Wednesday, June 18, 2014

YOU CAN GO BACK TO THAT SMALL TOWN


THE ROCKY SAUGEEN RIVER RUN THROUGH MY MEMORY

Just another town in Ontario but special in my memory.
The homes may have changed with porches and alterations but inside are friends whose faces haven't changed since school.
 At least that's the way I remembered it.
A river runs through those memories even though since I learned to swim in it, I have gone on to the great rivers, from fishing for peacock bass on the Amazon far from civilization to floating through the Yangtze gorge. Now I know the Danube is not blue and the songs of the boatmen no longer carry over the Volga.
My river is humble in comparison. Yet once it was the reason people clustered along its banks. The river gave them everything, water for drinking and a sewer and to power the mills so there would be jobs.
Now that is past. The flour mill with the best dam isn't busy. The grist mill serves fewer farmers. The woollen mill burned decades ago and its wreckage sat wrapped in weeds until it became a bit of river park.
Then there was the sawmill. Stacks of drying lumber sprawled along the bank. A patient team sleepwalked to the big factory pulling wagons of sawdust to feed boilers.
When it burned, no one rushed to rebuild because the big factory closed. Solid Canadian maple couldn’t compete against curvaceous teak and build your own shelves.
Then the yawning expanse of an old low building that had dominated the town limped through resurrections as a flea market and museum before it was demolished for the scrap.
 Its last workers never had a regular job again as their grey turned to white.  All they could afford was to fish, and all that was left in the river was rock bass.
Because of the mills, the railway came and curled around an edge of town. Twice a day the passenger train whistled as it came up from the Big Smoke and then returned a few hours later. It brought the mail and the papers, and a few visitors who had fled away to a job.
The little bridge that harrumphed over the tracks just as they made the stretch run to the station was torn down for its timbers because when the trains stopped, a level crossing was safe again no matter how worn the pickup’s brakes.
And so was the big bridge where the railway crossed the river on black stilts of girders. Foolish boys used to put their ear to a rail to see if a random freight was coming, then run to the middle on a dare, the local rite of passage.
You can saunter across now without even looking around. The rails are rusted and the station is gone. There was talk of a museum, or maybe a restaurant, but there are too many similar empty stations as the steel network that crisscrossed Ontario is hacksawed by progress.
Just a town in my memory, but I know now there are new people in old houses, and my face vanished along with the rest when the mills burned or slowed, the factories closed, and the train and factory whistles no longer divide the hours of the day better than a $34 Bulova.
My classmates are forever young because I never saw them again. I can recite names and tell of their escapades as kids but what happened next is just a guess.
And I wondered. What about  Mary, who lived just around the curve of my street, across from the station? There was no shame in the location because the jealous divisions of bigger railway towns never existed. There was no other side of the tracks.
The bigger houses, which would never be called mansions, were scattered through more modest homes, so the gracious house of one factory owner sat beside a labourer growing vegetables on his second lot. He still had a stable/garage and even an outhouse that he hadn't felt obliged to tear down when they got town water and indoor plumbing, to his wife's delight.
The town was cheerfully democratic. There were more churches than real stores but none of them had  a fancier clientele
And just one big old school. It was a real journey from the concessions, almost painfully so in winter, so they weren't there, darn it they said, when the school burned one night, and the townies who had escaped their parents' vigil cheered as shop equipment crashed through the flames.
Fires kept changing town life. None were as big as the fabled fires that leveled blocks in the big cities, but each was a funeral pyre for our hopes.
 When we sprawled with our bikes on those endless summer afternoons, yarning after a game where there were more squabbles than runs, fires and wars took second place to the latest Ford model. Then we would talk about our buddies who were lucky enough to go to a cottage. And eventually we would get around to girls, not that we knew that much.
I confided that my girlfriend lived just across my street. My chums didn't know that Nancy never really noticed me. She seemed safe, however, and there was a tingle of tension about other girls in the class, such as Ruth with great dark eyes, Sheila with flaming cheeks, and Susan, with a forbidden air that only a pastor's daughter in a small town could have wrapped about her like the perfume from a little bottle from Kresge's.
And then there was Mary. I never dared talk about her. She was slim as a boy even as we started high school, as mysterious as a pool in the river on a wilted summer afternoon.
I was the orphan boy from around the curve, she was the lawyer's daughter, although I didn't know it was not a happy or even prosperous home, despite his profession, because small-town lawyers don't make much and he was said to "drink," not that I really knew much about that other than thundering Baptist sermons about demon rum.
And in the town so long ago, drinking was something the sweaty farmers' sons and young bucks from the factories did behind the pool hall where it was rumoured there were bloody fights after the black
ball was sunk in snooker games which took on all the tension of gunslingers stalking through a western.
There was a camaraderie between everyone in the class in public school that was easy to maintain when girls and boys were isolated in separate playgrounds and marched into school through separate entrances. No one strayed across the Maginot Line decreed by the principal and the trustees.
Yet puberty and the school fire arrived for all of us with equal warmth.  Our class was set adrift when the old school was destroyed and we moved to the unique setting of the council chamber in the town hall where the rows of desk were replaced with three students to each picnic table. Behind the screen of books at the front of the table, mischief flourished.
 The principal was a legendary tyrant who one day, after I made the mistake of trying to pass a note to a buddy – we never dreamed of writing to the girls - hammered me so hard with a thick razor strap that his buttons popped. Which made him madder until he glowed red.
When you entered the classroom through a ripe cloakroom, you looked at a portrait of Churchill who had a glint of mischief. It prompted giggles. But when you were making the trek in from the strap, you didn't dare giggle, not when hands stung and cheeks burned and you felt like crying, but not in front of Ruth, and Sheila and Susan.
And Mary.
There was our first class party in Grade 9 on a frigid day when we skied near the town dump and went back to Mary's for hot chocolate. Or rather they skied and I bounced down on an old sled because I couldn't afford skis. We played games, children's games, and then one girl, with a daring look at the others, suggested we play spin-the-bottle. There was a delicious pause. Mary looked around the eager circle, and then at me, and said that her father might be mad if he caught us.
 I was crushed by that look. I thought about it long into a night so chilly that frost had formed inside the bedroom window. My spirit matched the night.
My grandma tired of looking after me so I was shipped to a city school that equaled the town in population. The guys were friendly, sort of, after I played football for the school, but the girls were unfathomable. I had no history with them. And then university and work and wife and sons and the decades flew like the whirling calendar pages in a bad movie.
Then came the invitation to a class reunion. Of course I returned to the only class to which I ever felt an attachment, back to the accustomed streets. I drove every one, but now there were just strangers.
I stood on the main street bridge and searched vainly for new buildings.  But everything was as familiar as the red-wing blackbirds that whistled as they flew up from the rushes under the bridge, just as they used to when I crossed to the tiny Baptist church on the North Hill, the only "entertainment" I was allowed
That night in the Legion, a traditional gathering place in towns (but not for Baptists) we sifted and sorted memories and pretended we remembered every anecdote.
Mary came late. I had almost forgotten by then, but not quite. It was almost over when I sought her out.  She had become a nurse, she said, and married a surgeon and moved to a big state. He had been dead for years, and she was trying to find herself again.
Do you remember, she said, before the school burned, when you found out that my father wouldn't buy a Christmas tree because he didn't have enough money but he pretended instead that he really didn't believe in Christmas?
You insisted the principal give you the school tree after classes finished for the year. He was mean and stubborn and you got flustered but you wouldn't leave and finally he gave you the tree, providing you removed the ornaments.
You dragged it up the big hill all the way to my house and left it on the porch. I borrowed some balls from a neighbour and bought some tinsel.
 I didn't remember.  And I wondered why. Are there some tales of childhood that you strive to forget because nothing finally happened?
You know I was in love with you even before the tree, Mary said. I know I never talked to you about what I found on the porch even after the others told me what had happened. I never seemed to look at you, but I loved you for years. I used to think about you after you left, and I thought of finding you when I came to the city to train. But I never did. It just got too busy.
 We stood looking at each other and wondered what might have been. And then she went away. Her ride was waiting.
Not even a kiss!
I drove back home that night, although some stayed at the old hotel that finally can serve beer. I looked down at the river, drove the street where I had lived and round the curve to Mary’s, and finally out the road south, knowing I would never be back.
 All the bittersweet clich├ęs flashed through my mind, such as you can never go home again. It’s really not true, you know. You can, but you find it not beside the river of the yearning days of boyhood but in your nostalgia.
It’s nice there, nicer than reality.

SIX DEGREES OF OLD FRIENDS


WHY WAKES ARE MORE FUN THAN JUST THE BOOZE

Spoiler Alert!
I once wrote a column like this that not only mystified some faithful readers, it prompted friends to wonder if I hadn't gone a little weird after thousands of columns.
But I do like to discover and trace the connections between strangers and did so even before I found out about the theory of Six Degrees Of Separation which is credited first to Hungarian Frigyes Karinthy in 1929.
There have been movies, a Broadway play and TV shows built around the idea, and there was even a strange offshoot tracing actors to Kevin Bacon.
Basically, you are supposed to be able to connect every person in the world through just six people. There have been attempts to prove it mathematically but I content myself with a few surprises where I linked strangers even when they came from different countries, not just the same province.
The theory is one reason I go to wakes. I get to enjoy old friends and avoid older enemies. And then there are these surprises, people you never imagined knew the deceased.
The memorial service for Hartley Steward, the solid publisher and fine writer, was being held outside Collingwood near water and golf, suitable because that was Hartley's happiest habitat for 72 years.
It was scheduled from noon to three, so I knew I couldn't be there to savour acquaintances because Mary had an appointment at 11 at that giant parking lot also known as Sunnybrook Hospital.
For once in the Downing ordeal of sitting around countless medical offices, the surgeon checking up after an operation was on time and quick. So we were slipping back along Highway 401 when I decided that getting to the memorial was doable without speeding insanely.
Mary and I arrived just as the speeches ended under the direction of Ron Mitchell. Darn it. But the banquet room was filled with familiar faces, and the nice vista out the big windows was of waves and boats. I could imagine Hartley taking time out from playing a lofty game of golf to admire the setting and say that his Mary had done just fine.
Mitchell is a perfect example of the Degrees theory. His boyhood home backed on Doug Creighton's. He started as babysitter for the three Creighton boys and ended up decades later sweating through an exam at the ripe age of 60 to be in the insurance business with the oldest,  his buddy Scott. In between, he worked for Doug and with Hartley as a general manager and publisher.
So, you say, that's conventional. Except then the Degrees click in. Up came at the memorial, to my surprise, Val and Jerry Linton, who I last saw at a condo pool in St. Pete's Beach talking with Tony O'Donoue who ran for mayor against David Crombie. Turned out the Lintons are honourary aunt and uncle to Mitchell and through him were at Hartley's wonderful parties.
Up came Peter Clark to visit, who had been in the plastic board business in Mississauga with Mitchell. Before that, I knew him around City Hall as the long time head of the Metro Licensing Commission. We used to chat because my first real summer job was selling incredible expensive men's shoes, and, of course, Peter, of the Clark Shoes family, knows all about expensive shoes like Dacks and the old Scott and John McHales.
Stalking around the room, anger radiating like sweat from a horse that has just galloped for hours, was Mark Bonokoski. Bono was still on a high, or a low, from the election where he had been working with the Tory leader. I considered it safer just to say that I believe Ontario voters are nuts.
Andy Donato was sunny in an Hawaiian shirt and a new goatee. (The dress code must have been kicked out the door. ) You see, that's the advantage of being a talented and acerbic cartoonist. When disaster hits and the Liberals undeservedly win, you can content yourself with all the targets who keep crowding into your sights.
Of course we repeated the old stories. That's what writers do. So I told again about how Hartley's second wife, Mary, had told me how impressed she had been when she had met me the year before. I confess I swelled a little and then asked why. Because, she said, you were the only journalist I knew who owned his own tux. How, I stupidly asked, did you know it was my own tux? Because, she said, it didn't fit.
Hartley the romantic had a nice but sometimes confusing relationship with women, including five wives. Then there had been his early interesting relationship with Maggie Siggins, the author of at least 10 books, including the one on Riel who won a Governor's General award.
(It was certainly a golden time for Ryerson journalism since Hartley, Maggie, Ray Biggart, Kathy Brooks, Paul Heming, Glen Woodcock et al came out of the class of '65. Few classes can match their exploits, including the time as a junior Tely editor when I sprung three of them out of jail for being so drunk, Ryerson would have expelled them if it had been discovered.)
I complimented Ron Base, who keeps churning out interesting detective tales set in Florida, for a good blog read on how Hartley had urged him to come visit in London when he was at a low point in his life.  And then there was Lynda Schwalm, who practically invented newspaper promotion in our city, who was once married to Ron, and Jack McIver whose sister had pulled that tux gag on me, and Tom MacMillan who should have been running the Tory campaign, and strangers who said they had read me and knew a mutual friend and ....
Well, you get the point, I hope. We all talked fondly of the passing and hopefully about the future.
For some of us it was a little like the gathering of alumnae.  Why many of us go to the same doctors that Hartley did.
Then back to Toronto at a much slower rate. I didn't cut across country but took the lazy man's route  to 400 at Barrie. And I drove the roads where exactly four days later, a tornado left hundreds  homeless and with shattered dreams.
A raging reminder that I should spend more time chatting with friends and making new ones. Life can change in just seconds.








Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A STEWARD OF TALENT


SORTING THE GREATS FROM THE GOOFS

It ended well but it almost got derailed at the start. Thank heavens for luck and senior editors tough enough to tolerate the crap if they think you also can write and be a smart news operator.
When Hartley Steward died at 72,  and the list of his accomplishments in newspapers and magazines was recited, I thought back to the mid 1960s when it all may have died at birth for both him and me and there would have been reduced careers.
I didn't know who Hartley was that Sunday when I was Night Editor of the Toronto Telegram and he and a friend were third-year Ryerson journalism students working in sports.
Laughter drifted out of the sports department which I tried to ignore. I was the boss of the Tely night operation but not sports unless a major emergency flared.
I pieced the humour together like a jigsaw puzzle. John Robertson, a gifted scamp, had written a story about a Junior A game where if you took the first letter from each paragraph, Torontonians were told to "fuck off."
Since the gag was ruined if just one of the words was changed,  his usage was contorted.  Robertson told the humble part-time copy editors what he had done. They stupidly went along. And I was stupid too. As the senior person around. I should have stepped in.
What we should have realized was the obvious, that Robertson would never to be able to keep his mouth shut and would confide in his buddies and one of them would leak it.
A day passed. Safely. And I forgot about it. Except a  hostile account surfaced in the Varsity, the U of T student paper. Still the brass didn't know. The second day, there was a press club party honouring Ted Reeve, the garrulous and legendary sports columnist. I was standing with the three top editors when a loudmouth told them. They were horrified.  I kept my mouth shut. For once.
Doug Creighton, then the sports editor but later the key founder of the Sun empire, immediately called Maudie Stickells, the incredible head of our switchboard.  If you wanted, Stickells could get you the PM in just minutes. Maudie found Robertson immediately and Creighton yelled at him and suspended him for two weeks.
Just in time too. Minutes later, he got called by Tely publisher,John Bassett ordering him to fire Robertson after having him drawn and quartered. Bassett's arrogant temper was notorious in the publishing, social and sports worlds. Except Creighton talked him down because, after all, Robertson had already been punished. It was a management technique I never forgot and once used, to his disgust, against Creighton.
Both of us survived. No one knew my guilty negligence. And. Creighton and his colleagues found Hartley so talented in layout and writing that he was forgiven and rose through the ranks and became a junior news editor and noted freelance writer.
The very first issue of Toronto Life featured a marvellous cover story by Hartley. Once again Big John struck. He called me, not being able to get hold of Creighton, and demanded to know about the SOB who had just written for the enemy.
I pointed out that under the union contract, Hartley was allowed to write for media not in direct competition. Bassett bellowed me silent. He ordered me to fire Hartley. Before he hung up, he demanded "is this Hartley any good?" I said he was. Bassett then said: 'I hope he tells you to go fuck yourself."
I called Hartley who was shaken to his boots. Here he was a bright young hope being savaged by his publisher. He pleaded for advice. I told him from my past union experience as a Guild director and steward, he couldn't be fired. I said obviously he would want to continue and get the freelance gravy  but be careful. Very careful.
Hartley's early baptisms of fire obviously stood him in fine stead since he ended up doing just about every senior job in journalism after the Tely was sold out from under us, including starting new papers for the Sun. He had seen it all, and done a lot of it himself. Turned out, however, that journalists can have long memories.
Creighton packed Hartley off to Calgary after the Sun bought the celebrated Albertan title in 1980. Hartley told me of his first day as publisher of the new Calgary Sun. He walked into the publisher's office once occupied by such notables as a former Leaf goalie  nicknamed Ulcers.
One wall was windows looking down on the presses.  It was a publisher's office right out of Citizen Hearst. There was a huge desk. And on the desk was one piece of paper, a photocopy of the Robertson "fuck you" hockey story that Hartley had allowed in the Tely 15 years before.
Someone around the building knew where at least one body was buried and wanted the eastern bastards come to take over a western institution to know they were watching.
Hartley never accused me of being involved. But he did snarl one day that it was bloody difficult to be a publisher when there was an Editor around like me who kept telling embarrassing stories about him.
He could be a tough boss. But then being a publisher can be rough when headstrong journalists are running around tilting at windmills that belong to your very own board of directors. Yet the most demanding part of being a newspaper boss is handling the talent, whether it is hiring, protecting, disciplining, nurturing or just saying the hell with it, go somewhere else.
The writers are more important than the ads in a successful newspaper. And Hartley knew that and worked at it with flair. It helped that he was the leader of the pack.
Of course, that is why John Robertson survived that stunt which almost put Hartley's career in the dumpster before he even graduated. Robertson was so gifted, he was once dispatched to write an early feature on the Astrodome in Houston and filed a hilarious series of one-liners on stadia from Philadelphia when he wandered there on a drunk. He only got suspended. Again!
The challenging thing about Hartley as boss is that his sins were magnificent and that he came with a wider rebellious streak than most of his staff.  For example, when Toronto finally ended all smoking in office buildings, our publisher's office still reeked of cigar smoke because Harley puffed defiantly away and occasionally didn't bother to close the door.
It was just part of his enjoyment of life, about everything in life, especially food and drink. Hartley may have come from a humble background in tough northern mining country but he certainly enjoyed the party scene. He loved women and they loved him, including five wives.
He also loved golf. I once asked him to write a full-page essay when he was our European rover and he turned in an intriguing piece on the joys of a good golf swing instead of a thoughtful piece on the British election. Once again we were lucky since Creighton loved golf almost as much as Hartley did.
The publisher as golfer led to some strange problems. Andy Donato plays golf daily and is also a great artist and cartoonist. Yet he never fails to let his game interfere with his talent. I was always being called on to defend profane and scurrilous embellishments to cartoons which I never had seen before publication because he had spent the day at the Hunt.
One afternoon he called in from driving to Brampton for golf instead of staying safely (for me) in the office to await the O..J. Simpson verdict. We were discussing this with loud curses over the phone. Turned out Andy had a secret ace in the dispute because riding shotgun (and keeping mum all the time) was his partner in playing hooky, Hartley.
When I talk about Hartley as the great shield for talent, something he learned over the martini glass from Creighton, one of the greatest publishers, let's not kid the troops that there wasn't a cynical perplexing edge. There were no illusions about rogue columnists. There was always a calculation as to value, just how bendable you would be.
Creighton and I were having a fight over a columnist who had a rich expense account that he fiddled like a Stradivarius. I pointed out that he was an asshole. "All great writers are assholes," Creighton enunciated carefully. "Where does that leave me?" I snapped. Creighton smirked and didn't reply.
Hartley certainly was a great writer. He loved to paint pictures of simple scenes, like birds at a feeder, as if he was a Monet using words instead of pointed dabs of oils.
His magazine essay on cottaging near Hanover should be in every cottage library because it captured the Canadian evening as the lake cools and goes to sleep.
 I'm not so sure about that soliloquy on the golf swing, but then Hartley was a much better golfer than me.  Except even now he is complaining that certain celestial beings are standing in his way as he lines up a putt near the Pearly Gates. His putter, you see, was never as fine as his keyboard.








Thursday, June 5, 2014

LIBERAL VOTERS ARE MASOCHISTS


GRIT VOTERS HAVE TO BE KIDDING

This provincial affair has been the most relaxing election I have ever witnessed, and that goes back all the way to the 1957 federal election in the Yukon when mine was one of the 10% of the votes thrown out by the Supreme Court.
No matter what else I was doing in the newspaper business since then, back I went to riding the leaders' buses and grinding out stories and columns, or supervising the paper's election coverage, or thundering out our choices in special "slate" editorials, or appearing on TV and radio on election night as a supposed political oracle.
This time I spent most of my time at the cottage. After all, the choice is so bloody obvious, I wince when I see Liberal signs on lawns because I worry about those families being so out-of-touch with the real world that they would actually chain themselves again to a party that is setting a modern record for hypocrisy and wasted billions.
I wrote a blog recently recommending the Conservatives scrap their ad campaigns in favour of the simple line: "It would be hard to do worse."
As I've often pointed out, the most compelling theme in any campaign has always been "time for a change." Well, in June, 2014, it's certainly time for a change because I can't imagine any collection of politicians doing worse than what the Grits have inflicted on us..
It is so bad, I can't be bothered to argue about it. If you want to call me an idiot in emails, or phone to whisper anonymous crap, or tell your neighbours that silly Downing has gone overboard, you will not get a rise out of me. I would prefer to spend my time thinking why I haven't caught a nice pickerel at the Point.
Mary and I have already voted. Of course we Xed for Doug Holyday, the incumbent Conservative MPP in Etobicoke Lakeshore since he won the by-election.
I have known Doug for many years in many roles. He wears well. I know of no politician who gets more favourable comment from my friends and neighbours. He is calm common sense in the face of crazed spending, a pleasant but firm conservative.
When I was CNE president, Doug was a vice-president. Just the other day, we sat together at a CNE directors' meeting fighting a silly manoeuvre by councillor  Gord Perks that is costing the fair tens of thousands.
His Liberal opponent is Peter Milczyn who has been the councillor for half the riding. There has been plenty of opportunity to compare since both were veteran members of Toronto council.  It is significant Doug ended up as deputy mayor because only a fervent Grit would pretend Peter is his equal.
If the two worked at a school, Doug would be principal and Peter would be the secretary.
I was looking at one of those squinty-eyed ads of Kathleen Wynne the other day and thinking it is  quite striking how far she has come.  It really isn't that long ago that she couldn't get elected as a school trustee after her crusade to block Toronto amalgamation was noticed by no one.
She was just another person on the fringe of civic politics. She only stood out from the mediocre mass because she was openly gay.
She didn't do much as a cabinet minister but by golly she ended up as premier, which unfortunately said more about the quality of her opponents than it did hers.
Isn't it about time voters got back to reality and stopped demonstrating how broad minded they are. They've proven they don't discriminate, so let's get on with electing real politicians, not social experiments.
A good start would be electing Holyday and more Conseratives in Toronto, the heart of the province even if the rest of Ontario wants to moan about that. After the Liberals flopped around at Queen's Park like a beached carp for the last decade, the quality of our daily life has been strangled by our traffic, which has only been exacerbated by the games at the Legislature and council.
I was at the 45th press preview for the CHIN picnic the other day. In between the talk about how successful the bikini competition has been over the years because it was an ethnic excuse allowing the media to run shots of scantily-clad girls without the normal kerfuffle from the exceedingly correct folk,  everyone was complaining about how difficult it had been just to drive to the party. Later that day, a consultant doing a study in that area told me of people fleeing the city because of the commuting.
The other day it took me 70 minutes to drive from Royal York and Bloor to Bay and Bloor (circumstances meant I couldn't use the TTC.)  I had too much time to survey Liberal election signs and wonder just what possesses people to advertise that they haven't been paying attention.