I moved to a small island in Newfoundland’s Placentia Bay. Newfoundland was settled mainly by fishermen from western England and from Ireland; to this day more than 80 percent of the population is of that origin. Yet I have been told that, geologically, Newfoundland is part of the Appalachian chain, with a piece of Scotland stuck to it on the east. Like Appalachia, it is a region largely bypassed by the industrial and cultural developments of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Even today there live in Placentia Bay men who once fished for cod and lobster in sailing punts and rowing dories. There are women still alive who used to keep sheep and shear them and card and spin the wool with which to knit socks and mittens for their family. There are people, not yet in their 40’s, who remember a time when their underwear was made from linen flour bags; when some children came to school in moccasins made from raw cowhide, or barefoot; when a radio was a precious possession. Probably there are still men alive who in their youth went hunting with muzzle loaders; I still hear talk of how many fingers of powder it took to shoot a moose, and other such lore.
The three dozen hardcover books that I brought with me were respectfully called my “library.” (I arrived here not all that long after the great resettlement scheme, by which the government of the day, promising an abundance of very well-paid industrial jobs, moved the population of some 2,000 isolated fishing villages—the “outports”—to so-called growth centers where services like schooling and health care could be provided more efficiently.)
Some of the older Newfoundlanders called me “uncle.” They were accustomed to small communities in which everybody had a definite status and a definite relationship with the rest of the community. I wasn’t a clergyman or a doctor or a government official or a teacher, yet I had books and a typewriter and was presumed to be well-educated and was decidedly not a mere Bill or Joe. So in their perplexity those dear old people called me “uncle,” even though I was much younger than they.
Younger, better informed people with less natural courtesy questioned me about my reason for wanting to move into an outport when everybody else was moving away. They hankered after the life they had seen in Hollywood movies, after big cars and drive-ins. They asked me, distrustfully: “Are you a hippie?”
I said that I probably was. I had had no association with hippies in the city, and thus no opportunity to form any definite conclusions about them. I knew that they were dissatisfied in general with the way in which society was going and were trying to reestablish healthier, more sensible life-styles. I could agree with that.
Only later, when hippies—who by that time had rejected that appellation and referred to themselves as “long- hairs” and “heads”—derided me as a reactionary and an establishment type and the Baron of Back Cove, did I realize that I decidedly was not a hippie. I had, in my very unhappy childhood, developed somehow the utterly anachronistic aspiration to become the lord of an English island. I wanted the sense of belonging and stability that centuries-old stone buildings give. I wanted to be in a situation in which I could not readily be bossed around. I wanted . . .
Well, the adults around me ridiculed that notion.
So I dropped out of school in grade six and became a drifter till, many years later, I happened to read about the little island in Newfoundland. I moved here with the intention of building a home with thick stone walls, of planting apple trees and gooseberry bushes, of having cows or goats and Old English sheepdogs, of filling my home with books and paintings and nice mugs and a few cats.
I was able to buy here a one-acre lot with a grand view over the sea and with a brook, for $50—the seller wanted 20 bucks, I wanted to give at least 100; we settled amicably.
Most of the residents of this island had moved away during the preceding five years under the Resettlement Program, but a handful of families were still “hanging on.” I got the job of postmaster, which nobody else wanted because the salary amounted to barely $100 a month and the job required waiting two nights a week for the early morning coastal steamer.
A young fellow sold me, on a day when he wanted money for booze badly, 40 lobster traps of which 25 were still serviceable. I obtained an ancient rowing dory and started to fish for lobsters in the mornings, before office hours. I also took a job as a bartender-cum-bouncer at a tavern in the nearest community on the main island.
One Sunday evening when I was behind the bar, two heavy nailed boots and a huge bearskin coat walked in. In the upturned collar was a face, pale, with nervous brown eyes, which looked ludicrously out of proportion and seemed almost as small as an orange. The personage in the coat labored to give me a firm handshake and to say with a basso profunda:
“Hi! I’m Paul. You’re the guy who lives on Woody Island, right?” He had something of the apostle about him: a nonentity raised to great consequence as a bearer of a message from a higher being. He imparted the good news to me:
A certain folksinger, who then was having a little more than the 15 minutes of fame supposedly allotted to all of us, had bought the 70-foot hull of a schooner which had been rotting for at least a dozen years on a ten-mile distant sandbank. He and his friends—Paul among them—planned to have the hull towed to Woody Island, there to rebuild and refurbish the schooner, and sail with it to tropical islands somewhere past Tahiti.
A few days after meeting Paul I picked up several hippie-esque men and women with my boat—an old 21-foot punt with an even older one-cylinder gasoline engine. It was a very windy day. I kept the boat and passengers as dry as possible by steering into the wind and then letting the boat run ahead of it, following a zigzag course to the island.
My passengers were not pleased. I was informed that Paul had captained a sailing schooner in California, that in one great storm he had tied himself to the mast and steered the schooner to safety when everybody else aboard was sure of disaster. So Paul took over the tiller and steered a straight course across the wind, which had all of us drenched before long and some of us rather green in the face. By the time we arrived at the island, Paul and the others were very angry at me and my stupid boat.
The former mayor of Woody Island and I had together bought—very cheap—a three-bedroom house with two bay windows and a great view, simply to keep it from being left to decay or vandalized. We put the house at the disposal of the newcomers. They settled down to await the coming of the messiah who would take them to paradise—the Folksinger was on tour. He sent his friends frequent spiritual sustenance in the form of pound cakes of marijuana.
I really cannot remember anything that these people did other than sleep till 11 or 12, and then have breakfast which merged into lunch which merged into supper. After supper they plinked a bit on guitars, and got ready to write poetry that was never written, and talked about geodesic domes, and drank herbal tea, and smoked up. On nice days they came outside for a while to sun themselves and watch the locals work. One of them started a collection of scrap metal, which he laid out in front of the house till it covered part of the road. And they filled a calendar with outraged comments about autumn rain and fog, and winter snow and ice.
They drove Paul away long before the Folksinger showed up. They could not tolerate his incurable hankering for jelly beans.
He went. Others came. Heavy boots, bulky coats, strong handshakes, and fake folksy speech (like saying “purty” for “pretty” where one would generally say “interesting” or “nice”) were de rigueur among them. They talked about erecting a 30-foot-high teepee and living in and around it naked, and complained because no organic rice and beansprouts were available at the little island store.
For whatever reason, I became very fond of a fellow who liked to be called the King and who described himself as a “published poet”—his work turned out to be about 20 typewritten pages stapled together. He was probably close to 40, for he was a deserter from the American army. He always sported a red woolen scarf that was at least ten feet long—the ends touched the ground—and a toothy FDR grin. In a peculiarly American manner, he knew everything and nothing. He could dismiss any topic with a couple of sentences, but could not maintain an intelligent conversation on any subject. Still, the fellow was wonderfully enthusiastic when I lent him my volumes of Lord Macaulay’s History of England and spent hours repeating to me what he had read.
The girls had no doubt that they were liberated and spiritually far above Newfoundland women. But they cooked and slept with men who showed very little sense of obligation toward them. At 19, Barbara had already had two abortions, because, as she said, she did not believe in interfering with natural sex, while on the other hand her man said that he was not ready for fatherhood yet. She was eating several prescription pills a day to repair the ravages of some fad diet.
Lindsay’s tales could fill a whole book. She was a slender girl in her late 20’s, with a somewhat adolescent body and a Cinderella air. Among her many peculiar habits was that of showing all and sundry a photo of a shallow pond and trees beyond; she stood knee-deep and naked in that pond, surrounded by half a dozen naked bearded fellows.
Lindsay had found her prince: the Folksinger. She had born him a daughter, on the kitchen floor of a commune. Of course, she told me, the commune members had cooked the afterbirth and eaten it. And now the prince had graciously conceded that when he was not on tour, when he was actually with Lindsay and she cooked and washed for him and slept with him and admired him, she could eat at his expense. Otherwise she had to fend for herself and her baby.
The Folksinger showed up in early spring, with heavy boots and a bulky coat that belied his pampered middleclass upbringing, and a big beard that hid his weak chin. He, too, gave me a firm handshake. And a few days later he came out to my place and told me to come across the hill into the main harbor of the Old Cove for a “community meeting.”
I was busy. I told him that in any case a meeting ought to be called by Alec, the former mayor and the island storekeeper, the descendant of five or six generations of islanders. The Folksinger told me not to be like that, and that we must get our energies together and make good things happen.
When I got to the hall I found all the Newfoundlanders sitting on the right side, and the “heads” clustered on the other side. I sat with the Newfoundlanders. The heads talked among themselves, and one or the other came over to lecture the locals. Some of the Newfoundland women had moist eyes. Lindsay had just lectured them on proper childrearing.
Lindsay, who had determined not to feed her baby anything but bananas and breast milk for the first year; Lindsay, whose baby was now about eight months old and sat hunched and cried whenever she saw someone eat; Lindsay, who now and then in anger stuffed a handful of nuts and raisins into the baby’s mouth to shut it up!
Mary came to preach to us on how we must avoid s—t food—chips and chocolate bars, etc. Mary, who looked like a character out of Dick Tracy, with her big boots and her bulky black coat and her big sunglasses and long hair and no discernible face; Mary, who had been observed stealing candy bars from the store.
Dale, who had just been released from a mental hospital (oh how I wish I would have the space to repeat his life story as he told it to me!), said that we must remove the labels from all emptied tin cans, and must cut out both ends, and must cut the cans lengthwise, and flatten the tin and save it.
I had been waiting for some sort of demur from the Newfoundlanders. But none had come, and I could not keep my mouth shut any longer.
“What for?” I cried.
“The tin might be useful some day. One never knows,” was the airy reply.
There were a few more such preliminaries. Then the heads launched their main proposal: the locals, myself included, must hand over to them our livestock and pasture and gardens, plus cash; and they would organize a vegetable co-op for us. They had already appointed Dale to the job of secretary/treasurer/manager of the co-op. Dale, who had moved into an empty house and there in the middle of the kitchen constructed from driftwood a floor-to-ceiling thing that looked like modern art but was, according to him, a combination bed/lunch counter/work bench/clothes rack/bookshelf. Dale, who swayed about drunk or stoned and talked about how he would make us all rich. The heads were talking about a tractor, about sailing vegetables in the yet-to-be-rebuilt schooner to Newfoundland’s capital, St. John’s.
I did not want to have any part of their vegetable co-op. I started to howl. No way would I give my two cows and hay meadow and apple trees and money to their bloody socialist neofeudalism in which the Folksinger would be the lord and his friends his court and the rest of us the peasants. No way would I hand over my property and tools to a bunch of people who had no money and tools and skills of their own to put into the venture, but felt they had a divine right to govern.
I cursed the idiocy of proposing to ship vegetables in an old sailing schooner around two capes where it might be delayed many days by adverse winds, when only six miles distant was a road over which we could reach St. John’s by motor vehicle in two hours. I cried:
“And where on the island can you plough a furrow longer than ten yards without ending up in a bog or on a rock or over a cliff? And how much would it cost to get a tractor and a plough and other equipment, and seedlings or a greenhouse, and to support Dale till the harvest? And Dale has no experience in farming or business management! And you haven’t done a lick of work on that schooner yet. All the old fishermen tell me it is too far out of shape to be rebuilt! I’ll tell you what you can do!”
I told them, and stormed out.
They came after me and told me what a bastard I was and how nice it would have been for poor Dale to be able to run something and how I had destroyed something beautiful that was about to happen.
Barbara has married her man since then, so I am told. He works for an oil company, his beard long shaved off, and they live in a suburban bungalow. Dale did many weird and disquieting things on this island before disappearing and being arrested at the St. John’s airport for trying to thumb a ride on a departing jet. I really think he wanted to go back to a mental hospital; if so, his wish was granted. Paul is supposedly sailing another schooner in the Pacific. Lindsay lost her prince and lives in an apartment in a very run-down city neighborhood. What became of Mary and the King and the others I don’t know.
The schooner is still rotting on that sandbank.
The Folksinger has been back here a few times, once with his mother, and once with a strange woman who, when they were guests at my place, dished out the salad with her hands, and a while later went into convulsions at the supper table. “I’m a dancer, you know, and must exercise!” she said while jerking and twisting in her chair, before coffee and pie. She had two sons with her and bragged that the Folksinger got up in the mornings and made breakfast for the boys and got them ready for school. And then she got all worked up over the fact that my wife brought me another cup of coffee, and told my wife to assert herself against me, to be her own person.
She wasn’t with the Folksinger very long.
The last time he was here, he told me that his and Lindsay’s daughter, then five, had hit another child in a commune out in British Columbia. He said, “Of course she learned that in Newfoundland” (she had left before her first birthday). And he sighed, “We tried to help the people here, but they didn’t appreciate it!”
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