87. The Boneyard, 1961: British Seagulls and Spanish Radio
If the rooms above the Grand Café in Prince Rupert had become an unlikely home for me, then the abandoned railroad shack in the Boneyard, where we had squatted the summer before, became by 1961 even more so. After I completed grade five, that’s where my father returned us.
There were changes from the previous year. Squires came back, but this time he brought a new partner. (Unfortunately, I can’t recall his name.) I had the sense that my father was not really happy about stretching the partnership to three. Two men fishing in a rowboat already did the job. A third was not necessary. And our shack was not actually spacious digs for three and half men.
Yet we moved in there, and there wasn’t any particular friction that I remember. The shack was small, but our backyard was spectacularly large and pleasant. Squires was fundamentally a decent man, which I think was why my father partnered with him. He had a flaw in that he sometimes was a slave to his enthusiasms, and he was sometimes more kind than wise.
Squires’ friend, our new partner, did bring technology with him, including a low-output two-stroke outboard motor of British make called a Seagull. Squires’ friend explained how the Seagull was slow, but powerful and reliable.
Well, yes, it was slow. I remember people with 30 horsepower motors who could, if they had wanted to, accompany us up the river loop-de-looping us the entire time. And I’m not sure how much of a power challenge our rowboat represented.
The British Seagull still has cult status and adherents, however, although the brand went out in the 90s. There are folk who keep their engines alive yet in odd parts of the world with the help of specialist second-hand parts dealers.
Back in 1961, the engine saved the partners the trouble of rowing the skiff over to where they dropped the net, but that was more convenience than necessity. The fishing grounds weren’t that far away. You couldn’t place a whirling propeller and a gillnet in the water at the same time, so the motor wasn’t much use for actual fishing. The small fishboats which operated with outboards had wells in the middle where you dipped the engine, which our skiff didn’t have. It was hard to see how the venerable Seagull, whatever its merits, helped our operation catch more fish.
Still it was the summer of modernity at the Boneyard. The new partner also brought in a shortwave radio. This was technology I was rather more enthusiastic about. There was tree right behind our shack which somebody climbed and ran up an aerial, a wire which attached to a screw on the back of the set. When night came, we all lay in our bunks, hands behind heads, a fire crackling in the old oil-drum-cum-stove, coal oil lamps casting a yellow-orange light on the walls, the mountains, the trees, the river and the railroad tracks all comfortably outside, and we listened as little splashes of noise, static, vague voices in foreign languages arrived in the Boneyard from the rest of the world. It was comforting to hear splashes of strange voices occasionally, in our isolated patch of nowhere. Most of these encounters were impressionistic, fleeting. Not so the Spanish stations. We all assumed they were from Mexico. They sounded Mexican, as much as folk so far north of the Rio Grande could judge Mexico. I remember announcements in Spanish, flamenco guitar, accordions in Spanish rhythms and Mexican singing.
I realized many years later that we probably got it wrong. One time, listening to music from both sides of the Mexican border, inspired I think to try to unearth some of those voices and guitar sounds I had heard so long before in the Boneyard, I came upon a musical style that I realized was exactly what I remembered. There in my speakers, in the voices of Flaco Jiménez and Lydia Mendoza and the like, were my Boneyard nights again.
But the music wasn’t Mexican, it was Tex-Mex Conjunto, sometimes just called Tex-Mex or Tejano, a musical style originating in the Hispanic community north of the American-Mexican border. Texas has always had a strong Spanish community. It was part of Mexico before that Alamo affair, after all. After the Mexican army departed and the gringos took over, the Hispanics who remained behind created their own music, distinctly Spanish but with oom-pahs and accordions, polkas and other elements borrowed from their German, Polish and Czech neighbours.
The country star Marty Robbins grew up listening to these sounds, which I recognized and smiled at when I later encountered his music. But Marty hailed from nearby Arizona. The reason I also knew about Tex-Mex had to do, I suspect, with another Texas tradition, its radio scene. A Doors song talks about “Texas Radio and the Big Beat” commemorating one aspect of that scene. Perhaps because Texas is so wide, with large parts of it mostly empty, it just makes sense to have powerful radio stations. Spanish superstations in Texas could make a Hispanic niche market viable by expanding it to include Spanish speakers on both sides of the border, and, I suppose, neighbouring states.
With spillage beyond that.
That is how it happened that a little bit of Texas visited the Boneyard those summer nights half a century ago. And that is how a little Tsimshian boy so far away on the SkeenaRiver came to share a bit of Spanish upbringing with Marty Robbins.