When the economy crashed, leading to the Great Depression, Bob Bruce was only a toddler. And when the Second World War broke in 1939, he was 11 years old. Then, he didn’t realize that life was the way it was because of these things. Now, he knows that there hadn’t been much that wasn’t the result of the depression and war.
Bob, born in 1928, has lived in the Kronau area for most of his life. Until 1942, he and his family lived just two miles south of the town in what he called a “shack.” There were three rooms, one downstairs and two upstairs, to be shared between Bruce, his parents, and his six siblings.
“It was sixteen feet this way and twelve this way,” Bob gestures with his hands. “That was it,” he chuckles. “You wonder how we lived there, but in them years, there was nothing you could do.”
It’s only as an adult that Bob has been able to recognize how his life was impacted by the events of the thirties and forties.
“As kids, we always had lots to eat. [Actually], we didn’t have to buy anything more than bread – bread and that’s about it and you grew! We always had a good garden and always had livestock, for milk and meat. So we were never hungry.”
“In the early days, [Dad] somehow had a radio,” explains Bob. His father had come from the States and liked to listen to what was going on at home. “We’d listen to that radio at night as long as our batteries would stay up… that was a saviour, that radio. At the times the batteries were dead, well, ‘Now what are we gonna do?’” But there was about three years, they tell me – before my time – that [they] didn’t have money to buy batteries for the radio.”
Much of their time growing up was spent simply.
“We made our own entertainment,” says Bob. “To shorten [the walk to school] in the summertime, we would find a tin can somewhere and we’d kick it all the way to school. You know, park it when we got there and kick it all the way home again. In the wintertime, it’d be a frozen horse turd!”
Bob’s older sister, Evelyn, took him to Saar School the first day. Although he remembers the walk and Saar’s big doors and his excitement, it is his memory of Saar’s smell that’s most overwhelming.
“Do you know what dustbane is?” he asks. “Well it was a kind of a scented sawdust that they spread on the floor every day – every evening, I guess – when they swept the floors… [It was] just something I never smelled before.”
When I ask what it smells like, antiseptic is the word Bob chooses. He begins to say that it smelled good, but then corrects himself. “It didn’t smell bad.”
For Bob, the bad part of school was having to attend. He recalls being sent to the corner as punishment for little things, and the threat of the strap for worse crimes.
“Well, us guys used to fight to stand in the corner ‘cause we could look out the window over to Paul’s yard. [There] was always something going on there – he was a dairy farmer, you know? We enjoyed that more than sitting at the desks!”
Despite being a repeat offender, Bob never felt the strap.
Still talking about the Depression, Bob leans over: “You’ve heard of the Bennett Buggy? We had one.”
Despite the ring that accompanies its name, the Bennett Buggy was the opposite of special. When people could no longer afford to fuel their vehicles, they removed the engine and windows and instead pulled the car by horse. On a trip to Kronau to get groceries for their mother, Bob and his siblings had piled into their Bennett Buggy. Somewhere around the half-way mark, the horses got spooked and took off.
“Charlie, my brother, couldn’t hold them – he’s maybe 12 or 14 years old… I can remember my sister throwing me and my brother off the back of the wagon, and then her and Charlie jumped. The team kept on going. They ran all the way to Kronau… made a circle, [and] made their way back,” remembers Bob. He laughs, “Talked about that for a while.”
Changes in the world, as it transitioned from poverty to war, did not go unnoticed by Bob and his friends, although they were only children at the time.
“When we were in school, the trains would go by [right] past the school. And in the summertime, there’d be people riding on top of trains or in the boxcars – and we used to call them hobos or bums.”
These hobos, whom parents warned their children away from, were jobless men in search of work.
“As soon as the war started, they all disappeared… They were not more than teenagers themselves.”
In 1942, once the war revived the Canadian economy, his father bought land in Lajord where Bob would continue his schooling until the end of grade ten, meet Louise (his late wife), and start a family.
“As soon as the war come, everything changed. Over night.”
“Of course, I had discovered other things, like playing hooky. And girls.” This statement is followed by unabashed laughter. “My father got wind that I was playing hooky, so he said, ‘Now, if you’re sure you don’t want to go to school, you can stay home and help me.’ Well that’s all I wanted to hear… I got on them old tractors and I thought that was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Bob’s brother joined the war effort in 1940 as a wireless radio operator. For a while, young Bob didn’t know any better than to want to follow.
“Two or three of us thought, ‘Boy, we just have to wait another two more years and we can get into the army, we can join up and get going,’ but the war got over before we got that old… We really [thought] it’d be a great adventure to get in the army,” admits Bob. “You just got a nice uniform and some money in your pocket – we thought that’d be great.”
Fortunately, Bob never had the chance to learn otherwise. He continued to help his dad farm and grow his own operation in Lajord. In 1968, Bob and his family returned to the farm two miles south of Kronau where him and Louise raised four children (Randy, David, Vida, and Kelly). The family spent many hours in Kronau’s curling rink. Bob farmed for the rest of his career and eventually sold the land he had acquired. In 2011, Louise passed away at the age of 83. The couple had been married for 61 years. Today, Bob lives with his son, David, and frequently visits his five grandchildren.