Tales from the crypt

Bob Wakeham
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Anyone wandering around a certain cemetery in the west end last Saturday might have wondered about those spooky sounds that seemed to emanate from the area that surrounds the place where Joey Smallwood was planted 20 years ago.

Well, wonder no more: I've heard it was the straining efforts of Joey trying to extricate himself from the rocks, the dirt and worms, his attempted resurrection prompted by word that thousands of copies of The Weekend Telegram, with his statue-like figure comprising three-quarters of the front page, were being distributed to homes throughout Newfoundland.

"I have to get out of here!" he was undoubtedly complaining to his fellow ghosts. "They still want me; they still need me!

"By God, I think this bag of bones, I, Joe Smallwood, could still get elected."

Well, sorry, Joe. We're all equal when that off switch is pulled. You can't rise from the dead. Even someone like you, with your god complex in full gear, couldn't pull that off. At least I don't think he could (Stephen King alert).

For sure, though, there he was last Saturday, sticking out from stacks of Weekend Telegrams on floors of convenience stores from Gambo to Nain.

And he would have been properly delighted. His egomaniacal, narcissistic neurons would have been in the throes of pleasure.

For my part, I was as guilty as most readers last Saturday: I consumed the article's every sentence, a piece written to mark the 20th anniversary of Smallwood's death. And I stared way too long at that humongous front page picture.

Joey still looks intimidating.

And I couldn't help but be reminded of the first time I ever interviewed Smallwood, sent as a raw rookie reporter to his home on Roache's Line, dispatched to talk to a man I had perceived as a kid in Gander as some sort of dictatorial, larger-than-life leader of us all.

When he opened his door and we shook hands, I'm sure Joey felt the abundant sweat from my 23-year-old palms.

As it turned out, keeping company for the first time with the last living father of Confederation was rather inauspicious.

Downright embarrassing, in fact.

It had been suggested by a Telegram editor that I take a tape recorder since the interview was to be lengthy, and I had to make sure I quoted "the man" himself correctly. It was my first experience with a tape recorder (and I had never been much of a technical hand).

As bad luck would have it, after an hour or so, Smallwood suggested we play back the tape to see how the interview was progressing.

And I, of course, obeyed, glorified stenographer that I was.

I pushed rewind for a minute or so and then hit the stop button.

The silence in the room was deafening. I pushed rewind and stop again.

Nothing.

I repeated the process three or four times. The result was always the same. Not a syllable to be heard. I turned beet red.

Smallwood reacted with quiet but obvious indignation. I had taken up a valuable hour of his time and had not a second on tape of what he characteristically considered to be a substantial display of his magnificent speaking skills. His afternoon had been wasted on some kid.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Smallwood," I said, my voice shaking.

"Well, it is too bad, of course, and incredibly embarrassing for you," he replied, making me feel even worse. "Perhaps you should come back some other time when you have a tape recorder that works."

I think I fell over a chair or two trying to get out of the house as fast as I could. On the drive back to town, I pondered the possibility of applying for a job bagging potatoes at any grocery store that would have me.

To hell with journalism, I thought. Besides, bagging potatoes paid better than the $95 a week I was getting from The Telegram.

Over the years, I had other interviews with Smallwood as I became more comfortable in my profession and most went well. But the fear factor was always palpable whenever I was in his company.

And I wasn't alone.

Other than Ray Guy, most journalists I knew were scared crapless of Smallwood.

And he could be an interviewer's worst nightmare.

I can recall eavesdropping once while a CBC Television reporter conducted a live interview with Smallwood at the 1977 Liberal leadership convention.

Reporter: "Mr. Smallwood, who are you supporting at the convention?"

Smallwood: "I'm not supporting anyone. I'm here as a delegate. I only have one vote. And that's all I have. I'm not here as a former premier, a former leader of the Liberal Party of Newfoundland. I'm here as a delegate. I have one vote. And I shall keep that to myself."

Reporter: "But they say you're supporting Bill Rowe. Is that true?"

Smallwood: "Who are 'they,' sir? If you can tell me who 'they' are, who it is you're referring to when you say 'they,' then perhaps I can answer your question. But I need to know who 'they' are. So who are 'they,' sir?"

Reporter: "Ah, ah, OK, guess we'll go back to the anchor desk."

I think I can still hear a few rocks being moved around at that cemetery.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: CBC Television, Liberal Party of Newfoundland

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Gambo, Gander

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