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Stories range from the catastrophic to the bucolic at third COA slam

On Tuesday, March 10, the two speakers in the third Council on Aging story slam transported the audience from Hildreth House to very different parts of the world and described quite opposite experiences. Gaye Johnson talked about being an almost-10-year-old living on Oahu when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Joe Theriault took us to the other side of the United States and a typical day in his life as an 8-year-old farm boy living at the northern tip of Maine.

Gaye Johnson

Beginning with the disclaimer that she was digging back almost 80 years, Gaye nevertheless vividly recreated one incredible day in her life. Her father was a Navy doctor stationed at the base in Pearl Harbor, and the family lived in a house just a road and two rows of houses from the Pacific Ocean. She, her brother, and another boy who grew up to be a demolition diver, spent as much time as possible swimming in the cove at the end of the street. They ran barefoot in bathing trunks over the lava cliffs. “I didn’t learn anything at school. That’s not what I was there for, right? I was there to swim,” she laughed.

Gaye Johnson. (Courtesy photos)

She remembers sometime close to 8 a.m. (on Dec. 7, 1941) an announcement came over the radio that all military personnel should report to their stations: “Pearl Harbor is under attack right now!” Despite their mother’s protests, she and her brother ran outside. She could see the red circles on the planes’ wings, and she remembers waving to a pilot and his waving back. To her, it was all exciting. There were 17 planes; they hit Pearl Harbor once and then circled around to strike again.

Later, troops went past her house to the cove where they were going to put up barbed wire in case the Japanese tried to come ashore. “Oh, boy,” she and her brother thought, and followed them. She talked to some of the men, and she recalled her excitement when one of them said she should come back at night and “sleep with me in my sleeping bag.” She laughed, remembering her naivete in asking her mother if she could go.

Behind their house was a fort, and the house would be right in the line of defense fire if the Japanese came in. They were moved to other housing and then, weeks later, evacuated to the United States on the USS Garfield. She remembers having to keep a life jacket on at all times. Waiting on the dock in San Francisco was her dad, whose ship had gone out of Pearl Harbor on a mission two days before the attack.

Joe Theriault

Joe Theriault started by saying that after Gaye’s wild tale, his story would be dull by comparison. True, there were no bombs or inappropriate proposals, but his talk was anything but dull. He painted a vivid picture of life in a more simple time and of the pleasures gained and lessons learned growing up on a 200-acre farm.

Joe Theriault.

The farm lay about a mile from the Sainte Luce parish on U.S. Route 1, with frontage on the south side of the Saint John River. Joe could swim across the river, which varies in its course from some of the roughest to the mildest kind of water. Apple trees and American cranberry bushes grew in a strip of land by the river. A bonus for any young boy, a steam train ran by the property. Up an incline from the river were the house, garage, barn, and a huge garden. Then the land rose up a steep slope of pasture. A neighbor commented that the family’s cows looked as though they had two short legs in the front and two longer ones in back. In the open meadows grew strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries to pick by the gallon. From the top of the pasture, Joe could look across the river into Canada and see a brook and his grandfather’s mills; the other direction looked down on the valley with the church in the distance.

Joe gave a short history of the Acadians, people from western France who settled in what are now the Canadian Maritimes. They were expelled by the British in the mid-1700s and dispersed along the U.S. eastern seaboard. Joe’s French-speaking father was an 11th-generation Acadian, a lumberjack, farmer, and plumber. Joe said of his dad, “He taught me everything I know about how to be a man.” His mom, an American of French-Canadian descent, was a woman of strong faith, with an unconditional love for family. Music was her passion and her joy.

Joe described a typical day in his life as an 8-year-old. He would get up early with his father and rekindle the fire in the furnace and start the wood-burning kitchen stove. Then it was out to the barn to clean out and feed the animals—two draught horses, King and Silver, which Joe harnessed up for his dad starting at age 7; hogs; and more than 40 chickens. He would milk the two cows and take the milk inside to put in the separator for milk, cream, and eventually butter. Until he was 7, the separator had to be turned by hand. The arrival of electricity in 1947 made the job easier and also brought running water and an indoor bathroom. On winter mornings he would go out on skis or snowshoes to check the traps he set for hare. The catch limit was six, and he usually made that and sold pelts for 10 cents each. Then, during the school year, he would walk to the convent for Mass, where he often served as altar boy. School was right there in the convent.

He rode the bus home from school. Most often he had specific chores to do, but once in a while he played baseball or hockey or just skated with friends. After an early supper, he fed the livestock and milked the cows again. At bedtime his mother sang songs in French from songbooks passed down through generations. Most of them had a life lesson.

Joe delighted the audience by singing in French one of his favorite songs from that time. He then translated the words that told the story of a family torn by divided loyalties in the Franco-Prussian War and how the child “loved France in his heart.”

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