December 2014 – January 2015, our third trip to Victoria State, Australia, my second visit to Walter, the barber. Walter Everett Burt has the Brown Hill Barber Shop on Hummfray Street in Ballarat. The shop was full of waiting customers, all seats taken, late one morning when my son, son-in-law and I dropped by. One of us had to stand. But not for long. A haircut needn’t be a complicated affair, and each of the gents ahead of us was in the chair and out in matter of ten minutes or so.
Walter’s shop is well decorated. Lots of signage, most of it license plates from Australia to Alaska and points in between, but none from Prince Edward Island. The first time we visited, I noticed that Walter had quite a collection from New Hampshire, and that’s when he told me us of his North American connections. His mother was from New Hampshire and his father from Nova Scotia, from places we knew. Picking up the conversation again this year, he mentioned that one of his regulars was originally from Musquodoboit, a small village near Halifax, Nova Scotia. Being able to pronounce the name of the village is half the proof needed to talk about it with some credibility. A few minutes later, the man from Musquodoboit walked in. Happy coincidence?
Eventually we got to the story of the legs on the wall. “They were my grandmothers,” he said. “She was in the kitchen, and my grandfather had an accident and cut them off.” That was the short version otherwise known as bait. Who could leave it at that? We wanted to hear more.
“Well, they were getting pretty low on food, and grandpa said she had a good lookin’ shank.” We had a little laugh. Walter was teasing us and then he spoke more seriously. (You can see the legs above the swinging doors and the ‘Waikiki Beach’ sign.)
“He was a sawyer,” he said. “He had a saw mill by the house. That’s how my grandfather made his living. One day she came out to tell him that dinner was on the table, that he should come in and wash up. She goes back and then somehow the eight foot saw got away from him; you know, big round blade. It got loose and came off the mount and tore into the house. It ripped through the kitchen, cut her legs off halfway up her chest, cut through the next room and came out the front of the house.”
“My father was five years old at the time, his brother two. He had an older sister, and grandfather asked her to run to the neighbours which must have been two miles away, and have them bring their car around. There weren’t too many cars in those days. In time the neighbour came and grandad picks my grandmother up and puts her in the front seat. Then he throws her cut-off legs in the back seat, and off they drive to the nearest hospital which was down in Exeter. There was a new bridge, and my grandfather said he was the first car to cross it. He was going so fast the police caught up with him and stopped him. When they looked in the car and saw my grandmother all bloody like that, and her legs in the back, they let him go.”
“Back in those days they didn’t do much. Just tied off the stumps. They threw her legs in the hospital incinerator. Granmother said she could feel her legs burning. She swore she could feel her toes, and the flesh burning. When she was eighty, the doctors said they could do something. But by then, she said, ‘I’ve put up with it for this long.’ Those legs on the wall, that’s what she got by on.”
Now, a license plate from Prince Edward Island, we need to work on that and get one to Walter.