By: Fred Larsen
As I grew up in the Okanagan, in Woodsdale, during the 1950s, I was shaped largely by the examples of my 0.mother and father. My mother’s musical ability and sociability—as well as her love and respect for my dad and her willingness to work hard once we had purchased The Spot in Winfield influenced me deeply. But she was also a solid member of the community and the small United Church in Winfield where she sang and occasionally played piano or organ.
My dad was always a hard worker, a very strong man physically and a strong-willed man. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to cross him. In fact, though I’m not sure I would say we were “close,” I enjoyed a pretty good relationship with him. The days at The Spot–which we bought when I was just 7 and sold when I turned 18– were very good years.
I have nothing but positive memories of growing up there. During winters I attended school and played with neighbourhood kids (mostly boys, but Don and Carol Christian were good friends, as well)—Doug and Don Redecopp, Terry Bilquist, Dan and Carol, Larry Reiswig (a bit), and a few others that I would get together with occasionally. We spent time on the Bilquist farm and in their pasture area, and rode our bikes all over the area, often riding to school while in elementary school in Winfield and occasionally even riding to Rutland to high school there before George Elliot Jr.-Sr. High was built in Winfield in 1959—for my last school year. We were free to travel where we wanted to go on weekends and after school. No one worried about us—as long as we were home for supper!
During those years I knew and respected many neighbourhood families. I have mentioned the Bilquists and Redecopps, Myrtle Redecopp baked her own bread and what a treat it was to stop in at lunch and end up eating some bread fresh out of the oven! Even Myrtle calling me “Freddie” and sometimes “you little bastard” never persuaded me not to drop by quite often. The Reiswigs and several other families in the area were Seventh Day Adventists and so they were a bit separate from the community, but they were always lovely people and the times I hung around with Larry were always good. We’d swim, hike in Beasley’s Wood, or go boating. They had a ski-boat and every once in a while, when the boat could be heard taking skiers up for a trip around the bay, I would just happen to arrive at their place down the beach.
Another neighbour was a Dane named Sam Sorenson. I don’t remember much about what Sam’s life was like, but since he was Danish, my dad would sometimes drop in on him for a chat (in Danish). What attracted me to Sam was his book collection. He was a voracious reader of western novels, and he was willing to let me take 3-4 home with me following every visit. Luke Short, Zane Grey, and dozens of other writers that were cranking the stuff out all passed though my eyes and into my imagination during a period of a couple of years. I knew how important a Winchester 73 was, how to look after a horse, what to avoid when moving a herd of cattle—and what to do when the bad guys came to town! There were many hours spent in the American badlands, in Texas and Arizona and New Mexico, not to mention Montana and the Dakotas. And, as in the movies at the time, the Indians were always a presence—though I think I also learned a great deal of respect for the Comanche, the Iroquois, the Sioux and the Apache from some of those books.
Alec Beasley was also an influence, but in a strange kind of way. Alec was a local chicken-farmer, and we bought our chickens from him (my mother plucked and cleaned them—and no, I never learned to do that myself). I think Alec probably gave me my first paying job, though—stooking hay bales and, once it was dried, bringing the hay in to his barn. I was probably about 15 when I started to work for him and I thoroughly enjoyed working with him. He was not a man of many words, but he worked hard and probably taught me to work that way, too.
Another kind of strange influence was a guy named Graham Dickie. Graham came to our Winfield United Church as a very young Minister—I’m not entirely sure he had finished his training. He was probably in his early 20s and he was a really likable guy. Before long he had started a youth choir and there were 8-10 of us that enjoyed choir practices and had fun under his guidance. Our parents liked him, too, so he was often an invited guest in some of my friends’ homes (not mine so much; my dad wasn’t a churchgoer and didn’t have a lot of patience for the church, even though my mom had been such a part of it). If memory serves me right, Graham came to Winfield just about the time my mom died—perhaps just before—so he was probably a good distraction for me in starting the choir and the youth group at the church. He was a friend to many of us.
Probably my strongest influence as I neared the end of school, however, was Peter Greer, my English teacher at George Elliot. Peter was the homeroom teacher of the senior class—all 18 of us—and I think all of us respected not only his knowledge and love of English—which he didn’t need to work very hard to pass on to me—but also his quiet and kind manner as a teacher. He liked us. And we liked him. He encouraged us to think about the things we read—and to talk about them. He encouraged differences of opinion, as well, and never looked to try to get a “single interpretation” out of a poem, a short story or a novel. He knew that the reader also made a story, a book, what it was—and he encouraged discussion, different interpretations and competing ideas.
He also coached the volleyball team and that was my first year to play the game and to learn it (as it was at the time). Having played for only a year, I was able to make the team at UBC the following year and that experience was a big part of my university days.
And I became an English teacher eventually and had a 30-year career—and probably much of my style as a teacher was like Peter’s. I only knew him for that grade 12 year, but there is no doubt he had a strong influence on the direction of my life.
Thanks, Peter. And thanks, mom and dad. And thanks to all of the neighbour people who showed me what community was—even in that small place in the Okanagan Valley in the 1950s.