Lower education, what I learned on my summer vacation

Ed Smith
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As we more or less roll on our way into August, my mind is full of what that month meant to me some 55 years ago.
Are you up for some autobiographical data from a young fellow whose life wasn't exactly boring? Good! We were living in Halifax and I was finally old enough to get into university. What kind of adventure was that, you ask?

I had to find work so that I could pay the tuition at the university. My father was in what was then Pine Hill Divinity School. Prayer and Bible study might be useful for saving souls, but it was practically useless when it came to dollars and cents. However, I determined to give it a try and, accordingly, went to work in the Bible store on Barrington Street.

I had a couple of issues with the Bible store. First, it smelled like Bibles, very old Bibles. It smelled of Bibles the way a horse stall smells of leather and horses. But instead of a raw and living smell, the odour in this place was as long dead as the characters it told about.

The person who owned it, a tall, cadaverous man who never smiled, no doubt doubled as a mortician on the side. I used to think that spending eight hours a day in that atmosphere gave him very little to smile about.

If he was relying on his Bibles to give him a glimpse of the hereafter, it would be a cold and sunless place which smelled of Old Testament patriarchs.

I don't know if my normal effervescent self didn't exactly fit in with this Golgotha atmosphere, or if I expressed myself freely on the matter once too often. Perhaps while some George Beverly Shea sound-alike permeated the store with "Be Still My Soul," I went around whistling "Bottle of Wine (fruit of the vine)" while somebody's Eminence was on the premises.

There would have been no intentional sign of disrespect, of course, but whosoever's Eminence it was might have complained about the total lack of respect the young Bible clerk had for his surroundings and particularly his Eminence.

Well, he wasn't my Eminence, was he? Again, I'm sure there was no connection. Within a week, I found myself sitting outside on the sidewalk, thoroughly disgraced and looking for another job. I still hadn't reached 17.

I found one almost immediately, and something definitely more to my liking: "WANTED - a mechanic's helper to work in the engine room of the icebreaker Edward Cornwallis. No experience necessary."

Well, that seemed made for me. If there was one thing I had in abundance it was no experience. And besides, she and I shared the first name. That was a sign if ever there was one.

Best get myself aboard this thing and secure my place before she sails. I had read "Captains Courageous" and "Treasure Island." I had dreams of plowing through the Northwest Passage in this great ship, me, in the meantime, having risen to the rank of captain. There was never any doubt in my mind, but that I would get the job.

And so it was. I reported to the Coast Guard office on the big Halifax pier, and was told to report for work the next morning. I asked where the Edward Cornwallis was berthed, and this fellow in a white shirt and gold epaulets on his sleeves pointed over and up. There she was in all her glory, towering above every ship anywhere near. She was towering because she was high and dry on dock.

There went the immediate dreams of the Northwest Passage. It looked like we might be marooned in Halifax for a week or two before embarking on the high seas.

The next morning, I found myself in the bowels of the Edward Cornwallis and assigned to an engine that looked twice the size of the two-storey building we lived in. While wondering what I should do, my mechanic hove into view.

If this worthy had washed any time within the last two weeks, it wasn't with water. He was coated with black grease, the kind used on the bearings of giant diesels. It was crammed into the wrinkles and fissures of a face of uncertain age. One could see, however, after unobtrusively steadying him for a while, that he was probably one of the ugliest men whoever sailed the seven seas. His language was the street language of the filthier waterfront dives.

I learned a great deal from Winston. I was the 16-year-old son of a minister growing up in a small, religious community in Newfoundland. I learned there were multitudinous words for situations for which I had previously heard only one. And I discovered other side words for situations that I had never heard of.

Winston had a best buddy only slightly less dirty than he was. Roy and Winston came to work together, left together and took their breaks together. In short, best buddies.

But one morning, Roy arrived at his usual time without Winston.

"Afraid I might be late," he explained, "so I told the old woman to tell Winston I'd gone on just ahead of him."

Winston turned up about a half-hour later. As we were cleaning the valves on our engine, he explained what had happened.

"I dropped off to pick up old bleepin' Roy," he said, "and when his bleepin' woman called out to say he was gone, I looked into the room. There she was lying on the bed hardly covered. Then she said, 'Winston, be a good boy and pass me my panties on the bed post.' That's what did it. I bleeped her, which is what she wanted."

I didn't know what to say to that, but I noticed Winston was late several times after that. I have a soft spot for him, though. I learned more from Winston that summer than in the next eight months of university.

Practical stuff, too.


Organizations: Globe theatre

Geographic location: Paris, Toronto, San Francisco Caribbean Newfoundland St. John's

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