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Son of a Critch
Excerpt

The first thing I remember is drowning.

My mother had taken me swimming at what Newfoundlanders call “the beach.” This is not what the average person would imagine when they picture a beach. There is no golden sand. Emerald water does not dance along the shoreline. Bronzed and toned bodies do not lounge on beach blankets, hiding flirtatious glances under designer sunglasses.

This is not what the Beach Boys sang about. This is more like a beach in the “Allied troop carriers landed on the beaches of Normandy despite the poor weather conditions” sense. In fact, most of my childhood memories seem like black-and-white war footage. The sky is always grey. There’s a lot of shaking and someone is always yelling, “Move! Move! Move!”

When you’re walking on a Newfoundland beach you have to keep an eye out for any large rocks you might accidentally step on. It’s difficult because the large rocks are usually hidden under thousands of smaller, sharper rocks. If you’re lucky you can avoid them by hopping from broken beer bottles to broken pop bottles, tacking left and right around the dozens of pale white bodies lying back to sunbathe and rub their bleeding feet. A Newfoundland sunbather is a sight to behold. It’s best to use protective eyewear. Directly looking at a Newfoundland sunbather can result in snow blindness. I myself am so pale that my skin takes on an almost translucent appearance. It’s known that Newfoundlanders have big hearts. We know this because on the beach you can actually see them beating through our pale skin. Imagine a jellyfish that has somehow swallowed a large fish and chips.

Keep in mind that these people have chosen to swim in the North Atlantic. This is the water the Titanic sunk in. Remember the scene in the movie where Rose is floating on the door and Jack, his hair streaked with icicles, slips below the frigid water into the darkness? Same water. Consider that these are the same beaches that blue whales wash up onto as they die. This is where the largest creatures on earth decide to commit suicide. And yet wave after wave of doughy, cadaverous swimmers playfully dive in and say, “Water’s not so bad today! I can feel my legs!”

Now back to drowning. It actually wasn’t the cold water that almost got me. Nor was it the powerful Labrador current that drags icebergs down from the Arctic. No, it was something much more dangerous. It was that all-consuming, ever-present Newfoundland danger: conversation.
I was three years old and in awe of the sights and sounds. Up until this point, I had led a fairly sheltered life. I grew up about five kilometres from anything. My father was a newsman at VOCM radio in St. John’s. He tried valiantly to fill small-town news with big-city excitement. A typical Mike Critch news report would go:

Late last night, early this morning, a moose was struck on the Trans-Canada Highway. The sex of the moose has not yet been released. Two men were killed, one seriously. Mike Critch for the VOCM news service.

We lived next to the radio station, which was next to a four-lane highway that led into the Trans-Canada. My early childhood was like the first level of the video game Frogger. And there were no other children for miles. The closest thing to other kids for me to play with were the used car salesmen in their plaid suits at the lots down the road.

Halloween was a lonely time. I was a sad sight walking along the Trans-Canada in my plastic C-3PO costume from Woolco. Not that you’d know I even wore a costume under the snowsuit I had to wear to protect me from the snowdrifts along the highway.

Little Me: Trick or Treat.

Used Car Salesman: Hey, Mark, what are you supposed to be? A robot in a snowsuit?

Little Me: Something like that.

Used Car Salesman: You’re a weird kid. Look, I don’t got no candy. How about a pack of Halls and a handful of Rothman’s?

Little Me: Sounds good.

I once thought for a moment that I’d seen another child, but he turned out to be a midget wrestler who went by the name “Little Beaver.” He’d come to the station to promote a wrestling match. He had a Mohawk, wore a three-piece suit, and smoked a cigar that was almost as big as he was. I thought, “That is the toughest kid I have ever seen.” But now, here among the rocks of the beach, there were more kids than I’d ever seen before. Half of them seemed tough enough to last a round or two with Little Beaver, but even still, I was drawn to them. My mother, on the other hand, was drawn into a conversation. That was not hard to do. My father worked at a radio station. My mother was a radio station. She was a news-gathering machine who could spit out gossip at a machine-gun pace. To engage my mother in conversation was to face a barrage of gossip-loaded ammunition.

Stranger: How are you today, ma’am?

Mom: OhI’mGood. Yes,HowAreYouNow,MyDear? MyGodIHeard AllAboutYourMother. Shockin’Isn’tIt? You’reMarjorieChafe’sSon, Aren’tYa? Yes,MyGod. AndHerFullUpWithTheCancer. OfCourse SheSmokedAllHerLifeButSoDidYourFather. HardToSayIfItWasHer SmokeOrHisSmokeGotHerBut,Sure,YouSmokeTooSoCouldHave BeenYou,IS’pose. DiedOfAHatTrick. First,Second,AndThirdHand Smoke. MyGod,SomeShockin’.

Stranger: Do you want fries with that?

My mother had noticed someone she thought might look like someone she thought she knew, and that was enough for her to risk the death-defying journey over the jagged rocks in search of information. I was left to follow the siren call of the ocean and the children being tossed on the waves like seagulls waiting out a storm.

I started to walk directly into the water. The cold didn’t affect me. I was a husky child with a good layer of heat-protective blubber around me. I was made for this. The water came up to my knees and I walked on. It came up to my navel and forward I marched. Then I felt the strangest sensation. The rocks beneath my feet had given way to sand. It felt glorious. Smooth, soft, and grainy. It reminded me of the few moments of barefoot wonder I’d experienced standing in the cat’s litter box before my mother told me to “GetOutOfThatNowBeforeISkinsYa! ForGodSakes,B’y,TheCat’sArseWasInThat!”

I looked over at the children, watching them frolic, and wondered, “How can I be a part of that?” Surely they would notice me and ask me to play with them, like kids did on Sesame Street? We’d sing some song about “the letter C” or something. Maybe they’d like some Halls or some Rothman’s? All I had to do was wait.

I remember looking up at a cliff and seeing the Newfoundland flag. Not the red, blue, and gold flag designed by the famous artist Christopher Pratt. No, I mean the true Newfoundland flag: a plastic grocery bag caught in a tree. Then my gaze shifted to two kids, a boy and girl floating by in a tire. They sat on it, their feet dangling into the water through the centre. It looked like everything that childhood should be. I continued on. The water came up to my neck. The children on the tire laughed together as they spun lazily. I stepped closer, hypnotized by their joy.
The water slipped over my head. I didn’t realize that the ground was on a slope. I’d never been in deep water before and assumed I could just keep walking.

I’d never thought about breathing until that moment. I remember thinking, “Oh, right. I have to breathe.” Try as I might, I couldn’t get my head above the water. I looked back to shore and could just barely make out the image of my mother interrogating a couple about their exact lineage. Nobody knew I was there. I kept going.

With every step I took, I could feel a great weight pressing down inside me. I was walking farther but going deeper. I looked up, confused. I caught sight of the tire children. They were floating above me, still laughing. I reached for a pink Minnie Mouse sandal on the surface, just over my head. With the strength of a panicked child, I pulled her foot toward me with all my might. Next, I latched on to the Six Million Dollar Man sneaker of the boy. “He kept his sneakers on,” I thought. “He doesn’t even know there’s sand here. I should tell him to take them off and feel it squish between his toes. That’ll be a good ice-breaker.”

I pulled them down. I could feel the panic leave my body and transfer into theirs. I grabbed their tire, sending them splashing into the cold water. Exhausted, I lay on the improvised float like a walrus on a rock and sunned myself. It was nice to have friends my own age.

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The Only Film in Town

The Only Film in Town

How A Little Film With a Big Heart Was Made in Rural Nova Scotia
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also available: Paperback
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