Saturday, December 23, 2023

O Little Town Of Chesley

 Climb aboard the magic carpet of nostalgia and fly eight decades in time back to the town near Owen Sound which grew like so many where mills marked fords in the rivers that crisscrossed Ontario before the province staggered from depression into war. If there wasn't a mill, there was a CNR station all located where the locomotives needed to refuel. 

A vanished time because the factories are gone along with the station. And the school burned down. The classes ended up all over town, Grade 8 in the council chamber with three pupils to each picnic table.

I was orphaned as a tot in the Big Smoke and came to the little house near the tracks heated by the wood stove (used for cooking all the bread) except on special occasions when a little round coal stove heated the parlour. The outhouse in the back kitchen was decorated with GE pictures of Niagara Falls generators. Some times the frost coated the inside of windows. It was not unusual for no plumbing or furnace in town and they were high faluting too expensive on the mixed use 100 acre farms on the circling concessions. We never did get a furnace before the house burned down. Fire was the big enemy The volunteer fire engine was kept behind the town office which also housed one cell. There was one policeman who had little to do with 1,800 residents who thought shop lifting was a major crime.

Life revolved around several furniture factories where time was marked by whistles and heat was provided by burning sawdust carted by a team of horses that plodded all day by our house from a sawmill on the Rocky Saugeen where I taught myself to swim.

The social life was dominated by the Protestant churches, although the Catholics had been allowed a small one. The farmers came to church by sleigh and left their steaming teams in big driving sheds. Evil was the little pool hall and the few men who snuck to drink in a hamlet. You knew about the little that was going on by reading the weekly and listening twice a day to Toronto newscaster Jim Hunter on the big mantel radio (which was only on for an hour of soap operas.) Most war news came from the Sun Times out of Owen Sound, which is where you went for major shopping if the item wasn't in the thick Eaton's catalogue which we used when they grew tattered for pads for the endless games of street hockey.

There was no milk delivery and you kept meat not in the ice box but at the dairy in rented boxes of mainly chicken wire. The dairy sold buttermilk, a nickel a pail. The little movie theatre was busiest on the Saturday afternoon matinee which was always a Western. Churches had a big picnic, which featured egg salad sandwiches, the ingredients for which came from the gardens that many had, along with chickens in back yard pens. Pigeon coops were common. Every church also had a Christmas concert, with a few faltering solos and girls in dyed cheese cloth swooping in coloured lights from an old projector.

Not a big sale of Christmas cards, not with the price of stamps and you had to rent a little windowed box at the post office because there was no delivery. Not many Christmas decorations either, and using the short form of Xmas was frowned on. Eaton's was said to have a magic Toyland on the fifth floor up rickety wooden escalators and Simpsons just across Queen St. had a carol sing for staff and customers every morning which was carried live on radio. Every class in the public school lined up in their smelly cloakrooms and sang along with a few big radios placed strategically in the hall. Then it was back inside to an atmosphere which would cause a woke agitator to suicide, and being sent to have the Grade Eight teacher, a mean tempered principal, strap your hands with a big leather belt was as common as the daily drills on grammar.

Winter was a problem. They dropped yeast by plane for the humble bakery when a big storm marooned the town when the big railway plow couldn't clear the track. The highways were growing like varicose veins but car trips were arduous. Living into your 70s was a big deal and if you did die in the town with no hospital they would wait to spring to bury you because the ground was too hard under the snow drifts.

Ah yes, all those years ago, all those decades that I have survived, even though I no longer send cards because I don't know who of my friends, relatives and colleagues did too. I still enjoy everything about Christmas even if TV seems to be endless crap about the jerk known as Trump and the joy of a rum eggnog at a party is blighted  by the noise of people enjoying themselves who aren't deaf and in a wheelchair. I read the newspapers and curse their slimness and accounts of anti-Semitism and savour the legend of Santa and the literature of Dickens.

We have never known more about the world. We have just got to ignore the alleged populists among our pols and endure the feeling that we are going to hell in a hand basket. It is hard to do so considering the Trudeau Grits and woke infestations in our schools and councils and institutions. But after all these decades I have come to the belief that 2024 can't be worse although 2023 certainly tried. 

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Wonderful life on Elsfield

I had lived in 16 different houses, apartments, rooms, and rooming houses, and had at least 16 part-time jobs and two reporting ones, before I ended at 92 Elsfield Rd. and my work as a writer.

Somehow I had always drifted west even though I had been born in the east end where streetcars ground past my father's house on Gerrard. He died there, overworked as a family doctor and school trustee, launching me on a dizzy round of relatives, homes and empty holidays.

When I came to Sunnylea nearly 60 years ago, where once there had been an orchard with an underground creek reeking havoc with construction near Glenroy, it was a decent haven of solid families. I knew it would be when the alderman-realtor talked me into buying the house of the TD bank manager just up on Bloor St. Changes came, of course, and not just humble ones. One of three supermarkets became the world's first adventure in cable TV where we paid to watch first-run movies by putting coins into a gizmo on top of the TV.

I covered politics. So I gathered there would be a subway line and station at the big corner. And three Metro Toronto giants lived just blocks away, with the works commissioner to the north, the planing commissioner to the west and the parks commissioner to the south. Famous for innovations like Tommy Thompson with his sign Please Walk On The Grass. 

Sunnylea was anchored by a school, and not just an ordinary one but one famous in architecture as the model for new elementary schools in the country with doors leading outside from every class. The architect, John Parkin, was a bit of a bon vivant who owned two big houses across from Royal York United Church and later designed unique buildings like the new city hall which was so different that the mayor gulped when the model was unveiled. The school had advancement classes where the brightest in the borough were bussed in but the rest of the kids walked while the parents worried about the lack of sidewalks.

The more ambitious parents played volleyball one evening a week at the school. Their children joined a legendary Scout pack that Audrey Jolley ran strictly in the church basement and fathers were dragooned into helping one weekend camp each fall. Once a year I would buy mounds of fireworks and fire them off in an orgy at the school yard, and the watchers would rate the rockets for a story I would write in the Tely. All the Sunnylea kids sang carols one noon at the church and there was a grand costume parade in the school yard every Halloween.

There are always blind spots when you slip into your anecdotage. Just what was the name of the minister at the church who became the moderator of the United Church? How many wives glazed  creche figures at the church? Who was the woman who edited the major astronomy magazine? What number was the house of the sister of the director of education?

Some evenings when the street lights bounce off the wet pavement and the kids are long gone from their zig zag splash through the puddles, I listen to the mutter of the city beyond the Humber and am grateful that decades ago I had enough sense to buy into this bit of peace.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023


We celebrate Halloween more and more each year. The average street in Etobicoke has more skeletons than the local graveyard. I think it is wonderful because it was also the night we 

started the Toronto Sun. And anything we can celebrate these days with the anti-Semites praising Hamas and Trudeau fopping his way to new disasters is welcome relief.

When I was a kid, an old sheet and some lamp black was my costume and my dour Dutch grandparents thought carving a pumpkin was something only devils did. So later I embraced all the weird elements of Halloween with a joy equal to my three sons. But of course that was hidden at the office where I was a cub just trying to stay afloat at the Toronto Telegram, the large newspaper that was better in a news sense than the pretentious Star and the sanctimonious Globe.

We were a tough newspaper town but the Tely had more flash and fun.

Spiritualism and ghosts were routine fare for the media which still got chills with Dracula yarns in the  1950s and 1960s. But deep down you knew that it was all BS. Or was it? But then.....

There was the time in 

Hamilton when I heard stomping upstairs in an empty house and the staid couple confessed it was a ghost that bothered them several times a week. And the time the Tely had a caller tell us about the CBC warehouse that security refused to enter at night.  CBC officials spent days giving me the runaround. Then a Star reporter at City Hall, used to Page One bylines, confessed that he thought his basement was haunted by the woman who had hung herself there.

The big story early in the 1960s was when the respected Andrew Macfarlane, later Journalism dean at Western and son of a U of T dean of medicine, wrote about the haunting of Mackenzie House on Bond St. just south of Ryerson. At night the home of Toronto's first mayor had the printing press running and the caretaker getting slapped. It was a Tely sensation and Andy spent hours telling us of his investigation which was only printed because of his reputation.

I was headed home as a kid editor one day in 1968 when someone on the Rewrite Desk said there had been a tip about a haunted house. Since I lived just blocks away, I said I would check it out. Then a reporter, John Gault, who later wrote for Lorne Green on a Canadian TV series, said I had promised to take him along the next time I checked out a ghost story.

We spent several evenings and one night there, listening to footsteps circling overhead in the attic, driving the young jobless couple from the Maritimes crazy. After all, they believed you had to be nuts to believe in ghosts. But there were no branches hitting the house, no plumbing noises, no obvious cause. John and I moved into the attic and saw a light bouncing around at 3 a.m. The temperature would skid up and down without reason.

We were exhausted but didn't write until some neighbour phoned the dreaded rival, the Star, which ran a few paras in the final edition, and the terrible tempered City Editor demanded to know why I had been scooped. So we spent a final night and wrote two pages and the next day hundreds of people and the police stood around the house and oohed and aahed at any noise.

TV came calling, offered the couple money if they kicked us out and let them telecast from the attic with their premier Sunday show. So John and I left. For years there were broadcasts from the house on Halloween and people whispered when they saw me in the stores. But the family went away and a boarder in the basement scoffed at any haunting. And I got promoted where the publishers wanted me to concentrate on federal bogeymen. 

I drove by the house the other day and wondered. Again.

Now it is my son Mark with the skeletons in the lawn and car and porch, and the kids come flocking down the street with parents as anxious shepherds. The Tely is gone and the news is as sour as a woke activist.  It's time for a great Halloween yarn but I will settle for an answer as to what really happened those nights back in 1968 when I could see my breath and the ghost never bothered to stop pacing in the attic. 

Sunday, October 15, 2023

The Noble Disabled

I just got my annual dose of why I should be humble by attending the 30th luncheon of the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame. I have been a member of the selection board since the start and have always been awed by the noble accomplishments of the 126 inductees.

Thanks to the hard work and adroit stewardship of a former senator, Vim Kochhar, and everyone's favourite former mayor, David Crombie the hall has flourished in a time that accessibility is still too often a promise rather than a reality. The people we have honoured have been stalwart warriors but the cause is slippery because too often the powerful just talk a good game.

I know because even though I often have been part of the inner circle, I now face the daily obstacle course as an old deaf fart in a wheelchair. The luncheon was held as usual at the Fairmont Royal York, the giant hotel where I have been attending luncheons starting as a cub Telegram reporter 65 years ago. Wonderful hotel that gives only lip service to accessibility. It's a wonder they spell it correctly in the trumpeting of the claim because when you search for how to get into the fortress, how to find the solitary elevator hidden near the eastern entrance guarded by hostile valet attendants when you try to park for a few seconds. there is no info. I was dropped off because I hadn't gone to the bank to get a second mortgage to pay for the parking of $13 an hour, or $39 for an event.

As my faithful son Mark reminded me, last year we had plenty of time waiting for that elevator with David Onley, the former lieutenant governor. (David has left us, probably having to argue about accessibility at the Pearly Gates.) He recalled during the wait our lunch where the police towed his car despite the handicapped sign in the windshield.

The food, as usual, was great. And so were the three new inductees. Stephen Harper was a solid PM, considering the present dog's breakfast, but often forgotten are the changes he accomplished. He couldn't attend the ceremony but what he did for the disabled lives on in a country that is tired of his successors. Chantal Benoit, the wheelchair basketball megastar, and Michelle Stilwell, in athletics, wheelchair basketball and provincial politics, were world champions proudly wearing their international medals and honours. If only we were blessed with more such achievers.

The location of the luncheon reminded me again of how careless the world is when dealing with the disabled. Downtown is a mess. The streets around the Royal York are so bad, I was almost hit by a motorcycle roaring down the sidewalk to get around the stalled traffic where the cops and the lights seemed to be competing to make things worse. I am not a novice in dealing with the public or events. I have been president of national, provincial and municipal bodies, ranging from the CNE to university and hospital boards, and delegate to international assembles. And now, with dulled senses, I make the rounds of five hospitals and various health offices and the daily battle with traffic in a city where council can't seem to do the basics without costly posturing.

Let me warn you as your address book fills with the names of departed friends and your neighbours vanish, it is only going to get worse. Because Canada is aging, and the candidates for the Disabled Hall of Fame are going to multiply.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Remembering when......

It was time to visit the past. So my son Mark loaded my wheelchair and we headed for one of the queens of cemeteries, Mount Pleasant, and the celebration of the life of one of Toronto's great troubadours of civic history, Mike Filey.

(And then we scraped the ages off my father's gravestone.)

It was a suitable setting for Filey who had a quip and a smudge of history for every day of the decades he spent with us. After all, he led tours through the rolling expanses of the stones of the great and the humble for years. 

His tours and his lectures, his championing of the CNE, transit, civility, and midways in speeches and stunts and columns and broadcasts, made him as familiar as a family friend as the city moaned and grew and stumbled and flourished.

So that is why a famous TV talking head emceed the gathering, and in the front rows were former mayors like Eggs and Tiny Perfect Worship. Paul Godfrey, who had been chairman of Metro Toronto and just about everything else, spoke, and a chap named John Tory who had been a young radio reporter when Mike and I started, listened to my urgings that for gawd's sake, you got to run again.

It was a bawdy exciting time when Mike, and his buddy, Dave Garrick, built CN Towers and Skydomes and ran centennials where the Queen would have come if PET didn't want her visiting English Canada. Garrick spoke and I wandered back in my mind to when councils actually worked, instead of woked, and traffic actually moved as well as one or two cyclists in a bike lane.

I was part of that past which lives now only in my nostalgia. When you partied into the night, and the nice lady in Filey's rec room turned out to be Marilyn Bell who had an exciting time when she was only 14.

Too often the good old days were only good because you forget the goofs. But they really were in the decades before the century turned over like a dead carp and the pedestrians darting between the idling cars were oblivious to danger because of cell phones stuck in their ears.

But then it was time to leave the clumps of people from Mike's past to seek the yesteryear for the Downings, when it all began with a lad from Cornwall, who had been a teacher, professor, school inspector and surgeon named Dr. John Henry Downing. Mark and I finally found the stone that was placed nearly a century ago. Dad bought it when his first wife died. And then he died in 1939. His patients scattered through the east end included several future mayors and Conservative leaders and they mourned a charismatic character but the kids cheered because he had been Toronto school board chair and they got a holiday for the funeral.

Mark scrubbed the grime from the stone of grandparents he had never known. But the lowest lettering is difficult to see. My father had been a powerful man, in manner and stature, and he had married again when he was 66.  A bit of a scandal, or so they said, because my mother was a young nurse. Stoffelena Hoogstad died in 1941 two years after him, and my family descended into a turmoil, which is the reason her name was never on the stone until my sister Joyce found this on her return to Toronto from the small town of Chesley 17 years later.

But some people are remembered because they live in memory, not on stone memorials. And so it will be for Mike Filey.

Friday, April 7, 2023


Now that I am in my anecdotage, as my family remark rudely, my travels are limited by macular degeneration, diabetes, hearing aids, and a tendency to fall over.  So a dependance on wheelchairs, walkers and other drivers now limit me so I can only dream of flying with the RCAF north of Canada  as I once did

My old travelling companion is not hampered. My son John Henry celebrated turning 61 by traipsing around Europe and publishing on Facebook the photo trophies of visiting the birthplace of his grandmother in Holland. His wife Marie happily toured the France of her ancestors.

And I savoured every pixel. Once John Henry (JHDIII) and I gawked our way around the Caribbean and exotic sites from Easter Island to the Galapagos and the dangerous bits of South America. The memories meld now into a gazpacho of delight and splashing in the Trent substitutes for diving with hammerhead sharks. 

JHDIII had a drink or two at Harry's. There are a few bars like that dotted in legendary cities. But the picture took me back to the one in Venice where I once roamed on glorious visits. Like that trip with Bill Davis where I saved the premier and Cathy from being arrested at the Trevi Fountain.

It was Sunday morning in Venice and the press corp were tired from journalism before the days of cell phones and computers and you had to find a telegraph office to file. So we decided to greet the day at Harry's just over from the famous hotel. I was dragged along because David Allen of the Star and Allan Dickie of CP (we called them the Giant and the Midget) insisted. We were huddled around a starched table cloth on a tiny table when the big doors banged open.

It was like a scene from a movie in the early 1970s. In swept Orson Welles dressed in black with blonde bimbos on each arm. He carried a cape and cigar box which he handed to the bartender. He enthroned himself imperiously on a banquette, looked disdainfully at the crowd and snapped his fingers. The bartender ran up, unwrapped a cigar, cut the end and then lit it. Welles blew a plume of smoke over the  rabble as the girls giggled at being so close to a famous man.

I stood up and said let's go, we have seen everything now. 

When JHDIII sent me that picture it all came back to the years when my only concerns were not falling into a canal while drunk and where in hell was a telegraph office. I have many tales (the family say too many) and often the stars in them have gone to death and legend. I crashed into Mandela in Kyoto, was teargassed in Seoul, crash-landed with Justin Trudeau's grandfather in the Yukon, posed with Clinton, badgered Netanyahu.......

But I remember that beer at that bar looking across at the swollen actor with all the other stories that now churn in a memory that has volcanoes of missing facts.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

David Onley's Triumphed In His Space

It was just another municipal staff Christmas party that I poked into one evening on the hunt for anything that might interest a Sun reader. My daily marathon for 40 years and thousands of columns and editorials. Nodded to friendly aldermen and dodged the roasted. Mel Lastman glared and I retreated to a nook where Charles Onley waited to go home.

We chatted carefully about issues, because after all, he was one of the top municipal lawyers in the country and his fief of North York was a giant suburb even if Toronto did look down at it. Then popped a transportation subject even stranger than Santa's sleigh, magnetic levitation. I had been a leading critic of the Tory experiment to build a costly test track at the Ex, aided by info from Grit critics including an earnest crippled researcher named David Onley.

Then it all came together even for a tired journalist on the hunt for something, anything, for tomorrow's paper. This was the father, and he didn't want to talk about wheel-less streetcars floating on magnets but that researcher.

I had never really talked to this borough solicitor but it didn't matter because he went on and on about how happy he was that "his" boy  had survived his rough start to marriage to a gospel singer and a family. Then he paused. And then he cried.

Just two men at the edge of a party that was limping along in a mandatory office-party way. Two crying men, because I was crying too. Any father would.

It had got better later for "his" boy. There had been braces, crutches, wheelchairs, but then from the seat of a motorized scooter David had soared into space. He loved to write about space.  He loved to talk about space. And so he became a broadcaster and wrote a best seller and became a familiar role model and TV personality.

The last time I saw David after half a century of watching his cheerful diplomacy as a champion on accessible issues was at last fall's 29th induction luncheon for the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame. I have been on its selection committee since it began when former senator Vim Kochhar inspired its start as the Terry Fox Hall of Fame.

 It has prospered with famous recipients but the title has changed since the Fox family created problems that we couldn't work out even when such populist giants as former mayor David Crombie and Onley were involved. Just another example that accessibility to all may appear a universal wish but its real achievements are a nuanced dance through mine fields of politics, pride, costs and stupidity.

I have never missed the annual presentation but that has become a challenge since the grand Royal York Hotel - where I have been in and out for 70 years - might as well be a fortress with drawbridges down when you are in a wheelchair as I have been for several years. My son Mark is a formidable help but even so Onley in his motorized scooter and I in my wheelchair were the stragglers later at the eastern entrance with its small special elevator.

Plenty of time to chat and smile at the hassles, but then David was 72 when he died, a lifetime of overcoming hurdles from legs that don't work like those on the people who flash by. I am just a newbie with canes, walkers and wheelchairs. But still, the casual insolence of the dumb who don't recognize the  hurdles they so carelessly leave around is astounding.

I recall a lunch at the Underground Railroad when David and I chatted into the early afternoon with John Henry Jackson, the owner who had been an Argo quarterback. What a pleasant time. I walked happily back to the Sun, which had not yet been mangled. Onley left after me to find that his car with hand controls and the warning sign had been towed. It didn't matter that with no police offering to help, he had been marooned by a stupid cop. It was now up to him to get from Sherbourne and King to the foot of Yonge when he can't walk. I wrote about it later and yelled at the chief but to David it was just another day.

Ontario has been blessed with the men and women like David who have been our lieutenant-governors. (I would not say the same about the GGs)  In Ontario, they may have often looked like kings and queens from the Establishment but most have never lacked the commoner touch.

For example, John Black Aird was as elegant as his name. A baron of Bay Street. Yet even when his back was killing him. he was playing floor hockey with the kids at Variety Village. He was whipsawed by a crisis in 1985 when the Tories and Grits were in a virtual tie after an election and it was up to him who was to rule. So he chose to go with David Peterson and his deal and the Tories' long reign ended. He gave me the scoop about that in a few common sense observations one noon at the Press Club when I hosted him as president.

As Sun Editor I lambasted him in the editorial about a Grit bagman coming through for the party.  He laughed that off as "just politics," and kept a column I later wrote about him encased in plastic on his law office desk. Our lieutenant-governors have always had an understanding appreciation about how politics is played. 

 Lincoln Alexander was a prime example of that. He had started as the humble son of a railway porter but moved comfortably in the halls of power after he used his RCAF war pay to become a lawyer. As a Tory MP, he heckled Pierre Trudeau so savagely one day that PET yelled "fuck off" which Hansard after much soul-searching made "fuddle duddle."

Because you couldn't have the millionaire PM curse the only working class black in the Commons.

As CNE president, I stood with Linc reviewing the veterans march past on Warriors' Day at the great fair. An elderly woman, sagging in the heat, the sweat staining her uniform, marched determinedly past.  Linc was so moved that he yelled encouragement and leaned out waving to her and would have fallen if I hadn't grabbed him by the belt of his RCAF uniform. There I was, once the lowest rank in the reserve,  holding a very very senior officer so he didn't fall 10 feet off a reviewing stand.

I told Onley that anecdote one day and he gave the same gentle broad smile with which he greeted the good and the bad of life. If only all of us could take the bad hands that fate deals us and perservere too, no matter what the hurdles.