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Friday 28 November 2014

Tidal Wave

Thoughts of tidal waves flowed through my childhood. Nan O'Brien wanted to keep me off the beach so she talked about a tidal wave carrying me away. I often paused and looked out to sea when I went to the beach. At night before I slept, I planned how I would run up the old road and up the mountains to escape a wave.  However my plan did not include how I would know about such a wave at night.

        Nan O'Brien

Last week was the eighty-fifth anniversary of the tidal wave, now called tsunami, on the Burin Peninsula in Newfoundland. A family friend was a survivor of this event. Her name was Gladys Barnes and she spoke of the event up to the end of her long life; the event having left a huge impression on her. When I noticed the anniversary this past week, I thought of Gladys.

She was on the Burin Peninsula that November day in 1929 and saw houses carried out to sea, one with a lamp lit in an upstairs room. How was Gladys saved from the wall of water which came ashore that day?

Mrs. Barnes and her husband, Chesley, lived across the street from my family in Mount Pearl. They were great friends over the years as the couples played cards and visited each other. After their husbands died, the bond between Gladys and my mother, Mary,  strengthened. The widows were great company for each other and often shared meals. Gladys worked as a cook at a hotel when she first went to St. John's as a young woman. Mom always said, "Mrs. Barnes could put a good taste on a beach rock."

                      Gladys Barnes

Gladys, in her nineties, continued to live at home and still cooked for herself. Her mind was good but her body was frail, especially her legs. She died in hospital shortly after a fall at home. Gladys was a good wife and mother to her two sons, a good friend and neighbour, and a loving grandmother. She was a good woman.

My grandmother had some knowledge of the events of the tidal wave of 1929 and she was nervous about the possibility of it happening in Maddox Cove. Nan transferred her fear to me as well in an effort to keep me off the beach. I hope, unlike Gladys, I never have to find out what a tsunami is really like.


Wednesday 26 November 2014

The Alarm

It woke the neighbourhood. Somewhere nearby a car sent its repetitive horn blasts into the quiet of the night, alarming everyone for several streets around it. A rash of break-ins in the area recently meant more people installed alarm systems in their homes and cars. Periodically we awoke in the early morning hours when a wireless alarm sounded.

There was a time when an alarm was less high tech. I learned of such a system when my mother, mother-in-law and I visited L'Anse aux Meadows on the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula in Newfoundland. It was the summer tourist season; we visited the former Viking settlement, drove around the area, stopping where the road led to a small turn-about near the ocean. We were as far north as we could get on our beautiful island, in a place where it looked like a nor'easter could sweep away a little house and shed not twenty feet from the water. You could see the coast of Labrador in the distance.

  Mary Pretty and Sylvia Smith
    at L'Anse aux Meadows

As we walked around, a friendly, elderly gentleman came out of the house and approached us. He asked, " 'ow ar ya taday?" 

"We're fine. How are you?" I replied.

"Alright, Mrs. Can't complain too much, ya knows. Nobody wants ta hear it anyways," he  said.

"It must get really bad here in the winter, when that wind blows onshore. Have you ever had any damage?" I asked.

"Yees, moy dear. Me and da Mrs. 'ad ta leave a few toimes when da seas were warshin' o're da 'ouse. 'Ad ta use da boat one toime cos everyting were awarsh. Got da goat out o' da shed just afore 'e warshed away," he added.

"Oh my. I'm glad you got out and saved the goat too. I hope that doesn't happen very often," I said.

"Few toimes o're da years. 'Ad ta sove da goat, Mrs. Cuddna ford anudder one," he said.

"Do you use the goat for milk?" I asked.

"Yees, Mrs. Not only dat. She's a good 'larm too, moy dear. Lits us know when a polar bear is 'round. Kicks up some racket she do wen deres a bear comes ashore in da spring. Wen 'e gits dat toime o' year and da goat is going nuts, we knows wats 'bout. She'll woke us from a deep sleep, moy dear. Goats ar' great fer warnin' 'bout da bears, Mrs," he said.

I wonder if a goat in our shed would be a good alarm for thieves?

Monday 24 November 2014

From Whipper to Junkyard

Professional wrestling is familiar to me. When we lived in Maddox Cove, Newfoundland in the mid to late 1950s, we owned a television and had one television station. However, some people without a television gathered at our house to watch the wrestling matches and everyone really enjoyed them. I remember a wrestler called "Whipper" Billy Watson and the bravado, the cheers from the people around the ring, the drama. Every night wrestling was on I saw a few bouts then slept through the noise of the cheers and groans from the group.

In the late 1980s, while on a work-related trip to Qu├ębec with fellow teachers, a friend and I sat next to a professional wrestler headed into St. John's for a tournament. My friend recognized him as the persona Junk Hard Dog or JYD, and he was willing to talk.

He started out playing football in university, completed a degree, then went into wrestling. This man took the name Junkyard Dog because it was the nickname others gave him when he worked in a wrecking yard. 

JYD was a big man, solid and strong, well spoken and intelligent. He spoke of his family and the businesses he was investing in so as to have an income when his wrestling career was over.

We asked about the authenticity of wrestling and whether the wrestlers actually were hurt in the ring. JYD talked about the injuries he received but did not say anything about the authenticity of the sport. The injuries said enough.

Later I learned of this man, Sylvester Ritter's place in wrestling history. He was the first black man to reach the top of his promotion and won many awards and accolades. Sadly he died tragically in a single car accident in 1998.

The man I met was a gentleman, friendly and interesting. I was sad to learn of his death, a man who gave a real face to a wrestling persona. 

Friday 21 November 2014

Mice on a Plane

It is more than forty years now since airport security checks started because of the proliferation of hijackings. However in the early 1970s in St. John's, Newfoundland, after checking your luggage, all you had to do was show your boarding pass at the gate to access the plane. This was the era when Rick, later to become my husband, was flying between Deer Lake and St. John's, to and from university.

At that time the one way ticket cost $29.50. While that price looks so good to us today, it was costly for a student at that time. Rick took the bus more often than he flew. However, on one of his flights home at the end of a semester, he brought a stowaway with him, a mouse named Sigmund.

Rick knew someone who worked in a lab at university and acquired a pet mouse which he kept in a fish bowl. At the end of the semester, Sigmund had to go home as well. Rick put mouse and bowl into a bag and took it easily on the flight. All was well with Sigmund tucked under the seat in front of him.

However it was a rough landing that trip. The bag tipped over and Rick caught Sigmund just as he exited his hiding place. Can you imagine the screams if he had not been so lucky? I can see the headline now...

St. John's Airport to Institute Security Checks to Prevent Mice on Planes.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Circus at the Wake

There was a small gathering for family at the funeral home. We spoke in hushed tones and shared stories about Mom, her sense of humour, her sayings, family stories. She had lived a good life, and though almost eighty-two, my brother, Frank, and I would have been happy to have her with us longer. 

My husband, Rick and his parents were on their way from Grand Falls-Windsor while Claire, Ben and I waited with Frank, Michele and Samantha. I expected to hear from Rick at any time saying they had arrived in St. John's. 

Suddenly what sounded like circus music started to play in the wake room. It played for a time then stopped. After a few minutes, it started up again. I listened for the direction of the sound, commenting, "Why are they playing circus music in a funeral home?" No one responded.

The music stopped and started again. I was getting annoyed at this point and asked "Why would a funeral home play circus music in their PA system?" This went on for a few more minutes. 

Finally Randy, a relative of my sister-in-law, Michele, said, "Marie, answer your phone."

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Happy birthday, Samantha

Someone special, my niece, Samantha Pretty, is twenty years old today. It is a joy to know and love you, sweetie. 

                 Sylvie and Samantha

Thought I'd post some family pictures of our last time together. We're past due for another visit. Maybe next year?

    Samantha and Ben, Michele holding Sylvie

Happy Birthday!

        Samantha, Georgie, Michele, Claire

                Michele, Frank, Samantha

   Claire, Sylvie, Rick, Marie Samantha, Frank,
                 Michele and Georgie

Monday 17 November 2014

The Real Soap Opera

He worked hard his whole life on his farm in Maddox Cove and as a fisherman out of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland. My grandfather O'Brien worked long days, from 4 a.m. during the fishing season. When he retired from fishing, Granda continued his work around the farm, growing vegetables , tending chickens, horses, plowing, mowing, He always had a nap in the afternoon but his main luxury was the soap opera Another World. Granda and Nan both watched it every week day.

They were fascinated with the daily life of Mac, Rachel and the clan. Granda watched with some skepticism as the people went about their daily lives but he was not really sure what to think about them.

He always asked, "That's not real, is it?"

Everyone reassured him that it was not real but Granda kept asking. If you entered the room while he watched the program, he gave you a synopsis of the latest happenings when the commercials played. He really went to 'another world.'

Nan was different. She said, "That's not real." It sounded like Nan often had to remind herself aloud not to believe what she saw.

She often commented, "That's shockin'," shaking her head at the situations on the program. However she continued to watch. 

              Granda and Nan O'Brien

Today the fictional situations which fascinated Nan and Granda are played out on reality television in more graphic detail and with coarser language. One can imagine the comments and questions from the two if they could watch today. My grandparents would be shocked and glued to the television.

Thursday 13 November 2014

They Started with a Comet

Our granddaughters will be able to say that when they were young the European Space Agency put the first spacecraft on a comet which was 500,000,000 kilometers from earth. Today this is so incredible to us, just like the lunar landing was in 1969.

When I was a child, Newfoundland had its first television station and party-line phones. Later, besides watching men land on the moon, we saw the advent of personal computers, satellite communication, a space station and cellular phones. We've come a long way.

Imagine what will happen in our grandchildren's lifetimes because they are starting with a landing on a comet. They will live in exciting times!

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Potato Harvest

The unusual trucks have been around for weeks now, the potato harvest is almost over. The potatoes, their plants wilted from sprayed chemicals, waited in the fields for their turn with the harvesting crew. We can only imagine how much other chemical was sprayed on them during the growing season. This annual production brings in over one billion dollars to Prince Edward Island's economy, a huge amount in a province with only one hundred and forty thousand people.

                       Potato trucks

The total potato production is grown by two hundred and fifty farms. The result is potatoes for the dinner table, seed, or processed by companies such as McCains or Cavendish. While the McCains plant in Baddeck just closed, Cavendish is holding on to its New Annan plant which works around the clock.

Meanwhile the potato trucks were on the roads again, transporting their valuable cargo to the warehouses which hold millions of kilograms of the starchy dietary staples. We have certainly eaten our share of them over the years, such as crispy skinned baked potatoes, drizzled with butter. 

                      Potato warehouse

It is tragic that there are so many chemicals involved in the production of such an important part of our diet. Industralized farming has taken us from the days of seaweed, manure and weeding to chemical spraying. Sometimes the old ways are the best.

Monday 10 November 2014


He was young when he served in Korea, a man who left his home in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and joined the Canadian military in 1950 at the age of twenty. 

         Richard Mercer

Two years later he was fighting in the Korean War, for a time dug into the side of a mountain during the year he was there. This young man made the military his career and served in a variety of locations, including Cyprus, as a peacekeeper.

The soldier has never forgotten and every year, he too participates in the ceremonies of Remembrance.

While many of us pause to recall the sacrifice of so many, he has specific memories of some who paid the supreme sacrifice. Besides the ultimate cost to some, this man knows the cost of survival as well. 

He understands what military personnel continue to sacrifice for this country. 

Richard (Dick) Mercer, we appreciate your service for Canada. We remember.

Sunday 9 November 2014

World War One

The sight of the World War One memorial at the Tower of London, with almost nine hundred thousand poppies representing the casualties of Britain and the Commonwealth during that war, made me think of home. The cost of the war, in casualties alone, had a tremendous impact on the British colony of Newfoundland.

When Great Britain went to war in 1914, Newfoundland was at war as well. In September of that year, the First Newfoundland Regiment was formed and the first contingent shipped out to Britain in October. The Regiment fought in Gallipoli, Egypt, and France. At Beaumont Hamel in France the Regiment suffered huge loses on July, 1, 1916 during the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The next morning, of the 780 men who left the trenches the previous day, only 110 survived and only 68 answered roll call. William Taylor was one of those survivors and my sister-in-law, Michele, is one of his granddaughters.

The loss of so many young men, a total of 1204 during the entire war, was devastating to the colony, with a population just over 240,000. The deaths of these young men were huge losses to their villages and towns all around Newfoundland.  A generation was affected, missing so many young men, who would have married and started families of their own. Those who did survive, like William Taylor, often had large families who in turn had large families. His son Jack had seven children including Michele.

One casualty of the WWI was Edgar Moulton. He was my husband's great great uncle, from Burgeo, Newfoundland. Edgar left his home in Burgeo where his father was the fish merchant and joined the Newfoundland Regiment. He was married and had one daughter. For our family, Edgar is the face of that war, and our sign of its cost.

         Edgar Moulton

Imagine the thousands of descendants who were not born because of this war. What did we lose besides husbands and fathers? What greatness was never realized? The idealism of our youth, their spirit of patriotism, loyalty, adventure, love of King, family and friends, led them to military action on foreign soil. They gave everything; we lost so much!

Thursday 6 November 2014

The Colonel

He is small in stature but big in accomplishment. 

Colonel Chris Hadfield visited Charlottetown recently and Rick and I were in the audience. I always wondered what it would be like to be in his presence and to experience his energy even if it was in a huge theatre.

My interest in science led me to follow Hadfield's career for decades, from his selection as a Canadian astronaut to his space flights, space walks, to the International Space Station, ISS, his books, tweets and music. You can say I am a fan.

This is a man of science, engineering, a pilot, a commander of the ISS, a musician, speaker of three languages. He measures risks, prepares for any and all scenarios and then does what looks to be impossible. Chris has not lost touch with the nine year old inside who decided to become a Canadian astronaut when that was not a possibility. He made the decision in 1969 as he watched the first moon landing. Chris lives in the moment but keeps his eyes on the gauges.

It is a good practice for everyone!

Tuesday 4 November 2014

Bonfire Night

The kids worked for weeks to get enough wood but it didn't seem like work. Every spare minute for almost two weeks prior to the fire, they scrounged as much wood as they could get. Of course their parents didn't want to give up any wood; it was too precious to the family. So the kids scoured the woods and all around their part of town so that by November 5, their bonfire would burn big and long. There was a time when they burned old tires. Those days of toxic smoke are long gone now.
Bonfire night in Newfoundland commemorates Guy Fawkes night, the November night that Fawkes was discovered guarding a storage room full of gunpowder secreted under the House of Lords in London. Fawkes and other English Catholics wanted to kill James 1 of England, blow up Parliament and replace him with a Catholic King. This Gunpowder Plot was foiled however.

Since that time in 1605, in England, Fawkes is burned in effigy on bonfires November 5th every year and fireworks follow. Part of the tradition carried to Newfoundland where there are usually only bonfires.

We did not celebrate bonfire night in my family. I don't even remember hearing about it until I moved to Buchans. I think it was because we were Catholic we didn't celebrate the defeat of the Catholic cause in England. In Buchans all the kids collected wood for their fire and got together to have fun. The four hundred year old cause meant nothing to young people in the closely knit community.

The Smith family has memories of those nights in Corner Brook when they were young. Rick's mother, Sylvia, remembers the effort to get the wood for the fire in her neighbourhood on the west side. She poked a stick into the fire on one occasion and when she withdrew it, a drop of hot tar fell on her arm, burning her. The scar was there for decades.

Aunt Marie remembers the bonfires near her home as well. Gathering the kindling was a big venture for the kids. They roasted, rather burnt, potatoes in the fire. The kids cut into the charred spuds, hoping that the middle of the potato would be roasted. Sometimes they were lucky. 

Rick remembers the big venture of cutting trees and collecting boughs and wood for the bonfire in Maple Valley when his family lived there. The boys worked hard to drag and pile their wood across the road, where they too charred potatoes in the flames. Today kids roast marshmallows and wieners.

The bonfire tradition has died in Prince Edward Island. The centuries have obscured the tradition and blurred the memories of those who used to partake. The threat of fire in the sparsely populated countryside was always a danger.

Tonight in the community of Grand Falls-Windsor, Newfoundland, there will be a huge community bonfire at Centennial Field followed by fireworks. This event will conclude the Red Maple Festival which is new to the town since we lived there. While the celebration of Guy Fawkes Night is over four hundred years old, it has evolved with the times in Grand Falls-Windsor to be a part of a bigger festival. Tradition continues but with a twenty-first century twist.

To the bonfire revelers in Newfoundland tonight, stay safe, and don't eat too many charred wieners and marshmallows. Enjoy!

Monday 3 November 2014

Exercise...the Right

As we watched the events of terrorism unfold the last few weeks we are reminded of the gift we have in this place we call home, " the True North strong and free." We feel momentarily helpless when our way of life is threatened and wonder what we can do. Soon however reason takes over and we go on as we were, not to give terrorism the upper hand by changing how we live. One thing we do to preserve our way of life is vote.

It's election day in Prince Edward Island, municipal elections this time. We look forward to these days. Four years ago, we lived here just a few months, not long enough to qualify for the privilege of voting though we worked to inform ourselves of the local issues. This time, we are informed and can vote. We're ready.

               Polling Station

My early years of voting in Newfoundland were in the last years of the Smallwood era and the beginning of the conservative era which began with Frank Moores. It was an interesting time in which to live and be a part of the making of Newfoundland history.

My parents were Progressive Conservatives. In the early 1960s they hosted meetings at our home for a fledgeling conservative party organization trying to get a foothold in the west end of St. John's/Mount Pearl. I watched the proceedings with interest as they went door to door and worked election day to get out the vote. I was old enough to be interested but did not understand the politics. With time I did understand the significance of my parents' concerns for their province and country. I wanted to do my part as well.

Today I am not politically affiliated; I vote for the person I think best represents the issues as I see them in any election. This voting exercise is not as regular as the daily physical activity we do. It is however important to the well being of our country and it depends on each of us doing our part. There is a big pay-off with this simple exercise and one which is even more important in the face of threats to our way of life.