Childhood Memories of the Old Airport Town

by Carol (Mercer) Walsh

Most of the contributors on this site relate back to the late fifties and early sixties, but what about those of us who go back a little further than that?  Where are you, old classmates and friends?

Maybe I can get some of you to start reminiscing!

Now when I came to Gander in 1947, I remember getting off the train in the middle of the night!  Upon waking in the morning, all I saw was rain, black cinder walkways and streets filled with big potholes of water.  Everything was so dismal and depressing!  Those big, old buildings all looked the same - green felted on the outside with huge wooden coal boxes next to each apartment.  Not a very exciting or pretty place, I thought!  How about all those long overhead funnels stretching everywhere sending steam to buildings and the coal dust that kept getting in our eyes from the steam heating plants?  Doc Paton spent his time getting coal dust out of our eyes.

As time went on though, we began to enjoy the delights of living and growing up on this great airport.  We were lulled to sleep by the constant roar of the engines of the DC-7’s and Super Connies as they warmed up for takeoff on the runways and we saw movie stars that only others saw in the movie theaters or magazines.  After all, who else could boast of seeing Tony Curtis, Liz Taylor, Clarke Cable, etc. on a daily basis?

Our H-shaped building was number “4”, just across “the brook” and behind the Laundry and Dry Cleaners.    There was a lovely path with an old wooden bridge spanning the brook that led directly to the back of the Bakery.  On a summer’s day, you could smell the newly baked bread and see the pies and other pastries lay out on the veranda to cool.  Yes, we had our own bakery!  Imagine that!  Well, I discovered that we had a few other things too, like a couple of movies theaters, a hospital, a railway station, bowling alleys, a couple of good stores, a drugstore, a dozen or so first class hotels, schools, churches, and, oh yes, did I mention a huge international airport with the largest runways in the world at the time.  Ah, but we did not understand that then, we were children and we just did what children everywhere did.

Many of you can remember the hours spent in the wooded areas, picking raspberries and blueberries, building forts, getting our legs torn to pieces from the rolls of old barbed wire left around from the war days.  We were all Dale Evans’ or Roy Rogers’ with our holsters and guns on our hips.  All those mounds and dugouts made during the war days were wonderful hiding places to ambush the crooks!

We played ‘marbles”, hopscotch, and tiddely.  The girls had “cobby houses”, and the boys made themselves slingshots and bows and arrows.  Most of our parents didn’t have cars and many of us didn’t have phones.  We listened to music and stories on the radio in the earlier years and in later years, we had a “record player” that played 78 rpm records which were hard to get and were too expensive to buy anyway.

Exploring old air raid shelters and old airplanes were the adventure part of our days and fascinating stories were conjured up by our overactive and suspicious minds. There were ghosts in the old air raid shelter near the railway station.  Sure you could tell by the odd pair of crutches left around, the rooms with old papers left in place as if something had happened to halt whatever they were doing.  You would get this eerie feeling as you explored this dark, underground place with its many rooms and any little sound made you scramble and race out of there.  You just knew, of course, that many of the soldiers who had occupied this area for periods of time, had probably been killed and your childish imagination came to full play.

Then there were those long, long, summer days that took us to Deadman’s Pond where the wharves jetted out into the Pond and boardwalks that surrounded it where servicemen and women once walked.  Many of them would also never return! The “Cabin” was so inviting with its huge fireplaces and the ice cold Orange Crush and Coke’s were delicious on a hot day.  Sometimes we carried our own lunches and found a grassy spot to picnic.    

How many of you biked to ‘Union East” for a day of swimming where the water was so clear you could see the bottom with its soft sand mixed with sawdust from a mill that had operated there during the war years. We would return home before supper, faces burned and totally exhausted. If your parents were along they often had an open fire and cooked a big meal – a scoff, i.e., salt meat and cabbage with big mugs of tea brewed over the fire. 

In winter, we walked to and from school, no school buses or cars for us!  The big field at the end of the old runway (near the hospital) was treeless and the biting wind on a cold winter’s day was torturing and cruel.  Sometimes, we used the “back road” which was a little more sheltered and with scarves wrapped over our faces and our caps pulled down as far as they would go we bravely battle the below zero temperatures.  Remember how our feet would be so cold and the agonizing pain when our fingers would begin to warm up.

Each fall the school would produce an “Operetta” and it was performed a couple of nights by the students at the old Globe theatre.  It was a musical play and brought out many fine voices that would ordinarily not have been known.  The colourful costumes were spectacular and all made locally but music was the highlight of the show.

We had Sunday School picnics, garden parties, trips to camps with Air Cadets, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and CGIT.

Hockey, of course, was always a big in Gander.  My dad, at one time, was the goalie for the Gander team.  That was when hockey was played at the hangar on the American Side.  No heat and no bleachers, just a walkaround balcony of sorts.  Of course, later we moved to the stadium in the building which housed the bowling alleys, gym, swimming pool, etc.  Now we had a nice heated stadium with very nice seating! All paid for by a $20.00 contribution from each working person that was taken out of our paycheques each payday in installments.  .

Do you remember the competition between Gander and Grand Falls?  It was so keen that when the playoffs came around, the CNR put on an “excursion train” for the fans to travel to Gander, Buchans or Grand Falls.  How many, I wonder, had to be left behind when the train was ready to return after the game?  Some of our “good old boys” would often get a bit scrappy and also a little too happy.  Many a night was spent in the lockup by those fellows who had to catch the regular train back the next day.

We spent our time skating at the stadium and on the ponds.  How many romances were ignited while skating at the stadium with our arms wrapped crosswise around one another and keeping in time to the Skater’s Waltz?   We also had skating parties at Twin Ponds, Deadman’s Pond, and Joe Batt’s, and, of course, the gravel pits and small ponds. We always had a big bonfire to keep us from freezing and lots of hotdogs and hot chocolate.   Remember the road to Twins Ponds and Joe Batt’s was called Monchy Road – no pavement then.

We loved to bowl at the alleys and never missed the latest good movies at the Globe or the old westerns at the  Star.  How about the balcony of the Globe – ever been there?  Aah, bet you have!

We also liked  to hang out at Goodyear’s Canteen, the Snack Bar at the Terminal, or just sitting around the Main Lounge of the Terminal watching all those beautiful stewardess’ and movie personalities that came through. The Canteen had a jukebox and that’s where we first heard Elvis. 

Sometimes, we just rode the bus that would take us around the airport from the American Side to the RAF Side and back – that kept us out of the cold for awhile.  Believe it or not it was also a great place to meetnewcomers…..or others you might be looking for or at…..!

Can you recall those roaring fires and wiener roasts on the beach at Gander Lake.  Seems to me that those rocky beaches were much more attractive than sand, and, wow, things happened down there, enough to cause a lot of chit chat for days afterwards.  Some of you can relate to this.  ‘Nough Said!

We could always rely on someone putting off dances.  The drinking age then was 21 so dances had to be held special without any bars being open.  The Airport Club, the Canadian Legion and the Elks Club seemed to be the most popular.  Of course, girls couldn’t attend any of these functions without a male escort and also, we had to dress formally.  How about those full skirted dresses with tulle and net overlay, long elbow length gloves, and spike heel shoes!  We were fortunate to have “The Solidaires” at most of these but, if not, we had Rio Morrisey or Roger Down on the piano accompanied by someone on drums..

Have I awakened your memories?  You made memories too – can you tell us about them?  Can you add to mine?  

These are memories we made and, although, they may seem childish and not worth recalling by some let alone repeating, they are who we were and are today.  Our children and grandchildren may someday discover us in a different light through our telling. 

The Flight was only intended for Reunion 2005 but has turned into a wonderful collection of biographies, accounts, records, memoirs and narratives.  It has helped us make new friends and discover old ones.  This is not the stuff we will find in history books.  I truly hope with your help we can keep it going!