An annual rite of Spring for generations of Newfoundland men, as even chronically distracted sixth graders would know, or should know, was a trip to the Front off Labrador to kill seals.
For me, the annual sealing ritual in the pre-summer months — March, April and even a slice of May on occasion — especially in the ’70s, consisted of a journalistic assignment to track every conceivable angle on swiling, from the blessing of the Fleet as the ships departed St. John’s, to the assessment of the hunt’s productivity and, of course, to coverage of the self-righteous hypocrites who exploited what was for them a visual paradise of cute harp seals, white ice and gallons of blood and the fruitless efforts by the province to counteract the despicable likes of Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Now, though, in permanent reportorial rest, my sole connection to sealing is a grand feed of flippers.
And it was while eagerly chomping into my second flipper of the evening, there a couple of weeks back, that I reflected (ever so briefly, mind you, given the appetizing task at hand) on the experiences I had, good and bad, and the people I met, good and bad, during my years on the seal beat.
I won’t go into great deal here, because I’ve had numerous opportunities in this slot, and through the CBC, to write and talk about the topic.
But three names consistently crop up whenever I’m asked about the seal hunt.
And their common denominator was more than just seals: the three of them were honest and decent and unpretentious, just the opposite of how they, and thousands of other Newfoundland sealers, were portrayed by the anti-sealing zealots to a gullible and largely unquestioning international media.
When I was still a newsroom tadpole, I interviewed Cecil Mouland, a survivor of the sealing disaster of 1914, and I can recall, even after all these years, what a gentle soul he was and how he put at ease the nervous reporter struggling with questions about one of the saddest events in Newfoundland history.
I can still see the sparkle in his eyes as he shared with me how he managed to survive his hell on the ice floes mainly because he knew a girl he fancied back home was being eyed by another young fella, and that he was determined to get back to her and block any efforts to take her hand (she eventually became Mrs. Mouland).
And there were the countless times I interviewed Capt. Morrissey Johnson, one of the most down to earth people I ever encountered in my years in the news business. There wasn’t a phoney bone to be detected in Morrissey Johnson, and he always seemed to supply just the right quote I was seeking. And a few beers in his cabin aboard his vessel, The Lady Johnson, never went astray as well.
Then, in my last decade in the business, I had a chance to spend a memorable week with Jack Troake of Twillingate, one of the province’s best known sealers, while making a documentary about his son, Gary, for “Land and Sea.”
Jack was, and is, the ultimate diamond in the rough, an impressive and solid soul, and we still gab on the phone every few months or so about everything and nothing.
But returning to the topic of my flipper dinner, the genesis of this mini-flashback: the feed wasn’t too difficult to pull off (and much cheaper than the luxurious meals and tons of wine we heard this week were paid for out of our taxpayer pockets to keep Eastern School Board types content for an evening).
All it took was a pickup in Torbay blocked with flippers, along with, naturally enough, the culinary skills of my wife, our drooling appetites, and those of my parents.
My mother said it was the first meal of flippers she’d ever had. When I asked why that was so, my mother, who grew up in Grand Falls, replied: “My mother told us we didn’t like them.”
But my father, a townie from Notre Dame Street, near Tank Lane, in that area of St. John’s now occupied by the building run by Doc O’Keefe and company, has long enjoyed flippers.
As a matter of fact, when he and Mom settled down in Gander, Dad’s mother was determined he would not be denied his annual feed of seals.
It was all bad enough, she apparently thought, that her son was being prevented from saving souls in the priesthood by marrying my mother and moving to Gander, that cesspool of sin and depravity, the Gomorrah of Newfoundland, but, by God, he would at least be getting his treat of flippers.
So she cooked up a meal of flipper pie, complete with a side order of gravy, and put the whole works on a train to Gander for her deprived little boy.
The meat must have had incredible staying power, given the fact that the Bullet moved at a snail’s pace across the island, because it was apparently still edible when the old man sat down in an apartment in the old “barracks” on what was called “the American side” of Gander, and dove into his supper sent from the Capital City.
So that’s my take on a meal of seal, a meandering piece for your consumption on this Saturday, I’ll grant you.
But a feed of flippers can have that kind of impact. Plus, I was sick of writing about Penashue, Jones, Dunderdale, et al. I need a respite, at least for a week.
A sombre PS
Little did I know, or could possibly have known, when I wrote a few weeks ago about the great Ray Guy and joked that he would “shoot me on sight” for having compiled what he would have regarded as a premature obituary, that Ray, in fact, had only a couple of weeks to live.
As the province is now aware, Ray Guy died this past Tuesday.
I’m sure, though, that Ray wouldn’t hold any grudges against me for having offered up such an unqualified testament to his legendary status, obit-like, eulogy-like, only a month before his death.
In his inimitable and irreverent way, he would probably say: “Good timing, Wakeham.”
Ray will be missed. And that’s as massive an understatement as I can possibly muster.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than
40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.