It’s the summer of 1958 and the residents of the village of Blackville and outlying communities have gathered for the social event of the year: St. Raphael’s annual church picnic. In this fifteenth installment of his memoir, Memories of a Boy Growing Up in Blackville, Pat Fournier reflects on the day’s events and recalls some of Blackville’s memorable characters including Ivan Quinn and Max Gillespie.
Written by Pat Fournier
August, 1958 – eleven years old
Note from the author: This story is based on my life, and my memories of people and events that made my childhood memorable. The events described are real, and are recalled through the efforts of my best memory, and only supplemented at times with descriptions which help place the event and tell the story. Max Gillespie and Ivan Quinn are real people who I remember from my childhood, and I pay homage to those fine gentlemen by including reference to them in this story. However, other single Christian names, e.g., Archie, Sterling, Wade, etc., were simply commonplace Miramichi names at the time, and don’t reflect the names of real people involved in this story.
The ‘Church Picnic’ wasn’t really a picnic at all!
A ‘picnic’ is a meal that’s eaten outdoors on a blanket spread on the ground. But the only meal that you could get at St. Raphael’s ‘Church Picnic’ was served by the Catholic Women’s League ladies inside the hall, across the lawn from the church. You could have a nice sit-down meal with potato salad, ham or cold chicken slices, and all the fixin’s.
But that still didn’t make the Church Picnic a picnic!
And it wasn’t a circus either, because there weren’t any rides you could get on, and there weren’t any tents where you had to pay admission to go in. The ‘picnic’ was really more of a fair, which was put on by the people of the parish during one week each summer. So I never did know why everyone called it the ‘Church Picnic’, but it was a big annual ‘to-do’ each year in Blackville.
Game booths had been constructed with boards nailed together to encircle games of chance, or to serve as a counter for the players to lay down their money or game markers. So the grass on the big lawn between the church and the hall got flattened down by people walking around from booth to booth, and littered with empty cotton candy cones and candy apple wrappers. Lights were strung up on thick electric wires high above the lawn, and moths whirled and buzzed around the bare light bulbs at night. And music blared from some big speakers over by the back of the church.
Cars and trucks would be lined up all along both sides of the road, all the way from Fred’s Irving down to Tuzo’s store. And people came from communities all around to enjoy the goings-on at the Church Picnic: from Howards, Upper Blackville, Boiestown, Barnettville, Renous, Gray Rapids, etc. And while you might occasionally see a man sneak a drink of liquor from a flat pint bottle tucked inside his partly unzipped jacket, no one ever got drunk or made a nuisance of himself.
The picnic was seen as a great place to spend some time trying to win a game of skill or chance, and just as important, to meet up with friends, and socialize and catch up on gossip:
“Hey, how’s she goin’, Archie?”
“Hiya, Wade! The very best! The very best!”
“Hot enuff fer ya?”
“Lord liftin’, it can’t get much hotter, eh? How are the salmon runnin’?”
“Well, old Max Gillespie pulled in a thirty-pounder the other day.”
“Git out with ya!”
“Yep! Saw him pull ‘er in myself! Hello fer pullin’ on his line! Prit’ near bent his rod in two!”
“D’ya know what kinda fly he was usin’?”
“Nah, and old Max ain’t gonna tell! I’m goin’ up river meself next Satidy and see if I can hook one. Well, I’ll talk to ya later, Arch. See ya later.”
“Yup. Take ‘er easy, Wade”
The most popular game there was the bingo, where the players used kernels of corn to cover the called numbers on their cards. The players sat on backless wooden benches that skirted wooden counters, which circled a pyramid of stacked benches in the middle of the grassed area where all of the potential prizes were displayed: table lamps, blankets, toasters, breadboxes, canister sets, ornaments, kitchen clocks, and paintings.
And there was always some smart aleck kid who would yell “Bingo!” and then run away, while the players would frown and look around for the rascal who did it. Then the bingo caller would yell: “Go away, kid! People, do not remove your markers! That was not a bingo!” I did it once myself, but then slunk away embarrassed that someone I knew might have seen me!
Ivan Quinn was running the nickel toss game, where you tossed a nickel to see if you could get it to stay in one of the glass ornaments that were spread out on a big cloth that was laid out flat on the ground. While you had to stand behind a rope barricade to prevent you reaching too far into the prize area, it hardly mattered, because the glass ashtrays, cut glass ornaments, and fancy bowls and vases were so shallow or sloped that a nickel would slide in and then right back out again! Or would never fit in the narrow neck of the ornament anyway! And the nickels that missed were scooped up by Mr. Quinn and put into the carpenter’s apron he wore around his waist.
I watched for a while at a booth where you paid for five big wooden rings, and tried to toss one over a fancy-headed bamboo cane. But even if you reached over the rope as far as you could, the shape of the dog’s head, or the dice, or whatever it was on the top of the cane was so large or strangely shaped that it was nearly impossible to get a ring over it! And the canes were placed so close together that that even if a ring circled the top of a cane, it also rested against one next to it, so it couldn’t fall all the way down, and count as a win. I saw only one or two people walking with one of the fancy canes, but I’m betting that they were paid to do that, to entice people to go play.
Just beyond the bingo tent, close to the woods at the back of the field, someone had set up some big rope swings, and there were a couple of men or big boys who were pushing the kids up high, and the kids were laughing and having a great time! But I couldn’t believe it! There were kids who would actually pay a nickel just to get pushed on a rope swing?!? Didn’t they have swings at home? After seeing that, I figured that our family must be rich, because we had two swings at home! Dad had dug big holes on each side of a big spruce tree in our back yard, set big posts in the holes, and nailed a big plank to the tree and across to each post, and then hung rope swings from each side of the plank. So we could swing any old time we wanted!
The CWL ladies had a booth set up by the back of the church, right beside the cement steps that led up to the back room of the church where the confessional booths were. And a sign at the counter of their little booth said that every player was ‘A Guaranteed Winner!’! They had a kind of a fishing game, where all you had to do was pay a dime to play, and then pull on one of what must have been a hundred strings that were strung over a canvas curtain and tied to a hidden prize. Of course, the prize you pulled up was often something small and cheap, like a whistle or something.
Hearing the quick clack-clack-clack of the nail spikes of a spinning wheel slapping against the rubber pointer, I wandered over to watch some men play the Crown and Anchor game. Some of them were putting down quarters on the board counter, on the painted pictures of playing card diamond, heart, spade and club pictures, or pictures of a crown or an anchor. And some of them were putting down a whole dollar! I watched as the guy who spun the wheel swept up the coins after the wheel stopped spinning and the pointer aimed at a picture where no one had placed a coin. No way was I going to lose my money on that game!
Then the ring of a bell and the noise of a cheering crowd got my attention! When I pushed my way through the crowd, I saw a guy being congratulated by other men, who slapped him on the back and shouted: “Good job!”
What a guy had to do was swing a big wooden mallet and hit a wooden lever with enough force to send a metal weight, which was resting on the opposite end of the lever, shooting up a vertical steel rod to hit and ring the big gong bell at the top.
The end of the wooden lever was padded with a piece of tire that helped absorb the shock of the mallet. And the wooden backboard on which the steel rod was fastened was painted like a thermometer, with markings showing how high the weight went.
And while the guy who just rang the bell only won a big fat smelly cigar, he also won the admiration of the other men gathered around – and most importantly – his girlfriend!
I watched as a guy paid his money and was handed the mallet by the guy who ran the game.
“C’mon, Howard, give it to ‘er!” shouted one of his friends.
“You can do it, man” shouted another, “you can do it!”
Whump! The mallet slammed down on the lever! The weight rocketed up the shaft with a whoosh and… after seeming to just hang in midair only a foot from the bell… plummeted back down to the bottom, and landed with a clack-clack bounce back on the lever!
“Good try, Howard! You almost had ‘er there! Give ‘er another shot!” encouraged his friend.
“Yeah, you ‘prit near had ‘er there, boy! Give ‘er a good one, Howard!” shouted another.
Howard stood back, judged his distance from the lever, and looked up at the gong at the top of the ‘thermometer’ board. He looked over at his girlfriend, who with crossed arms held his summer jacket draped over her shoulders. She smiled at him sweetly. He tapped the lever with the mallet for distance and good luck, lifted it high over his head, leaned back, and brought the mallet crashing down.
Whump! Ssssssss! Clang!
“Hey! Way to go, Howard! Good man! That’s the way! That’s the way!”
Howard’s friends shook his hand, and slapped him on the back. He slid the paper band off the fat cigar that he won, licked it all around, and lit the end with a wooden match. As they walked away, his girlfriend wrapped her arm around his waist, and looked up at him lovingly with a proud smile on her face as he puffed on the cheap cigar. He’d proved he was a man! And he was her man!
Next up was Sterling, who paid his dollar and took the mallet in hand. Like Howard, he tapped the mallet on the piece of tire at the end of the lever, lifted the mallet high over his right shoulder, and slammed it down hard!
Whump! The mallet hit down hard! Ssssssss! The heavy weight sped up the shiny steel rod! And then the metal weight fell back, after falling short of the gong by just over two feet.
“Holy dyin’, you almost had ‘er there, Sterling!” shouted a friend.
“Hit ‘er harder, Sterling!” someone shouted.
“Yeah” encouraged another, “and aim fer the end of the rubber! That’ll give ya more leverage.”
Again Sterling measured the distance from what would be the end of his swing to the lever, and tapped the rubber with the big head of the mallet. He spread his feet, and braced his tight-laced lumberjack boots in the beaten down sod. With a grunt he swung the mallet high overhead, and smashed it down!
Whump! Ssssssss! Clack-clack! Once again the metal weight had stopped short of the gong, and fell back to its starting point!
“C’mon, Sterling! Give it to ‘er!” shouted a man in the crowd.
“Hit her hard, Sterling!” encouraged another friend.
“Yeah! Ring the Jeezlus bell!” yelled another.
I noticed that a lady standing nearby frowned visibly at the swearing, and the guy was good enough to mumble a “Sorry, ma’am”.
Again Sterling planted his feet firmly in place, swung the mallet high, and brought it down soundly on the rubber.
Whump! Ssssssss! Clack-clack!
The third try – – the third of three tries for a dollar – – and Sterling had failed to ring the bell!
A long slender chain swung from Sterling’s belt to a trucker’s wallet that poked up from the back pocket of his pants. Sterling pulled out the wallet, unzipped the bill compartment, and handed another dollar bill to the man operating the game.
He tried not to look at any faces in the crowd that had gathered around. He spit on his hands, and once again grabbed the handle of the big mallet, spread and planted his feet, hoisted the mallet high in the air, and smashed it down with all his might!
Whump! Ssssssss! Clack-clack!
And once again, for the fourth time now, he failed to ring the bell! And with each try it appeared that the metal weight went a shorter distance up the steel rod! I didn’t see anyone who looked like a girlfriend standing nearby, so at least she wasn’t there to share in his disappointment and embarrassment.
Sterling stood back and looked up at the gong at the top. While it was only thirty feet up in the air, it now seemed as high as the stars that were beginning to twinkle in the early evening sky. And it might as well have been, because the task of hitting the bell now seemed impossible!
But Sterling was determined. He worked in the woods, and was used to felling trees with mighty swings of an axe. No way was he going to let this thing beat him!
Again he tapped the rubber at the end of the lever, enough to make the metal weight bounce up a bit off its perch. Then he set the big wooden-headed mallet head down on the ground, leaned the handle against his crotch, and rolled the sleeves of his work shirt up past the elbows on his muscled arms. He spit on his hands. He grabbed the end of the mallet handle. He swung the mallet over his head in a high arc. He slammed the mallet down hard on the rubber!
Whump! Ssssssss! Clack-clack!
This was unbelievable! Try as he might, he couldn’t get the weight to slide all the way up to ring the bell! A few of his friends continued to encourage him, but they were not as loud now. The guy who had sworn previously did so again, but this time quieter than before.
“C’mon, Sterling! You gotta do this! Ring that sum’bitch!”
But there were also mumblings in the crowd that Sterling was possibly weakening from his continued effort to swing the heavy mallet. The mallet was heavy, and swinging it took its toll on the arms and shoulders.
But worst of all for any man who failed to ring the bell was the fact that the ‘thermometer’ backboard was labeled at intervals all the way up to the top, with words signifying his strength – – or lack of strength! At the ten foot mark: “Baby”. At the fifteen foot mark: “Little girl”. Then at twenty feet, “Weakling”, and finally, a short two feet away from the bell, the final label: “Nice try”.
Damn! He’d show them! No way was he going to settle for “Nice try”! This would be his sixth try now! He had to ring the bell and prove his strength – – his manhood – – to all his friends, and all the others gathered around in the crowd. And to himself!
Once again he firmly gripped the handle of the mallet. He seemed to mumble something – – was it a curse or a prayer? – – as he clenched his teeth. He hefted the mallet and swung it in a wide arc high overhead. He slammed the mallet down with all of the might he could muster onto the rubber at the end of the lever!
The metal weight soared up — up – up — then hung for what seemed like an eternity, just past the “Nice Try” mark. Then dropped with the familiar clack- clack bounce back to its place!
That was it! Sterling was beaten! After paying two of his hard earned dollars, and taking six mighty swings of the mallet, he failed to ring the gong! He dropped the mallet at his feet. The crowd parted for him as he walked away, with a reddened face, to his truck parked out at the side of the road. One of his friends patted his shoulder in consolation as he passed by, but he didn’t even turn to see who did it. Poor Sterling!
I had already used part of my little allowance to buy a sticky cotton candy, and had thrown a couple of nickels to try and win a fancy glass ashtray or ornament for Mom, so I had a dime left. So I figured, ‘what the heck’, and wended my way back to the CWL ‘fishing’ booth. I paid my dime, and fished out my prize: a green plastic frog attached by a small hose to a rubber ball. When you squeezed the ball, the frog would hop. Oh well!
I left the church yard and walked past the trucks and cars parked by the side of the road, and up the hill towards home. The black night sky was now full of bright planets and twinkling stars. A light summer breeze helped cool the summer air, and carried sounds of the picnic. I heard the faint cry of someone yelling “bingo”, and the clang of the gong. Someone just proved his strength by sending the weight up to the top of the ‘thermometer’ board!
And I swear I could smell the smoke of a cheap cigar!
And I knew that the smell of a cigar would remind me of the church picnic for the rest of my life.
Click here for more installments of “Memories of a Boy Growing Up in Blackville”.
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