One of the most valuable items we own is a little black book. This book has nothing to do with dating and conquests as many such named books imply. And its value is not monetary. Rather, it contains part of the history experienced by my husband's grandfather, Ern Smith, and provides glimpses into the lives of people in Corner Brook, Newfoundland in the 1930s during the Depression.
At that time, Mr. Smith worked as a relief officer in the west coast town. Ern worked at the paper mill but quit his job when he witnessed an industrial accident which killed a co-worker. This incident had a tremendous impact on Ern and for years he suffered from post traumatic stress which was undiagnosed at that time. However, Ern's work as a relief officer was not easy either as he could not provide people with everything they needed during those difficult times.
The book documents events such as quarantines for communicable diseases like diphtheria, men killed working in woods camps, leaving young widows and children without any means of support, seniors who were cold and hungry, living alone. Tragedy after tragedy happened to people during some of the toughest times in the history of the colony.
Ern also did food inspection in stores and restaurants and disposed of spoiled food. In the days prior to modern packaging and handling of food products and refrigeration, it was common for food to spoil. Someone had to insure that such food did not make it to unsuspecting consumers.
During this period, Ern worked very closely with police as well. Confiscating food products from merchants was not a popular move. They did not want to lose money and hungry people were upset to see food being destroyed. Ern often needed support on the job.
On one occasion, he discovered a case of bully beef, canned cooked corned beef, which had spoiled. Every can of beef was blown, meaning the meat inside had spoiled. The whole case had to be destroyed. Ern knew he needed help getting rid of the poisonous food.
He walked into the police office on his way home from ABC Grocery with the case of beef. Bob Jones was on duty.
"How ya gettin' on, Ern? What's up taday?"
"Just been to ABC and found a case o' spoiled bully beef. Got ta get rid o' it, ya know, Bob," said Ern.
"Yes b'y. I knows. Bringin' it ta da dump, ar' ya?"
"Na b'y. Ya know we can't do dat. Too temptin' fur the people who scavenge dere even if we took the labels off the cans. People'd get sick for sure."
"Could bury 'em I s'pose," suggested Bob.
"Na, dat's too risky too, b'y. Someone could dig 'em up." Ern paused for a moment, then added, "But maybe we could take 'em out in the bay an' dump 'em overboard. What do ya tink?"
"Alright, b'y. Nice afternoon for a row out da bay. See ya at one," said Bob.
"OK, Bob. Meet ya down on da wharf. Meanwhile, can I leave this stuff here rather than cart it home 'n' you bring it to the wharf?"
Promptly at one o'clock, Ern met Bob at the wharf where the skiff was tied up. The boat had various uses and only recently was used to retrieve a body from the bay. Ern noticed that Bob had his hunting rifle already in the boat. Seeing Ern eye the rifle, Bob said, "Thought I'd bring 'er in case we spotted a few bull birds. I'm sick o' salt fish 'n hard tack."
Ern figured that would make the trip worthwhile, giving one type of food back to the sea and taking home another, not such a waste of time and energy! "Good idea," he said to Bob, already tasting the delicious gravy and pastry Bessie would make with the birds.
The two rowed for all they were worth and after thirty minutes were far enough off shore so as not to attract too much attention. Ern opened the case of twelve tins and quickly dumped them overboard, anxious to go birding.
As he turned to put the box in the stern of the boat, he heard Bob say, "Oh-oh."
When Ern looked around, he saw it too. There were the cans of bully beef floating around, bobbing with the tide. The air in the cans created buoys out of the spoiled beef.
"They're all going ta float in on da tide," said Ern. "We can't have dat."
"May as well have a bit o' target practice," said Bob. He reached for the rifle and methodically picked off six of the floating cans. Then he passed the rifle to Ern. Not as skilled with the rifle as Bob, it took Ern nine shots to get his six cans.
Watching the last of the peculiar buoys sink into the depths, the men knew the chance of fresh birds for supper sank with it. As they rowed home, the two were quiet, each lamenting the loss. They had used all of the ammunition to shoot the wrong bull.
This is a true story based on the life of Ernest Smith. The names of the police officer and the store are fictional.
Thank you to Aunt Marie Smith for the great memory.