VINCE AND ME

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As both parties in the definitely non-party like teachers’ dispute struggle to corral a mediator for the thankless task of helping bridge their chasm of bitterness, I found the elusive fellow who first turned down the job in the washroom at B.C. Place for Saturday’s B.C. Lions game.

Now 71, with hundreds of exhausting, round-the-clock, cold black coffee mediation sessions to his credit, from one end of Canada to the other, Vince Ready looked fit as the proverbial fiddle. Turns out he doesn’t get that way by exercising his charm and persuasive ability and the occasional laying on of lumber at the bargaining table. He works out 90 minutes every day! It shows.

I told him I was disappointed he didn’t sign on to work his legendary mediation magic on the teachers’ strike. (After talking separately to both sides, Ready said he was “too busy”….) First, because he might actually have assisted the warring factions towards a peace treaty, but also, because I would have enjoyed the dynamic between Ready and government negotiator Peter Cameron. The two go back a long way, maybe 35 years, to the days when Cameron was a leader of the militant, independent Canadian union CAIMAW, and Ready was a staff rep for the rival United Steelworkers of American, trying to fend off CAIMAW raids. They would long since have made their peace, but sometimes, the mischief in me loves dredging up those fun vicissitudes of the past.

Meanwhile, I would love to tell you what my pal Vince had to say about the teachers’ strike. But there’s that old labour reporter’s maxim: what’s said in the washroom stays in the washroom. Sorry.

And then, the man with the million-dollar smile and all that brow-beating ability had to sit back and watch helplessly while the Lions mucked up their own dispute with the Eskimos.

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BRUCE EDMON MICKLEBURGH (1921-1987)

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My father and I did not have a warm, “let’s play catch” relationship. He was not that kind of guy. But he was a one-of-a-kind individual, who lived life large, when he could, and followed the beat of his own particular drummer. I admired the good side of that, such as when he cajoled our six-member family into a small, Singer station wagon and drove us across Canada in 1961, camping and sleeping in pup tents. No one did that, then. This was before Rogers Pass, and we spent a whole day nervously driving the precarious, twisting gravel road known as the Big Bend Highway, from Golden to Revelstoke. Who could forget Boat Encampment, where the Columbia River made its “big bend” and headed south, its old-style gas pumps and rustic general store now flooded by the Mica Dam? That trip to B.C. changed my life. The province grabbed hold of my heart, and when I was ready to make my own way in the world, this was where I headed. Without my crazy — in a good way– father, the rich life I have had in beautiful British Columbia might never have happened. His own roots were here, as were my mother’s. So, thanks for that, dad.

Thanks, too, for not throwing out that cool, black leather jacket you sported in the 1940’s. One day, at the height of “the Sixties”, I discovered it in a back closet, and wore it for years. Some fathers pass down wisdom to their sons. My father passed on his black leather jacket.

He’s wearing it in that cool photo at the top of this blog. The shot was taken on what were then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, when he was 24. And here’s the same black leather jacket worn by his callow stripling of a son, on a back road near Naramata. Not bad, eh? Happy Father’s Day, old man!

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JUST ANOTHER DAY ALONG THE JERICHO TRAIL

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Life is strange at the best of times, but sometimes there’s a confluence of forces that underscores to an absurd degree just how much of a funny old world this mortal coil really is. So it was Sunday morning coming down one of my favourite walks in this good old city, the well-travelled pathway along Spanish Banks, with its all-everything views — sea, sky, sand, mountains, tankers, and the distant, glistening cityscape.

And what should be come together at the end of this lovely trail? Why, what else but a country singer with a flower in her hair, a promotion for Canadian dolls, and, of course, Stompin’ Tom Connors.

The country singer was the genial Jesse Farrel (http://www.jessiefarrell.com), sitting on a log, strumming her guitar, learning the words to a new song. Her voice cut sweetly through the soft, maritime morning breeze. During a break, I asked her what song she was learning. “It’s by Stompin’ Tom Connors,” Jesse said, giving an answer I would never have predicted in a zillion years of hoping for a peaceful round of teacher bargaining. “A Real Canadian Girl. But I do it a little differently than he does,” she added, unnecessarily.

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And why? Well, it turns out the song will be part of a video that was being shot on a nearby beach with a bunch of kids. The video will espouse the merits of a pro-Canada alternative to the all-embracing, ubiquitous American Girl line of hugely expensive dolls that Indigo, our “national” book store chain, is promoting at its downtown Vancouver store. Really, Indigo. Is this the best you can do?

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Why we should be encouraging our young, impressionable girls to buy American-themed dolls is beyond me. So, all hail Maplelea (http://www.maplelea.com/en) for its line of “Canadian Girl Dolls for Canadian Girls.” Who knew? (Yet another aspect of this unexpected, oddball encounter: the headquarters of Maplelea is in my beautiful hometown of Newmarket, also claimed by Hannah Georgas, Glass Tiger and Mike “Shaky” Walton.)

Jesse told me that the video is scheduled to be released on Canada Day. I, for one, will be looking for it. Because, as we should be telling our young girls: Yes, doll-buying Virginia, there is a Canada. Maplelea’s special line of Canada Day apparel is available here.

And, if you’ve read this far, here’s your Stompin’ Tom reward:

 

 

D-DAY: IT REALLY HAPPENED

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One of the best days of my life was in the spring of 1990, when my mother and I visited the peaceful, hauntingly beautiful Canadian War Cemetery at Bény-sur-Mer in Normandy. It was especially affecting for my mother, a contemporary of those young Canadians who signed up for the fight against Hitler. She’d seen them off, neighbours’ kids and school chums. Not all came back.

As we walked past the graves of those who perished in the early days of the Normandy invasion, we were both struck again by their youth. It’s one thing to know that obvious fact ahead of time. It’s another to be confronted by headstone after headstone of young men, their lives forever frozen in their late teens and early 20’s. When I was that age, I was just a goofy kid with long hair and a big, floppy hippie hat. They had landed on the beaches of France to take on the Nazis.

The breadth of Canada’s contribution was also writ large in their mostly small hometowns from across the country. I found myself surprised by the number hailing from sparsely-populated Saskatchewan, and Quebec as well, given that province’s resistance to conscription. Often, there was a brief, heartfelt inscription about the young man in the grave below. This was a war these youthful Canadian combatants had hoped to survive. They didn’t want to die. But if there is such a thing as a just war, World War Two was it, and they knew it had to be fought.

It was all incredibly moving, and my mother talked about our visit until the day she died, never failing to miss a D-Day commemoration on television. And now it is 70 years since that stormy June morning, when the heroic land assault against Nazi-held France began, with fewer and fewer survivors left to tell their stories. I was fortunate to be able to interview some of them in 2004 for my book, Rare Courage, a collection of 20 oral histories from World War Two vets. Two took part in D-Day, and here is some of what they remembered from that terrible, wonderful day.

ImageMaritimer Huge Neily, who wound up with the East Yorkshire Regiment, was one of the first to come ashore as part of the British landing at Sword Beach.

“Leaving the harbor at night is the one thing in my life that I will never forget. As far as you could see in every direction, nothing but boats. Nobody went to sleep. We were all leaning on the rail, watching….We had a huge breakfast at three o’clock in the morning. Bacon and eggs. A real rarity….

“When the ship stopped, we knew were off the coast of France. Watches were synchronized, checked and re-checked, along with the rifles, the Bren guns, the Sten guns, the ammunition pouches….Day was breaking fast and the waves were very high. We were the first ones to go down. Colonel Hutchinson came on the loud hailer and wished us all luck. He said: I want you to repeat after me: ‘It all depends on me.’ So we all repeated that…

“There was a terrible noise all the way in. Navy boats were firing shell after shell. And planes were going over. If there was a sky, we couldn’t see it…I got my men out, and I dashed forward. Then, flat on the sand. There were no other footprints. We were the first. Within 30 seconds of landing, one of my men went down. I heard someone say, ‘Oh God. Billy’s been shot.’ He was dead before he hit the ground. A bullet right in his head….

“I ran straight forward to where this machine-gun post was. My runner was right behind me, carrying the wire cutters. We cut the wire. We’d practiced this. And I crawled up the dunes. I can still feel those little reedy grasses on my face….Because of the model we’d built, I knew exactly where the machine gun was….

“I crawled up on my belly as close as I could, reached back and got a grenade….It exploded right on the parapet, and immediately a white flag came up. Four fellows came out. They were the sorriest excuse for soldiers I’d ever seen….They stood there with their hands behind the back of their heads. Then they sat down, and we left them behind.”

ImageGordon Hendery commanded a Canadian landing craft.

“We boarded the craft, loaded them in the water, and was it ever rough. It was awful. All of a sudden, every battleship, destroyer, every ship that had a gun started to bombard the beach. The smoke and the flames and the roar were overwhelming….

“It was very, very choppy. Fear and seasickness and everything else all accumulated to make them as sick as could be. They were so happy to have the vomit bags. There were 30 soldiers to a craft. Some had machine guns. All had rifles and 60-pound packs. They must have been terrified, but you know, they were trained for this. They were soldiers.

“On the way in, a wonderful thing happened. A young sergeant got up on the deck beside me and started to sing a song. ‘Roll Out the Barrel.’ Everyone joined in. It was one of the most moving experiences I had during my almost five years in the service. There was fear on everyone’s faces, and he tried to brighten up their spirits. I was in the same fix. I was human, too. And it worked. The fear left our faces….

“The craft got stuck on an obstacle under the water. I hesitated to order ‘down doors’, but it had to be done. They jumped into the water. Some were up to the waist. Two of the shorter lads jumped in and didn’t come up. Terrible…and there was not a damn thing we could do….

“They dashed across the beach. Some fell from machine-gun fire. Some were hit before they even made the beach. We could see all this. Imagine training in England for three years and not even being able to get to the beach before being killed. I don’t think people realize what our boys did.”

RIP, boys. Your sacrifice will never be forgotten.

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I DON’T CARE IF I EVER GET BACK: A BASEBALL WEEKEND IN SEATTLE

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Saturday at ye “olde” Safeco Field in Seattle was a beautiful night for baseball. Temperature in the low 60’s, a large crowd lured by Robinson Cano Bobblehead Night, and a father and son spotted in full Montreal Expos regalia. There was a lovely version of the American national anthem by a sweet-voiced choir of elementary school girls, and, thankfully, God Bless America was missing from the seventh inning stretch.

Our seats were 11 rows up, just past third base. The crowd was the usual mix of odds and sods. Two twenty-something girls took the seats beside us around the third inning. The one next to me immediately hauled out her iPhone, barely glancing at the field. Then, they talked. Then, they left in the fifth inning, never to return. This freed up two seats for an older couple a row ahead of us, anxious to escape the loud, beer-soused louts in Row 9. “Real rocket scientists,” I observed scornfully to the kindly gent now sitting beside me. “How did you know I was a rocket scientist?” he responded, mishearing what I said. “I worked at Boeing, designing missiles.”

The game, itself, was also delightful, a great example of “small ball”, as the banjo-hitting, hometown Mariners scratched out a victory against the powerful Detroit Tigers, sporting two of the best hitters in baseball, Miguel Cabrera and clean-up man Victor Martinez, who could be on course to a remarkable rarity of homering more often than striking out. So far, Martinez has 13 homers and 14 whiffs.

Wily M’s manager Lloyd McLendon, who once hit five straight home runs at the Little League World Series (you can look it up), fielded a line-up full of right-handed batters, some barely hitting their weight, to face Tiger lefty Drew Smyly.

That produced some unlikely heroes. Take Cole Gillepsie…and many clubs have. On four different teams in four years, he’s totalled fewer than 50 hits. Yet, getting a rare start for the Mariners, Gillepsie knocked in the first run by lashing a slow roller past the pitcher’s mound. “Looks like a line drive in the box score!” I shouted. Later, the same Gillepsie scored a classic “small ball” run. Another infield hit, a steal of second, and across the plate on a single by much-loved, little-used veteran, Willie Bloomquist.

Nor was that all by Gillespie. He also made two terrific catches in left field: a falling forward, diving catch of a line drive, and a game-saving grab against the wall in the top of the 7th inning, with two on base and the M’s up 3-2. All hail the conquering journeyman.

I also enjoyed watching the Mariners’ skyscraper of a starting pitcher, 6’ 10” Chris Young, the second tallest player in big league history. Young’s been everywhere, man. A succession of grim arm injuries has had him drifting through the majors, trying to regain the elusive form that once made him an All-Star. Seattle signed him to a one-year contract, and he was terrific on Saturday night, holding the Tigers to just three hits and two runs over six innings. One of the runs came on a vintage, line drive home run by Miguel Cabrera that rocketed into the stands before I could gasp “Holy Moly!”. What I loved about Chris Young was the fact that, despite his imposing height, his “blazing” fastball never rose above a paltry 87 mph. Instead, despite his prodigious height and 255 pounds, he bamboozled batters, expertly nibbling the corners of the plate with curves, change-ups, sliders and slow-moving fastballs. A 6’10” junk baller. What will they think of next?

You want more about Chris Young? He is married to the grand-daughter of legendary Hockey Hall of Fame pioneer Lester Patrick! It was Patrick, who co-founded, with brother Frank, the Pacific Coast Hockey League that produced the Vancouver Millionaires, winner of the city’s only Stanley Cup in 1915. It’s a small world, after all.

And finally, yet another unexpected bonus: Endy Chavez, one of the few former members of the Montreal Expos still playing (sigh), was in the starting line-up, after spending the first two months of the season down the road in the minors with Tacoma. Every time he came up, I yelled: “Expos!”. People looked at me strangely. But then, I’m used to it.

So we went home happy, walking the many blocks through the balmy night to the groovy Ace Hotel in beautiful Belltown.

One more unforeseen treat followed on Sunday afternoon: a three-hit shutout by the Mariners’ rookie Cuban southpaw Roenis Elias. It was the first complete game tossed by a Seattle pitcher this year, and the first shutout by an M’s rookie since 1999. How impressive was the 25-year old defector, who not that long ago had been playing for the likes of the Pulaski Mariners, Clinton LumberKings, High Desert Mavericks and the Jackson Generals? Cabrera and Martinez, the heart of the Tigers’ lineup, were held hitless in the same game for only the third time all season. You can read about Elias’s dramatic “escape” from Cuba here.

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Oh yes, and Endy Chavez got two hits, the mighty Mariners drove last year’s Cy Young award winner, Max Scherzer, from the mound in the seventh inning, and the first Seattle run was knocked in by the pride of Victoria, B.C., Michael Saunders, who’s been on a tear, recently.

All in all, a wonderful weekend. Thank you, baseball.

HONG KONG REMEMBERS TIANANMEN SQUARE

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(Photo by Joanne Lee-Young)

During my four years as the Globe’s Beijing correspondent, I always tried to attend the emotional, annual gathering in Hong Kong’s vast, central Victoria Park to mark the June 4 anniversary of the PLA’s deadly, armed assault against unarmed, pro-democracy student protesters at Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. It was a cold-blooded, mass killing, and each year, tens of thousands turn out to mourn and remember, just across China’s border in Hong Kong. What always moved me, beyond the event, itself, were those who came. They were not the activists. They were the ordinary people of Hong Kong – businessmen coming off shift, still in their suits; students holding hands; families, from grandparents to toddlers; workers in their undershirts; pensioners.

While the rest of the world seems to have moved on, perhaps falling under the spell of the collective amnesia China’s Communist Party leaders have imposed on their own people, few in Hong Kong have forgotten, and they want China to know that. Every year, pundits would predict a low turnout, and every year, the people came out, even — one year I was there — in a total monsoon of a downpour, huddled together under umbrellas, carefully protecting the flickering flames of their candles from the deluge. There were still more than 20,000 crowding the park that year. It’s as if there is this collective refusal to not let China think the passage of years has diminished their remembrance of what happened that terrible June night. The sentiment seems to be: “If we don’t show up, China will think we don’t care any more, and we can’t let that happen.”

Since the 1997 Hong Kong handover, of course, the June 4 gatherings have taken on an even more delicious significance, since they now occur on Chinese soil. Whiles mothers of some of the young students killed by the PLA are put under house arrest by the great powerful authorities back in mainland China, and even use of the search terms “open fire” and “25 years” are banned from the Internet by a country that aspires to world prominence, Chinese leaders must watch in anxious frustration every year as the people of Hong Kong defy their attempts to control all thought under the flag of the world’s last empire.

This year, on the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, one of the largest crowds ever funnelled into the park, estimated by police at more than 95,000 people. My friend Joanne Lee-Young was there, as she is every year with her young daughters. She took the photo at the top. Joanne reports how moved she was to hear the names of those young people whose lives were cut short read out to the massive crowd. “Their names, their ages, how they died – shot two times in the chest at the corner of XX and XX…found at XX hospital….” said Joanne.

Meanwhile, if Stephen Harper, or any other Western leader, has said a word about the 25th anniversary, I must have missed it. But man, that Putin is one bad dude….

Long live the people of Hong Kong.

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