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NL story in Lunenburg Fisheries Museum
On permanent display at the Lunenburg Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in Nova Scotia are the running lights from the doomed Grand Banks trawler Gale. During a viscous winter blizzard of freezing sleet and blinding snow in December 1945 Gale had gone astray and grounded on the rich fishing grounds of the NE Bar of Sable isle. The only relics recovered from the wreck before she finally broke up and disappeared beneath the surface several days later were her running lights. Fortunately, all 22 men on board were heroically rescued just hours before she went down, a worthy tale in itself. Frantic SOS messages had been sent out by Gale's master, Capt Swartz, when she initially ran upon the reef that had been picked up by US and Canadian coast guard stations as well as by a number of other trawlers fishing in the area, among them was Gale's sister trawler, the Breaker. For the next 24 hours Breaker's skipper Capt Jack Halley stubbornly tried but without success to put a breeches buoy (a rope-based rescue device used to extract people from wrecked vessels), aboard Gale. These failures finally led skipper Jack, a fishing captain from Topsail to call for volunteers to make an attempt a rescue Gale's crew by dory, a near suicidal request. But he need not have worried on that score, for immediately four brave Newfoundland fellows stepped forward to make the attempt and their dorys soon dropped clear without fuss or fanfare. Though the seas were running 15-20ft high around the Breaker at the time, these skilled dorymen succeeded in getting to the Gale and returning safely to the Breaker with nine of her crew on their very first attempt. Then back they went again rowing with grit and determination through that maelstrom to get the remainder of the crew off so that by day's end they'd successfully rescued all 22 of Gale's crew. The 40 or more Newfoundland fishermen aboard the two vessels weren't shy about letting the Boston based owners and the citizens of that great town (a town that had become a home away from home for thousands of Newfoundland Grand Banks fishermen over the years) what they thought of the rescue by composing an epic ode to celebrate the event and honour the men involved. The words of this long glowing tribute hang proudly to this day on the wall of Sal Bartolo's Cafe on 199 Summer St. It's title is : The Story of the Gale and the Breaker Its author or authors are unknown. The saga runs 16 and 1/2 verses long in four line stanzas. Here's a 2 stanza example: When on the air John Halley came, a man both brave and grand He was skipper of the Breaker with a crew from Newfoundland. "We are coming to your rescue, so keep a light on high Tonight we'll run the North East Bar, we will not pass you by." Spoke Halley to that stricken crew "a lifeline we will send When fastened well upon your mast, a breeches buoy we'll bend." But as he spoke the wind increased and the seas ran mountainous high. The wind blew 80 miles an hour, as another night drew nigh. Addendum Jack Halley was born (1891) and raised in Topsail, Conception Bay South, NL. He married my mother's older sister Maude Laurie, born in 1893 in nearby St Thomas in 1916, in Boston Mass where they then raised 12 children in a large Park Ave residence in Revere Boston Mass over the following decades. Capt Halley, after apprenticing on schooners in Newfoundland and Gloucester, Mass became a deep sea mariner who captained several large ocean going steam trawlers for a well known national Boston Fishing Company from the early 1920s until the mid 1950s. Among them, the Breaker, Mist and Wave, as well as the Gale. Capt Halley even continued fishing during the hazardous years of WW2, and relates how he regularly posted lookouts for subs that were constantly lurking about in the area. By this time, two of his own sons were now also serving in the the US Navy.
A surprising footnote
A very surprising footnote to this interesting good luck story. On October 12, 1942, my mother, sister 9, and I then a 7 yr old, left St. John's on board the Newfoundland train known affectionately but with tongue firmly in cheek, as "the Bullet", arguably then probably one of the slowest trains running on a narrow gauge track in the British Empire. We crossed the Island arriving at our destination Port aux Basques, some 580 miles to the west on the next day, Oct 13 where we boarded the passenger ferry SS Caribou for the crossing to North Sydney NS that evening. It turned out to be a very exciting train ride with plenty of things for children to be occupied by along the way, both on the train and in the rolling countryside outside our compartment's window. The club car appeared to be the favorite destination for many of the 200 or more people on board, an entertainment hub for revelers, both civilian and military. A somewhat battered piano, bearing the scars of much wear and tear stood along one side of the car, to provide musical accompaniment for the well lubricated choristers at all hours. Almost immediately upon arriving in Pot aux Basques we were given permission to board the Caribou which was then busy loading freight for the posted 12-13hr voyage across the Gulf. After being shown to our stateroom by a porter and a light supper in the dining room, we settled in for the night. The Caribou, although then almost 20 years old, was still regarded as a modern small sized passenger liner (in the 2600 ton range), chiefly because its cabins were steam heated and equipped with electric lighting. It was a period during WW2 when things were not going very well for the allies, especially in the North Atlantic, where u-boats were having great success sinking merchant vessels in the many large convoys sailing for Great Britain from North American ports. Even in the Gulf of St Lawrence iron ore carriers traveling in small convoy between Quebec and Labrador had already been attacked and several vessels sunk. But the SS Caribou was listed as a civilian passenger/ train ferry, it was considered safe from attack. We sailed around 8 pm, and all seemed normal for the first 3 or 4 hours, but shortly after midnight we were roughly awakened by the continuous ringing of Caribou's alarm bells and a great commotion outside our cabin in the corridor soon ensued. Our mother had made us wear our life belts to bed, just in case, and this saved us valuable time in vacating the cabin. Our porter was already standing outside in the corridor by this time and he quickly led us, along with a group of other passengers, up a nearby staircase to the boat deck. Here several large groups were already assembling at their assigned boat stations and deck hands had even hoisted already a couple from their davits in preparation for launch. No one seemed to know exactly what was going on while the bells continued clanging loudly. Then all of a sudden, everything went ghostly silent and even the ships lighting was turned off except for small red emergency lights. So we simply stood silently waiting out on the Caribou's dark cold lifeboat deck, in various states of dress, (or undress). Indeed many passengers were very scantily dressed not expecting such a thing to happen to them. But after about an hour or so an all clear announcement was finally given and we were again returned to our cabins. It was most unlikely however if anyone closed their eyes for the remainder of that night and it was near dawn when we finally pulled in safely to our pier at North Sydney - none the worse for wear! Various "explanations" of what had happened during the night slowly emerged via the grapevine along with snippets of information wrangled from various members of the ship's crew. Apparently our minesweeper escort, the Grandmere had detected a u-boat on its asdic around midnight and given chase. After spotting U-69 on the surface she prepared to ram it but U-69 foiled Grandmere's attempt with a full powered emergency dive and escaped in the darkness. It was only after the RCN was sufficiently confident that the sub had been driven off that they allowed us to get under way again. A Very Grim Aftermath During the very next night's return crossing from North Sydney to Port aux Basques the SS Caribou was attacked again, perhaps it was by the same u- boat as the night before. This time with success, for it sunk the Caribou with one torpedo midships, blowing her boilers. 139 of the 246 aboard were lost, including 15 children, as well as Capt Tavener and two of his sons who were serving with him as mates on the Caribou that night. U-69's Capt Graf reported to command that 40 miles from Port aux Basques: "on a calm night, with good visibility and weak Aurora Borealis, he fired one torpedo that struck her midships, she lurched down to her guard rails with a heavy list and in 4 minutes she was gone." ADDENDUM Some seventy years later, in 2013, at the Meighen Retirement Residence in Toronto, ON, Canada, I had the pleasure of meeting a Ms Irene Stritland in the audience that had gathered to hear a concert of Newfoundland folk songs I was giving there. I must have mentioned my childhood experiences on the Caribou, for at its conclusion she politely called me aside for a friendly chat, in the course of which I was astonished to learn that she, along with her brother and parents had also been on board the Caribou during that same crossing back in 1942. She even filled me in on important details that had completely escaped me or that I had long forgotten. I was told by Irene that her parents were Salvation Army officers returning to Canada from Newfoundland where they had been stationed for quite a number of years and were then on their way to the UK to serve as Salvationist officers in the regular armed forces of the UK. Interestingly I might also add here that the very well known Newfoundlander and Salvationist officer Otto Tucker has written at length about his life-changing educational experiences with Adjutant Stritland, for which he remained most grateful. What a delightful coincidence it was to meet Ms Stritland at Meighen on that day. Final footnote: Capt Graf said that he sank her because she was carrying military personnel, which was true. There were 118 servicemen on board.
The Winter Cut in Torbay Newfoundland
The Winter Cut in Torbay Newfoundland by Danny Gosse. It was customary when I was a boy for residents who burned wood for heat to be involved in the 'winter cut'. Usually, wood was cut in the spring (this wood is called 'spring var') and dried over the summer to be used during the long winter months. To make the dry wood last longer the men would engage in the winter cut. The winter cut entailed cutting green wood, loading it on the catamaran (slide), and bringing it home the same day, especially if there was enough snow for the horse to easily pull the catamaran. One Saturday in winter, a beautiful sunny day -- a 'pet day' as my father would say, we tackled up our horse Nell to the catamaran to get the winter wood at Humply Marsh, Dead Calf Ridge, or Furlongs Ridge. The men used several winter sleighs paths to reach these wood cutting areas but all of them travelled up Whiteway Pond when it was frozen as a short cut. I remember being so excited that morning to be allowed by my dad to go and ride the sleigh. My father placed me on the front of the sleigh between the sturdy horns which would hold the wood. I was warned to hold tightly to the horns, to look straight ahead, and to watch for clogs of ice and snow coming back from the horse's hooves. "Don't look back at me," my father sternly warned. My father stood on the hind skies of the sleigh with the long reins of the horse loosely behind his neck. To my surprise, as our path opened up on Whiteway Pond, three other horses pulling sleighs appeared simultaneously all on the same mission. My father had his choice cutting area in mind and he knew there was only one exit path at the head on the pond and the first horse to reach it got the choice of cutting area. Suddenly, the race was on! Joey Gosse, my father's cousin, could be heard yelling at his horse across the pond: "Go on! Go on!" I stole a glance back at my father -- 60 years later I still clearly recall and marvel at his coolness. He was 55 years old when I was born. He had just rolled and lit a cigarette and in almost a whisper he said, "Come on, Nell." But the look he gave me with those sheer blue eyes would cut you in two! Nell was a trotter and my father often said she belonged on the racetrack. The low voice of my father was picked up instantly by this kind, keen animal and we flew up the pond. On the sleigh that day I felt I was caught somewhere between Heaven and Earth, the fleeting blue ice below, the sparks from the horse's hooves, the intense blue eyes of my father all etched against a heavenly and peaceful blue sky. We glided smoothly into the path at the head of the pond, well ahead the pack, as if we were transported there from another planet. The next sound I heard was the now warm congratulatory voice of my father, "Well done, Nell. Well done, old girl." Many years have since passed and I have since been on that pond on a snowmobile, but I would never again have that 'out of body' experience of that perfect Saturday morning, our horse Nell, my father and me.
I was born in Boston to mother from Ferryland and father from Renews on the Avalon Southern Shore. Newfoundland was always referred to as "home" by my parents or any other Newfoundlander that visited our house. In fact, most of the visitors to our house were from Newfoundland and they always called it "home". In Boston, there were 82 beam trawlers with 15 man crews, most of whom were from Newfoundland and who all called it "home". My first visit was in 1946 - I was six years old, and the lack of electricity or indoor plumbing only added to the charm for a young boy and his brother, who was two years older. How we loved the hayrides, riding to Sunday Mass with our grandparents around Renews harbour in their horse drawn carriage. I can still remember our trip in 1953, going fishing with our uncles in Renews or Ferryland, squid jigging, and catching whole cod so heavy we needed help to bring them on board. After I got married, my children enjoyed the same love of their visits to "home". In 2000, I built a home on family ground. No need for hayfields, no sheep, horses or cows. ATVs have taken over the horse duties. No need for sheep or cows. The convenience of electricity and plumbing and trips to St. John's supermarkets have changed things for sure, but calling the Island in the Sea "home" has not. 74 years later, I still look forward to going home. Days are still exciting, whether it be fishing or berrypicking. The new joy is being able to visit the many hidden jewels all over the island. The many Bed and Breakfast Inns make it easy to stay in all sorts of places, with friends you just met. I have a cousin from Newfoundland and she saw a photo on Facebook and her only comment was "home", even though she is living in Western Canada. Proving that "home" is not where you hand your hat, but where you hang your heart.
1942 - The Yanks Are Comin'
From 1942 until the US bases in Newfoundland closed in 1968, many of Hollywood's best known stars and celebrities had at some time or other passed through on USO tours to entertain the troops, and excite the locals. Included on this list were Frank Sinatra, Phil Silvers, Marlene Dietrich, Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Bill Cosby, the Four Aces and Steve Lawrence. Elvis also sang a few tunes for the locals on his way through to Germany. Even John F Kennedy had reason to drop in at the US's Argentia Navy base on one occasion when his famous PT Boat 109 needed repairs. Some show biz celebrities had even been stationed at local bases, John Williams, (airman 2nd class), the Oscar winning composer of mega hit film scores and conductor of the Boston Pops, made quite an impact locally during the almost 4 years he spent in St John's (1952-1956), moonlighting on the side as a pianist and composer with his Star Lighters musical combo, while still finding time to score the local tourist films "Happy Union", and the much better known "You Are Welcome", a 22 minute film based on local folk melodies for the Newfoundland Tourist Board. During the 25 years the bases existed in Newfoundland, some 30,000 local women married US servicemen and left the Island, (most permanently), for residency in the US, including two of my paternal aunts, thereby strengthening an already very strong bond between Newfoundland and the USA. To many poor local young women, the US was a land of riches, Cokes and Camel cigarettes. As might be expected there was strong rivalry between the US servicemen and the local boys for these fair maidens, local lads whose counter was "if you can't get a man get a yank". Many a parent of our young girls was deeply suspicious of the swagger and bravado of the glamorous yanks as well, with all their superior 'back home' talk. With all this competition going on many a fistfight broke out in the clubs and on the streets of St. John's as well as other centres i.e. towns like Placentia, situated near the US Argentia Navy Station and Stephenville a small town near the huge Harmon USAF base, which was at the time the largest USAF base outside the continental USA. Other celebs who had purely pragmatic reasons for coming by our shores were aspiring first time transatlantic aviators, who came by to scout out suitable jump off locations for their first transatlantic flights. Newfoundland witnessed both the successes and the failures. The successful flyers included Alcock and Brown, Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart. Ms. Earhart made two successful flights from Newfoundland, on the first in 1928 as a passenger, in so doing becoming the first female to make the crossing, while on her second in 1932, she became the first female pilot to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic.
Confederation with Canada
In 1949, almost an entire century of responsible self-government, first won in 1855, ended with the exception of the period between 1933 and 1949 when the Island was governed by a British Commission comprising of six commissioners, three local appointees and three British appointees, and an overseeing British Governor. Scant improvement was seen economically under the Commission of Government, and with the exception of the tireless work undertaken by one British commissioner, Mr. Hope Simpson, little of value was seen to be done in the reluctant colony. Thanks to Hope Simpson however, for the very first time on the Island and in Labrador social and medical services were set up at the government level. In recognition and as a reward, he is remembered today by the Labrador town named after him, Port Hope Simpson. Along the Labrador coast and in northern Newfoundland such things had long been neglected if not totally ignored, by successive government politicians in St. John's, who had cheerfully let education and medical services be looked after by the Moravian Missionaries in Labrador, (who were doing just that since the 1760s), and the Grenfell International Association, the chief health care provider to Northern Newfoundlanders and Labradorians since being set up by Dr. Wilfred Grenfell in the 1890s. Why should politicians bother with such things when they were already being attended to by others, they reasoned? This laissez-faire attitude continued until confederation with Canada in 1949.
How Fish Survive Living in the Ocean
Surviving in the Ocean: A modern example of Darwinian evolution. [For those interested: there is a short but relevant Darwin biography available by the author as well.] Man continuously wants to see himself as separate from the rest of the world of natural forces, something that he alone can control, not the reverse. Perhaps it's as simple as being unable to truly comprehend the very long time over which nature takes to work its magic i.e. truly appreciating the fact that the universe itself is some 13 and a half billion years old. In over the two and a half million years that we've been around (geologic and evolutionary time are very slow moving forces) a lot can happen to alter the original model. Yet, there may be instances when change can be brought about more quickly, which seems to be going on in our own time, with regard to climate change. Witness the dramatic changes due to climate that have begun to alarm us in just the past few decades alone, prominent among them being the carbon levels in today's atmosphere that have gone from 316 ppm in the 1960s to today's alarming 400 plus ppm. Not all of this excess carbon is absorbed by the ocean (only about a third is). To go along with the soaring atmospheric and oceanic carbon levels we have accompanying global warming: via satellite imagery we now see a startling melt of Arctic Ocean ice cover and dramatic melt of glacier ice sheets in Greenland and elsewhere resulting in a rise in ocean water levels and concomitant erratic weather patterns. In a special case, sudden evolutionary change may even be looked at with special relevance in today's diminishing fish populations worldwide, and in particular to the collapse of North Atlantic cod stocks on the Grand Banks. The cod, an otherwise tough midsized omnivore predator, will, when it first becomes aware of threats to its survival from overfishing, begin to make adjustments in a number of ways, as do all living creatures, the most apparent of which in the cod is to come to sexual maturity at an increasingly early age, when it is a much smaller animal. In its attempt to avoid pending extinction, the northern cod has seen its sexual age of maturity halved in the last 40 years or so from a normal 6 or 7 years to a present age of just 3 or perhaps 4, as well as also a much lower reproductive rate. When forced to start reproducing themselves at this younger age, the egg laying potential of the young animal drops off markedly from about 9 million eggs (as was the case just 40 years ago), in normal large, fat, old, female cod - usually five and six footers in length - the rule here being, the older the animal, the more fecund she is), to today's perhaps 1/100th or even 1/1000th that number of eggs. Other, less dramatic changes in the northern cod's behaviour might involve migration to a new ecosystem entirely, one with a different water temperature or even migration to a new water depth. Evolution works to maximize the number of descendants an animal leaves behind. Recent massive overfishing i.e. increasing the death rate of the fish, leads to evolution favouring maturity of younger and smaller fish. Nature is the ultimate pragmatist as Darwin notes, continuously experimenting with various combinations of environmental factors until something is found that works. This is all quite incredible really; all we need do to see this phenomenon in action is to behold the ubiquitous cockroach or in the case of flora, the common weed. Many are invasive species, both fauna and flora that have been successful in finding new homes for themselves where they can survive and even thrive; all are crafted by evolution into skilled opportunists, species not fussy about who they mate with or where they have to live.
It was a long time ago but I've never forgotten that particular saying. Perhaps it's because Gerald was noticeably ill at the time and would live only a few years longer. Perhaps there was something special about that evening as we steamed off towards a distant shoal to do some fishing. Perhaps it's because it often serves as a reminder, when I get a bit off-base in my priorities. Perhaps it was for none of these reasons, that I clearly remember him turning around on the for'ward thawt, when I stopped to change over gas tanks. He might have thought the engine had failed and I sensed his relief when he realized we didn't have trouble. It was shaping up to be a great evening. The wind was dying out, losing its edge as it veered around to the sou'west. A light mist shrouded the hills and the wind, sultry now, carried the scent of the earth out over the sea. As our boat rose on a series of low swells, forerunners of an impending storm, he remarked; "Contentment is---" The motor drowned out the remainder of his remark but I nodded my head as I often did when I only half understood what someone said. It would come to me eventually for I had heard that saying somewhere before; most likely in our kitchen when I was a boy and someone had dropped in to reminisce with my father on events long past. Quite often their conversations would be sprinkled with similar old sayings whose bits of wisdom had withstood the test of time. In those days, storytelling was a wonderful pastime and whether in kitchens or on knaps or wherever old men gathered, the conversation was sure to be lively and interesting. It was at such times that much of our oral history was passed on for, though they valued learning, very little got written down. Few had gone beyond the fifth grade in school but they treasured their 'Old Readers' and often recited from its rich store of story and verse. For them, such moments were touched with nostalgia for times past. Not so for my generation, which were mostly preoccupied with the present. Electricity, to use a phrase loosely, had enlightened our world. Radio, stereos and television, again to use a phrase loosely, dominated the current entertainment scene. Attitudes were changing. Let the old men stay put on the knaps and recount their old stories and recite from 'Old Readers'. Cars gave us mobility; motel lounges were our hang-outs; juke-boxes played our songs and for a while, too long a while, we were heedless to the passing of our culture. It was the same everywhere but fortunately in many harbours there were some who valued the past. Gerald Dwyer was such a person and it was great to have him aboard as we steamed out to the fishing grounds. He often told me that, when a boy, he spent many an evening visiting. He observed there were some houses where no one ever dropped in but there were, what he called, 'friendly houses' where company was always welcome. There he heard stories, songs and recitations and, in his own time, passed on what had been passed on by others. Now, what's that old saying he quoted a while back? I tried to recall its conclusion and pondered on possibilities as I kept the boat on course. "Contentment is family; Contentment is friends; Contentment is a cold beer after a tough hockey game; Contentment is this; Contentment is that." I explored endings from the serious to the trivial until other matters vied for my attention. A whale, a large humpback, blew a few hundred feet off to our starboard and the ocean was alive with birds. Contentment was a big part of our evening and more so when Copper Island came abreast of Cape Fogo to align my boat on a shoal where, for a while, we enjoyed some great fishing. We had caught about a dozen fine cod when the fishing slacked off a bit. It was tempting to hang around for another while but I knew Gerald was anxious to try another shoal. "Where next?" I inquired. He waved his hand towards the Barrack Islands. Shoals abound near those granite outcrops and I knew there was a special shoal there that he was anxious to try. I let him guide me as he lined up its marks. We hit the shoal dead-on and as soon as our baited hooks neared the bottom a large fish grabbed on. The fishing was unbelievable. Hand over hand; as fast as we could haul, the big cod came aboard and soon we had plenty to salt and dry for the winter. The evening held the promise of a record catch but we wanted to get in and have our fish stowed away before dark. First though, we'd enjoy a few refreshments that I had brought along for the occasion. Then as we savored a 'cold one' to end a wonderful evening on the water he couldn't help but once more remark, "Contentment is the best of Wealth." That was the ending I was trying to remember. "That's it. It covers everything," I thought. Dark clouds brooded over the dark hills and the dark waters were calm as we made our way back to harbour. There was a storm brewing and most likely we wouldn't get out again very soon. Perhaps for Gerald it might be his last trip for I sensed his tiredness as we cleaned and salted away our catch. It didn't daunt his spirit for, when I dropped him off at his house, he hesitated as he got out of my pick-up. "Come in for a yarn and a cold one," he said. That was one invitation I couldn't pass up. Ah; "Contentment is---"
A Mother's Love
"A Mother's love is a Blessing." As I write those words on the eve of Mother's Day, the strains of that familiar song floats in over the air waves. For many listeners, the lyrics strike a deep chord; a reminder that, far too often, we take that special love for granted. That love, though universal and timeless, is also fleeting, and in their passing our mothers leave a deep void in our lives. For a generation, growing up without electricity and running water, that love was demonstrated in many ways. Our moms were 'stay at home moms' long before the term became fashionable to distinguish their special status among the emerging roles of women. As a general rule, families were large. Breast feeding was the norm and quite often, babies were born barely a year apart and several were in diapers at the same time. With only cloth diapers in use and in households devoid of tap water, washing machines and dryers, raising a large family was most certainly a full-time job. That term 'full-time job' hardly does them justice, for it implies work within well defined parameters. On the contrary, their work was so far beyond the scope of definition, that it gave rise to the saying that "A woman's work is never done." Their unfinished labour involved such a multitude of tasks that any list would have many omissions. Rather, in an overview of sorts, their mornings were busy preparing breakfast and in seeing her children washed, dressed and off to school. Then only after the 'little ones' received her attention did she face her daily chores. Beds and toilet pails, washing and drying, sweeping and scrubbing, cooking and baking, knitting and darning; until the peal of the Angelus Bell herald the return of her hungry young scholars home for dinner. A rush to the table, a flick of a wash-cloth and they're back out through the door. There's now time to eat. Her plate, the last to be laid down, doesn't always get filled but for whatever amount goes on it, she gives thanks. The day moves on. There's no babysitting. That terminology hadn't entered her vocabulary. In any case, there isn't time for such indulgence but 'between the whiles' her 'little ones' get plenty of attention. 'Lord Help Her!' for in whatever direction she turns there's work to be done before her brood strikes home from school. They arrive in full force, impatient for a snack. Quite often turmoil ensues. Peace returns with their departure outside until suppertime. Apart from mealtimes, her husband makes an occasional foray into her domain as wood and water have to be constantly replenished. At times, quiet times are often shared as she knits a glove, darns a vamp or sews a patch on a coat or on pants. On occasion she will venture into his domain, the outside world when, in season, her labour is required on the flakes and in the stage and garden. Day draws to a close. Supper is finished; the dishes put away. It's prayer time and she gathers her flock for the recital of the rosary. That family prayer of mystery and faith offers solace and stability in daily life and in trying times. Beads are put away. The children rise from their knees accompanied by the occasional sigh of relief. Reassured, their spiritual needs are met, she keeps a close watch on their education. A kerosene lamp sheds its glow on a table filled with books and scribblers. Every chair is occupied and her young scholars labour elbow to elbow until she's certain all lessons are learned and all homework completed. It's time for bed. The 'little ones' are stowed away first. From upstairs comes the refrain, "Angel of God my guardian dear..." Slumber isn't far off. She tip-toes out of their bedroom and, thankful for the blessings of another day, she leaves them in the care of the angels. Night closes down. New dawns bring new tomorrows. Children leave. Time now for herself but in the long silences, hands need to stay busy. Her apron is rarely laid aside and her gloves and quilts, basic necessities of another age, are now regarded as works of art. She smiles at such accolades and gives those gifts of caring to her grandchildren. Old Age Pensions bestow independence. Inevitably, joys and sorrows come her way. Grandchildren born. Elderly parents cared for. Anniversaries and Memorials. Fashionable outfits and the Black of Mourning. Aged hands and their gentle touch. Wisdom and Senility. Departure and heart-felt loss. Through it all, moves a woman, rock solid in her love of family. "A Mother's Love is a Blessing." May their memory never fade.
A Voyage of Discovery
A Voyage of Discovery During the summer that I turned 12 in 1947, my father took me on a fabulous voyage of discovery. We travelled aboard the SS Northern Ranger, just built in 1936 for the Newfoundland Railway's White Bay/Straits of Belle Isle service, that travelled between St. John's and Corner Brook via southern Labrador. The trip lasted several weeks and included visits to dozens of outports where I witnessed a totally new way of life and heard English dialects that I sometimes could barely understand. Many of these communities were unique, magical places. I especially remember some along the coast of White Bay, places like Harbour Deep, (what a loss that unbelievably beautiful place was with the moratorium on the cod fishery in 1992 and ultimate resettlement). There were many others as well, sadly now all gone. How lucky I was to have seen them when they were still flourishing places full of life. We tied up in St. Anthony, White Bay, for a whole day or more. Dominating our view as we sailed into the harbour was the brand new modern Wilfred Grenfell Hospital the largest and best equipped general hospital outside of St. John's at the time. Dr. Grenfell had by then already decided to make St Anthony the headquarters for his medical missionary work to the people of the northern peninsula of the island and the southern outports of the Labrador coast. I was thrilled to see my first Inuit people here, many of them wearing beautifully embroidered handcrafted clothing of caribou, and seal skin and mukluks. As we began to cross the Strait of Belle Isle, the sea god Neptune suddenly came on board to our shock and surprise on a mission to capture all those who had not crossed the Strait before. Quickly he had most of the St. John's passengers and their children on the run looking for out-of-the-way places on the ship in which to hide - be it even in dark, smelly lockers on decks below, or inside cold, wet life boats on the main deck. As I'm not the only one fleeing from him with some luck I hoped he might lose me in the crowd, and I'd have enough time to locate a secure hideout somewhere. But then I noticed there are many among the crew also helping him round us up. Escape now seems impossible! Eventually they pick all of us off, one by one. Neptune and his cohorts have succeeded in their mission! Shortly afterwards, all his captives are marched into the largest salon on the ship, where the first-time crossers of the Strait are given a ritual soapy shave by Neptune himself and given a certificate to show that they have indeed crossed the Strait of Belle Isle. Everywhere the Ranger stops there are always great throngs of people waiting to greet us on the wharves. These visits are clearly a major social event for them. The outport VIPs are welcomed on board and are soon engaged with passengers in gossipy conversations, games of cards or having a drink or two. They are mainly from the outport's merchant class and often include the local clergy as well. Sometimes a medical doctor on board might even be requested to have a look at an outport resident's problem. The school teacher might also be among this group; being highly educated they are are people of some importance in an outport. As well, they are people who had also been moved around the coast frequently on different postings and were therefore also great sources of information for the local inhabitants about the world outside their small, completely isolated communities. Our visitors sometimes might be forced to employ large trap skiffs (powered by one cylinder put-put engines), for their visits to the Caribou when anchored perhaps some distance from shore if there was no harbour wharf available to accommodate her demanding draft requirements. When we did get to tie up at a wharf, it remains full of people, especially children, for the duration of our stay. The children always seem delighted by our visit and want to show off for us in some way or another and perhaps if lucky, even get to collect a souvenir or two. The passengers of course are always just as caught up by their shenanigans as they seemed to be with us. I go ashore for a walk sometimes. The harbours are usually full of inshore fishing boats and punts and perhaps even a schooner or two. There is the strong smell of fish everywhere; fresh fish, salt fish, cooking fish and rotting fish. Men are often unloading cod from their trap skiffs, and working on splitting, cleaning, salting and laying the fish out to dry on fish flakes that are seemingly everywhere. Outport girls are always very flirtatious and bold. They obviously are very keen to strike up a friendship with me, a going-on-twelve-year-old 'green', supposedly sophisticated townie. The End ----------------------------------------------------------------------- The SS Northern Ranger was 1366 tons and 228 feet in length, it was a large steamer when introduced in 1936. With the ability to carry 120 passengers and freight destined for numerous coastal communities. The SS Northern Ranger marked the beginning of larger vessels serving the outport communities.
My personal memory of SS Caribou's last safe crossing of the Gulf, on. Oct13, 1942 1942
The Last Safe Crossing of the Cabot Strait by the SS Caribou, Oct 13, 1942 October 11, 1942, my mother, sister then 9, and I, 7, left St. John's on board the Newfoundland train, affectionately spoofed "the Bullet" traveling on its narrow gauge track, for Port aux Basques, some 580 miles distant. We had already made our reservations on the passenger ferry SS Caribou for North Sydney , NS, for the next evening's crossing, Oct 13. It was an exciting train ride for we children, with plenty of exciting things to enjoy along the way, both on board and in the rolling countyside outside our compartment window. The club car soon became a favorite destination for many of the 200 people on board - a raucous place for revelers, of both civilian and military stripe. A piano, bearing the scars of much wear and tear stood in the centre of the car, providing musical accompaniment for the well lubricated choristers at all hours. As we neared the Gaff Topsails, a location where the track encountered especially steep grades, the Bullet's speed dropped off to a snail's pace at times, allowing many of the more daring on board to step off the train and stroll along beside its slow moving coaches with enough time to fill a container with wild berries. Almost immediately upon arriving in Pot aux Basques we were given permission to board the Caribou which was busy loading freight for the voyage across the Gulf. After being shown to our stateroom by our porter and a light supper in the dining room, we settled in for the night. The Caribou, although almost 20 years old, was still regarded as a modern small sized passenger liner (about 2600 tons), because all its steam heated and electrically equipped the rooms. It was a period during the war when things were not going very well for the allies, especially in the North Atlantic, where u-boats were having great success sinking merchant vessels in the many large convoys sailing for Great Britain from North American ports. Even in the Gulf of St Lawrence iron ore carriers traveling in convoy between Quebec and Labrador had already been attacked and several vessels sunk. Since the SS Caribou was listed a civilian passenger/ train ferry, it was considered safe from attack. About an hour before sailing, Capt Tavener came on the Carribou's loud speaker ordering passengers to go to their assigned life boat stations to which they'd be directed by their porters. After gathering here, a mate ran us through the boat drill involved in case it became necessary to abandon ship. Following his demonstration and talk we were returned to our staterooms. We sailed around 8 pm, and all seemed quite normal for the first 3 or 4 hours, but shortly after midnight we were harshly awakened by the continuous loud ringing of the ship's alarm bells and a great commotion outside in the corridor. Our mother had made us wear our life belts to bed, just in case, which saved us valuable time in vacating the room. Our assigned porter was already standing just outside, attempting to take control of the passengers that were now beginning to flood into the narrow corridor. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. Agile young service men were clambering up all available iron ladders leading to upper decks. Amidst all this bedlam our porter managed to get his passengers safely up a nearby staircase leading to the boat deck. Here a large group was already assembling at our station and the lifeboat was already being hoisted out of its davits and prepared for launch by several deck hands and the mate. No one seemed to know what was going on. The bells kept clanging on and everyone simply waited for some word. Five minutes later everything suddenly went ghostly silent and dark, even the deck lighting was turned off except for small red emergency lights. And so we waited, out on the dark open windy deck, in our various states of dress, for many were very scantily dressed for the occasion. About an hour or so later the all clear was finally given and we were returned to our state rooms. It was highly unlikely that anyone closed their eyes for the remainder of that night and it was almost dawn when we finally pulled in to our pier at North Sydney - none the worse for wear! An "explanation" of what had happened during the night slowly emerged via the grape vine along with snippits wrangled from various ship's officers. The gist of the explanation went as follows: Apparently our minesweeper escort Grandmere had detected a u-boat on its asdic around midnight and given chase. After spotting U-69 on the surface she prepared to ram it but U-69 foiled the attempt with a full powered emergency dive and then escaped in the darkness. It was only after the RCN was sufficiently confident that the sub had been driven off that they considered it safe for us to get under way again. The Grim Aftermath During the return crossing on the very next night from North Sydney to Port aux Basques the SS Caribou was attacked again, perhaps by the same u- boat, this time successfully, sinking Caribou with one torpedo and the loss of 101 of the 246 aboard, including 15 children, Capt Tavener and two of his sons who were serving with him as mates on the Caribou that night ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ ADDENDUM U-69's Capt Graf reported to command that 40 miles from Port aux Basques "on a calm night, with good visibility and weak Aurora Borealis, he fired one torpedo that struck her midships, she lurched down to her guard rails with a heavy list and in 4 minutes she was gone." Protocol changes that followed the sinking: 1/ An immediate end to all nighttime crossings of the Gulf 2/ Replace all asdic systems with modern radar 3/ The accompanying escort vessel was moved from astern to forward of the ferry and ordered to sail in a zig zag course Final footnote: U-69 was rammed and sunk by a British destroyer near Iceland in early 1943 with the loss of all 46 men on board. Almost an equal number to the number of crew lost from the Caribou. Capt Graf said that he sank her because she was carrying military personnel, which was true. There were 118 servicemen on board. THE END