You know I was born at just the right time. I am the oldest of the baby boomers because I showed up in 1946 less than a year after the end of WWII.
I watched Newfoundland through all of the last half of the 20th century. I am old enough to have been to the cod traps on a summer morning and to have had fish stew cooked on the way back to the stage head with a full skiff of fish. It was in Bay Bulls.
Working in a plant
I was young but I remember it well, just as I remember the squid jigging grounds in Holyrood. Most people are familiar through story and song, but dad and me were THERE. We lived in Holyrood for several summers. The sounds and the general excitement once the squid struck in, are known to me and I am forever grateful.
There is more. I worked at Con O’Brien’s fish plant in Witless Bay; Newfoundland Quick Freeze. The O’Briens were family. I worked on a big Baader skinning machine that hauled the skin off fillets once they came down on a conveyer from the filleting line. It was no fun, and it was boring, and it was loud but looking back I am glad I did it. I know what it is like on the plant floor. It’s not just words about working in a plant.
Years later I was in Iceland working and I had occasion to interview the owner of the largest plant in Reykjavik. As soon as I walked in the door of the plant there was the familiar smell. Part fish, part plate freezer, part chlorine, part salt water. It all came back to me.
There in the corner of the plant; a Baader skinning machine.
Part of me
One summer I worked at the cod liver oil in Witless Bay. I was helper to the man who rendered down the liver in vats and then put it in large canvas bags to squeeze the oil out by operating a manual press made heavy by beach rocks. There is a smell to it all that was not unpleasant. It’s like working in the gurry hopper moving fish offal around.
To read about it sounds gross, but the reality was better as was the warm cooking smell of a fish meal plant processing. People in the community might complain but there is something in it that was comforting.
The last strokes in this memory painting are the images and dry comfort of the salt fish store. Small madeira, large madeira, west indie. All of this is part of me, but more importantly, part of Newfoundland’s history. I am a lucky boy.