Lifelong New Waterford resident Honey McKinnon prefers the heights of industrial buildings
I first meet Honey McKinnon at the Jerry Marsh baseball field in New Waterford. It’s a sunny August weekend, and I’m here to watch my son’s team play. Honey walks over just seconds after I’ve taken my seat, welcomes all of us parents, cracks a few jokes, and says he’ll be back in a bit “with the splits—the even splits.” (We baffled mainlanders soon figure out this means 50-50 tickets.) Over the weekend, he is a constant at the ballfield, a devoted volunteer who makes everyone feel at home.
Now 71, Honey (nobody calls him by his real name, and many locals don’t even know it) has lived in New Waterford his whole life, except for short stretches plying his trade as a sheet-metal worker in Ontario. Unlike many of his peers, he never worked in the Cape Breton coal mines, preferring instead to spend time hundreds of feet in the air on some of the major industrial projects that came and went in the region, including both of the island’s ill-fated heavy water plants.
New Waterford has a long tradition of nicknames—there’s even a web page that catalogues many of the more colourful ones, including “Salmon Jaws,” “Bog Mouth,” and “Fiddle Feet.” Honey, of course, is on the list.
New Waterford is a small community. We lived in Scotch-town, we were seven kids, and I was the youngest. My sister Tina moved away when she was young, and my father—he left when we were very young, took one child with him and my mum raised the rest of us. It was tough going but hey, we all survived. You had to do what Ma said or you got a crack in the head.
My mother had to work for a living to support us, but to be honest, there was no real major work. She worked at the General Instruments plant, that was here for a while. They come and last a little while, then go out of business. The GI plant was something like these call centres. How long do they last, 10 years? Then they’re finished.
I was the kind of guy who made friends easy. So I didn’t find it really tough going. You found friends and you did stuff with them. We’d take our skates and go down to the pond—we had a couple of ponds maybe a quarter mile away. Threw the skates on, played hockey. Had a ball. No referees to tell you whether you had a penalty or not. And in summer we’d play ball in the town parks. You kept busy so you didn’t worry about what was in the pot: Was it roast beef stew, or was it bologna and French fries?
No fear of heights
You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to go down in the mines. I’m so claustrophobic, I can’t even get into an elevator. But put me 300 feet up in the air on a job site or on the CN Tower and I’m happy. My passion was sheet-metal work, and my first job was on the heavy water plant in Port Hawkesbury. I was only 20-something years old. I loved heights. I worked at the power plant, heavy water plant, steel plant—it was all high up. That was very good.
When we first started, you’d have a crew of three or four guys using hand lines and a pulley to try and take up sheets of metal that were 25 or 30 feet high and three feet wide. Oh my goodness. You’re talking a couple of hundred pounds. And if the wind come up, you have a problem. One time, we had to cut the rope and bring the sheet down little by little on our staging. Two guys on the rope and you’re hauling the sheet down—we had a lot of laughs. It never bothered me. If you got scared, you wouldn’t be up there.
Nowadays, you can’t force anybody to go to work if it’s unsafe. With us it was go up there, sweep the snow off with your feet at the top of the staging, put down some salt and get to work. Them days, to keep your job, you had to do it.
If we did complain, they’d find some reason to get rid of you.
What they’d do is lay off the crew and the business agent would say well, we had to downsize, we had too many guys, we wanted only 16 instead of 20. They’d make up an excuse and you couldn’t prove nothing! When the safety come on, the safety man wouldn’t let you do stuff like that. He’d actually halt it: “You can’t take them sheets up that high, it’s too windy today. You’re grounded. I’m going to talk to your shop steward, talk to the foreman, say listen, I seen that sheet up there, it was actually twirling around. No more today. Too windy.”
Our safety standards now are spectacular, but they weren’t 40 years ago when I went to work. You just wore a safety belt right around your stomach. If you fell off, you would probably have broke your back. Now they have a spring-loaded safety harness to keep you upright if you fall.
There were no nets below either, which was terrible. I know one gentleman at the steel plant who was going across the beam and fell off and got killed. I was there when it happened.
“My name is Gerald on this job!”
I was waiting for when you were going to ask me about my name. My mum used to get a good friend to babysit. Mum would come home and say, “How was the baby today?” and she’d say, “Oh, he’s sweet, so nice and quiet, just a quiet baby, so I named him Honey.”
I went into construction work with that nickname, because everyone in New Waterford knows me as Honey. And I’ll tell you what, the first couple of days on a job you get some awful strange looks. Years later I went to Newfoundland to work on the Hibernia rig, which was just beautiful. Loved it. I had “Gerry” written on my hat—I tried to keep away from Honey. As it was, there were about eight or 10 guys from New Waterford at the camp. So I’m walking in, I hear, “That’s Honey McKinnon! Honey! Over here! How come you didn’t answer me?” I said, “Look, my name is Gerald on this job!” But it didn’t matter, soon they were all calling me Honey.
If you go on the New Waterford nickname pages there are a few Honeys and a lot more worse than that too: Stinky Ear, Leaky Bum and oh my God. There’s some dandies. It’s just part of New Waterford, eh. Our heritage.
It comes from the mines. One guy would have a runny infected ear or a busted ear drum and they’d call him Stinky Ear. One guy would have part of an ear taken off in a fight and they’d find a name for him. That’s how it started, in the mines.
More time for kids
The biggest change I’ve seen is that we don’t have the people here anymore in New Waterford. You had the steel plants going on, you had the heavy water plant going on, you had the mines going on, and you had ball. Now it’s all died down, and it’s mostly seniors. We used to have stores everywhere. Now, you go through town in five minutes, and if you blink your eyes you missed it. Our grandkids have more fun now than we did, because they have people like their grandparents with them more. They have more options. We live next door to my son, and the grandkids and their friends are often in my yard throwing the ball around. They’re not in the streets, they’re not downtown hanging around.
The parents are really getting involved with their children as opposed to when we just grabbed a ball, bat, and glove and left. If you had a father, they were working and had hardly any time to take you down to the field. The parents were so darn busy, by the time they’d get off work the game was half over. Nowadays it’s different—if you’re working in the hospital or at the drugstore maybe you can leave early to watch the kids play, then make up extra hours later in the week. It’s changed an awful lot.
My son Jerry remembers when he was little and we’d go out for a loaf of bread and come back two hours later because I ran into someone.
I still do that nowadays! I’m a people person. I enjoy doing the even splits because I meet so many nice people. Every team that was in the tournament you were at, I had them all laughing. It’s no good saying, “You want to buy a ticket?” and walking away. If you want to buy a ticket I want to talk to you. I’ll tell you a joke or a little something and we’ll all have a good time.
If you’re good to people, people are good to you.