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!"