Dark was just approaching that Christmas Eve when 11-year-old James was helping his grandfather and uncle get in some wood for the stove.
The three were hurrying to beat the encroaching darkness, because in 1924, Little Travis’s Cove, part of the settlement of Argentia, Newfoundland, had no street lights. In fact, Argentia had no electricity. For that matter, the small outport had no streets – just paths worn by people and animals and a narrow dirt road to accommodate horses and carts.
Snow was falling, hard, as it had been all day and the wind was blowing northeast.
The boy thought he heard a gunshot and told his grandfather.
“That shouldn’t be,” said Grandfather. “You’d better go home now.”
James heard another shot. Grandfather Houlihan then admitted he thought he had heard one earlier, but had paid no attention, thinking it might be a trick of the wind. James heard a third shot.
“Someone’s down by the water,” said Grandfather. “Go and get your father.”
Grandfather and Uncle Ned headed to the shore to investigate while James ran home to sound the alarm. His father, Matthew, pulled on his outdoor clothes and they ran to the water’s edge where they could just make out the small, hazy outline of a dory stuck in the drift ice and ‘slob’ (wet snow in the water packed up by the wind) that filled the cove.
The men on shore took turns hollering to the dory’s occupant, whose weak voice they could barely hear over the wind.
“He’s giving up,” said Grandfather. “Keep calling to him.”
And they did, crying: “Jump around, try to keep alive. Dance, stand on your head, do anything!” The voice grew fainter.
The family’s old dory was overturned in the snow a quarter mile down the shore. While three of them dug in the snow and tugged at the frozen dory, one ran to get another of the uncles. Together they finally freed the dory and dragged it along the shore, nearer to the marooned man’s location.
They pulled on the oars for all they were worth, but their attempts to row the dory through the slob proved as futile for them as for the other boat’s trapped occupant. After progressing only two dory lengths from shore, they beat their way back to land.
By now, dark had fallen completely and the man’s voice, heard less frequently, was sounding weaker. The men ran to their fishing stage where they stored rope and “longers” (straight, narrow limbed trees around 20 feet long used for fence posts and rails). Grabbing rope and a line with a “grapplin’, ” they lashed two sets of longers together, like rafts, rigged them up on either side of the dory and fastened them with slack lines.
The boy stayed in the dory, watching the lines, while the three young men laid the rafts on the packed snow. They would pick the rafts up, throw them ahead of the dory, then jump on the rafts and tug the boat as far forward as they could. Grandfather stayed on shore with a stern line tied to a rock, letting out slack every time the younger men made their slow, torturous headway.
In the freezing cold, snow and wind, they struggled this way for three hours. Finally they drew close to the marooned dory, but by that time, the man’s voice was barely audible. All the others could hear him say was, “I’m froze. I’m froze. I can’t stand much longer.” Indistinct as his voice was, at closer range they recognized it. He was Jack O’Leary, an Argentia man who lived five miles away from them.
“Throw him a line,” said Matthew. They heaved a line into the darkness, left it a minute, then tugged on it to see if O’Leary had caught it. But the line dragged back through the snow, wetter than ever. The men tried throwing the line three times, but O’Leary’s hands would have been too stiff to catch it. They couldn’t even be sure the line ever reached him since the snow was so heavy and the night was black as pitch.
“The best thing would be to throw the grapplin’,” Uncle Mick shouted. “But if we do, we might kill him or beat up the boat and sink it.”
By this time, three hours of struggling in the blizzard had exhausted even the strong, young men. Their clothes were soaked through by the snow. Their hands were frozen from handling wet lines. Their feet were drenched and freezing in their boots because the rafts sank below the surface every time they stepped on them.
The boy was not as frozen or tired as the three young men, and he had an idea. He pulled a few longers out of one raft and laid them side by side between their dory and O’Leary’s. The snow was too soft to allow anyone to walk on them, but Uncle Mick got out on the longers and rolled along until he reached the other dory. He jumped in, rubbed O’Leary all over to try to revive him, then tied a line to the boat. As soon as the line was tied, the others began yanking the other dory back, so Mick’s return roll was shorter.
When they finally yanked O’Leary’s dory alongside theirs, they dragged him aboard and pulled in on the stern line. For another hour, while they fought their way back through the fierce weather, O’Leary huddled in the stern and the boy tried to keep him warm. On shore, they tied up the dories, grabbed O’Leary’s arms and two of the men hiked him along the quarter-mile path to Grandfather’s house.
O’Leary’s clothes were so frozen and wet, they had to be cut away from his body. After they wrapped him up in blankets and quilts by the fire and fed him some hot tea and supper, O’Leary slept until morning light.
Christmas morning dawned clear and sunny and O’Leary revived.
“I took a chance,” he told them, going to visit a friend on a Placentia Bay island. “I knew the weather would be bad, but I thought I could outrun it.”
They tossed out O’Leary’s shredded clothing and lent him a set of long underwear. Uncle Tom, just back from fishing in Gloucester, lent him a new suit and topcoat he had brought home from the States for his upcoming wedding. Tom hitched the sled to grandfather’s horse and drove O’Leary home to his worried family. Since there were no phones, the family had no way of knowing where he was or if he was still alive.
Before he left, O’Leary said it was the best Christmas present he ever had.
His gratitude did know some bounds, however. Uncle Tom never saw his suit or topcoat again.
Born in Newfoundland, Nancy Griffin lives and writes in Thomaston, Maine.
Illustrations by Margaret Campbell.