“It seems but a short time ago that I, as a 16-year-old, boarded Jack Vail’s taxi on a fall morning and left home to start a life of my own. With little more than the clothes on my back and armed with a poor Grade XI, I set out to tackle my first job, sole-charge teacher in a multi-grade, one-room school in central Newfoundland
“First time in St. John’s, first time seeing — let alone riding — a train and completely on my own with only half a notion of where I was going … so much to see, so much to learn and no idea where it was all going to lead” …
That was in 1951. Ronald A. Fagan watched the trees and the water flick past as the taxi made its way out of Riverhead, St. Mary’s Bay and headed into town.
“Where it was all going to lead?” Few of us stop in the middle of something new and challenging to ponder that question. But now, looking back across more than 60 memory-rich years, Fagan has most of his answer.
It did not lead to a lifetime of teaching, but, as with nearly all of us, it led to that mix of disappointment and success and the up, down and crossways of life in Newfoundland some 50-60 years ago. It then evolved into an improved way of life. Only those of a certain age can appreciate what Newfoundland was to its people and what it has become.
Ron Fagan, a son of good Newfoundland stock, worked here and elsewhere, married, raised a family, had a rewarding career in electrical contracting and vocational school instructing budding electricians and now, albeit challenged by cancer, he lives a comfortable retirement in St. John’s.
Those are the barest essentials. But the man has a heart and soul which fill in the colours of his outline portrait.
The evidence of that is worth knowing and worth remembering. For, although he would perhaps be surprised to hear it said, Ron has contributed to what we are on this island — a place he describes with a hackneyed phrase, but with complete honesty — “Newfoundland is Heaven on Earth!”
Oh, it’s not likely Ron Fagan will make the history books of the future, but it is to be hoped that something of his honest depiction in verse and prose of the events and people around him will remain known. It is not often that a man making his living through the trades (he managed for electrical contractors Bedard-Girard Ltd., at the Marystown shipyard for 16 years) writes a poem. But the fact that he often does, supports my point of his heart and soul.
“I’m not particularly good at the abstract stuff” he says in commenting on the style of one’s thoughts through poetry. “But, now, show me a cat’s tracks in the snow and that’s a different thing!” Or show him the very much less poetic things on a fishing wharf. He can relate to that.
and sound bones,
Liver barrels and blue ass flies,
Sculpins, conners and
Eels and maiden rays.”
Ron recalls his childhood in Riverhead affectionately. It was a great place for a kid on a summer’s day, a place to swing his legs over a wharf, and perhaps dream a boy’s dreams. His father and uncle fished with a 23-foot motorboat, painted black “and affectionately dubbed The Black Mariah.” The homemade boat (was there any other kind in St. Mary’s Bay at the time?) “was not the least bit graceful.”
He remembers “the other side” across from his “home shore” (if you will) and how students from there reached school by being rowed across the arm in a dory: “This ferry service was provided by Mr. Ambrose Lee for a number of years and then by Mr. Paddy Whelan. And how can one forget the men from Coote’s Pond and their horses and sleds coming to pick up their children from school on stormy days?”
In 2011, with the help of his wife, Tina, and daughter, Lisa, Ron collected some of his poems and appended 16 pages of reminiscences of his early life to make a 75-page booklet, “Western Boats & Barking Kettles”.
For most people in Newfoundland, life in the period of Commission of Government was not flush with an abundance of nature’s gifts. But neither could it be characterized as bleak. His brief recollections show it was very much the same from one coastal community to another:
“There were card games and school concerts but largely people were left to their own devices and entertainment was what one made of it. Unlike it is today, house to house visiting was routine and well accepted … there was always an element of competition when it came to horses, wood cutting and hauling, and the boats and fishing. Story telling was a fine art then — ships lost and men drowned, trips taken sand feats of daring and endurance. And, in long winter evenings, tales and ghosts and wandering souls and the little people who were always present.”
One small cameo in Ron’s reminiscences especially got my attention:
“In fall and winter evenings when dark came early we gathered around a radio. Owen Whalen’s, next door to us, was always a popular spot. However, our visitations to Owen’s would have to be timed carefully to avoid getting caught up in the rosary. At that time, we all said the rosary in our homes, it bring believed that to do so brought blessings, warded off evil, and, I think, banished prowling ghosts. At any rate, the rosary at Owen’s was unique and to be avoided at all times. I cannot recall the details but it entailed a great lengthy litany and recitations of the mysteries most sorrowful, all intoned at breakneck speed, the words indistinguishable, each cascading over the other. Entering with the rosary in progress we all dropped to our knees, neighbours and strangers all alike and assumed a suitable pose. If indulgences can be stacked and banked, my stay in purgatory ought to be considerably reduced by penance served.”
When you really think of it, although he may live today an easy drive away from Riverhead, Ron has proceeded through radical culture change, as have many others of his generation. Kitchen visiting, 25-year-old Model-A Fords still running, the attraction of the radio, home-made coffins … this and more bespeak another world.
As skilled with hammer, saw and plane as he is with words (can we compare a curio cabinet to a poem?) Ron has used his wood-working talent to make furniture and repair old houses.
I truly enjoyed his relating how, when daughter Kim got her first house in an older part of St. John’s, both Ron and Tina invested time and energy in repairing, renovating and over all, in endeavouring to catch up with long-neglected maintenance.
“Tina was very good helping me” says Ron.
“She’d even get up on the roof, walk around, lift materials — a terrific help. Only thing was, when it came to getting down, well, that was another matter. She had no problem climbing up there on the ladder, but for some reason she was afraid of her life coming down the ladder!”
“I don’t read quite as much as I once did,” Ron confesses. “My concentration is not so good; I hardly ever read novels, but what I do read is mostly political material — Bill Rowe, Gus Etchegary, Norm Doyle.” And just about every day Ron meets up with his buddies at McDonald’s or Tim Hortons and helps solve the province’s problems.
He rises early at around 5:00 … “and sure, fleeting thoughts of dying flitter through my mind” … but then,
“At the window in the corner
I watch the street,
First stirrings of light.
Now and then a car,
familiar faces drifting in.
I sip my coffee and read
the morning paper.”