All posts by Edward Staskus

Edward Staskus is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio.

Road Map

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By Ed Staskus

“Go ‘round the world on a country road, and who knows where you might end up.” Craig Campbell

There are more than six thousand kilometers of two-lane roads up and down the Atlantic Canada province of Prince Edward Island. Almost 2000 of them are unpaved. All of the unpaved roads are red clay dirt tracks. Many of the paved roads are also a reddish hue.

“At one time there was island stone and beach sand that was used in concrete,” explained Jamie Reid, the PEI operations manager for USCO Concrete.

The landscape of Prince Edward Island is layered over sandstone bedrock. The sandstone is leavened with iron oxide, or rust, giving the countryside its distinctive red color beneath wide blue skies overlooking green fields. The Indians who lived on the island before European colonization called it Epekwitk. They believed their god Glooscap, after he finished making the rest of the world, mixed his colors with a final flourish and made their land, their home.

Sandstone can be dug up by backhoes and is still sometimes used for local and seasonal roads. Wet weather transforms unpaved byways and tractor passages into what some islanders call baby poop.

“When I was a kid most of the roads around here were dirt,” said Kelly Doyle. “Sometimes after a bad winter storm you couldn’t go anywhere for a day-or-two.”

The first roads on PEI were built in the late 1760s. At the turn of the 20th century cars were banned on most roads most of the time, especially on market days. A Red Flag law was legislated, ordering there be a man at the front of every car with a red flag, ready to wave it just in case things got out of hand. But by 1920 cars could go anywhere and the red flags were put away.

Kelly Doyle has lived in North Rustico, a small town on a natural harbor on the north-central side of Prince Edward Island along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, most of his life. He owns the Coastline Cottages on the eponymous Doyle’s Cove on the National Seashore, operates PEI Select Tours, and was a lobster fisherman for decades of seasons.

“I grew up on a mixed farm. It wasn’t anything elaborate, basically turnips, which is a rutabaga, and we grew grain, barley, and wheat. My father was the farmer.”

Mixed farms are for families who need a farmer three times a day, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Tom and Doris “Dottie” Doyle farmed 100 acres, although at one time the family had almost 400 acres. “Most of our land is rented,” said Kelly Doyle. ”We used to have seven fields on our one hundred acres, but now it’s three fields.”

By the early 1900s PEI’s thick forests had been largely cleared and ninety percent of the island’s land was being farmed. There were more than 12,000 farms, almost all of them between fifty to one hundred acres. The land was sub-divided by dykes, which are walls built of rocks dug up from the fields.

“Those dykes were full of berries,” said Kelly. “Our mom used to send us back in the fields with buckets. We’d come back with them full of wild raspberries and blueberries.”

After World War II province-wide development, tractors, and technology led to modernization and bigger farms. One-crop planting became common. By 2006 there were only 1,700 working farms on Prince Edward Island and more than half of them were growing potatoes.  PEI is sometimes called the Million Acre Farm. Other times it’s just called Spud Island.

“Fields were smaller fifty years ago,” said Kelly. “Maybe it should have stayed that way. Now they’ve ripped out all the dykes and sprays kill all the wild berries. It’s a shame to see it.”

Tom Doyle, however, was the only Doyle who ever farmed.

“They were boat people from Ireland in 1847,” said Kelly. “It was on his third sailing here that my great-great-grandfather landed and stayed. He did something so that the Queen, or somebody, granted him land, and two shore lots.”

By 1850 a quarter of the people on Prince Edward Island were Irish. The last wave of immigrants was called the Monaghan settlers because they came from County Monaghan. They usually paid their own way to North America and made their own way once on the island, rather than submitting to tenant farming.

Most freeholders farmed and controlled livestock. By the mid-1800s PEI was already exporting surplus foodstuff all over eastern Canada and to Great Britain. The Doyle’s, however, raised horses and propagated thoroughbreds. The family later took advantage of fashion and bred black silver foxes for their pelts.

The riddle of breeding foxes for their pelts was solved in the late 19th century on Prince Edward Island. Twenty years later single pelts sold for as much as $2000.00, at a time when farm laborers made a dollar a day. In 1913 the provincial government estimated foxes were worth twice as much as “all of the cattle, horses, sheep, swine, and poultry” on the island.

When fish and crop prices went south, men turned to fox breeding. No one overly minded the stink, the skunk-like smell of the fox farms. The fur bubble burst on the eve of WW2. “When they went out of style my dad let all his animals out and he became a farmer.” By the early 1950s the fox industry was finished.

Kelly grew up on the family farm and went to the nearby Stella Maris School, across the street from the Church of Stella Maris Roman Catholic Church. The school was built in 1940 and burned to the ground in 1954. “We stood looking utterly helpless in our misery,” a nun at the nearby Stella Maris Convent wrote in her diary. A year later, a year before Kelly’s birth, the town re-built their school. “It is the most modern fourteen room school in the province,” the Guardian newspaper touted in its feature article.

“I went grades one through nine. Almost everybody my age quit in grade nine. It was the 70s. There was no need of education around here. Fathers would tell their kids, you’re not going to do anything in school, get to work in the boat. All of us said we’ve got better things to do and banged out of there.”

As a young man he wasn’t ready for boat work, or steady work of any kind, instead roaming Lower Canada, living in Montreal and sowing a bushel full of wild oats, until returning to North Rustico. He built a cottage on family land on a hillside overlooking Doyle’s Cove, but couldn’t find work.

High unemployment in Atlantic Canada has been a constant since the 1950s. The eastern provinces have more seasonal jobs, like agriculture, fishing, and tourism, than Canada’s other regions, leading to seasonal lay-offs and involuntary part-time work.

“Back in the 70s and 80s, she was pretty lean here. There was no money around for years.”

In the 1980s the gross domestic product of Prince Edward Island was the lowest in Canada, only 56% of the national average. Next to Newfoundland, the province had the lowest per capita income in the country. There was the fruit of the sea, though. When Kelly was offered work on a fishing boat putting out of the town harbor, he took it.

“When I first started fishing everyone had a gasoline engine in an old wooden boat. Everything was done manually, except for hydraulics to haul gear off the bottom. The steering was even done by chains. Then everything went fiberglass, everything went diesel, and everything went hydraulics.”

As late as the 1980s fish men went door-to-door, making a living selling cod, until a ban on the taking of ground fish was put in place. Fish stocks had been over-exploited up and down Atlantic Canada. They were severely depleted.

“When I started fishing, people were baiting hooks and hauling trawls for halibut, haddock, and cod. Then the moratorium came in. All we were allowed was lobster.”

Kelly harvested hundreds of thousands of lobsters for almost three decades.

“Lobster traps were invented a while ago and they’re as simple as mousetraps,” he said.

Except, unlike mousetraps, lobster traps are remarkably half-baked, even though they almost always get the job done. Invented just more than one hundred years ago, they have changed little in the interim. Even though entrances to the traps are one-way, any lobster that tries to escape can get away, if it has a mind to.

“My theory is there are two ways lobsters get caught,” said Kelly. “One way is what I call simple mindedness.” Since lobster brains are less than the size of the tip of a fountain pen, he might be right.

“Lobsters won’t usually back out the same way they’ve come in. They crawl up the net, there’s a flap on it, then once they’re in that they can’t go back. The other way they get caught is they just stay too long in the trap eating bait, and when we jerk it out of the water, they get tossed into the back by the sheer momentum of us pulling it up with the hauler.”

Since lobsters spend almost all day and night racking their brains about where their next meal is coming from, crawling on their walking legs to get to it, and finally eating all the crabs, mollusks, fish, and even other lobsters they can get, it lends considerable credence  to Kelly’s second theory.

Kelly Doyle’s brothers, John, Mike, and Kenny, all fished. “We weren’t farmers, exactly, but we weren’t fishermen, exactly, either, although I think it was naturally in our blood, since every one of us was at ease on the water.”

John Doyle fished for several years before marrying and moving to Ontario to raise a family. Mike Doyle was one of the first satellite television providers on PEI. “Mike had rubber boots and oil gear and he went out, too, but then he got into TV’s.”  He later transitioned from catching lobsters to serving them at his Blue Mussel Café, a seasonal seafood restaurant, at the far end of the harbor.

Kenny Doyle spent fifteen years fishing on local boats, and the next ten years fishing commercially with his brother, Kelly. “He’s captained deep-sea fishing boats out of Rustico for fifteen years, too. Kenny’s an able man behind the wheel.”

Cathy and Elaine, the Doyle sisters, stayed on dry land. They did so for good reason. In North America fishing boats sink to the bottom of the sea at the rate of one every three days. Imperfect unpredictable storms roil the ocean. “You get black and bruised,” said Kelly. “During those seas, you do everything slower. You have to be a lot more careful with your gear, your traps, and the rope under your feet. You always have to watch your P’s and Q’s.”

Kelly fished with his partner, Paul Doiron, a man he’s known since they were youngsters, although nine years separates them. “Paul, that’s my buddy, that’s my partner in crime.” Their boat was the Flying Spray, a modern, high-bowed 40-foot fiberglass craft built in nearby Kensington. “Paul’s roundish, built a bit like a buoy. He lives right here in the crick.”

North Rustico has been known as ‘The Crick’ for many years. “There was a creek that ran right through the village,” said Kelly. “The people from Charlottetown either didn’t know what a creek was, or misunderstood, and ended up calling it the crick, so we ended up being nicknamed that.”

There are only three houses on the shore lots on the northwestern side of Doyle’s Cove. One of them is a newer house built by Kenny Doyle, the other is the old Doyle family house, and the house nearest the cove was Andy’s Surfside Inn. Andy Doyle was Kelly Doyle’s uncle. “Andy turned 90 a couple of years ago and was still over there.” When he passed away, a cousin took over the house, renovating it.

Kelly’s all-year cottage, large sliding glass doors fronting red cliffs and the curving shoreline, is on the field side of the Gulf Shore Parkway, which the National Park road between Cavendish and North Rustico. Since the late-80s he has built one by one five seasonal cottages adjacent to his, which are the Coastline Cottages, on the crest of the hill overlooking Doyle’s Cove. In the new century he added a kidney-shaped saltwater swimming pool.

“People thought, I’m turning it into a tourist trap,” he laughed.

“Most of my friends ended up getting married. I ended up having cottages and getting in debt.” He is not on the rocks, but “there was no money around here for years. We’re all making a living now, but there still isn’t any great amount of it.”

He owned and operated Amanda’s, a fresh seafood diner, in town across from the market, for many years. It wasn’t in his blood, but it was  In the 1960s his parents had a small restaurant in nearby Cavendish.

“It was 7 cents for pop, 30 cents for a hamburger, and 17 cents for fries back then,” he said. “That was the kind of money you made in 1964. There were six kids in our family. Some of those French Acadian families around here had twenty births. It was no different for anyone.”

Besides his cottages and fishing for lobster the months of May and June, like many men and women on Prince Edward Island he has always had other jobs to keep his head above water. He operates PEI Select, a tour guide service catering to Japanese tourists visiting Anne’s Land, the imaginary home of “Anne of Green Gables”. The series of books by Lucy Maud Montgomery, about a plucky red-haired girl, are big in Japan. In 2014 a Japanese-language version of the “Anne of Green Gables” musical wrapped up a sold-out nationwide tour by playing in Tokyo.

In the spring he rents his farmland to neighboring farmers for hay, grain, and soybeans. He doesn’t let potatoes on his land. “They grow food that uses the least herbicides and pesticides,” he explained.

Coastline Cottages, the Doyle houses, and the cove are in the National Park, but are not the National Park. The park was established in 1937 and encompasses more than five thousand acres of coastal headlands, sand dunes, and beaches. The Doyle’s didn’t sell their land when the park was being created on the central north shore of Prince Edward Island.

“But they have the patience to wait everybody out,” said Kelly. “That’s the beauty of the National Park. You don’t want to sell right now? That’s fine. Your son will want to sell, and if he doesn’t want to, his son will. If it takes two hundred years, we will get you out of this park.”

Only change is unchanging, even though when times change it sometimes seems like not much is different. “There’ve been a lot of changes around the island, but it’s nice to go home and say it hasn’t changed much right here. That’s another beauty of the National Park. Since it’s a national park, it stays the same.”

About 285 million years ago Prince Edward Island was a mountain range. Over time it evolved into a low-lying basin as glaciers advanced and retreated. Most of the ice was gone by 10,000 years ago and the island slowly took shape.

Living in a traditional farming and fishing community, looking past the sandstone cliffs of Doyle’s Cove and out over the wide Atlantic Ocean, from the vantage point of Kelly Doyle’s deck it can seem like only a little has changed in a long time.

“Only the rabbits and trees get bigger,” he said.

Before the rebuilt Gulf Shore Parkway, which features a new all-purpose trail as it winds down a long highland past the cove, there was the old Gulf Shore Parkway, while before that there were tracks, and before that there weren’t any roads, at all.

“When the road came in sometime in the 1950s it cut our farm in half,” said Kelly. Before it was a road it was a hillside. When it rained in early spring or late fall, and especially when it rained all day, the slope that is now the road turned into a slippery slope of PEI sandstone, red clay goop.

The Doyle’s always still got to where they had to go. Getting somewhere is staying on your feet, knowing how to drive, trimming your sails. Sometimes any road, or even no road at all, will get you where you want to end up.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

The Second Anne Shirley

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By Ed Staskus

“Many people think I was the first Anne, but I wasn’t,” said Gracie Finley.

Every summer for the past fifty-five years the musical “Anne of Green Gables” has played on the main stage of the Homburg Theatre at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island. The show is based on the 1908 best-selling book written by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

No show on London’s West End or on Broadway has been on the same stage for more seasons. It is not only Canada’s longest running smash hit, it’s the longest continuously running musical theater production in the world. Nineteen actors have played Anne Shirley since 1965.

“I was the second Anne, not the first. It’s an urban myth that I was the first, probably because I’m a local girl.”

Although Gracie Finley is a local girl, she is in the same way that Anne Shirley, the red-haired orphan from Nova Scotia, hero of the story, is a local girl on Prince Edward Island.

“I’m an Islander,” said Gracie. “But I was actually born, hold on to your hat, in Sheffield, Alabama.”

Her father was an American serviceman from Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, where there is a statue of James Finley, one of his forebears. The woodsman Daniel Boone came clean when he said, “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.” James Finley was one of the scouts who helped guide Daniel Boone and clear the confusion through the Cumberland Gap in the 1790s.

Her mother was in the Canadian Armed Forces. They met in London, backstage at the Royal Albert Hall, during World War Two, at a fund-raising joint services concert. Fund-raising led to raising the roof and they married not long after.

In the 1940s Walnut Ridge was a farming community of fewer than three thousand. Croplands of grain, oilseeds, and dry peas were its chief commodities. Alberton, on the northwestern shore of Prince Edward Island, her mother’s hometown, was in the 1940s a silver fox farming community of fewer than a thousand.

“Alberton, those are my roots,” said Gracie.

After the war the newlyweds moved to the United States, to Walnut Ridge, to hot muggy summers and wet chilly winters. The closest ocean was nearly five hundred miles away.

“My mom had a big problem moving to the south. She was a young girl from PEI. It was awful after the war.” It had been awful for the underclass before the war, during the war, and it wasn’t any different after the war. “She just couldn’t stand what was going on there.”

Jim Crow had ruled in Arkansas since 1868 with the passage of laws segregating schools. By the turn of the century white primary law had been institutionalized, effectively disenfranchising the black vote. In 1957, after a Supreme Court ruling struck down so-called separate but equal education, the 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division had to be mobilized to enforce the federal ruling in the state. The Ku Klux Klan to this day maintains its national office in Arkansas.

“It upset my dad, too. The decision was finally made. We were high-tailing it out of there.”

Gracie and her mother, although living in the south, had been spending their summers on Prince Edward Island through the 1950s. “She had to get away. We stayed at my grandparent’s farmhouse up in Alberton.” After pulling up stakes, moving nearly two thousand miles northeast, the family settled down to spring summer fall and Gulf of St. Lawrence winters on the island, winters being waiting for the next spring.

By 1965, when the newly-minted “Anne of Green Gables” headlined the Charlottetown Festival for the first time, Gracie Finley had several years of small fry ballet classes under her belt, was experienced in grade school theatrics, but had not yet founded the drama club at her high school-to-be. That summer she performed with the Circus Tent Theatre at the Confederation Centre.

“We did children’s productions in the afternoon. We didn’t get paid, but we could have jobs as ushers in the main theater at night.” She was thirteen years old. Chutzpah is something you either have or you don’t. “I saw the show from the first season. I snuck into rehearsals. I met Jamie Ray, a Texan who originated the role. She was the first Anne.”

The first Anne took an interest in the second Anne. “She went out of her way to talk to me, wanting to know what my plans were, always willing to lend me something, and help me,” said Gracie.

The next year, 1966, the show’s co-creator Don Harron, who also wrote the musical’s script, sought Gracie Finley out after seeing her in a small local play.

“Do you sing or dance?” he asked.

“No, why?”

“Because you look like an orphan,” he said. She was five foot two and 100 pounds.

He suggested she take singing and dancing lessons. She took lessons and took on something like the likeness of an orphan. Actors said of her, she’s more of a dancer. Dancers said, no, she’s more like a singer. Singers said, no, you’re both wrong, she’s really an actor.

Two years later, in 1968, by then a triple threat, she took over the spotlight, becoming the youngest singer dancer actor to ever play the role of Anne Shirley, and the first of only two native Islanders to do so.

“It was pretty terrifying, I can tell you,” said Gracie.

She stayed in straw hat and red pigtails for seven summers. The show toured nationally in the off-season. In 1970 it went to Japan. The cast and crew shared a chartered plane with men from the RCMP Musical Ride. The ride is a choreographed spectacle performed by a full troop of 32 Royal Canadian Mounted Police riders and their horses.

“Strong drinks were flowing freely,” said Gracie. “No one could get any sleep as the noise level got higher. When we arrived, I was deaf in one ear and I had to go to a doctor. He couldn’t speak English and I could only say hello goodbye and ice cream in Japanese.”

But the show had to go on. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book was translated into Japanese in 1952. “Akage no An” became a part of the country’s school curriculum and remains popular to this day. The show went on and was a hit.

Between seasons she got married. “I met Barry at a party in England. We’ve been married for 50 years.” She gave birth to her first child. After the 1974 season, when her husband, Barry Stickings, a chemist working for the German multi-national BASF, was offered an opportunity to work in Germany, Gracie Finley was ready to go.

Not go on the road, but go home.

“I thought, my first child is nearly two. I didn’t have that child so someone else would see him stand up and walk and speak for the first time.” Besides giving up a social life, sleep, and losing track of the space-time continuum, actors are often forced to sacrifice their families. ‘I can’t, I have rehearsal,’ is a common refrain.

“I’m ready,” said Gracie.

After several years in Germany, and after several more years in Montreal, where her husband was next transferred, Gracie Finley got a phone call. The man on the other end of the line was Alan Lund, the artistic director of the Charlottetown Festival from 1966 to 1986. He invited her back to reprise “Anne of Green Gables.”

“I was 30ish, married, and had two children.” She thought about it for a second-or-two, and then said yes. She was back in pigtails in 1984. In 1985, her second and final year back, she became and remains, at 33-years-of-age, the oldest actor to play Anne Shirley. She was the youngest and the oldest. But she wasn’t done setting records.

“I was going from one form of birth control to another. My doctor told me to watch myself, because it might take a while for the changeover. I said, la, la, la, nothing’s going to happen.”

Instead of exercising restraint she exercised her freedom. What happened was she got pregnant right away.

“I sat down in front of our producer, Jack McAndrew, who always called me Miss Gables. Jack, I said, I have something to tell you.”

He looked her in the face. “You’re having a baby.”

“How did you know?”

“We have three kids. I know the look,” he said. She became the first the last the only pregnant Anne Shirley, breaking new ground in the world of Avonlea.

“They said I could still pass for the petite orphan girl.” She was excused, however, from jumping off tables. An understudy played the matinees, as well. “Toward the end of the run, at seven months along, the costumes were getting tighter and tighter.”

In 1985 Gracie Finley hung up her straw hat and her career on stage. The Stickings family moved back to Germany and bought a house. “We went through all the rigamarole, lots of red tape. They have to put a stamp on everything.” As soon as they settled down her husband was transferred to New Jersey.

“We lived up in the hills, outside Morristown, where there are lots of horses. I love horses. My father always wanted me to be a ballerina. He would put on classical music and I’d spin around. But I was in love with Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey.” Rogers and Autrey were singing cowboys on the radio, in the movies, and on TV. “I told my father I wanted to be a cowboy.”

Daniel Boone, with whom the family has a kindred spirit, once advised the young, “All you need for happiness is a good wife, a good gun, and a good horse.”

In 1996 they moved to Great Britain. “When my husband got the opportunity we said, we have to, we just have to. I was thrilled. We love England.” They bought a house outside of Oxford with a large garden and stables. The house was nearly 400 years old and had originally been the Woodsman’s Inn.

“Our part of the country is where they first started turning chair legs.”

Her part of the country is what were once the forests of Shotover, Stowood, and Wychwood. Shotover Forest, nearest to where they live, supplied wood by royal decree for both fuel and building material from the time of Henry III. Turners shaped chair legs with chisels and gouges while spinning them on a lathe.

They lived in England, their children growing up, but often returned to Prince Edward Island. “We came summers, and after my mom died, and my aunts got too old for us to stay with them, we bought a year-round cottage in Stanley Bridge.”

Stanley Bridge is a small town just west of Cavendish on the north shore of the island. It is known for the Sterling Women’s Community Hall, the New London Bay, and the bridge on Route 6 over the Stanley River. When the weather is good, from the waterfront deck of Carr’s Oyster Bar, you can watch kids jump off the Stanley Bridge, the thirty thrill feet down into the cold water, avoiding eels as they swim back to the riprap.

The thrill is in the scariness.

“We’re right across the bay from Carr’s,” said Gracie. “There’s a small lagoon, a swampy place, which is great because we get all sorts of birds and wildlife.”

One day she got another phone call. The man on the other end of the line was Duncan McIntosh, director of the Charlottetown Festival and soon-to-be artistic director of the new Watermark Theatre in North Rustico, 12 minutes down on Route 6 from Stanley Bridge.

He invited her to dinner. She knew what was coming. He had been dropping hints.

“So, Gracie, I’ve been looking at doing Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard”, but set on PEI in the 1970s,” said Duncan. “What would you think of playing the lead?”

“I went home and thought, why not?” said Gracie.

“Aren’t you afraid to go back?” her friends asked her.

“I think it does you good to give yourself a healthy scare. I wasn’t frightened so much as I was excited. I fell in love with Russian literature when I was a teenager. It’s when you’re going through the terror you get right into it. I love Chekov. That’s how Duncan reeled me in.”

If ever stranded on a desert island, she has told friends, she would make sure to have an iPod that never died, an endless supply of food, and lots of Russian novels.

Twenty-eight years after leaving the stage Gracie Finley was back on the stage, not in just one play, but in two plays at the same time at the Watermark Theatre. One was “The Shore Field’” by Duncan McIntosh, inspired by Anton Chekhov, and the other one was “Alice in Wonderland.”

“It’s like riding a bicycle. You get up there and start pedaling,” she said.

“I played the Queen of Hearts. Off with your head! She is just so preposterous. But I had a dynamite costume.”

It was dynamite until she actually had to don the poofed panniered straight-jacket dress and move around in it. “It took two people to get me in and out of it. When I went up to the balcony to play the judge, there’s a narrow part of the staircase, where I really had to push to get up those stairs.”

It’s been said, never look back, you’ll fall down the stairs.

In the 1960s, when repertory theater was going strong, Gracie Finley specialized. In the age of specialization, when repertory is fading away, she jumped feet first into repertory. “It’s a big challenge finding two plays where you can cross cast people. You become close very quickly, become a family. It’s chemistry.”

The Homburg Theatre, home of “Anne of Green Gables,” seats more than a thousand on two levels. The Watermark Theatre, a member of the Professional Theatre Network of PEI, is small, seating a handful more than a hundred. “Doing live theater, in a small theater like this, is like no other experience. It’s a smaller version of the Stratford stage. The audience is inches away from us. We feel that energy.”

In 2017, her 4th season there, she played the jolly hockey sticks Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” and the faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield in the memory play “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams.

“This is going to take a lot of energy,” she said while rehearsing in early June for the season starting in July. “And, I have to say, I am very tired at the moment, very tired. I have to take a nap.”

Many people get snappish if they’re not well rested. A short afternoon snooze means waking up fresh again. It also means you end up with two mornings in a day, although not necessarily a second plate of Mussels Benedict.

In 2018, returning to the Watermark for her 5th season, Gracie Finley played the wild-evening-of-romance Ethel Banks in Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” and the imperious Kitty Warren in George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.”

“The best part about being here is that I’ve gotten to play some of the best roles in theater for a woman my age.”

When actors who are women reach about 50-years-of age they discover auditions are suddenly looking for a younger version of you. Age and gender matter on stage. There is a trove of plays, starting with the male-heavy Shakespeare, featuring men over 50. There is a thin scattering of plays featuring women over 50.

“Let’s face it, the roles get fewer and fewer for older women,” said Gracie.

Nevertheless, the roles keep rolling up to her doorstep.

“There’s nothing like the first day of rehearsals,” she said. “We sit around a big table, the cast, production people, and the director. We see a model of the set and sketches of the wardrobes. We take a break, get a cup of coffee, and read through the script.”

If need be, they take a nap.

“The rehearsal period is always one step forward, two steps back, you have a good day, and then think I don’t know what I did today. You get going again, you get to the stage, where you think, I think we’re getting there. It’s about a group who start to gel. It’s about taking an author’s idea, voicing that idea, and making it a reality.”

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance,” George Bernard Shaw pointed out.

Gracie Finley raised her family off stage. Even still, they were the kind of family that didn’t look at her like she was crazy whenever she broke into song and dance. After she got back on stage, they were the kind of family that made her feel less crazed whenever her script director stagecraft wasn’t making sense.

The theater for many actors is a second family, which is what happens after twelve-hour rehearsals and sharing the fear of opening night. Remember your lines and don’t freeze up stiff as a board. You can’t choose your family, on or off stage, but you can choose to make magic with them.

“I feel very lucky to be back working again,” she said.

Returning to the Watermark Theatre in 2020 for her sixth season, Gracie will be playing Carrie Watts in “The Trip to Bountiful,” the same part played by Geraldine Page that won her the 1986 Academy Award for best actress. She will also play one of the suspects in Agatha Christe’s “The Mousetrap,” the world’s longest running play.

“Our little stage, it’s so immediate. It’s electric.”

When most people are getting home for dinner, or getting ready to go out to dinner and a show, Gracie Finley is making the scene punching in to work, lifting words off a printed page and by lights make-up wardrobe dialogue action making them into a show, an electric thrill running up and down the spine, the first time and time as long in hand until the curtain call.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Searching for the Surfside

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By Ed Staskus

“Whenever we leave home, to Ontario or New Brunswick, I always say we are crossing into another world, into a strange world, into Canada,” said Marie Bachand. “I always ask Louie did you bring our passports?” She always asks in French because her partner Louie Painchaund doesn’t speak English.

It was a cumulus cloud high sky day when they went to Prince Edward Island. They didn’t have their passports. Who wants to look like their passport picture on a sunny summer day, anyway?

They live in Saint-Gregorie in Quebec, a community of the city of Becancour, on the south side of the St. Lawrence River. Their house dates to the 1780s, built by refugee Acadians after the French and Indian War. “They came down the St Lawrence River, four hundred families. It was a rough time. They stopped, said OK, looks good, and settled here.”

It is about six hundred miles to Prince Edward Island, up the St. Lawrence, down New Brunswick, and across the Confederation Bridge to PEI. The first time they went they were touring the Maritimes. The island was a spur of the moment runaround. They drove across the Northumberland Straights on the nine-mile-long bridge to the other side.

“We thought we could run over and visit PEI in one or two days,” Marie said. “It’s so small.”

Even though it is pint-sized, the smallest of the ten Canadian provinces at just a little more than two thousand square miles, compared to Quebec’s almost six hundred thousand square miles, it goes over big.

Ten years later, even after Andy’s Surfside Inn is no more, they still go to Prince Edward Island two weeks in the summer, staying at the Coastline Cottages up the hill across the street, riding their bikes all over the place, still finding substantial fresh things to rack up on the to-do list.

The inn was on the ocean side of North Rustico, near the entrance to the harbor, a white clapboard two-story house with a dozen windows, two dormers and three porches on the side facing the water. A broad lawn slopes down to the cliffs. It wasn’t always the Surfside Inn and isn’t the Surfside Inn anymore, having since taken up where it left off, back to being a home.

“The first house was bigger,” said Kelly Doyle.

Kelly’s grandparents, Mike and Loretta Doyle, were visiting and playing cards at a neighbor’s house one winter night in 1929. Their friends lived about a mile away. At the end of the evening, going home in their horse-drawn sled, they crested a frozen hill. A red glow lit up the sky and flared across the flat cove below them.

The house was being swallowed up by fire. The pitch-dark night was blazing. They had left seven children behind in the care of the eldest.

“It was a flue fire,” said Kelly. “It burnt down because of the stove.”

By the time the Doyle’s raced their sled down to the house, and finding all the children safe and sound outside, there wasn’t much they could do. There were no neighbors nearby to help and there was no fire department. Mike Doyle was able to drag some furniture from the first floor out the front door and saved as many fox furs as he could.

The house was rebuilt the next year and finished the following year.

“The foxes my grandfather saved built the new house.” Kelly’s grandfather was a fox farmer. What he sold the pelts for paid for the work of the itinerant immigrant tradesmen who built the house.

Furry garments are made of furry animal hides. Even though it has lately fallen on hard times, fur is one of the oldest forms of clothing. Once we started globe-trotting out of Africa, to where everywhere else was colder, we started wearing furs. Ever since, people have worn beaver racoon sable rabbit coyote wolf chinchilla opossum mink and foxes.

Mountain men wore the bears they shot and killed.

In the 1880s foxes were bred for the first time, accomplished on Prince Edward Island by locals Charlie Dalton and Robert Oulton. Theirs was the original fur farm in 1884. Within several years the rush was on. But the rush didn’t really and truly mushroom until after a pelt sale a few years later when their harvest of 25 skins brought them nearly $35 thousand dollars. It was a boat load of a barn door of money, bearing in mind that the average island farm worker those days made less than $30 dollars a month.

In 1926 nearly nine hundred live silver foxes were shipped from Summerside to the United States. It was the most valuable shipment in the history of Prince Edward Island up to that time and is still called the ‘Million Dollar Train’. Andy Doyle was born the same year, spunky and healthy, although nobody ever called him the ‘Million Dollar Baby’.

By the 1930s the fox farm industry was strong as a bull, raking in multi-millions of dollars. There were hundreds of thousands of foxes being farmed and skinned coast to coast throughout Canada and the United States.

“The furs my grandfather was able to rescue from the fire were worth five thousand. In the end the new house cost five thousand,” said Kelly.

“We stayed at a country inn, at the information center at the bridge they said it was nice, but it was a little room, yuk,” said Marie. She picked up the official PEI tourist book. Where to stay next? She thumbed through the book. She put her finger on Andy’s Surfside Inn. “I say to Louie, what’s that, the north shore? We had already decided to stay three or four more days. We went looking for it.”

Gavan Andrew “Andy” Doyle was 81 years old in 2007 when Marie and Louie went driving up and down the north shore looking for his eponymous inn. Andy had been born in the white house that was the inn. Years later, grown-up a young man, pushing off after World War Two, he landed in Montreal, married, brought up three stepchildren, and years later, when his wife Vivienne died, went back to Prince Edward Island.

His mother died shortly after and he inherited the house on Doyle’s Cove. “My aunt, his sister in Montreal, always had a soft spot for Gavan. She helped him get the place up and running. She bought a bunch of nice furniture for him,” said Kelly Doyle. It was the late 80s. Andy Doyle resurrected the Surfside Inn that had been his mother’s brainchild in the late 40’s.

“When my grandfather died in 1948, my grandmother wanted to make some money with the house and started taking in tourists,” said Kelly. “There was a white picket fence, she had ducks and geese and sheep in a big barnyard, and she kept a garden.” It was a large working garden. “She fed the bed and breakfasts herself.”

As her six girls and two boys grew up and left home, she converted their rooms to guest rooms.

“She filled those rooms all through the 50s and 60s,” said Kelly. “PEI wasn’t like the rest of the world back then. Tourists found the way of life interesting, honest and down-to-earth. There wasn’t much entertainment, but there was always lots to do. They just liked the place.”

When Marie telephoned the Surfside Inn, a Japanese woman answered the call.

“Andy always had Japanese girls, three girls, housekeepers for the season who were exchange students who wanted to learn English. They shared a small bedroom over the kitchen. She told us, yes, we have a room.”

Louie and Marie drove up and down Route 6 between Cavendish and North Rustico searching for the Surfside Inn. When they couldn’t find it, they finally stopped at a National Parks kiosk and got directions. It was in the park, although on private land, Doyle’s Land on Doyle’s Cove. They drove down the Gulf Shore Parkway, past Cape Turner and Orby Head, and down to the coastal inlet.

When they got there, there wasn’t a room. There were four rooms that shared a bath. They were all taken. What Marie and Louie didn’t know was that there was a fifth room on the ground floor, which was Andy’s bedroom with a private bath.

“When we are full, he gives you that room,” explained the young woman.

“We’ll take that,” said Marie. “Where does Andy go to sleep?”

“He sleeps in the boat.”

The Japanese girls did the heavy lifting in return for being able to learn English. “I don’t know where they learned it, but it wasn’t from Andy,” said Marie. “He never talked to them.” They came from away, 6500 miles away, and found their own way to talkfests.

Outside the house was a cast-off wood lobster boat. The hull and forward cabin were worthy enough, although it needed some planks and rib work. it looked like it still had some spirit to it, like it could still make a living at sea if it had to.

“It smelled bad, all old stuff papers tools junk a small bed,” said Marie. “It should have been burned long ago.”

The Surfside Inn had a kitchen with several refrigerators. “We thought it was just for breakfast, but we saw other people storing food and making supper.” They started shopping at Doiron’s Fish Market on the harbor road. One suppertime Andy saw them coming into the kitchen with lobsters.

“Let me fix those for you,” he said.

“Oh, my God,” said Marie, “he was good. Tack, tack, tack, all done.”

They started bringing their own wine from home, though.

“I don’t like PEI Liquor wines. We brought Italian and French whites and rose for the fish.”

Coming back from Doiron’s one day, putting away fresh cod wrapped in Kraft paper, Marie noticed small buckets of frozen milk in the freezer.

“There was a Muslim couple staying at Andy’s, the guy was always in the living room, but she was wrapped up, always going to the bedroom. She didn’t talk. At breakfast, no words. She looked at her iPad, that’s all.”

The mother was expressing her breast milk and storing it. She kept it in the back of the freezer, the coldest part of fridges. One day all the milk was gone.

“We never saw the baby, though, maybe it was somewhere else, with a grandma.”

“Tourists in the 50s and 60s weren’t from Monkton or Toronto,” said Kelly. “Some were from the States, but a lot of them were from Europe. We lived next door and ran around the yard, having fun, meeting people. In 1970 my grandmother got a little bit ill and couldn’t keep it going. She lived alone for seven years until my dad moved her into the senior citizen’s home in North Rustico.”

The white house was empty for about ten years, for most of the 80s. It came back to life as the rooms filled up. In summertime it was never vacant.

“You could see the sea right in front of you,” said Marie. “We sat on the porch every day. It was a special place. After a week we would say, let’s stay another day, then another day. Other people, too, were crazy about this place.”

One day Andy asked Louie to help him take an old heavy bicycle out of the lobster boat. “You’re a big guy, you can do it,” said Andy.

When the bike was on the ground Andy straddled it and pedaled to the downhill on the all-purpose path. “He was going down the hill, but Louie told me there were no brakes. Stop! Stop! I yelled but he yelled back, I’ve been riding this bike for thirty years!”

Whenever Andy pulled his four-door sedan out to run errands or go to the grocery, Marie and Louie kept their distance. “I don’t think there were any brakes on his car, either,” she said.

He seemed to own only three short-sleeve shirts. “I have three nice ones,” he said. “I got them for a dollar each at the Salvation Army.” One was yellow, one green and one blue. The blue shirt was his favorite. He dried all his laundry on an outside clothesline, in the sun and ocean breeze.

“All the guests, they were from Canada, the United States, Italy, England, all over. A Chinese couple had a four-year-old who had been born in Quebec, so they named him Denis. Whenever we saw a Chinese child after that we always called the child Denis Wong. There was a couple from Boston, they lived in the harbor on a boat there. He was 80 and she was in her 70s.”

“I didn’t come with my boat. I came with my girlfriend,” he said.

“There is no age,” said Marie. Until you find out your grade school class is running the town city province country.

Aging and its consequences usually happen step-by-step, sometimes without warning. One minute you’re only as old as you feel and the next minute you don’t feel good. It’s like going on a cruise. It can be smooth sailing or a shipwreck. Once you’re on board, though, there’s not much you can do about it.

“There were always many guests, but suddenly a few years ago Andy started getting mixed up. He forgot reservations, there were two Japanese girls instead of three, it wasn’t the same.” What it takes to make an inn work wasn’t getting done. By 2016 it was far more vacant than occupied and Marie and Louie were staying at Kelly Doyle’s Coastline Cottages up the hill across the street.

“Andy introduced us to him,” Marie said.

Like Dorothy said at the end of ‘The Marvelous Land of Oz’, “Everything has to come to an end, sometime.”

In 2018 Andy Doyle moved to the Garden Home in Charlottetown and his nephew Erik Brown took the house over, renovating it and transforming it into his home. In November Andy died. He was 92. It was the end of the Surfside Inn.

“On the ocean was wonderful,” said Marie. “Once we found it, Louie and I loved the Surfside.”

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Wheel in the Sky

By Ed Staskus

   “Mom, can you write me a note for school tomorrow saying I can’t be an altar boy,” I asked my mother after we had finished watching every minute of “The Wide World of Disney” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” She gave me a sharp frown. I gave her my best first-born smile.

   Every Sunday night my parents nibbled sliced-up smoked eel while my brother, sister, and I munched handfuls of popcorn from paper bags sitting in front of the Zenith TV console in the basement. It was a family ritual. We loved Walt Disney, but The Great Stone Face wasn’t a chip off the old block. The circus acts and comedians were fun, but the opera singers and dramatic monologues were dull as turned off. None of us understood what the Little Italian Mouse was up to, either.

   I asked my mom for the note after we were out of the tub, in pj’s, and book bags ready for Monday. I wanted it to be short and sweet, as though it were no big deal, routine, really. I thought something along the line of all my spare time was already being spent on my studies would be appropriate.

   I knew I was on shaky ground, though. My parents went to mass every Sunday, which meant we all went. “Everybody went to church back then,” my mother says. “There were two masses every Sunday. The church was full of people. We went early to get a pew.”

   My mother always went to church because she had always gone. “I grew up that way,” she said. My father was a true believer. He was an accountant and counted on getting to heaven. Even though he wasn’t a betting man, he put his money on Pascal’s wager. 

   The wager argues that a thinking person should live as though God exists and try to believe in him. If God doesn’t exist, there will only be a few finite losses, like good times with too much money and too many girlfriends. When you are dead and gone you won’t miss them. But if God does exist, there are infinite gains, like spending eternity in heaven, and no infinite losses, like spending eternity in hell. 

   After he told me about the parlay there was no arguing with him about whether I was going to faithfully serve out my altar boy time. “St. George is one of the Holy Helpers,” he said. I helped myself by biting my tongue. Everybody at school knew George was a stud, the Trophy Bearer.

   The most embarrassed I ever was as a child was when my parents made me go to Sunday mass dressed up in a Buster Brown sailor suit. Something criminal happened to the costume before the next service. It was never found alive again. I had to go to confession after telling my mom I had no idea what happened to it. 

   The fashion show took months to live down at school. I had to fight my way out of several mean-spirited jibes. There will be blood in grade school.

   The St. George church school and parish hall were all in a package, a rectangular two-and-a-half story brick building on Superior Avenue and East 67th Street. The church was on the top floor, the school on the middle floor, and the hall on the half-in-the-ground floor. The hall doubled as a civil defense shelter in case of nuclear war, even though it was unclear what we going to do down there after the atomic bomb had blown Cleveland, Ohio, to kingdom come.

   I was glad my mom didn’t down-press me about it, but wrote a note, sticking it in an envelope, sealing it, and finishing it off with my teacher’s name on the front. A small whitecap of uncertainty took shape in my mind at my mom’s readiness to do my bidding, but I put my doubts to rest and slept the sleep of the blessed.

  The next day I gave the envelope to my third-grade teacher, Sister Matilda, a gnarly disciplinarian who had press-ganged me and a half-dozen other boys the second week of school. I found out later it was an annual recruitment drive.

   She read the note, smiled, and said, “Very good, you start next Monday.”

   How could that be? What happened between last night and now? My own mother had betrayed me, I realized.

   The St. George edifice was the biggest Lithuanian building in Cleveland, built in 1921. It was at the center of the ethnic district and many parishioners had businesses and institutions, like the newspaper and some kind of historical outfit, nearby. The east side along Lake Erie was full of Poles, Serbs and Slovenians, and Lithuanians.

   The parish priest, Father Ivan, short for his civilian name Balys Ivanauskas, lived in a seven-bedroom Italianate-style rectory a stone’s throw from the church. It had been built for a big family in the 1880s. Our teachers, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God, lived together in a slightly smaller house on Superior Avenue two or three minutes away. There were eight of them, not including the Mother Superior. They could have used some of Father Ivan’s empty bedrooms.

   The sisters were a hard-boiled bunch. They were serious as could be about us taking our studies seriously and behaving in class. Those were rules number one and two. There were no other rules. They weren’t above hitting us with rulers riding crops rolled-up Catholic Universe Bulletins and their hands. Nobody’s parents ever complained about it, so none of us ever complained about it to them.

   What would have been the point? They would only have asked, “What did you do?”

   The nuns never sweated getting the job done. In fact, they never sweated at all. Wearing thick bulky habits, they should have been the first to perspire whenever it got hot, but they never did. Nobody knew how they did it, if it was part of their training or some kind of black magic.

   Even though I wasn’t baptized at St. George, I acted as a bump on a log at many baptismal fonts. One time a baby spit a stream of pea green apple sauce puke on my surplice and another time another one burped and farted and messed up Father Ivan. I had to run back to headquarters and get wet rags. I sprayed the boss with the new-fangled aerosol Lysol a busybody had donated.

   I received my First Communion there and was confirmed there. The First Communion happens when as a Catholic you attain the Age of Reason. I don’t know how any of us were ever given the host when we were, because I definitely had not attained the Age of Reason, nor had anyone in my class, unless they were faking it.

   My reason was affected by reading boy’s books in my spare time, adventures about running for your life full moons spies foreign lands secrets ray guns tommy guns spitfires hooded supervillains risky back alleys conspiracies and the bad guys foiled at the last minute by the good guys. The paperbacks seeded my dreams and I cooked up twisty exploits every night, waking up happy I had survived. 

   Once we were thrown to the lions, we got trained in the basics, how to dress, the call and response, and how to arrange the corporal, the purificator, the chalice, the pall, and the big Missal. We learned how to hold liturgical books for Father Ivan when he wasn’t at the altar, when he was proclaiming prayers with outstretched hands. We brought him thuribles, the lavabo water and towel, and the vessels to hold the consecrated bread.

   We helped with communion, presenting cruets of wine and water for him to pour into the chalice.  When he washed his hands standing at the side of the altar, we poured the water over them. If incense was used, we presented the thurible and incense to Father Ivan, who smoked the offerings, the cross and altar, after which we smoked the priest and people. It had one flavor, a sickly-sweet rotting pomegranate smell.

   The thurible was a two-piece metal chalice with a chain that we swung side to side. God forbid anybody got slap happy and swung it too high, hitting something with it, and spilling the hot coals, threatening to burn the church down. That was when Father Ivan became Ivan the Terrible.

   We rang a handbell before the consecration, when the priest extended his hands above the gifts. We rang the bell again when, after the consecration of the bread and wine, the priest showed the host and then the chalice. 

   “Ring dem’ bells” is what we liked doing best.

   I started low man on the totem pole which meant the 7 o’clock morning shift. Even though everybody went to church, nobody went to church first thing in the morning Monday through Friday. At least, almost nobody. The big man was always there and at least one of his altar boys. I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning, pour myself a bowl of Cheerios and a glass of orange juice, catch a CTS bus on the corner of St. Clair Avenue and East 127th Street, toss exact change into the fare box, stay away from the crazy people, run through the church to the sacristy, get into my uniform, and make sure I had my cheat sheet.

   The mass was performed in Latin, most of the time the priest’s back to the congregation, and we followed his lead. There were prescribed times we had to respond by voice to something Father Ivan recited. It was when we offered Holy Communion that I finally faced the nave and saw the only people in church were old older oldest unemployed worried about something or in the wrong place. 

   One benefit to hardly anybody being in the pews first thing in the morning was whenever I made a mistake, it usually stayed between me and my maker. That is, unless Ivan the Terrible, who had eyes in the back of his head and hearing better than a moth, saw and heard what I had done wrong.

   Moths have the best hearing in the world, next to priests, who are accustomed to listening to whispers in the confessional. I was waiting for my turn one afternoon after school when I heard Father Ivan bellow, “What did you say?” and the next thing I knew a red-faced boy burst out of the booth running followed by the dark-faced priest. 

   I quietly slipped away. There was no need to put myself in harm’s way for somebody else’s mortal sins.

   When I started Father Bartis was in charge, but the next year Father Ivan became the parish priest. He was a burly man. None of us knew where he came from or how old he was, although we guessed he was between 30 and 60. He ran the parish until 1980. He smoked, we could smell it on his breath when he got close to us, and sometimes we caught a whiff of spirits. We all knew what strong drink smelled like because almost everybody’s parents drank.

   He liked to take walks and mind his own business, unless he was minding ours. We were always under the gun. He was irascible to begin with and screwing around with his life’s work brought out the worst in him. Our school janitor said he never met anyone worth a damn who wasn’t irascible. Father Ivan was short-tempered, but his bark was worse than his bite. The nuns put him to shame when it came to crime and punishment.

   All of us carried cheat sheets. Latin was a foreign language, as well as a dead language. None of us were taking classes in it and none of us knew what we were saying. Our responses during mass were rote, except when something went wrong, when we improvised with mumbles. It wasn’t speaking in tongues, but Father Ivan warned us exorcism was imminent if we didn’t learn our lines.

   The Eucharist was the high point of mass. It got us off our knees and on our feet. We helped in the distribution by holding a communion plate under everybody’s chin when the priest gave them the wafer. There would have been hell to pay if there was an accident, the wafer falling out of somebody’s mouth, landing on the floor.

   It would have meant saying a million Hail Mary’s and a thousand turns around the Stations of the Cross.

   After acquiring seniority, I was promoted off the morning shift and started serving at Sunday masses, funerals, and weddings. Sunday mass was more of the same, only longer and more elaborate, but at least I got to sleep in and go to church in the family car instead of the city bus with strangers.

   Funerals seemed to always be scheduled on Mondays and Fridays. It happened so often I began to think weekends coming and going were a dangerous time. At one Friday funeral Father Ivan spoke glowingly of all the good works the deceased had done and how he was sure the man was going to heaven. “The way to the brightness is through good works,” he said. “The first thing we all have got to do is do good.”

   We were standing on either side of the dead man. The other altar boy leaned over the open casket and said to me, “What you got to do first is be dead.”

   The corpses didn’t bother us over much, but the mewling coffin sounds freaked us out.

   None of us especially enjoyed funerals, not because we were near at hand to the dead, but because they were sad dismal and mournful and on top of everything else we rarely were gifted with cash. It dismayed us to see the family light twenty thirty candles at a votive stand and push folded ones and fives into the offering box.

   Weddings were a different story. It was festive. Everybody was in a good mood. It was always a sunny day. The brides looked great in their white dresses with trains. Heaven help the altar boy who stepped on a moving train and yanked it off.

   The number one perk of serving at a wedding was we were always rewarded in hard cash. The best man was usually the man who slipped us an envelope and told us what a great job we had done, even though we never did anything special beyond kneeling and standing around most of the time, like we always did.

   Weddings in July and August were often hot and humid. Before one of them the groom himself paid us in advance in Morgan silver dollars, ten of them for each of us. It was a windfall. We stowed them away carefully. I wrapped mine up in a handkerchief. Everyone was sweating during the ceremony, and when it came time for communion, I reached into my pocket for the handkerchief to dry my hands. It would have been bad if I let the cruet slip. 

   When I did, the silver dollars fell out pell-mell from my handkerchief, rolled down the two steps in the gap between the altar rail, past the bride and groom, and down the center aisle of the nave. A man stuck his foot out and corralled them with his shoe. I was alarmed until I saw it was my uncle, who was an accountant like my father.

   My tour of duty ended at the end of sixth grade, when my parents moved out of the neighborhood and I transferred to another Catholic school. They already had a full complement of altar boys, so my services weren’t needed there. I was happy enough to go back to being a spectator.

   When St. George closed in 2009 it was the oldest Lithuanian parish in North America. 

   At the last mass three priests presided and there was a host of altar boys and girls. Back in the day we would have welcomed girls. They were better at cleaning than us and we knew we could boss them around, although they were also getting to be nice sweet friendly to have as friends.

   The altar was given away to another church. The playground and parking lot were sold, and the grounds converted to greenhouses. The rectory was boarded up. The convent was long gone, since the school had closed long before. A chain link fence was set up all around the building, and that was that.

    There were no more dragons real or imagined for the soldier saint to slay. The day of the Trophy Bearer was done. George took a knee.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

Big Ass Bowl

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By Ed Staskus

There is plenty of good better best seafood chowder on Prince Edward Island, since there is plenty of seafood on all sides of the crescent-shaped province. There are cultured mussels and lean white halibut and wild-caught lobster. The chowder comes in cups and bowls. Some of the bowls are bigger than others and can be meals in themselves.

There is only one Big Ass Bowl, however.

“We had a large bowl of chowder last year, but I don’t see it on the menu anymore,” said Frank Glass to the young man who was putting glasses of water down on their table.

“We have a really good seafood chowder,” he said, pointing to the menu.

“Is it a big bowl?” asked Frank.

The young man sized up an imaginary bowl with his hands.

“No, the chowder we had was in a bowl about twice that size,” said Frank.

“Oh, you mean the big ass bowl.”

“The what bowl?” asked Vera Glass, sitting across from her husband. They were at a table at one of the windows overlooking the Clyde River. On the far bank the red roof of the PEI Preserve Company, where jams and jellies are made, glowed in the roll-up of dusk.

“That’s what we call it in the kitchen,” the young man said. “We don’t call it that on the menu, obviously. If you want it, I can ask, and I’m sure we can make it for you.”

“You’ll just clear the decks and whip it up, even though it’s not on the menu?” asked Vera.

“Sure,” said the young man.

“Sweet,” she said.

Vera and Frank Glass were at the Mill, a snug as a bug up-to-speed restaurant in New Glasgow on Prince Edward Island.

It is neither a small nor big roadhouse, seating maybe fifty diners, right on the road, on a zigzag of Route 13 as it runs south from coastal Cavendish through New Glasgow to Hunter River. There is a performance space on the second floor and a deli case just inside the front door full of pies and meat pies. The building is blue, two–story, and wide front-porched. It is kitty-corner to the bridge that crosses the snaky river. The Mill describes itself as “carefully sourcing seafood, steaks and entrees served in a rustic yet refined space with scenic views.”

That’s hitting the nail on the head.

It was the night before Hurricane Dorian slammed into PEI, even though it wasn’t a hurricane anymore when it did. It was a post-tropical storm, which is like saying you took it on the chin from a cruiserweight rather than a heavyweight boxer.

“Under the right conditions, post-tropical storms can produce hurricane-strength winds,” said CBC meteorologist Jay Scotland the day after the storm. “Dorian serves as a good example that the difference between a hurricane and a post-tropical storm is more about the storm’s structure and not its intensity.”

On Saturday morning, moving north, it sucked up energy from another weather system moving in from the west. The winds spreading over the island grew to hurricane strength during the day and the storm unrolled over a larger area than Hurricane Juan, the “storm of the century,” had done in 2003.

“Look who’s back,” said Vera, looking over Frank’s shoulder.

“Who?”

“Michelle.”

“Good, maybe she’ll be our waitress.”

“She looks better tonight, not so spaced.”

“Didn’t she have to go home the last time we were here?”

“I think so.”

“Hi, how are you?”

“Good,” said Michelle. “I see you two have made it back again.”

“This is our third time here in three weeks, although we’re leaving for home on Sunday,” said Vera.

“So, you’ll be here for the storm.”

“It looks like it.”

“Where’s home?”

“In Ohio, Lakewood, which is right on the lake, just west of Cleveland,” said Frank. “We get thunderstorms that come across Lake Erie from Canada, but nothing like what we’ve been hearing is going to blow up here in your neck of the woods.”

Hurricane Dorian hit home like a battle-ax.

“The result was much higher rainfall and more widespread destructive winds across PEI with Dorian compared to Juan,” said Jay Scotland, the weatherman.

On Monday Blair Campbell, the chief executive officer of PEI Mutual Insurance, said they logged the most claims ever on Sunday, the day after the storm. More than four hundred policy holders called in property damage.

“These are damage claims in the frequency and magnitude that we have not seen before,’’ he said.

Fishing boats from Stanley Bridge to Covehead were smashed submerged.

“Sobeys in Charlottetown this morning was worse than Christmas,” said Michelle. “You couldn’t get anywhere with your cart. Everybody was buying dry cereal, canned fruit, ready-to-eat, and cases of water.”

Frances MacLure was stocking up.

“So far I have just bought batteries,” she said.

“I have two radios and I’m just going to make sure one of them is going to work. It’s always nice to be able to keep in touch if the power is out for any length of time,” she said.

There were water and sandwich makings on her list, as well.

“Just for a quick bite if the power goes off.”

“Everybody was buying batteries,” said Michelle. “The last time a hurricane came to the island, power was out for more than a week.”

“We are very concerned, we’ve certainly spent the last three days in readiness, in going through all of our checklist and checking our equipment,” said Kim Griffin of Maritime Electric as the weekend approached.

“There is a lot of greenery and foliage on the trees, that is a concern to us. So, we are really asking our customers to make sure they are prepared and ready.”

“When was that?” asked Frank.

“About fifteen years ago,” said Michelle. “Summerside has its own power, but if it goes out in New Brunswick, this whole part of the island won’t have any power.”

“Do you still have that moonshine cocktail?” asked Vera.

“We do,” said Michelle.

Vera had an Island Shine and Frank had a pint of lager.

“Are you going to have the big chowder?” asked Vera.

“Yes,” said Frank.

“I’m going to have a small bowl of soup and the ribs,” said Vera. “What about going halves on the lamb and feta appetizer? It’s good with everything.”

“Sure,” said Frank, agreeably. “You can’t go wrong with the ribs, and the mac and cheese they come with. That cheese from Glasgow Glen, it’s good. I had it the last time we were here.”

“I hope Emily has the sweet potato curry soup tonight,” said Vera. “Curry is my number one favorite thing in the world.”

“What about me?”

“You’re close, maybe third or fourth.”

“That close, huh?”

“You don’t like curry, which is a problem. I think Emily is a curry person, like me. She probably does a great Fall Flavors menu.”

The Mill’s owner and chef Emily Wells was born in England and lived on the continent before coming to Prince Edward Island in 1974 when her parents bought Cold Comfort Farm. She is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of Canada, committed to healthy local food and ethical food production. She has worked in restaurants in PEI and Ontario for more than three decades and is a key contributor to the River Clyde Pageant.

The pageant, four years running, is about the tidal river, and features great blue herons, trout puppets, schools of dressed-up jellyfish, bridge trolls and mermaids and fishermen.

“I love it when you put curry in things, but then all of a sudden you don’t taste anything else. I feel like you can taste everything else in her soups.”

“It’s like her chowder, it’s chock-full, but nothing’s drowned out, all the parts stand out,” said Frank. “It’s not too busy.”

“Everything here is always better than I expect, even though I always expect it to be good,” said Vera.

“My boyfriend is a chef at the Blue Mussel in North Rustico, and it’s hard for us to get a day off in the summer on the same day, so we hardly ever eat out,” said Michelle.

“After eating here and at the Mussel, we don’t always want to go, anyway, but we ate out in Charlottetown a few weeks ago, and the chowder we got was mostly a milky liquid, with so little fish in it. We poked around for whatever we could find but ended up asking for another loaf of bread. We got it to dunk into the chowder, because there were hardly any pieces of anything.”

From one end of PEI to the other pieces of preparation were coming together.

“We have been busy as a team,” said Randy MacDonald, chief of the Charlottetown Fire Department, the day before the storm. “Our team has been making preparations for tomorrow’s storm.”

He said chainsaws and generators were on hand. “We may see trees down, branches down, large branches taking down power lines, that sort of thing.” Rapid response cars, trucks, and ambulances were gassed full and staff was on the alert, ready to go.

While the tempest was rolling up the coast, Michelle didn’t just rush to Sobeys. She took matters into her own hands, in her own kitchen, in her own house.  “I live just down the road from here, next to the Gouda place. I send my son there for pizza, since he can walk over.”

The Gouda place makes artisan cheese.

“I’ve passed my name and my expertise on to Jeff McCourt and his new company Glasgow Glen Cheese,” said the former Cheese Lady, Martina ter Beek.

Glasgow Glen Farm slaps out skins from scratch, down the line doing the dough to sprinkling homegrown veggies and meats on the pie, featuring their own made from scratch gouda, working behind the front counter at two long tables just inside the door, wood firing the pizzas in a brick oven.

In the summer there are picnic tables alongside the gravel parking lot, a grassy field sloping away from a pile of cordwood.

“I made chowder,” said Michelle. “It was a fishy stew, like Mel does. I ended up using cod, clams, and scallops. I made everything else, clam juice, potatoes, carrots, onions, and tomatoes out of my garden. Once the potatoes were almost completely cooked, I took the pieces of cod and sat them on top. I put a lid on it and all the flavor, yeah, of the cod went into it.”

She didn’t need any bread to help her chowder out, either.

While Vera pulled gently at her baby back ribs, Frank started scooping out his large bowl of broth and seafood.

“How’s the sinkhole?“ asked Vera.

“So far so good,” said Frank. “It’s sort of like a Manhattan clam chowder, like the Portuguese make, and like a seafood goulash at the same time.”

“Like a cioppino.”

“Like a what?”

“That’s the official name of it,” said Vera.

“Anyway, I can taste bay leaves and thyme, and there might be some oregano in it. It’s loaded with stuff. She must have hit the motherload at the fish market. There are mussels, halibut, lobster, a chuck of salmon, and mini-shrimps.”

“Emily probably uses whatever she has on hand,” said Vera.

“On top there’s a red pepper rouille, almost like a pesto, which gives it a kick,” said Frank.

“Are you going to be able to finish it?”

“I’m going to give it my best shot.”

Halfway through their meal, when Vera spotted a plate of maple mousse walking by, she said to Frank, “That’s what I want to try for dessert tonight. It’s frozen mousse, like ice cream. I thought it might not be good for sharing, but that thing is more than big enough.”

“All right,” said Frank, “since that Anna kid is a wizard. First, we eat well, then we face tomorrow, no matter what happens.”

The Mill was almost vacated evacuated when they paid their bill of fare and left.

“You wouldn’t know a hurricane is blowing in,” Frank said to Vera as they lingered in the front lot after dinner, leaning against the back hatch of their Hyundai, watching the no traffic on the quiet road, the starry northern sky quiet above them.

When Saturday morning rolled around, it started getting dark, and by noon it started raining. It got windy and windier. The Coastline Cottages and the Doyle houses on the other side of the park road lost power in the late afternoon. Churchill Avenue in town was closed down. The Gulf Shore Parkway east from Brackley was closed down. Roads in all directions were closed down, as utility wires and branches blew away. Fences were flattened, roofs torn off, and hundred-year-old trees toppled.

The damage to the Cavendish Campground, seven-some miles away from where Frank and Vera were staying, was so bad it was closed for the rest of the year. An arc from Cavendish to Kensington to Summerside was walloped. Islanders tarped roofs, sawed up tree limbs, and hauled away debris for days afterwards. On Sunday morning all the trails administered by Parks Canada everywhere on PEI were shut down until they could be assessed.

After their cottage lost power, Frank and Vera packed for their drive home the next day and tidied up while there was still some light. “At least we know the mondo bridge is as sturdy as it gets,” said Vera. When it got dark, 19th century-style dark, they popped open the remains of a bottle of red wine and spent the rest of the night riding out the lashing all-out rain and gusting big ass wind.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Jumping Stanley Bridge

Richard Moore, Emma MacIssac and Connor McVey

By Ed Staskus

“It was terrifying,” said Johanna Reid.

She was standing on the outside edge of the bridge in the town of Stanley Bridge, on the far side of the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, looking down into the New London Bay.

She was 12-years-old. Her father had already jumped from the bridge. The hard flat dark blue of the bay was more than twenty feet below her.

“He didn’t tell me much. I stood on the opposite side of the rail looking down at the water for probably an hour,” she said. “I just couldn’t do it. I finally closed my eyes and jumped feet first. It took a lot of effort. After I hit the water I thought, Oh, my gosh, why couldn’t I have done that before?”

Now 20-years-old she’s been jumping every summer ever since. The Stanley Bridge is a simply supported beam-style bridge on Route 6 where it crosses the Stanley River. Built in the 1960s to replace a worse for the wear wood overpass, it is made of steel with a concrete deck. There is a sidewalk on the jumping side.

“The first couple of times I jumped I screamed, but now I just get up there, crawl over the railing, and go.”

Prince Edward Islanders living on the north central shore have been jumping the Stanley Bridge for as long as anyone can remember. “I used to jump off the bridge in the 1950s,” said Harriet Meacher. “Fun fun.”

“We all jumped off the bridge,” said Phyllis Carr, whose Carr’s Oyster Bar, on the near shore of the bay, is a few hundred-or-so yards from the bridge. Anyone on any summer day can sit on the outdoor dining deck of the eatery with a pint and a plate of shellfish and watch jumpers all day long.

“My brother Leon was only 4-years-old when he first jumped. It’s a tradition.”

The bridge at Basin Head, one of PEI’s better-known beaches on the eastern end of the island, is the other launching pad popular with jumpers. The Basin Head Bridge spans a fast-flowing boat run that is capable of rushing jumpers out into the Northumberland Strait, another way to get swept off your feet. Although signs prohibit any and all jumping, it is honored more in the breach.

“It’s one of those time-honored traditions here on Prince Edward Island, and from when I was down there watching the activities, people were really enjoying their experience,” said Tourism Minister Rob Henderson.

“A lot of people do it,” said Johanna about jumping the Stanley Bridge, “especially from around here. My dad lived just up the road and used to jump all the time when he was younger.”

“I dived since I was little,” said Earl Reid.

“I remember seeing people jumping off of it ever since I was born,” said Johanna. “I told my dad, you forward dive, but I’ll jump feet first. I’m too chicken.”

Majoring in Kinesiology, which is the study of human body movement, at the University of New Brunswick, Johanna Reid has played hockey since she was four-years-old, through high school, and continues to play in a women’s conference. A fast fit trim young lady, she has played rugby since she was a teenager and competes in her college league.

“I like making tackles, pulling them down, even when they’re twice my size,” she said.

She may have been a chicken once on the Stanley Bridge, but she takes the chicken out of chicken noodle soup everywhere else.

Some people forward dive off the bridge, others back dive or back flip, but most leap feet first. They do it for good reason

“You can do a starfish, or a belly flop, but that hurts,” said Denver McCabe, Johanna Reid’s 9-year-old cousin, who first jumped Stanley Bridge when he was 8-years-old. “I pencil dive, like a pencil, feet straight in.”

Belly flops are the bane of jumpers. “You never want to belly flop,” said Johanna. It is always a stinging pancake slap of a bad time. The crack of a belly hitting the New London Bay at velocity is the Frankendive of Stanley Bridge.

“One day there were a bunch of tourists jumping, and a little boy, 7 or 8-years-old, was trying to jump with them,” recalled Johanna. “I was swimming back after a jump. He was going to dive, so I watched him, while I paddled around. Halfway down he decided he didn’t want to be diving anymore and started to pull back. He belly flopped. We had to help him out because he was freaking. But, it just hurt him at the time and he was fine in the end.”

“It’s not quite like falling on concrete, but it’s a similar sensation, ” said Dr. Sonu Ahluwalia, a surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “Most of the time, other than ego and the skin, nothing will happen.”

The plucky brave curious come to Stanley Bridge from around the island, from Victoria, North Rustico, and Kensington, as well as some summer tourists from the rest of Canada and the United States. They jump alone or with their friends.

“Nothing says bonding like jumping off the bridge at Stanley Bridge,” said Rika Kebedie of Burlington, Ontario, about jumping with friends.

“When I was 13-years-old a lady was biking by,” said Johanna. “She had just gotten a cottage down the road and we had a chat when she stopped on the bridge. She had her bathing suit on, so I said, you should jump off.”

The woman gave it a thought. “OK, I’ll jump,” she said, leaning her bicycle on the railing and going over the side.

“She jumped off the bridge and survived, and now she’s here every summer, and she said I was her first friend on PEI.”

Jumping the Stanley Bridge starts in mid-to-late May, once the water has warmed up. “Some people jump in early May. That’s too crazy for me. I usually start at the start of June,” said Johanna. “When it’s cold, it’s an instant shock, like someone dumping a bucket of ice water on you. You come up from under the water pretty fast.”

Since the harbor on the bay side of the bridge brims with working fishing boats, and pleasure craft go up and down on both rivers,  the Stanley and the Southwest, spotters keep an eye out for traffic. “I’ve heard someone once jumped and landed on the deck of a boat, but it could be a myth,” said Johanna.

Besides passing boats and belly flops, jellyfish are the scourge of jumpers swimming back to the breakwall or the shoreline dock ladder. “They just float along, their tentacles floating behind them, and they hit you going by. Some days there are huge ones, as big as a pie plate.”

Jellyfish are free-swimming marine animals and are called jellyfish because they are jelly-like. They have no brains and have been swimming the oceans from even before there were dinosaurs. Crabs sometimes hitch a ride on top of them so they don’t have to exert themselves swimming to where they want to go.

Jellyfish never give their crustacean freeloaders a second thought.

“Every so often you can see them from the bridge, so you wait until they go by,” said Johanna. “When they sting you it really stings, it can really hurt. What I do is take some mud off the ocean, rub it on the bite, and you’re good to go.”

The first step off the edge of a bridge into mid-air is a step into a second-or-two of complete freedom. It is where most people never thought they might be. “Once you step off nothing in the world matters,” said Marta Empinotte, a world-class Brazilian BASE jumper, about stepping into space.

In mid-air jumpers find out that they don’t know anything, only that they’re in the nothing of mid-air, even though there’s no such thing as nothing. Once you’re off firm ground there’s nothing you can do about it, anyway. It’s only when you hit the water that you become something again.

“Whenever you go out on the bridge it looks kind of scary when you look down,” said Denver McCabe. ”The water will be 30 feet, even 40 feet down. The last time I jumped, when I checked on my iPad, it was 26 feet.

“It felt like nuthin’.”

The bravery of small boys can sometimes be larger than life, or not.

“But, you don’t want to belly flop, that’s for sure,” he added.

You don’t want to jump into a mass of eels, either.

“We used to jump off Tommy’s,” said Carrie Thompson, whose family owned the aquarium next to the Oyster Bar. She worked summers at the marine exhibit.

“We weren’t allowed to jump off the bridge, so we jumped off the wharf. Maybe the current pushed the eels that way. It was gross.”

On hot days when there is a crew on the Stanley Bridge waiting their turns, motorists often honk their horns while driving by, yelling, “Jump, jump!” Sometimes friends encourage their friends to make the leap, usually by daring them. “I dare you, they’ll say,” said Johanna, “and then they do it, even when they’ve never jumped from the top of the railing or done a back flip.”

Sometimes the encouragement takes the form of a shove.

“I wouldn’t push anyone I didn’t know or who was younger than me” said Johanna, “but if they were my friend, and weren’t going, weren’t doing it, I would just push them right in. The way I do it, I attempt it a few times, freak them out, and when they’re about to jump, it’s get in there! I just push them.”

The fear of jumping can take an unlikely turn.

“One of my friends from Bermuda was scared to get into the water because in Bermuda you can see everything, the water is so clear, but here it’s dark water. He eventually jumped the bridge, but he would only do it back-flipping.”

Joanna Reid has jumped the bridge every summer with every one of her friends. “Pretty much everyone in my high school did it. You could say, want to go bridge jumping, and anybody would go.”

A native of Stanley Bridge, “Yup, born and raised,” she spends autumn winter spring at university in New Brunswick, but her summers at home, kayaking, hanging out with her friends, and waiting tables at Carr’s Oyster Bar, as well as jumping the bridge at Stanley Bridge.

“When it’s a nice day, but there’s no wind, and you’re really hot, I will jump ten times, more-or-less. It cools you off.”

She never loses her cool, either, flying feet first thrill downwards cooling off, off the Stanley Bridge into the sparkling bright easy-landing water of New London Bay.

A version of this story appeared in Literary Heist Magazine.

Photograph by Andre Forget.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

 

 

 

 

 

Crackerjack in the Mess Hall

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By Ed Staskus

“I see you’ve made it back,” said Michelle, sporting neato retro eyeglasses and handcrafted rings on nearly every finger of every hand. Waiting tables, delivering three four five plates at a time, is two-fisted three-fisted work.

“I have to try the pad Thai, after seeing the folks next to us digging into it the week before last,” said Vera.

‘That’s one of Emily’s best, definitely. Would you like to start with a drink?” she asked, one of the three grown-up servers on the floor the early September weekend evening.

“What is a good mixed drink?” asked Vera, running her eyes up and down the menu.

“Everything, but Kim can mix up anything if we don’t make it.”

“What is Straight Shine?”

“Shine.”

“Like moonshine?”

“It’s our island-made moonshine.”

“Like Ole Smoky in a mason jar?” asked Frank.

“Not the same, it’s served more like a margarita,” said Michelle.

“That’s a step in the right direction,” said Frank.

“My God, I might moonshine,” said Vera. “My grandfather used to make vodka at home. All his friends from Lithuania, who escaped during the war, would come over on Sunday afternoons after church, drinking the rest of the day, reminiscing, yakking it up, and singing their old country songs. OK, I’ll try it.”

“I’ll have a pint, something IPA,” said Frank.

Frank and Vera Glass were at The Mill, a restaurant on a high bank overlooking the River Clyde in New Glasgow, on Prince Edward Island, up the eastern Canadian coast. The eatery is in a two-story Dutch Colonial-like blue building built in 1896. It served as a community center and courthouse, among its many later incarnations. It was converted to a restaurant in the 1990s by the Larkin’s, nearby poultry farmers who are the largest turkey growers in the province.

“We used to have a guy in shipping, in the warehouse, from West Virginia, who brought back moonshine every time he went home for a visit,” said Frank, as Vera sipped her Straight Shine. “He always said you could tell it was good if you put a match to it and the flame burned blue. That meant it was good to go and wouldn’t make you go blind.”

Michelle walked up and lit the tea candle on their table.

“How is it,” she asked

“It looks good to me,” said Vera. “What I mean is, it tastes good.”

When the Larkin’s transitioned out of the dining room business twenty years later, The Mill stayed down home when PEI chef Emily Wells took over, putting her fusion-style stamp on the dining room.

Vera ordered the stir-fried garlic ginger cilantro lemon juice rice noodle fettucine pad Thai with lobster and Frank ordered the special, curry sweet potato soup, baby back ribs with mac and cheese, and dessert. It was East meets West meets Italy. Fusion cooking is the art of mixing ingredients and preparation styles from different cultures into a distinctive dish of tastiness.

The window Frank and Vera were sitting at had gone dark by the time they finished their dinners, although Vera was still on the last lap. She was a slow eater and her plate had been stacked. A quarter-moon in a cloudless sky reflected a milky light in the river. Frank leaned back in his chair as Vera lifted a final forkful to her mouth.

“Since we both ordered something new, why don’t we try something new for dessert, too?” Frank asked Vera.

They had eaten at The Mill several times the past three years and usually ordered coffee and carrot cake after dinner, since the carrot cake was about the best they had eaten anywhere.

“It’s better than my mom’s, and she’s a pro,” said Vera.

Vera’s mother was a freelance pastry chef in Cleveland, Ohio, who during the holiday season mixed in making website-ordered Russian Napoleon cakes, shipping them frozen solid all around the country by Fed-Ex next-day air.

“How about the chocolate cake that couple from Miami told us about?”  asked Vera.

“We move around the island a lot,” said the husband from Florida. “We’ve eaten at a lot of restaurants but overall this is our absolute favorite.”

“What’s so great?” said the lady of the house. “The unique combination of flavors and menu options, and there’s not a deep fryer in the kitchen! They’re dedicated to local food sourcing, which means super fresh food and vegetables. Make sure to try the chocolate cake even if you’re full. It’s made in-house and melts in your mouth.

“And the portions are large, too,” she added.

Unlike more than one restaurant with a swell reputation on Prince Edward Island, in the meantime serving prison camp portions at penthouse prices, The Mill gets it done with a square deal, even though it has as much, if not more, in the culinary arts to crow about.

“Do you bake this here?” asked Vera.

“Our baker does,” said Michelle.

“It’s totally delicious, the dark chocolate, if you want to let the baker know.”

A few minutes later a strapping young woman with disheveled hair walked up to their table.

“Did you make this?” asked Frank, pointing to the half-eaten slice of zuccotto he was sharing with his wife.

“Yeah,” said Anna, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Do you make the carrot cake, too?

“Yeah.”

“It’s our favorite carrot cake anywhere,” said Vera. “Your chocolate dessert is what chocolate dessert should taste like, up-to-the-minute. They can be boring, doing the same thing over and over again. This is definitely bomb cake, in more ways than one.”

“You seem awfully young to be making cake this good,” said Frank

“Yeah,” said Anna with a big smile.

“How old are you?”

“I’m 17-years-old,” said Anna. “I was 15 when I first started cooking here. I came in to work one day, I was bussing tables, and my boss said, you’re scaring everyone out there. You have to go into the kitchen. From that point on I’ve worked in the kitchen.”

“Scaring everyone?” asked Frank.

“Yeah, they said my personality was too big.”

“Too big?” said Vera.

“I was fourteen. How scary could I be?” asked Anna. “I guess I can be scary sometimes. Nothing’s really changed.”

“I told her when she worked out front that she was scaring the customers with her huge personality,” said Kim, the mixologist. “Now that she’s in the kitchen, she’s come up with pet names for all of us. We won’t talk about that, though. It can get gross.”

“What did you guys eat?” asked Anna.

“She had the Thai and I had the special. Last week we both had the big seafood chowder bowl,” said Frank.

“Ahhh,” said Anna.

“I’ve heard you have a name for it in the kitchen.”

“We have a pet name for it, yeah.”

“I tasted orange in the soup,” said Vera.

“Yup, there are orange peels, marinated, and bay leaves, that we take out right before service. We make our own fish broth, and our own vegetable broth, too.”

The new Mill, brainchild of Emily Wells, who was named one of the north’s top chefs by the Matador Network in 2016, serves fresh local food made with global flair. She works in a classic vein, adapting her recipes to what’s in place and on time. “You’re buying local lettuce, local tomatoes,” she said. “A huge chunk of it, it’s seafood season on PEI.” A graduate of the first class at the Culinary Institute of Canada, she cut her teeth in kitchens in Ontario and Prince Edward Island, and made a name for herself at The Dunes in Brackley Beach.

“I’ve been at it for thirty-five years,” she said.

“Oh, I’ve got mussels on the stove, back in a minute,” said Anna, striding out of the dining room.

“I thought Emily was making the desserts, or they were buying them from some high-end bakery,” said Vera.

“If that teenager is the pastry chef, all I can say is, she’s totally up to speed,” said Frank.

“Do you make all the desserts,” asked Vera, when Anna came back to their table.

“Yeah, I’m a line cook and the baker.”

“My mother is a pastry chef,” said Vera. “You’re very good.”

“How did you learn to bake so well?” asked Frank.

“Emily taught me. I‘m a quick learner. I learned a lot from my grandmother. I used to spend all my time with her when I was a kid. She taught me to pickle and bake.”

Not everyone is good with pastry, not by any means.

“I make no bones about it,” says Michael Symon, chef, author, and restaurateur. “I have no understanding of pastry.”

“Honestly, I hate to say this,” said Anna, “but my aunt makes an even better carrot cake than I do.”

“You’re early to be nearly as good as your aunt,” said Frank.

“Most of our staff is young,” said Anna. “Everyone in the kitchen is under 20, except Andrea and Emily. We have a 19-year-old, another 17-year-old, and a 13-year-old, who is my sister. Luke, our other prep, has three younger brothers who work here.”

“It’s like a family line on the line,” said Frank.

If you are under 16 in the province and want to work, you must have permission from your parents, only work between 7 AM and 11 PM, and not work in an environment that is harmful to your health, safety, moral or physical development, among other things. If you are over 16, those limits don’t apply.

“I’ll tell you about PEI and Atlantic Canada, it’s a culture of honest, hard work,” says Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Sometimes known as the “Million-Acre Farm,” farming is king on the island. Farming for a living is hard work. You won’t ever need a gym membership. There are some advantages. You are your own boss, you can go to work in boots and a dirty t-shirt, and you eat like a king.

“I started as a dishwasher,” said Anna.

Working the dish pit means long hours on your feet, getting wet a lot, and ending the day smelling like food and dirt. It’s not markedly different than farming.

“The kids are great,” said Kim. “Ours is a teaching kitchen, so they get an education, and get paid. They all have a great work ethic. The little hostess, she’s fifteen, a crackerjack like Anna. It’s great to see that they want to work. I’ve worked in other places, and it’s like pulling teeth, all standing around. Here, they’re eager to learn and do.”

“A lot of people, their idea of baking is buying a ready-made mix and throwing in an egg,” said Vera. “I make carrot cake at home, but it’s just carrots and stuff. One of our cats likes a piece now and then. Yours is both more subtle and more complex.”

“The main spices we use are ginger, cloves, and cinnamon, and a bit of all-spice, and that’s about it.”

“The cake isn’t heavy, which is what I like,” said Frank.

“There’s pineapple in it.”

“The frosting is terrific,” said Vera.

“I couldn’t come to work yesterday,” said Anna. “I decided my cat died.”

“Oh, my gosh, that’s too bad!” said Vera. “What happened?”

“She was an outdoor cat. I had her since I was six, I came home one day and asked, where’s my cat, but nobody had seen her for days. It’s been a month. I sat outside in my lawn chair until it got dark, but she never came back. I’m pretty sure she got eaten by a coyote.”

After paying the bill, Frank and Vera lingered at the rail on the front deck. The band that had been playing in the loft was in the parking lot, still hooting it up. The night air was damp but brisk. The moon hovered in the inky sky. Across the street, lights glowed over the bay doors of the New Glasgow Volunteer Fire Department.

“That girl might be one of the best 17-year-old pastry chefs no one has ever heard of, not anywhere, except for right here,” said Frank.

“Besides the known and the unknown, what else is there?” said Vera.

“That moonshine seems to have gone to your head,” said Frank.

“Ha, ha. Anyway, she’s got a big smile, big energy, and some scary cake talent. Somebody will hear about her, sooner or later.”

There’s always a “Surprise Inside” every box of Cracker Jack.

They walked to the end of the deck leading to the side lot. Fluorescent lights blazed the windowpanes. Dishes clattered through the open windows, the kitchen staff having a gab fest as they cleaned up. They heard a rowdy high-spirited laugh, which followed them down the steps and stretch of gravel to their car.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Six Oysters Ahoy

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By Ed Staskus

“He was a very valiant man who first adventured on the eating of oysters.”  King James VI and I

“I checked the weather report,” said Frank Glass.

“What did you find out?” asked Vera Glass.

“It’s going to be the same today as it was yesterday.”

“Is it going to rain all day?” asked Vera.

“You don’t need a weatherman for that,” said Frank, throwing a glance at the window.

A steady rain was falling outside the large front window of the cottage, down on the long sloping lawn of the Coastline Cottages, on the Gulf Shore Parkway, on the three houses on the other side of the road, and out to the horizon as far as they could see. The sky was dark over Doyle’s Cove. Broad surfboard-sized waves worked up the water. When Frank looked out the northwest-facing kitchen window, the sky, where the weather was coming from, was even darker.

“What should we do? It rained all day yesterday. I’m getting cabin fever.”

“We could play cards, read, and talk among ourselves. How about dinner and a show?”

“That sounds good, especially the part about dinner,” said Vera. “Where do you want to eat?”

“There’s a show opening tonight at the Victoria Theatre.”

“All right, but what about dinner?”

“We could eat at the Landmark, it’s right there.”

“I’ve always liked the Landmark,” said Vera. “Eugene is a great cook. They have the best meat pies.”

“Somebody told me he sold it and there are new owners,” said Frank.

“What? How can that be? Eugene and Olivier and Rachel are gone?”

The Sauve family tree had repurposed an old grocery store in Victoria into a café restaurant in the late 1980s, adding a deck, digging a basement for storage and coolers, and expanding their dining space several times. They were a perennial ‘Best Place to Eat on Prince Edward Island’ in the magazine Canadian Living.

“It’s now called the Landmark Oyster House.”

“I love oysters,” said Vera. “Let’s go.”

It was still raining when Frank and Vera drove up Church Hill Road and swung onto Route 6, through North Rustico to Route 13, through Hunter River and Kelly’s Cross. It was still raining when they pulled into the small seaside town of Victoria on the other side of Prince Edward Island, on the Northumberland Straight side, 45 minutes later. It rained on them as they rushed into the Landmark Oyster House.

There wasn’t a table to be had, but there were two seats at the bar.

“Look, we’re right in front of the oysters,” said Vera, as they sat down at the closed end of it. “I love this spot.”

Kieran Goodwin, the bartender, agreed, standing on the other side of the bar, on the other side of a large shallow stainless steel bin full of raw oysters on ice.

“Best seats in the house,” he said. “They were going to put the bar in the front room, but the dimensions didn’t work out.”

“Who’s they?” asked Frank.

Vera looked the chalkboard on the wall up and down. The names of the oysters on ice were written on the board. There were six of them, Valley Pearl, Sand Dune, Shipwreck, Blackberry Point, Lucky Limes, and Dukes. She looked down into the bin. She couldn’t make heads or tails of which were which. She knew raw oysters were alive, more-or-less.

She wondered, how could you even tell?

“Greg and Marly Anderson,” said Kieran. “They own a wedding venue up the road.”  It is the Grand Victoria Wedding Events Venue, in a restored former 19th century church. “When this opportunity came up, when Eugene was looking to tone it down a bit, they decided to purchase it.”

“I worked at the Oyster House in Charlottetown shucking oysters for almost five years,” said Marly. “We heard that the family wanted to retire because they had been working at this restaurant for 29 years. We already felt a connection to this place and we are friends and neighbors with the family.”

“They’ve put their roots down in the community, are making their stand here,” said Kieran.

“I like what they’ve done in here, casual but upscale,” said Vera.

“It looks like the kitchen is more enclosed than it was,” observed Frank.

“Yeah, they did up a wall,” said Kieran. “When you used to walk in, you could peek right in.”

“I remember Eugene telling us once he learned all his cooking from his mom. Who does the cooking now?”

“Kaela Barnett is our chef.”

“We couldn’t do this without her,” said Greg Anderson.

Somebody’s got to have a steady hand on the ladle that stirs the soup.

“I’m thinking of doing oysters and a board,” said Vera.

“That’s a good choice,” said Kieran. “I recommend the large board. You get a bit of everything. I personally like getting some cheese.”

“Me, too.”

“Are you oyster connoisseurs?” asked Kieran.

“Not me,” said Frank. “I can’t remember the last time I ate an oyster.”

“I wish I was, but I love them,” said Vera. “We were on the island last year and went to the Merchantman in Charlottetown with Doug and Rachel, Eugene’s daughter. We had oysters and she went through all the ones we ate, explaining them to me.”

“Would you like something from the bar?” asked Kieran.

“I’ll take the Gahan on tap, the 1772 Pale Ale.”

“What wine goes with oysters?” asked Vera.

“We have a beautiful California chardonnay,” said Kieran. “It’s great with shellfish. I recommend it.”

“This is good, fruity,” said Vera, tasting it.

“We have six oysters,” said Kieran. “You could do one of each.”

“That’s what I’ll do,” said Vera.

“I think I’ll have the seafood chowder and some of the board,” said Frank.

“Oh, Frank, try one,” said Vera.

“Lucky Limes are my favorite,” said Kieran. “It’s a good medium oyster.”

“OK, I’ll try it,” said Frank, shrugging.

Kieran handed him a Lucky Lime.

“How do I eat this thing?” Frank asked Vera.

“Sometimes I chew it, sometimes I don’t,” she said.

“Some people like putting stuff on it, like horseradish, which kills the taste,” said Kieran. “But straight up is best. That’s how islanders do it, just shuck it.”

Frank looked down at the liquid-filled half shell.

“From the wide end,” said Kieran.

He slurped the oyster into his mouth and swallowed it.

“Now you’re a pro,” said Vera.

“That wasn’t bad,” said Frank. “How could you tell it was a Lucky Lime? They all look the same to me.”

“If you look at the chalkboard, it’s one through six. That’s one way.”

“Can you tell by looking at them?” asked Vera.

“I can tell by the shell,” said Kieran. “The ones that are more green, that means there’s more saltwater content. So this is a Sand Dune, quite briny. That one is almost straight salt water.” He pointed to an even darker greener shell.

“The Shipwreck, the name made me nervous to have it, but it was mild,” said Vera.

“It would be farther up the estuary, closer to fresh water.”

“Blackberry Point was very salty.”

“The Blackberry’s are from Malpeque, which is near Cavendish,” said Kieran. “The Sand Dune is from Surrey, down east, and the Lucky Limes are from New London Bay. Valley Pearl is from Tyne Valley and the Dukes are from Ten Mile Creek.”

“I thought you were just making all this up,” said Frank.

“No, its like wine,” said Kieran.

“How did you get into the shellfish racket?” asked Frank.

“I graduated in business, traveled, lived in New Zealand and Australia, and then came back home, and worked in a bank as a financial advisor for six years, in Summerside and Charlottetown, but then I just got tired of working in a bank, and went back to school.”

“How did you find your way here, behind the bar?”

“I date Jamie, who is Marly’s sister.”

“Are those pickled carrots?” asked Vera, pointing at the charcuterie board in front of her.

“Yes, and you have raisin jam, too,” said Kieran.

“Chutney, stop the madness!” exclaimed Vera. “Oh, it’s strawberry jam. It just looks like chutney. It’s delicious.”

“We had raisin pie at a small diner in Hunter River the other day,” said Frank.

“The one by the side of the road, up from the Irving gas station?” asked Kieran.

“That’s the one,” said Frank. “The waitress told us she always thinks of raisin pie as funeral pie, because back in the day, if there was a funeral in the winter, women always made raisin pies for the reception after the memorial service, because raisins kept all year round.”

“Can I take my oyster shells with me?” asked Vera.

“Sure,” said Kieran. ”We can get a little bag for you.”

“You can really taste the sea eating oysters,” said Vera. “Blackberry Point was a little thin and too salty, but once you eat one, and you don’t like it, whoa, what are you going to do? Valley Pearl didn’t have a lot of flavor, but there was some good texture to it. Lucky Lime was very good. My favorite was Sand Dune. It had a strong ocean flavor, briny.”

“I’ve heard people say oysters are slimy, but the one I had, it didn’t seem that way,” said Frank. “I can see having oysters again.”

“Don’t people sometimes say the world is your oyster?” said Vera.

“Do you want dessert?” asked Kieran.

“Do you have carrot cake?”

“It’s made here.”

“We’ll split a slice of that, and two coffees, thanks.”

As Vera and Frank dug into their carrot cake, there was a commotion at the other end of the bar. Kieran, Jamie, and Marly were huddling over glowing screens.

“Did your electronics go haywire?” asked Frank when Kieran brought them coffee.

“The microwave in the basement tripped the breaker. We hardly ever use it, except to melt butter sometimes. It’s weird, it’s been working until now. We have a thing that magnifies our wi-fi signal. We just found out it’s on the same circuit.”

“My mother was a pastry chef,” said Vera. ”She didn’t use microwaves much, but whenever she did, she always said, ‘I’m going to nuke it now!’”

Frank and Vera used their forks on the last crumbs of their cake and finished their coffee. Frank checked the time on his iPhone. “Time to go, sweetheart,” he said. They paid the bill and stood to go.

“Enjoy the show, hope to see you again,” Kieran said as Frank and Vera walked out of the Oyster House.

“It’s raining and sunny at the same time,” said Frank as they dashed across the street to the Victoria Theatre, yellow slanting sunlight leading the way.

“That’s PEI for you,” said Vera. “By the way, what are we seeing?”

“Where You Are.”

“I know where we are,” said Vera.

“That’s the name of the show,” said Frank.

“Aha, I see,” said Vera.

“Hustle it up, we’re almost late.”

They went up the steps into the theater, got their programs, and sat down. Vera tucked the bag of shells under her seat. “Wherever you are, there you are, oyster boys and girls” she thought, making sure they were safe and sound.

“How could you even tell?” she wondered as the lights went down and the show started.

Photograph by Vanessa Staskus.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Gone Gros Morne

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By Ed Staskus

“The secret to acting is don’t act. Be you, with add-ons.” Michael Sheen

“I’m going to take off now,” said Leah Pritchard. “I’m going to go. I’m going to do what I want. I’m going to leave. That’s what’s going to happen.”

It was the tail end of her last year at Gros Morne Academy in Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland. Closing in on the end of theater studies with Sarah McDonald, the teacher pulled Leah aside. “Of all the students here, the one we think would be feasible as a professional actor is the one who’s always saying they don’t want to do it. You would be the one strong enough and talented enough to actually make it.”

Leah Pritchard had other plans. She was geared up and buckled down about joining the Mounties. She meant business.

When the class mounted their year-end play, everybody’s parents coming to see the show, Sarah McDonald rustled up Ross and Marion Fraser-Pritchard. She meant business, too.

“We’re going to put her in theater school at university, so that’s the plan,” she told Leah’s parents.

“My dad did not want me leave Newfoundland and he did not want me to be in the RCMP,” said Leah.

“Fine, great, we’ll keep her here,” said her father, despite himself and his wife both being Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

“I was still very angry about being in Newfoundland, about being moved around, leaving Nova Scotia.” She was 17-years-old. “I was a surly teenager, a willful child. I didn’t want to be here anymore.”

She turned 18 her first day three months later at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “She can’t get into the theater program right away, but we’re going to make sure she gets into it,” Sarah McDonald told Leah’s father. “She was my mentor,” said Leah.

In the meantime, she snuck into theater classes.

“I was hanging with my friends one day when I got locked in the class by accident when the professor came in. After I didn’t get called out for it, after a few weeks I started answering questions,” she said.

“Who are you?” Todd Hennessey, the teacher and Head of the Division of Fine Arts, finally asked her. “Do you take this class?”

“Um, no,” she answered.

“Don’t worry,” her friends told the teacher.. “You’ll meet her officially next year.”

In her last year at Memorial University she headlined Hard Ticket Theatre’s production of “Venus in Fur.”.Todd Hennessey directed the spooky two-person sex comedy. “It takes one heck of an actress to convincingly play a character who is regarded as being a fantastic actress, and Leah Prichard nails it,” wrote Rachael Joffred in her review.

The campus she attended was the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College at Corner Brook, where the bulk of the theater program was, and which is two hours from  Rocky Harbour. Wilfred Grenfell was an English doctor who opened hospitals, orphanages, and cooperatives one hundred years ago to serve the coastal inhabitants of Labrador and Newfoundland. He was an able-bodied doughty man. Once marooned on a slab of floating ice slob, he killed some of his dogs to make himself a fur coat in order to survive.

“They wanted to keep track of me, since I was just 18.” Two years later her mother was reassigned to RCMP Headquarters in Halifax. Her father took a post in the capital city, as well. Leah Pritchard stayed lived studied and worked in Newfoundland for the next nearly seven years.

Rocky Harbour is on the far western edge of Newfoundland. The town is home to Gros Morne National Park. There is a fjord lined with cliffs and waterfalls, formed by long-gone glaciers. There are caribou and moose, rainy moody fog-bound mountains, and the tablelands, where you can walk on the earth’s mantle. The landscape is ancient.

“If you ever see tourism commercials for Newfoundland,” said Leah, “there’s always this big fjord where somebody is standing with their arms outstretched saying, “Look at the world!’ That’s where I lived. You can spend a long time by yourself there. I ended up loving it.”

A native of Nova Scotia, Leah Pritchard grew up in Lower Sackville, a fast-growing suburb of Halifax. In the 1950s it was known for its drive-in theater, harness racing track, and WW2 bomber plane ice cream stand. It is today a family-oriented commuter community.

Her parents, now both retired, were RCMP policeman and policewoman. The Force, as it is known, is both a federal and national police force. It enforces the law on a contract basis in the territories and most of the provinces. In many rural areas it is the only police force. Its French acronym, GRC, is sometimes repurposed as Gravel Road Cops.

Despite its name, the Mounties is not an actual mounted police force anymore, although it still was in the 1930s when they brought the Mad Trapper of Rat River to justice.

Her grandfather was a RCMP officer. “It’s just a family thing,” she said. “It also makes you very popular in high school, let me tell you,” she added with a booming guffaw.

She is the youngest of five children. Her sister and two older brothers were adopted by her father when he was 21-years-old. “Their dad was a motorcycle cop and died on duty. My dad fell super in love with his widow and made a bold choice. The kids were 3, 2, and 1-years-old. The RCMP has always been a part of our lives. There’s a sense of honor and tradition.”

Growing up, the family moved whenever and wherever her parents were assigned. It was how they moved to Newfoundland, when her mother was made a detachment commander there. Leah spent most of her teen years in Yarmouth, on the Bay of Fundy in southwestern Nova Scotia. The seaside town is proximate to the world’s largest lobster fishing grounds.

“You get real accustomed to small town life real fast. There’s a lot of space in and around Yarmouth to get weird.”

No matter what efforts you summon to make sense of it, the world can still be a strange place. Small towns impart a sense of place, but often feelings of self-consciousness, too. It can mean the opportunity to create your own options out of the weird mix of things.

It is where Leah caught the acting bug.

“I was at a production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” at our high school when two of the actors started laughing hysterically on stage about something and couldn’t control themselves. I thought that looks like fun.”

She took fine arts and acting classes in both French and English. In lieu of lunch the drama students staged short one-act plays at a nearby small theater, declaiming their dialogue and handing out sandwiches to show goers who needed a bite. “We were just harmless theater geeks, so the teachers let us go and do that. I started spending all my time in theaters.”

Once in the acting stream at Memorial University she discovered the program was the only one of its kind in Atlantic Canada. It combined practical and academic training with small class sizes and one-on-one attention to detail by actors directors production professionals doubling up as faculty and staff.

“It’s a fabulous program, especially learning to handle Shakespeare,” said Leah. “The Newfoundland accent is the least bastardized accent in North America, the closest to what it would be in Shakespeare’s time. It’s got that time’s rhythm and music to it.”

Many Newfoundlanders work in classic theater, especially at Canada’s Stratford Festival, the internationally known repertory theater festival that showcases William Shakespeare. “The music is in our DNA,” said St. John’s native Robin Hutton, who has performed at Stratford for close to a decade. ”We can’t have a party without a sing song.”

Natives of ‘The Rock,’ as the province is sometimes known, who have worked at Stratford include Brad Hotter, Jillian Keiley, and Deidre Gillard-Rowlings. “We’re storytellers in Newfoundland,” said Brad Hotter. “Theater is a craft handed down, where you learn from people who pass it down from generation to generation.”

Leah Pritchard’s last semester at Memorial University was spent in England, taking master classes with working professionals and seeing shows in the West End and Stratford-upon-Avon. “You see as many plays as you can, you write reviews, and you rehearse a play. When you come back you put it up. It’s the culmination of all the work you’ve done the past four years.”

One of the plays she saw in London was “The 39 Steps,” accompanied by her brother, Ian, a six-foot-six lanky young man with curly ginger hair who at the time was also in the theater program. The show is a comic treatment of the Alfred Hitchcock movie. It is played for laughs, so Leah and Ian laughed their heads off

“Most people would unanimously agree that I’m a very loud person,” said Leah. “If I’m being quiet, there’s something wrong. Ian has an even bigger laugh, a booming laugh, not subtle, at all. We were there laughing our heads off, Eastern Canadians watching a comedy. Everyone around us was quiet. Somebody said, ‘That’s not why we’re here.’ English audiences are reserved. Come on! I said. That’s exactly why we’re here. Join in the jokes, please.”

Sometimes being the loud enough voice for quiet thoughts is what works. Leah sang with the Xara Choral Theatre Ensemble on their debut CD “Here On These Branches” about northern cultures, communities, and landscapes. It was nominated for best classical recording of 2015 at the East Coast Music Awards.

It’s what she does getting ready to go on stage every night, too. She sings to herself, pop jazz show tunes by Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, and Julie Andrews.

Back in Newfoundland with a newly minted BFA in acting on her resume, she found work as a bartender, a nanny, and an usher. “I’d get up at 6 in the morning, nanny the three kids, drop them off at their family’s restaurant, jump into a shower, get into my uniform, and go usher at the Gros Morne Theatre Festival.”

She worked in a candy store to make ends meet.

“You eat a lot of candy,” she said.

She got a job at a dinner theater in Halifax.

“You gotta do it,” she said. “It’s like cutting your teeth.”

Madrigals in the Middle Ages were a kind of dinner theater. They made a comeback in the 1970s, featuring mysteries and musicals. Actors like Lana Turner and Van Johnson performed between appetizers and dessert. Burt Reynolds owned his own dinner theater.

“You’re a performer, but you’re a waiter, too,” said Leah. “You sing and dance and run off stage to pick up six plates on a tray, deliver them, and run back on stage. You get into wicked great shape doing it.”

The bane of dinner theaters is the hubbub. “You’re a waiter as well as a performer and you have to deal with eaters. But there isn’t a fourth wall. If someone starts talking on their phone, because they don’t really give a fuck about you, you can stop and say, do you mind?”

It’s best said with an upturned nose, mock haughtiness, and a snooty English accent. “It’s not like you’re in the middle of a soliloquy,” she said.

Breaking into the arts world is often a matter of catching a break.

”My first Equity gig was in the fall after I graduated, which is very lucky.”

In late 2013, another teacher from the university, Jerry Etienne, saw her in a remount of “Venus in Fur.” He has directed more than thirty productions as Artistic Director of Theatre Newfoundland Labrador and founded the Gros Morne Theatre Festival. When he signed on to direct “The Rainmaker” at the Watermark Theatre on Prince Edward Island the next summer he asked her if she would consider signing up at the same time.

“Yes, please,” she said.

She played the plain spinster in the drought-ridden story set in Depression-era America whose family worries center on her slim marriage prospects and their dying cattle. “Leah Pritchard tunes into the right emotional channel,” wrote The Buzz, Prince Edward Island’s arts and entertainment monthly tabloid.

Summer stock at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico on the north central coast of the island means finding a place to live and a place to eat. “The stage manager and I roomed together for four years.” She ate at Amanda’s that became Fresh Catch that became Pedro’s Island Eatery when it was taken over by a Portuguese couple. “This village has been crying out for Pedro’s,” she said. “They give you so much food, delicious, and a beer. I get passionate about their haddock.”

Meanwhile, she worked up and down the east coast. “I’m very much an eastern girl,” she said. “I’d go insane without the ocean.”

In the spring of 2016 Leah appeared in “The Drowning Girls” at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, a play about the real-life early 20th-century British wife killer George Joseph Smith, who married three women in succession and drowned all three in succession. “There was a lot of sitting in water for long periods of time. There was even a splash zone by the first row.“

Later that fall she played Balthazar in “The Spanish Tragedy” at The Villain’s Theatre in Halifax. All the actors were actresses in the new adaptation and the revenge story unfolded with a plentiful dose of black humor.

By the end of the summer season of 2017, after four seasons at the Watermark Theatre, she had appeared in productions of “Blithe Spirit” “The Rainmaker” “The Lion in Winter” “Romeo and Juliet” “An Ideal Husband” “The Glass Menagerie” and most recently “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” and the perky newlywed in “Barefoot in the Park.”

“The Watermark has been very kind to me,” she said. “I’ve gotten the opportunity to do Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams.”

“Leah Pritchard and Jordan Campbell have genuine chemistry together, an innocent quality which is very watchable and perfectly suited to the play,” wrote Colm Magner in his review of “Barefoot in the Park” for The Guardian.

Some roles are more challenging than others.

“The Glass Menagerie was hard,” she said. “It was physically challenging, limping around, and I couldn’t figure Laura out, at first. She’s someone who lives inside herself, although as an actor on stage you can’t be too inside yourself. She’s a character who withdraws from the world, is quiet and reserved, and doesn’t want to be in confrontation. But on stage you need to be present, need to be seen, and need to be physically heard.

“It was weird.”

In the fall of 2017 Leah went on tour with Xara Choral Theatre’s adaptation of “Fatty Legs,” a children’s true story book about a plucky eight-year-old Inuit girl gone off to a residential school. “They called me Fatty Legs because a wicked nun forced me to wear a pair of red stockings that made my legs look enormous,” says the heroine. The larger theme is the cultural genocide of Canada’s defunct Indian boarding school system, which separated children from their traditional land, skills, language, and family.

Working with youngsters isn’t new for her. She has been a teaching assistant for Neptune Theatre’s youth theater workshops and led PEI Watermark Theatre’s youth theater acting conservatory for three summers.

Still a self-professed east coast girl, Leah Pritchard has recently moved to Toronto. The city boasts one of the liveliest theater scenes in the world, from major musicals at the Mirvish Theatres to Soulpepper, North America’s only year-round repertory company, to Buddies in Bad Times, the world’s largest and longest running queer theater.

“I want to be on the coast, but I understand the opportunities are in Ontario. I know what stages I want to be on and I’m going to keep working as hard as I can to get on those stages, by hook or by crook.”

Getting in the front door is easy to do if you’ve got a ticket. Getting in the stage door is hard to do if you’re an aspiring actor. Trying to make it in Toronto is a long uphill row to hoe.

“In Toronto no one needs to see you, no one needs to let you into the audition room, because there are thousands of you out there,” said Leah. “The way I approach my career is, there are thousands of good actors, but there aren’t thousands of me. There’s only one of me and they should be so lucky.”

Sometimes she tosses her head back when she laughs, like an actress from another time, a Myrna Loy or Angela Lansbury, who she bears a resemblance to. If she hasn’t laughed ten fifteen twenty times a day it hasn’t been a good day. “I get that I’m a young Angela Lansbury, a lot. I should be as lucky as that. I tell them I’m like a young old lady, not like how people are trying to be beautiful today.”

Looking ahead moving forward owning her career in the big city, she has several pokers in the fire, including Prince Edward Island. “It depends if there are roles for me in the plays they choose,” she said. “Five years in that theatre would be amazing. Even if they don’t, if I can manage a visit, the ocean, Pedro’s, it would be fabulous.”

She toured in the fall of 2018 with Xara Choral Theatre’s production of “Fatty Legs” reprising her work with the troupe.

This year she has found her way back to the Atlantic Ocean and Pedro’s Island Eatery and the Watermark Theatre for her fifth season, appearing in both summer shows, “Boeing Boeing” and “Crimes of the Heart.”

“She is very. very funny in ‘Boeing Boeing,'” said Robert Tsonos, Artistic Director at the Watermark.

“I’m always working to better myself as an actor,” she said. “I’m an independent artist, so I’m not desperate to be liked. I’m older, a little wiser, although maybe not very wise. I’m still only 28. How wise can a 28-year-old be?”

It”s not about to be or not to be.

It’s about the sharp-eyed actor on the way to doing what she wants who understands the first word line page in the manuscript of horse sense keenness awareness is about being unfailing about being you, adding-on but no second-handing and no pretending about what you’re doing to make yourself happen.

Photograph by Matthew Downey.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Rock the Castle

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By Ed Staskus

There isn’t anything to be or not to be about “Kronborg – The Hamlet Rock Musical” as it kicks off the 55th season at The Charlottetown Festival on Prince Edward Island. It’s all about being, being in front and making it happen. There’s nothing indecisive about Hamlet. He’s got Claudius in his crosshairs nearly from the get-go.

Lawrence Olivier, who directed and starred in an acclaimed movie adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in 1948, said it is “the story of a man who cannot make up his mind.” The Hamlet of “Kronborg” doesn’t have that problem. His world has been rocked. He has got to make up his mind.

Hamlet’s first song “That It Should Come To This” – sung by Island-born Aaron Hastelow, in a grim dazzling performance of a determined rather than irresolute prince – is performed right after the Ghost King has made himself known to Marcellus and Horatio, and Claudius and Gertrude have made themselves known to Hamlet. He soon has a good idea of the double-dealing he doesn’t know everything about, yet. From that moment on it is hands on the wheel.

The singing is brisk and strong throughout, from the leads to the ensemble. Peter McBoyle, the show’s sound designer, has worked on several musicals at the Confederation Centre, including “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The orchestra, led by Craig Fair, leading the way, gets it done down in the pit, always there as the story unfolds.

Aaron Hastelow gets it done up top up front as Hamlet.

“From seeing a ten-minute segment of the piece in a review show when I was 13-years-old, to now, it’s surreal,” said Aaron⁣. “I need to acknowledge the tireless work of Craig Fair, giving us all this chance, and Cliff Jones for writing some of the most beautiful and memorable melodies. After 45 years, it’s time to share this show with audiences once again. Let’s rock!”

The show starts off with a bang, at the end of the story, as the last of all the main characters, save Horatio, fall down dead, and a black-clad dance troupe of post-modern Greek Furies peck at the fallen, pecking out the vengeance of the Ghost King, Hamlet’s father

“To be or not to be” is never spoken. “Let it be” by The Beatles is invoked. There will be blood is what is on everybody’s lips.

Lawrence Olivier once also said, “Lead the audience by the nose to the thought.” It’s an unfortunate phrase. Who wants to be led by the nose to anything? It’s far better to smell it out for yourself.

“Kronborg” propels the audience headlong to its windswept thought on passages of brisk music and stirring song and able-bodied dance and crafty staging, the twisting plot turning high and low. There are barely two lines of dialogue strung together to transition the songs. It is in some senses like an opera, incorporating all the elements of spoken theater, but sung instead of spoken.

It’s unlike an opera, however, since every word can be understood, it never stands still for long to show off a singer, the songs being embedded in the story, and it is exciting as hell from beginning to end. It bursts with energy.

“It’s a story of family, power, revenge, and sacrifice,” said Adam Brazier, artistic director at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, where the show was resurrected on their main stage, the Homburg Theatre, playing in repertory alongside both “Anne of Green Gables” and “Mamma Mia!”

It is by far the darker, and arguably the more galvanizing, show in town. There’s something both rockin’ and rotten in Denmark.  It’s been said about rock ‘n’ roll that the devil has all the best tunes and the devil is not going anywhere. It’s also been said that shake rattle and roll and three chords are where the truth is. Whatever the truth is, the show is masterminded, exact and sparkling, never slack, always on the go.

Only the Ghost King takes his time.

The set by scenic designer Brian Smith is German Expressionist, a kind of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari castle, ramparts, a ramp and movable stairs, and arched entranceways. A forest as bleak as prison bars is lowered several times, the trees jagged and menacing, no escape. The rest of the set is minimalist, from the overhead part medieval part modernist chandelier to Gertrude’s dressing room, more suggestion and more effective because of the suggestion.

Nothing in the background gets in the way of the song and dance and narrative in the foreground.

When Honeybelle – Nicola-Dawn Brook in a red beret and man the barricades – and the players of the play within the play belt out the gospel inspired “He Got It In the Ear,” the fulcrum on which the plot rests tilts and everything becomes the gospel truth.

Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and Ophelia pour their hearts out in “I Cannot Turn to Love” at the end of Act One. It ends suddenly. The stage goes dark.

You can’t wait for intermission to be over.

The musical was conceived and written in the early 1970s by Cliff Jones, He wrote it while working on the children’s TV show “Mr. Dressup.” A Toronto composer and lyricist, his original “Hamlet: The Musical” has been reprised several times. It played on Broadway in 1976 as “Rockabye Hamlet,” starring the rock star Meat Loaf.

It came back to PEI in concert form in 2017 in at the Indian River Festival. Cliff Jones was in the audience. Following the production at St. Mary’s Church, another concert was performed at the Confederation Centre. Shortly after that the wheels were set in motion to stage the show again.

“It’s back where it began and where, in my mind, it’s always belonged,” Cliff Jones said about the production at the Charlottetown Festival.

“When people on the Island found out that Craig Fair and I were working on “Kronborg” they all had their own story,” said Mary Francis Moore, directing the show.  “Who brought them to the show in 1974? What seat they were sitting in when they heard Cliff’s score. What it was like to work on the first Canadian show to ever make it to Broadway.”

The musical is more than just a piece of the Charlottetown Festival’s history.

“We recognize the significance the piece plays. We have dusted off the pages to create a re-envisioned production that has been fully re-orchestrated and re-arranged – new life breathed into this Canadian classic.”

The composer sat in on some of the rehearsals. “I saw what they were doing with this incredible company and with Craig Fair’s new arrangement and musical direction,” said Cliff Jones. “I’m thrilled. It’s been framing my life for the last 45 years. It’s renewed me.

“The show has always carried a special combination of being a fun, entertaining experience, but also being faithful to Shakespeare’s story.”

Kronborg is a 1400s stronghold castle in Helsingor, Denmark, that became Elsinore in Shakespeare’s late 1500s tragedy in five acts. “Kronborg – The Hamlet Rock Musical” is in two acts. Not a moment is wasted, but all the key moments are there, from the Ghost King to setting the scene of Gertrude and Claudius’s marriage, Claudius getting suspicious and Hamlet’s turmoil, the king’s plotting and the play within the play, Hamlet inadvertently killing Polonius, the banishment and the tragic climax.

There is even some ribald fun along the way, especially when a freshly re-imagined Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make their appearance. They aren’t what you expect. They are nimble and treacherous, like street cats on the prowl.

Claudius is on the prowl, too, as Act Two starts, aware of the grave threat that Hamlet presents, and he conspires with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to solve the problem. Gertrude – played by Alana Hibbert – big league but tottering by then, sings the first of her two affecting prophetic solo’s, “Somebody Wrote the Wrong Words,” as fate speeds up.

Laertes and the full company sing “Eye for an Eye” and the die is cast.

It all comes down to Claudius and Hamlet.

Costume designer Jeff Chief doubles the king and his step-son, both men in black, both lean and mean, although Hamlet is largely in wool-like fabric, softening the effect, keeping him on the side of flesh and blood, while Claudius is largely in leather, making him more reptilian. Claudius is Axl Rose meets Johnny Rotten meets villainy most foul.

The costumes are severe, Edwardian mixed with some Mad Max, while the female leads are often more flowing, leaving trails streaking behind them as they cross the stage. Anachronistic pants are used to good effect, especially when the doomed Ophelia jumps into the lap of the standing Hamlet, straddling him, hanging on for dear life.

Cameron MacDuffie, a veteran of the Centre who describes himself as a man who “lives out past where the sidewalk ends,” plays Claudius as a man who doesn’t give a damn about sidewalks. He is self-aware, as most of Shakespeare’s wrongdoers are, and not beneath self-pity, but his self is more selfish and slyly arrogant than it is anything else. He is the king and the kingdom is his person. Beyond him, nothing matters.

It is an astonishing performance.

When Gertrude sings “No Use Pretending,” which might be one of the best songs of the musical, and is certainly the most moving, near the end of Act Two, she is singing for herself, but for everyone else, too. Polonius and Ophelia are dead. The roof is about to cave in on everyone’s heads.

Fight director Anita Nittoly stages the penultimate sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes Robin Hood-style, lithe and desperate. It is thrilling and horrible, knowing there is poison. When the end comes only Horatio is left standing, and joined by the Ghost King in the ramparts, bears witness to what becomes of treachery and revenge.

“Kronborg – The Hamlet Rock Musical” breathes new life into a play more than four hundred years old, and dirty work as old as time. It resonates because it speaks to our own times.

“A nefarious transition of power has taken place in Denmark and the future is uncertain,” says Adam Brazier. “It is a story that is eerily familiar to the current landscape of the world at large.”

Early in Shakespeare’s play, in Act One, Scene 4, Marcellus says, “Something is rotten in Denmark.” The Hamlet of “Kronborg” doesn’t worry about to be or not to be. Something has got to be done. He rocks the castle to get the rot out. He gets it done.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”