#YEG: A Rough Beginning

An adventurous journalist recalls memories of home.

Illustration Katy Dockrill

Edmonton is a good place to be from. Few friends can top me with bad weather stories, fewer come from a more remote place and most of my American friends take a while to realize that it is as far south from Edmonton to Chicago as it from Minnesota to Florida.

I was born in Edmonton. So, I thought your nose hairs were supposed to freeze together, mosquitoes always swarmed in clouds and there were only three to four weekends that resembled pleasant in any one year.

I was raised by a single mother. We lived in low-income housing near Mill Creek. Nobody bragged about living in the “Dawson Huts,” but it seemed like a fine place to grow up.

After school, at the age of seven, I paid a dime to take two buses across town to pick up my four-year-old brother from day care. The winters were cold but we leapt along bluffs of plowed snow to school. In the spring I would lift the wooden sidewalks up section by section while my brother would duck underneath to scoop up the change. We’d argue like venture capitalists over which penny candy we wanted.

When the trees bloomed, my  brother and I would venture down to the creek with the same thrill I feel decades later when I enter Afghanistan to do missions with a U.S. Army Special Forces team. Roving bands of older bullies would chase us and, if we were caught, pummel us. In the summer, I would ride my bicycle as far as Nisku. I’d catch baby gophers whose mothers had been killed by cars and carry them back in coffee cans. They whistled at night until I released them near the creek in the morning.

I was kicked out of class in the second grade. The principal, Miss McConway, banished me to the library and I read every book I could. I started with The Odyssey by Homer, went on to neurology books and blew through the entire Hardy Boys’ series. Later, she was surprised that I passed Grade 9 English at the age of nine. I was then sent to the nearby French schools to be taught by the nuns in a foreign language “to slow me down,” and I took the first to the third grade again in French.

Then as I turned 10, I was sent away to St. John’s Cathedral Boy’s School in Winnipeg. Raising farm animals, snowshoeing, studying Latin, Greek and Voyageur French just increased my appetite. On one of our annual 1,000-mile canoe trips, we paddled our massive yellow freighter canoes from Rocky Mountain House to Le Pas. I saw Edmonton again as it probably should be seen, from the North Saskatchewan River.

After that, I never saw Edmonton again. I like my memories of Edmonton as a rough frontier town with terrible weather. Today I still have half of that Chestnut Freighter restored and upright in my San Diego office. I use it to display my books and products and often tell visitors stories of my uniquely Canadian upbringing when they see the massive canoe.

Since then I have lived in a lot of places, and done a lot of things during the two-dozen wars and the more than 120 countries I have been through. But, when Somalis, Chechens or Afghans ask me where I am originally from … I always say, “Edmonton.”

Robert Young Pelton is a journalist who has worked for 60 Minutes, CNN, Discovery, National Geographic, Businessweek, Foreign Policy, ABC Investigative and others. He is the author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places, Licensed to Kill and his autobiography, The Adventurist.

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