It would have been around 1950 — most likely, as now, with snow on the ground — that I wrote my letter to the Canadian government. I don’t know what one’s geographic loves say about the geography of one’s soul, but I have always been a creature of the north. Not for me some Edenesque island in the Caribbean. Give me, say, the upper Canadian Northwest, where, as a south-of-the-border American, I’ve never actually been, but where, in my young book life, Sgt. Jim Thorne of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and his magnificent part-husky, part-wolf sled-dog, Silver Chief, kept order and did inspiring good in the vast tracts of Canadian wilderness.
At my imagining septuagenarian best, I’m still mushing my way behind a sled and an unstoppably led dog team, battling a blizzard worthy of Jack London. Well, in this case, Jack O’Brien, author of the Silver Chief stories and something of an adventurer himself. Like Jack London, and me, he wasn’t Canadian either, but close — Duluth.
I still have on the shelf my copy of Silver Chief to the Rescue, dating back some seventy years and missing now its jacket, but redolent enough with memories. What, sadly, I no longer have is my copy of Silver Chief: Dog of the North, the book that started me on my romance with this resolute and, by the standard of his shoot-‘em-up counterpart in the American West, benign keeper of the peace and doer of good north of the border. Along, that is, with the once wild and wary dog he had tamed and trained into the devoted companion that would be any mountie’s — or, let us say, youthful would-be mountie’s — dream. As to “benign,” my recollection is that the only bullet fired in the entire book, except perhaps to keep at bay the wolves that nightly encircled the campfire, was the one that wounded Jim Thorne himself in the thigh, fired by the fugitive whom the mountie and his dog must now, on a long, frozen, harrowing trek, bring in to justice. What Silver Chief brought “to the rescue” in the aforementioned sequel, I might add in this pandemic time, was not firepower but serum to save a remote northern outpost from a diphtheria outbreak.
The man who introduced my schoolmates and me to the dog of the north and his master was a Mr. Verbeek, the Mr. Chips-like teacher who presided over the so-called “Big Room” in the old, rural, two-room Vriesland (Michigan) Public School. The “Big Room” that made up the west half of the building was, in fact, exactly the same size as the tandem “Little Room” on the east, presided over by the equally wonderful Mrs. Schermer, but held the bigger kids of the four upper grades rather than the smaller ones of the lower four. I am no longer certain of Mr. Verbeek’s first name — Gerald comes to mind — my uncertainty bespeaking, perhaps, a more respectful time. We, his students, would never have thought to use it, or even had much occasion to hear it. “Mr.” he authoritatively was.
Mr. Verbeek’s custom was to read a book aloud to his four assembled grades immediately after lunch. No doubt, this was partly to settle us down after our rousing lunchtime softball or soccer, he often joining us, winterized, as needed, in long topcoat, rubber boots, and brimmed felt hat. But it was also a ploy to get us back into the classroom. The school had no automatic bell, only the one attached to the rope he needed to pull when lunchtime ended, which could vary a bit according to how caught up he became in the outside sport. A fine demonstration, I’ve always thought, of enlightened flexibility in teaching and life.
His methods were rigorous, but spirited and imaginative — he had the right touch when it came to loosening the reins. I recall one Christmas party when, recognizing all our pent-up energy, but also perhaps answering to his own call of the wild, he bought all of us, in that more innocent time, plastic, spring-loaded dart guns meant to be employed at the party itself. And so they exuberantly were, the suction-cup darts flying everywhere, hitting their target or sticking nicely to window or wall, some of them, I now like to imagine, high enough to require later custodial retrieval (“Ha, is that Eddie Vander _____’s wild shot stuck way up there?”). Or, more likely, since I remember no custodian, retrieved by Mr. Verbeek, himself, hauling out a stepladder afterward and wondering what he had done.
As to his post-lunchtime reading, our Mr. Chips had a knack for choosing just the right books from the much-anticipated and then celebrated buy for the school library each year. He also had a knack for breaking off each reading at just the right dramatic moment—often mid-chapter, sometimes mid-sentence—to get us tumbling back into the classroom the following day. “Then, as the gleaming eyes of the wolves emerged from the darkness….” To be continued.
And so, inspired by a teacher and enthralled by scarlet coats and stetson hats, and even more by visions of a lone figure behind his sled and a team led by a heroic dog, I wrote my letter to Ottawa. Nothing would please me more, I announced to the government, than someday to be a mountie. Did they have any advice on how I might get started?
A few weeks went by, and then, probably to my parent’s amazement, came an official, but personal, letter. No rubber-stamp signature at the end, but the real thing over a real woman’s name. How good, she said, to hear of my laudable ambition, which was much appreciated by the RCMP. But, unfortunately, she went on to say, perhaps after some other effusions, I needed to be a natural-born Canadian to qualify for the force, which it appeared I was not. So, alas, she would have to disappoint me. She did hope that I would understand, and she was sure that I would pursue some other lofty aim in life.
Thus ended, before it started, my career with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I believe that now, however late for me, the policy no longer holds. In fact, I’m not totally sure it ever did, though that would have been an odd mistake for my official correspondent to make. What I’ve never doubted, and have always cherished, is the grace of one woman, embedded in a bureaucracy and unknown to me, who took the time to take seriously, and to let down gently, the dream of one fourth-grade American boy unknown to her.
Much later, and very occasionally, a different letter might land on my book editor’s desk: “I am in fourth grade, and my teacher reads to our class a lot. I really like books, and I know I want to be a writer. Do you, maybe, have any advice on how I can get started?”