Monday, November 14, 2011

A Bridge Over the Creek

After the recent death of my father, Robert Chapman, I began the task of examining the correspondence archived on his computer, determining which files should be kept, shared with family or deleted. During this mostly cheerless trawl I was delighted to come across one of his favorite anecdotes, a bit of family lore which I had heard him tell quite a few times but I had never thought to write down. Fortunately, my father did, in three emails spanning eight years.

His father, Robert Harris Chapman, was born in 1903 in Port Elgin, a New Brunswick hamlet, and in either 1919 or 1920 entered nearby Mount Allison University. The first and briefest text, written on 20 March 2000, tells what happened to the young RH Chapman during a university break:

One year, back when my father was a student at Mount A,
he returned home for the Easter Holidays and was
informed by the family that there was an election being
fought and that they expected him to contribute his considerable
oratorical talents in support of the Conservatives. He agreed to
speak on their behalf and set out to address a meeting at a small
hamlet near Port Elgin. Arriving at the hall, he asked the local
organizer what the voters in the area most desired. He was
told that it was a bridge across the creek. When he had
finished his presentation he was approached by an old-timer
who said “man and boy I have been attending these political
meetings for nigh on to 60 years and never in all that time has
anyone promised us the bridge with such sincerity; sonny, you
get my vote.” The next night, three miles downstream another
triumph, another bridge promised

The second text is dated 6 February 2002:

The next year at aged 16 he was ready to start at MtA. When
he returned home for the holidays he was told that all the
family was engaged in electioneering and that he should join
in the project. Accordingly, a few days later, he appeared at a
meeting hall in the neighborhood, to give a speech on behalf
of the Conservative party. While being ushered up to the head
table he asked the local organizer if there was anything that the
locals particularly wanted. He was told that yes there was, a
bridge over the creek[.] He concluded his sales pitch with the
statement that one of the highest priorities of the Party once it
was elected would be to commence building a bridge over the
creek. He followed this with his vision of the bridge and the
improvement that this would make to life in the area, both
economically and culturally. Following which, the meeting
broke up and the audience departed, except for one old-timer
who rushed up and shook his hand, "Sonny, you get my vote.
Man and boy I've been attending political meetings for nigh
on 60 years, and never, never in all those years has anyone
promised us the bridge with such sincerity!"

The final variant was sent on 10 October 2008 to the same recipient that got the first one:

The next year, having reached the age of 16, he entered MtA.

On returning home for a holiday, his family told him that they
were all campaigning madly for the Conservatives and that as
a member of the family it was his duty to pitch in. Thus, a
couple of days later, he found himself in front of a hall in a
small hamlet near Port Elgin, ready to give a sales pitch for
the Party. On entering he asked the organizer what did the
natives want most. He was told that it was a bridge over the
creek. He gave his talk, concluding with the words "the first
thing that we are going to do after we are elected is to build
a bridge over your creek[.]" He then described the bridge, and
its future impact on the community, both economically and

The meeting then broke up. At which point an old-timer
approached my father and shook his hand enthusiastically.
"Sonny, you get my vote. Man and boy I've been attending
political meetings for nigh on to 60 years, and never, never,
in all that time has anyone promised us the bridge with such

After such a promising start, it's surprising my grandfather didn't parlay his "considerable oratorical talents" into a career in politics. Instead, he entered the educational field, eventually becoming New Brunswick's Director of Teacher Training, a position he held until his death in 1966. I have no memories of him, just photographs, so he exists most vividly for me in that family story. Needless to say, I must take it on faith that he related this memorate to his son and that it didn't originate with my father (or another source). For what it's worth, I never knew my father to make up stories, although I recognized his propensity to polish his anecdotes until they were sufficiently lustrous.

Besides neglecting to identify the hamlet, my father didn't state which election was involved, the provincial one held on 9 October 1920 or the federal one which was decided on 6 December 1921. If my grandfather made his purported bridge speech during his first year at university, as the texts imply, then it was probably during the provincial election campaign. Either way, he would not have promised the bridge during the Easter holidays, as claimed in the first text. The Thanksgiving holiday period would seem to be a better fit. Such ambiguities and discrepancies may lead one to conclude that it doesn't pay to research too deeply treasured pieces of family lore.

My father's written narratives are more elaborate than his spoken ones were (as is usually the case), but the "old-timer's" response is pretty much how I remember my father saying it, the punch line delivered slowly and emphatically: " all that time has ANYONE promised us the bridge with SUCH SINCERITY!"

In late 2001 my father told this anecdote over the phone to his cousin, Joe Harper, who later repeated it to his son, who was then campaigning for leadership of the Canadian Alliance party. In a Christmas card to my father, Joe Harper wrote that "Stephen really liked your story about the 'sincere promise' to build the bridge. Says he thinks he can use it." But to my knowledge, the current Prime Minister of Canada has never used the anecdote in public.

Brian Chapman