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A Refreshing Knapp – Newfoundland revisited

By Ray Knapp

Wheeling overhead, seagulls shrieked angrily, trying to rouse the sleeping Puffins to fetch their breakfast. The cold, restless waves of the north Atlantic beat against the base of the stark, craggy bluffs of Gull Island, just off the coast of Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland.

The small island is separated from the Cape by a narrow, precipitous channel. These bluffs make safe roosting and nesting places for up to an estimated 260 thousand pairs of Atlantic puffins during summer. My son, Mark, and daughter, Kim, outfitted in coats to ward off the cold, were snapping pictures and shooting scenes early this month.

The tour guide lustily sang the Newfoundland “Bow Wow” song in an effort to keep the 50 or so tourist interested in the scenery as he interspersed the song with bits of history about the cape where John Cabot first discovered Newfoundland in 1497. This kept most of the tourist from noticing the few at the rail who were having trouble keeping breakfast down as the tour boat jostled through the rough water.

For amateur photographers I thought they did a good job. The still pictures and film showed thousands of puffins. Not kin, just standing 10 inches high, but looking remarkably like miniature penguins; they don’t waddle to the sea and hop in. Instead, they fly from their perch. Spotting a school of herring or capelin, they dive head first at an amazing speed and return to their brood with a mouth full of tiny fish. Some fall from their beak and the ever-present gulls pounce, squabbling to be first to the dropped fish.

In 1959, I received orders out of Ice Observer School in D.C., to report to the Navy Base in Argentia, Newfoundland. Prior to leaving the states, all sailors received a briefing on what to expect at their overseas duty station. One of the things we laughed at – sailors married more Newfoundland girls, than girls from any other overseas station. Guess what? I not only married, but two of my children were born there. In 1963, I was transferred early to NAS Memphis, Tennessee, or my third child, Kim, would also have been born there. Back in the states, someone informed us about birth control and it was five years before our fourth child arrived.

Determined to be the best navy weather forecaster possible, I asked, and received orders out of Memphis to the Navy’s forecasting school in 1965. From that school in Lakehurst, New Jersey, I received orders straight to a ship out of Norfolk.

I hadn’t been on that ship a year until I was transferred to yet another ship, the USS America, CVA 66. It was due for deployment the day before my youngest daughter, Cindy, was born. Luckily, I wrangled emergency leave to care for my wife, who was having a caesarean delivery, and of course to care of my other three children.

When leave was up, I flew into Naples and caught up with the Carrier. Nine months seems like an eternity sailing around the Mediterranean. This cruise was even longer, thanks to the six-day war between Israel and the United Arab Republic (Egypt.) It turned into an 11-month cruise.

My baby daughter was just short of a year old when we pulled back into Norfolk. I was expecting some cushy stateside duty when I got a call from the personnel office. A personnel chief tossed me my new orders. I was a little crestfallen when I read, Report to Naval Weather Center, Argentia, Newfoundland, for duty.

Those orders are why Mark and Kim were there this summer. By the time we left Argentia for my duty station in Atlanta, they were old enough to visit cousins, aunts, and uncles in Grand Bank and Grand Beach.

However, 50 years just melted away, so Mark said, and they were welcomed back as if they had never left the island.

Pictures of the once busy and important navy base showed a deserted aircraft runway, buildings falling in, excepting the control tower where I worked, and once showed Bob Hope the Latrine’s location.

“Thanks kids, for the memories.”