Sixty years later, the Sugar Shack is still there, the smallest, worst-equipped house in town.
One Saturday afternoon when I was six or seven, Dad and I helped Grandpa on his Majuba Hill farm get his heifers ready for the fall auction. My job was to twist their tails hard to urge them into the holding pen. On our way home, Dad stopped the Ford in front of the Sugar Shack across Wilson Road from the town’s ball park. “OK if we park here?” he asked a woman in the small front yard. “My son wants to watch a few innings of the game.”
Clothes and towels hung on a low wash line beside the picket fence. “Sure,” she replied, calling across the creek. “Only spot open. It’s the championship game, isn’t it? ”
I thought she was an English lady, because they had spoken in English. Back then, Mennonites spoke German to each other. Later, when she sat near us in the bleachers, I saw that her lips and the nails of her fingers and toes were painted red, while her perfume cloyed my nostrils.
Yarrow’s first baseman, Big Jake, came to us, and with his moustache brushing the mesh of the backstop said, “Hi George. Hi there, Rita. How’s it going, sugar?”
Chirping back at him, she said, “How’s the big fellow? Are you coming to the house later?”
“You bet. Same as always,” Jake said before taking a few practice swings and stepping into the batter’s box. The pitch and big Jake cracked the ball over the fence.
On our way home, I asked Dad why Mom didn’t wear perfume. “Because we have a bath tub,” he said. “Just remember. Always choke up on the bat when you need a hit.”
Sure, Dad,” I said. “I will. I’ll get the hits.” I always loved baseball.
That was the last time Dad and I went to a ball game, because he moved to Kitimat to take a job. Mom and the children moved into town from the farm. Yarrow’s colorful ball players, Big Jake, Pete Six, Nice Eye Cy, and the others, left to play in front of larger crowds. The ball park became a pasture where farmer Knox raised heifers.
I also recall the Sugar Shack from the age of fourteen. My neighbour, Otto, had read a book on the Cariboo Gold Rush. Apparently, prospectors had taken the Old Yale Wagon Road, located at the base of Majuba Hill, on their way to Barkerville from Washington State. One summer evening, Otto and I pedalled our bicycles along Lovers’ Lane, the section of the wagon road remaining, to the top of Wilson Road looking for gold nuggets Otto thought were there. While coasting our bikes towards Central Road, we saw an agitated, young woman on the foot bridge crossing the creek in front of the Sugar Shack.
“Isn’t that Laura Lee? Didn’t she pick raspberries for your Dad last year? The girl who lived in your picker cabin on Cherry Avenue?”
“You’re right,” Otto said. “Most evenings she walked along Central Road until Shelly came along, and then she rode around in his car.”
“That is when they weren’t parked in Lovers’ Lane screwing. She is a very fast raspberry picker, because now she’s living in the Sugar Shack.”
“She’s really horny,” Otto said. “Shelly is the best berry picker hustler in Yarrow.”
“I bet she’s so horny, you can smell the pussy fat burning from two telephone poles away.”
“I bet she’s so horny, that when she calls Shelly, he pops into his car and comes over.”
“I bet she has him do her mega times each night. Right there in the shack. I’d like to get my knob on her too.” Puberty was catching up with me. “Who is picking berries for your Dad this year?” Anyone with hormones knew what I wanted to do.
But, Otto said, “Tomorrow evening let’s pan the creek for gold. Maybe the rain washed some gold there when the wagons returned from the Cariboo.” And one guy ahead, we cycled home.
Yes, the Sugar Shack was a legend. It had a kitchen with an oil stove, a cast iron wash basin, a table with a couple of chairs, and a bedroom with two single beds. Often, one or two single women rented it. Before long, young men were hanging around, and being entertained. Perhaps a Mennonite fundamentalist should have torched the shack and the picker cabins—clear challenges to the town’s morality. But then, where would these low wage berry pickers have lived—so necessary to each berry farmer’s profits? What’s more, this arrangement sheltered the local Mennonite girls from immorality—with the Bible’s New Testament in their dress pockets.
At dinner parties, my old Yarrow friends often talk about the Sugar Shack and its residents. Our conversation drifts to our late teens and early twenties in Yarrow, and then Veronica and Betty pop up. Usually, I am unable to change the subject. Recently, a friend accused me of stealing contraband liquor from Canada Customs where I worked during the summer after my second year at UBC, insinuating I intended to get the girls drunk and seduce them. Here is what really happened.
One evening after my shift at the Aldergrove border crossing, I went to see Otto on his midnight lunch break at my Uncle Jake’s berry cannery. There I met two teenaged girls from Vancouver, Veronica and Betty. I hung around until their shift ended, and gave them a ride to the Sugar Shack where they were living. Always about the money, Otto made a few extra dollars cleaning the cannery after the day’s berries were processed. The girls invited me for tea, and we talked and played cards until early in the morning. For the first two weeks of July, we repeated this routine. If the girls and I felt up for it, we drove to Cultus Lake for a swim, before we partied at the shack. Occasionally I bought beer for us at a pub in Aldergrove. Although underage, I was never asked for ID while wearing my Canada Customs uniform.
I’m not sure when I started making out with Veronica, although at first it was only with her. After making out, Veronica and I would fall asleep in one bed, while Betty slept in hers. Reflecting on how restrained we were making love, I recall a tale from Greek Mythology in which Tiresias proves that women enjoy sex much more than men, whatever form it takes. Sleeping together is romantic too. Typically, I woke up at four or five in the morning, and drove home for more sleep. Mom didn’t know how my border shifts worked.
My work as a customs agent was boring. But one evening I prevented a group of California Hell’s Angels from crossing into Canada to attend a nearby rock concert. American police warned us they were coming. Our orders were to deny them entry. I used the ruse of asking these bikers to show me enough money or credit cards to pay for their stay in Canada. When they didn’t comply, I told them to return to the USA, so that American authorities could deal with them. As a reward for my ingenuity, a co-agent gave me a bottle of rye whiskey a tourist over his legal alcohol limit left with us before going back to the USA. This bottle was not contraband we had seized, but Canadian liquor with all excise taxes paid.
Arriving at the Sugar Shack late that night, I found the girls already in bed. I wanted to party, overexcited from my experience at the border. Betty and I sat in the kitchen drinking rye and ginger ale. “What’s wrong with Veronica? Is she sick?”
“No,” Betty said. “She got a letter from the guy she broke up with. He wants to get back together after his RCMP basic training in Regina.” Then, “So what do you want to do?”
After another drink, I told her about the cabin some friends and I built on Vedder Mountain above Majuba Hill when we were in Junior High. Maybe we could go hiking.
“Our first summer evening at the cabin, we ran naked like savages along the mountain trails. While roasting marshmallows over a bonfire, we jacked off looking at Playboy magazines.”
Betty and I were laughing about this story and a few others, and had started making out when Veronica came into the kitchen. “What is going on here? I am trying to sleep.”
“You didn’t tell me you were seeing an RCMP guy. What are you doing?”
“It isn’t that! And it is none of your business! We never actually did anything.”
Veronica could be scary. Veronica, Betty, and I drank rye and ginger ale until that bottle was empty. Before we went to bed, we pushed the single beds together. I don’t remember any more details.
In the morning when I took a leak while standing on the footbridge, my future seemed like the slumbering shadow of Vedder Mountain spreading south and westward. I felt I would piss in the heavens on another green and blue planet circling some other star. Knox’s heifers were milling about on the old ball diamond. Had Big Jake cracked another one over the fence?
We got together a few more times during the summer, but Veronica, Betty and I were never the same. The next summer, I worked in Vancouver. One evening in June, Veronica and Betty arrived at my door. They asked me to be their date to their high school graduation ball.
© Elmer Wiens