October 23rd, 1958 was a big day.
It was a Thursday, and at around eight o’clock that evening something bad happened at the No.2 colliery in Springhill, Nova Scotia. Bumps are underground earthquakes and are probably set off by our infernal digging. They are common enough and were often ignored – there had already been a bump an hour previously. The eight o’clock bump, though, was huge.
A hundred and seventy-four miners were in the deep, deep shafts of No.2 and only a hundred would see daylight again. Under the circumstances this was good going – rescue teams came from far afield. It even became the first major international event to be broadcast live.
After the bump, the Dominion Steel & Coal Corporation shut the mine down and it never reopened. Lives had been lost, others devastated and a town robbed of its principal source of income. The disaster is now an entry in the annals of North American folklore. It has been written about in any number of books and sung of by artists from Peggy Seeger & Ewan McColl, to Peter, Paul & Mary, to U2.
That said, most people are probably more familiar with the other thing that happened on October 23rd, 1958.
Hours before the Springhill bump and far to the east – in Belgium – that week’s issue of Spirou had hit the shelves. Nothing remarkable about that: it had been published weekly for twenty years, to the delight of Belgium’s comic-hungry children. It had started out as an eight-pager but by the fifties was a more substantial publication and included the strip “Johan et Pirlouit” by the comic artist Peyo.
On that particular Thursday Johan, the king’s page and Pirlouit, his (you guessed it) trusty sidekick found themselves on a quest for a magic flute. Strange things happen on magic quests and this one was no exception. They encountered a tiny being – three apples tall and blue, dressed all in white. That’s right; they, and the public, had met their first Schtroumpf.
The little Schtroumpf was not alone – there were a whole bunch of them, all blue and dressed in white, more or less the same and speaking their own Schtroumpf language.
That was then. The rest, as they say, is history.
The reason October 23rd 1958 and the Springhill Mine Disaster come to mind, is I’m standing up on the bench at the back of our patio and peering through the petal-shaped pattern of holes that admit light in the upper quarter of its height.
I’m up here because I’ve heard someone bang a drum and I’m nosy. I’ve lived in Tarifa for a while now and there’s little that tarifeños could get up to that would surprise me, but I was not expecting to see an army of Schtroumpfs today, marching along on their way to the old town.
They file past slowly, all of them blue of course and all of them dressed in white. The Schtroumpf aficonados amongst you, however, would spot immediately that these are no ordinary Schtroumpfs. For a start, not a single one of them appears to be three apples tall – in fact they vary wildly in height and in several other ways are quite a diverse bunch.
There are Schtroumpfs in wheelchairs and Schtroumpfs that walk with frames. I can see a number of Schroumpfs who have Down Syndrome and one that’s driving one of those motorised things that look like a shopping trolley. Most of the Schtroumpfs walk just fine as long as they have a little help from the people who march along amongst them in yellow t-shirts; the only different colour in the mass of blue and white.
Even for Tarifa, it’s a bit odd. I watch them recede.
Later I’m in town myself and I don’t see the Schtroumpfs anywhere. It can’t be easy to hide an army of blue beings in white hats but the sight of them earlier doesn’t seem so strange once I’ve bumped into an ancient Egyptian funeral procession and a troop of marauding Mexican bandits.
In isolation none of these things would have tipped me off, to be honest, but combined it’s enough to make me think that something might be going on. Then I pass the church and see that a stage has been erected in front of it and it finally dawns on me. Another year in Tarifa, another big day.
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