A group of kids find more adventure than they bargain for one summer in Bay Bulls.
By Kimberly Onufrock-Bracco
On my second visit to Newfoundland I couldn’t imagine, as a 10-year-old, that that summer would top my first visit. Memories of my time in Bay Bulls, my grandmother’s home and the village of my mother’s childhood, are filled with wondrous aromas and tastes: the ocean breeze from across the harbour, grandmother’s homemade bread baking, tasty jams, fish and chips from a local stop – which, as an American, I knew as French fries, and not with ketchup but with malt vinegar.
One rainy afternoon I sat at my grandmother’s table looking out onto the town. The mountain to the left looked so far away and unattainable. I had seen picture slides taken by my father of my uncles and my older brother at my age, climbing this mostly barren landscape to the top. I was determined that I, too, would reach that summit.
So on the next sunny day, my cousin, her friends and I set out in the morning for just that adventure. It seems unthinkable in this day at that age to allow children to wander off on their own, but back then was a safe and a more carefree time. We bid Nan good-bye, assuring her when we planned to be back. Meantime, she probably figured we’d tucker out long before we got around to any climbing because after an hour or so, we were still walking on roads heading into the hills.
Although it seemed so far away, I felt safe and I could make out my grandmother’s house in the distance, the one with the blue trim and shutters. Knowing I could still see her neighborhood made me feel secure. As we walked we chatted and bickered – about what I couldn’t tell you because the memory of our casual conversation was obliterated by the shocking events that happened next.
As we approached an incline in one of the roads on the hill, we came upon a road crew just standing around. At first I thought they were on a break for tea, maybe even something a little stronger. One was leaning on a shovel while others of the small group were milling about next to the equipment they were not using. One of the men called us over. He wanted to show us something.
When we got close he held up his hand, and in it was a human skull!
We froze then. Suddenly we weren’t sure what was happening, or what maybe had happened. I looked to the side of the road and there I could see bones sticking out of the dirt.
The crew told us they had been digging to widen the road, when the skeletal remains were brought up with a bucket of dirt. The land there wasn’t known to them as a graveyard. From what they had seen, the bodies had been buried there for reasons unknown. They had called the constabulary and now were waiting for them to arrive and take over the scene.
The skull was shocking to see, but the bones sticking out of the dirt suddenly disturbed was more traumatic to me. I remember thinking the bones looked so very old, prehistoric almost. I had been to the Museum of Natural History in New York on a school trip months before, and the aged look of the bones reminded me of the colour of the dinosaur bones I had seen there. It was sad but it was exciting, too.
I no longer had the drive to climb the mountain, as I wanted to be the first to tell Nan what we had seen. My cousin wanted to wait for the constables to show up. She and her friends stayed behind while I ran home to tell Nan the big news.
By the time I reached the porch I was out of breath. I rushed inside, startling my grandmother who first thought something had happened to my cousin or her friends. I began to relay the story, unfolding the details of the skull in the man’s hand and the bones that stuck out of the dark earth, shining ever so slightly in the midday light. She just looked at me as if perhaps I had gotten too much sun.
Shrugging it off, she told me, “It’s probably just some old dog bones.”
I was horrified that she didn’t believe me, that maybe she thought her granddaughter from the States had quite an imagination. When my cousin arrived some time later, she backed up my story. And she was happy to share with Nan that she and her friends had been interviewed for the newspaper by a reporter who had arrived shortly after I left.
My grandmother was soon on the phone inquiring as to what the news was up by the “Alley” way. The next day, a story appeared in the paper about the two bodies found while a crew had been sent to widen that part of the road. It included quotes from the witnesses, my cousin and her friends – not me. Nan was very excited that they were mentioned, while I was not too happy at all about being left out of the story. The story also said the bones were sent to the university to be studied while records were researched for clues as to who these people might have been.
I had thought of that day often over the years, retelling the story to friends and family. It wasn’t until I received a copy of a book, Trail Wanderings, by my grandmother’s dear friend and relative, Queen Maloney, that I learned the bodies belonged to two escaped prisoners who had frozen to death trying to make their way from the jail in St. John’s back to their ship in Bay Bulls in the late 1700s. They had been buried in unmarked graves, right where the road crew dug them up nearly two centuries later.
Having moved to the mountains for many years, I often thought of the one I never climbed so many years ago. I now know that it is called the “Ridge” by locals. When I return to Newfoundland one day soon, I plan to accomplish what I set out to do that day. Until then I continue to relish the memories of those fun carefree days of garden parties, blueberry picking, fish and chips, and enticing mountains.