By Mark Daul
Outdoors in Niagara
There are many, many people we’ll meet in a lifetime. Some stand out and, for the most part, they are really great people who have been gone for several years now, but will never be forgotten.
I had a standout, and he wasn’t even a fisherman or an outdoorsman. He did fish at one time at Rice Lake in Ontario, Canada. This is a lake known for its quality fishing, be it bluegills or walleye. He told me he never cared for fishing and despised the water.
So, his fishing career was short. I could tell you some stories that would tickle your innards about him, but there is one story I’ll never forget.
Murray Johnson was my father-in-law. He passed away in 2000 at age 85. Murray was a Native American born on the Six Nations Reservation just a few miles outside of Brantford, Ontario. He worked hard all his life and, for a short stint in his younger days, worked at the National Gypsum Co., where they had a mine in Hagersville, Ontario. National Gypsum manufactures the wallboard you see in most houses today. The gypsum is mined to make that stuff.
Murray went on to become one of the mining foremen at National Gypsum, and worked doubly hard to show his assistants a good example. Being 6 feet tall, the only thing Murray really mentioned about that job was how hard it was on his back by bending over in a 4-foot-tall mine all day.
That was short lived, as Murray got a farm job in Youngstown on the Nelson Tower farm in 1952 and worked there until the young age of 70. He retired in 1985. He had worked on every kind of fruit tree on Nelson’s farm.
Nelson, despite his age, worked right along his farm help and, during that time, became close friends to Murray. It was about 45 years that Murray worked alongside of Nelson, and they turned out to be like brothers: Each knew what the other was thinking all the time. Nelson relied a lot on Murray, not only for his work ethic, but his knowledge on trimming fruit trees in the offseason. Trimming fruit trees came in the wintertime, and I can remember Murray working on the coldest days of the year, because of his work ethic.
For the most part, Murray was on the job at daybreak and saw a lot of wildlife roaming the orchards looking for some fresh fruit to steal. There were a lot of smaller furbearers searching for leftovers. Murray never talked much about them, because it was just a common expected thing. But there was one critter named Prince who was a German shepherd mix that was his constant companion. In those earlier days, farmers seldom wore a timepiece, sometimes working from sunrise to sunset to get that ripe fruit off to market.
If you got Murray out in a bar in Niagara Falls or somewhere that had a pool table, you could bet that someone would challenge him to a game. He was that good, and well known for banging those colored balls around so that others wanted to take a crack at his skills. Murray had a younger friend who was a skilled pool player, or one that the guys would call “Eight Ballers.” He was Dennis Sweatman from Youngstown. Dennis worked for State Parks in Youngstown, and then transferred to Golden Hills State Park; after that, I lost track.
I first met Dennis while he was shooting pool at Ray’s Tavern in the Town of Porter. He was a gruff and tough guy, but boy could he shoot pool. In a short time, we became good friends. At the time, I didn’t know that he and Murray were also good friends and often shot pool together in different places with pool tables. When they got together on the same team, they never lost to an opponent. When they pooled against one another, there wasn’t any winner declared – they always left the eight ball standing.
A favorite spot for these two was the Mohegan Grill on Niagara Avenue near Main Street in Niagara Falls. Of course, in those days it seemed like every bar in town had a pool table or two. There were many pool leagues that traveled from bar to bar on a weekly basis – prizes and bragging rights were the rewards.
One night, the family went to Ray’s Tavern on Lake Road (Ray’s Rendezvous is what it was called back then) and, after dinner, I asked Murray if he wanted to play me in a game of pool. I’m not that confident that I would have thought I could ever beat him. I guess I thought I could entertain him a little while we were all out together and done with dinner.
We played three games, and I was the one being entertained by Murray’s skills. Everything was going well. In the third game, Murray came across a situation where he was stuck behind some other balls on the table and couldn’t get a good shot at any ball, not even off the rails anywhere. Then Murray lined up, took aim at a corner ball, almost the length of the table, pulled his stick back taking aim, and I stood there wondering what in the devil is he shooting at. Holy Smokes! He was aiming at that corner ball. But what happened next made me sit down for a moment. Murray fired that ball by jumping a ball on the table that was in his way and pocketed the shot. I was told he could do that trick stuff, but that was a first for me.
One evening, the family was at Ray’s Tavern and, while we were taking our coats off, there were a couple of guys shooting pool. That was when the pool table was located in the middle of the dining room floor. When we walked in, one of those guys was pondering a shot he figured he couldn’t make. As Murray took his coat off – and seeing the guy pondering – in a split second he pointed to the side rail, then to the end rail, to show the guy where there was a corner shot to be made. Doing that is a no-no. Most people don’t like outsiders showing them anything, especially at a pool table. As plain as the nose on your face, the player took that shot, made it, and then finished and won the game. The player took the two bucks he won from his buddy and bought Murray a beer. At that time, Murray didn’t drink, so I enjoyed the nice cold beer.
There is one story that sticks in my mind about Murray that I’ll never forget. Like Nelson, both were men of very few words, but when Murray spoke you better listen. One day at work, Nelson asked, “Well, Murray, what kind of weather are we going to have today.” Murray replied, “It’s going to be nice this morning until about noon, then the clouds will open and dump some rain on us.” Sure enough, rain hit the orchard about noon that day.
This went on almost everyday that Murray would have the weather forecast – most of the time spot-on. Then one day, Nelson asked him (knowing he was Native American) if he had special powers. “How do you do that?”
“Easy, I listen to the weatherman’s forecast every morning!” Murray said.
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