Gander on my mind

Bob Wakeham bwakeham@nl.rogers.com
Published on March 24, 2012

Although the stop-the-presses exclusive that today's my birthday should understandably provoke a readership reaction of "who cares?" or, as the young people are fond of saying in that saucy, bitchy tone of theirs, "whatever," I thought I'd indulge nevertheless, in a little self-absorption, to take advantage of my autonomy in this Saturday space and play the nostalgia card.

I'm into my sixth decade (whatever!) but, for some reason or another I've been reflecting of late, back to my first decade/plus, those years when my cloistered world rarely spread beyond Gander (except for regular trips to Grand Falls), a time, it seems to me now, of immeasurable contentment and complete innocence, a unique, cocoon-like existence never to be matched once family circumstances (our out-migration), along with that devastating combination of puberty and Catholicism, seemed to change everything.

So, for those still with me here (it may only be older readers in Gander at this point), it seems like only yesterday ...

That springtime on unpaved Balbo Street meant digging holes with the heel of your boot and getting set up for endless games of "alleys," using marbles - bought or traded for - and ball bearings, picked up wherever we could find them.

That our family and assorted friends would be heading to Gander Lake for picnics. Sometimes we'd go to a beach of rocks and boulders next to what was called the "first dock," or we'd occasionally venture further down the highway to the "second dock," neither location imaginatively named. There wasn't much left of the "first dock," just pieces of rotted wood, but the "second dock" was still in one piece, and we could fish off its end for nice-sized mud trout.

That Mom would give me a dime on Saturday to get into the Crescent Theatre, located between Goodyear's and the Co-op in the town's only shopping centre. I'd also get five cents for candy (and a hell of a lot of cavity-producers you could get for a nickel). There always seemed to be a western playing, much to my delight. Afterwards, my buddy Rick Stamp and I would head down to the woods near where Tim Hortons is now located. Back then, it was our studio back lot and we'd assume our favourite roles from the movie we'd just seen. There were several yards of fine, almost yellowed dirt in a section of the woods, our early source for special effects; we would use it to cover our pants and then slap our cowboy hats vigorously like we'd seen the cowboys do, filling the air with dust. Randolph Scott, Glen Ford, Joel McCrea and Rick Stamp and I had been on the trail for months.

That we were playing hockey on two adjoining backyards that had been flooded, ours and the yard owned by our next-door neighbours, the Gillis family. Forced to hit the sack at nine or so, after hours and hours of hockey, I can still recall looking longingly out my bedroom window as the older boys continued to play, back porch lights from our two houses letting them skate well into the darkened night. I was desperate to be out there.

That we had come into St. John's on one of our few visits to the capital, and we, the Wakeham youngsters, were frightened to death by the steep hills. As Dad drove the car down Lime Street to the house where his parents then lived, we screamed, thinking he was going to drive right into the harbour.

That I was in a 12-foot aluminum boat puttering its way down Gander Lake at dawn with my father and his friend, Bill Mendina, the morning sun barely visible through smoke from the infamous 1961 forest fires, many of the hot spots still smoldering long after the fires had been officially brought under control. It was surreal. Not a sound, except for the boat's engine. Not a ripple on the lake, the boat making its way through the smoke and haze. We were heading to a pond in the countryside on the far side of Gander Lake called Gizmo (in a province with no shortage of great names for towns and lakes, Gizmo still stands out). We caught plenty of fish, and I recall, as well, that we found the skeletal remains of a moose that had gotten caught up in wires of some sort and probably choked or starved to death. The wire was twisted in and around just about every bone in his body. He had put up some fight. I never forgot the sight.

That we were going to the "old terminal," to the original Gander Airport, on a Sunday afternoon for a Coke and a plate of chips. There was this long countertop that seemed to stretch across the restaurant forever, a serving spot that looked like the bar in the Long Branch Saloon in "Gunsmoke." As a youngster, I remember being mesmerized by the fact that thousands upon thousands of pieces of used gum were visible underneath the counter, stuck there over the years by soldiers, movie stars, international jet-setters, travellers from every corner of the world. If those pieces of gum could talk.

That we were getting on the train, the "Bullet," to travel to Grand Falls to see my grandfather and my cousins. We - my sisters and my brother - were totally unaware of the Bullet's legendary sluggishness, and had no complaints; in fact, we were enraptured by every single minute on board as the train wormed its way through some of the most beautiful country we'd ever seen. We'd go through a routine of shouting "ticket man, ticket man" when the fella in the uniform and cap came through our compartment, trying to balance himself as the train lurched from side to side, and coming over to check out tickets. On one trip, I can recall all of us panicking when Dad, who had gotten off during a brief stop to buy cigarettes, wasn't around when the train started to move. Suddenly, we saw him through the windows, running alongside the train like one of those Saturday afternoon movie stars, a regular Errol Flynn. Then, our "adventurer" jumped onto the moving train. Mom, I'm sure, was ready to throttle him.

That I was waiting on the front porch of my grandfather's house on Monchy Road in Grand Falls for the sight of Pop Judge coming home from his shift at the mill. As soon as I saw him coming over the top of the hill, I'd run and jump into his arms, and he'd put me down and hand me his lunch basket to carry the few feet to the house. I was as proud as a peacock. My mother told me in later years that my grandfather was even prouder of showing off to his neighbours his little grandson, visiting from "the Gander."

That I'd be heading down to Gander Gardens to watch the Gander All-stars get beaten on a fairly regular basis by seemingly every other team in the senior hockey league. But it was my NHL - we didn't have television until 1960 or thereabouts - and I couldn't get enough nights at the rink. And I remember being specifically overjoyed and star-struck when Gander hired "imports" Angie Carroll and Don Barrett and we made it to the finals, only to lose. Once again.

That the unofficial hero of the neighbourhood youngsters one summer was Speed Baird, our parents' friend who lived three houses away. His claim to fame? Mr. Baird had killed a huge rat with a shotgun in his backyard. Forty years later, Speed, as I had come to call him by that time, had a grand laugh when I told him how vividly I could recollect "The Killing."

That we'd be sitting around the living room listening to the radio while Mom knit what must have been dozens of pairs of mittens for us to lose throughout the winter. I can remember being flabbergasted one particular evening when my mother casually got on the phone to the local CBC station and requested "Mack the Knife" by Bobby Darin. What caused my jaw to drop even further was the fact that a few minutes later, the announcer mentioned Mom's name, and then played the very song she had asked for. What power and influence my mother has, I thought.

That we were aboard a so-called car ferry, an old wooden barge powered by outboard motors, as it made its way across the Exploits River. It was a thrill for us kids, blissfully unaware of just how archaic (and probably nerve wracking) this method of transportation actually was. I thought I was Davy Crockett, and the Indians were on the other side of the river ready to do battle.

That the summers seemed to go on forever and ever, and we played endless games of softball, kick the can and spotlight.

That we were at the airport one sunny day in June of 1962, and we found it odd that friends of my parents were crying as our family headed up the escalator to catch a plane to the mainland. On board, I finally realized what was happening and started to cry myself.

"Are you afraid of flying?" Dad asked.

"No," I said, sobbing away. "I don't want to leave Newfoundland."

I knew that the grand and protected world in which I had lived was coming to an end.

And I was right.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.