Sunday, November 27, 2016



My strangest interview ever, both in setting and in rudeness, was with Fidel Castro.
I suspect this happened to many, whether diplomats or columnists trying not to fall off the couch.
It was January, 1976, and Pierre Trudeau, led by Margaret featuring the most famous nipples on the island, was visiting Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela.
 I have never covered a more remarkable state visit, mainly because Cuba was wrapped in a steel cocoon of brutal state terrorism, gnawing secrecy, empty beaches and traumatized citizens.
The Canadian group ended up one night at the Canadian embassy and quickly degenerated into a warm haze of cigar smoke and rum, lots of rum.
It was so crowded, you couldn't have slipped a rumour past the security bullies who invited themselves in so they could watch us better. Each of us had our own clutch of thugs. Mine had warmed up to me earlier when I traded five portions of my little rationed steak for their five plates of seafood.
There was a commotion and a surge of new arrivals which lurched against me until I stood on a couch so I didn't get trampled. Pushed up with me was some soldier in green fatigues who straightened himself angrily and materialized into a teetering Fidel.
People shouted questions at him but he, several feet higher, ignored them, puffing on a Cohiba (it was decades later he stopped smoking the famous and expensive cigar) and swigging what I assumed was product from Havana Club, the distillery he confiscated from the Bacardi family.
I thought I can interview him and it will be exclusive because who else can hear us in the noise of the party.  I would soften him up by asking if it was true he might have pitched in the majors if he had  a curve. (I wrote about this on Nov. 25, 2014, in a Downing blog titled Don Hunt, Fidel Castro And Me.)
He ignored me.
I then ventured some minor question and he roared "speak Spanish." I replied that since I knew he had studied law in English, his English was better than my Spanish.
He waved the cigar  to silence me.
This was going nowhere so I thought I might as well go for broke. I asked why he hadn't told Cuban parents that their sons coming home in body bags had actually died in an African war to which he had committed his army without telling the country.
He stared at me. And puffed. And drank. I stared back and slowly and deliberately, since I had had a lot of rum and was just trying not to fall off the couch, which wasn't a stable platform, repeated my question.
He glared at me. And puffed. And drank. Then he yelled at the people beneath us to get out of his way and left, with me muttering about why was he acting like Trudeau who did the same when Sun writers like me asked a question he didn't like... usually all of the questions.
It was the closest I got in several days of wandering through crowds and factories. Bizarrely, he often was not the centre of attention since Margaret, mother of our PM, generally wore a Liberal election T-shirt that was so tight it looked like she was launching rockets. And she and Fidel were always very close. As was Trudeau.
The body language showed  a bromance between the dictators. Justin in not calling a brutal dictator a brutal dictator is just carrying on the family tradition of fawning over their pet killer.
Pete Trudeau, the father, could get quite enthusiastic in his praise. I found that out when I  took advantage when I was in a knot of reporters with the PM  to ask, as a fellow SCUBA diver, that I understood he had gone diving with Fidel. For once, I thought, he won't ignore me.
Trudeau rhapsodized about the experience, saying that he had never gone deeper than with Castro and his bodyguards, and how they had just butchered live fish with their knives, not caring at all about how the blood in the water around them might attract sharks.
Not what they teach you in diving 101 but it was the longest and most genuine chat I had ever had with Trudeau so I spun it out.
When we left, the Trudeaus, Castro, and some figurehead president gathered outside the Canadian plane while the security thugs pushed the rest of us aboard.
I saw Boris Spremo, the great Toronto Star photographer, sneak away so I did too. Obviously the final pictures could be controversial - Castro wrapping Trudeau, and of course Margaret, in great bear hugs.
As I raised my camera, a security thug pushed me towards the plane's stairs. I dug in. There was an angry cursing confrontation which the official group ignored. So I yelled at Castro to tell the security jerk to leave me alone before I punched him. This panicked the thug and he backed off, so I got one picture.
The Star used Boris on Page 1 but I couldn't get my pictures back home to the Sun in time from our next destination, Caracas, having no resources with me for that.
Years later I was telling James Bartleman, who did such a wonderful job as our lieutenant-governor, about the encounter. He detailed some of his experiences as the Canadian ambassador to Cuba in one of his four fine books and he told me some more.
Castro used to drop in on him at the embassy and talk all night. Bartleman was pleased until he figured out that the garrulous Castro was looking for an audience, any audience. (I related some of this in a Downing blog headlined Castro, Trudeau and Bartleman on Dec. 27, 2014.)
When I told Bartleman about Trudeau diving with Castro, he said that when he went diving with the Communist dictator, he went to the surface to clear his mask and to his amazement had a burly body guard come up underneath and hold him above the water so he could do it in comfort.
Other stories weren't so nice, like the Cubans poisoning the Bartleman dog, wiretapping him and harassing his driver even though Bartleman represented a country used by the U.S. as a secret channel in dealing with Cuba despite the official boycott. In fact, Bartleman later was sent secretly by PM Jean Chretien to meet with the Castro brothers to see what could be done about that boycott.
It seems that the Grits have always had a yen to deal with the Castros no matter how many citizens they imprisoned on phoney charges. No wonder Justin apes his father.
I have visited Cuba since that grand adventure at least a dozen times. It started off as such a difficult experience that you had to fill out a form detailing all your spending or they wouldn't let you leave. I remember going to an "underground" church service when there was a chance that the worshippers would be jailed.  I  wrote about being held and questioned for hours just because a homosexual under surveillance had talked to me for a minute or so.
Then there was the poor soul from Quebec who appealed to me after a young "'lady" seduced him and got him to marry her so she could get into Canada.
I couldn't help him. Or the orthopaedic surgeon stuck doing resort back rubs in 1997.
And now the bully is dead, who used communism rather than the Catholic religion he was taught as a boy to seize power and throw out the diseased lackeys of the American mob.
And all the tourists who think all that cloak-and-dagger brutality was just media malarkey can continue to ignore a murderous past and guzzle their Cuba libres. To them Fidel was just a myth.
Sure he was, a myth who imprisoned you if he didn't like your views, if you were lucky.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016



I have graduated to the punch line of what's claimed to be one of the world's oldest riddles.
What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?
Of course the answer is us - from crawling baby to adult to those stumping around on a cane because of age or problems with the undercarriage.
I came late to this world.
Faithful readers have no need to be reminded of my hospital hell of five years ago when I was incarcerated for three months in four hospitals and had to learn to stand again before my first steps from wheelchair to walker.
That's behind me now, along with the deep scars from bedsores compliments of the worst hospital around, St. Joseph's.
But I never have returned to the days when a stroll could go from Royal York and Bloor to High Park and then to the lake to return through the Humber Valley.
Long gone are those days when the first Miles for Millions walk came to Toronto and I finished the 32 plus miles with a flourish, carrying an elf named Danielle Crittenden on my shoulders long before she was a best-selling author.
Those were the days when a walk was enjoyed, not endured like a death march by Napoleon.
A few months ago, I reminded myself that I wasn't exactly a shrinking violent in my relations with the world, thanks to being 6" 2" and 260 and somewhat pugnacious in the face of rudeness.
So if I wanted to carry a cane and use it much of the time since even the sidewalks have holes like 105% of the roads, what was stopping me.
I still tire early but I find that with a no-nonsense cane, I can walk twice as fast consuming half the energy, and even the math-challenged know that is a worthwhile equation.
Besides, I don't fall over as much even in winter when the roads are lined with high curbs of ice and indifference.
All this has given me just a taste of what many have to endure all the time because their physical disability is 99% more serious and debilitating than my experience which has come at the end of a  healthy and physical existence.
I was reminded of this the other day when my son Brett and I attended the 23rd annual induction luncheon of the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame which is chaired by David Crombie who has set a national record for likability.
I have been a member of the selection committee from the start, representing the media, and also because of experience with such boards ranging from the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame to chairing an advisory committee to Toronto city council on civic honours. (Mel Lastman killed the idea.)
It has been a wonderful board with such members as Linc Alexander and Jack Donohue. And we picked some great recipients from Edwin Baker, Jeff Healey and David Onley to Whipper Billy Watso, Bob Rumble and Rick Hansen, and if I have to explain who they are, you just haven't been paying attention to Canada.
The luncheon was an opportunity to reflect on three decades of the great improvements in this city in becoming more accessible. It really has. I watched from the sidelines for much of the time before stairs and heavy doors and moms with massive stroller tanks became careless obstacles even for me in the face of a society that now knows better.
It is hard to remember but it wasn't that long ago when there wasn't special seating for pensioners and the disabled on the TTC. The idea actually grew out of a councillor going away for a convention, so there is some value to some freeloads.  Brian Harrison of Scarboro returned with an account of how an American city, I think it was Atlanta, actually had transit seats near the front reserved for the disabled. And the TTC copied and expanded.
I find that most days on the subway, 98 % of the passengers see my cane and accommodate. Quickest to do so are young ethnics. Slowest are women who haven't lost their baby fat or their attitude.
I find the cane useful on the street and in stores because most people defer to the cane to the extent that if I pause, I get offers of help. Show up at a government agency like Service Ontario and the cane shoves you to the head of the long queue.
Naturally there are exceptions, like a few big louts used to bullying through crowds who actually have pushed me out of their way. Like the guy stampeding up the stairs from the basement washroom at Roy Thomson Hall. He was deliberately going against the flow and then shoved hard into me. I pushed back. Hard! He swore. I called him an asshole, shocking the symphony crowd, and then brandished my cane.
A perplexing bad side to a city becoming more flexible and caring with the disabled is that this disdain for the elderly still percolates just under the surface for too many yahoos.
 It is so bad in all of North America that this attitude against the elderly has been called the last great prejudice in employment.
Perhaps what feeds this ageism is the fact there are so many of us now that science has kicked the hell out of the Biblical promise that we would live for three score years and ten.
It can flare in just one sentence into an argument.
I had to shove by a big guy sprawled in the centre doorway of a bus to get off and he muttered about pushy old farts. So I cursed him. Cottage fishermen wanting to spend the day anchored up against my point are quick to swear about age too when I confront them. I don't recall that from when I was younger.
Obviously what I need is a cane that is more a shillelagh with a great wooden knob of a knot on top. I would never use it, of course, but it would make the damnedest assault case if it was used to make a dent in an attitude.

Sunday, November 6, 2016



Just two poppies grew this summer from the seed  from Flanders Fields that my son Mark gave me.
Yet I tended them like they were the rarest orchids. For they bring back my lifetime of worry and fear and mystery and doubt about war and its music and its savage waste.
There used to be more poppies. I dug up a couple and gave them to people whom I thought would treasure a flower from Flanders Fields. They didn't say much but then the blossom really honours remembrance and not a gush of words.
But the main enemy of the flowers in the big bowl of  an ancient cream separator has been the west wind that always pounds my cottage point and some determined daisies.
If there are none in the spring, I will have a reason to return to Flanders Fields which has been seared in my memory since I first heard that simple but grand poem as a kid.
Hanging in my house for decades has been one of the rare original colour print copies of In Flanders Fields that was produced and sold by the American Red Cross in its war relief drives in Manhattan in 1917 when the U. S. finally got off its ass to join the slaughter to end all slaughters.
Lt. Col. John McRae, who in death became the pride of Guelph, had his poem published in Punch in 1915 when it was a world-famous magazine.  Only several inches of type. There are several versions of how it was reprinted into fame, most of them concluding that the big push came when it appeared in a book in 1919 in New York City.
So collectors used to praise that "first" edition, not realizing there was this sombre black-and-white poster two years earlier showing a few crosses under a giant tree with poppies nestled in the grass. It is up to you and I to add the red of spilled blood.
Some years ago, John McDermott, whose lovely tenor takes on a heavenly sweetness when he sings about peace and war and its human wreckage,  recorded a CD called Remembrance about war songs.
He asked me to write the liner notes. There was a sold-out concert afterwards at Roy Thomson Hall.  I  worried that he might not just introduce me but also get me to participate in the traditional recitation of Flanders Fields. It is a poem that wallops my emotions every time. I didn't mind a few tears before a crowded hall but would I be able to start again?
McDermott had Cliff Chadderton of the War Amps, who died in honourable old age in 2013, read the legendary words in a flat steady tone, almost relentless like an advancing tank, and it was just great.
It is a poem where the poppies and the words are the stars, not the speaker, even one like Chadderton  who left the prairies to leave part of a right leg behind in Holland.
 I have written about the jerks who trash the red poppy, like a Canadian senator, or steal the Legion's collection box, which should be a hanging offence.
There even have been people who have criticized me anchoring my poppy with a Canadian flag pin, because I tired of having them fall off.
I don't mind, just as long as everyone wears one to mark the incredible sacrifices made by so many.
If only I could keep them growing in the garden, not that I really need them because they carpet my memory as far as the eye can see when I think of war and how fortunate I was that I didn't have to fight.
I thought I would as the Korean "action" flared when I was in high school. So I joined the RCAF reserve. It was a great experience. Years later, in those periods of journalism when it was not much fun, I wondered what it would be like to go back as an air traffic controller, but then some story would grab me.
The air force experience made me think a compulsory military year would be good for everyone, providing there were no new military cemeteries.
I have several medals now which I never wear because the ones that come from battle and military service so outrank them.
But a poppy always blooms on my chest...and in my memory, along with a line from Tennyson about "the blood-red blossom of war with a heart of fire," and, of course the words from the doctor who didn't grow deaf when he heard the brazen throat of battle.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016



It's the night after All Hallows' Eve but the ghosts of half a century ago still dance in our memories of what was.
Our numbers are shrinking but not the warmth as the gnarled knot of Telegram and Sun survivors gather in our traditional salute to the death of the grand old lady of Melinda, The Toronto Telegram, on Oct. 30, 1971, and the surprising launch of the Toronto Sun two days later.
It is a weekend seared in my memory, and also with my friends in our anecdotage, as we gather to yarn and fib and drink great drafts of nostalgia.
It's suitable timing because Halloween, before Big Business stole it from the churches and trick-or-treaters, was the legendary time to contemplate mortality.
And I certainly felt mortal 45 years ago as I put out the final Tely. The building was empty except for the pressmen and me. I look up from my keyboard now at the flag of the Telegram that I ripped up off the front page form, along with the little FINAL bit, a name that would never be used again by the paper that had been a vital part of Toronto's history since 1876.
I remember carrying the metal name out of the empty newsroom as I wondered how I would support the new baby and two other sons and Mary.
Would the gamble by Doug Creighton and Peter Worthington work?  Or was my life as the bright young editor over and I would be forced to become a government flack?
That was 6,000 columns, 3,000 editorials and hundreds of blogs ago. So the Sun did shine on me.
I have written about our annual dinner over the years in, such as Donato's A Wonderful Pain In the Ass on Nov. 1, 2014, and Fighting Toronto's Sun Eclipse on Nov. 2, 2013.
And my talented colleagues at our dinner, like Joan Sutton Straus and Yvonne Crittenden Worthington, are informative posters of Facebook items just as they were provocative writers and columnists and personalities and friends.
Kathy Brooks didn't have a persona outside the newspapers but inside she was known for her great skills as the entertainment editor. Any good newspaper needs key Kathys no matter how many cantankerous stars they may have as columnists....or cartoonists.
Then there is Dianne Jackson, a gifted artist, and last and certainly least, her husband Andy Donato, a fine painter who whips up funny cartoons before playing another round of golf at his beloved Hunt Club where members must grumble about all his playing time.
I have so many graceful paintings by Dianne and lovely paintings and funny cartoons by Andy - most of them with insults about me - hanging on my walls that the joke is it could be called the Donato Gallery. (Admission any time providing you have a bottle of an aged Appleton or mellow Mount Gay.)
These days Andy makes up for all the rest of us in public production, intending to paint and cartoon for another few decades. Which means I can look forward to more torment since he has this serious misconception that I was difficult on him as the Editor supposedly approving his cartoons, and he is justified now in revenge.
This year I journeyed downtown to the York Club, because he indicated to me that our dinner was Sunday,  to find instead a silent stone mass, sort of like Andy's excuse.  I should have expected that because several years ago Mary and I ended up at the wrong restaurant following his directions.
A couple of years ago, we went to a pub because one of his relatives worked there and my credit card was compromised. Didn't cost me unlike the anniversary dinner when the restaurant put the charges for the Creightons and Worthingtons on my credit card and Worthington thought it was a great joke when I tried for a refund from him.
Now Peter loved those reunions. He showed up for one bleeding slightly from a hole in his chest after he checked himself out of TGH.
So what did we talk about? Mostly scandalous and libellous stuff and wonderful gossip. Nothing about the recent Suns or Posts or Godfrey. A lot about the old Tely. We passed largely on Clinton/Trump even though Yvonne would have insights since David Frum, the noted Republican writer, is married to her daughter, Danielle.
Nothing is more boring than taking potshots at the dismal clutch-and-grab of politicians now screwing up the entire world when you can talk about whether that photog really was sleeping with that girl on the Picture Desk.
I confess, and I bet Andy would too if he didn't know I had the same view, that the greatest part of these celebrations of the past is that you actually get a chance to tell your stories again to an appreciative audience.
After all, Mary and the sons tend to have eyes glazing before I reach my punchlines, although Mark once wrote a piece on me for the Sun at the suggestion of malicious editors that the family really didn't mind listening to my stories because they wanted to see how they turned out this time.
I probably have written that before (and Andy would say I always repeat myself) but there is nothing finer when you march on to the inevitable than gathering with old friends to remember the wars of survival when two other newspapers were determined to make you look like an idiot.
The Sun will shine forever, if only in my dreams.