© Chuck Duboff:
I am so very proud to share the news that my very good friend, Al Bryski, has his first book published. Al is a wonderful wordsmith, a gentleman filled with wonderful insights into life.
You can purchase a copy of Saskatchewan Farm Boy at McNally Robinson Book Store; $19.95…and if you wanted the book inscribed, let me know and I will make sure Al gets it signed for you.
Enjoy one of Al’s wonderful pieces of writing…Hunger.
Hunger. © Al Bryski
Have you ever been hungry? I mean really really hungry? Most of us in our daily lives seldom experience true hunger. Oh, sure, we get hunger pangs when we are late for or skip a meal. But to experience real hunger is something most of us have not had to do and hope not to ever have to do!
The definition of hunger according to Merriam-Webster dictionary:
a : a craving or urgent need for food or a specific nutrient b : an uneasy sensation occasioned by the lack of food c : a weakened condition brought about by prolonged lack of food.
The only time I truly experienced hunger was when I first arrived in the city of Winnipeg, a callow recently graduated-from-twelfth-grade youth. I arrived in the city in late July at the height of a recession. Jobs were scarce, especially for 17 year old children with no practical skills that people looking to hire someone would consider as assets. Sure I had a lot of skills and smarts that working on a farm instil in a person. But none of these were very obvious and though many of them would have been transferable to on the job training, no one was willing to take the chance. No one, that is, except for the CNR – also known as Canadian National Railways.
The CNR took me in because I could read and write and speak fluently in 2 languages with English being the main criteria. They hired me because I had completed my high school education, which at that time was a standing equivalent to a university degree today. I had all my body parts, excellent vision, and excellent hearing( this was before my phys-ed teaching days in poorly constructed non-acoustic gyms)and I showed up sober for my interview without any mad dog characteristics. I was hired on the spot to work out of the Fort Rouge, Transcona, East Yard, CNR Union Staion, and Paddington rail yards as a yard staff employee.
My first shift would come off the spare board where I was placed among 30 other recently and newly hired employees. I was the lowest man – there were no women on the yard staff – with the lowest seniority possible. I was inexperienced and my seniority number was lower than a snake’s belly! Spare boards were designed to help fill immediate vacancies arising as a result of some one “booking off”, that is calling in sick or because of some other emergency. Then the first person – the one with the greatest seniority – would be called with about 2 hours notice to fill in for the absentee at whatever yard the job took place.
My first week, I worked one shift as a callboy, a position dating back to pre-telephone days, when callboys were dispatched to the homes of train crew members to let them know that they were officially called to crew an outgoing freight or passenger train. With the advent of telephones, callboys were in less need and new duties were added to their job descriptions such as delivering inter-departmental mail and serving as general “joe-boys” for the chief clerk for whom they were working that shift. The pay was the minimum wage of the time as we were unionized wage earners. My salary for an eight hour shift was a dollar an hour or eight bucks. This wasn’t as bad then as it seems now because bus fares were 15 cents, burgers were between 15 and 25 cents, bread was about 20 cents a loaf, a 6-pack of beer was a $1.25, and movie admissions were about 25 cents.
The second week I worked another shift as a callboy but in Transcona which was hard to get to if you didn’t own a car. You had to catch a bus which ran once every hour from Portage and Main to Transcona. The fare was 20 cents plus the last bus from Transcona was at midnight. If the chief clerk didn’t give you an early quit, that is let you go early, you would miss your bus, and for me it would have been 13 km walk or about 3 hours to get home.
So after two weeks I had accrued 16 hours or $16 in wages. As we were being paid every 2 weeks, I looked forward to receiving my first paycheck minus the usual deductions. When on payday I went to the pay office to pick up my scant pay, I discovered to my horror that because I was a new employee, my first check would come in the next pay period, a practice for better and more accurate accounting. Our pay checks were always for the two weeks previous to the last two weeks.
I was broke and I was now alone in the small 3 room suite that I shared with my brother and my cousin. I could have hit them up for a few bucks but my brother had just left to engineer some work on one of the airports in northern Manitoba and my cousin Merv had just gone home for a couple of weeks to help his dad with the haying and harvest season. The fridge and the cupboards were almost bare. To top it off I had only a dollar in cash and I needed it for bus fare so I could get to and from work. My shifts were in yards which were usually an hour or more of walking away from where I lived and because sometimes my spare-board assignments came at the last moment leaving me with very little wiggle time to get to work, I needed bus fare money.
I was okay for about a week and then all the food was gone. I ate the last of my ketchup sandwiches and drank the last of my Kool-Aid. There was no more food! I guess I could have begged some food from the neighbors but I was young and proud, so I “sucked it up” and lived on glasses of water. This went on for about 3 days …no food, only water.
I was called to work once that week in Fort Rouge where I did my first shift as a car checker with an increase of my wage to $2 an hour but with a greater expenditure of energy as I would have to walk the tracks checking or writing down the numbers of rail cars on the track in their sequential order. Some of the tracks were a mile in length in the yard and that meant that I could walk up to 20 miles in a shift. Add to this some hunger pangs and my life did not have many positives in it.
Back then I lived just off off of Maryland Street south of Broadway. On Honeyman Street just west of Broadway was a small hole-in-the-wall grocery run by an older Jewish couple. Their store was the Ches-way Grocery and I think it was about 10 metres deep and about 4 metres wide and about 4 metres high and packed to to the brim with foods and household needs. They had a small meat counter and a fridge for dairy and frozen foods. We used to buy our groceries here because of convenience and closeness to home- the prices were higher than in the large supermarkets.
On the start of my fourth day of no food I was so hungry that I went to the store. Why? I don’t know because when I walked into the store the smell of food almost drove me crazy. I wandered the store taking in all the wonderful aromas and tantalizing displays of foods and fresh fruits and veggies. I started salivating and I started contemplating for the first time in my life the act of shop lifting.
“They wouldn’t miss a can of beans or maybe a package of biscuits if I was quick and quiet and unobtrusive, ” I said to myself. But the Jewish couple were experienced in what they were doing and they probably sensed what I was contemplating, so there was always one of them nearby, ostensibly re-arranging cans or packages but probably to keep an eye on me so I wouldn’t do anything rash.
Finally the woman said in a heavy accented English, “You are hungry, no?”
I nodded that I was. She then smiled and said, “You have no money, no?”
“No, ” I replied, thinking now that I would be asked to leave the store. But no. She called her husband and they conferred for a minute in what I think was Yiddish. Then she smiled at me, and spoke the sweetest words a hungry person could hope to hear. “You take what you need and we will write it down and when you have money you will come and pay us, no?”
“Yes,” I answered with tears of gratitude and joy . They asked me my name but they never asked me for my address or a phone number. It was complete trust and kindness.
Gratefully I loaded up 2 bags of groceries and quickly headed back to my place before they could change their minds. I feasted and I ate and I feasted. No, actually I was only able to eat some small amounts because my stomach had managed to shrink quite a bit in the previous weeks.
The next pay day, I cashed my check at a bank and the first order of business was to repay the trust of the beautiful Jewish couple who had done such a wonderful kindness for me. In the future I bought all my necessities there and I was always grateful for what they had done for me.
I really hope I never have to experience that kind of hunger again even though it was very mild compared to what so many people on our planet suffer through every day.