On the hunt for elusive Americans

Travelling to the United States was an exotic experience in the days before cable TV, cellphones and the internet. | Reuters/Shannon Stapleton photo

For a farm kid growing up in Manitoba in the 1970s, every trip across the border was a chance to check out the mystery

I didn’t know what to expect. I was only 12 years old and had only vaguely heard of these so-called “Merikans.”

In 1972, cable TV, cellphones and the internet did not exist. Did these people speak the same language? Might they have a sixth finger? Were they taller than Canadians? Who were these Americans?

We were about to find out. Mom booked oldest sister Helga into music camp at the International Peace Gardens just across the Manitoba border in North Dakota.

On a summer afternoon, Mom and Dad loaded the car with their six children, and Helga’s clarinet, and we headed south from our Basswood, Man., farm.

After viewing the city sights of Brandon (no skyscrapers) and slipping through Boissevain, we crossed into the United States of America.

In the 1970s, the border guards just looked over the car’s occupants, and deciding nothing looked suspicious, waved us through. What could be ominous about six boisterous children in a Chevy Biscayne?

So we were in America.

“Richard M Nixon, President,” proclaimed the roadside sign. We didn’t feel any different. The countryside looked the same. Weather patterns didn’t change. We were able to breathe their air. I wondered about their food?

We never examined any American food, though, because Mom brought sandwiches, a super-sized can of pork ’n beans and a jug of Freshie. She also brought an old blanket, paper plates, plastic glasses, forks and a can opener. We were good for our first picnic in America.

In short order, Mom got Helga settled in for her week of music camp. We waved our goodbyes and Dad turned the car back toward the border.

We children noticed the different licence plates with strange slogans. Our “Friendly Manitoba” or “100,000 Lakes” sayings got lost among “foreign” ones like Illinois’ “Land of Lincoln” and Montana’s “Big Sky Country.” Who was Lincoln anyway? And we have big skies, too.

We also noticed a new vehicle, a motorhome. They were like a cute little house on wheels, complete with curtains. I wondered if you could live in them year-round. Maybe like the big round balers, they’d take awhile to get into Canada.

Soon the Canadian border guard was asking Dad questions about his stay in the U.S. and where we were headed.

Dad stated quickly, “Home to our farm near Minnedosa.” He thought the guard might have heard of that bigger town, which was where we went to school. We children huddled quietly, as Mom had asked us to do.

The guard, however, misinterpreted it as Minnesota and became confused why were headed the wrong way. Anyway, Dad and the guard sorted it out. We roared back into Canada. Mom and Dad had a laugh about the “almost-same-name” for a few days.

Nothing changed going back into Canada. The trees were the usual poplars. The highway had the same pavement. Our brief American experience had been a let-down.

Two years later, Mom and Dad loaded up the car again and we headed south once more. Dad had heard that farm machinery prices were more reasonable in North Dakota. Plus our Canadian dollar was strong at about US$1.06, so that alone meant a six percent discount.

Maybe this time we children would actually meet up with Americans.

We crossed the U.S. border again at the Peace Gardens, this time dropping off my older brother, David, and his trumpet at the music camp. We then drove south for a few miles to Dunseith. Turning east, we came toward the smaller towns of Belcourt, Rolla, and Rocklake.

My two younger brothers and I were excited. We prowled the grocery store in Rolla while Mom bought food to make sandwiches. For three young fellows, our surprise discovery rivalled that of finding momma cat’s hidden cache of newborn kittens. We found new flavours of chocolate bars and soda pop. Eureka.

We loaded up with a few samples, headed for the cash register, and plunked our Canadian money. No problem. We received the six percent discount.

Wait. Now we had to keep the American money separate — their coins resembled ours. Their paper money only had one colour though — green.

In our excitement, we forgot to notice if the American lady running the cash register was different than we were. I guess she wasn’t.

We dove into our candy purchase, just as Mom came out of the store.

“Save it until after we have lunch,” she said.

We found Dad and a picnic table and Mom fixed up sandwiches, which disappeared in short order among three growing boys. The bottles of soda helped wash things down. The Dr. Pepper was unique and tasted like cherry. Lemon-lime Teem came in a snazzy green bottle. All good — I grabbed a second bottle.

As for the chocolate bars, Butterfinger was too sugary, but we didn’t care. Idaho Spud was an odd bar. It was shaped like a small potato. Sprinkled with flakes of coconut, it could have been named the porcupine bar.

We piled into the car again and Dad found the implement dealer.

Mom led us down Main Street. We found a big department store called Ben Franklin.

We later figured out that the store was named for a famous American, who helped establish America in 1776. He also flew a kite in a thunderstorm and he discovered that electricity was in the lightning. We liked that story better than the founding father one.

I believe Mom bought socks, which she said were so cheap she couldn’t ignore the deal. Mothers can always use socks, it seemed.

We headed back to the car, where Dad was already waiting. He had found a swather he liked. We all went to look at it. It was self-propelled Hesston.

Dad thought the price of US$1,800 was fair. That meant only $1,700 Canadian, Dad explained.

We jumped into the car and Dad began the drive to Basswood. It was uneventful. We got home slightly late for the evening chores. Our six Holstein milk cows awaited us.

A few days later, Dad took the half-ton and went back to Rolla and bought the swather. He dismantled the big swivel wheel, unhooked the drive shafts and set the back end onto the pick-up.

The 14-foot wide machine trailed behind at 35 m.p.h. Dad didn’t want burned out wheel bearings.

In hindsight, it was a great buy. The Hesston 300 performed well cutting hay or grain. Its dual wheels floated on softer soil. The angled sickle bar allowed Dad to cut the hay low to the ground. And the engine had plenty of power for our hilly fields.

The Americans treated Dad well. He praised them. Us farm boys hadn’t really met them, though.

My next chance came in March 1978. A friend and I drove to Chicago’s southeastern outskirts to check out a university at Valparaiso, Indiana.

We had a day-long tour with an admissions counsellor. Finally, a chance to assess an American. At the end of the tour, though, she admitted she was a transplanted Canadian from Ontario. My introduction to Americans still awaited me.

Six months later, I was living and learning among 5,000 of them at Valparaiso University.

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