I was a writer for The Packet from 2008 to 2010. And I loved every minute.
© Gavin Simms photo
This photo of Fred Rex standing outside his home in Port Rexton was taken in 2010.
More often than not I found myself writing random life stories in 2000 words or less. I became fascinated with people who'd lived the better part of their lives already. Their memories were like fat novels strapped to their shoulders.
Most times I'd find them without even looking - out on lawns or hiding in sheds. An hour or so later Iâd have a memory stickâs worth of life to listen back to.
Between Arnold's Cove and Cape Bonavista there were more characters than pages The Packet ever printed. There was one fellow in particular, by the name of Fred Rex. I interviewed him in 2010. His story has been sitting on my old laptop ever since, unfinished.
Long story short, I recently I found out that Fred passed away at the age of 69, nearly four years ago. And I deeply regret not telling his story in time so he could read it and have a laugh. I immediately went back to the interview and cherrypicked his best quotes and pieced together what was a very rich and fearless life. So, here it is, better late than never.
Man in the yellow jacket:
The name itself says it all âŠ Fred Rex. No man with a name like that leads a dull life.
He first caught my attention when I saw him animatedly careening tourists around the Random Passage film site, like a pirate with a part-time job. Bearded and gruff as can be, in a bright yellow jacket.
Even from afar I could tell this guy was a special blend of wonderful and crazy. So I walked up and invited him to meet for a coffee whenever I was back in town again.
It was a foggy morning months later when we finally got together, at Cooperâs Restaurant in Port Rexton. It wasnât even 10 a.m. and there he was, working on his first ice cream of the day. Strawberry, two scoops.
I said something like âBreakfast eh?â
He replied, âIce creamâs a lot like sex. If you were only allowed to have sex at 4:30 in the day thatâd be pretty poor wouldnât it?â
He didnât give a damn. Fred was an individual, independent in almost every respect.
The back pages:
Fred Rex was born in Port Rexton, a descendant of one its founding families. He marked the end of a long line of sailors, as much as he looked the part.
âThe beard throws ya off.â
Asked what he was like as a kid heâd say, âaverage/low, tall and skinny.â
He went to high school in St. Johnâs. When he graduated he went south.
âThere were three options then. Be a teacher, take a trade, or go to Water Street and be a management trainee. None of it appealed. I didnât want to go back to school. So I went off to the States for a few years and one thing led to another and I never did get back to school. I just travelled around, hotels and hotel resorts.â
He strayed back to Newfoundland for a holiday in the early 60s, and never left again.
âGot married and raised a family in town âŠ regular tâing.â
Coming back to the island didnât keep him from chasing work like a coyote. Before long he started his time as a travelling salesman. There were about 15 years of that in total.
âAlways on the move, various jobsâŠ this, that and everything else. Sold office equipment mainly. Started with the typewriter, went to the electronic typewriter right up to the computers.â
A charmer and a loner, the job was made for him.
Life on the road took him into nearly every cove and community on the island. Heâd be gone for months at a time and thereâs no doubt there were tales to tell about his life on the road but, âYou donât tell the traveling salesman stories, theyâre too raw.
âThatâs dead and gone now though. Today youâve got your box stores, and theyâre just cruel, they just put people out of work. And whatever money they make goes back up to the States.â
The Second Page:
After the salesman era, there was another handful of random jobs. And then Fred got into the bookstore business.
He read constantly. Always had a book on him, ââŠso it was only natural.â
It started when he was at a bookstore one day and brought a bunch of new sci-fi to the counter. The cashier rang it up and Fred was floored by the price. He immediately saw a way he might make his own go of it - the second-hand route.
On Monday he had his son count up all the books in the house. By Tuesday he found a spot on Water Street. By Friday it was painted and ready to go. But he didnât have nearly enough books.
So he and his son went around to schools and playgrounds with a cardboard sign that read, âWill pay for used books.â After that the store was well stocked.
The Second Page was a fixture in downtown St. Johnâs for decades.
Fred even opened up a store next door, selling his own handmade furniture, although heâd ânever drove a nail.â
âThe cabbage patch doll craze was on and my daughter wanted a cradle. So I got some plywood and made it and painted it up. I said, âI wonder if that would sell?â So I brought it down to the bookstore. Got one or two orders, not much. Then I started making them out of pine âŠ they were getting better and better. But when I carved the name of the doll into the cradle (cuz they all had names like Betty-Sue or Anne-Marie) just like that âboom!â it went crazy! I went from doing one or two a week to hundreds.â
From there he moved on to furnishing life-size stuff.
Once his kids were raised and after his marriage had broken, Fred moved back home to Port Rexton.
He kept making furniture for a year, taking orders from whomever he could find. Then he got a job working for Henry Vokeyâs shipyard. Did that for a year and then became co-ordinator for the local economic development organization BEDA. Thatâs also when he started Tidings, a monthly newsletter based on communities within Trinity Bight.
Somewhere amidst all this he started his own full-fledged newspaper on the Bonavista Peninsula, called The Round Home.
A one-man operation, all local content. Heâd go out, collect ads and write up all the stories. When he had it all put to bed heâd send it out to Sterling Press. Three days later itâd come out on the bus. He put out 3,000 papers a month, for three years.
âIâd spread them around too. I had no vehicle. Always hurting for cash âŠ Every day Iâd be on the road âŠ collecting money for ads and getting new ads. Iâd leave here and start walking towards Clarenville. I wouldnât hitchhike, Iâd just keep walking âtil someone who knew me came along and picked me up.
âYou know you been on the road too long when complete black strangers came along and said âWhere ya headinâ Fred?â Never seen âem before in your life âŠâ
Fred, the famous:
In 2000, Fred got a job working transportation on the set of the TV series Random Passage. Heâd pick up actors and crew in St. Johnâs and bring them out to New Bonaventure, and no doubt keep them entertained for the full three hours. He did the same job for The Shipping News too.
Then, after the show wrapped, they opened up the Random Passage site to tourists and he got a job as a guide.
âIt started out âŠ we werenât supposed to talk to the tourists unless they had a question âŠ Well I couldnât stand it! Drove me nuts, so I started walking around telling people the story and doing my own interpretation and people seemed to enjoy it. So eventually all the guides were trained to tell the stories. But if I caught âem using my words Iâd kick âemâŠâ
Fred became the guide of choice at Random Passage, and before long he was known up and down the peninsula. But that was nothingâŠ
Next came a job that would make Fred and his beard a familiar sight across the island - as star of one of the original NL Tourism ads, The Edge. It featured Fred in his yellow jacket ambling curiously along the rugged shoreline near Bonavista.
âThe yellow jacket is now famous from those ads .âŠ as a matter of fact it was the only reason I got the job. âCuz I didnât go over looking to be in the ad. I knew they were here filming so I figured I might be able to pick up a couple of days driving one of the rigs. I never knew that I had auditioned or anything else until I was at the house later and a knock came to the door. So I went out and this was a young fella from up in New Bonaventure. He said, âFred, Iâm your driver. I gotta have you down to Spillarâs Cove by 6 oâclock tomorrow morning. Youâre gonna be doing the ad, and you got to bring your hat and your yellow jacket.â
To the end, people would still point him out in a crowd and say âyouâre the guy in the ad.â
But that, was just the tip of the iceberg in the life of Fred Rex.
âAnd I wouldnât change my jacket now for love or money. This is the fourth or fifth yellow oneâŠâ