Reminiscing with John Fifield

(Robert Tuik)

The lure of Labrador in the early days called people from all walks of life, both young and old. It was common for fishermen to take their son, or maybe a friend's son along to the Labrador for the summer.

John Fifield of Wesleyville, Bonavista Bay, went to the Labrador when he was twelve years old, with his grandfather who was seventy-one. His grandfather William West, was taking a job of lighthouse keeper on Strawberry Island.

They went down on the "Kyle", taking along a three month supply of food, coal and oil. When they arrived at their destination, the sea was too rough to land. They had to land on the far side of the island, about a half a mile from their cabin. After unloading their supplies they had to carry it across the island over the rugged terrain to their cabin.

The first advice Fifield received from his grandfather was this, "John, there's plenty of salt in the shed out back of the cabin. If I die, pack me in salt until somebody comes along."

According to Fifield they were completely isolated. There was no such thing as a wireless or radio. Sometimes a ship would stop and the crew would come ashore. John and his grandfather would go jigging for cod near the lighthouse, they would also hunt ducks and partridges for their own use. They had a wonderful time and the summer passed quickly.

But, life on the Labrador wasn't always that easy. One year while on the Labrador he came down with acute appendix. He went sixteen days without sleep or food. The only thing that he put inside his mouth was aspirin.

"I must have used up every aspirin on the Labrador." related Fifield. On the sixteenth day they sailed into St. Anthony where he was taken into the hospital and an operation was performed.

When he wasn't on the Labrador during his younger days, he went to the ice hunting seals.

"That was hard times," said Fifield, "we couldn't wash or shave. Our clothes would be covered with seal fat."

"Duff with soup was the main food back then," related Fifield. "One day we were served the best tasting soup that I ever had. When the pot was half empty, someone went to stir the soup and found an uncooked flipper from an old dog Hood Seal. It was no place for someone with a weak stomach."

Another time he was on the sealing ship "Ranger". They got stuck in the ice near St. Anthony. They had a long hawser attached to the ship and were trying to haul it through the ice. One man slipped and hit his head. He was knocked unconscious.

There were no helicopters back then. Fifield and a group of men put the man in a dory. They hauled the dory over the ice to St. Anthony. Then they took the dory, with the man aboard and carried it to the hospital.

"We left the dory on the hospital steps," said Fifield. "We must have looked a sight. A bunch of smelly, dirty sealers lugging an unconscious man around the hospital looking for a doctor."

The era that Fifield lived and worked in is long gone. It will never be duplicated. Soon it will be remembered by a small few, and after these few have passed on to their reward, the memories will be gone forever.


  1. What was the first advice Fifield's grandfather gave him?
  2. Give the dictionary meaning for the word 'hawser'.

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