As Christmas approached, 50 years ago: Part I

Paul Sparkes
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Tragedy seems worse when it occurs against the backdrop of Christmas. That is understandable. When it comes amid the noise and haste of your average busy day, usually it is more readily absorbed and the senses inured to it. Occurring when the Christmas season has centre stage, it is especially jarring.

“Snowy flakes are softly falling.” — Metro Creative

For response of the human spirit, Christmas is the very best time of year. When tragedy coincides with it, another dimension is added to that tragedy — the fact that it imposed itself upon a wonderful season.

When I went back in local newspapers to the run-up to Christmas of 50 years ago, I ran into two things immediately: news of the assassination of U.S. President Kennedy and, exactly a week later, the worse crash of a Canadian airliner.

The crash of a Trans Canada Airlines DC8-F at Ste. Therese, Que., on Nov. 29, 1963, abruptly diverted Canadians’ attention from the exciting buildup to Christmas.

The aircraft was a scant five minutes out of Dorval when it slammed into a swampy area, taking 118 people to their deaths. The event left nothing but a million scraps: “Marshy fields were turned into a frozen graveyard for 118 victims yesterday” (The Evening Telegram).

Like the assassination of Kennedy, it is contended that findings of the investigation of the air tragedy were inconclusive. Or, at least, not satisfactory.

For the Americans, Kennedy’s assassination came at the time of Thanksgiving. For us in Canada, the air crash was less than a month away from Christmas.

Of course, as I flipped through our newspapers of that time, there were many more lesser, but sad and tragic events in the columns. There was a storm in the Atlantic off Newfoundland and it claimed several lives; there was a cruise ship in trouble down south and more lives were lost. There were several fatalities in car crashes here over several days and a fire which took two lives.

Just over a week after the DC8-F went down, a Boeing 707 disintegrated “from almost a mile up” near Wilmington, Delaware. Eighty people died. There was talk of lightning and a blinding flash seen from the ground. The plane was, in fact, flying through a lightning storm.

Page 1 of The Evening Telegram, Dec. 23, 1963, was something of a shocker to me.

 I was riveted by a photograph of a man lying out straight, on his back, on a city street (not local). It was a closeup. His hands were down by his sides. There were tall buildings around; it was partially dark and everything looked wet; a car with headlights still on was parked near him. He was dead.

The caption read:

“His face streaked with blood, the body of 52-year-old cab driver John Gaimaro lies on a street in the New York borough of Brooklyn after he was stabbed to death. Gaimaro had been held up 20 times in 23 years and had been hospitalized four times.”

Another news report from The Evening Telegram at this period announced that Newfoundlanders, “the heaviest smokers in Canada,” would be the main targets in the federal government’s stepped-up campaign against smoking as the chief cause of lung cancer.” Immediately below that news story there was a photograph of a group of government officials and some visitors. One of the local men was very clearly holding a smoking cigarette.

• • •

This is a good point at which to consider that common criticism, to wit, “newspapers print only bad news.”

Of course, as anyone knows, that is a stretch. But news media do give emphasis to the bad, the tragic and the foreboding. As media should.

It is wise to know what is going on around you; what serious matters have affected your contemporaries; what might affect them and/or you; what, if anything, can you do about it?

It is more important that you know  there are 100 people out of their homes due to a fire, than that the Girl Guide cookie sale for the year has exceeded that of last year.

Take it to a ridiculous extreme — can you imagine newspapers not covering the war because it was all bad news?

There are countries where the news is censored, controlled or adjusted before the people can have it. In this part of the world it’s all there. You are empowered to decide what you want to ingest.

But if there is blame to be placed for the media being (in part) the bearers of bad news, let us remember that the media is nothing — null and void — without its customers.

• • •

THURSDAY, DEC. 12, 1963: Arson charges have been laid in a $500,000 fire which occurred Tuesday, Dec. 10, and which destroyed St. Augustine’s School, Bell Island. “The Anglican School Board is going all out to get St. Augustine’s  pupils reorganized, says Board Chair Rev. T.E. Smith.”

THURSDAY, DEC. 19, 1963: “Wabana residents are gradually getting back into balance following the shock of Tuesday night’s fire which destroyed three business places and  posed a grave threat to half the Town Square and part of Main Street.” (George Toope reported from Bell Island). There was an estimated $130,000 in damage. The fire was believed to have been caused by faulty wiring in one of the business premises.

DECEMBER 20th., 1963: From Europe — 22 men are on trial for war crimes related to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Twenty-one are former members of the camp’s SS (Elite) Guard and one, a prisoner who became a “trusty.” They are charged with or complicity in an undetermined number of gassings, shootings, hangings or fatal torturings.

A wartime Christmas

In 1963, the Second World War had been over only 18 years. Its stories were still fresh.

A peace-time Christmas was still a highly valued thing to many with dark memories.

The Evening Telegram found a veteran who had an unforgettable, though supremely sad Christmas 21 years earlier, in 1942. Here is part of the newspaper’s article:

The world is torn by the terror and destruction of the Second World War now entering its third year. At home, all Newfoundlanders are caught up and affected in some way by the grim struggle, but prepare to celebrate the holiday season as best they can. Newfoundlanders overseas have even a smaller chance to celebrate in the way of less troubled years. Many of them can only hope for a few quiet hours to remember Christmas spent in another time and another place.

W.R. Dawe Jr., a young seaman from St. John’s, finds himself aboard the destroyer HMS Hesperus escorting a fully laden convoy across the North Atlantic.

Wikipedia helped me learn about the encounter in which Dawe found himself and it occurred on Boxing Day near Rockall, a 60-foot peak of rock in the Atlantic northwest of Ireland.

Visit the Internet site and you will find a photo of this amazing point of rock.

Hesperus spotted U-357 on the surface and with the help of HMS Vanessa, went into action. In Dawe’s words, “the captain ordered, ‘On small searchlight!’” All hands were directed to lie flat wherever they were on the ship as it maintained 28 knots and proceeded straight ahead for impact.

The sub was struck and destroyed but Dawe, with horror, detected six German seamen alive in the water near Hesperus.

In his diary (it was against regulations for a serviceman to keep a diary during wartime) Dawe noted “pity and horror among the crew at having to leave six of their fellowmen, although enemies, to drown in an icy sea.”

He recalled their shouts and cries as they receded behind the speeding destroyer.

Hesperus had to maintain speed — the convoy would not wait and other subs would surely be lurking. The destroyer sustained a huge rip in her hull bottom but that was repaired in Liverpool.

The newspaper article concludes, “in a time when peace and goodwill toward men had all but vanished from the Earth, they (the crew of Hesperus) offered the unfortunate Germans all they could, their pity and compassion.”

To maintain a balance with all this Christmas-time tragedy, next week’s column will contain the good news and the run-of-the-mill news as Christmas 1963 approached.

Organizations: Anglican School Board

Geographic location: Canada, U.S., Atlantic Newfoundland Wilmington, Delaware New York Brooklyn St. Augustine Bell Island Wabana Europe Auschwitz Ireland

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