GRAND BANK, NL – Two brothers born in the vacated community of Femme, Fortune Bay more than 80 years ago followed in their father’s footsteps in choosing engineering as a career.
This choice, however, would take their lives in totally different directions.
Onslow Blagdon, 83, now makes his home in Greenwood, Nova Scotia. He visited his brother Fred, 87, this summer at his home in Terrenceville in this province.
While visiting Fred’s wife Norah, who resides in the Blue Crest Home in Grand Bank, the brothers shared some of their life experiences with the Southern Gazette.
Onslow reminisced about his career as a flight engineer in the Canadian Air Force on planes such as Bristol Freighter, the Helicopter H2 and the Labrador, the Hercules, and the 707. He spoke with great pride and admiration of the opportunity to meet prime ministers, queens, princesses, governors-general and popes.
Fred’s memories were quite different. He spent 32 years in the engine room on Newfoundland draggers, starting with Captain Arch Thornhill on the Blue Foam. His journey started as a herring fisherman with his uncle in Lally Cove when he was only 17, before becoming a bank fisherman and then a deckhand and engineer on several side and stern trawlers.
In 1953, Onslow moved from Boxey to live with his sister in Halifax, where he found work in an oil (cannery) factory. That experience was short-lived.
“I hated the job; it was dirty work and I got disgusted with it after a few months,” he said.
It was then he enlisted in the Canadian Air Force, doing his basic training in Saint-Jean, Quebec, before completing his training in aero-engineering at Borden. He subsequently worked with Search and Rescue in Greenwood for five years.
From 1958 to 1962, the airman and his young bride were stationed in Langar, England where he started crewing on a Bristol freighter. He subsequently returned to Greenwood, and later served in such places as Summerside and Trenton.
One of Onslow’s memorable experiences occurred when he flew on the Labrador Helicopters.
“We spent two summers on Eagle River, Labrador with many VIPs. I have many happy members of Governor General Michener, a very distinguished gentleman. He used my spinning rod to catch Arctic char. He didn’t like salmon fishing on the river, so I would fly him out to fish for char. I cherish these memories,” he said.
He added that he also took Prince Philip on a winter fishing trip to a lake up north on the Hercules equipped with skies.
“We landed on the ice and Prince Philip went ice fishing,” recounted Onslow.
But he said his main involvement with the royal family took place when he flew on the 707 from Trenton.
“This is where I got involved with all the members of the royal family. I had the privilege of flying the Queen Mother. She was a real doll; we wouldn’t be on top climb when she’d be up in the cockpit chatting with us,” explained Onslow.
On one occasion, the Queen Mother gave him a tablecloth as a gift for his wife.
His career took him on three trips to Rome where he spent time at the Vatican with the pope and a week with former prime minister Joe Clarke in Tokyo before he retired in 1984 as a warrant officer.
Onslow said he enjoyed his life in the military – a career that spanned almost 32 years.
“I had a good career, very rewarding and exciting,” he said.
Fred decided to pursue his career on the sea rather than in the air.
His initiation into the fishery started in the inshore fishery with his uncle, before he got a chance on the banking schooner, the Philip E. Lake out of Fortune. He then moved to Lunenburg where he continued in the bank fishery for another couple of years at the ripe age of 19.
Instead of flying around in the great blue yonder like his brother, Fred spent his days bobbing around on the Grand Banks in a little dory.
He explained how the system worked.
“I worked on a ten-dory schooner, but the actual fishing was done from little dories in the Atlantic. The dories were dropped off as the schooner sailed along – one from the starboard side and then one from the port side until all the dories were out,” he explained.
“We had our compass and we set our course from the vessel. We would set our trawl and when we had a load, the vessel came back and picked us up.”
Fred recounted one experience where it was ‘touch and go’ for a while when he and his dory mate – his cousin – feared for their lives.
“One evening we got away from the vessel in a very heavy fog. We had a full load of fish with the gunwales almost flush with the water. Either bit of wave action at all and we’d be gone,” he recounted.
“We knew that if we got separated from the vessel we had to do our best to stay stationary. We did this for five hours or more until we heard the vessel’s whistle. We answered with our whistle and the ship came to our rescue.”
After the bank fishery, Fred went to work on the side trawlers. He got his opportunity to start his career as an engineer with Captain Arch Thornhill on the Blue Foam.
This came about in a rather peculiar way.
“Captain Arch called me and asked if I would come on a cook, since his cook was going to give up. Anyway, the cook changed his mind and stayed; I had to go on deck,” Fred explained.
“Shortly after that, the captain approached me to go in the engine room. I didn’t know anything about engines, but I had some books so I studied them. With the help of the other engineers, I signed on as third engineer.”
He worked as engineer for 32 years, becoming chief in 1965 on one of Job’s trawlers from St. John’s.
“I had no formal training, but I was willing to learn and willing to try anything,” he said.
“It was a good life; going to sea didn’t bother me. I knew there was nothing else for me. I had a family and I had to look out to them,” noted Fred.