“In the town where I was born
Lived a man who sailed to sea,
And he told us of his life,
In the land of submarines.”
— Yellow Submarine by The Beatles
I used to listen to tales of the high seas – actually Canada’s own Great Lakes – from sailors in my own family. These vast bodies of waters are more than capable of turning “the minuets into hours,” as Gordon Lightfoot’s song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, so aptly puts it.
I was first acquainted with this vastness as a small boy when some uncles and cousins took me out on their commercial fishing tug. As it was still early, (for me at least), I was still asleep and didn’t wake up until daylight – only to discover that there was no land in sight! I couldn’t believe that there was this other side of life – up to then unbeknownst to myself – that was now all around me. At first I was frightened, but as I began to rub my eyes and wake up, I was re-assured to see my relatives all around me, industriously working their fishing nets.
They had a good laugh at me stumbling all around the swaying deck!
I managed to get to my uncle Norm, who was busy separating unwanted fish from the netting as the boat’s machinery slowly wound in the trawling nets. Suddenly, I jumped back. It was coming right for me! — A massive snake-like lamprey eel, writhing with twists and turns, its sucker-shaped mouth full of razor-sharp teeth! Just then, my Uncle hooked it free and slit it apart with a razor sharp knife … all before I could catch my next breath!
He then looked at my shocked expression and teasingly said, “I guess that’s one delicacy you won’t want for supper tonight, eh Freddie?”
Such was the beginning of my pre-school education. To me this world was fascinating and I was only on page one of the first chapter of my life! As I looked around the deck, I realized that these men held the keys to learning so much more.
The best of times were when they used to regale others with their tales of life on the open waters. From this I learned that, as hard as life can be at times, it always had its lighter side.
Like the time, just after a storm, they were out trawling their nets and came across a guy in a life jacket, bobbing up and down, miles from shore. As they gingerly manoeuvred the tug alongside, my uncle Earl hollered down to him, “Where’d you come from?”
“Toledo” spluttered the man. “… boat capsized and sank!”
“Oh, where you headed?” Earl asked.
“Erieau!” was the exasperated reply.
“Erieau?” replied my uncle as he looked up to scan the far away northwest horizon and the thin smoky blue outline of land. Stroking his chin and nodding in agreement, he finally glanced down to the hapless man, still floating around in the rolling waters. “Well, keep going”, he yelled out cheerfully, “you’re heading in the right direction!”
I still smile as I recount that story … wondering if the poor man thought they would ever pull him out (which they did, of course), but not before they had a good yarn to spin.
So, this is how I learned my many life lessons which, in later life, enabled me to appreciate the art of really living. These men faced a hard physical and unpredictable existence; yet they wouldn’t have changed it for anything. They took pride in the work they did, and their life became a metaphor for free-will and independence. While my Grandfather was in his late 80s, he passed an Engineering exam. A newspaper reporter interviewed him and asked, “When are you going to retire?”
‘Pip’, as he was affectionately called, had been a farmer, a fisherman, a railroad engineer and a coal stoker. He said, “Why should I retire? My health is good and I enjoy what I’m doing. The only thing that would kill me is a forty hour week!”
So maybe, ‘life is but a dream’, like the popular children’s song, when you “row, row your boat gently down the stream,” – whereby troubles are seen, not for what they seem, but for what they truly are.
Fred Parry / fredparry.ca(2012)