The value of teaching music

View from the back of the Agincourt Collegiate band … with music teacher John Rutherford conducting. (May 1967)

Most of the time I sat among the back seats in the rehearsal room. But that’s OK. As long as I kept one eye on the music charts in front of me and the other down front where conductor John Rutherford stood, I knew I’d stay in step with the rest of the group. I just had to wait for Mr. Rutherford’s downbeat and I was part of the performance. And that meant a lot to me. He’d often begin the rehearsal with the same words of encouragement.

“OK,” Rutherford would say. “Let’s make a little magic.”

Ronnie’s moment of fame

Ronnie Egan wears her beret and Women’s Royal Navy Service identification in May 2015.

About a month ago, a CBC television reporter from Nova Scotia emailed me with a request. Being sufficiently old-fashioned about these things, I decided to phone him to offer a verbal (rather than texted) answer. He said he and a camera operator had just returned from an assignment in downtown Halifax. He said they had just shot video of the demolition of the Discovery Centre. I didn’t immediately get it.

“You’d more likely remember it as the Zellers store,” Dave Irish said. “It’s a building with much history. … I’m hoping to speak to you about Ms. (Ronnie) Egan saving it.”

Was it stolen valour?

Unknown to historians, Charles Loewen addressed the logistical challenge of landing an army in wartime France.

Early in 1943, the military planners in London, England, coped with the ebb and flow of the Second World War, but they did so secretly. Squirrelled away in his tiny office at the British War Office, an experienced Canadian-born artillery officer grappled with a logistics problem about an upcoming military operation. But the stress proved overwhelming for hm. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t focus. To switch his mind off before bed, he tried reading detective stories. Then, he tried something completely different.

“I set up a fly-tying table,” Charles Falkland Loewen wrote in his memoirs, “and before going to bed sat down to tie a fly or two. I found that this absorbed one’s complete attention … and really unbuttoned my mind from current problems.”

Who needs civics? You do!

The business report on the radio began with the latest dooming and glooming. The commentator used all the appropriate clichés about this poor outlook, that unexpected downturn, and, of course, the uncertainty prevailing. Then, he surprised me with his ignorance by describing this week’s outcome in the French election.

“European markets are surging,” he said, “because of leftist Marine Le Pen’s showing in the first round of the French elections.”

Leftist?” I repeated out loud. “Does he have any idea what he’s talking about?”

The true cost of it all

La Chaudiere Military Cemetery in France.

We arrived in the late afternoon. Shadows from an encircling grove of trees cast eerie slivers of light and dark across the manicured cemetery grounds – the grass cropped short, the flowers freshly tended. I watched one of my fellow travellers, Valerie Flanagan, move from one line of tombstones to the next. Our walk through La Chaudiere Military Cemetery just below the famous Vimy Ridge, a few days ago, was the culmination of a long journey for her. Then, she saw it – her grandfather’s grave.

“I’m so glad I made it here,” she said. “I didn’t know how I’d feel.”

Never again

Uxbridge Secondary School students pose in front of German gun emplacement during their field trip to D-Day beaches in France.

They all looked sharp in their specially tailored commemorative jackets. They responded to the atmosphere of being away from home on a field trip with not unexpected exuberance; they looked pretty pumped. But when several of them spoke publicly the other night in Ypres, Belgium, I could tell these teenagers had changed even in the few days we’ve been away.

One of them, Sam Futhy, a Grade 10 student from Uxbridge Secondary School, noted a visit to one of the Great War cemeteries.

“When I saw the number of grave stones,” he said. “I don’t know. It just hit me.”

Shoulders broad enough for eternity

We had finished our preparations. I’d checked the microphone levels with the sound technician at the venue. We had loaded all the visuals supporting my talk into the theatre’s projection system. The script? I knew all the stories by heart. Everything seemed ready for my presentation about the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Suddenly, everything changed. A woman entered the theatre and then came out of the box office shaking her head. I spotted her and asked what was wrong.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she said. “I just wanted to talk to tonight’s speaker, but there are no tickets left, so I guess I’m out of luck.”

“I’m the speaker,” I said. “What was it you wanted to say?”

“It’s a story about the sculpture on Vimy Ridge,” she said.

Workplace and symbol

It was about 1 p.m. One of the clerks outside the chamber went over the rules I was to keep in mind when I went inside: Enter quietly. No briefcases or parcels. No applauding or talking out loud. Rise to your feet when the Speaker enters, when you’re introduced and when you leave. It made me think I was entering the Vatican.

But it was actually the Speaker’s Gallery at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton last Thursday afternoon. Eventually, the MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) for Sherwood Park, just outside Edmonton, rose to address the government and opposition members present.

“Speaker, I rise to introduce distinguished visitors,” MLA Annie McKitrick said.

There is nothing like a Dame

RCAF vet Charley Fox leaning on one of his beloved Spitfires; but a day in 2006 nearly topped that.

A student pilot nearly killed him in a training accident in November 1942. While still an instructor in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, during the Second World War here in Canada, he’d survived a head-on collision with another aircraft near Bagotville, Quebec. And overseas during combat operations flying Spitfires, RCAF airman Charley Fox also survived 234 combat sorties as a fighter pilot. And yet, it was a June evening in 2006, that Charley told me just about topped them all.

“Meeting Dame Vera Lynn,” Fox said, “was a highlight in my life.”

Organized chaos

Suddenly, people in the room felt a great deal of tension. A man rose from his seat in the middle of the auditorium. He cleared his throat. He appeared to muster his courage in front of several hundred others in the audience and a platform of political dignitaries. He looked to the moderator and began to speak.

“I am a taxpayer in Scarborough,” he began, “and I see the Scarborough subway extension coming, but I have a serious question…”

At precisely that moment, in the corner of the hall some sort of air compressor or ventilation pump clicked into gear. And the gush of air and the grinding sound of its motor all but drowned out the sound of the man about to ask the dignitaries present that serious question.