The Boy Was Born To Fish: A Life By the Sea in Neil's Harbour, Cape Breton


By Sher Maryn LeBay

The boy was born in “Great Noise,”  a remote fishing village of a hundred families carved into a hill and sliced open by a nosedive of freshwater into the mouth of the sea. He came up there, too.  It was a couple of years after the end of the Great War, and Grand Bruit (rhymes with grit), like all of New Foundland,  provided Europe with its fish andsome of its young men. 

Ron Ingram lived between the two great tumults but he barely remembers either.  His memory is crackerjack for what tugs at him.   The wars didn’t make the cut. I brought them up, not him.

He talked fish, birds and squirrels, winds and waves.  He talked about the village of Neil’s Harbour and the spot where he built his house out of spruce and fir that he felled with a bucksaw in Black Brook.   And he talked about Bernice, his great love, looking out the window as he did so.   Just like she was on the other side of the glass.

Right next to the Blue Jay.

I’ve heard a lot of stories in my life and find that people can inhabit them, somewhat like a bird cage, if they tell them often enough.  Fishing for the truth about a person’s life, the life outside the fused wire frame, takes time.  And a willingness to follow the leader-line wherever it goes.  Jumping in, I search for a bit of common ground.  

The shared spot between Ron and me is a breath shy of remarkable: we both painted squirrel tails. When they raided our homes or treasures, we sprayed then with a shot of paint, sort of like a cattle brand except we didn’t want them to return after we dragged them miles down the road.  He painted them white.  I painted them blue.  Not a one of his ever came back.  Not a one of mine ever did, either.

We were well into a good yarn after that…

“When I was growin’ up, the only thing you could do was go fishin’. There was no industry there at all, just fishin’. Me father used to be on a schooner.  In the summer, (he) would go out and I and another little feller used to go out with two lines of gear, 90 hooks to a line, and whatever come off those two lines was ours…I was always doin’ somethin’.”

Ron gets up out of his maroon easy chair and walks toward a line drawing of his boyhood village that spans the support beam of his living room ceiling. “My home is still there” he says pointing to a housenear the crest of the hill. “That’s the school above it.”

Though the school was so close it nearly cast a shadow on his boyhood home, it didn’t lure him in withvistas of other worlds or curiosities about lives different than his own.  “I made it to grade three” he said. “I never went to school.” 

It wasn’t, he explained, that his parents pushed him to work or even that he didn’t like school.  The whisper of the salt spray started early in him and never let him go. 

It’s been ninety-six years.

Ron Ingram came from New Foundland to Neil's Harbour when he was 18.  He mends fishing nets, a dying art, in the basement of his home...

Ron Ingram came from New Foundland to Neil's Harbour when he was 18.  He mends fishing nets, a dying art, in the basement of his home...

Listening to Ron, I am struck by how similar our human longings are but how different, our lives. We are born into a story. Each of us.  Necessity and drift can keep us there.  Dreams can take us somewhere else.  Every once in awhile, someone comes into the world and seizes the very life they were were given.  Like Ron. The boy was born to fish. 

Newfoundland was under the British Crown when a Canadian officer stamped Ron Ingram’s papers, proclaiming him a landed immigrant.  “ ‘Go to hell with it!’ he told me.”  

And he did. Ron settled in Neil’s Harbour, rising by starlight, eating a bowl of cereal, then driving to Dingwallwhere he set out for lobsters and halibut, mackerel and the occasional cod (his favourite). Back then, all he had to guide him was instinct and a compass.

“You have to really love yourself to spend that much time on your own” I tell him.  “What did you think about all day?”

He laughs.  “Mostly how many lobsters there might be in the next trap I’m pullin’ up. I worked hard.” 

The Atlantic crashes headlong on the rocks outside Ron’s kitchen window. It’s a rare view for daily dishwashing.  “I love it here because I know everybody. I have enough money to keep me.  I have a good furnace.  So I don’t know what else you’d want and I’ve always got a bottle of rum…I have plenty to eat and lots of fish. As far as I’m concerned, everything I wants is here.”

Well, almost.

I ask about his wife. “If you’re married and you’ve got a good woman, I don’t know what else you’d want,”  he says. 

And then I disappear from his view.

He stares out the window and tells me how two people brought him halibut that day, how he was washing dishes and Bernice was watching The Young and the Restless.  She came into the kitchen and said she was going to the hospital.  Later his daughter Kathy called: “Dad, you comin’ up? she asked.  It never dawned onto me… I washed up and changed my shirt and went up.  I kissed her and asked how she was feelin’.” 

A few hours later, she was gone.  Ron rubs the three year oldmemory a hundred times a day, like the sea smoothing the jagged edges of old stones.  “I can’t get there fast enough,” he says, meaning right by her side.  

We sit in silence for a long time.  I wait for him.

If we come back again, he tells me,  “I would choose this very same spot. We’re living in the best part of the world.”

I close my eyes and look for him.  

A boy pierces slices of mackerel withshiny hooks, shaping the long bait lines into wooden tubs.  His strong arms row them out to sea in a dory with bright red sides.  When the fish sail out of the inky blackness in the hours before dawn, his heart thumps.  It is fresh and new.

Bit by bit, the boy turns into a man andfashions a life on the lips of the sea.  In summer, he picks Bakeapples with his wife on one of the islands off the coast of Newfoundland.  And when the snow comes, they sit in their living room and spin a bright yarn.  He drinks a spot of rum with coke.  The furnace hums. “Everything I want is here” he says to his wife. 

She nods once, smiling…

The boy was born to fish.

 

 

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