(With apologies to Kipling’s “Ballad of Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House”)
As I sat upon the doorstep
Of Bunkhouse Number Two
Big Jim, the One lounged down ‘longside
And cut him off a chew.
This is the story he told me,
As I tell it to you.
“Twas tougher then than now, me boy,”
Along this old canal;
But the Spirit of the Big Ditch
Held young and old in thrall.
The men often whined, “We Cannot,”
But the Spirit said, “Ye Shall.”
When they huddled in the shanties
After a twelve hour day
On the reeking piles of gumbo
(That cursed sticky clay).
They were nigh onto exhaustion,
Dyin’ to hit the hay.
But they’d sit around like we are,
And smoke a pipe or two,
And swap the most amazing yarns
Or curse the heavens blue.
They was a mongrel, jumbled lot
That Old Canal Crew.
There was Charlie Loo, the Chinee cook,
“The Senor” from Tampico,
The Greek which we called Louie,
Tall Hans from old Saro,
A guy from far-off Hebrides,
“Slow Sam” from Idaho.
There was Jake Tike, the scar-faced Red,
And his ugly leering sneer,
He was always stirring trouble
When the big Boss wasn’t near.
And there was Mike, the Irish lad,
With eyes still bright and clear.
Michael was fresh from County Clare,
New to the life of the camps,
New to the hard-boiled ways of men,
New to the wiles of scamps.
He gave credit to everyone—
Even that gang o’ tramps.
“Before I left me home in Clare
My mother said to me,
‘Michael, my son, I give ye this
To take across the sea.
And never be without it, lad.
And no harm’ll come to ye.’ ”
He bared his chest, and on it lay,
A lookin’ snug and warm,
Glinting dull in the lantern’s light
The Great Saint’s golden charm.
The little, rounded medallion,
That keeps a man from harm.
“That stuff’s the bunk,” cracked Jake the Red,
“Why when you’re in a pinch
There ain’t no medal c’n save y’.
When a piece flies off the winch.
Or a trainload of old gumbo
Takes a slide—that’s a cinch.”
Jake the Red and Mike were toiling
Beside the Big Ditch wall,
O’er them, thirty feet or more.
The engine’s smoky pall
Streaks the sky and big cranes clank
To the siren’s sharp call
As Mike bent down to sink his spade,
Across his sweat-stained face
Flapped the medal, hanging loose,
On its frayed shoe lace.
He straightened, tucked it in,
And then stept back a pace.
To the shadow of the Ditch wall,
Out of the sun’s hot glare.
A crash—a roar—shouts from above—
And Jake Tike wasn’t there.
In his stead ten tons o’ gumbo—
The lad could only stare.
They dug out poor Jake beaten flat.
“Died instantly,” they said.
Mike kissed his charm as he prayed
That night beside his bed;
But most of all were blessings on
A white old Irish head.
The story stopt; the moon burst free
From cloudwaves threatening storm
Big Jim’s chest threw back its ray
From off a golden charm—
The little, rounded medallion
That keeps a man from harm.
In camp on the New Welland Canal, May 20, 1925
Source: Courtesy Dennis Gannon
Originally published in The St. Catharines Standard p6 – Wed. May 27, 1925
[note: this Ballad was published three days before an accident claimed the life of Stefano Constontino. He was buried alive under a ton of earth and rock that fell into the lock pit when the side of a lock wall caved in. The ballad was eerily reminiscent of the actual incident that occurred shortly after publication of Canal Camp Ballads No. 1]