – a small puncture in the gas tank. I recall my father not being happy about the quality of the steel of the tank and the fact that there did not appear to be any protective shield for the gas tank.

What to do? There was a discussion about possibly welding the hole. Thank God this option was discarded quickly! A search for something to plug the hole ensued: rolled up paper – nope; rolled up cardboard – nope; small twigs – nope; some form of glue found in the shop – nope; gum chewed to a sticky mess by an eight-year old boy – nope. Combinations of the above – nope. Other materials were undoubtedly employed as potential solutions but none succeeded in stemming the slow leak.

A decision was made to top up the tank and turn for home, disappointed that the day would end without a fish, or even a fish story.  My father, being the methodical man he was, scratched out a rough equation in an attempt to determine the optimal speed to drive to be most efficient such that the amount of gas used by the motor minus the rate of leakage did not decline past zero i.e., we would not run out gas before we reached our home destination. All without speeding the poor Austin into the ditch or attracting the attention of the RCMP who patrolled those roads. I fear this mathematical learning opportunity was largely lost on me. We reached home safely and the “big one” got away once again. It was an anti-climax that the tank was repaired by sending it to Winnipeg. From that day forward, it always had an additional protective shield deflecting any gravel that would spit up from the roadbed.

Meanwhile, back on Highway 17 modern technology was working exactly as intended. Using our two cell phones we called roadside assistance covered courtesy of Ger’s CAA card. [Note to self: get one.] A tow truck and taxi were dispatched to our location. After a short cell phone conversation with the service department, the hybrid was towed to the dealership for repairs. We searched the internet on our cell phones for the closest car rental agency, determined car availability and had the taxi deliver us and our luggage to that exact location. A replacement car was secured. Phone calls and texts to those at our respective destinations were made, took time for lunch, and we were back on the road with only a two hour delay.

No one panicked – not even Parky.  My Parkinson’s remained remarkably in check – no exacerbated tremor or pain for that time period or for the remainder of the day. Amazing! Modern technology, money of course, and the presence of mind of my brilliant sister to have a roadside assistance card, took most of the guess work out of this crisis.

Maybe … but my past experience is that if Parky has an opportunity to screw things up, it will. So I am still left with the burning question: why didn’t my Parkinson’s act up and make life unbearable for me, if not for others? It could just be the reduced stress as noted above, or it could just be luck as Parkinson’s often is unpredictable with a mind of it’s own. I actually think that on this trip Parkinson’s was in the “boot” along with the luggage. As a kid I always laughed when the old timers referred to the trunk as the “boot” and the hood as the “bonnet.” The Austin had a boot, and a bonnet.  Our current car trouble was under the bonnet and Parky was discretely packed away in the boot.

Upon further reflection though, I am coming to realize it is also likely that I am developing (with a lot of help and encouragement) skills in implementing certain techniques and practices to diminish the impact of Parkinson’s – to keep it in the boot so to speak. For example,

(1) I have been reviewing for quite some time The Pain Toolkits produced by Peter Moore whom I follow on Twitter @paintoolkit2 and his website http://www.paintoolkit.org/  The toolkits and Peter’s encouragement on Twitter have been instrumental in my attempts to be in control.

(2) I switched my physiotherapy approach to LSVT BIG and PWR (Parkinson’s Wellness Recovery) at Action Potential Rehabilitation http://actionpotentialrehab.net/ where my physiotherapist is Sue Goodridge. Even though I have only had a few weeks under this program I already feel that I am gaining a better understanding of both the mechanics and the theory of physiotherapy as applied to Parkinson’s. Such things as movement, flexibility, coordination and balance are among the keys to a better quality of life. Even simple exercises such as “splaying my toes” remind my feet and brain that my toes are intended to move that way. For too long my brain was sending signals to my feet and toes that they should remain immobile in some futile attempt to avoid or lessen pain. In fact the opposite – more movement – is required. Movement and exercise are critical for persons with Parkinson’s.

(3) My physio, Sue, aside from having all the skills and qualifications of a physiotherapist, is quite expert in chronic and persistent pain. She has pointed me in a direction of “mindfulness meditation” as a way to approach stress-related persistent pain and to deal with muscle movement disorder. I am discovering that pain management is greatly enhanced when we have an ability to focus, or re-focus, the brain away from the problem. This is somewhat of a surprise to me as I have never been an adherent of meditation per se although I have long practiced what I jokingly refer to as “mind over matter trickery” to overcome both pain and tremor when I want to go to sleep. Of course, it may just be that I am exhausted …

Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way an expert in any of the above areas. I have only just begun this particular journey.  We shall see where it takes me and I shall be blogging from time to time about these experiences and adventures.  So far, I feel that there is real improvement and that my optimism is warranted.

That being said, none of these programs, techniques or practices is as important to me as the love, encouragement, understanding and support of Anne, our four daughters and their respective husbands/partners. They are the fuel for the engine that keeps my old chassis moving – even if the bonnet and boot are too large.

All of this rambling has been my usual long winded way of saying that I escaped what should have been a very stressful day as Parkinson’s was relegated to the ‘boot’ in the ‘car trouble’ affair. It was a pleasant drive with Ger and Terry to their destination, and good food, drink and stimulating conversation with Wendy and Ger made for a relaxing time when we reached our cottage destination.

But, I have to tell you a secret. Parkinson’s was not alone in the boot. My dad and his mother Maud (my grandmother) were also in the boot. I am pretty sure they had never been held captive in the boot when they were alive, and I am also pretty sure that this was not an imposition for their souls and/or spirits at this time. Nevertheless, our vehicle was carrying two of the three children born to Kathleen and Bert, our mother and father. Perhaps, our father provided prudence to my sister Ger to purchase the roadside assistance card; our grandmother Maud was in the boot to keep Parkinson’s under her stern and intimidating watch (you met her in earlier posts); and my dad also would not have wanted our mother who hated car trouble to worry – she is still living and so could not be in the boot but she was likely huffing at Bethany where she lives in Middle Lake, Saskatchewan.

How do I know they were with us? We were close to Terry’s sister’s where we were to drop Terry and Ger before we continued on to the cottage. Turning a corner, a field of naturalized lupines appeared on the left side. Struck by such beauty I braked abruptly (no one behind thank goodness,) and jumped out of the car to snap a few shots with my iphone – chalk another one up for technology.  At that point I knew that we were accompanied by someone who loved the passengers in this vehicle, who understood intrinsically the beauty of such a sight, and knew that I love lupines!

Photo: S. Marshall

Lupines!                                                                                                   Photo: S. Marshall

As always, my experiences leave me with a bit of a mystery or intrigue that raises questions, sometimes philosophical. In this case, both my grandmother and my dad were colourblind! Not a life threatening condition to be sure but how could they fully know what they were seeing?

What you see when you are colourblind.  Source: Coblis Colorblindness  Simulator  Photo: S. Marshall

What you might see if you were colourblind.  Source: Coblis Colorblindness Simulator                                                               Photo: S. Marshall

Surely if they hadn’t experienced the full visual effect, they could not know that the striking natural beauty of the lupines would literally stop us in our tracks, sending a signal to us that all was well. But think about it. They were horticulturists by nature and experience, and their love and appreciation of Nature allowed them to transcend this disorder of being colourblind. I try everyday to use my dopamine assisted brain to transcend a neurological disorder called Parkinson’s to alleviate pain and tremor.  And you know, it often works.

I can only conclude that on this particular day, Parkinson’s did not stand a chance.