Thursday, June 27, 2019



Not everyone would agree. A few thought Anne Johnston, who has just died at the full age of 86, was just cantankerous. Yet she was an alderman who made Toronto council better just by walking into the horseshoe of desks.
She would hiss at a colleague for a stupid vote, shout an insult to the press gallery, and settle down  for another day of wheeling and squealing over the issues dear to her heart like helping the disabled.
We were original members of the board of the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame which is still chaired by David Crombie who along with David Smith and Anne were uncomfortable partners in the politics of a northend which was used to getting its own way.
I miss her at the meetings because of her rugged approach which was forged in her early life as an occupational therapist with disturbed patients.
She almost was the first woman mayor of Toronto. When Crombie was the giant killer who defeated in a 1978  by-election a Liberal being groomed to be PM ( John Evans of U of T) council deadlocked 11 to 11 on a mayoral replacement.
No one was willing to budge. So Roy Henderson, the city clerk, found an old box that had contained envelopes, put in two pieces of paper with the names and pulled out the one for Fred Beavis, a plain east end politician who had the nickname of The Honest Roofer.
A key draw in  the city's life which John Tory just got wrong by saying it was from a hat. It made Beavis the first Roman Catholic mayor of Toronto since it was incorporated in 1834. And Toronto had to wait another two decades to elect its first female mayor.
It was significant, however, that the champion of the old guard had to win by luck over a feisty newcomer with only six years of experience. Then Anne went on to become one of council's longevity champs until her ward rebelled and advertised for an opponent who went on to defeat her.
The 1970s were a grand decade in municipal politics with the reformers sweeping the cobwebs from bylaws and it was common for the 23 councillors and a few journalists to party together and travel together and fight together and generally enjoy urban politics.
I remember writing about Anne with affection, detailing her attributes in one of my daily columns on Page 4 of the Sun. Then I chastised her towards the end.
She sued! I couldn't believe it. No one could. I got a puzzled call from Alan Shanoff, the newspaper's lawyer, saying he couldn't figure out how she could prove libel since the column basically was filled with praise.
So I phoned Anne. She chatted pleasantly about how she really wasn't mad at me but a lawyer in the ward who owed her a favour said he could get a lot of money out of the Sun and it really wouldn't affect me.
I explained that I had never been successfully sued and that newspapers didn't keep Editors who cost them money in libel suits.
So Anne called off the suit.
After all, she had often  "used" me in the normal City Hall way of  planting ideas, but she had even "used" me as an enforcer.
Council used to go to the annual meeting of the Canadian Federation of Mayors and Municipalities in a happy mob and work like mad all day and party hard all night.
I was minding my own business, and that of a few suburban aldermen at my table at the main evening event in Halifax, when Anne appeared from the dance floor, dragging a Newfoundland mayor from some town with a longer name than he was.
She pulled him up to me, told me to stand and explained to the mayor that I was her husband and when she told me he had been feeling her bottom in an enthusiastic way while dancing, I would beat him up.
The mayor sprinted to safety, Anne and the table roared, and I said I had to go write a column which didn't involve punching people.
That was Anne, always in the centre of things, whether she was promoting a Welsh choir - her roots in her birthplace included the family knowing Dylan Thomas -   crusading for people locked in wheelchairs, or just having a grand time keeping the contractors at City Hall more honest than they were used to.
You know, the good old days that we talk about often weren't that great. But they were in City Hall when we had councillors like Anne around. She accomplished without an army of paid aides to staff the office or go to meetings for her.
I'm sure that right now she is complaining to St. Peter that there is too much density near the Golden Gates and Welsh choirs should be featured more in hymn sings. And, damn it, the disabled sign for her chariot hasn't arrived yet because even the blasted civil servants in heaven can screw things up, just like they do back at Nathan Phillips Square.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019



I was not yet 3 but I do have faint memories of the King touring Riverdale Park on a warm May day in 1939.  Walter Oster was just a few days old but he remembered too. After all, he ended up with the King's name.
Those in Walter's circle know the story but most readers would be baffled when his obit appeared listing his first names as King George Walter.  It was just one of the ways Walter was unique.
His mother Pauline and his father Michael had dithered over the name for days. Finally his mother appealed to a nurse she liked about what she should call the baby. And the nurse without thinking long said why didn't she call him after the King who was making headlines throughout the country with his royal tour.
So she did. But Walter never used it all, although he could act like a king in an argument and my, could he ever be stubborn when he thought you were full of .....
I met Walter and his gracious Mary on a trip to China in 1985 organized by that grand Grit, David Smith, and his friend and law partner, Jeff Lyons, who I always liked even as he descended into being one of Ontario's political pariahs.
Mary announced during the trip that I really wasn't the jerk she had thought, which was good enough for Walter who took me for decades on great adventures even when we got skunked.
Walter ran the Sportsmen's Show, of course, and the fishing derby on Lake Ontario, and fine seafood restaurants. It had all started, he said, when as a kid, he had been thrilled to catch a sunfish in Grenadier Pond.
Many years later, Walter and I organized a city fishing derby at the pond. The Sun rented out simple fishing rods - we actually gave them away to the kids - and Walter and I caught some fish in advance, tagged them with the names of Sun personalities, and released them in the famous pond. The tags were worth prizes of a few dollars each but one was for $50.
(Oh yes, the fish with the Downing tag was not caught but was found floating belly up. I always thought that Tiny Bennett, our fishing expert who didn't like me intruding into his area, was responsible.)
One high point of my work years was to come back on opening day of the fishing derby to Pier 4 and walk through the pointing Saturday crowd carrying our catch. And then to the round table on the second floor of the vanished restaurant - done in by the stupid Harbourfront bureaucrats who should have treasured Walter rather than given him a hard time.
We would dine with the guest of the day, who may have been a cardinal or premier, and wish that the day, and the food, would never end.
I can remember being part of a double-header, what we called it when the boat had two salmon on, and while manoeuvring to a deck corner to get anchored to land a 27-pound chinook. I was slammed by Toronto  chief Julian Fantino, who was also playing a fish. He said mischievously later that he really hadn't intended to bodycheck me that hard.
Walter had great relations with the police, the Church, politicians and celebrities who flocked to fish with him. It didn't come easily either. He had to work at climbing out of his neighbourhood of Cabbagetown (some still grew cabbages on their tiny lots) through drafting blueprints to construction to owning restaurants, golf courses and even a hotel.
I often wondered during his long volunteer career as board chair of the giant convention centre whether his directors knew about his flamboyant bursts.
For example, he raced cars on a Canadian circuit until he was 44 - which just happened to be his final car number.
He bought a special anniversary Rolls Royce and one day on a jaunt to Montreal, with a friend at the wheel who Walter sponsored in racing, was roaring down 401 at over 160 km/h. They were pulled over by an OPP constable who said he just wanted to look at the legendary car. (Fantino would not have approved even though Walter was a buddy.) Walter pointed proudly to the plaque on the dash where the company said how special this car was, and no ticket was issued.
Walter each year took a group on great fishing in remote spots ranging from Costa Rica to the territories. One January, fourteen of us fished for peacock bass on the Rio Negro, the tributary of the Amazon a long plane ride from civilization.
We lived on a river boat and each day paired up with guides in small boats and spent 10 hours fishing for the bass and cursing the piranha when they chomped our bait. It was jungle furnace hot and you dripped with sweat. Sadistically, I returned to a topic that often bugged Walter because I observed, as a good swimmer and with sons who were lifeguards and SCUBA divers too, that I thought it astounding he couldn't swim.
Here was a man who was one of the faces of fishing in Ontario, if not the country. He had spent much of his lifetime on water, and not just when playing golf. Yet he couldn't swim.
 I stopped the kidding when Walter started negotiating with the guide about how much it would cost to get him to throw me into the biggest blackwater river in the world and let me make my way back to the mother ship through waters that featured caimans bigger than the ones that one daredevil on the crew wrestled one night while we held the lights.
Ironically, for a man who had presided over the best seafood restaurants in the city, with a loyal staff who spent their lifetimes working for him, Walter had a thing for fish and chips. Now his food was superb. He made sure his staff bought the finest giant shrimp. He paid extra for his fries which were coated, I think, with egg whites. He could have those shrimps or fries or tender lobsters whenever he wanted, but he and I regularly searched for good fish and chip restaurants in humble corners of his city.
In my case, I suspect it was nostalgia because of the little fish and chip shop just south of Gerrard and Greenwood that had been there for decades. The Downings often went there just along the lane from our big doctor's house in those faded years to bring back the treat, back when royal tours were huge news and King George Walter was born.
Back when fish and chips came wrapped in the big sheets of old newspapers and were priced as a bargain meal for the many who didn't have the money to eat out.
When Walter presided genially at Pier 4, with much of Toronto ambling below in the weekend sun, he let everyone order from the menu but me. The waiter would bring me two succulent pieces of fish in their heart-stopping jackets of deep-fried batter, or even, if Walter decided I hadn't been too much of a pain in the ass and my catch had been smaller than his, three pieces ... and mountains of fries.
And then we would all eat like a king!

Sunday, March 3, 2019



As the scarred survivor of the revolution which took me in journalism from setting type by hand and typing carbon copies to writing columns on a desk gizmo, I remember the frustrating problems with revulsion and hope that driverless cars come to reality without such a history.
At least old computers were only dangerous to your sanity! (But come to think of it, modern computers can be too since my last unexpected computer problem was 10 minutes ago.)
I was reminded of the difficult birth of computers by a note from Clare Westcott, now confined to a seniors' eyrie above the Trent River by problems with eyes and mobility - but not of memory.
My, does he remember the electronic renovation of Ontario.
As I have written in and in my recent book, Ryerson University - A Unicorn Among Horses, Clare played a key role in education with the community colleges and Ryerson, and in provincial politics, for most of his 95 years. We had then what history has revealed to be a good premier, but Clare was right there behind Bill Davis.
He was there when backroom politics was played with clever force, and variations of the SNC-Lavalin scandal were always threatening unless you played democracy with some competence and a sense of duty that meant screwing the public and wasting millions was just not done.
Clare dropped out after Grade 11 at Seaforth Collegiate but after a variety of minor jobs, which included being blinded in one eye as a Hydro lineman, ended up with the stuffy mandarins of the Ministry of Education in the early 1960s working under Bill Davis.
He recalled the other day that he found that "even the word computer scared the pants off ministry people. Many of them actually believed that it would eventually put teachers out of a job. I don't really think many teachers thought it would happen but the cloistered brass had real paranoia about a machine with a better brain than they had."
Clare remembers that in 1963 and 1964, "a computer person not only had to know all about computing but he had to constantly explain what it was and what it could do, plus he had to be a promoter and used car type salesman because a good chunk of the population feared it like it was black magic. Words like binary and the new math were intimidating to the many of the folks who got a readin 'n' writin education as I did."
Clare's educator about the latest buzz words and guide into the magic acts of the new computer world was Dr. Calvin "Kelly" Gotlieb who has been called by Clare and others the "Father of Computing" in Canada. Kelly founded  the Computer Science department at U of T and as a prolific author and consultant became famous far beyond our borders.
Kelly persuaded Clare to hire a computer wiz working in the U.S. for a soap company. When he asked what he should do, Clare told him just to walk around the ministry for a couple of months talking about computers. "I just want them to see you don't have horns and you're not breathing fire."
Another mentor for Clare in this brave new world was Dr. Fred Minkler, head of the giant North York school board, who was "an innovator who surrounded himself with brainy young doers." As they worked with industry representative, Minkler suggested they form an association of data systems people and became the first president. Then the high school dropout from Seaforth became the second president of the Association of Educational Data Systems.
And so the computer ship was launched in education in Ontario but the voyage was to take decades. As Clare recalls, it was twenty years later in the early 1980s when Davis as premier and Bette Stephenson as a good education minister announced a school computer program. Both said that within 10 years, every student would have their own computer. (We have made great advances but not quite that far.)
Even today Clare can't resist a poke at these two famous Tory politicians, saying that neither have ever owned or operated a computer.
In the mid-1960s, a revolution in post-secondary education in Ontario was also occurring. Not only did Davis create the CAATs, he sponsored legislative changes that ended with one institute of technology becoming Ryerson University.
Davis also gave that budding university freedom from the constricting ministry with its first board of governors, and to the chagrin of all the egotistical doctorates wandering outside his office, put Clare, the dropout, on the board.
As I outline in my book, Clare played a major role at Ryerson. As one important cog in buying land for the expanding university, he notoriously reported back at one board meeting that he had just bought two whore houses.
This was greeted with shock until the first female member of the board, Ruth Frankel, laughed.
Mrs. Frankel also came to Clare's defense when the other governors ignored his knowledge about the new technology and decided to buy a main computer from Honeywell.
Clare grumbled that the faculty committee was making an "odd" recommendation because IBM had just come out with System 360, a stand alone main frame computer computer system designed to cover a complete range of applications. He knew respected educators like Minkler were lining up to get one.
Clare wrote that it "wasn't an easy sell  because even my friends on the board were winking at each other hinting I was way over my head." But he kept going so finally the exasperated board had the former engineering dean at U of T, Ron McLaughlin, study the matter and report back to his fellow governors. When he did, he backed Westcott, but it became a Pyrrhic victory.
Six weeks later, Davis, still the education minister, phoned Clare to say "I think it would be wise if you resigned from the Ryerson board. I have just been at a cabinet meeting and Premier Robarts is mad as hell at you. Did you do something at Ryerson about the purchase of a new computer?"
Clare said he had because "they were making a big mistake purchasing from Honeywell rather than from IBM."
The future premier finished the call by saying:"Clare, it would be wise for you to resign as  soon as possible. The President of Honeywell is a close friend and supporter of Mr. Robarts and he apparently raised hell with him about what you did." So Clare had to quit his treasured appointment.
(Ironically, in 1974, Toronto's three universities held talks about how stupid financially it was for each of them to buy a main frame computer. U of T, which lorded it over York and Ryerson and handicapped their operations in the first decades of the new universities, refused to share. So York and Ryerson went ahead with a successful joint operation, a co-operation which was noted throughout the country. Oh yes, with an IBM 155.)
And that was how politics was played even back in the heyday between two friends who were key mechanics in what was called the Big Blue Machine. It lasted 42 years,  one of the most successful political dynasties in the country, especially when you consider the unravelling of the Trudeau legend and the party that believes it is entitled to rule by the divine right of The Great Grit God!

Saturday, February 2, 2019



I don't brood about them in my memories but the death of billionaire Ron Joyce did remind me that I have a black hole in my accomplishments. I have a history of the rich ignoring my reasonable requests for donations.
There used to be an expression about living like a prince on a pauper's salary. And journalists knew all about that, although I once used it in front of my friend, Doug Creighton, the founder and soul of the Sun newspapers, and he blew a gasket, to use another old saying.
Yet Doug, bless him, knew what I meant, even though I was never lucky enough to be able to live on my expense account and bank my salary, as Time magazine staffers were reputed to do in the misty past.
Yet if you last in the big leagues of the media, you rub shoulders or bend elbows with many rich and powerful people. They become familiar in your life. Having billionaires as acquaintances or even friends is not that far-fetched, not that it did me much good financially. But then I am lousy when it comes to bargaining or even asking for charities.
I revealed my financial shortcomings early when I took my first big-city newspaper job in 1958 and Jean Burlington, secretary to the formidable managing editor known just by his initials of JDM, asked what I was to get paid. I had no idea. I had just been grateful to get a Telegram job. So she gave me the minimum of $76 weekly. I then spluttered that I did have some experience (editing the Whitehorse Star) but she just smiled.
In the early stretched days of the Toronto Sun, my daily Page 4 column was a major part of the entire Sun's political coverage as I trotted from City Hall to Queen's Park with flights to Ottawa for budgets and big stories.
I was sagging from fatigue when I got a phone call from Dic Doyle at the Globe (a major journalism figure who became a senator) offering me the new post of columnist on the editorial page.
I was stunned and phoned Creighton. He cleverly said we had to have one final blowout before I departed. During the dinner and many, many, many drinks, he made it plain that he thought the Globe was more interested in hurting the Sun than gaining a columnist. Not exactly morale boosting!
It was about 3 a.m. when I was swimming lengths in the Creighton pool, not sure whether I was upside down or not, that I decided to stay with my newspaper family. Doug smiled in triumph, then phoned the next day to announce that I was the world's worst negotiator because I hadn't even asked for more money. (So he gave me a thousand and stock.)
Creighton was a great charmer, but there could be an steely edge over the years when I reported new job offers. He laughed when I said I had the Tory nomination to run federally. When I was offered the job of running the O'Keefe Centre, as it was then called, he announced it was the "stupidest idea I've ever heard of" and dared me to take it and crash and burn.
I didn't really need that insult. My dream of theatre impresario was ruined by the realization that I would be lousy negotiating with the super stars.
After all, to get back to Ron Joyce as an example, I couldn't even get money out of him when it would only have been petty cash.
Both of us were directors of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, which was floundering at the Ex. MPs from the Ottawa area were trying to entice the Hall to the capital city, arguing that Toronto already was overflowing with tourist attractions.
The Hall was offered federal money and two empty buildings there, both now converted to grand federal uses, but then came interference from Sheila Copps and even Jean Chretien.
At one crucial meeting about the future, I said as CNE president that the Ex would continue to cover the Hall utilities but we really couldn't expand our help. The board chair, Trevor Eyton, a rich Tory senator, called for other emergency suggestions. I looked at Joyce who didn't say one word. I then ventured that I would call Paul Godfrey, at that point the Blue Jay president, and ask for a few thousand or even a loan. Joyce still was mum. The silence, as they say, was deafening.
 Godfrey, to whom I had reported as Sun Editor, came through with some help. But that was it.
The Hall moved to Calgary (though its administrators still hanker after Toronto by running events here) and the old Hall building vanished under the north end of BMO Stadium.
So you will pardon me if I read about Joyce's philanthropy without enthusiasm.
About the same time as I was on the sinking ship known as the Toronto version of the Sports Hall of Fame, I was fund-raising chair for Runnymede Healthcare Centre.
I certainly played a major role in getting provincial approval for the tens of millions for the new 200-bed building which replaced a century-old public school. But I was a dud in adding to the hospital's share of the construction costs.
I missed major bullseyes when I went after a billionaire I knew, a few millionaires, and a famous doctor who controlled tens of millions in private money.  Gee, I really knew these guys. I even made a fund-raising video with me walking through the old hospital desperately trying to remember my lines. I don't know whether  they watched the video but I got only $5,000 from the billionaire and the doctor told me I had to lose weight.
If Joyce in his past had to depend on guys like me for sales, he would never have reached the financial stratosphere.  I'm not much for coffee shops as a tea drinker. I have only been in two Starbucks (one in California and one in Shanghai, and I drank hot chocolate) and I knew more about Tim Horton as an incredibly strong and weak-eyed Leaf defenseman than the coffee shops that bear his name.
I used to go to all Leaf games and was there the night he hit a Boston player so hard, he flew over the boards. And I remember grisly details of his death in a car crash in which he was so mangled, a dental surgeon told me privately that he had to be called in to identify Horton from his teeth.
Unfortunately, I have to spend too much time these days trundling around to the wait-and-fume clinics of hospitals. As I go into another medical pavilion named after some nice Toronto philanthropists, I am filled with envy. What lucky fund-raiser didn't get turned down when he made his pitch. I sure would like to know what they said.

Sunday, December 9, 2018



I was called back from what would have been my first plane trip. Ten minutes later, the pilots died.
Years later, after I had flown four times,  I was in two forced landings within two hours in a Yukon blizzard.
I have been in a plane that caught fire, one that fell thousands of feet in the middle of the night, and one where another plane tried to land on top of us.
As I tell anyone worried about air travel, come fly with me because Fate or Satan have already swung their deadly fists at my planes...and missed.
Yet for some cocky reason, maybe just the insouciance of youth, I actually joined the RCAF Reserve. Now, I try not to dwell on flaming plane wreckage because then the bottle of Mount Gay rum empties.
What just triggered such uncomfortable memories was a full page in the National Post on the death this month of Helen Klaben who with her bush plane pilot survived 49 days after a crash in the Yukon wilderness in February, 1963.
It was an icy story that fascinated Canada as they survived on hot water and toothpaste after a bit of food ran out - the sardines, tuna and fruit that you take on a flight when you don't expect to spend a frozen eternity contemplating white nothingness.
Yet that public infatuation back in 1963 was tempered with the reality that air crashes then, particularly in the North, were a lot more common than they are now, thank heavens.
My log book of escapes began when I got a summer job as a glorified office boy at a famous Malton firm called Sanderson Aircraft which serviced and repaired planes and built wings and tails for the iconic planes of de Havilland.
I had never flown, so our two pilots were determined to introduce me to their passion. They were going to test a Cessna Crane that had just been overhauled and I scrambled in. The office manager ran into the hangar and yelled that I was paid to do the books (I did a terrible job) not to go joyriding.  I slunk back to my desk.
They ran into trouble on takeoff and radioed the tower they would land on the road in front of the giant A.V. Roe plant, the fabled home of the Arrow and the CF-100. High tension lines flipped them over and they burned to death, with only one wedding ring to help with identities.
So there I was at my desk fielding newspaper calls, telling a Tely reporter who only a few years later would be my colleague that I didn't know anything. (Ironically, the plane was owned indirectly by the New York Times.)
Before my last year at Ryerson, determined to be different, I got a summer job as Editor of the Whitehorse Star, which was rather a stupid thing to do when I had limited resources. But I survived with a CN rail pass to Edmonton and CP Air to Whitehorse to live with the publisher, Harry Boyle.
Whitehorse was then a frontier town that didn't have much time for tenderfoots like me. But within days Harry threw me into the middle of the tempestuous federal election of 1957 which, along with a rerun in 1958, ditched the Liberal dynasty and brought a prairie evangelist named John Diefenbaker to spluttering Tory power.
The Yukon MP was a Liberal, Aubrey Simmons, shadowed by the most famous lawyer in the territory, George Van Roggen (such a Grit power he was appointed senator.) The Tory candidate was his law partner (they actually shared a giant "partner's desk.'') Erik Nielsen went on to fame as deputy prime minister and a Conservative covered with thorns and controversies.
The Liberals were hunting for gimmicks to stave off defeat. The brass came up with the idea of having James Sinclair, the fisheries minister, become the first cabinet minister ever to campaign in the territories where all travel was difficult.
Yes, that Sinclair. One of the Liberal stars, past and present, because he was the able charismatic  Rhodes scholar and major cabinet power before the fourth of his five daughters, Margaret, married Pierre Trudeau. If you want to know what he looked like, look at his grandson, Justin.
We loaded ourselves aboard a Beaver, ironically the famous workhorse of the north made by de Havilland, and flew off, first to a silver mine and then to Dawson City. One of the most picturesque election rallies I ever covered. Then the next day back to Whitehorse for an evening meeting.
The future senator turned out to have booze in that legal briefcase and there was plenty of amiable talk, including kidding of Sinclair about having to pay for all those weddings.
Then came the snow. And the biggest peaks on the continent disappeared. I was writing a story to telegraph to the Canadian Press in Edmonton and kept scribbling new words for storm as the blizzard became a whiteout.
The pilot, Ron Connelley, said he was under visual flight rules but that didn't matter anyway because he couldn't continue with his instruments, which didn't include radar, without eventually running into a mountain.
We tried calling Whitehorse. Nothing. Connelley got a glimpse of a famous landmark, Lake Laberge, and said that in late May he wasn't sure how good the ice would be.
Someone recited a line from The Cremation of Sam McGee and I ventured that I had just found out that I laid out the Star on an accountant's desk that the poem's creator, Robert Service, had used in the Dawson bank.
Then we landed, our wheels skidding through drifts and bouncing on patches of broken ice. It was morbidly peaceful when we got out into the gloom, and someone laughed that we all better not pee in the same place. Then a celebratory drink from that briefcase.
After an hour or two of trying to see the shore, or anything, Connelley said it seemed to be clearing. We all climbed in and made a terrible takeoff. It was a bad call. It was worse now over the lake. Connelley said we should vote to see if we should risk another landing, my first clue as to how dangerous he thought the first one was.
We got one burst through the static on the radio to tell Whitehorse airport where we thought we were. Connelley cut short the discussion and vote on whether we should land again by doing exactly that before he said "we run into something."No wonder he became a legend in northern aviation!
We hiked through the driving snow to the nearest shore with me carrying Sinclair's bag because he had been badly injured on a speaking tour in Russia the year before. So I was the only one to fall through, which was a source of great merriment to the shivering party when I only sank to my chest. More proof that the ice was rotten came six days later when the ice went out just after the plane was retrieved.
We hiked five kilometres or so through the snow and mud to the gravel of the Alaska Highway where a car driven by a Whitehorse merchant found us and then took us at dangerous speeds to the election rally while I went to the telegraph office to file a story which made the front page of every newspaper in the country.  (The wire service paid me the grand sum of $15 for my national "scoop.")
That Yukon election campaign continued to make news all the way to Time magazine which managed to screw up six facts in my account. After all, the territorial supreme court controverted, or cancelled, the Yukon result by throwing out 10% of the ballots, including mine. It hasn't happened since in this country which has seen its share of election fraud.
The five of us in the Beaver never got visibly excited about our adventure. Of course it helped that Connelley was experienced and Sinclair was a RCAF veteran. It was just another plane incident as far as Yukoners were concerned. But our forced landings were a major story elsewhere because Canadians love to read about people trapped by snow particularly when they are having a warm spring. The election fraud was just icing on a snow cake.
My other aerial dances with death didn't last as long as that experience which had the added zing of happening on the stage of one of the most famous of all Canadian poems, the one that so many drunks recite when they're feeling good.
Pan Am, once one of the most famous of all airlines, inaugurated a press excursion to publicize the first jet service to South and Central America. I was the only Canadian with an exuberant bunch of high-ranking Americans, including the legendary Bill Mauldin who won two Pulitzers for his World War Two cartoons.
Mauldin turned to me on what turned out to be our last hop between capitals and said he didn't want to alarm me but he was a pilot and he was pretty sure the plane was on fire and he hoped we made it beyond the terrorists underneath us in Guatemala.  I said I had been in the air force but I already had suspected that because the pilot kept cranking the undercarriage up and down trying to blow out the flames because he had emptied the extinguishers.
So we skidded through the foam of an emergency landing at Merida in the Yucatan Peninsula. Then the undercarriage collapsed. Then we all ran up an enormous bar bill.
I remember a flight from the Caribbean to New York where everyone was so overly refreshed that there was no hysteria after the plane fell like we were on a midway ride. Most of us were pinned against the ceiling and some ended up with blood flowing from scalp abrasions. Maybe I don't remember more because I didn't even get bruised....and I made my connection home.
Mary and I joined two couples to fly in a medium-sized twin-engined plane from a private airport in Johannesburg to a safari camp in Botswana. I was in the right-hand co-pilot seat to help balance the load as we taxied out. Then we were cleared for takeoff by the tower at the public airport 15 kilometres away from us across Jo-burg.
As we lifted off, the shadow of a bush plane fell on the cockpit and our pilot banked hard left to pull out of the path of a plane landing right on top of us, its pilot oblivious to the fact we were underneath.
The tower tried to chastise our pilot as he cursed into the radio, then tried to talk him out of filing an incident report. After all, the air traffic controller said, we hadn't touched. Our pilot insisted, saying that the trouble with the "bloody Boer farmers is they feel they can fly anywhere without filing flight plans or paying attention to anyone else."
He didn't take kindly to my bitter joke that if there had been a crash, he and I would have just been mentioned in passing because two of the other four passengers were a direct descendant of Robert E. Lee of Civil War fame and the famous Times reporter who had masterminded the release of the Pentagon papers.
At least it gave us another anecdote to tell that night as we waited for the elephants and lions to gather at the waterhole.
 Or to forget!
 Remembering near misses is best shoved to the back of memory banks and only thought of again for a few moments when there is a newspaper story about someone who once went through 49 days of frozen hell and then lived on for another 45 years to die peacefully in California.

Friday, December 7, 2018



They say you can't go back. And that's true. Yet it also can be an excursion, as if guided by a Dickens' ghost, into a past where you can sift memories and find nuggets of nostalgia.
I have just tried it twice. It was challenging. As I said at the first test, Runnymede Healthcare Centre's Christmas party, the "good old days" there often weren't.
The good "new" days are here for a modern continuing care hospital that grew out of a century-old elementary school that betrayed every year of its age when I arrived on its board 30 years ago.
Now 95 patients have grown to more than 200, and they're no longer jammed into antique classrooms with one floor for the women and the other for the men.
A remarkable flowering from an ugly brick bulb thanks to an understanding spirit among the patients and an indomitable staff with Connie Dejak as the spark plug.
My first Christmas party there was in a humble bare basement but the food was as usual great and the attitude was damn Queen's Park full speed ahead against the uppity medical establishment that was trying to kill chronic care facilities in order to get more grants for themselves and their buddies.
I played Santa there while hoping as chair of the fund drive for a new facility that the provincial grinches would be as nice as some of the ladies of a certain age who mischievously tugged at my beard only to find a real one underneath.
The plans for what comes next, such as a 200-bed long term care facility to be built next door, are as pleasing as anything to be found in Santa's mythical sack.
 If only the bureaucrats say yes. But nothing happens these days with government without turning into a marathon of a gauntlet like the one Runnymede survived just to stay alive.
The second test of what the "good old days" really were came when I returned to Chesley and its vanished furniture factories and railway station. The tracks that used to service them ran right beside my boyhood home. That CNR line had been its vital link to the world, just as railways then linked most of Ontario's cities and towns when a long trip by car was a major expedition in cost and time.
I joined more than 100 aging survivors of the Chesley and area schools from over half a century ago to celebrate the bittersweet joys of school days. There were even four classmates from my Grade One class in 1941. We all walked around each other like the greetings of strange dogs, squinting at names, searching for clues in faces that had once been as familiar as family.
A warm reunion in a town of 1,800 that has been so mangled by time and supposed progress that even the whistles of yesteryear are silent. In the day, the whistles of the passenger train that came twice a day, and the call-to-work whistles of three factories, divided life into six familiar portions.
David McClure, a retired high school teacher who was one of my Grade One classmates, wrote the other day about how much those trains were part of the living fabric of the town.
He and his brothers would meet the morning passenger  train to collect the Globes for delivery, and the afternoon train for the Owen Sound Sun Times, and the money he made was enough for first year at Western.
There was one magic time, he said, when he was hanging around the freight yard, which was really only several tracks, when the steam locomotive stopped and the engineer invited him aboard. Then the fireman actually let him shovel coal into the boiler.
It was an enchanting time for a boy. Hell, it would have been for a man.
My grandfather, much to my embarrassment, would take me with some pails and a broom into that freight yard in the evening to collect dustings of wheat left behind in the empty boxcars to feed the Leghorns we kept in the backyard.
It was what you did when you were "laid off" from the "big factory" and there was no work for an old man looking after three orphaned grandchildren. He mowed grass all day in the town cemetery to be able to buy a pound of butter.
We lived so close to those tracks that I looked down from my tiny bedroom window one morning to find a locomotive seemingly in our yard. The picture of me standing beside the derailment by James Seigrist made the Sun Times front page. (The first of many for me in newspapers, but still the best. )
All of this is just faded history for too many towns where train service still would be a blessing. Why many communities now hunger just for a regular bus. The countryside is dotted with relics of an another era, from Chesley to Havelock, with rusted rail paraphernalia leaning beside level crossings that have no tracks. A few stations have been turned into restaurants with train decor. Snowmobilers and hikers are the only traffic on many stretches of abandoned right-of-ways that snake between the towns.
Once those tracks were almost as important to a town as a highway. This was captured in a newspaper stunt when the Tely hired a plane to drop yeast for Brown's bakery when a snow storm - huge even by the standards of Ontario's snow belt - isolated the town. We stood in the classrooms and cheered when the big railway plow finally punched its way from civilization through the drifts.
Now the town is cut in two with the main bridge impassable. The flour mill that used the wheat that came by train has been turned improbably into a banquet hall. There are no schools, no factories, no trains, no station ... and the tracks are just ghosts in my memory leading to what might have been.
Yes, in some towns, there really were "good old days!"

Friday, November 23, 2018



I started as the smallest kid in the class so I was bullied.
A few years later, I had grown into one of the largest kids in the class and knocked out the bully who had once cut my cheek open with a sapling whip. We even became friends....but it took time.
Perhaps because of this evolution in my size and strength, I have a contempt for bullies but I also know you just have to stand up for yourself no matter the first bloody noses. Most importantly, you just never let anyone be bullied around you because it can spread like the flu. How can you live with yourself if you don't intervene when human jackals nip at the weak?
It occasionally had me walking a tightrope because it didn't help that I was often the biggest guy in the bar at closing time when pugnacious drunks were looking for victims. Obviously I am really dating myself because I am only 6' 2" and 250, and the newer generations are much larger than we used to be.
As proof, the other 11 on the high school football team, which had been dubbed Weston Ironmen by the sports pages because Coach Mel Thompson made us play 60 minutes without subs, were all smaller than me. And every one of us went on to play in the CFL or the NHL or on university teams.
Today this iron dozen would have to get by on speed rather than brawn, which certainly would have disqualified me.
But back to bullies which only flourish in high school if the teachers and the culture allow their evil flowering.
I went from a peaceful high school of around 250 students in Chesley to a comparative giant of Weston CVS with 1,500 drawn from families of the middle class and factory workers.
Students could be the offspring of doctors and managers and spot welders. They were going on to become dentists and truck drivers and teachers and clerks and Maple Leafs. There was an amiability among the students but I can't say the same for the teachers.
One punched me in the face when I kept insisting it was my cousin Bill Plewes who was talking and not me. Another insisted I had copied every last word in a Latin exam from another students. I then asked why I had got 66 and he had received 75 (which before mark inflation was considered honours.) He threw me out of the class.
(Ironically, I later became good friends with two major education directors who assured me that the two offending teachers were actually good guys and both had become principals.  I assured them on behalf of hundreds of students that we thought they were jerks.)
The tone of a school is set by the dominant teachers whether they be coaches or music directors or principals or advisers to the student council. I'm talking about all the schools I attended right up to Ryerson where I was the student president and the fights I had with the administrators were about  expulsions and drinking and not bullying.
What is said to have happened at St. Mike's would not have been tolerated by the students at any of these schools even if the administration ignored it. But then, back in my school days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, the teams from St. Mikes were among the dirtiest teams in high school sports and friends who went there assured me it was a "tough" school. Obviously that culture continued.
I blame the coaches and teachers as well as the parents.
Especially the parents. You have to have a cruel streak running through all your actions if your children think it is O.K. to harass others with fists or broomsticks or soakings. Fortunately, among the many truths in the deserved best seller by Jordan Peterson in his assault on the politically correct ruining universities and democracy, he says that bullying lessens with age.
He writes in his 12 rules that "bullying at the sheer and often terrible intensity of the schoolyard rarely manifests itself in grown-up society."
Perhaps the intensity goes away but there is a pecking order in every family or group or office.  There is always someone who can be picked on. The "pecking" name comes from raising chickens, as I have. In  every flock, every bird knows who it can peck or be pecked by, and the unfortunate hen at the bottom of the order often ends up so bloodied that it dies or is killed first for dinner.
I am not nominating myself for father of the year but revulsion for bullying is among the things I passed on to my three sons along with a love of reading and a suspicion about vegetables.
It can be dangerous. Mark who lives in China has twice come to the aid of hapless men being beaten up and has come out OK, thank heavens, because he is burly and speaks Mandarin which helps with the police.
I was proud to find out years later than my son John Henry had stridently come to the defence of a girl from India - whose father was one of the best eye doctors around - who was being picked on because of her accent. He threatened anyone who didn't leave her alone.
We live across from that school, Sunnylea, and I remember a frantic classmate of Brett's running to our house at recess to say Brett and John Henry were fighting back to back against most of the boys from a higher grade.
Later, the smarmy principal tried false equivalency but I blew her amateur diplomacy sky high when I said that when 10 try to beat up two, it is obvious who is in the wrong and when administrators don't see that, the school board should move them along.
I hear stories all the time about schools being hamfisted in dealing with bullying and evil assaults and fighting, as if the teachers just hope it goes away without them having to notice.
Then one day it ends up on Page 1 and the evening news. So I blame the teachers and the administrators and the student body and the parents for not confronting it when it starts in a small way. And it always starts small, with the push and the taunts and then the slap and then the punch if the kids see they can get away with it. As did that bully who hit me with fists and then the whip until one day I knocked him down ... and out. (Winning takes some getting used to. I apologized for hitting him so hard.)
Bullies have to be confronted or they just keep going... and then they raise more bullies unless the teachers, and maybe even the police, say cut it out.