Magical thinking and the Newfie Bullet

Nicholas Mercer
Published on January 28, 2014
Burton K. Janes

I recently learned a new phrase: magical thinking.

Here’s the definition, provided by Augusten Burroughs in his book of the same title: a schizotypal personality disorder attributing to one’s own actions something that had nothing to do with him or her and thus assuming that one has a greater influence over events than is actually the case.

As the years creep up on me, I wonder if I sometimes, knowingly or unknowingly, engage in magical thinking. I don’t think I do, but I suppose the potential is there.

At 57, I have a foggy childhood memory of traveling on the Newfie Bullet, the passenger train operated by Canadian National Railway in Newfoundland from 1949 to 1988.

But did I really? Or am I engaging in magical thinking?

I decided to check with two of my siblings.

"Well," Karen says, "the year we all went to Hant’s Habrour for holidays." That’s where Grandfather Janes lived. "I think we were living at Twillingate." That would have been in the early 1960s when I was but a boy. "So we would have taken the train from Lewisporte to Whitbourne. I think Pastor Vaters met us there and drove us to Hant’s Harbour." Eugene Vaters was the general superintendent of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland (PAON). "We probably rode it at some other time, too. But I can’t be sure."

David says, "I suspect we were going on a trip to Hant’s Harbour, maybe, or Bishop’s Falls, or maybe Camp." Camp Emmanuel was the PAON’s summer camp meeting at Long Pond, Manuels. "If it was a one-way trip, maybe it was in one of our moves to a new church." Our parents were pastors. Note David’s repeated use of the word "maybe." He continues, "I’m sure it was a holiday, because we were on the train twice. I remember sleeping on the training overnight and eating some food on the train. I don’t usually forget food!" Then he adds, almost as an afterthought, "It must have been to St. John’s, because you or me left a coat on the train. We had to go into the St. John’s CNR station to pick it up."

All this wondering about magical thinking and the Newfie Bullet came about after I picked up Kenneth G. Pieroway’s book, "Rails Across the Rock." It’s an ideal resource for anyone who wonders what it was like to travel by train across Newfoundland. I am one of those who remember the mighty steam locomotives that hauled the Newfoundland Express. I felt the earth shake under my feet as we rolled across the island. Pieroway awakens within me a keen sense of nostalgia.

The book reproduces a then-and-now celebration of the former Newfoundland Railway on the twenty-fifth anniversary of its closing. The author takes the reader on a stunning photographic journey, extending from Port aux Basques to St. John’s, with virtually every stop in between. The full-colour depictions were captured by some of North America's top railway photographers between 1952 and 1988.

"After years of collecting the images," Pieroway explains, "I set out on the 547-mile roadbed to search for and stand at the same location to recreate scenes that in some cases were over 60 years old. This book is the culmination of that three-year journey of discovery."

He begins with Port aux Basques in 1969. That’s when I lived there. I fondly recall the many summer nights our father drove my brother and me to the CN station to watch ferries arrive and depart. We couldn’t help but overhear the shunting trains in the background.

The infamous Wreckhouse area evokes memories of wicked gales sweeping down from Table Mountain. CN actually hired Lauchie McDougall to "sniff the wind" to determine whether or not it was safe for trains to pass. When we lived at Port aux Basques, Lauchie’s wife was still living at Wreckhouse.

Deer Lake is where I met the love of my life, the lust of my passion. (She’s gonna kill me!) Sherry recalls the diesels, with dozens of loaded boxcars in tow, barreling past her house on North Main Street.

There are photos of other places with personal connections ... Howley, Bishop’s Falls, Notre Dame Junction, Whitbourne, Long Pond and Manuels. I wonder why I suddenly feel like breaking out in song with Boxcar Willy’s "Big Freight Train Carry Me Home."

So, I’m not engaging in magical thinking after all. And, it’s comforting to know I’m not suffering from Augusten Burroughs’ "schizotypal personality disorder."

"Rails Across the Rock" is published by Creative Publishers of St. John’s.

— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at