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The Evening Telegram - IN FOCUS
John Henry (as everyone calls him) was born in English Harbour West on Nov. 25, 1901. This coming November he will celebrate his 99th birthday.
"Doctors say I'm probably good for another five years," he says matter-of-factly.
These days, he's having some problems with his breathing, his heart is a bit touchy, his legs are a mite shaky and his hearing and sight are not what they used to be. He spends most of his days in the house sitting by the kitchen window that overlooks the harbour and the main road.
"I'm not teetotally blind, but it's hard to see," he admits.
When we met John Henry, he was in his pyjamas because it was 8 p.m. and he goes to bed at 9 p.m.
He is a widower and a father of eight. His single daughter, Sadie, lives with him.
John Henry married Eda Drakes of nearby Coomb's Cove when he was in his mid-20s. Eda died in 1949 and he never remarried.
He was the eldest in a family of three brothers and four sisters. He and two sisters, both in their 80s, are the only ones left. His parents were Samuel and Sara Fiander.
John Henry says his father took him out of school to go to sea when he was nine.
"My father had a jack boat, a cutty, that he used to go to Labrador in the summer. I was taken out of school because I was so bad they couldn't do nothing with me," he says.
When he first went to Labrador, he says he was so small he had to sit on his father's knee in order to eat.
He's proud of the fact he's always worked.
"I was never on dole in my life. I'm what you call an independent man," he says.
John Henry began working as what was called a "cagey" or cabin boy on banking schooners. He washed dishes, peeled potatoes and helped on deck. He gradually worked his way up to being a cook.
He worked for the English Harbour West merchant firm of J. Petite and Sons Ltd. for more than 40 years. He also served in the merchant navy during the Second World War, and now wonders when the money veterans like him were promised will be forthcoming.
"Do you know anything about that money for the merchant navy, dear?" he asks, after explaining he has received his medals and sent off all the necessary paperwork and still hasn't received a cent from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
A while later, following up with him, you learn he was turned down for additional money for the time he spent in the merchant navy. With a dejected and somewhat puzzled air, he says a Nova Scotia man who served on the same ship as him did qualify for the money.
John Henry was a cook on 16 different bankers throughout his working life at sea, preparing meals for up to 28 men at a time.
He made 40 trips across the ocean with ship loads of dried, salted cod fish and returned with loads of salt, molasses and rum.
"Rum?" you ask.
"Oh, Jesus, yes," he replies.
His wages for cleaning up the schooner were 10 cents an hour. When he was cooking, he received $1 to $2 a day in extra pay.
He says sailing to and fro across the ocean on banking schooners meant he was away from home for months at a time.
When he was home in the winter, he cut wood and taught his children how to cook.
"I learned all my youngsters how to cook at home," he says.
Sadie says her dad was a good cook. She particularly liked his bread, both white and raisin.
At sea, John Henry cooked a lot of potatoes and dough balls or dumplings. Fish was generally always available and was served fried or stewed.
His grub list consisted of potatoes, salt, beef, fat pork, flour, sugar, rice, onions, rolled oats, molasses, butter and milk.
There were no eggs; they had to use egg powder. They also had no fresh meat or chicken, jam, cheese, fruit, dried cereal, coffee or tinned food.
Did he ever get seasick?
"No, Jesus, no," he answers.
Did he like his life at sea?
"You had to like it. If you had a family you had to make a living. You had to go if you wanted to make a living," he replies.
John Henry says there are too many people on welfare today.
"It's awful people are on welfare," he says. "They should have to work like we did."
He says he used to have an occasional drink of alcohol and he sometimes ended up getting in fights.
"More than once I came back with black eyes because I got in rackets," he admits.
Life has changed a lot since John Henry was a young fellow.
What does he think about the fishing industry today?
"Jesus Christ, it's a barrel of money in it today," he says. "Not like back in my day."
John Henry gave up cooking on ships about 20 years ago. He says when he gave up his cooking career, he went catching lobsters.
Although he admits to not having much book learning, he doesn't consider himself at any disadvantage when it comes to getting by.
"I got no learning, but you can't fool me on money," he says.
From his vantage point of close to 100 years, what does John Henry think about life today? Is it better or worse than when he was young?
"Better, my dear," he says. "I get my old age pension."
Before you leave, you lean over to shake John Henry's hand.
"Bye, my love," he says in parting. "If I don't see you here again, I'll see you in heaven."
This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (October 2000)
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)
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