My parents never heard about Barbie and the Russian captain

Joe and June Egan wouldn’t have been happy to know their five-year-old, Barbie, was sitting on the knee of a Russian sea captain. Submitted photo.


Phil Egan

With 10 children, my poor parents had enough to worry about without hearing our harrowing tales of growing up. I like to think of our silence as shielding them from bad dreams and nightmares.

One of those stories came back to me recently as I sat in the library scrolling through old copies of the Sarnia Observer on microfilm.

A newspaper story from 1975 caught my attention, about a man with a collection of matchbooks. It reminded me of my own matchbook collection from the 1950s. I had hundreds of them, which I kept stored in a big paper grocery bag. Most had been acquired from my parents’ occasional holidays around North America.

This was back in the day before people quit smoking, and books of matches were a popular advertising vehicle. Bowls of them were available for free in almost every restaurant and tavern.

My collection was heavily Canadian and American, and though it was a fine collection, it wasn’t exotic enough.

One day, when I was about ten, I decided to correct the problem by trolling for matchbooks down among the foreign freighters berthed at the Government Docks.

I enlisted the aid of my first business partner – my five-year-old sister, Barbie.

We already had our own little business on Saturday morning selling gladiolas. We would buy them at the Farmers’ Market at Ontario and Procter Streets, mark them up, and sell them door-to-door in the neighbourhood. I’d pull a red wagon with our stock of gladiolas, and Barbie would go up and knock on doors and offer them for sale.

Saying no to a cute five-year-old girl selling flowers is hard. We made out like bandits.

I drove Barbie down to the docks on the handlebars of my big bicycle. When I indicated to a seaman at the foot of one of the ship’s gangways what I was after, he signalled us to wait and climbed back aboard the Russian ship.

A few minutes later, he returned and gestured us aboard, escorting us up to the captain’s cabin inside the ship.

Looking back, I realize things could have gone terribly wrong at this point. Barbie might have wound up in one of those “Russian girls want to meet you” ads. I might have wound up in a Soviet labour camp.

I remember Barbie sitting happily on the Russian ship captain’s knee as we negotiated our matchbox trades.

We made it off the ship and rode home on my bike unscathed. I never thought at the time to tell our parents about our little adventure.

And I’m glad I never did.

Got an interesting tale? Contact Phil Egan at philegan@cogeco.ca