Saturday, June 18, 2016

A father's life: seeing where he came from and who he was

William Johnston — Willy in his youth, Bill when he got older — was my father. He was born on a farm in Barney's River, Nova Scotia, the youngest child and he helped the family on the farm and went to school until he was a young teen. Then he was off to work in the coal mines, across northern Nova Scotia and into Cape Breton.

Years later, when we used to go on road trips, he would always point to the signs of the towns where he'd lived over the years that he worked in the mines: River Hebert, Debert, Joggins (which he always called The Joggins), Springhill, Stellarton, Thorburn, Merigomish.

I think in those days, young men stayed in boarding houses. In some cases, he was fortunate enough to have relatives — close or distant — whom he could board with. I remember him pointing out a big house in Thorburn where a cousin lived and where he had stayed for awhile.

In those coal-mining days, he played baseball in a senior league in Nova Scotia. I believe he was very good. They called him Wee Willy — he was a short-stop. He was small but he was smart and fast. He was handsome too, as you can see in this team picture. He and his brother Fred are second and third from the right in the front row.

Dad used to speak of the African Nova Scotians (no, that isn't what he called them) on his ball teams. After all those years, he remained shocked and somewhat ashamed that his black team-mates could not go into the restaurants with the white team members. They had to go around back to the kitchen door where they would be handed a sandwich. Dad said he often went round with them — he said he'd just as soon have a sandwich anyway but I'd like to think he went round back to offer support and show solidarity.

I've often wondered if the reason there are no black team members in this photo is simply because of the segregated lives they led.

The coal mines in Nova Scotia are among the deepest mines in the world, some of them two to three miles deep. Dad hated coal mining. I don't know that any miners really liked it although, as with anything one does long enough, some people got to feel they belonged there. Dad never did. He once said he was afraid every single time he went down a mine shaft.

It must have been an easy decision for him then when his older brother, J.J. Johnston — my Uncle Jack — who held a management position at the Avon Coal Co. at Grand Lake, New Brunswick, offered him a job. The coal was not deep in New Brunswick and they did strip mining — a great eyesore but for Dad, a dream come true. Coal mining and you didn't have to go underground!

This isn't Grand Lake but it looked something like this. I actually remember the strip mines and the drag-lines.

Dad met my mother after he moved to New Brunswick. Mum's sister lived in Newcastle Creek on Grand Lake and Mum was a single girl, teaching school. I don't know too much about their courtship although I know she used to go to all his ballgames — yes, he still played ball — and they used to go fishing together. We have a photo of them, in their fishing gear, looking very flirtatious.

This was the depression-era and at some point during these years, Dad went to Pittsburgh to work in the factories. I think maybe they were engaged by then and maybe he wanted a nest-egg to prepare for marriage. When he came back, he began to work for the New Brunswick Power Commission at the big thermal generating plant in Newcastle Creek. That's where he worked when I was born in one of the plant houses, just a stone's throw from the plant. My sister was born four years earlier; she was more sophisticated than I was, having been born in the Saint John General Hospital.

Dad suffered a terrible electric shock at the plant when he somehow touched a live wire of some sort. He was knocked unconscious and I believe it was a very scary incident for everyone. He survived — he had three very large scars on his back where the electricity had exited his body. When he regained consciousness, his hands were in a clenched position and there was some worry that he'd never be able to use them in the same way. Apparently, people who watched him over the next several months were amazed at his bravery and his determination as he worked his hands to force them open and regain their former strength.

When I was five, our family moved to Chatham, NB. It didn't take very long for both Mum and Dad to begin to think of Chatham as their true home and they knew they would never leave. Dad worked at the power plant, Mum taught school. They were both active in the United Church, Dad was a Mason, they enjoyed friends and neighbours.

Dad was a funny guy. He really did always have a twinkle in his eye and he enjoyed being a bit of a tease. The women at the church all loved it — and loved him. He was one of the very dependable fellows — for driving people, for running errands, for coming through with solutions. The women at the church were all, "Isn't Marion lucky to have you?" and I'm sure he enjoyed that.

Mum didn't find him that funny. Marilyn and I always thought she was a little hard on him but in retrospect we can see that maybe his humour played better in places that weren't so close to home. This is probably not uncommon.

He was a good father. From the time we were little, he took us to games — mostly baseball which we love, to this day — and he tried as patiently as he could to help me learn to skate. Which I hated. He took us to hockey games and always made sure we understood the game. Every long May 24th weekend, he took us upriver to the Dungarvon — a beautiful tributary of the Miramichi — and taught us how to fish trout, including baiting the hook and removing the poor little fish. We all loved the delicious pan-fried trout and we'd have them for breakfast.

His gentle temperament did not extend to teaching me to drive. He had to turn that job over to Marilyn, my sister, who accomplished it patiently and kindly and never yelled at me once. He always let me drive his cars though, including that red one, a Mercury, I think.

He retired from NBEPC when he was 65 but he didn't stay retired long. He couldn't. He went to work at Burchill's Mill up in Nelson and enjoyed a few more years of gainful employment.

When he wasn't working, he was a putterer. He did have the legendary workbench in the basement with all the tools, and he always had a garden. He loved being a grandfather and his tiny grandchildren couldn't have had a sweeter Grampy — or Bampi, as Lisa (below) named him.

He wasn't a man of high culture — he probably had gone to the equivalent of grade seven or eight — but he knew a lot of things that mattered. He did like to read "western" paperbacks or Ellery Queen or Mickey Spillane. He was sentimental enough to enjoy listening to the record of The Mills Brothers singing Daddy's Little Girl. Possibly because it annoyed my mother, he liked to sing Little Brown Jug — "She loved gin and I loved rum. . ." This didn't amuse a teetotalling Methodist.

Maybe to make up for it, every now and then, he'd sit down at the piano and pick out with one finger the old hymn Shall We Gather At The River. It was a favourite of his mother's and he knew all the words.

I'm sure he'd enjoy Burl Ives' rendition.


  1. Bill was a great fellow. Always enjoyed being around him. We had some great poker games, as you'll remember.

    1. Was he related to Dora Johnston who also lived in Chatham and was a member of St. Andrew's United Church.

    2. We knew Dora but no, we were not related.