The Blacksmith Shop – a John Dunn story

by John Dunn

young boy on wagon

I was ushered into this world at Almonte’s Rosamond Memorial Hospital within the year following the armistice of November, 1918, which brought an end to the Great War. I trust it might be excusable then in me, even if not understandable, to suggest that some of the very earliest entries in my English lexicon came as leftovers from war years, memorials of military images that invaded my sensitive ears, and insisted on tumbling about in the smoky caverns of my mind.

A sudden leap forward in my language skills occurred at age four: I got a little red wagon that had solid rubber tires on its wheels and “Canadian Flyer” painted on both side rails. With this new-found mobility, my travellin’ days took off. New learning soon followed.

From the doctor’s house to the store was an easy run: from the store to the blacksmith shop, though only another hundred yards, brought a unique opportunity that boosted the language skills of a five-year old.

Like the pilgrim to Mecca, or the honey bee to the aster, I felt the magnetic pull of flame drawing me irresistibly to fire in the forge. Seated in my Canadian Flyer on the sidewalk, entranced by sparks and flame, I watched smoky tendrils drift up and away. As the blacksmith rasped a rear hoof I sat awed by the majestic bulk of horses, and struggled to figure out how they made their rippling flanks twitch and their tails swish to scare off flies. In front of that magic black den my nostrils tuned in knowingly to the stable smells of hay, horses, and harness. Alone in the Canadian Flyer on the sidewalk, I felt too the
inscrutable gaze on the faces of the elders, retired farmers and grizzled teamsters exiled from the shanties, all now privileged benchers of the Anvil Parliament by virtue of one qualification common to all, age.

My travellin’ raised one serious complication — it made Mother wary: a hundred yards from the store to the blacksmith shop meant that the Canadian Flyer and its conductor would be out of sight from the kitchen of the doctor’s house. Natural caution raised up a clutch of prospects in Mother’s mind. Reluctant, or even injudicious wondering plagued her about how circumspect would be the language, personal habits, and state of mind of Anvil Parliament companions her Ulysses might find in his

These concerns blossomed in the kitchen at noon hour.

“Were you out on your wagon?” asked she.


“Where do you go?”

“Up the street.”

“As far as the blacksmith shop?” she asked, with a sideways glance at my father to make sure he was listening to the interrogation.

“Sometimes,” I said, distantly, suspicioning what might follow.

To the head of the table Mother directed the crucial query: “Do you think it’s safe for him to be up there near all those men with goodness only knows what kind of grammar and tobacco smoke and sparks and stuff?”

“Certainly. He’s quite safe. Besides, he can learn.”

Indeed, the blacksmith shop was a hive of language, buzzing constantly with horsey talk. St. Paul had said that Faith cometh by hearing”; by hearing too, my ears gathered names of harness pieces, and comprehension settled in me. I understood everything from ‘bridle’ to ‘britchin’, from ‘bellyband’ to ‘snaffle-bit’.

“Sometimes,” echoed in my mind.

Still, one cannot separate harness from horse: they fit together, one depends on the other. Other new words piled on under the harness. Body parts for the horse, head, hoof, teeth, rump, tail, withers, and sadly, some defects that detracted from equine glory, the spavins’, the heaves, mare and horse, stallion, gelding, foal and filly, and hackney, trotters, pacers, and thoroughbreds.

And amongst the distinctions of sex, some bodily functions remained the same for either sex: of the horse, evacuation of the bowel, but only in the vulgate, the shorter version, and the only language of the Anvil Parliament, the crisp four-letter shorter version, which apparently had derived from Old English or possibly the Gaelic of the Auld Sod. This worried Mother.

One learned that a horse has no concern for indoor or outdoor conveniences, and that when the urge comes on for an evacuation of the bowel, the blacksmith shop was ready to accommodate the urge. A stable broom, shovel, and a bushel basket stood ready. The blacksmith shop was a kind of horsey Boy Scout with the same motto: “Be Prepared”.

That was the very crux of the matter with Mother — the vulgate. She had been a teacher, and insisted on respect for good grammar, and I’d often been corrected at the kitchen table with “Don’t say ‘ain’t’: it’s not good grammar. Say isn’t.” Constant attention to detail protected the language and buttressed the hearing of only good grammar in the house.

What awful mistakes and pitfalls in that constant building might occur if the youngsters of the family were to be exposed to goodness knows what kind of language from those men at the blacksmith shop?

And the shorter vulgate version in one four-letter word frightened the daylights out of her, and who knows what additional words he might learn about body parts of humans, both men and women. For time sharpens the distinctions between mare and horse in conformation, but when it comes time for them to give expression to some bodily functions, two in particular, the emptying of the bladder, and the evacuation of the bowel, — things which Mother would prefer never to enter into the
conversational mode of her second-born — the fear entered her mind that amongst those stony-faced tobacco-chewing, and therefore dirty old men, Ulysses would hear and eventually learn to use the vulgate version for bodily functions, the first beginning with the Greek letter psi, and the No. 2 with the lullaby’s ‘sh’.

Horses were housed in stables, and got along fine without benefit of the indoor. The blacksmith shop was therefore in jeopardy: still, foresight is marvellous. Standing ready to hand against the wall of the blacksmith shop were the three instruments, a stable broom, a wide-mouthed shovel, and a bushel basket. Mother wasn’t even aware of the benefit that horses offered on the streets to five and six-year olds: a ready-to-hand puck on a cold winter’s day for the hockey stick.

Mother had difficulty in explaining her reasons, her lack of encouragement for my travellin’, my sojourning amongst the
tobacco-chewing, unshaven, old men, whose dirty habit of spitting unnerved her thoughts of what I might loose in the parlour.

“It’s not that there’s anything wrong about wanting to learn about horses,” she began, a bit lamely. “It’s just some things about those uncouth men on the step. It’s just that, well, they’re just not our kind of people.”

Still, I thought, any one of them is far more interesting than a half dozen lawyers in the front parlour.

“What’s ‘uncouth’?” I asked.

“What your mother’s really trying to say, Little Man, is that those men are not couth,” Hannah explained. “I’m sure you’ll understand what that means, won’t you?”

“Not couth,” I repeated, puzzled still.

In spite of social flaws, some wore rubber boots in July, all came equipped with a uniform Carhartt’s overalls, hayseeds in sweat-soaked fedoras, smelly pipes and leather tobacco pouches, and stony-faced outlooks, but any one had more interesting things to talk about then any half-dozen lawyers in shirts, suits and ties.

One had no front teeth, but he was able to carve a chunk off a plug of Black Watch with a jack-knife and settle it comfortably way back in a side street, so that he looked like a red squirrel in September with a beech nut pushing out his cheek.

Their talk was spiced with tales of heroic deeds and times in the mythological places of the Ottawa Valley, the Opeongo, Doo Reveer, (which only twenty years later I learned could be spelled in French, and came out Deux Rivieres) and the Booth Limits.

Horses were spoken of affectionately: one had taken a team of Clydes, Tom and Jerry, to the shanty; another had the full genealogical background of the priest’s horse, Photius, and another of another doctor’s horse, Black Jess.

“I mind that fall,” said another. “We went in by Doo Reveer. ‘Twas dark, and we walked 20 miles at night in to the Depot.”

Diagonally across the road from the blacksmith shop was a billboard with a big advertisement for the Canadian National Exhibition at Toronto, and standing like a sentinel in front of the CNE gates stood a maple tree. In the grass under the tree was another gathering of men, three in number. They sat in a kind of circle, all facing inwards.  They seemed in earnest conversation about some serious matter, for their heads nodded up and down, they ignored horses and wagons passing by

The morning trains had not yet arrived.I liked watching the trains and from the doctor’s house, that was easy. From the blacksmith shop it was difficult, but from the billboards, nothing at all could be seen of trains.

It was in those moments when all over the town people instinctively listened for the first sound of the locomotive’s whistle and bell as the first morning train from Pembroke would be approaching the crossing by the flour mill.

No one on the front step seemed to notice that one of the three men in the circle in front of the billboard had got up, shuffled across the street, and was approaching the blacksmith shop itself.

There was a difference between those on the step and those under the billboard: the latter group of three were separated by at least one generation from the senators. Secondly, there seemed a wider gulf by far between their interests and desires. The Anvil Parliament people spoke of the Billboard people in derisive terms as ‘the heroes’. To them the ‘heroes’ had no known occupation. No horsemen amongst them, all cigarette-rollers, alive only, and suspicious, because they were like as not pursuing questionable intents.

The hero’s passage across the great divide between the billboards and the blacksmith shop ended when he stood right in front of my Canadian Flyer on the sidewalk.

“G’day, gents,” he tossed out in the direction of the seniors.

The greeting went unacknowledged and the speaker withered under the stony superior stare of the true horsemen. The speaker’s attention turned to me, and surprised me with his next salvo.

“Say, sonny, you’re the spittin’ image of your dad. But tell me, would you know if the doctor’s at the house now?”

“Yes, he is,” I answered.

“Well, ain’t that just great! For sure. I’m sure glad to hear that.”

From one of the stony-faces came a direct thrust: “What’d you want to see the doctor for? You ain’t sick.”

“Naw, I ain’t sick,” the enquirer explained, “But my chum over there under the maple tree, he’s a returned man, see? An’ he’s spectin’ there should be a cheque in the mail today.”

“He’ll be lookin’ to get a line from the doctor, is that it?”

“Well, kinda like that.”

“Huh,” snorted another senator. “Fat chance any of youse heroes got of gettin’ a line from the doc,” and dismissed the man.

I knew that my father sometimes would write undecipherable scribbles on a prescription pad and that a sick person could take that to the drug store to get the right medicine for an illness. Medicine for sick people  came in small bottles with graduated markings on the side so that the sick person could measure out a teaspoonful as required. And people had great faith in medicine too.

But there was something very special about the kind of medicine when men spoke of ‘gettin’ a line’. One Sunday at Mass the priest had spoken about St. Paul’s saying that faith cometh by hearing. Next day at the Anvil Parliament I’d heard of the profound faith that returned men had in a special medicine they used to get during their soldiering in France. Faith in its good qualities never wavered; they came to rely so much on it for warding off the chills and vapours of France that they willingly ascribed almost miraculous healing powers to that medicine.

Paradoxically too, this medicine needed no teaspoon for measuring it out. It came in a big bottle which had a pronounced dimple inverted in the bottom.

Returned men explained that when they enquired about it in France they’d learned that it had been invented by an expatriate Irishman, one, they suspected who had probably come out to France in the Flight of the Wild Geese to escape the penal times in Ireland. After years of soldiering in the Irish Brigade of the French king’s army, they could not return to Ireland, and some retired to small farms in France.

In this way one of the Irish Brigade ventured into medicine making to show his appreciation for new-found friends among the French peasants. He made this improved cough syrup, and the peasants swore by its efficacy, particularly in damp weather. Once they discovered its merits from the French peasants Canadian soldiers began to swear by it too.

The war ended, however, and some returned men found that November particularly brought frequent chills in the Ottawa Valley. They shuddered during the weeks when the sleety rains of fall began to fill up the swamps before freeze-up. And, remembering the medicine in the dimpled bottle with the same old affection they had known for it in France, they had to set about finding some in Ontario. So much was their yearning for it, so trusting their admiration for its beneficial qualities, that they could express their admiration only in the name of the Wild Goose who had invented it. Hennessey’s.

“What odds will you give me the heroes under the maple will get a line from the doctor?” asked one senator.

Under the battered and sweat-stained fedoras the decibels began churning, but the blacksmith spoke first. “I don’t know about you gents, but for myself, I’d not even touch that with a bet, even at a million to one odds.”

A bettor’s reluctance hung in the air. “Man in distress has got to be powerful close to Lazarus before the doctor would scribble a line for that French cure,” said the senator with the patented spark quencher covering the bowl of his pipe.

“Huh,” snorted the blacksmith, warming to the discussion. “I can just see old Lazarus comin’ round to the doctor’s office door with his hair all bedraggled an’ a four-day growth of beard on his chin, and him sayin’ ‘Doctor, I’ve been feelin’ awful down for four days now. Down an’ out, flatter than a flounder, and I still got the chills. I was wonderin’ about gettin’ a line from you for some of that Hennessey’s, just to take the chill out of me bones.’ Now gents, what would you bet on Lazarus’s chances of gettin’ a line from the doc?”

“A million to one. No more,” came from the patented sparky.