William O'Flaherty reflects on a summer job that helped pay for university
I was all of 15 years-of-age when my father suggested I go to St. John’s to see Jim Tucker to get a job.
© Photo courtesy of University of Prince Edward Island.
Dr. William O'Flaherty
He was the owner of the big Tucker’s Store in Burnt Point and my father was the manager; considering that, and the fact that Mr. Tucker was a city councillor in St. John’s, it was probable that he would get me a job in there, somewhere.
Mind you, I could have stayed home all summer, worked on the local roads or some other make-work project and earned a bit o’ money for smokes and soft drinks at the jukebox and not enough for much else. But I knew I was going to university that fall, and that fact, besides wanting to see a bit more of the world beyond Long Beach, made me itch for distant places.
I went to St. John’s with $20 in my pocket. That may seem to you like a paltry sum but you have to remember that a bed for the night — and breakfast the next morning — cost only $2, down there in the boarding house district on Brazil Square.
The first day I went to Mr. Tucker’s office and told him my reason for being there. Over the next three-quarters of an hour he was on the phone talking about stuff that appeared to me to have nothing to do with getting me a job. In fact, several times, when his back was turned, I wondered if he had forgotten about me altogether, sitting there.
Finally, he turned and dismissed me forthwith; it seemed that the last thing of consequence in the world, to him, was whether I got a job that summer or not; he had other things on his mind, being a big shot city councillor and all.
Not to be discouraged, I looked further afield. I met a neighbour from the shore, now living on Brazil Square, a boy a couple of years older than I was who had gotten work at a service station pumping gas; he related that his place was looking for more employees, and no wonder, I realized: he was being paid $18 a week, and paying out $14 for board.
The next day I met a schoolmate who also was looking for work. He told me that a big construction company — Drake Merritt — was hiring on for a construction project building a big extension to the Goose Bay airport for the Americans, who were all over Newfoundland and Labrador at that time. We went to Buckmaster’s Field where we met another classmate, who, like ourselves, was also looking for work.
“How old is you, b’y?’’ the man asked. “You got to be 18 to go down on the Labrador, ya know.” He was an old fella, maybe 62; probably had a dozen kids.
“Eighteen,” I said.
“You looks a hell of a lot younger dan dat,” he said, looking me over.
I got hired on, as did my two buddies, all of us heading on to become kitchen staff at Drake Merritt.
Next day, just before leaving, the fog descended on St. John’s and, for the next week, the plane taking us to Goose Bay was unable to land, stuck in Gander.
My $20 purse was now depleted; I had relatives on Cabot Street but damned if I was going to stay with them; even at 15 years, one has his pride, don’t ya know. So I spent one night crashing in on one of my buddy’s digs, whose relatives had gone 'round the bay for part of the summer.
Next day the fog cleared and we all gathered at the airport where a local chap, older than the rest of the three dozen others, declared, as we waited, that the flight from Gander to St. John’s wouldn’t take long since “‘tis all downhill.”
That summer is vivid in my memory; I could write part of a book about it, but, right now, hear me please, while I describe briefly the welcome we received into the workers' compound in Goose Bay.
The “barracks” was a cavernous building with a ceiling high as a church, and, down below, just as large an area. In there were a hundred and more bunks, one on top of another, each consisting only of metal supports for the two bedsprings. All of it was wide open, with no partitions for privacy; it was the same in the bathroom area, which was a long adjunct connecting a similar barrack close by, the whole complex forming an aiche. In the bathroom, lining the wall on one side were a dozen-and-a-half shower heads, and, on the opposite wall, lined up, an equal number of toilet bowls.
We were issued a pillow, two dark grey blankets, and a mattress: that was it; the only people who found the arrangement intolerable were the native people, the Innu and Inuit, who accepted the bedding but refused to live indoors with the rest of us, preferring to live outside in their tents.
When you are a teenage male you can rough it and be happy with a roof overhead, food, clothing and not much else. That summer, when they transferred me and one of my buddies from the massive kitchen (serving many thousand men) to the counter of the fast food snack bar owned by the company, I put away enough money to pay my way to university all the next year.
After all, it’s not the amount of your earnings that counts, it’s what you save. Down in Goose Bay, from late June until early September of that year, what with my lodging, food, uniform, laundry and transportation (back and forth to the island) all covered by the hiring company, I was able to do well financially. Thank you very much, Drake Merritt.
I was happy, thinking back to that foggy day in June — it seemed like an eternity — that Jim Tucker had turned me down.
But, hey, all sorts of things happened to the 15-year-old that summer. I’ll tell you about it sometime.
— Dr. William O'Flaherty worked a 40-year career as a country doctor in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. He was the country doctor in Western Bay, on the north shore of Conception Bay, from 1967 to 1989, and was born in the tiny fishing village of Long Beach, at the lower end Northern Bay. He writes from Moncton, N.B.