February 11, 1951 is a date that has been emblazoned in my mind for as long as I shall live. It was a day when innocence was lost, when spirits were broken and the cruel realities of life, death, fear, honour and friendship came crashing into my nine year old world. A world would never be the same. It was a Sunday.
Our family was large by any standard, even for the thirties, forties, and fifties. There were fourteen of us children plus father and mother making a total of sixteen. During the winter of 1951, there were 12 people living in our house which was nestled in “The Gulch”, a part of the village of Gull Island on the north side of Conception Bay. Eight of my older siblings had moved away to find work but one of my brothers had recently returned. Jim had come down with the dreaded disease tuberculosis. In 1951 this was a death sentence. Jim had a wife and two young children. He and his family plus my parents and brothers Ben (aged 5), Bill (11), Pad (17), Dan (15) and my sister Anne (13) made a total of twelve including myself. I was nine years old. On this particular weekend my sister Eliza had also come home from St. John’s where she was working and there were actually thirteen people living in the house on that day.
Pad, Dan, Bill and I shared a bed in one of the five small bedrooms. Although the bed was crowded, I shall never forget the sense of security and safety I would feel on waking up behind the broad back of my brother Pad. Pad and I slept at he head of the bed and Bill and Dan shared the foot. There was not a whole lot of room for moving around and to this day I usually wake up in the exact same position as when I went to sleep. Being the youngest and smallest of the bed’s four occupants could also be quite hazardous. If one of the bigger boys should suddenly straighten out during the night, the resulting kick could be very painful or you could end up on the floor.
Father was a fisherman and sometimes worked as a carpenter or a miner to supplement his meager income. We grewour own vegetables and kept a horse, a cow, several sheep, hens, and sometimes a pig. We depended on credit from the fish merchant who also owned the grocery and hardware shop and set his prices to ensure that a fisherman could never catch enough fish to break even. We survived through hard work and persistence. Poverty is relative. We didn’t have much in the way of material riches but we were happy and close to each other and our house was filled with kindness, love, and patience.
Sunday was always a special day. Mother would have scrubbed the house on Saturday and turned the canvass mats over on the wooden floor to ensure that they would be clean for Sunday morning. The large kitchen would sparkle as the wood stove steamed and sizzled with the preparation of Sunday dinner. The aromas of puddings and vegetables mixed with the smell of home grown roasting mutton, beef or chicken enticed the palate and gave the whole house a cozy warm feeling. Sunday February 11, 1951 started out the same way as any other Sunday. As Pad and Dan helped father to harness the mare to take us to early mass, mother bundled Anne and Bill and me into warm clothing. She would stay home with Ben who was a little too small to face the long ride to the church in the crisp winter air.
When mass was over and we had all arrived back home, the steaming mare was unharnessed and put in the stable with a healthy serving of hay and oats and we all sat at the kitchen table and laughed as we discussed what the priest had said in his long winded sermon. It was the general view that he yelled too loud and was always looking for more money from the poor people. Mother was in a good mood and Pad teased her by taking out a cigarette. He knew that she wouldn’t let him smoke it at the table and she knew that he had no real intention of lighting it. His intent was to torment and she went along by making a grab for the cigarette which he quickly put in his pocket. It was one of many memorable and happy meals in that wonderful house.
I had a very special relationship with my brother Dan. Whereas Pad was big and strong and rough, Dan was of a slight and gentle nature. Dan told me stories and showed me how to build things. He was good with his hands. The summer before he let me help him plant trees he had ordered from a catalog and he built me a model sailboat with sails and all. He showed me how to rig the sails and we had christened it in Gull Island pond which was about three quarters of a mile away from our house. As a younger brother I held Pad in awe…..but I adored Dan.
When dinner was over and the dishes were cleaned up, Pad and Dan said that they were going skating up on the Pond. Pad said there was sure to be lots of girls out today as he lit the cigarette and tossed the match at mother as he leapt through the door. She flicked at him with the dishtowel and he and Dan laughed as they ran out of the yard with their skates draped around their necks. That happy picture of them laughing as they went through the gate is still vivid in my memory.
About an hour later I was with my father and we were coming out of the root cellar. Father had gone there to get some partridge berries for mother to make jam for supper. He had the berries in a white enamel saucepan. Mother and Ben were taking a nap and Anne and Bill were off somewhere exploring. Father was locking the cellar door when we heard a man’s voice screaming. We saw a man running toward us across the meadow. It was Pad’s friend Andy Oliver.
“Jerry, Jerry, Pad and Dan are drowned!” he called to father.
“You mean they’re wet?” father asked not believing what he heard.
“No, they’re dead, my god they’re dead!”
“My Jesus, my Jesus, my Jesus…” I heard father moan as he bolted toward the pond.
I ran as fast as I could but could not keep up with father who was sixty at the time. The whole community of Gull Island was now running towards the pond with and I began to cry as I ran. Although I couldn’t fully grasp what was happening, I knew it was something terrible.
When I reached the pond I saw a boat that some men had pulled out over the ice. It was in open water about a hundred feet from shore and they looked like they were fishing. Some other men were pleading with the crowd not to go onto the ice or there would be more people drowned but I went out anyway. No one was paying any attention to me as I sneaked out close to the edge to get a better look at what was going on in the boat. They had hooked something and were pulling hard on the rope. I saw the back go Pad’s parka break the surface and then the strawberry hair that hung over his face. he still had his skates on and was holding something in his arms. When Dan’s body broke the surface held in Pad’s death grip I began to scream and someone put their arms around me and led me away.
We joined the procession as it left the pond with the two still forms on sleds pulled by several men and boys. I felt a strong hand on my shoulder and we had gone about a quarter mile when I realized that my benefactor was Mr. Beasley, the protestant minister who lived in the neighbouring community of Burnt Point. My sobbing had subsided and that kind man moved on to comfort someone else. I recall thinking how unusual it seemed for a protestant minister to be so kind to a catholic. That kindness has never been forgotten.
The procession stopped after about ten minutes or so and some efforts were made to revive Pad and Dan by rolling them over a barrel. It was years later that I learned this was probably the worst thing that could have been done. I think that Pad was still alive at this point because he made some sounds and even seemed to be responding to questions and the sound of his name with moans. No one knew what do do. Pad was visibly shivering from the cold but no one thought of taking them into the warmth of a house that was just a few yards away. After about fifteen minutes, they were loaded onto a cart, covered with white sheets and dragged through the village in the direction of our house which was still a half mile away.
Half way home a commotion broke out as the grim procession approached my mother who was being helped towards us by several women. The news had reached her by way of neighbours who had run ahead and told her that her sons were drowned. The crowd opened up from around the cart to give her some room. A long sad sound emanated from her soul as she looked upon what was left of her darling boys. My sobbing began again and in the essence of my being it has never stopped.
I began to run from this awful scene as fast as I could toward home and safety and comfort but it was not to be found. I was afraid to enter the empty house. I had never been afraid like this before but on that day there was something ominous in it’s emptiness. I waited on the verandah and watched as the confused throng approached. The cart with the covered forms was manhandled in the deep snow and maneuvered so that it could be backed in towards where I was standing. Dan was in the fetal position. Pad’s feet were sticking out over the edge of the cart. I couldn’t move. When Pad’s feet touched the edge of the verandah, about six inches from my own, his knees bent and I believe it was at that exact moment that the life went out of his body. It was almost an hour since they first pulled him from the water.
The rest I recall as if in a dream or nightmare. They were “laid out” on a makeshift table in the front room. Their bodies were washed and dressed in their best clothes that they had taken off after mass just a few hours before. Some elderly men carried out this grim task. They kept shooing me away but I stood quietly and continued to watch from a dim corner. I couldn’t understand what was happeningand wished for them to Wake Up. I wished that all the people in our house and these old men would go away and that Dan, at least, would Wake Up. Then I felt guilty for not wishing as hard for Pad to Wake Up as well.
All that night as they lay there on the table all dressed up, mother was in bed clutching Ben. She did not acknowledge anyone else and did not seem to be aware of what was going on around her. Father was walking around in a daze and men and women were coming and going shaking his hand and saying how sorry they were for “his trouble”.
Darkness fell and the glow of the blessed candles around the bodies in the dark room cast shadows on their faces and sometimes they seemed to be moving. The priestcame and administered last rites and said the rosary. The candles flickered when he left and I hopedthat he had performed a miracle and that my brothers would soon come back to life. I watched for hours from the shadows hoping, andsobbing, and praying. But there was no miracle. They didn’t Wake Up and no one spoke to me. I eventually fell asleep in the corner and woke before dawn to the realization that this nightmare was real.
The next day the coffins came from the fish merchant’s store where they were added onto my father’s account and Pad and Dan were placed inside. Their bodies were stiff as the men lifted them from the table and laid them in the coffins on the floor. Both coffins, which were grey, were then laid back up on the table. After the candles were rearranged and someone had combed their hair and straightened their neckties, my parents were led in to view their cold dead sons. One of the local women had to literally pry Ben from mother’s arms and he looked more bewildered than I felt as the stranger tried to comfort him. Mother did not cry when she saw her sons all dressed up and lying in their coffins. She brushed their hair with her hand and repeated over and over, “My darling boys….my darling boys…”. She noticed they weren’t wearing shoes and insisted they couldn’t go to heaven in their bare feet. So my father, who had said nothing and was trying hard to remain strong, told someone to go to the shop and get some slippers and seeing them on their feet seemed to pacify mother. She took Ben in her arms and returned to her bed without looking in my direction. Myself and my brother Bill and sister Anne stared at our parents as they walked away from us up the stairs and then we all began to cry at the same time. My siblings sought shelter from the grief in the kitchen but I could not leave. I was transfixed by the coffins … and what they contained.
Because our older brothers couldn’t get home until later in the week, the funeral was put off until Saturday. During the ensuing days the house was always full of people and in the nights a skeleton crew remained to uphold the the old tradition of “sitting up” with the corpse. They smokeda lot and drank; leaking occasional subdued laughs. I remember thinking this was not the time or place for laughter. A dank smell began to slowly take hold of the house.
On the third night of the wake, just before the sun came up and all the “sitters” were dozing in their chairs, I approached the coffins. I pulled a chair close to Dan’s coffin and looked for a long while into his face. His hands were entangled on his chest in a set of rosary beads. Very carefully I opened one of his eyes hoping to see the sparkle he’d always held within. His eyes in life were a marvellous shade of ocean blue but what stared back at me was only cold and empty death…..and I was frightened.
A strange menacing laugh sounded behind me. I turned to see an old hag by the name of Mariana. Every village has it’s idiot and someone had given her a drink or two. She came at me with her rotting teeth and her mad rheumy eyes fixed on Dan.
“Do ya think he kin seeya ?” … she cackled… “He’s dead b’y…and he’ll never see nobody agin…”
I jumped from the chair and ran for the cover of my bed where Bill was still sleeping and for the first time I realized that Pad and Dan were gone forever.
The funeral was held in a blinding snowstorm. Horse drawn sleds were used to transport the coffins to the church. There was only room for one coffin at the front of the church. Mother was adamant her boys remain side by side as they were in life so the old priest reluctantly allowed the coffins to remain in the back of the church where there were no pews. A huge crowd showed up in spite of the storm and after mass my brothers were laid together in a common grave.
After the funeral, as life in the community was returning to normal, stories about what actually happened on the pond that day slowly began to emerge. The most prominent version of events was that Dan had fallen through the ice at one end of the pond and someone ran to tell Pad who was at the other end about a quarter mile away. Pad skated in a straight line towards Dan and actually broke through the ice before he was able to reach him. He somehow managed to drag himself out of that hole but cut his neck on the glass sharp ice in the process. He then continued on and dove back into the frigid waters where Dan went down. He retrieved Dan and tried unsuccessfully to push him up on the ice where one of his friends was trying to reach them with a necktie and a belt but could not get close enough for fear of falling in. Panic ensued and my brothers were left alone in the freezing waters of February as everyone ran back towards their homes for help.
Many questions were asked … and are still being asked but there are very little in the way of answers. A rail fence ran along the length of the pond. Why hadn’t someone tried to help Pad out of the water with one of these long sticks? There were twenty people on the pond that day ranging in age from fifteen to twenty-six. Could they not have formed a human chain to try to save my brothers?
Why did everybody run away and leave them in the water … alone? Why were they not taken into the nearest house to be revived instead of being left out in the cold and rolled over a barrel ? Did they drown …. or did they freeze to death?
Ignorance and fear certainly played a part. There were no autopsies or inquiries in those days and the people who were there had conflicting accounts … or simply refused to talk about what happened. My belief is that Dan may have drowned and Pad died from exposure after they had been removed from the water. I also feel that if there had been even one other brave bone on the pond that day besides Pad, both of my brothers could probably have been saved.
But as a family we became closer as a sense of betrayal grew towards the community which surrounded us. Some of our neighbours showed their shame. There was a change in peoples attitudes toward the McCann’s from The Gulch. Teachers in school paid more attention and for the first time actually showed some interest in me. People tried to help by bringing us food, chopping wood, and doing laundry. I couldn’t put a handle on it at the time but I now believe it was an attempt to apologize or perhaps just a recognition that more should have been done.
Father and mother were in a state of shock for months after the tragedy and their return to “normal life” was slow. Mother remained in bed for almost a year but managed eventually to suppress her grief. Their recovery was assisted by necessity. They had other mouths to feed.
Mother kept the vest Dan was wearing and Pad’s cap along with their report cards and some of their school work. I discovered these items in a locked trunk after she died in 1987 at the age of 88. When Father died in 1990 aged 98, I put these in the coffin with him.