I’ve heard that Newfoundland has the worst roads and the nicest people on the planet. Like so many things I’ve heard it’s only half true. Anyone who’s ever driven on New York’s Major Deegan Expressway or taken a tooth-rattling jitney ride down into Utah’s Monument Valley knows this. But, while she doesn’t have the worst roads, Newfoundland can lay legitimate claim to being the home of the world’s nicest people. I speak from experience, with a bit of personal bias mixed in. My mother was born in Newfoundland, which means I have maritime blood coursing through my veins.
What makes Newfoundlanders so nice? I think it’s the weather. A hundred and seventy some odd inches of annual snowfall and 102 days of blowing snow have mellowed them. Newfoundlanders take life in its stride.
I had the good fortune to be stationed at Ernest Harmon Air Base in Newfoundland from 1964 to 1965. The assignment gave me the opportunity to explore my DNA in depth. I spent as much of my off duty time as possible finding my way to McIvers Cove to visit my mother’s family. I met them all and they were wonderful, but there was one uncle who became very special to me. His given name was Fiander (pronounced Fye – ander), but everyone called him Fye.
I’ll never forget the morning I first met him. I had just finished breakfast at my Uncle Billy and Aunt Mabel’s. “Oooohhhh, Philip,” Mabel exclaimed. “Your Uncle Fye is a comin’ down the road to see ya.’ He ‘pears to be full of excitement.” I looked out the window and there he was. He was tall and lanky. His gait was like a hippity-hop. In a strange way it reminded me of Charlie Chaplin’s alter-ego, the Little Tramp. Fye was tall, well over six feet, which made the gait even more amusing to watch. He was wearing a burgundy cardigan that he’d buttoned up unevenly. His head was crowned with a well weathered golf cap. I heard him squeal with delight as he swung the door open. “Is this truly our Susie’s boy?” Once he was assured that I was he hugged me for what seemed like hours.
Three day passes and leaves from Harmon came and went and so did my time in McIvers. Every time I was there Fye would take me under his wing and we’d flit from place to place around the cove, drinking tea and gathering gossip like a couple of bachelor gadabouts. I didn’t notice till my third visit that Fye only had one tooth, a lower right incisor. By the time of my sixth visit I’d read Richard Brautigan’s “A Confederate General from Big Sur.” One of Brautigan’s characters was an off-center relic named Lee Mellon, who, depending on the day might have one tooth, or three. The teeth seemed to magically appear or disappear. From that point on I always found some discreet way to stare at Fye to see what was going on. I’ve never known whether it was my imagination or some sort of counter culture magic, but Fye’s tooth seemed to move like Lee Mellon’s. One visit it might be an incisor; the next it might be a canine.
I developed a deep bond of affection for Fye. About two months before I shipped out for Vietnam I spent a night in his cabin. We talked a lot about the bonds of family. And, there was small talk. I noticed a twelve volt battery sitting on the floor next to his bed. When I asked him what it was for he said that he had plans to get a TV, a hand crank, and a wife so that he could wire the battery to the TV and have his wife turn the crank to generate “lectricty” while he watched the Toronto Maple Leafs. I couldn’t tell whether or not he was serious, although I did detect the hint of mischief in his eyes.
I thought often of Fye while I was in Vietnam. I sometimes wondered whether or not he was addled. I took a while, but I came to see that he was far from being addled. Fye just took the world in its stride. He didn’t need much to make him happy.
Looking back on it now, I see that those days with Fye were the launching point in my quest for faith and belief. The warm memories of his simple ways slowly melted away the despair gnawing on me. I’ll always be grateful to Fye for that.
I’ll see him again someday, dressed in that burgundy cardigan and golf cap. Maybe he’ll even have a full head of pearly whites, although there’s a part of me that’s hoping that I’ll get to see whether that incisor I saw last has once more magically become a canine.