The Unsinkable Gus Menchions

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Nov 18, 2015 2:34 PM

Sporting closely cropped grey hair and silver-rimmed glasses, the slightly built Gus Menchions gives the appearance of a retired professor or a judge, but laughs at that comparison, saying, “Goodness no, I never had no big education. I grew up in nearby Bay Roberts and worked at a bit of everything from sealing, to fishing, to working on boats, to construction, to being a carpenter. And times were tough, but I always managed to take care of my family and that was the main thing. It was a good life when I think on it. You only gets better over time.”

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Gus Menchions, 100 years young

And the Spaniard's Bay, Newfoundland man has had plenty of time to improve with age. Born September 29, 1915, he’s reached that most golden of all ages - 100. I first met Gus more than a decade ago, and during that meeting he gifted me with one of his model dories. His daughter, Olive, estimates Gus made more than 100 model ships over the years, many of them going to family and friends, and some to help raise money for charities. Olive says he only gave up building the model ships a few years ago. “He is pretty quiet about it, but his boats have helped out a lot of good causes over the years,” she says.

One of his most memorable models was of the SS Kyle, which was raffled off for the Janeway hospital in St. John’s but almost didn’t survive the trip. “…We were bringing it in to St. John’s by car and had it propped up in the back seat,” Olive recalls. “We were almost there when an old fellow driving ahead of us locks up his brakes, and I have to slam on mine to avoid hitting him. Well, the Kyle goes right over on the back floor and the masts and whatever else snap off her. I pulled over and started to cry I was that sad, but Dad just says ‘Don’t cry, we will fix her.’ So we go back to Spaniard's Bay and, with the help of my husband Bill, we all got around the kitchen table and they rigged her back up good as new. The next day when we went back to the Janeway, we took no chances and Dad sat in the back seat and carried the ship in his arms the whole way.”

Gus has his own memories of adventures in his life, going all the way back to his youth. “As a young man, I loved the Labrador. We used to leave sometime around the last of May, then fish down there all summer and get back home in October. I grew up down in the bottom of Bay Roberts, and we would celebrate Bonfire Night as boys and had lots of good times. I remember going to school down in French Cove’s below the Running Brook and used to skip off the odd day. I liked going to school, but didn’t like the time you had to punch in while there. I used to sneak off a scattered day and ask my mother to not tell my dad. I don’t suppose it did me too much harm in the long run,” Gus muses.

It wasn’t a charmed life that got Gus this far. In fact, he had several close calls that could have considerably shortened his time on earth. Chief among these, he says, was “the time aboard the old SS Northern Ranger [when] we hit a rock in bad weather and almost sunk. We had lots of grub aboard when we started, but the seawater coming in ruined most of it and we had to man the pumps to get back to St. John’s. Fortunately, we got a tow from another vessel, but we had next to nothing to eat for almost a week. I remember being on deck helping with the pumps, and you’d have to stop to take a break every now and then. I’d light a cigarette and the water coming over would take it right out of my hand. It was a bad go for awhile, but we made it home OK.”

Another time, while working on the American base in St. John’s during the 1950s, a friend tapped him on the shoulder by way of innocent greeting, not realizing Gus was about to saw a piece of wood with a huge table saw. “He felt very bad and never meant to do anything other than say hello,” says Gus, “but the next thing I looked down and saw the two fingers off my right hand on the table.”

Olive elaborates, “It was a hard time for our family, happening just a few days before Christmas of that year and he was laid up all that winter. Our families and neighbours really helped out, bringing us vegetables and food, and wood and coal, to keep us going. A lot of people figured he would never be able to do that kind of job again, but you know he never complained about it, and the next year he went back to work like nothing happened. He was a strong-minded man. He used to say if ‘I survived not being drowned this is nothing.’”

I say to Gus, “Well, they couldn’t sink you, they couldn’t saw you, and it seems there was no way to stop you. Do you have any secrets to share on how to live to be 100?”

He ponders the question for a moment. With a faraway look out the front window to whatever he sees in the distance beyond my vantage point, Gus says with a smile, “I really don’t know. I never think about it. I feels better, if anything. There’s nothing they put on the table I can’t eat. I didn’t drink, but I was a hard man on tobacco. I used to smoke the old Target brand in roll-me-owns [unfiltered cigarettes he would make himself], but I gave that up many years ago and it doesn’t bother me. To tell the truth, I’d like to live to be 200. That’s what’s on my mind.”

It is an answer that brings laughter to the room because everyone knows it is true.

Olive says, “You know, he was the greatest dad we could have ever asked for. He had two children and has many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He looked after our late mother when she got sick and he never changes his attitude. He is always pretty happy.” By Dennis Flynn

The following is a short video of Gus, then 95, speaking with a student from the Bay Roberts Cultural Foundation about one of his Kyle replicas.