The Dundas Boy: To Market, To Market


It was two-thirty A.M. I could tell by the illuminated clock on my dresser. I had not slept. I crept out of my bed, dressed warmly and tip-toed quietly down the stairs. I grabbed a piece of bread, gulped down a glass of milk and I was gone. Slowly closing the creaking back door behind me I headed out into the darkness. There was no moon. But I knew where I was going. I stumbled through Tina Brown’s front yard, felt my way through the orchard, traveled the last hundred yards across the field and down the farm lane to rendezvous with Alan at the barn. We climbed into the back of the truck and pulled the old tarpaulin over ourselves. We left a gap so that we could watch the house. The kitchen light was still on. Just like always, at three o’clock the kitchen light went out and the door opened. We heard him cough. We saw the glow of his cigarette as he approached the truck. We hunkered down beneath the tarpaulin and hoped he wouldn’t check the load too closely.

He cranked the old 1927 Chevrolet truck and it groaned to a start. He backed it slowly out of the shed and we were on our way. It took half an hour to reach our destination. When we arrived, Alan and I climbed out of the back of the truck and confronted the driver. We all had a good chuckle. Bob expected that we were in the truck as usual but he went along with our little ritual pretending surprise when we appeared. It was market day in Hamilton and we were there in our accustomed place.

This was a Saturday routine that was one of the great joys of my boyhood summers. The driver of the truck was Robert Dunning, known as “Bob” or “Rab.” He was Alan’s uncle who had a small market garden of five and a half acres, adjacent to the south side of the Catholic Cemetery. Childless, Bob and his wife Sarah shared a simple life together. He grew potatoes, onions, carrots, beets, cucumbers and other vegetables as well as keeping a small orchard of pear trees. He specialized in “Yellow Danvers” onions and declared himself to be “The Onion King.” All day Friday, at ten cents an hour, we had prepared for market; washing and bunching beets and carrots, tidying up baskets of potatoes; shining up the onions. And now we were at the market.

We pulled the old fold-up table from the back of the truck, and began to set out the produce. By this time it was getting near four o’clock in the morning. Wholesalers were on the prowl looking for bargains. Shop-keepers who needed six baskets of potatoes or a dozen bunches of carrots for their corner grocery store were checking prices. Alan and I were dispatched to do some scouting to see what others were charging for the same items that we had for sale.

About five in the morning the little old ladies came in their black shawls and heavy boots, speaking broken English and looking for the best deals. Prices were somewhat fluid in those early hours. By six o’clock the market was fully alive and sometimes we were pretty

busy. After awhile Bob Dunning would give Alan and me fifty cents and send us off the get some breakfast from the little restaurant on the corner. A fried egg sandwich was the usual fare and cost twenty cents. When it was Uncle Bob’s turn for breakfast Alan and I would be in charge. We manned the stall hoping that the woman would make up her mind and buy the basket of beans instead of endlessly snapping them; that this man would just give us the thirty cents for two bunches of fresh beets instead of trying to get them for a quarter.

The sights, sounds and smells of the market were fascinating and the thrill of the sale when we were in charge made a Saturday something special. We could smell the sausage and pickled pig’s feet that the Mennonite family across the aisle sold. The woman in her little white head covering and her husband in his black pants and white shirt seemed to have an advantage over others. People felt that the Mennonites must be honest and have clean products so they were usually all sold out well before noon.

Then there was a loud-mouthed farmer up at the end who made every sale into a big production. “Yes, lady, those onions you just bought are the finest on the market,” he would shout. And to the world in general he would loudly declare, “Eat onions and you’ll live to be a hundred.” He might embarrass an uncertain buyer with a loud, “You’re not going to walk away from a bargain like this are you? You’ll not do better in the market for melons to-day.” He would croon to a lady slowly walking by, “Have you got your cucumbers and dill for pickling yet? I’ve got the best right here.” And on he went.

By noon, things had slowed down and Alan and I might wander around the market and see other interesting wares for sale. One guy was selling bird-houses that he had made. Another was offering carved wooden decoy ducks. It was fascinating for a small boy to see honey in the comb and molded Maple Sugar cakes for sale. Someone else was selling pickles from one huge crock and sauerkraut from another. Going to market wasn’t work, it was recreation.

During a life-time it is the priviledge of many of us to meet a few significant persons who make an impact on our lives. I don’t want you to think that Bob Dunning was simply a dirt- gardener with no history. He was an important figure in my life as well as to many others who owe him their lives. He had emigrated from Scotland to make Canada his home in the early nineteen hundreds. When war was declared he enlisted in the Canadian army. During that Great War of 1914 to 1918, when fighting was bitter and there were many casualties, in the face of intense enemy fire he singly attacked and took out a German machine-gun nest that was wreaking havoc on his Canadian compatriots. For this he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal which is awarded for bravery in the face of enemy fire. The D.C.M. is the second highest award given in the armed forces, second only to the Victoria Cross. He received a pension from the Canadian Government for winning this award. It was twelve cents a day and only increased to twenty-four cents a day in the early 1940’s.

Bob Dunning was wounded in this action and carried shell fragments in his head the rest of his life. He never spoke of the war to me. He never showed me his medal. He probably developed his salty language in the trenches of Europe and he used it as he drove his team of horses or commented on his progress as he regularly worked to repair his aging truck. This truck was having transmission trouble. It kept jumping out of gear as he drove. So he cut up an old rubber inner tube, made a double strap out of it and anchored it to the back frame of the driver’s seat. He fixed a spread ring, which is part of a horse’s harness, on it. The ring was just big enough to go over the gear-shift knob. When he got the truck in high gear he simply stretched the strap, slipped the ring over the gear-shift knob and the strap held the truck in gear. There was no more trouble in that department. He was always working on his truck and when he was satisfied he would announce that it “runs like a Packard.”

From time to time Bob would have what he called a “spell.” He would lose consciousness because of the movement of the shrapnel in his head. One time he fell from the moving potato-digger and suffered injuries from that fall. He would get over these spells fairly quickly and return to work, moving more slowly for a time. When asked how he was, his stock answer was “About one percent.” He was fortunate to have a loving and caring wife, Sarah or “Sal” as he called her. She was interested in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and would sometimes host the meeting of the local group in their home. Bob, who loved his pint now and then, would carefully time his bursting into the midst of their meeting and noisily demand of Sal where she had put his beer. The good ladies of the W.C.T.U. and Sal were not amused. Otherwise I think he and Sal got along fine. When she was slowly dying of cancer, Bob looked after her, spending all their money for her care. (This was before Canada’s Health Care System was in place.) When Sal died he was devastated and his zest for life slowly ebbed away.

On Halloween Bob would put an old silk stocking over his head, put a small bottle of whiskey in a six-quart basket, and do the rounds of the neighbourhood “tricking and treating” as well as offering and accepting a little libation here and there. My mother had to muster a fair bit of grace to deal with his insistence that she have a snort from his bottle when he visited our house. We were a temperance family. But Bob was always welcome, especially on Halloween.

Bob Dunning had three loves. He loved his wife, he loved his little piece of land, and he loved the poetry of Robbert Burns.. We asked him to speak at our wedding reception. In his best Scottish tongue he recited a Burns’ poem whose best line for Dorla and me was, “We clamb the hill thegither” He had time, during the long winter days, to read the poems of his favourite bard when there wasn’t much happening on the land. He just fed the horses, Polly and Bess; he did some repair of the farm machinery, he cut up seed potatoes to be ready for planting, but mostly he read. He became well-known as an authority on Robert Burns. He called his little farm “Mossgiel” after the farm in Scotland where Burns, with his brother Gilbert, eked out a living on “the sour clay land.”

Speaking of Bob’s horses I didn’t want to add this but my wife, who knew about the incident, felt I ought to confess. I was about twelve years old at the time. The pears on Bob’s farm were ripe and many were on the ground. The horses loved pears. I got a few and started feeding some to Bess. At first she sniffed my offerings before accepting them but then she dropped her guard, assuming that what followed would be the same. As a joke I slipped a horse-bun into the rhythm and she started to chew it too. Suddenly she stopped, looked me in the eye, and gave something between a sneeze and a snort. Out came a spray of partially chewed horse manure all over my face. She got her revenge.

Robert or “Robbie” Burns was born on January 25, 1759. Every true Scot celebrates that day. Bob Dunning, because he was an authority on the poet, would often be invited to speak at a Burns’ supper somewhere. One winter he invited me to accompany him to the Hamilton Scottish Rite where he was to speak to the Hamilton Scottish Societies. He got all dressed up for the event and so did I. Following the supper, and after the haggis had been piped in and properly addressed, Bob was introduced. He shared, with passion and perfect memory, poetry of the man whose faults were well-known but whose contribution to the world far exceeded his deficiencies. He recited several of Burns’ poems including some great lines such as, “and man tae man the whole world o’er shall brothers be an a’ that.” He spoke of Burns’ love of honest religion but not much love for certain Scottish divines that he knew, with “their sighin’ cantin’ grace-proud faces, their three-mile prayers and half- mile graces.”

Dunning spoke of the untimely death of Robert Burns at the age of 37 and the huge funeral held in his honour when “Two regiments, one of cavalry and one of infantry, lined the streets and the local Dumfries Volunteers supplied the firing squad salute. A great concourse of people gathered from distant points, man, woman, and child. July 26, 1796 a soldier, philosopher and poet was laid to rest.” I have my notes of that evening at the Scottish Rite still in my possession. I keep them with my book of Burns’ poems given to me by my grandfather William Strachan, who, in the late eighteen hundreds, came to Canada from Arbroath, Scotland.

Then I was off to University. When, on weekends, I came home I sometimes visited Bob Dunning. His little farm, by this time, had become a subdivision whose single street, called Dunning Court, ran down the centre of the old potato patch. But his house was still there. We would share a cup of tea (which he never shared with us peasants when we were weeding carrots for him.) We would talk of the old days:- the seeding days, the potato- digging days, the market days; how difficult it had been to make a living from the land. He was a tired soldier.

The years went by and I became an ordained minister, serving in Sudbury. In the summer of 1961, I came home and went to visit him. This time he was in a bed in the Hamilton’s Henderson Hospital. He had cancer. He said, “Bernard, I’m dying and you are to take my

funeral. Stand there and tell me what you are going to say.” Stumbling, and with eyes that were tearing I quoted, “Jesus said, ‘Let not your heart be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions…..’” After a bit he said, “That’s alright; I want you to read Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’ too.” Because we both knew the poem we slowly started to recite together,

“Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me,
And may there be no moaning at the bar When I put out to sea.”

We hesitated and then shared the next verse. Then, between the two of us we ended,

“Twilight and evening bell
And after that the dark,
And may there be no sadness of farewell when I embark For tho’ from out our bourne of time and place,
The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face When I have crost the bar.”

It wasn’t easy, I tell you, to stand there and look approaching death in the face.

I returned to Sudbury and shortly after, while in the midst of the rehearsal for what promised to be the fanciest wedding of my ministry thus far, the call came. “Bob Dunning is dead. You are to come.” I quickly arranged for a brother minister to conduct the wedding and, apologized to the bridal party, making clear my priorities. I flew south and, in Knox Church, Dundas, I did exactly as Bob Dunning and I had planned a few months before. It was hard; very hard. He had “crost the bar.”

Some years ago the Reader’s Digest did a series called, “The Most Unforgettable Person I Have Ever Met.” As I think back and remember Bob Dunning saying to a prospective buyer at the market, “Yes, these are the finest potatoes you can find on the market, yes, right to the bottom of the basket.” And turning to Alan and me. “Here’s fifty cents, go and get some breakfast. And bring me back the change.” I can say “Robert Dunning, D.C.M., was truly my most unforgettable character.” I miss him with his prickly character and his choice use of profanity. I recognize the difficulty he had in carrying the shell fragments in his head for over forty years, struggling to wrest a living from the land of his Mossgiel. I am grateful to have known him. Forget the anxiety of The Children’s Aid Society, the eleven-year old boy in me wants to sneak out of the house, stumble through the moonless night and hide again under the tarpaulin in the back of his old truck with Alan and return to the market as it was.