Nova Scotia calamity — and Gillian’s potato bake

(This is largely reposted from one of my favorites in December, 2015.)

The fairly easy and super-scrumptious potato bake recipe from my daughter-in-law comes right after…

A night of calamity on Sambro Island, Nova Scotia – 1982

The setup: it’s the summer of 1982 and for some reason – now lost to the mists of time – I’m working on a new television series for Metromedia (a new broadcast network owned by John Kluge, the richest man in America at the time) called Survive!a 13-part docudrama series about people surviving terrible ordeals of one kind or another. The producers have decided the pilot will be about a lighthouse keeper and his wife living and working on Sambro Island, a few miles off the coast of Nova Scotia south of Halifax, who were stranded overnight on a rock, in the frigid depths of December, 1977, just 30 feet away from Sambro Island itself. On the return trip home from an evening in the village of Sambro on the mainland, their outboard motor conked out just as they were approaching the rock (called Egg Rock), they couldn’t anchor in the heavy seas, and so they opted to leap from the boat onto the rock, while clutching a thermos of seafood chowder. The boat went merrily on its way toward Spain.

I asked the executive producer (who was a friend of mine), “Wait. They’re 30 feet away from home. Couldn’t they swim for it?”

“It’s December. Frigid. Heavy winds. The guy could swim, but his wife couldn’t.”

“Did they almost die?”

“No. They were just very cold. They were rescued after about 4 hours.”

Well, I had some doubts that this story was compelling enough (stranded for just 4 hours! 30 feet from home!) to launch a series about survival under terrible conditions, but the Metromedia execs were all in favor of it, so there it was. The brave couple were John and Marge Fairservice, I got their phone number, Metromedia would cover the flight to Halifax, a rental car, a hotel, food, and pay me to interview them and then write the script. A very nice gig!



Thanks for the gig, Mr. Kluge!


I connected with John Fairservice and we made arrangements to meet at a bar in the fishing town of Sambro, just the three of us and my trusty compact reel-to-reel tape recorder. He was a nice guy, very outgoing and friendly, and I decided to bring them a small gift. I wondered, what do they drink in Nova Scotia? New Scotland… something Scottish – Scotch!!

How wrong could I be? Very.

Here’s the story, as reported by the Lakeland Ledger (Florida!) in 1977…

And here’s a shot of Egg Rock in the foreground (waves crashing), Sambro Island 30 feet away, John and Marge’s red-roofed house by the lighthouse, and the boathouse on the shore.


They don’t drink Scotch. They drink rum.

Inside the bar in Sambro, I unbagged the bottle of Scotch and proudly presented it to John and Marge, two of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. Wrinkling of brows, a slight scowl. “Well,” John said, “we’re all rum drinkers here, but in an emergency…” Marge added, “Perfect for guests!” Gracious they were, but I learned my lesson: Novis like rum (especially Screech). Scotch is for desperate times.

Actually, at the time, they were drinking Alpine beers, and I joined them. We were having a fine old time, but as the bar filled up it was clear this was not the right place for a taped interview.

“We’ll go to the island,” Marge said. “Have supper, a few drinks, do the interview, you can stay over if you like.”

“Wow, thanks! Great!”

“We’ve got wine and rum, and maybe some steaks.”

I used a pay phone to cancel my hotel, left my rental car by the dock, and we all hopped into their new skiff to head out to Sambro Island, three miles away. A beautiful warm evening, flat calm. Egg rock up ahead – bigger than I imagined – but no place to be stranded on a cold winter’s night with a howling wind.

On the island: their house, their rules

The kitchen in their home on Sambro Island was spacious, country old-timey, and cozy, and we all sat down at the dining table to get started. Pen and notepad out, tape recorder, and two release forms for them to sign – their story would belong to Metromedia with no compensation. They happily signed, and wanted to know what actors would play them. I had no idea, but we tossed around names of famous actors and actresses, just for fun.

“Wine?” Marge asked.

“Sure, thanks.”

Two hours later both wine bottles were empty and now we were into the Bacardi.

“Some rum?”


They couldn’t seem to get their story quite right – they each remembered it a bit differently – how they leapt from the boat, who went first, how they had the presence of mind to hang onto the thermos full of chowder, and I tried to reassure them it was okay not to agree on every detail. I had maybe a half hour of tape left, and then I’d have to take notes.

“More rum?”


And we started to slide into that happy, smiling thick haze of not caring much about certain details, or even the larger issues of life, just as the rum bottle yielded its final drop. Marge asked if I was hungry – it was ten o’clock now. “Yes, very!” I said, famished. She got up and somehow managed to navigate her way through a simple but tasty supper of steaks and fries and canned peas, as John and I continued to jaw about one thing or another – Canadian politics, the end of cod fishing, Ronald Reagan screwing the Canadian fishery somehow, our childhoods, marriage, kids. Marge, cooking, called out sudden memories – “It was the chowder that saved us. Kept us warm.”

John: “Want a wee dram of Scotch?”

“Sure. John, need to ask you. Swimming those 30 feet to the island – didja think you might not make it?”

“No. I knew I would.”

“Musta been cold, with big waves.”

“Pretty nippy.”

An hour later we were well-fed and halfway through the bottle of Scotch, John wincing as he choked it back. I was through. Finished. “Tired” was the euphemism of the hour. Around midnight we all navigated our way to bed. I felt good about the interview and how the story could play out. I felt even better that we’d become pretty good friends in a short time, fellow revelers on their tiny, private island. They loved having company, and I was an easy guest fighting off an incipient case of the whirlies.

Recovery… and return

No need to belabor how we struggled through the next morning, atoning for the night’s sins. Marge’s coffee was pure magic. By mid-morning or so, I felt my normal guiltless self. They both ferried me back to the village and my rental car, and we parted company with hugs, bloodshot eyes, and assurances not to lose touch.

I’d hardly returned home when my producer called. I was about to give her a good report of the trip and lay out a synopsis of the show when he announced,

“Just got the word, project’s canceled. Metromedia says it’s too expensive.”


“Sorry. You’ll get your full pay, though.”

So cometh and goeth Survive!

John and Marge Fairservice left the lighthouse and the island in 1988, and it seems their daughter took over, from what I can gather. A few years later they moved to Oyster Pond, N.S. and were active in the community, helping others whenever they could. John died in 2007, and Marge in 2014, both at the age of 76.

But they both outlived Metromedia, which, in 1997, ceased to exist as a brand. More durable and meaningful than John Kluge’s empire are Sambro Island and the Fairservices’ legacy of courage and generosity. The lighthouse, boat house, and John and Marge’s home are all restored and will live on.

(The executive producer, who has retired to Florida, is still a good friend. The producer and I have remained very close for the last 35 years – she’s a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, a screenwriting teacher at the American Film Institute, and she’s come to visit us here in Maine twice – a blessing each time.)

I don’t believe that evening demonstrated a total collapse of my professionalism as a part-time journalist and TV writer. Close, but not total. The night threatened to dissolve into utter derailment, but was rescued by our unspoken mutual agreement: it’s okay to be friends for awhile and not sweat the details too much. And of course, What happens on Sambro Island stays on Sambro Island.


Gillian’s astonishing potato bake!


My daughter-in-law Gillian came up with this dish when we had Thanksgiving with my son and family in Rhode Island 3 years ago, and I flipped over it. I do think it could fit into the category of “flyover state soul food,” because it involves frozen (like Oreida) hash browns and cream of mushroom soup. This is not Mediterranean, or gourmet, or highly artistic – it’s just wicked good. Here we go:

Gillians’ Hash Brown Potato Bake

You’ll need:
  • 2 pounds frozen hash browns
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 can cream of mushroom soup
  • 1 can milk (after the soup is emptied)
  • 1 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • salt and pepper
  • breadcrumbs to sprinkle on top – I think these are Pankos

Now do these things:

  • Preheat oven to 350
  • Break up frozen hash browns. If you’ve had to do this before, you know how tempting it is to use a Saws-All.
  • Melt butter in a skillet, then brown the onions
  • Now mix the potatoes, onions, soup, milk, salt and pepper in a 9 X 13 pan
  • Bake for 30 minutes
  • Sprinkle the cheese on top, then the bread crumbs
  • Bake another 30 minutes. Done!!
There it is.

Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.