This story about growing up in Branch in the 1950s has lain in my computer for quite awhile. Right now, with another deadline looming, I sit at my keyboard to prepare it for submission. Growing up in the area of the lovely Cape Shore, where everyone practiced the Catholic faith, has provided me with many topics for my humble column. When I entered the word pledge into my WordPerfect dictionary, I couldn’t believe that one definition said, “A solemn undertaking to abstain from alcohol.” I was under the notion that taking a pledge, in the presence of a priest, not to drink beer, rum or whisky, was an Irish Catholic idiosyncrasy. Actually, for years, I believed that taking the pledge was only done in our parish.
The first person that comes to mind for this article is my dear departed uncle, Cyril Power, whom we affectionately called Sooley. Sooley dearly loved the effervescent taste of anything fermented. He was a bachelor by choice and when people teased him about being single, his favourite retort was, “When me hat is on, me roof is thatched.” My uncle did more than thatch his roof when he donned his hat. It seems he always knew when and where the booze was flowing. When Sooley went on a spree, he wasn’t stingy. It was reminiscent of the poem, The Face on the Barroom Floor, when the character said, “When I had cash to treat the gang, this hand was never slow.” Although he never bemoaned the fact that he had spent too much during his revelry spurts, at certain times of the year, he would take it upon himself to quit drinking for a few months in order to rebuild his coffers. We knew then that it was his pledge time.
It wasn’t easy for someone to take a pledge. Well, first of all, if you lived in Branch, you had to find transportation over to St. Bride’s because that’s where the priest’s house was located. Then you might have to suffer a tongue banging from the reverend gentleman, especially if you were one of those who had previously broken the sacred oath. An acquaintance of mine told me one time that, when he went to take a pledge, the priest was entertaining some uppity company from St. John’s and they were all sitting around his table in a fog of cigar and cigarette smoke. As Father So and So extolled the virtues of abstaining from alcoholic beverages, the city slickers helped themselves to a fine 40-ouncer of Johnnie Walker. My friend told me that if one of them had to offer him a drink, he would have told the pledge to go to hell. Being an observant type of guy, he noticed that there were four visitors and five glasses on the table. Jokingly, he quipped, “The housekeeper must have been drinking with them.”
People took the pledge for a variety of reasons. One guy was getting married the following summer and his fiancee threatened him that if he didn’t stop drinking, she wouldn’t marry him. His wedding was scheduled for June 12, so he pledged until June 11. After that date, he drank for more than 50 years of their marriage.
Then there were those regulars who pledged from September until December 24 so they could save a bit of money and drink the whole 12 days of Christmas. My mother used to call that blindfolding the devil in the dark. If there was ever a case of blindfolding the devil in the dark, it was one man who always pledged for Lent. However, because the Irish blood ran thickly in his veins, he reminded himself and everyone else that St. Patrick’s Day was not included in the Lenten season. Early on March 17, he would commence his bender, and by midnight, he would be passed out in a drunken stupor. The next day, he would start his withdrawal all over again.
Sometimes those pledges were not taken very seriously and the slightest bit of temptation could lead the best intending fellows to go astray. Weddings and garden parties and even wakes were, as one priest put it, near occasions of sin. On the other hand, I knew folks who were true to their promises, even if they did booze it up for a week when their period of abstinence was completed.
Once my father offered a visitor a bottle of beer and he declined saying, “No, Mr. John, I’m on the pledge, but can you keep it for me until Lady Day? And I’ll have a drink of rum off you then too.” Sure enough, he came back on Garden Party Day, and Daddy gave him his bottle of India along with a good strong drink of Captain Morgan.
I never ever thought that the topic of pledging would come in handy with a column deadline lurking around the corner. You never know what or who I might write about some day.