Letter from Halifax
By Richard Cumyn
I remember hearing, long before I had even visited Nova Scotia, this fabled province of schooners and pirates, smuggled rum and buried treasure, that Peggy’s Cove, a half-hour’s drive south of Halifax, had been chosen the most picturesque place in Canada. More breath-taking geography can be found elsewhere in this country, in the high Arctic, the Rocky Mountains, Cape Breton, the Gaspé Peninsula, or Newfoundland. To try to describe it--a few brightly painted houses, some fishing boats beside a seaweed-covered dock, a tall white lighthouse anchored to a mooring of granite jutting into the entrance to St. Margaret’s Bay -- beggars the beauty of the place. Nor do color photographs do it justice, although a plethora of these bucolic stills, with their Crayola reds and blues and salt-bleached whites, adorn calendars and coffee table books a mare usque ad mare. No, you have to walk up the hill into the village, past the carved granite memorial to those lost at sea, and then down beyond the lighthouse and onto the smooth rock--not too close, for every year someone is swept into the icy swell by a rogue wave--to be fully romanced by Peggy’s Cove.
The sign says that only sixty people live in the village now. Not many earn their livelihood fishing anymore. The restaurant, which boasts the best clam chowder in the region, serves a steady influx of tour bus travellers year round and, along with a craft shop or two, is the main employer. The residents grumble quietly about shutter-bugs tramping through their flower beds in search of the ideal camera angle, but they don’t complain about the intrusion as much as they used to, back when the spot first became a destination. The place has become somewhat of an artificial construct in the last twenty years, not quite a theme park, but not quite a real fishing village either. Without paying visitors it would surely cease to be populated.
For the first three weeks of September 1998 Peggy’s Cove became something it hasn’t been in a long time. The waters in the area are notoriously dangerous to ships, and there are wrecks spanning centuries strewn across the floor of the continental shelf. Over the years many people have made unintended landfall there, to be ministered to by doctors, priests or undertakers as the case demanded. The sea in its bounty and its rage has left its indelible mark, on the rock and in the faces of those whose people are buried in the thin soil. These are no strangers to calamity. A stretch of good weather, like a run of good luck, is usually tempered by the remark, "Ah, yes, but we’ll pay for it soon enough." They know well the late-night vigil for a missing boat or a ship in distress.
For all this, their knowledge of pain, their long history of loss, nothing could have prepared the residents of St. Margaret’s Bay for their recent role as salvage workers. And nothing suited Peggy’s Cove less than did its transformation into an impromptu command center for the various armies converging there: police, armed forces personnel from Canada and the United States, journalists, politicians, doctors, forensic pathologists. When Swiss Air flight 111, en route from New York to Geneva, went down in waters 10 kilometers off the Cove in the late hours of September 2nd, all 229 passengers and crew perished. In the first hours after the crash, so loud it shook houses and woke residents up and down the coastline, local news coverage used the term "rescue effort." But as the light came up the next day, giving the motley fleet of small vessels a clear look at the debris field, and as the magnitude of the crash became clear, they stopped talking about finding anyone alive. The plane hit so hard that only the landing gear remained recognizable. The RCMP kept anyone not involved in the search away from the coastline as the gruesome task of retrieving evidence and determining the cause of the crash continued. Peacekeepers returned from Bosnia, seasoned police veterans of highway accidents, and doctors whose job it is to reassemble mangled bodies were shocked speechless by what came ashore bit by bit.
Much of the plane has not yet been retrieved even as I write. The heartrending task of identifying body parts, mainly through DNA matching, continues. Both of the so-called black boxes, the flight data and voice recorders, may have stopped working before the plane’s crew knew anything was wrong with the electrical system, before the cockpit began to fill with smoke and then caught on fire. The theory that faulty wiring insulation caused a complete electrical failure has yet to be proven conclusively. An eye witness said he saw the plane’s cockpit on fire as it passed overhead. Retrieved pieces of melted metal from the cockpit suggest that intense heat and smoke concentrated there were such that the flight team could not have been sitting at the controls for the last few minutes of the flight, that they either succumbed at their places or fled aft. After jettisoning fuel before turning towards Halifax International Airport to attempt an emergency landing, the plane suddenly dropped, hitting the water nose-first and disintegrating on impact.
Swiss Air paid to fly the victims’ relatives to Halifax so that they could see the place where the airplane went down. They were put up at hotels in the city and driven out to Peggy’s Cove. All along the route were makeshift signs expressing condolence. One was a simple Swiss cross, white on red, and the number 111 written below it. Even as the salvage operation continued, news coverage showed small groups of people, dressed in dark suits, standing, holding onto each other for assurance and stability on the bare outcrop, and gazing far out over the waters. We knew them the instant we saw them coming out of the Lord Nelson Hotel not far from where we live. Such a loss marks a person, sets her apart in a protective bubble of grief and detachment. They had a gravity, an air of nobility about them. One of the mourners said on television that she was happy – happy! -- that the last thing her father saw before he died was this magnificent meeting place of land and sea. The water was surprisingly blue and calm that day, the sky clear. Later, bad weather would hamper the efforts of the divers to raise parts of the fuselage. But to look out as they did that day, shading their eyes from the warm sun, upon a grave site so glittering and smooth and unmarked by what it contained, must have been for them a baffling experience. Better to have had driving rain and howling wind. Better for their comprehension, for their eventual acceptance of the incomprehensible, to have faced down inhospitable Nature, to have spit all their anger into the teeth of a gale.
The families attended church services in Peggy’s Cove and Halifax. The names of all 229 were read aloud. Some family members rose to speak about those who were now so suddenly and inexplicably absent from their lives. As one woman waited at the front of a church for her turn to speak, she tried to hold back her tears, and began to search in her purse for a handkerchief. Those who had congregated, as much to address their own grief as to show support for the grieving, waited, held their collective breath, watched her dissolving by increments in front of them, were impotent in their silent concern, until a little girl came forward with a tissue, and she handed it to the woman, and all walls came down.
In 1912, many of the unclaimed bodies from the Titanic were brought to Halifax for burial. After the release of the James Cameron film last year, someone discovered that a Titanic seaman, one J. Dawson was buried here, inspiring pilgrimages to the grave site from around the world. The fact that Leonardo Di Caprio’s character in the film, Jack Dawson, was a fictional steerage passenger, made no difference to the pilgrims, many of whom were teenage girls. The unexpected influx of tourist dollars so inspired the mayor and city council that they began talking about ways to fully exploit the Titanic craze. Restaurants began featuring the menu from the Titanic’s last night. An entire store on Barrington Street is devoted to the wreck. The Marine Museum expanded its already considerable Titanic display. Signs appeared directing tour buses to the Titanic grave yard. Only our thirst for recently discovered Sable Island natural gas seems to match the desire to cash in on this connection to history and Hollywood.
In 1917, when a ship loaded with munitions collided with another in the harbor, Halifax was devastated by the largest man-made explosion ever experienced, one which would not be surpassed in magnitude until the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima in 1945. One of those giving a eulogy to the Swiss Air dead reminded his listeners of this point to say that Nova Scotians can offer, if not the comfort of a miracle, then at least empathy. We -- or rather people two and three generations removed from us -- have endured many such tragedies on these shores. We know about loss. We will never be hardened or insensitive to grief. Nor is ours a morbid fatalism. Just as Peggy’s Cove will never again be just a picturesque fishing village, Swiss Air Flight 111 will never become just another plane crash. Any pilgrimages to this watery grave will be quiet, anguished, unprofitable ones. Who would willingly profit from such sadness as this?
(Richard Cumyn [http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/~aa038/Profile.htm] is the author of two collections of fiction, I am not most places (Beach Holme, 1996) and The Limit of Delta Y Over Delta X, (Goose Lane, 1994). He has also published
fiction in Acta Victoriana, The Canadian Forum, The Dalhousie Review, The New Quarterly, NeWest, Pottersfield Portfolio, and Prairie Fire, and poetry in Zygote. His stories have been selected for Under NeWest Eyes (Thistledown Press, 1996), Taking Down the Tinsel (Rowan Books, 1996), Stag Line (Coteau Books, 1995), The Journey Prize Anthology VI (McClelland & Stewart, 1994), and The Grand-Slam Book of Canadian Baseball Writing (Pottersfield Press, 1993). He is a contributing editor and past fiction editor of The Blue Moon Review. He lives in Halifax with his wife and two daughters.)