He thought of returning to the U.S., but decided against it – it would be more than 20 years before he saw his father again. He secured another berth, this time as a sealer, took the train to St. John’s and went to Crosbie’s – the new outport schoolteacher had gone to school with Ches Crosbie and given Russell a letter of introduction. When Crosbie read it he smiled and said, “ ‘Here, young man. Go get your crop.’ It meant that you got $10 worth of anything you wanted in the store – tobacco enough to last the voyage, a knife, sheath and steel, and if you had enough, perhaps a pair of gloves.”
With his berth and his crop he boarded the Ungava, under Captain Peter Carter. The ship had brought in a record number of pelts the year before – 42,000 – but this spring was unlucky and the men’s share was only $12, of which $10 covered their crop and $2 their train ticket home. But the visits to St. John’s had their reward. He’d had his first date – an evening’s shopping at Bowring’s Clothing Store – with his future wife, Gwen.
He rejoined the crew of the Thishy, but soon decided he’d had enough of fishing off Labrador. He married Gwen at St. Mary’s Church on the Southside, and found work as a carpenter on Bell Island. He later joked that he’d had lofty aspirations of building lighthouses, but was instead set to constructing outhouses. With the outbreak of the Second World War, he was on the S. S. Kyle and other ships of the Alphabet Fleet, Reid Newfoundland Co.’s coastal boat service, and classed as merchant marine navy. One night, over a cribbage game, a shipmate suggested he study for his mate’s ticket. He enrolled in night classes at the Navigation School on Water Street in St. John’s and earned his certificate. Then he studied and earned his master’s home trade ticket.
During the rest of the war, he was a chartered captain with the Royal Canadian Navy, sailing a converted whaler, the S. S. Cachalot, on boom defence around Bell Island and Bay Bulls.
After the war, Russell bought a schooner, the Flora MacIver, but had a disappointing fishing season so changed tack and worked for J. T. Swyers of Bonavista as skipper of the Miss Jane. Then he worked the lake boats out of Montreal. After Confederation he took a job as branch manager with Fisheries Products International at St. Lewis and other posts in Labrador.
In February, 1969, he was 63, and close to retirement, but far from ready for it. He signed on as mate with the Andrew C. Crosbie to Vera Cruz, near the Panama Canal, then returned to the seal hunt, this time as chief mate, and earning a “fantastic” $1,800. He captained ships working the inshore fishery around Placentia Bay, went again to the seal hunt, and in the mid-70s took his last position as captain on Chester Dawe’s Hemmer Jane, a 55-foot private yacht so celebrated she was the subject of a Christopher Pratt artwork.
In his 90s Russell wrote his autobiography, in longhand. In an interview with The Newfoundland Herald he said, “I’d write for so long, then I’d get cramps and I’d jump up and go out and do something else, then I’d come back again.” Why wait so long? “If I’d started when I was 50, I wouldn’t have had as much to write about.”
In 1997 he saw the Matthew arriving in Bonavista, part of the Cabot 500 celebrations, with the Queen among the dignitaries present on a wretchedly cool and blasty June day. “The wind being strong and the Matthew heaving around made me think of my younger years when I too longed to enter port after a long stretch at sea.”
Russell also wrote poetry and carved wooden schooners. He had a great sense of fun, and was a renowned raconteur. He had been keeping a journal since he was a young man.
At his 100th birthday, asked by The Telegram what kept him going, Russell cited four things: his wife; a drink of brandy before going to bed at night; keeping active (“I never slounged around on the daybed”), and reading his Bible and saying his prayers every morning.
Predeceased by Gwendolyn (Brown), his wife of 72 years, in 2009, and his son William in 1996, John Russell leaves children Everett, Horace, John, Jennie Joy and Sheila, as well as 17 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.
Special to The Globe and Mail