It’s days like today that take me back to another time and another age.
Not just my age, which was around eight or nine, but another age entirely in the culture of our growing up. It was a culture shared by many Newfoundlanders.
No, I’m not forgetting Labradorians. But when I was growing up they were not part of the picture, so they do not figure on the Coutts-Hallmark version of my winter memories.
The most we knew of Labrador, I’m ashamed to say, was that’s where the big fishing schooners set out for in the spring.
When they returned in the fall, we heard tales of Black Tickle and traps loaded to bursting with fish and sometimes tragic stories of men who would not be coming back but were buried in lonely graves along the rocky Labrador coast.
The Labrador was as mysterious to us as the so-called Dark Continent of Africa. The older people knew that Labrador spelled hardship and danger and sacrifice. But it was a means of making a living, however precarious.
This particular winter’s day is sunny and just below freezing, cold enough to keep the snow firm under the slide runners and the horse’s hooves. Cold enough to make the narrow steel runners on your coaster run like the wind. Warm enough that your feet didn’t freeze in your logans or your hands in your mitts.
Warm enough, in fact, to keep your little sister and your mother comfortable as we rode along behind Blondie, our Newfoundland pony, over the ice on the ponds and the gullies.
Father would stop the horse in a little droke of woods on the edge of a small pond.
He’d tie her loosely to a tree and get out a small bag of hay for her lunch. He’d explain that he had snares all along the hill surrounding the pond, and he really should go look at them while we were putting in a fire and “boiling up.”
Sometimes — the greatest of times — I’d be told to come along with him and bring a couple of snares and the small tomahawk.
My father would direct me to a good lead and I’d lay down a snare under his careful supervision and scrutiny. This was how it should be, right? The women preparing the meal and the men off hunting.
You’re probably smiling, but that was how the attitudes, which some people today decry as sexist and rightly so, were formed and ingrained in all of us. It was the last bastion of boys learning to be men and girls learning to be women.
It was rare for a girl to go out in the fishing boat or help put away the fish down in the stage. Women and girls were expected to help spread the fish on the flake and get it up in a hurry when it threatened rain. That was considered to be “women’s work.”
Younger boys also helped with that when it was an emergency.
Sometimes my father would tell me to “stay and help your mother and Patsy put in a fire and cook up.” I didn’t mind too much. There was no doubt in my mind but that I was in charge. I was the man, after all, was I not?
I learned to light a fire in the snow at an early age, and then graciously allowed my sister and mother to put the salt cod — usually a rounder — wrapped in tinfoil on the fire just right so that it didn’t burn to a crisp.
By the time Dad had gotten back with a rabbit or two, we were ready for a mug-up with fish, homemade bread and strong tea. We sat on boughs and breathed in thick wood smoke, ate unwatered salt codfish, swallowed pounds of burned fish and were content that we were enjoying ourselves in the great, healthy outdoors.
Then we’d clean things up, give Blondie a drink and go troutin’.
What I remember most about fishing through the ice was watching the trout come for the hook. In the spring, the holes cut earlier in the winter would be enlarged by the sun and melt-water running off the ice surface, to perhaps 12 or 14 inches wide and a couple of feet long. Our small pond was only two or three feet deep and we could easily see the mud bottom while standing on the edge of that hole. Father would make sure it was perfectly safe before we went near it.
Trout would school around that spot because flies and bugs and other bits and pieces of things would sift down through there. I loved watching a trout approach the hook and chomp down on it. Then a quick jerk and a nice trout would be wriggling around on the ice.
In small communities very much like ours, isolated from the “mainstream” of the rest of the island, the incidence of young people getting into serious trouble was small. There were few activities other than church groups organized for teenagers.
What children and young people were active in usually involved their parents, even if it was sexist in nature. Young girls worked and played with their mothers and sisters.
Boys and young men with their brothers and fathers. In short, the family unit was kept intact throughout, and the family influence strong.
It’s not an original thought to point out that in these modern times, those parents who accompany their children to minor hockey tournaments and music festivals and any activity that involves them have also kept the family influence strong.
In so doing, they’ve given their children the strength they need to remain invulnerable against the slings and arrows of society in general.
These modern kids, thanks to their parents, will have their own memories to keep them strong.
I hope as much as I love mine.
Ed Smith is an author who lives in Springdale.
His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.