You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
On a warm summer evening in August 1981, sitting on a hard plastic folding seat in McMahon Stadium, I took the red pill; sort of. I was twelve years old, and my friend had invited me along to the Billy Graham crusade which was making its way across Canada that year. Then Premier Peter Lougheed welcomed the “President’s Preacher” to the province personally, in his address admonishing Albertan’s to take heed of Mr. Graham’s message of hope, regardless of whether they were content to stick with the blue pill. I had no idea what to expect, and thinking back (although the rear view mirror is a little hazy thirty-seven years later) I don’t think I had even heard of Billy Graham until that day.
Is there a God? That classic existential question that everyone has to deal with, at least at some point in their life, even if it is right before they check out for the last time. It wasn't the first time that I had been confronted with the question. I grew up going to Sunday school, like many kids living in Alberta in 1981. My family, almost weekly, made the fifty minute drive into Calgary to the Danish Lutheran Church. I had been baptized there as a baby (or at least that is what they tell me, and I guess there are pictures confirming the event as well). So the story goes, I grew up to be a royal pain in the ass for most of my ill-equipped tutors, starting as young as the age of six. Asking questions no one wanted to answer, pointing out inconsistencies, and poking at the chinks in the uncomfortable armour my religious tutors wore.
This journey that I have been on lately, as I transition from forty-nine to fifty has been an interesting one, to say the least. Along the way, I have discovered that there is a younger version of myself that I have at best ignored, and at worst left bleeding in a ditch somewhere outside of Irricana to die. Upon reflection, I am beginning to realize that the year 1981 was pretty significant. That night in Calgary, was just one of the events that year which I am beginning to realize has shaped and influenced my life still. 1981 was a year of major transition in my life, I had just finished grade six and was starting junior high in the fall. I was in that awkward gap year between being a kid and a legit teenager. I was exploring big questions, I was reading big books. I am pretty sure I was reading Stephen R. Donaldson’s first trilogy the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which was exploring some pretty big existential issues. I think I actually need to reread those books, I discovered today that there are another seven books in the series now. And if memory serves, 1981 was also the year in which my relationship with my dad significantly changed.
Growing up, my dad and I were never very close. He had grown up in rural Denmark before WWII. A farming life in Europe in the thirties was not an easy life. He was born into a family of twelve siblings (I think this is right) some of whom died very young, as was the norm in those days. From what I have gleaned, his father was a severe man, hard and demanding and not one who provided what we would call a nurturing environment in which to grow up in. I never met him, although I am named after him, and there is a grave stone in a cemetery in Skarild, Jutland with my name on it. I thought that was weird, seeing it, when we visited it earlier that year. The grave yard also was home to a squadron of Allied fliers who crashed after being shot down by the occupying Germans. They were buried there too, beneath the twisted propellor of their fallen aircraft. Our family had been to Denmark earlier that summer and I took a picture of the grave stone pictured above, I know you were wondering, and I digress.
I never met my farfar (dad’s dad) although I did get to spend some time with my farmor (dad’s mom) six years earlier, and despite the language barrier, I remember her warmth and kindness. My dad was in many ways a lot like his father before him, as we as humans are prone to be, although not severe, he was not someone who was in tune with his emotions. I wonder where I get that trait from? He worked hard all his life, and as I was to discover in my early twenties, he was essentially illiterate. In Denmark he had only gone to school until grade six. He immigrated to Canada in the fifties and learned to speak English like most immigrants of the day, by osmosis. Thus he never learned to read or write English until much later in life, a product in and of itself of his determination.
But back to 1981. That Fall, I purchased my first 4H steer. I had given up being a Scout in order to put my hand towards the task of raising of cattle. I was a country boy after all. I had dreams of being a cowboy, maybe even a bull rider when I grew up. I even had a horse, named Suzy, trained in the riding style of Western Pleasure. I purchased my first 4H steer from my friend Charlie’s parents who ranched a large herd of pure bread Charolais. In the proceeding months I fed, tended, cursed and trained the damn thing to lead on a halter all by myself. As a member of the Irricana 4H beef club I was tasked to not only raise my animal, but also train it to follow me around like a puppy dog, and stand straight so that it could be judged at the year end beef show, before it was eventually auctioned off and sent for slaughter. That first year, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and much to my dismay and embarrassment, I spent much of my time with that thousand-pound animal dragging me around the corral we had built for it. I was told in 4H that when you were training an animal that you were never supposed to let go of the attached lead, otherwise the damned animal would learn that you weren't the boss. So for months, I never let go, but I was never the boss. The problem with my training method was not my determination but my equipment. I had inherited, from someone in the club, a leather show harness, and I was trying to break my steer into submission with that. Which I subsequently learned, almost too late, was all wrong.
With only a few weeks left before the show I finally admitted defeat fearing the shame and disgrace I would suffer at our club show, and I finally admitted to some other members that I was an abject failure in the ways of subduing bovine. Thankfully, an older member of the club, Tracey Hanson, had mercy on me, and she volunteered to come over and lend me a hand. When she arrived, she realized that I was trying to break the animal with the wrong equipment and quickly introduced me to the rope halter. I quickly discovered that the rope halter worked much better. The show halter had a chain that fit under the chin of the animal which would go tight when you pulled, but loosen immediately when the tension was released. This is not how a rope halter works. The piece of rope under the chin with a rope halter doesn’t loosen up with diminished tension, and as such, the animal is in discomfort when it is tight. So when that off-white beast started dragging me around behind it, even my weight at the age of twelve was enough to pull that bottom rope tight and cause the steer to have second thoughts. Within a couple of hours it finally yielded. And within two weeks, I had that beast behaving like a well trained lab. It was a lesson in stubbornness for us both, I guess. I learned that asking for help, isn’t always a bad thing, ??and it learned that not pulling would avoid it pain. My animal didn’t win any prizes that year, in fact my animals never did win. But it did get sold, and I was a twelve year old kid who had $1000 to spend, and I knew exactly what I was going to buy….