Onward Christian Soldiers

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Winter on Lake Doreen. Alec gets up and stokes the fire. He’ll have to dig his way out of the cabin again. Out of tea. Cold, and getting worse.

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After the Sunday night train goes back to the city, everyone who is staying down comes back across the lake from the station, gets their flashlight and maybe a sweater and then goes to Baragar’s for Sing Song. You know how old you are by where you sit. The little kids and the teenagers sit on the floor, because if there is a good turnout there won’t be enough chairs. If you are married (or old enough to be), you might get to squeeze onto a bench with a little one on your lap, and the grandparents sit in the good chairs. Hymnbooks are passed around out of a big red cardboard box that skim milk powder came in. All the groceries come to the lake by train and so everyone eats a lot of Klik and canned peas and powdered milk. And fish of course. And blueberry pie.

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After he checks his trap lines Alec fries up a fish and eats it. It might be Christmas. His watch has stopped. Last summer those boys Billy and Don came up and spent the day. Alec doesn’t speak English so good but the boys don’t care. Good boys. Billy had a watch on that day but Alec hasn’t been able to check the time since.

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The mothers were worried. Over the course of a whole summer in the wilderness, the youngsters might forget not only the arithmetic they learned at school, but they might also forget their Sunday School lessons. To provide for this deficiency in what was otherwise a perfect lakeside Eden, they instituted a Sunday evening hymn sing. 6-cci20170102_0005In the first years (“in the beginning” if you will), they sang without accompaniment, but soon decided that a piano was required. A reconditioned piano – upright, just like the faithful cottagers – was purchased on sale at Eaton’s. It was crated, shipped by rail, brought down the hill to the dock in Station Bay, and lashed to a rowboat. Another rowboat towed it the quarter mile across. Then up the hill on that side and gently, more or less gently, put in its place.

 

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Alec reads the bible by lamplight, but only for a little while to save kerosene. Supplies should hold out ‘til spring, but best be careful all the same. Always the problem. He has to get some stuff from town in spring and fall, but that means going to the train station near where the cottages are. Some of the people are all right. He likes that Doctor. Sometimes he can earn a few dollars hauling for them or cutting ice. But they want to ask questions and find out why he lives in the woods and where he’s from and why he left the farm. They are trying to be kind maybe.

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“Shall we get started?” The numbers of the hymns are called out like requests, starting with Number 681, “Unto the Hills.” No-one plans it. Over the years, favourites are found and become standards. “Breathe on Me Breath of God (148),” “Abide With Me (550).” Mrs. Waldon’s favourite is Number 286: “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.” Someone will call out 613, and they sing “Jesus Bids us Shine” for the children. One hymn has as its refrain “Glad Hosannas,” and the children sing “Glad Bananas,” just quietly. But when they come to the word “shout” in “Dare to be a Daniel,” everyone shouts just as loudly as they can.

To a child sitting on the floor, if she thinks about the words at all, they are hard to understand. In some of the songs, Jesus is a shepherd, and in some songs, God is a rock. Will your anchor hold? If you didn’t go to enough Sunday School yet or you weren’t paying attention, you might not be clear on who Daniel was or what he dared to do. But the singing is wonderful. People know the harmonies and take their parts. There are several people who play the piano for Sing Song, but whoever is playing, Graham Pincock always takes the bench for “Onward Christian Soldiers.” He plays it like he means it. The piano is badly out of tune, as you would expect from an instrument that is left to freeze solid, all winter, every year.

“Marching as to war.” What war?

 

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Enough reading for tonight. Suppose some day he might use up the whole bible. The stories will run out like the kerosene. Then what would he do? He likes the stories but some of them are mean, like the priests or the teachers back in school. Learn your lessons or else. Watch your step. Sinner. He could never figure out what he did wrong.

The cold is worse every day. His watch has stopped. Supplies are low.

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After ten or so hymns have been sung there is an intermission, and the plates are passed around. They don’t put money in the plates. What would money be good for out here? The plates are full of candy. The smallest children are asked to pass it around.

Then more hymns. “We’re Marching to Zion.” More sheep, more rocks, more battles.

 

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“And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

Alec lies awake. What did I do? What did I do?

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The hymns are passed down through families like the cottages and the stories that go with them. How Mrs. Brownell could bake a perfect cake without measuring anything. The time there was nothing left for supper but porridge. How they used to do plays at Flat Rock (“Robin Hood,” and “The Dirk in the Heather”). How Doctor Waldon would gather any kids that were around and show them the insides of the fish he was filleting, show them the heart and the liver and split the stomach open to see what the fish had for dinner. Some of the stories are meant as cautions. Never forget that the forest is a real place and sometimes dangerous. Stories of bears and storms, missing the train and getting lost. The one about Alec the Trapper.

 

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It gets worse and worse and worse. What month is it? Today had better be the day. It won’t do to put it off any more. He sharpens his axe.

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The sun sets and after Number  545  (“Now the Day is Over”) they sing the Benediction. “The Lord bless thee and keep thee. The Lord make his face shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. Amen.” There is a loveliness about singing with people that trumps confusion. The singing is more than the words, after all, and whatever the words mean, they won’t be forgotten. They are yours for life. Daniel’s Band marches off home down the front path with their flashlights, uplifted. They have an anchor that keeps the soul, and this is their beautiful city.

 

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Spring, and the wrist has healed well enough that Alec can paddle his canoe, after a fashion. Chopping wood is hard. When the cottagers come back in May they’ll ask what happened. He could tell them it was an injury. Caught it in a snare, sliced it with the filleting knife and had no choice but to cut it off when it got infected. He could tell them it was a bear. They will likely believe whatever he tells them. Even if he tells them the truth.

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The story goes that Alec Kolanski was too long alone in his cabin on Lake Doreen one winter and lost his mind, and when he got to the part in the bible about “if your right hand offends you,” he was for whatever reason determined that his right hand had to go. They said that he was such an expert in the art of felling trees that he was able to plan for one tree to fall precisely onto the stump of another tree. Alec had just enough time, when the tree started to go over, to run to the stump and put the axe on his wrist in such a way that the tree would fall onto the axe blade. Then he stuck the stump into the snow to stop the bleeding.

That is determined all right.

Every cottage has its own story about why he did it, how he did it, who he talked to about it. In some tellings, he stuck the stump in a bonfire to cauterize it. He may not have been “right in the head” to begin with, but he hardly talked to anyone and his English was poor so no-one really knows.

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The mothers were right to be worried. Forests are dangerous places. But to some of the children sitting on the floor at Sing Song, bellies full of canned peas and blueberries, wandering confused and alone in a veritable forest of metaphors, religion also seemed like a place where you could lose your way, and Alec might have been better off without the bible.

©2017 Ellen Peterson

My niece and nephew, also known as Roger Roger, have a song about Alec called Mad Trapper. Here it is : https://youtu.be/jdBAixoerbc

Thanks to my research assistants Maryann Peterson and Ian Baragar for help remembering hymns. Ian, in case anyone wanted to know, is partial to hymns with nice harmonies like good old Number 41, “O For a Thousand Tongues.”

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2 thoughts on “Onward Christian Soldiers”

  1. I hadn’t heard the story of Alec the Trapper before this. Thanks for it! I will have to have another listen to the Roger Roger song. Is that my Mommy-to-be on the right in the last photo?

    Like

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