A week for writers and lit lovers

Friday, April 25, 2014

Boycott Kraft Days - a bit of memoir

In every life, the odd, the unexplainable occurs. So it was during that long-ago 1970's campaign to Boycott Kraft cheese. I cannot now remember the outcome of the boycott. But I do remember a strange incident within it. What follows is memoir or creative non-fiction. Almost all the names have been changed. 

Boycott Kraft
By Joan Baril
Boycott Kraft said the hand lettered sign above the cash register. It was May, 1973, and the boycott was in full swing, or so Ken Hamm told me when I dropped into the Thunder Bay Co-op Bookshop on South Algoma Street. Ken was minding store and playing his guitar at the same time.  As usual, he was playing the blues and singing softly to himself.  His long hair brushed the end of the guitar as he hunched over the strings. No other customers were browsing the crowded aisles of the little shop.
A pile of information sheets, small posters, stickers, buttons and bumper stickers rested on a table beside the cash. The boycott had been started by the National Farmers’ Union, headquartered in Saskatchewan. I picked up an information sheet and tried to puzzle through the dense text which described how the Kraft Corporation manipulated the milk quota system in order to shut out the small independent cheese producers.  I skimmed guiltily. How committed was I to this issue? How much time did I want to spend studying cheese?  
Not much. 

As I stood frowning over the paper, Maurie Green walked into the shop. “I’ve looked into the entire issue and I think I can explain it clearly,” he said.  “It’s a disgrace the way Kraft is driving small dairy farmers and cheese factories to the wall. I’d like to speak about it at the next Bookshop Benefit.” The benefit, held every second Sunday night in the Little Finn Hall on Bay Street featured folk music, poetry readings, announcements and, occasionally, a speech or a skit of some sort. 
“Far out,” Ken said taking out the scribbler he used to list the performers at the Benefits.  “You can be up first after the break.”
During the following week, I seemed to be drawn into the issue. I pasted a Boycott Kraft sticker on the rusty bumper of my old truck, I switched to Black Diamond and I even went to a meeting where a small group brainstormed the subject in order to write a skit about it. They planned to present it at the Bookshop Benefit,
But I did not go to that Bookshop Benefit to see the skit or hear Maurie speak. It was one of the few I missed. Instead my vacation arrived and I went to Ottawa to visit Maggie Rose, an old high school buddy. During the day, when she was at work, I visited other people in Ottawa that I knew, among them Lisa Smith, a friend from university and the White family: Major General Leslie White, his wife Mary and their two children. 
Eight years before, when my husband was alive, and he and I and our two girls were living at the military base in Val Cartier outside Quebec City, we had become close friends with the Whites.  At that time Leslie White was a major in the signal corps, a rank one step ahead of my husband who was a captain. One evening, when we were at a dinner party at the Whites’s, I mentioned that I had a hard time getting something to read because the closest English library was in Quebec City, sixteen miles away. Mary White got up from the table, walked me into the living room and waved her hands at the bookcases lining the walls. “Help yourself,” she said. I almost fainted with happiness. Thus a close friendship began.
In Ottawa, the White’s were at the door to greet me. Leslie was a tall studious-looking man with round glasses and a shy manner. He walked with a slight stoop. Mary White was also tall, but with a booming laugh and an open cheerful face. They seemed genuinely glad to see me.   
Their large house, full of expensive rugs and furniture, backed on to a park. Mary, who I remembered as a slap-dash dresser in Val Cartier, wore pearls and a dress while I was in my usual counter-culture clothes of bell bottoms, corduroy shirt and an old jacket. It was obvious we were living on different planets. As we drank tea, they chatted of overseas postings, mess dinners, social events at the various embassies, tossing out references to NATO, NORAD, and the UN. For my part, I described the log house I was building in the country.
After lunch, Leslie suggested he show me the river walk in the park behind the house. Mary stayed behind. She explained she was expecting an important phone call. As the general and I walked along chatting of this and that, he suddenly said,” Did you hear a group of people are boycotting Kraft cheese?”
            I was immediately on the alert. Surely this could not be some sort of wild coincidence. I had not mentioned Kraft in any of the few letters I had written to the Whites. Paranoia, always lurking on the sideline in the 1970’s, slid into my brain.
 “Really,” I said, evenly. “Why?”
            “Some new farm group has set the thing up. A Communist front.”
            “Oh,” I said. “I like Black Diamond much better than Kraft.”
Later that evening in bed at Maggie Rose’s house, I pondered. Obviously, the walk was a set-up. Mary had stayed behind so the general could have a Krafty chat with me. He obviously knew I supported the boycott or why should he bring the subject up and in such an awkward manner.  
But how did he know about Kraft and me? Where did he get his information? Was there a spy in the ranks of the local Anti-Cheesies? I had no idea who it could be. Maybe some kind of a double game was afoot. His plan was that I would return to Thunder Bay, tell the story, and make the suggestion that one of our number was an informer, perhaps working for the Mounties. Thus dissention would be sown. Our friendly group of Anti-Cheesies would turn nasty, suspicious of each other.
Or perhaps, White just wanted to let me know that he knew the type of people I was hanging around with and warn me against them, in a sort of paternal but meddling way. If so, I was cross. It was not illegal to boycott a company for whatever reason.  I whispered to the dark, “Bugger off, General.” I returned home the next day and said not one word to anyone about the General’s interest in Kraft Cheese. 

Nor did I keep in touch with the Whites.  More than Kraft got boycotted.

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