The good old days aren’t always the good old days

My favourite story in Western People wasn’t even a story in Western People. Not exactly.

It was a letter to the editor (me), but the little magazine didn’t publish letters to the editor. It was little, you see. I believe I already said that.

Anyway, this letter arrived one fine day from a gentleman in Kimberley, B.C. I’ll leave his name out of this tale.

When his dad died, he says, the government moved him and his brother into a foster home in Saskatchewan. There they were given “medicals” that revealed each had curvature of the spine. It was decided that the only good spine is a straight spine, so a doctor was called in to supervise the “correction.”

“I was set on a high stool ‘Uncle’ used for hair cutting, on the barn floor, and two cords padded with newspaper were strung from [the] inside curve side (left) and tied off to the barn wall. Then a cord was run from the right side (outside of the curve) again padded with newspaper, and doubled off and tied to the other side of the barn.

“I was given several drinks of whisky and Uncle put a stick through the double cords and started winding them up. The pain was real bad, and I screamed, but he kept on winding . . . the old country doctor watching.”

Meanwhile, his “aunt” was busy making body casts with burlap and old newspapers filled with wet plaster of paris, with cords sewn in so that the front and back sections could be tied together.

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“Uncle continued to wind up the cords, I continued to scream despite the whisky, and the old doctor kept saying, ‘more … more.’ ”

Then the two boys were fitted with their new straitjackets. “The cast set quickly, and the cords were cut where they came out of the plaster, and I staggered away to lay in the sun. My brother was next.… We laid out in the warm grass and cried all night. The casts were left on for nine months.”

Many years later the man discovered through X-rays that this stretching exercise in the barn had given him six or more broken ribs.

I can extract several morals from this spine-tingling tale of prairie life. One is that doctors, even “old country” doctors, are not the gods we would like them to be. Another is that whisky is not morphine.

Another is that if you have your spine straightened in a Saskatchewan barn, you have every right to move to Kimberley, B.C.

And finally, if you want to flirt with the girls at your school, living in a body cast for nine months is not a good opening move.

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Michael Gillgannon is the former news editor of The Western Producer and managing editor of Western People. Contact: humour@producer.com