Slab Town Memoir
by Terrence Huntington
Slab Town was my home until 1948 when I was nine years old. It was the village straddling the original Lily Lake Road where Lily Lake Road began its run under the train bridge and out of Campbellton, New Brunswick on its way to Lily Lake.
The road also led to timber stands that provided work for lumberjacks and loggers.
The village part of the road was cut into the side of a hill. The part of the hill up from the road was referred to as the mountain, which indeed it seemed to be to seven or eight year old me.
The hill dropping off from the lower side of the road was known as the bank. At the bottom of the bank was a salty inlet off the Baie Chaleur known as the pond. Sometimes we fished for smelt off the rocks at the mouth of the pond. The Restigouche River was not far away. Along one stretch of the bank, there were lots of hazel nuts for the picking.
There were perhaps a dozen wood houses on each side of this dirt road, and ours was the last on the right-hand side on the way out of town. Our outhouse teetered on the edge of the bank. Houses at our end of the village got water from a neighbour’s pump, the only one in our end of the village.
A new road was eventually built as part of a Campbellton bypass. It runs between old Slab Town and the main part of the city. The severed part of the original Lily Lake Road where I lived, left dangling after the bypass was built, was given a new name. I see on an online map that this portion is now called Sunset Drive.
In the winter we kids were allowed to slide down the bank and cross the frozen pond. This was a good shortcut and lasted us a good part of the school year. At the far side of the pond, we walked through the part of Campbellton known as Rabbit Town and on to our respective schools, some Catholic and some Protestant.
We very seldom saw traffic through Slab Town, and we used to set up tin cans and play cricket in the road. I do not recall details, but I think our version of the game involved rolling a ball along the road and trying to knock over the other team’s cans. There might have been more to it than that. I really don’t know.
Sometimes the game would stop because somebody noticed an airplane high overhead. We would all look up, squint, and try to imagine what one of those would look like close-up. We heard no sound from them. Those specks in the sky were as close as I ever got to an airplane until the family moved to Montreal when I was nine.
A few people kept backyard animals. Some had chickens. We had a pig. One time I watched a slaughter. They hung the beast up by its hind legs and slit its throat. The loud squealing, more than the gushing blood, repulsed me, and I fled from the mess. After it was all over, I was given a pig’s bladder balloon tied at the top with a piece of string. It was the first balloon I ever saw.
My uncle was a teamster – a real teamster. He drove a team of horses that pulled a sleigh piled high with logs. In the woods, they cut in the winter and piled limbed trees onto sleighs, the kind of sleigh Uncle Horace drove back through Slab Town to the mill at the edge of town along the unplowed road that was defined only by tracks in the snow produced by horses’ hooves and sleigh runners after each snow fall.
Clam day was any day we went digging for clams at Eel River Bar, a sand delta at the mouth of the Eel River on New Brunswick’s north shore about twenty miles east of Campbellton.
In those immediate post-war years my father had one of the very few, if not the only, car in Slab Town. Once or twice a summer we set out for Eel River Bar with my parents’ friends Mr and Mrs Wallace. I have no idea what kind of car it was. These excursions started with Mr Wallace cranking the engine to get it running, and Pop working controls on the inside.
Sometimes we stopped because the engine heated. This required removing the radiator cap, allowing stream to hiss into the atmosphere, and filling up with clean water that always seemed available from some sympathetic roadside resident. Flat tires were routine occurrences. Many times I witnessed the removal of wheel from hub, tire from wheel, tube from tire, patching tube, reversing procedure, hand-pumping, and setting off again.
At Eel River Bar, we all walked out onto the sand bars although, if I remember correctly, it had to be timed for low tide. We all kicked in digging for clams in the wet sand. It did not take long to get enough to fill a water bucket or two. Pop and Mr Wallace would build a fire on the beach. My mother and Mrs Wallace laid out a couple of blankets and additional treats. There would always be beer on hand for Pop and Mr Wallace. They boiled the clams and we ate them as soon as they came out of the pot. Those clams were “some good” as the down-east expression goes. Those were good outings.
Near the mouth of Walker’s Brook, a small stream that flows into the pond from the direction of Sugar Loaf Mountain, there was an ice house. A few of us kids were once lucky enough to get inside the ice house. There was a lot of straw around and it was very cold and dark in there, even in late summer. Blocks of that ice made their way to Slab Town on a horse-drawn wagon every few days, and some of them into my family’s ice box.
In my Slab Town childhood world there were many mysteries, threats, dangers, and taboos that a young boy had to contend with. Fortunately for me and my childhood peers, there were older boys around – the grades four and five set – who were always glad to mentor us and share their life experiences with us.
For example, it was they who informed us about the sacred status of Lily Lake. They told us that because Campbellton’s drinking water came from Lily Lake, under no circumstances were we to swim in it or dirty its waters. I’m not sure what all the fuss was about because most of us didn’t have a clue exactly where it was, anyway; only that it loomed as a revenging monster if we youngsters ever so much as beheld its glory. In later years, I suspected it was a private swimming spot for those same boys.
Our mentors also cautioned us about the dragonfly threat. Dragonflies would sew your lips together if you let them get near enough. All the kids produced carefully crafted reverse lip puckers whenever a dragonfly hovered nearby. These creatures were nearly as dangerous as grape seeds.
Grape seeds could lodge in your appendix, which you would then surely have to have removed. On the very rare occasions that we had grapes anyway, all the kids very carefully maneuvered them around in their mouths until they could isolate the seeds and then spit them out with deliberate spftttt sound effects.
The pond – and I am not aware it ever boasted proper nounship – played big in the young lives of me and other Slab Town kids. Our educators were probably at their best – a teeming source of wisdom and knowledge – where life at the pond was concerned. They were living proof that there was more than swimming, floating, crawling coastal marine life in our pond and the vegetation surrounding it.
At low tide the pond was a mud flat. One day some of these older kids allowed me to walk out on it with them looking for eels. They brought along a burlap potato sack in which to bag the eels. Sure enough, as mud squished between our toes and up to our ankles, we saw eels wiggling in little furrows in the mud where there was still some water. These thoughtful kids warned me that an eel can pluck off a toe in one bite in the low-tide mud. All I remember after that was that I skedaddled out of there leaving the big guys to their pleasure.
True, I was young and impressionable and, true, memories can become faded, distorted, inventive, and embellished. But all of the above, or at least factual elements at the core of all of the above, reflect a real and indelible part of my childhood history.
Terry Huntington was born in Campbellton, New Brunswick, grew up in Montreal, and has lived in Australia, Jamaica, and Bermuda. He went back to New Brunswick – Rothesay – for a short while when he was 40ish, and also worked on the Miramichi. He has been published in Engineering and Contract Record (Poem,) The English Quarterly, Island Writer, Lester’s Army (online,) and Poetry WLU. His novel LET’S START A WAR is currently looking for a publisher.