Author Jill Martin Bouteillier's new memoir/biography From Thistles to Cowpies (Crossfield Publishing) brings to life the experiences of Canada's earliest immigrants, following them on their sometimes-harrowing journeys that led to their new homes. Whether interested in their own family history of immigration, or recent immigrants themselves, readers will be touched by these tales of hardship, resilience, and hope.
We're very happy to share an excerpt from From Thistles to Cowpies on Open Book today.
Excerpt from Jill Martin Boutellier's From Thistles to Cowpies:
Chapter Eleven: Of Near Misses and the Rule of the Sea
Joe eased his bum tight to the bulkhead and placed his train engine on the deck. Rumbling below his bottom, he felt the power that propelled the ship, a speck in the vastness of the immense ocean, carrying it ever farther away from the land of his birth. He knew father would be waiting at the end of the journey, but still he felt the loss of something he could not quite explain.
Suddenly, off the port side of the ship, he saw a light breaking into the darkness. Every few seconds.
Joe trembled, before coming to his senses. Of course, it’s a lighthouse. What did mama say? Land’s End that must be it. We’re almost at the end of England, then.
Joe pulled his heavy sweater tight around his shoulders against the sharp chill of the air and tugged his slouch cap over his ears. Off the ship’s bow, he saw a light strafing the water. Mesmerized by the regular rhythm of the beam, Joe watched and waited. The beacon grew inexorably closer until he could see the white sides of the lighthouse rising above the headland.
Moments later, Joe rubbed his eyes, thinking he was mistaken. Beyond the lighthouse, it looked like fireworks were exploding above the dark cliffs. Young Joe had no way of knowing the “fireworks” had a perfectly rational explanation. The sparks were coming from the Lizard Peninsula, the site of the first ship-to-shore wireless station established by Marconi in 1901.
Out of habit, Captain Weber grabbed the railing as the U-124 inched along England’s southern coastline, on the look-out for foreign ships. Within seconds, his gloves froze to the steel. “She’s a cold one tonight—Don’t much fancy a swim,” he commented to his first officer with forced levity.
The sea was full and heavy as it rolled over the serpentine teeth of the black rocks that clawed their way out from the precipitous headland. Captain Weber had no doubt of the potential danger looming off the starboard side of his ship along the Cornish coast. With no moon to outline the waves cresting over rocks hiding below the surface, it was nearly impossible to lock down the U-124’s exact position.
“Dead slow,” Captain Weber ordered, “just until we’ve rounded the Lizard and got past Land’s End, a mile or two more, then we’re in open waters.”
A slight mist had risen wraithlike from the frigid landscape. It fell from the cliffs above, intermittently obscuring the two lights that marked the most southern point of the Lizard headland. It was almost impossible to plot the ship’s course in these conditions, a guess at best. Struggling to follow the beams from the lighthouse lanterns as they winked in and out of sight, the U-boat zigzagged along the shoreline.
Below deck, Willem Mueller, the U boat’s telegrapher, tuned to an alternate frequency to see what he might pick up. In seconds, a spark arced from the tapper and exploded in his ear. Pulling off the headphones, Willem headed topside to relay the sub’s position to Captain Weber.
“I’ve got Lizard. It nearly took my ear off, sir.”
Captain Weber strained his eyes in the dark. “Close. Mighty close. Time to go silent,” he ordered.
Captain Weber knew submerging was out of the question. Below the surface, the ship was both blind and immobile. And who knew with any accuracy the depth of the sea flowing over the rocks off the point. Speed was the danger here. Dead slow, the submarine crawled westward.
Willem had never been this close to the Cornish coast. He stared in awe at the jagged ridges and formidable heights of the headlands scoring the night sky. After the Boer War, his Uncle John had travelled to Cornwall and later spoke about the quaint villages fronted by the long curving breakwaters that protected the towns’ inner harbours. From the earliest trading days, the tentacles of the Cornish shoals, with names like the Needles, the Manacles, or the Man of War, reached far into the Channel and struck terror into the hearts of sailors on passing ships.
And then Willem saw it, a ship in the strait a mile or so beyond the point, two small dark mounds riding easy on its port and starboard sides. An escort then, for the liner, Willem thought. Wrong shape for a destroyer. Then Captain Weber was at his side peering into the darkness to locate the ship.
“All right then, let’s go hunting.”
The words had hardly passed his lips when Beast Point, Cornwall’s most infamous deathtrap, loomed off the U-boat’s starboard side. Many a ship caught off guard in this exact spot had splintered against the Beast’s saw-toothed rocks.
“Thirty degrees port,” Captain Weber barked, but in the next instant, the lighthouse beam was lost in swirling mist, and the ship’s starboard side swung wide.
The U-124 lurched to starboard, its hull slamming broadside into the razor-sharp rocks. Within seconds, a subterranean fissure belched through the surface of the black sea, and a geyser of spray exploded alongside.
The impact threw Weber against the conning tower, breaking two of his ribs. “Damn luck,” he spit. “Hansen,” Weber ordered his lieutenant, “get below, assess the damage, and report back immediately.”
Hansen clawed his way across the pitching deck and plunged into the dark hull. A large swell lifted the submarine and smashed it a second time into the rocks, crumpling the forward watertight door frame into a mess of steel and wires and throwing the young seaman to his knees. He struggled to regain a hold on the ladder, but even before his feet touched the floor, he saw seawater filling the main cabin and climbing higher, rung by rung.
The watertight door prevented water from flooding the day crew’s sleeping quarters, but that action, meant to save lives, had now guaranteed their deaths. Twelve crewmen were entombed behind the door. “Please God, let them die quickly,” Hansen whispered to himself.
On the starboard side, mid-ship, sea water poured through the long, jagged breach in the hull. Second officer Krause and first engineer Dorgan struggled out of the engine room. Hansen ordered them topside. He searched for other survivors, but all was quiet.
Above, Captain Weber continued to give orders, “Willem, get on the tapper. It’s our only hope.”
“Yes, sir,” Willem answered, his face frozen in shock. He lifted himself through the hatch and stumbled down the ladder.
“My God,” he yelled, as his knees disappeared into the frigid seawater. “Call for help. Yes, call for help, but from England?” Willem hissed, dazed at the idea. Sloshing into the small closet that passed for his office, his gaze fell on the crew quarters. Ziegler and the others. Not a chance. Not a chance, he thought, shaking his head. But then duty took over. He adjusted his headphones, steadied his hands, and began transmitting.
“There it is again,” Joe whispered.
As he pulled his train engine closer, an alarm began to ring. He covered his ears and burrowed deeper into his jacket to block out the sound. Around him, the deck came alive. Soldiers sitting on the dark decks found their feet in seconds.
“Downstairs, then, mates. Now.”
Joe heard the men, but instead of moving, flattened himself against the steel wall. Paralyzed with fear, he thought he might never see his family again. He began to whimper. A soldier heard Joe’s soft cries and within seconds discovered him riveted to the wall.
“Ah, laddie, I see you’ve found a good hiding place there. Let’s go in, shall we now?” The soldier slid down the wall next to Joe urging him to come inside. But Joe was a statue. His breath came in shallow gulps, and with each strident blast of the bell, he shook.
“What’s that flashing over there? Looks like Guy Fawkes day,” Joe stuttered.
“That is interestin’ then for sure,” the soldier said. “Looks like sparks coming from the top of a mast or an aerial. Of course,” he said, nodding his head. “It’s the Lizard wireless station, the first ship-to-shore wireless station every built by Marconi. Smart man, aye, that Marconi.”
As the man scanned the water, he drew up to get a better look. “I’ll be damned. See there, on the rocks, if it’s not a U-boat. Doesn’t look quite right, though. Has a bit of a lean about her. Don’t think she’ll be bothering us much.”
As if that knowledge was a signal to Captain Haines, the alarm suddenly stopped ringing, and the ship was once again silent. In the sudden quiet, the soldier put his arm round Joe.
“I think we’ve got the best seat in the house. Let’s watch awhile, shall we?” the soldier said. Joe turned to face him, eyes wild with fear. As the Pretorian drew past the drama unfolding before them in the dark night, Joe leaned against the rough wool sleeve of the soldier’s uniform while his heart calmed.
“Don’t fret about the alarm. It can’t hurt you. Just letting us know that something’s goin’ on. I remember alarms like that in France. Getting us up early for one thing or ’nother. Not to worry laddie. Those boys’ll no be sending out a torpedo our way. We’ll soon be past the Point and out to open water, and I reckon they’ll be in pieces on the rocks. Shame, though, all those men lost.”
In the telegraph hut one hundred feet above the sea and the serpentine rocks of the Lizard headland, Jonathan Townsend heard it first. Something was coming in, but the message wasn’t any code he recognized.
“Must be an alien. And close. The signal’s almost taking my bloody ears off,” Jonathan shouted to his fellow operator.
“Thomas, what do you make of this? Listen.”
“Can’t tell, sir. It sounds like gibberish. If it’s one of ours, we could read them easily. Could be a U-boatoat. They’re always skulking down the Channel. Germany’s taken a downright dislike of our blockade,” Thomas said, his lips turning up into a sly grin.
“Best get out there and see what’s the trouble,” Jonathan ordered his junior operator.
When Thomas left the soft light of the transmitting hut, he walked into a wall of black. “Stop right there, mate. Let yer eyes adjust. It’s dark as a smithy’s apron out here. And the headland path is friggin’ close to the edge. Damn my luck to make a misstep and end up in the drink,” Thomas whispered into the void.
It was an unusually calm night, though. Thomas could hear the loud sparks from the transatlantic station at Poldhu, six miles away. He inched towards the cliff and froze. From the water, he heard an uncharacteristic rushing of air, like the bubbling of a geyser. Soon his eyes made out a long black shape skewered on the Beast, the full sea wedging it tight into the rocks. In the stillness, he heard the men’s frantic shouts, their words ricocheting up the precipice to the headland.
“Germans!” Thomas choked out the word. “Right here in Lizard.”
Thomas had seen his fair share of shipwrecks—enough to know the submarine was doomed. There would be no saving it. With the knowledge of the imminent deaths of the sailors on the U-boat hammering in his head, Thomas rushed back into the hut.
“There’s a U-boat stuck on the outer ribs of the Beast. They’re done for. If the surf doesn’t smash them to smithereens on the rocks, Davy Jones will be shaking their hands, and right soon,” Thomas said, the words coming out so tumbled that Jonathan could hardly understand him.
“My God, Thomas. A U-boat? Damn,” exclaimed Jonathan, his words shattering the silence. But as his ears heard the question in his voice, Jonathan knew what he had to do. The rule of the sea had been bred into him his entire life. No matter who the victims were, or from where, you sent out a lifeline to those in peril.
Jonathan grabbed the headphones. Sparks flew into the ether as he sent a land message to the Lloyds telegraph station just up the road. A lifeboat rescue would be dangerous and perhaps unsuccessful, but Jonathan knew he had to try to radio for one. Then he turned the dial to the universal broadcasting frequency.
“We see you,” he tapped out. “Lifeboat on the way. Hang on.”
On board the submarine, Willem received the clicks. “English,” he whispered.
In his tiny wireless cubby, the frigid water had reached Willem’s thighs, where it pooled and eddied. “Damn. No. Not now,” but in seconds the batteries fizzled and died. Willem grabbed the portable apparatus from the shelf above him and shot topside.
Steadying himself against the rail of the small conning tower, his fingers stiffening in the cold, Willem tapped a response. “Twelve dead. Two officers, three sailors, engineer alive on deck. Ship flooding.”
“Do you have power?” the message from the Lizard exploded in his ears.
“Main engine dead. Water short-circuited auxiliary. Hung up on the rocks. Using portable apparatus. Losing batteries fast. Unable to move. Not much time.”
Jonathan peered out from the wireless hut watching for a sign of the lifeboat that must surely be on its way. With any rescue, the men of Cornwall knew the importance of time. Tonight would test their limits because the window was closing fast.
And then he saw the craft racing towards the stricken U-boat, and from the sturdy lifeboat he could hear Kerry Taylor’s urgent voice ordering his crew to heave into their strokes.
“She’s not far off the coast, boys, but you know the dangers. We can’t risk sinking our own ship, but we owe it to those buggers out there to give it the best we got. When we get close, we’ll try to send out a line. Hopefully, we’ll get the survivors off before she’s gone.”
Jonathan had grown up around boats his whole life and knew all too well the dangers of the sea when guarantees of a safe return were never a given. He also believed that no matter what the uniform, the men hung up on the rocks below were sailors, and on a frigid December night like tonight, their lives depended on him.
On deck, the U-124’s seven survivors waited for death, proud to face their Maker in the present company. No longer a group of strangers, the crew was family.
“It has been my privilege to lead you,” Captain Weber whispered, his breath clouding in the frozen air. “You are to be commended. You have done your duty to the Kaiser.”
And then the captain slid to the deck, his knees no longer able to keep him upright. His second and third mates rested on each side of him by the rail. The engineer and two petty officers leaned against the conning tower. Hunched over the portable wireless set balanced on his knees, Willem continued tapping.
Strangely, Willem’s hands seemed to warm, even as the frost stiffened his fingers and rendered tapping difficult. Odd, he thought. SOS. SOS. One after the other, the dots and dashes of the international distress signal flew out from beneath his fingers.
The waves lapped over the deck of the U-boat as it sank deeper beneath the surface. Willem couldn’t make his fingers obey. Through the fog cottoning his mind, he heard shouting. “English,” he muttered to no one in particular.
Someone removed his headphones and wrenched the tapper from his grasp. Strong arms circled his body. And then the U-boat sank below the surface.
“She’s gone. She’s gone. The submarine’s gone.” Joe half-whispered half-cried, lifting his head from the soldier’s chest and pointing into the dark. And then he saw the little lifeboat bobbing on the waves headed to the shore.
“They saved the sailors on the U-boat,” Joe clapped joyously.
“By God. Yes, indeed, they did.” The soldier’s words whistled through his clenched lips. He shook his head in amazement and raised Joe to his feet. “I think it’s high time we got you back to your family, young man. They’re sure to be some worried. Altogether far too much excitement for one night.”
Before they got halfway down the hall to his cabin, Jeannie rushed to engulf her son in a tight embrace.
“Ma, you won’t believe what we saw. Sparks shooting into the sky whiz banging like Catherine Wheels at Hogmanay, a smashed U-boat, and then the lifeboat. It was spec-tak-u-ler,” Joe said, syllable by syllable, hoping his mother might find it in her heart to grant him clemency rather than the strap. “And my new friend looked after me,” he said, still clasping the soldier’s arm.
“Good evein’ ma’am. My name is Christopher MacTavish. Private MacTavish. Nothing to worry about. I found your son on the deck and once the alarm stopped, we had quite the show. But he’s here now and no the worse for wear. It was a brave thing those men did. I don’t think your son will soon forget it. Perhaps, I’ll see you tomorrow, then, young man.”
“Oh yes,” Joe said with a wide grin.
“Thank you,” Jeannie smiled. “My son is a bit of an adventure seeker. I’m happy that tonight you were with him.”
Willem awoke to find his hands bandaged and his body wrapped in warm blankets. He was alive thanks to a faceless operator who took a chance to save seven enemy sailors. He wondered if he would ever meet him.
Later that day, after his shift, Jonathan entered the ward where the German sailors were being cared for. He was keen to meet the man who had stayed at his post in the face of almost certain death. Like Jack Phillips on the Titanic, Jonathan thought, trying to imagine that kind of courage.
The German operator lying in the hospital bed didn’t look dangerous or threatening. A year or two younger than himself, maybe. Enemy combatants, yes, but saving them felt right.
Willem’s eyes fluttered open and rested on the English telegrapher’s lapel—a pair of wings divided by a bolt of lightning. He managed a thankful smile. They might have been colleagues trading stories on any number of ocean liners or merchant ships.
“You heard me,” Willem whispered to the man beside the bed, “and you called for help. Thank you.”
“The sea is a cruel mistress,” replied Jonathan with a knowledge born of dreadful experience. “The Code is every telegrapher’s international language, and in most instances, the language of duty, camaraderie, and seamanship. Perhaps when the war is over we will meet again, under better circumstances.”
Chapter Twelve: On Board
The next morning, all that surrounded the Pretorian was water, seagulls, and more water. An oblique December sun falling across the lower deck beckoned Joe outside to play.
“I’ll be fine, aye,” he countered when his mother tried to keep him from leaving the cabin. “The ship’s fair crawlin’ with soldiers, and I want to see Christopher again.”
Joe was quite correct in his assumptions. Everywhere he looked, there were soldiers: propped up against the walls in the dining canteen, in small groups in the hallways, resting in their bunks. Smoke billowed from the cigarettes they were happy to roll and enjoy. There were dozens of officers playing cards and backgammon, reservists from many battalions dealing dice for game after game of poker, and sailors with Scottish accents chewing tobacco and telling yarns.
Many of the servicemen on board were sailors from Newfoundland who had crewed on the Swallow and the Nascopie for a year when the ships had been commissioned by the Royal Navy. Having chosen not to re-enter the conflict when their tour of duty ended, they were returning to Canada for good. In five days, they would pick up their last bounty from the government and return to their fishing nets.
Christopher MacTavish, the young reservist from Saskatchewan who had befriended Joe, was also drawn to the sunny deck. As he stepped off the last rung of the aft ladder, Christopher almost tripped over Joe, who was on his knees playing with his train engine.
“So sorry, laddie. I din’t see you underfoot. Did you sleep well after all the excitement yesternight?”
Thrilling to the familiar lilting twist of Christopher’s words, Joe replied instantly, “Oh aye, sir. Indeed. What do you think we might see today?” Although he asked, as Joe’s wide eyes surveyed the waves stretching into the distance, void of ship or living creature, he realized anything fun or exciting would have to come from the deck around them rather than the sea.
The two had immediately been drawn to each other. Christopher’s family had emigrated from Scotland to Saskatchewan in 1901 when he was six. They had homesteaded near Fort Qu’Appelle, not far from Regina. Christopher loved farm life and was anxious to once again drive his team at the planting in a few months. He hoped the farm, far from the muddy fields and trenches of France, would grant him the peace he yearned for.
Christopher broke the silence, “I see ye’re a train man,” he said, pointing to Joe’s constant companion.
“Aye, I am sir, and I’m going to Skatchwon on a very long train when we get out of the ship. Mother says Skatchwon is still many days away, but I dinna min’ as I will be with my Da for Hogmanay.”
“Well, fancy that. I ’m going to Sask-at-chew-an too,” Christopher said, pronouncing each syllable slowly. “My parents and I came to Canada when I was six.”
“I am six, just turned in October,” Joe grinned. “My Da is a blacksmith and I will be helping him at the forge.”
“You look mighty small for all that responsibility.”
“Oh, I may be small, but I’m verra strong. I can carry a shovel of coal with two hands.”
“If you can do that, then I suppose your Da will be very glad to have you home. When did he leave Scotland?”
“Oh, years and years, I think. My mother says I was three. I don’t remember too much about him, except for his lovely stories and his big hands on my shoulders. I have missed him verra much.”
Suddenly, Christopher was home. Memories of the hot dusty wind of the prairie fields and basking in the warmth of the summer sun and the smell of the wheat harvest wrapped their arms around him. He smiled at his little charge, so full of expectation and hope. “How about I tell you a story about Saskatchewan?”
“Oh, aye, please. Then I will have something verra special to tell my sisters. They are below practising their dancing. They are always practising their dancing. I get seasick with all the twirling, but mother says it is very important they practise, specially now that we are leaving Scotland. Mummy says she can’t let them forget their hertaj. At least I think, that’s it. Must be very important for my ma to speak about it all the time.”
“I understand and heartily agree. Our heritage is something we can’t buy anywhere. It is what we carry in our hearts to remind us of where we came from. It helps to make us who we are,” Christopher added, before settling in about his adopted country.
“Saskatchewan is very big. In fact, you could put all of England, Scotland, and Wales inside Saskatchewan. The land around Regina is flat as a pancake. There are a few valleys that surprise you when you come upon them, but mostly, you can see forever. Nothing gets in the way.”
“Aren’t you afraid of gettin’ lost? Are there any road signs?”
Christopher took another approach.
“Yes, there are signs and roads, but ever so few people. It might be a thirty-minute drive with a truck if you had one, or hours by horse from one town to the next, with only a farm or two in between. That’s why my parents came to Canada, so they could have lots of land and grow lots of wheat. I don’t think they realized how much work it might be, though. They had to build their own house, pick rocks, and plough fields before they could plant anything. Your father is lucky. Blacksmiths are very important.”
“Aye, I know. My Da is the most important man in Limbrick.”
“Ah,” Christopher nodded, “so yer going to Limerick? You’ll pass through Regina, my hometown, on your way. I think I need to tell you a little bit about the prairie. It is some verra different from the glens and lakes of the Highlands.” His mind made up to reflecting, Christopher settled down beside the boy.
“The train goes very fast in the prairie because the track is so straight. You will feel like you’ve hitched a ride on a bullet. And at dawn, the sun flames across the land, sparkling everything from crimson to gold. There is nothing like a Saskatchewan sunrise. You’ll see.”
Christopher suddenly stopped talking, lost in his thoughts. Joe recognized the distant look in his eyes. It was the same look he had seen in his mother’s eyes as they stood on the deck when the ship was leaving. She didn’t think he saw, but he did. In his child’s mind, he reasoned that she must have been very scared, but didn’t show it. At that moment, he realized that adults can get frightened, too, but even so, they do what they must do.
“Now, let’s get this train back to the station. I would bet your ma will be wondering where ye’re at.”
Christopher took Joe’s hand and led him back to the steerage deck.
Jill Martin Bouteillier is the author of Return to Sable and From Thistles to Cowpies and was a consultant-historian for the National Film Board and White Gate Films. She worked on educational committees in BC and NS both developing and marking provincial exams. For many years she was an educator on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, serving as the last principal of Lunenburg Academy. She lives in Lunenburg with husband, Carl, and resident cock pheasant in a home overlooking the mighty Atlantic.