Let us count the ways that today, Feb. 12, is special.
If you’re American, you can celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. He was born 204 years ago in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky.
If you’re human, or even an ape, you can celebrate Feb. 12 because it’s Charles Darwin’s birthday too. Same day, same year as Lincoln, though Darwin arrived more comfortably, in a mansion in the England Midlands.
If you’re in New Orleans, you can celebrate Mardi Gras. This year it happens on Feb. 12, because it always comes exactly 47 days before Easter. (Easter is a religious holiday; Mardi Gras, I’m told, is not.)
If you’re me, you can celebrate the birthday of Scott Alexander Wilson on Feb. 12. He’s a brother of mine and he’s 60 today. He is younger than I am, but only a little. Sixty is hard for some, but at this very moment he’s sipping rum punch in Jamaica.
And if you’ve ever been to high school, you can join me in celebrating the birth of one damn good teacher.
One hundred years ago today, Feb. 12, 1913, on the Change Islands off the north coast of Newfoundland, Arthur Reginald Scammell was born. He was my English teacher in the Sixties at Mount Royal High in Montreal.
I didn’t shine in high school. Failed twice, in fact, and have done a pretty good job of erasing those unpleasant memories. But Mr. Scammell, I remember. I even remember the textbook, blue and white, North American Literature.
Mr. Scammell’s classroom was in the basement. I remember wild white hair, sweat-soaked white shirt. I remember he was loud and he wanted us to care about the words of authors like Steinbeck. I do believe I got a good mark in his class.
We knew he was from Newfoundland, and that he was kind of famous for writing a song called The Squid Jiggin’ Ground:
"Oh! This is the place where the fishermen gather,
In oil skins and boots and Cape Anns battened down;
All sizes of figures with squid lines and jiggers,
They congregate here on the squid-jiggin' ground."
I have an image of him singing it for us once, his big voice bouncing off those basement walls.
This past fall I went to St. John’s for the first time and visited The Rooms, a spectacular building high on a hill overlooking downtown and the harbour. There’s an art gallery there, and a museum, and the big-windowed Provincial Archives.
We were admiring the views in there and came across the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador. Under S, right after "scallops", there was Mr. Scammell, complete with a picture – just the way I remembered him.
The encyclopedia explained that he was just 15 when he wrote The Squid Jiggin’ Ground, while out fishing with his father.
"In 1943," it said, "Scammell recorded it, with piano accompaniment, in what is generally considered to be the earliest commercial recording of a Newfoundland folk song."
His royalties over the years totaled $35,000.
That encyclopedia, published in 1994, had Mr. Scammell still alive. It turns out he died the next year, age 82, back home in Newfoundland. The Hamilton Spectator carried an obit that ran 38 words.
Lincoln, Darwin, Wilson, Scammell – what a day, this 12th of February. Get out there and make like it’s Mardi Gras.