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Dark Skies

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By Pat Mestern
March 19, 2004

Do you remember the September day in 1950 when it appeared that the sun never rose in the morning? The sky was black at mid-day and continued it’s eerie display until night fell. The date was Sunday, September 25, a Sunday unlike people had ever before experienced. The first ominous sign that something was amiss was an unexplainable dark blue-grey moon that rose in the sky on the evening of September 24. No stars were visible in an odd-looking milky-black sky. There was nothing bright and sunny about September 25. The sun didn’t appear to rise on eastern horizon. Night stretched into the day then folded back into night.

Atmospheric conditions affected radio signals so that many people who tunes into their trusty station, for information or an informed opinion, couldn’t get a clear answer. This caused a lot of consternation as a little statically-charged knowledge is worse than none at all. The explanation that was being broadcast mentioned smoke from huge forest fires in western Canada, blowing across the Great Lakes, which caused skies to darkened in Southern Ontario The idea that smoke from out-of control forest fires could affect weather thousands of miles away, didn’t make sense to some people who used a combination of folklore and intuition to “read” the weather.

Smoke couldn’t travel that far. There had to be something sinister and unworldly about black skies at noon. Even the Old Farmers Almanac let folks down with no mention of heavy weather or unnatural phenomenon. And people did consult the Almanac on that fateful day in 1950. The booklet was akin to the farmer’s bible. If it wasn’t in the Old Farmer’s Almanac, it wasn’t!

Although September 25 was a Sunday, few attended church, preferring to wait the odd situation out at home. For Catholics - and our family was in that category - not going to church was tantamount to signing up for a piece of real estate in hell. All morning, telephone lines buzzed with old wives tales, rumour and suspicion. We didn’t have a telephone so had to rely on grandmother shouting updates from her back door. Only a gravel drive separated our house from hers which made for a convenient bush-telegraph. Was it an attack by outer space aliens? Shades of Orsen Wells! Was it an atomic bomb dropped on Korea? Was it the end of the world? Ah yes - the “end of the world” theory. Some of a deep religious persuasion, in all faiths, were convinced that black skies at mid-day signaled the end of the world and the Second Coming.

An impromptu gathering, a meeting of the minds was held in our neighbourhood, in the middle of Prince’s Street that was then a dirt track which ended in an overgrown field. As no-one knew the cause for the darkness, and no-one knew how to rectify the situation, the consensus was to do nothing. As I recall, some of the menfolk adjourned to Mr. Micklejohn’s home to partake the “golden elixir of life” as the old gentleman used to call his favourite alcoholic beverage. Mother said that Mr. Micklejohn’s thinking was that if the world was coming to an end he wasn’t going to let a good bottle of whiskey go to waste - and he was going to enter heaven in a happy mood.

My family handled the situation in a number of interesting ways. When mother worried, she ironed. On September 25, she ironed through the morning, through lunch, all afternoon and well into the evening hours. She ironed things twice just for something to do. This was a peculiar thing for her to do because in 1950, Sunday was still considered a day of rest.

Dad was sure that the end of the world was at hand, couldn’t handle the stress of the situation, so went to bed to await his fate. He said afterward that he really didn’t believe the end of the world was nigh. He just needed the rest as he’d been doing hours of overtime at Beatty Bros. Ltd.

Grandmother, a very religious person, sat in her living room, rosary in one hand, a book - “The Salem Frigate” by John Jennings in the other. If it was the end of the world, she was ready for it, but she wanted to finish her book. The last time she’d had such a fright was on Wednesday evening, October 26, 1904 when she saw what appeared to be a new star in the eastern skies. She only noticed the star because it made a clicking sound as if it had teeth and was shivering from cold as it passed overhead. She was 19 years of age at the time, pregnant, frightened and ran inside to tell her husband, Charlie. He didn’t help the situation by saying - as a joke - that it was “God, coming to get her.”

On this dark day in 1950, we children played inside. As long as her young family was close-by, mother could handle any situation. I wasn’t frightened. If mother was ironing, the world must be OK. I do remember getting the giggles when the thought of six people in one bed meeting “Jesus at the pearly gates” crossed my mind. When I explained my giggling fit to mother, she started to giggle too and we both ended up with a bad case of hiccups.

Old Mrs. Anderson, who’d braved the outdoor display to look for old Mr. Anderson, was not impressed by our casual talk about “heaven”. Neither was she impressed that mother was ironing. She’d come to our house to cajoul father into going with her to Mr. Micklejohn’s to roust hubby out of his reverie. When Dad refused to get out of bed, mother untied her apron and went, muttering under her breath all the while about “some men” who hid in bed and “other men” who left their wives to fend for themselves.

Animals were affected by the unprecedented darkness. Chickens roosted. Birds, thinking it was night, didn’t fly, nor did they sing. Owls on the other hand stayed awake. One particularly big fellow sat on a lower branch in the maple tree outside our house, looking a little bit bewildered, until he spotted a mother cat shepherding her kittens to the safety of the porch. Then he swooped - and missed. Our dogs, possibly catching the faint odor of smoke in the air, couldn’t fathom the situation. They spent the day under dad’s bed. No amount of coaxing or food could persuade them to come out.

Of course, a day later, when the Toronto paper was full of news about forest fire smoke from western Canada blocking out the sun in Ontario, “I told you so” was on everyone’s lips. Nine months later, when a large number of babies were born, they were referred to by local doctors - as “babes of the big smoke”. One local doctor wrote in his day book “third baby I’ve delivered this week, conceived during the big smoke”.

Other areas of the world were affected by the smoke. The northeastern U.S.A. experienced a blue sun and moon on September 26, due newspapers wrote, to forest fires in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada. Northwestern Europe experienced the same phenomenon on September 26 and 27. European newspapers reported that smoke extended up into the atmosphere from 12,000 to 25,000 feet. They also reported that “pious people throughout Europe” thought the end of the world had arrived, and made preparations.

1949 was not the first time that this phenomenon occurred. Canniff Haight from Eastern Ontario, wrote that on October 14, 1780 and again in mid-July 1814, “A most remarkable phenomenon occurred, the like of which was never before witnessed in the country. At noonday a pitchy darkness completely obscured the light of the sun, continuing for about ten minutes at a time, and being frequently repeated during the afternoon. In the interval between each mysterious eclipse, dense masses of black clouds streaked with yellow drove athwart the darkened sky, with fitful gusts of wind. Thunder, lightning, black rain, and showers of ashes added to the terrors of the scene, and when the sun appeared its colour was a bright red. People were filled with fear and thought that the end of the world was at hand. These two periods are known as the Dark Days.” Many years afterwards when Haight heard that the darkness had been caused by gigantic forest fires in western Canada, he refused to believe smoke could travel so far.



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