by Peter Rehak and Leonard Mitchell
eBook release: March 2011
AN UNUSUAL DEAL
I’ll tell you the story just the way it happened.It all began with a phone call about fish. It was an unusually hot day in May 1983, and I was unloading a heap of marine scrap at the yard when my wife phoned from home in Lockeport.”Leonard, there are two fellows from Quebec here to see you, and they want to buy some fish. They say they want a lot of them and they’re in a hurry. Can you meet them somewhere?”"Sure. Tell them to wait at the Lockeport turnoff from the highway.”I jumped into the cab of my trusty old half-ton and drove off to meet the surprise visitors from Quebec.For some years I’d been the proud owner of Shelburne Scrap and Metal in the town of Shelburne on Nova Scotia’s South Shore. And to someone “from away” − as we call anyone from outside the string of towns and villages along the coast from Halifax down to Yarmouth that makes up the South Shore − it might have seemed strange to go to a scrap metal dealer for fish. But while the South Shore is one of the prettiest parts of North America, the economy has its ups and downs. So I’ve found it wise to have more than one iron in the fire. Besides the scrapyard I had a marine supply store and a bottle exchange going. And because I had spent five years as a fisherman, I couldn’t give up my link with the sea. I kept my hand in as a fish broker, too. So the strangers who had driven to see Elaine at our house in Lockeport, twelve miles north of Shelburne, had come to the right place to buy fish. I was always ready to make a deal.For more than a dozen years Elaine and I had built our lives on the South Shore and now had a home in Lockeport right on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. She worked with me in the scrapyard and in the fish business along with her twin brother, Jim Dooks, who was also my partner. Our daughters, Sharon, fifteen, and Jewell, thirteen, had spent almost all their lives in Lockeport. Lockeport was home. We were happy and successful there, and we never thought we would have to leave. And I certainly didn’t think that the meeting to which I headed up Highway 103 could set off a chain of events that would lead to our family being forced to leave town for a life spent on the run.As I drove toward the Lockeport turnoff, I thought about how we had succeeded on the South Shore despite the fact that we were considered “from away” because our families hadn’t lived there for generations. That both of us were born and raised in Oyster Pond Jeddore, a small community just east of Halifax, cut no ice in Lockeport.
It takes a long time to be accepted in a place like Lockeport, an island now joined by road to the mainland where people still talk about living “on town” and travelling “off town.” After more than ten years we were still regarded as outsiders even though I had a thriving business and a new house and our whole family was involved in the local Pentecostal Church. Elaine taught Sunday school for years and years, and as active Christians we all took part in a great many church activities. I wasn’t always religious. I’ve had my bouts with alcohol − I once had “a problem with my elbow,” as they say here − and high living. But I chucked all that years ago, thanks to Elaine’s good influence. I’m a better man for it, and I don’t plan to change my ways now or in the future. I find that my beliefs give me some principles to live by, which helps when things get rough.
* * * * *
Lockeport’s original settlers, Dr Jonathan Locke and Josiah Churchill, both from Massachusetts, were attracted to the site by the nearness of the world’s richest fishing grounds. That was around 1760, and fishing has been the lifeblood of Lockeport ever since. Most people in town are either fishermen themselves or they work in one of the local fish-processing plants. Trawlers of all sizes chug their way across the harbour, taking their catch to one of the plants or to a broker at the wharf, under the eye of the huge old Locke mansion with its commanding view of the harbour. The Locke house has been left virtually intact since the 1800s, when Lockeport flourished thanks to the fishery and West Indian trade, which like the rest of Nova Scotia’s trade in those days was conducted by “wooden ships and iron men.”
Today, Lockeport’s wealth is restricted to a handful of the population of roughly nine hundred, and the town’s only visible connection with money is Crescent Beach, a mile-long stretch of unbroken white sand that until recently was depicted on the back of Canada’s fifty-dollar bill. The beach is Lockeport’s main landmark and reflects the wide range of coastal weather. On a warm summer day it can look like a beach in the Caribbean. But when an Atlantic storm moves in with a wind so sharp it would cut the whiskers right off your face, the waves breaking over the rocks make it an awe-inspiring sight.
In recent years the town has seen hard times. A fire that burned down its centre in 1975 has left it scarred to this day, so that only a few mixed-goods stores, a big drug store, and a federal building make up its “downtown.” Elaine and I were relative newcomers when the fire hit, and I still remember the red glow and the desperate efforts of the fire brigade to prevent its spread. At other times both of the big fish plants − the giant Halifax-based National Sea and the Lockeport-based Pierce Fisheries − were also razed by fire, although they have now been rebuilt. But this is still an area where money is scarce, and anyone with money to spend is soon noticed.
* * * * *
Elaine and I came to Lockeport in the early seventies, when a new industry started − offshore lobster fishing. Lobster had been caught only inshore, close to the land, before someone had the smart idea of going out to sea to get them. Back then I had a part-time job at Lockeport’s lighthouse at Gull Rock, and like any red-blooded, blue-nosed Nova Scotia boy I jumped at the chance to go to sea. I moved Elaine and the little girls down from Jeddore to our new life at Lockeport.
For five years I was a full-time fisherman, but I knew that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life going to sea. The commercial fishing season is in the winter months − for lobster it’s November to May − and of course that’s just when the North Atlantic is at its fiercest. Six of us used to stay out for a week, or even two, bouncing and tossing on a little trawler, its superstructure encrusted in ice that we had to chip off hour after hour to keep the top-heavy boat from turning turtle. In conditions like that it takes all the crew’s strength just to haul in the catch and keep the gear in working order, and no one got much sleep. Not only is the work very hard, it’s also dangerous. Just about every season a trawler doesn’t make it back. In 1961 Lockeport was hit especially hard when three trawlers were lost in a late winter storm. Seventeen men died, leaving more than fifty children orphaned.
It’s no wonder that Elaine and I often discussed various alternative business ventures we could get into. Through the years she has been a valuable partner in all my enterprises. She has shared in the work − at the scrapyard she kept the books, minded our money, and handled the phone − but she has also provided sober second thoughts. I don’t think I would have been nearly as successful without her. I don’t have much of a head for details, and I’m sometimes too impatient, some might even say reckless. But I must confess that in my first venture into the scrap business I ignored her advice. During my occasional shopping trips to Shelburne and Halifax, I had noticed that there were quite a few scrap dealers around, and they appeared to be making a fair living selling scrap metal, batteries, copper, and so on, and these were things that were lying around everywhere. It seemed to me that wherever you went, you tripped over scarp metal that nobody was heeding. I smelled a business opportunity, and one February day I told Elaine that I was going to buy up some of this junk and resell it at a profit. We had about a thousand dollars in the bank, and I was planning to use it.
She told me to leave the money in the bank but after some thought I secretly decided to withdraw the money anyway. I took my old half-ton truck, bought up every piece of scrap that would fit onto it, and drove to Halifax. Prices for scrap were sky-high, and I made three thousand dollars profit on the first load.
“Maybe you’ve got something there.” Elaine conceded once I got up my nerve to confess what I had done and she saw how successful I had been. After that she encouraged me to take more loads to Halifax, and before long, we had enough money to buy a one-ton truck.
That was the start of Shelburne Scrap and Metal, the company I founded and ran until Jim Dooks joined me when he left the army. But the sea was in my blood and I couldn’t leave fishing altogether. Occasionally I went out on a boat, and later became a broker, selling other people’s catches up and down the South Shore.
I was pretty well known in the area as a man who could hustle up a load of fish in a hurry or dispose of one with equal speed. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when Elaine called that day to tell me that two men from Quebec were looking for a load of fish. I didn’t know then that the deal was destined to change my life.
* * * * *
I swung right at the Lockeport turnoff. Just off the highway in the shade of some trees was a bluish-grey Cadillac with Quebec licence plates. Two distinguished-looking middle-aged men were leaning against the car. They were wearing business suits, which made them stand out in a place like Lockeport, where work clothes were the order of the day. We shook hands, and in fluent but accented English they introduced themselves as André and Marcel Gélinas. They told me they were brothers and that they owned a restaurant in Montreal.
“We need a supply of fish,” André said. “All kinds of fish − scallops, lobsters, cod, halibut. And we’re looking for someone who can supply us steadily.”
It was a tempting proposition, but I didn’t see how I could do it. My fish deals were all local; I just used my old half-ton truck to buy from the local fishermen and take their catch to the fish plants along the South Shore. Montreal, by contrast, was nearly eight hundred miles away, and I would need a truck with a freezer unit to take a big load of fish there.
“I’m sorry, I can’t help you,” I told them. “I don’t have a freezer truck, and I can’t afford to buy one right now.”
They seemed disappointed, but they didn’t press me. We shot the breeze for a bit, then shook hands, got into our vehicles, and drove off in different directions. And I expected to hear no more about the Montreal fish deal.
* * * * *
But about a week later, the phone rang again and André at the other end said, “We’ve been thinking about it. We really need the fish badly. We’re prepared to buy the truck − with a refrigerator unit and all.”
All I had to do, they said, was pick up the truck, buy the fish, and bring the load to their restaurant. If things went well, I could buy the truck from them with the profit that I would make. I was startled. It was a very attractive deal, and I knew I’d be crazy as Luke’s dog to turn it down. So I thought about it only briefly and then said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
Right away I started to make phone calls to see who had some fish available. It didn’t look too hard from my end. I knew every place on the South Shore where you could buy fish at a good price. After all, I bought and sold fish every day. Marcel and André’s proposition looked like a good opportunity to expand my business, because I didn’t have to worry about selling the fish in Montreal. Marcel and André wanted them. All I had to do was deliver the shipment where they told me to, collect my money, and laugh all the way to the bank.
It sounded good. Looking back on it, it sounded just a bit too good. And, as I’ve since learned, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
A few days later I picked up the freezer truck in Dartmouth. They paid for it, and I brought it home. Working fast, I put together a load of fish worth about thirty thousand dollars which I paid for myself, borrowing the money from the bank. I didn’t have any trouble getting a loan, because my bank manager, Bill Sharpe, was used to my crazy business ventures by now. Just the same, thirty thousand dollars was a lot of money to me. More than I could afford to lose.
It was unusually hot − even on the South Shore − when I set out for Montreal in the last week of May. Just before I climbed into the new truck, I called André and told him I was on my way with the load of fish as we had agreed. He said, “That’s fine.” He sounded happy.
The heat wave stayed with me throughout the trip. It was a long haul up to Halifax, and then the long haul along the Trans-Canada Highway across Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and into Quebec. I had made the trip to Montreal a few times before, but always in a car or small truck. The refrigerated truck was big and bulky and slow, and the hours crawled by. As I drove past Quebec City, André met me in the Cadillac. He said I should follow him to Montreal, to the restaurant. So I drove behind him all the way. All in all, it took me nearly twenty-four hours on the road to get to the outskirts of Montreal.
At last André pulled up to a restaurant. It was a really nice-looking place, I think on Decarie Boulevard, and we drove around the back to the receiving area. The chef and an assistant came out and looked at the fish. They bought a few boxes. Not a lot. That was a surprise. Even worse, I was getting the impression that André didn’t own the restaurant. He just seemed to know these people. Then I noticed that he was phoning other places to try to sell the rest of the load. Suddenly it dawned on me that the fish had not been sold in advance. I got butterflies in my stomach. I had thirty thousand bucks invested in that load, and I could sense that there could be problems getting rid of it.
But André and Marcel just kept saying, “Don’t worry. Everything is all right.”
As you can imagine, I wasn’t very comforted by their assurances. And I had reason to be worried. One thing about the fish trade is that you have to move the goods or they’ll spoil − and very quickly. A rotting fish is about as easy to sell as typhoid. I was doubly worried because we were in Montreal. On my home turf in the Maritimes I can sell anything, and I could certainly have disposed of a load of fish quite easily. But here on the streets of Montreal I was for all practical purposes in a foreign country. For one thing, I couldn’t speak French, and it’s hard to sell stuff when you don’t know the language. I suppose there are some people who can do such things, but I’m not one of them.
Also, in Montreal it was really hot, hot enough to fry eggs on the sidewalk. I had to have the refrigeration unit on all the time, roaring away, but from the first day I was worried that the whole load would spoil before we could sell it.
It was obvious that we would have to be around a few days. At this point it turned out that Marcel and André lived in Quebec City − another nasty surprise − and we all checked into a hotel on Sherbrooke Street. For five or six days they were on the phone trying to sell the fish, setting up appointments for us to trail around to various restaurants. It got to be sort of a routine. Each day I’d say, “Where are we going next with the fish?” Then we’d drive around Montreal, and people they knew would buy fish in small quantities.
This went on for three or four days, and the fish were getting older every day. We must have called on a hundred restaurants, but although we were getting rid of some fish, the pace wasn’t fast enough to make me feel comfortable, and I was really worried. I called Elaine one night to confess.
“Listen,” I told her, “of all the things I’ve done this is really a good one. We could lose the house and everything, our life savings. This is turning into a nightmare.”
I was puzzled. I couldn’t figure out why the two brothers would go to so much trouble to get this shipment organized and then have so much difficulty in selling it. I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it, though. My first priority was to get rid of the fish and recover any investment.
That kept me too busy to make any detailed analysis.
The hotel was comfortable enough. I had a room to myself while André and Marcel shared a room down the hall. I noticed that they were surrounded by a lot of activity. People would come and go to their room, and sometimes I would see them visiting other rooms in the hotel. To me they would say: ” That guy is helping us sell the fish. He knows everybody. We’re putting it together.”
I wasn’t paying too much attention to the people going in and out. Although I met some of them, I didn’t retain their names. I’m bad about names under any circumstances, and I was really worried about my thirty thousand bucks worth of fish out there in the truck with the refrigeration unit blasting away night and day. In the end we dropped the price drastically and set off on a new sales round. It took us another five days but we finally sold the whole load. I lost about fifteen hundred dollars on the deal.
Needless to say, I told André and Marcel that I’d take no more fish to Montreal, and I headed east down the Trans-Canada for the coolness of home. But about a week later they phoned me, asking for more fish. I really didn’t understand it and told them straight out: “Look, I lost money on that first shipment, and there’s no way I’m going to go through all that again. The business isn’t going to work. You better come and get your truck.”
A few days later they showed up in the Cadillac. This time they had a driver with them, and he drove off in the refrigerator truck. I was sorry to see it go, because I had always wanted one, but I couldn’t see any way to make this business work.
It was certainly a strange episode. To this day I haven’t figured out why they went to all that trouble, coming all the way to Lockeport and making such a fuss about needing the fish, and then not having them sold ahead of time. They, too, had an investment in the venture − the truck − and to be fair they and their mysterious friends spent a great deal of time trying to make it all work out. It was all very strange. And they didn’t look like incompetent men.
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