Saint John was far enough away from Saint Dunstan’s to be as good as a thousand miles although the distance is only about 350 kilometers. But back in the day the distance was magnified by “the boat” – especially if your boat was the SS Prince Edward Island. On a one-way trip, the boat added an hour and one-half onto the journey – arrive preferably one-half hour early, and the one hour boat ride across the fifteen kilometers. The strait, the distance and time factor made Saint John seem far away.
An impromptu plan for getting to Saint John quite often portended for an “interesting” trip. Interesting as in the Chinese curse, “May you have an interesting life.” A last minute plan to catch the mid-night boat in February, for example, should have been dimly viewed but it was attempted, nevertheless, by four college lads in a Volkswagen. Of course, the virtually indestructible Volkswagen went kaput in the most desolate stretch of land in between Charlottetown and Saint John – at about 1:00am and one degree Fahrenheit (which was used at that time). Our scientific, philosophical, mathematical, historical, psychological, and language schooling had not mentioned Murphy’s Basic Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” Nor had we been taught its higher level corollary: “At the most inopportune time.”
Another Saint John friend tried the trip by hitchhiking in the winter. Hitchhiking could be an adventure in those days, even if it be into Charlottetown, let alone Saint John in the winter. As the winter sun sat the cold intensified, and the winter sky became ink, hitchhiking became horribly dependent on traffic – or really the lack thereof. With no traffic, my friend was put in a quandary of finding shelter or freezing. Seeing a working barn, he entered and spent the night covered up with hay – a human in a haystack.
Even using the normal transportation services to New Brunswick like the SS Prince Edward Island, in January, February, or March, could put you be in the wrong groove. By 1969, the SS Prince Edward Island was an old boat as it was built in 1914. While dependable, the PEI often was trapped for hours in the tough ice pans of mid winter. Passengers may be onboard out in the Northumberland Strait for many hours and have the mandatory opportunity to participate – free of charge – in sea ice tourism. Saint Johners Mike Sullivan, Joe Sullivan, Bryan Lynch, David MacNeill, Tom Forrestal, and Rick Butler and I once experienced the tiresome experience. That odyssey across the strait was tedious and everlasting – four or five hours until about 3:00am. It was a team trip. Upon delay, people went into their natural forms. The gregarious played cards. The brothers Mike and Joe Sullivan, Dennis Marks, John White, and Rick Butler played with Coach Ed Hilton. Tom Forrestal went into the business mode with the ship’s bursar and was reconciling his receipts and money. Owen Jay perched on a luxurious leather couch and seemed to be thinking seriously – maybe wondering if this varsity thing might make him ineligible for the “Zephie” Van Zephelus Athletic Club team. Dave MacNeill was driven to organize and made “to do” lists on a legal pad. Vince Mulligan was along on this one and he had spread out some Guardians on a table and was breezing through crossword puzzles. As was his habit, Fitz stood on the bow of the ship, in the extreme weather of 2:00am, wearing his green and white Springfield CYO jacket. He looked the part of Ahab on the Pequod – but not searching for the great white whale, rather searching for the next great colorful moment. The card players were tireless and played on and on. Somebody, without the authority to do so, had placed the Trailways bus in the pot as collateral in lieu of cash. The gloating winner could say “Honey, I won us a bus!” That Trailways would have looked great parked on campus next to Saint John’s Gerry Donavon and his hearse. After the Saints smashed Mt. A one year, Gerry and friends took a victory lap in the hearse around the Mountie’s football field. The security force was caught off-guard and vainly pursued on foot – just as their football team had done all day.
Back to the boat, I wandered around aimlessly – uninterested in cards, too restless to sit, too tired to study the textbooks that I had imprudently lugged. I wandered down to the engine room, which was unmanned. Seeing a sign which forbade smoking but said nothing of entry, I peeked in – careful the door would not shut behind me and that I would be doomed to wander forever in the bowels of the ship. The huge machinery and the oily compartment were impressive. Later, back in the lounge, I eventually fell asleep in an overstuffed leather chair. That the chair and all the furniture were chained to the floor were most interesting to me. At that time, I did not know that some years earlier the SS Charlottetown had sunk in route to a routine refit in Saint John. And I did not know that the PEI’s captain had once defended the Prince Edward Island by saying the old Earl Grey had leaked twice as bad. If I had known, I would have been more attentive and joined Fitz out on the bow. Or hung around the life boats on the main deck.