This is the first of a three part series prompted by the arrest and charges of assault and assualt with a weapon of four “horse and buggy and Mennonites” in southwestern Manitoba reported in the Winnipeg Free Press last week. I didn’t even know Manitoba still had horse and buggy Mennonites.
I am luckier than many Mennonite men my age or older. I only remember getting the strap three and a half times in my childhood. Once, by Principal John Brown for kneeing Karen Peters in the back in Gretna Elementary School. She had put my name on the green blackboard together with that of a girl I may or may not have liked in Grade Five. It was an easy trot down the aisle (for some reason the desks were aligned perfectly for a swinging launch) planting one of my knees in her kidney. Or so I found out later in the principal’s office because she had kidney disease.
We had a rule in our house that if you got the strap in school you got the strap at home. John Brown wrote a note I was to take home explaining what I had done and my punishment. I was terrified, tore up the note and spent a day or two quaking until Dad confronted me with my misdeeds, because of course JB had followed up. But he knew about our house rule and advised leniency, and I was grateful, because we both knew Dad knew his way around a strap.
The first time Dad strapped me was early on in my school career and stubborn resistance to learn arithmetic. There were certain expectations of a teacher’s and principal’s son. I did not meet expectations with a spring time report card which was bad enough but then I proceeded to “lip off” we called it then, telling my parents very directly about my disdain for arithmetic and their expectations to do better than most kids.
This earned me a trip to the wood-shed, which, on our property was one third of what would have originally been a carriage house. There was a strap in the house in my dad’s desk, but another, well several pieces of leather harness (we still had a horse or horses in Gretna)hanging in the workshop. The middle third would have been the carriage house proper, and now served as a garage, with the final third providing storage for oats and other cattle feed. The hay was kept in the red barn.
He didn’t say much but told me to drop my pants and bend over. I learned that struggling and getting my hands in the way made him angry and my buttocks were fleshier and stung less. I was sent back to the house to apologize to my mother who had been the most offended and now sorry for my punishment. I will come back to this, and what was expected of (Mennonite)men and fathers in the 50s and 60s, not much programmed on the television I was watching. “Father Knows Best,” “My Three Sons,” “Ozzie & Harriet” and my favourite “Hazel.”
Checking in my room with a mirror before bed that night, I could see bruises on my bum. After I put on my pajamas Dad came to sing Bayushki Bayu, my favourite Russian lullaby, standing in the doorway like he often did. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger,” a favourite admonishment of his.
 Old school arithmetic is being reintroduced in Manitoba elementary schools this year, very astutely before Bill 18 is debated in the Legislature. I agree people should know how to count and do all of what I hated to do, instead relying on technological aids, but I hope they have a better way to pass that knowledge on to children. Of course many of us were also ruined in my generation by the introduction of “New Maths” in the late sixties destroying what little we had learned about numeracy.