Lessons from a Saskatchewan Boy

My family has dirt in our blood. Not the pale thin dust that the city throws at you, but the rich dark roasted dirt that can only come from Saskatchewan. I bet you wish you were born there too. People from Saskatchewan don’t need a lot of credit, the banks won’t give it to them. I love Saskatchewan. I have a lot of great memories from my early years in the lonely town of Meota, playing at Jackfish Lake. I spent many a beach day risking my neck on a slick steel slide. It would focus the heat of the day so that you sizzled as you slid down. We returned summer after summer to visit my grandparents in the wooden sidewalk town of Canwood. It is an incredibly beautiful province hidden in the middle of Canada. The name Saskatchewan comes from a Cree word that means, “Badass.” (Actually it means “Swift-flowing river”).


“Relationships will only work if we put down our guns and our expectations.”

My grandfather died in a terrible work accident when my father was just six. The family struggled for many years but my grandmother raised four children by cleaning houses and by making every dollar count. My father never complained about how he took a job in grade eight to help support the family, nor did he ever talk about what it was like growing up without a father. Even though his childhood carried a lot of grief, pain and sacrifice, he did what needed to be done and never imagined leaving the family to go on his own. I think that the Saskatchewan dirt gets in the blood and fills your DNA with iron determination. My grandmother is 102 and she is still a badass.

In memory psychology there is a concept called “flashbulb memory,” where really big events, painful situations and the crazy-exciting stuff gets carved into our memories. All of the in-between experiences get lumped together because our brains are a little lazy and they don’t want to be recall the 100’s of times that you brush your teeth, pee or vacuum the lawn. The brain just keeps the highlights. It is kind of like the 6:00 News: the highlights, the explosions and earthquakes, the sports and the money, but only a minute at the end for the really important stuff.

My flashbulb memories of my father include times when he was angry, when he drank and when he said mean things. He did these things and it was not pretty. But I know that my father is, and was, much more than an Angry-Whiskey man.


He taught me many important things just by being himself. I find myself wishing that he was more empathetic and more of a mentor to my brother and I. I have realized that the more I want my father to be someone else to me, I end up ignoring who he really was. I wish he were around today so I could tell him that I underestimated him and that I only saw one side of who he was. I thought of him as Darth Vader but I never imagined asking him to take off the mask so I could see the man inside. It was hard to get to know my dad, he was complicated. But so am I. And that is okay. If I talked to him, we would probably sit uncomfortably with a beer and a TV and some dogs. He would smoke and he would listen. Relationships can only work if we put down our guns and our expectations.

I recently had an interview for a Manager position at work. When my father retired, he was also a Manager. I regret that I disregarded any lessons he could have taught me because he did not make it easy to know him. Prairie dust and Whiskey are a bad mix. I think I am ready for what he taught me:

  1. School is overrated. But finish anyway.

My father started working in grade 8. He worked at Canada Safeway until he graduated so that he could help his family. He was very successful even though he never went to College. Sometimes he was a jerk towards my brother and I about finishing school. He did not lecture us about the importance of an education, he just stood there with a cigarette and a hammer. We both got the picture. He supported me when I went to College, flunked, and then went back again four years later. He may not have understood all of my decisions, but he did not criticize me for getting an education.

2. Don’t be afraid to start over and don’t keep making the same mistakes.

My father went to work drunk and lost his job at Canada Safeway. He looked all over for a new job and finally found his opportunity in the neighboring province of Alberta. We packed and moved. He left his home province, his family, his regret and the outdoors that he loved so much. He did that so he could provide for us. He made a mistake that cost him, but he never went to work drunk again. He saved it for when he got home from work. Lesson learned.

3. Keep learning, but don’t just read books.

My father never read a book. Well, that’s probably stretching it. I’m sure he read a book in school, back when books were made out of stone and burlap. Growing up, I cannot recall him reading one single book, but he did read the paper every day. He held the paper up in front of him like a newsprint shield. His university education came from doing stuff with other people. He never hesitated to help the neighbors with their projects and he learned a lot about how to make things. He framed our basement, renovated kitchens, built our garage, built dog kennels and built a wildlife sanctuary in our back yard. I regret being too angry at him to pay attention, or to help out. I would be a better home owner today if I would have spent a little more time with him and ignored his crabbiness.

If you want to live on a farm, don’t wait until you own the acreage.

Swaby - Barn

4. Make your dreams happen in your back yard.

My father grew up outside. He loved the outdoors and many of my memories of him include him in the back yard with a tool belt and a Rye & Coke. He dreamt of owning an acreage. He never got the acreage, so he brought the acreage with him. He raised cats, chickens, dogs, ducks, fish (indoor and outdoor… in Alberta!), hamsters, parrots, pheasants, pigeons, pigs, quail and rabbits. Some stayed in the back yard, but most ended up in our basement and eventually our living room! He was a regular at the local auction and bought and sold most of these animals, household items, cars and a bunch of other stuff that I don’t remember. He told me once that part of the reason he got the job as a Manager was because of all of this buying and selling that he did. He knew how to talk to people and he knew how to make deals. It was not always perfect or pretty, but he found a way to live a little bit of his dream. If you want to live on a farm, don’t wait until you own the acreage. He was never afraid to start things that interested him and he never discouraged me from trying to do new things.

Swaby - Ducks Swaby - Bulldogs Nursing Swaby - Boxer 1

5. Don’t let someone else tell you how to live your life.

My father was quiet and he liked to sing. He drank beer and walked around without a shirt. It was not pretty (I have years of therapy to prove it). He was comfortable being himself. He did not have time for anyone who tried to preach to him or for anyone who thought they were better than him. He told people off with a Fire & Whiskey tongue and he cursed pretty much anytime a situation called for it. He lived life on his own terms, but sometimes he took it too far. He did not listen very much to my mother and that may have saved their marriage. (Talking and listening to each other are kind of important in a relationship.) He lived his final years alone with his pets and his TV. They did not talk back, but he may have been a better man if he would have listened more.

6. Don’t stop when you get told No, No! No!! and again No!!!

He had little formal education but made a career for himself at the Calgary Co-op (an Alberta based grocery chain). His first job at the Co-op was being a meat cutter. One day he had an accident with a meat saw and severed one of his fingers. He went back to work and wore chainmail gloves. He later became Manager of his department. He applied and reapplied to be a Store Manager. He was never successful at that, but after a lot of years in the grind of the meat department, he became Co-op’s Meat Marketing Manager. He oversaw a multimillion dollar budget selling meat to Albertans. He overcame a lot of personal issues, rejection, being ignored, failure and not having a father. He just did not give up. He was successful because he understood that getting a “No” never meant give up. My dad was a badass.

7. Being neat does not mean you are successful – Mess can be best.

My dad was messy. The piles seemed to travel with him. I remember the steps at the back of the house being a convenient storage place for tools, drinks, books, food, clothing, shoes and many other interesting things. Why not store things on your stairs? Not like you really need the entire stair to walk on… He was comfortable with mess and not afraid to have a lot of half-completed projects on the go. He was would jump into things, make a mess and then figure things out as he went along. He survived because he had a tool belt, jeans and his Rye and Coke. Shirt optional.

8. Listen to Elvis.

Yup. He loved Elvis. He played the albums again, and again, and again. It was a little like fingernails on chalkboard. (Don’t know what a chalkboard is? Chalkboards are large wall mounted touch screens that are wireless and pre-electricity, Fred Flinstone Stone age era. To enter data, you use a small piece of chalk to write on the slate. Write, erase and write again. Magic!) I have Elvis’ Blue Christmas album etched in my memory. Sometimes I even hear Elvis whispering to me that I am a Hound dog, that I should have a White Christmas, or that I should rock in the Jailhouse. Is music really better behind bars? (I don’t think you go there for the music.) Even though we all hated the music, dad loved it. In honor of my dad, I have two Elvis songs in my iTunes collection. I remember dad whenever the songs pop up.

9. Call your mother.

My father called his mother regularly. He lectured me to do the same. I don’t and I should. I’m not as good a son as he was. Dad, I will work at this one.

10. Don’t make deals with your demons.

My father had some demons. He was familiar with grief, disappointment, rejection and hard times. He had his trust broken repeatedly. He never talked about his emotions or how hard things were for him. That made it difficult for me to relate to him. He loved me, but did not say it too often. He tried to work on his issues by seeing his therapist, Jack Daniels. That did not work too well for him, or for his family. We all have demons. Making deals with demons never works, fighting pain with Whiskey makes the demons stronger. Some demons need to be exorcised, some need to be exercised and some we need to be at peace with. For me, admitting and talking about my own demons is a start. I haven’t quite figured all of this stuff out, but I know that too many trips to the Whiskey bottle can change you. I talk and I write and I listen for my dad.

Swaby - Ken and Pat

Dad, thank you for what you have taught me. I’m doing okay. I wish I knew you more and I wish I knew more of you.

One of my favorite Canadian bands, Rah Rah, has Saskatchewan in their veins. They have a song, Prairie Girl  that captures a little of his spirit:

You were a farm boy just shooting at marks

moved to the city on a lark

I can’t tell if you’re really dumb or really smart

yeah you’re just much happier in the dark

Why don’t you join the conversation? Take a moment to post a story of something have you learned from your family or from people who invested in you? How have you thanked them for what they taught you?

Put down the Coors, use your Computer and join the conversation.


Keep it real.

FYI: This post was a labour for me. It is much longer than most of my other posts. I have opted to include it in one long piece for continuity. I hope that my story will evoke your own memories and experiences. I invite you to grab a coffee and join me by the fire.



3 thoughts on “Lessons from a Saskatchewan Boy

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