CANADAA country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017.
June 20, 1959
There was no thought of the storm when they went out, from the timbered wharf, starting the Shannon’s engine, an old Chevy that he and his father had refit, putting new rings and gaskets in, an engine his father had bought secondhand from the Lorrie Jane – therefore, as the older brother said, had seen much of the bay’s salt water wash over it already, across the gunnels in a spray. The older brother had never seen his father get a deal (except winning a Saturday-night bingo once).
The older brother had been the boy his mother had relied upon. People said he was the reason they had to marry.
The older brother had always worried about his dad. He walked out in a blizzard one night when he was 10, looking for him because he didn’t come home. The only reason he had found him was because he had noticed the red woollen bob on the top of his father’s old woollen hat sticking up from the snowdrift. He dug his father out of the snow, tears freezing on his face.
“Dad,” he said. “Dad, please, dad, wake up, dad. Dad, please.”
The older boy had been the one to try to find the money his father had won at bingo but had left in a shed at the wharf. It was a lot of money for them – $78. The older boy never found it.
Sometimes his mother would say she was going away. The younger boy would hang onto her suitcase, crying.
“Mom,” the younger boy would beg. “Mom – please, mom.”
Besides, she had no money to go.
His father and mother always relied upon the older brother. He cut wood, banked the house, fixed the water pump and gave his savings to his dad, to refit the Shannon because his mom had asked. They were reduced to eating lobster, putting cardboard over the windows so no one would know. It was said that the older brother had saved money from haying and drifting for three years. He was going to go to university in Chatham.
Still, without the Shannon what would his father do? Then what might happen to his mother and his younger brother if he just left them like that?
“Think of him,” she whispered, like she was praying. “Your dad is a good dad – I know he will prove it to you someday.”
There were very good men here, men the older brother sometimes helped with their nets – men who kept their lives and their boats in order. His father had been in Korea in 1951, where he was hit in the head with shrapnel. His father never spoke about it to anyone.
The older brother counted on his fingers the money he might have left if he helped with the engine. His lips moved silently as his mother watched him.
“Someday you will know – I promise,” she said. “He is a good man.”
“I know, mom, I know,” he said. “Okay, mom – okay – yes!”
She patted his hand. She seemed worn out by life.
It is not at all remarkable, to those who know life, that when the older boy thought of his father, his heart still filled with love.
If anyone recalled, the older brother was a thin, young man, pale as a ghost most of the time. His smile was somewhat hopeful, as if he longed to fit in. He had black hair to offset such pale white skin, and people noticed – especially the girls – that he wore the same jacket and boots, three winters in a row, and his hair was so black that it looked as if he wore a splash of tar on his head. Sometimes people would see him late at night, walking alone in the cold because his father had gotten angry and put him out of the house. Very late, after his dad had finally fallen asleep, he would make his way home.
His mother didn’t know that the older boy had had a chance to work on the Lorrie Jane. The captain of the Lorrie Jane put his arm on his shoulder and smiled at him; “You could work out with me if you want – if your father’s boat is down?”
“But what about dad – please – could you take dad on, too?”
The captain of the Lorrie Jane said he couldn’t afford that. Neither could the Silvia. But the boy knew they were both frightened of his dad. That so many people were.
Later that afternoon he noticed his father and his younger brother trying to lift the old engine off its mounts.
And he went to the Shannon and said:
“Dad – let me help – dad – dad I am here – here I am.”
So he gave his dad the money for the secondhand Chevy engine.
He was the one who broke his hand when they were mounting the engine, and it hadn’t as yet mended.
Still, just after refitting the Shannon, his father started to have blinding headaches again. Many days he sat outside on a kitchen chair, with half the stuffing out of the upholstery, a bottle of Napoleon wine at his feet, and wouldn’t come into supper. Not much could be said about these headaches. He sat in the waiting room of Dr. McKenzie’s office all day long. But he knew no one now could take the headaches away. They would only go away on their own. Except that when they went away, his father could always be certain that they would return.
So his older boy took a plate of food out to him that pulpy warm day with wind from the southeast. The older boy was very proud that day. He wanted to show his father his report card.
But his father couldn’t read. He had gone to school until Grade 4 and whatever he had learned he had lost as the years passed by. Now the boy mentioned for the first time that he was going to university in the fall.
“That’s something, isn’t it?” his father said.
The boy told him the priest (the same one who often came to the house to bless the rooms and speak to his father about trusting providence) said he would be accepted at Saint Thomas. He did not tell his father that he had spent the money he was saving for university on the refit Shannon. Or moreover that he had a secret to tell but he was going to wait until graduation.
His father nodded. They were very silent for a long time because his father had no idea what to say and they had been clumsy with each other a long time now. So his dad told him to take the younger boy, 12, with him, to help lay out the massive gill nets that would stretch behind them. It would be a clear night, without much wind, and try to keep out of the shallows.
“I can’t go tonight,” his father whispered. “My head’s very bad again. You’ll have to take your brother.”
His son looked at him, his dad’s three-day beard was grey in small spikes, his eyes, though still light blue, were misty, and the hat pulled up on his broad forehead showed a strand of sad greying hair that seemed to rustle in the sudden wind and make him look boyish. Still, everyone on the wharf and everyone in town, and anyone on the river knew he was no one to fool with. All the men knew that. His hands were large, his body was still very powerful and he could stand the cold on the boats wearing only a woollen sweater.
“Sure.” The boy shrugged. “Sure, I’ll take him dad. I’ll take him. I wanted to show you my report card is all. I’ll take him. But he sometimes get seasick – I mean, if there is a big sea.”
“No, they tell me it’ll be a clear, soft night. And I promised he could go. Here” – And he handed his older son a quarter – “Buy you both a treat for the night,” he said. And he smiled proudly.
Then a small tern took to the sky, and they watched as it skimmed back along the shore, going toward the wharf where the drifters were tied.
His father noticed his son’s hand wrapped in its cast. The cast was dirty enough, however, to show the hand must have almost healed. He looked at the report card his son had so proudly brought to him, but as always he couldn’t understand what it meant. Then some tears flowed down his much-weathered face.
“What’s wrong, dad?” the older brother said, startled suddenly. “Don’t worry, dad – I’ll take him out. I’ll get him an Oh Henry! bar, he likes them.”
The younger brother thought it would be like the year before, when he went out with his dad and lay across the housing, staring at the million stars in the warm night. That night, as he watched his dad and older brother haul the nets, he felt very special, loved and cared for, and they cooked a salmon. Then just at dawn, or about dawn, they saw, he and his dad, the 18th-century English man-of-war off on the horizon. His dad convinced him he had seen one of Wolfe’s own ships moving up towards Quebec. It was always riding the waves, its sails unfurled, his dad had told him, sometimes in the dawn, sometimes just at twilight, off far to the west.
This mirage was seen by many fishermen over many years, and must have been a ghost ship from long ago, his father told him, suddenly giving him a quick innocent smile.
That is, this younger brother who I met in university years later didn’t remember his dad like his older brother had. He told me that sometimes he would run into his parents’ bedroom and see his father curled up on the floor. He would rush to the sink and put a damp facecloth over his father’s forehead so his dad wouldn’t have to grab at it. His father told him that when his head bothered him, it was a big gold nugget – and that someday it would come out of his nose, and they would be rich. Then he would buy their mother everything she ever wanted – a dishwasher, too. So, he told his son, if he yelled at night – don’t be frightened, it was just the gold nugget.
“Sometimes your brother and I argue – but you know it means nothing,” he said.
By then, everyone, myself included, knew that his father, captain of the old Shannon, had suffered a head wound in Korea and at times everyone was frightened of him. We knew that the older boy kept care of his family even to the point where he hid them in a special place when his dad was angry.
“My brother remembered all the bad times, so I would only remember the good,” the younger boy told me. He was 20 when we met, and we were attending St. Thomas University together. Oh, yes, the younger boy knew by then that there had been no gold nugget, only a crude, heavy metal plate.
But it was I who revealed to him something he did not know. All these years later he didn’t know it.
That is, that his father had fought hand-to-hand combat on a hill in Korea.
When the Chinese commander yelled:
“Canada boy, tonight you die.”
The few Canadians had yelled back:
“Come and get us, you sons of bitches.”
That is what had really happened to his dad’s head. The younger boy did not know that. But his older brother always did.
There were 900 Chinese soldiers, attacking a forward position of 28 Canadians. Running out of ammunition, their father had to use his flare gun to kill a man. And he finally fought hand to hand while having suffered a severe lacerated wound to the head. That he survived, they said, was a miracle. But his head would never be the same. The older brother knew this. And because of this, he would never leave his father. The older brother often said:
“Okay, dad – it’s all right. I’ll go look for it.”
Often his dad worried because he had lost all the bingo prize money that he had promised to take home to his wife. Even three years after he lost it he would become agitated and sometimes he would wake his older son at two in the morning and ask him if he found it yet. That is when the neighbours saw the older boy walking outside. They just never knew what for.
The younger boy knew what had happened that night on the Shannon, though. He knew that they had gone out with mild winds, and lay down their nets behind them. But as night came on it, was not at all like the year before. Darkness piled over them, and he felt the hard wind pick up, the sea became unsettled and his brother had to bail, while the younger boy tried to help, putting the Oh Henry! bar back in his pocket. Then the waves started to hit the starboard side and the boat listed, righted itself, and the prow sank and came back up, as if the old Shannon itself was heroically trying to keep them safe, though he could hear the planking crack. The older boy realized, with the water coming over at every wave, bailing was useless. It would take everything they had not to be swept overboard.
He turned to tell his younger brother to seek shelter in the cuddy, and he would haul the nets, start the engine and start for shore. But before he could get to the cuddy hatch a huge wave hit his brother hard and he fell back against the portside gunnels.
“And that was when you discovered your dad was aboard?” I asked.
“Yes – my father must have boarded when we were up on the wharf talking to Mr. Doucette – my father had come on, and was laid down in the cuddy all this time with his head throbbing. But then, feeling the sea beneath him, he came up. He took one arm and grabbed me, and with the other caught my brother – then, putting us back against the wheelhouse, he took an axe and cut the nets free. If not, we would soon have been sunk at the stern. The Shannon came up level for a bit and my brother, who had got the engine started, turned toward the shore.”
“But your dad said you wouldn’t be safe in the shallows.”
“No, he said calmly to my brother, ‘Boy, the shallows will kill us – if we have any chance we have to stay out.’”
His father was able to grab a bumper tire from the side and burn it in the little stove to keep the young boys warm. He told them he would get them a treat when they got home. Now and again he covered them with his own body. He took off his coat and put it over the younger boy. But everything got worse. At some point the mounts broke, the pistons were flooded and the engine went dead. A sudden eerie silence was forced upon them in the howling gale and the wash. The younger boy covered in his father’s coat realized the Shannon was doing all it could to stay up. He saw lights and other drifters tossed like corks. He saw two men being swept away from other boats. He heard the shouts for help. And their father desperately tried to restart the engine to help another boat in trouble. It did no good. For the Shannon only had moments left itself. Every time the Shannon’s prow went down – every time the young boy thought they would drown – the Shannon came up again and rocked and struggled to keep them safe.
The father was silent most of the night but only said words of encouragement.
And for the first time in memory he kissed them both. He stood as the waves washed over him, his sturdy legs shaken but time and again reset. Until he knew there was nothing left for the tired Shannon to do, and he must lash his boys to the mast and pray to providence as the priest had said.
The father didn’t tell them he believed they were doomed.
How the young boy thought of his mother and how he would give her the biggest hug when he got home.
Then suddenly out of the gloom and off to Starboard – it was just dawn by now – they saw the great wide prow of the Silvia – a drifter some 10-feet longer than their own, coming toward them in the gale. Coming to rescue. But the waves were so strong their father was afraid they’d be washed over.
So his father grabbed him and lashed him to the mast. It was then the younger son got to see his father’s face, as if for the first time. Only for a moment, mind you, for there was a great flash of lightening. His father’s face seemed to glow with a kind of passion, a certain undeniable tenderness. And even at this desperate moment, it made his youngest son smile.
But when his dad went to grab the older brother – the brother who had tried all his life to keep care of the family, the Shannon gave a groan and seemed to list over 60 degrees before miraculously righting itself again. Like a great dying friend, it came level with a great wash of water.
But the older boy was gone. Swept off the port side. He did not cry out – but the Silvia turned toward him.
“They’ll never be in time,” his father said. And he kissed his younger son, and he took the length of rope he was going to use to tie the older boy, and dove into the water after him.
“He must have known it was useless,” the younger brother said, remembering it with tears. “I thought of my older brother as being so big compared to me – but now I realize he was small and thin and gentle. He was like our mom, made for study – he was not made for the sea like my father or I. That he did it only because he loved his dad. You see, my older brother could not swim. That’s how heroic my older brother was – no medal would be enough, I think.
“My dad tried so damn hard to reach him. To do so, he had to let go of the lifeline he held. The rope was firm on the Shannon’s stern and dad could have made it back. It was either the lifeline or my brother and I could see he almost made it – he was no more than a foot or two from him – but he had to let go of the lifeline. And he did let go. Almost with disdain he tossed it away. I saw it like a black shade in the morning air. But he reached my brother and held him above the water in his powerful arms for as long as he could. I think the Silvia might have got them if he could have lasted just a little longer. But then, I guess, he just couldn’t do it anymore. The Silvia came back, and a man I didn’t recognize came aboard. Ten minutes later, I was aboard the Silvia and I saw our little Shannon go down. The Silvia circled for a long time, a long time, looking for them. But they were gone. My mother had walked down to the wharf and was waiting with so many others, wearing my brother’s old coat, a house dress and worn black sneakers.
“My brother would have had his tuition paid for and a lot else. He had a Beaverbrook scholarship. That was a very big deal in 1959. He whispered it to me that afternoon when he bought me the Oh Henry! chocolate bar. That’s what he had told me – what he had wanted to tell our dad. But he said he would wait a while longer. For a special day. When my dad no longer had a headache. Then, on that day, we would all be happy, my brother said. My brother was always my hero, I guess.
“And my dad. For you see, in the end my dad never lied. He did have a gold nugget. It wasn’t in his head – I know that now – I know that’s where all the pain and sorrow was, all the sudden flashes of despair – but the gold nugget was there, too, wasn’t it? My brother always knew it. It was in his heart.”