Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Kenny the Communist

Kenny became a communist during the harsh winter of 1934. It was to be his secret for the next 60 years, and a decision based solely on the desire for hot cocoa and warm cookies.     

Oscar and Olga
In 1934, Kenny was a 7 year old growing up in the midst of the Great Depression. He lived in Prince George, a rough and tumble lumber town in northern British Columbia. Kenny was Oscar and Olga’s youngest child, 9 years younger than his closest sibling. His oldest sibling, Orville, was his hero. Kenny was known as ‘Whitey’ because of his platinum blond hair. He was a skinny freckled kid always ready for an adventure. Back then the summer seemed to last forever. Kenny and his friends would think nothing of jumping off the train trestle into the mighty Fraser River. They fished, swam, collected bottles and told stories.
“I boney-eyes the core”, they’d shout, the second someone dug out an apple to munch on. Whoever said those magic words first had the privilege of sucking on the apple core after the owner was done with it. They spent a lot of time watching trains leave the train yard. Once a train had cleared the yard, desperate men would often leap from the ditches carrying the remains of their lives tied in small bundles. They’d run along the track till they could get enough of a grip to attach themselves to the sides of the moving cars.  They were ‘riding the rods’, going from town to town looking for work.
Orville and Kenny

“Your father’s a scab!” they yelled at him in the schoolyard.
“Your fathers are all Bolsheviks!” he’d yell back, one toe dug into the dirt to give him better traction when he started running.

Oscar and Olga were Norwegian immigrants. Oscar had worked for the CN Railway before times got tough and he’d been laid off. He refused to live on food stamps and government relief though, and was lucky enough to get a job on a highway extension relief project begun in 1931. Work camps had been established along the route and Olga worked as a cook in one of the camps. Kenny was too young to stay home so she brought him along and he helped where he could. Oscar was away from home for weeks at a time. He brought home stories from the road crew, how grown men went mad in the spring after the mosquitoes and black flies had hatched in the bogs and swarmed them. Oscar didn’t mind the work; it was better than being called a communist like the men at home who collected assistance from the government of the day. Among the jobless, a social and political movement, led by communists, had been growing in Prince George. In the 1930s Canadian communists were very active on behalf of working-class people and had been co-ordinating agitation activities across the country.

The winter of 1934 had been particularly hard and there was no money for extras. In the town’s center, known as the ‘red light district’, lived a Russian woman, Mrs Korshanenko, a well known communist. Like his friends, Kenny had been warned to steer clear of that part of town. One winter day Kenny was told that Mrs Korshanenko was giving away free cookies and hot cocoa. A plan was hatched with a couple friends to find her house. The next evening they knocked tentatively at the door. It was answered by Mrs Korshanenko who warmly invited them in. She handed them pamphlets of information and spoke about the opportunities they could anticipate as members of the communist party youth wing. She offered them the cookies and cocoa, but only after they signed their names on the small cards she handed them. Kenny, his mouth watering just thinking about the cocoa and cookies, signed without another thought. They attended as many meetings as they could that winter. They weren’t interested in what was being said, they were only interested in their reward of cocoa and cookies.

When my father told me this story in the early 90s’ he had actually kept it a secret for some 60 years. Because he’d spent his entire adult life in the Canadian military, he had been hesitant to admit this ‘indiscretion’. He wondered what would have happened to him if his superiors had ever found out he’d been a communist.

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