Treasure Island

By Ed Staskus

   “Mommy you know how those men dug a hole and buried daddy in it because he wasn’t alive anymore?”

   “Yes, Maggie.”

    “I saw daddy dig a hole behind the barn and bury something in it.”

   “When did you see that?”

   “I saw it when he came back.”

   “Came back from where?”

   “When he left with all the horses that time and then came back.”

   Siobhan dried her hands on her apron. “Show me where that is,” she said. The widow and her daughter walked out of the kitchen, across the yard, and behind the barn. It was early in the morning, the bottom half of the sun still in the ocean.

   “Look mommy, there’s a fox digging near where daddy buried his treasure.”

   A black-coated red fox was digging, stopping, listening, and digging again. He had long, thin legs, a lean lithe frame, pointed nose and bushy tail. They eat everything, rats, mice, voles, lizards, rabbits and hares, birds, fruits, and bugs. The foxes on their shoreline ate fish and crabs.

   “What is he doing?”

   “When he stops to listen, he’s listening for a rat or a mouse digging underground,” Siobhan said.

   The fox cocked his head. “I know you’re down there,” he said to himself. “You can’t get away.” He dug deeper, not trying to be quiet. He knew he could dig faster than whatever rodent was soon going to be breakfast.

   He was the size of a medium-sized dog. It was a tod, a man fox. The vixen was probably in the nesting chamber with their pups. They lived in the dunes, in burrows they dug for the family. There were three four five ways of getting into and out of the den in case predators snuck in trying to eat the pups. The fox husband and wife stored groceries there, pushing it under piles of leaves, spending most of the day in the safe and sound, searching for food at night.

   The fox looked up at Maggie and Siobhan. She knew they could see as well as cats, their vertically slit pupils glinting. If he yipped and turned to go, he would be gone in a flash. They were by far the fastest animals on the island. Many people thought they were cunning. Some people thought they had magical powers. Whatever spells they could cast never helped when a coyote was tracking them.

   When the fox got his Norway rat, he trotted off with it. Siobhan went into the barn and brought back a shovel. Maggie pointed at the spot to dig. Ten minutes later her mother had a dirty leather tobacco pouch in her hands. She knocked the loose dirt off it and walked to the house, Maggie trailing behind. They sat on the porch facing Murphy’s Cove. When she opened the pouch and reached inside, her hand brought out money in bundles held together by elastic bands. She had never seen elastic bands before and never seen that much money, either. When she finished counting it there was $10,500.00 in her lap.

   It was all in fifty-dollar Dominion of Canada bills. Mercury was on the front holding a map of British North America, along with a harbor, ships, and a train in the background. “50 Dollars Payable at Montreal” was printed on the back. Montreal was where her husband had sold his horses.

   “Look mommy,” Maggie said. “Somebody is coming.”

   A two-man horse and buggy were coming down the road, except there were three people in the buggy, a man and a woman and a one-year-old girl.

   “It’s Clara and Hugh come down from Clifton with their new-born,” Siobhan said as the buggy got closer. Her children were on the porch watching. She stuffed the cash money back into the leather pouch and handed it to Billy, her oldest son. “Go to my bedroom and wait for me there. Keep this on your lap until I come for it.”

   “Good day,” Siobhan said as the buggy came to a stop. Clara handed the child to her. Hugh walked around and helped his wife down to the ground. Lucy Maud Montgomery looked up at Siobhan and smiled. Siobhan smiled back. The baby girl cut cheese, and Siobhan gave her back to her mother.

   “Lucy is a lovely name, but she looks like an Annie to me,” Siobhan said.

   “That’s odd, because you’re the second person who has said the same thing,” Clara said.

   “We wanted to stop and pay our condolences,” Hugh said.

   “Thank you,” Siobhan said.

   “William was a good man.”

   “Yes, he was.”

   Hugh fed and watered the horse. The grown-ups sat and talked on the porch. The children played with the child. When the sun started to set Hugh and Clara started to set off for North Rustico where they planned to spend the night with relatives.

   “Come and have dinner with us,” Clara said.

   “I would love that,” Siobhan said and that is what she did, but not before walking upstairs with Sean, her second-oldest son. “I won’t be back tonight,” she said to him and Billy. “Put the children to bed once it gets dark. Don’t light anything and keep this bag in bed with you tight between the two of you until we decide what to do with it tomorrow.” She kissed her sons, and the others downstairs, and once outside walked alongside the buggy towards town. She carried the baby, cooing at the girl as they walked past the graveyard.

   The next morning, she made breakfast for her children and when they were done, she and the girls cleaned up while the boys tended to their chores. Michael was too small to do much, but Billy and Sean were strong boys who knew their way around animals and farmland. Next summer she might add on to the house, adding two bedrooms so when the boys and girls grew up, they could have separate bedrooms. She would improve the fields and fences. She would hire a farmhand, but not increase the size of her herd overmuch. Her husband had wanted to keep a hundred horses, but she didn’t think the land would keep that many healthy. She would devote three hundred acres to the horses and thought fifty-or-so of them would be best. 

   She didn’t believe in continuous grazing. Horses had a bad habit of grazing their favorite grass close to the ground, then returning to eat the regrowth as soon as it came back. As the year went on there wasn’t enough of it left to capture sunlight and regrow. It had to use stored energy to regrow, and if horses kept eating in the same place, the energy stores ran out and the grass died.

   Horses liked orchard grass, smooth brome, and timothy the best. They could eat it all day long down to the bare ground, which was when weeds started to grow in their place. Siobhan had heard of rotational grazing and that was what she was going to do. She would move the horses to one pasture and let the other pastures rest to recover. Each of the pastures would be left empty for at least several weeks at a time. That was how long it took for forage regrowth to begin after grazing.

   She had four paddocks connected to a sacrifice lot. The lot had a shelter, a feeder, and a water source so that the paddocks didn’t need to have their own. The horses could get to the sacrifice lot anytime they wanted. They liked it that way. Siobhan was determined to keep draft horses. Prince Edward Island was a farming island and farmers needed draft horses more than anything else

   When Friday came and before it went, she told the children they would be going to Charlottetown the next day, and staying overnight, so they could buy clothes shoes boots tools small barrels utensils dishes a new table and chairs and as many household necessities as they could carry back before the long winter set in.

   Her team could trot at 15 KPH and get them to Charlottetown in two hours or die trying. The road wasn’t especially rough or hilly, but it wasn’t smooth and flat, either. If the team walked, they could get to the city and live to tell the tale, although it might take them five hours-or-more. She would take the four youngest children with her and leave the two oldest behind. She made Billy and Sean stand on brown paper and traced their bare feet. She rolled the paper up and tied it with a string. She measured their arms and legs and height.

   The five of them going all together would weigh less than 400 pounds. They would be heavier coming back, but the horses could pull ten times and more that weight with no trouble and do it all day if the distance was slow and steady. She hitched the horses to their farm wagon and started before dawn. Maggie and Michael, the two youngest, sat up front with her. Biddy and Kate knelt in the back on the floor of the wagon leaning on the tailgate, looking back from the way they were coming. 

   When coming into Charlottetown she asked the children if they wanted to see Fanningbank. “Yes, please!” They were unanimous that they did. “Our teacher told us it is the Government House,” Biddy said when she saw it. “Why do they call it Fanningbank?”

   “It’s because a hundred years ago Edmund Fanning, who was going to become the governor, set this land on the riverbank aside for the building of a residence for the governor,” Siobhan said. “The land was his and known as Fanning Bank then, and that is what it has stayed.”

   Fanningbank was a large Georgian style house. It was the kind of architecture popular in England in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The Georgian style valued classical balance. John Harvey was the second governor to live there. After the start of the new year of 1837, in the dead of winter, he held the first big dress-up party in the elegant house. 

   “An entertainment, upon a grand and splendid scale, was given by His Excellency Sir John and Lady Harvey at Government House on Thursday evening last. As this was the first occasion upon which the rooms at Government House were thrown open to a large evening party, no pains were spared to give full effect to the enlivening scene. His Excellency and Lady Harvey received their guests in the centre drawing room, and at ten o’clock dancing commenced, which was continued with great spirit and animation until after one o’clock. The rooms were brilliantly lighted, and this, added to the crown of beauty and fashion with which they were thronged, exhibited their handsome proportions and striking appearance to peculiar advantage,” the Royal Gazette reported.

   The dancing mingling gossiping back-slapping took place in the Grand Ballroom, a high-ceilinged large room surrounded by eight columns. When the party was over His Excellency and Lady went upstairs and rooted around under the covers in the Sovereign’s Bedroom.

   In 1864 the delegates to the Charlottetown Conference came to the house in the evening for an official dinner and dance given by Governor George Dundas. They had a grand time excited by their grand ideas, although none of them had any illusions about what it would take to make their ideas come true.

   “Mommy, why do they call them excellencies?” Maggie asked.

   “I will tell you when you are a little bit older,” Siobhan said.

   They continued to the south side of Queen Square, one of Charlottetown’s main commercial streets. It was where Siobhan knew there was tailoring, the selling of dry goods, and the manufacture and sale of rubber boots and furniture. What she didn’t know was that a fire had swept through the section destroying all but one building on the corner of Richmond and Queen. Where wood had stood brick was being laid, but nothing there was ready yet to provide her what she wanted and needed.

   Charlottetown was a small city but with big enough business, and she had no great difficulty finding the clothes and goods she was looking for. One merchant’s loss was another merchant’s gain. The first merchant she visited was the shoemaker Thomas Strangman and Sons. A shoe stitching machine had been invented by an American in 1856. It was known as the McKay Stitching Machine and Thomas Strangman was the first on PEI to have one. Sole cuts specifically tailored to fit the right or left foot were still on the way.

   When she was ready to pay for the shoes and boots for her children and herself, she showed one of the fifty-dollar bills to Thomas Strangman.

   “Is my money good here?”

   He looked at the front and back of the bill.

   “Yes, ma’am, your money is good here.”

   He would take it next door to the dry goods store which was also an exchange bank.

   She bought rice, sugar, and coffee. She bought cotton socks wool socks undershirts under garments shirts denim pants and blankets. She bought rolls of calico, brown shirting, domestic gingham, and bleached cotton. She bought a heavy plaid shawl for $3.00.  She bought a dining room table and eight chairs for $45.00. She bought a Sharps seven-shot repeater rifle and ammunition for $50.00. 

   On the way back to Murphy’s Cove on Sunday morning the children sat in the chairs at the table in the back of the farm wagon all the way home, waving to everybody they saw, pointing out a cross-eyed cow, and singing songs. They took turns sitting at the head of the table. They sang parlor songs and minstrel songs. They sang “The Maple Leaf Forever” and “The Red River Valley.”

   “From this valley they say you are going, I shall miss your bright eyes and sweet smile, for alas you take with the sunshine, that has brightened my pathway awhile.”

   Siobhan kept her eyes fixed on the long road ahead of her.

Photograph: Charlottetown, PEI, 1870s.

Excerpted from “Red Island” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Tracks of My Tears

By Ed Staskus

   I didn’t watch TV growing up because we didn’t have a TV. It wasn’t until a couple of years after we moved from Sudbury, Ontario to Cleveland, Ohio that my parents bought a used 1955 Philco Custom 400. It was a 21-inch model in a cabinet of white oak with a finger-tip tuning system. It had a Double Gated Automatic Picture Control tuner that never worked during storms of any kind, whether it was breezy and slightly damp or thunderstorms.

   At first, I wasn’t impressed. The shows were the likes of “McHale’s Navy,” “Car 54, Where Are You,” and “My Three Sons.” I had no use for “Hazel” and “I Love Lucy” drove me nuts. Lucy was a nut, and everybody hollered and played pratfall like there was no tomorrow. I liked watching baseball and football games, although baseball games went on forever and football games were only broadcast on Sundays. The Cleveland Browns were a powerhouse, and everybody stayed patriotically stuck to the tube when they were playing.

   Cartoons were fun and Westerns were my favorite, especially “Maverick,” “Bart Masterson,” and “Have Gun – Will Travel.” My parents enjoyed “Bonanza” and watched it every Sunday night which meant my sister, brother, and I watched it almost every Sunday night. They took in all 431 episodes, whether we were there, or not. I didn’t care for it, the Cartwright’s being hopeless do-gooders, but I couldn’t and didn’t say anything to my parents about my point of view.

   My favorite was “Route 66.” It was about two young men driving around the country in a Chevy Corvette convertible. Besides the adventures, what I liked about the show was that it was shot on location in a new state every episode. 

   I had been to the Shaw-Hayden Theater plenty of times and seen plenty of space adventure and monster movies. My friends and I always sat in the front row. Movies were the real deal and TV was lame compared to the big screen. Movies were stupendous while TV was furniture.

   At about the same time the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission gave a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters. After praising the professionals in the room, he said that television should uphold the public interest. Then he said TV was a “vast wasteland. When television is bad, nothing is worse.” 

   When I started watching “Queen for a Day” I watched it every day. It didn’t matter that my friends were riding bikes playing ball messing around outside. I watched it laying on my stomach on the floor a few feet from the TV. When I stopped watching it, I went cold turkey and never watched it again. I only watched it for two or three weeks one summer, although it was more than enough to make me sweat bullets. I wasn’t growing much older watching the sob show, but I seemed to be growing up way too fast.

   It was originally a local affair on radio in Los Angeles but became popular enough that NBC picked it up and started broadcasting it nationally on television. The show’s ratings got so high that the network increased its running time from 30 to 45 minutes so they could sell more commercials. They were raking in $4,000 a minute, a premium price nobody else was getting. Sponsorships poured in. Every single prize came from sponsors. Models in slutty faux medieval outfits plugged the advertisers. They had to put up with Jack Bailey the host saying things like, “Let’s give Mary Ann a big hand for finally doing something right.” Pre-recorded commercials ran between segments. Naming all the sponsors at the end of the show took more than five minutes.

   The show went to ABC from 1960 to 1964 until it finally folded up its circus tent. The television writer Mark Evanier has called it “one of the ghastliest programs ever produced, tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting, and utterly degrading to the human spirit.”

   The idea behind the show was simple and savage. 

   “Queen for a Day” was about four women sharing their stories of unhappiness and tribulation in front of an all-female audience. There was always a box of Kleenex on the curtained table behind which the women sat. The host was a pencil mustached smarmy man who always looked like he needed another drink. The stories were about dead husbands and sons crippled with polio. One woman wanted to win so she could repair the bullet holes in her bedroom walls where her husband had committed suicide. He missed several times before getting it right. Determined widows with healthcare problems were a staple. If they had, to boot, a small dying child, they were sure to win. 

   “I had two handicapped sons,” one woman said. “I lost them, and then I took care of an elderly lady in a wheelchair. She passed away, along with my mother and my father, and then my husband passed away. I feel that I would like to have a vacation.” She got her vacation.

   A threadlike woman related the tale of her legally blind uncle. They were a poor farm family in Kansas. Everybody in the family had serious eye troubles.

   “On the show when Jack Bailey introduced my mother, he made a big deal about her being a long-lost cousin because her last name was Bailey,” the woman’s daughter recalled. “Since she was a farm girl, he asked her if she milked cows, and she demonstrated on his fingers. She became the queen that day. My uncle was given everything my mother asked for and more. He got a complete piano tuning tool set and a scholarship to a piano tuning school in Seattle. My mom got a full set of living room furniture and an Amana freezer that lasted for twenty-five years.”

   “My husband died,” one contestant explained. “Then we were evicted and were out in the cold winter.”

   “Well, ha, ha, ha!” Jack Bailey laughed like a drain. “Today is your lucky day, getting to tell your story here and having the chance at being chosen QUEEN FOR A DAY!” Sometimes, unable to help himself, he guffawed and threw out sarcastic remarks, immediately explaining that he was just kidding.

   After the ladies finished, the audience applauded for the woman they wanted to see become “Queen for a Day.” The winner was determined by a decibel-reading Applause Meter, what I called the Thing-O-Meter. I didn’t always agree with the contraption, but what did I know. The winner was crowned with a jeweled crown and robed in a sable-trimmed robe. She got money, appliances, clothes, and a vacation, among other things.

   “I always thought losing was the worst,” said Bill Costello, who like me found himself glued to the boob tube. “Your life sucks, but not enough.”

   Not just anyone was picked to be on the show. They had to somehow appeal to the live audience and the tens of millions watching at home. One woman explained she wanted to be on the show because “it would help me to regain my identity, which I seem to have lost somewhere between the maternity ward and the washing machine.” The best approach was delivering enough pathos and bawling to turn the trick. One woman said she would give her right arm to be on the show.

   My mother spotted me on the living room floor one day staring up at the TV, engrossed in the black and white. She put her dish towel away and sat down in a sofa chair behind me. When the day’s episode was over, she shut the TV off. “Don’t watch that show anymore, ever,” she said.

   She had never forbidden me to watch anything before. I knew there was something wrong with the show but couldn’t put my finger on it. It held me in its morbid grip. The women told fantastic stories, whoever got the most applause for her miserable tale won, got crowned, and walked away with prizes up the wazoo.

   One winner said her husband was killed in a car crash, the family was poor as church mice, their savings exhausted, and needed help bad. “My mother was 28, pregnant, my sister was 8, and I was 5,” her daughter remembered years later. “My father promised my sister that if she got good grades, he would buy her a pony. She did but he died before he could fill his promise. My mother won two bedroom sets, a living room set, a dining room set complete with a set of dishes for a service for eight, a set of silver ware, a cook-set, a built in mixer, a hot water heater, a 7-piece patio set, a complete set of Tupperware, twelve complete outfits that included dress, matching shoes and handbags, twelve pairs of stockings, a complete set of Sarah Coventry jewelry, a complete set of rhinestone jewelry, a diamond encrusted watch, a four piece matching mother-daughter outfit, a swimsuit, a check for $1,000, and a Shetland pony.”

   Jack Bailey always said in his trademark signoff, “Make every woman a queen, for every single day.” He never said what the losers got, although I always assumed they got nothing. Once my mother put her finger on the show, she disliked it instantly. My parents were World War Two refugees from Lithuania and didn’t believe a word about getting something for nothing.

   “I was babysitting my aunt’s four children in 1944 when the Russians came,” she said. “We ran away on a cart pulled by a horse with a cow tied to the back. On our way through East Prussia, we had to sell the cow for food. There was no milk for the baby. We slept under the cart every night and every night either the Germans or Russians bombed us. After the war I lived in Nuremberg in one room with three other women and worked at the Army Hospital. When I went to Sudbury where I had gotten a visa and a job, the job was as a nanny for a family of thirteen. When your father joined me the next year, he had no money and went to work in a cement factory the next day. When we got married, we had no money, but we had the three of you and bought a small house. It’s shameful to go on a TV show, telling all the world your troubles for prizes and money.”

   She hadn’t seen her parents uncles aunts brothers sisters cousins for almost twenty years. The Iron Curtain was locked up tight. My parents never complained about it. They both went to work weekdays and on weekends worked around the house when they weren’t doing something at the church or with the scouts. They didn’t help us with our homework or drive us to the library. We did our own homework and walked to the library.

   She wasn’t telling me anything about “Queen for a Day” I didn’t already know, although I couldn’t if my life depended on it have put it into words. I knew I didn’t like the clapping like crazy for the most miserable story of the day. I suspected there was something wrong with that. 

   “Sure, the show was vulgar and sleazy and filled with bathos and bad taste,” the producer Howard Blake said after the program’s nine-year run ended. “That was why it was so successful. It was exactly what the public wanted.”

   He didn’t stop there. He knew it was a trashy reality show that played on people’s misery, while those same people played out their tearjerkers to cash in on the American Dream.

   “Everybody was on the make, NBC and later ABC, the producers, the sponsors, and the suppliers of gifts. And how about all the down-on-their-luck women who we used to further our money-grubbing ends? Weren’t they all on the make? Weren’t they willing to wash their dirty linen on coast-to-coast TV for a chance at big money, for a chance to ride in our chauffeured Cadillac, for the free tour of Disneyland and the Hollywood nightclubs? What about one of the most common wishes they turned in? ‘I’d like to pay back my mother for all the wonderful things she’s done for me.’ The women who made that wish didn’t want to pay back their mothers at all. They wanted us to do that.”

   We never clapped when anybody in our grade school class at St. George’s had a bad day. None of us clapped when a nun slapped one of us and made him or her stand in the hall. Nobody clapped when somebody was a step slow getting to the CTS streetcar taking us home. We yelled and slapped on the windows for the driver to stop. 

   None of us wanted to be a sleazeball.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”