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Scars emerge in letters from survivors of Halifax Explosion

Mary Balkam and her husband Eric sift through letters from Halifax Explosion survivors and their families that had been collected by Balkam’s aunt, Jean Davis, at the Nova Scotia Archives in Halifax on Tuesday. (TIM KROCHAK • THE CHRONICLE HERALD)
Mary Balkam and her husband Eric sift through letters from Halifax Explosion survivors and their families that had been collected by Balkam’s aunt, Jean Davis, at the Nova Scotia Archives in Halifax on Tuesday. (TIM KROCHAK • THE CHRONICLE HERALD)

Jean Davis (nee MacIntyre) has been gone a long time. But we have her to thank for a cardboard storage box that can be found on the third floor of the Nova Scotia Archives.

It’s rectangular, green, a little bigger than a laptop screen, and opens at the top.

Inside, along with the yellowed clippings — many of them from the predecessors

to this newspaper — and the envelopes and photographs are letters, mostly handwritten, through which the plaintive voices of the Halifax Explosion echo through time.

Ironically, Davis, a landlord’s daughter, was living out on the West Coast, about as far as a person could get on this continent from the house she grew up in on Halifax’s Windsor Street, when she got the idea of reaching out to those folks, like her, who had survived the great Explosion.

“I think she was getting older and that she realized that she had experienced somethingspecial,” says her niece,

Mary Balkam, a Haligonian.

The idea of a reunion of Explosion survivors was likely doomed from the start, given that the youngest one was 73 in 1990 when Davis threw out the idea in a newspaper letter to the editor.

But in their correspondence, you can feel them warming to the project, even though some of the 

folks who replied were in their 90s at the time.

Soon, looking at letters written on paper with a human hand will be equivalent to unfurling a roll of papyrus.

Even now, when doubling the number of characters in a tweet seems to challenge the bounds of human patience and focus, handwritten letters seem like the quaintest of notions.

Which is why it is so thrilling to look upon cursive handwriting acquired when penmanship was still something that was taught, by rote, in Halifax schools.

I feel that, on some level, you can glimpse a person’s humanity in the way they dot their i’s and cross their t’s, in the boldness with which they make their letters, in the way their lines slope, as if blown by some great wind, left to right across the page.

But it is the words themselves, describing those terrible events, that resonate. The way people went “stone blind,” were left with “a long scar on my left cheek,” “a scar on my eyebrow and neck from flying glass” or “a right eye . . . hanging by the side of his face by a vein of his eye.”

In those pages a reader learns how a sister in Grade 1 at Richmond school “was sitting by a window eating her breakfast and was severely cut around her eyes,” or how she was sprinkled with glass during the Explosion and how, for the rest of her long life, “glass was still coming out of her face and neck.”

Margaret L. Wadge wrote that having her roof blown off and the window blown in as she sat having breakfast on Dec. 6, 1917, caused her no long-term trauma.

But more than 70 years later, living in far-off St. Catherine’s, Ont., she could still remember“being in the soldier’s mess and stitched up without anesthetic . . . (and) can still see the soldiers and nurses holding me

down and telling me to be still.”

Yet she was one of the lucky ones. Jean MacPherson, living on Grimes Avenue in Dartmouth in 1989, wrote that Dec. 6, 1917, was “a very sad day for my grandmother, as my grandfather died along with four other firemen fighting the blaze on the waterfront.”

Edith Murphy Hartnett of Windsor Street recalled being on foot with her mother at the bottom of Needham Street, where they saw a woman standing. “Her face was covered in blood and she had long hair and blood over her face and my mother parted her hair and said, “Oh my God, it is Meriam.’ It was her sister, my Aunt Meriam.”

Helen (Cooke) Bates’s father was inspecting a ship in the harbour when the blast hit. She and her siblings didn’t see him for two days. “He was found wandering on the Commons with a broken arm and his face so blackened no one knew him.”

Mrs. M. Hassen, Armstrong, B.C., was just two that day. Her mother had “just waved goodbye to sister Eve and turned back into the house and then she DROPPED DEAD (in front of us). She wasn’t injured but still she died.”

Thelma Dasburg wrote in 1990 that her father was Horatio Harris Brannen, captain of the Stella Maris, a gunboat converted into a tug that was trying to secure a line to the burning Mont-Blanc when the blast occurred. “Father being on the bridge, glass-enclosed, caught the full blast of the explosion and was decapitated,” she wrote from Brick Township, N.J., where she then lived.

The death tolls were listed with a stoic dispassion. “All in all lost two uncles, two aunts, three cousins and sister and aunt were blinded,” wrote one woman, while another noted, “Lost a mother, a home, everything.”

Not all of the scars borne by the survivors were physical. Writing for her husband, Mrs. Flossie Ritchie of Windsor said he wasn’t sure if

he had any brothers or sisters at the time of the Explosion, because “far as he knows his family was all killed in the explosion.”

Writing from London, Ont., Everett Marryatt, who was 10 and living on Almon Street on the day of the blast, said he never got over the feeling of insecurity that came from the Explosion. “Years later when I was married and raising a family, it became an obsession with me to make sure that my children felt secure,” he told Davis.

In 1962, he and his wife made a trip back to Halifax. “But we cut our trip back short, because I became very depressed, as everywhere I went brought back memories that haunted me.”

Marryatt informed Davis that his wife died in 1979, a great loss for him. But he wrote on March 19, 1989, that he had much to be thankful for — a son and three daughters, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren he felt were independent because he had managed to give them a sense of security.

“Not by any great wisdom on my part, but by my own insecurity created in 1917 by the Halifax Explosion.”

 

John DeMont- columnist for The Chronicle Herald

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