The Strange Story of Max, the Infallible Donkey
(A Satirical Critique on the Infallibility of UHJ andIts Views and Decisions)
Written by Brendan Cook/ 2009
They say not much happens in small towns, and being raised in one myself, I can say, I believe it. Maybe it is n’t any different in the big cities; maybe people who grow up in Toronto or Montreal don’t have many stories to tell either. But I don’t know about that. I was born out West, on the Saskatchewan prairie, and I know, first hand, how dull things can be. The years are long in farming country, and just about anything qualifies as far as excitement goes. Even today the best you’ve got is basic cable, and everyone knows there’s never anything on. But then it’s maybe because things are so quiet that whenever something out of the ordinary does happen, the people remember it for a long time. Which is how I first heard the story of Max, the infallible donkey. It happened long ago, in the 1930's, but the old-timers were still talking about it fifty years later, when I was a boy. Even somewhere less remote what happened with Max would have seemed incredible, but in Saskatchewan they don’t forget something like that for generations!
It all started back in 1934, when most farms were hit pretty hard by the drought and the grasshoppers were eating up whatever was left. The old folks weren’t quite as sure where it happened anymore. Some said it was up around Tisdale, others were certain it was nearer to Elbow, and I’ve met a few who swore it wasn’t far from Gravelburg. In the end it’s hard to say. Back in those days there were small farms just about anywhere, so I guess there are a lot of places that could have fit the bill. What everyone agrees on is the time, somewhere in the early spring when the cold weather had broken but there was still plenty of snow on the ground, hat Dan Thomas walked into town leading Max along by an old leather cord. Now it’s not that people around there hadn’t seen a donkey before: they have enough of them on their own farms. But a crowd started to draw pretty fast as people began to hear what Dan had to say about this particular donkey. Dan had kept Max on his farm for quite a few years, and at first he said he hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary himself. He said it took him a while to suspect that something was up, and even longer to figure out the truth: that far from being a regular donkey, Max was an infallible donkey, a donkey, as he put it, “with the gift of propositional inerrancy in any answer he gives or any statement he makes.”
Of course those who heard this were a bit skeptical. I’ve said that life in Saskatchewan can be short on excitement, but that’s not the same as saying the people are stupid - not more than people anywhere else. To some of them at least, an infallible donkey seemed a little too good to be true. And they also weren’t about to be impressed just because Dan was throwing around words like “propositional inerrancy.” And so they asked Dan the obvious question. How can Max answer anything if he’s a donkey? How can he make infallible statements if he can’t even talk? Dan agreed that this was a good point and explained that teaching Max to express himself hadn’t been easy. He said that the secret lay in the training. Dan said he got the idea from reading about horses who could count by tapping their hoof on the ground. When Max got a question that he could answer in the affirmative, Dan had taught him to tap either once for ‘yes’ or twice for ‘no.’ That did for simple things, and for more precise answers he could strike the ground several times to beat out a message in Morse code, or make his meaning even clearer by switching his tail back and forth in a kind of Semaphore. Making out what Max meant was often a little tricky, but Dan said he felt he’d got it down alright. This satisfied most people and they were pretty eager to begin putting questions to the infallible donkey.
But before Max had a chance to show what he could do, Mrs. Marshall interrupted and asked how Dan could really know the donkey was infallible. Some people said Mrs. Marshall didn’t have enough work to keep her at home and that she went around asking awkward questions because she couldn’t find something better to do with herself; others thought that her husband just needed to keep a closer eye on her; but everyone agreed she could be difficult. So now they waited and listened as she asked Dan what proof he could possibly have. Dan’s eyes narrowed a bit when he first heard her speak, but it didn’t take him long to smile and come up with his answer.
“You make a good point Mrs. Marshall,” said Dan, looking as much at the crowd as at her, “and if we were talking about something else, I might agree with you. But this is different from an ordinary question where there’s room for doubt on both sides. If what I’m telling you about Max here were only a matter of someone’s opinion, you could be right. People believe all sorts of things, and as you know they are often wrong. That’s what it means to be fallible. But you’ve also got to understand that an infallible source is not like that: it doesn’t depend on what one person thinks. It’s not me but Max himself who says he’s infallible, and we have to remember that the things he says are more than just theories. We can trust what he tells us as we could never trust a fallible statement. If we couldn’t trust him, he wouldn’t be infallible, would he?”
Mrs. Marshall didn’t look entirely convinced by this, but since everyone else was waiting to start talking to Max she didn’t say any more. The people who had questions lined up in a row, and the ones who didn’t moved to where they could best watch the proceedings. Everyone wanted to see what an infallible donkey looked like. Not that there was any obvious difference. Max looked like a regular donkey, he acted like a regular donkey, sounded like a regular donkey, and even smelled like a regular donkey; but because he was an infallible donkey he somehow seemed more interesting. Most of the questions people asked were fairly trivial. They asked things like “what should I eat for supper, Max?” or “Max, should I wear my red shirt tomorrow?” or “what’s the best place for a family picnic?” Max answered all of this just as Dan had said, tapping his hoof and switching his tail after each question. Things might not have gone so smoothly if Dan hadn’t been there to explain Max’s answers, but between the two of them they satisfied almost every comer.
The only ones who didn’t seem entirely pleased were those with more serious problems. Times were hard in Saskatchewan back in those days. Anyone who wants to know just how hard can read about it in nearly any Canadian history text, but I got to hear it first hand. Most families had enough trouble buying shoes or school clothes—bank payments or doctor’s bills were out of their reach. And so some of the people who came to see Max on that first day seemed worried about more than just the name they should give their new calf or what color to paint their barn. They said things like “how am I going to pay my mortgage Max?” or “Max, what am I going to do if I can’t afford new livestock?” It wasn’t that Max didn’t answer these questions as he’d answered the others, but that the people didn’t seem as pleased with what he told them. Of all those that came to Max looking for help, the Jensen brothers seemed especially unhappy with his reply. The two boys, Randy and Eric, were just seventeen and fifteen years old. But since their father had got sick almost a year ago, they’d been the only ones helping their mother run the farm. Hospital costs weren’t something they could meet, so they’d been taking care of Mr. Jensen as best they could themselves. The Jensen brothers asked Max what they could do to help their father get better soon and how they could pay the bills in the meantime. Max answered that they had to work their hardest and hope for the best, but this didn’t seem to be what they were looking for. They just stood there with their arms folded and watched as people continued to come and ask Max their questions.
Now, if Randy and Eric had been the only ones who felt this way, maybe nothing else would have come of it; or at least things wouldn’t have moved as fast as they did. But there was something about their silence that proved very convincing. The longer the two boys stood there the more people began to realize that there were questions where even an infallible donkey couldn’t give an easy answer. The more they thought about it, the more they saw that they had problems in their home and their community that seemed too difficult for any simple solution. Pretty soon everyone was asking Max how they could bring back the years of the good harvests and how they could raise the money to have the kind of life they’d been looking for when their parents first moved out West to begin farming. As was usual now, Max tapped his hoof and switched his tail, but this time Dan explained that he’d given a very different sort of answer than before. Max had said, according to Dan, this would require time to think about. Max told the people listening to spread the news that anyone interested in a better life should come together at the town card hall the Sunday afternoon after next. Max promised that he would give them an infallible plan to solve all of their problems as long as they followed it faithfully. And with that Dan announced that the questions were at an end, turned Max around, and led him back out of town.
To say whether a big crowd showed up outside the card hall that Sunday really depends on your definition of ‘big.’ Most of the town was there anyway, and some came that hitched a ride or drove from nearly twenty miles off, which ought to count for something. For a time when a lot of farms still didn’t have the phone lines put in, word got around pretty fast that something special was about to happen. People had been visiting Dan’s farm for over a week now, and those that hadn’t seen Max themselves had heard about him: and more than that, everyone understood what was at stake. An infallible donkey was just what people needed if they wanted to turn their lives around. Only an infallible plan was guaranteed to get the kind of results they wanted, only an infallible plan couldn’t go wrong.
Although a crowd had been gathering since a little after one in the afternoon, Max didn’t show until nearly three. As Dan lead Max to the card hall porch, he announced that he had a statement he’d like to read that .Max had dictated to him the night before. He asked everyone for quietness and attention before he began.
Dearly loved friends. It is with a palpable sense of anticipation that I announce the establishment of an organizational scheme so eagerly awaited by the members of this community. The launching of the first three month plan is an occasion for unprecedented excitement at the beginning of a venture so auspicious for the well-being of the entire region. The intensity of interest and support it has evoked bespeaks the unity of purpose that has been consecrated towards this gigantic collective enterprise. The coming months will surely be witness to an extraordinary increase in our capacity to make strides towards our major aim: a significant advance in the process of increased yields.
They say not many people understood the better part of the announcement Dan read that day, but maybe it didn’t matter as much as you might think. Those few who did seem sure they understood what Max was saying agree the plan was short on specifics. Its purpose was the better harvest people were looking for- that much was clear enough- but little seemed to be said about just how to get there. The local farms were to be organized into groups Max called “clusters” and were supposed to get things done through “focus on the core activities,” but apart from that people were hard pressed to say exactly what the plan called for. The various families were all supposed to make donations into a common fund, but Max didn’t say precisely how the money would be used. For most people though, it wasn’t the details they were interested in. How Max said it was enough. Uncommon words like “veritable,” “unflagging,” “turbulent,” and “upbuilding” and phrases like “the twin processes of seeding and cultivation” made them feel they were listening to something truly special. A few of the more critical who heard him said after that they thought an infallible donkey would know how to speak more to the point, but they were in the minority. Most of those who listened that day were convinced that even if it wasn’t perfectly clear what Max was saying, they could count on him to come through if they did what he told them.
When Dan was reading the announcement he said that Max wanted people to put the plan to a vote. He said that if Max’s ideas were going to work, everyone had to be behind them one hundred percent, and at the end he got his wish. Almost everyone put their hands in the air right away, and it didn’t take long for the stragglers to follow once they saw they were outnumbered. Even Mrs. Marshall put her hand up with the rest, although she was the last one to do this. Dan seemed happy with this, and they say Max seemed happy too, although most have trouble explaining just how they could tell. In any case, it was agreed that Max would make weekly announcements from the card hall porch and that one representative from each cluster would attend these and take back a written version to be read aloud at the cluster reflection meeting. Once this was decided, Dan announced that Max was ready for general questions, and when these were over, specific orders were given for the jobs Max wanted people to finish over the course of the week. They say people stuck around for a while after Dan led Max away, but most were too worked up over what would happen next to spend too much time talking. Randy and Eric Jensen rushed back before anyone else to tell their folks the good news that Max had come up with a plan to save their farm. In about an hour or so, there was no one left in front of the card hall.
Spring comes late in Saskatchewan compared to most parts of the world, but when it does come everybody knows it. The snow doesn’t usually finish melting until the end of April, but they get busy on the farms long before that. And with Max’s new plan in place, people were moving faster than ever. Most of the jobs he had them doing were the kind they might have done on their own in years past-mending fences, shingling roofs, building sheds- but it all seemed more exciting and meaningful now that things were happening at the orders of an infallible donkey. The thought that following Max’s plan would lead to a better harvest made everyone work a little harder. Grain sold for about as much a bushel then as it does now, and you don’t need me to tell you money went a lot further seventy years ago. As most people saw it, there wasn’t just about any problem that increased yields couldn’t solve.
But while those first few weeks were remembered as very hopeful, they were also the time people say they had their first doubts about Max and his plan. It’s true that old folks especially tend to remember what they want and maybe it was only looking back that they noticed it, but there were a few things that they say started to make them uneasy. One of these was the amount of time that seemed to get wasted on meetings and committees. There were “seeding committees” and “cultivation committees” and “cluster growth committees” and “reflection meetings” which felt like they went on and on for hours at a time, as well as endless sessions of roundabout discussion Max called “consultation.” Some people started to say that maybe they needed to spend less time talking and more time actually working. And then there was listening to Max’s announcements, which seemed to get longer by the week. One or two farmers began to say privately that if they only got half the infallible guidance it would be enough, thank you very much!
But more than the length of Max’s messages, people scratched their heads at the flowery language that he always used. It seemed that Max could never say anything in a normal or straightforward way. He always had a trick of making the simplest thought sound incredibly important and impressive. If someone had finished building a new fence on the municipal boundary, Max would say that “the stage of accomplishment anticipated in my message announcing the need for improved fencing is entirely evident—all phases of construction have been completed.” Or if Randy and Eric had worked especially hard chopping down an old poplar stand on Dan’s property, Max was sure to announce that “the energy and creativity attendant in the various developments of cutting and hauling excess trees owes much to the spirit of enterprise shown by the Jensen brothers: their unflagging attention to the needs of the community as expressed in the clearing of new land has produced resounding results.” No matter how small something seemed, it became big when Max talked about it. A leaky roof that needed to get fixed as soon as possible became “a reality which should prod us all to maximum action,” walking around was called “circumambulation.” And when Max wanted to tell people he could see they were taking his words to heart he would announce that “the immediate reactions from many recipients indicate that the message is being seriously regarded and is even in some places lending new impetus to the core activities.”
But nothing as small as this would have mattered by itself. At the end, the first thing that really got people up in arms was much bigger. It had to do with the fund that Max had set up at the first card hall meeting. Since the three month plan had started, families had been contributing their spare coins to brown envelopes that were passed around at meetings and stored in a great cashbox on Dan's farm. Farm people have always understood that we need to help each other, so the idea caught on pretty fast. Like most people who don't have much, they were happy to share whatever they had. The first sign of trouble came at the end of May when word got out that the money was being used to build a gazebo behind Dan's house. Most people didn't believe it at first, but when they asked Dan about it, he said that it was true. He explained that he'd already put in the order for the white Italian marble he was going to use to build it. He was also heard to say that the whole thing was Max's idea so there was no use criticizing it. Once word got out, people were shocked and a few a little angry. They had thought when they gave money to the fund that it would help the families hit hardest pay their bills or maybe go towards new books for the municipal school. Some had already suggested Randy and Eric should have it so they could take their father to see the doctors at the University Hospital in Saskatoon. When others pointed out that spending the money on the gazebo must be a good idea since it was Max that thought of it, an argument broke out. In the end, it was decided that it would be best to go to Dan's farm together and ask Max about it themselves.
It was more than a dozen people that showed up on Dan’s farm that night, some in favor of building the gazebo and some against it. Mrs. Marshall was at the head of those who thought it was a waste of money, and as usual she wasn’t shy about sharing her opinion. She went straight up to Dan and asked him just how he could think spending all of that hard-earned cash on a building was going to help anyone. Dan was a smooth enough customer not let this shake him, but it was pretty clear what he thought of Mrs. Marshall at this point. People could tell he was mad because he waited for about two minutes before he said anything.
“Now Mrs. Marshall,” Dan began, choosing his words carefully “I can understand why you and some of these other good folks might feel upset about this. It’s easy to see why spending the money from the fund this way might not seem like the best idea at first. On the face of it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why spend money on building a gazebo when there’s so much else we could be doing? Why spend so much to make the gazebo out of white Italian marble? Of course this would bother you. Of course you’d have questions. You’d want to ask whether decorating my garden is more important than books for the school or hospital bills. You’d want to ask why it’s so important to do it now. Well let me tell you, Max doesn’t have a problem with questions like this: he understands how you feel. But what you’ve got to understand in turn is that whatever you say or think can’t take away from the decisions Max makes. It all comes down to what we mean by infallibility: and infallibility, if you see what I’m saying, infallibility is a matter of trust. There’s nothing I can do and nothing I can tell you that can convince you this donkey is infallible: it’s something you either believe or you don’t. This isn’t one of those questions that can be answered by arguing it out or trying to make sense of it. We’re human beings and we’re fallible, but Max isn’t fallible, and in the end we have to believe in him even when we don’t know why his choices are good ones. If we could decide about these things for ourselves, why would we even need an infallible donkey in the first place?”
This last argument pretty much settled it for most people, and while they had their doubts, they were willing to let the matter stand. Max’s decision still didn’t make sense, but Dan had at least explained why it didn’t have to. They say Mrs. Marshall gave Dan one hell of a dirty look as she walked away, but then I’ve also heard that Dan shot one right back at her. In any case, the building of the gazebo was officially announced at the next card hall meeting, and Max asked the families to dig deeper to meet the costs of the pricey imported materials. He’d probably been doing some thinking about the things people had said though, because his latest announcement mentioned how the gazebo was necessary to the plan—“vital to elevate the profile of the community and energize its activity for years to come” was how he put it. And he also said how once they had achieved their goal of a better harvest there would be lots of money to spend on hospital bills and things like that. Most important of all, Max announced that those with a free Sunday afternoon would be allowed to tour the gazebo while it was under construction for only a dime apiece. That way everyone could enjoy what their money had built.
They say Randy and Eric Jensen weren’t at that card hall meeting the day Max asked for more money for the gazebo. But then they say the boys weren’t at any of the meetings in those days. Whatever time they had away from their own work they spent on the different jobs Max found for them or helping out on other farms to earn a little odd money for the fund. Mr. Jensen wasn’t getting any better, and they would always say that they’d be happier the sooner Max’s plan showed some results. Mrs. Marshall didn’t show up at the meeting either, which didn’t exactly come as a surprise to those who’d heard her saying what she thought of Max over the last couple of days. But nearly everyone was shocked to hear a few days later that Max had made a special announcement to say that Mrs. Marshall’s name had been removed from the rolls of the town bridge club. Just about all of the ladies in the area belonged to the bridge club, even those who never came because they didn’t have the time or didn’t know how to play. That Max had the power to remove Mrs. Marshall just like that—well it was a little scary. But in the end, most people said they understood. And there really wasn’t much they could do even if they didn’t. Max was an infallible donkey after all, and if he said someone was out of the bridge club then they were out of the bridge club, and nothing any fallible person might say could change it.
If the 1930's were hard times everywhere in the world, it’s fair to say they were twice as hard in Saskatchewan. The collapse of the markets came along at the same time as the worst drought in living memory. And the summer of 1934, as the old folks recall it, was as bad as any they’d seen yet. Hot, dry weather turned the prairie soil into a fine dust the color of ashes. Dust was everywhere, on the streets and on the roads, and in the eyes, mouths, and noses of man and beast alike. People stuffed towels into the bottom of their doorframes hoping that would keep the dust out their houses, but it never worked, and they tasted the gritty dust in their food and felt it in their hair. On windy days the air swirled with dust and the distant horizon became a haze of brown and grey. The grasshoppers were back too, worse than they’d been the year before. There were people who said that they’d seen them eat away the straws on a broom or the seat off an old wicker chair. Everyone was desperate, and the signs of that desperation were out in plain view. In the bigger towns socialists could be heard swearing to bring down the market system, and wild-eyed men with Bibles stood in the middle of the streets speaking about the fulfillment of prophecies and the second coming of Christ.
But those who had Max didn’t need socialism or prophecies. They worked on through the summer through every new problem that came their way. And they had enough problems, you can believe me. Nobody could be expected to raise decent crops under those conditions, and all the time Max kept everyone in committees and meetings didn’t make it any easier. The gazebo was costing more too, and any spare cash people could scrape together ended up going to pay for the mason Dan brought in from Regina to do some of the fine stonework that was needed. But hard as things were, nobody lost hope because they still trusted Max and still believed that, somehow, he would make sure that this year’s harvest would be better than the last.
And to tell the truth, apart from trusting Max, some were at least a little fearful of him as well. Everyone talked about what had happened to Mrs. Marshall, and this made them think twice before saying anything against Max or his ideas. If he could kick someone out of the town bridge club, what else could he do? Most agreed that it was better not to test him, in any case. Which is probably why people were willing to go along with some of the other odd ideas Max came up with that summer. Even when they didn’t understand what Max was getting at, it was always easier not to make a fuss.
For example, sometime in the middle of June Max got it into his head to start promoting an old etiquette book Dan had found in a spare trunk. The book was over one hundred years old and it was full of out-of-date rules for how men and women ought to act in public and in private, but Max decided that it was important for everyone to live by it. He had copies of the rules made up and read out at the cluster reflection meetings. Men were supposed to say “how do you do my good Sir” when they meet each other and take off their hats, which was a problem for those that didn’t have any hats to take off. Women had to curtsey and bow and address each other as “my lady so-and-so.” The book said that there was a proper way to eat soup and that there were so many forks and spoons you needed for dinner and that young folks should never hold hands in public or kiss before they marry. As far as discipline went, the author was especially concerned about punishing naughty boys who started fires. It was recommended that any child caught playing with matches be strung up by his toes and flogged with a birch-wood rod until he bled. It was obvious that people didn’t see the use in following all of those old rules, but when Dan heard this he would remind them that it was about much more than that. He said the book also contained a recipe for a choice wine, and that no other primer on etiquette could promise the same. In the end people tried to live by the rules in the book as best they could, though they were far from perfect in most things. Just about no one could imagine using those old-fashioned punishments on their own children.
It was around this time too, that Max made his famous statement about the recipe for chicken pot pie. Max said that to make chicken pot pie you needed nine roosters, and he made it a special rule that they could only be roosters: no hens were allowed. A few people asked Max whether he thought hens weren’t equally good. Word got out that Max had said that yes, hens and roosters are equal in everything, whether you want to want to roast them or use them in soup, but that this wasn’t the point. He said that chicken pot pie still couldn’t be made with hens and that was that. Nine roosters was the only way. Eight roosters and one hen or seven roosters and two hens just wouldn’t be the same, he said. It might not be clear now, but a day would come when people would know the reason.
And then there was the case of Tom Willis. In the first week of July, Tom had proposed to Elena Stadnyk without asking his parents’ permission. If this hadn’t been bad enough, the Stadnyks were Galicians and Roman Catholics, two things that horrified his folks even more. In the end, it looked like Mr. and Mrs. Willis were going to go along with the marriage when Max intervened. He announced that far from being simply wrongheaded, Tom was actually gravely sick. He told the Willis family that while he was sorry to be the one to break the news; their son was suffering from a serious illness. This was more or less what Mr. and Mrs. Willis had wanted to hear all along, but others had their doubts. Some even had the courage to ask Max about it themselves. Didn’t the doctors say that you’re not sick because of who you want to marry? They asked Max didn’t science say differently? As usual Max tapped his hoof and switched his tail and Dan explained that Max had just said that, no, it doesn’t make a lick of difference what the doctors say. Medical science has nothing to do with the advice of an infallible donkey, he told them, and if Max says that wanting to marry certain people is a sickness, it’s a sickness, and that’s that. “The best thing for Tom is to get cured, and the sooner the better.” And in the end, that’s what happened. Tom’s parents locked him away in his bedroom and poured hot chicken soup down his throat day and night for the next month. And when there came a day that he said he didn’t want to marry Elena any more, they said he was cured and allowed him out of his room again.
But what was maybe Max’s strangest idea that summer started a few weeks earlier. Max decided that if the next harvest was going to be any better, or as he put “in order to enhance our capacity for an advance in the process of increased yields,” people needed to learn more about farming. To do this, Max said, they would have to take classes on farming, and that would mean textbooks. Since the money from the fund was tied up in building the gazebo, Max said that the texts would have to be made cheaply, so he got Dan to take a bunch of old grade three primers, cut them up and paste the pieces back together. This way every book would have a little bit of spelling, a little bit of arithmetic, and a few examples of cursive. This was just the kind of basic training that Max said would “lend impetus to the core activities.” Since all the texts were pasted together from different pages of the primers, each one was different. Or at least this was true in theory, since most who read them say that they all seemed the same. The exercises were pretty much the same as well and they fell into a few basic types. Some started by teaching a fact and then giving the student a question to make sure he remembered what he’d just read. For example: A farmer is a man who grows crops or raises livestock for food.
Question: What is a farmer?
Other questions were of the multiple choice variety.
Question: 2 + 2 = ? A: 3 B: 5 C: 0 D: 100
And a few were “True or False”
The name for a baby duck is a gosling. True or False?
Now on top of all their other meetings and committees, the men of every household were expected to come together for weekly study circles where they would use the new texts to become better farmers. There were more than a few who were upset by this idea, and they went so far as to say that if they had farmed for thirty odd years, they didn’t need to read some book that was made for babies, but they shut up pretty quick. Word got out that Max was proud of the new texts, and that when he heard people complaining about them, he got angry. No one wanted to make Max angry over something so small, so even those who avoided coming to the study circles didn’t say much against them. They say that looking back the most surprising thing wasn’t how many came but how long they spent arguing over the answers. At least a few held that the correct response was always either “Yes” or “C.”
These study circles took up a lot of time, but if this had been all there was to them, most people still wouldn't have minded much in the end. But as it happened, the most difficult part lay in what Max called “the service component.” Apart from doing the exercises in their textbooks, Max wanted people to take part in “teaching activities.” Now, most people thought they knew what the word “teaching” meant, but it seemed that even here, Max had to go his own way and give his words their own special meanings. To take part in a “teaching activity,” he said there were two important steps. The first was to stuff your ears tightly and securely—cotton was best, Max said, but tissue paper would do in a pinch. Once you had it in good and tight, you went over to your neighbor’s farm and you talked to him as long as you could stand. As for what you talked about, Max said it didn’t matter so much. What mattered was that you made sure you had enough cotton that you couldn’t hear anything the other fellow said back to you. According to Max, this was the really crucial part of a “teaching activity”—what defined it, as it were. He assured people that the “service component” of the study circles couldn’t succeed without it. They say Max was never quite as clear about the purpose of these “teaching activities,” but by that time people knew him well enough not to bother asking.
All through the summer people worked the land, through the first three month plan and through the second three month plan that came after it. And when the dusty days of harvest came around everyone was exhausted. No one can say who was the first to notice that there was something wrong, and the truth is that no one wanted to be the first to admit that the harvest of 1934 was even worse than the harvest of 1933. It was something that really happened all at once. At first nobody talked about it and then everybody talked about it: soon it was all they could talk about. Saskatchewan people know too well that high hopes mean deep disappointment and there wasn’t anyone who wasn’t bitterly disappointed by the year’s harvest. They say it was Randy and Eric who went to Dan’s farm first, but others weren’t far behind them, and by the evening nearly as many people were gathered outside of Max’s pen as there had been on the card hall porch back on that first meeting in the end of March. All of them had the same thought in their minds. How could Max have failed them? Where the great harvest he’d told them was coming? Some of them were so worked up that they started asking Max what had happened without even waiting for Dan to come outside and explain his answers.
At first Dan looked like he wanted to tell people to come back some other time and that Max would make a statement once he’d had time to think things over. But he saw pretty soon that this wouldn’t be good enough. So he turned to Max, who stamped his hoof and switched his tail like he always did. When Max was done, Dan spent a long time staring at him as if he was still trying to figure out what he’d just said. While he stood there people kept pressing in closer around the pen calling out to Max and asking him what they were going to do now that the harvest had failed. Finally Dan raised his arms and called for silence. His voice sounded shaky and uncertain at first, but the longer he talked the more he seemed to find his old confidence. The problem, he explained, was that people weren’t seeing things the right way. He said that a lot had actually got done over the last six months even if it didn’t seem that way at first.
“We need to be process oriented,” said Dan, glancing over at the pen, “this is what Max is telling us. That means we have to understand the plans in terms of process and not just results. Max never said the goal of either plan was to bring a better harvest.” This was too much for people and here several voices were heard calling Dan a liar, but Dan kept on talking all the same. “He never said any such thing. You can see it in writing yourselves if you don’t believe me. Max never said the plans would bring increased yields. He said their purpose was a significant advance in the process of increased yields - you’ve all heard it yourselves many times. And we’ve done that, there’s no doubt about it. Increased yields aren’t something that can happen overnight, but we’re a lot closer than we were before. Look at the progress we’ve made. We’ve got the core activities going, we’ve got meetings and committees and study circles. Work is advancing on the gazebo. And we’ve got people learning to live by Mrs. Scholl’s Guide to Manners. That’s a lot for half a year. And if we haven’t done more, that’s not Max’s fault, now is it? An infallible donkey can give the best advice in the world but his plan is only as good as the people who carry it out. If you want to advance the process faster than you need to work harder- that is the long and the short of it.”
It goes without saying that people didn’t like hearing this. They felt that Dan and Max were more or less blaming them because things hadn’t gone better. But at the same time, they had to admit that they’d been wrong themselves. Max really hadn’t promised a better harvest, only a significant advance in the process, and now that they saw this they were a little embarrassed. Maybe there was some truth in what Dan said about them needing to work harder after all. At the end, they were just too tired to care anymore either way, and so one by one, people headed home.
A few weeks after at the cluster reflection meetings they read out a new statement from Max, announcing “the triumphant conclusion of the second three month plan.” Max’s words were as grand as ever, but there wasn’t anybody who found the same inspiration in them as before. Maybe they were too busy thinking about the cold, hungry winter that lay ahead or maybe they didn’t set the same stock in promises that they once did. At the end it’s hard to say—the announcement was read out all the same:
With my heart overflowing with gratitude for the good fortune of the previous season, I am happy to acknowledge the resounding success of the second three month plan through which we have just passed, confirmed, renewed, and energized in our efforts. The animating spirit of hard work and dedication which lent impetus to the launching of the plan at the beginning of July pervaded this period of concentrated endeavor, rendering our community more consolidated, more resilient, more mature, and more confident than before. The signs of progress thus far so marvelously realized during the past three months were evident in a wide and varied field. The remarkable efforts to expand and consolidate arable land, the increased ventures into diversified sources of income, and the unprecedented thrust of new construction combine to portray a community endowed with new capacities. I cherish every hope that the coming five month plan will in the course of its triumphant realization make way for still more profound achievements and bring us even closer to a measurable advance in the process of improved yields.
They don’t say much about the winter of 1934-35, but maybe there is not too much to tell. When the temperature drops to -30 degrees, no one really wants to go outside, and those raised farther South probably can’t guess how long the nights are. It’s dark and cold and easy to lose hope at the best of times. And by that time, just about everyone had lost hope in Max and his plans. I say just about everyone because there were at least a few that held on to what he told them harder than ever even as they were closest to giving up. Max’s statements were being read in church now, and those few treated them almost like they were a new scripture. They spent hours poring over his every word, and one or two even read what Max had to say more than they read the Bible. Which makes sense in a way, since by now Max had got to the point of saying he was infallible even in matters of religion. He took to meddling in people’s prayers and telling them what was the right and the wrong way to worship God. The way he talked sometimes, it was like he thought that if they wanted to get to God, they had to go through him first. When some religious Galicians tried to make a little chapel to pray in, Max told them not to. For some reason or another, the idea of building a house of worship didn’t agree with him; and if he wouldn’t allow it, it couldn’t go ahead.
It seemed that the harder things got, the surer Max got in his powers and the more the word "spiritual" became his favorite answer to any problem. Even before the harvest fell through, people were already feeling the pinch, going without even to the point of having trouble putting food on the table. They told Max right out that they were hard up, but his only response was that they shouldn't focus so much on material things. He said that the community needed to develop what he called "a heightened spiritual consciousness" and that they shouldn't heed the "materialistic standards" and "materialistic objectives" of their neighbors. He said that without "a deep and ever present awareness of the spiritual dimension of life," they weren’t ever going to be happy. Everyone agreed that this sounded like a good idea, but they were still hungry. No one wanted to fall behind spiritually, but they all allowed that something to eat would have been nice as well.
It wasn’t long into the winter, maybe only a week or two after the first snow fell at the end of October that Mr. Jensen finally died. It had been a good year and a half since he’d been sick and he hadn’t seen a doctor for most of that time. Many said he was so sick there wasn’t any medicine that could have helped him, but then he could never afford any medicine, so there was no way to tell. He couldn’t afford life insurance either, so he didn’t leave much more than debt for his wife and sons. The bank moved pretty fast to get them off the land, and they were gone by the first of December to look for government charity in the city. And theirs wasn’t the only farm that went under that winter. Lots of others had counted on the harvest to pay their bills and come up short in the end. Mr. and Mrs. Marshall had to pack up too. Mr. Marshall might have loved his sheep, but he wasn’t enough of a farmer to make a go with the markets so bad, and in the end they had to go the way of so many others. More and more people began to leave as the winter wore on, but Max didn’t really pay much attention to this. He had decided that what the gazebo needed was a nice row of flowering annuals on either side. He sent out word in January that people would have to find extra money to pay for the hothouse flowers he was planning on bringing in from Winnipeg that following spring.
In the end Max got his money for his hothouse flowers, but there was hardly anyone left to enjoy them as one person after another moved on during the course of 1935. He must have noticed that the crowds were getting thinner, because he mentioned something about it in one of his four month plan announcements. Being Max, he said it a roundabout way, but it was easy enough to guess what he meant. He said that “the flourishing of the community demands a significant enhancement in patterns of behavior so that the virtues of individual members will be improved to the point that they no longer detract from the dynamism of its activity and growth.” In other words, until certain people stopped dragging their feet, things weren’t ever going to get any better. Whether or not he was right, no one ever found out since instead of working harder, people kept on leaving. This was something Dan noticed too, and he said it more plainly than Max ever could. Talking to some guests who had paid their ten cents to walk through his garden he put it this way.
“You may be aware,” he said to his guests, “you may be aware of the fact that people have been drifting away these past few months. They’re becoming bitter, they’re becoming disillusioned, they’re becoming frustrated, they’re giving up on our community. Why? Not because there is anything wrong with this community- let me tell you that for sure. It’s because they have failed in their first duty to the community. They’ve neglected the sense of hard work and dedication it takes to succeed at the farming business. Like most with bad values, they’ve come to a bad end. And I can tell you that if the same happens to half of those still living here, it would only be what they deserve.”
They say that Dan got his wish, and that before long there wasn’t anyone left in the community. By about 1940 nearly everybody had packed up in search of living somewhere else. The town was abandoned so completely that the old folks aren’t even sure where it was anymore. The only thing they agree on is that Dan and Max stayed there the longest, until both of them passed away, a few years after the war. They say you can still see the old farm too, provided you know where to look for it. The Italian marble of the gazebo is pretty much crumbled up, and there are only weeds where Dan had his hothouse flowers. There’s not much left of Max’s old pen either; just a few foundation stones,half sunk into the earth. But they all swear it’s worth seeing if you can find it. It may not look like much, but it used to be the home of an infallible donkey. And for all the grief that it caused them, the old folks say that this still has to count for something.