REGINA — Murray McWilliams believes his father carried the guilt of his young son losing a leg in a farm accident to his grave.
“It not only affected me, but affected the whole family,” said McWilliams, now retired and living in Regina with his wife.
The family was busy finishing the leftover harvest in March 1952 near Briercrest, Sask., when four-year-old McWilliams begged his mother to join the work crew in the field.
His uncle took him out in the grain truck and an older brother, 11, was put in charge of watching him.
The men were getting a combine greased and ready to fire up, un-aware that McWilliams had left the truck.
He was playing with the canvas table when the flap picked him up and took him inside to the cylinder. His left leg doubled up behind him but the right leg was pulled inside, stalling the combine.
“It’s a lucky thing I went in feet first or I wouldn’t be here,” said McWilliams.
His father attempted firing up the machine again before deciding to investigate the problem.
“When Dad went to unplug the combine and found me in there, it had to be more than a little traumatic for him,” he said.
A series of complications followed. Telephone services were inaccessible and the family spent more than an hour taking the combine apart to free him. The only car available to take him to Moose Jaw, Sask., was a neighbour’s slow moving Ford Model A.
“The rollers and equipment were embedded in my leg and kept me from bleeding to death,” McWilliams said.
“Once I was out, Dad rolled me in a blanket and put me in the backseat.”
A blood service was not available then, but his father was a good match so he was prepared for a direct blood transfusion.
“He sat in a room all prepped, not knowing if I was alive or not,” said McWilliams.
Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting estimates that 13 children die each year from agricultural accidents in Canada.
Although 71 percent of child fatalities are work-related, in eight of 10 cases the victim was not performing farm tasks but was killed by an adult who was engaged in agricultural work.
Almost four in 10 children, aged 14 and younger, died after being struck or run over. Sixteen percent died from drowning, 12 percent from machine rollovers, six percent from animal-related incidents, five percent from becoming caught and four percent from being struck by a non-machine object.
Close to half the child deaths occurred close to the farmhouse.
McWilliams survived his accident but lost his leg. He was left with a small stump below the hip and spent six weeks recovering in hospital.
“They gave me a pair of crutches and sent me home,” he said, noting therapy then was largely what you learned yourself.
“I had to learn to walk all over again. I could always think of how to do things differently.”
McWilliams farmed with his father and brothers on land that’s been in the family since 1892. He later married, raised a son and worked as a construction goods and services buyer.
“Dad was frustrated this happened and was always trying to make it up to me,” he said, noting tears were common for family members recalling the accident.
“I knew Dad felt very bad. Guilt was the main side-effect.”
His father sold mineral rights on the farm to help pay for a trip to Kansas City, where he could buy a leg for $400. There, he was taught to service it, adapt it with inserts in the ankle and make the socket bigger as his son grew.
“That was a lot of money for a leg,” said McWilliams, who today uses a metal cane with a small ledge that he supports his stump with when walking.
He has shared his survivor story with thousands of schoolchildren and others in farm safety presentations for the Saskatchewan Safety Council and Farmers with Disabilities. He often gets one child to leave the room to make his point.
“I ask what if you never see that person like that again,” said McWilliams.
“I try to get the message across if you are not conscious of safety, this could happen to you and even if you are, stuff happens.”
He said children are good educators and take the message home to their families.
“They remind Dad it’s not a good idea to walk around the p.t.o. when it’s running,” McWilliams said.
He said there are many lessons learned from his experience, but a key one is not to leave children in charge of children.
Studies have shown that farm accidents typically happen during the busy season when people are under stress, working long hours and getting little rest.
Today, McWilliams is conscientious about shutting machines off and cautions others to do the same.
People do the same things daily and bad habits become routine, he said.
“It’ll catch up with you.”