by Gabriel Timar
Coming to Canada in 1957 aboard The Empress of Britain I shared a cabin with Max, a very pleasant, elderly gentlemen from Newfoundland. After landing in Montreal, he headed east and I went on to Toronto. We parted as friends, and in the next two years, we regularly exchanged Christmas cards.
After I managed to straighten out my qualifications, I found a good job with a firm of consulting engineers headquartered in St. John’s in Newfoundland.
I arrived and after the first week I called Max. He decided to introduce me to my new home and invited me for a pub-crawl.
It was rather strange, because in those days, there were no bars in Toronto: one could only have a drink with an expensive meal or go to a beer parlor. On Sundays, everything was closed, and the farmers allegedly took the roosters out of the henhouse. Newfoundland, on the other hand, was wide open, just like Europe.
Among others, we visited the Porthole on Water Street, a stylish joint with circular windows, fishing nets hanging from the ceiling among other maritime memorabilia, like wheels, anchors, and compasses decorating the walls.
We talked over gin and tonics for a few hours. In the end, Max summed up his views on his native land and my new home.
“In the final analysis, Newfoundland is God’s Country,” he declared.
Fearing that the clergy was running the province, I asked meekly, “What do you mean?”
“Only the good Lord knows what goes on here,” he replied and raised his glass. “However, you have to go to work tomorrow. I’d best drop you off at your place and have a nightcap at the Old Mill. Let’s go.”
Although Max appeared stone cold sober, he could not keep on an even keel. The bouncer came and we managed to get Max to the car.
“Are we going to let him drive in this condition?” I asked the bouncer.
“What else? In his condition, he can’t walk under his own steam.”
Apart from work, I did not have time for many outside activities. I read a lot and spent a few pleasant evenings at the Old Mill with Max.
At another time, I went alone and eventually escorted a tall blonde, Mary, home. On our way we stopped at the Signal Hill to make love in the most uncomfortable front seat of the Landrover. Apparently, our liaison appealed to her because the trip to Signal Hill became a regular weekly feature.
It was useless asking Mary to come to my place.
“What do you think I am?” she asked in an indignant tone. “I cannot go to a man’s house!”
“How about a motel?”
“Think of my reputation. What if someone saw us?”
I bowed to Mary’s logic.
A fully qualified land surveyor, Dave, joined my team. Like most Newfoundlanders, he was a very pleasant fellow.
“I had to survey every blade of grass in that damned town.” He was complaining about a job he’d done before my arrival.
I looked over his work, which was pristine, but he’d done twice as much as necessary. “That is overkill,” I said and showed him what was wrong with the survey.
“If I’d had you giving the directions before I did this damned job,” he replied, “I would have been back a long time ago.”
“Why? Didn’t the boss give you proper guidance?”
“He did not. He is not a civil engineer, although he does have a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics. During the war he was a fighter pilot and holds a high decoration to go with his Order of the British Empire. Actually, he’s from the mainland, but his wife is a Newfoundlander, from one of the major clans.”
“How is he getting the work done?”
“He hires the civil engineers. We had a French guy but the old man fired him. You are his replacement.”
“Why was he kicked out?”
“He drank too much,” Dave said. “I think the guy got drunk only once when he arrived in Newfoundland. Afterwards he just consumed enough alcohol to maintain the level of intoxication. I don’t mind the odd drink, but what this fellow did was ridiculous.”
“How did he get the booze? We are supposed to have only two bottles a week...”
“After dark, he went to the harbor and bought from the foreign ships. He even drank alky from Saint-Pierre, for Crissake.”
“Perhaps that’s why he had you surveying twice as much as necessary.”
My first assignment was in Harbour Breton, to survey the place for a water and sewerage project. Dave came with me.
“Drive to Fortune, and look up Mary-Bell Rose. She runs a boarding house. You can stay there for the night. Her son, Captain Earl Rose, is going to take you across the bay for fifty dollars,” the boss said.
“Can we take the Landrover on his ship?” I asked.
“No, the boat is too small. Besides, there are no roads in Harbour Breton. There are only a couple of four-wheel-drive Army surplus vehicles in town.”
“How are we going to build them a water supply?” I asked.
“We should start with building dirt roads.”
“I see,” I said with a deep sigh.
In Fortune, we found Mrs. Rose’s place. She gave us fishcakes for dinner and woke us up at six o’clock. We had a good breakfast of fishcakes, and Mary Bell promised to look after our Landrover while we were in the outports.
“Earl is waiting for you at the wharf,” she said.
Like a couple of pack mules, we walked to the harbor and immediately spotted Captain Rose, a typical, ageless seafaring man with a beard and a pipe waiting to finish the loading of his vessel.
“I’ve been expecting you,” he said. “Wait a few minutes before you board, because we have some cargo to load.”
He issued some instructions to his sailor, came over to us, and tried lighting his pipe.
“We feed the south coast,” he said proudly, pointing at his thirty-five footer, the Mary-Bell.
We placed our equipment and suitcases in a neat pile for the sailor to load them.
“I carry all kinds of supplies to the outports,” he explained, “and on the way back, I load the Mary-Bell with dried codfish for the village stores on the Burin peninsula.”
Finally, our stuff made it on board, but just before departure, two Mounties arrived with a warrant from the Grand Bank Magistrate to search the Mary-Bell for contraband.
“What are ye fellows looking for?” the annoyed Captain asked.
“Listen, Earl,” said one of the RCMP officers, “we know you took tourists to Saint-Pierre yesterday and bought plenty of alky. As we did not see you unloading it here, we figure you’re taking the contraband to Harbour Breton.”
“I swear on my mother’s grave I don’t have a drop of alky on my ship,” the Captain said.
“We shall see,” grunted the Mountie. “Stand aside!”
We were waiting on the wharf for a whole hour until the policemen finished searching the Mary-Bell from stem to stern. They found no alky and left empty-handed.
When we cast off, the captain remarked with a smile: “These idiots could not find their own arses with both hands.”
His remark convinced me the alky was aboard.
“Is the alky any good?” I asked.
“If you mixed it with Coke, it would taste like rum having a double kick,” Dave said.
After settling in the only boarding house of Harbour Breton, Dave returned to the wharf to buy some alky. Although I am a teetotaler, I was curious, but Dave came back empty-handed.
“What’s wrong? Did the good Captain tell the truth to the Mounties?” I asked.
“Nay, he had the alky alright, but he filled one of the fuel tanks with it. It tasted a little like Diesel fuel, but he sold it all. I must be a degenerate, because I don’t like my drink tasting like diesel fuel.”
I played bridge twice a week with the doctor, the minister, and the local bank manager. In the first week of July, I noticed feverish activities at the hospital. The staff was setting up beds in the corridors and in waiting areas.
“What is going on?” I asked the doctor. “Was there a major catastrophe in the vicinity?”
“No,” replied the doc, “the fishing fleet came into port in mid-October. In a week, these beds will be full of women delivering babies.”
He was right. A week later, the hospital was doing brisk business, and the doctor had to cancel the game of bridge.
My Greatest Feat of Engineering
A few days later, the manager of the bank came to see me. “I would like to borrow one of the cranes from your contractor for a couple of hours,” he said.
‘Why do you need a crane?”
“We just received a brand new safe. It’s very heavy. The boys got it to the bank on rollers, but we have no idea how to take it to the basement. As the floor would not bear its weight, I thought we should cut a hole on the roof and on the floor then lower it.”
“Let me see the setup,” I said.
Looking over the building, checking the safe, and reading the specifications I realized we had a problem. As I was scratching my head and thinking, the bank manager asked nervously, “Is there any trouble? Can I start the crew to cut the hole in the roof?”
“Don’t,” I said. “The crane is not tall enough, but we can put your safe into the basement.”
“How are you going to do it without the crane?”
“Easily,” I replied. “At the back door, the stairs lead to the basement. If you took the doorframe off, the safe would just pass through. Remove the wooden stairs, and construct a plywood box, the same size as the safe at the door. Set it on the basement floor.
“When the box is ready, get some block ice from the fish plant and fill the box with the ice up to the level of the door. Then roll the safe onto the ice and turn on the heat. As the ice melts, the safe will slowly descend to the basement floor.”
A day later, the safe sank to the basement floor. I figured that getting it into the basement was brilliant; in comparison, the engineering of another Eiffel Tower would be anticlimactic.
Copyright © 2008 by Gabriel Timar