Tuesday, April 6, 2010


The railroad played an important part in the life of most prairie towns. Our little town was no exception. Since the 1920's, thousands of students had arrived by train to attend the school. A lot of freight was delivered to the train station in those days. Car load after car load of grain was shipped from the small community. For years, Three Hills held the prestigious moniker, "The Wheat Capital of Alberta" - I was never really sure what that meant.

My mom sold Avon in the 1960's. I have fond recollections of accompanying her as she would navigate our little red and white 1963 Ford Falcon down to the loading dock to pick up her shipments. There, Station Master Perks would locate the boxes and help load them into the car. This not only provided some extra income for the family but had the added benefit of keeping her smelling nice and us boys too, some of the time!

The small rail yard at Three Hills had several spurs where extra cars were stored. They might be standing there to be loaded with grain or waiting for some form of maintenance to be undertaken. Off one of these spurs was a small shack where the railway workers kept what we called putt-putts. Small car-like machines, they were fitted with steel wheels for easy navigation on the tracks. These railroad go-karts had a unique handle type device that was pulled up and down powering the putt putt along the railway. These small cars were used for line maintenance and general track inspection for miles in either direction from our town.

Peter Martynovych was not a bad guy. He had what you might call "creative skills". One of these skills involved the procurement of a very large stuffed living room style chair from the Tilly Shop, PBI's thrift store. Pete hauled the old chair up to his dorm room where he proceeded to cut through one of the arms so that it still hinged on one side. He then fitted an 8 track stereo and some other controls down into this arm. There was enough room inside the chair for the storage of a number of 8 track tape cartridges in addition to the equipment. With one quick flip of the arm, he could turn off his stereo. This served as a wonderful set-up when it came to "hiding" music and stereos from the floor bosses and deans. By the time the inspector entered the room there was not a stereo to be found.

Let me explain the need for hiding music. At that time rock music, or really any music with bass and drums, was seriously frowned upon and would be confiscated if discovered. Creative ideas would abound as efforts were made to disguise this type of music from the authorities. One of the more clever ways was to go over to The Prairie Book Room where they sold text books, Bibles and other Christian books and purchase 8 track tapes of the schools own music. These tapes may have been choral in nature or perhaps a male quartet accompanied by piano. The 8 tracks were then taped over with some more progressive type music and proudly displayed on dorm room shelves. Unless the music police actually took each cartridge out of its case, popped it in a machine and gave it a listen, they were left thinking that maybe you had turned over a new leaf.

Pete had a full-sized string fiddle which played in a small bluegrass / country band made up of fellow students. He had played the bass balalaika in his family band. The balalaika is an eight-stringed triangular shaped instrument of Russian origin. Pete would play that bass fiddle with as much gusto as he could muster, to the annoyance of some of his fellow students. With paper thin walls and wooden floors, the whole dorm would resonate when he would crank up the bass.

One night after lights out, Pete and another fellow explorer snuck out of the dorm. Under cover of darkness they made their way to the railroad station. Quiet as mice, so as not to disturb the station master who was living in the station house with his family, the boys carefully placed a putt-putt on the rail line heading north. It didn't take long until they had figured out the basic operation of the unit and off into the unknown they went. It was a beautiful night and the land was so quiet as the little putt-putt skimmed along the track. The little crew was somewhere up past Trochu on their way to Elnora when totally out of the black came the loud sound of a train whistle. This was quickly followed by the sight of a bright light in the distance, heading straight their way.

This was an unexpected turn of events! Neither one had thought to check the train schedule and see what might be in store for them that night on their adventure. Sure enough, the train kept coming and the whistle sounded again. Panicked, the boys had no clue what to do other than to get off the putt-putt. They realized that if they left it on the track the train would smash into it causing catastrophic damage? So with one giant heave, they pushed the putt-putt off the tracks and onto the side of the bank. As the putt-putt rolled, it gained a little momentum and just kept going. With a splash it landed in a pond at the side of a field and began to sink.

It was a long walk back to Three Hills that night. Probably close to twenty miles or so. The lads arrived just as the sun was coming up in the east. Exhausted, they dragged themselves to chapel and then to morning classes. When 11:30 rolled around, time for Bible class to start, Pete was dead to the world. He took his seat and laid his head down on his desk.

Ken Penner, High School principal at the time, taught Bible 30. He arrived at class to see Pete fast asleep in a desk at the back of the class. "Martynovych", he thundered, "Wake up! If you didn't stay up all night puttzing around, you wouldn't be so tired" Pete went into complete panic mode. How did Penner know what they had done? What would happen next? All sorts of questions raced trough his mind. Now wide awake he tried to figure out what he should do.

Daily announcements, delivered from the office, broadcast to the entire school just before Bible class, began over the PA system. As it happened that day, there was a call for Peter Martynovych to come to the High School office after school. Now he was really concerned. He just knew the gig was up.

That morning a farmer near Elnora called the Canadian National Railway office to report that he had found a putt putt in his pond. Later that day, the school received a call from the local CNR office wondering if they had any information about the wandering putt-putt. The school said they would keep their eyes and ears open.

Four o'clock came much too soon for Pete Martynovych. During the course of the day he had reached the decision that he would be proactive and not reactive. He got into the line at the office and waited his turn. Approaching the window, he asked to speak to the principal. Confessions were made, the accomplice rounded up and punishments meted out.

The crazy thing was, unknown to Pete, Ken Penner didn't know who the perpetrators of the putt-putt crime were let alone that the suspects were sitting in his Bible class that morning. He had simply used the term "puttzing" as a euphemism for goofing off. Pete had been called to the office that day on a totally unrelated matter . . . Ken's unintentional bluff had done the trick!


© 2010 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.


  1. I remember the chair with the stereo and was actually thinking about it along with other Boys dorm mania the other night.