Madelyn Moffat grew up in Pubnico, Nova Scotia with her mother and two sisters. Her house had no heat or running water, but neighbors gathered there to listen to the news on a radio brought from the United States. When she was a teenager, Madelyn moved to Boston to live with her uncle and attended Rosendale High School.
In this interview, Madelyn recalls hearing ships being torpedoed in the Pubnico Harbor. She and her friends rescued items such as flour, cotton, cigarettes, and Hershey’s chocolate bars from the water. She also remembers hunting and fishing as the family tomboy and dreaming of moving to the United States.
Torpedoed Freighters in Pubnico Harbor
Canada went into war in 1939, and in the United States, it was ’41. We’d go to bed at night, and you’d hear explosions. First we thought we were being bombed, and we’d be scared. Then we heard that they were torpedoing the ships outside of the harbor. These particular ships were United States’ ships. And they would follow the coast, all the way up through Maine, Nova Scotia, and I think they went to Halifax, and then from Halifax, they would cross the Atlantic. The harbor, the Pubnico harbor, was a deep harbor, it was I think a mile across from one side to the other. But it was eight miles long. I remember hearing the explosions. One morning, I just could hear a lot commotion outside. I woke up, and I looked out the window, and the whole harbor was filled with boats. There was this big freighter, and it had been torpedoed. They had tugboats, and they pulled it in. And then all the local fishing boats, and the whole harbor was filled with boats. We found out there was a big hole in it, and they were, I guess, carrying a lot of supplies. So they were gonna unload the boat. So that particular boat had flour. Like 150-pound bags of flour. And they were unloading the boats. So, me and my friends– next door they had six boys. I used to chum with the boys, mostly, instead of the girls. And we’d go out in dories. We decided to take the dories, and get the flour before it got wet. And my grandfather made us sticks with big hooks on them. So we would be out there, and would throw the flour in the water, and we’d take the hooks and drag it in. They were heavy, but we’d drag ‘em in. Because they were afraid we were gonna get hurt, they would hose us. They were sailors, and they would be like this, you know, hosing us down. We were drenched, just soaking wet, but we wouldn’t budge. We would fill the dory up, and then go ashore, and then come back and get some more. They also had bales of cotton, and we’d take the cotton ashore, and then we’d spread it all out. And I would say there are some houses there that still have that cotton in their attics. We’d tear the flour bags open—or, not tear, cut. If they got wet, there was like a crust on the outside. And we’d fill pails, and take all the flour out. We used it for, I don’t know, years, we had flour from that shipwreck. But then, my mother would take the big flour bags. She made my underwear. Oh my God! I was wearing underwear made of out flour bags! When I was fourteen, and moved to Boston, the first thing my aunt and uncle did was by me real underwear. I had undershirts, and she’d bleach the name out, my mother did. So, I remember that, just having real underwear.
Smoking Salvaged Cigarettes
The next ship was the same summer. That one was great. It was Chesterfield cigarettes, Hershey bars, Planter’s Peanuts. We would take the cigarettes, they were cartons, like a big carton, and then there were ten or twelve cartons in the box. The outside ones were wet, but we would take the inside. I remember climbing trees, smoking. And I could hear [my mother] telling me to, “Get down Madelyn! Get down!” And I would say, “How does she know I’m up there in those trees?” But, you know, smoke was all over the place. I smoked all summer, but I never got addicted to it. But we had a good time that summer with the Hershey Bars. We never had Hershey Bars, or Planters Peanuts. I mean, we never had any of that stuff.
Moving to the United States
My big dream when I was a kid was to grow up, wear high heels and a fur coat, and move to the United States. I never had a fur coat, or high heels, cause’ I don’t want them. But, I did come to the States.
KS: How much did your life change once you came to the United States?
Oh it was a hundred percent different. I moved to Boston with my uncle, and we drove from Boston to Haverhill, which it’s probably about 25 miles north of Boston. The first night, because I had an aunt there, I remember seeing the lights. One of them was a Citi gas station. It was all lit up. I thought it was so beautiful. It was a gas station! I had never seen lights like that. That really impressed me. But then I moved to a big high school, from a one-room school, speaking French, to a big high school with homerooms, and teachers. I didn’t think I’d ever make it, but I did.