Next Stop: St. John's (the fourth and last in the series)
Some time ago I met a gentleman from Melbourne, Australia, a Mr. Kit Bennett, a specialist in human commu- nications; and during a subsequent interview we got to talking about people, traditions, culture, etc. He proffered - albeit, he as a newcomer to this side of the celestial sphere - that few provinces in this country called Canada were as "rich" as ours; something, he thought, when not understood and realized by the local inhabitants, lends to the deniise of that very quantity that should otherwise be celebrated. How true; and, in large measure, the very problem we face here today - the slide to homogenization.
RIVERBOATS, 'SLEEPERS,'AND TRAINS
It was during the course of the interview/conversation that Kit took me through a rather extensive and interest- ing portfolio on riverboats that had once plied the rivers of Australia. The photographs were of everything from eviscerat- ed hulks to rotting keels submerged in sand dunes, to living/floating museums that had been preserved to depict some- thing of that part of Australia's past. Then, from amongst these photographs there emerged one superbly mounted color; distractingly incongruous to the presentation at hand, it resulted in protracted discussion.
The photo in question was of a worker using a powersaw to cut a "sleeper." At its emergence from the pile of stills, Kit was quick to note, somewhat apologetically, "That is a photograph of a 'sleeper' being cut; of course, you wouldn't call it that here. In this part of the world, you refer to them as 'ties.'" For the moment I thought, "Rather inter- esting, that he would say that ... growing up I have often heard of the transverse supports being referred to as just that, 'sleepers."' And so a conversation ensued of railway years, railway terminology, and what remains of that great institution that once traversed our province on iron wheels.
I was reminded of that very meeting, and the resultant sojourn to a more familiar siding in our conversation,
when I sat to offer these few jottings as a humble introduction to what has to be a most rich and valuable record of a day when young boys stood atop fence posts - among other places - to get a glimpse of the great steam engines as they puffed and shunted their way in and our of railway yards across the province. By way of the writings and amassed photo- graphs of the author, I am certain vintage profile is given of "life on the road," and how 'sleeper' and steel once stitched the countryside like the enforcing zipper of a comforting cardigan ... against loneliness and isolation.
The railway of this province too, and its workers, have been overtaken by the sands of times; and yet, it would appear to be part of the everlasting imperative of life that record be shown of that one influence that effected change to the evolution of a people and a way of life. Doubtless is there anyone who would dispute the suggestion that the railway had an imperishable effect on the character of the province and its people. Now but a mental image for older residents is that day when people cherished the moment when they could wave at the train crews ... and awaited the wave of the train crews back at them; however, it was that need to communicate, if only from a distance; that interdependence on
each other ... especially, if a love-one fell sick and had to be moved further up or down the line ... that helped nurture the personality of our people and way of life.
History books, for the most part, speak of financiers and politicians, and that is a pity; reason why, I feel, it so important that men like Mr. Mont Lingard write and speak of ordinary men and their feats and foibles. It was these very men and women who caused life to be lived and shared those short years ago. It was these men and women who gave human energy to the great machines that brought our province to life. It was these men and women who kept the great infrastructure in place. Men, for instance, like Jack Peddle, who could drive a steel spike with the assuredness of today's characters of fiction; Peter Hefferan, who despite his handicap of having only one leg, kept the reefers topped off with ice ... the train crews who faced the most formidable forces of nature atop the Gaff Topsail. In many respects, each man with his own job to do, and with his own story to tell.
While I never worked on the railway myself, I am a proud descendant of the railway family. As a young boy my playground was the "Shim Yard." I played handball in empty box cars. I was tutoured in soccer, baseball and hockey by the "over-nighting"crews at the Staff House. Many of my summer holidays were spent on the road with my father ("Charlie" Ennis) as he did the annual inscription for fraternity membership. And, in terms of the subject matter for dis- cussion in our home, the railway - i.e., the "great steamers" and the extraordinary men who ran them - was second only to religion. Perhaps in terms of some of the discussion, both philosophies/theologies of kindred spirit.
Hopefully then, through this latest work of Mr. Lingard, Next Stop: St. John's, something very valuable is cap- tured of our past that will give today's and tomorrow's reader a glimpse, however small, of a significant chapter in our history. That, by way of this medium, there will be raised awareness of the great trains, of the buildings, of the accouter- ments ... but, more importantly, of the people - the human element that was once part of a most wonderful mode of transport. And, hopefully, at a later hour ... future generations will speak with particularized knowledge of the "ghosts" and "heroes" of a glorious past.