“We were broke. The whole country was broke. Father died just a month after Black Friday of 1929, which marked the beginning of the Great Depression.”—Frank White.
We rarely review books at the Citizen but two that were submitted by the publisher and passed on to me are just too good to go unacknowledged.
In fact, they should be required reading in our schools.
I’m referring to Milk Spills & One-Log Loads: Memories of a Pioneer Truck Driver and That Went By Fast: My First Hundred Years.
Both are written by Frank White who died last October at the incredible age of 103. In 2014, upon release of That Went By Fast, the follow-up to his 2013 Milk Spills, he claimed to be B.C.’s oldest active author.
The workingman/small businessman father of Harbour Publishing owner Howard White, he’d gone to work as a boy and didn’t retire until he was 80.
Not only had he been industrious over those seven decades but he had a keen eye for the human drama, of which he was part, of course, an excellent memory and, perhaps above all, a trait so rare in this world, self-deprecating humour.
“I’d got used to thinking my life hadn’t amounted to much,” he wrote, “and it seemed most people agreed with me on that. Now it’s, ‘Oh, you rode in a horse and buggy? You worked on a steam donkey show? Your girlfriend was a flapper?…You should write a book!’ By hanging around so long it seems I have become an object of historical interest.”
Frank White was of a generation so far removed from our own that it’s as though we’re of two different worlds. His world began as a boy in his father’s butcher shop. This was when most British Columbians of all ages and both genders had to work, hard and physically, to put food on the table when there was no social safety net. When young children were pulled from school to help on the farm, when a stripling of a boy was expected to tote milk cans as big and as heavy as himself if he wanted to keep his job. When most British Columbians were strictly on their own and it was sink or swim, survival of the fittest — the brawniest or the smartest, the most energetic, the most innovative, the most flexible.
By the tender age of 13 Frank White had worked five years in his father’s butcher shop and had taught himself to drive his father’s Model-T truck to make deliveries. He had to lie about his age to get his licence but we’ll put that down as an early example of his resourcefulness. Which is just as well as, with his father’s premature death a year later, he was the man of the family — just in time for the dirty ’30s.
White: “We were broke. The whole country was broke. Father died just a month after Black Friday of 1929, which marked the beginning of the Great Depression.”
For all that, the press release accompanying his book describes his life as having been typical of his time. The work was hard, often dangerous, but seldom dull, and the opportunities for improving one’s lot were there for the enterprising and entrepreneurial.
From being a truck driver and swamper he moved up to being a truck owner, part of the trucking boom that replaced the horse and wagon then, from the 1930s on, went after railway freight. White was along for the ride through the ’40s; but with the ’50s he switched to small-scale logging. After moving to Pender Harbour he “operated an excavating business, a gas station and a municipal water system. Along the way he endured shipwrecks, topped 200-foot spar trees, fought forest fires, got physical with log rustlers, built houses, built boats, raised a family, dabbled in politics, built early computers, buried a beloved wife and daughter, travelled the world and wrote books.”
He also remarried, to the former New Yorker writer Edith Iglauer, had two sons and a daughter, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Above all, he’d kept his sense of humour and it shows throughout both memoirs and overshadows the hardships and the inevitable disappointments.
“When I was 50 and still had most of my marbles,” he wrote, “all people wanted me to tell them was why their car stalled at the intersection. Now that everything is starting to get hazy, they’re not satisfied unless I can tell them the meaning of life.”
But that was later. No recession over the past 80 years has come even close to the magnitude of the Great Depression of the 1930s that only ended with the Second World War. We who’ve been so blessed as to have come later simply can’t comprehend what it was really like, when most western nations experienced mass unemployment, poverty and social unrest on a scale not known before or since.
Yes, there were lighter moments and fond memories but kids had to grow up fast. Frank White and his generation were survivors and their stories are worth knowing in this comparatively coddled age of welfare, employment insurance, medical benefits and pensions. I give both of Frank White’s books five stars although I enjoyed Milk Spills more.
I can’t pass by without mentioning, too, Robin Williams’ 1997 A Vancouver Boyhood: Recollections of Growing Up in Vancouver 1925-1945. What a boyhood it was, spanning as it did, the roaring ’20s through the dirty ’30s to the Second World War.
In fact, Williams thought that, “despite the hardships of the 1930s, one can hardly imagine a better city than Vancouver in which to grow up for boys who loved the outdoors.”
This didn’t change for him, his brother and their friends when his father’s business failed and they had to downgrade to an old house on the North Shore. If anything, the opportunities to indulge in their favourite outdoor activities simply increased.
That changed dramatically when Robin was struck down by polio and left with one leg shorter and weaker than the other. Although it slowed him down it didn’t stop him and the chapters describing his bout with infantile paralysis and subsequent operation, thanks to the Rotary Club, offers an insight into this dreaded disease I’ve not found elsewhere.
He’d so hated his leg brace that, despite the doctors’ dire warnings of the consequences, he attacked it with a hammer: “Off came the shoe, then the hated brace. Excitement growing, I propped the linkage connecting the shoe to the brace against the rock and hammered with all my might. With a few blows the shoe separated from the brace. With similar ferocity I attacked the middle and upper portions, two flat, stainless steel rods connected to thick leather. Within a few minutes of such warfare, the dreaded brace was a dismembered wreckage. I threw it into a dark corner of the garage…”
He never wore a leg brace again but, after surgery, limp or no, he got by well enough to find work, physically demanding work, in a wartime shipyard before going logging as a flunky in the Queen Charlottes (Haida Gwaii). There, a drink-crazed cook almost ended his career with a meat cleaver. All the while he was saving to go to university; he worked for a junkman in Washington State before heading to Alaska and, on the sly, while being paid to grease heavy equipment, teaching himself to operate a D8 cat.
This led to grading airstrips on one of the Aleutian Islands, a hair raising experience in blindng snow on the edge of sheer cliffs; one false turn or, as happened, a shift in the earth beneath the bulldozer’s tracks could mean a death-dive into the sea.
This came after the boyhood idyll in Vancouver and Williams ends his reminiscence with his return from Alaska to enroll at Harvard University.
Another five-star read for those who want to learn what it was really like to grow up in the Dirty ’30s and war years.