WHY I WENT TO THE GREY CUP

Image 1 On the last day of November, 1968, I froze my meagre buttocks off in the chilly stands of Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium. Yet it was a thrilling cold. I was at the Grey Cup. Back in those far-off times, the CFL was everything to us young ‘uns, in a way that’s hard to imagine in our current era of NFL hype and adulation.

We collected CFL football cards (Cam Fraser!), watched every Saturday afternoon game on our small, black and white TV sets (Bernie Faloney!), and knew all the players (Vic Kristopaitis!). They were our heroes (Leo Lewis!). And nothing topped the Grey Cup. The Prime Minister (John Diefenbaker!) was often there to embarrass himself by flubbing the ceremonial kick-off. And who can forget Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s snazzy black cape? The Grey Cup parade was huge. Even Miss Grey Cup was a big deal.

Plus, there was all that lore. Red Storey galloping for three fourth quarter touchdowns in 1938, the famous 1950 Mud Bowl at Varsity Stadium where Buddy Tinsley almost drowned in a big puddle, Jackie Parker leading the Eskimos (Normie Kwan!) to three straight Grey Cups over the Montreal Alouettes and their great quarterback Sam “the Rifle” Etcheverry, and of course, the hilarious, never-to-be-forgotten Fog Bowl (Kenny Ploen!), which brought the teams back on Sunday to finish the last nine and a half minutes.

UnknownSo, with all that background, actually sitting among the frenzied spectators at a Grey Cup for the first time was an unforgettable experience, even if the hated Ottawa Roughriders (Russ Jackson!) won the game.

Since then, I’ve taken in a number of Grey Cups. In 1974, I sat with my uncle in the uncovered end zone at Empire Stadium, getting absolutely drenched by a relentless late November downpour that turned the game into a waterlogged bore won by the Alouettes (Junior Ah You!). After that, it’s been all BC Place under it spectator-comfy dome. They included two pelvis-percolating, topsy-turvy clashes that went down to the final whistle – Damon Allen coming off the bench in Frank Merriwell fashion to lift Edmonton to a last gasp 38-36 win over the Arrrrr-gos, , and in 2005, the best football game I’ve ever seen, with the Eskies again prevailing, this time over the Alouettes, in double overtime, 38-35.

There was something else about that game. It was so damned Canadian. (We’ll forget the Black Keys, who performed at half time.) Governor-General Michaëlle Jean was there with her husband and young daughter. So was then Prime Minister Paul Martin. They weren’t in some box suite. They were sitting in the stands, like everyone else, and not exactly on the 55-yard line. Martin was close to the aisle. Fans carrying their beer and hot dogs had to edge past him to their own seat, as if he were just another guy in the crowd, which he was. The Grey Cup was presented to the delirious Eskimos by the Queen’s representative, who didn’t seem to mind at all being in the midst of those big, beefy, braying, sweaty, gridiron warriors (A.J. Gass!). 3251373 And finally, I was there for the Lions winning the Grey Cup at home in 2011 (Adam Bighill!). Not a great game, but a celebration from beginning to end.

These are all treasured memories at a time when it’s not fashionable to be a CFL fan. Media jackals hover around the league, thirsting on the least sign of decay. The refrain is tiresomely familiar: The NFL is so much better, the CFL doesn’t appeal to younger fans, Toronto is a dead zone, the referees are terrible, etc. All of which are true, of course, yet the CFL survives. And it remains first in my heart. It’s Canadian through and through. The rules are different. (I once saw an American kick-returner playing his first game in Canada signal for a fair catch, then relax as he caught the ball. Ohhh, did he get crunched….)

At its best and yes, this has been a dreary season, Canadian football is a more exciting, wide-open game. It’s survived for more than a hundred years. The quality of football remains high. Just ask any of those NFL-ers like Cameron Wake and Bruce Browner who got their break by playing in Canada. They don’t dis the CFL. There’s nothing quite like a league that stretches across the country (sorry, Maritimes) and is ours, alone. We only have one: it’s the Canadian Football League.

Do we have to fall for everything hyped south of the border? Can we not ignore Black Friday? Can we not enjoy NFL games, without dissing the CFL, and not think the Super Bowl is the greatest event in the history of the world? More Canadians still watch and follow the CFL than the NFL. This afternoon’s Grey Cup will be watched by millions of Canuckleheads. The league is far from dead, yet nay-sayers continue to hover, waiting to be the first to proclaim “I told you so.”

Okay, this is starting to sound like a Mickle whine. No one should support and appreciate the CFL out of duty or feeling sorry for the good old Canadian football game. The quality remains high. It’s not some shoddy, second-rate product. As mentioned, this was not a vintage year, with dominant defenses and a dearth of healthy, first-rate quarterbacks. Let’s hope that is temporary. There have also been some terrific seasons in recent years. I, for one, have renewed my BC Lions’ season tickets. (The CFL is actually a great bargain. My tickets average about $70 a game for a seat 20 rows up on the 40 yard line. Compare that to what you pay for the Canucks.)

Oh, and by the way, there is a uniquely Canadian, homespun goofy factor to the Grey Cup, with horses going into hotel lobbies, ridiculous mascots, watermelons on heads, flame helmets. It’s not all glitz and glamour and celebrities, as it is on Stupor Bowl Day. So, yes, I was there as Calgary and Hamilton went at it. Before the kick-off, I sang O Canada at the top of my lungs. It’s our game, and still a good one. And once the fourth quarter rolled around, we were rewarded with a tense, dramatic contest that came oh, so close to a miraculous victory for the underdog Tabbies. Yahoo!images-4

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JIM SINCLAIR LEFT HIS MARK

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On Thursday, a record number of delegates to the biannual convention of the B.C. Federation of Labour elected Fed secretary-treasurer Irene Lanzinger as the 500,000-member organization’s new president. Lanzinger was supported by outgoing leader Jim Sinclair. Yet she nipped challenger Amber Hockin by a mere 57 votes, indicating deep division within the labour movement over its future direction. Many felt it was time for a change. Still, few would dispute that Lanzinger, in replacing Sinclair at the helm of the Fed, will have a tough act to follow.

During his unprecedented 15-year run as head of the Fed, there was never any doubt which side Jim Sinclair was on. More than almost any previous head of the century-old trade union body, he was an activist leader. Whether taking on government, supporting strikes no matter how small, protesting global worker injustices, or advocating for his great passion – workplace safety, Sinclair was always ready to lend a hand and his high-pitched, foghorn voice to the fight. The former newspaper man threw himself into issues in a very personal way to advance the interests of workers, on the picket line, at rallies and demonstrations, in the media and behind the scenes.

Nor was his commitment confined to members of the Federation. It was a signature feature of his leadership that all workers, regardless of whether they held a union card, deserved help when they were dealt a bad hand.

Two examples, among many, particularly stand out: Sinclair’s compassionate advocacy for families and victims of a deadly release of toxic gas at a Langley mushroom farm, and his tireless, ultimately successful, campaign to protect late-night workers, following the death of gas station employee Grant DePatie, killed trying to prevent a gas-and-dash robbery. Today, we have “Grant’s Law”, in large measure due to Jim Sinclair.

At the same time, Sinclair has also presided over a rather grim decade and a half for organized labour. The BC Liberals have won four successive elections, wage increases are barely keeping up with historically-low inflation, and the percentage of B.C. workers belonging to unions now hovers around the level of the workforce in (gasp) Prince Edward Island. Candidates running for a change in direction by the Federation have taken dead aim at this, calling the drop from 40 to 31per cent unionization the largest provincial decline of its kind in the country.

Yet it seems unfair to blame Jim Sinclair so directly for these depressing matters. The B.C. economy has mostly limped along in recent years, government austerity is the name of the game, once highly-unionized resource industries are shadows of their former selves, while the Liberal government’s ending of automatic union certifications when a majority of the workforce has signed up put a huge crimp in union organizing drives.

Although opponents contend that Sinclair and the Fed could have fought more effectively against these developments, no one questions his heartfelt dedication to the struggle, and, yes, some significant achievements. In fact, there were so many tributes and accolades showered his way during the first two days of this week’s convention, I was reminded of a past convention long ago, when then Fed president Len Guy told a skeptical reporter (me): “It’s a love-in, you sausage.”

Image 1There were two video tributes, a succession of speakers extolling Sinclair’s leadership and efforts on their behalf, a typically fiery, keynote speech by the man, himself, that prompted eight standing ovations, and, finally, an announcement of a scholarship in his name attached to the Labour Studies program at Simon Fraser University.

It was a long and winding road for Sinclair, now 60, to the top of the B.C. labour movement. I’d known him for years before he surprised everyone but himself by becoming president of the Fed in 1999. We were often at the same parties, Sinclair clunking around on the dance floor in his logging boots or tirelessly talking “social issues” in the kitchen, as the bottles of beer in the fridge slowly disappeared. He was also a fixture at good old Co-op Radio back in the day when I, too enjoyed myself so much behind the mike at the station’s Pigeon Park studio. Sinclair, of course, was far more serious.

He covered pipeline hearings in the far north, spent three years at the Conrad Black-owned Nelson Daily News before being fired for criticizing the paper’s “editorial bias”, worked 18 years for the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union, until surprisingly, the Fed presidency beckoned, just before the Liberals ousted the NDP from government. I also learned this week that Sinclair walked his first picket line at 17, and once lived at Vancouver’s legendary dive, the Cobalt Hotel. Through it all, he has never wavered a moment in his drive to uproot injustice and speak for the voiceless and underdogs in our society.

And not only that. For anyone to survive so long in the rough and tumble world of union politics, where longstanding feuds and back room disagreements are so rife, is an accomplishment, itself.

Still, after 15 years, Sinclair’s time seemed to be up within the Federation. Although he might have squeaked back in, growing internal division over his leadership style and effectiveness made the result uncertain. Sinclair chose to step down now, rather than risk defeat.

He leaves a legacy of hands-on union activism that few would deny. “The labour movement is my life, my family, my home,” an emotional Sinclair told delegates, as he opened his last convention as president. “I may be stepping down, but I’m not leaving this movement. You’ve heard that I first walked a picket line when I was 17. That changed my life. Now I’m telling you: ‘When I am 77, I will still be out there on the picket line with you.”

Later, after a lengthy special tribute to his leadership on Tuesday afternoon, Sinclair deflected praise for helping out individuals and workers who were outside the ranks of the Federation. “I don’t care what movement they’re part of. They are part of us.”

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THE MIGHTY QUINN HAS FALLEN. JOHN BRIAN PATRICK QUINN, RIP.

Image At 6’3” and having once knocked the stuffing out of Bobby Orr with a devastating body check, Pat Quinn was often referred to as “the big Irishman”. I preferred to think of the former Canucks player, coach and general manager as “the loveable Irishman”. During our exchanges, I found him delightful, open, even charming, not caring a whit that I wasn’t a regular hockey guy. He simply loved to talk hockey. The world today is a drearier place, now that Quinn has lost his long, gruelling fight with cancer.

I remember sitting with him in the empty stands of the Tokyo arena where, in 1997, the Canucks opened the NHL season against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. At the time, he was the team’s general manager, and I was a hockey nobody, assigned by the Globe to cover the game only because I was based in Asia. Yet Quinn could not have been more courteous and patient answering my questions. I most recall his passionate defense of NHL-sized rinks over the bigger ice surface of international hockey. “There is no better spectacle in the world than fast skating and use of the body within a confined space,” he told me. “When the rinks are larger, you lose that.” Since then, I called him several times for different reasons, and his demeanour was always the same. Friendly and direct, he was a reporter’s dream. If you couldn’t get a good quote out of Pat Quinn, you’d be better off selling shoes.

When the Canucks made their run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2011, I called him up for a story on Nathan LaFayette’s heartbreaking shot that hit the post late in Game Seven, the last time Vancouver made it to the finals in 1994, with Quinn as coach. The Rangers held on to their one-goal lead to win the Cup. Quinn described it this way: “Nathan was suddenly there in front. He made a great shot. Unfortunately, the goalie’s best friend happened to be in the way. The next thing you know, we were lined up, shaking hands.” He understood the bitterness fans still feel today over LaFayette’s failure to score. “As a fan, you’re full of hope that your local guys are going to do well. Yet they still don’t have that championship. So you remember things. And in this case, it’s the ‘what if’ you remember. Because you have nothing else.”

I had a lovely chat with Pat Quinn just several months ago. Although clearly not in the best of health, he quickly came to the phone, once his wife told him the reporter wanted to ask about Gino Odjick, who was caught up in his own battle with a terminal illness. Quinn was Gino’s first NHL coach, and he had great memories of a player he came to love. Over the course of our lengthy talk, however, Quinn also revealed much about the kind of coach and person he was, too. He insisted that Gino had to be more than a mere enforcer. “My personal philosophy in coaching was: ‘I wouldn’t carry a goon. You had to play the game, or we wouldn’t play you.’” Gino embraced the challenge. “I didn’t want him to be one of those players chasing around and starting fights, or being a show-off, as if that’s the only reason they were on the ice. He had to contribute, and he did,” said Quinn. “I told Gino: ‘If there’s any reason to look after one of your team-mates, you deal with it. But I’m not going to tell you to go out and get this guy.’ That’s not something I believed in. I said: ‘Gino, just be a hockey player. All the guys who could fight, they also had to play.”

He also recounted with relish the abiding, “odd couple” friendship between Gino and superstar Pavel Bure, which persists to this day. It would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar players on the ice, but both initially felt estranged from their team-mates and sought each other out. “I’m not a softie, but I do enjoy stories like that,” Quinn told me. “Eventually, they were accepted. That’s when we started to become a really strong team. It was ‘we’ instead of ‘me’. You don’t win without it.”

Finally, of course, there was the storied Gino Odjick penalty shot. When Gino scored on Calgary netminder Mike Vernon, the resulting roar from the fans nearly lifted the roof off the Pacific Coliseum. It was as if the Canucks had won the Stanley Cup. Quinn was behind the bench, embracing every moment, as team-mates, fans and Gino kept celebrating. He prolonged the bedlam by refusing to put a new line on the ice for the next face-off. “I held the guys on my bench, so he would get even more applause,” Quinn told me, his grin almost visible over the phone. “Finally, the referee came over and said, ‘Get a line out there.’” At the end of the interview, there was an awkward catch in the voice of the man with a reputation for gruffness, the man who cold-cocked Bobby Orr. He confessed, softly: “Gino’s one of those players that I could easily say that I came to love. You know?”

Last night, at Rogers Arena, as the strains of Danny Boy faded aways, the cheers for the late Pat Quinn seemed to go on forever. We came to love him, too. (The Canucks’ video tribute is here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMOiDU4KFqk&feature=youtu.be and Tom Hawthorn’s usual thorough recap of Pat Quinn’s life is here: https://benchedathletes.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/pat-quinn/ ) Image 1

FOUR MORE YEARS. WHAT NOW FOR VISION?

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(Dan Toulgoet photo, Vancouver Courier)

As Vancouverites voted on whether to follow leaders or watch the parkin’ meters, I was on the pavement of Bob Dylan’s birthplace thinking’ ‘bout the government. Although Gregor Robertson clinched early, I stayed up past 1 a.m. Duluth time to see whether a late wave of pro-NPA returns would knock incumbent Geoff Meggs from the 10th and final council position, and also end Vision’s school board majority. One no, one yes.

By the end of the night, even from bitterly cold, far-off Minnesota, it was clear that Vision had taken a hit, despite the mayor’s re-election to a third term and control of city council remaining in party hands. The anti-Vision sentiment that dominated all-candidate meetings, Facebook, Twitter and many media commentaries turned out be more than merely noise from a bunch of over-covered, angry cranks. The fact that none of the top four council vote-getters was from Vision speaks volumes. Yet this palpable hostility still fell short of “throw the bums out”. Vision’s strong brand and powerful electoral machine managed to pull the party through a very difficult campaign, which, at one point, according to Meggs, was headed for a shipwreck.

Voters also found the NPA wanting. With it’s thin party platform on major matters, the NPA ran out of gas as the campaign headed into the stretch, seeming to offer little more than the negative zingers and debating skill of Kirk LaPointe. By the end, LaPointe appeared more like the Wizard of Oz, more huff and puff than substance. Despite its shortcomings, Vision has provided some decent government for this strange outpost by the sea, tackling issues that win few votes but need to be tackled. On the other hand, whether calculated or genuine, Robertson’s late apology did indicate an awareness the party needs to do better. So, what now? I have some thoughts on, as Lenin liked to put it, what needs to be done. Herewith, the Mickle wish list for the next four years.

  1. Overhaul the city’s rightly-scorned communications department. Its growth in staff and budget has been well-documented. Yet it seems to do anything but communicate, alienating just about every reporter in the city, who grit their teeth whenever they have to make even the most routine request. Yes, everyone knows city hall bureaucrats are busy. But why does that mean reporters should be regularly stonewalled or treated as “the enemy”? What’s wrong with being helpful? Instead, the current policy is right out of the Harper handbook of messaging and control. Media friendly. What a concept for a communications department.
  1. Heritage. Yes, please. Except late in the day, Vision expressed little interest in heritage matters, unless it was the threatened 10734246_918731961500876_6122104781118335393_nloss of the Waldorf. The mayor reacted to that within minutes, as if he’d been shot out of a gun. Meanwhile, the demolition of hundreds of beautiful character homes on the west side continued apace. Sure, it’s a difficult issue, given property rights and all, but there was barely a whisper of concern from the mayor or anyone else in Vision. There has finally been some attempt to address what’s happening, in Shaughnessy at least. That’s a start, but it’s not enough. Some passion for the heritage that has shaped Vancouver is long overdue. People care about these things.
  1. Political donations. Vision can say all they want that accepting large donations from developers is permitted, the NPA does it, too, and it’s up to Unknownthe provincial government to change the law. But no one can be comfortable with the amount of corporate money that pours into party coffers. Banning both corporate and union donations would remove any suggestion that favours are being bought. Although Vision supports a ban, it’s been more of a squeak than a roar. The NDP has just introduced a bill calling for an end to such donations. That’s your cue, Vision. Be loud!
  1. A ward system. Once again, the city’s ridiculous at-large system presented us with the absurdity of a ballot containing the names of more than 125 candidates, the vast majority of whom we knew nothing about. With no ward system, we have political parties, slates, obscene amounts of money raised by Vision and NPA, and the defeat of good candidates on neither of the two main slates. You can be a terrific advocate/activist, but if you run as an independent, you will lose. Under a ward system, in place for all other major cities in Canada, councillors are elected to represent specific areas of the city, eliminating the need for big party machines. So much healthier and more democratic. Even a mixture of at-large and ward councillors would be good. Of course, those who win under the at-large system are loathe to change it. Yet an exit poll on election day showed increasing support for wards in Vancouver. While not perfect, a ward system is light years ahead of what we have today.
  1. Consultation. It isn’t easy in a city where many residents’ associations, despite what they say, don’t want much change at all. Still, a way has to be found to balance the need for growth and greater density and the views of neighbourhoods. More openness and inclusiveness would be a good place to start, as already pledged by the mayor.
  1. Homelessness. This is an area where Vision can take a lot of credit for its aggressive approach, along with the critical assistance of the province and its housing guy, Rich Coleman. It’s one of the few issues that seems to stoke some fire in the mayor’s trim belly. However, individuals with nowhere to go remain a sad, ongoing presence on our streets. The mayor’s ambitious 2008 promise to end street homelessness by next year will not be met. But one expects no lessening of the drive to house.
  1. Absentee, off-shore owners. Another complicated issue that needs to be looked at, rather than throwing up one’s hands. Providing some hard data would be a start. Let’s have some facts.

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  1. Chinatown. Is there no other way to preserve the marvellous character of these historic city blocks than allowing towers on the edges, advocated by many Chinatown merchants as a means of revitalizing their often deserted streets? Read this illuminating article by the Vancouver Sun’s John Mackie: http://www.vancouversun.com/business/Battle+Chinatown/10384991/story.html

9. Tear down those viaducts!

  1. It’s not always enough to be right. Bring people with you. At the same time, criticism shouldn’t be shunned, just because you have a majority on council. Listen. Engage. Explain. Communicate. Don’t yield the public floor to all those negative Nellies out there.

Thus ends my sermon. Good luck.

ILS SE SOUVIENNENT. FRANCE AND THE GREAT WAR

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As much as we rightly mourned the murders of two young Canadian soldiers last month, this past Remembrance Day inevitably lost some of its focus on the carnage that started it all. World War One ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, after four years of the most prolonged and terrible battlefield slaughter the world had ever known. That’s why we wear our poppies and bow our heads on November 11.

This was to have been a special Remembrance Day, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the “war to end all wars”. Instead, the cold-blooded killings of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Cp. Nathan Cirillo, who was shot right at the National War Memorial, itself, overshadowed somewhat our remembrance of the First World War and the deaths of more than 60,000 Canadian soldiers far from home. It takes nothing away from the national outpouring of grief over the tragic loss of these fine young men, proud to wear the uniform of their country, to place them in the perspective of the many more who died before them.

Though it may seem odd to compare wars, the pointlessness, butchery and sheer hell of World War One puts it in a category all its own. Instead of talking about the bravery and heroism of our troops, it would be refreshing to hear some words of candour, acknowledging the enormous waste of human lives in a war that could claim tens of thousands of young soldiers in a single, doomed advance into the teeth of lethal machine gun fire. That wasn’t courage. That was commander-inflicted suicide.

At the same time, we tend to forget how much worse it was for France, where most of the dying took place. Other than Turkey, France, with 1.4 million killed, had the highest casualty rate among major combatants in the war. No village, however small, was left untouched. It was if a plague had swept through the countryside, claiming only young men. Many villages never recovered from the loss of an entire generation. The grim toll was an unsurpassed tragedy in a country that brought us the French Revolution and La Marseillaise.

All this was brought home to me, as I walked through rural France this September. Each village had its own stark, WW I memorial, commemorating their inhabitants who had “died for France”. It was sobering to see the number of names, no matter how tiny the population. And also to note the comparative handful of dead from World War Two, when France was beaten early.

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Some memorials had inscribed in large letters the words “Verdun” and “the Marne”, the worst of the war’s vast killing fields for French soldiers, their casualty totals almost too high to be believed. By 1917, mutiny began to sweep the ranks of the French. Division began to refuse orders. But the ensuing crackdown was fierce. Several thousand were sentenced to hard labour. Fifty were executed, a time illustrated in Stanley Kubrick’s powerful anti-war movie, Paths of Glory.

P1090754 (8)So the 100th anniversary of World War One was a big deal in France, marked by special exhibitions in many Image 1town halls and libraries, featuring local newspapers from the time, letters from the front, vivid photographs, including horribly disfigured survivors, military histories and conditions on the home front. I particularly liked a small commemorative garden by a central bus stop in the town of Firminy, west of Lyon. Placed among the flowers were regional newspaper reprints on stakes from the day war was declared. L’Humanité, the Socialist newspaper, featured, instead, the assassination the previous day of its founder and celebrated socialist, Jean Jaurés

Here are a few more photos I snapped along the way.

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DUKE PROCTER (1899-2005), WW1 VET, RIP

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Today, on Remembrance Day, as I have every year since he died, I will spare a few special moments to mourn my hero, William (Duke) Procter. I got to know Duke as part of a Globe and Mail series on remaining veterans from the terrible carnage of World War One. There weren’t many by that time, but one was Duke. He was 102, still living by himself in Vernon, still tending his large garden, still bowling, still square dancing, still….well, you get the picture. To celebrate his 100th birthday, he jumped out of an airplane (with parachute). The landing was a bit of a jar, but within moments, he was up on his feet, grinning.  He was as full of life as a 10-year old. I’ve never met anyone that I enjoyed talking to more than Duke. But every time we talked, and the conversation turned to the the war, he wept.

Duke and his brother managed to avoid being shipped to France because of their backwoods background, transferred to the north of England to cut down trees to shore up the trenches, while his mates went “over there”. Many died, and Duke  mourned them until his last breath, still feeling guilty that he survived and they didn’t. He vowed to never forget them, and every Remembrance Day, Duke Procter marched. I was there for Duke’s last march, when he was 104. Below are links to my Globe story on that wonderful day, followed by what I wrote when Duke finally passed on. It’s 100 years since “the war to end all wars” began, and Duke was part of it. Here’s to you, pal.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/great-war-veteran-104-is-still-in-step/article18436414/#dashboard/follows/

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/incoming/william-duke-procter-soldier-and-logger-1899-2005/article18255618/#dashboard/follows/

WHEN THE WALL CAME TUMBLING DOWN

A-gap-in-the-Berlin-Wall--001 Twenty-five years ago. How time flies.

As it happened, I was in the neighbourhood the day the Cold War’s most enduring symbol disappeared in a frenzy of exuberant East Berliners and belching Trabants streaming past the downed concrete. Alas, however, I was not with the cheering masses, but stuck on a train from hell headed to Warsaw, idling in the East Berlin Bahnhof for a passport check, or some such thing. Gazing at the stolid, uniformed East German soldiers and railway attendants, I remember thinking: “The only country and system you have ever known is about to collapse. What can possibly be going through your minds?” Yet the cliché of stern, unsmiling, uniformed East German guards remained frozen in time. My “papers” were scrutinized with the same thoroughness that had been inflicted for years on Westerners travelling through their communist bastion.

Of course, I should have hopped off the train and witnessed history in the making. But, just as I chose to miss Dylan and the Band at Massey Hall in 1965, I let this opportunity slip by, too. Sigh.

Image 9Still, being in Warsaw while East Germany teetered also had its fascination. Once it became clear that the Soviet Union, under Gorbachev, was no longer prepared to intervene in its so-called satellite states, Poland was the first of the East Bloc countries to embrace democracy, Recent elections had been won overwhelmingly by Solidarność. Many of their marvellous campaign posters featuring Gary Cooper in High Noon remained on walls and storefronts.

Poland was in transition, its rigid state economy crumbling. As I worked on a freelance radio documentary for Sunday Morning with the theme: ‘Can Poles make it through the winter?’, I visited crowded soup kitchens and poorly-stocked grocery stores. I vividly remember an old woman in tears over her small purchase of potatoes. “It’s all I can afford,” she wept, her meagre pension eroded by inflation. Shaken, my translator, a Solidarity activist imbued with the bright future of a non-communist Poland, quietly slipped her some money.

It was the dawn of the free market in Poland. An entrepreneur had set up the country’s first fledgling stock market on the second floor of the city’s ramshackle, old Fisherman’s Hall. A cab driver told me that now, for the first time, he could buy bananas. The independent, pro-Solidarity newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, had just been launched. I visited its offices in a former kindergarten in a leafy, residential area of Warsaw. The paper’s star columnist was ensconced in a cubby hole that was once a washroom. Almost everyone else worked on desks scattered about the ex-school’s large open area. It felt like a student newspaper. Today, the Gazeta Wyborcza is the second largest newspaper in Poland.

But I most remember my first night in Warsaw, when I walked into the darkened main square of its beautifully-restored Old Town. A couple of guys, clearly from the country, were selling cheese by candlelight from the back of an old van. There was such simplicity to the scene as money and cheese changed hands, only the low hum of their voices breaking the silence of the vast, empty square. I thought to myself: “Thus, capitalism begins in Poland.”

There was still something about being on the ground floor of a revolution, even without the immediacy of East Berlin.

Poles, meanwhile, were transfixed by the joyous scenes in that long-divided city. At the press centre, the lone television was tuned to CNN. Employees watched non-stop. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Hardline East Germany, with the Stasi, the shoot-to-kill border guards and everything else, succumbing to the people? It didn’t seem possible. But in this case, the over-used, simplistic phrase was right. The tearing down of the hated Berlin Wall really did mark the end of the Cold War.Two weeks later, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution cranked up to take Havel to the Castle. Over Christmas, the odious Ceausescu’s were shot in Romania. Hungary consolidated its democratic advances. In no time, the once-mighty Warsaw Pact was history.

To think, when I headed to Europe in the fall of 1989 for a year’s stay in Paris, the big story was going to be the growing consolidation and unity of the EU. (That’s going well…..) When my train passed through East Berlin on the way back from Warsaw, the guards were gone. A single station attendant checked my ticket and passport with all the attentiveness of a skytrain guy.

A while later, I struck up a conversation with a friendly fellow from Oslo. He had boarded the train at East Berlin, and couldn’t stop talking about what it was like being among the hundreds of thousands of giddy Wall revelers. He told me that the moment he saw pictures of the Berlin Wall coming down, he booked off work, gathered up his two teenaged sons, and headed for East Berlin. “It is important for them to see history,” he said. “They will remember this for the rest of their life.”

A quarter of a century later, I would wager his prediction still holds.

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