Monday, October 31, 2011



For me, Halloween is a night for ghosts and goblins, shrunken heads, and memories of the biggest gamble in life for my family and me.
It was on Oct. 31, 1971, that 62 of us worked in a shambles of an office to bring out the first Toronto Sun.
I had turned down one secure federal job in Ottawa and even safer municipal job in Toronto to work for less money on a risky tabloid. Was this going to be the resurrection in a new body of  The Telegram, which had always tried to be different and have fun and not play it safe and pushy like the Star?
As I wrote the first of thousands of columns in my tiny study, the youngest of my three sons, Mark, cried as lustily as his three-month-old lungs would allow. And Mary, who never confessed her doubts, tried to keep his rowdy brothers quiet.
My career had been soaring. Was I about to crash, and take my family with me?
Up to that point, Halloween had just been a time to carve clumsy jack-o-lanterns and try to ignore memories of humble Halloweens as a boy in Chesley when all we could afford was to dress me as a ghost under an old sheet with burned cork smeared on my face. No candy when I worked the neighbourhood, but then there wasn't much money either.
The Sun prospered, my doubts withered and the years spun by. The Day Oners tanned in the glow from our Sun. But then shadows came and the original pioneers, and the newspaper itself, shrunk through retirements, deaths, accountants and the wicked witch from Quebec.
Finally the big occasion at this time was for the Worthingtons and Donatos and Downings to gather for anniversary dinners,  to tell grand tales about trips and to boast about what our kids and grandkids were doing.
And I would take a nostalgic stroll past a real ghost house in my own neighbourhood where John Gault and I investigated for days and wrote stories which became front-page sensations in the old and lamented Tely.
Then a couple of years ago, Halloween took on a marvelous edge. Mark had grown up to work for eBay and helped a fascinating man sell a great blue whale's skeleton to a Saudi sheik for a lot of money. Events like that don't happen every day so Mark and the seller, Billy Jamieson, became acquaintances. And Jamieson invited Mark and his parents to his lovely downtown loft where shrunken heads and war clubs adorned the walls and there was a mummy a floor below the haunted fish tank mounted in an old hearse.
Yes, all the words in that paragraph are true.
What a marvelous setting for a costumed Halloween party. You could perch on an electric chair from an American prison and listen to Jamieson tell how you had to make sure you were buying a real shrunken head from long ago and not just from a recent murder victim.
Jamieson's Halloween party was one of the most authentic in the land. If a real ghost had shown up to elbow me aside at the bar, I would not have beens surprised.
This wonderful picture of Jamieson taken by James Ireland captured the crazy mix of showman and explorer that percolated beneath that erratic mane.
The story of Jamieson and how he sold a pharaoh's mummy to Auburn University for $2 million in the stuff of legend, and TV shows too.
I wrote about Jamieson in blogs Come Smell My Shrunken Head, Shrunken Heads And Great Explorations,  Billy Jamieson And His Shrunken Heads, and then, sadly, one marking his death on July 23 this year.
If you wonder about all these references to shrunken heads, I keep making them because the public is fascinated by them. I can tell from the tracking of my blogs that month after month, people make their way via Google to read about one of the most interesting men I have ever met.
As I type this, the door bell keeps ringing and Mary confesses that she's down to the bottom of the baskets to apple juice and granola bars. It's a happy time. The neighbourhood is renewed with kids blossoming among all the old farts.  There have been Halloweens when no one came knocking, no one chanting trick or treat. I always say I want the trick, which baffles the rookie elves and fairy princesses.
I could tell them of a time when the rumour at school the next day was of the occupied outhouse that was pushed over  on to its door, which made exiting messy, to say the least, and all the windows that were soaped on houses and cars belonging to the teachers.
Maybe it happened. Maybe it didn't. So what! Halloweens are an illusion anyway, when kids can yell and make demands of adults and pretend that when they grow up they really will be astronauts or football stars and maybe even a vampire.
It's a time to imagine great things. Because there are only a few like Billy Jamieson who actually do what others only daydream about, to explore ancient ruins and deep jungles and to act like Harrison Ford seeing Petra for the first time.
R.I.P. Billy Jamieson. I have no idea when your birthday was, but it should have been Halloween.

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