THE BALM OF POETRY #2

For all of us who don’t know

 We can read what we want to read

 Believe what we want to believe

 Hope what we want to hope

 Say what we want to say

 Eloquently, beautifully, compellingly, persuasively

 Presidents, prime ministers, dictators

 We can blog, tweet, post, proclaim

 Reach thousands, millions

 We can want what we want

 Do what we want

 COVID-19 is not impressed.

This rather sombre poem about the relentless of COVID-19 was written by Ken Dryden, if not his first published poem, certainly the first I had come across. It appeared April 1 in the National Post. Dryden, of course, is the legendary Hall of Fame goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens, best-selling hockey author and former federal Liberal cabinet minister, who has been so consistently impressive over the years with his intelligent, considered and caring response to just about everything that attracts his interest. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have considered posting a poem like this, given that I have been turning to poetry as a way to help soothe the soul in these unprecedented, perilous times. But if we are going to get through this, I found it a reminder of just how much all of us need to come together, regardless of ideology, income, rank, instant expertise and on down the list. From jet-setters to Boris Johnson to the frail elderly in our long term care homes, COVID-19 is a threat to all, a leveler of the direst nature. Dryden said he had written his poem in late March “after much thought”.

Plus, in a more cheerful vein, it gives me a chance to relate my one encounter with Ken Dryden, way back when we were oh-so-young, Martha. Somehow, perhaps with the help of me sitting on the bench, the Newmarket Pee-Wee all-stars had managed to make it to the final of an annual baseball tournament in Listowel, Ont.

Our opponent was North Toronto, and their pitcher was Ken Dryden. That created a buzz on our team because somebody knew he was the brother of Dave Dryden, who played goal for St. Michael’s Majors in the exalted ranks – at least to us – of Junior A. Who cared about his younger brother? We felt touched by fame because of his connection to brother Dave. Little did we know…

(Dave Dryden, during his time at St. Mikes. He subsequently played in both the NHL and WHL, but is best known for devising the first cage-style goalie mask, which remains the norm today.)

The other player on the powerful North Team who created a stir before the game started was their second basemen. It was none other than Rossie Armour, one of my first best friends when I moved to Newmarket. He lived just up the street. Until his family departed for Toronto, we bonded over our love of sports, even at our ridiculously young age. Of course, as was common in a small town like Newmarket, us kids pretty well knew everybody of the same age, if they played sports. “Hey, it’s Rossie Armour,” we nudged to each other.

As for the game itself, we were totally in over our heads. I mean, North Toronto against little old Newmarket. They clobbered us 9-0. Ken Dryden was overpowering on the mound. Our only hit was a slow dribbler down the third base line. (“Looks like a line drive in the box score!”). Most of our batters struck out. The only time one of them reached the outfield was a drive to left field by Gary Toporoski, who managed to time a Dryden fastball just right. Unfortunately, the new bat Toporoski used was broken an inning later by Lloyd Harris, as he managed his squib of an infield hit. I don’t think Toporoski ever forgave him.

When the shellacking mercifully came to an end, I think most of us felt a bit embarrassed by the lopsided score, but also a tinge of pride that we had been in the presence of such prowess. It was a feeling that only grew over the years as Ken Dryden made his mark in the NHL as one of its greatest goalies ever.

Years later, after a stop in Victoria during his federal Liberal leadership campaign, I asked Dryden if he remembered that game in Listowel against Newmarket. He said he did, but I think he was just being nice to a reporter. However, he did have firmer memories of his North Toronto team-mate and my early buddy, Rossie Armour. As I tried to prolong the conversation, he looked impatient. A moment or two later, he was gone, bundled away by his aides, leaving me with my memories and he with a look of anticipation to the next campaign stop.

One final note: the coach of the North Toronto team was some guy named Roger Nielsen*. Ever heard of him?

Be well.

* You can find his statue outside Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

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The balm of poetry. #1

(This is the first in what I hope will be a series of poems, posted to make us reflect and appreciate the beauty of the written word, and thus, perhaps, help soothe our worried souls in these perilous times. )

BEDROOM

By Richard Outram

Light, by stealth, at last has occupied

 The citadels and forests thus made plain,

The intricacy frost has ramified,

 Our mingled breath condensed upon the pane

 

Of simple glass that keeps us from the night;

 And in which after dark, returned by chance,

 Darkened reflection offered us the sight

 Of all our naked likeness at a glance.

 

I waken, still enamoured, given pause

 By you, my deeply sleeping wife,

 The certainty of death, as a lost cause,

 The luminous unlikelihood of life.

This poem appeared in the April 22, 2000 edition of the Globe and Mail’s, during an all-too-brief time when the Globe ran a weekly poem in its Saturday Arts section. They were chosen by an established literati, often a poet, who then analysed why they worked. I was so moved by this poem’s combination of love and wistfulness, complemented by such beautiful imagery, all in a mere dozen lines, that I clipped it out.

Richard Outram (1930-2005) was never in the mainstream of Canadian poetry, and I confess to having barely heard of him when I came across this poem. But he was much celebrated by those who knew his work. In 1999, he won the City of Toronto Book Award for his collection Benedict Abroad.

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 Outram spent most of his working life as a stagehand, mostly for the CBC, with an early stint at the BBC. It was there that he met and subsequently married the Canadian artist/engraver Barbara Howard. Back in Ontario, the two established the small, independent Gauntlet Press, which published a number of special editions of his poetry, enhanced by his wife’s superb engravings. Tragically, Howard died in 2002 during surgery to mend a broken hip, and two years later, Outram took his own life. Among those paying tribute at a celebration of his life was Canadian film director Ted Kotcheff (“The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz”) and one of Outram’s biggest champions, polymath literary editor and writer Alberto Manguel.

It was Manguel who selected Bedroom. “(It) is one of his most intimate poems….(that) moves me with inexplicable force,” he wrote. “It gives words to that very precious, very private moment of waking next to the beloved who still lies asleep, utterly disclosed and unprotected.”

Its dramatic ending, he said, “acknowledges the certainty of death but also, most finally (in the poem’s last line) it promises the miracle of life.”

A fine, fine poem.

 

The saga of Fitz St. John — “A longshoreman’s longshoreman”

Esi Edugyan may have won a Giller Prize for her novel about the astounding exploits of Barbados-born Washington Black, but the story of William Fitzclarence “Fitz” St. John was the real thing. His long, remarkable life, which, like the fictitious Washington Black, also began in Barbados, stretched from the age of sail to man walking on the moon, before coming to an end at the ripe old age of 95 in 1970 in North Vancouver. Its breadth and diversity would have delighted any chronicler worthy of the name.

(William Fitzclarence St. John in front of his North Vancouver home in 1911. North Vancouver Museum & Archives, #7613)

He was a stowaway, a seaman, a sealer, a writer of poetry for church ladies, a boxing promoter/manager and a hardworking longshoreman for a near record 51 years. He was a union man through and through, a Wobbly, in the forefront of a pioneering group of mostly indigenous lumber handlers who formed one of the first longshore unions on the Vancouver waterfront and later, a stalwart on the picket line through several bitter, bloody strikes during the dock workers’ 40-year fight for union recognition. In 1953, after years of struggle, he was among 46 retired, union stevedores to receive the very first pension cheque handed out by the shipping companies — $60 a month.

Befitting his panoramic tale, St. John’s background is enticingly murky. He was born in British-ruled Barbados in the mid-1870’s into a family variously described as “a wealthy family of black plantation owners” or “a prominent Barbadian family”. Yet his 1911 Canadian census lists his racial origin as “Irish”, which could mean his father was descended from the Irish labourers who signed on as indentured labourers to work on the island’s plantations before the influx of slavery. Married twice – 1905 and 1911 (this one, to Ellen Lockley of Staffordshire, England, lasted), his parents are listed on the two marriage certificates as “William and Rebecca St. John”, and then “William St. John – Naschez Prescod”.

At 14, as recounted by “Fitz” to other old-timers on the docks, he was already a “brilliant writer and scholar”, but still worked as a chandler when not in school, supplying provisions to ships in the harbour. On a whim, he stowed away on al barquentine to take up the wayfaring life of a sailor. One is left to ponder why the aspiring black youth would abandon his apparently privileged background for the seven seas. Perhaps tiring of the hard life, he jumped ship and wound up in Victoria in 1897. After a spell on the docks and an ill-fated attempt at sealing, he drifted up to Chemainus, where he hauled lumber by horse and wagon and supervised its loading onto waiting ships. He was also a hit at the local Baptist Church. Veteran stevedore Sam Engler recalled St. John telling him that he “became very popular in the community, writing poetry and cards for the ladies of the Calvary Baptist Church.”

Churchgoing, however, didn’t deter his involvement in the bruising fight game. He promoted and sometimes managed a Puerto Rican friend of his, Frank Fernandez, who was well known on Vancouver Island for his prowess in the ring.

At some point, the likeable longshoreman settled in North Vancouver and began his long tenure on the busy, Vancouver docks across the water. Initially, he worked at loading and unloading lumber. In the days before mechanization, this was one of the toughest jobs on the waterfront, requiring both strength and skill. Most workers on the lumber gangs were indigenous, belonging to the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, who seemed to relish the job. They were widely hailed as “the best men who ever worked the lumber”. St. John often joked about his race. With a hint of mischief, he would say: “I’m the only white man among a bunch of Indians”. But there was a handful of Chileans and Hawaiians, too.

(A group of indigenous longshoremen gather for this historic waterfront photo. City of Vancouver archives.)

In 1906, the mostly-indigenous lumber handlers made history. Seeking better compensation and rights for their hard work, they formed a union. It was one of the first on the waterfront and certainly the first ever for indigenous workers. Not only that, they affiliated with the militant Industrial Workers of the World, the most radical labour organization North America had ever seen, dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. It’s not known precisely why they joined the Wobblies, but a major factor might well have been the IWW’s credo that class, not race, is the enemy. Most unions at the time spurned ethnic Asians and were not known to be overly friendly to indigenous workers. The Wobblies welcomed all races.

IWW Local 526 held their meetings on the Squamish reserve. “Fitz” was in the forefront. He served as secretary and designed the local’s insignia, a crossed peavey and crowbar. The local was soon known by everyone on the waterfront as “the bows and arrows”. Rather than pejorative, it was meant affectionately, embraced by indigenous dockyard workers, themselves. Although Local 526 disappeared after a year or two, following a difficult strike, indigenous lumber handlers continued to form unions over the years, the last existing until 1933. All were called “the bows and arrows”.

“Fitz” St. John had showed his strong union commitment even earlier. While a supervisor, he was fired by the shipping company for speaking out against the10-hour day.

In 1903, after the city’s most prominent labour leader and a longshoreman at the time, Frank Rogers, was fatally gunned down during a strike on the waterfront, St. John was part of the longshore contingent who walked in front of Rogers’ horse drawn casket on its way to Mountain View Cemetery. The procession of workers that stretched out behind was said to be the largest in the city’s history, as they braved a tumultuous rainstorm. According to an account by well-known worker-poet Peter Trower, St. John kept the damp bowler hat he wore that day “to his dying day”. It remains in the family as a treasured keepsake.

Ensuing strikes by waterfront workers to win union recognition were some of the fiercest in Vancouver labour history, particularly in 1923 and an all-out confrontation in 1935, when police unleashed tear gas for the first time and charged into the ranks of unarmed strikers on horseback, swinging their batons, during the notorious Battle of Ballantyne Pier. St. John took part in both. But the persistent use of strikebreakers, protected by the forces of law and order, made strikes impossible to win, no matter how valiantly union members fought. It was not until legislation was passed in World War Two, forcing employers to bargain, that Vancouver longshoremen finally won the right to union recognition.

(Striking longshoremen march towards Ballantyne Pier on June 18, 1935 to confront strikebreakers who had taken their jobs. They were met by police tear gas and clubs, injuring scores of strikers.)

On the job, St. John mostly drove winch, a welcome change from the strenuous work of manually loading and unloading ships, before sail died away and mechanization made increasing inroads. One of his workmates, Paddy McDonagh, told a funny story about a time the two were working together, McDonagh on winch and St. John down in the hold directing him by hand signals. In those days, lanterns provided the only lights. As it got dark, McDonagh found his black partner less and less visible. “I can’t see you, John,” he yelled. The next day, as the same time approached, McDonagh looked down and saw something white. “I couldn’t make out what the devil it was. St. John hollered up: ‘Hey, boy, can you see me now?’ He’d gone out and bought a white shirt and white gloves.”

(Vancouver Sun, August 30, 1947)

With no pension and no nest egg to fall back on, St. John, like many of his fellow longshoremen, continued working into his 70s, before retiring. But by then, the union was in place, and St. John was one of the benefactors of the first union-negotiated pension plan to cover the waterfront. After more than half a century of hard work, he received a company-paid stipend of $60 a month. Until his health began to fail, St. John was an active member of the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Pensioners’ Association.

He passed away Aug. 31, 1970 in his tidy bungalow in North Vancouver. He left a son, Clarence St. John, who was a well-known barber on Lonsdale Avenue in North Vancouver.

Calling him “a longshoreman’s longshoreman,” his long-time friend Sam Engler observed: “Fitz was dedicated to helping his fellow man. He always stood firm on his principles, which included unionization and doing unto others as you would have them to do you.”

— Thanks to Donna Sacuta and Bailey Garden of the BC Labour Heritage Centre for their diligent help with research.

(St. John on an ILWU pensioners’ outing sometime in the 1960’s)

 

 

LARRY AND FERGIE: AS CANADIAN AS MAPLE SYRUP

Two. Count ‘em. Two. Although still styling itself, with typical American hubris, as the National Baseball of Fame, Cooperstown now has two Canadians cluttering its hallowed walls among all those Yanks, plus a scattering of Latinos. And they will soon be joined by one of the greatest to ever play the game, the incomparable Ichiro “I am very rare” Suzuki from the distant shores of Japan.

It didn’t happen without great gobs of tension. As befits a ballplayer known for coming through in the clutch, outfielder Larry Walker left it to the proverbial bottom of the ninth. Because of the arcane way most things work in baseball, this was the 10th and final year Walker would be on the list of eligible candidates. In order to succeed in his last crack at the bat, Walker needed a nod from at least 298 (75%) of the 397 baseball writers who get to vote. Some are wise, some less so. Some are fair, some less so. It’s a crap shoot at the best of times. Even Walker thought he would be nipped at the plate. A few hours before the official count was announced, he tweeted: “Although I believe I’m going to come up a little short today I still wanna thank all you that have been pulling for me and showing your support…Cheers 🍻 LW”.

As we know, however, the good old boy from beautiful downtown Maple Ridge squeaked home safely, evading the catcher’s tag by just six votes. He was in. Ferguson Jenkins, the fabulous pitcher from Chatham, Ont., who won 284 games in his 17-year career, now had company. Amid these ever-darkening times, it was a rare bit of wonderful news. Jenkins was quick off the mark to welcome his Canadian compatriot, tweeting out a picture of the two of them together at Walker’s induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame a few years ago in idyllic St. Mary’s, Ont. “The biggest thing is you’re able to put ‘HOF’ behind your name, and people recognize your career because of the fact that you’re one of the best,” said Jenkins. “That’s what Larry Walker is now — one of the best.”

As someone who began following baseball as kid, when the only Canadian in the majors was a mediocre infielder from Windsor named Reno Bertoia, it’s difficult to overstate how special it is to now have two Canadians with a plaque in Cooperstown, alongside the likes of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Warren Spahn and my boyhood hero, Harmon Killebrew.

How Canadian is Larry Walker? His twitter handle is @Cdnmooselips33. His profile pic is the Canadian flag. Growing up in Maple Ridge, he played endless street hockey with a bunch of pals that included Hockey Hall-of-Famer Cam Neely. He dreamed of cracking the NHL as a goalie. “Being Canadian, you’re born into this world with a stick in your hand and skates on your feet,” Walker has said. “So that’s how I was as a kid. You played hockey, and that’s all that really mattered.” But after failing a couple of Junior A tryouts, he stumbled into baseball. At one of his whistlestops in the minor leagues, just for fun, he would sometimes use his spikes to sketch a semblance of the Canadian flag in the dirt, during the Star Spangled Banner. And, of course, he spent his first six years in the majors with the beloved Montreal Expos. For the humble Walker, his selection wasn’t just about him: “As a Canadian, it was a proud moment for me to represent my country and be able to join Ferguson Jenkins in the Hall of Fame.”

Jenkins’ Canadian roots also run deep. His mother’s family first came to southwestern Ontario via the legendary Underground Railway that brought fleeing slaves to a safe haven in Canada. Like Walker, he too played hockey, an athletic, rushing defenseman who made it to Junior B. His heroes were the great Montreal Canadiens’ great blueliner Doug Harvey and the local Chatham Maroons, who waxed the renownedTrail Smoke Eaters in 1960 to win the Allan Cup, Canada’s senior hockey championship. While playing for the Chicago Cubs, Jenkins occasionally worked out with the hometown Blackhawks, borrowing Dale Tallon’s stick to join the likes of Bobby and Dennis Hull on the ice. “My baseball friends won’t like this comment, but I still look on hockey as a greater challenge than baseball,” says Jenkins.

Whenever he took the mound at historic Wrigley Field, where he enjoyed his greatest success, the Cubs’ PA guy would play Canadian Sunset. As further evidence that you can take the pitcher out of Canada but you can’t take Canada out of the pitcher, at the end of his long, stellar career, Jenkins returned to his stomping grounds in southwest Ontario and pitched two seasons for the semi-pro London Majors. At 42, he was riding the bus with awe-struck teammates and spinning tales of “the show”. He has his own Canadian postage stamp, and finally, since few things are more Canadian than beer, Jenkins naturally has a Chatham craft beer named after him. Fergie’s Classic Pilsener is advertised as having “a crisp delivery just like his slider hitting a catcher’s mitt.”

On a personal note, I remember how thrilled I was when a guy from Chatham ended up at my high school. I asked him if he knew Ferguson Jenkins. “Fergie?” he replied. “Sure. Everyone in Chatham knows Fergie…” Now I could claim I knew a guy who knew him well. Okay, small bragging rights, but bragging rights nonetheless.

These are different times for Canadian ballplayers. No longer is it rare for them to not only play, but star, in the major leagues. Like Larry Walker, another BC player, Justin Morneau from New Westminster, where a US baseball announcer once speculated that moose ambled down the main street, has won a Most Valuable Player award. So has Cincinnati’s celebrated first sacker Joey Votto. His lifetime batting average is fourth among current players. Last year, Mike Soroka of the Atlanta Braves finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, after the Calgarian fashioned a 13-4 record from the mound and dazzled in the playoffs. Lest we forget the “Big Maple” himself, James Paxton from Ladner, who memorably threw a no-hitter on native soil against the Toronto Blue Jays. There are so many other, more modestly- talented Canadians in “the bigs”, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Rowan Wick, we hardly know you.

When I was kid, any Canadian who made the majors was a big deal. I remember being stunned to find that someone from Canada, the aforementioned Reno Bertoia, was actually playing for the Detroit Tigers. From just across the river in Windsor, he often walked back across the international bridge to attend Windsor’s Assumption University as part of his successful pursuit of a teaching degree. Later there were Penticton’s Ted Bowsfield, and southpaw Mike Kilkenny from Bradford, a small community just up the road from my hometown of Newmarket. (I once saw him pitch for Bradford’s bantam team against our bantams at the grassless Newmarket Fair grounds. He rang up strikeout after strikeout.) And then there was John Hiller, a fireballing reliever who spent 15 years with the Tigers. Hiller was the first Canadian in my lifetime to star in the major leagues, rather than just scuffling along.

Okay, one more. A special tip of ye olde Mickle hat to the amazing Ron Taylor, whose life might be an inspiring Hollywood movie. After ending his major league career at 34, he beat even higher odds than those of the Miracle Mets winning the 1969 World Series, with Taylor as a key reliever, by entering U of T’s medical school in his mid-30s and getting his MD. But that’s not the reason I wanted to include Ron Taylor. There’s this. He pitched a total of seven no-hit innings in two World Series – for the winning St. Louis Cardinals in 1964 and the New York Mets in 1969. I think that still stands as a World Series record for most career innings pitched in the Fall Classic without giving up a single hit.

So, all hail Larry Walker and Ferguson Jenkins, both of whom inspired all those Canadian ballplayers who came after them. The torch has been passed. Observed Mike Soroka, on the eve of spring training: “I think as Canadian players we have a certain duty in Major League Baseball to represent and wave that flag and make sure people know.” As fabled baseball announcer Mel Allan used to say: “How About That!”

OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW — IN FINLAND

Well, here we are in yet another decade, And, like much of the previous 10 years, with a few exceptions, so far so bad. As the outside world turns increasingly partisan and dark, I found myself seeking some spiritual sustenance from the past. I fastened on a similar passing of time 30 years ago: the last days of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, a decade which proved pivotal in my life and career in a way I never thought possible. My reflections were likely heightened by the fact that it all took place in the country where my mother was born, Finland.

I was lucky enough to be living in Paris that year, so it had seemed only natural to spend Christmas and New Year’s revisiting my ancestral roots. It was wonderful. Sparkling snow covered the fields and country roads of the coastal farming village that had anchored my grandmother’s side of the family for countless generations. Cheeks reddened in the biting cold. The night of the winter solstice, we made a moving visit to the gravesites of those who went before us, clearing away the snow and lighting candles.

Days were spent in a never-ending round of housecalls, warmed by festive, mulled “glogg” that miraculously improved my rough Swedish. Or so I thought. (My mother’s family are Swede-Finns, living along the eastern edges of the Gulf of Bothnia. Their first language remains Swedish.) And, of course, everyone wished everyone a hearty “God Jul!” (“Merry Christmas”) at every possible moment.

(Moster Signe at the head of the table)

On Christmas Eve, we gathered for the traditional feast at the red, wood-frame home of Moster Signe, my great aunt. There are pictures of my mother as a young girl playing in the snow outside the same house more than 60 years earlier. The Jultomten did not forget us, arriving just as dinner concluded. With his red coat, elfish hat and white beard, he sent the youngsters into paroxysms of excitement, as he handed out presents.

The next night, as we headed out along the rural, snow-packed road to my cousin’s house, the skies suddenly erupted into the most magnificent display of Northern Lights I have ever seen. They seemed to pour from the heavens in a stunning array of kaleidoscopic reds, greens and whites that took our breath away. They moved, they danced, they shimmered against the pitch blackness of the starless sky. Like most Canadians, I had witnessed the Northern Lights, but nothing like this, nothing like the way they seemed to be raining directly down upon us. We felt humbled, insignificant. I am a non-believer, but at that moment, it really did feel like God, or something supernatural, was speaking to us, as we stood, silent and alone amid the surrounding fields and forests.

There were also visits to those members of my grandfather’s side of the family who had migrated to nearby city of Vasa from their native Sideby, a fishing and farming village further south. Each was accompanied by serving after serving of pepparkakor (gingerbread cookies) and cardamom-flavoured mamas bröd, washed down with endless cups of kaffe – anything to fill the pauses when my Swedish wasn’t up to the conversation. “Varsågod!” (“Welcome to eat and drink…”) echoes still.

(Foster Mia, my great aunt on my grandfather’s side, 3rd from left. That’s me on the right, clowning around to avoid speaking Swedish…)

On the last day of December, drowning in coffee and stuffed with goodies, it was time to travel back to Helsinki — or Helsingfors, as we Swedes call it — for the grand finale of the 1980’s. It was unforgettable, though not in the way we expected. Arriving from Vasa by snail train at the city’s magnificent railway station, we eventually made our way to the heart of Helsinki’s historic Senate Square for the anticipated New Year’s Eve festivities.

Helsinki Cathedral at Senate Square, Finland in winter in the evening.

But my god, it was cold, one of those bone-chilling, deep freezes that go right through you, no matter how warmly you dress. We took refuge in the massive Cathedral looking out over the Square, at the top of a long flight of steps. No pew was ever more comfortable. Alas, with the clock ticking ever closer towards midnight, we forced our shivering selves to re-join the throngs of revelers waiting for the big moment. Many had clearly been fortifying themselves against the chill by consuming large amounts of alcohol.

At the stroke of twelve, Mayor Raimo Ilaskivi (thank you, Google) stepped before a mike at the top of the Cathedral stairs and proclaimed the New Year, with a few added homilies. He could barely be heard over the din of loud, jumbo firecrackers being set off everywhere in the crowd. A thick pall of smoke from the many firecrackers quickly drifted upwards, virtually obscuring the mayor, who beat a hasty retreat.

With all the explosions and smoke, the scene might have come from a war movie. Firecrackers set off on streets or back alleys at Hallowe’en are one thing. Large, cannonading firecrackers lit by well-oiled celebrants in the middle of crowds of people is quite another. It was frightening. A small band played something or other, before they, too, disappeared. And that was that. Hyvää Uutta Vuotta! Gott Nytt År! Happy New Year!

Our valour vanished with Mayor Ilaskivi and the 1980s. We opted for good old Canadian discretion over good old firecracker mayhem and made our way back through the frigid Finnish streets to the peace and quiet of my cousin’s apartment.

The first morning of 1990 dawned bright and beautiful, without a cloud in the sky. There was little evidence of the previous night’s boisterous partying, except for empty vodka bottles littering the streets. That afternoon, we took in the showdown match between Canada and the Soviet Union in the World Junior hockey tournament held that year in Finland. Marvellously, the young Canadians stormed back from a 3-0 deficit to topple the mighty Ruskies, who were led by future Canucks superstar Pavel Bure.

(Yes, that is an autograph from the former premier of Saskatchewan, Grant Devine, but that’s another story…)

It was an auspicious way to mark the end of the 1980s and my time in Finland, and begin to contemplate the decade that lay ahead. I had no idea they would be life-changing – hired by the Globe and Mail, co-winner of a Michener Award, marriage and four years as the Globe’s China correspondent in Beijing. But perhaps, looking down from somewhere, my ancestors saw it coming all along.

 Three decades later, as I fade further into retirement, I have a fingers-crossed wish for the next 10 years, despite their rocky start: may the 2020s be just as roaring as the storied 1920s. They might even prompt me to return to Paris and resume my search for the ghost of Hemingway.

FUN TIMES AT THE PRINCE GEORGE CITIZEN

I wish I could say it was a surprise. But the disheartening news that the Prince George Citizen was halting more than 60 years of daily publication to become a free, weekly giveaway was hardly a bolt from the blue. It’s yet another telling sign of the media’s frightening decline that a city the size of Prince George can no longer support a paid, daily newspaper. As advertisers shift online and the patience to read a newspaper seems increasingly rare in this age of short attention spans and partisan social media, there are undoubtedly more disappearances and downgrades to come. And my newspaper heart takes a hit every time.

Yet there was more to my general mourning than that. The Citizen was also the paper where I first cut my teeth as a young news reporter. Though I was there for only three months, before being lured away by the mighty Vernon News, they proved pivotal in “my brilliant career”. Cut free from my initial sinecure of writing about sports, I showed that I could function as a news reporter, too. Luckily, the Citizen was a good paper, part of the long-lamented Southam newspaper chain, which believed in quality over maximizing profits. How quaint.

The smallish daily had a solid newsroom. In addition to a handful of reporters, there was a photographer or two, sports editor, wire and front page editor, city editor, Home and Family editor (the wonderful Bev Christensen), editor Tony Skae, and publisher Lou Griffith, who showed up occasionally to glower at all us young people who somehow managed to find employment at his newspaper.

(Yep, that’s me!)

It was fun. With three pulp mills, several sawmill, plus other offshoot industries, Prince George was bustling. In the humming downtown, a young guy could dine on a beef dip or a hot turkey sandwich at the busy lunch counter of the Hudson Bay department store, or choose a steak at Mr. Jake’s for $1.49. On Friday nights, the place to be was the cavernous watering hole of the Inn of the North, reputed to be the largest pub in British Columbia. It was always packed. One night a guy rode around on a bicycle. Few bothered to give him a second glance.

And there was all this newspaper lore, the kind you get from a combination of young reporters and a community 500 miles north of Vancouver that still had a lot of frontier about it. At one point, the Citizen seemed to be a farm team for the big league Vancouver Sun. Scott Honeyman, Marian Bruce and Larry Emrick were among those who went directly there from the Citizen. When I eventually joined the Sun, I kept hearing about all the wild parties they had, topped by Emrick riding his motorcycle up the steps, through the house, and out the back door. Why not? The theme of the beer fest was Easy Rider.

On “funny hat” days at the Citizen, reporters wore outlandish headgear as they went about their duties. One day the humourless publisher came in and saw several reporters with army helmets on their heads. Outraged at this affront to “his” serious newspaper, he stormed into the office of editor Harry Boyle to complain. There was Boyle typing away, wearing Mickey Mouse ears.

Boyle was a legendary character who had come to the Citizen from the Whitehorse Star. He was forever doing chin ups on the door jam of his office, his feet swinging out towards the newsroom. Sadly he left the Citizen before I arrived, to make a lot more money as a lawyer. He eventually wound up on the BC Supreme Court, where some of his judgments remain renowned for their wit and empathy for the hard up. He is still with us, at 93. (https://vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/ian-mulgrew-former-judges-lively-letters-evidence-he-wouldnt-let-the-bastards-grind-you-down)

In the late 1960’s, before I arrived, Prince George had two papers: the daily Citizen and a weekly publication called the Progress, owned by the city’s wealthy, off-the-wall industrialist and brewery mogul, Ben Ginter. But in a city like Prince George, those on both papers were friendly, despite the competition. Over lunch, grousing at having to cover a routine plaque unveiling by Mayor Garvin Dezell, photog Dave Looy of the Citizen and Pete Duffy from the Progress concocted a prank to produce a better picture. When Dezell pulled the string, , what should he see but a Playboy centerfold affixed to the plaque. Duffy was quickly identified as the culprit. The photo of Dezell gaping in astonishment went around the world, including Manchester, where Duffy, quickly identified as the culprit, was from. His mother let him know she was not amused. Nor was the mayor. Duffy was fired, only to be hired immediately by the ever-impish Harry Boyle, perhaps to atone for succumbing to Dezell’s outrage by not running the photo in the Citizen.

Looy, whose role in the centerfold caper went unpunished, was another of those guys living on in media lore. Totally addicted to his police scanner, which he had on ‘round the clock, ‘the Batman” was known for driving at frightening speeds in his “Batmobile” to any potential police story. At night, some inner sense would rouse him from the deepest of sleeps at the least crackle of an incident over the scanner. Within minutes he would be off, often arriving before the police, his clothes having been laid out before hand. It was said that he delayed his honeymoon to dash to the scene of a car crash. Once, with a terrified reporter in the front seat, Looy roared at breakneck speed out to Ben Ginter’s rural estate, where a gunman was holed up. Ignoring police lines, Looy inched so close, he and the reporter were overcome by tear gas used to flush the gunman and missed the takedown. Police complained. Nothing changed after Looy moved to the Lower Mainland. (“He’s helping fight the fire,” said the assigned reporter, as he requested the dispatch of another photographer…). But that’s another story, or nine…

(Dave Looy, in a rare down moment. Photo by Vladimir Keremidschieff)

As for me, I had ended my seven-month gig as sports editor of the Penticton Herald, bundled a few boxes of my meagre belongings onto a Greyound bus and headed north to Prince George. I found cheap digs on Ingledew Avenue and took up the cudgels of news reporting. I learned how to write a lead from the wire/front page editor Duncan Cumming. The loveliest of Scots, he told me: no matter how dull the assignment, look for some personal angle or good quote to jazz it up, rather than just string together a few boring facts. It was good advice.

The city editor, forever chewing on a pencil, was the frenetic Joe Cunningham. One day, on deadline, he got so excited whirling around in his chair that he fell off it onto the floor with a loud “thump”. He looked up at us with a big grin on his face.

Competition added to the mix. Ben Ginter, whose burly bearded mug decorated every bottle of his popular Uncle Ben’s beer, had folded his weekly Progress, not long after firing editor Mel Rothenburger for running a photo showing someone with a brewskie that was not Uncle Ben’s. Bizarrely, he then decided to challenge the Citizen directly with a rival daily newspaper called the North Star. I relished going head to head, trying to beat the other guy during working hours, then going for beers after work to laugh and swap “war” stories. But I was crushed when my first big story, the burning down of the old McDonald Hotel, was overshadowed by the North Star. As the Citizen’s fire reporter, I got an early morning call that the landmark structure was going up in flames. I did a terrific job, if I do say so myself, interviewing anyone I could find at the scene, including a heroic waitress who had rushed upstairs, pounding on doors and hollering “Fire!”.

I hustled my dramatic yarn into the paper, pleased as punch I had killed the North Star reporter. Alas, when one of the hotel walls collapsed, the Citizen photog was off shooting freelance for BC-TV. The North Star’s Pete Duffy, he of centerfold pinup fame, was right on the spot. He got a tremendous photo of the great burst of flames and billowing smoke, which the paper splashed all over its front page. Hardly anyone noticed my rip-roaring story, proving once again that a picture really is worth a thousand words. Sniff.

When the sports editor took some time off, I even got to cover sports again (“…you could have boiled an egg on the blazing pitching arm of Pat Pratt….”). And there were other stories, like being rejected as a blood donor, interviewing a dog, and cheekily quoting the city’s “tourist of the week” complaining about the stench of the pulp mills. “I’d recognize that boiled cabbage smell anywhere.”

Being young and fancy-free, however, the bright lights of Prince George couldn’t hold me. There were jobs everywhere in those days. Why stick around? The Vernon News offered me the city editor’s job, and I accepted. I loaded up my boxes again, and rode the bus to Vernon. Another town, another challenge. How I loved it all.

 

 

 

 

ROMEO AND JULIET AND THE TALENTED MISTER NELSON (AKA MY UNCLE ED)

Yes, he was a supporter of the odious Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi. And yes, he was a conservative Roman Catholic who stuck with most tenets of the faith, including staunch opposition to abortion and agreeing that his own homosexuality was “sinful” in the eyes of the church. But Franco Zeffirelli, who died recently at the age of 96, will always have a place in my heart for his movie masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet. Not just for the film, itself, but for the memories it brings back of my lovely Uncle Ed.

The film showed up in 1968, a year after the Summer of Love, still in the midst of the earth-shaking “Sixties”. Romeo and Juliet fit right in. Although I was one of those precocious pseuds who really liked Shakespeare in high school (thank you, English teachers!), the Richard III and Othello movies we were taken to hardly stirred the soul. Laurence Olivier emoting away was fine, but not for high school students.

Romeo and Juliet was so different. This was a Shakespeare film that was made for us. Zeffirelli had the genius to realize that the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet made little sense with adults cast in the title roles. Falling madly in love at a single glance, spending just a single night together and then killing yourself, as the Friar’s clever ruse turns tragic. What adults would end it all over such a brief, albeit passionate, romance? Ah, but teenagers might. When they love, they tend to commit with all their heart, unable to imagine a life without the other.

According to the play, itself, Juliet was on the verge of turning 14. Romeo, while older, is clearly still in his teens, given the way the Capulet and Montague gangs insult each other and cavort with the foolhardy braggadocio of adolescence. Yet Olivier was 33 when he played Romeo on Broadway against his new wife Vivien Leigh as Juliet. Ralph Richardson was also 33, and John Gielgud was 31, when they donned Romeo’s tights and codpiece on stage. Zeffirelli cast 15-year old Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, 17, as his Juliet and Romeo. It’s their youth that makes this the most human of all Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Lives cut short for love, purest of all emotions, and their happiness done in by the petty hatreds of adults.

No wonder high school English teachers embraced it as manna from heaven, a boon to interesting their restless students in Shakespeare, most of whom wouldn’t know a “forsooth” from an “anon”, or care. Yes, the brief nudity, especially of Olivia Hussey who was not yet of age and would probably not be countenanced today, was a challenge. But most found ways to deal with it (“Don’t tell the parents…”).

Which brings me to my Uncle Ed, or, as he was known to his hundreds of Burnaby high school English students over the years, “Mr. Nelson”. He loved Shakespeare with a passion, and in particular, he loved Romeo and Juliet. Buttressed by his natural good humour, he brought it to livefor his students, encouraging them to step up and act out the roles. It was said, with Mr. Nelson as their guide, they even looked forward to Shakespeare in the classroom. Gadzooks.

IMG_2507(Uncle Ed, right)

So he was enchanted when Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet surfaced on the big screen. And, because he had moved from teaching to administration a year or two before, he didn’t have to grapple with that nudity thing. He could simply relish a movie starring kids the same age as those he had taught. Sumptuous costumes, exquisite locations and beautifully shot. Plus, of course, the music. Nino Rota’s memorable score transported us back to the world of Renaissance Italy where the play takes place. The theme from Romeo and Juliet is still renowned as one of the most well known, romantic pieces in cinematic history.

To complete the circle, Uncle Ed was also a virtuoso harmonica player. Without being able to read a note of music, he could play virtually every tune he took a mind to, and play it well. He was so good that one year he was asked by the Hohner harmonica people to teach a summer course at Oxford University (yes, that Oxford) on the humble instrument.

The theme from Romeo and Juliet became his show-stopper. It was not the truncated version that runs through the movie, but the full instrumental “Monty” of O What a Youth, sung so affectingly at the Capulet festivities, as Romeo and Juliet first cast eyes on each other. It incorporates the familiar theme, with lyrics, then a snappy, brisk bridge in the middle, and back to the theme. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKp89_K2XJg)

The first time I heard him play it, I was transfixed. I couldn’t quite grasp that such beautiful music was emerging from my uncle’s humble harmonica. No matter how boisterous the family gathering, and they were loud, believe me, when Uncle Ed decided to do Romeo and Juliet, there was always absolute silence.

All these years later, I still cannot think of Zeffirelli and Romeo and Juliet without a teary look back on those magical moments, when my Uncle Ed would step forward and mesmerize us with the party trick to end all party tricks.

(Playing The Theme from Romeo and Juliet at his son Jim’s wedding ceremony.)

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