Memories of Life in Goose Bay, Labrador
My name is Ann Gibson and I timetable the U3APP Course program; am a member of the Committee of Management and facilitate Bridge Playing on Friday afternoons. I am enrolled in Choir & Cryptic Crosswords.
That is today, but I would like to take you back to 1959 and a place a very long way from Melbourne. The place is Goose Bay, Labrador, some 55 degrees north of the Equator and approximately 11 degrees south of the Arctic Circle.
At that time Goose Bay was a DEW (Distant Early Warning) line base for the American and Canadian air-forces. With fighter and re-fuelling aircraft landing and taking off at all hours of the day and night, accurate weather forecasting was vital. My husband had just finished his degree in Meteorology at the University of Toronto, and the prospect of a cheap, furnished house as well as a bonus for living in ‘isolation’, was a very attractive prospect.
In 1959 there was only one road in Goose Bay and that led to a native settlement, sadly mis-named (then at least) Happy Valley. Access was by air and, as a Canadian Department of Transport employee, the family were entitled to one free flight a year. Flying in was to realise just what an ‘isolation base’ meant. Endless miles of nothing but forbidding forest interspersed with stony outcrops and lakes of all sizes and shapes. Goose Bay itself was centred around the airfield and the facilities for the two air-forces. Civilians, such as my husband, baby son and myself, lived in our own area with houses for married couples and barracks for the single men and women. We had access to most of the air-force amenities – pool, ice hockey rink, officers’ club, cinema etc.
What we did not have access to was the American PBX, where almost anything could be bought very cheaply. We had a very basic Hudson Bay Store which sold some food and other items, and where fresh fruit and vegetables were obtainable twice a week – at a price. When the ice melted a supply ship would arrive in Spring and again in Autumn, before ice once again closed the North West River. Many hours were spent trying to work out what and how much frozen meat, tinned vegetables and other supplies would be needed for the six months or more of winter. The arrival of the Spring shipment was exciting as the order had been placed so many weeks beforehand. The first job was to stow lumps of poorly labelled frozen meat into the freezer. Later, it was always hard to work out what a package contained. It often meant eating the same meat cut for several weeks – especially before the next supply ship was due. One year we were able to buy sides of salmon caught by local fishermen. They were huge and stored in a large community freezer warehouse. Getting it out entailed donning full cold weather gear; braving the freezing temperature inside and feeling very frightened that somehow the door would lock and there you would be until you froze to death!
The two houses we lived in were fully furnished and the second one two storeys with a basement. This latter had the boiler to heat the house and was much prized as a drying room. Being country brought up I believed all washing should be hung outside and, to my surprise, when these frozen stiff, awkward shapes were brought in they only needed a short time airing to be perfectly dry.
The coldest day we experienced was minus 21C which was unusual as winter temperatures were usually about minus 12C with snow from October to April. Surprisingly, I was rarely cold as everything indoors was heated, and going out we donned layers of coats, scarves, gloves and overshoes. Getting one small boy ready to play outside in the winter took ages. Invariably it wasn’t long before he needed to come inside for the toilet or food and the process had to be reversed. Summer was much easier as our area became a giant sand pit, but as temperatures rose so too did the black flies!
Clothes were ordered from the Eaton Department Store catalogue which always contained the possibility of the garment being much nicer than it looked on the page, or the reverse (much like shopping on-line today). Often clothes sent by kind family from Australia were too thick and warm except for outdoors. Communication was by letter with delivery time being a week to ten days. Because of the cost we had only one phone call home to Tasmania in our three years in Goose Bay. It was wonderful – if emotional – to speak to our combined families and I was amazed at my father’s Scottish burr; I had never noticed it before.
One cure for homesickness was that most of the civilian personnel were young, and babysitters plentiful from the older children of other families, so we were able to enjoy a very active social life around my husband’s shift work. Dances, parties, films, ice hockey in winter and baseball in summer, bike riding, playing bridge, afternoon teas and suppers, snowshoeing and so forth. The big night out was a visit to the American Officers Club where food and drink were cheap. There we also encountered our first One Armed Bandits – and they did have an ‘arm’ in those days. It was reputed that these machines paid the best odds in the USA – even if not for us. Summer holidays, when others left to see family and we took the opportunity to explore eastern Canada, were looked forward to with much anticipation and were a nice cooling off period for people living and working closely together.
After three years it was time to leave – with another son, money in the bank, many close friends and an experience only a few could share.
I look online today and am amazed. There are two ‘highways’ to Goose Bay; the American air-force has left and there are hotels advertising for tourists in both Goose Bay & Happy Valley!