MEMOIRS OF SHERESHEV
By MOISHE KANTOROWITZ
Before we even had the store, while we were still working at our respective places, we spent a week each of those two years in New York between Christmas and New Year’s. Unlike now-a-days we used to walk on Broadway at all hours of the night. I remember being there with Ruth at four in the morning looking at and admiring the brightly lit neon signs with never a thought of danger. This kind of vacation we could not continue. Instead we used to take off a week in summer and go up north of Montreal into the Laurentian Mountains where at that time many Montreal Jews had summer cottages and where one could choose a kosher hotel to his liking. It was the Montreal equivalent to New York’s Catskill Mountains. One of the nicest was a hotel by the name of “Castle-Des-Monts”, situation on an island in the middle of a lake and connected to the mainland by a causeway. The structure itself was a wooden two story building and fairly old even by the fifties standards, but the privacy of the island, that is the old poplar trees, the beautiful manicured lawns and flower beds made up for other short-comings. There, one, or rather a couple, could find enough privacy to be out of anybody’s sight and ear-shot and spin their dreams if one was young, or reminisce if middle aged or old. For complete tranquility one or two could get on a rowboat and out into the huge lake. Yet the hotel was close enough to be accessible to the nearby small town of “St. Agathe” by taking a 20 minute walk where one could see a movie, browse around in the local stores hunting for souvenirs which were well stocked with tourist attracting merchandise. After all, almost the entire local population lived off the crowd of Jewish vacationers that used to come from Montreal to escape the city’s heat in the summer.
The local population was Quebecois (French). Many had small cottages which they used to rent out for the summer to the vacationers, mostly Jewish families who used to spend most of the summer there, while their husbands and bread winners used to work in the city and come out for the week ends. Other locals used to work in the hotels, some of which used to stay open in winter to cater to the skiers who used to ski in the surrounding mountains. Yet despite the fact that St. Agathe and its surrounding villages main source of income was from tourism and the bulk of them were Jews, there was wide spread anti Semitism there. This did not deter the Montreal Jews from coming there year after year. This place started to be ignored by the younger Jewish generation that started to frequent the “Borsht Belt”, Ruth and I used to enjoy our short vacations in the Laurentian Mountains, coming home rested and refreshed.
Yes, I remember our first two years in the store. True, I did not spend much time at home, but Ruth used to bring our son Kenneth (Ken) as people used to call him, to the store for me to see. To me, he always was and is “Itzekel” after my father’s name, Itzchak or Itzik (Isaak). There are no words to describe my joy watching him change from an infant into a toddler and then into a little boy. There were no words to describe when he started to crawl, or the first tooth, the first word. He was for me everything - my hope, my dream for the future, a kind of resurrection of my family and above all, its continuity. I remember the time I took him for his first haircut. Around the corner from us on Laurier Street where we lived previously, was a barbershop called “Sam’s”. The owner’s name was Sam appropriately, who like myself, was a survivor of the Holocaust and where I used to get my haircuts. I took our son Ken to him one morning, for his first hair cut. The barber had a hard time with him. Little Itzekel started to cry and no amount of calming him down or pacifying him helped. Not only I but also the poor barber himself tried to entertain him, but to no avail. I took him off the chair and put him on a little tricycle, which the barber had for such emergencies. I happened to have some “Lifesavers” candy in my pocket and gave them to Itzekel who put them in his mouth. As he was putting it into his mouth, I noticed a few tiny clippings of hair on the candy, which went into his mouth too. I begged him to spit it out, but of course he would not. With difficulty we got him back on the barber’s chair and Sam finished the half-hazardous job. I dreaded to take Itzekel for his next haircut at which time, to my surprise, he sat like a little gentleman.
How nostalgic one can get for the late summer afternoons when Ruth used to come with him to the store for a while and I used to try to feed him. I used to sit him down on one of the stools and sitting next to him, I tried to feed him. To entertain him I used to take down every available toy from the shelves in order to keep him amused so I could sneak a spoon full of soup in his mouth, or anything else I was feeding him. When he became sure on his feet, he used to run in the store among the groups of schoolboys playing with their sport cards. At that time, I used to sell bubble gum along with chocolate bars and candy. Each package of gum contained a piece of gum and five pictures of known hockey, football or baseball players. School children, particularly boys, tried to collect complete teams. So they used to trade with each other. They finally invented some sort of game by which they used to take turns throwing the cards on the floor. The pile of cards used to grow and eventually one used to win. But while the cards were on the floor, no one was permitted to touch them, much less step on them. Even grown ups coming into the store quickly learned to avoid the scattered cards on the floor to be spared the groans and dirty glances of the children.
Our son Itzekel (Ken) being just over a year old and having just discovered the joy of running, was not particular on or over what he put his little feet. Once Ruth brought him to the store when a couple groups of children were playing with those sport cards. As soon as Ruth let him loose, he made a dash across the store running over parts of the cards covering the floor. Some of the youngsters reacted with hostility, maybe even would have shoved him out of their way. Then I heard some of them saying to the others to be quiet, that he is Moishe’s son. The youngsters, being afraid that I would not let them play indoors, kept quiet, and tolerated his encroachment on their sacred territory in silence.
In spring of 1954, like the previous Pessachs, Ruth and I went to Brockville to spend the holidays with her family. Ken was not quite a year and a half old. Once I was in Brockville I decided to go by bus to Kingston, a distance of fifty miles but a trip that took two hours due to the frequent stops the bus used to make to pick up and let off passengers. I took our son Ken (Itzekel) with me. The road in those days led on one side along the St. Lawrence river and on the other side through countless farms. Only after a year and a half of farming, I tried to be an expert and judge if a farmer is doing well or not. The yardstick was being the quality of the buildings on the farm. Despite the early time of year many farmers had their cattle outdoors. Itzekel having so far in his lifetime seen only one creature on four legs was excitedly pointing at the distant cows and yelling “Doggie, doggie.” The other passengers smiled benevolently with understanding. The novelty soon wore off and after a little while the ride lulled him to sleep with his head on my lap, with me stroking his head and back gently. Only a loving father, to be more correct, a true parent knows the feeling of love that pours out from a parent’s heart towards his or her child at such a precious and cherished moments. We went on to the ZBAR’s house, entering through the store that Mr. ZBAR used to look after and which was attached to the house. (Mrs. ZBAR had another store on the main street in partnership with Mr. BERLIN). It was the first time that Mrs. ZBAR saw Itzekel (Ken) and she knew how to put a child at ease. In no time Itzekel began to feel at home and act likewise. He proved it by pulling out the drawers and empting the contents on the floor. I tried to stop him from doing it, but Mrs. ZBAR would not let me interfere, saying, “ He is having a good time. Let him be.” By the time we were ready to leave the house, it was in a mess. I offered to help in cleaning up but Mrs. ZBAR would not hear of it. Before parting, she gave Itzekel (Ken) a toy car, quite an elaborate thing made with great detail and of sturdy construction. Enough to say that thirty-five years later, when we moved from Newfoundland to Toronto, that little car was still around. It survived Ken’s childhood years as well as our daughters Sharon and Aviva’s early years. Dear Mrs. Liba ZBAR, that noble, kind, benevolent human being. Little did I know that this would be the last time I would ever see her. It is later that I found out that she passed away after a short illness.
Our store was the only one of its kind on the block. Across the street except for the school, there were no other buildings. Going up Victoria Avenue, on the left side was an entire empty block on which a shopping centre was being built. Soon afterwards across the street from us, a new building project was started. Both of those projects employed a lot of workers that used to come in to us for lunch and we were kept busy. However in the fall of fifty-five, the shopping centre was finished and many stores opened up there, which took away some business from us. Never the less, it still remained a profitable store. Eventually, the fourteen hours of work a day began to take its toll on me. It just happened that a landsman (townsman) of mine who used to come in from Newfoundland a couple of times a year to Montreal came into the store and started to tell me of his success in business in St. John’s, Newfoundland. When he heard me complain about my long hours and no time for myself to be with my family, he started to talk me into coming to Newfoundland and becoming his partner. At first I was cool to the idea, but eventually succumbed to the proposition after being exposed to his persistent salesmanship. When one wants to buy an item badly, one has to pay the price for it. But when one wants to sell badly, one takes a loss. The same happened with the store. We sold the store for a much lower price than it’s worth before Pesach 1956 and after Pesach, I left by myself for Newfoundland, leaving behind in Montreal Ruth who was then pregnant and our three and a half year old son Itzekel (Ken).
There were no direct flights from Montreal to St. John’s then. To fly to St. John’s entailed a stop over in Moncton, Halifax, Sydney, Stephenville, and Gander and then one finally arrived in St. John’s. That is if the weather was favourable. But the Maritimes and in particular Newfoundland is known for its unstable weather and for its sudden rain or what is worst; Fog. So instead of the two and a half-hours flight that it is today, it was a day’s flying time. I got as far as Gander in the evening, only to find out that the flight to St. John’s could not continue due to the fact that the airport in St. John’s was fogged in. As there was no road then to St. John’s, the only way of getting there was by train, the so-called “Newfoundland Bullet” because of its slow motion. I was informed that the train was leaving at four in the morning. It turned out to be a narrow gage train with small and dingy coaches occupied by even filthier passengers. Rugged looking men with unshaven faces dressed in crude work clothes and laced up heavy boots. Some had them off altogether. The coach was filled with thick cigarette smoke. I noticed however, that some were constantly chewing and then spitting out a dark substance on the floor. It took me a while to realize that they were chewing tobacco. A few were sprawled on the wooden double seats. I tapped a man gently lying on a double seat, but I got no response. I did it again harder expecting a protest or even a curse. To my surprise, the man opened his eyes, looked at me, a stranger in city attire, still half asleep he sat up making room for me to sit down. After a while we started a conversation. He had trouble understanding me and I found it difficult to understand his unusual English. Yet I managed to find out that all the men in the coach are woodsmen who are returning home after a long season spent in the woods where they were cutting wood for the large paper mill in Corner Brook. He described the conditions in which they lived in the woods. In particular, the hygiene conditions in which there was no possibility of a bath in months.
As we were traveling slowly through forest whose tree trunks were on the average fifteen centimetres in diameter. I asked him if this is the kind of trees they cut. The answer was that this is the average thickness of trees used for pulp in Newfoundland. I have found out later that spruce or any other evergreen tree does not grow much larger in Newfoundland due to the poor topsoil. This is because of the thin layer of soil over the rocks, or because of the high winds that topple the trees due to the shallow roots in the thin layer of soil. We had a lengthy conversation in which the lumberjack described to me the life in the lumber camps, the hard work, the difficulty in making a living and the poverty at home. It turned out that despite this man’s rough appearance and common language; there was a descent human being near me who worked hard and honestly to support a family.
The train kept on winding and twisting between rocky hills and swampy valleys, curving its way around countless lakes and fir-covered hills. Slowing down to a crawl at every turn and twist. I not only thought that I could, but saw with my own eyes, some young passengers getting off and walking along the train at the same speed as the train itself. No wonder that the trip from Gander to St. John’s took ten hours since it was a distance of two hundred miles.
I quartered myself with my partner and family to await Ruth and our almost four-year-old son Itzekel (Ken). As Ruth was at that time pregnant with our second child and was due in August and as Ruth’s parents were in the process of moving to Montreal, Ruth preferred to remain in Montreal with her doctor and be close to her parents. Besides, she liked the hospital in which she gave birth to our first child. It was the Jewish General Hospital, which was staffed then by locally grown and trained personal of high standards and commitments who were proud to work in a hospital with its name and reputation.
Meantime I had the chance to get acquainted with the city of St. John’s, the Jewish community that was there and the part of the island of Newfoundland in which we did our business. The business consisted of a rented store in St. John’s and two small country stores on the Burin Peninsula, one in Fortune and the second in St. Lawrence. It was run by two inexperienced young clerks in each store without any control supervision or proper accounting. The store in St. John’s had half a dozen employees. As the two of us partners used to spend four-five days a week out of town, the store in St. John’s used to be left completely unsupervised.
We, the two partners used to drive over the crude rough road of eastern Newfoundland, traveling from village to village and selling or to be more precise, trying to sell dry goods consisting of work clothes, underwear, socks, outer wear and a general variety of clothing for men, women and children. It was like something the eastern European Jews used to do when they arrived in Canada a generation earlier. The only difference was that they carried their wares in a pack on their backs knocking on doors from house to house in the cities and villages of Canada, while we traveled in a large truck full of merchandise trying to sell our wares to the small general stores in the so called “out-ports”, or villages spread out along the isolated bays and inlets of the rugged shores of Newfoundland. One had to keep in mind that at that time there were seventy miles of so called paved roads on the whole island. The road led from St. John’s to Carbonear and it was so pockmarked with potholes that one had to be more careful to drive on it than on an unpaved road. On the rest of the island, whatever roads there were, they were originally walking paths that in time became roads for horse and buggy. Only lately they were upgraded to a hazardous and risky travel by a motorized vehicle. It is on those roads that we traveled stopping at little stores to try to sell them our merchandize. After persuading the storekeeper to take a look at the samples, we used to bring in the couple suitcases with samples and if we were lucky, we had something that he needed in the stores, so we used to bring it in from the truck.
Even though it rains a lot in Newfoundland, the road in places used to dry fast and the vehicles used to kick up a lot of dust that penetrated the walls of the truck and deposit itself on the merchandise as well as on us. In no time one could get covered with a layer of dust up to half an inch thick. If I was complaining about the winding railway train, it paled in comparison with the winding roads which in addition to its twists and turns, were also leading up and down hills or along mountain sides where on one side was a solid rock and on the other a precipice hundreds of feet deep.
A few words about accommodations. One has to keep in mind that in the mid fifties of the twentieth century on the whole forty two thousand square miles of the island of Newfoundland, there were about a dozen towns and larger settlements that had electric power. The rest of the island had to do without it the best they could. True, there were some households who had their own individual little power motors that could supply enough power to light up one or a couple of homes, but not enough for a single home appliance. Even this luxury could only be afforded by no more than five percent of the population, if this many. So the over-whelming part of the population in the out-ports lived in the same conditions as we lived in Shershev up to 1932, when electricity was introduced in Shershev, or as the rural population around Shershev continued to live, until I left that part of the world. Understandably where there is no electricity, there can be no indoor plumbing, no running water, no refrigeration, nor radio or television, in short, no electrical appliances of any sort. It took a nice bit of adjustment for a city dweller accept, especially for one coming from Montreal, which was at that time, the largest city in Canada.
There were no hotels or motels in Newfoundland to speak of, except for the cities of St. John’s and CornerBrook and the less than half a dozen so called towns in which a house with a few spare rooms was referred to as hotels. What could be found in some villages were so called “Boarding Houses”, where the owner had a larger house and one or a couple spare rooms that he or she used to rent out for a night or two to a casual or accidental sojourner or traveling salesman.
Under such conditions in those places I would not like to guess or wager how often the bedding used to be changed on the beds I slept in. Usually a boarder used to get his breakfast there, too - the customary ham and eggs, toast and coffee. In my case it was different. Two soft boiled eggs, toast and tea. The other two meals a day we used to buy in the stores, consisting of canned meat or fish and bread. Parking on the side of the road, we used to eat and continue on our way. There were no deserts, fruits or vegetables. The things available in those stores were durable items like turnips, cabbage, carrots and potatoes. The only fruit available just about all year round were five star apples. The only apple that can keep in a barrel just about all year round, never changing its texture or taste which did not appeal to me. These were my impressions of Newfoundland the first two months after my arrival, which have changed along with Newfoundland during my thirty-three years of our stay there.
As Ruth was due to give birth to our second child in the beginning of August, I left for Montreal at the end of July, to be with her. I still recall those few days. They were trying days for both of us. For Ruth, she was expecting to go to the hospital any hour to give birth, knowing that a day or two later I would have to leave for Newfoundland. As for myself, I did not want to leave Ruth with two children behind. Knowing her concern, and for my selfish reasons, I did not want to part with them even for a short time, for I missed them terribly in Newfoundland. But the main underlying reason and which I could not even share with Ruth, was that my decision to come to Newfoundland, which was my own, was a hasty one and now irreversible. Saturday, August the fourth, in the late afternoon, Ruth started having labour pains. In the evening I took her to the hospital, and had her registered. They took her upstairs to a room telling me that I would be shortly informed when I could come up to join her until she would be taken to the delivery room. I waited for about an hour and nobody came to tell me anything. So I walked over to the registration giving the lady clerk my name, but before I had a chance to tell her anything else, she says to me: Mazel Tov, Congratulation. Your wife just gave birth to a baby girl. I gave a sigh of relief hearing the good news and ran to the elevator. I had to wait half an hour before Ruth was brought to her room.
After spending the allotted time with Ruth, I went back to our apartment in which Ruth’s parents were now living with Ruth and our son Ken. I spent a restless night between feeling grateful to the All mighty for giving us a second child, our first daughter and for the speedy, easy and safe delivery and for giving me the chance to have my daughter carry on my mother’s and sister’s names, namely; my mother’s name Esther, and my older sister’s name Sheva, which was anglicized to Sharon. The thought of having to leave my wife and now two children behind and go back to Newfoundland caused me to feel restless as well. Two days later I went back to St. John’s where I spent the summer by myself. Most of the time in the out ports, coming into the city on weekends to look for an apartment to rent which was not easy. At the outskirts of the city, there was an American army base built during the war, which had some six thousand personal, many with families who had taken up every available apartment and space in town.
I finally succeeded in finding one on Patrick Street. It was an old two-story house. The landlord lived upstairs and we on the ground floor and basement. As the house was built on a slope, the basement from the back of the house led into the yard which was overgrown with weeds, shrubs and some dogwoods. In the basement was the kitchen with an old stove converted from wood to oil, a spare room and a bathroom. The rest of the basement was used by the landlord for storage. On the ground floor was one bedroom and a double parlour as it was then called. It was a long room divided into two by an arched door that made the room look like two. The entrance from the front led into a hallway, which was used by the landlord and us. A flight of stairs led to the upper story, which was occupied by him.
Meantime Ruth began to get ready for the transition to St. John’s. It was not an easy job with two children on her hands. Ruth arranged to have the furniture crated as well as everything else properly packed. As I recall, the dishes went into five wooden barrels. The entire shipment left by boat from Montreal to St. John’s - a trip of five days. When it arrived it could not be taken into the house because of the size of the crates, so I opened them outdoors. The man in the truck who delivered the shipment from the pier, upon seeing me break up the crates asked me for the timber and planks saying that “they are better than the material now used in building homes.” I had no room and no use for them at that time, so I gave it to him. The big job was of course the furniture. After putting it in place, or what I thought was in place, I left the rest to Ruth. She arrived with our four-year-old son Ken (Itzak-Yaakov-Kopel) and our newborn ten-week-old daughter Esther Sharon (Esther Sheva). Accompanying Ruth and the children was Mrs. Chapman, our nurse that looked after Ken in Montreal for a year. Ruth brought her along to help her on the trip and to settle down in St. John’s. Of course the furniture had to be moved around, but eventually everything fell into place.
My partnership in the business, which led a year later to a break up, left me with ten percent of my original investment. I suddenly found myself without money and without any means of supporting my wife and children. Those were difficult days for me personally as I blamed myself for getting into this mess by giving up a good running business in Montreal. I was looking for something new and foreign to me in a far and strange place, without checking out thoroughly beforehand what I was getting into. Now I was harvesting the fruits of my naivety and trust in others. Would I have had the money I invested in that unsuccessful partnership I would have returned back to Montreal to start something on my own. Unfortunately, I did not. I managed to scrape up enough to make a down payment of six hundred dollars on a second hand van, valued at one thousand, the balance to be paid out within a year and enough to buy a return ticket to Montreal.
On arrival in Montreal, I set out on a visit to the dry good wholesalers, which were mostly located at that time on St. Lawrence Blvd. between St. Catherine Street and Sherbrooke Street. I knew them from my dealings with them in the previous year while I was still with my partner. I told them that our partnership was now dissolved and that I was starting on my own. Above all, I told them that I have no money and they will have to give me credit. All without exception were willing to extend me credit of a couple hundred dollars, which I took. One, a very successful wholesaler and importer said to me: I will give you credit of a thousand dollars in consideration of the fact that I started in business over a quarter of a century ago with seven dollars. I like to say right now that in appreciation of this man’s trust in me, he must have gotten fifty percent of my business with wholesalers for the next thirty years. This man’s name was Ben MINTZ. After a couple days of buying, I returned to St. John’s. A week later the merchandise started to arrive. Not having a warehouse I was forced to store it in our double living room, which unavoidably became my warehouse. I was in business. An occupation I never aspired to. In fact, I detested. But what else could I have done? There was nothing I could do in St. John’s to support a family. The only employer of substance was the U.S. Base where, to get a job, one needed pull, which I, a stranger, did not have. So I filled up two suitcases with samples, loaded up as much merchandise as I could in the van and set out on the rough and rugged roads of eastern Newfoundland.
Here again I want to point out the fact that at that time many if not half of the settlements of the island of Newfoundland strewn along its coast were not connected to each other or to any other point by land. The only access to them was by sea. However, the provincial government with the help of the federal government embarked on a program to connect the settlements by road, which originally followed a footpath made by generations of inhabitants of those settlements. At times these inhabitants could not go by sea due to weather or the bays being blocked by drift ice. Those roads used to wind between boulders and swamps, going up hills and down low boggy ground where one foot to the right or left spelled disaster for a weary driver. The building of those roads began with Newfoundland confederation in 1949 and was very much in progress then.
In my opinion, the eastern part of the island of Newfoundland receives more precipitation in a year in the form of rain, drizzle and fog than any other spot in the northern hemisphere and it had to be that I started in the beginning of October 1957 when rain and fog is at its heaviest. The heavy clouds lie so low to the ground that one could touch them by raising ones hand above their head. They did not disappear until late October or early November, when the temperature falls below zero and the precipitation has changed to snow. The cold weather use to bring on at times winds which blow away the clouds for long enough to assure the stranger that there is still blue skies above the heavy clouds. It was only when the temperature use to drop to below fifteen that the sky cleared and exposes its heavenly blue colours.
How can one imagine now, driving on the Newfoundland paved road the conditions of the roads then when the road was a continuous sea of mud. Then, the vehicle would sit axle deep in the mud and scrape the bottom, tearing off exhaust pipes, breaking fuel lines and break cables. Only one that experienced it could understand what it was like. Add to it darkness that starts at four in the afternoon and fog as thick as the mud below. At night even with the headlights on, it was impossible to see one meter ahead of you. All one could make out is the edge of the road on the driver’s side and make sure you do not get to close to it and neither to far or you will get off the road and into the ditch on either side.
This was my beginning. I left Ruth and children with a heavy heart. The pouring rain that added to my misery and made me feel as if the heavens too were crying with me because of the hard times I am in now and of my own making. It was not easy to come into those country stores, to introduce myself and try to talk a storekeeper into taking a look at my samples. It happened often that after talking for an hour and succeeding in convincing a storekeeper to look at my samples, he would not buy anything and I used to walk out dejected. Still, I knew I had to continue. I had rent to pay, to pay out for the van and above all, to feed a wife and two children. In late November, the snow came down to stay. If the road was treacherous before, it became worse now. In places the road was constantly being drifted over or outright blocked by the drifting snow. In other places the truck used to spin going up a hill or worse. After spinning for a while, it used to start sliding backwards with a good chance of getting off the road and into a ditch or roll into a ravine. Going down a hill, the truck used to start sliding and applying the breaks used to make it even worse.
As soon as I left home, I used to want to come right back, but I knew I could not. In those days, I used to spend five days a week on the road. I would come home to pick up the merchandise, which used to take a day due to the poorly organized system at the wharf. Another day used to be taken up with checking the newly arrived merchandise, making orders in the van and filling it up with the new merchandise. In between I had to go downtown to deposit whatever money I came back with from the trip and immediately send out cheques to my debtors, so they should not go into a panic as I was a new account and so far untried with them. I was still doing my best to build up trust and confidence with them. Ruth undertook to help me with the paper work. It entailed entering the invoices, making out and entering the cheques as well as ordering or reordering the merchandise. In order to save time, I used to leave home in the evening and drive all night arriving at my destination in the morning ready to see the first customer. I soon learned not to leave in the evening if it’s snowing or even blowing. In such circumstances I used to remain home over night.
At about the same time we found out that Ruth is pregnant. That gave me more impetus to still work harder, as if I needed any more for, when I think about it more than forty years later, the driving all night from St. John’s to the Burin Peninsula, where some of the settlements were inaccessible half of the time due to snow in the winter and mud in spring and fall. Where I spent three or four nights during my trips there in unheated homes, sleeping at times with my clothes on, in houses where not only there was no heat, lacking any sanitary facilities and eating whatever the little store had to offer. One would have to keep in mind that a new truck had its wear within a year. How much usage could one get out of a used one? The van needed tires which I could not afford to buy and I recall that once driving from a place called Lead Cove in Trinity bay to Old Perlican, a distance of seven miles in those early days, driving on the freshly grated road on which the blade of the grader turned up some of the rocks on the road exposing their sharp edges. With my luck I had to be on that road at that time and on the stretch of that seven miles I had six flats (punctures). Understandable I spent all that day on the road fixing tires.
To say that I worked hard would be belittling my sixteen hours a day work. Those little country stores were open from the moment the owner opened his and her eyes, until they went to bed. In fact, most of the stores were in their homes or next door. It was a matter of opening the owner’s eyes and he was in the store. Some of the merchants preferred to see me after closing time so as not to be disturbed by their customers. Yet if the selling itself was difficult and often aggravating, it paled in comparison to the hardship of the driving and the hazards of the road. With the start of the year 1958, business dropped off. Following in the foot steps of my competitors, of which there was about half a dozen in eastern Newfoundland, all of them working out of St. John’s, there was time to go to Montreal and place orders for spring and summer goods. I knew I have to do the same, but unfortunately I owed my suppliers in Montreal fifteen hundred dollars, which I did not have, and the bank I was dealing with refused to extend me such credit. I was in a bind and did not know to whom to turn to. Out of sixty-eight Jewish families in St. John’s, I knew two well enough to ask. One my former business partner with whom I was then not on speaking terms who certainly could have extended me such a small amount of credit or put his signature for such a small amount in the bank for me. The other was a Holocaust survivor from Pruzany who was with me in Auschwitz but whom I got to know in the displaced person camps in Italy. His name was Philip AUERBACH (or Uncle Phishel to us) who came to Montreal in 1948 and a year later moved to St. John’s. Being single and one of the first two jobbers, he was so to say established, having his steady and dependent-on-him customers. Despite the fact that I became his competitor, we became instantly best friends in a friendship that lasted to the last day of his life thirty-five years later.
I knew that he would gladly sign for me in the bank if I would ask him, but I guess I was too proud to ask. Eventually I asked my landlord who was a manufacturers agent and from whom I used to order some merchandise. Having made out the cheques that I knew would be good, I left for Montreal and New York. I do want to point out that the price of an Air Canada ticket from St. John’s to Montreal and back was then one hundred and twenty two dollars. For an extra five dollars, they used to include New York. So I went to New York too for a couple of days staying with my uncle Shloime (Solomon) AUERBACH whose children used to pick me up and take me back to the airport. I also want to point out that before my fateful decision to move to St. John’s, I managed to pay up my uncle the two thousand dollars he had sent me in 1948 towards my share of the farm. Upon arriving in Montreal I visited my suppliers-creditors handing them out the earlier made out cheques, which constituted the balance of the money I owed them. They in turn seeing a potential customer, who so far pays his bills, were not as apprehensive as the first time to extend me credit. In fact, some seemed genuinely interested in selling me merchandise. My entire trip to Montreal and New York took me a week. As soon as I got back, I went on the road.
My first driver’s license I got in Brockville in 1949, but never renewed it, as I had no car on the farm or in Montreal. I applied for a license in St. John’s in 1957, which I passed with no trouble. However, the driving on Newfoundland roads at that time in winter was entirely different than the passing of the test in summer on city streets. As the saying goes: “It never rains but pours” because every penny was for me so important and hard to earn. My untrained winter driving caused me two accidents that cost me some four hundred dollars, which I could ill afford. I guess looking from a positive side; I was the only one involved in it. During that first winter driving, I had a couple of close calls from which I got away unscratched. One I recall happened to me on Random Island near Clarenville. The island is separated from the main island of Newfoundland by a narrow body of water about a few hundred to a thousand meters wide and the only access to it is by a causeway. There are or were a few fishing villages on that island connected by narrow gravel roads that traversed through rocky terrain and bush, up hill and down to the swamp. One of the worst enemies of the traveler is the freezing rain that can continue at times all night and build up a layer of ice several inches thick, leaving the surface of the road so slippery that it is impossible even to traverse on foot using a nail pointed cane. The only worse thing is, if that slippery icy surface freezes hard and gets covered with a thin layer of powdery snow. For an unwary driver, or even a pedestrian, it spells disaster.
On such a road I found myself one morning. By then I knew the danger, but sheer desperation, the need to make a living, drove me to it. A head of me up a hill was a settlement. I took a deep breath and pressed on the gas. As soon as I started on the up hill, I knew I made a big mistake, for within a few seconds, I lost control of the steering wheel and thus the van slid off the road into the ditch. I made my way on foot for the next few hundred meters to the settlement. Knocking on the door of the first house, a middle-aged man let me in and I explained my situation to him. He told me to go back to the van and wait for him. Within no more than fifteen minutes, he was back with a dozen or so men in tow. It took them a few minutes to get me on the road and turn the van around by sheer strength, as there was no way I could turn around on that narrow and slippery road. I was so grateful to those people that I was ready to pay them anything. To my question of how much I owe them, they just smiled. The man from the house I first knocked on waved me away saying: Next time you come bring with you a bottle of rum, a decent act from a poor but benevolent people.
Another story. Having just passed Whitborn crossing on my way home, on the narrow and winding road, I took a bend in the road not appreciating the ice on it and the van rolled over on the side. Not a single vehicle passed without stopping, and as soon as there were enough men, they put the van on its wheels. Nobody would accept any sort of remuneration. However, there was a benefit for me due to the thick layer of snow on the road. It protected the well-worn tires from the sharp edges of the rocks below, thus less flats on the tires. It would have been good if not for the fact that one would not dare travel on those snow covered roads without putting on snow chains on the tires that, in turn, would chafe through the walls of the tires or break the links which demanded immediate attention. In a word: one could not win fighting the elements. In May, the precipitation started coming down in the form of rain or fog, eating away at the layer of heavy snow, and like in the story of Noah, the land began to appear from beneath the mountains of snow.
The time for the birth of our third child was getting near. As I could not stay at home to be with Ruth and our two children, we decided that Ruth should go with the children to Montreal and stay with her parents. We had nobody in St. John’s to leave our son Ken (Itzhak who was six at the time) and our daughter Sharon, (who was two at the time), so we thought that this would be the best solution. Secondly, she had the doctor who was with her at the birth of our two children in Montreal and Ruth was familiar with the Jewish General Hospital. Ruth left with the children in the middle of May and I followed two weeks later. On June the fourth in the evening, I took Ruth to the hospital. After having her admitted, I joined her upstairs where the doctor told her to walk up and down the hallway. At about eleven before midnight, they took her to the delivery room, leaving me with another couple expectant fathers. I sat and then I started to walk up and down the room, which seemed to become very small, so I started walking up and down the hallway finally going over to the head nurse on duty to ask her for any news. Then I went back into the waiting room and sat down. No sooner did I sit down when the head nurse comes in and says: Mr. KANTOROWITZ, your wife just gave birth to a baby girl. My first question to her was? When can I see my wife? It did not take long and I was permitted to see Ruth and a short while later our newborn daughter who was even fairer than the older one and as beautiful as the sun. She was born at twelve ten. Ten minutes after midnight on the day of June 5, 1958. She was named after Ruth’s great aunt Chayie-Sorah and we called her Aviva Simone. Ruth and the children remained in Montreal with her parents a couple of weeks more. But I returned to St. John’s two days after Aviva’s birth.
The difficulties with the roads of Newfoundland did not cease with the disappearance of the snow. In fact it got worse. While the problem with the snow continued throughout the entire winter, it seldom blocked the roads for more than a few days at a time. There were times when a vehicle got stuck in a snowdrift, the driver could dig himself out or wait for a snowplough, which would eventually come weather permitting. But with the frost coming out of the ground, the road used to turn into a bottomless bog. Unlike snow, one could not dig his way out of it, for the oozing slime from around used to fill up the place immediately. I stand corrected. In order for the reader to understand the difficulties of traveling over the Newfoundland roads in those days, I like to share with him/her an event, which took place in December of 1957 that could have caused me a lot of hardship were it not for a fluke decision I made on the spur of the moment.
Already in my first year in Newfoundland, I heard stories that the train running across the island, that is from Port-Aux-Basques to St. John’s used to encounter a freak snowstorm that could block the tracks for weeks at a time. Allowing even for exaggeration I heard first hand from a fellow traveler who was stuck on the train several days before the tracks were cleared and the train could proceed. Another told of an event when the wind was so high at a place called Topsoil, east of Corner Brook, that it toppled the narrow gage Newfoundland train on its side. But I never expected to be witness to the Newfoundland freak of weather and its surprises. It happened in mid December 1957, a snowing and blowing short day. I was traveling on the south shore on the way from St. John’s to Trepassey, the most southern settlement on the Avalon Peninsula. On the way I made a few stops to visit my other customers in the settlements along the shore, in places like Bay Bulls, Witless Bay, Cape Broyle, Calvert, Ferryland and Renews. I was just leaving Renews at four in the afternoon, under a heavy sky, and it was already getting dark. It was snowing all day and there was a foot of snow on the road. Ten miles down the road was a small settlement by the name of Capahayden. Twenty miles beyond was my objective, Trepassey. Capahayden and Trepassey were the most treacherous stretches of roads in this kind of weather. Even in summer, on a foggy day, one could not dare to walk off the road and loose sight of it for a moment for he would not find it again. Those twenty miles were so bleak and depressing, barren of any trees or shrubs that could serve as a point of orientation. An unending plain, flat as a table and the road, on level with the ground, could easily be obscured by the countless protruding rocks all around. In winter, the entire flatland used to turn into an eye biting disorientating endless space where one had to drive with special and increased care in order not to get off the road, which was constantly being covered over by the drifting snow. If one was unfortunate to get off the road, it meant to wait for an oncoming vehicle, at best a few hours and usually over night.
Not surprising I did not relish the idea of traveling the next thirty miles in the dark during a snowfall. But as they say, “Necessity breaks iron”. I had to work and provide. The light snowfall became heavier and I became apprehensive. Yet there seemed to be less snow on the road. I soon learnt why. In a few minutes I caught up to a snowplough, which started from the settlement half an hour ago. The driver asked me if I care to pass him. After one look at the road ahead of me, I declined. The driver of the plough had trouble finding the road and his progress slowed down to the speed of a person’s walk. I soon realized that at this speed we would be lucky to get to Trepassey in the morning. I guess the driver of the plough came to the same conclusion. He stopped to inform me that he would spend the night in Capahayden and continue to Trepassey in the morning. I made my own calculations and realized that instead of one day, this trip will take me three at best, as it will take me all the next day to get there. I arrived home after midnight, driving in a heavy snow fall that over night blanketed the entire Avalon Peninsula in a layer of snow which paralyzed it for a couple of days. Out of sheer curiosity I called the high way department to find out if the plough made it to Trepassey that night and was informed that the following day he broke down between Capahayden and Trepassey and that they had sent more ploughs there to open the road. The end of the story is that that stretch of road between Capahayden and Trepassey remained closed until sometime in April, a period of four months. When I finally managed to get through to Trepassey in the end of April, I counted some half a dozen pieces of equipment that were left abandoned on the road. Broken down in their attempt to open the road and victims of the Newfoundland weather and the state of the roads in those days. To the above story I am a witness and I witnessed the road being closed for four months due to snow. Maybe the story I heard from a man who claimed to have spent forty-two days on a train on his way from Port-Aux-Basques to St. John’s in the twenties is credible too.
Now let us turn to early spring 1958. One of the four territories I used to cover was Bonavista-Bay south, a trip of five days, which led through Whitbourne, the Avalon Istmus via Gubis to Clarenville. A distance of a hundred and twenty miles and took a day, including a couple of stops to visit customers, providing the road was in ‘good’ shape. Otherwise, it could take two days. From Clarenville via Shoal Harbour to Milton, after which a couple of miles further, the road used to take a sharp left turn to Lethbridge, a distance of a dozen miles. It was this part of the road, from the turn to Lethbridge that the bottom fell out of it, and the road became impassible. To begin with, the road was built on a swamp the previous summer. It was opened with the cold spell freezing the ground below. As soon as the frost started coming out in the spring, the weight of the heavy trucks broke through the layer of gravel and stone changing the road into a trap for trucks and cars. To be honest, the highway department made attempts to fill in the holes, but regardless of how much and what it was they dumped on the road, it all disappeared in that quagmire. At first, after dark, when the temperature used to drop to freezing, a man who lived along that stretch of road, and owned a four wheel drive truck with balloon like tires, used to organize a caravan of cars and trucks. For the price of five dollars from each vehicle, he used to escort us across that obstacle course. As soon as one of us got stuck, his twenty odd year old son used to jump down the truck, hook and cable in hand and in no time one was out of the hole. However, as soon as it got warmer and the ground stopped freezing at night, the road became impassable for any vehicle. The high way department was compelled to close the road for six weeks, until it dried out and they could proceed with repairs.
The above mentioned were extreme cases. However, since most of the roads were built on solid rock or bog, the rocky stretches tended to form potholes, which in turn caused breaking of springs and shock absorbers. In contrast the stretches of road over boggy terrain used to turn into a sea of mud, where one had to drive axle deep in thick heavy soup, tearing off mufflers and exhaust pipes. On those roads at that time of year, there was hardly a trip after which I did not have to take the van into the garage for repairs. An expense I could not afford, not to mention the fact that due to the road conditions some settlements became inaccessible thus loss of sales. By the end of June 1958, spring in Newfoundland was in full bloom, but even June had its surprises. I recall spending the night of the tenth to eleventh of June in a small motel on the road between Lethbridge and Southern Bay in Bonavista Bay. As I woke in the morning, the eleventh of June, I looked out of the window and could not believe my eyes. The beautiful green landscape of yesterday was covered with a thick layer of snow. I had to walk a foot deep in heavy wet snow to get to the van, getting my feet wet in the process. I was going in the direction of Bonavista. The first settlement on my way was Charleston and the next was Princeton. A small settlement at the foot of a mile long hill called Summerville Hill named after the settlement on the other side. That hill had a sinister reputation, not only over the Bonavista Peninsula, but also across the entire island of Newfoundland among those who ever had to get over it, or were confronted by it. That hill was not only steep and in some places went up at an angle of 45 degrees, which could only be traversed by making a run for it. But the winding road often hindered such an attempt. In mid morning I was at the foot of that hill and saw the plough struggling to clear the snow, which was well over a foot deep. By the time the plough cleared the other side of the hill, the mid June and midday sun was out in its full strength melting the snow faster than it must have came down, changing the ditches on either side of the road into raging torrents. It forced me to drive up the hill for fear that the road would get washed out, which often happened after a good rain. Such were the road conditions in Newfoundland in the fifties.
As soon as the roads dried out, a driver would be confronted with another nuisance, namely dust. A vehicle would kick up a cloud of dust a mile long if there was no cross wind to blow it off the road and the dust had the tendency of penetrating every crack of the vehicle, no matter how tight it was. It settled everywhere and on everything. It was most noticeable on the heads and faces of the travelers. Even almost hermetically closed trucks did not escape this plague and the sand managed to enter sealed boxes in my van. The only way of escaping this nuisance was either leaving a lot of space between the vehicle a head of you or attempt to pass him, which was practically impossible, for the closer you got to the vehicle, the thicker the dust. It got to the point where you did not see a thing in front of you. In such weather one prayed for rain, which was answered more often, and for longer periods than asked for. The rain changed the roads into mud. No wonder there were so few travelers then in Newfoundland and even fewer cars.
The nurse that came with Ruth and the children to St. John’s after the birth of Aviva, left after a month, for we could not afford to keep her. Ruth replaced her with a local girl from Trinity Bonavista Bay by the name of May. She stayed with us for over a year. In that time she found herself a young man whom she married and moved back home. Besides the difficulties of trying to make a living, the place we lived in was unbearable. With three little children at home and the living room taken up with merchandise, there was no room to turn around. Not to mention the exorbitant one hundred and twenty five dollars monthly rent at that time, which we were paying. I started to look around for a larger and cheaper accommodation. At either end of Elizabeth Avenue new subdivisions were coming up. At the west end a couple of new small streets were being completed. I found out that there were some houses for sale at the price of nineteen thousand dollars, and that a second mortgage can be arranged. All one needs is two thousand dollars down payment. The monthly payment of one hundred and twenty eight dollars on the first mortgage equals to what I am paying now in rent. All I had to pay was thirty-three dollars a month on the second mortgage, which sounded fine. But where do I get the two thousand for the down payment? Here I have a chance to own my own home with a full basement, which would be perfect for a warehouse. Also a garage which had additional room and a door to the driveway. How can I pass it up? The only one I could turn to and I did was my good friend Philip AUERBACH, who gladly offered to sign for me as guarantor in the bank for the needed down payment.
I undertook to repay the two thousand dollars in fifty-dollar monthly payments for as long as it would take. What I can proudly say is that I did, never missing a payment that for me in that financial situation was no small accomplishment. In the beginning of October 1958 we moved into our new and so-called own home on 21 Gambier Street. At that time we were one of the two families that kept Kosher in the St. John’s Jewish community of some seventy members, which all considering was no small task. Help came via Ruth’s parents who for a house warming present bought us a large deep freeze, in which we could keep enough frozen food to last for months. Not only did Ruth keep there Kosher meat and meat products, but there was room enough for Kosher bread and cakes, which I used to bring with the meat on my return from buying trips to Montreal.
That same fall, our son Ken (Itzhak-Yaakov-Kopel) started school, which was some hundred meters from our previous living quarters. He entered Harrington School on LeMarchant Road. Until October while we were still living in the old place it was very convenient, but from our new home, it was quite a distance and required changing buses. Ruth had to take him to and from school daily, by bus leaving our two little girls Sharon (Esther-Sheva) and Aviva (Chaya-Sarah) with our maid, May Brown, at home. Of course if I happened to be in town during school days, I used to do it by driving him with the van. Actually he started going there a year earlier to kinder garden and continued into grade one. After finishing grade one, he, to be more precise, his class was transferred to Holloway School in to grade two, where he continued up to the end of grade six. To Holloway School, starting in grade two, Ken used to take the bus and transfer by himself.
No vehicle in those days could stand the punishment of Newfoundland roads for too long. It was fine for driving around town, but those of us who did their driving in and around the out-ports, and in particular those who used to put on some fifty thousand miles per year, like myself, soon realized that the life expectancy of a new vehicle on those roads can not exceed two years, even with constant repairs. It was not the motors that would give out. They lasted but it was the body and structure that used to come apart in every conceivable and inconceivable place. My van, which was second hand for me to begin with, despite all the repairs had “had-it”. The fall season had just began, in my line the most promising time of year and I was spending more and more time in the garage. I went to the garage “Marshall Motors” from whom I bought the van, to negotiate the purchase of a new vehicle. They accepted the old van as a down payment and I took on the obligation to pay the balance of twenty four hundred dollars in twelve monthly payments of two hundred dollars each. It was a new Ford truck, cab and chassis. I found a man in By Roberts who built a box, a so called “a house” on it, fourteen feet long, seven feet wide and six feet high inside, with shelves on all the walls covered with sliding doors to protect the merchandize from falling out on the floor. What a far cry from the little old van where the merchandize was all in card-board boxes, one on top of the other, where I had at times to empty most of them to find a certain item. Here every item was in its place where I knew I put it, very accessible, not to mention the size of the box where I could and did carry four five times as much merchandize in quantity and variety than in the van. The truck and chassis were much heavier and held the road much better. Not to mention the dual wheel advantage of being able to continue driving to the next garage with a flat on. Not the best idea, but useful at times. With a brand new truck and tires, with no fear of punctures at any moment or engine failure, I seemed to be invincible regarding the road or so I thought.
I soon found out that I was wrong. Already on my first trip out, I managed to break off the front shock absorber plates, which became a routine problem on every trip. Not surprising, considering that at any time, driving, one of the wheels was constantly either getting in or getting out of a pothole. But the real test came in early March 1959. That winter, 1958-59 was a hard one even for Newfoundland standards. It started early with no let up, one snowfall after another.
As February was the slowest month of the year, I have learned from my competitors to go to Montreal to do my shopping for spring and summer. Almost all wholesalers, importers and manufacturers of clothing in Canada were concentrated in Montreal in those days. In fact Montreal was known to be the centre of the textile industry of Canada. As for me, a beginner in the business, my source of supply could be found on one block of one street in Montreal, namely; on St. Lawrence Blvd. With my very limited buying power, I could be through with my shopping in three days. Thus giving me the opportunity to visit my relatives. That is, my Uncle Shloime (Solomon) AUERBACH and family, who had by that time moved from 2133 Daly Avenue in the Bronx to Brooklyn, where they got an apartment in the same building as their youngest son, Eli and his wife Shirley. That building is 829 E. 10th Street. As a rule I used to spend the weekend there, thus getting the opportunity to see most of their children who were working during the week. At that time my other Uncle Pesah (Philip), who was my Uncle Shloime’s brother, lived in New York with his wife and married children who came to meet me. During my visit there my Uncle Shloime and Auntie Esther’s house used to become an open house, and my uncle’s two daughters, Helen and Rose were being kept busy serving food and drinks to the visitors. It was only later, after my uncle and aunt past away, and the two daughters were older, that I realized how much work and effort it took them to keep all the guests fed, entertained and busy during my visits. I am not so sure now if I ever thanked them properly for all those sweet memories I carry with me now.
On the way back I used to stop for a day in Montreal to do our personal shopping. That is the bread and meat order. Checking in at the airport, the Air Canada employees never failed to remark about the pleasant aroma coming from the boxes of baked stuff I was checking in, nor about the amount of boxes. Upon arrival in St. John’s airport, I had to take a taxi for myself to get home instead of sharing it with others, which was the practice, as I had enough boxes to fill a fare size car.
The end of February that year, I tried to cover the two territories closer to home. They were, the peninsula lying between Trinity and Conception Bays, the so called South Shore, that is the shore line between St. John’s and south to Trepassey and part of Placentia bay that is from St. John’s via Whitbourne to Dunville, Jerseyside, Placentia, Freshwater, Argentia and Fox Harbour. This was a cluster of settlements close to one another with full employment due to the large American naval base nearby. Despite the stories that the road to Burin Peninsula is treacherous, and that the amount of snow is high, I could not afford to stay home an extra day or two. I will take a couple of lines to describe the road to the Burin Peninsula at that time. The first and one of the larger settlements on the peninsula is Marystown. That was two hundred miles (320 kilometres) from St. John’s. One hundred miles, half way between was a small settlement called Goobies. From Goobies to Marystown, except for a place called Swift Current some fifteen miles past Goobies, there was no settlement on the road all the way up to Marystown proper. True, there were some settlements on the way, but not on the road or near it. They were some miles away, off the road. About half way between Goobies and Marystown, the road branched off to a place called Terrenceville, about twenty miles away. Before that branch road, and past, for about thirty miles, the ground was very level with hardly a tree in sight or a hill to abstract the drifting snow. The road, which was level with the ground around it, was constantly exposed to the drifting snow. The high road department was sending ploughs to push the snow off the road, which in turn kept accumulating, on either side of the road forming embankments, which in turn used to trap the drifting snow thus blocking the road faster and deeper. Again, the plough had a harder time pushing the snow aside and building up the snow embankments even higher.
It used to get to such a state that the embankments on either side for the road used to rise to the height of a truck and higher. In such cases the plough was useless. It could not budge the three yard deep snow and pay loaders had to be brought in to do the grueling and slow task of removing the snow. That part of the road for some unexplainable reason was named “Terrenceville Road”, and every person that knew that stretch of the road and used to traverse it from time to time used to pronounce even that name with repugnance or aversion. In the past three years I had learned to respect the Newfoundland winters, but I guess, not enough. Of course, there was always the necessity of making a living that drove me to leave a wife and three small children, a warm home and go out into the stormy day or night on treacherous roads risking limb and life for the so called “livelihood”. So on an early March day I left home for the Burin Peninsula. The first half or hundred miles were not too bad. I got as far as Goobies and spent the night there in a small motel, the only one on the Burin Peninsula. I left the place in the morning and covered the fifteen miles to Swift Current. I saw a customer and left for Marystown eighty-five miles away. Right past swift current up a long and steep hill, reaching the beginning of the so-called “Terrenceville Road”, a flat and monotonous sixty miles of flat land. I drove right into what looked like a tunnel. On either side were high walls of snow, at times higher than the truck. There was no danger of getting off the road. I could not if I tried, for the walls of snow on either side were high and wide. The problem was that in places there was no room for the plough to push the snow and a lot of it remained between the two walls of snow, right on the road and the truck used to get stuck in it. Every so often I had to dig myself out. Every couple of miles a bulldozer widened the road so as two vehicles could pass each other. But it did not happen this way too often. Usually you met a vehicle half way between such places and one had to back up a mile or two.
Fortunately there was no traffic on the road, for who would travel on such a road in this condition? I did meet a couple of ploughs and a bulldozer who were trying hard to keep the road open. Somehow I made it to Marystown. There I felt better for from here the road led via settlements ten-fifteen miles apart all around the tip of the peninsula. There were settlements like Creston, Salt Pond, Lewin’s Cove, Burin, Mortier, Epworth, Little St. Lawrence, St. Lawrence, Lawn, Lord’s Cove, Point-Au-Gaul, Lamaline, Lories, Fortune, Grand Bank and Garnish, and from there some twenty miles back to Marystown. Each of those places had a potential customer, for the local stores did some business. Due to the road conditions, the local population had to buy from the local store. However, because of the amount of snow on the road, I lost a whole day and got to Marystown Friday evening at nine o’clock. As I drove by a gasoline station, I notice the truck of my competitor and friend, Philip AUERBACH. I stopped to chat. He too is on his way home. It is a beautiful evening. Not a breeze in the clear air, nor was there a cloud in the sky. The heaven is lit up with its millions of stars. The next house on the road is thirty miles away. It is the only one up to Swift Current eighty-five miles further. He, Philip, just filled up his gas tank and wants to get there where they serve meals and have accommodations for travelers. I see no reason to set out at nine in the evening on a thirty-mile trip. The way the roads were and with my luck, it would take two hours if not more. I suggested staying over night right here in Marystown. Phillip goes on and I remain in Marystown over night. I am up at six and leave Marystown with daybreak at seven. The sky is overcast and a light snow is falling, but nothing to worry about. The terrain is uneven, but the road is protected in most places by hills, rocks, and small woods. Still, the thirty miles to where Phillip was aiming last night, took me the predicted two hours. I pull up and do not see Philip’s truck. I figure he left earlier. I go inside and find out that Philip did not spend the night there. Nor did anybody see him. I did not see his truck on the road, so he did not get struck. Is it possible that he continued home last night?
I fill up with gas and am about ready to start the engine, when I see a little Volkswagen pulling up and two men get out and walk in the direction of the house. I ask them where they are coming from. They say “Terrenceville”. More from habit than curiosity, I say: Will I make it there? They hesitate before saying; you can try. One of them adds, “With a truck you might.” I look at the two husky men in their prime with a touch of skepticism, thinking to myself; how can you compare yourself in that little car to my truck. Bidding them good-bye, I pull away. The twenty miles between the place I just left and Terrenceville branch can be divided into two even parts. The first ten miles led through a wooded area. The other ten were open terrain. As I was driving through the first ten protected miles, I was thinking to myself: How easily some people get scared of a few flakes of snow. True, the light snow continued and was falling softly on the road, which had already much snow on it. It seemed to make little difference.
And so the snow continued to fall softly, even gently, covering the road with a constant deepening layer of snow. I was feeling good moving forwards without apparent hindrance or problems. Suddenly and without warning, I drove into a different world. I came out from behind the protection of the trees into open space where the wind was blowing snow with an intensity that obscured and reduced visibility to zero. The road in front of me disappeared and a wall of gray mass surrounded me. Now I understood what the two men from Terrenceville meant when they said: “You can try.” And try I did! I began to move forwards, inching my way a yard at a time, more by instinct than by sight. After two or three miles, what seemed like infinity I stop to see two men near a bulldozer. They were trying to start it in order to clear the snow. It made me feel better knowing what they will be doing and I moved forward invigorated. The storm, however, did not let up. In fact it seemed to get worse and after a mile of driving I got off the road and into a shallow ditch. After trying for half an hour to get back on the road but to no avail, I turned back on foot to try and get those two men with the bulldozer to get me on the road. I barely started to walk, when I heard sounds of a motor. In that storm it took me some seconds to assess the direction the sound was coming from. It was the direction I was traveling to. By the time I got back to the truck, a snowplough was coming towards me. The driver, by the name of Pat, whom I knew, came from Terrenceville and had been working on the snowplough for a long time. He got me out of the ditch and on the road in minutes. To my question if I should continue, he told me that as far as the Terrenceville branch goes and from where he is coming, I should have no problems. Further on is not his territory, but he assumed that it’s being ploughed.
We parted going in opposite directions. Sure enough, I continue with no trouble. After all, the plough was just there. I got to the Terrenceville branch where I had to turn right to Swift Current and Goobies, a distance of fifty miles. I was on an elevation with the road sloping gently down to the bridge over Don’s River. The slope helped to propel the truck easily and before I realized it, I was in the middle of the road in two feet deep wet and heavy snow. I was stuck, unable to go forwards or backwards. There was no choice. Ahead of me, the snow was even deeper. I had to go back for shelter until the storm and the snow blowing were over. I dug all the snow around the truck. Perspiring profusely, I got into the truck and managed to turn around. Before me were the over twenty miles of track I just covered. The only difference was that I had to confront the ten difficult miles first and then the ten sheltered ones in order to get to that little place where I met the two men from the Volkswagen this morning. Some-how I managed and got there in early afternoon.
No sooner did I arrive than from the opposite direction that is from Marystown side pulls in another truck. It was a bit smaller than mine. Two men get out. I know them. It is Mr. Case, a candy wholesaler, who sold from his truck all kinds of sweets to the stores, and his helper, a young man in his early thirties by the name of Walter. We fill up with gas, in between having a conversation regarding the weather and road conditions. I told them what it is like further down the road and me being forced to turn back. They are anxious to continue. The young man, Walter, makes nothing of my warning and looks at me with the same skeptical gaze that I looked at the two men from the Volkswagen this morning. The two decide to go on and start to talk me into following them.
Here is where my heart conquered my brain. My desire to get home was so strong that it overtook my common sense. I just came back knowing that there is no way for me or any other vehicle to get through, yet I wanted to get home so badly that common sense was blindly being pushed aside and I agreed to follow them. Again the first ten miles were uneventful except for the deeper snow on the ground. But as soon as I got out from behind the shelter of the trees, I drove again into a gray and blinding wall of drifting blowing snow. The only thing I could see was the freshly made tire tracks of Mr. Case’s truck just ahead of me. I was driving on a slight down hill. As I was very slowly moving forward, the walls of snow on either side of the road were getting higher. They were reaching the height of the box of my truck thus creating even a better trap for the snow to fall into. I was driving in low gear, for two reasons. One, the truck was sitting so deep in snow that it would only move forward in low gear. Secondly, the truck ahead of me was so close that in a higher gear I had not chance of stopping before slamming into him, should he suddenly decide to stop.
I follow the truck for about a kilometre when suddenly my truck found itself so deep in snow that it started spinning. Unable to go forward, I tried to back up to no avail. It would not go. I was stuck. In panic I got out of my truck and started to run after the one ahead of me. It was humanly impossible to walk. Never mind to run. Besides the hip deep snow, the high wind, blowing the snow in my face and eyes making it hard to breathe or to see anything. With difficulty I made my way back to the truck and closing the doors and windows I was out of the wind if not the cold. It was about five in the afternoon when I settled myself to wait out the storm reproving myself for letting those two talk me into following them. Seeing the storm started in the early morning, I rationalized that within an hour or two it will start subsiding and an hour later the plough will be there to open the road. To my chagrin, the minutes turned into hours and I sat inside, cold and wet. From time to time I turned on the headlights to see how much deeper I was getting buried in snow from hour to hour. I was afraid to turn on the motor as the exhaust pipe was now deep under the snow and beneath the truck and besides, I didn’t want to run out of gas. Every hour seemed to be a year. It was midnight and still no let up. Finally before dawn, the wind died down and the snow stopped. An hour later a bright sun came up and a clear blue cloudless sky wrapped itself around my universe. Neither I, nor anybody else would believe that the storm that was engulfing me only three hours earlier could disappear so suddenly and vanish like a phantasm that it was, except that it left its mark all around me. I tried to get out but could not open the doors of the cab, as the space between the two banks of snow on either side of the road was completely filled in with snow. I finally succeeded to get out by rolling down the door’s window, pushing with my hands the snow in all directions and pushing myself through another meter of snow to find myself on the roof of the truck.
What a beautiful view yet frightening. As I stood on the roof of the truck I could see for miles in all directions a white glittering stretch of snow in which nothing was moving and no sound was heard as if all life on earth had ceased. There was no sign of any form of life, for the road that was there yesterday was covered completely by the same deep blanket of brilliant snow. If I were not so distressed with my situation I would have appreciated the view much more. But how could I? Here I am on a Sunday morning at least twenty miles away from a human being, unable to reach anyone nor can anyone reach me as the road had been completely obliterated. And considering that I had not eaten since Saturday morning, the dreaded feeling of hunger began to frighten me. I remembered that I had a can of orange juice and two ten cent chocolate bars in the cab. (At that time a chocolate bar was selling for ten cents.) It did not take me long to get back into the cab and finish it off, washing it down with the orange juice.
There I stood on the roof of the truck getting blinded by the bright sun and still brighter snow looking out in the direction to where I figured the road is and hoping that something or somebody will appear. Staying on top of the truck was much more pleasant than sitting in the cab which meant to be in the shadow. Here, exposed to the sun I not only felt warm but also my clothes, which got wet Saturday morning, were beginning to dry on me. The truck that was sitting on the road between the two banks of snow on either side was barely visible. I wanted to move around but where? The snow that blocked the road was three meters deep in front and behind the truck. If I were to step on it, I would sink in it over my head. I realized that by extending my step to a meter from the rim of the truck, I could reach to the crest of the snow bank, which was firm and frozen. I did, by it extending the length of my walk several dozen metres. Of course I had to balance myself on the crest of those snow peaks. A fall on either side would bury me in a couple of metres of snow.
At about noon, suddenly and as if in a mirage, in the distance appeared two human like silhouettes. Slowly they were coming closer. Even from the distance I could tell their laborious effort. It must have taken them an hour to cover the last mile. Of course I recognized them much before they got to me. They were Mr. Case and his helper Walter. They briefed me on what happened to them last night. They did not realize that I am not following them for quite a while. By the time they did, they knew where I got stuck for it was the worst piece of the road so far. It was too risky for them to try and turn back, so they continued for another mile or so, until they too got stuck. In the morning, with a beautiful sun, they set out on foot to retrace their route to find me. Satisfied that I am fine they left for their truck some three miles away. All that day, Sunday, I keep on hoping that a plough will come along to open the road but to no avail. And so did the Sunday pass and another long lonely and cold night. Just before dawn, Monday, I dozed off for an hour or so. I awakened to another bright morning. Getting out of the cab onto the roof of the truck, in the bright sunlight I saw to my delight a plough trying to make his way towards me. Throwing all caution aside, I began to run towards the plough, which seemed to be making little progress. I kept on running falling at time and burying myself over my head in snow, but it did not stop me. It took me a good hour to cover the mile separating me from the plough. One glance and I could tell that the plough was in trouble. He was in between the two snow banks that ran along the length of the road and was approaching the stretch where the banks were highest and full to the rim with snow. There was no place for the snow to go, except forward, where the pile of snow was higher than the cab of the plough. Behind the plough was a truck that carried extra fuel. I knew both drivers. They had been working all night. They too realized that it is a job for a pay-loader to open the road. The snow had to be simply dug out and thrown over the mountains of snow by the roadside. Meanwhile they were hungry and decided to go the twenty miles back to that little restaurant from where I started out twice on Saturday only to return after every time.
The two drivers and I got into their truck and drove the twenty miles in no time, for the plough had opened it a few hours back and the weather held. We arrived and found quite a few vehicles there. People that tried to go from the Burin Peninsula to St. John’s, but now were waiting for the road to open. The place belonged to a family from Bay-L’argent. He was a slim man about sixty. She was a few years younger and was tall and hefty and had the run of the place. She was known among us travelers as “Mama”. Nobody knew how she came to have such a name. All that they had to offer was cheese sandwiches on white sliced bread. Of this, they had an ample supply, plus tea. I had two sandwiches for which I was charged thirty cents apiece. The two high road workers had the same, and we went back to the plough. When we arrived, a pay-loader was already at work. Not surprisingly, as this road was the only one leading to and from the Burin Peninsula. Even the pay loader had a hard time to clear the road, as he had to scoop up each shovel full of snow and dump it over the top of the snow banks. At least he was making progress. At noon we all drove back to the little restaurant. The menu was cheese sandwiches. This time I paid forty cents a piece. At four in the afternoon, the pay loader finally got to my truck. It took him an hour to make room for my truck, so I could get aside for the loader to pass and go on with his work.
It was suppertime and I drove my truck to the restaurant so I could gas up. This time, I paid fifty cents a sandwich. As the plough driver was going to work all night, I decided to follow him. But from my experience of the last two days, I ordered half a dozen sandwiches for the road. Lo and behold I just paid fifty cents for the one I just ate, and now I am asked sixty. I paid and left right behind the department of high-roads truck. The pay loader worked for a couple more hours before breaking through to higher grounds, where the snow on the road was not too deep and the snowplough took over. I followed him to the Terrenceville branch, where the plough turned left to Terrenceville and I and a couple dozen other vehicles turned right toward Swift Current and toward home. Arriving home on Tuesday mid morning I found that my friend Philip AUERBACH, whom I saw last in Marystown on Friday night and who left to get to that little restaurant thirty miles closer to home, decided that night to continue and got to St. John’s Saturday morning, saving himself all the hardship I went through. Fortunately, Ruth did not know where I was, giving me more credit than I deserve, assuming that I am in the little boarding house in Marystown where Philip AUERBACH saw me Friday night.
I did not set out here to write about Newfoundland topography, or about the conditions of its roads in those years. One could not imagine them now. They have been straightened, leveled and above all, diverted to go around hills or mountains instead of over them. Just to keep their memory alive, I will mention the names of a few in eastern Newfoundland and Burin peninsula; Chapel-Arm’s-Hill, Swift Current-Hill, Bay-L’argent-Hill, Rushoon Hill, Bonavista Bay South, Summerville-Hill, Bonavista North, East-Port-Road Hills, Indian-Bay, Old Gingle. All this and many more, which I did not mention would, in many places, be called mountains and not hills. They have ingrained themselves in my memory for I drove over them countless times, and all of them gave me unforgettable problems. Still, despite all the hardships that I encountered on those roads, despite the rawness and inhospitable terrain, the raggedness of its shores and the harshness of its climate, the people as human beings, by far made up for all those shortcomings. I hope that in the coming pages I will have the opportunity to point out some of their unforgettable qualities.
The spring of 1959 arrived and the weather had another surprise in store for Newfoundland. Just as the winter had an unusual amount of precipitation, so with the arrival of spring, which is as a rule, end of May and brings with it fog that stays to the end of June. This time however, there was no fog and all the precipitation from the winter dried up by the end of May. By the end of June the countless smaller ponds and lakes were dry. The forests, on which Newfoundlanders depend so much, were cinder dry and crying out for rain but to no avail. Sometime between the end of June and the beginning of July, fires started in some of the forests. The reason was never discovered. There were three assumptions, one by lightning, a second by carelessness either by campers or smokers, and the last someone deliberately set the fires. During those two months, July and August, most of the forests of eastern Newfoundland burned down. The only forest that was spared that conflagration was Terra Nova Park, which has the nicest scenery in the eastern part of the island and is home to every species of plant and animal life in Newfoundland including the moose and black bear. The fire was not confined to the eastern part of the island. It burned most of the woods on the Burin Peninsula too. That summer, I got caught almost on the very same spot as in March’s snowstorm. However, this time it was behind a wall of fire. I was on my way home, when the mounted police closed the road between Don River and Swift Current. We spent the night in the vehicles and the following morning a police car tried to lead us through. The closer we got to Swift Current the thicker the smoke got and the more cinders kept falling on us. The smoke got so thick that we could hardly see the vehicle in front of us with the light on. I was concerned about my truck, as the box was made of wood and plywood. The roof was almost flat, with a slant for water to run off, but not enough for cinders to fall off.
I guess I was not the only one to be worried. The many trucks ahead of me and behind were just as much in danger. The burning trees on either side of the road did not give much encouragement either. The police car leading the column of cars and trucks, of which there could have been close to a hundred, decided that it was too dangerous to continue and ordered us back. It was not as simple as that for a hundred vehicles to turn around in the thick and choking smoke and burning trees on either side of the road. We did however and got back to the river where we had to spend another twenty-four hours. It is fair to admit that it was not as bad as when I got stuck there six months earlier in the snow. I was not suffering from cold. I was not stuck. So I could go back to the settlements I just cam from. I was not alone and I was not hungry. For from my winter experience, I started carrying canned and dry food with me as well as drinks for “just in case.” The next evening we were permitted to go on. We drove through what was just two days ago a standing forest and now it was only smoldering cinders. Granted, Newfoundland evergreens are not prize-winning trees, but this is what there was and were content with it. In the early years of Confederation with Canada that is from 1949 to the mid sixties many settlements became accessible by road. Before it they were accessible by sea only. Those roads built over all kinds of terrain and were susceptible to the weather. At times a lasting rain could dissolve them into the ground or change them into swamp. However, those roads held a lure for us salesmen, for at the end of it was a settlement in which there were stores, and the stores meant sales. Before those settlements were connected by a road, the only way for a storekeeper to reorder his supplies was to go by boat to St. John’s, which entailed quite an effort. The bringing the merchandise to their door was a great help to them and they were glad to see us. Of course that welcome carpet did not last too long. The storekeepers soon realized that there is beginning to form a line of salesmen and each anxious to sell and that there is no danger of running out of suppliers. So they began to cut down on their purchases. The trick or the ambition of each salesman was to get to settlements behind the newly opened road before any of his competitors do, or at least to be one of the first ones.
So the news of a new road opening was kept secret from one another among salesmen for as long as possible. The chance of a good sale was to be the first one. I like to take the credit for being the first salesman of dry goods that traveled the piece of road between Bunyan’s Cove and Port Blandford. Grocery trucks started going there days before me. The same would apply to opening the road connecting Trinity Bonavista Bay North to Wesleyville. I had in those days a customer in Trinity B.B. by the name of Phil Brown. A nice elderly man who was also known for having the biggest house in the place. I got there with the first snowfall in 1959. Mr. Brown informed me that the road to Wesleyville is open but very soft. Seeing my hesitation in traveling thirty miles on a newly built road, he offered to come with me and take along his grandson Sam, a teenager. I stayed overnight in Trinity B.B. as I usually did and in the morning we set out. The snow melted and changed the road into a sea of mud. It took us two hours to cover the road in one direction, and three on the way back, for I stopped to get another truck out of the mud.
In the early sixties, the federal governments in partnership with the provincial began to build a cross island highway, beginning from the very south western point of the island where the C.N. ferry that commutes between the mainland of Canada to the closest point of the island docked. It’s a place called “Channel” or “Port-Aux-Basques”. It went from there to the very eastern point and provincial capital, St. John’s. No small undertaking but an absolute necessity. It would connect the most eastern and western part of the island, which until now it was only connected by a narrow gage railway line. It was a very unreliable means of transportation in winter.
The first year they paved thirty miles of road starting from St. John’s. What a difference it was in comparison with the old road. We, and when I say we, I mean to say every Newfoundlander, could not wait to see the road completed. This road was being built from the bottom up, where needed. The turf was moved away to lay bare the solid rock bottom, on which small and large boulders were dumped, which came from the solid rock hills that were being blasted away to make room for the new modern road. That road was to be part and the last leg of the Trans Canada Highway, connecting Vancouver on the west coast of Canada with St. John’s in the east. Along the new highway being built, signs appeared praising the glory and generosity of the present day governments, both Federal and Provincial, and with large letters proclaiming; “We will finish the drive in sixty-five.” Those were memorable and good years for Newfoundland. Years when the first premier of the province, the only then living father of Confederation tried hard to drag Newfoundland into the 20th century.
Here I like to share with the readers a personal experience of that time, to enhance the above statement: It happened on the very stretch of road described a couple pages earlier, but a few years later, namely on the Burin Peninsula, Terrenceville road stretch. A man from Terrenceville built a small restaurant on that road in the middle of nowhere at the corner where the road to Terrenceville branches off the main Burin road. That particular winter, I along with another dozen vehicles got stuck there unable to continue, due to the heavy snowdrifts. We had to spend the night there, but there was not enough accommodation for all the travelers. Some had to stretch out on the floor and some spent the night on chairs. I was one of the fortunate ones to be given a single bed to share with a total stranger. The room was cold, in fact the whole house was cold, like most houses in the out-ports in those days. Therefore there was no thought of getting undressed. The man, a known fish processor in St. John’s, got into the bed fully dressed. I followed suit. The bed was old and the springs stretched with no elasticity left. The man fell into the middle of it, and due to his over two hundred pounds weight; my weight could not level out the springs. I would have to lay half on top of him if I am to lie relaxed. I turned on my side away from him, positioning myself on the edge or frame of the bed. Supporting my head with one arm, I held myself in that position all night. Of course there was no thought of sleep. I remember thinking of a movie I saw some time earlier, by the name of “Moby Dick.” It portrayed the life of whalers in Britain in the middle of the nineteen-century. There in the movie presents itself a moment when two total strangers have to share one bed. In the movie at least, it was a double bed, and they could lie comfortably. Here I am in the second half of the twentieth century confronted by a same situation. I mentioned the above event to portray to the reader a lifestyle that existed in the out-ports of Newfoundland in the middle of the twentieth century which the premier and government of Newfoundland tried hard to change. The road building was only one aspect of the changing face of Newfoundland. The second major change was the spanning of electrical wires across the island. Electricity that introduced refrigerators, televisions, washing machines and many more electrical appliances, unknown until then in the out-ports. Those were good days for Newfoundland in its main industry, fishing, due to the introduction of draggers, which increased the catch and brought about the building of modern fish plants and employment for many unemployed people.