WHAT ABOUT BOB? SEARCHING FOR DYLAN’S MINNESOTA ROOTS

On a bleak, wintry weekend in November of 2014, my brother and I made a pilgrimage to “the north country fair, where the winds hit heavy on the borderline” in search of the roots of Bob Dylan. It was an unforgettable trip that richly increased my understanding of the mysterious forces that shaped a relatively ordinary teenager in the Minnesota town of Hibbing and helped turn him into the Shakespeare of our age.

We set out Friday morning from my brother’s home in Thunder Bay. Once across that “borderline”, we travelled south along Highway 61 (Revisited). There was no sign of a promoter putting some bleachers out in the sun. We were soon in Duluth, where Dylan was born as Robert Allen Zimmerman 80 years ago, on May 24, 1941, six months or so before Pearl Harbour. The future Nobel Prize winner was brought home to the second floor of a modest, wood- frame duplex rented by his parents Abe and Beatty, not far up the hill from downtown Duluth.

The Lake Superior port city had been more interesting in the old days, when it was a hotbed of socialism, full of Wobblies, Red Finns and immigrant workers from all over Europe. In 2014, although admittedly difficult for any northern city to show its best in November, there seemed a sense of decay in the city’s historic downtown area. Many of its fine, early 20th century buildings were caked in grime. Few pedestrians braved the late afternoon chill. 

The Zimmerman’s lived in Duluth tuntil Dylan was six, when they moved 70 miles north to Hibbing. But the city was not without its influences. In his engrossing memoir, Chronicles, Dylan recalled hearing “the heavy rumble of the foghorns (of the big lake freighters that) dragged you out of your senses by the neck….As a child, slight, introverted and asthma-stricken, the sound was so loud, so enveloping, I could feel it in my whole body and it made me feel hollow. Something out there could swallow me up.”

Duluth also has an enormous armoury, where popular, touring performers of the day made regular appearances. On Jan. 31, 1959, Dylan and some friends made the trip down from Duluth to catch Buddy Holly’s Winter Dance Party tour at the Armoury. Three days later, the life of the much-loved, young rock star was cut short in a plane crash, along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. Dylan has often mentioned their appearance in Duluth as a pivotal moment in his life. Accepting Album of the Year at the 1998 Grammys for Time Out Of Mind, he said: “I just want to say that when I was 16 or 17 years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory and I was three feet away from him… and he looked at me. And I just have some kind of feeling that he was – I don’t know how or why – but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.”    

And finally, the startling first verse of Dylan’s dense, 11-minute masterpiece, Desolation Row, is not based, as I thought for many years, on one of his incomparable, dream-like images, but on a real event that took place in Duluth, not far from where the Zimmermans lived. In 1920, three Black employees of a touring circus were strung up from a corner lamp post on the mistaken belief they had raped a white girl. A grisly photo of the mob posing with the corpses was made into a postcard. One of Dylan’s uncles remembered seeing it as a youth. The incident is commemorated in Desolation Row. “They’re selling postcards of the hanging/They’re painting the passports brown/The beauty parlor is filled with sailors/The circus is in town.” My brother and I visited a haunting memorial to the three innocent Blacks where the lynchings took place. I wrote about it all in a previous Mickleblog. https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/tag/desolation-row/

Then it was off to Hibbing. With its oddball name and nowhere locale, Dylan’s hometown had taken on a magical air in my imaginings for so many years. I mean, did Hibbing even exist?

Our first step was Hibbing High School. With its marble staircase, brass handrails and large imposing pillars adorning the school’s entranceway, it was unlike any high school I had ever seen. The enormous, sprawling structure, built in 1920 for $4 million, is considered an especially opulent example of Jacobethan architecture and was soon known as ‘the castle in the woods”. But what the heck was this huge, costly citadel of education doing in nondescript Hibbing? Apparently, the school’s design and construction was financed by local mining interests who wanted to entice immigrant labourers by displaying their commitment to a good education for their children.

The school’s vast interior includes an absurdly large, 1,800 seat auditorium with crystal chandeliers. The auditorium is legendary in Dylan lore as the place where a garage band fronted by student Robert Zimmerman pounded out 1950s rock and roll at a school assembly, until the principal could stand the noise no longer and pulled the plug. In a wry assessment 30 years later, Dylan scholar Stephen Scobie of Victoria observed: “Every stage Bob Dylan has played on since has been, after Hibbing High School Auditorium, an anticlimax.”

We peered through the glass-paned front doors at the stairs leading to the darkened hallways and rows of lockers, enjoying thoughts of how familiar it would have been to the teen-aged Dylan. From most accounts he enjoyed life at Hibbing High School, signing up for the Latin  and Social Studies Club and citing his ambition in the high school yearbook “to join Little Richard”. The photo of a very unwaif-like Dylan is sandwiched between too other end-of-the-alphabet students, Barbara Yeshe and Shirley Zubich.

Dylan didn’t have far to walk to high school. His house, with its distinctive flat-topped roof, was just two  blocks away at 2425 7th Ave., now renamed Bob Dylan Drive. For Dylan fanatics, this is the mother-lode, his home for a dozen years until leaving in 1959 for the University of Minneapolis. A mere two years after that, he had written Blowin’ In the Wind, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Girl From the North Country and fame was nigh. Under the pale winter sun, the nicely re-painted, stucco house seemed deserted. Front steps and sidewalk were unshovelled. Icicles hung from the eaves. I looked up at the windows of Bob’s bedroom on the second floor. He said, once: “In the winter, everything was still, nothing moved. Eight months of that…you can have some amazing hallucinogenic experiences doing nothing but looking out your window.” My brother and I posed for pictures, and left, reluctantly.

We hit Hibbing’s desolate downtown Sunday morning. Wisps of snow blew up and down the town’s wide main drag, Howard Street. The names of the storefronts had changed, but the streetscape seemed little different from what it must have been like during Dylan’s time. Here were the pizza joint, record store, juke box cafés, movie theatre and small department stores that he grew up with. Most are long gone, given the shopping malls that have sapped business from main streets everywhere. But the vintage bowling alley where Bob bowled is still there. So too is the massive Androy Hotel, now an apartment building for seniors (no, Bob isn’t moving in…), where his bar mitzvah was held. Alas, Zimmy’s, a cabaret-style bar that had hoped to capitalize on Dylan’s Hibbing connections, had gone out of business.

We ended our pilgrimage with a short trip out of town to the reason for Hibbing’s existence, the largest open-pit iron mine in the world. Pictures don’t do justice to its enormity, said to be three miles wide and 500 feet deep. Huge earthmovers in the distance were dwarfed by the sheer size of the mine. Being Sunday, nothing moved. It was quiet, except for the whistling of the bitterly-cold wind. One sensed the ghosts of previous miners and the cyclical boom and bust of their fortunes. Five years after leaving Hibbing, Dylan wrote and recorded North Country Blues, a moving song about the desperate plight of an iron miner’s wife, left to care for three children after a mine shutdown. Joan Baez does a beautiful cover of the song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0XUfoLkG0o

As we headed back to Thunder Bay, making sure to stop at the site of the “World’s Largest Free-Standing Hockey Stick” in self-styled Hockeytown, USA (aka Eveleth), I felt I had a much deeper sense of how Dylan came to be. Growing up in the north, in an isolated place like Hibbing, cut off from “big city” distractions, with long winters and characteristics uniquely its own, he must have acquired a sensibility and way of looking at the world he might never have had if, say, he had grown up in a place like summery San Diego. That was hammered home from my first look at Hibbing’s forlorn but singular main street, followed by the scarred landscape of its open-pit mine, both in the teeth of November.  Despite many elements that could be found anywhere in the USA, Hibbing was not a small town like the others. And it gave us the greatest songwriter of our era.

At 23, Dylan acknowledged his roots as part of his under-rated 11 Outlined Epitaphs on the back cover of The Times They Are A-Changing. Referring to Hibbing, he wrote: “the town I grew up in is the one that has left me with my legacy visions/it was not a rich town/my parents were not rich/it was not a poor town/an my parents were not poor/it was a dyin town/…..I know I shall meet the snowy North again/but with changed eyes nex time round/t walk lazily down its streets/an linger by the edge of town/find old friends if they’re still around/talk t the old people/an the young people/running yes. . ./but stopping for a while/embracing what I left/an loving it—for I learned by now/never t expect/what it can not give me/”

TOM BERGER, LABOUR LAWYER

The recent passing of Tom Berger brought an outpouring of tributes and accolades for his long, unparalleled career as a legal groundbreaker and social justice advocate for Canada’s Indigenous people. As Bob Rae, former NDP premier of Ontario, interim federal Liberal leader and currently Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, put it: “No non-Indigenous person has done more to advance the rights of Indigenous people in Canada and globally. He inspired thousands and enlightened millions.”

Less well-known is that Tom Berger got his first taste of fighting against injustice as a young Vancouver labour lawyer in a case that stemmed directly from one of the city’s most devastating disasters.

On the afternoon of June 17, 1958, two spans of the Second Narrows Bridge being built across Burrard Inlet suddenly collapsed, tumbling workers and twisted steel into the deep ocean waters far below. The tragedy claimed 19 lives, including 14 members of Local 97 of the Ironworkers Union. It remains Vancouver’s worst industrial accident. Looking out from his downtown office window, Tom Berger was among thousands of Vancouverites who gasped in astonishment that day at the sight of the two collapsed spans. Less than a year later, he would be in court, representing some of those same union ironworkers, who had been on the bridge and survived when it went down.

By the spring of 1959, the project was back on track. But on June 23, ironworkers employed on the bridge joined a province-wide strike by Local 97, halting construction once again. The work stoppage left a south section of the bridge overhanging a busy roadway, upheld only by falsework.

Dominion Bridge sought a court injunction ordering the ironworkers to finish the job, on the grounds of safety. The company claimed that an earthquake or some other event could bring the structure down on traffic. The ironworkers retorted: if the section is at risk of collapse, it must be unsafe for us to work on.

The issue facing Berger and his clients was straight-forward: could ironworkers on a legal strike be ordered by the court to complete the overhanging section of the bridge, on the grounds of safety? The presiding judge, Mr. Justice Alexander Malcolm Manson of the BC Supreme Court, sided with the company. He ordered the union to ensure the section’s completion.

The injunction was ignored, and the legal battle was on. The fresh-faced, 26-year old Berger faced off against the stern, crusty Justice Manson, 50 years his senior, who was called to the bar way back in 1908. Appealing the injunction on behalf of Local 97, Berger argued the judge had no authority to order a union to abandon a legal strike. Not only that, “if this bridge is in a dangerous condition then it is just as dangerous if the men are on the bridge, as if they (remain on) strike,” the young union lawyer contended. The judge responded by issuing an added order that the union specifically instruct its members to return to work to finish the job.

When no one showed up on the next work day, Dominion Bridge asked the judge to find leaders of Local 97 and 31 striking ironworkers guilty of criminal contempt of court for defying Justice Manson’s injunction. Union leaders responded with sworn affidavits that they had, in fact, instructed members to return to work. Their instructions had simply not been obeyed. The judge was furious. “We have in Canada what is known as the rule of the law,” he thundered. “We live by that. And the rule of law must be maintained.” Turning towards their lawyer, he concluded: “If you have anything to say, Mr. Berger, now is your chance.”

Berger was more than ready. He pointed out that union leaders had obeyed the injunction by telling members to go back to work. But nothing could force individual ironworkers to resume building the bridge. Then, he revealed his legal ace in the hole. He told the astonished judge that his position was vindicated by none other than the most sacred of all British/Commonwealth legal documents, the Magna Carta, itself. The hallowed charter of rights had been agreed to by King John on the fields of Runnymede in 1215. And there, in Chapter 15, were the words: “No free man shall be distrained to make bridges.”

This referred to former feudal obligations eliminated by the Magna Carta. Berger argued the document was “just as much in force in British Columbia today as it was in England in 1215.” Judge Manson accused the youthful brash barrister of playing to the gallery. He brushed the Magna Carta aside, along with all other positions advanced on behalf of the Ironworkers.

More than 40 years later, writing in his autobiography One Man’s Justice, Tom Berger had not forgotten the case. “I thought I had the answer to the injunction; then I thought I had the answer to the judgment requiring the union to order the men back to work; then I thought I had the answer to the company’s application for sequestration of the union’s assets. But each time the judge veered off in a new direction,” he wrote. “The judge was inventing his own procedure, because none in the books suited his purpose.”

Incensed that no ironworkers had yet gone to work, Judge Manson ordered sheriffs to round up those they could find and bring them to court. He began questioning them on his own. The first time Berger raised an objection, the judge angrily dismissed it. The second time, he snapped at Berger: “Just sit down. I am doing this. You keep your seat.” A third time, Judge Manson threatened Berger with contempt of court for interrupting his questioning of ironworker Eric Guttman. The crowded courtroom erupted in jeers. Despite silencing Berger, the judge got nowhere with Guttman, who corroborated the union’s contention that he had been told to go back to work on the bridge.  “But it is a free country and nobody can force me to go to work to build a bridge if I don’t want to,” he declared.

The judge was not amused. In a startling display of vindictiveness, he found the union’s two business agents and its president guilty of criminal contempt of court, fining them $3,000 each, a huge sum in those days, with the option of a year in jail.  In the meantime, they were arrested and sent to Oakalla. The three men were eventually released, after the labour movement rallied to pay their fines. Local 97, itself, was fined $10,000 and Eric Guttman assessed $100. Ironworkers were not the only ones to fell the sting of Judge Manson’s wrath. George North, editor of The Fisherman union newspaper, was also fined $3,000 and jailed for 30 days. His sin? He had the effrontery to write an editorial suggesting that injunctions don’t catch fish or build bridges. That was contempt of court, too, the judge ruled. Such were the times.

A negotiated settlement ended the ironworkers’ strike shortly afterwards, and on Aug. 25, 1960, the completed Second Narrows Bridge was opened at last to traffic.

The union’s bitter legal tussle also ended happily. In a unanimous judgment, the BC Court of Appeal overturned all of Judge Manson’s contempt of court rulings against the ironworkers, ordering the return of every last cent of the $19,000 in fines he imposed. (However, the contempt of court judgment against George North was upheld. The union editor was forced to serve out every one of his 30 days.) At the same time, the Appeal Court also made a point of telling Berger that Judge Manson had been wrong to criticize his objections and threaten him with contempt of court.

“Justice Manson was no hypocrite,” Berger wrote in his auto-biography. “He hated unions….There were no long-winded rationales for his judgments. He was out to get you, and he did.”

One more development awaited for Berger and the ironworkers to savour. After Judge Manson’s vituperative performance on the bench, the government made it mandatory for superior court judges to retire at the age of 75. In some BC legal circles, it became known as “the Manson law”.

As a postscript, Tom Berger later became prominent in the NDP, with strong backing from organized labour. In 1968, he became provincial leader of the party, narrowly edging Dave Barrett in a bitter leadership contest. Near unanimous support from union delegates was key to Berger’s victory. It took years for the rift in the party to heal, which, long after he had left the NDP, was still referred to as the Berger-Barrett split.

Note: I am indebted to Eric Jamieson and his excellent book, Tragedy at Second Narrows, for much of the narrative details in this account.

Two songs have been written about the Second Narrows tragedy, one by well-known US country singer Jimmy Dean

And a more heartfelt one by the great Stompin’ Tom Connors:

Finally, For more on the incomparable Tom Berger, Justine Hunter’s excellent obit in the Globe and Mail is here:

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/british-columbia/article-bc-legal-giant-thomas-berger-helped-define-indigenous-rights-in/

THE BALM OF POETRY #12 MARY OLIVER AND LOSS

2020 has been a terrible year for so many reasons, not least the loss of nearly two millions lives around the world from the scourge of COVID-19. None wanted to die. The vast majority had families who were left behind to mourn. Yet, because of pandemic restrictions, most were unable to do so, beyond small private remembrances. For the most part, there have been no gatherings to celebrate the life of the departed, proper send-offs which are always such a solace.

And of course, the same has been true for those who did not die from COVID19. We are left alone with our grief.

Very recently, a very good, longtime friend of mine died unexpectedly.  Her death was a terrible shock to myself and the large number of people who knew and loved her. Some of us have been in touch with each other, talking it out, sharing our feelings and memories. One of them forwarded a poem by the late Mary Oliver. It is about death, but….well, just read it. If you are among those who have lost someone close to you this year, may it bring you comfort.

WHITE OWL FLIES INTO AND OUT OF THE FIELD

Coming down

out of the freezing sky

with its depths of light,

like an angel,

or a Buddha with wings,

it was beautiful

and accurate,

striking the snow and whatever was there

with a force that left the imprint

of the tips of its wings—-

five feet apart—-and the grabbing

thrust of its feet,

and the indentation of what had been running

through the white valleys

of the snow —-

* * * *

and then it rose, gracefully,

and flew back to the frozen marshes,

to lurk there,

like a little lighthouse,

in the blue shadows—-

so I thought:

maybe death

isn’t darkness, after all,

but so much light

wrapping itself around us—-

as soft as feathers—-

that we are instantly weary

of looking, and looking, and shut our eyes,

* * * *

not without amazement,

and let ourselves be carried,

as through the translucence of mica,

to the river

that is without the least dapple or shadow—-

that is nothing but light—-scalding, aortal light—-

in which we are washed and washed

out of our bones.

THE BALM OF POETRY #11 MARGARET ATWOOD’S DEARLY

“Poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts.”

Rilke. Quoted by Margaret Atwood.

(Note: apologies to my loyal subscribers, who received a number of tests, as I tried to fix the formatting, so verses would be separated, and each line not appear with a space between them….I failed, so I’ve decided to put asterisks between the verses. Solutions gratefully received….)

Even this perpetually-gloomy Gus has been taken aback by the deepening inroads carved out by the second onslaught of COVID-19. Out here in British Columbia, which was hailed far and wide for its success in fighting off the first wave last spring, the number of new cases and deaths has been higher per-capita than big bad Ontario for some time. And the mood is souring, even in the face of uplifting news from the vaccine front.

That’s a big change from those scary, early months. As we battened down the hatches for the first time, a sense of solidarity and community took root. Balcony arias rang out. In neighbourhoods across Canada, we huzzahed and tattooed pots and pans to hail our heroic health-care workers. Those who dared to stray from lockdown restrictions were called out and shamed. Marooned in their homes, people took up baking, gardening bird-watching, binge-watching The Three Stooges – okay, that was me —  and, of all things, going for daily walks. People shared uplifting songs “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” wrote Shakespeare, who had gone through a pandemic, himself. I did my own bit to calm the nation’s psyche. I started a poetry blog. It lapsed, along with the virus, during our relatively carefree summer.

But now COVID-19  is back, in full fighting form, without nearly as much collective unity. We are frazzed. Worn down and cranky, we are still doing our part by mostly staying home and wearing masks when we do venture out. But we are not happy about it. Even Dr. Bonnie Henry is taking brickbats.

So, yep, it’s time for a return of my celebrated poetry blog. Turning away from one’s smart phone, taking a deep breath and reading a poem or two — preferably not Sylvia Plath or To An Athlete Dying Young — is still hard to beat as a way of soothing the agitated soul. Plus, as Margaret Atwood pointed out, when asked why many turn to poetry in times of trouble: “It’s short.”

The indomitable Atwood does know a thing or two about poetry. Amid all the extraordinary hullabaloo and fame that descended on her so unexpectedly late in life for a book she wrote in the 1980’s, it’s often forgotten that she started out as a poet.  And remains a poet. Recently, I bought Dearly, her first collection of poetry in 13 years. That’s about 50 years after I plunked down five bucks for my first Atwood poetry, a second-hand copy the of The Circle Game, for which she won the Governor-General’s Award in 1966.

Dearly is dedicated to her life partner, Graeme Gibson (“in absentia”), who died in 2019, several years after being diagnosed with vascular dementia. Not surprisingly, there is a sombre, reflective mood in many of the poems, as Atwood, faces the inevitably of her husband’s decline and ages, herself. Of course, Atwood being Atwood, there are also poems about zombies, werewolves, the sex life of slugs and pointed polemics on “Murdered Sisters” and the environmental devastation wrought by plastic. But mostly, they are human poems, meditations on memories, the wonders of nature and the mysteries of love and loss.

In several poems, Atwood admits to struggling to find just the right word, as she drifts from thought to thought. This is not the brilliant, intellectual, often ironic wordsmith whose muse blazed so fiercely in her early poetry. These are simpler poems. Yet they still stir.

This is the book’s affecting title poem, which pretty well speaks for itself.

DEARLY

It’s an old world, fading now.

Dearly did I wish.

Dearly did I long for.

I loved him dearly.

*****

I make my way along the sidewalk

mindfully, because of my wrecked knees

about which I give less of a shit

than you may imagine

since there are other things, more important –

wait for it, you’ll see –

*****

bearing half a coffee

in a paper cup with –

dearly do I regret it –

a plastic lid –

trying to remember what words once meant.

*****

Dearly.

How was it used?

Dearly beloved.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here

in this forgotten photo album

I came across recently.

*****

Fading now,

the sepias, the black and whites, the colour prints,

everyone so much younger.

The Polaroids.

What is a Polaroid? asks the newborn.

Newborn a decade ago.

*****

How to explain?

You took the picture and then it came out the top.

The top of what?

It’s that baffled look I see a lot.

So hard to describe

the smallest details of how –

all these dearly gathered together –

of how we used to live.

We wrapped up garbage

in newspaper tied with string.

What is newspaper?

You see what I mean.

*****

String though, we still have string.

It links things together.

A string of pearls.

That’s what they would say.

How to keep track of the days?

Each one shining, each one alone.

each one then gone.

I’ve kept some of them in a drawer on paper,

those days, fading now.

Beads can be used for counting.

As in rosaries.

But I don’t like stones around my neck.

*****

Along this street there are many flowers,

fading now because it is August

and dusty, and heading into fall.

Soon the chrysanthemums will bloom,

flowers of the dead, in France.

Don’t think this is morbid.

It’s just reality.

*****

So hard to describe the smallest details of flowers.

This is a stamen, nothing to do with men.

This is a pistil, nothing to do with guns.

It’s the smallest details that foil translators

and myself too, trying to describe.

See what I mean.

You can wander away. You can get lost.

Words can do that.

*****

Dearly beloved, gathered here together

in this closed drawer,

fading now, I miss you.

I miss the missing, those who left earlier.

I miss even those who are still here.

I miss you all dearly.

Dearly do I sorry for you.

*****

‘Sorrow’: that’s another word

you don’t hear much any more.

I sorrow dearly.

Whew.

Here is the poet’s own beautiful read of her poem. https://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2020/nov/07/margaret-atwood-reads-her-new-poem-dearly

And here is Atwood’s absorbing description of how the poem came into being, and the times in which it was written. https://www.theguardian.com/books/ng-interactive/2020/nov/07/caught-in-times-current-margaret-atwood-on-grief-poetry-and-the-past-four-years

I love this bit: “Poems are embedded in their time and place. They can’t renounce their roots. But, with luck, they may also transcend them. All that means, however, is that readers who come along later may appreciate them, though doubtless not in the exact way that was first intended. Hymns to the Great and Terrible Mesopotamian Goddess Inanna are fascinating – to me at least – but they don’t cause the marrow to melt in my bones as they might have done for an ancient listener: I don’t think Inanna may appear at any moment and level a few mountains, though I could always be wrong about that.”

A final few words from me. I found it interesting to compare the 25-year old Atwood as reflected in The Circle Game and the Atwood in her late 70s who produced Dearly. The poems couldn’t be more different.

(My copy of The Circle Game, showing a bit of wear and tear)

The Circle Game is challenging, the poems clever, ironic, elusive, dazzling in their density, rewarding in their richness. Not so with Dearly. Over the years, her poetry has simplified itself in a very profound way. There is more of Atwood, more down-to-earth sentiment, even outright belly-laughs. And many are deeply moving.

Recommended.

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ORME PAYNE, VETERAN. PART TWO.

Orme Payne (right) and his boyhood chum Gordon Bannerman (left) enjoy the Italian sunshine, on their first break, after 73 straight days on the line. They were pals for life.

My friend Orme went through a lot in his final years. But when you’ve been through a Depression and a World War, you learn to take things as they come. During our many conversations, he never complained, never felt he was hard done by, even when he experienced the long months of isolation imposed by COVID-19. “I’m confined to barracks” was his matter-of-fact assessment. Over the phone, he was always cheerful. His yarns  and colourful expressions never dried up, aided by a memory that remained intact until the end. And damn, he was funny…

Orme died this past September, his body finally giving up the ghost, after 98 years and five months of a very good life. I miss him terribly.

On Remembrance Day, the first Orme has missed in 75 years, I’m sharing some of his stories and observations from notes I took during our chats, so you can get to know him, too.

Part Two includes a lookback to his boyhood and surviving the Depression in rural Saskatchewan, his time in Holland during the final months of the war and his last few years, when he continued to embrace what life had to offer. It’s become a cliché, but this truly was The Great Generation.

“Dad was a homesteader. We never had any animals. He wanted to be a grain farmer. He broke the first 500 acres with oxen and a team of horses. He got tired of the tail end of the horse, so he bought a Case tractor that made furrows with one-way discs….The CPR went right through the middle of the farm. We got all the railway ties….

“For four or five years in the Depression, we didn’t have two dimes to rub together. We lived in a homestead shack. In the winter, the inside walls had frost right through them…

We had room for either a heater or a Christmas tree. We decided we didn’t want to freeze to death, so we didn’t have a tree. The presents were pretty skimpy.  I got the Christmas list one year, cut it out and hung it on my wall for years….

“A couple of years, it didn’t rain at all. The tumbleweeds were big as Volkswagens. There were these great big monster winds.  They’d blow our fence apart and pile up dust and dirt against the walls. We called them dust devils. They were small cyclones. You could see ‘em coming. They were full of dust, but we’d run towards them, and they would knock us down on our ass…

“My uncle had a little bit of a crop in Fort Steele. He offered me a job for the summer. I also tried some placer mining. But the gold I got wouldn’t fill a thimble….I rode a freight train home. It was scary. I was with my friend Dempey Mitchell. We caught it one night in Cranbrook. A flatcar loaded with lumber. The freight stopped in a little place in the East Rockies. We had 15 cents and a few minutes, so we ran up to a store and bought a can of beans and a loaf of bread. It was a beautiful, sunny day. Dempey tore the end off the sliced bread to make a sandwich, and all the slices flew away like a deck of cards….

“I knew all the farms. It was a great place to tramp around. You could see a day on the prairies a week ahead of time….But we had these long sessions of winter. When I walked to school, it seemed uphill both ways….We played hockey on the creeks and open air rinks. The referees had little bells, not whistles. We had a radio so I could listen to the games from Toronto. The Leafs had The Kid Line. Busher Jackson, Charlie Conacher and Joe Primeau. The games were sponsored by Robin Hood Flour. I heard the very first All-Star Game. It was a benefit for Ace Bailey….the Depression was a pretty bad time. But everyone got along. No one tried to hose their neighbour….”

In early winter 1945, the unit belonging to Orme and his boyhood friend Gordie Bannerman was transferred from Italy to Holland. Right near the end of the war, there was a fierce, unexpected, nighttime encounter with a troop of Germans, who seemed to come upon the Canadians out of nowhere. That night, both Gordie and Orme thought the other had been killed. The next morning, Gordie crossed a field, heading towards Orme’s battlepost, which he’d seen go up I flames. He saw a figure coming towards him. It was Orme. “God, I’m glad to see you, Gordie,” said Orme. “I’d heard that you’d been killed.” And Gordie said: “Yeah, and I’m glad to see you too.” It was a night they never stopped talking about.

“We were sure as hell lucky to come out of that one. They walked right in on us. We were completely unprepared. We had no idea any Germans were in the area. But I had ordered my men to dig holes, anyway. Some didn’t want to do it. But it saved us….How they missed hitting so many of us in the night, I don’t know. One of our guys fought off bayonets with his fists. I emptied a Sten gun into them. But they got away….When the smoke cleared, the Germans were either dead or rounded up. The British tanks came in, and their troops took over….

“One time we met a bunch of refugees. There were wounded kids, old men and women. The Germans had just demolished their village. Scorched earth. We took a couple of prisoners. There was a young sub-lieutenant about my age. I got to feeling sorry for him, then I remembered what he’d done….

“Delfzijl was this nondescript little port town. But the Germans occupied it, and the British generals who lived in chateaus decided we had to take it. I don’t know why. Everyone knew the war was over. We thought we were home free. We lost 30 or 40 men. It was a bloody shame….”

(A couple of Cape Breton Highlanders pose with captured German souvenirs, after finally taking Delfzijl, just three days before the war ended.)

One of my last chats with Orme took place on May 5, the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Pictures of celebrating Canadian troops and jubilant Dutch citizens were everywhere. But it wasn’t like that for Orme.

“When we got word the war was over, we were still in the line. We took it with a grain of salt. We’d just lost some troops, so there wasn’t much of a celebration. Maybe a beer or two. I remember thinking: the one good thing is that we don’t have to dig a hole every night. And you could go to bed and know you weren’t going to be routed out….We were up in the north of the country, a place called Winschoten. The Dutch treated us royally. They were tougher than two-bit steaks….There was also a good major there. He threw a big banquet for us. The only thing I dodged was the fried eel. I dodged that like a bullet….There were also jury-rigged showers. It was like jogging through a car wash….

“We stayed in Holland for six months, but finally made it to London for Christmas. On the way over, we had a poker game on the deck. Everyone was throwing their Italian money into a big pot. High end/low end split. The guy who won picked up the money. Never even counted it. Then he got to England and found out none of it was any good….On my final leave, I had collected 40 or 50 wrist watches from prisoners. But I couldn’t sell a damn one. The market was flooded….The only thing I ever sold was a Luger replica, P38 pistol. I got 22 pounds for it….

“A monster liner took us across the Atlantic. It carried 6,000 men….We landed in New York, and got on the train. A buddy and I took some bread with us and got off in Swift Current. My dad and a neighbour, who had a better car, were there. It was mid-January. Jesus, I’d forgotten how cold it could be….We stepped off the train, into oblivion….”

About 10 years ago, Orme joined one of the annual “return to Holland” trips organized for vets. “The Dutch couldn’t do enough for you. All the old vets were on tanks. The parade must have been three miles long. Women would hand you their kid, say a one-year old. They wanted to be able to tell that child: ‘You touched a man who helped liberate Holland.”

Whenever I ventured he was a hero, Orme scoffed. “Well, it was real alright. You bet it was. There were a couple of times when I was damned sure I wasn’t coming back….But my job was away from the guns, in charge of the signals…You don’t have to be a hero to dig a hole…”

When we began chatting, Orme was still living at home in Port Moody. After a spell in the hospital, he transferred to an assisted-living residence. “I went down from 160 to 125 pounds,” Orme said. “I could stand in the middle of the room, and nobody would notice me.” Still, it didn’t totally slow him down. “I’m doing yoga for an hour, once a week,” he told me. “It’s great.”

He was determined to make it back one more time to his hometown of Neville, Saskatchewan. “Even if they have to strap me to the top of the car,” Orme declared. In May of 2017, he did. “He had a blast,” his daughter Deb reported. The next year, he did it again. Despite breaking both his hips, in September and April, he made it to Neville once more in the fall of 2018, to mark the dedication of the small village’s new cenotaph. “He didn’t want to fly,” said Deb, who shared driving duties with her sister Maureen. “He wanted to see the scenery.”

Orme Paye on the right, as Legion members gather at the cenotaph in Neville, Saskatchewan to honour Orme’s return to his boyhood village at the age of 96. Photo supplied by his daughter Deb.

One journey remained. After his legs gave out for good, he took up residence in the George Derby Care Centre, where many veterans end their years. Yet Orme always sounded hale and hearty. There was no quit in him. Even when the COVID-19 lockdowns cut him off from family visits, he didn’t complain. Self-pity wasn’t in his vocabulary. Not that it was easy.

“They had the ‘flu in here (before the panemic). It went through here like salt through a hired girl. It turned me inside out…But there are a few parts of me that are still not falling off. I turned 97 in April.  No wonder I have a few twinges. Sometimes I feel like an old crow on a post….”

 “In the dining room, there’s two to a table. But some of the people you eat with don’t know if they’re on foot or horseback. It’s tough, but I think I’ve still got one foot in the stirrups…

Then COVID-19 hit. “We can’t go anywhere. I’m confined to barracks….My daughters sit on camp chairs outside in a little park. I’m on the inside, on the phone. That’s the way we have to talk….But you don’t run into any tanks in here….”

He turned 98 in April. “They brought in a birthday parcel for me. I opened it, and my daughters looked on through the back window. We were apart….I got some nice cards, too. That’s a good reason to live a little longer….I feel good, but when you get over the hump, you start going downhill….”

The end came on Sept. 6.  “The nurse and social workers all came to say good-bye,” said Deb.

Two years earlier, after the death of Gordie Bannerman, his pal of 85 years, Orme had reflected on the toll taken by the passage of time. “The veterans have been dropping like flies. Our ranks are thinning. I’m the last one I know of from all of us who signed up at Aneroid. The last one standing to deliver the news…”

And now Orme is gone, too. Rest in Peace, my friend.

Remembrance Day at George Derby, 2019.

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ORME PAYNE, VETERAN. PART ONE.

Orme Payne on Remembrance Day, 2019, at George Derby.

I lost a good friend of mine this fall. Orme Payne, who fought in Italy and Holland during World War Two, passed away at the George Derby Care Home in Burnaby. He was 98 years and five months young, and I use the word “young” advisedly. Through the years, no matter how rough a time the rest of him was having, the strength of his voice never wavered, his mind and memory remained razor sharp, and he never failed to make me laugh. So, Remembrance Day in this most terrible of years will be even more sombre for me than usual. I will be thinking of Orme. 

I first met him in 2015, when I wrote a Remembrance Day story for the Globe and Mail on the long, remarkable friendship between Orme and his boyhood prairie buddy, Gordie Bannerman. The two first bonded on a dusty ball diamond in southern rural Saskatchewan at the age of 12. Gordie pitched. Orme caught. “I was the only one with a glove,” said Orme. “But no mask. Took a couple on the nose. Lost a lot of blood.”

They went through school together, joined the army on July 23, 1940 (their enlistment numbers are one digit apart), fought in the same regiment right through the war, came back safe and sound, and remained in close contact with each other for the next 73 years. How close were they? Shortly after Gordie fell and broke his left leg, Orme fell and broke his right. “When it happened to Gordie, I thought to myself: ‘that clumsy old coot.’ Six months later it happened to me,” Orme said. “We figured things out. If we put our two legs together, we’d be perfect for a three-legged race.”

Their friendship only ended, 85 years after it began, when Gordie died in 2018. “The last thing I heard out of him was a joke about Bill Mather losing his gum in the chicken house, back in Neville,” Orme told me. “It’s hard to believe he’s gone.”

You can read my Globe story on the two old vets here: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/brothers-in-arms-a-friendship-that-has-endured-long-after-their-warended/article27197709/

Gordon Bannerman (left) and Orme Payne (right), getting together in 2015. John Lehmann Photo.

After the story appeared, Orme and I warmed to each other with regular chats over the phone. Talking with him was always a delight. He was not like some veterans who, as they aged, had trouble remembering details beyond their oft-told war stories. His memory was a treasure. You could ask him about anything, no matter how far back, and he would produce names, dates and details, as if he’d been telling the story for years. As a bonus, there were always jokes or expressions that cracked me up. I started taking notes.

I reviewed them after Orme died, and I could still hear his voice and the down-to-earth way he talked loud and clear. It was pure prairie, sprinkled at times with pure poetry. He could pop expressions better than Charlie Farquharson. 

For instance: “I haven’t been to a restaurant since Caesar was a cadet.” Or: “My daughter Deb goes back and forth like a fiddler’s elbow.” Or: “Those guys had more guts than a government mule.” Or: “He was tougher than a two-bit steak in Saskatoon.” Or: “That election (2016) was as a crooked as a dog’s hind leg.” Or: “The night was blacker than the insides of a cow.” Or: “I was scrawny as hell. You could hold me up and see the scenery right through me.” Or: “This friend of mine managed a company called Neidersauser. Its name sounded like a sneeze.” You get the picture. My notes made me miss him even more. It was as if our conversations were still going on.

I’d like to share some of them with you. As Orme said of Gordie, it’s hard to believe he’s gone.

First, a bit of bio.  He was born in the southern Saskatchewan village of Neville. A farm boy in a family of seven, he weathered the Depression, and joined the army at 18, as a member of the 60th Field Battery. (“I was lucky to get a meal in those days. The war was an escape.”) He became a Sergeant in the Signals Corp, responsible for laying vital communication lines between lookout and command posts and headquarters. After the war, he left Saskatchewan behind, settled down in Port Moody, worked, married and helped raise his three kids. He was a stalwart of the Legion, briefly on city council, a champion snooker player, and a golfer. At the age of 86, he accomplished the rare feat of shooting his age. Twice! “I learned to play in my granddad’s pasture. I had an old one-iron with a hickory shaft that I got from my dad,” Orme told me. “I used it for everything, from driver right down to putter.  I ended up giving it to the local museum.”

Orme played hockey, too. In fact, he was on the army team that took on his boyhood heroes, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were barnstorming in Holland. They didn’t all make the trip, but their legendary netminder Turk Broda was in goal. “I hadn’t been on skates in five years, and the ones I got didn’t fit me,” said Orme, “but there I was, coming down the left wing. I got a shot on goal, and he stopped it. Someone told me later: ‘That’s your claim to fame. A shot on Turk Broda.’”

There’s a lot more about Orme’s boyhood and surviving the Depression (“the tumbleweeds were big as Volkswagens”), including a harrowing trip riding the rails from Fort Steele back to Neville. But this is Remembrance Day, and Orme was a vet. Naturally, our conversations often turned to the war. We didn’t talk much about the battles. We talked about what it was like. So, let’s start there.

“There were good days and terrible days…We landed in Naples. People were poor as church mice, rats everywhere. They say ‘see Naples and die.’ I don’t know which was better to come first….All our trucks and equipment were second-hand throwaways from the British 8th Army, but we had a bunch of prairie kids who could make anything run….The first day I saw action, it was scary as hell. You could hear the shells exploding long before we got there….I always made sure to tell everyone to dig a hole (slit trench) whenever we got to a place, but we were sometimes 10 miles from the front line and not everyone could be bothered. One night, a barrage came in on us and one shell blew off somebody’s leg 300 yards right through the air and onto a tank. I’ve never seen anyone dig so fast, after that…You could get killed going to your own cookshack….

“There were a lot of (Indigenous) guys with us. They were tough as boiled owls. They could sneak around where a white man couldn’t. We would often drink with them. But after all they did in the war, they weren’t allowed in the beer parlours back home…It wasn’t right…

“We had a few real bad scenes. Sometimes you felt you couldn’t hang on. We had one kid. He shouldn’t have been in the army at all. A damn good man with a notebook and phone, but not with a gun. We were at the foot of a ridge. A barrage came in, and he disappeared in a bunch of black smoke. Imagine that. And it didn’t even touch me. Geez, I was so lucky, so goddamned lucky. Really, all it was was a roll of the dice….

Orme Payne receiving a momento (foreground) of the Italian campaign in 2017 from MP Fin Donnelly. He was one of only three survivors in BC to be so honoured.

“I was a signals sergeant. I had three stripes, two bits an hour and a gun. We were often out there at night, in a strange land….We had a good crew, 24 of them. But they were shelling us so badly, they kept hitting the lines. After that, we decided to lay two lines, and I used to get hell for using so much line….There were three or four guys in my unit who could do most anything. Completely reliable. They were under fire all the time, but they didn’t get a mark on them. Then, they came home and shot themselves….I know this war had to be fought, but it was a terrible thing to have been through…Thinking back, they had to take a bunch of kids off the farm and turn them into a bunch of kids who could kill someone…

“On my 22nd birthday, I got 48-hour leave, with my good friend Jack Beckwith. We were on the Adriatic, so we decided to go swimming. We jumped in. Holy Mackerel! It was so cold, I had icicles on me for a week. But it sure refreshed you in a hurry. Jack survived the war and our cold swim. But long after the war, he drowned. A real good guy, he was a postmaster….

“One Christmas, we were in the line. We took turns for dinner. It was pretty meagre. But we all got a bottle of beer. The officers got a bottle of whiskey….The Brits provided our food. It was all dehydrated, the cheapest of everything. American rations were so much better….We went across one river after another. We had D-8 ‘cats. Shells would come in, a guy would get shot off, and the next guy would step right in. They had more guts than a government mule….

“The last position we had was at Mazzano, near Venice. It really rained. Our sleeping bags were wet. But we had wool uniforms. They kept you warm. The Americans all had cotton. They damn near froze to death. Some of their teeth are probably still chattering…”

The hard, bloody fighting in Italy got none of the attention or glamour of D-Day. Those who took part enthusiastically embraced the sardonic song, “D-Day Dodgers”.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKmzyIq1U10. “I know every verse,” said Orme.

Lifelong friends. Gordie and Orme relaxing in the warm Italian sun, finally getting a break after 73 straight days on the line taking on crack German troops. I love this photo.

After the Allied victory, Orme and Gordie’s unit was transferred to Holland, where the Germans were dug in against advancing Canadian troops. Casualties were heavy.

To be continued, with Orme’s accounts of the war in Holland, growing up during the Depression and life at George Derby, under restrictions imposed by COVID-19….

LOOKING THROUGH THOSE GOOD OLD KOOTENAY PAPERS — PART TWO

I’M BACK! Just to recap. I recently spent two weeks travelling through BC’s fascinating West Kootenays, in those halcyon days before the election call and the second wave of COVID-19. As I always do when somewhere else, I sought out local newspapers, just as the New York Times’ brilliant media reporter David Carr used to do. It was sad to see how diminished they were. The good news, however, is that they still exist, still employ reporters and continue to serve their communities.

Let us return to those thrilling times of yestermonth and sample a few of the tasty tidbits I gleaned from the region’s remaining newspapers. I hope you like them as much as I did.

.What’s for sale at the Lumby Public Market? According to the Lumby Valley Times, which has replaced the beloved Lumby Logger, you can find “Homemade masks, homemade jams, homemade yummy pies made with fresh fruit, homemade Jewelry, Homemade Purses. Also Doggie Cookies, Nail Polish and photography on tote bags.” My companion sniffed at all those delights, opting, instead, for seven used, coloured golf balls. “A bargain,” she said.

The highly-esteemed Lumby Public Market. Golf balls at the far end. (Lucie McNeill photo)

Each year, Richard Cannings, the only Okanagan ornithologist in the House of Commons, spends some of the lazy, hazy days of summer touring his scenic South Okanagan-West Kootenay riding by bicycle. His down-to-earth reports were carried in local newspapers. In addition to the minor stuff about all the meetings he had, he kept followers up to date with the culinary highlights of his seven-day odyssey.

They included an ice-cream stop in Okanagan Falls, lunch in Oliver, pizza in Rock Creek, supper at the new Keg and Kettle Grill in Midway, a sidewalk patio lunch in Grand Forks, a celebratory milkshake on a hot day in Christina Lake, lunch with the mayor of Rossland, coffee in Trail, a stop at the Ruala Café in Fruitvale, a pub dinner in Rossland, a late lunch in Silverton, and finally, lunch at the Frog Peak Café in Crescent Park (I ate there, too. Recommended!) Amid his biking and modest noshing, “Milkshake Cannings” found time to canvass constituents and officials on a myriad local matters dear to their hearts. “As usual, I learned a lot from residents along the way and renewed my appreciation of what a beautiful part of the world we live in,” he wrote. According to ye olde odometer, the folksy politician cycled a total of 433 kilometres, between Naramata and South Slocan, not much of it on flat terrain. What a guy.

A fond farewell was posted in the Boundary Creek Times: “Hugs to Hardy and Rick Scott as they head into retirement after selling My Udder Store in Greenwood. Thanks for your 30 years of service to the community.”

In the Grand Forks Gazette: Carpenter Tony Kost explained his presence at a sustainable logging demonstration: “I’m here for my great-great-great grandchildren.” Clearly, an optimist this battered old world will survive that long.  And from the paper’s Archives of 1920: “John Watt of Portland, Ore. has been spending a few days in Grand Forks this week trying to get Doukhobors interested in a land scheme in Mexico. Mr. Watt represents a large estate of 220,000 acres in Rodriquez, Mexico…” Sure, he did…

Reception area of the 110-year old Grand Forks Gazette.

From the Arrow Lakes News: The people of Nakusp are being asked to name a new housing development that will include seniors. Speaking as an old coot, myself, my vote goes to one of the early suggestions. Koots Roots.

In the Nelson Star, there was a fetching story by Tyler Harper about plucky, 10-year Lily Nay. The young girl was born with Down syndrome, but did that mean she couldn’t swim across Kootenay Lake? Not at all.  Her mom Fiona may not be able to  swim a lick, but Lily is in the water every day.  “On a gloomy September morning, when tourists abandoned the lake to fish and osprey, Lily put on her wetsuit and went to the water,” Harper wrote.

The crossing was not without its stops and starts. But promise of pizza on the other side and heartfelt coaxing from her 20-year old friend Ida Jenns, who swam every stroke by her side, did the trick. Swimming the kilometer and a half from the tip of Kaslo took Lily just over an hour. “When she could stand up, she reached for Ida who carried her the final steps to the beach….Lily took off her wetsuit, wrapped herself in a towel and huddled with Ina, who rubbed her back.” The lake, she said, was just a big pool. “A big pool made small by a very special girl.”  Nicely done, Tyler Harper.

There was also a feature by veteran Nelson reporter Bill Metcalfe on 14-year old high school students, Ginger Osecki and Calypso Blackman. Every Friday, for the past year, the two girls have stood on the sidewalk outside city hall, calling attention, à la Greta Thunberg, to the danger of climate change.   “If we don’t do this, the future is going to be bad, but if we keep it up, hopefully things will change,” said Blackman. “I feel that if we don’t keep the momentum up, keep striking, no one will.”

So they continue to withstand hostilities from climate change deniers, including someone who threw a cup of coffee at them, and indifference even from their own schoolmates. “They think it’s stupid or a waste of time,” Blackman sighed. “They don’t think we are accomplishing anything.” There’s also the weather. “We got discouraged in the winter, and when it’s pouring rain,” said Osecki. “But it’s worth it.”  Not all students are uninterested. Said 14-year old Mason Voykin: “It is incredible they take that much time and effort for a year, for hours on end. Even if most people are just rushing by, it’s astounding.” So on they go. Will they persevere for another year? “We’ll try our hardest,” vowed Osecki , with that inspiring determination of youth.

Louden Wainwright III may have sung about a “dead skunk in the middle of the road”, but Tracy Chivers encountered a live one in the middle of the road. The poor creature was beset by plastics. Tracy recounted what happened next in a letter to the editor. “With some beautiful love from neighbours, we managed to shift the little thing toward me to hold it down, take off multiple 7-11 lids, and lastly a container around its face.” But not before injuring herself, as she charged towards the ailing skunk. “I’m nursing a swollen cheek and chin, for that matter, my whole left side that skidded across the road in hopes of saving this poor skunk!” she told readers of the Star. Was it worth it? You bet!  “After many weeks of trying, all I can feel is absolute elation of the skunk’s freedom of plastic,” said his heroic rescuer. And there was no need for tomato juice…

Rest in Peace, Roderick Murray (Mur) Pearson of Kalso, who died suddenly at age 63, while fly fishing at his favourite spot on Fry Creek near Kootenay Lake.  According to his obit, “Mur” bounced around a bit, before “finding his sweet spot outdoors with a 31-year career as the custodian for the Meadow Creek spawning channel” (a wonderful site, by the way…). He loved sports, particularly baseball. During a trip to Panama, he knocked on the door of former big leaguer Chico Salmon to talk about his few years with the Baltimore Orioles, and his brief appearance in the famous 1969 World Series, when the Miracle Mets knocked off the heavily-favoured Orioles. I especially like this bit: “He did his part for the environment by not owning a car for probably 40 years, and although he had a casual awareness of technology, he never owned a phone or a computer.” My kind of guy.

In recognition of his many years as a local coach and “appreciation for his character”, the Murray Pearson Ball Park is now named in his honour. A celebration of his life was held beside the park on Sept. 26 and live streamed all over Kaslo. “Mur” was one of those people who leaves such a mark on their community, just by being himself.

While we’re remembering the dead, let’s also salute Jean Kathleen Grevstad, who died in Nelson at 92.  During a long, accomplished banking career, she became the first female bank manager in Western Canada. “What a trail blazer!” her obit proclaimed. Raised by foster parents on a farm in Pleasantdale, Saskatchewan, “she always remembered her horse and her dog and remained a prairie girl at heart.” In her 80s, she tracked down the identity of her birth mother and met her long-lost sisters. A life well lived.

They take COVID-19 seriously here.

Meanwhile, of course, COVID-19 has had its impact on the Kootenays, too. Some examples follow.

** Normally, the opening of an impressive, $19 million, new Emergency Department at the local hospital in Trail would be an occasion for celebration, speeches and ribbon cutting. “Instead, a handful of staff gathered outside to mark the day with a masked-up cheer,” reported the Trail Times, whose own reporter was told to stay away.

** The pandemic has been tough on the Inonoaklin Valley Reading Centre in Edgewood. It’s been closed since the first COVID shutdown in March. The Centre’s annual fund-raising plant sale also had to be cancelled, costing it hundreds of dollars in revenue. (Some late breaking news: the reading centre has just re-opened, staffed by volunteers. “We will be having hand sanitizer that people can use when they enter the facility,” said treasurer Penelope Penner. Yay!)

** Fewer than 50 international students are enrolled at Selkirk College in Castlegar this fall, a third of the normal number. Wondering how they get there, in these days of restricted travel? According to the Trail Times, they fly to Kelowna, get picked up by a shuttle bus, then driven to the Sandman Hotel for their 14-day quarantines, forced to watch mind-numbing TV and spend endless hours on their phones. Meals are dropped off at the hotel. No picnic.

** The annual Fall Fair in Creston was replaced by a month-long photo campaign.

** Despite the pandemic, the Kootenay-International Junior B Hockey League plans to begin its season on Nov. 13. Missing in action will be the Spokane Braves, Beaver Valley Nitehawks, and the 100 Mile House Wranglers. There will be no fans in the stands to roast the ref.

** Skiers at the popular Red Mountain Resort near Rossland  will be required to wear masks this winter, except when eating at a restaurant or dodging death on the slopes. Mixing with anyone outside your wintry bubble is verboten.

** But Baldface Lodge, the well-known cat ski resort in the Selkirk Mountains, will remain closed. Goodbye, 110 jobs. “I’m sad for all my employees, all my friends,” said disheartened owner Jeff Pensiero. “This is a pretty tight-knit group and that’s why more than anything, I made the call early.”  

Good news for Kalesnikoff Lumber in Castlegar. (That’s “Kalesnikoff”….not, you know, that Russian rifle name…). The mill recently specialized production to take advantage of more buildings being built of wood these days. Smart move. Kalesnikoff has now secured three major contracts to supply “fir glulam beams” to these innovative projects: a new elementary school in Kitsilano, a student residence and dining hall at the University of Victoria and an 8-story building for Humber College in Toronto. Yahoo.

It may only have been a by-election for a single spot on the school board in tiny Nakusp, but to winner Steve Gascon, the outcome was as big as any in the recent provincial election. “I was pretty nervous and my emotions were wavering between confidence and insecurity throughout the day,” the local pastor told the Arrow Lakes News . “After I saw the results, I was overcome with happiness and excitement.” There’s no truth to reports that a golden shaft of light descended from heaven when the vote totals were announced.

So that’s a nice positive note on which to end our short snippets of life in the Kootenays. Plus this heartfelt plea: please support local journalism. It’s never been more important.

LOOKING THROUGH THE KOOTENAY PAPERS

(The first of two parts….be still your beating heart.)

I spent two rewarding weeks last month travelling the highways and communities of BC’s historic West Kootenays. As I always do when on the road, I looked for local newspapers to give me a sense of what was happening in the places where my squeaky sneakers touched down. At the same time, I still wanted to keep up with events in the rest of the province. Unfortunately, and I’m not sure I should have been surprised, I could not find a single, big-city daily east of the Okanagan.  No Sun, no Province, no National Post (yay! oops….), no Globe and Mail.

So it was a local newspaper or nothing. They were a mixed bag. The good news is that they still exist, informing their communities and bringing local issues to the forefront. Some have thriving letters-to-the-editor sections, lively opinion pages containing the proverbial raft of views, and, of course, the news. Hats off to their dedicated reporters and editors, keeping alive the tradition of serving the public.

Yet there was sadness, too, remembering the days before social media, when Nelson, Cranbrook and Trail had robust local dailies and the smaller towns had solid weeklies. How these communities are better served by social media and short attention spans remains a mystery.

Herewith are a round-up of tasty tidbits  from the Kootenay’s remaining local newspapers. I hope they give you a sense of what’s been doing in those scenic hinterlands, far from the city lights of Vancouver.

Let’s start with the best. It would be hard to top this delightful item from the Archive Column of the Sept. 24 Boundary Creek Times. Dated Aug. 23, 1917, it read: “Archie Aberdeen went to work at the Mother Lode mine this week. Being 88 years young, he is probably the oldest working miner in the world. Archie was never much of a meat eater, but still drinks a little whiskey. He is a great smoker, and smokes before breakfast every morning. He is of a cheerful disposition and does not worry.”

So great. So great in fact that I wanted to know more about the remarkable, 88-year old miner. I mentioned Archie Aberdeen to Donna Sacuta, crackerjack researcher with the BC Labour Heritage Centre, and she pointed me to the Castlegar News, which had compiled a list of area pioneers who turned 100 in the first half of the 20th century. Guess who?

“The first, both chronologically and alphabetically, was Archie Aberdeen, a Boundary prospector who became a centenarian on June 10, 1929, despite never visiting a doctor or tasting medicine,” wrote the newspaper’s Greg Nesteroff. . “The Edinburgh-born Aberdeen was the youngest in a family of 16 and left home age 14 to begin prospecting.

“He wandered Europe and Asia, then came to Canada in the early 1860s where he panned for gold on the Fraser River, worked in the Nanaimo coal mines, and holidayed in Gastown before it became Vancouver. He never made a big strike, but it didn’t bother him.

“What good is money anyway, if you have a sack of flour, a little bacon and a shack over your head?” he told a reporter when he was 99. “I remember in Montana once, when my pockets were filled with gold dust I wasn’t able to get a thing to eat for four days. What use was my gold to me then?”

These are the kind of treasures we are losing, as local newspapers diminish. They have always provided an essential  record of lives lived and important community events. As anyone who has browsed through newspaper archives knows, they are a gold mine for historians and us amateurs seeking a window into the past. Pick a date, any date, and the local newspaper of the time will tell you so much about was going on, often in wonderful detail. Try finding that on social media.

Onward. I was pretty impressed by the independently-owned, twice-weekly publication, The Valley Voice, “delivered to every home between Edgewood, Kaslo & South Slocan”. Of all the papers I looked at, it was the most rewarding, chock full of news and views.

The front page celebrated Nakusp Citizen of the Year, Janis Dahlen. “She worked at Overwaitea for 30 years [and] was chair of the July 1st Committee when the Duck Race began,” reported Jan McMurray of the Voice. Okay, it was not just because of the Duck Race, but that was mentioned first. Ms. Dahlen was also was on the board of the Figure Skating Club for 15 years, a village councillor for 12 years, a director of the Union of BC Municipalities, president of the Association of the Kootenay Boundary Local Governments, a longtime volunteer for Meals on Wheels,  AND a foster parent , with husband Dan, to more than 50 (!) children over the years. Whew. In other words, she was the kind of person whose value to a community is beyond measure. About all that foster parenting, she said: “It takes a village to raise a child, and there’s no better place than Nakusp to do that.” Give this woman the Order of BC!

Mystery solved. Hiking the marvelous Kaslo River Trail, I couldn’t help noticing a whack of weird sculptures along the way – eerie faces peeking out from rocks and odd-looking people in equally odd poses. What the…., wondered I. Turns out, according to the Voice, they are quite recent, and meant to represent a form of “Hide and Seek”, created by three sculptors from idyllic Argenta, Yvonne Boyd, Christopher Petersen and Spring Shine (a name for the ages…). The group has placed earlier installations in Castlegar and Meadow Creek, where the fresh water Kokanee Salmon spawn. They call their series “Discover the Koots”. And we did.

(Photo by Lucie McNeill)

Everything’s up to date in Slocan City. Nestled at the south end of majestic Slocan Lake, the village has dipped deep into its shallow pockets to buy 20 acres of vacant waterfront that were formerly the site of a large sawmill. Price tag: $1.5 million. That’s a lot of moolah for a tiny community of just 270 hardy souls, and it has put them $845,000 into the red. But what a bold thing to do. Resident Daphne Fields hailed the move in a letter to the newspaper: “So, three cheers for the restoration and development to come and may the public who, let’s face it, with sufficient information and our wonderful Canadian backbone, ingenuity and integrity, usually knows best, take full advantage of the propitiousness of our times, in partnership with a very progressive Village office!” And when was the last time you saw someone use the word “propitiousness”?

(Waterfront site of the former sawmill that has just been bought by small but mighty Slocan.)

Less happily, the “COVID-is-a-hoax folks” were in full, nonsensical blather in the letters section. “Yes, hoax”, ranted a reader from Winlaw, endorsing the views of fellow hoaxers. “Stop listening to CBC propaganda…By the way, vaccine companies have impunity from lawsuits if their vaccines maim or kill…which they do. Wake up, people!” A perplexed science teacher wrote that she has been reading the letters carefully, but can’t, for the life of her, figure out what the hoax is, or who is benefitting from it. However, she did note that one letter writer explained that the hoax was being perpetrated by Bill Gates “as a vehicle to lead the world in a predetermined direction: an end to humanity as we’ve known it and a fusion of the human brain with artificial intelligence (A1), under 24/7 surveillance controlled by a draconian social credit system.” Antennas available on request. A failing grade to the Voicefor printing such dangerous rubbish, a distressing debate I also found in the pages of The Nelson Star.

Many of you may think Zeballos, where my father taught school in 1939, is the only BC municipality that starts with “zed”.  You would be wrong. Step forward, mighty Zincton. Not only is the West Kootenay ghost town a real dot on the map, it’s got tongues a-waggin’. David  Hurley founder of the much-admired Valhalla Pure Outfitters outdoor apparel business, has big plans for the mountains overlooking Zincton, 15 km. east of sleepy New Denver. He’s gunning for a 55-square kilometer ski resort, with its own village, owner-built cabins, a luxury lodge, three lifts, downhill ski runs and vast stretches of pure, backcountry skiing.  The West Kootenays economy can’t be left to die, says Hurley. Either this goes ahead “or we become a truck stop on the way to Nakusp.” A dire fate, indeed.

Many environmentalists are aghast at the project, decrying the threat to pristine wilderness and local grizzlies. The controversy prompted a half-page letter to the editor from Hurley, who told readers that the project will use “clean and silent” hydrogen buses for transportation and a “grow-op co-op”. It is the Kootenays, after all. If the ill-fated Jumbo Ski Resort is any indication, expect to hear a lot more about Zincton.

The old folks are taking over. “Senior growth is the new normal, and the youth population is shrinking,” says a housing report by the Central Kootenay Regional District. I wonder if the purported COVID-19 exodus from pricey Vancouver might change that. But beware. The report adds that affordable housing remains a problem throughout the region, particularly rental accommodation for those on low-incomes. “There is a lot of concern that people who have traditionally been able to afford housing are increasingly being pushed out,” the report says. Big city problems in small town B.C.

Meanwhile, Kaslo recorded its first case of COVID-19, Nakusp is short of doctors, the Arrow Lakes Caribou Society wants to capture females from the near-extinct Nakusp herd and keep them safe in enclosed pens for birthing and raising their wee ones, Kaslo Sourdough is close to perfecting sourdough spaghetti to meet pent-up customer demand, and longtime Kaslo resident Doris Amy Christine Drayton, who zip-lined in Hawaii to celebrate her 100th birthday, passed away at the incredible age of 107. As was noted in her obituary, she experienced two pandemics, 102 years apart.

Other highlights:

The Boundary Creek Times, which charmingly still includes the week’s TV listings, published candidate statements for a council seat by-election in Greenwood. Hopeful Charlene Izuka noted her father was interned in Greenwood 80 years earlier and chose to stay.  “I am running with my family’s name, which is an untarnished name.” She came third.

No local paper is complete without a pet story. In the Grand Forks Gazette, readers learned that “Nacho” the cat came back, just as in Fred Penner’s renowned children’s song, but it was not quite the very next day. Nacho took five days to make his return, after a stint “in the surrounding wilds”. This was Nacho’s second mad dash to the great outdoors in the past month. According to his family, despite repeated bestowal of cat treats, Nacho meows frequently to be let out. “He lives with four dogs who enjoy chasing him around his city home.” No wonder he’s always scratching at the door….

There is conflict at Bare Ass Beach, “where clothing is optional,” says the Gazette. A family camping there is refusing to leave. That, apparently, is not optional, and, at last report, the city was seeking an injunction to get their asses outta there, bare or otherwise.

To be continued….

THE BALM OF POETRY #10 — BOB DYLAN AND THE “SIN” OF ANGER

Black Lives Matter is everywhere, in a way we haven’t seen since the civil rights marches of the 1960s. The outpouring of rage and demands for real change have travelled well beyond the United States, forcing country after country to confront its own treatment of racial minorities. Being old, it has sent me back to those earlier protest days when, basically for the first time, discrimination, crimes and injustices, which had been inflicted on Blacks in the U.S. since the end of the Civil War without much notice, became widespread rallying cries for Freedom at last. They hit a high water mark with the massive March on Washington in the late summer of 1963.

Reaction in the South was fierce. Dogs, fire hoses and police clubs were unleashed against peaceful marchers. Blacks were attacked by mobs of angry whites. And there were cold-blooded killings. One of the most prominent victims was Medgar Evers, a defiant, high-profile Black leader in Mississippi. His chilling murder, by a hidden, white assailant as Evers stood in his front yard, shocked America. Within days, Bob Dylan, then at the height of his protest song-writing prowess, had penned a reaction. Only a Pawn in Their Game is not an uplifting, resistance song in the manner of We Shall Overcome. It is an intensely angry song. Instead of the killer, Dylan daringly focuses his anger on the white power structure of the South, itself, which manipulates “poor whites” to take out the frustration of their own miserable lives on Blacks. The nameless trigger-man can’t be blamed. He’s only a pawn in their game.

It’s amazing to think he wrote this startling song when he was barely 22, a mere few years removed from his senior high school year in Hibbing, Minnesota. Less than a month after Evers’ murder, Dylan was singing it at a voter registration rally in rural Mississippi.

Six weeks after that, Dylan was invited to sing at the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King delivered his unforgettable speech, “I Have a Dream.” Before crowds that stretched as far as the eye could see, Dylan chose to reprise Only a Pawn in Their Game. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KY2lQV3ADfc

march-on-washington-for-jobs-and-freedom-1

Dylan stopped singing the song in 1964, as he moved away from protest, and it’s fair to say it’s been pretty well forgotten over the years. But returning to it nearly 60 years later, I was struck by just how powerful it remains. Short, pithy words. Incessant, pulsating rhyme. Strong enough, methinks, to include its lyrics as poetry, without resurrecting the tired argument over whether Dylan is a poet or a songwriter, or, of course, both.

ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME

A bullet from the back of a bush
Took Medgar Evers’ blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game

A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin, ” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used, it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoofbeats pound in his brain
And he’s taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide ‘neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain
Only a pawn in their game

Christopher Ricks, an eminent scholar of Victorian poetry, who can quote reams of Tennyson or Housman at the drop of a pen, is a fervent admirer of Bob Dylan. His book, Dylan’s Visions of Sin, is a fascinating, detailed examination of his output as literature and poetry, grounded in the poets of the past. Lest you dismiss Ricks as some sort of pompous pseud, he is a former professor of poetry at Oxford, lauded by no less than the late W.H. Auden as “exactly the kind of critic every poet dreams of finding”. In the book, he organizes specific Dylan songs into biblical categories: the seven deadly sins, the four cardinal virtues and the three heavenly graces.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dylan%27s_Visions_of_Sin

For Anger, one of the seven sins, Ricks discusses just one song: Only a Pawn in their Game.

(Note: This is about a different time. It is not designed in any way to reflect what is happening in the streets today.)

 

THE BALM OF POETRY #9 MACHU PICCHU, PATRICK LANE AND ME

Sometimes you luck out. So it was that a mere few months before the treacherous COVID-19 virus swept the world, including South America, I was fortunate enough to finally visit Machu Picchu, the spectacular, fabled Inca citadel high in the Andes Mountains. In spite of worries that I might be disappointed, given sky-high expectations and those gazillions of dazzling photos, the site more than lived up to its magical reputation. I was overwhelmed.

(Rod Mickleburgh photo)

There was so much more to take in than the famous Temple of the Sun and adjacent peak of Huayna Picchu, which towers over the ruins and anchors all those familiar, panoramic views. Unlike other Inca sites, Machu Picchu is quite well-preserved, since it was never discovered and plundered by the Conquistadores, before abandoned and swallowed up by the jungle. It was saved by its remoteness and status as a royal estate, rather than a heavily-populated, fortified city. Photographs don’t convey the vastness of Machu Picchu, just how spectacular its surroundings really are, and the many fascinating structures off the well-worn paths of the mandatory guided tours. There’s also the bonus of an up-close glimpse of the Incas’ astounding terracing, which managed, as I read somewhere, to turn mountainous terrain into an agricultural “bread basket”. No wonder I didn’t want to leave. That may be why there are no bathrooms on site – as a crowd-control measure designed to force lingering tourists like myself to finally head for the exit.

(The Temple of the Sun — Rod Mickleburgh photo)

I also fell under the spell of the Incas, themselves, of whom I knew little more than the basics, before touring their magnificent stomping grounds in south-eastern Peru. There is so much to admire. Like the Romans, they were ingenious builders. They preferred negotiation over military conquest, and their basic economy was communal. Citizens exchanging military obligations for guaranteed supplies of food and security. Yet their sprawling, sophisticated empire, the largest in the Americas, lasted barely more than a hundred years. Tragically, they were done in by smallpox and a few hundred ruthless, gold-thirsty Spaniards, who had horses, armour and guns. When the Inca fought, they lost. When they tried to buy peace, they were tricked and betrayed by their deceitful conquerers. It’s a heartbreaking saga.

The late Canadian poet Patrick Lane spent several years travelling in South America in the early 1970s, when one could wander the site at will and sleep there overnight. He, too, fell under the spell of the Inca and Machu Picchu. He wrote this poem for the long-gone literary publication Blackfish in 1973. I liked it before, and now, having visited Machu Picchu, myself, I like it even more. (Note: Manco Capac was a king of the Incas. Cuzco was their capital, where remnants of their magnificent stone walls and foundations are still used. And Patrick spells “Machu” with two c’s….)

 

MACCHU PICCHU

(for Earle Birney)

I

THE HITCHING POST OF THE SUN

Father Condor, take me,

Brother Falcon, take me,

Tell my little mother I am coming,

For five days I have not eaten, or drank a drop,

Father messenger, bearer of signs, swift messenger,

Carry me off, I beg you, little mouth, little heart,

Tell my little father and little mother, I beg you,

that I am coming.

Condemned lovers death song.

From the Quechua.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Standing on the highest rung of the city

we place our hands on polished stone

that was a hitching-post for the sun.

Now there is nothing but silence.

We watch the sun fall into the Andes.

 

The first cold shafts of night

reach into the river far below.

In a gathering mist I feel

we are growing out of

the body of something dead.

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

Today we lay in the Temple of Virgins

as centuries filled our mouths with moss.

They have stripped away the jungle.

They have torn the winding cloths.

They have scattered bones to the wind.

 

Strangers walk through the ruins.

They talk of where they come from,

where they are going.

As we lay in the roofless room

they stoned a snake.

 

It crawled out of the earth

to lie in the brilliant sun.

Coils of its body like plaited hair,

eyes of cracked stones. They left it

broken, draped on a fallen wall.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

We have been cursed with dreams.

This city was meant to be lost.

Those who died here did not want it to be found.

I pick up our blanket and find a place

to sleep in the Temple of the Sun.

 

But even he has hidden his face…

yellow bruise of light, lost to us,

who could heal everything.

we began when the sun fell.

Now there is nothing but shadows.

 

I imagine women moving with their men.

They surround us with their eyes,

here in the high Andes

in a city that was lost and found again

by men who came to unhitch the sun.

 

II

 

THE VIRGIN OF THE SUN

 

In the jungle tombs they found only women.

One held a child in her womb; her hands

like roots, wrapped around his face.

There were no men.

The city belonged to the Virgins of the Sun.

One by one the tombs were broken,

the jungle torn away:

 

Manco Capac

and his Incas dead.

The empire fallen.

 

Here they tied the sun at the end of seasons.

Here they tilled the soil under the eyes

of warriors who stood between the portals

 

of the sun, waiting for the Spanish horse.

Here the virgins were buried.

The Spanish never came.

 

Betrayed, the last Inca left for Cuzco

to bargain with the Viceroy of Spain.

He died in an ambuscade.

 

The bridges were cut behind him.

The road forgotten, the jungle grew a mantle

for the dead.       The sun rose and fell on the temple

 

and in the dark tombs the Virgins slept

waiting for the Inca to return

and restore them to the sun.

 

Let the grave-robbers go.

Let the city grow back to jungle,

back to the speechless things.

The Virgins have left their tombs

with their unborn child.

Let the city grow back to jungle.

Let the graves like wounds be closed again.

 

III

 

MANCO CAPAC – LAST INCA

 

Today I leave for the great capital.

Much has been said of the wisdom

Of this move.       In Macchu Picchu

I have ruled.         It is as if the empire was

 

Still water curled in a jug’s curve,

Spilled like this river into jungle.

Lately numerous stars have crossed

The heaven.     As it was for Huaina Capac.

 

So for me.       Huarascar and Atahualpa dead.

They have raised the bloodstone cross

In Cuzco.     The people are afraid.

But the Viceroy of Spain has asked me

 

To return.     He wishes me in the Temple.

What is that to me?       My people burn

In the great square.           My houses are

Plundered.   The empire come and gone.

 

The golden rod that was planted in

The beginning is removed — melted

For the Three-In-One in Spain.

My warriors will stand at the bridges

 

And along the great road.   If I do not

Return, all will be destroyed.

My people starve in the high passes.

My people die in the streets.

 

My priests have read the omens.

Still I must go.        Perhaps the Spaniard

Speaks truth.   I no longer know what

Their truth is.     I have spoken with the dead

 

by the hitching-post of the sun.

I have returned them to their tombs.

I am Manco Capac, Lord of the Inca.

The words of Pachacutec are my words:

 

Born like a lily in the garden

I grew like a lily

Ad when the time came

I withered and died.

Macchu Picchu – Peru 72

(Manco Capac)

We lost Patrick Lane last year, just before he was to receive the George Woodcock Award for Lifetime Achievement. In addition to the passing of one of Canada’s best writers, someone I had known and admired since first meeting him in his home town of Vernon,  I felt an added, personal disappointment. Coincidentally, I had won the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness for my BC labour history book On the Line. The plan was to have both of us accept our awards at the same ceremony in Victoria. Sharing such an event with Patrick would have been one of the highlights of my life. But it was not to be. Instead we were left to mourn an outstanding poet, the winner of so many awards over the years, who turned his early, hard-edged life, often full of anger, into one that celebrated love, gardens and grace. A beautiful soul.

(If you are new to his work, you can get a measure of Patrick Lane from this blog I wrote in 2013 that highlights two spell-binding addresses he gave, after being awarded honorary degrees at UBC’s Okanagan campus and the University of Victoria/ Both moved many in the audience to tears. https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/patrick-lane-poet/ )