Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bookish ex-farmer inspires unrepetant urbanite

This reminiscence of mine turned up a while back on the Facts & Arguments page in the Globe and Mail. Surely it deserves a second life in cyberspace?


The time: July, 1975. The place: Nelson, British Columbia.

A young Canadian urbanite, desperate for a summer job, finds work as a "green-chain man" at a sawmill (now long gone) operated by Kootenay Forest Products.

Five days a week, wearing a hardhat and steel-toed boots, he spends eight hours hauling planks off the green chain, essentially a giant conveyer belt. Like his brawnier co-workers, the urbanite stacks these boards behind him according to length – ten feet long, twelve feet, sixteen – on flatbed cars that a more senior worker will roll away on rails.

Each night, the urbanite suffers a recurring nightmare. Just as he finishes loading a flatbed car to shoulder height, the whole pile starts to topple – which means he will have to restack the boards while keeping pace with those whizzing past on the green chain. At this point, he wakes up, hollering.

Against this backdrop, the urbanite meets the bookish ex-farmer. Their respective wives, working temporarily as tellers in the same bank, had got talking. Soon, both women had confessed the same dark, dirty secret: "My husband is an aspiring writer."

The urbanite took himself seriously in those days, as writers in their twenties do, and he wasn't especially keen to meet another scribbler. After all, what were the chances that this ex-farmer was serious? That he had the grit, savvy and stamina to survive in the literary jungle? Already the man was in his late thirties.

But the women persisted, and one evening, after soaking in a hot bath, the young urbanite met the ex-farmer. To his surprise, he got yakking about life and writing and favorite authors and didn't stop talking for three hours. This old guy was the real thing – and no pretension about him.

In the weeks that followed, the couples got together often, and always the two men yammered into the night. So when you were in Mexico, writing fiction in Oaxaca, I was on the fire lookout in the Rockies, typing away in my tower! In some ways, they had little in common. A dozen years older, originally from Minnesota, the ex-farmer had spent four years in the American Navy, between the Korean and the Vietnam Wars. Having immigrated to Canada as part of the "back to the land" movement, he and his wife were about to move to a cabin twenty miles north of Nelson.

The urbanite would soon return to Toronto, to resume journalism studies at Ryerson. But here, besides "serious writing," was something else the men had in common. After his stint in the navy, the ex-farmer had earned a degree in journalism. Since then, he had worked at The Chicago Tribune and The Detroit Free Press. He had sailed to Europe to write the Great American Novel, but got distracted during the voyage by the woman who had since become his wife.

Meanwhile, the ex-farmer had kept writing fiction. He had published half a dozen short stories in men's magazines, those publications never purchased for their photographs. Still, the young urbanite had to admit it: this old guy could write. And yet, and yet: soon he would turn forty. Surely he had missed his time?

When summer ended, the men vowed to remain in touch. And, incredibly, for the next thirty-two years, they did precisely that – first through letters, later by email. Occasionally, when the urbanite lived in Vancouver or Calgary, the couples would get together and yammer into the night.

During those decades, while earning his daily bread as a journalist, the young urbanite began publishing books. The ex-farmer responded with kudos and applause. He called the urbanite an inspiration. And, while holding down energy-draining jobs, raising a family, and commuting back and forth to his cabin in the woods outside Nelson, he kept writing. He wrote and wrote and wrote, and he submitted – but nobody wanted what he sent out.

The ex-farmer kept writing and submitting. Then, in 1990, with a narrative essay harking back to his boyhood on a farm, he won the creative nonfiction prize in the CBC Literary Competition. During the next five years, make that ten and then fifteen, the ex-farmer elaborated that essay, writing and polishing. Again and again, he would receive encouraging feedback, near-acceptances – but then, for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the work, he would receive a rejection.

So it went until last year, when sharp-eyed editors at Oolichan Books, a literary publisher on the West Coast, perceived that this ex-farmer's memoir was no journeyman effort, but haunting and elegant – a masterpiece of life-writing. They made a modest offer, the ex-farmer accepted, and this year, having reached the age of seventy-two, Ross Klatte published his first book, Leaving The Farm.

On reading the finished work, while sitting in the sunshine at the centre of the universe, the urbanite, no longer young, could only gaze west and raise a glass of dry red wine. He drank to the ex-farmer, Ross Klatte, who lives still in the woods outside Nelson, an inspiration not only to the urbanite, but to anyone who reads him.

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