By Michael Burke II
Long Harbour, Placentia Bay, Newfoundland
My dad passed away in 1972 at the age of 55. He was a brave man, and the events of a day in 1965 are testament to his bravery.
That summer, my friend Anthony Keating and I were 16-year-old lads fishing off Cape St. Mary’s with my father, Captain Michael Burke. One day in August, we headed out to St. Bride’s, to the fishing grounds where we had fished all summer. It was a foggy but calm day. Dad told Anthony and me to stand watch because of the fog; he was worried about colliding with another fishing boat. After two hours of steaming, we found and started to haul our nets. Once loaded, we headed back to St. Bride’s.
Because I was very young, I had never been allowed to operate the boat on my own. That day, Dad asked me to steer the boat because he wanted to hunt sea birds, a source of food for our family at the time. I took the wheel in the boathouse while he waited for a bird to fly out of the fog.
Dad stood on the bulkhead and rested the gun by his feet. Suddenly the boat hit a wave, causing him to lose the gun, and the hammer on the gun struck the anchor, causing it to fire. I’ll never forget the sound that came from the gun, or the image of him falling.
Anthony was able to grab Dad, saving him from the water. Next thing I heard was, “His hand,” as Anthony realized that Dad had shot his hand. Dad was pale, and blood was gushing from his arm. He had to be in excruciating pain and shock, but he was still able to provide direction on how to care for him and make our way back to land.
He instructed us to tie a piece of rope around his arm. We pulled it tight, stopping the blood. I took off my shirt and wrapped it around his mangled hand. My father was very pale, and we were sure he would faint. I looked in his blood-covered face and said, “Dad, don’t faint. Give me the course and I will steer us home.”
In a very faint voice he said, “Son, steer east-northeast.”
After steaming for about an hour, we came upon another fishing boat. Dad advised us to stay clear because we might get tangled in their fishing nets.
May father was a man of great faith; he took his religious medals off his neck, placed them on his hand, and said, “God will help us and I have faith in you.”
We followed the shoreline all the way to St. Bride’s, and as we entered the harbour, Anthony and I started yelling, “Get the nurse and the priest!”
As we pulled into the wharf, two men looked down into the boat; one of them fainted at the sight of my father. God bless my father, as he was able to stay conscious until I docked the boat. The men on the wharf that day brought the nurse, Mrs. White, the “Florence Nightingale” of the Cape Shore. She was able to take the rope off his arm and put on a proper tourniquet. After Mrs. White had finished treating my father, she looked at us and said, “You are two brave young men; you have done a good job.”
Dad was then taken to the cottage hospital in Placentia. Due to the extensive damage to his hand, Dr. Ross, the attending physician at the time, had no choice but to amputate.
Life back then meant that, despite this tragedy, Anthony and I had to stay in St. Bride's to secure the boat, clean the fish and sell the catch. It was not until we reached the bunkhouse that night that I finally had time to reflect on the magnitude of the day's events.
Next day, I visited my father in the hospital. He sat up in bed and reached for me. Grasping me, he said, “Michael, I am so proud of you.” He told me he believed that if he had an older, more experienced man with him that day, he would not have survived. Someone else might have panicked and steered his own course for shore and missed land. Dr. Ross told me that we saved my father’s life, and that he would have bled to death in minutes had we not acted as we did.
The following day, Anthony and I returned to St. Bride's. We took the boat out to retrieve all our nets. We returned with our gear and prepared the boat to bring her back to Long Harbour in a few days. By this time, my father had been released from hospital. On our arrival in Long Harbour, we were warmly greeted on the wharf by the rest of our family.
Dad, being the type of man he was, never gave up. He was determined to continue fishing and to live life to the fullest, despite his disability.
The next year I took my holidays, and Anthony and I went back to St. Bride’s with Dad to fish. We had a successful summer with the fishery, a boat full of fish most days.
In August of 1966, tragedy struck our family again. One day, upon returning to St. Bride’s, we received the terrible news that our home in Long Harbour had burnt to the ground. I will never forget the look on my dad’s face. It broke my heart, and I thought, “How could such a good man have so much bad luck?” Climbing out of the boat, he looked back to say, “Michael, look after things again.”
I have to say that I learned a great lesson from that wonderful man during those tragic times. No matter how rough things get, or how impossible things may seem, life is what you make it and you have to move on.
My father always worked hard to provide for his family; he built a new home after the fire, and he did it with one hand. He also lived every day to the fullest with a smile on his face and a full heart. He dearly loved his children and grandchildren, and the love of his life, Helen. Dad, you will forever be my hero!