Short Stories From 10 Years Ago – December 18, 2004
A Simple Childhood Memory
Short Stories From 10 Years Ago – December 18, 2004 – Last month the Moby Dick Book Club read a book entitled “No Great Mischief”. It was Linda’s choice and interestingly enough she disliked the book intensely. I could see why because it was a little slow in places and more than a bit repetitive in spots.
I had a very difficult time getting into it as well, but about a third of the way through I started to care about the lives of the characters and to understand the choices they made. This is the great thing about a book club, we all have an obligation to finish the book so we can contribute to the discussion when we meet. Consequently I made it past the tedious start and got involved with the story.
It’s a saga about a family who comes to Canada from Scotland and settles on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. We meet parents and grandparents through flashbacks, but the main thrust of the story is centred around the mines in and around the towns of the Sudbury and Elliot Lake area, during the Canadian Shield uranium boom of the late fifties and early sixties.
The story is a sad, haunting piece of literature, beautifully and painstakingly written. It speaks eloquently of the incredible ties that bind a family – loyalty, honour, animals, loss, the waste of a life, going home again, ethnic feuds, betrayal, anger, death, longing, sadness and love. The last line, spoken originally in the story by the grandmother is exquisitely simple – “We are all better when we are loved”. The book resonated with me and it made me remember a time in my childhood that I hadn’t thought about in forty years.
My father got a job at Stan Rock mine in Elliot Lake in 1957 and our family moved there in January of 1958. We lived in mining (company) housing at 77 Spruce Avenue. At the time the hospital was being built, just down the street from where we lived, and rows of ramshackle bunkhouses provided lodging for the construction crews and the dozens of miners who had moved to the town without their families. There was a huge contingent of French Canadian men, some native Indians and a lot of guys just like my dad.
My brothers and I used to collect pop bottles and return them to the local grocery store, to earn money for Saturday matinees and popcorn, and about six moths after we moved there (to supplement our growing financial empire), Mike and I shared a paper route for the Toronto Telegram. We always received more newspapers than we had subscribers for, so I always took the balance, usually about twenty Telegrams, and trudged down to the old bunk houses after supper. I’d knock at the door and inevitably one of the men would open it up and welcome me inside.
The night shift had left and been replaced by the tired day miners who would sleep until morning, when they were driven back out to the mines. A gruelling, repetitive life. The men would be lying on their bunks reading, playing cards or checkers at small tables, talking in small groups or dozing. A radio was usually playing music and in winter a big black, pot bellied stove in the centre of the room kept the bunkhouses warm and snug.
It wasn’t fancy, but it was functional and served as a home to these men. In the summer, big windows along the side of the building opened out and up and were latched in place along the roof line. Screens kept the black flies and mosquitoes at bay. I can only imagine how hot it was in there during the heat waves.
I was nine years old, shy but still chatty and I was determined to sell the balance of my papers to the miners. I had a red bag, half my size, slung over my shoulder and weighed down with the extra papers. My long hair was always caught up in a pony tail and I wore an odd assortment of clothes – patched jeans, mis-matched sweaters and sneakers. A heavy parka and mukluks in the winter. I arrived every night that the paper published and inevitably I got tips worth far more than the value of the actual newspapers. I always returned home empty handed.
I’m sure I reminded many of the men of their daughters back home. They sometimes teased me a little, but they were never rude or mean. I never felt frightened, perhaps a little bashful but never unsafe. When you think about it, it was a far more innocent time. Any parent today in their right mind, would never allow a little girl to deliver newspapers to a men’s bunkhouse in a mining town.
They sometimes asked me about school and if I had a pet cat or dog, but for the most part they just wanted to buy their paper, sit quietly and read and then sleep until it was time to go back to work. I delivered the Telegram to the bunk houses for a year and a half until our family left Elliot Lake and moved to Toronto.
On my last night delivering papers, I announced at each bunkhouse, “I won’t be back tomorrow because my Daddy got a new job and we’re moving away. Thanks for being so nice to me. I hope they send you someone new”. I have no idea if The Toronto Telegram replaced me, but somehow I think probably not.
My brother, Mike had a Globe & Mail paper route in Toronto, before our family moved back to Owen Sound, but he had to get up very early in the morning so the paper was on his subscribers’ doorsteps by sun-up. Not my style at all – my newspaper delivery career was at an end. Besides there were no bunk houses close by and I’d already sold newspapers to the nicest guys in the world. Second best just didn’t interest me.