In The Face Of Adversity
William James "Jim" Myles of Little Bay East, Newfoundland, son of William Albert and Hannah Jane (Green) Miles, was born September 1910 at Little Bay East. His great-great-grandfather, the first James, had come to the island from Shaftesbury, Dorset, England, many years ago. His grandfather, William, and father were skilled carpenters and boat builders and that was how they earned a living. James of Little Bay East was also known as an excellent carpenter, a natural ability he obviously inherited from his ancestors.
Growing up in this small community, James no doubt had chores that had to be done. It is easy to imagine him helping to bring coal from the wharf to the house which was quite a distance. He probably also had to bring both coal and wood into the house for daily use. Since the family owned cows and sheep, James most likely had to help cut and make the hay in summer and then feed the animals in winter. He probably hung around with his father and grandfather as well, helping and learning the carpentry trade through hands-on experience. Time for fun and games came only after everything else was done.
By the age of 12 or 13, like all young boys of the time, he would have been considered old enough to do a full day's work on days off from school and during the summer months. It was important that all family members contributed to its support as they became old enough. James appears to have left school after completing grade six, around the age of 12 or 13 and it is thought that he might have worked with his father and grandfather for the next four years or so.
Then he switched to fishing, probably for more money, until the terrible accident which changed his life. James went to work as a 'Ketchie' or 'Kedgie' on the schooner Mabel Dorothy, under the command of Reuben Thornhill. In this period of 1928 men worked very hard in harsh conditions for very low wages. A Ketchie was a young person just starting his first season on a fishing boat and his duties might include anything from helping the cook in the galley to washing down the deck after a catch of fish had been cleaned. It was how they started their careers as seamen.
He was instructed to start the deck engine to hoist the dories, returning from fishing, up the side of the boat. Somehow his right arm got caught in a loop in the rope and was severely crushed. When he finally got clear of the rope he went to the rail of the boat and said, 'At least I didn't lose my arm.' He stood at the rail of the boat picking pieces of bone out of his clothing until he passed out, probably after the initial numbness wore off and he began to feel the pain. He would have felt nothing at first because everything would have been deadened, but when all those severed nerves started coming back to life the pain must have been unbearable. That was when the shock set in.
When James awoke he was in the hospital at Grand Bank, having undergone surgery to remove what remained of his arm. There was very little of his arm left to amputate because the rope had crushed and torn it off, leaving it just hanging by a piece of skin. During his stay at the hospital they did not even remove his home-knit sheep's wool underwear.
The stump of his arm became infected and gangrene set in, leaving him very ill and suffering from a high fever. The doctor who did the amputation is not known but his medical care changed James's respect for doctors and during the rest of his lifetime he went to very few. However, he got lucky when young Dr. Burke came there to work. He took off more of the arm and continued to clean and dress it properly every day. The family still credits Burke with saving James's life. Dr. John S. Burke remained in the Grand Bank area for many years, well-liked and respected by all who knew him.
Returning home, a young man of 18 years now with just one arm, not knowing what lay before him, James must have wondered what his life would be like from that point on. Having lost his right arm, he had no idea what to do next, especially as he was right-handed.
James tried to get financial compensation from the schooner's owner for the loss of his arm and for the time and effort it would take to adapt to a whole new way of life. He was given $400 and told there would be no more. They went so far as to threaten that if he asked for more his two brothers would never find work on a Newfoundland fishing schooner again. One brother encouraged him to take the money and he continued to work on the Grand Banks but the other went to Nova Scotia to fish. So James gave up on getting more money in order to protect his family from further discrimination and adapted to a new lifestyle - despite the unscrupulous merchants.
How utterly devastated Miles must have felt when he left the hospital to return home, having lost the arm that he had depended most upon to do his work. After all, his left arm had really only been a helpmate to the dominant right before and now it was all he had to count on. It is easy to understand the bitterness and frustration over the turn his life had taken. It threatened to overwhelm him for a short time, during which he took up smoking and drinking. That did not last long. He stopped feeling sorry for himself as his natural strength of character resurfaced and, with it, his determination to do everything possible to have a productive and normal life. The first obstacle he faced was learning how to do everything with his left hand and arm. In fact, his family thought his writing was good and they took it for granted that he could do anything a two-arm man could do.
When he felt he had mastered the art of being left-handed well enough, James returned to school and earned his grade seven certificate at the age of 20. He skipped grade eight, picked up with grade nine and went on to finish high school with the intention of becoming a teacher. There were only three Congregational Parishes in Fortune Bay and the clergy was in charge of selecting the teachers. Due to some disagreement over horses between him and the clergy, James was not given a school even though he had the qualifications. His diplomas, now in the possession of his daughter Molly, show that he had an affinity for French and mathematics. James next took a Tin Smith course but could not be hired because of insurance regulations. The 'school of hard knocks' wasn't finished with him yet but he was never heard to complain.
A thin man of average height, James Miles was quiet, mild-mannered, not given to gossiping about others and did not swear. He worked as a helper with his father and grandfather building houses and boats. Eight years after his life-altering accident, James married Sylvia Hatch in June 1936.
For the first few years of their married life James and Sylvia lived with his widowed mother at Little Bay East. During this time their first two children were born, Bill in 1937 and Lucy in 1939. This was probably the same time period that James was at work on building a home for his family, which they moved into sometime before their third child, Molly, was born in July 1940. He raised his family to be honest and respect others. It was important to him that they all complete school and get an education - which they did. A man of faith, he took his children to church twice each Sunday.
James had adapted quite well to using his left arm and Molly says she can't remember too many things that her father couldn't do. He devised ways of doing things to compensate for having one hand. He used a strap over his shoulder to push his wheelbarrow. He could set snares with one hand, using his strong teeth to help tie the knots. He taught Molly how to set snares, a skill she later passed on to her grandsons. He mastered using a gun with just his left hand so he could shoot moose, ptarmigan and other birds in season, putting meat on the table for his family like any other man.
One thing he could not do was row a row-dory, a task that required two strong arms. So he needed help to bring wood home in the dory and sometimes Molly went with him, although she felt that he was not comfortable with asking her to do such a task because it was hard work.
He kept busy with carpentry and would do odd jobs as well as building cabinets and other things. He also helped to construct the current church at Little Bay East. He took every job he was offered in order to support his family and was known to keep the same hours as the workers in the herring plant when it was in operation.
When James built the house that Molly was born in, it was up the road away from the other houses on a beautiful piece of land. It was located in a large garden with a natural spring under the house and this supplied all the family's water needs. They used a hand pump to pump it up to the kitchen and it was very cold water.
The house up "The Road" was built on a very large parcel of land. At the end of this road was the cemetery. The only problem with living up there was they couldn't see any more houses. There were no lights or snow clearing in the community at that time. To the small children it seemed like they were miles from school and their friends. The house was built beside an embankment which allowed for a cellar and a workshop downstairs. There was a parlour that was seldom used, a kitchen, pantry and three bedrooms. It was heated by a large iron stove in the kitchen. Molly said, "That old stove could really warm the large junks of wood that warmed our beds at night."
Sylvia had a few house flowers and they had to be covered with blankets to keep them from freezing. The bread had to be made in the night and wrapped warmly with blankets so to be ready for baking in the morning. The windows had only single panes of glass so they would be covered with frost making it impossible to see out, but it created beautiful patterns.
Two large windows in the front of the house looked out over the garden where young lambs could be seen playing in spring. They kept cows for milk, sheep for wool, hens for eggs and even a goat. These animals sometimes provided meat as well. James was quite a hunter so the family enjoyed plenty of wild meat in addition to the home-grown variety. This was supplemented with a good supply of vegetables from the garden and berries from the country. And of course there was always a supply of fish, fresh in the warmer months, salted and dried variety in the winter.
There were no other houses between the school and the Myles home 'up the road.' It was a lonely stretch of road, especially after dark, and passed a marsh and some woods along the way, not an ideal situation for young children getting to and from school in winter. It is thought that James might have had to help them get through the snow in order to attend school. With two children in school and another at home, he knew the best solution would be to relocate the house.
So the house was taken down and the horse was used to transport the materials to a new site, a smaller piece of land close to the school and church. As Molly remembers: "The house was rebuilt when Florence was one year old so I was six and just starting school in September. I stayed with my Aunt Lily and that is where I started school. It took dad the best part of the summer and fall to rebuild the house. He rebuilt it much the same as it was before but it was never the same. That would be in 1946."
James owned a pure white Newfoundland pony, named Jack who was kept in a barn located in the garden. When they lived up the road they had a very large garden. Jack was hired out to help bring in gravel when the highway to Terrenceville was under construction. Moving the materials for relocation of the family home was Jack's last job, after which he was sold.
James and his brother-in-law, James Thornhill had a cabin in the country at Grandy's Pond. It was approximately a five-mile walk from Little Bay East, over hills and rough country which took about an hour and fifteen minutes to complete. They snared rabbits and hunted moose from there and were sometimes gone for days. The meat they got had to be carried home on their backs - not an easy task.
James Myles died in 1975 at the age of 64 on the church ground beside the church he helped build. His wife Sylvia died in 1999 of a heart attack in the Burin Peninsula Health Care Centre at the age of 79 years.
James Miles was the kind of person who didn't believe in giving up when faced with a difficult problem. He obviously believed in making the best with whatever life handed you. In my opinion, he was the kind of man that legends are often woven around.
[Many thanks to Molly (Miles) Harris for giving me permission to publish this story.]
© Fay Herridge
Published in Canadian Stories, Aug/Sep 2021
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