66 Years in the Making!
3 Plays for a Quarter!
Yes, it’s true!
Download the Jukebox for free:
play-the-jukebox PDF version
play-the-jukebox-reid-Dickie ZIP file epub for tablets and ereaders
With gratitude and love I dedicate this book to my parents, Helen and Bruce Dickie, whose gifts I used every day of my life, and to Linda, who lit my way.
Available now at McNally Robinson
Moments away from puberty, young Jim Crawford begins to discover how his newly effervescent maleness gives fresh meaning and expression to manhood in his family, friendships, community and beyond. Set in a small Canadian prairie town just as the tumultuous social and cultural changes of the 1960s begin, Play the Jukebox is a character-driven story entwining bright wholesome and dark pathological expressions of masculinity. As his own unique gifts reveal themselves, Jim learns the heights and depths to which men will go to defend family and future and how shared experience creates diverse forms of camaraderie between men and women.
Jim’s life revolves around pop music and records. The 45 – the little record with the big hole – is king; radio disc jockeys, record players and jukeboxes spin the seven-inch discs constantly. He discovers intimate links between hit songs and his own development as he travels from town to town changing the records in jukeboxes with Percy Peel, a mystery media mogul who leaves lasting impressions on Jim. As they did for millions of 1960s youth, The Beatles play a defining role as one of Jim’s change agents.
McNally Robinson: If you are coming into one of our stores, we suggest that you confirm that the book you want is in stock by emailing the location nearest you: Grant Park, Saskatoon, or by phoning the location nearest you.
This year’s 12 Days of Christmas will feature one daily post from 12 of readreidread’s best pages. This will show the diversity of my blog content while revealing the range of my personal interests and some of the blisses I have followed in my life. The pages are all listed above my home page header picture. I begin with an excerpt from one of my favourite and most satisfying projects – The Lonesomes.
The 16 stories that comprise The Lonesomes offer life and death at play on the open prairie. Change is chronicled in personal events, measured by lifetimes. The stories tell of the desperate births of people, towns and ideas, of mystery, trickery, love, revenge and bizarre deaths, glimpses of the human condition that resonate deeply with people everywhere, city and country, town and farm.
To watch the Old Friends segment – about 4 minutes – click here.
Watch The Lonesomes in its entirety – about 45 minutes – by clicking the picture at the top of this post. rewind to zero as video starts a few minutes into it.
Feedback always welcome.
Located in Winnipeg the Prairie Caravan Tribal Belly Dancers are a troupe of women of all ages who have a desire to study and expand the tribal belly dance form and to present it to modern audiences at festivals, events and fundraisers.
I featured a short excerpt from their performance on my festival video report. Click any picture to watch my video of their entire opening dance, just over 5 minutes.
Check out their website.
When Elevators Dream
Two long-abandoned grain elevators have a wonderful dream.
AUDIO: CLANG OF CROSSING BELL
Huh? Huh? What’s that?
It sounds like the crossing bell.
The crossing bell!! You’ve gone mad! There hasn’t been a bell there for decades. There hasn’t even been tracks here for 20 years (PAUSE) but you are right. It’s…
AUDIO: train whistle
It’s a train! (PAUSE) It IS a train!
But…but…It can’t be…
AUDIO: He is drowned out by the sound of the train passing,
CREDITS: on a vertical roll, end credits over the invisible train. When the credits end, the train passes.
AUDIO: after train passes, the crossing bell stops, peace and serenity return to the prairie.
That was fun!!
I still don’t believe it!! We must be dreaming?
(MORE A MURMUR) ummm…maybe.
AUDIO: Prairie sounds arise
Written, Produced and Directed by Reid Dickie
Steve Black, Duane Braun, Troy Buschman, Reid Dickie, Mitchell Johnston, Borys Kozak, Carol Anne Miller, Nora Nordin-Fredette, Liz Olson, Allan Palmer, Chris Scholl, Dennis Scullard, Tannis Zimmer
Troy Buschman, Reid Dickie, Garcea Diehl, Liz Olson, Chris Scholl, Tannis Zimmer
Sound Recording at Video Pool, Winnipeg
Special Thanks to Kevin Uddenberg, Kenny Boyce, Terry Lewycky, Vonda Bos, Rick Fisher, Prairie Dog Central
Dedicated to Beautiful Linda
A BE HAPPY PRODUCTION
© REID DICKIE 2012
Both characters sound groggy and confused by what they are hearing because they are hearing the impossible. This is established quickly.
It’s the clang of the crossing bell that catches their attention then the train whistle adds further disbelief until they are drowned out by the sound of a modern fast freight with lots of low rumbles and screeching steel on steel sounds.
To create a crossing the end credits run on a vertical scroll over the elevators as the invisible train passes horizontally.
Once the train is gone, there is joy and disbelief. The prairie silence returns.
For her fourth appearance in The Lonesomes, Nora Nordin-Fredette plays the female elevator and I play the male.
This sad pair of elevators is in Isabella, Manitoba, again south of Shoal Lake. Long abandoned by the railroad and most of its residents, little remains of Isabella today.
I captured this bucolic scene one hot afternoon. The story is a conversation between the buildings resulting in an imaginary train passing by. I used it has the background for the end credits creating a crossroads with the invisible train moving horizontally and the scrolling credits moving vertically. I saw it as fitting end to The Lonesomes, reinforcing the dream-like quality of the piece.
A brief conversation with an old friend prevents a lifetime of confusion.
I used to stand in that big showroom window and wonder where all the customers were. People drove by but not many stopped in. Cassie, my wife, took care of the storefront and the books and I did the repair work in the garage in the back. We were a good team, at least that’s what I thought.
One Saturday night, when Cassie was visiting her sister in the city, my old buddy Hutch and I were watching the game. Between periods I was telling Hutch about how poorly the garage was doing and how confused I was about why it wasn’t doing better. I guessed that people in Marshallville didn’t think I was a very good mechanic and maybe I needed to find another line of work.
It’s not you.
What do you mean, Hutch?
It’s not your work that’s causing your business to fail.
Really? What is it then? (PAUSE)
It’s your wife. (PAUSE)
Cassie! What do you mean?
Cassie…exactly. To be blunt with you, my friend…people don’t like her. She came from the city and though you and she may not think so, she looks down on people here. At least that’s the impression she leaves. She’s not (PAUSE) small town stuff; she’s from (PAUSE) elsewhere, a square peg.
People treat me just fine, treat…us just fine!
They’re just being polite. How many times you two been invited over to anybody’s house but mine for dinner? I’m guessing, none. How often do you both go out to events in town? Almost never. People don’t see you anywhere but at the garage. You need to circulate, participate in the life of the town.
Cassie doesn’t like those kind of… (PAUSE)
As I got us both another beer, it was beginning to sink in but Hutch wasn’t done yet.
HUTCH (FAKE DISBELIEF)
Do you want me to believe that you moved to the city for a few years and forget how people around here think? What their expectations are? You come from here. It’s in your blood but you forgot. (LIGHT, A LITTLE TAUNTING) Love made you blind to what’s going on around you and to what’s always been going on here. It’s the same old story in this town. Nothing has changed, nothing ever will.
So…I…am a good mechanic?
People think so. I know so. It’s your situation that keeps you from succeeding here. You’re the rose and Cassie is the thorn. You cancel each other out in this town.
When Cassie got back from the city, we discussed our situation. A month later I started a real estate course, something I thought I’d be good at and I was. We moved to the city and had a happy and prosperous life together. I left that little town knowing I was a good mechanic but I never did tell Cassie what Hutch said.
I still feel enormous gratitude to my old friend for giving me the perspective I needed at exactly the right moment.
Sometimes friends save your life and don’t even know it.
The aging Narrator is recounting this story from his younger days. It recalls a milestone in his life, a pivotal moment. He tells his story with wistfulness yet reverence for its magnitude in his life. His gratitude to his friend is sincere and, perhaps, overdue.
Hutch and the Narrator were good friends at some point in the past and may still be. We don’t know. We do know that the Narrator is beholden to Hutch and feels that telling his story will help purge his gratitude, to find an outlet of expression that satisfies the depth and truth of his thankfulness.
The set-up in the first two paragraphs (under 130 words) is quick and simple. We get the characters, their relationship and the situation immediately in easy-to-understand terms. But don’t rush the audience’s understanding. Give the story room to move, to grow. Give the audience a chance to figure out what they are seeing.
As a counterpoint to the lonesome empty building, the tone of the actors is generally happiness, of friendship and sharing with good humour. Some drama occurs on Narrator’s part with his disbelief about the cause of poor sales but it, too, is good-natured and familiar. Deep in his heart, the Narrator knows Hutch is right and this is the moment he must end his denial and proceed with life. It’s truly a Get Real moment.
This is based on fact, sort of. A friend who grew up with me in Shoal Lake, married a city woman and they lived in the little town, with varying degrees of success. My story has a happier ending.
Wanting to reinforce the value of true friendship I came up with the story as a homage to lifelong relationships. Hutch, the old friend who didn’t leave home, says nothing ever changes in small towns but everything, all the changes we’ve just watched in every episode of The Lonesomes, refutes his words.
Dennis Scullard plays the grateful friend and eloquently brought the wisdom of the long view into sight. Watch Dennis’ demo reel. Dear friend Troy Buschman voices the younger Hutch.
This scene has a very structuralist feeling to it, an accidental modernist construct on a vacant building in a dying town.
The old garage is in Decker, Manitoba south of Shoal Lake. Several things appealed to me about the place: the greyness of the walls and boards, the smashed window with the perfect arc visible above the hoarding and the horizontal ladder. My two shots of the place were enough to accommodate the conversation. In the story, Marshallville is its location.
In the first and principal scene, we see the boarded up storefront of a long abandoned garage with a broken window covered by several planks and a horizontal ladder. As well as being an interesting solution to the broken window problem, the horizontal ladder is a large metaphor for lateral movement in small towns as they decline.
The second scene (above) is a medium close-up of the broken window with its perfect arc and the ladder dividing the scene a different way. The neutral dusted-out colours of the wood and the building suggest and reinforce the place’s and the town’s ongoing deterioration. Though dimmed by being reflected, the trees moving in the breeze are the only vivid colours, again suggesting what once was here.
Two retired telephone operators have a chance encounter with life-changing results.
Lil? Can that be you?
I guess it pretty much has to be, don’t it? How are you, Dort?
Great Geezers, nobody’s called me Dort in years.
Probably ’bout as long since I heard anybody say Great Geezers.
I’m doing fine, old gal. George and I are in town to visit his sis Ethel who’s not doing so well.
So I hear. How is George?
The same. Still loves to haunt musty old places. He dragged me into the museum downtown which I had never been in before. Lo and behold, there was our old switchboard from the telephone office! You coulda knocked me over with a noodle!
That old clutterbucket’s been in there for a few years since somebody discovered it in the loft of old Smoocher’s barn. You should drive down Larch. The old telephone building is still there.
We will. Old Smoocher! Great Geezers! His number was on the central party line, 23 ring 3.
Very good Dort! Your memory’s held up well considering we haven’t worked the board for over 30 years.
When I saw that old switchboard it all just came flooding back to me, Lil – the names, the numbers, the rings, the long distance codes, even the smell of the marigolds Juicy Jim the janitor usta plant around the building. Funny what you remember…
And what you forget.
(SLIGHTLY UNDER HER BREATH) Remember Lil? We usta have the best gossip in town, didn’t we?
DORT LAUGHS NERVOUSLY
Always the best. If you wanted to know who was pregnant and shouldn’ta been, ask Lil or Dort. If you wanted to know whose business was about to go tits up, ask the phone gals. If you wanted to find out who gambled or drank too much, which men liked boys better than girls, and vice versa, who really stole the church statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, ask the busiest bodies in town.
It was quite a burden, bearing all that knowledge, wasn’t it Lil?
That’s how I found out my Dutch was cheating on me (PAUSE) and with who.
You look surprised, Dort!
(DISBELIEF, SOME HORROR) You knew?
(STILL HORRIFIED) You knew…all along?
All along. It wasn’t long before half the town knew.
(MOUNTING SHOCK AND HORROR) No!! What!? No!
(CHUCKLES A LITTLE) You two weren’t very good at having an affair, not very good at all. You lacked…umm…basic discretion. You thought people were stupider than they are which always backfires in a small town.
Did Dutch know that you knew?
Nope and that’s just how I wanted it. See what I mean about being lousy at cheating. George and I were much better at having our affair than you two.
What!? You and my George had an affair! (GASPING) I don’t believe you.
You don’t have to believe me, honey. It happened and we had a hoot because nobody, and I mean NO BODY, knew about us. Making sure of that was the most fun, well, some of the fun.
I don’t believe you!
You believe what you need to believe, Dort. Ask George.
I will. (TURNS FROM MIC, FADES IN DISTANCE) George! George!
God, I’ve waited a long time for that. I…feel…great! (CHUCKLES LOUDLY GENUINELY) And (CHUCKLE) she had Old Smoocher’s number wrong. Ha!
This story is about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that presents itself suddenly and perfectly. It has a lot of detail in it, starting with a historical set-up for the characters followed by a plot with a twist and another twist that are revealed quickly and simply, ending with a curlicue. This is a snappy story; it moves along. The pace needs to be bright but not speedy because we want the women’s situations to be fully understood.
Two old friends meet accidentally in a cafe in a small town. Back about 30 years, they both worked as telephone operators in the local telephone office, which is the building you see in the image. They seem friendly enough at the beginning of our story.
Lil is not short for Lillian or Lily, it is short for Lilac but still pronounced as if it was short for Lillian. Dort is short for Dorothy. Dort’s husband is George who is with her on this visit to their former home town. Lil’s husband is Dutch who isn’t referred to but in the past tense because Dutch is dead. Both women are in their 60s but young-sounding and distinctive, like telephone operators in small towns were.
At the outset, the two women are a little surprised to see each other but cordial, genuine. Dort has a favourite expression “Great geezers” she uses like a row of exclamation points. By the seventh line, we know their relationship – they were once switchboard operators in town.
By the time we hear about Old Smoocher, Dort is sounding less positive of what she’s saying, more disingenuous, challenged. This is followed with Lil’s false praise which becomes increasingly evident in her voice.
Sensing Lil’s change, Dort tries to endear herself with the memory of the gossip they heard as operators. Lil spouts some suggestive and lurid situations they both knew about, setting us and Dort up nicely for Lil’s next line about Dutch. Their chuckle after Dort talks of bearing the burden is the last cordial moment.
Then Lil goes in for the kill, not maliciously but pointedly, directly confronting Dort. Lil knows this is a shocker for Dort and relishes every moment. After the pregnant pause, Lil lures Dort in.
Dort is totally surprised and shocked; she almost whispers her next two lines, like a stage aside. Once she knows that half the town knew about her affair with Dutch, Dort is louder, flustered. This makes Lil happy.
Lil gets right to the point – Dort and Dutch thought people are stupid and that doesn’t work in a small town. Lil gets to drop another one on Dort, her affair with George. Dort is flabbergasted with disbelief. Lil encourages her to check with George and we hear Dort turn away calling George twice – the first time Dort sounds rather forlorn but the second time she says his name, she is irate, demanding, impatient.
Sounding enormously satisfied with herself, Lil states her present feelings and chuckles to herself. Then the kicker – Dort got Smoocher’s number wrong. The cherry on the sundae for Lil – a jolly Ha!
Even though Lil is the obvious “winner” let’s leave the listener feeling empathetic toward both women as well as for hapless George, whose life is probably about to change forever when Dort springs this on him. Maybe George has a heart attack, maybe not. Lil’s satisfaction is total, bliss.
Small town telephone operators always had very distinctive voices which were easily recognizable both on and off the phone. I wanted two such voices and thought of Liz Olson and Tannis Zimmer, neither of whom have done voice work but who both possess the vocal and dramatic qualities I wanted. Both women came completely prepared for their roles and The Muse followed us into the studio. In two takes I had my story.
Because I only had one shot of the building and the story is rather long, Kevin Uddenberg, in post production, suggested the slow reveal of the image strip by strip. I like the effect. It complements the story’s revelations nicely.
This piece has the most precious and unusual genesis of all the stories in The Lonesomes.
In the late 1930s/early 1940s, the Manitoba Telephone System (MTS) built dozens of these little Spanish Colonial style buildings with fake adobe awnings all over the province to house their offices, switchboards and operators. With the advent of dial phones in the 1960s these little buildings either were demolished or put to other uses. Very few of them remain.
I found this building in Hartney, MB and shot a few minutes of it on a warm day. I packed up my camera and by the time I was back on Highway #21 just outside of Hartney the entire story came to me in a flash. Writers love it when highly detailed stories are provided from a sudden, unknown source. I pulled over and made a few notes on the story which had come full blown with names, numbers, catch phrases and denouement – a rather mysterious event. When I sat down to write the story a few days later, it flooded effortlessly out of me, seemingly without conscious thought or the need for my presence other than to type it out.
In addition to the twists in the story, there was a twist in gathering the images. I always make notes along the road on what and where I take pictures or shoot video. I lost my notes for this trip which was in the summer of 2011 and couldn’t exactly recall in which town this building was located.
On the day of the cast and crew screening of The Lonesomes at IMAX I decided to track down the location of the building, in case someone asked where it was. I knew it was south of Brandon so I called a few little towns including Hartney. I spoke to the Hartney town administrator who recognized the place by my description. It had been used as the municipal office for a number of years after MTS left but had fallen into disrepair on the interior in recent years. He told me it had been torn down in early 2012, about 6 months after I recorded it!
I was flattered that the little place gave me a final story just before it disappeared. I’m happy to be the conduit for its past. In 2014 you can still find the building in situ on Google Street View.
A Town with Water
A defeated small-town mayor sheepishly tells his odorous story.
I blew it. I truly blew it.
In 1960 Marshallville became “a town with water.” As mayor at the time I’m proud to say I was instrumental in getting the waterworks to town. No more outhouses and public taps, no more hauling buckets of water in and toilet pails out, soon everything would be up-to-date: hot and cold running, flushing and showering. That summer, streets and yards were torn up all over town as the infrastructure for water and sewer went in. And then in early October, most of the town showed up at a ceremony to celebrate the arrival of “the waterworks.”
New “towns with water” usually hold a subdued ceremony with the symbolic burning of an outhouse to signal the end of the old well-worn path out back and the beginning of a bright sanitary indoor future.
Never a town to do anything in a small way, the council and myself voted on burning all the biffies in town at once. There was one dissenting voice – Mark Robbins. He’s now the mayor. Anyway, 171 outhouses were piled on the flats over at the north end of the lake, hauled and stacked by Dreidger’s Hough. The bottom openings, which once shielded holes filled with human muck, now gaped obscenely and odorously in plain view – not the most pleasant sight as you drove into town.
The local paper asked me for a comment about the forthcoming celebration and my exact words still echo through my memory: “It will make a fine blaze and leave an indelible impression. People will remember this night.”
At the ceremony, I gave a brief speech, Doctor Gault, in his British accent, remarked how a new era in our ability to fight disease and improve personal hygiene was beginning. I turned on a giant red tap, the water flowed in, the waste flowed out. It was a miracle! The 20th century had arrived! Everyone cheered.
Then Fire Chief Burley lit the outhouses, more cheers as our past went up in smoke, cutting a swath of light, heat and stink through the cold October twilight. It was a fine blaze, enjoyed on many levels but the outhouses had their revenge.
That night and for three days and nights afterwards, every nose in Marshallville knew we had the waterworks by a constant reminder – an acrid, burning-manure smell that arose from the smoldering heap of collapsed outhouses. The smell resisted arduous spraying from the town’s fire truck and produced a rank odour that permeated the whole town no matter which direction the wind blew. It was awful; some older people even went to the hospital for oxygen and relief.
In the aftermath, I bore the brunt of coffee shop condemnation. I couldn’t even go for a java at Jim Jim’s without being taunted, often not good-naturedly. But I was the one who said it would be “a night to remember” and it stuck. Unable to claim the waterworks as my victory because of the blowback from the fire, I was soundly defeated the following year. Marshallville had flushed me.
Even to this day, every time I flush the toilet, I can smell the stink from the burning outhouses. Apparently this still happens to other people in Marshallville, too.
When small towns got the waterworks it was truly a life-changing event. I remember the summer of 1960 when Shoal Lake became a town with water as described in the story. Often that phrase was then used on roadside billboards as an attraction to the town. I wanted to overwrite this story as it might have been told by the ex-mayor of Marshallville who recalls the biggest mistake of his political career.
The mayor has carefully written out his side of the story and almost recites it but not without some sheepishness and embarrassment at the whole event. There had to be a consequence to the folly of a mass biffy burning so I made it true for the whole town as well as for the former mayor. I wanted him to sound a little foolish but still humorous and sad at once.
The collective remembrance of the outhouse aroma lives on, not just in the former mayor’s sense-memory but in the whole town’s memory. It’s a legacy the mayor still can’t reconcile within himself so he leans toward resignation.
A Town with Water presented visual and audial challenges. This was the most difficult voice to cast. I tried two men without success. It was a stroke of luck to think of Borys (Boyd) Kozak whom I’d listened to on CKRC growing up and have become friends with at the local Tim Horton’s. Borys grew up in Wadena, Saskatchewan, a town just a little bigger than my hometown by about 400 people. Borys jumped at the chance and brought the ex-mayor to life in just two takes, giving country authenticity to the piece. It was a delight to work with Borys.
In spite of the enormous number of miles I travel every summer, it is surprisingly hard to find classic outhouses these days. I used three different locations for the ones in this story.
The first is located at what once was Bryd Siding just west of Shoal Lake on Highway #16. The outhouse, overgrown with bushes, along with a crumbling barn and dilapidated house, are all that remains of Bryd.
The row of four biffies is in the churchyard of St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church between Tolstoi and Gardenton on Highway #209 in southern Manitoba. The progressively dilapidated structures spoke to me about progress and regression. This site provided the lion’s share of the scenes.
The final classic biffy with the crescent moon cut out of the door I lucked into in Makinak, Manitoba on the northeastern edge of Riding Mountain.
Cribben McCue Froze to Death
The cranky town gossip shares too much information on how to freeze to death.
Cribben McCue froze to death. He lived in this house in Marshallville his whole life and cared for his aging and ailing mother, Ruthie. It was late fall in the early Fifties when he fell through the thin ice on the river. Cribs, as everybody called him, managed to get to shore. Dripping wet, the temperature well below zero with a stiff wind, he started for home but soon got discombobulated. I guess he staggered around for awhile but the cold overwhelmed him.
When they found Cribs, he was naked as the day he was born. Rumours went around that he’d been beaten, robbed and stripped. But he died alone, in the cold, his body wedged up between two big old cottonwoods trees. (SCORNFULLY) People don’t know.
Freezing to death is one of the worst ways to die. Slowly losing your heat, your essential fire gradually dimming then gone. It isn’t long before the cold starts to interfere with your ability to think rationally, to understand what is happening to you. Your confusion mounts; your movement is impeded by the cold, the awful, unforgiving cold. You shiver violently, uncontrollably. You stumble around. Your hands are useless.
(MORE SCORN) People don’t know. The constant cold induces some odd behaviour like wanting to burrow under something, behind something, between something like big trees. It’s similar to hibernation. When the metabolism slows down we begin to burrow, to dig in, like varmints.
Somewhere late in the freezing to death process, a strange thing occurs. You suddenly feel hot, unbearably hot. Unable to reason why this might be happening, you feel confined, your clothing imprisons you in the heat so you tear off your clothes, compulsively stripping every shred off your body to cool down.
Naked, you can only feel the dimly heated core of your body as your vitals collapse under duress, your arms and legs turn blue and numb, your skin turns brittle, your eyes freeze shut, your lips and tongue harden, your blood slows as it becomes ice in your veins, your organs succumb to the cold and there is a constant high pitched buzzing in your ears because your eardrums have frozen and broken apart. When the buzzing stops, so does everything else.
You are extinguished; your body becomes stiff, (PAUSE) solid, (PAUSE) like one stuff, (PAUSE) all ice and frozen bone. (PAUSE)
That’s how Cribben McCue died. (SCORN) People don’t know.
A bitter and miserable old woman tells this tale of woe about a family in Marshallville. Immediately we learn Cribs lived his whole life in the house we are seeing where he cared for his sick mother. What a nice boy, except to our story teller. She is sour about everything including her story. She doesn’t try to hide her scorn for others, ever, sees no reason to. She’s old; she doesn’t care.
Matter-of-factly but with great scorn, she recounts the dreadful experience of freezing to death referring to the death of Cribben McCue. As the horror of each freezing stage is explained, sourpuss lady takes a keener pleasure in talking about it, highly self-satisfied at her knowing what “People don’t know.”
Everything she says is true; this is what happens when we freeze to death. It delights her; she wallows in the horror, enjoying herself too much.
I didn’t have a story until I read the details of what actually happens when we freeze to death. The final details are largely embellishment but everything leading up to that, including the stripping and burrowing, is factual.
Carol Anne Miller did four takes of this story, each radically different. I settled on the grating crazy lady voice as there were at least two women in Shoal Lake with similar vocal tones who were terrible gossips and loved to embellish everything they heard. More than any other voice in The Lonesomes, this one gets an immediate reaction and thus works as intended. Thanks Carol.
This house is in Westbourne, Manitoba along Highway #16. The weather-worn colour of the house along with its long abandoned, paintless condition appealed to me.
I shot it twice, once for the long view and once for the details. In post, Kevin Uddenberg and I worked this into a vague Guy Maddin homage during post production with the colour changes and the negative (black) spaces.
I Don’t Like Trains
An old man recalls his dire railroad birth.
AUDIO: one blast of a steam train whistle
I don’t like trains.
AUDIO: another blast of the whistle
I was born on a train but it was a rude and crude way to come into the world. It surely was. (PAUSE) It was 1893 and even though Mama was round and ripe with me, she was travelling up to Russell to see her ailing brother Thomas. The train was a mile and half out of the little town of Marshallville and Mama had a big bathroom urge. To her dismay her water burst and she squirted me out like a bar of wet soap. In those days when you used train toilets, your leavings went right out onto the tracks. Well, I landed under the train with the cord that connected me and Mama still attached. I was dragged along under the train over the cinders until the cord got broken.
I was cut up pretty bad and bear the scars to prove it. This red gash on my forehead and below my right eye, that’s my tattoo from being dragged face down til the cord broke.
My whole right side and my back looks like a road map from being cut up by sharp cinders.
The doctor in Marshallville, his name was Doc Wensel, he heard about my desperate birth. The doc got in his horse and buggy and hightailed it to the train. Doc Wensel staunched up my bleeding the best he could, tended to Mama and made the train engineer agree to keep the train stopped for an hour. Thay way, me and Mama could get over the shocks of the day in a warm car before he took us to the little hospital in Marshallville.
(WISTFUL) If I’m very quiet, I can still feel the first warm hands that held me. A conductor named Gus lifted me off the cinders and placed me in a linen tablecloth from the dining car. I was bloodied and bleeding. He dried me off and I can remember feeling the heat from his big warm hands.
(PAUSE) Well, that was what the first minutes of my life were like. Luckily life got better. (PAUSE) Mama told me all this and ever since, I’ve had a great story to tell that always begins with I don’t like trains.
AUDIO: steam train whistle as at start
AUDIO: steam train whistle as at start
Another true story from the history of Shoal Lake!
In the 1890s just outside of town a baby was born as presented in the story complete with the doctor hurrying out to the train to tend to mother and child. The child lived a long life thereafter and I wanted to capture him as an old man with still-vivid memories of his birth. The first warm hands thing is pure fiction but the rest sticks to the facts. Marshallville is mentioned again.
The old guy has lived every day of his many years with evidence of his terrifying birth writ in scars on his flesh, on his face! The scarification on his body is severe. A large, red scar on his face looks like the number 3 and goes from above his left eye to a peak below his eye and continues around his mouth onto his chin. The scar is wide and thick; it is the defining characteristic of his face. You can’t miss it.
His body is even more severely scarred. As he was being dragged along under the train, the needle-sharp cinders minced his right side and all of his back leaving deep ragged furrows that still redden occasionally eighty-odd years after they were made. They healed in such a way that there are three perfect interconnecting circles that run diagonally across his back from his right shoulder to his left side, a bizarre fragment of order amid a chaos of disfigurement. All his life he has carried much shame about his body and only once appeared shirtless in company. On that occasion, a woman fainted when she saw the grotesque scars on his torso.
What a way to arrive in the world! He’s a little nuts and speaks in a strange gnarly voice, but he is thrilled to be able to relate the story of his gruesome birth yet again. He tells it with some humour, great familiarity and odd phrasing and tone.
There is much room to generate sympathy and my old buddy Mitchell Johnston did just that, creating a memorable character.
Every weekend during the spring, summer and fall, the Prairie Dog Central plies the rails between Winnipeg and Grosse-Isle, Manitoba. The train consists of an 1882 steam locomotive with five passenger cars and caboose dating from 1901 to 1913, all fully restored and operational. A ride on the Prairie Dog Central is one of the premiere tourist events in Manitoba! As a fun excursion for the whole family, I highly recommend it.
To capture the footage, I leap-frogged the Prairie Dog Central along Highway #6 one Sunday during its run, shooting crossing to crossing along the way. I shot more footage in Grosse Isle as the train navigated the wye. The old train is a visual treat and just being near it hearkens one back to a comfortable and simple time.
A resourceful pioneer scares off an opponent and his dream ensues.
Greetings. I’m Angus Marshall.
I wanted that whole quarter section of land at the end of that lovely blue lake but Aubrey Briers, a farmhand from Ontario just like me, was squatting on it, just like I was. Off in one corner Briers built a lopsided sod hut that looked about to be tumbling over any minute. I don’t know how long he’d been there but I was keen to find a way of getting rid of him so I could build my little dream.
What was my little dream? Well, before me stretches to the south a narrow shallow lake, five miles long. A little stream comes in from the north and feeds the lake. The land around rolls in gentle fashion, rich for farming. I feel in my Scottish bones that a town will grow on this very spot.
(BECOMING WISTFUL) One evening when I was sitting under a cottonwood tree watching the sun reflected off the lake, the shimmer of light and water sent a vision afoot over the landscape. Suddenly around me I saw little houses, churches, hotels and stores built along a railroad track, people scurrying about building and doing, building and doing.
I saw yet-unborn Marshalls: my sons and daughters walking on this land, growing and building here, too. And sharing, always sharing, for if the Good Lord teaches us anything, He teaches us that “there’s enough.”
Sitting under that old tree, I suddenly heard a sound from the future, the wet lonesome whistle of a steam train in the distance. It would be eleven years before the track was laid through here but I heard that train coming just as plain as day. I knew at that moment a town would arise here.
That was my dream but Briers was in the way. I needed to get rid of him. He didn’t know me very well. I liked it that way so I came up with a plan.
I waited until the next starless night, dark as a dungeon. I had an old horse collar with a couple of cracked bells that sounded eerie so I put the horse collar around my neck and went to visit Briers. When I got to his hut the thought occurred to me to just push the precarious pile of mud over and smother him. But I didn’t need to resort to murder to get what I wanted.
I started to howl like a wolf which got Brier’s attention. When he came out of his hut, I introduced myself as Satan and asked if I could be of any service to him since he was squatting on Satan’s land. I transformed into a horse and snorted and neighed and whinnied, pawed the ground, telling him I lost my wagon a few miles back and would he help me fetch it. And so on, mad gibberish. Briers didn’t know how to react so he went inside his hut. I could hear him securing his door. As I left, I shouted I’d be back every night to see if he needed anything from Satan. (SMALL CHUCKLE)
It rained hard that night. The next morning, when I stepped out of my little hut, I saw a different landscape. No longer did Briers’s hovel stand out against the raw horizon. In its stead lay a pile of mud. I rushed over thinking the hut had finally fallen onto Briers and smothered him but a thorough dig among the muck revealed no Briers…or anything for that matter.
I never saw hide nor hair of him again. He had vanished. Gone as gone can get. I claimed that whole quarter and the rest of the section, too. (PAUSE) That’s why this town is called Marshallville and not Briersville.
That’s also why the war memorial in town has a monument that looks just like Reginald, my first born, who was gassed at Ypres in 1915. (PAUSE) People call the monument The Unknown Soldier (PAUSE) but I know who it is, (PAUSE) I know who it is.
Now we move off the farm into town and hear stories of town life starting with the genesis of Marshallville as explained by its founder and namesake.
Angus Marshall is in his late 70s and looks back over a long life to recount a turning point.
The first paragraph sets everything up. Take it slowly, evenly. Tho Angus and Briers are equals in their squatting rights, being a wily Scotsman, Angus has the edge and he knows it.
The second, third and fourth paragraphs become increasingly wistful as he recounts his dreams and visions. Paragraph five about the train gets almost spooky.
In paragraph six we return to the Briers problem. Here Marshall has a firmer tone.
Marshall gets great enjoyment recounting his plan in action in paragraphs seven and eight ending with a chuckle. Paragraph nine tells of the morning after and paragraph ten the plan is a success. He gloats a little over the town name, affirming his significance in the town.
The last paragraph explains what we have been watching for the last four minutes. Angus’ tone gets a little spooky here. He is still grieving. The implication is that Angus paid for the monument and had it built to his specs. His personal assertion of the statue’s identity is very satisfying for the old man. He tells his story with wisdom, kindness and understanding gained by a long hard life on the prairies.
The story and the image are both quite personal for me. The story is, in fact, the true story of the founding of my hometown, and the war memorial stands in the first village I lived in.
The genesis of Shoal Lake, Manitoba rests with Matt Thompson, the original settler who had to scare off another squatter to claim his land. My story, based on reports in the Shoal Lake history books, follows events closely including the horse collar and feigning madness. For the purposes of The Lonesomes, this is how Marshallville came into being.
Steve Black did a wonderful job bringing Angus Marshall to life.
The first town my parents and I lived in after I was born was Margaret, Manitoba, south of Brandon. I have vague memories of it since we moved when I was about four years old. I have returned to Margaret since and noted the lovely white statue of the soldier that sat in the small park. I wanted to use the statue for The Lonesomes but when I returned to shot it, it was no longer in the village park.
Fewer than a dozen people still live in Margaret. I chatted up the postmistress who said they had moved the statue to the cemetery just outside of town which is where I shot the scene. The water effect I created in my backyard and applied to the image.
God Moves in a Windstorm
A disharmonious choir churns away graveside.
God moves in a windstorm,
God moves in a windstorm,
God moves in a windstorm,
And heaven ain’t far behind.
A ragged choir sings off-key and unsteadily at a graveside funeral on a windy day. It could be Tillie Sweet’s funeral. The wind howls throughout, weaving in and out of the choir.
I wanted to capture the notion of praise but with uncertainty about the melody and the words like a real church congregation would sound without hymnals. The song is my variation on an old Kentucky coal-mining tune by Sara Ogan Gunning.
I recorded the choir in three different places with different people at three different times. Sound engineer Mike Germain did an excellent job combining the disparate pieces into the lop-sided round you hear.
The choir voices are Garcea Diehl, Tannis Zimmer, Liz Olson, Chris Scholl, Troy Buschman and Reid Dickie.
Just east of Komarno, Manitoba, right next to Provincial Road #229, I found this tiny cemetery with a single row of headstones. It felt very lonesome to me. The slow zoom, the drained colour, off-kilter choir and the howling wind combine to enhance a dream-like feeling of loneliness.
This is the last segment in the Farm Life section of The Lonesomes. Next we move into Town Life.
The vast blueness of the sky frightens a woman to death.
Out here most of the world is sky with just a little strip of land running around the bottom. Sometimes that little bit of land isn’t enough, especially when the sky… (PAUSE…UNCERTAINTY…SIGH)
Tillie Sweet lived in this house. (SIGHS) Aw, me. Tillie came from the big city of London England where there is more land than sky. Just off the boat, she married Willaker Sweet. People round here called them Tillie and Willie. Anyways, Willie moved her out here to the middle of the big sky, the biggest sky she ever saw. Tillie Sweet had never experienced anything so big, so blue, so unforgiving, so overpowering as the prairie sky. It became her prison but one that she eventually escaped.
It was during her second summer out here when the isolation, the homesickness and the desperation of her daily life overtook Tillie. It sent her running, running and running and running and running across the open prairie. She was running from the sky, trying to escape it. She ran and ran until her lungs burst and she fell face down in a clover pasture, never to arise.
When they found her, she was smiling. (SIGHS) Aw, me. (WHISPERS) It’s happened before. I know for truth, it has happened before.
(NORMAL VOICE) The night Tillie died, a thunderstorm came through here and lightning struck the big old cottonwood tree that grew by the Sweet house. (WHISPER) Some say lightning struck it three times that night. (NORMAL VOICE) In the morning all that was left was a jagged stump with a sharp tip, like a finger pointing toward heaven. (SIGHS) Aw, me.
An elderly woman, with great resignation, recounts this tale of prairie desperation. She speaks slowly, deliberately, with a world weariness that indicates her age and experience. She wants, needs to tell the story but there are taboos about it, its horror too vast to bear alone. She whispers two lines that are especially chilling but she gets the story told. The story involves conflict with the elements, resolution and the narrator’s familiarity with the feeling, suggesting perhaps she had similar urges.
Sadly, this is based on true events that occurred on the Canadian prairies as pioneers filled up the west. Perhaps an extreme form of agoraphobia or something inexplicable and individual, running yourself to death was an option for a few pioneer women. Although not widespread and rarely affecting men, running became a fact of some pioneer family’s lives.
The possible reasons or explanations for this behavior are laid out by the storyteller. Her burden of knowing what happened to Tillie Sweet expresses itself as fear in her voice. The script is explicit with directions.
The dramatic moment of Tillie’s death combines several small audio effects including time lapse clouds that speed up, her heart beating faster and faster, her frantic gasping and her feet running through the clover.
The end of the story explains the image of the tree stump, a satisfactory yet chilling end to the tale. The woman’s whispers must be convincing and she must know why she is whispering. Her world weariness is unabated by telling the story and her heartfelt sighs persist.
As ever, Nora Nordin-Fredette did a great job of capturing the sadness and world weariness of the narrator and the peculiarity of story.
This house is located near what remains of Mountain Road, Manitoba in the rolling uplands of Riding Mountain just off Highway #357. This highway offers some of Manitoba’s most stunning vistas. If you are eastbound, the road ends at Hwy #5 with a wonderful descent off the Manitoba Escarpment onto the old lake bed.
I was struck by the exposed bones of the house but it was the pointy stump and its location next to the house that drove my imagination.
Rusty old farm equipment suddenly spouts poetry.
Well, old friend, looks like we got through another summer without having to do a speck of work. How about that!
How many summers is it that we haven’t worked?
I lost track but I’m still tired. It sure is good not to have to pull a plough anymore.
You like just rusting away up here with this great view of the prairie and the highway, don’t you, old tugger?
I do, I love it. My tuggin’ days are long over. I pulled everybody and everything back and forth across hot dusty fields and down skinny little roads through the bush. I pushed snow away so everyone could move again. I pulled ploughs, harrows, wagons, stoneboats, binders, horses and wagons out of mires, big blocks of ice from the slough for the icebox, ha, I even pulled you a time or two, old thresher pal.
You did and you were strong and eager. Then they bought The Big Horse, as they called it, and you tugged other stuff after that. The Big Horse did most of my pulling. I mostly just sat there and let my gears tickle me once I was in action. But you were a strong tugger, my friend.
I had some fine metal days, didn’t I?
That you did.
You had your share of heroic days in the field, too.
Those times in late summer
when the heat was still on the land and the crop came in early,
those days, driven by more horsepower than I needed,
surrounded, serviced and fed by dozens of broad sweating men,
each trying to precisely match my abilities to reap,
to separate the seed from the stalk,
the gold from the grip
and deliver it
into a hopper,
the rich harvest bestowed.
I yearned all year for those weeks of thrilling work,
the rhythmic whine of the belt from the power takeoff of The Big Horse
playing counterpoint to the chugging beat of my cogs, gears and pulleys,
the dry shouts of the men feeding me the harvest,
the erotic embrace of virgin grain against polished metal,
that was my moment,
So that’s what you’ve been ruminatin’ about! You are a poet!
I am! I am the cutting edge of rusty and irrelevant farm machinery poetry which is rapidly taking over from cowboy poetry as the true voice of the prairie wind. Would you like to hear more?
I very much would and, hopefully, shall.
Indeed, you shall.
That small sound we both know so well,
it is the creep and peel of The Rust.
The Rust, The Rust, it rules us now.
Day and night, through every season,
subtle but unstoppable against the breeze and the dawn,
The Rust is omnipresent,
etching away at us.
We flake into the grey fall grass,
shatterings of us glint on cold snow and are buried,
only to glint again in spring turnings.
We are the hilltop beasts of burden,
brazen against the whip of the northerlies in January,
snapping in the August heat like brittle controlled insects
always the shedding,
the shedding Rust
speaking in its wee, timorous voice.
I can hear The Rust right now. (PAUSE) And I’m still tired.”
As the scene indicates this is a modern conversation between an old threshing machine and an old tractor, both from the early part of the 1900s. The tone here is light and jovial, familiar, sincere and endearing.
The two male voices sound old and tired but the thresher, having a poetry mission, is more cheerful and slightly more energetic than the tractor who is just plain tired. They’ve literally been put out to pasture, relegated to a rise with a view of the asphalt highway below in one direction and miles of monoculture spreading away to the horizon in the other. The two old machines have witnessed vast changes in farming, suggested by mention of The Big Horse which describes a new and large tractor, an increase in the scale and speed of farming.
Both machines are sincere in their comments and accolades about each other; their individual triumphs in the field are noted with understanding and kindness.
Thresher delivers the poetry professionally with perfect inflection and phrasing. He wraps you in his voice and holds you there. After the last poem, Tractor becomes rather wistful which is soon overwhelmed by his ongoing tiredness.
My dear friend Chris Scholl masters the voice of Tractor and I’m Thresher.
I found this location along Manitoba Highway #3 just west of Cartwright. I was struck by the positioning of the old thresher and tractor in relation to each other, the sky and the rolling land around. The highway runs by at the bottom of the rise.
This is a site I shot twice. Just as post production began, at Kevin Uddenberg’s urging, I re-shot the machinery one afternoon using the classic film language angles we know as cinematic conversation. It worked very well. The high contrast in the wide two-shot is intentional to make the close-up pans more intriguing. I lucked out with the abundant swallows sailing about on my second shoot.
On the second shoot I ran into the land owner whose permission I had not sought. He and his wife, Randy and Donna Pawich, were just curious about what I was doing. I talked to them about my heritage interests, leaving the story of The Lonesomes untold. They were friendly people and I’m sure they will enjoy the story I attached to their old equipment.
Creating the rust sound was a problem during the recording of The Lonesomes. I had a mental sound of the rust but didn’t know how to produce it. Finally I recorded the dragging of a metal rod over a concrete floor and slowed it down. Voila! The sound of rust!
A father commemorates his son’s birthday in a vehicular way.
I bought that Chevy half ton from Steve Twerdun. Me and Mary had just got hitched and we needed solid farm transportation. That Chev was a fine piece of truck. People noticed me when I drove it into Marshallville back when it was shiny and new (PAUSE) and I was shiny and new.
Luke, our first born, was conceived in that truck. It was a hot day in late August and me and Mary were drivin’ home from seeing her parents about an hour away. We stopped for a pee by the road when a prairie storm come up with thunder and lightning. It rained hammers and nails. We couldn’t see to drive so we had wild sex in the steamed up truck by the side of the road.
The next May when Mary went into labour, she woke me at three in the morning. We got two-thirds of the way to the hospital in town and she gave birth, right into the tote bag she had her clothes in. Luke just slid right out of her and into the bag. So he was born in that truck, too.
Seventeen years later on an August night Luke drove the truck into a soft embankment, uprooting a tree which came through the side window impaling his head. He died in the truck, quivering at the end of a broken branch. (PAUSE)
(STARTS TO SOB) I leave Luke’s truck up there to remind me and the sky what happened. (TRYING TO GAIN CONTROL) He’d a bin fifty years old…today. (SOBS)
This deep memory piece aspires to be a great country song loaded with irony and poignancy. An elderly man, 33 years after his son’s death, still grieves every day for his lost child. The old truck, slowly sinking into the prairie atop a rise, harbours his most significant memories starting when he was first married.
The first three paragraphs are delivered almost happily as he recalls the events of the story. In the first paragraph he sets the scene and remembers the shiny, new truck with delight but a bit of sadness creeps in when he says “And I was shiny and new” indicating his advanced age.
The second paragraph he delivers a little sheepishly but with enjoyment of the memory of the day Luke was conceived. The third paragraph again is a pleasant memory if somewhat surprising for the birth in the truck and the ease of it all.
The fourth paragraph is matter-of-fact, deadpan as if he is trying to hold back the emotion of the event. He is still stunned by it. The stark image of his impaled son is followed by a pause so the audience can realize Luke was conceived, born and died in the truck they are seeing. How horrible!
The final paragraph is the kicker. The truck is his personal memorial to his lost son, the object that still connects him every day with Luke. His voice is clogged with emotion as he speaks the second last line. After a pause, the last line is charged with cruel memory as he reports the special nature of the day. The pause between “fifty years old” and “today” and the way “today” is delivered are the keys to the story’s success. He has a hard time getting out the last line before he breaks down and sobs after the story is over. It’s an emotionally charged ending that shouldn’t feel manipulative but honest and sincere.
Since the background sound will only be the sound of the prairie wind whispering through the grass, this has much potential to be maudlin. I want to avoid that. I want the audience to see that although it’s a sad story and he is still heartsick over his loss, there is an underpinning of acceptance of how life is.
Dennis Scullard gave a superior performance as the still-grieving father expressing his deep and incurable sorrow, just emotional enough. Dennis is evolving into a very good actor and his roles are getting larger. Watch his demo reel.
Luke’s Truck contains the first mention of Marshallville which looms large later in The Lonesomes once we get to town life.
This old half ton was a familiar site to me from my sacred site tours as it sits at the bottom of the rise below the buffalo effigy in extreme southern Saskatchewan, again about a mile from Montana.
I love how the truck dominated the landscape while deteriorating comfortably into the prairie soil. I shot it twice on two separate trips, once with the hood open and once with the hood closed.
The truck belonged to Ralph Rasmussen who grew up on the family homestead just below the buffalo effigy. I met Ralph several times on my trips and have written about him on my blog. He told me his interesting history of the sacred site as well as his family background in the area. Ralph has since passed away but his truck still sits atop the same rise where he parked it years ago. Other than my use of his old truck, the fictional story of Luke has nothing to do with Ralph Rasmussen.
Wildfire races across the open prairie toward a homestead.
I ‘member Papa and I standin’ after sundown and watchin’ the red glow far off in the distance. I was skeerd and I think Papa was a little skeerd too. The next night the glow was even closer. In the mornin’ we all could smell the smoke.
Papa got the team out and ploughed a wide circle round the house, the barn and haystacks. We filled everything we had with water: barrels, troughs, pots, pans, kettles, pails, basins, jars, even the chamber pots. We soaked brooms, grain sacks, sheets and anything we could find that sopped up water and could be used to beat back the fire. My big brother Ivan pumped water so long that day his arms was swole and sore by the evening.
After dark we all stood and watched the fire comin’ straight toward our farm. The prairie grass was so high the fire ate it like it was breakfast. I can still hear the loud roar of the fire. We was lucky. Just when we started to beat at the flames, the wind changed direction and sent the fire across the ravine, away from us. Burned out half our wheat crop though.
The other thing the fire took was the outhouse. It was tinder-dry and it took but one spark to set it on fire. It was gone in no time. Mama and us kids talked Papa into digging the new outhouse closer to the house. Mama had to tickle him to get him to agree.
When we was lookin’ for things to fill with water, we even used the pretty teacups Mama brought over with her on the boat. There was only two of them and one got broke. (PAUSE) Mama cried.
Raging prairie fires were a frequent danger for pioneers after the buffalo were extirpated and the prairie grasses grew tall and dry in the summer heat. Often fires could be seen approaching for several days across the flat land. It was an all-out battle to prepare for an oncoming fire: from ploughing a wide fireguard around the property to collecting water and gathering materials to beat back the flames.
This story is told from the perspective of a bright eight-year-old girl who lives with her family on their prairie homestead in 1899. The girl’s English is colloquial giving the piece an atmosphere of the era when children’s education was often secondary to farm work. She recounts the story with increasing wide-eyed fear but comfort from having her family around her. There is palpable relief in her voice when the wind changes and their farm is saved. Things lighten up considerably with the outhouse story and we think everything is going to be okay.
Reality rears its head again in last paragraph when one of the two teacups gets broken and Mama cries. The irony and the happy/sad balance is maintained. The broken tea cup was a dramatic and poignant afterthought.
Once again, Nora Nordin-Fredette did an excellent job bringing the fearful little girl to life.
This lone abandoned farmhouse atop a rise in southern Saskatchewan was the inspiration for The Lonesomes. I had driven past it dozens of times over the years and everything about it was mysterious to me. It seemed to cry out for an imagination to commemorate its hardships, its joys and fears, its life and death.
It is located in extreme southern Saskatchewan along Highway #18 in the Missouri Coteau near the Big Muddy area. The symmetrical little house with its four dormers was familiar to me from my trips visiting sacred sites in Saskatchewan. One year turkey vultures nested in the house and when I drove by a vulture was perched on each of its dormers like elegant gargoyles.
I took a guided tour of the area in 2011 from Tillie Duncan, an elderly lady who’d lived her whole life in the region. She explained the house was built in the late 1890s and the family had to bring wood across the border from Plentywood, Montana, about a mile away, because there were no trees in this part of the country.
Combining live action with my still photos of the house the place looks vulnerable enough to suit the prairie fire story I had in mind. The close-up moving pan across the facade details the intricate decay of the old house.
A wheezing dying boy watches flies on the window.
THE SOUND OF FLIES BUZZING, THE BOY’S STRIDOR (LABOURED INTAKE OF BREATH) AND COUGHING ARE BACKGROUND TO THE DOCTOR AND MARY.
Is there any hope, doctor?
He’s a very sick boy, Mary. There isn’t anything I can do for him. I’m sorry to have to tell you but I think you and Liam need to prepare for the worst.
(SOBS) Oh, no. That’ll be four I’ve lost. (SOBS) Three born dead and now Jericho, my first born, ripped from my life! (SOBS)
Oh, Mary. For some unknown reason, life is cheap out here on the prairie. It comes and goes in a flash. Very often, too often, I just have to stand by and let the Lord do his work. That’s all I can do for your boy is stand by. And pray. Please know, Mary, that you and your family will be in my prayers tonight. How are your other children feeling?
Two had a bit of fever this morning but the other two are just fine, thank the Lord.
Keep him as comfortable as you can. God be with you, Mary.
Thank you Doctor. (SOBS)
The setting is the farmhouse bedroom of the sick child in 1896. It could be the boy who just moments ago was so excited about the new windmill. All we see is the dirty window and the flies.
This is a sad sad story told in the moment, told minimally by a two-person cast with an easy to understand story, but told to the max visually by the flies on the dirty glass and the connections between disease and flies. Disgust, horror, repulsion, fear of plague – it’s all in the flies.
Add stridor to the sound of the buzzing flies and mournful voices. Stridor is among the most dreadful sounds of illness made by the human body. The hoarse croak on the in-breath is the result of a blockage of the upper airways, often due to dire illness. It sounds otherworldly, even frightening. My cat reacts noisily when I play a tape of a child with stridor. Stridor is the harsh breathing sound heard underneath the conversation between mother and doctor throughout this segment. It’s interrupted by short sections of violent coughing.
The doctor is old and experienced, world weary yet still compassionate and kind without even trying to be. He understands what the future of the child is and pulls no punches with the mother. If he had any hope to offer her, he would.
Mary is distraught and weeps in giant sobs. Nonetheless, she is appreciative of the doctor’s candid sharing. She is worried about all her children, sensing her family has not seen the last of the disease. The doctor offers his sympathy and leaves Mary to her tears, the heart-wrenching sound of the boy and the incessant buzz of the flies.
Crawling in their own feces so thick it obscures the view out of the window, the buzzing flies are the persistent image of the piece. The spread of disease due to poor hygiene and the role flies play in the process get a good workout in this unhappy segment.
There isn’t a lot of complexity to this piece. It’s in-your-face gritty and unhappy, the people are real and sad and future sadness is inevitable. All the while, oblivious to the human tragedy, the flies buzz, always the flies.
I discovered after several people had viewed The Lonesomes that this piece caused confusion, mostly because of the unfamiliar sound of stridor. I didn’t make the connection between the sound and the boy causing it evident enough. With 20/20 hindsight I should have had the doctor explain in more detail what was happening.
Both characters were brought to life beautifully. Duane Braun plays the reserved but candid doctor and Carol Anne Miller voices Mary, the distraught mother.
Newcomb’s Hollow, just southeast of Deloraine Manitoba, was the site of a land titles office located along the well-used Boundary Commission Trail where it fords Turtlehead Creek. The office sold millions of acres to the pioneers arriving daily on the trail as the Canadian west was opening up to settlers.
Today there is a replica log building where the land office stood and some signage stating the site’s history and relevance. Inside the empty replica building there was one Plexiglas window covered in flies and their excrement. The view of the prairie out the little window is abstract, almost pointillist, due to the fly spots. I shot several minutes of the window with its flies and hazy view beyond. The story came much later as an act of pure imagination inspired by the relentless flies.
A pioneer farm boy reveals his secret about the new windmill.
The day they come to drill the well for the windmill is a day I will never forget. Cummy McCharles drilled the hole with his old Lyons-Dominion well driller that ran off a steam engine that sounded like the enda the world and smelled bout as bad. The engine poured out steam and smoke.
A bit of grass caught fire from the driller and we hadta use buckets of trough water to put it out. Lucky for us that’s when Cummy hit water and shut the contraption down. Mama said Satan was operating the gears inside of that well driller.
The water gurgled up right away. It was cold and sweet tastin’. The next day, Mr. Levon came and builded the windmill. He was the first guy round here who builded those things and it took him but one day to have water for us. We needed a few days to get usta having this tall thing in our lives, in our yard. No more primin’, no more pumpin’! Us boys couldn’ta bin happier.
I can see the windmill out of the bedroom window and that first night it was the full moon. Moonlight flashed between the wings of the windmill and danced like diamonds in the room. The windmill gave me two of its wings and we flew together through the deep blue night with just the stars to guide us. We still do that when the moon is full.
Sometimes I dream the house is surrounded by fields of sweet smellin’ yellow flowers but when I wake up it’s always the same old black dirt full of ruts and dung.
The innocence and complexity of childhood unfold in this little yarn about an extra special day.
The year is 1906 in a rather desolate location surrounded by a few fields freshly cut from the hard prairie ground, new soil for the old ceremony.
The boy is 10 years old, his voice hasn’t changed and he expresses a continuous tone of amazement at what happened that day. He can hardly contain his excitement at the event yet he doesn’t speak quickly. Instead he is still in awe of the events he describes. It’s a slow dazzle.
The boy is wholesome but poorly educated and has significantly bad English. This is an intended part of his charm, along with his odd enthusiasm, to illustrate the era. He needs to drop every “g”, use all the sloppy shortcuts and misuses of words as written. He is typical of children of pioneer families who were required to work more, school less.
As he recounts the story, we learn, in his innocence, he has great respect for his parents although Papa goes unmentioned. He reports on the religious nature of his mother. The first three paragraphs have enthusiasm and the thrill of experiencing something for the first time.
During the fourth paragraph, he becomes more wistful and his voice takes on a whispery aspect, as if he is sharing a secret. He tells of the windmill’s wings and flying through the blue night but this is NOT a dream. This communion with the windmill on full moon happens regularly. He is not trying to convince you this happens, he is simply telling you what happens.
Finally he mentions a dream he has that moves from sleep to waking using the sharp contrast between “yellow flowers” and “ruts and dung.” Although pioneer life had its exciting moments, like getting a well drilled, the hard fact of the ruts and dung remain the daily course of their lives. The excitement he felt at the start turns to enchantment and winds up resignation to his life. Yet he knows there is more, much more beyond the farm, but, for now, the windmill is his escape route.
Cummy is short for Cumberland McCharles. Mr. Levon is my homage to Shawn Colvin. The boy shows completely different forms of deference to the two men by using their first or last names. This is a reflection of his father, the only hint of him in the piece.
I caught Allan Palmer, the young actor who voiced the Boy, just before his voice changed. He did a fine job of expressing the excitement and enchantment of the boy’s experience. More on Allan here and here.
I was surprised at how difficult it was to find a windmill that was still reasonably intact, working and close to a tumbledown barn or house. Most of the windmills I found were in towns, part of museums or just the support structure without any wings.
I was visiting the buffalo effigy, a frequent haunt of mine in southern Saskatchewan south of Big Beaver, when along the gravel grid road leading to the site I saw this little old house and its dilapidated windmill. The wavy ripe grass and the heat simmer brought a small majesty to the place. I shot it from the side of the road knowing the almost-hypnotic grass would contribute greatly to the prairie imagery.
The actual spinning windmill was next to a new barn on a working farm in southern Manitoba. That’s about as specific as I can get location-wise. I used the yellow canola crop around the farmhouse to accentuate the boy’s fantasy and also his reality.
A red brick chimney fulfills a phlegmy prediction.
Old Barrelass Cruthers, you remember how he used to talk as if he was horkin’ up a lung all the time?
Anyway, he said to me when my brother Carl and I was building the house, he said, That’s one fine chimney Jim. After the boards of that old house have crashed into the ground, those red bricks’a yers’ll still be pokin’ up outta the prairie…like a hard-on. (LAUGHS AND COUGHS)
You oughta be prouda that chimney Jim. (COUGHS) You oughta be prouda that chimney Jim. (COUGHS)
This is a part I wrote for myself. I do two voices: Jim, the narrator, and old Barrel Ass Cruthers, a real character, who has a distinct way of talking that requires vast amounts of phlegm and coughing to acquire speech.
Jim is late 50s, early 60s. This is a remembrance of building the house with his brother when they were young men. The house was built in 1910.
Cruthers is a busybody, obese, has a barrelass and is full of mucous from all the gluten and fat he’s eaten in his life. Nonetheless, he still gets around enough to comment on new construction in the area. You can see Jim and Carl saying, “Oh shit” when Cruthers pulls up in his sweaty horse and oversize buggy. But he is tolerated. What are you going to do?
The image of the house collapsing onto the red chimney inspired the story which Jim truly enjoys repeating because he does the full phlegm version so well. And there are fewer and fewer people who remember Cruthers.
I found this old tumbledown house out on Highway #18 in southern Saskatchewan west of Val Marie. The two collapsing sections of the house seemed to be supported totally by the still-red and robust chimney. We brightened the red chimney a little in post production and heightened the contrast to make the scene more dream-like.
Originally I had the characteristic of speech then I just let the place create the story. Nothing complex.
Barn Where the Thing Happened
An abandoned red barn is revealed as the scene of an old mystery.
Oh my! Oh my, yes. That’s the barn where the thing happened that nobody talked about.
DURING THE NEXT LINE, VOICE CHANGES TO THAT OF A 10-YEAR-OLD GIRL
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a hot day in July. I was at the butter churn when Mama came rushing in looking as white as a funeral sheet, like she seen a ghost. She just stood still in the middle of the kitchen. Her hands had blood on ’em. There were little red rainbows of blood on her white apron. Mama looked at me and started to cry. Though I could tell she didn’t want to, she just stood there like a statue and cried. Then Papa came rushing in lookin’ real pale like he seen the same ghost as Mama. He looked at me, his face went angry and he took Mama onta the porch. I could hear ’em talkin’ but not their words. The way they stood made me scared. All I really heard was Papa say, “And we must never speak of this again.” (SENSE OF WONDER) And they never did. (PAUSE) Ever. (PAUSE) After that Uncle Wilber never came around the farm no more. (PAUSE) Nobody ever talked about that either.
DURING THE NEXT LINE REVERT BACK TO OLD WOMAN’S VOICE
Oh my, yes. That’s the barn where it happened. I remember it like it was yesterday. Oh my, yes.
The Lonesomes is divided into Farm Life and Town Life. The first nine are the Farm Life segments.
On the surface this appears to be a simple recounting of an event from a child’s life. However, it has a darker, more sinister backstory.
The event in the barn happened in 1928. Our story begins with an elderly woman identifying the barn that we are seeing, and will see for the duration of the vignette, as the one “where the thing happened that nobody talked about.” The old woman is startled by the image of the barn which carries so much weight for her. It’s almost like a ghost. “Oh my,” has startled surprise. With “Oh my yes” she’s resigned. Then she sounds like she is identifying the barn for someone in the next line.
During the second line, the voice does a startling thing – it changes from an old woman into a little girl about 10 years old. The image and the old woman’s memory has taken her back to the barn of her youth.
The little girl recalls the day with great clarity. The month, the weather, her job at the churn are all mentioned. However, she has much uncertainty as to what is going on. She knows for sure it isn’t normal, something happened. Her parents both appear and act in unusual ways after coming in from the barn. Both parents are “white as funeral sheets,” emotionally agitated and respond to her presence in different ways – Mama cries, Papa gets angry.
This piques the girl’s curiosity, especially when they whisper on the porch. She listens intently to their conversation. She “could hear them talkin’ but not their words.” She pauses then curiosity changes to fear when she recognizes her parent’s body language as they stand on the porch. Visualize the parents’ postures – so basic and evident that a child can see their meaning and react with fright to their strangeness, perhaps outright hostility.
The only thing the child clearly hears is the pact being made when Papa says, “And we must never speak of this again.” She is absolutely sure of this. “And they never did.” has a sense of wonder. She pauses again, more wonder and a touch of frustration, “Ever.” This establishes the dire nature of what happened but gives us little information on what it might have been.
There is a longer, thoughtful pause. She does an uncertain “…Ummm” before she speaks. The little girl connects what happened in the barn with Uncle Wilber who never came around the farm thereafter. In her mind the two are linked simply because, “Nobody ever talked about that, either.” Several secrets were born in the barn that hot July day.
In the last two lines the opposite of the beginning occurs. The first “Oh my yes,” is in the little girl voice which becomes elderly over the course of the last two lines. In the final “Oh my yes,” we can still hear an echo of the child and her confusion, as if she still doesn’t know what happened that day. She is resigned to never knowing, or perhaps resigned to her denial.
The little girl is matter-of-fact about the event but confused by it all. She delivers the skeleton of the story, her parent’s actions hang clothes on it. Both her innocence and curiosity are shaken by the new secrets she must live with, even though she doesn’t know for certain what they are.
Clipped and colloquial, the bad English and sentence construction is reflective of the era. She isn’t very well educated but she does know what a statue is. She’s bright but speaks less from her schooling and more from her listening, like “funeral sheets” as a local expression.
What really happened in the barn: Papa killed his brother Wilber in the barn because he found out Wilber had sex with Mama and the girl telling the tale is Wilber’s offspring, not Papa’s. This explains the blood, the crying, the anger, the whispering, the pact they make on the porch and the subsequent years of silence on the event.
In her first of four appearances in The Lonesomes, Nora Nordin-Fredette did a wonderful job of transforming from an old woman into a child and back again keeping the mystery intact.
I had the germ of an idea about something bad that happened in a big old barn as remembered by an elderly lady who reverts back to childhood to tell her story.
There is no shortage of old barns in rural Manitoba. I shot several beauties, none of them red. Looking at my footage I realized the barn had to be red, not just for its classic representation but also to suggest the violence implicit in the story.
I happened upon this barn on the eastern end of the Brandon Hills when I was doing some heritage work. I shot it from several angles. Once I had the story I realized I could utilize more of the detail on the barn to accentuate parts of the yarn, notably the pointed lightning rod and the battered cupola. I went back and re-shot the barn on a brighter day, capturing the details. In post production we bumped up the redness of the place to better suit the story.