St. Bernard’s Memories

St. Bernard’s Memories*

As I think back on all the places I’ve been in my life, those memories that strike the strongest chord often center around my childhood trips to Newfoundland.  I was born on The Rock, and moved to the States when very young.  Still, my family returned home every other year or so, giving me a cultural heritage almost unique in my adopted world.

Whether heard in the lyrics of a Simani song, or seen in reruns of Pigeon Inlet, Outport Newfoundland is never far from the thoughts of most Newfies.  A rich source of folklore and humor, the lives of those hardy fishermen and their families is now almost legend.

My own experiences of Outport Newfoundland were my childhood visits to St. Bernard’s in the late 60’s and early ‘70’s.  I apologize if my recall of that time and place, and the faces of those I knew, has faded with the years.  Any mistakes I’ve made here, in revisiting those times are, of course, my own.

 Harbor

My Grandmother was a Pope from Stone’s Cove (the Family’s last name, not the Pontiff).  Grave markers for generations of Popes can still be seen in Stone’s Cove.  It was Grandma’s generation that experienced the Resettlement first hand.  I grew up listening to the often confusing arguments about Joey Smallwood and the modernization of Newfoundland.

cousin, grandpa & grandma

All we knew as kids was that Grandma’s family lived in St. Bernard’s and that they moved from Stone’s Cove, which was abandoned by the time I went there.  We also knew the only way to see Stone’s Cove was to take a dory trip across the bay.

St. Bernard’s in those years was a 3 hour drive from St. John’s, where I was born and where we stayed (with relatives) when we visited Newfoundland.  The roads to St. Bernard’s were gravel, full of twists and turns.  I remember the rear wheels of our old Ford throwing rooster tails of dust behind us, as we drove to that small Town on the edge of the sea.

After passing through Jacques Fontaine (or Jack’s Fountain as we called it), we knew we were near the end of the trip.  It always felt good to shake the dust from the road and settle in with a cup of tea and toasted homemade bread at the end of those long drives.

 Dory

Once there, we parked in the grass near three clapboard houses at the end of a dirt road.  Grandma’s remaining family lived here, the homes roughly surrounding a wood pile of chips and an old sawhorse.  Aunts and Uncles, nieces and nephews, and more cousins than I can remember were there to greet us.

Among the first things I noticed were the strange accents of these distant relatives.  They thought I talked funny as well.  Growing up in the Midwest, I had barely a trace of St. John’s accent.  Except in school, when I mispronounced “route” or spelled “grey” wrong, no one would have guessed I was a Newfoundlander.

But here in St. Bernard’s, it was like learning a different language.  Words like lamwash and wharf soon became familiar*, sometimes spoken in the high-pitched voice my Uncle Dick would use when he yelled at us.  My cousins had trouble with my accent too, and laughed at my pronunciation when we talked about life in the States.

 Fishing St. Bernard's Harbor

I don’t think it took us too long to work out these differences.  Of course, telling my friends back home what my summers were like in Newfoundland was nearly impossible.  Even now, how hard it is to convey even a moment of my time spent in that strange and wonderful place.

My Brother, cousins, and I spent our days there wandering along unpaved streets,  throwing skippers into the ocean, or catching conners off the wharf using snails for bait.  Conner fish were spiny, slimy, and pretty unpleasant to deal with, hence the expression “sly (or slimy) as a conner.”*

One year we dammed the small creek that ran through the open field behind my Uncle’s house, making a pond for our sailboats.  Cranky as my old Uncle Dick was, he fashioned some firewood into model boats for us to launch.  I remember returning a few years later to find it all gone, with nothing left of the pond but the little creek and a few stones.

I also recall one summer making a sling shot from an old tree branch and some rubber bands I found, and using it to shoot small metal wires I shaped into a Vs.  I took it home and kept it for years.

During our visits, my Brother and I waited long days for dory rides from friends or relatives, who still kept their fishing boats in St. Bernard’s.  We’d wake each morning and run for a glimpse of the bay.  If the sea was heaving with whitecaps, we knew no boat trip would happen that day.

Harbor Work

The days we did get out were special.  The chugging of the flywheel as the dory made its way from the dock, ocean spray and the taste of salt on my lips, and the chop of even a mild sea as we left the cove, are all part of my love of the Maritimes.  We jigged for cod and squid (two completely different ways of fishing), and once stood on an 18’ shark that beached after getting tangled in fishing nets.  The smell was really something!

We also went to Stone’s Cove.  Even back then, it was mostly abandoned, with only a few fisherman’s cottages maintained for seasonal use.  After walking through the old Town, its homes facing the cold sea, we picnicked on salt crackers and butter before heading back out from the small harbor.

Of all those memories, perhaps the most precious are the people I knew back then.  My Uncle Dick, a rough seaman who’d survived a night clinging to his overturned boat, during a storm that took the life of his fishing partner.  Uncle Tom with his kind eyes, and my Aunts who knitted and made tea.  Even during the summer, my Uncles had to get up before sunrise each morning to chop wood that fed the iron stoves, which warmed their houses before we even got out of bed.

Margaret, a cousin of the family, lived in this small enclave, with her fisherman husband Leonard and a load of children (my cousins, although I’m still not certain of the exact relationship).  She was part Micmac*, and her oldest son Sam resembled a full blooded Algonkian Indian.  Her husband Leonard had a rare saltwater allergy, leaving his eyes constantly red and teary.  He drowned years later, walking back home one cold night.

Most of the rest have passed on as well.  These proud and independent people didn’t care much for modern medicine.  When your time came, you accepted it.  Most spent their final days at home among family, not in hospital beds at St. John’s Memorial.  I can’t fault them for it, nor for their lives of simple pleasures.

For them, Faith was a matter of concrete belief.  The old Catholic Church in town hosted community bingos and picnics, and on Sundays a traveling priest came in his modern outboard motorboat to say Mass.  The hymns we sang were familiar, although sometimes the words sounded a bit odd to my ear.

As I grew older, I tired of the monotony of Outport Newfoundland and St. Bernard’s.  My cousins were growing up and moving away, and there was little for a teenager to do.  Whenever we went, I soon longed to return to the excitement of St. John’s.

Desperate to get a television signal during one particularly long visit, my Brother and I spend a day running bare wire up a tall hill to an old antenna at the top.  The view of the ocean from there was spectacular, but in my haste to see if the TV worked, I didn’t linger long.  I can’t recall to this day if the picture was much improved.

Any tale of Outport Newfoundland must end on a melancholy note.  With little or no work to be found, the younger folks my age mostly moved away.  I lost track of all of my cousins, except for Sam, whom I’ve heard still lives in his father’s house.

Yet I can still see the old fishing nets clinging to rough picket fences, fading to strings in the sun, and the lines of little white boats bobbing in the bay.  Nothing lasts it’s true, but Outport Newfoundland lives mostly now in the memories of those who had the good fortune to experience it.  Like so many other transplanted Newfoundlanders, a large part of my character was formed out of that hard land by the side of the sea.

Pete Murphy                                                                May, 2015

*  This article originally appeared in the May, 2015 issue of Dowhhome Magazine, page 132.

*  A good review of Outport Newfoundland words and usage can be found in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English:  www.heritage.nf.ca/dictionary

The Newfoundland Ferry

THE NEWFOUNDLAND FERRY

 

I was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.  At the age of 3, I emigrated to the U.S. with my Parents and infant Brother, settling in the far south suburbs of Chicago, in the same Village where my Aunt and Uncle lived.

 

I have few memories of my time in St. John’s before moving to the U.S., but many more of my trips to Newfoundland during my childhood.  Airfare being out of reach for my Father, those visits began with a long car trip through the U.S. and half of Canada, then on into Nova Scotia.  It was there that we left the mainland for The Rock, crossing on the Newfoundland Ferries:  from North Sidney, Nova Scotia, across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland.

 

Our earliest trips, in the late 1960’s, took four or five days.  From Chicago north to Detroit, over the Ambassador Bridge (or under the companion tunnel) to Windsor, Ontario, then east on the Trans-Canada Highway through Quebec and New Brunswick, and finally Nova Scotia.  We drove big Fords for the most part, and in those early years stopped most nights to sleep in roadside motels.

 

This was, of course, long before GPS systems, as satellites themselves were in their infancy.  Traveling by car wasn’t quite as routine or predictable as it is now, and we had many adventures along the roads between Chicago to North Sidney.

 

Getting lost was not uncommon, since few road maps included every road you could find yourself on.  Meals were also hit or miss, but I remember some great little diners, with uniformed waitresses and the best apple pies in the world.  The big burger franchises hadn’t yet forced these roadside Mom & Pop restaurants out of business.

 

Finding a service station was also tricky.  Dad usually started looking around the half-tank mark on the fuel gauge, and his solemn rule was never leave the highway unless you could see the gas station from the exit.  Even then, it was a search for whatever station would take your gas card.  Gas prices were still pretty low, and we always got an oil check and window wash from an attendant when we pulled in.

 

Arriving in North Sidney, Nova Scotia, was an exciting time.  The ocean crossing awaited us, and the seaside Town smelled of salt air and diesel exhaust from the huge engines of the dockside ferries.  By the time we made it, we usually had reservations on whatever ferry was in port and heading to Port Aux Basques.

 

Not always knowing our planned departure time, Dad usually called from a roadside payphone when we were less than a day from North Sidney.  Most times we were lucky enough to get a cabin for the 12 hour crossing, on one of the big Canadian National (CN) Marine Ferries, with names like William Carson, Leif Eiriksson, and Ambrose Shea.*

 

Our first look at the boat we were to make the crossing on usually came when we neared the ferry parking lot.  Whether on a bright sunny day, or a cool early Spring night, the images of those vessels is something I will never forget.

 

The ferries were massive, holding 4 decks of cars, trucks, and even trains.  Purpose-built for the crossing, I remember distinctly the dramatic white superstructures of the ships, with the red-orange CN smokestacks atop the tall decks.  I remain awed by the sheer power and majesty of these behemoths, waiting in their docks to brave the fathomless seas.  They appeared, then as now, equal to the task.

 

Once checked in through the gatehouse, we parked our car in the long line of other vehicles waiting to drive on board.  The ferry lot was marked with lines to facilitate loading, and once our car was in line we had to leave it there until departure.

 

Most times, this afforded us the chance to walk around the nearby community of small restaurants and shops.  There was usually a subtle vibration in the air, as those big marine engines idled in port, waiting for their next trip across the North Atlantic.

 

Soon it was time to board, the ferry whistle echoing the quiet streets with notice of departure.  We hurried to our car, and with a thump of the steel ramp drove on board.  Dark and damp, the car decks were a hovel of activity, as each vehicle was parked close to its neighbors and chained down to the deck.  This was pretty important, as at the end of one crossing we learned that a VW bug had broken loose and smashed into a few of its nearby companions.

 

Next we walked the deck to the narrow stairs that lead up to the cabin levels.  We carried a few of our suitcases, but my Brother and I were too excited to notice these mundane details.  We were on board!  Heading topside, we couldn’t wait to look down the sides of the ship and into the water.

 

If the shore waters were a bit oily, once out of the harbor the big ocean rollers more than made up for it.  The rocking of the ship as we hit the open sea was subtle, but the long drop to the surface from the upper decks (as demonstrated by a quick shot of spittle) was awesome.  On some crossings, the spray made it up to even those dizzying heights, hitting my lips with the salt tang of water that had perhaps journeyed around the globe.

 

There is something both familiar and ancient in the taste of sea spray to me.  I can’t help but recall how we all once came from the sea, that it makes up the very blood in our veins.  Not the noticeably sour taste of the science experiments that all kids do to demonstrate dissolved solutions (and we’ve all tasted that concoction), but the more subtle reminder that this water covers most of the world, and transcends the fleeting taste it delivers on the lips.

 

Our cabin below was every bit as exotic as the seas above.  Once out of sight of land, we made our way downstairs to the tiny metal compartment that was to be home for the next half day.

 

On night crossings, we settled down in bunks, with heavy curtains to hold you in place if the ship started to rock.  Each bed had its own light for reading, and came complete with a flat pillow, tight sheet, and coarse woolen blanket.  Under the beds were those ubiquitous orange life preservers we hoped never to need.

 

In the morning, our bathroom was another new experience.  The tiny sink had a shower head attached to it, and with no tub or shower enclosure, you could spray water till completely soaked as the suds drained down into the middle of the room.  Small bars of red-wrapped CN soap helped us clean up, and then it was off to the galley for breakfast.

 

CN Marine had a well deserved reputation for excellent food in those days, and rumor had it that some very fine chefs opted for employment with the line.  I remember many great meals, including hand carved turkey and ham, homemade mashed potatoes, eggs cooked to order, and slices of chocolate cake.  Our meals on board were among the best we had on those vacations.

 

Back on deck, we watched as dim brown outlines above the dark water resolve into our first look at Newfoundland from the sea.  It is quite a site, and one that stirs the heart of every Newfoundlander.  Soon, though, we’d get the call to head back down to our cars and prepare for departure.

 

Our voyage nearly over, my Brother and I were usually so engrossed with seeing St. John’s that we little noticed departing the big ferries.  I do remember the dark of the lower deck turning bright when the cargo doors opened, and how my eyes hurt when we finally drove outside into the sunshine.

 

We usually left Port Aux Basques quickly, to rejoin the Trans-Canada and the long drive to Newfoundland’s Capital City.  My aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends were all there, waiting for our arrival and the endless visits it would entail.

 

Before one of these crossings, while in North Sidney, my Brother and I participated in the age-old ritual of a note in a bottle.  We had drained our glass-bottled sodas outside a small grocery store in the streets of town, and filled out notes giving our names, addresses, and that part of the sea we intended to launch our messages from.  We corked them and let them go late one night, in the middle of our passage.

 

I’d like to say here that we heard something of them in later years, but like so many things lost to the sea, we never knew what became of those bottles.  I guess I’ve thought of them over the years:  floating on the vast oceans, washed up on some nameless shore, or broken to pieces in a terrifying storm far from land.  These images never lessen my joy and wonder in crossing the ocean, and indeed, have made my voyages since then even more exciting.

 

Ships in the end are magical things, giving us the seas and landing us on distant and exotic shores.  Our earliest form of global transportation, they remain the fulfillment of our dreams of travel.  The opportunity of a sea voyage is something I don’t believe I could ever refuse.

 

–           Pete Murphy            May 2014

 

        This Article appeared in print in the August, 2014, issue of

        Downhome Magazine (Volume 27, No. 3) 

Tinkles

TINKLES

            When I think back on those long car trips I took with my Folks and younger Brother in the late 60’s and early 70’s, one of my fondest memories is of how we kept ourselves busy during the long miles.  Handheld computer games, even the simple ones like Mattel Football or Simon from Milton Bradley, were still quite a few years away.  The truly overwhelming assortment of distractions offered today by Kindle or iPad were beyond anything even NASA could conceive of in those years.  So, we enjoyed simple pleasures.

Most summers we would load up the Ford LTD and head out on highway.  Two weeks away from home:  staying in motels (the best of these had pools), eating at diners, seeing the tourist sites, and spending many hours driving each day.  Aside from the occasional two day stop in a major city or destination, we lived on the roads.

Seatbelts technically came in most cars back then, but were simple lap belts that were soon buried under the seat cushions.  A useful weapon to swing in a pitched battle with my Brother during our legendary back seat wars, their regular use was largely discouraged.  These wars were always a conquest for more space, and usually settled with a hasty truce, after the third or forth threat from the front seat of “pulling over and coming back there” finally seemed imminent.  And so, we could sit up and look out the windows, lay across the back bench seat, or scoot down in the floor wells of our old Ford.  The floor was where we kept our toys and the best place to play, out of sight of Mom and Dad.

In the weeks leading up to vacation, it was a ritual to assemble the stuff we would bring to play with in the car.  Aside from the back seat, there was no other place to pack our playthings, so we had to pick toys that would fit and still allow room to play, fight, and sleep.  I kept several cigar boxes my Uncle had given me over the years, and filled them with toys, paper pads and pencils, books, and magazines, in preparation for the trip.  It was a meticulous process, and my first real experience with decision making.

Of course, we also played car bingo, 20 questions, I spy, and tried spotting the license plates from all 50 states (no surprise that Hawaii was the toughest to find).  But the tiny toys that filled many hours on the road for my Brother and I were tinkles.

I think my Brother and I coined that name, and it certainly doesn’t occur in this context anywhere else that I’ve found.  It’s probably derived from trinket, as mispronounced by my much younger self.  For us, it came to mean any small toy that would fit (with several others) in a cigar box.

These toys could include just about anything, from Crackerjack prizes to gumball charms, Matchbox cars, old campaign pins, souvenir pens, superballs, sliding puzzles, and magnetic corgi dogs.  Whether discovered in a parking lot, bought from a vending machine, or found at the bottom of a Crackerjack box, they made their way into a cigar box to tour the U.S. with us.

My very first collection, and from which all of my later collections would grow, was my tinkles collection.  They really did provide us hours of fun on the back floor of that old LTD.  I remember drawing a crude map on a blank sheet of paper, and then setting a magnetic corgi dog on top, while its twin brother on the bottom moved it through parks, farms, and cities.  Or taking apart the 3D plastic toy puzzle/keychain, bought for $.50 from a vending machine at a highway oasis, and then handing it up to the front seat for reassembly.

The souvenir pens were a treat, particularly the “floating” ones, where the Maid of the Mist sailed across the front of Niagara Falls, or the Disney Train crossed in front of the Contemporary Resort.  Tipping the pen the other way let you relive the experience, pretty much forever.

If you were lucky enough to find one (and talk someone into buying it), the mini slide viewers were one of the best tinkles around.  Sold as souvenirs at many of the places we toured, each was shaped like a camera or television, and looking through the small magnifier revealed a colored picture of the place.  It was a personal and private show you could enjoy whenever you needed a break from watching the road.

Nighttime in the back seat was special, with most of the traffic gone away.  It was quiet all around outside, and looking through the rear window revealed either the bright lights of tall highway lamps, or the soft glow of stars.  The AM radio up front was usually turned down, playing soft jazz or country western.  My coveted pen light was near at hand, and as long as I didn’t shine it up front or onto the roof lining (or directly into my Brother’s face), I was free to play with my tinkles so long as I could keep awake.  Shining the light through the little plastic and metal figures made them seem to move.  Worlds, cultures, and centuries came and went in the back seat of that lonely Ford, driving down the back roads at night.

Like all things from my childhood, taking tinkles along on car trips eventually came to an end.  Those I didn’t lose ended up in a cigar box in storage, like so many sad scenes from Toy Story.  But this story would be incomplete if I didn’t mention that some few were found and saved, and more than a few were picked up on eBay over the past couple of years.

Image

I’ve shared them with my kids, getting them started on their own tinkle collections.  Although these simpler toys may have a tough time competing with iPads and Kindles, I think it’s worth the fight.

And today’s seatbelts are harder to swing as weapons in the back seat.

 

–           Pete Murphy     May 2014