My childhood was probably much the same as many others of my generation. For most of my formative years we lived in the same house, I went to school with the same group of friends, was involved in sports, music and Guides. It was comfortable. I knew where I was, where I was going and where I had been.
But that all changed when my Dad took a new job and was transferred to Newfoundland. A new power project was being built there and he was to be the on site Project Manager. I was half way through grade 8 at the time and was not impressed with moving and leaving everything behind.
We had two weeks to decide what to take with us, what to have sent out and what to get rid of. After having lived in that house for almost ten years it wasn’t easy. And to make it worse, we were moving from a three bedroom bungalow with a full basement and a double car garage to a three bedroom double trailer, no basement and no garage. I’m not sure how my mother did it since my father arrived back in town on the Friday and we left on Sunday afternoon, all seven of us. Mom, Dad, me and my four siblings.
That was the start of quite the adventure. Both my parents had flown before, but none of the five of us had. I was thirteen and my youngest brother was only five. I don’t remember very much about that trip now but, of course, we all travelled in our Sunday best. Everyone did in those days. Don’t ask me why. It wasn’t the most comfortable way to travel all the way to Gander, Newfoundland, in the dead of winter.
We ended up being stranded in Gander for four days, every day spent in our Sunday best. Where we were going was so remote that there was only a dirt runway, so they had to have good visibility to land. Being on the south coast of Newfoundland, the weather didn’t cooperate. Every day we would go to the airport and wait to hear if we would be able to proceed on the last leg of our journey, and every afternoon we would head back to the hotel, check in and return to our rooms.
We became very familiar with the staff and I’m not sure to this day if they appreciated seeing up traipse back into their lobby each afternoon.
On one of those days, while we were waiting at the airport, the Queen made a quick landing and did a walk through the airport. All the local school children were out to see her and we, practically living there during the day, had a prime spot to watch her walk through the concourse.
We were standing about halfway up some stairs and my youngest brother was crying, “Where’s the Queen. I don’t see the Queen.” She must have heard him because she looked right at him, smiled and waved at him directly. But he kept crying. We realized that he was looking for the lady in the picture with the crown – not the lady in a blue coat and hat. We still tease him about that to this day.
Finally, on the fifth day, we landed in Baie d’Espoire, or as the locals called it Day Despair. One means Bay of Hope but the other is a more accurate representation of what was there. Talk about culture shock.
These people had no electricity, no running water, no health care, no education. One side of the bay was French Anglican and the other English Catholic. It was obvious that the original settlers arrived due to religious persecution and that continued on through the ages. Little pockets of communities doted the hillsides around the bay as a result of inter-denominational marriages.
We spent the next eighteen months living in a three-bedroom trailer in an isolated community with the rest of the executives from the power project construction companies. There were maybe fifty families at the height of construction. The community was situated right at the end of the bay and was one of the most picturesque sites you could ever see.
We went to school in a two-room schoolhouse and it was a real problem getting and keeping teachers. Not too many were prepared to teach four levels at once. I was one of the oldest there, and for Grade 9 I took an Ontario correspondence course. In hindsight that was a major mistake due to the fact that my lessons depended on the mail and that was as dependable as the weather.
The only other option, though, was boarding school, and I’d heard my mother’s stories of her years in a convent school with her sister during the depression. There was no way I was going to go for that.
Being isolated we only received CBC Radio and CBC Television. As a result, we spent most of our time outside making dams like our Dad’s, hiking and basically running wild and free. We didn’t realize what a special atmosphere we had but eventually the project was completed and our Dad moved back to head office in Toronto in May 1967 and we waited until the end of June when school was out to join him. Mom again, was left with the responsibility of packing us up and preparing us to travel all by herself.
The day we were supposed to fly out a massive thunderstorm rolled in. I don’t think we had one the whole time we’d been there but of course Mother Nature had to disrupt our travel plans. We didn’t leave that day. Nor the next. Again, we didn’t get to travel out for four long days.
All of our personal things had been cleared out and were being shipped back to Toronto so someone from the main construction camp 15 miles away had to come out for us for each meal. They brought us blankets to use for sleeping since all the beds were still there. After a couple of days of running us back and forth they took us in to camp to stay at the executive guest trailer. That way we could communicate with the airport by radio and we’d know when the plane was coming to get us.
After four days we heard that the plane had left Gander and was on its way to pick us up but it was a float plane and was coming in to town on the water. We picked up our seven suitcases and three boxes and the six of us with a driver quickly drove down to the dock in town. We waited … and waited … and watched the clouds start to close in on us again. We decided to phone the airport and see what the status was. This was before cell phones, and this wasn’t a neighbourhood with a payphone, so we followed the overhead phone lines to find a home that had a phone we could use.
Just as we had traced the phone line we heard the drone of the plane coming in from the head of the bay and watched it break through the ceiling and come in and float up to the dock. The pilot didn’t even get out, just told us to get in quickly.
In the rush, my sister dropped her purse and one of our boxes ended up in the bay. The plane only had seats for four passengers, and including the pilot, we were seven. What would we do? We couldn’t leave one behind. So – my youngest brother sat on my mother’s lap who was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat.
We took off with the ceiling closing in on us. The pilot followed the river for visual reference all the way up to Gander, almost clipping the treetops as we banked, staying below the thickening clouds. Coming down on a lake just outside Gander, the pilot radioed ahead to ask for a taxi to be waiting to take us to the airport for our connecting flight to take us to meet up with Dad who was waiting for us with car and camper in Truro, Nova Scotia.
I thought landing on water would be soft but it was one of the hardest landings I’ve ever experienced but we all made it. We quickly loaded into the waiting taxi and were transported into town. We got to the airport and carted in our seven suitcases and now just two boxes only to arrive at the counter to be shown our plane taking off from the runway.
Frustrated and despondent, we trudged out to another taxi, pulled our seven suitcases and two boxes and six people into one taxi. He was not a happy driver but transferred us to the Gander Hotel – the same hotel from eighteen months before. I’m not sure if it was true but they told us there was a convention in town and there was no room at the inn. They called around for us and could only find room at the new Holiday Inn across town which wasn’t officially opened yet but would take us.
So off we went again in another taxi and arrived at the new hotel. We lugged all our paraphernalia into the lobby only to be advised that our rooms were on the third floor and the elevators weren’t working yet. I think my mother was about ready to die at that point. The receptionist took pity on us and allowed us to lock out bags and boxes in a back room and just carry up what we needed.
When we finally collapsed in our rooms my younger brothers and sisters turned on the TV to watch programs that we hadn’t ever seen before. They were enthralled but I could hear my mother in tears in the other room, talking to my father. I have no idea what he was saying but looking back on it now I don’t think I could have carried five kids through the traumas and tribulations that my mother did on her own over those couple of days.
After all these years I don’t remember where we ate that night nor where we had breakfast but I do remember finally landing in Truro. We were absolutely elated and my father captured it on film. He took a picture of us as we came off the plane, my mother still on the steps with my younger brother and sister, but me and my other brother and sister were running towards him, and as he snapped the picture all three of us were in the air. He caught us in mid-stride with none of our feet on the ground.
Whenever we get together and look at old slides that one always brings a relieved laugh, especially from my mother.
Memories are wonderful things. They help connect you to your past and show you the path that led you to where and what you are today. We may not have wanted to move but it made us stronger as a family and created a bond among us siblings that lasts to this day. Who knows where we might be now if we hadn’t made that first move that eventually led to others but that’s another story.
Sue Livings has been in the accounting profession throughout her career but has always been an avid reader which, in later years, transferred into a passion to write and become a published author. Growing up, Sue's family moved to some unusual locales due to her father's career working on dam sites. Currently, she and her husband are empty-nesters living in the country west of Brantford. They have three children and one grandchild – so far.
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