Our daughter, Madison, recently was invited to play for team Canada at the world ball hockey tournament. My wife, Nadine, her sister Elanna, and I tagged along. The tournament took place in Newfoundland .
Newfoundland is the eastern most province in Canada. The Vikings discovered Newfoundland in the eleventh century. It wasn’t settled until John Cabot landed on it in the early 1600s. Cabot noted in his journal that as he lowered a bucket in the Grand Banks, instantly the bucket became full of fish. When word got back to Europe of this abundance of fish, many pulled up stakes and set sail for what Eric the Red had called ‘Vinland’. Newfoundland has rugged terrain and harsh weather that is similar to parts of Ireland. Irish settlers felt at home on ‘the Rock ‘and were one of the few groups that remained. Newfoundland has a distinctive Irish flavour to it that remains until this day.
Up until the early twentieth century, Newfoundland’s economy was centred around the fisherman. Back in the olden days, the occupation of a fisherman was one of the most dangerous ones around. Many harrowing tales have been related of men battling the rough seas in an effort to get their share of the bountiful haul that awaited them. Many a b’y came back a man. A common epitaph in cemeteries was ‘’lost at sea’’. In the good ol’ days, fishermen didn’t have the luxury of advanced weather systems or radios. It was strictly ‘red sky tonight, sailors delight ‘as their only warning of inclement weather. If the sea didn’t get them, they also had to worry about crashing into the shores by torrential winds, rain and waves. Lighthouses eliminated many of these disasters.
When we were in Newfoundland last month, we visited some of these lighthouses. Plaques around the lighthouse grounds showed the evolution and historical significance of the lighthouse in Newfoundland. The first lighthouses were bonfires on the ends of points at harbour entrances. Candles were used in the 18th century. By 1800, oil lamps were used. Whale oil was often used after a kill. Kerosene, which was invented by a Canadian in the 1840s, was used extensively in Canada after 1860 because it was cheap, reliable and efficient. Electric lights came to lighthouses around the end of the 19th century. The lighthouse remains a very important tool in the Atlantic region. It stands to reason that Newfoundland, being the eastern most point in North America, would have frequent interactions with foreign sailing vessels. The following is one such interaction. This is an actual radio conversation (released by the chief of naval operations) of a U.S. naval ship with Canadian authorities off the shores of newfoundland in October 1995. CANADIANS: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision. AMERICANS: Recommend YOU divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision. CANADIANS: Negative, you will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision. AMERICANS: This is the captain of a U.S. naval ship. I say again, divert YOUR course! CANADIANS; No, I say again, divert your course. AMERICANS; ‘’ This is the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States Atlantic Fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three Cruisers and numerous support vessels. I DEMAND that you change your course 15 degrees north. I say again, that’s one five degrees north, or counter –measures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.’’ CANADIANS; This is a lighthouse, it’s your call.
When I was a kid growing up in the Toronto area in the 1960s-70s, I remember Newfoundlanders, or ‘Newfies’ as they were referred as back then , as always being the butt of many jokes. These jokes were generally corny in nature; eg how did the first Newfie get to Toronto? Answer; He got a breakaway while playing ice hockey on the St. Lawrence River. And how did he get back? Answer; he was called offside. Or the one where you ask your friend ‘’how do you keep a Newfie in suspense? ‘’Answer; I’ll tell you tomorrow. In other parts of the world, these ‘corny’ jokes centred around the nationalities of Poland, Ireland or Scotland. In Canada, we picked on Newfoundland. I’m not sure why we chose Newfoundland over any of the other provinces to be the butt of our jokes.
Although Newfoundlanders were the butt of many jokes when we were kids, they played a very important role during the second world war. Newfoundland was strategically located on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. It was a strategic post that the allies used to fuel and launch aircrafts / destroyers / submarines. It was also our countries first line of defense against any invasion from the German enemy. One historic battle off the coast of Newfoundland that was related to me by an ‘old tar’ while I was visiting Newfoundland last month, went as follows; The HMS Newfoundlander was approached by two German destroyers off the Grand Banks. As the destroyers approached, the captain hollered out, ‘’ cabin boy, cabin boy, get me my red coat.’’ After the HMS Newfoundlander took out the two German destroyers, the captain took off his red coat and handed it to the cabin boy to put away. One hour later, five German destroyers approached the HMS Newfoundlander and again, the captain hollered out, ‘’ cabin boy, cabin boy, get me my red coat’’. After the five German destroyers were sunk by the HMS Newfoundlander, the captain again took off his coat and handed it to the cabin boy to be put away. This time, the cabin boy inquisitively asked,’’ Captain, why do you always order me to get your red coat whenever the enemy approaches?’’ The captain replied , ‘’Well son, I like to wear my red coat because if I’m ever bloodied during the battle, none of my crew will realize I’m hurt and that is good for morale.’’ An hour later, fifteen German destroyers surrounded the HMS Newfoundlander. As well, the German destroyers had ten Stuka dive bombers accompany them. The captain yelled out, ‘’cabin boy, cabin boy, bring me my brown pants.’’
I was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. When someone tells you you’ve got three to five years to live, ones fear instinct kicks into overdrive. Anyone who says they’re not afraid when first diagnosed, is just fooling themselves. Even General George S Patton, who had ice in his veins when staring down his enemies, stated, ‘’ If we take the generally accepted definition of bravery as a quality which knows no fear, I have never seen a brave man. All men are frightened. The more intelligent they are, the more they are frightened.’’ But you can’t stay in fear mode forever; you have to go on living. Like the captain of the HMS Newfoundlander and so many of the seamen who stared death in the face while on the high seas, they had to carry on. ’’When you’re going through hell, just keep going ‘’, was probably a motto many of these men swore by. The secret to getting yourself through trying times is to get yourself in the right frame of mind. In ‘’ The Wizard of Oz’’, the cowardly lion needed the Wizard to give him a medal in order to put him in the proper mindset to face his fears. I look to God to get me in the right frame of mind to face this dire diagnosis. In nautical terms, God is THE lighthouse. When your boat is in trouble, you have to keep your eyes on the Lighthouse. THE Lighthouse will make your paths straight and lead you to a safe landing. Eventually all bad things must come to an end. There is a rainbow at the end of the storm. The rainbow may not be a cure for ALS, or a sudden reversal of my symptoms. But if you have the belief, like I have the belief, that something grand awaits us after this life, then there is nothing to fear. I remember watching the movie, ‘Gladiator ‘. In it, Maximus Meridius (played by Russell Crowe) states, ‘’Never let your future demise disturb you. You will meet it with the same weapons of reason which today you arm yourself against the present.’’ So I wait, knowing that my faith is being sure of what I hope for (taken from a plaque in my bedroom).
P.S. One last Newfie joke that I remember from when I was a kid: Did you hear about the Newfie who was killed while ice fishing? Ya, he was run over by a Zamboni at centre ice of Maple Leaf Gardens. Corny, yes, but it brings a nostalgic smile to my face every time.
I’s the b’y who builds the boat, I’s the b’y that sails ‘er. I’s the b’y that catches the fish and brings ‘em home to Liza.
Kissing a cod is a Newfoundland tradition that welcomes newcomers to the island. I couldn’t get Madison to kiss a cod, and had to settle for her kissing a lobster.
The Cowardly Lion receiving his medal for courage.