I was a writer for The Packet from 2008 to 2010. And I loved every minute.
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 I’d have a memory stick’s 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 … 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 Cooper’s Restaurant in Port Rexton. It wasn’t even 10 a.m. and there he was, working on his first ice cream of the day. Strawberry, two scoops.
I said something like “Breakfast eh?”
He replied, “Ice cream’s a lot like sex. If you were only allowed to have sex at 4:30 in the day that’d be pretty poor wouldn’t it?”
He didn’t 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.
“The beard throws ya off.”
Asked what he was like as a kid he’d say, “average/low, tall and skinny.”
He went to high school in St. John’s. When he graduated he went south.
“There 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 didn’t 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.”
He strayed back to Newfoundland for a holiday in the early 60s, and never left again.
“Got married and raised a family in town … regular t’ing.”
Coming back to the island didn’t 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.
“Always on the move, various jobs… this, that and everything else. Sold office equipment mainly. Started with the typewriter, went to the electronic typewriter right up to the computers.”
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. He’d be gone for months at a time and there’s no doubt there were tales to tell about his life on the road but, “You don’t tell the traveling salesman stories, they’re too raw.
“That’s dead and gone now though. Today you’ve got your box stores, and they’re just cruel, they just put people out of work. And whatever money they make goes back up to the States.”
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, “…so it was only natural.”
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 didn’t have nearly enough books.
So he and his son went around to schools and playgrounds with a cardboard sign that read, “Will pay for used books.” After that the store was well stocked.
The Second Page was a fixture in downtown St. John’s for decades.
Fred even opened up a store next door, selling his own handmade furniture, although he’d “never drove a nail.”
“The 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, ‘I wonder if that would sell?’ So I brought it down to the bookstore. Got one or two orders, not much. Then I started making them out of pine … 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 ‘boom!’ it went crazy! I went from doing one or two a week to hundreds.”
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 Vokey’s shipyard. Did that for a year and then became co-ordinator for the local economic development organization BEDA. That’s 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. He’d go out, collect ads and write up all the stories. When he had it all put to bed he’d send it out to Sterling Press. Three days later it’d come out on the bus. He put out 3,000 papers a month, for three years.
“I’d spread them around too. I had no vehicle. Always hurting for cash … Every day I’d be on the road … collecting money for ads and getting new ads. I’d leave here and start walking towards Clarenville. I wouldn’t hitchhike, I’d just keep walking ’til someone who knew me came along and picked me up.
“You know you been on the road too long when complete black strangers came along and said ‘Where ya headin’ Fred?’ Never seen ‘em before in your life …”
Fred, the famous:
In 2000, Fred got a job working transportation on the set of the TV series Random Passage. He’d pick up actors and crew in St. John’s 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.
“It started out … we weren’t supposed to talk to the tourists unless they had a question … Well I couldn’t 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 ‘em using my words I’d kick ‘em…”
Fred became the guide of choice at Random Passage, and before long he was known up and down the peninsula. But that was nothing…
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.
“The yellow jacket is now famous from those ads .… as a matter of fact it was the only reason I got the job. ‘Cuz I didn’t 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, “Fred, I’m your driver. I gotta have you down to Spillar’s Cove by 6 o’clock tomorrow morning. You’re gonna be doing the ad, and you got to bring your hat and your yellow jacket.”
To the end, people would still point him out in a crowd and say ‘you’re the guy in the ad.’
But that, was just the tip of the iceberg in the life of Fred Rex.
“And I wouldn’t change my jacket now for love or money. This is the fourth or fifth yellow one…”