The Life and Times of Michael Campbell

Posted on May 9, 2015 under Storytelling with 2 comments


Stickhandling through life



Most people greet spring with a mixture of hope and anticipation.  The layers of winter are gradually peeled back, revealing the first crocuses and snowdrops.   A hint of warmth in the sun brings smiles to people’s faces.  Fishermen can’t wait to drop their lines in a river or lake for the first time in the new season.  Small children make their way to their favorite playgrounds.  Birds sing and the peepers peep.

For Mike Campbell, spring is a necessary evil.  You see, Mike is an avid hockey player in the winter and he loves to mow grass … cemetery grass in particular … in the summer.  When there is no hockey and no grass to mow, Mike is restless.  He doesn’t like to be idle.

Mike plays hockey three times a week during the winter.  And once the dandelions poke their heads out, Mike can be seen with his trusty push mower, trimming the grass at the cemeteries for the parishes of St. Alphonsus and St. Joseph, a task he has been doing for thirty some years.  I asked him why he took up this volunteer work.  “I was told to.”  Enough said.

Oh.  Did I mention that Mike is just a few months shy of 90?

I’m sitting at his kitchen table (where else but in Cape Breton!) alongside his wife and best friend, Marilyn.  It takes all of two minutes before we make an Antigonish connection … the MacKinnon clan.  We’re off and running and two hours later I’m on my way back to the Mainland with a frozen apple pie and a bag of cinnamon rolls.  Marilyn assures me that they will be thawed by the time I get home.  I assure her that they may not make it across the Causeway intact; frozen or not.

Mike remembers the “Grand Banks Earthquake” of 1929 as if it were yesterday.  It appears that Mike can recall just about everything in his long, healthy, active life.  I am surprised that he couldn’t tell me the exact time of day the quake hit.  (It was 5:02 P.M.  Newfoundland time).  He was a child of four at home with his mother.   The plaster walls of the house remained cracked for many years afterwards.

He knows a lot about the dynamics of large families.  He came from a family of 16 and he and his first wife had 11 children of their own.  He and Marilyn became a team several years after their first spouses passed away.

A number of his brothers fought in WW11.  One operated a Spitfire and escaped a serious strafing only to die many years later while jogging.  Another brother was an officer on the minesweeper HMCS Bayfield.  He died years later while skating close to home.  Mike wasn`t making light of these tragedies; but rather, the quirkiness of life.

He grew up on a farm in Low Point.  He and his siblings discovered the meaning of hard work and self-sufficiency at a very early age.  It wasn`t always easy; it was just the way it was.  He said that if he ever met a cow on Charlotte Street, he wouldn`t speak to it, so fed up was he with chores by the time he left home.

He spoke glowingly about his father who was quite the wordsmith.  “When Dad spoke, every word counted.”  Most of us could take a lesson on that front.

Besides his legendary physical fitness regime, Mike is an avid reader and possesses a keen wit.  Several times during the conversation he hit me with one-liners that would make Leno or Letterman proud.  We talked history, politics, religion and sports.  I was a bit leery going down the history path.  I had considered tucking a claymore under my coat on my way to Mike’s house, for fear of the ghosts of Glencoe interrupting our conversation.  The Campbells and MacDonalds didn’t always get along nearly as well as we did on this beautiful Cape Breton morning.

Much of the conversation was about sports.  Mike still plays between 75-80 games of hockey a year.  I downplayed the fact that I am a life-long Habs fan when I heard of his passion for the Leafs.  He seems fit enough that the Leafs might want to call him up.  Mike hopes to once again see Toronto hoist the cup.  I remarked that his longevity might be sorely tested.  He chuckled and told me, “It’s pretty bad when even the mascot wants to get traded.”

Mike spent many years underground.  We talked about coal at some length.  His father was in New Waterford on June 11, 1925, when William Davis was shot and killed during a mining strike.  He still watches the boats bring imported coal to the Lingan power station.  He doesn’t think that coal will be king anytime soon since much of the rail infrastructure has been torn up.

Among Mike’s other passions is baseball, a game he played until he was nearly 70.  And he has an amazing collection of scrapbooks.  He meticulously records everything, including obituaries.  I am hoping that I don’t make it into that particular album any time soon.

He never smoked or drank but he has his vices like the rest of us.  He can’t resist Marilyn’s baking.

Diet, physical activity, mental exercise and a healthy dose of humour have served Mike very well during his time on this planet.  He plans to stay vigorous and engaged for as long as he is able.

The apostle, Paul, notes that those who waste their time in idleness or in a non-productive manner are easily led into sin.  I saw no signs of the devil lurking near Daley Road.  I asked him about this and he said, “All you do when you’re sitting around with nothing to do is find fault.  You don’t even like the way the crows fly.”

“Lang may yer lum reek, Mike.  And keep your head up crossing the blue line.  There’s only one thing tougher than a Campbell and that’s a MacDonald with a long memory.

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