Bonfire Night Backfire

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Oct 17, 2017 2:26 PM
A snapshot from the author's 2014 Bonfire Night celebrations

Bonfire Night is one of many British traditions that has established itself in English colonies such as Newfoundland. 

It dates back to when James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth I in England in 1603. Since his mother was Catholic, English Catholics thought they would receive less persecution for their religion. When this failed to materialize, 13 young men, led by Guy Fawkes, stored 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellar, just under the House of Lords, with the intention of killing the King, Prince of Wales and MPs. However, a warning letter reached the King and the plot was foiled. Guy Fawkes received his reward - execution, and bonfires were lit to celebrate the safety of the King between the 4th and 5th of November, 1605. 

In 1956, I was teaching at a small school in Summerville, Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland where I became involved in the ritual of Bonfire Night. I was staying with the Greenings, a very congenial family where laughter was not rationed. After supper on November 5, we were gathered around the radio listening to Omar Blondahl (born of Icelandic parents in Saskatchewan), who had arrived in St. John’s the previous year and was performing Newfoundland folk songs. Besides this there was a riddle contest where clues were given each night. One listener identified the correct answer as a hypodermic needle, to which I remarked, "I can't stand those needles." 

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The author, Charles Beckett, and student Bob Tilley pose beside the school in Summerville where Charles taught in the mid-1950s.

Meantime, the Greenings' son and daughter, about 12 or 13 years old, plus another classmate, were about to head out to light their bonfire. Someone suggested I should go along. As we meandered through the woods in darkness that not even a laugh could penetrate or dispel, I also found myself in the darkness of ignorance. I had no idea where we were going and knew nothing about the topography or terrain of the area.

We soon reached the pyre and had the combustible materials set in motion. Admiring the luminous, crackling fire, our peace and serenity very soon gave way to dismay and consternation. A few roasted potatoes from the fire were tossed around in frivolity. When one came towards me, I reacted quickly to avoid it and backed over an 8-10 foot precipice, landing on my back on the rocks below. I lay there motionless, in intense pain, half-dazed and semi-conscious. I could hear screams and cries in the distance that increased in volume as they approached. The students, apparently, had rushed out to a lodge meeting and sounded the alarm. 

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In 1956 the author joined this pair - Jack and Lorraine Greening of Summerville - for a bonfire night he'll never forget.

To this day, I don’t know who carried me out. I know it was painful and I don’t recall them using a stretcher. I was placed on the back seat of a car owned by a teacher from another school, who transported me to the hospital in Bonavista. After enduring the pain of travelling over an unpaved road fraught with ruts and potholes, the first thing to greet me, upon admission, was a hypodermic needle. I spent four days in hospital and another week recuperating at home before I was able to return to work. 

A few years ago a doctor, having read my X-rays, noticed scar tissue in my lower back. I told him it was from a fall a long time ago. Most of us have our physical or emotional scars, but they need not define us. There’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy; the former focuses on the moment, the latter on the larger scheme of things. American poet James Russell Lowell said, "Mishaps are like knives, that either serve us or cut us, as we grasp them by the blade or the handle."
I can’t let one dark moment cast a shadow on that entire year; my fond memories far outnumber any bad ones I may have. When a student comes up to your desk and says, “Mom says to come down for supper tomorrow night, and she wants to know what you would like to have,” those memories can serve to beam beacons of light into our darkest moments. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful than a thousand heads bowed in prayer.” 

Likewise, another wise saying: “If you play with fire you will get burned.” I don’t know what it is they say about horseplay… - Submitted by Charles Beckett


We never forget those BONFIRE NIGHTS!