Ninety-Nine Bottles

It’s the summer of 1962 and fifteen year old Pat takes a nostalgic trip down memory lane in Ninety-Nine Bottles, the twenty-sixth installment of his memoir Memories of a Boy Growing Up in Blackville.

NINETY-NINE BOTTLES
Written by Pat Fournier

August 1962 – fifteen years old

The swing tree was the focal point in our back yard.  The lower branches of the big spruce tree had been trimmed off, and a long two-by-eight plank was spiked at its center to the bare trunk, about ten feet from the ground.  The plank was supported on each end by posts embedded into the ground, and rope swings hung from the plank on each side of the tree, so that two kids could swing at the same time.

At Christmas time, Dad would climb up the swing tree and tie a Santa Claus ornament to the very top, and plug the long extension cord into an outlet in the shed.  Mom always said “Oh Syl, be careful!”, as he climbed the ladder to the plank holding the swings, then wended his way up through the branches.

The illuminated Santa was quite visible from a distance, and in the dark of night it looked like the waving Santa Claus was magically floating by himself in the night sky!  Dad’s fixing the Santa Claus to the tree became an annual tradition, and many cars drove up and turned around at the intersection of the Main and Bartholomew roads just to stop and look up at Santa up in the night sky.

This is the actual Santa Claus ornament that Dad used to put up on top of the swing tree. The red paint on the plastic has faded over time, but it is still in good working condition.
This is the actual Santa Claus ornament that Dad used to put up on top of the swing tree.
The red paint on the plastic has faded over time, but it is still in good working condition.

In the summertime, the swing tree was a favourite play area for our family, and other family kids on the hill too.  The earth under each swing was bare of grass, and rutted from our pushing our feet as we got started, and from dragging our feet as we brought ourselves to a stop.  With two of us swinging at the same time, we’d sometimes challenge each other to see who would be the first to swing as high as we could.  We’d kick at the lowest branches as we swung up high in the front, and then bump the back branches with our heads as we arched backward.

I remember when I was about four or five years old I would use my imagination and picture myself being a circus acrobat!  I would let go of the ropes and jump off the swing, land solidly on my feet, and in my mind exclaim “Ta-daaa!” to the roar of the audience under the imaginary big top!

And I loved to scare Mom by shimmying up the ropes to the supporting plank, and hang upside down from the top edge of the plank, with only my sneakered heels holding me!  She would exclaim:  “Oh, be careful, Patty!”, nervous that I would fall headfirst to the hard ground.  But I knew I wouldn’t fall!  I was an experienced and professional acrobat!  Oh, the imagination!

Patty ‘the acrobat’ on the back yard swing
Patty ‘the acrobat’ on the back yard swing

One summer day as I was swinging by myself, I got the notion to swing and sing the “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” song all the way through.  While a couple of us might sing a few repetitive verses while we were swinging, we never continued to sing the song to the end.  And I don’t know if anyone ever did sing the entire song from ninety-nine bottles all the way down to zero!

Mom was in the house doing housework, it was a beautiful sunny day with not a cloud in the sky, and I was all alone outside with nothing else to do.  So I decided to set the record, and sing the entire song all the way through.

I stood as far back as I could, with the board seat under my bum, and pushed off.  I gripped the ropes tight, leaned backward, pumped my legs out straight in front of me, and swung forward.  Then I leaned forward, tucked my legs under the seat, and swung backward.  I continued to pump back and forth, back and forth, until I got the swing going good, and then I started to sing:

“Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-nine bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall.
Ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-eight bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, ninety-seven bottles of beer on the wall.
Ninety-seven bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-seven bottles of beer…”

As I continued to swing and sing, memories came flashing through my mind.

There’s John Hennessey’s house across the road.  There used to be a couple of cows in his field, but he doesn’t have them anymore.  And I smiled, thinking about the time he had an electric fence around his field to keep his cows from getting away.  We used to dare each other to touch the fence and get a little tingling electric shock.  And if we touched it with a dry stick, it would give an even bigger jolt.  And if we got someone to hold our hand while we touched it, then they would get a real big shock!

“Ninety-two bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-two bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, ninety-one bottles of beer on the wall.
Ninety-one bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-one bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles…”

A pig boiling pot
A pig boiling pot

One day Dad helped John kill one of his pigs.  A great big iron pot was hung from a steel tripod over an open fire by the barn, and the water in it got boiling hot.  Then the squealing pig was pulled out of the barn, and John slit its throat while Dad and Uncle Stan held it.  The pig continued to squeal as the blood spurted from his neck, and he squealed and squirmed and thrashed around until he died.  Then the pig was put into the big pot of boiling water to soften the skin, so it could be shaved clean.  Afterward, John gave Dad a nice piece of pork for helping him.

“Eighty-six bottles of beer on the wall, eighty-six bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, eighty-five bottles of beer on the wall.
Eighty five bottles…”

The Bartholomew Road turns off from the Main Road right in front of Hennessey’s house.  I watched as people going for a drive used the wide junction where the roads join to make a wide turn and drive back down the Main Road.

There weren’t a whole lot of cars on the road when we were little, back in the early fifties.  I remember when we used to play ‘cars’, by sitting on the front step and waiting for cars to drive by.  We’d take turns at imagining that the next car to drive by would be ‘ours’.  And we’d be all pleased if it was a nice shiny car, and laugh if it was an old truck or something.

As I watched now, some of the cars turned around and then stopped on our side of the road in front of Jim MacKenzie’s house next door.  And the driver would go into Jim’s and buy some beer or wine.

I wonder if it’s close to lunch time!  What if Mom calls me in for lunch, and I have to stop from breaking the “99 Bottles of Beer” record?

“…eighty-two bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, eighty-one bottles of beer on the wall.
Eighty one bottles…”

Kathleen.  Now I remember!  Her name was Kathleen.  But everyone called her Smokey.  I don’t know why.

One day about four or five years ago, Jim left his house, and a few days later when he came back, he had a woman with him.  Someone said he went to Tracadie, where he picked her up.  And everyone called her a ‘squaw’.  Well, she was very dark skinned, and she might have been part Indian.  Everyone on the hill seemed to be leery of her at first, but after a while we got to know her, and she was pretty nice.

I think Jim went to find a woman because he was lonesome since his wife died years ago.  And maybe to help him with his bootlegging business, and with his meals and housework.  And while she lived with him, I don’t think they had anything going on between them.  I’m thinking Jim had to be in his sixties, and she must have been twenty years younger.

Anyway, she helped with his bootlegging and everything else too!  She could readily harness up his team of horses, hitch them to the buckboard wagon, and drive up the Bartholomew Road.  She cut down trees, and sawed and chopped firewood for their wood stove.  She snared rabbits in the wintertime.  She kept his house clean.  And she even added rooms to his house!  There were times when we’d look over at Jim’s little house, with the curled and peeling asphalt imitation-brick siding, and see that she’d added an extra tarpaper covered room!  She was a hard worker, that’s for sure.

Curled and peeling asphalt imitation-brick siding on Jim’s house
Curled and peeling asphalt imitation-brick siding on Jim’s house

Trouble was, she liked to drink too!  So as Dad said, Jim could have made some good money bootlegging, if they didn’t drink all their profits!

“…those bottles should happen to fall, seventy-five bottles of beer on the wall.
Seventy-five bottles of beer on the wall, seventy-five bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, seventy-four bottles…”

When I swung up high, I could see where the trees were cut down in the triangle of woods where the Bartholomew Road turns off from the Main Road.  The legion had made a cenotaph there in honour of the war dead, with a rock monument with a brass plaque bolted to the front.

I remember Dad used to be in the Remembrance Day parades that marched up the road to the cenotaph.  He was in the Merchant Marines in the war.  I remember him telling the story about how his ship was torpedoed, and he and some other men spent days on a lifeboat with nothing to eat but a few chocolate bars, until a passing ship rescued them.

And I remember when I was about five years old maybe, I was standing by the side of the road in front of our house when the men marched by.  Dad looked over at me and smiled and wiggled his fingers in a “Hi” to me.  I had the poppy that Dad gave to me pinned to my winter coat, and I shyly waved back at him.  When the parade got to the cenotaph, all the veterans would stand at attention while someone blew a bugle and the Union Jack flag was lowered down the flagpole.  Then after a minute of silence, it was raised back up again.

There’s a flat cement top on the pyramid of stone, but there’s nothing on it.  Someone said once that a statue of a soldier was going to be put on top, but nothing was ever put there.

Canada’s Union Jack flag.  This was our country’s flag, until our new Canadian flag was adopted many years later.
Canada’s Union Jack flag. This was our country’s flag, until our new Canadian flag was adopted many years later.

“…bottles of beer on the wall, sixty- eight bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, sixty-seven bottles of beer on the wall.
Sixty-seven…”

And I have another very clear memory about the Bartholomew Road!

When I was maybe four or five years old, Mom and Aunt Greta and Marie MacKenzie went raspberry picking up the Bartholomew Road one summer day, and Mom hauled me with them in our truck wagon.   While they were picking berries, the air got awful still, and the birds even stopped chirping.  Aunt Greta looked up at the darkening sky and said we’d better get home, because a big thunder storm was coming.  Just as we were about half way home, it started to rain real hard, and then the lightning came.  And that was the first time I’d ever seen ball lightning!  The lightning was ball shaped, and it crashed down with an awful loud bang!

I remember Johnny and I used to put on our swim trunks and go out and splash in the puddles during a summer rain, and even when it was thundering!  But we’d never have gone out to play during that thunder and lightning storm!

Ball lightning - the scariest lightning I ever saw!
Ball lightning – the scariest lightning I ever saw!

“Sixty-one bottles of beer on the wall, sixty-one bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, sixty bottles of beer on the wall.
Sixty bottles of beer on the wall, sixty bottles of beer;
If one of those…”

I remember my first pair of swim trunks, too!  Mom made them for me from material cut out of an old blanket, and the material was itchy on me!  I didn’t know that though, until she took me swimming down at the Red Gate.  I was only about four years old, I think.

We called our swimming place in the Miramichi River The Red Gate, because after we crossed the railroad tracks down below the train station and across from the Gillespie’s house, we had to climb over an old red-painted wooden gate.  We had to be careful going down the steep dirt path down to the river because it was under a canopy of trees and didn’t get much sun, so it could be muddy and slippery.

A farmer’s ‘cow gate’ very similar to the gate that we had to climb over to get to the river to go swimming.  The gate was just like this, tucked into the trees that ran alongside the railroad tracks.  But the gate at the path leading down to the river was painted a deep red, which lead to the swimming hole being called “The Red Gate”.
A farmer’s ‘cow gate’ very similar to the gate that we had to climb over to get to the river to go swimming. The gate was just like this, tucked into the trees that ran alongside the railroad tracks. But the gate at the path leading down to the river was painted a deep red, which lead to the swimming hole being called “The Red Gate”.

At the bottom of the path there was a beaten down grassy area by the river where you could sit in the sun and talk, and maybe have a picnic lunch, and watch the swimmers.  The water was nice for swimming there, and the river bottom wasn’t too rocky.  When Mom took off my clothes and put my little swim trunks on me, I remember crying because they were itchy.  So she took them off me, and I didn’t go into the water.  But in later years, I learned to swim there, and the Red Gate became our favourite swimming place for all the hot summer days.

“…one of those bottles should happen to fall, fifty-eight bottles of beer on the wall.
Fifty eight bottles of beer on the wall…”

We sure did do some fun and sometimes scary things when we were little, like touching Hennessey’s electric fence.  But the scariest thing we ever did, at least as far as our Mom was concerned, was to cross the road from under the road!

There was a culvert that went from the deep ditch on our side of the road, straight across under the road, and came out at the ditch by Aunt Greta’s yard.  The culvert was made out of big splintery eight-by-eight beams.  From our side of the road, we had to go down into the ditch, and then go through a short length of culvert that ran parallel to the road.  Then there was a drop of about a foot, down to the main section of the culvert that went under the road.  From there we could look through and see the patch of daylight by Aunt Greta’s yard on the other side.

A culvert opening under the road, similar to the one we crawled through!
A culvert opening under the road, similar to the one we crawled through!

The wooden beams and the ground on the floor of the tunnel weren’t wet, unless there’d been a big rain earlier.  And we only felt the occasional drop of water that dripped from the plank roofing overhead that held the dirt and the asphalt of the road from caving in.  So we’d follow each other through, Katharine and Marjorie and Johnny and me, and our McLaughlin cousins.  We’d crawl through on our hands and knees, and go across the road from either our side of the road to their side, or from their side of the road to our side.  And Laddie, the McLaughlin’s dog, even crawled through with us!

“…fifty-four bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, fifty-three bottles of beer on the wall.
Fifty-three bottles of beer on the wall, fifty-three bottles of beer,
If one…”

Halfway there!  This is tiring!  And I’m already sick of singing this stupid song!  But got to keep going!  Can’t stop now!

“Fifty-one bottles of beer on the wall, fifty-one bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall…”

There’s one of our bicycles leaning against the side of the house.  It’s a good second-hand bike, but it’s a girls’ bike.  I don’t mind driving it though, because it doesn’t have a crossbar that hurts real bad if you slip off the pedals!

I remember years ago, when I was little but still too big for a tricycle, and before we got the girl’s bike, how I learned to keep my balance and how to ride a big bicycle, on the big boy’s bike.  I’d put my right leg under the cross bar and over to the pedal on the other side, and ride it around the yard.  I must have looked silly riding the bike that way, with me on one side of the bike, and only my leg sticking though on the other side!  But I thought I was pretty smart for figuring how to do that.  It was awkward, but it worked!

A girl’s bike, with parcel carrier, that looks very much like ours
A girl’s bike, with parcel carrier, that looks very much like ours

All five of us share in using the bikes – – Dad and us four kids.  Leonard and Leslie are too small.  And I don’t know why, but I don’t ever remember Mom riding the bikes! The parcel carrier on the girl’s bike comes in real handy for carrying groceries from the store, or for holding the empty pop and beer bottles I find in the ditches, when I go hunting for bottles.

“…beer on the wall, forty-seven bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, forty-six bottles of beer on the wall.
Forty-six bottles of beer on the wall, forty six bottles…”

Dad likes to tell the story about how he would jokingly brag about how he was smart when he was little.  He’d tell of how he used to sit in his baby carriage and count the cars going by!  Then one day Katharine piped up and said:  “Were there cars back then, Daddy?”  And Dad always laughs about how his little girl one-upped him with that question!

“Forty-two bottles of beer on the wall, forty-two bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, forty-one bottles of beer on the wall.
Forty-one bottles…”

I hear the phone ringing in the house.  I remember when we got our first telephone a couple of years ago.  And I think maybe we were the last family on the hill to get a phone!

Whenever Mom or Dad really needed a phone for something, they had to go over to the Hennessey’s or McLaughlin’s to use theirs.  And I remember the time that Lil Hennessey came over to tell Dad that he was wanted on their phone.  When he came back home from using their phone, he was crying.  Someone had called him to tell him that his dad had died.

And the phones were rotary dial, so you’d have to poke your finger in the right number, turn the dial all the way around to the stopper, and wait until it spun back to its starting position.  So you’d dial eight, and the dial would spin back with a chck-chck-chck-chck ratcheting sound.  Then you’d dial four, and chck-chck-chck; then three, chck-chck and so on.

And a lot of peoples’ phones were on a party line, too.  So before you could use the line, you had to pick up the receiver and listen to see if someone else from another family was using their phone.  And if they were, then you’d have to hang up and wait some more until it was free to dial out.

A 1960’s era rotary dial telephone
A 1960’s era rotary dial telephone

I remember too the first time I made a phone call on our new phone.  This was something new for me, so I was even nervous making my first phone call!  I decided I’d call Betty Hayes – she was in my class – and just call and say “Hi”, and chat with her.  But when I opened up the new Blackville phone book that came with the phone, and looked up ‘Hayes’, I selected the wrong number!  I called Jenny Hayes’ store instead of the Hayes’ house!  And her mom answered!  Oops!  When I asked for Betty, she seemed irritated that I maybe took her away from her store work, and said that Betty was at home.  So I stammered “OK, ’bye”, and hung up!  And after I hung up I never did bother to call Betty at home!

Betty found out about my mistake, and kidded me about it!

“…thirty-nine bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, thirty-eight bottles of beer on the wall.
Thirty-eight bottles of beer on the wall, thirty-eight bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, thirty-seven bottles of beer on the wall.
Thirty-seven bottles of beer…”

Jim MacKenzie sells beer by the case and by the bottle too.  And they’re quart bottles made of thick green glass.  How could a heavy quart beer bottle get stuck on a wall?  This song doesn’t make sense!

I always liked Jim, even if he’s a bootlegger.  You can’t always tell what a person is like just by what he does, or how he appears to be on the outside.  I sure found that out when Dad told me a story about Phil Sipley!

Phil is one of Dad’s friends who works with him at the Renous ammunition depot.  Phil is a small man, I guess in his fifties, and I think he’s just one of those people that others just like to tease.  One day at the ammunition depot someone put a bunch of nails in Phil’s lunch pail when he wasn’t looking, and then told the man at the security gate that Phil was smuggling stuff out of the depot!  While the security guy got a laugh at that prank too, poor Phil didn’t find it funny!

Phil and his wife live in their little house just below the hill, not far from the Legion Lane, and Phil likes coming up to visit with Mom and Dad.  Sometimes when he had a few drinks of wine, he’d sing a happy little “Yanky-doodle-oot- doo-doo” song that he made up.

Johnny and I used to laugh at him, but I don’t anymore.  Not after Dad told me a story about Phil.

One day, a little boy fell into an open cesspool, and would have drowned if it weren’t for Phil, who pulled him out and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  Can you imagine pulling that dirty cesspool stuff out of someone’s mouth, and giving them mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?  But that’s what Phil Sipley did.  I remember Dad saying that Phil should have gotten a medal for doing that.  Phil was a hero, and not too many people knew that.  So I have a whole different opinion of Mr. Sipley now.

“…should happen to fall, twenty-six bottles of beer on the wall.
Twenty-six bottles of beer on the wall, twenty-six bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, twenty-five bottles of beer on the wall.
Twenty-five…”

We used to have some great sliding hills at the back of the house when we were smaller.  Dad used to shovel the snow in the back yard up into a big pile, and then throw pails of water on it at night.  He’d pack the wet snow down with a shovel, and the hill would freeze, and be very slippery.  And all of our friends would come over after supper with their pieces of cardboard, and slide down the hill too!

“Twenty-two bottles of beer on the wall, twenty-two bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, twenty-one bottles of beer on the wall.
Twenty-one bottles of beer on the wall, twenty-one…”

No one’s living in the house next door to Jim Mackenzie’s place now.  That’s where an unfriendly Pentecostal family used to live, and because they were not nice, I don’t think anyone ever got to know them.  And next to their vacant yard is Mike Murray’s field, where he lets his chickens run loose.

Dad had a few chickens once, and he used to let them out of their chicken coop to run loose sometimes too.  Early one evening after supper, Dad went out to gather our chickens back into their coop, and he saw some white chickens, the same as ours, in the vacant area between Mike Murray’s field and Jim’s, and he thought they were his.  But as he went after them and tried to shoo them back home, they would always keep running back toward Mike Murray’s field!  It was only after Mr. Murray came out to ask why Dad was trying to take his chickens, that Dad realized they weren’t his at all.  Boy, that was funny!

“…nineteen bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, eighteen bottles of beer on the wall.
Eighteen bottles of beer on the wall, eighteen…”

And it was funny too the day Johnny and I were playing at the blackboard that was nailed to the kitchen wall by our bedroom door.  When we asked Mom why she kept clearing her throat, she said that she had ‘catarrh’, which is an inflammation in the throat.  Well, Johnny thought that that sounded so much like ‘guitar’, that he drew a picture on the blackboard of a woman –  Mom –  with a guitar in her mouth!  It was one of the funniest pictures I’d ever seen, and we both laughed and laughed!  But I don’t think Mom thought it was funny!  Or maybe she did think it was funny, but didn’t want to laugh in front of us, and laughed all by herself later!

This is something like the picture that Johnny drew on our blackboard of ‘Mom’ with a guitar in her mouth.  Johnny and I giggled like crazy while Mom tried to ignore us!
This is something like the picture that Johnny drew on our blackboard of ‘Mom’ with a guitar in her mouth. Johnny and I giggled like crazy while Mom tried to ignore us!

“Fourteen bottles of beer on the wall, fourteen bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, thirteen bottles of beer on the wall.
Thirteen bottles of beer on the wall, thirteen bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, twelve

We always had a lot of fun! And we made our own fun!

A couple of years ago, Katharine got the idea to hold a play in our shed, and charge our friends a nickel to come see it. Once our mothers got wind of what we were doing, they decided to come see the play too!

We hung a curtain across the back area of the shed, and used that part for our stage. The seats for the audience were an old wooden lawn chair, the kitchen chairs, the chopping block, the saw horse, and whatever other things we could find to sit on. The play was about someone being murdered, and we even had an intermission between the two acts, so Rosemary Hennessey could sell fudge! Johnny and Ronald dressed up like women, and I played the part of a Mountie.

Before the end of the first act and the intermission, as the curtain closed, Terrance Walls had been ‘murdered’ and was left lying down on the floor. When the second act was about to begin, he laid back down again in the same spot. When we opened the curtain, Mrs. Walls laughed and said, “Oh look! There’s poor Teddy, still lying there dead!” That was a fun day!

seven bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, six bottles of beer on the wall.
Six bottles of beer on the wall

I’m getting tired now, and I have to go to the bathroom!

We used to have an outhouse out in the yard, but after Dad built our house after the other one burned down, he built a shed for his firewood, with a room for his workshop, and a separate room for a two-hole toilet.

But I remember being in the old outhouse in the yard one day when I was maybe five years old, and I went to do ‘number two’. Alton and Johnny were playing on the swings, and they laughed so hard when after I was done I yelled out for Mom: “Mommy, come and wipe me!” And they both mimicked me, and cried out: “Mommy! Come and wipe me!” And they laughed and laughed! And Mom never did come out. Probably on purpose, too! So I had to learn to wipe my bum by myself!

two bottles of beer;
If one of those bottles should happen to fall, one bottle of beer on the wall.
One bottle of beer on the wall, one bottle of beer;
If that bottle should happen to fall, no bottles of beer on the wall.”

There! Finally! I did it! I sang the entire song all the way to the end!

I stopped singing, and stopped swinging too.

I don’t know if doing this is a world record or anything, but I’m sick of this song, and I no longer care if it’s a record or not. But I did find out two things for myself:

For one, I figured anytime I really put my mind to doing something, I can do it!

And second, I know I’ll never, ever, sing that song again, for the rest of my life!

NEVER!

Click here for more installments of “Memories of a Boy Growing Up in Blackville”.

0 Responses to Ninety-Nine Bottles

  1. Loved this story. I always wondered where the name ‘Red Gate’ came from. I’m in my 40s and we used to hang out there as teenagers.

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