These are the stories of Ray Cooley, as told to his daughter Ellen. Ray was born on June 24, 1927.
- The Great Depression
Ray’s father Len and his uncle John owned Cooley Brothers Garage (agents for Ford and John Deere). When it opened in 1927, it was so successful that new cars and machinery were being sold faster than they could be delivered, and Cooley Brothers was a household name. But when the crash came in 1929, sales suddenly stopped and cars and machinery started being returned as farmers realized they could no longer make the payments. Ray’s Dad said many times, “The real mistake we made in 1928 was in hiring salesmen instead of debt collectors.”
2. Fires in Chinook
The town of Chinook in 1932 experienced one fire after another that left gaping holes on Main Street. Everyone knew what was causing these fires — everyone but the insurance company. The grocer, after his store burned to the ground, was selling canned goods from his house at bargain prices, claiming he had a premonition of a fire and had transferred most of his non-perishable stock to the basement of his house. Ray’s Dad agonized over every fire, but what good would it do to put your fellow businessman in jail, when the poor fellow was already crazy with fear and shame. The fire insurance would pay off all his debt and with enough left over to make a new start somewhere.
3. The “Gym”
For a major part of every school year, we needed heavy coats, boots, scarves, mittens, to go out for recess. When the temperature ran to -10 or less, they had to find somewhere for us to play inside. A lower classroom was turned into a gym, with a ladder bolted to the ceiling, two gym mats and an exercise horse. Imagine the din produced by 15 boys penned up for fifteen minutes twice a day. One day we boys were totally out of control, and started shoving the exercise horse violently around the room, yelling “whoa Nelly, go Nelly”. Suddenly the door to the room burst open and the gym teacher stood sternly at the door. Finally he shouted “Boys, don’t call that horse Nelly!
Frank Morall was one of those great teachers who had a big heart and loved the kids. Frank had had polio as a teenager, and had one withered arm and walked with a limp. Frank spent many hours of his own time after school and on week ends, and one of his greatest projects was the Eskimo igloo. The project started with clearing snow from a level piece of ground. Next a circle was inscribed using two stakes and a ten foot cord. Snow blocks were carefully cut with carpenter saws and dragged on toboggans to the job site where Frank instructed on how and where to place each block. Water had to be carried from the town pump and thrown over the snow blocks after every third layer to keep the operation stable and safe. Ladders were used after the half way point, but only the big boys got to use them. When the final block was placed in the roof and the water applied, it was time to cut the entry hole and build the tunnel. We all loved that igloo and couldn’t wait for recess when we could rush out, crawl through the tunnel and marvel at the warmth and light there was in an igloo. It lasted almost until spring, and Frank finally got the big boys to smash it so no one would get hurt if it melted.
5. School Caretaker
Our school caretaker, Bill Isbester had Saint Vitis Dance and always took at least three lunges at anything he wanted before finally grasping it. While lunging with right hand, Bill’s mouth would open and his chin would flap in unison with the lunges. To us kids, it was a pretty scary sight.
We had a new young teacher, Miss Shire, start at our school in the fall of 1935. When the principal introduced Miss Shire to our caretaker, he forgot to prepare her for the encounter. She put out her hand to shake, and Bill stabbed toward her hand and missed and stabbed again with rocket speed. After 4 misses in a row, Miss Shire placed her hand behind her back and said “Pleased to meet you”.
Mr. Isbester had an office under the stairs, and had keys to all the doors, which he jabbed one after the other in the direction of the lock until he made contact with the one that fit. One day Mr. Isbester overheard my friend Bill Lee call him “Wibbly Wobbly”, and promptly reported him to the principal. Bill Lee and I were called to the Principal’s office, and told to apologize. We knocked on Mr Isbester’s door and when he lurched it open and lunged toward us, we yelled “I’m sorry Mr. Isbester” over our shoulders as we ran back up the stairs.
6. June Mornings
Ray’s father ran the power plant, and every morning started the old diesel engine that drove the generator that powered the town’s electricity. Often his Dad would let Ray come with him to watch the start-up procedure, and when the big flywheel was up to speed he showed me how to whistle into the spokes, to make a beautiful melodious sound. His Dad was a very patient kind and gentle man. No doubt because Ray was the oldest, he spent more time following him around the garage than his brothers. Dad was always ready to explain how and why something worked.
7. Money from Hunting
There was big money to be made in hunting — the county paid one cent for each gopher tail, and four cents for each pair of crow or magpie legs turned in. After a big day of gopher hunting, we would empty our pockets onto the dining room table for the official count. When the summer was near an end, it was time to cash in our booty. We took them to the post office where the Post Master counted them and paid us cash on the spot. Upon reflection, I bet he took them right to the kitchen stove as soon as we left.
8. Canadian National Railway
On the south end of Main Street ran the Canadian National Railway main line. Some trains flew right through town and barely slowed down, but most of them stopped to pick up freight or shunt off a few grain cars. This was when the hobos would hop off an empty box car and head for the houses in town looking for a hand out. Mother was a real soft touch for these guys. One poor fellow had his arm pulled out of its socket when the train started up unexpectedly, and he fell off the roof and grabbed a rung on the steel ladder to save himself. He chose our place to search for help and Mother worked on his arm, bandaged him, and let him sleep in our garage while she fed him and nursed him back to health. Then one day he was just gone.
The railroad tracks were like a magnet to us, but we had strict instructions not to go near the tracks. Although money was a very scarce item in those days, a prized item we all coveted was a flattened penny, especially one produced in 1937 by the train carrying Queen Elizabeth. The tracks were lined with pennies, and those flattened by the Royal Train were a coveted item.
One summer day, my friend Bill Lee and I were standing as close as we dared to a big steam locomotive as it stood in the yard hissing. The engineer with his pin-striped bib overalls and red bandana helped us up into the cab and showed us the boiler and pulled the whistle and rang the bell. It was a day to remember.
9. Winter Deep Freeze
One of the good things about winter was the natural refrigeration that came with the season. A wooden trunk sat on our front porch was full of frozen food from November through March. In January the truckers on Hwy #9 would buy a load of frozen Northern Pike from the Indians who ice-fished in central Alberta, and sell them in every little town to the south. The truck would pull into Main St., throw open it’s rear door and display the frozen fish. Dad would bring home a few, give one to Mother to thaw and cook, and put the rest in our freezer trunk on the front porch.
10. Winter Sundays
Sundays during the winter time were a family time. Dad had to get up at 6:00 even on Sunday to start the power plant, but he came home for breakfast. Dad liked kippered herring, and would take the lid off the kitchen stove and toast herring for us all. Sunday morning after breakfast was the time to finish up any homework that had been put off from Friday.
After our homework was done, we usually started one of our many games — snakes and ladders, tricky sticks, monopoly, croquinole. This held our attention until late afternoon, when all the good radio programs started, and we moved to living room where the big console radio stood. All three boys lay on the floor and fought to be closest to the speaker. Radio was a magic device that took us away to distant places. The Lone Ranger Rides Again, Gang Busters, The Shadow Knows.
For more information about Ray and his life and family, please visit http://www.raycooley.com/