Legends of Myself 10

Posted on March 8, 2011


Continued from Legends of Myself 9

Autobiography, unfortunately, is wholly founded on eyewitness testimony, and everybody knows how unreliable that is.

12. First Impressions – Port Essington

I was born in Inverness Cannery, but much more relevantly to me—because life is validated through memory—I opened my eyes in Port Essington.

At the moment that memory begins I am standing on the pebbled edge of the Ecstall River throwing rocks.  Nobody is there with me.  Just me, a bit of pebbly beach, and the currents of the wide shallow Ecstall River.  My grandparents’ house is behind me, but I’m paying no attention to it.

Memories are constructed out of emotions, and the emotion I am feeling is frustration.  The object of my frustration is a stick floating in the water whose path I am trying to influence.  I am lobbing stones to the far side of it, attempting with the backsplash to drive the stick towards me.  Of course splash mostly follows the direction of toss, and no matter how high and looping I lob the stones, the backsplash is never enough to steer the stick in my direction.  The frustration and the failure of my stone-tossing experiment creates memory.

In science, they say that even negative results are results.  Sometimes life works that way too.

The year is 1954, truly in another century.  The presence of the Ecstall River (and it must be the Ecstall) behind my grandparent’s house suggests that the house was located in what, a decade before, would have been the Japanese part of Port Essington.  I must be four or almost four years old at the time.

Behind the pebbly beach where I am throwing rocks is a little shed, attached to the back of the house but not really part of its structure.  If I go into the door of the shed, to my right I will find a brown-grey wooden barrel taller than me and bound with strips of iron.  My four year old self knows what is in it, and even if he didn’t, he would be able tell right away from the odour of brine and salt salmon which rises from it.

The outside and front of the house conveys no memory to me, but I still have a strong sense of its inside.  It had three main-floor spaces plus an attic.  The front of the house was a relatively narrow living area, semi-divided into three spaces.  One of these spaces, on the left side of the house, was the entranceway, and directly facing the entrance was the door to my grandmother’s room.  A matching space on the right, on the other side of the front living area, was a sort of parlour, an elbow space which connected the living area to the kitchen.  Looking from the parlour, the wood stove was on the right side of the room, which would place it towards the centre of the house.  Rising behind the stove was a narrow staircase leading to the attic.  That was where Pop stayed.

I remember going up to Pop’s room only once.  My impression is that it was mostly spare, uncluttered, with little bits of fishing bric-a-brac lurking about the edges of things.  I remember blue glass floats imbedded in netting, balls from Japanese fishing nets which, I suppose had drifted in with the tide, the flotsam of fishing fleets on the deep ocean.

Old Pop would have been already 67 years old in 1954, and Granny Alice would have most likely been in her early 50s.

I slept in Grandma’s creaky brass bed next to her, on the side away from the wall so that I didn’t have to climb over her if I wanted to pee.  I remember a covered chamber pot right under the lip of the bed.  (I guess four year olds in Port Essington were spared the midnight journeys to the outhouse.)  In the closet of Grandma’s room, opposite the bed, (and behind the wall near where the stove stood in the kitchen) was a large trunk filled with miscellaneous clothing and a strong smell of mothballs.  On the back wall of her bedroom, which I guess was also the back wall of the house, were a series of framed and moody pictures of square-rigged sailing vessels on windy seas, in full sail but not a human figure in sight.

I suppose the ships were intended to be romantic.  To this four year old they felt haunted.

My Port Essington of 1954 was not same era, really, as other people elsewhere were experiencing.  In 1954, for instance, the seeds of rockabilly were being laid down by Elvis Presley in the Sun Studios of Memphis, Tennessee—and that’s all right, mama.  At the Bikini Atoll—maybe not so auspiciously—the first hydrogen bomb was exploded, and also that year Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio.  But Port Essington, 1954, did not include electricity, motor cars, professional baseball, film stars, movies, Armageddon or radio.  The first electric streetlamp was lit in London in 1882, but no electric streetlamp ever lit a Port Essington boardwalk, and my first memories include no electric lights at all.

Port Essington in 1954 was a coal oil world with coal oil lamps.  A good lamp, the brightest in ordinary use, had reflectors behind the glass chimney.  You lessened or increased the flame by adjusting the wick.  The height of lighting technology—a public marvel at the general store, not to be encountered in home settings—was a gas mantel lamp which burned with a blue bright flame that could create patches in your vision when you looked away, and which cast sharp shadows everywhere.

But a gas mantel was unusual, bordering on the excessive.

The world inside the houses of Port Essington was a dim quaint place, a world of wood stoves and backwoods technology.  I remember hanging out in the little parlour on the edge of the kitchen watching my grandmother in the kitchen ironing clothes.  She was using a flat iron, which consisted of a handle which fit onto one of a series of irons which could be heated separately.  As each iron cooled, she exchanged the one attached to the handle with a heated one from atop the stove.

Only once have I encountered a scene which reminded me of the interior landscapes of that early Essington.  It was at the Royal Provincial Museum in Victoria.  The museum is constructed around dioramas depicting representative scenes from British Columbia, decade by decade.  One such diorama depicted the bedroom of a home as it might have been found in Victoria, B.C., circa 1900.  When I saw it, I immediately recognized it.  The Victoria of 1900 could have stood in perfectly for the Port Essington of 1954.

A backwater can bring you back in time.  Living away from the centre of things—and Port Essington was far away from most things considered central in mid-twentieth century North America—can time-warp human experience.

Like a lot of coastal villages, Port Essington was connected together by wooden sidewalks.  The sound of footstep on boardwalk is another thing that has crowded into my atavistic memories.  Even today, when I walk on wooden sidewalk beside a construction site, for instance, the hollow sound of footsteps over wood is enough to tweak my nostalgia glands.

The Port Essington I opened my eyes into was already a long way into its decline.  Most people had already left.  The store at the main corner of Port Essington—down by the set of floats near where the Ecstall joins the Skeena estuary—could not economically stock everything a person might need to buy.  I remember on one occasion going with my grandmother down to a barge, a sort of floating store that I guess migrated from place to place, supplying villages all along the coast.

The core of Port Essington, even though the village had already lost its distinction as a cannery town, was still as always clustered around the floats where the boats docked.  Mostly there were fishing boats.  But I remember going down there one time attached to my grandma’s hand and seeing a gigantic, completely disproportionate ship docked at the float.  I was not blessed with a precocious understanding of heavier-than-air flight technology, so I remember standing near it wondering whether such a huge amazing thing could fly.

I believe the ship I saw was the “Essington.”  I can never be sure, of course.  And I admit that existing photographs of the venerable snag scow, although otherwise exactly depicting the ship I remember, don’t seem to emphasize its obvious—to my four year old experience—aerodynamic qualities.

Maybe it’s the angle it was photographed from.


Continued at Legends of Myself 11

Posted in: autobiography