First day of summer

Today is the anniversary of my favourite first day of summer.

One spring night on my way home from delivering newspaper copy to the Star Phoenix, (I was freelance writing in Saskatoon then), I walked across one of the massive bridges spanning the Saskatchewan River. I stopped half way across and stared upward. There from north to south from horizon to horizon, danced the Northern Lights. Shimmering, sparkling and awe-inspiring, the rainbow of colours and patterns of aurora borealis lit up the nighttime sky like a three-D movie.

After being enthralled by Nature’s light show for the better part of half an hour, I finished my walk across the bridge and home, where I shared accommodation with a half-dozen university students. As I approached the house I heard commotion outside on the front lawn. There, shrouded in clouds of pungent pot smoke, lay most of my roommates shouting and pointing at the sky. They too were enjoying the natural fireworks. That’s when one of my cohabitants ran up and thrust a lit joint into my hand.

“You gotta try this stuff, man” he smiled and then pointed skyward. “You won’t believe what’s goin’ on up there.”

I laughed out loud as if to say: “Been there. Done that,” because in fact I had. Not just the odd joint when I was at university, but I had actually discovered during one of those youthful times – the summer of 1967 – that there was a lot to celebrate and be turned on by and it didn’t require any artificial stimulation. Forty years ago this month I got high on music, writing and on being Canadian.

To begin with, my Toronto Maple Leafs had won the Stanley Cup that spring, beating out the Canadiens. Could victory be any sweeter? Some of my idols played on that team – Johnny Bower, Red Kelly, Allan Stanley, Dave Keon – a team that Leafs coach Punch Imlach called his “old folks athletics club.” Had I known that years later I’d be playing the game I’ve since come to adore – oldtimers hockey – as much as I do, Imlach’s remarks would have held even greater significance.

During the summer of 1967, I discovered Yorkville. Not the downtown Toronto celebrity playground of today, but the Yorkville, where rock ‘n’ roll legends, such as The Paupers, The Big Town Boys and David Clayton Thomas, played Canadian content before CRTC regulations demanded it. On those summer Friday nights I hauled my high school trumpet to the Frozen Onion (upstairs at the Purple Onion) for lessons. Then, I furthered my musical education by visiting the Penny Farthing, Boris’s or the Riverboat to catch all my music idols when they were nobodies. I didn’t realize it right away, but that summer I witnessed a cultural renaissance and I ate it up.

I started writing about it. Beginning that summer I wrote reviews for fledgling magazines, called Wing-it, Pop and Grapevine. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of them; most went bankrupt after a first issue and certainly before I ever saw a pay cheque. No matter. At least I was getting published and read and that led to features, reviews and stories about the pop culture scene in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Telegram and even Rolling Stone. All from my musical awakening during that summer of ’67.

That was also the summer of my political awakening. The Six-Day War in the Middle East, escalation of the war in Vietnam, Be-Ins and other protests in New York, San Francisco and even in Toronto, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Trudeaumania (a.k.a. “charisma”) around the prime minister in waiting, Pierre Elliott Trudeau – they all made me take notice of things well outside my community and (to that point) beyond my typewriter.

Still, the moment that brought it all together for me that summer came when we hit the road for Montreal. Expo ’67 spoke volumes to me about who I was, where I’d come from and what being Canadian meant. It tied everything together.

By August I was singing Ontari-ari-ari-o thanks to Christopher Chapman’s Ontario pavilion film “A Place to Stand.” I had written my first successful journal and had a million ideas for stories (maybe even books?) I wanted to write about the country, its history and people. And I felt more pride and inspiration at being Canadian than in any of my previous 18 years of life.

For me the Northern Lights had switched on. And it hadn’t required a whiff or a sip, just the promise of the coming summer.

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