By Benson Hewitt
Although, as I write this we are still getting summer weather, you are likely to hear someone say that fall is in the air, and it isn’t an unpleasant statement.
After all, we had the fall equinox just a week or so ago. In other parts of Canada, it is considered harvest time, and to a certain extent, that word is now being used around here.
There was a time, however, when the word ‘harvest’ wasn’t really in our limited lexicon here on Fogo Island. True, we ‘dug’ our potatoes, ‘cut’ our cabbage, ‘picked’ our berries, ‘caught’ our fish, and ‘killed’ our seals. We never ‘harvested’ any of that, as we might say today, but instead used words that a grammarian called hyponyms. (Remember those!).
There was one organization; however, in our community that held in the fall, on an annual basis, what they referred to as their “Harvest Festival”, and that was the United Church congregation. I would have never attended one of these, and the reason undoubtedly was penurious, until one fall, when, I’ll guess, I was about 12.
It was a Friday afternoon (although that’s another word that wasn’t in our lexicon then, either) and the Methodists, as we sometimes called them, were having their Harvest Festival that night in the Orange Hall. (By the way, the ‘orange’ hall was then painted ‘white’, such was our peculiar, or perhaps, perverse sense of humour.)
My teacher, Mr. Toope, as I was coming out of the school, asked me if I would bring for him a few ‘turns’ of water. (Interesting word, ‘turn’; we also carried a ‘turn’ of wood.) Let me tell you, I didn’t jump at the chance, but reluctantly agreed to do so, After all, there were boughs to be cut for our bonfire a month or so down the road, and there was only a certain amount of energy any 12-year-old had.
Anyway, I brought the water, four turns of it, and Mr. Toope generously gave me a 25 cent piece. We didn’t use the word ‘quarter’ then.
When he gave it to me he said something like this, “Why don’t you go up to the hall tonight and have your supper with it?” What an idea! I would never have thought about it; instead I might have gone ‘around shore’ to Earle’s and got a can of beans and shared it with the rest of the family, all 12 of us. My altruism knew no bounds then! But since he suggested going to the Harvest Festival for my supper, I kind of felt that I was obliged to do so.
There was one minor problem, by the way. Before you got into the hall, you had to pay five cents to ‘get in’, as it was called, and the supper was 25 cents for a child; under 12, that is. Although I was not ‘under’ 12, I knew I could get away with that, since I looked about eight, so undernourished was I at that time, but getting in without paying was more of a challenge. True, I had done it before, but then Eliol Lewis was with me then, and that seemed to have made the difference.
I remember getting to the hall before the doors opened, so hungry was I. I can still remember who was ‘on the door’, as that person was called. It was George Primmer, and it was obvious why he was selected. He was a bookkeeper for Earle Sons and Company, and you would need someone with a head for money to ‘be on the door.’
I watched the initial rush of women who were serving on the tables go in, and then their husbands and children, and then, Mr. Primmer got up and went and got a more comfortable chair, making sure, of course, to take what money he had taken in, with him. That was my chance, and although I won’t mention his name, there was someone else, a United Church youngster, who sneaked in and didn’t pay the five cents admission, either. Eyeing me at the time was such United Church boys as Charlie Brett, Jack Decker, Lloyd Brown and Pearce Combden. Perhaps Lloyd Freake was with them, as well. They were all wondering, no doubt, “What the hell, is he doing here tonight?
It was my first time to the ‘Harvest Festival’ and it was a sight for a 12-year-old boy. There were potatoes, put there by William Brett, I was told, and turnips by Bill Watkins from Joe Batt’s Arm, and some cabbage by a woman from Shagg Rocks I seem to remember. There were several bunches of carrots, and someone even had some partridge berries there, if you can believe that.
But the shocker for me, I still recall, was a dried codfish by George Brown. That just didn’t make sense to me, and if Eliol Lewis had been with me, we would have had a good laugh. After all, ‘harvest’ and ‘dried codfish’, even if it was number 1 — as I heard it was — just didn’t go together.
Not so long after that the tables were set and rather quickly filled. I saw one empty chair at one of the two tables, and went and sat there, next to Ralph Decker, Mr. Ralph Decker, that is. He smiled at me, if you can believe that. I could hardly wait for my plate, but before we could eat, we had to stand and sing the Grace. I still remember someone asking Bill Watkins if he would ‘raise’ it, whatever that meant to me at the time. Just by the way, let me tell you that Garge’s Anne was at the same table, as she figures in my narrative later on.
Those were the days of innocence for me, let me assure you. Laugh if you want to. There was on the table a bottle of catsup, and in my rather long life at that time, I had never tasted catsup. In fact, I am not sure that I had ever heard of anyone who actually had. I could tell that it was red, and I guess that I would have thought that it was made up with some cat’s blood. Good, thinking, don’t you think? Before I go any further, let me assure you that I wasn’t all that deprived; I had eaten mustard. I had had it once on a slice of loaf, instead of butter; margarine, rather.
I watched with interest as Ralph Decker opened the bottle of catsup and with one hand knocked it on the bottom until a blob of red stuff settled on his plate. I wondered what next. It seemed to me that you needed a spoon to eat it, or rather, drink it. Anyway, he put the cover back on, and put the bottle back in its place. Let me say at this point that because Mr. Decker worked in his garage, he had sinewy hands no doubt. What I am saying is that the cover might have been screwed on tightly.
Now sitting at the table was a frail looking woman, and as I would have thought, had never tasted catsup befor, either. She reached for it, however, and was to do, I suspected, what Ralph Decker had done — put a blob on her plate.
Incidentally, I would never have tried it because, as I have already said, I was sure it had something to do with cats. (You tell me, now, why the spelling has changed to ‘ketchup’?)
Perhaps the cover was on tight; whatever. Anyway, as she tried to unscrew it, she twisted the neck right off the bottle, and she was holding the neck in her right hand the other half in her other hand, and the bulk of the catsup had fallen into her plate. Some of it splashed across the table, and Garge’s Anne was to say that she got some of it on her ‘good’ dress, as I still remember.
Today that might be funny. Back then it was a disaster. I remember a dead silence falling all over the noisy hall, and people gathering around to see the catastrophe. I don’t remember what really happened next, whether they gave her another plate or whether she had to pay for it, but I do remember the next day that a legend had been born in our midst. This poor, frail woman now had legendary strength.
I can remember Mary Ann Hewitt telling my mother a few days later that most likely it was because she was a ‘header’. What is a header you must be asking? Well, there was a time on Fogo Island when women went ‘in stage’ (In some parts of the world some women go ‘on stage’!), and helped to prepare the green codfish for curing. One of these jobs was that of a ‘header’, and it took a woman with a lot of strength in her hands to do this job. If she hadn’t that strength initially, she soon developed it.) Mary Ann knew what she was talking about, because she had the reputation of being the best ‘header’ in Barr’d Islands, bar none.
As I have already said, a legend was born in Barr’d Islands and was told and retold, and embellished. Small children avoided her, because they knew of her prodigious strength. It was even rumoured that just with two of her fingers, she could unscrew nuts that couldn’t even be unscrewed with a wrench. I can remember once coming down over Solomon’s Hill after school with my friend, Eliol Lewis, and this woman was coming up, and Eliol dragging me to the side saying, that if she knew I had been laughing at her, she could, and would, twist my neck off. Somehow, or another, I didn’t doubt it. I had seen the evidence, myself.
Looking back on that even now more than 60 years ago, I realize how privileged I was to have been present at such a momentous event. Not only that, though, I was living in Barr’d Island, and going to school when Solomon’s Hill foundered, another momentous thing that happened in my hometown. To be present when history was actually happened was, and still is, truly a privilege.
Coincidentally, Garge’s Ann, already mentioned, was going up over Solomon’s Hill when it foundered. How freaky or uncanny is that! My father, mischievously, no doubt, was to say that because Garge’s Ann was a bit heavy, that it was she that triggered the foundering.
Catsup eventually became a common commodity in my household many, many years after. My son, Craig, always had it with fish and brewis’. My own father died without ever knowing that. It was just as well.