One of the rites of passage for any boy growing up in outport Newfoundland was falling overboard.
Generally speaking, he fell jumping from one boat to another, from the stage-head to a punt, or, if fishing, jumping excitedly to meet the fish he was hauling in. For me it was on my fourth birthday, and I fell down through the ‘trunk-hole’. Oh, the embarrassment!
For some of you out there you may not even know what a ‘trunk-hole’ is, or rather ‘was’. Every stage in every outport had at least two, and sometimes three. My family’s stage had three, and therein is a redeeming feature, howbeit very small. A ‘trunk-hole’ was an opening about two feet square in a corner of the stage where the fishermen using a draw-bucket, hauled up water to wash the fish or to wash down the stage after the fish were gutted, split and salted. That was one purpose for the trunk-hole, but it may not have been the primary one. The other purpose for the trunk-hole was a toilet for men – for number two. I said that the fact that there were three trunk-holes in my father’s stage was a redeeming feature, and that was because the third trunk-hole was in the middle of the stage, and not used as a toilet, and that was the one I fell through. But still I fell down through a trunk-hole, and I may have been the first and last to do that, at least on Hewitt’s Point.
My father wasn’t fishing this particular summer but working at the liver-factory at Earle’s. My uncles and aunts were in the stage on this particular night ‘doing’ fish. My mother went down to the stage to get a fresh fish, as she would have called it, for dinner the next day. Perhaps it was for breakfast, because I don’t remember eating anything else but fish when I was a boy growing up in Barr’d Islands.
I can still remember my going down through the stage and holding my mother’s hand and walking around the open trunk-hole. On the way back I must have let go of my mother’s hand because I fell through the trunk-hole, plunk, and into the murky water below.
I doubt if there was much of a fuss, or even if my uncles and aunts stopped ‘doing’ their fish, but a young man, a Thoms from Boyd’s Cove, was in the stage at the time. He tried to rescue me and because I had washed under a ballast-bed, someone had to hold him by his legs so he was able to get hold of me.
My next memory that night was my mother getting me home and being quite mad with me for frightening the ‘daylights’ out of her. And, by the way, what is a daylight and what do they look like? Not only that, I was put to bed without any thing to eat and I hadn’t eaten a bite since dinner. But that didn’t matter much, because it would have been fish, and I was sick of that. I’ll tell you about my nightmares later.
I suspect now that I was out for a minute or so, because I was certain that I saw a tunnel of light (that’s not the way I described it then), and at the end of this beam of light I saw the ugliest man imaginable with a prong, and yes, he had horns. When I told my mother this some years later, she said I must have remembered seeing my Uncle Dave pronging fish, when I went down the stage that night. Either way suits me, I say.
There was a bit of talk, I remember for the next few days, and mostly because I had fallen through the trunk hole. I can remember Aunt Julie saying to my mother that my time hadn’t come and that only the good died young. I can remember thinking about that, and thanking God that I was so wicked. I guess God smiled to himself at that.
Another neighbour thought aloud to my mother that if I had drowned on my birthday she would never forget it. Then she laughed, and I couldn’t think that that was funny, but perhaps it was.
I had recurring nightmares for years after. Generally speaking it was about my approaching hell, but there was one in which I actually went to heaven.
In this dream I was having a chat with Moses, and he was telling me about his son Isaac and how bad he was as a youngster, but that he grew up and got married, and so on. I believe he said her name was Becky, or something like that. Now, was that Moses? Come to think of it, I believe it was Abraham, or as my father would have called him, ‘Skipper Abe’. I’m almost certain he said his name really was Abram, though. He was wearing the same ‘old rig’, as my mother would have said, and he was badly in need of a haircut.
The weather was good though, but the music only so-so. I was only used to the little accordion music I could remember from my last Christmas when we had some mummers. Harp music was not for me and I doubted if I could get used to it.
I never had the chance to meet the person that saved this pitiable specimen of humanity, nor do I know what is first name was, but if you, wherever you are, are allowed to read this, accept my very belated thanks. Some day you might fill me in on the details. Note I said might.