Tales from the sea and sky

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Originally published in March 2013 in The Vanguard

He hasn’t strayed far from his childhood home. John Cunningham can see the Cape Forchu lighthouse where he worked as assistant lightkeeper for seven years and the coves where he pulled lobsters for thirty cents a pound.

Born at the Yarmouth Hospital on Oct. 10, 1919, Cunningham can tell you a thing or two about his life, well-seasoned with saltwater.

His father Herbert operated a streetcar in Yarmouth before moving to the lighthouse with his wife Grace Elizabeth Ayres and (eventually six) children to become its keeper.

Cunningham was only three or four-years-old at the time.

He trekked a mile-and-a-half with his brothers and sisters to a one-room schoolhouse at the Yarmouth Bar causeway, where grades primary to 10 were taught.

“One thing I do remember about that time,” he said.

“There weren’t any kids smoking cigarettes.”

Some winters there were “terrible” snowstorms and the children had to detour around snow banks by walking the beach.

A road overseer would call up brigades of young married men and pay them $1/hour to shovel the road so the few cars on the peninsula could make it out.

Cunningham recalls a memorable spring day when he was around 12. The children went outdoors after breakfast and found several exotic-looking birds at the base of the lighthouse.

“The old Yarmouth Light was very powerful. If you were close to where the flash went out, it would almost blind you,” he said.

The birds were returning from the south, alighting all around the cape and Overton.

The youngsters circled the tower and found 105 dead birds, their necks broken from colliding with the glass.

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“They were some of the most beautiful birds you could ever see,” said Cunningham.

When he was 14, he watched the tugboat, Tussle, towing a scow past the lighthouse. As the tug rounded Spruce Point, the stern of the scow began to sink.

The scowman kept walking towards the bow of the scow but when it began to go under as well, he was pulled down by the suction.

“The last I saw of him was his arms waving around in the air,” said Cunningham.

Another tragedy, the worst shipwreck in the vicinity, happened on Dec. 2, 1930. The freighter Linton went down with eight crewmembers on a stormy night.

A local resident found the body of one seaman on the shore while walking his dog. A few days later a man’s heart was found in False Harbour. Two weeks after, the lower part of a man’s body was discovered on the other side of the causeway.

Cunningham didn’t graduate Grade 10. He says it was one of the first mistakes he made in his life. Halfway through Grade 9 he was snagged by the sea. Jobs were scarce and times were tough. Young men his age, all they could think about was getting into a fishing boat, he says.

He started out in a row dory with another young man, working 30 traps. It took them all day to row around the harbour.

At 19, he became assistant lightkeeper to his father. The job required constant monitoring of the kerosene light in the tower. Large weights suspended from a winch slowly descended over two-and-a-half hours to rotate the lens.

“Coming on dark we’d have to go up six flights of stairs and 72 steps to light the light,” he said. He worked the 1-7 a.m. shift.

“If you fell asleep and those weights landed on the floor the light would stop turning,” he said.

When he turned 20 he joined the air force. He married during the war, served five years in the marine division and then worked five more years for his father as assistant lightkeeper.

He resumed lobster fishing with a new boat, called the Herbert L. after his father. He obtained his second mate certification at a Halifax navigation school and signed on with the Bluenose ferry as a deckhand.

In 1958 he began working aboard the PEI ferry, working summers and returning home to fish.

Eventually he began shipping lobster overseas. In 1982 he founded John’s Cove Fisheries, buying ground fish, herring and roe, and adding wharfage over the years. He and his sons operated the business until 1996.

In addition to sea tales, Cunningham shared stories about the First and Second World Wars.

He and his brother discovered the end of an underground submarine warning cable that was connected to bells in a room attached to the fog alarm building. The cable ran across the harbour entrance and was devised to sound an alarm should a submarine enter.

U-boats were a big concern in the Bay of Fundy during both wars. Cunningham was aboard an American patrol torpedo boat when it responded to a call from the lightboat Lurcher to assist a large French freighter several miles off Yarmouth.

A submarine had surfaced and shot down the freighter’s wireless with machine guns so it couldn’t message for help. It then shot a hole as big as a baseball, just above the waterline, into the engine room, where it exploded.

“When that shell exploded it tore one seaman’s stomach out. They lowered his body down over the side of the ship to us,” said Cunningham.

Planes from the Yarmouth airport were sent daily to patrol the Digby ferry crossing.

Cunningham remembers seeing a plane crash while taking off. It was loaded with torpedos and wing-mounted machine guns.

“One of her wings was hanging out over the pavement. When she crashed those torpedos exploded. There was a plume of smoke about as big round as my arm and that went about 200-feet straight up in the air,” he said.

The driver of the fire truck was killed when he responded to the crash and the machine guns discharged from the heat.

Cunningham knows what he wants to happen when he passes. He’s had six Little River Duck Dogs in his past, the last being Oliver.

“When I die I’m going to have his ashes put into the coffin with me and we’ll be buried together,” he said.

He reflects on his draw to the sea and the fishing life.

“There’s a lot of money made in fishing. Fish is very popular on the table today. It always has been and always will be,” he said.

He expressed concern about the sustainability of the lobster fishing industry however.

In his day, fishermen went out 10-12 miles and would seldom catch lobsters over six or seven pounds.

“Now they have those great big $300,000-$400,000 boats. They’re off 30 and 40 miles, catching lobsters 18-20 pounds. That’s a lot of the breeding stock.”

He’d like to see 10 miles taken away from the inshore and offshore fishers to establish a 20-mile conservation area.

Living by the sea is a never-ending source of change and happenings. Boats come and go, there’s the savage beauty of storms, clam-digging excursions, picnics on the beach and fishing for flounder with the kids.

“What’s any more popular?” he asks.