My Strangest Christmas

Extraordinary Yuletide experiences as related by readers of Maclean's

December 15 1938

My Strangest Christmas

Extraordinary Yuletide experiences as related by readers of Maclean's

December 15 1938

My Strangest Christmas


Extraordinary Yuletide experiences as related by readers of Maclean's

Shipwrecked in Caribbean Sea

ON THE morning of the day before Christmas, 1891, my partner, Ben Cartwright, and I had embarked at Ruatan, Spanish Honduras, Central America, on a tubby Carib dory carrying one sail and a jib, to cross the eighty-odd miles of the Caribbean Sea. Our destination was the mouth of the Sangrelaya River, on the Mosquito Coast, a region at that time as undeveloped and sparsely inhabited as it was when Columbus landed at Cajxr Gracias A Dios, not so many miles distant.

The crew of the dory consisted of two Caribs who spoke mongrel Spanish and but a few words of English. With the few words of Spanish spoken by myself, we had negotiated our jjassage. |«lying therefor five pounds of fat salt ix>rk an incredible luxury to natives of a region where even the wild game was lean.

My partner and I were the only ones aboard who thought of it being Christmas Eve. and we made grim jokes as we hung our wet stockings up in the rigging to dry. Soon we were all. with the exception of the man at the helm, stretched out asleep on the deck in the perfumed tropical air

Toward morning one of the dreaded “northers,” the curse of the cocoanut and banana groves along the Mosquito Coast, had sprung up. The gale swept across the expanse of water, piling high in great curling waves, among which the clumsy mahogany dory rolled and plunged at an

alarming rate. The mainsail was hurriedly hauled down, and even the jib considerably reefed.

All through the night the storm raged. The stockings in the rigging were whisked away at a speed that even Santa's reindeer could not have overtaken.

Daylight found the gale subsiding, but the sea was still angry and boisterous. We had not been blown oil our course, and when daylight came we were in sight of the coast and heading straight for the mouth of the Sangrelaya River.

But, as at the mouths of the Patuca, the Tokomatchie

and other Spanish Honduras rivers, the entrance to the Sangrelaya was barred by wide sand bars. As we swept toward the usual channel at the mouth, we found the norther had done things to it. If there was still a channel, it had moved somewhere else, and how was our dusky helmsman to know? He drove straight ahead and plunged headlong into a solid sand bar, almost burying the dory and bringing us up short with a jar that would have sent me through the windshield if the dory had had one.

As it was, the dory was driven clean under water, embedded firmly in the sand, the deck awash, and only the solitary mast and rigging above the water.

Naturally, w^e took to the rigging. There was nowhere else to take to. Not more than forty rods away was the shore, with swaying palms along the shore line, backed by dense jungle. It might as well have been forty miles away for all the good it did us. There we were, dangling from the rigging, with no way to get ashore.

“Merry Christmas,” I called to my partner. “How’s this for a Christmas tree?”

He didn't reply. He was gazing at the water, and measuring with his eye the distance to the shore.

“I used to be a gxxl swimmer,” he remarked. “I think I could make it to the shore.”

Just then one of the Caribs pointed to a sharp fin that was steadily circling the boat. Lying over to one side, the shark gazed up sjxjculatively at prospective dinners dangling a few feet above its head.

“Malo?” I asked him.

"Malo,” he said with a shudder. “Muy mala.” (Very bad.)

All that Christmas Day. ravenously hungry and unable to think of anything else but the roast goose and plum pudding that my friends and relatives were wading into in good old Huron County, Ontario, we dangled there watching the sharks in increasing numbers coming to gloat up at us.

In the afternoon a couple of native Caribs came along the jungle trail near the beach, and a lot of jagged language was howled back and forth between them and the two Caribs on the boat.

The result was that, after a tedious wait while two natives went along the beach, a native small dory came paddling alongside and tcxik two of us at a time, making two trips.

Our Christmas feast was not roast gcxise and plum pudding, but boiled yams, fried green bananas, and stewed white-faced monkey just like fricasseed chicken, if you didn't know. R. J. Dunsmore. St. Thomas. Ont.

Escape From a War Prison

THE YEARS fall from me and once again I am twentyone; a very young twenty-one. Behind me. the gentle influence of an Anglican parsonage and an English school. Now Christmas, 1915 a Canadian soldier, a prisoner of

war for nine months, making my first unplanned, desperate attempt to escape from Germany into Holland.

How mad I must have been to have chosen such a season of the year ! Even as I had made my getaway from Geissen Camp a few days before, the weather had been cold and damp with a threat of snow.

I stumbled along by night through strange villages, and by day eluded capture, huddled in the dense woods which bordered the small towns.

By Christmas Eve I was ready to give up. Physically and mentally, I was about finished. How fed up I was on the chocolate and those queer French biscuits. And cold! Could I ever be warm again?

I tried to discipline my thoughts and make my mind a complete blank, but the memory of other years crowded in on me—the warm, homey Christmases of other days. My English ones with holly and carol singing; my Canadian ones with the tall bedecked trees, and the jolly, intimate life of a small community.

Suddenly I found myself approaching a brightly lighted village. Already the snow was falling in thick, unhurried flakes. A Christmas postcard scene was before me. Very soon I was in the village itself, its streets alive with bustle and merriment.

I was alarmed at first as I saw groups of laughing boys and girls come near me, lest they recognize me as an alien and an enemy. But no; tonight for a few short hours they had other and more pressing business. Tonight I might pass unnoticed and unchallenged. They must rush to the homes of their relatives and friends, to sing the old familiar carols, to give the old-new greetings.

When I found that I was unnoticed, I walked more slowly. The curtains on the windows were thrown back, revealing every detail of the interior—the lighted tree, the busy bustling mother, the eager children. Only the absent father and brothers to remind them of that which was so alien to the Christmas message.

Hungrily I drank in every small detail. The War, with its false propaganda of hate and death, was behind me. These young people could be my Canadian friends and brothers, the smiling housewife, my mother, the laughing child my sister. Tonight the warmest memories of my life were vividly before me.

My hand was on the latch. What prevented me from entering to give to these kindly folk the common greetings so dear to us both? My heart bade me enter, but its warm impulse was chilled by the intensive miseducation of the past months. Even the message of the Prince of Peace could not prevail against it. I turned away.

Reluctantly I left the village behind me. Faint and ever more faint came the sound of the bells. And even as the sights and sounds of the village were slowly shut from me, so my spiritual buoyancy left me. I stumbled on through the thickly falling snow.

Two days later I was recaptured.—A. Donovan Corker, New Westminster, B.C.

A War Prison Party

DECEMBER the twenty-fifth came round three times while I was a prisoner of war in Germany. Twice it passed grey and monotonous as the rest of the prisoners’ days in the long years. But on the third approach, Christmas of 1917, something happened. We received an invitation to a Christmas party from the Germans. At this time and distance it may not seem strange that the milk of human kindness should flow even in an enemy’s breast, but to us, with three years of barbed wire, bayonets, and hate in our hearts, the invitation came as a surprise.

We decided to accept, more from curiosity than gratitude.

On Christmas morning we received another surprise. The guards outside the wire were at their posts without rifles. And in front of the guardhouse near the main gate stood a huge Christmas tree, all decked in tinsel and hung with presents.

The Feldwebel, equivalent ofour sergeantmajor, approached and invited us to surround the tree, in front of which stood the commandant of the camp in full regalia.

Sheepishly wre accepted, a bit ashamed of our ribald remarks of the past few days on the genuineness of the Christmas party. The commandant began to speak. First he regretted that the fortune of war had placed us where we were, far from our friends and families on this day of days. The War had caused a great gulf to form between our respective nations, but he hoped that with the coming of peace this would be bridged. He liked to think that perhaps this party would be a small plank in such a bridge, but would we please say nothing about it in our letters home as he had acted without the permission of his superiors, who might hear of it via the censors and misconstrue his motives.

Today, he continued, the discipline of the camp would be relaxed. The guards, as we could see for ourselves, were unarmed, and he trusted to our honor as British officers not to attempt to escape. He hoped that there was sufficient in our parcels from home to supplement the prison rations for a real Christmas dinner, and we would be allowed to buy from the canteen as much Rhine wine as we desired.

At the conclusion of his speech a small gramophone was turned on, and to the tinny rendition of “Heilige Nacht” he proceeded to remove and present to each of us small trinkets from the tree.

We thanked him, sang “For he’s a jolly good fellow,” gave him three cheers and scattered to our barracks, feeling sure the end of the War must be near.

A month later he was suddenly removed from his post. His successor turned out to be a hard-boiled scoundrel, and the War continued for another ten months.

However, I for one will always have a kindly feeling for this German officer who was not afraid to step from behind the great false face of hate that nation presents to nation in time of war, and show his true features to us in recognition of the allembracing kinship of Christmas Day. —A. F. Kemble, Toronto.

Marooned Off Newfoundland

TN 1934 I was in Newfoundland, working

as a student missionary. On Christmas morning we had service in the church, then I prepared to leave for Little Bay Islands, to spend the hdliday with friends. It was a two-hour trip. My landlady prevailed upon me to stay for dinner, and against my better judgment I did so. Thus it was 3.30 p.m. before I left the house, and by the time I had prepared my boat to go to sea it was after four o’clock. I tried to procure an extra supply of gasoline, but none was to be had, and I had to leave with my tank only part filled, though there was plenty for the trip.

I had some trouble getting out of the harbor, which was filled with huge ice sheets that had to be shoved aside or cut through. By the time I was out in the “ships’ run” evening had begun to fall. I had proceeded for about five miles when the engine began to miss. I turned aside into a small cove called Jerry’s Harbor and, using my flashlight, fixed the ignition.

I tossed the flashlight on one of the bunks and it rolled onto the floor, the fall break-

ing the bulb. I lit a candle and placed it alongside my compass, and set my course for Little Bay Islands, across the open Atlantic, on the other side of Hall’s Bay.

Things went all right for an hour, then I noticed that my motor was laboring. I lashed the wheel and went back to investigate, but without my flashlight I could locate nothing. The engine kept up. however, and the lighthouse at the harbor entrance drew' nearer. There were two entrances. I feared that the near one might be filled with drift ice, and started around another half mile to the far one. Just off the lighthouse, in sight of safety, the motor stopped.

I dropped the anchor overboard, but the water was too deep, it didn’t touch bottom. The teat was too heavy to row against the wind blowing out to sea. I tried to fix the , motor, but could do nothing in the dark. Finally, after tiring myself out, I gave up and allowed the teat to drift. It was quite dark, and twice I just averted striking rocks by getting out my oars. Finally, around midnight, the anchor caught on the bottom and the teat began to ride fairly evenly on the swell. I could see land inside of my position and a small island outside, so thought I was in some harbor on the other side of the bay. I was anchored in a shoal between some breakers which seemed to be fairly distant, so I went to sleep. Several times during the night I got up to replenish the fire and each time things seemed all right.

In the morning I found that I was anchored in the midst of the breakers, which were around me like a triangle, and any slight change of wind would have meant striking them. Inside, and about six miles away, was a large island which I recognized by the chart as Long Island; outside about half a mile was small Stag Island; I was between fifteen and twenty miles from the mainland. I got out the axe and knocked ice from the sides, deck, and house of the teat, which had caused it to roll in the water like a log.

I fixed the motor, pulled up the anchor, and started for Little Bay Islands, then discovered that the gasoline feed line was broken. The motor stopped. I allowed the teat to drift away from the breakers, then dropped the anchor over again. The mail steamer would have to pass within a few miles of me that afterntxm, and I would be able to signal it. But in about half an hour I felt the teat drifting, and discovered that the anchor was gone. Below me was a mess of breakers which stretched across for about two miles, with very little chance of my drifting between them. If I did make it, the way the wind was blowing, the next stop would be Ireland. Stag Island seemed the only hope.

I had a large medicine bottle containing about a pint of gasoline and. starting the engine, I fed this through the air throttle in the carbureter very slowly. As I approached the island I saw what appeared to be a bay or small harter on the upper side and tried to make it. Drawing still closer, I perceived there were really two islands, and what I thought was a harbor turned out to be a tickle that ran between them. I decided that my best bet was to get in there out of the sea and land on the outside one, which was well wooded. I got within 300 yards before my gas was consumed, then I tried to row. The wind was blowing me onto the point of this other island, which later I learned was called Berry Island, and I rowed over two hours with all my strength before I got past it. Once I weakened from exhaustion and eased up, and my oars touched bottom when the sea went down. With terror in my heart I started afresh, and managed to squeeze past.

I went through that tickle so fast, with the force of the wind, that I could not get my teat ashore, and in a minute or two I faced the breakers and the open sea again. Stag Island seemed a possible chance. 1 looked it over, watching the sea breaking up over the rocks into the woods. 1 decided the best thing to do would be to tread water and allow the buoyancy of the sea to carry me in. In an effort to save the boat, I tied the long anchor rope to the painter and then around my waist, and put my wrist watch into my mouth. Then I slipped into the water and allowed the huge waves to do their work.

I was thrown on rocks and against a small spruce tree, which I grasped and held with all my strength. The undertow when the sea went back nearly tore my arms out of their sockets, but I managed to maintain my hold. I crawled up out of the seaway before it came back, with a sharp pain in my back and a numbness in my legs. I tried to stand up and fainted. When I came to, my wrist watch, still in my mouth, was choking me. I took it out, put it to my eaj, and it was still going. It was half-past one.

I crawled over to a large flat stone and rubbed my back on it. That helped, although it was agony, and finally my strength returned sufficiently for me to stand up. By this time my outer clothing had frozen and my feet were beginning to get numb. I took off my boots, wrung out my socks, and rubbed the circulation back into my feet. When I had donned them again I made a brief trip to explore the island. It w'as deserted. I climbed the highest hill just in time to see the S. S. Clyde go past. I yelled until I was hoarse, but to no avail. I tried to make a fire but my matches were useless. I tried striking rocks, with only sparks as a result. I took one of the leather laces off my shoe and tried to make a fire on a piece of dried cedar by whirling a pointed stick. I had no knife and couldn’t get the stick sharp enough. It would get hot enough nearly to burn my finger, but wouldn’t ignite. At last 1 gave up and began to look about for a place to spend the night.

I discovered a tree root which formed a small tunnel. I blocked one end with snow and branches, then broke off limbs to line the rest and cover the snow and ice. Shortly after the darkness descended my “parsonage” was completed, and I crawled in and went to sleep.

About ten o’clock I awakened, shivering, and with my feet numb. I went outside and warmed my body with exercise, then took off my lxx>ts and three pairs of heavy woollen sinks, to discover that my feet were nearly frozen. 1 rubbed the circulation back into them and put one pair of socks on my chest beneath my underclothes so the heat of my body would dry them. All the rest of the time I w'as there 1 changed them every two hours.

1 put in four days before I was found. When one of tlie search parties sent out finally reached me. they could hardly believe that 1 was alive. They had been looking for my body. They took me to Ward’s Harbor, where by evening I was well enough to sit in with the family at the evening meal. I had eaten nothing but snow for so long that everything had a bitter taste for several weeks. My feet were frozen and I had to be taken to a doctor at Little Bay Islands The next week-end I returned to Pilley’s Island and resumed my work. It had been an unusual Christmas holiday.—Charles E. Burke, Noranda. P.Q.

At the Devil’s Portage

TT WAS Christmas Day, 1897, and

Arthur Pelly and 1 were on the road to the Klondike, overland by the Liard River route.

For two days in sub-zero weather we had plodded through the soft snow of the Grand Canyon of the Liard River, a deep rock-walled trench cut through the northern end of the Rocky Mountains, each of us alternately breaking trail for our four-

dog team or pushing and guiding the toboggan which carried our whole outfit.

We liad entered the Canyon at Hell’s Gate on the evening of December 23, and had had fairly heavy going because of deep snow throughout the forty miles of its length. We had found the canyon frozen everywhere, even at the Rapid of the Drowned, near which we had camped the night before. Now we were at its western end.

We had tried during the day to gain a passage through the constriction known as the Devil’s Gorge, which forms the western end of the canyon, but found this imixissible because the force of the stream had kept open water from wall to wall of the gorge. The only alternative was the ixirtage trail of four miles over a mountain spur 1,000 feet high, a trail which had never been used in winter and only once in summer in the previous thirty years. This was the notorious Devil’s Portage, which to all Northern toyageurs carried a reputation of decidedly sinister character and was responsible for the abandonment of the Liard River as a trade route to the Yukon many years ago.

Hell’s Gate and Devil’s Portage! Evilsounding names indeed, and obviously suggestive of their character. Small wonder that the memory of them has dimmed little in forty years.

And so on Christmas night, Pelly and I were camped on the summit of Devil’s Portage, then as now, a no-man's-land and one of the most isolated and inaccessible points in all Canada.

It had not been easy to find and follow the old portage trail, covered with three feet of snow and much overgrown as it was, but here and there an ingrown blaze was visible.

It was the toughest going of the day up this eastern slope of the portage, but by doubling up when necessary we were on the summit before the light of the short winter day began to fade.

Finding a spot where there was both green and dry standing spruce, we set to with snowshoes to shovel out a place for the camp. This we then floored with spruce boughs and banked on three sides with snow and brush. On the fourth side we laid the fire of full-length trees with butts overlapping and pointing inward. The star-studded sky was to be our canopy.

Then the dogs were unhitched and the sled unpacked of its blankets, food and cooking utensils.

The next operation was supper. The first duty, however, of the Northern traveller is the care of his dogs, and after these are fed he proceeds to the preparation of his own meal. Ours was the same as it had been for three months, namely, bacon, beans and bread, washed down with tea. Tonight there was to be added to this simple fare a cooked but now frozen plum pudding, carried all the way from Edmonton for this occasion.

Tea was soon made from melted snow, and the frozen beans and bread thawed out. Meanwhile the plum pudding was being heated up.

Pelly, however, had a surprise in store. Before the pudding was served he produced, like a magician from his kit, a small flask of brandy which he had carried since July without arousing suspicion from any source. A little of this in a tin cup with a toast “to absent friends” was the prelude to the most satisfying plum pudding ever eaten.

Later as we lay in our blankets within the small circle of light made by the campfire and nothing but the stars overhead and the infinite silence of the sub-Arctic night around, my thoughts and Pelly’s reverted to other Christmas nights—his to scenes across the sea. mine nearer to hand, but both embracing friends who were thinking the same thoughts as ourselves.

So does Christmas eliminate distance!— Charles Camsell, Rockcliffe Park, Ottawa.