When you talk to Robert Mason on the phone, you have to turn the microphone volume to 11.
The 97-year-old’s hearing may have dulled, but his memory is as sharp as a fresh blade, and he’s sharing his story, one column at a time.
Every week for the past 27 years, Mason has sat down to write a column for the Bigger Independent newspaper. Referring to himself as Yours Truly, or YT, Mason’s stories recall life growing up on the prairies during the Great Depression, fighting in the Second World War, falling in love, building a life, and watching the world change over the years.
“I write about things that happened to me, and that isn’t the history of the province, that’s the history of me,” he said with a laugh. “I can’t write the way everybody else thinks. I have to write the way I think.”
But Mason’s stories offer a window into a past world of Western Canada’s colonization, trench warfare, and driving down dirt roads to see your sweetheart. His columns are peppered with sidebars, poems and plenty of Canadianisms.
Mason was born and raised in Radisson on a plot of land his father homesteaded at the turn of the century. He was barely 10 when the Great Depression gripped the economy.
“We didn’t have nothing at that time, and so now we appreciate having things all around us.”
The family moved to Tessier when Mason was 18, and he joined the army five years later. He said he and his friends joined the infantry because, “that’s where the fighting was. To heck with making dough.”
Despite coming under sniper fire and getting a “worm’s eye view” of northern Europe, Mason survive the war.
In one column, he recalls speaking with a German prisoner of war.
“A POW (Prisoner of War) asked me in perfect English ‘Do you know my cousin in Leipzig, Saskatchewan?’ So much for this ‘hands across the border’ stuff eh?” he writes, referring to the idea at the time that Germans knew nothing about other countries.
The conversation highlights what Mason says is the most important thing he’s learned over the years, that whether we’re Canadian or German, we’re all human.
“The dang fool trouble is that when you go to a war, the guy on the other side, he thinks the same as you but dang it all, because of our government, we go and we try to kill each other, and we’re really good guys,” he said. “I think people can get along if they try, but unfortunately everybody gives them a machine gun to try and settle their differences.”
Mason has published a book and said since he began sharing his stories in the column, he’s felt much more connected to the rest of the world.
“It’s like having a personal diary and finding out everyone else is doing the same dang thing as you are,” he said.
During Remembrance Day ceremonies, Mason said he will be a sergeant at arms, but he doesn’t want to be considered a big shot or hero for having potentially taken lives in the war.
Though he doesn’t know what the future holds for humanity, he has no plans to stop sharing his stories.
“I think when I get 100, I’ll turn to writing fiction,” he said.