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Later this week will the be first year anniversary of Melvin Smith's death. A year ago, Rick, Sylvia and I stood around his bed and watched as he breathed his last peaceful breath. He had been diagnosed in October the previous year and fought the cancer until May.
However the cancer didn't define Melvin. He was so much more than his final disease. Several years ago, he told me the story of his early working life. It's a good place to start.
When Melvin Smith, my father-in-law, of Corner Brook, Newfoundland, finished school at the age of fifteen, he worked at the Corner Brook Stores on West Street, where the Pipeline Gas Outlet is today. He was a clerk in the hardware department. If you saw his garage at the end of his life, you'd have seen that his first job had a tremendous impact on him. He had enough hardware to set up his own store. You can take the man out of the hardware store but it is impossible to get the hardware away from the man.
In those days, even more so than today, everything in Corner Brook seemed to revolve around the mill. One of the local jobs related to the mill was Customs Officer. These workers were called tide waiters; they had to wait for the tide to bring the ships to dock. Melvin got a job as a tide waiter and went aboard ships like the SS Corner Brook when she came from foreign ports to reload with paper at the mill.
The SS Corner Brook was built in England and was owned and operated by Bowaters Paper Company. She sailed up and down the eastern seaboard delivering paper from the mill in Corner Brook around Key West to Houston, Texas and ports in between.
S S Corner Brook in Corner Brook Harbour 1945
Customs officers looked for contraband aboard the ship. They searched and later, after they cleared the ship, some bought cigarettes and rum on the 'QT.' Rum was $0.75 a bottle and a carton of cigarettes was $1.00. This practice ensured that customs officers wouldn't report the crew for the contraband. Melvin didn't admit to partaking in this enterprise but we're left to wonder just the same.
At the age of seventeen, Melvin got a job on the SS Corner Brook and as a crew member he discovered the hiding areas for the contraband. There was a false wall in the forecastle where some crew members stored their contraband. Engineers put their goods in an empty fire extinguisher on the deck. That extinguisher wouldn't have been very helpful in an emergency.
The officers on the Corner Brook were British and weren't very friendly to the Newfoundland crew. There were often derogatory comments passed between the two groups. Initially the cooks were British as well and their fare wasn't very popular with the Newfoundlanders. Things like boiled chicken and white sauce were terrible. While the crew couldn't complain about the amount of food, the food tasted awful to them. One of the worst things was the "strong backs", white bread cooked in a square pan with a lid on it so that it didn't rise. It was dense and horrible. The strong back name was borrowed from the wooden hatch that covered iron bars above the paper in the cargo holds.
Eventually Newfoundland cooks replaced the British in the galley. The crew enjoyed the food then even if the officers didn't. Melvin had fond memories of one cook in particular. He cooked Newfoundland 'grub' and perpetually went about his job with a cigarette hanging from his lips. Melvin often watched to see if the ashes fell into the food and he didn't see it happen. This cook always had a stock pot on the stove and everything went into this pot. Once Melvin saw this man take a chicken out of the oven, but it fell on the floor and the cook kicked it out of the way with his boot. Did it go in the pot, he wondered.
Some of the officers were particularly disliked. One such person was the chief engineer. He dated a young woman from Corner Brook and once had a canary on board to give her when they got in port. One of the crew fed it caustic soda which burned the bird's beak. Cruel! Poor bird suffered because of the dislike for the engineer. The animosity between the Newfoundland crew and the British officers on board was palpable. This was another instance when the crew wondered if the canary was put in the stock pot too.
At seventeen, when Melvin first went aboard the Corner Brook, he was utility man. His duties were chipping (scraping off rust before painting) and painting. This was a day job that he did for one trip, about 2-3 weeks down with the paper and back to Corner Brook.
After that first trip, he worked as fireman. Melvin's duties were to tend the oil-fired boilers. If the ship was burning oil in one bunker, she'd list. The fireman had to pump the oil to ballast the ship. He also had to keep a certain amount of pressure on the boilers, (100 or 150 psi), and adjust the oil if the pressure went too high orlow. Maintaining the right pressure was the key. This Melvin did for a few trips.
Oiler or donkeyman was his next job. For a year or so he worked to keep the engine and auxiliary machinery oiled.
His final job on the Corner Brook was as fifth engineer. He was responsible for winches and the refrigerating system, on the second shift. He worked four hours on, eight off, starting at 4 a.m. With this job he got to eat with the officers. They 'had it good' with white table linen and napkins. This was a huge step up from the dining room for the rest of the crew.
Because he worked from 4-8 p.m., Melvin got his supper served in "black pan". This was a kit of pans, black because they weren't washed. The pans were filled with food and put into a carrier which you picked up and took to your work station where you had supper.
Surprisingly enough Melvin didn't get seasick once while he was on the Corner Brook. Still he could feel deathly ill when he was on a small fishing boat. Smaller boats were the problem it seems.
When the Corner Brook left home port in the winter months and crossed the Mason Dixon line, the crew woke to hot weather. Sleeping on deck was common when it was really hot. If it got stormy, the seas would nearly wash them overboard. Other times, if they slept with the porthole open, the stormy seas washed in and soaked everything.
Melvin worked on the S.S. Corner Brook for three years. The times in Port were interesting, New York, Miami, Port Sulfur, Norfolk, to name a few. Great adventure for a young man! Soon however, life in Corner Brook called and Melvin hung up the black pan and picked up the mill basket instead. But that's another story.
Postscript: Since Melvin told me this story, I learned that it was very difficult for him when he went to work on the S.S. Corner Brook after having worked as a customs officer. The officers and crew made it very difficult for him initially. Over time things improved. Melvin didn't say anything about the harassment during our conversation. He knew how to keep a secret.
Melvin, we think of you every day.